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Dark Energy, Dark Universe

11 Dec

Last week, I was delighted to visit one of my favorite places in NYC, the American Museum of Natural History. Over a decade ago, I served as a Fellow with the Center for Biodiversity and Conservation, and it stands out as one of the best ‘jobs’ I’ve had. You cannot run out of things to do and I love how there’s always something new to discover. A highlight of the day was the new space show, Dark Universe, written by Timothy Ferris and narrated by Neil DeGrasse Tyson.

Every experience I’ve had at the Hayden Planetarium has been memorable, but Dark Universe raises the bar. From the comfort of my seat, I marveled at images of cosmic phenomena in deep space. Dark energy fascinates me, but my expertise is well outside of astrophysics and I’ve always found the concept rather enigmatic. This show does a very good job of taking this extremely complex topic and explaining it in a way that’s accessible to general audiences. Through spectacular visualizations, I was able to get a sense of the way it’s kind of like our cosmic architecture. I learned that invisible dark matter and dark energy accounts for at least 95% of the universe’s total energy and mass!

Dark Universe is a must-see for anyone interested in science and space visiting Manhattan. Further, it makes me confident that Neil Degrasse Tyson’s 2014 Cosmos will certainly be worth watching…

This post originally appeared at Scientific American’s ‘Plugged In’ on December 11, 2013.

Helium on 34th Street

26 Nov

This Thursday, many of us will begin celebrating by watching the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. It’s a tradition for me… In the 1980’s, I stood in the crowd a few times, and my favorite part wasn’t the floats and musicians – it was, of course, the great big helium balloons. What I didn’t know then, is that the helium that makes them soar isn’t limitless and we count on this element for far more important reasons than holiday fanfare.

Helium is located underground in pockets frequently associated with natural gas. It’s abundant on a cosmic scale, but not for our regular use. And short of fission or the nuclear fusion of two hydrogen atoms, we can’t produce it artificially. Three years ago, the National Academies concluded that helium reserves are being tapped too quickly. Compounding matters, the price is artificially low so there’s little incentive to attempt to recover or recycle it.

If we maintain our current rate of consumption, the global supply of helium is expected to dwindle in about 40 years. That’s not all that far away. And unfortunately, this doesn’t just mean fewer party balloons. You see, helium has unique properties that we depend on for a variety of reasons. It’s light, but not combustible with a low boiling point and high thermal conductivity. For example, liquified helium is needed for the super conducting magnets in MRIs. It’s also crucial for aerospace engineering, cryogenics, and deep-sea exploration.

And here’s the important part: In many cases, there is no substitute.

Of course the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade is just a drop in the bucket in terms of global helium use. Still, it’s a visible reminder that we use this special element without much regard for the future – something to keep in mind as Buzz Lightyear soars to infinity and beyond.

That said, enjoy the parade and I hope readers have a wonderful holiday!

This post originally appeared at Scientific American’s ‘Plugged In’ on November 25, 2013.

Did Climate Change Intensify Supertyphoon Haiyan?

12 Nov

At the UN climate talks in Poland, Yeb Sano, the head of the Philippines delegation has announced he will refrain from eating until participants make “meaningful” progress. In his address, Sano linked the terrible devastation in the Philippines after Supertyphoon Haiyan to climate change.

“What my country is going through as a result of this extreme climate event is madness, the climate crisis is madness. We can stop this madness right here in Warsaw.”

The images trickling back from the Philippines in the media are heartbreaking, but do we know whether climate change caused or intensified this immense, record-breaking cyclone? It’s complicated. Climate scientists are very hesitant to blame a single event on global warming. That said, here’s my take: It’s fair to say that climate change likely made this deadly storm deadlier.

The Philippines is already in a precarious situation. It’s a low-lying archipelago sitting atop warm Pacific Ocean waters. Temperature is important to consider here, because warm waters make storms stronger. Haiyan would probably have been monstrously destructive regardless of climate change due to its location and the dense population. We also know that sea level rise has been occurring significantly faster in the Philippine Sea than elsewhere around the world, which worsens flooding and storm surges.

