Americans fail the test on evolution, NASA pulls a Nixon, and five nations lose their taste for caviar.

Nature and Education: Both a Good Buy

A team of researchers at the University of Vermont has begun designing a set of computer programs that will be able to determine the value of an ecosystem on any given plot of land. Robert Costanza, the team’s leader, co-authored a paper in 1997 that valued the total price of the services provided by nature at $33 trillion; that paper gave rise to the science of “ecosystem services.”  Instead of calculating what people are willing to pay for a service, as is done in traditional economics, Costanza is “looking for effects of ecosystems on human welfare.”

No matter what you choose to do with your life after college, having a science or engineering bachelor’s degree is a boon, according to a National Science Foundation survey released last week. In a survey of adults with science and engineering undergraduate degrees, only 27 percent had science or engineering occupations, but 63 percent working in non-technical fields still said that their jobs related in some way to their degrees. Even those who had followed up their science and engineering degrees with advanced degrees in other fields reported that scientific knowledge remained necessary for them.

One in three American adults do not believe in evolution, a far larger fraction than in most European countries, a new study revealed. Michigan State University’s Jon D. Miller, who carried out the research, theorized that the effects of fundamentalist religious beliefs were much stronger in the US than in most other countries surveyed. “Individuals who hold a strong belief in a personal God—and who pray frequently—were significantly less likely to view evolution as probably or definitely true than adults with less conservative religious views,” Miller said. Of the 34 countries surveyed, only Turkey had a smaller percentage of adults who believed in evolution.

Expanding the Planetary Family

Pluto counts. That’s the decision of the International Astronomical Union (IAU), which has, after two years of deliberation, arrived at a set of criteria that defines planets. The resolution defines a planet as “a celestial body that (a) has sufficient mass for its self-gravity to overcome rigid body forces so that it assumes a hydrostatic equilibrium (nearly round) shape, and (b) is in orbit around a star, and is neither a star nor a satellite of a planet.”  Using this definition, the number of planets in our solar system jumps from nine to 12: the new ones are Ceres, formerly an asteroid between Mars and Jupiter; Charon, formerly a moon of Pluto; and Xena, formerly a trans-Neptunian body.

NASA personnel are continuing the search for 37-year-old tapes documenting the original Apollo 11 moon landing of 1969. The magnetic tapes depict Neil Armstrong’s historic first steps on the lunar surface. The man in charge of the Apollo records, Stan Lebar, claims the tapes were simply filed and forgotten about as personnel retired or died. “I just think this is what happens when you have a large government bureaucracy that functions for decade after decade,” said Keith Cowing, editor of the Web site NASA Watch.

Water, Water Nowhere

A month-long drought in southwest China has caused economic losses of $1.15 billion—a result of withered crops—and left some 17 million people without clean drinking water. The Chongqing and Sichuan regions were hardest hit by the drought; the Chingquing section of the Yangtze River hit its lowest level in 100 years.

The World Wildlife Fund warned last week that even wealthy countries will need to consider conserving water or risk suffering the kinds of water shortages that plague poorer nations. “Supporting large-scale industry and growing populations using water at high rates has come close to exhausting the water supplies of some First World cities and is a looming threat for many, if not most, others,” the report says. The report proposes several solutions, including repairing aging infrastructure, increasing charges for water use, and reducing water contamination.

By 2008, analysts say, demand for corn will outstrip production—unless corn growers plant some 85 million acres of corn next year. Even if the growers do plant enough for this year, as the US Department of Agriculture predicts, “that postpones the corn supply crisis to next year,” according to John Schnittker, a private economics consultant. Corn is used for livestock food, human consumption, and increasingly for fuel, part of the reason for the projected shortfalls.

It’s Raining Mercury

Mercury pollution is serious global problem, according to a declaration released on the final day of the Eighth International Conference on Mercury as a Global Pollutant. The declaration said that three times more mercury falls out of the sky now than did before the Industrial Revolution two centuries ago. Additionally, there is enough evidence of mercury’s harmful effects that children and women of childbearing age should refrain from eating too much fish, which can contain high concentrations of the element.

