Power of 3

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The world’s largest digital camera will help scientists ‘see’ dark matter, asteroids and much more

Paul O’Connor at Brookhaven National Laboratory is part of a team building a combination telescope and camera whose “wow” factor is off the charts. When the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST) is up and running in 2021, it will allow us to look deep into billions of galaxies, keep a close eye on nearby asteroids and even help us see so-called dark matter, which does not emit, reflect or absorb light.

The LSST will be the largest digital camera in the world, will survey a volume of the universe in its first week of operation larger than all previous telescopes combined, will take three-gigapixel photographs, and will survey the entire sky every three nights.
And, from its perch at 8,800 feet in Cerro Pachon in Chile, the LSST will monitor asteroids near the planet.

The telescope will make an “orbit determination for asteroids that may pose a threat from colliding with our planet,” O’Connor explained.

It will also be able to see dark matter, which comprises 25 percent of the universe, or 5 times more than things we can see, like puppies, the Olympic games and fireworks.

Here’s how it works: the telescope looks at light that comes from incredibly far away that was sent into space billions of years earlier. If there weren’t any dark matter, the light would take a direct route. Dark matter, however, causes the light to bend, as if it were going through a lens. How the light bends reveals the “clumpiness” of the dark matter. (If you’re wondering about the remaining 70 percent of the universe, that’s comprised of dark energy, a force that played a role in cosmic evolution and works against gravity, allowing the universe to expand.)

O’Connor is helping with the “film” part of the camera. The LSST will need over 200 charge-coupled devices, which process even the faintest of signals.

The charge-coupled devices will be arranged in a mosaic inside the telescope and have to be almost perfectly flat when lined up, with no more than a 10-micron tilt in any direction. The thickness of a human hair, by comparison, is 100 microns.

The LSST team has asked private companies to build these charge-coupled devices. When those are completed, the read out time on them will be 10 times faster than the state of the art in astronomy. One of O’Connor’s jobs is to test their work, to make sure they meet the requirements for the telescope.

“We give them our suggested design approach and then we let the companies provide a manufacturing method,” he offered. “When the prototypes come back, we have to verify that they’ve met the requirements. It involves a rigorous test protocol.”

O’Connor, who is the associate division head of the instrumentation unit at BNL, does considerable coordinating between scientists and the manufacturers. He can spend seven hours or more on teleconference calls, speaking with collaborators.

“It’s the nature of big science projects,” he explained. It’s required to keep “coherent, large collaborations functioning and communicating well.”

Assembling and testing the small parts necessary for this three-ton telescope requires clean rooms, where scientists have to wear full-body suits, masks and gloves.

Brookhaven has a clean room and is in the process of building another, which will be finished later this year. Its initial occupant will be the LSST project.

“Human beings are the worst actors in producing particles,” explained O’Connor. “We have to take precautions.”

O’Connor lives in Bellport with his wife Leslie, who is an elected trustee of the village.

The O’Connors have one daughter at Massachusetts Institute of Technology and another who is entering her final year at Bellport High.

When he’s not checking parts for the LSST, O’Connor enjoys kayaking and sailing in the Great South Bay.

As for his work, O’Connor explains that he is “charged to provide the next generation technology in the support of a science mission.” He enjoys the opportunity to work in a multidisciplinary effort. He has also worked on projects closer to home, including developing a process for screening for breast cancer that combines the best of positron emission tomography and magnetic resonance imaging.

“It’s very exciting and satisfying to be able to work in all those fields of cutting edge science,” he explained.

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Some have suggested that the link is so tight that they are manifestations of the same disease

The answer is A, not B. The appointment was at 11 am on Tuesday, not 1 pm. The Magna Carta was signed in 1215, not 1512. You’re wrong, you’re wrong, you’re wrong!

Those are innocent enough mistakes. It turns out, though, that the neurological reaction to those mistakes is different for some children, especially those with anxiety disorders.
Stony Brook assistant psychology professor Greg Hajcak (pronounced “high-chuck”) has found that the brains of different children react to mistakes differently. An anxious child will likely have a larger neurological response than the brain of someone who shows no signs of anxiety.

Hajcak treats patients at the Anxiety Disorders Clinic while he also does research to look for ways the brains of people with different disorders react under various conditions.

In a doctor’s office, many children present symptoms that are nearly identical in cases of anxiety or depression.

“The link in anxiety and depression is so tight that some have suggested these aren’t really separate diseases, but are manifestations of the same disease,” Hajcak offered.

That’s not the case, however, when the brain responds to mistakes. Putting caps that look like Olympic swimwear (except for the noninvasive electrodes inside them) on the heads of his young subjects, Hajcak conducted electroencephalograms (EEGs) as his young charges performed tasks in his lab. The children with anxiety disorder showed stronger electrical reactions after errors even than those with depression.

