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I spend most of my time as a journalist finding things out. Sometimes, there are things I don’t entirely understand, and I have to do more research than I expected.

Sometimes, though, I am given more information than my schedule and brain can handle. That’s what happened when I asked how the new water filtration system in eastern Jefferson County works. I knew it involved water passing through the walls of a tunnel. I have been inside of the tunnel (which is now full of water). I like science, and I’ve written about science and engineering before. But when I asked Louisville Water Company program manager Kay Ball how the system works, I was hit with this intricate explanation (mp3).

Ball was very nice and she explained the system again (and again, and again) to me through her responses to follow-up questions. Here is the resulting story.

Georgetown College professor Dr. Robert Bevins has sent a letter to Governor Steve Beshear regarding the planned Ark Encounter creationist theme park and the state tax incentives Beshear says the park will receive.

From the Teaching Sapiens blog:

It was with great sadness that I learned of the severe injury done to the Commonwealth of Kentucky’s reputation. It is a sad day when Kansans can look down on Kentucky, that at least Kansas is not trying to attract an amusement park catering to the unscientific concept of young earth creationism.

Worse still, Kentucky is offering tax incentives to attract further development by Answers in Genesis, a group that can only further decrease our reputation as a state that values higher learning.

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It wouldn’t be a slap in the face to all of my fellow alumni of the University of Kentucky, devaluing the doctoral diploma that I proudly display in my office and  denigrating the verifiable and evidence based science taught in our land grant universities and private colleges if Kentucky wasn’t looking to help fund an ethically bankrupt amusement park. The presence of the Creation “Museum” is embarrassment enough, but to know that my tax dollars may help to fund its expansion, when researchers at UK and University of Louisville face tight budgets while performing ground breaking scientific research, it is simply too much.

Today, you helped to tarnish my hard won degree with the scorn of the academic community. In an instant, my years of scholarship became worth a tiny little bit less. I will have to defend my state as I once did as a child. “Yes, we wear shoes,” becomes, “No, we aren’t all stuck in a scientific stone age.”

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Ignorance is bliss to Ken Ham and Answers in Genesis, ignorance and fear of a wrathful and genocidal god. I wonder, shall the amusement park include a wave pool filled with the simulated bobbing bodies of the dead, as the Museum cheerfully displays the Genesis account of the Great Flood via computer animation and artistic dioramas of the wholesale slaughter of the world?Having been to this “Museum”, I can say that no depth is too low to subject young minds to in order to scare them away from inquiry and learning.

What shall I expect next from the government of our fair Commonwealth? Should UK and the University of Louisville begin to offer degrees in astrology? Will the UK medical school offer coursework in homeopathy? Perhaps you could establish a Department of Divination to direct the government’s future goals and to offer you a morning horoscope? Or should I expect some other discipline of magical thinking to be given the stamp of approval of the state?

Why did you choose to encourage what can only harm our state’s reputation? Was it a promise of 30 pieces of silver (a temporary increase in construction jobs) to betray our good name?

You can read the whole letter here.

(h/t to B&P)

Diane Rehm hosted a discussion about the new TSA screening procedures. The conversation touched on privacy, the efficacy of the full-body scanning machines and the invasiveness of pat-downs.

Privacy issues have typically dominated stories about the TSA, though more and more news outlets have begun looking into the health effects of so-called backscatter scanning machines. the New York Times explored the issue of radiation in airport scans:

The T.S.A. says that the technology has been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration’s Center for Devices and Radiological Health, the National Institute for Standards and Technology, and the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory. The results, the agency said, confirmed that radiation doses for individuals “were well below the dose limits specified by the American National Standards Institute.”

According to the agency, “a single scan using backscatter technology produces exposure equivalent to two minutes of flying on an airplane,” where slightly higher levels of radiation are routine. These safety issues are discussed at www.TSA.gov.

But others who have studied the technology argue that repeated low-dose exposure to radiation at airport checkpoints is a cumulative risk, and that the safety of the backscatter technology has not yet been adequately demonstrated by impartial research.