Supertyphoon Haiyan has been devastating and the region faces many additional challenges in its aftermath. International aid groups are working to bring relief to the survivors (here’s how you can help) as delegates continue negotiations at the U.N. summit on climate change. Meanwhile, note that Haiyan has brought something additional to those of us watching half a world away: A glimpse of the future.

For more on the relationship between climate change and storms, take a look at my co-author Chris Mooney’s book, Storm World.

This post originally appeared at Scientific American’s ‘Plugged In’ on November 11, 2013.

How Do We Engage More Women In Energy Issues?

30 Oct

As I’ve written in the past, the energy sector is dominated by men. At meetings and conferences, it’s easy to recognize the lack of women in the room, on panels, and involved in the discussion. But a look the latest poll numbers reveals the gender gap goes well beyond the energy sector itself.

Consider: In the United States, 44 percent of men say they are knowledgeable on energy issues. Just 20 percent of women do. Sixty-seven percent of men say energy issues are important. Fifty-seven percent of women do. Fifty-one percent of men say they follow national energy issues. Thirty-five percent of women do. These are just some examples of what I’ve been observing within the data.

[click image to enlarge]

While poll responses are self-reported (women and men may answer questions differently), the differences are large enough to suggest that one half of the population is generally less interested, engaged, and aware of energy issues than the other. What do you think accounts for the gender divide? Cultural norms? Social mores? Something else?

Regardless of what’s driving this trend, we ought to do something to close the gap because women matter in the energy dialogue. A lot. We are frequently the primary household decision-makers so have a disproportionate influence on the future of energy efficiency. Our choices will continue to play a major role in defining national energy priorities, so we should be paying closer attention.

How might we encourage more women to become engaged in the energy issues that affect all of us? (The answer is not another “campaign” like this one by European Commission which hoped to get women excited about science):

That said, I am very interested to read your suggestions in the comments (and please share whether you are male or female in your reply).

This post originally appeared at Scientific American’s ‘Plugged In’ on October 29, 2013.

Do Americans Understand Energy? Not Really.

20 Oct

The latest wave of the UT Energy Poll just came out (full disclosure: I am the director) and results highlight the large disconnect between energy and the American public. The poll is a nonpartisan, objective, and comprehensive nationwide survey covering topics from efficiency and voting behavior to climate change and hydraulic fracturing*. This time we included a few energy literacy questions to gauge where Americans are on important energy topics related to policy and the economy.

When asked, “Which country do you believe is the largest foreign supplier of oil for the U.S.?” 58 percent of respondents chose Saudi Arabia. Meanwhile, just 13 percent chose the correct answer, Canada.

Which country do you believe is the largest foreign supplier of oil for the U.S.?

Unfortunately, a general lack of understanding was obvious beyond the few quiz-style questions. Eight-two percent of Americans want the federal government to focus on developing natural gas, yet just 38 percent of those who have even heard of hydraulic fracturing support its use in the extraction of fossil fuels. (Note: Hydraulic fracturing is inherently related to natural gas development).

Similar inconsistencies were evident throughout the results and there were also big differences in how various groups responded to the same questions. For example, while the percentage of Americans who think that climate change is occurring held steady at 72 percent, this includes 87 percent of Democrats, 52 percent of Republicans, 66 percent of Libertarians, and 68 percent of Independents.

Why should we track–or even care about–public opinion on energy issues? Because it matters. Our attitudes eventually shape future policy decisions and define global energy priorities. So it’s important that we continue to pay attention.

I encourage readers to spend some time exploring the new data by political party, gender, and income using this neat interactive graphic on the UT Energy Poll website. The results may surprise you.

* To ensure the data is representative of the U.S. population, figures for age, sex, race/ethnicity, education, region and household income are weighted where necessary to bring them in line with their actual proportions based on the latest census.

This post originally appeared at Scientific American’s ‘Plugged In’ on October 17, 2013.

