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Could this 2013 Nobel laureate afford college today?

Climate Desk has launched a new science podcast, Inquiring Minds, cohosted by contributing writer Chris Mooney and neuroscientist and musician Indre Viskontas. To subscribe via iTunes, click here. You can also follow the show on Twitter at @inquiringshow, and like us on Facebook.

This episode of Inquiring Minds also features a discussion of the scientific accuracy of the new hit sci-fi film Gravity, and a controversy over the Nobel Prize in physics.

Randy_Schekman_8_February_2012
James Kegley

When Randy Schekman attended the University of California-Los Angeles in the late 1960s, getting a good college education was unimaginably cheap. Student fees were just a few hundred dollars; room and board was a few hundred more. "I could work a summer job and pay myself for the whole school year," says Schekman, now a cell biologist at the University of California-Berkeley.

On Monday, Schekman was awarded the Nobel Prize in medicine for his pioneering research on how cells transport proteins to other cells -- a process fundamental to cellular communication.

Schekman's college experience at UCLA, from which he graduated with a degree in molecular sciences in 1971, shifted him from wanting to pursue a career as a medical doctor to a fascination with scientific research. It was pivotal to his success -- in science, the ultimate success. That's why it's so striking to hear Schekman say that as a Nobelist, he now wants to use his newfound influence to stand up for publicly funded higher education, which he considers to be "really in peril all over the country."

In this episode of Inquiring Minds (click above to stream audio), Schekman explains that his dad, a middle-class father of five, "never had to pay virtually anything to educate his kids. That simply isn't possible now, and it's just tragic that this happened." The numbers are staggering, particularly within Schekman's own state of California. For example:

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Nearly 70 percent of Fox climate pundits doubt global warming

denier_flickr_habedesign.jpg
habedesign

Following last month's release of the biggest study in climate science -- the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's Fifth Assessment Report [PDF] -- there have been many rumblings about skewed, misleading media coverage. But we didn't have any data breaking down the press' performance on the most important climate story in years … until now.

Media Matters has a new content analysis of coverage of the report's release by major newspapers (the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Wall Street JournalUSA Today, and the Los Angeles Times), networks (ABC, NBC, CBS, Fox News, CNN, MSNBC), and online and wire services (Associated Press, Reuters, Bloomberg News). The period analyzed was from the beginning of August through the end of the September, since the report was leaked and much coverage occurred prior to its official release date of Sept. 27.

So what did Media Matters find? The picture isn't entirely bleak, but it contains plenty to be troubled about. Most notably:

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Who created the global warming “pause”?

Fox News on the morning of Sept. 27, 2013, covering the new IPPC report on climate change.
Media Matters/Fox News
Fox News on the morning of Sept. 27, 2013, covering the new IPPC report on climate change.

In a major report [PDF] released late last month, the United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the world's leading authority on climate science, told us it was more certain than ever that humans are causing global warming. It also upgraded its projections for sea-level rise by the end of the century, and even broached the subject of climate change's irreversibility: We may already have done so much harm to the Earth that some of it can't be undone in our lifetimes, or even in the lifetimes of future generations as far out as most of us can imagine.

This, you might think, would be quite a media story. Yet instead, something funny happened on the way from the scientists' heads to the public's ears, and many journalists instead embraced a very different narrative -- in many ways, almost the opposite narrative. Global warming, they suggested, had "paused" or was slowing down. And scientists didn't really understand why.

How could this disconnect, this huge divergence of narratives, have happened? What follows is the story of a communications failure that is ultimately harmful to all of us. And it was brought on by combination of causes that, unfortunately, we've seen work together before to mar the communication of climate science: Misinformation from climate skeptics, false balance and just plain bad science reporting from much of the media, and to top it all off, poor communication by scientists themselves.

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Sylvia Earle has spent almost a year of her life under water

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Kip Evans/Mission Blue

Climate Desk has launched a new science podcast, Inquiring Minds, cohosted by contributing writer Chris Mooney and neuroscientist and musician Indre Viskontas. To subscribe via iTunes, click here. You can also follow the show on Twitter at @inquiringshow, and like us on Facebook.