This kind of information could be helpful for parents and doctors, especially if it provides early evidence of the development of emotional challenges.

Hajcak’s research provides the “notion that we could have unique markers for these difficult-to-distinguish disorders,” he suggested. “We might be able to say what the earliest place where we could differentiate the trajectories of risk.”

That could be useful for the 10 to 20 percent of the population that will likely have an anxiety disorder before they’re 18, explained Hajcak.

To be sure, Hajcak and other researchers are years from being able to connect brainwave activity in response to a test or set of tests to the likelihood of a disorder.
Nonetheless, these types of studies are important first steps in looking for signs of anxiety or depression that could become useful for children, parents, and mental health professionals.

Hajcak recognizes that these markers could suggest to parents what kind of programs might help their children if they see signs of anxiety.
Like any biological marker, a potential sign for anxiety disorder could become one part of the total medical picture.

“If we know that child A vs. child B is at risk, it’s just a risk factor,” he explained.
The son of a retired clinical psychologist, Hajcak described himself as a “more worried kid” when he was younger. “Lots of people in clinical psychology would say that people tend to study things that are more relevant to them. Those personality features drew me to the anxiety world.”

A resident of Manhattan who commutes to Stony Brook to do his clinical and research work, Hajcak said he had a unique opportunity when he attended graduate school at the University of Delaware to study with Edna Foa, who works at the University of Pennsylvania. Foa, whom Hajcak described as “one of the foremost experts on anxiety disorders,” was named one of Time Magazine’s 100 most influential people in the world in 2010.

Hajcak worked with Foa for four years, during which time he learned “everything I know about anxiety disorders and their treatment,” including cognitive therapy, an especially effective solution for anxiety.

“Treating anxiety disorders is so fulfilling,” he offered. “It works so well: 75 percent or more of people will see at least a 50 percent reduction in symptoms. That’s pretty much as good as it gets in the mental health world.”

Hajcak got engaged earlier this month to Christine Proudfit, an obstetrician/ gynecologist who works with high-risk pregnancies at New York University. The couple, who work out together at the gym, also have plans to marry their professional pursuits. They have talked about examining how anxiety among low and high-risk populations relates to obstetrical and neonatal outcomes.

In the world of pregnancy, labor and childbirth, where new mothers face daunting challenges, anxiety can go hand-in-hand with picking out names and shopping for baby clothing.

“Unknowns and uncertainty,” explained Hajcak “are the wind in the sails of anxiety.”

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The physicist turned biologist working to map the entire brain’s circuitry

Partha Mitra sees a landscape dotted with isolated settlements. The researchers in each region focus on their area, but few have taken a step back to tackle the total terrain. A professor in neuroscience and theoretical biology at Cold Spring Harbor Labs, Mitra’s landscape is the brain. The Calcutta-born scientist wants to change that by mapping the entire brain circuitry.

“Parts of the brain get neglected,” he asserted. “I want to get coverage of the whole brain.”

There is considerable scientific research into the regions of the brain responsible for vision and smell, for example, but the core circuitry where emotions reside — apart from the “fear” and “reward” circuitry, has received considerably less attention.
Looking at the interaction of the entire mouse brain should provide a database that researchers exploring a wide range of topics — from evolution to psychiatric disorders — may employ.

Up until the last decade, a significant problem has been the cost of looking at the whole brain. In 1990, the expense for examining a mouse brain at a resolution of one micron was in the millions of dollars. Just for a sense of scale, a human hair is about 100 microns thick. Now, scientists can gather and store that information, which uses as much as 1 terabyte, or 1,000 gigabytes of computer storage, for closer to hundreds of dollars.

Mitra has taken what he calls a meso-level approach to the brain.

“We’re using classical neuroanalytical methods,” Mitra offered. “We inject a tracer into a part of the brain and let neurons transport that, either from synapse to cell body or from cell bodies to synapses.”

The big picture map of the brain is similar to what genetic scientists did when they mapped the human genome. By recognizing how the genome comes together, researchers can look for changes to understand diseases.

A more complete overview of the brain’s circuits could also help provide evidence in evolutionary debates.

“There are big controversies” relating to the brains of different animals, Mitra explained. “There is no empirical evidence to settle the controversy.”

Scientists used to believe brains evolved like onions – with a reptilian core, a “bird brain” intermediate shell and a mammalian cortical outer layer. While this theory has been discredited and scientists have suggested there are portions of the bird brain that are similar to the cortex, the controversy continues.

“Having the circuit diagram for the mouse brain and a comparative diagram for the bird brain of an appropriate species will help settle this,” he explained.

Mitra believes the publication process could use modification and improvement. Within minutes of something major happening in Egypt, people around the world can learn about it. A major advance in a scientific lab, however, can sometimes take years before people see it.