In a letter on May 28, several organizations and individuals, including the American Civil Liberties Union and Ralph Nader, asked Congress to stop deployment of the devices pending “an independent review of the devices’ health effects.”

While it’s not our place to debate science fact (whatever the eventual verdict on backscatter scanners may be), it’s interesting to note that Nader and several Republican Senators have been wondering why the whole controversy can’t be sidestepped. The TSA, they say, should look into other types of scanners that either use less radiation, are more effective or are more private. One such device is in use in America, it uses millimeter radio waves instead of radiation. The other is being used in Amsterdam.

That technology identifies potentially threatening objects on a person without actually showing naked body images and also “avoids exposing passengers to radiation,” the senators said.

But for now, the agency is committed to the backscatters and millimeter wave machines.

To me, the obvious question is: Given that the two types of machines are both deemed effective by the T.S.A., why doesn’t the agency just abandon backscatters and use the millimeter wave machines, which don’t pose radiation issues?

“I’ll tell you what the T.S.A. told us when we asked,” Mr. Nader said. “They said, ‘We want to stimulate competition in order to get the best price.’ ”

What are your thoughts? Are the scanners and more thorough pat-downs necessary?

Several climate change skeptics won elected office last week, and 700 scientists have decided to fight back.

“This group feels strongly that science and politics can’t be divorced and that we need to take bold measures to not only communicate science but also to aggressively engage the denialists and politicians who attack climate science and its scientists,” said Scott Mandia, professor of physical sciences at Suffolk County Community College in New York.

The scientists are willing to appear on conservative talk shows to argue their case. This is an interesting development. Modern news media is often critiqued for balancing issues for balance’s sake, and these scientists may face non-scientist skeptics, booked to balance their positions. Whether a potential flood of PhDs will lead to more civil discourse or louder, more titled skeptics remains to be seen. Maybe we’ll see more prime-time cable news discussions of science. Or not.

University of Kentucky entomology professor Michael F. Potter was on Fresh Air Wednesday talking about bed bugs, the parasites that seem to be invading Ohio and Louisville.

The bedbug is sometimes called the “perfect parasite.”

“They bite you while you’re sleeping and the bites are painless,” explains entomologist Michael Potter. Potter, who works at the University of Kentucky and specializes in pest management, says there are several reasons why bedbugs are more insidious than other parasites such as lice, fleas and ticks.

“Bedbugs don’t stay on the host — they scurry away to their hidden harbors that are far from obvious,” he tells Fresh Air‘s Terry Gross. “And then on top of all of that, people react to bedbug bites differently. Some don’t react at all; others’ reactions are delayed until days or weeks later. So it’s a very efficient critter from the standpoint of doing its business and creating a lot of anxiety in terms of what’s happening.”

You can listen to the show to hear how Potter checks for bed bugs in hotel rooms, how bed bugs can infest a city and many other facts that will make sure you never sleep comfortably again.

Previous WFPL guest Jonah Lehrer is better known as a respected science writer and contributing editor toWired magazine. He recently wrote a story about the science of stress. In it, he explored the dangers of chronic stress and a possible cure for those dangers. Here’s how the article ends.

After several years of genetic engineering — it’s not easy to substitute all the dangerous genes with their therapeutic replacements — Sapolsky began introducing the modified herpes virus into rodent brains. Then he induced a series of tragedies, such as a massive stroke or an extended seizure, which would trigger the release of glucocorticoids. (Chronic stress is like a slow-motion stroke.) Within minutes, the modified herpes virus began pumping out neuroprotective proteins, which limited the extent of cell death. As a result, the damage was contained. For instance, rats given the herpes treatment were able to stave off practically all cell loss, while control rats lost nearly 40 percent of neurons in a given region. In the hippocampus, neuronal death was reduced substantially. “To be honest, I’m still amazed that it works,” he says. “It’s not going to help anybody soon” — the research is still years away from clinical trials — “but we’ve proved that it’s possible. We can reduce the neural damage caused by stress.”

