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58 posts categorized "Science" Feed

May 15, 2012

ECHO's "Our Body" Exhibit Sparks Controversy, Questions

OurbodyA splashy front-page article in Sunday's Burlington Free Press cast doubt on the ECHO Lake Center and Aquarium's largest exhibit to date: a 6000-square foot show called "Our Body: The Universe Within," which displays human cadavers of Chinese descent preserved through a process called "plastination." 

Visitors are raving. Doctors at the University of Vermont College of Medicine say the dissections are among the most impressive they've ever seen. On a visit this morning to the display, sophomores from Champlain Valley Union High School marveled at an exposed spinal cord, peered at a sinewy map of the nervous system, and ogled the winding path of the human digestive tract.

But fascination about the exhibit was matched by skepticism on Sunday, when John Briggs' article in the Free Pressheadlined "Who were they?" — called into question the provenance of the cadavers on display at the popular "Our Body" exhibit, which since its opening on April 14 has pulled in more than 9000 visitors at ECHO.

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February 16, 2012

House Bill Looks to Snuff Out Mail-Order Sales of Electronic Cigarettes in Vermont

F-butts2-1Ex-smokers and others trying to quit or reduce their cancer-stick consumption are burning mad over a new bill in the Vermont Legislature. H.747, introduced by Rep. Bill Frank (D-Underhill), would classify electronic cigarettes as "tobacco substitutes" and ban their mail-order sale to and from Vermont.

Electronic cigarettes, or "e-cigarettes," are battery-powered devices that deliver a vaporized hit of nicotine to the user, without the smoke, odor or deadly chemicals found in burning tobacco cigarettes. Unlike the panoply of other over-the-counter tobacco-replacement products, e-cigs are often described by regular smokers as the closest thing yet to the real deal in terms of taste and sensation. 

Seven Days first wrote about the controversy surrounding e-cigarettes in a June 2, 2010, story, "Ifs, Ands and Butts: Ex-smokers rave about e-cigarettes, but the FDA and antismoking groups want them snuffed out." 

For nonsmokers, one obvious benefit of e-cigarettes is that they don't stink up your hair, clothing or house with secondhand smoke, nor do they drive your smoker pals outside to litter your front stoop with butts every 20 minutes while they satisfy their fix. But for lifelong smokers such as Josh Slocum of Winooski, the best part about e-cigarettes is that they literally saved his life.

Continue reading "House Bill Looks to Snuff Out Mail-Order Sales of Electronic Cigarettes in Vermont" »

January 25, 2012

USDA's New Plant Hardiness Zone Confirms Vermont Is Getting Warmer

Vt"Hot enough for ya?" Get used to hearing that remark a lot more than you used to, or so say climatologists and atmospheric researchers. As this week's Seven Days cover story "Totally Uncool" points out, Mother Nature's warning signs are now big and obvious enough for even us nonscientists to notice.

The newest evidence? Today, the U.S. Department of Agriculture unveiled its new, 2012 Plant Hardiness Zone map. The Vermont map confirms what local growers have been saying for years: The Green Mountain State is becoming more temporate and now more resembles the climate of Virginia in the 1960s.

What's worse, if greenhouse gas emissions continue to increase at their present rate, by 2080 Vermont will look and feel more like northern Georgia. The good news? More peach cobbler. The bad news: Say goodbye to real Vermont maple syrup.

Continue reading "USDA's New Plant Hardiness Zone Confirms Vermont Is Getting Warmer" »

December 16, 2011

State Health Department Bans "Bath Salts" and Five Synthetic Cannabinoids

Salvia_divinorum_-_Herba_de_Maria"Tranquility", "Cloud 9", "Vanilla Sky" and similarly named products sold online as "bath salts" may sound as calm and relaxing as a hot bubble bath, but these ain't your grandma's epsom salts. Bath salts are the street name for the designer drug, Methylenedioxypyrovalerone (MDPK), a powerful new stimulant to hit the underground drug scene in the last few years. MDPK, along with the much older hallucinogen, Salvia divinorum, or "Seer's Sage" (right), have just joined the ranks of illegal substances in Vermont, with possession of a single dose of these drugs constituting a felony.