To that end, Mitra releases data as it comes off his experimental pipeline before publishing a manuscript on the subject. While this model is more common in physics, it hasn’t gained the same kind of traction in the biology community.

“The style now accepted in the physics community seems to be a better solution as it speeds up the communication of results,” he suggested.

Mitra believes an author-driven, freely published preprint, followed by a more traditional journal publication, strikes a balance between the conventional publication model and the potential for sharing results in real time.

When he’s not at the lab or at home in Manhattan, Mitra enjoys the chance to practice yoga. He attends three to six classes a week. A certified instructor, he hasn’t taught yoga since last fall.

He has been at Cold Spring Harbor since 2003. He earned a PhD in physics from Harvard and then went to Bell Labs, where he registered for about 10 patents, including improving wireless transmission capacity and holographic data storage.
Mitra also did research for about a decade examining song learning in the Zebra Finch. He believes nature plays a more important role in learning songs than had previously been thought.

The physicist turned biologist — who has also recorded a CD of himself singing Indian music — acknowledged he doesn’t fit into the usual mold of a biomedical researcher.

“I keep a broad scope,” he concluded.

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SBU professor Miriam Rafailovich and team of scientists study potential hazards of energy efficient bulbs

Miriam Rafailovich was concerned when she walked into her neighbor’s house. Her friends were putting together a jigsaw puzzle and had brought over a collection of compact fluorescent lamps (CFL) to make it easier to see the small pieces.

The Stony Brook professor of materials science and engineering urged them to use their ceiling chandelier or to look for incandescent lamps. While the energy-efficient CFL lights were helping them see, they were also likely bathing their skin in damaging ultraviolet light.

Rafailovich, who is the director of the Garcia Center for Polymers at Engineered Interfaces, learned this from her recent research. Using a broad range of CFL bulbs that junior high school students in Plainview, Syosset, Uniondale, Woodmere and Commack purchased from around Long Island, she tested the bulbs to see whether UV radiation — some of the same type emitted by the sun — was leaking out of them.

In almost every case, the protective cover around the fluorescent light had small cracks or leaks that released radiation. This confirmed what a recent European study had shown. Teaming up with Marcia Simon, the director of the Living Skin Bank at Stony Brook, Tatsiana Mironava, an adjunct faculty member and Michael Hadjiargyrou, a professor in the biomedical engineering department, Rafailovich took the European results a step further, testing the effect of this radiation on live skin cells that were grown and nurtured in a lab within a foot of the lamps to test the effect of this radiation. The light damaged the skin cells.

“We saw skin cells dying and we saw irritation,” she said. “It’s what you’d expect for cells exposed to that amount of UV rays.”

The ultraviolet exposure within a foot of CFL bulbs reached the threshold limit value (TLV — a measure of maximum dose to a specific wavelength in an eight-hour period) within 20 minutes. That means in eight hours, a person could get 17 times the maximum exposure.

“It is also important not to look into these bulbs, since UV penetrates the eye even easier than the skin,” Rafailovich contends.

Exposure to radiation at a close distance may not cause an immediate reaction because skin has an ability to adapt to UV light, the same way it would if you went to the beach every day.

“After a long time, though, you could see the effects of this exposure,” she suggested.

Based on her research, the Romanian-born Rafailovich suggests consumers should make sure CFL desk lamps have glass covers or are more than two feet away.

To be sure, the energy-efficient CFL lamps that don’t have additional glass covers are safe to use on ceilings and at greater distances. The UV radiation decreases at a rate that is the inverse square of the distance from the source. That means the further you get from the bulb, the lower the level of radiation.

Rafailovich said she has a CFL bulb in her house in Plainview and has no intention of removing it because it is far enough away that she doesn’t have to worry about radiation.

The Stony Brook professor also found that titanium dioxide, a nanoparticle (incredibly small) found in products ranging from toothpaste and tooth whiteners to some skin care products, can increase the absorption of ultraviolet radiation.

While the titanium dioxide wouldn’t necessarily be a problem for healthy skin, it could allow more absorption of the UV rays if a person had a wound.

Rafailovich’s research mission at Stony Brook includes looking at how nanoparticles more broadly affect skin cells.

When gold, which is used for imaging, is turned into a nanoparticle, it can damage cells by changing the metabolism (or burning up) of fat and will cause stem cells to differentiate differently. When it is used as a nanoparticle, titanium dioxide is even more damaging and can break the cell membrane and cause cell death.

At the same time, Rafailovich is working on ways to engineer nanoparticles for thin film coatings and biomaterials and tissue engineering.

“It’s important to have an interdisciplinary approach,” she offered.

Rafailovich has been at Stony Brook since 1994. When she was conducting her Ph.D. work, she met her husband, Jonathan Sokolov, who works in the same department. The professors have four children and five grandchildren.