Russia, Iran, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, and Turkmenistan have united to protect the Caspian Sea, which they all border. A document called The Caspian Convention, which is the first legally binding document on any subject to be adopted by these five nations, lays out a protection plan that went into effect on August 12.  “The Caspian Sea’s fragile environment is extremely vulnerable to the region’s current boom in oil and gas exploration,” said Achim Steiner, head of the UN Environment Program. Part of the sea’s troubles stem from the overfishing of Caspian sturgeon, a fish whose eggs are farmed for caviar, and the heavy drilling of the area’s rich oil deposits.

Approximately 15 tons of dead fish surfaced near the mouth of a river in Taipei, Taiwan. Though officials say the dead fish pose no health threat, the pile of fish has begun to stink. “So many fish dying is a signal for the ecosystem,” said Lin Hsen-cheng, co-chair of Taiwan’s Green Party. “It means there’s something wrong with the water quality.” Local officials have attributed the deaths to an oxygen imbalance in the water caused by a recent typhoon.

Bird flu scares popped up all over Eurasia last week. A dead owl in Amsterdam’s Rotterdam Zoo prompted fears that it was harboring the H5N1 virus, while another group of infected fowl were discovered in Vietnam. In the Prey Veng province of Cambodia, bird flu was confirmed in more than 1,300 dead ducks. More than 1,800 ducks have died from bird flu since it was first detected at a farm in Changsha, China, and more than 210,000 have been culled. The Chinese Health Ministry announced August 14 that a 62- year-old farmer died from bird flu, bringing the nation’s human death toll from the virus to a total of 14.

Challenges for China

An environmental group is accusing China of purchasing enormous quantities of illegally harvested wood from other countries, including Myanmar. Global Witness, a non-governmental-organization based in Britain, said that most of the $350 million of timber China imported from Myanmar was illegally harvested. A Chinese government official denied that the state’s huge demand for wood encourages illegal logging and smuggling.  Zhou Shengxian, head of China’s State Environmental Protection Administration, announced that efforts to reduce pollution in China are failing, but he emphasized the importance of the initiatives. “The central leadership is treating reductions in energy use and major pollutant emissions as two major hard targets— red lines that can’t be crossed,” he told China Environment News last week. Zhao plans to curb emissions through a campaign to vet all projects in heavy-industry areas costing more than $12.5 million, ensuring government oversight of potential sources of major pollution.

Three major automobile manufacturers, GM, BMW, and Daimler, will invest $1 billion in the development of a new hybrid engine that backers say will surpass the market leading technology produced by Toyota. The consortium has been using some 500 engineers over the past 18 months to develop the so-called dual-mode hybrid technology. Developing the transmission will cost about $300 million, with another $700 million spent on integrating the new transmission with the rest of the car.

Traumas, new and old

Lester Brown, president of the Earth Policy Institute in Washington, D.C., is classifying the 250,000 evacuees from last year’s Hurricane Katrina disaster as “climate refugees,” warning that their ranks will grow unless global warming is controlled. “What we’re looking at is the potential, not of displacing thousands of people, but possibly millions of people as the result of rising seas and more destructive storms if we don’t move quickly to reduce CO2 emissions,” Brown said. But not everyone agrees. Bill O’Keefe—who works at the George C.  Marshall Institute, a think tank, and is a consultant for the oil industry—called Brown’s views “extremist.”

A new study on post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, in veterans of the Vietnam War has clarified several older studies on the same subject. The new results revealed that 18.7 percent of Vietnam War veterans develop PTSD over the course of their lifetimes. Additionally, the study showed a strong “dose-response” relationship, meaning that the more trauma a soldier had experienced, the more likely he was to develop PTSD.

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Originally published August 20, 2006

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