The Vermont Department of Health announced this morning that it has banned the use, sale, possession or manufacture of bath salts and other designer drugs, which are sold in head shops and over the Internet to skirt state drug laws. As of December 16, bath salts and five synthetic cannabinoids — the active ingredients in marijuana — are now illegal in the Green Mountain State.

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December 12, 2011

Sanders and Sandia Announce New $15 Million Energy Lab at University of Vermont

Sandia presser photoBy the summer of 2013, Vermont will be the first state in the nation to have near-universal electrical smart-grid coverage — and Sandia National Laboratories is setting up shop at the University of Vermont to make it all happen.

That was Sen. Bernie Sanders' announcement at a press conference in his Burlington office this morning. Gov. Peter Shumlin, Green Mountain Power CEO Mary Powell, UVM President John Bramley and Sandia Vice President Rick Stulen joined Sanders to announce a three-year, $15 million commitment to open the first-ever national laboratory in New England in Burlington. 

The new lab, dubbed the Center for Energy Transformation and Innovation (CETI), will make as the centerpiece of its work the rollout of smart meters throughout the Green Mountain State, enabling all the state's utilities to better manage energy consumption and better integrate renewable energy sources, such as solar and wind, into the power grid. The $15 million commitment comes in addition to the $69 million already allocated to Vermont from the federal government to roll out smart meters statewide.

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November 10, 2011

Can You Measure Happiness Through Twitter? Find Out Tonight

Chris_headHow well are we doing as a country? To answer that question, you might point to our gross national product as an indicator. But that's not the only thing to consider. In Bhutan, for example, the country's wellbeing is measured in terms of "gross national happiness." Some want that to be the goal in the United States, too. But how can you measure collective happiness?

Chris Danforth, an assistant professor of mathematics and statistics at the University of Vermont, is trying to figure that out. Danforth is part of a team of UVM faculty and students who are analyzing happiness through Twitter, blog posts, and more. (That's him at right.)

The data they've crunched uncovers some fascinating factoids. For example: collective happiness spikes on Christmas and New Year's Eve, but the saddest days of the past few years were the day Michael Jackson died and the day Osama bin Laden was killed. Danforth and his associates have also found that the English language has an inherent bias towards joy — there are more happy words than sad words.

I interviewed Danforth for a story that will run in next week's Seven Days. In the mean time, you can check out his team's work at, or hear it straight from the source tonight at ECHO Lake Aquarium and Science Center. Danforth will give a talk on his research as part of ECHO's Café Scientifique series at 6:30 p.m. There's a suggested donation of $5, and there will be a cash bar and free hors d’oeuvres. Click here for more info on tonight's event.

October 25, 2011

Q&A: University of Vermont Robotics Researcher Josh Bongard

BongardHow and why did life on earth evolve in the myriad ways it did? Would creatures evolve in the same ways, and with the same anatomical structures, if we could rewind time and replay evolution over and over again? And, can humans create robots that not only evolve and learn but eventually become sentient?

These are just a few of the heady questions that University of Vermont robotics researcher Josh Bongard wrestles with every day. Little wonder, then, that on October 14, Bongard was one of 94 winners of the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers. The White House honor came with a $500,000 research grant. (And in case you're wondering, no, that's not Bongard's Lamborghini parked outside of Votey Hall.)

This week, the 37-year-old Toronto native took a short break from his research in UVM's Morphology, Evolution and Cognition Lab to talk about his work and the future of "computational evolution." (For visual depictions of Bongard's work, check out the media link on his site.)

Bongard is one of 11 speakers at this Friday's TEDxUVM event. Registration for the Oct. 28 event is full but the seminars will be streaming live from the TEDxUVM website.

SEVEN DAYS: Did President Obama recognize you for one specific scientific breakthrough or discovery, or was it your entire body of work thus far?

