18 December 2012

Asia to North America: Eat My Dust!

North Americans breathe dust, pollutants, and microbial spores that cross oceans and mountain ranges without difficulty. University of Washington researchers describe the phenomenon in a recent issue of Applied and Environmental Microbiology.
For the first time researchers have been able to gather enough biomass in the form of DNA to apply molecular methods to samples from two large dust plumes originating in Asia in the spring of 2011. The scientists detected more than 2,100 unique species compared to only 18 found in the very same plumes using traditional methods of culturing, results they published in July.

“It’s a small world. Global wind circulation can move Earth’s smallest types of life to just about anywhere,” Smith said.

It’s been estimated that about 7.1 million tons (64 teragrams) of aerosols – dust, pollutants and other atmospheric particles, including microorganisms – cross the Pacific each year. The aerosols are carried by wind storms into the upper reaches of the troposphere. The troposphere, the layer of air closest to earth up to about 11 miles (18 kilometers), is where almost all our weather occurs. _University of Washington
The Earth's biosphere is interconnected by sea, air, and land. When volcanic islands erupt from the sea -- barren and lifeless -- it does not take long before life springs up on the mass of lava rock.

Update: Apparently someone notified the UW news site of their author's error, described below. The UW site has now corrected its error, but a number of other "science news" sites continue to repeat the mistake. How can they call themselves "science news outlets" when they mindlessly propagate such a basic error?

The paragraphs below were written in response to the original version of the news release, which contained the error described:

The UW newsrelease describes the increase in numbers detected in the most recent study as "99% more than reported in findings published just 4 months ago." But if 2100 unique species are detected now compared with only 18 unique species in findings published 4 months ago, the increase is much more than 99%. A 99% increase is almost 1 doubling, or roughly twice as many. 2100 is more than 100X 18, or over 10,000% more.

Such a mistake on the part of the news release author reflects a basic lack of mathematical understanding -- which reflects badly on the institution and on any news outlets which unwittingly repeat the mistake. This is particularly true for a science news article.

This is just one small example of a general dumbing down taking place in schools, popular culture, and the news media.

Examples of error propagation across the web:
A surprising number of microorganisms -- 99 percent more kinds than had been reported in findings published just four months ago -- are leaping the biggest gap on the planet. Hitching rides in the upper troposphere, they're making their way from Asia across the Pacific Ocean and landing in North America. _Sciencedaily

A surprising number of microorganisms – 99 percent more kinds than had been reported in findings published just four months ago – are leaping the biggest gap on the planet. Hitching rides in the upper troposphere, they’re making their way from Asia across the Pacific Ocean and landing in North America. _Newswise

A surprising number of microorganisms – 99 percent more kinds than had been reported in findings published just four months ago – are leaping the biggest gap on the planet. Hitching rides in the upper troposphere, they’re making their way from Asia across the Pacific Ocean and landing in North America. _RedOrbit


There is no telling how long it will take these websites to correct the mistake -- if they ever do. Just take it as fair warning when reading such sites, that they often unwittingly repeat significant errors that an intelligent 4th grader would have detected.

Keep that in mind as these "science journalists" tell you what you should think about climate change, gun control, resource scarcity, overpopulation, or any number of other complex concepts. Pity the poor school child who is at the mercy of teachers who themselves are incapable of catching basic science and maths errors in their teaching materials and other sources from which they draw.

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“During times of universal deceit, telling the truth becomes a revolutionary act” _George Orwell

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