But as Lehrer recently wrote on his blog, the story has been twisted. The Wired article was picked up by the Daily Mail in London. The paper compressed the article and suggested that scientists are developing a cure for stress. That led some readers to assume that scientists are developing a vaccine that would neutralize stress and make humans too complacent to fight off fascist government forces. Right-wing radio host Alex Jones then ran with the reinvented story, claiming that “elites” are developing a brain-eating vaccine. The story plays on multiple conspiracy theories and existing anti-government fears. Plus, it’s original source is a Rhodes scholar (though the eventual story is indistinguishable from Lehrer’s original piece).

And so that’s how a pass reference to a plan to reduce brain damage became a vast conspiracy.

We’ve read about how local-affiliate TV weathermen tend to not believe climate change is man-made and addressable. But a weatherman in Huntsville, Alabama is breaking from the norm. From the Rural Blog:

Dan Satterfield, weatherman at WHNT, “recognizes that many in his audience are ‘climatically challenged,’ and his profession has the power to help those afflicted by science illiteracy,” Lynne Peeples writes in OnEarth, the journal of the National Resources Defense Council. Only about 7 percent of all TV meteorologists work at a station with a designated science reporter, which often turns them into the station expert, Kris Wilson of the University of Texas, told Peeples. (OnEarth photo by Alex Martinez)

“People learn to trust weathercasters and like them, so whatever they say about things like climate change carries tremendous weight,” Wilson said. “By choice or by default, weathercasters end up being the science experts.” Satterfield said he remained unconvinced regarding global warming until the mid-1990s, but repeated exposure to the “overwhelming evidence” of climate change, made him finally say, “Whoa, I need to start looking into this.” After going back to school for a master’s degree in earth science, Satterfield began sharing his views on the air. He expected a backlash from his conservative audience, but “aside from a handful of complaints, the show’s ratings and viewer questions suggested that people were listening,” Peeples writes.

Who would you trust on climate change? Do you get your climate news from your friendly neighborhood (and regional) environmental news consortium?

As demand for tobacco wanes, farmers who grow it are looking for new crops.

The Rural Blog reports highlights a report on the hardships of diversifying crops from Mallory Bilger in The Spencer Magnet:

Bilger’s example is the Deutsch family, which has farmed in the county for more than 100 years and has now given up on tobacco.  “Sandi admitted that preparing a farm to raise alternative crops can take years,” Bilger writes. “She and George have refocused their efforts on fruit and vegetable production and are also looking to turn their 200-acre farm into an agritourism attraction, or, more simply, a teaching farm.”

Some former tobacco farmers are turning to a different vice…wine. And even though people aren’t smoking as much of it, tobacco still has its uses, many of them beneficial to science.

On Thursday, All Things Considered ran a piece on synthetic voices, sort of like the ones in the promo for this site. Here’s a clip from ATC where Robert Siegel learns how to create a voice from existing speech.

SIEGEL: How do you go about doing this? How do you create a voice?

Dr. AYLETT: To a certain extent, the methodology is fairly straightforward. You take a lot of audio from a speaker. You then cut that up into tiny little pieces. Each piece is a little sound. So for example, cat would be made up of three sounds, /k/, /a/, and /t/.

In order to then produce a new sentence, you then take those sounds, you rearrange them, and you stick them back together again.

SIEGEL: But you would need an awful lot of sound of one voice to do that.

Dr. AYLETT: Not as much sound as you might think because although there are hundreds and thousands of words, within English, there are only about 45 different sounds.

Listen to the whole interview here.

Kentucky Space is an interesting organization doing some fascinating science work in the commonwealth. Now, Business First reports that their work is getting national attention.

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration has selected a Kentucky-built satellite, called KySat-1, to fly in its Glory mission in November.

Ky-Sat-1 will fly as part of NASA’s Educational Launch of Nanosatellites, or ELaNA, mission., which calls for the launch of small research satellites for universities.

Satellites from Colorado and Montana will also be sent up.

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