Continue reading "Q&A: University of Vermont Robotics Researcher Josh Bongard" »

August 16, 2011

USGS: Fall Foliage Is Major Source of Mercury in New England Environment

Fallfoliagecentral.ashx Last week, the U.S. Geological Survey released the findings of two multiyear studies which concluded that — hang onto your sugaring buckets — fallen autumn leaves release mercury into the environment.

As if Vermont's tourism industry didn't have enough to worry about, what with Vermont Yankee's radioactive incontinence and Green Mountain dairy cows belching and farting out enough greenhouse gases to turn the state's much-heralded winter slopes into Slip 'n' Slides.

"We know that forest canopies scavenge mercury out of the air — because trees breathe every day — and they take in gases that include gaseous mercury," explains Martin Risch, a research hydrologist with the USGS in Indianapolis, Ind., who worked on the studies. Leaves and needles also capture mercury that settles as dry deposits on their surface. But when those leaves and needles fall, they release the environmental contaminant once again.

Mercury poses a health risk to humans and other living critters. Notably, methylmercury, the nasty organic variety that shows up in fish and seafood, is harmful to pregnant mothers because it can affect their fetuses' developing cognitive abilities, attention, language, fine motor skills and ... what was that last one? ... oh, yeah, memory. Another good reason to get those silver-amalgam fillings out of your mouth.

Scientists have known for years mercury moves from the atmosphere into the environment through precipitation. However, these new studies reveal that "litterfall"— that is, those beautiful leaves and needles — delivers at least as much mercury to eastern U.S. ecosystems as precipitation. And possibly more.

Continue reading "USGS: Fall Foliage Is Major Source of Mercury in New England Environment" »

June 17, 2011

Assistant Attorney General To Plead Guilty in DUI Case

DUI-Art Here's the latest on the drunk-driving case that's sending shock waves through Vermont's alcohol-testing program.

After questioning numerous state officials under oath last month, criminal defense attorney David Sleigh has asked a judge to toss the breath-test evidence against a client facing his fifth DUI. Sleigh argues the state officials' testimony proves the breath-testing equipment Vermont uses is unreliable and that the state health lab's quality-assurance standards are a joke.

But wait, there's more!

The day after Sleigh filed his motion, two of the three co-defendants in this case were offered, and accepted, plea deals that bargain the charges down to negligent operation. That lesser charge comes with a 30-day license suspension and no conditions for reinstatement, compared to a 90-day suspension and mandatory treatment and counseling had they been convicted of DUI.

One of those co-defendants is an assistant attorney general of Vermont, who had allegedly almost three times the legal limit of alcohol when Northfield police busted him last year. Keith Aten, 51, who works in the civil division of the Office of Attorney General William Sorrell, was stopped by Northfield police after a convenience clerk refused to sell him beer on August 13, 2010, according to court records. 

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Digital Media Festival Tomorrow... in Woodstock?

Woodstock Woodstock, VT: A lovely town, but not exactly a hub of cutting-edge tech trends. Except for tomorrow, when it hosts the Woodstock Digital Media Festival, a celebration of new media, digital art and innovation.

The morning session starts things off with a pair of panel discussions. Christine Paul, the curator of new media at the Whitney, will lead a panel with digital artists on current issues in new media art. Simultaneously, Seven Days online editor Cathy Resmer will lead a Vermont-centric panel on the challenges and opportunities of creating digital media in the Green Mountain state. Panelists include founder and editor Anne Galloway, Green Mountain Digital founder Charlie Rattigan, and eVermont director Helen Labun Jordan. 

A pair of interactive workshops follows. Participants can take part in a "mapping party" with, or go on a digital nature walk with the National Park Service and the founder of the Project Noah app. In the afternoon, digital artists set up shop in a number of venues in downtown Woodstock, showing off and discussing their work.

The festival ends, ironically, with presentations at the historic Billings Farm and Museum. The evening event features a performance by "post-cyberpunk electronic musician" Nullsleep, whose music the festival's website describes as "a combination of distorted synthpop, electro, and industrial produced with repurposed low-bit electronics." Not what you usually expect to find at the Billings Farm... So there you go.

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