It’s Not “Nice” To Include Women In The Energy Sector, It’s Essential

28 Sep

It’s difficult not to notice that at most energy events I attend, I’m one of just a handful of women. Last week’s C3E Women in Clean Energy Symposium at MIT looked and felt a lot different. It provided a forum for female professionals to come together to discuss challenges and opportunities in clean energy.

C3E stands for the Clean Energy Education and Empowerment program launched in 2010 to advance the careers and leadership of women in clean energy. Why do we matter? In policy discussions and research, diversity brings novel ideas to the table. We are also the primary energy decision-makers at home in both the developed and developing world. So if we are truly serious about finding solutions to our most pressing global energy challenges, both halves the population must contribute to the conversation. C3E is a step in that direction by providing mentorship, support, and a network of pioneering women in a field traditionally dominated by men.

The highlight of the symposium was the keynote “Creating a Sustainable Culture of Innovation” by Sharon Vosmek, CEO of Astia. While not an energy expert, Vosmek is passionate to propel women’s full-participation as entrepreneurs and leaders in all roles. She explained why it’s not just “nice” to include women, but essential, pointing out that 95% of venture capitalists are men. If women want to get into that network, she explained that we’ll need greater access. The most memorable take-away was this–which was not energy specific: Reducing barriers to female participation in the workforce can increase GDP up to 9 percent. Translation: When we work to include women, it benefits everyone.

So how do we get there? Vosmek advised the audience to “pursue uncomfortable work situations” where we feel different because of our gender–rather than try to avoid them. Our presence helps to challenge the status quo, which ultimately fosters change and more equal representation. She described the clean energy sector as ripe for inclusive innovation because it is young enough to build in women leaders. I suspect she’s correct.

I left Boston feeling optimistic about the future of women in clean energy. Instead of listening to the same old questions (“where are the women?” or “how do we raise numbers of women in…x?”), C3E is working toward change by fostering a community of women actively involved in the energy conversation.

This post originally appeared at Scientific American’s ‘Plugged In’ on September 25, 2013.

Scientists Report Human-Induced Climate Change Influences Extreme Weather Events. Now What?

17 Sep

Last week, a new analysis of climate change and extreme weather was released in the peer-reviewed Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society. The study, entitled, “Explaining Extreme Events of 2012 from a Climate Perspective,” brought together 18 different research teams from around the world to consider 12 extreme weather events–such as heat waves, storms, and droughts–on five continents during 2012:

Approximately half the analyses found some evidence that anthropogenically caused climate change was a contributing factor to the extreme event examined, though the effects of natural fluctuations of weather and climate on the evolution of many of the extreme events played key roles as well.

The report demonstrates when and where human-induced climate change (translation: the burning of fossil fuels that creates heat-trapping gases) has contributed to specific extreme weather events. For example, the team found that the impacts from Hurricane Sandy (left) were exacerbated by sea level rise. They also concluded that the high temperatures here in the U.S. are now likely to occur more frequently. And that’s just the beginning… I encourage readers to explore the full results in detail.

It’s good to have this kind of new data in order to make a stronger case that we ought to do something. But that said, how many more analyses are required? How long will we spend valuable time, energy, and resources documenting climate change?

The science community already knows this is happening. We recognize that Earth is getting hotter in some places, wetter elsewhere, drier in dry regions, and stormier as well–in very vulnerable areas. Excess carbon is changing the atmosphere and oceans. Further, even if all emissions stopped today, we will continue to see the impacts of excess carbon in the environment for centuries.

The American public will continue to debate what causes climate change, but over two-thirds of us do acknowledge it’s taking place. So sure, scientists will continue to predict and model the results–one report at a time. But I sincerely hope we shift our primary focus to mitigation and adaptation, because the world is changing and right now, we are largely unprepared.

This post originally appeared at Scientific American’s ‘Plugged In’ on September 9, 2013.