Rafailovich said she enjoys Long Island for its proximity to the ocean and to New York City.

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Horizontal gene transfer has the Rafflesia potentially using the host’s information against it

They’re a member of a group that includes some of the world’s best thieves. They’re so good at stealing that they don’t make or produce food for themselves.

And, to top it off, like the high school students who rule the school because they are the tallest, most attractive or most athletic, they are physically stunning. Known in the scientific community as Rafflesia cantleyi, they have some of the world’s largest flowers, spanning as much as two feet across.

Found in Malaysia and named after a 19th century curator of the Singapore Botanic Gardens, the Rafflesia doesn’t have chlorophyll, the critical green molecule that allows plants to turn light, carbon dioxide and water into food. Instead, it lives deep inside the host vine, Tetrastigma rafflesia, a member of the grape family.

But that, it turns out, is not the only thing the parasitic plant pilfers. Recent research from Stony Brook assistant professor Joshua Rest, in collaboration with Harvard Professor Charles Davis, suggests Rafflesia has somehow taken something surprising: 49 genes from the Tetrastigma.

While bacteria and viruses take genes wherever they find them and attach them to their own set of life blueprints, it is much more unusual for plants to take genetic material, much less a region this large, from another plant. That means the Rafflesia is not only invading the space and food of the Tetrastigma plant, but it is also grabbing some of the plant’s hard-earned genetic identity.

When he first examined the genetic sequence of the Rafflesia, Rest was so stunned, he wondered whether he might have “just contaminated something,” by mixing the genes of the two plants.

Careful analysis, however, confirmed it was not the researchers who mixed the genes, but rather the plant that had gone through a process called horizontal gene transfer. Unlike vertical gene transfer, where individuals get their genes from their parents, in horizontal gene transfer, an individual can acquire its code from something outside its genetic tree.

“It definitely turns the way we think about things a bit on its head,” acknowledged Rest.

This discovery is new enough that scientists like Rest and Davis can only begin to guess at what advantage the Rafflesia gets from copying the genes of its host. One plausible explanation is that the parasite weakens the grape plant’s ability to defend itself against its unwelcome guest. The copied genes might send a signal to the host plant that disguises the parasite, allowing it to live like a disguised but sated wolf among sheep.
Rest cautioned that scientists don’t understand how the gene transfer affects the ongoing battle.

“We don’t know that there’s any cost” to the grape plant, Rest offered. “To whatever extent the transfer makes the parasites better at what they do, it could make the [grape] vines worse off.”

While the copied genes may protect the parasite against an immune response, they are also a part of other activities, including metabolism and respiration.

“They are involved in different cellular functions,” he explained. “We were expecting maybe we would find genes that were just involved in the immune response.”

To be sure, the notion of combining different genes to form a new organism isn’t unique, even in the world of eukaryotes. In fact, because the DNA from mitochondria and chloroplasts are different, scientists believe that, at one point, these organelles existed separate from each other, and proto-eukaryotic cells enveloped them. The parasitic gene copying is “on a much smaller scale,” Rest assured.

Given the range of parasites, it’s likely that others besides the Rafflesia have taken more than just food, sunlight or structural support at the expense of their hosts.

“Nature is a big place, so it’s unlikely that this mechanism is unique,” Rest suggested.

When he’s not looking closely at the genes of plant parasites, Rest, a native of the Chicago area, enjoys the chance to explore nature on Long Island, where he likes to run and hike in parks along the North and South Shore.

Rest lives in Bellmore with his husband Scott Stuart, a music therapist who works in a nursing home.

As for his work, Rest is fascinated by the implications of the range of what Rafflesia takes from its grape vine.

“The parasite,” he explained, “is potentially using the host information against it.”

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Glotch studies how water altered Mars’ surface; wife Deanne Rogers studies how Mars’ crust formed

Tim Glotch has his head high above the clouds, but his wife, Deanne Rogers doesn’t mind — she does too. An associate professor in the Geosciences Department at Stony Brook, Glotch met Rogers, an assistant professor in the same department, when they were graduate students at Arizona State University.

After forming a match made in the heavens, the two scientists moved to Selden and started raising a family that includes two preschool children.

Glotch studies rocks and minerals on Mars by examining data from orbiting satellites. He’s interested in how water altered the surface of Mars. Rogers, meanwhile, is trying to understand how the crust of Mars formed.

Recently, Glotch shared good news with his planetary partner. The National Science Foundation awarded him the Faculty Early Career Development Award. The recognition includes a five-year grant for $494,000 that supports his research, allowing him to add a post-doctoral researcher and a graduate student to his lab.

“It’s a fantastically exciting opportunity,” Glotch said. It allows him to delve deeper into the spectroscopy that he has used to study the makeup of minerals on Mars and the moon.

