Bay Area Skeptics

The San Francisco Bay Area's skeptical organization since 1982

Seeing the Light with the SciSchmooze

from the desk of Bob Siederer

Hello again Science fans!

Summertime!  Just the word can evoke memories of fireworks, days at the pool or lake, family road trips, camps, food from the grill…I’m sure you can add to this list from your own memories.  More now than when I was a child, summer vacation may no longer mean time off from learning as there are many good opportunities for school aged children to further their education during the summers, especially in scientific areas.

UC Merced is starting a series of webinars aimed at middle and high school students and teachers this week.  You can see the full list here.  Seminars range from single to multi-day sessions and include some general topics on how to be ready for college in the STEM fields.

Of course, the coronavirus crisis has changed how we’ll conduct ourselves this summer.  It is really disconcerting to see the number of cases rising so rapidly in some areas of the country that weren’t initially that seriously affected.  I’ve pointed you to the Civiqs website in previous Schmoozes and it is interesting to note the trends changing in response to the question “How concerned are you about a coronavirus outbreak in your local area?”.  Earlier this month, the percentage of extremely concerned responses dipped below those for moderately concerned.  On June 14th the percentages were equal, and since then the extremely concerned response has once again been the most popular.  It has not reached the same level of concern as it did on April 4th when it was at 46% however.

The main thing I want to write about today is genetically modified organisms, or GMOs.  I attended a virtual Wonderfest seminar last Monday on this topic.  The speaker, Evan Groover, is a PhD candidate at UC Berkeley.  He makes a very good case for the need for manipulating the genetics of our food supply, driven mainly by humanity’s inability to produce enough food through traditional means to feed the projected population of the planet.  Solving the food crises of the near future is his area of research.

Evan gave a brief history of man’s attempts to modify the genetics of crops through cross breeding that has gone on for centuries.  There’s hardly an item in the grocery store today that hasn’t been modified in some way, even though the process might be called “natural”.  CRISPR, the gene editing technology, allows scientists to short cut the hundreds or thousands of random cross breeding cycles by manipulating the genetics of crops with targeted changes for specific traits, such as better yield (grains) or more compact plant size (tomatoes).

There is a strong lobby against GMOs.  Advertisers have seized on this by labeling all sorts of products as non-GMO.  Consumers Reports says ” [t]his claim doesn’t have any consistent standards or rules to back it up. Testing is not required. Third-party verification is required only for meat, poultry, and [some] egg products.” CU goes on to say that ” GMOs, or genetically modified (or engineered) organisms, are created by deliberately changing the genetic makeup of a plant, an animal, or another organism in a laboratory rather than through traditional breeding techniques. Most GMO crops currently on the market have been genetically engineered to produce their own pesticide and/or to withstand herbicides that otherwise would kill them. A generic non-GMO claim isn’t reliable because there are no consistent, clear, enforceable rules for using it, and there is no consistency in how the claim is verified.”

According to Evan, however, there is a difference between genetic engineering and genetic modification.  No matter how you feel about genetically modified food, I strongly urge you to watch his presentation here.  It is 45 minutes well spent. I suspect you will come away with a better understanding of this topic, and it might even change your view.  This is a controversial and polarizing subject.  Like most such topics, the more information you have, the more informed your opinion about it can be.

Moving on, let’s talk about light.  Our eyes see what we call the visible spectrum, a frequency range of light waves between infrared and ultraviolet.  Some animals see much more, such as hummingbirds!

In Astronomy, we’ve long used telescopes sensitive to x-rays or infrared light waves to show the universe in ways we can’t see with our eyes.  The eROSITA project has just released the first all-sky image, showing half a year of observations in one image.

Astronomers also announced that they have seen what may be light from the collision of two black holes.  The amount of energy involved in such a collision is mind boggling.

Closer to home, the natural light we see by comes from the Sun.  Of course, the Sun is a very active object.  NASA has released an hour long video showing a decade’s worth of solar activity, taken by the Solar Dynamics Observatory.  It is anything but tranquil on the Sun!

Have a safe and happy Independence Day!

Bob Siederer

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