This episode of Inquiring Minds also features a discussion of the latest research on how conspiracy theories fuel the denial of science on issues ranging from climate change to vaccinations, and on how scientists are reconsidering the origins of life and … yes, bringing Mars into the picture.

Sylvia Earle hasn’t quite spent a year under water -- yet. At age 78, she’s at over 7,000 hours, which translates into about 292 days.

But she’s going strong. “I just added a few more hours to time under water,” Earle says, “because I’ve just returned from the Gulf of Mexico, 100 miles offshore to a place called the Flower Garden Banks, where at this time of the year, several key species of corals whoop it up and do what it takes to make more corals.” Earle is referring to the phenomenon of mass coral spawning, in which huge numbers of corals all release gametes into the water at once, which in turn float to the surface where fertilization occurs. To hear divers tell it, these events of mass reproduction are one of the great wonders of the undersea world -- one that all too few of us ever get to see.

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Can we finally have a serious talk about population?

sao paulo skyline
Shutterstock
A view of Sao Paulo, Brazil, one of the world's largest megacities with nearly 20 million people.

Climate Desk has launched a new science podcast, Inquiring Minds, cohosted by contributing writer Chris Mooney and neuroscientist and musician Indre Viskontas. To subscribe via iTunes, click here. You can also follow the show on Twitter at @inquiringshow, and like us on Facebook.

This episode of Inquiring Minds also features a discussion of the latest myths circulating on global warming, and the brave new world of gene therapy that we're entering -- where being rich might be your key ticket to the finest healthcare.

Today, as the United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change releases its latest mega report [PDF], averring a 95 percent certainty that humans are heating up the planet, there's an unavoidable subtext: the growing number of humans on the planet in the first place.

The figures, after all, are staggering: In 1900, there were just 1.65 billion of us; now, there are 7.2 billion. That's more than two doublings, and the next billion-human increase is expected to occur over the short space of just 12 years. According to projections, meanwhile, by 2050, the Earth will be home to some 9.6 billion people, all living on the same rock, all at once.

So why not talk more about population, and treat it as a serious issue? It's a topic that Mother Jones has tackled directly in the past, because taboos notwithstanding, it's a topic that just won't go away.

Read more: Climate & Energy, Living

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4 climate myths you’ll hear this week

Your uncle, yelling at you about how global warming has stopped.
Shutterstock and Jessica Robertson/USGS
Your uncle, yelling at you about how global warming has stopped.

Leading into Friday's upcoming release of the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's Fifth Assessment Report, climate skeptics have gone into overdrive. They're doing anything they can to undermine public acceptance of the dangers posed by global warming, which, at least according to a leaked draft of the report, is "extremely likely" (or, 95 percent certain) to be caused by human activities.

Unfortunately, much of this glut of misinformation is likely to make its way to people in your life -- whether it's your congressmember, your favorite talk radio host, or even your family. Heck, this stuff might even pop up in a heated conversation over your dinner table with your Uncle Larry (who always seems to be dying to argue about climate change).

To prepare you, here's the truth about four myths you're likely to hear about climate science and the IPCC report: 

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What it’s like to spend 55 days in space

Marsha Ivins on Space Shuttle Columbia, 1997.
NASA
Marsha Ivins on Space Shuttle Columbia, 1997.

Climate Desk has launched a new science podcast, Inquiring Minds, cohosted by contributing writer Chris Mooney and neuroscientist and musician Indre Viskontas. To subscribe via iTunes, click here. You can also follow the show on Twitter at @inquiringshow, and like us on Facebook.

This episode of Inquiring Minds also features a discussion about new developments in science, including research suggesting that political biases are so pervasive that they can interfere with your ability to do math, and mounting evidence of the dangers of head injuries received from playing football. 

There aren't many people on Earth who have spent more of their life in space than Marsha Ivins.

A veteran of five Space Shuttle missions -- in 1990, 1992, 1994, 1997, and 2001 -- Ivins has spent a total of 55 days in orbit, on missions devoted to such diverse tasks as deploying satellites, conducting scientific research, and docking with Mir and the International Space Station. Her jobs? Flight engineer, load master, robot arm operator, and photography manager, among other things.

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Did climate change worsen the Colorado floods?