By looking at the surfaces, Glotch tries to piece together how Mars and the moon became what they are. He studies the minerals in inactive volcanoes and at impact craters to come up with models for how these orbiting bodies might have changed over time.

“I’m trying to understand how Mars evolved,” he explained. “How did basaltic rocks (like some of the ones in Hawaii) get there and how did liquid water change their minerals.”

Glotch recently took a trip to Hawaii, where he looked at rocks that have Martian cousins millions of miles away. He expects the interest in Mars to build from now through August, when the rover Curiosity is scheduled to land.

Glotch hopes to submit a paper for publication soon about a Martian volcano called Syrtis Major. It’s called a shield volcano, which means it’s a broad, flat volcano made from basaltic lava.

When he looked at the “squiggly lines” from the spectral data of the volcano, he noticed basaltic rocks and carbonate decomposition products. The carbonates might help explain where the atmosphere Mars might have had billions of years ago has gone.

“The carbonates could sequester a lot of an ancient atmosphere,” he offered. While this is indirect evidence, it’s an exciting step in understanding the history of the Red Planet.
At the same time, Glotch is also studying the moon. As talk of returning to the moon in the next decade builds, Glotch had an unusual companion on his recent trip to Hawaii: astronaut Jeanette Epps. She wanted to see how geologists work in the field and gain an understanding of the kinds of problems planetary geologists and volcanologists address by working in a volcanic terrain.

In recent years, Glotch’s approach to the moon has yielded interesting data.

“When we first looked at the data, we saw these squiggly lines that were fundamentally different than anything else we’d seen on the moon before,” he said. “That was very exciting.”

Those lines were examples of silica rich volcanoes, which are evident in places like Mt. St. Helens. On Earth, they form as a result of plate tectonics. The moon has no such underlying shifting land masses.

Glotch believes basaltic underplating could explain the presence of the silicon dioxide on the moon. In that case, basaltic magma didn’t rise to the surface, but rather melted the crust around it. Because the silicon dioxide was buoyant, it rose to the surface.

The Stony Brook associate professor is developing a workshop for high school science teachers that will allow them to work with lunar data. He recommended a step-wise approach to generate interest in the moon.

“The easiest way to start is to show a picture of a volcano on the moon,” he offered. Teachers can compare those images to volcanoes on Earth. Students who want to know more can look at remote sensing and study images the eye can’t see to understand the composition of rocks and minerals.

As for life in the Glotch home, he said it’s been incredibly valuable to share his passion for his work with his wife, and to lean on her for support. She can commiserate on one of the least glamorous parts of being a scientist: writing and submitting proposals on deadline.

Even with some overlap in their work, looking up into the skies leaves the two scientists with plenty of space to define their own interests.

“There’s so much to do, there’s plenty of room for everybody,” offered Rogers.

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Physicists from SBU and BNL comment on finding the ‘missing link’ between theory and reality

A quest over 40 years in the making finally ended recently, as physicists announced they had found a subatomic (read: extremely tiny) particle that had become the missing link between the theory and reality of the origins of mass in the universe.

Billions of years ago, the universe was filled with energy, but not mass. That meant there were plenty of particles racing around, through and past each other, but none of them had the kind of mass that would allow them to become planets, beds or hot fudge sundaes.

In 1964, a group of physicists, led by Peter Higgs, suggested there was an energy field that gave some particles mass, albeit for the briefest of time. Physicists have been slamming highly charged particles into each other, hoping to find this elusive Higgs boson particle.

With the words, “I think we have it,” Rolf-Dieter Heuer, the director-general for the European Organization for Nuclear Research, suggested they’d found what was like looking for the dissolving pieces of a needle in a hay field.

While it’s not exactly as poetic as Neil Armstrong’s “one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind,” the words heralding the discovery of the so-called “God particle” have generated considerable excitement in the world of science in general and physicists in particular.

Stony Brook physics professor John Hobbs and Brookhaven National Laboratory senior physicist Howard Gordon were watching from their home computers in the early morning hours of July 4 when the official announcement arrived.

When the audience at the CERN Particle Physics Centre near Geneva erupted in applause as scientists described the result as five sigma (a threshold for statistical significance — the equivalent of a mathematical reality test), “I got a tear in my eye,” recalled Gordon.
“I was very satisfied,” explained Hobbs. “This has been the pursuit of many people for a long time.”

The Higgs boson theory, which five other physicists proposed along with Higgs, suggested energy passed through a Higgs field, attracting other particles along the way. Some scientists describe this field as being like molasses that sticks to the particle or like a snowball rolling down a hill, attracting other pieces of snow.

After that particle obtained mass, it quickly reverted to a state of energy, giving it mass for only a short time. To find the so-called Higgs boson particle, scientists needed to look for decaying pieces of it and then put those back together.