A Tale of Two Energy Priorities – Told In Charts

8 Sep

I like charts. And I like to tell stories through charts. So let’s begin…

According to the latest data from the UT Energy Poll, here’s where Americans most want to see their tax dollars spent:

Not surprisingly, job creation is a high priority. Fair enough. (Energy” ranks last, with slightly fewer votes than “other,” but that’s a topic for another day). Now we’ll look a bit closer…

These are the perceived benefits most associated with natural gas production (note these survey responses were not mutually exclusive):

And next, the perceived benefits most associated with renewables:

Now back to tax dollar priorities. If job creation is valued most and natural gas production is perceived as a job creator, there’s going to be a fair amount of public support behind expanding it. (Hence the current energy transition). However, given that just four percent of Americans rank the environment as a top priority, the development and adoption of renewable technologies may be limited.

What’s important to keep in mind is that “perceived” benefits do not necessarily reflect reality. It’s true that renewables may lead to a cleaner environment, but they also create jobs and are certainly involved in boosting American innovation, economic growth, and competitiveness.

Public attitudes on both topics reflect the way we have been framing them. In the case of renewables, it may be time to change the conversation.

This post originally appeared at Scientific American’s ‘Plugged In’ on August 29, 2013.

Well Hello There.

25 Aug


This post originally appeared at Scientific American’s ‘Plugged In’ on August 19, 2013.

My name is Sheril. I’m new here, although I’ve been bouncing around the science blogosphere since 2006. Today I’m delighted to be joining the terrific energy team at Scientific American’s Plugged In!

I am primarily interested in the relationships between science, politics, and people. Real energy solutions require more than cutting-edge technologies and carefully crafted legislation. In reality, public opinion plays the most critical role in shaping our energy future.

In my role as Director of the University of Texas at Austin Energy Poll, I work to understand how Americans think about energy. Every six months we conduct a national survey exploring U.S. attitudes on big energy issues like efficiency, climate change, and hydraulic fracturing. Perceptions matter tremendously because decision-making at the local, regional, and federal level involves more than just “the facts.” Voters and elected officials are influenced by stories in the media, friends and family, politicians, and even comedians and religious leaders. Ultimately, popular opinion shapes where we go from here.

For those new to my writing, a bit of background: In graduate school I studied marine biology and policy. The following year I served as a legislative science fellow for Senator Bill Nelson covering oceans, energy, and environmental policy. Next at Duke, I worked at the intersection of science and policy. In 2010, I landed at The University of Texas at Austin with The Webber Energy Group before becoming director of the UT Energy Poll.

Somewhere along the way I started blogging, which eventually taught me a lot about writing. In 2009, Chris Mooney and I co-authored Unscientific America about the growing disconnect between science and the American public. The Science of Kissing came out in 2011, which explores a near universal behavior through a variety of lenses from anthropology to neuroscience. (For more information, you can read a full bio on my website).

I’m looking forward to contributing here at Plugged In with Melissa, David, Scott, and Robynne. The five of us certainly have a lot to discuss–and I encourage readers to dive into the conversation along the way…

Energy 101: Register For This Excellent, Free Massive Open Online Course (MOOC)

6 Jun

Last week I had the pleasure of sitting in on a terrific Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) called Energy 101 as it was filmed at UT Austin.

Taught by Dr. Michael Webber, the course provides an in-depth overview of all things energy from the transportation sector to climate change to the energy embedded in the food we eat. As the website describes, by becoming fluent in energy, you will be able to think critically about energy issues. Registration is free and the course will be taught in modules over 11 weeks. I highly recommend this to everyone because energy touches all of us:


This multidisciplinary course will give students an overview of energy technologies, fuels, environmental impacts and public policies. Topics will be interdisciplinary and will include an introduction to quantitative concepts in energy, including the differences among fuels and energy technologies, energy policy levers, and the societal aspects of energy, such as culture, economics, war, and international affairs. This course will cover brief snippets of energy history, use real-world examples, and look forward into the future. The course will have interactive learning modules and lecture-oriented around current events related to energy.

Watch the preview and then go sign up…