Two Colorado National Guardsmen waist deep in Boulder floodwaters.
Colorado National Guard
Two Colorado National Guardsmen waist deep in Boulder floodwaters.

Last Thursday, as torrential rains turned into floods that washed away homes, roads, and bridges in Boulder, Colo., and the surrounding region, the local National Weather Service forecast office went ahead and said what we were all thinking. It put it like this:

MAJOR FLOODING/FLASH FLOODING EVENT UNDERWAY AT THIS TIME WITH BIBLICAL RAINFALL AMOUNTS REPORTED IN MANY AREAS IN/NEAR THE FOOTHILLS.

The word "biblical" certainly captures the almost preternatural scale of the Colorado floods, and the rainfall that caused them. Indeed, according to climate scientist Martin Hoerling of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, "this single event has now made the calendar year (2013) the single wettest year on record for Boulder."

But does that mean that climate change is involved? Although suggestive, broken records alone do not constitute definitive proof that humanity's fingerprints have been left on a particular weather disaster. On the other hand, climate scientists say with considerable confidence that a hotter planet will feature more extreme rain events, much like this one.

So what can actually be said about the Colorado floods in a climate context?

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Science confirms: Politics wrecks your ability to do math

math is hard
Shutterstock

Everybody knows that our political views can sometimes get in the way of thinking clearly. But perhaps we don't realize how bad the problem actually is. According to a new psychology paper, our political passions can even undermine our very basic reasoning skills. More specifically, the study finds that people who are otherwise very good at math may totally flunk a problem that they would otherwise probably be able to solve, simply because giving the right answer goes against their political beliefs.

The study, by Yale law professor Dan Kahan and his colleagues, has an ingenious design. At the outset, 1,111 study participants were asked about their political views and also asked a series of questions designed to gauge their "numeracy," that is, their mathematical reasoning ability. Participants were then asked to solve a fairly difficult problem that involved interpreting the results of a (fake) scientific study. But here was the trick: While the fake study data that they were supposed to assess remained the same, sometimes the study was described as measuring the effectiveness of a "new cream for treating skin rashes." But in other cases, the study was described as involving the effectiveness of "a law banning private citizens from carrying concealed handguns in public."

The result? Survey respondents performed wildly differently on what was in essence the same basic problem, simply depending upon whether they had been told that it involved guns or whether they had been told that it involved a new skin cream. What's more, it turns out that highly numerate liberals and conservatives were even more -- not less -- susceptible to letting politics skew their reasoning than were those with less mathematical ability.

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Here comes the story of no hurricanes

The tracks of all Atlantic hurricanes from 1851 through 2012. So far, 2013 would add nothing to this image: There haven't been any hurricanes.
Nilfanion
The tracks of all Atlantic hurricanes from 1851 through 2012. So far, 2013 would add nothing to this image: There haven't been any hurricanes.

From a PR standpoint, it was surely an ingenious idea: Let's name hurricanes after leading members of Congress who deny that humans are causing global warming! That's the gist of the "Climate Name Change" campaign that launched last month, and the promotional video has already garnered over 2 million YouTube views.

There's just one problem: Thus far this season, the hurricanes haven't shown up. In fact, the dearth of hurricane-strength Atlantic storms up until now, despite blockbuster pre-season forecasts, counts as downright mysterious. "We've never seen this level of inactivity with the ocean conditions out there now," says meteorologist Jeff Masters, who is co-founder of Weather Underground, a popular meteorological website. There has even been speculation that 2013 might rival 2002, a year in which the first hurricane of the season didn't form until Sept. 11.

Meanwhile, a new scientific paper suggests that climate change will decrease, rather than increase, the likelihood that Superstorm Sandy-like storms -- atmospheric black swans that take left turns towards the U.S. East Coast -- will strike in the future. And a leaked draft of the U.N.'s forthcoming Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report has significantly downgraded our confidence in the idea that global warming will lead to more intense hurricanes (or, is already doing so).

It's more than enough to make a reasonable person wonder: What the heck is up these days with hurricanes -- and with global warming's supposed influence upon them? And do scientists know anything for sure about this, or are they just sticking out a finger in the (very fast) wind?

Read more: Climate & Energy