“Any time you have a massive particle of any sort, unless there are things which prevent its decaying, it will naturally do so,” explained Hobbs. “In the case of Higgs boson, there are many ways it can decay.”

One of the challenges of finding the Higgs boson particle was that its mass could be in a broad range.

“Previous experiments had ruled out Higgs below 114 GeV (gigaelectronvolts),” explained Gordon, but it could still be anywhere higher than that, up to 600 GeV or more.

Results from CERN found that the elusive particle was at a mass close to 125 GeV.

So, after all these years of searching for something scientists had predicted would be there, does this change the world?
Scientists suggest the answer is: no and yes. It doesn’t affect the cost of gas, speed up a slow Internet connection or lower the unemployment rate — at least, not yet.

Like other basic research, however, it does provide an answer to questions about the universe.

“We have now validated what we think about how the basic building blocks of matter got their mass,” said Barbara Jacak, a distinguished professor of physics at Stony Brook and member of the National Academy of Sciences. “I don’t know how that’s going to affect our daily life, but I suspect it will. If you think about earlier discoveries in physics that seemed basic, people figured out how to build smaller [electronic] devices. I’d be willing to bet this will end up driving new technology somewhere.”

Even before it does, however, it is likely to lead to a whole new set of fundamental questions, including about such things as dark matter, which comprises over three-quarters of the universe.

“We’ll use this to address another set of questions,” explained Hobbs. As such, it’s both “an end and a beginning at the same time. It is not the end of the questions by any means. It is a very significant waypoint along the route.”

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Amid the moving chaos of New York City, Thomas Watson has stopped and watched the steam that rises out of manholes. On one side of the street, the steam drifted one way.

On the other, it headed in the opposite direction.

While the complexity of the wind might seem fitting for a city where people blow in from all over the world, the shifting air currents are much more than a metaphor to the chemist from Brookhaven National Lab. They have become a part of research he — and emergency management personnel in the city — use to understand how gases, particularly toxic or dangerous ones, might move through the street canyons created by buildings of all shapes and sizes.

In 2005, Watson conducted an extensive study of air currents in and around the city. He released perfluorocarbons at different points throughout the area, tracked where the gases went and put together how they might have gotten from one place to another.

This year, he’s starting another similar study. His work, which in 2005 was funded in part by the Department of Homeland Security, is designed to help emergency management crews in the city deal with an accidental release of gases that might pose a threat to public safety. The city also uses his research in the event of the intentional release of harmful substances.

“The research we do supports emergency response decision making,” said Watson.

Watson leads a unit at BNL called the Tracer Technology Group. They release harmless gases to see how different elements travel under a broad range of meteorological conditions.

The gases, called perfluorocarbons, are “totally nonreactive” and can be detected at incredibly low levels: parts per quadrillion.
Tracer gases are sometimes used across much larger areas than a metropolitan region as well.

“We can get an idea of how air is moving across the continent,” he suggested.
In the Across North America Tracer Experiment (Anatex) in the late 1980s, for example, gases released from Glasgow, Montana and St. Cloud, Minn., could be seen on the East Coast.

The science of tracking air movements using tracer compounds as they move across different terrains started about 30 years ago, Watson recalled, as part of a comprehensive safety plan amid the development of nuclear power plants. While a release from a plant is unlikely, “prudence dictates we should be able to predict where a release would go,” Watson offered.

Watson also studies indoor air quality, looking at infiltration rates into buildings. The ventilation systems of large buildings, he explained, often bring outside air into the system at a measured rate.

This work not only has implications for safety and public health, but also for energy efficiency, as buildings can use the data he collects to figure out whether more outside air than anticipated is entering the building. On a particularly hot or cold day, the introduction of outside air could raise heating or cooling costs.

Watson has also been involved in finding leaks in underground systems for utility companies. In some of the subterranean systems, power companies have underground wires that are surrounded by oil, which helps insulate and provide some cooling. When the oil leaks, it’s difficult to find. Enter perfluorocarbons.

“We ride around in a van and can find [the perfluorocarbons],” he described. By tracking the gases, “we can come within a couple of feet of the leak.”

The alternative to using the tracer chemicals is to freeze the line and see where the pressure drops. The freeze method sometimes requires digging several holes before finding the leak.

Tracer gases are also “important for climate work,” Watson offered. He looks at the exchange between the biosphere and the atmosphere. He validates transport models used to help interpret carbon dioxide exchange measurements.
When Watson, who lives in Ridge with his wife Phyllis, isn’t tracking gases through the air or underground, he enjoys spin casting for striped bass. He said he usually keeps one a season.

Although he grew up in Delaware and was a Phillies fan, he has seen the error of his ways and, after seven years on Long Island, has seen his allegiance drift to the Mets.

As for his work, Watson is convinced he’s doing something important and that he needs to provide the best possible information to emergency personnel.

