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environment

The Science of Beauty

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The Science of Beauty

Henry David Thoreau, in his book Walden, details his almost two-year excursion of simple living in the woods of Massachusetts. He viewed nature as a way to achieve a higher understanding of the universe, and enjoyed being one with the solitude and beauty it has to offer. Nature, thus, has a way of connecting humans to our emotions and eliciting positive thoughts and feelings. For example, it is a universal truth that a rainbow after a rainy day brings a smile to anyone’s face. The aurora borealis, or Northern Lights, are regarded by many as breathtaking, a must-see on planet Earth. But how does nature capture our attention and scintillate our senses? What are the long-term effects of spending time in the outdoors?

Beauty in the natural world affects humans subconsciously: spending time in the outdoors is connected to overall mental well-being. A simple stroll through a forest, for example, can allow us to distance ourselves from our otherwise chaotic thoughts. We are forced to regard every stimuli around us, from the sun shining down upon us to the tall trees shrouding us to the the small squirrels and insects we are careful not to harm. Compared to the contemporary world, which forces humans to live life in the fast lane through the influence of technology and commerce, nature is Earth at its most basic level. It allows humans to take a step back and a breath in, and entices us with its many facets of simplicity and serenity. Thus, the environment melts stress and releases endorphins that can decrease feelings of depression and fatigue.

Nature’s ability to distract us from the present also increases creativity and intelligence. David Strayer of the University of Utah showed that hikers were able to solve more complex puzzles after a four-day backpacking trip compared to a control group. The prefrontal cortex, which controls decision-making and social behavior, undergoes much strain from daily usage of technology and multi-tasking. This area of the brain can take a break when we respond to purely nature-driven stimulus. Nature allows the brain to reset so that it can perform tasks with renewed energy.

A change of environment can also makes humans kinder and more generous. There is an out-of-body feeling associated with viewing an awe-inspiring landscape that makes one feel that one is part of something bigger than the present. It can make day-to-day inconveniences seem inconsequential and remind us that there is more to the world than what goes on in our lives. Humans are also more likely to be more ethical when faced with moral dilemmas after spending time in nature. Experiments conducted at the University of California, Berkeley, found that participants playing the Dictator Game (which measures the degree to which individuals will act out of self-interest) were more likely to be generous to their peers after being exposed to alluring nature scenes.

Planet Earth’s most primitive offerings actually present us with complex and diverse benefits. A quick breath of fresh air can melt away feelings of stress and anxiety, while increasing cognitive focus and creativity. Perhaps we can create our own “Walden” and take a break from studying or working to simply enjoy the outdoors and spend time appreciating the many sides of our ever-changing world.

 

 

References:

  1. “How Nature Can Make You Kinder, Happier, and More Creative.” Greater Good, greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/how_nature_makes_you_kinder_happier_more_creative.
  2. Louv, Richard. “Ten Reasons Why We Need More Contact with Nature | Richard Louv.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 12 Feb. 2014, www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/feb/13/10-reasons-why-we-need-more-contact-with-nature.

  3.  

    “Henry David Thoreau.” Henry David Thoreau, transcendentalism-legacy.tamu.edu/authors/thoreau/.

     

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Predicting Earthquakes: Can it be Done?

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Predicting Earthquakes: Can it be Done?

The image above is a depiction of the fault zones in the Bay Area, California. The black star indicates where I live in California. (Source: http://www.ebsinstitute.com/EBS.EQ2_RS_DA.html) 

The image above is a depiction of the fault zones in the Bay Area, California. The black star indicates where I live in California.
(Source: http://www.ebsinstitute.com/EBS.EQ2_RS_DA.html) 

Life in California often evokes images of palm trees, sunny-blue skies, and sandy beaches. As a resident of California, I can attest that all those stereotypes are often correct. But sometimes, people overlook the idea of California as “Earthquake Country.” Living 0.5 miles away from the Hayward Fault and a few more miles away from the San Andreas Fault, I’ve become used to waking up at odd times during the night to a swaying bed frame or watching pendulums move seemingly on their own.

While most natural disasters - including hurricanes, tornadoes, blizzards, volcanos, and tsunamis - can be predicted ahead of time, earthquakes lack that luxury. They are hard to predict because it’s difficult to tell when exactly the pressure built between two plates will release1. Prediction is crucial for saving lives because it can give people time to get to a safe place. Several methods have been created to predict earthquakes, including the analysis of the patterns of previous tremors, the use of animal behavior, changes in the concentration of radon gas, and even variations in electromagnetic behavior1. But these methods all share a common problem - accuracy.

However, we Californians don’t need to fear as much, because there has emerged a new system recently, known as earthquake early warning.

