Thank you, Patrick Sweeney, for shining light on your work and on the necessity to support digitization efforts in our museums. This was our most recent Tilde Cafe event.
In 2015, Tilde Cafe attendees heard about the significance of digitizing cultural artifacts, from Holly Rushmeier. And while the challenges in digitizing things ranging from monuments to ancient writings on parchment seemed formidable, it’s clear that digitizing biological specimens has its own set of very unique challenges.
Broadly speaking, there are at least two challenges when it comes to dealing with biological specimens – the first, that biodiversity is shrinking; and the second, innumerable specimens that lie in collections across the world are waiting to be identified.
According to some calculations there are between 6-10 million species on earth (land and water included; microbial species may be almost a trillion). Not every species is represented in a collection, and many will become extinct before a collector has a chance to catalog them. Even so, collectors have been working assiduously for the greater good, collecting and cataloging specimens for centuries. In fact there are about 350 million botanical specimens across the world.
Collecting is the start of the process. And because studying and describing each collected specimen requires a special kind of dedication, some 70,000 collected specimens are still untouched and not described. According to some estimates, it can take an average of 36 years between collecting a specimen and having it described. There have been instances when the gap was as long as 150 years – a fruit-eating bat from the Samoan island of Upolu was collected in 1856 but was only described in 2009, by which time the species was extinct!
One reason for the gap between collection and description is the accessibility to collected specimens. Typically, if a researcher wants to study a specimen that is housed at a distant museum, she must either go to that museum or request the specimen be shipped from the museum. And because some specimens might be fragile, shipping might not be a feasible option. This makes digitization an extremely attractive option. Researchers, museum curators, software designers and a number of other specialists continue to work in partnership to develop methods to digitize with the highest fidelity, not only the specimen but also all the details related to its collection.
Using his recent experience at the Yale Herbarium and his previous experiences handling collections at other institutions, Patrick gave us a peek into this exciting branch of science which plays an integral part in us understanding the past of our planet, and guiding us into its future. These collections can help reconstruct important climatic and geological events that have led us to where we are today, and in doing so inform us on how to perhaps buck the current trend in climate change. It was clear from what we learnt that there is a need to do both – enhance digitization capabilities, and also keep adding to the invaluable natural history specimen collections across the globe. Between the time we had our last talk on biodiversity by Michael Donoghue in 2009, and this recent talk about large-scale digitization of natural specimens, we have lost a few thousand species – some of which likely remained uncollected and whose details we will never know; and others that are carefully held in a collection somewhere on this planet, waiting to be described!
Thanks again, Patrick – all of us present were inspired to view and consider our environment more closely, and appreciate even more the fine work done by collectors and curators! And of course, visit these websites to learn more about digitization and biodiversity, and perhaps get involved as citizen scientists: https://www.idigbio.org/, http://www.gbif.org/ and http://collections.peabody.yale.edu/search/
You can view this recent Tilde Cafe event here: https://youtu.be/xwGYDVqwdTE
Our next event will be on December 3, 2016. Professor Lynne Regan will tell us about “The What, Why, and How of Proteins“. Watch this space for more details.
Until then, enjoy November’s gusty gale and flop your flippy tail!*
*In November’s gusty gale I will flop my flippy tail
And spout hot soup-I’ll be a whale!
Spouting once, spouting twice
Spouting chicken soup with rice
– Maurice Sendak
Hydrogen and carbon dioxide walked into a flask at room temperature…*
June 4, 2016
Hope you had a chance to observe and celebrate World Environment Day and be an “agent of change.” Those who came out to hear Professor Nilay Hazari tell us about his research had a chance to start the celebration a day early – June 4 instead of June 5, and in the process learn some fun facts about catalysts, and some not-so-fun facts about greenhouse gases.
The fact that global warming is occurring is not in dispute – what is disputed by a few, are the causes of this warming, and the pace at which it is occurring. And also, what will be the long term consequence of global warming. There is a general consensus in the scientific literature that the increase in surface temperatures on planet Earth is correlated with increased emission of greenhouse gases.
A greenhouse gas is a gas in the atmosphere that has the capacity to absorb infrared radiation and emit it at a later time. You may recall from a cafe discussion on sunlight and skin cancer, that the sunlight reaching Earth’s surface is around 52 to 55 % infrared, 42 to 43% visible, and 3 to 5% ultraviolet. The infrared radiation from the sun is what we perceive as heat. So, when the atmosphere is rich in gases which can capture this infrared radiation, atmospheric temperatures increase. Naturally occurring greenhouse gases include water vapor, carbon dioxide (CO2), methane (CH4), nitrous oxide (NO), and ozone (O3). Unfortunately, far too many human activities increase the levels of these gases, thus increasing the number of molecules with a potential to capture infrared radiation, which results in higher atmospheric temperatures. [Here’s a nice animation for CO2 absorbing and emitting infrared radiation – http://scied.ucar.edu/carbon-dioxide-absorbs-and-re-emits-infrared-radiation]
Carbon dioxide is perhaps the most abundant of the greenhouse gases, and human activities that include the use of fossil fuels contribute significantly to this gas. Fossil fuels are used for much more than powering vehicles or keeping you warm through winter – after multiple chemical transformations, they find their way into raw materials used to make probably 10-20 (if not more) things you might encounter in a single day.
One product of such chemical transformations is formic acid (HCOOH, or HCO2H or H2CO2), which occurs naturally in some ants, and is used to produce an array of products including insecticides and preservatives, and also used to tan leather, and in dyeing textiles. By some estimates, more than 720,000 tonnes of formic acid are produced each year. Professor Hazari told us how his laboratory is looking at ways to synthesize formic acid using hydrogen (H2) and carbon dioxide (CO2). Although the two gases are chemically unreactive with each other under normal conditions, in presence of a catalyst they can be chemically transformed to formic acid. He and his team have been evaluating catalysts and conditions for the reaction, in order to design a viable chemical process that is affordable yet efficient. While catalysts such as iridium – one of the nine least abundant stable elements in the Earth’s crust; 40 times less abundant than gold – are very efficient in converting a mixture of hydrogen and carbon dioxide to formic acid, the cost is significant. Using iron, a much more affordable catalyst, his laboratory has been able to carry out the reaction although at a lower efficiency. One of the challenges they are now focussed on is to explore and tease out the details regarding the manner in which iron can be a more efficient catalyst for this reaction. Such proof-of-principle research expands the toolkit for scientists as they look for ways to reduce greenhouse gases, while also exploring new ways to synthesise molecules whose production has contributed to increasing some of those very gases.
Thank you Professor Hazari for the perfect timing in describing your work in the context of World Environment Day – thanks to you, we were ahead of the curve in celebrating it! It’s a shame there wasn’t a Google doodle for the day, so we’ve taken the liberty to make a Tilde Cafe thingy (as opposed to a doodle) instead – naturally, nothing like what you see from the folks at Mountain View!
Our next cafe will be in August – a start to season nine! Watch this space, or our Facebook/Twitter feeds for more information.
*and there was no chemistry between them until a catalyst came along!
Contact Deepti Pradhan for more information