“No scientific data is ever exact to an infinite number of decimal places,” he concedes. “We strive to get the best possible information to all our sponsors and always provide uncertainty limits.”

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Professor’s study of lemurs helps them, conservation and medicine

Patricia Wright loves Madagascar and its lemurs — and the country returns the favor. On July 2, Wright will inaugurate a state-of-the-art, four-story research center adjacent to a rainforest — complete with a high-speed Internet connection. At the same time, the Stony Brook anthropology professor will receive her third Legion of Honor medal, becoming the first foreigner to receive three of the island nation’s highest awards.

The star-studded opening of the facility — called Namanabe (for Friendship) Hall — will have over 600 guests. The attendees span the world, from Stony Brook President Samuel Stanley, to Madagascar’s minister of the environment, to the vice rector of the University of Helsinki, Finland, to the ambassador for the U.S. to Madagascar, Eric Wong, to local kings from 33 villages, and 21 traditional healers.

The building, which overlooks a waterfall, river and rainforest and has a garden and solar panels on the roof, will provide a home for the study of biodiversity and infectious disease.

Wright, who has been studying lemurs since 1985, will soon announce that there are three kinds of dwarf lemurs in nearby Ranomafana National Park. Previously, scientists believed the park only contained one species of dwarf lemur. Ranomafana has 14 species of lemurs, one of the highest counts for a single park in the world.

Wright has a long list of notable achievements in her studies of the Madagascar primates, whose name comes from the lemures of Roman mythology because of the animal’s ghostly calls and reflective eyes.
In the 1980s, Wright was searching for the greater bamboo lemur, which some scientists believed had become extinct. She not only found the endangered animal, but also discovered the golden bamboo lemur, a species scientists didn’t even know existed.

For the second year in a row, she was a finalist in the $100,000 Indianapolis Prize, the top award for animal conservation. While she didn’t win this year, she was one of only six finalists from a competitive field of conservation biologists.

“It’s a great honor,” said Wright. “Many fantastic people are on that list that have done amazing things. I’m proud to be a part of that.”

Stuart Pimm, the Doris Duke professor of conservation at Duke University, called Wright “Madagascar’s savior” for working to conserve an environment scientists describe as the “eighth continent” for its remarkable diversity of species, some of which are threatened or going extinct.

“Nobody does conservation work in Madagascar without coming under her influence,” Pimm declared. The new research facility Wright helped build is “an amazing meeting house for people who want to protect the Malagasy environment. That contribution will last for decades. It’s a very tangible achievement.”

Wright explained that her current research, which she conducts in Ranomafana, addresses three questions. First, she is studying lemur behavioral ecology and demography and aging in the wild.

Second, she is looking closely at the mouse lemur, the world’s smallest primate. Some mouse lemurs in captivity, who were as young as four years old, developed Alzheimer’s. She is tracking 500 mouse lemurs in the wild. So far, she has examined wild mouse lemurs as old as 10 and hasn’t found any similar cases. That could be because lemurs that suffer from age-related cognitive problems could become easier targets for predators. It also could be related to the mouse lemur’s diet or to its more active lifestyle in the rain forest.

And, finally, she is examining seed dispersal in trees by lemurs. She’s planning to study how far away seeds get from the parent tree. She also wants to see if seeds from a wide range of canopy trees with large, sweet fleshy fruits that pass through the digestive system of a lemur sprout faster and live longer.

“We’re really interested in ecosystem dynamics,” she explained. “To really understand how to restore a habitat, we have to know how it works to begin with. That’s not easy in a rainforest.”

Although she applies science to just about everything she does professionally, Wright knows she needs much more than good intentions and a clipboard to wander through the rainforest to study lemurs.

“Whenever you are exploring in new places, when you meet people, you have to be a little cautious: they don’t know who you are and you don’t know who they are. You have to obey the rules of the local culture,” she explains.

She visits with the village elders first, to describe what she’s doing. She travels with permits signed by authorities. She has put considerable effort into sharing information about the rainforest and about health with the Malagasy (the name for people from Madagascar).

“When we’re dealing with health, we like to have it science-based,” she said. “We’re not just dispensing pills. We like to do health and hygiene education to prevent health problems before they happen.”
In addition to her scientific contribution, Wright has helped build and shape communities around the rainforest, Pimm said.

“She has done an extraordinary job in ensuring that people in the local community benefit from having a national park right next to them,” observed Pimm, who has known Wright for more than 15 years. “There is now a community of small businesses that have learned through [her] leadership.”

In addition to respecting the people in the remote areas where she treks — often on foot and while carrying her own food and cooking utensils — Wright remains aware of other threats.

“I’m quite a careful person for someone who does all these crazy things,” she offered.