What is earthquake early warning and how do earthquakes work?

In a nutshell, earthquake early warning is a system that sends a warning that an earthquake will strike in a certain area within a few seconds. When an earthquake occurs, one of three main things can happen: two plates may pass each other on a strike-slip fault (one example is the San Andreas Fault), a plate on top of the fault moves down relative to the plate on the bottom on a normal fault, or a plate on the bottom of the fault moves up relative to the plate on the top on a reverse fault2. This movement leads pressure to build up between two pieces of land. As this pressure builds up, reaching a point that’s too large to handle by the pieces of land, it’s released in an earthquake. This release of energy transforms into waves that emanate outward from the epicenter of the earthquake. There are two main types of waves: P-waves and S-waves. P waves, which tend not to cause lots of damage, move faster than S-waves, which can cause lots of damage2. The variety of waves is useful in detecting earthquakes, because earthquake stations (also known as sensors, placed throughout California) detect P-waves first. P-waves are then used to determine the magnitude and location of the earthquake2. These P-waves allow the warning to be sent to people via text messages, computers, radios, and TVs, warning them of the upcoming S-waves, which are dangerous2. This warning normally includes the shaking intensity and estimated time of arrival of the earthquake2.

The image above shows how earthquake early warning functions. (Source: https://earthquake.usgs.gov/research/earlywarning/overview.php)

The image above shows how earthquake early warning functions. (Source: https://earthquake.usgs.gov/research/earlywarning/overview.php)

How do you find the warning time and how long is it?

The main factor determining the warning time, the amount of time it takes for the S-waves to reach a specific location, depends on the distance between that location and the earthquake’s epicenter. The farther away the area is from the epicenter, the greater warning time it receives, because the waves take longer to reach that area3. This extended time decreases the intensity of the wave as well. Therefore, a warning may not be useful for people far away from the epicenter. With this in mind, the warning and detection time change based on several factors including the amount of distance between the epicenter and closest station, the absorption of earthquake data by regional networks, and the accurate “diagnosis” of an earthquake’s magnitude and intensity3. Based on this, a warning time can range between 0-60 seconds.

Is it perfect?

0 seconds? This seems pointless. But this is one of the pitfalls of the earthquake early warning system. Around the epicenter of the earthquake, there is a “blind zone,” a radius of places around the earthquake that receive no warning at all. When the earthquake first happens, the P and S-waves start at the same place. Imagine two cars are racing - Car A, which has an average speed of 100 miles per hour, and Car B, which has an average speed of 75 miles per hour. Car A is analogous to P-waves, while Car B is analogous to S-waves. Car A and B start at the same position; for a while, they remain next to each other, until Car A inevitably overtakes Car B permanently. During the time these cars, or waves, remain together, there is no warning, because the S-waves, which can cause damage, arrive at the same time as the harmless P-waves. This is an issue of great magnitude- excuse my pun- because areas closest to the epicenter are the places that have the highest shaking intensity. In other words, these are the areas that need warning!

Although earthquake early warning systems can offer some people fair warning before an earthquake strikes, earthquake prediction still needs work. But at least we can take comfort knowing there are systems being developed to help warn of earthquakes in areas around the world.

 

References:

  1. http://www.bbc.co.uk/guides/zxyd2p3
  2. https://www.usgs.gov/faqs/what-a-fault-and-what-are-different-types
  3. https://earthquake.usgs.gov/research/earlywarning/background.php

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Save Our Soul from Quicksand!

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Save Our Soul from Quicksand!

I have been watching adventure movies since I was little. My worst nightmare was always getting lost in a tropical forest and accidentally stepping inside a swamp. I would be drowning, screaming for help and crying until I woke up in cold sweat. The drowning swamp scenes were very common in movies. In the 1960s, one in every 35 films features death caused by drowning in the swamp. On the other hand, in reality, there are deaths caused by drowning in swamps all the time.

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Artificial Leaves Can Save the World?

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Artificial Leaves Can Save the World?

Plants undergo photosynthesis in order to produce food from carbon dioxide and water. Plants pull carbon dioxide from the air around us and internally convert carbon dioxide molecules and water molecules into sugars which are stored in the plant and oxygen which is released back into the air. In essence, plants take carbon dioxide from the air and convert it into carbon compounds. It is estimated that plants across the world consume around 350 gigatons of carbon dioxide per year [1]. While this biological process is already efficient and evidently capable of removing massive amounts of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, scientists at the Max Planck Institute of Terrestrial Microbiology in Marburg, Germany have devised a new biochemical mechanism for converting carbon dioxide into other, larger carbon compounds [2].

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