Indeed, she has encountered the deadly fer-de-lance snake — a reptile whose venom can be fatal to humans. Always on the lookout for the deadly snakes, she has seen them several times. She was on a trail following monkeys one night when she encountered another dangerous creature. She explained that the path was wet, so neither one could hear the other coming. She rounded a bend and stopped inches from a jaguar.

“There we were, eye to eye,” she recounted. “I thought to myself: that animal is bigger than me. I’m getting off the trail.”

The predatory cat jumped away, perhaps because a headlight Wright wore to navigate through the soggy jungle confused him.

While assiduously avoiding jungle cats, Wright has tried to attract sponsors for her research.

In April, she held a rock concert at Centre Valbio, where the U.S. Embassy invited some of the wealthiest people in the country to enjoy music by popular Malagasy bands while learning about research in the rainforest.

“What I actually do is very complex,” she explained. “It’s very important that the science is not done in a vacuum. It has to be incorporated into public awareness.”

As for the future, Namanabe Hall, Wright hopes, is just another step in research and conservation in Madagascar.

“There are so many things we need to make the research dream come true,” she offered. “I would love to put sensors out into the forest that could stream back to our network and databases information on microclimate and animals. The Namanabe Hall is just the beginning of what I hope will be a fountain of inspiration to study this tropical rainforest in innovative ways and to study and assist the people, too.”

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SBU professor R. Lawrence Swanson uses hair conditioners as chemical markers to study sewage

Hair conditioners aren’t just helpful for the heads of Hempstead residents. They also serve as chemical markers for what happens to sewage released through the Bay Park outfall in Reynolds Channel.

That’s just one of a host of findings in an ongoing study of Hempstead sewage that Stony Brook University professor R. Lawrence Swanson is managing. Swanson is leading a group of 10 scientists and three graduate students who are examining the Western Bays in Hempstead to determine what’s happening in the area and to recommend what actions, if any, policy-makers might need to take to protect the region.

While the hair care chemicals, which Stony Brook associate professor Bruce Brownawell is studying, aren’t necessarily damaging to the environment, they do act as markers for the bay.

“Looking at the results of hydrodynamic modeling in conjunction with some of the work that’s been done looking at hair care [products] in sediments has indicated to virtually all of us that the removal of material from the vicinity of the Bay Park outfall is not very good,” Swanson stated. “There’s a lot of sloshing back and forth in the Reynolds Channel.”

Swanson suggested that the choice of the channel in the 1950s probably seemed like a logical one because tidal currents are “quite rapid” twice a day. However, the problem is that “much of that water seems to slosh back and forth, as opposed to exiting.”

Just as the sewage begins to drift east and north away from the bays, the tidal current reverses and pushes it back. Swanson explained. The residence time in Reynolds Channel is between 50 and 240 hours. That means a particle released in the channel would take that long to leave the general area, Swanson said, citing the work of Stony Brook associate professor Robert Wilson.

Additionally, Reynolds Channel and areas to the north are struggling with a “tremendous biomass of sea lettuce,” Swanson observed.

While sea lettuce is common around Long Island, it is so dense in those areas that residents are referring to it as “green bergs.” It accumulates at Point Lookout near the entrance to Jones Inlet to such an extent that the hydrogen sulfide smell is noticeable.

The Hempstead Bays project, which started in September of 2010, runs through March 2013. At the end of it, Swanson and the rest of his team will summarize the results and make recommendations to policy-makers.
As he enters his fourth decade in the environmental sciences at Stony Brook, Swanson indicated he has become increasingly outspoken about the dangers of poor waste management.

“We’re in trouble,” Swanson declared. “We have reached our limit in terms of population growth. In Suffolk County, we are still relying on septic systems that are not the best technology. Many of them are probably not functioning particularly well.”

Swanson said the nitrogen concentration in the Magothy aquifer is about 200 times greater than it was in the 1980s, citing data from the Suffolk County Health Department. The Magothy aquifer is the largest bed of permeable rock that provides water to Long Island.

Still, Swanson isn’t ready to give up on Long Island or on the possibility of improving an environment he said he has thoroughly enjoyed since moving here in 1973.

Swanson lives in Head of the Harbor with his wife, Dana, who is an artist. One son, Michael, lives in St. James, while Larry lives in Seattle, where Dana grew up and where her extended family has lived for four generations.

The Swansons live in a 170-year-old house that was the site of a water bottling business known as the Soper Bottling Works in the late 1800s.

“Every day, the house wakes up and says, ‘What are you going to do for me today?’” laughed Swanson.

Swanson is optimistic that the right programs and approach can improve the environment. He points to the New York Bight, a region between Cape May and Montauk where ocean dumping occurred until around 1990.
Since the cessation of dumping, “You would see a remarkable resilience of the marine environment and its ability to recover, once we stop abusing it.”

Swanson cautions against continued environmental abuse. “An ounce of conservation is worth many pounds of restoration,” he offered.