The Nobel Prize for Physics goes to topology – and mathematicians applaud

October 7, 2016
Kevin Knudson

UF mathematics professor Kevin Knudson observes that the research of this year’s recipients of the Nobel Prize for Physics was grounded in a mathematical concept, which points to the practicality of the discipline.

David Thouless, Duncan Haldane and Michael Kosterlitz received the 2016 Nobel Prize for Physics for their work on exotic states of matter. They were inspired by the observation that some materials have unusual electrical properties – and their investigations led them to topology. That’s the branch of mathematics concerned with the properties of geometric objects that don’t change when bent or stretched (though torn would be a different story). As there is no Nobel Prize for mathematics, the topology community is understandably excited by this recognition of the utility of our discipline.

The old saw is that a topologist is a mathematician who cannot tell the difference between a doughnut and a coffee cup. (This joke is getting tiresome, but we stick with it anyway.) Both objects have just one hole and it’s easy to see how to deform one to the other.

Topology aims to classify these spaces via indirect means. Since it’s often rather difficult to demonstrate how to deform a particular space to make it look like another, topologists develop mathematical machinery that takes spaces as an input and produces an algebraic object. This output might just be a number or it could be more complicated, but the machine should take spaces that are “the same” and spit out the same result. This allows us to distinguish spaces – two inputs are different if the corresponding outputs are different.

For example, it may seem obvious that a doughnut and a sphere are distinct objects, but just because you cannot see how to deform one to the other it doesn’t follow that it’s impossible. Topology comes to the rescue, however. One of many ways to show that a sphere and a doughnut aren’t the same is to compute their fundamental groups. This is an algebraic object built from considering loops in the space.

A useful way to visualize loops is to imagine a rubber band lying on the surface of an object. First consider the sphere. Any loop on the sphere contains a disc inside it, and now you can imagine shrinking that loop down to a single point by pulling it through the disc. So there aren’t any interesting loops on the sphere – they are all deformable to a single point.

That’s not true for the doughnut, however. In fact there are lots of interesting loops on its surface (we are dealing with a hollow doughnut; there’s nothing but air inside). One such loop is obtained by drawing a circle around a vertical cross section (the blue loop in the figure below). Another arises from a horizontal cross-section (the red loop). It’s impossible to contract these loops down to the same single point, so the fundamental groups of the sphere and doughnut aren’t the same and thus, they are different objects.

The topology of materials

Topology works in all dimensions, but physics is mostly concerned with our three-dimensional universe (well, that’s not always true – just ask string theorists). When studying electrical properties of materials, we are definitely dealing with three dimensions. Even a thin wire has length, width and height. For a fixed electrical conductor, say a copper wire, it’s usually possible to determine the relationship between the voltage placed on the wire and the current that flows. Sometimes, however, materials experience an electrical phase transition (superconductivity, for example, which is obtained by lowering the temperature of the material) and the usual equations governing voltage and current break down.

Thouless, Haldane and Kosterlitz discovered that mathematically these transitions correspond to an abrupt change in the topological type of the material. Certain thin films can be considered as being two-dimensional – imagine a surface that’s only one atom thick – and electrical current often flows in channels on the surface with low resistance. It turns out that there are points where the electrons flow around in a circular motion, sometimes clockwise and sometimes counterclockwise, and the number of such points can change as the material undergoes a phase transition.

Mathematicians immediately recognize this type of space from a first course in algebraic topology – it’s a plane with a few points removed and its fundamental group is very easy to compute. It turns out that the number of these types of points completely determines the topological type of the space.

Topology elsewhere in physics

Einstein’s general theory of relativity posits that space-time is curved by gravity. The equations also imply the existence of black holes, which in mathematical terms correspond to singularities, points in a space where all hell breaks loose (so to speak). A typical example familiar to calculus students is a point on the graph of a function where the derivative fails to exist. Much more complicated examples are possible and the space around such points can have interesting topology. Around ordinary points, space looks like a three-dimensional ball, but around singularities space can be knotted in unusual ways. Of course, we can’t experience this ourselves, but we can model it mathematically.

Topology has provided a framework in physics in other ways, such as the development of topological quantum field theories. String theory is a generalization of this idea in which particles are modeled by one-dimensional objects called strings. These theories, unlike Einstein’s four-dimensional spacetime, require extra dimensions to be consistent – either 10, 11 or 26 depending on which model you prefer. Why don’t we observe these dimensions? The prevailing interpretation is that they are “small” and curl up on themselves so that we don’t notice. These extra dimensions form a type of space familiar to algebraic geometers called a Calabi-Yau manifold.

So it seems that a great deal of theoretical physics is based in sophisticated mathematics. Using ideas from topology, algebraic geometry and abstract algebra, not to mention differential equations and probability, physicists attempt to make sense of our universe. While math may not have its own Nobel Prize, many of the significant advances in other disciplines would not be possible without the development of sophisticated mathematics to provide the proper language for stating the results (Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, for example).

This is all heady stuff. In the end, though, the discoveries made by Thouless, Haldane and Kosterlitz have led to practical devices currently in use in industry (for example, efficient hard drives in computers) and may lead to advances in quantum computing. Understanding how electrons move in materials is crucial to building better computers and instruments, and it’s exciting for us mathematicians to know that topology can help get us there.

This article originally appeared in The Conversation on Oct. 5, 2016.

Science & Wellness

University of Florida researchers find genetic change that caused snakes to lose legs

October 21, 2016
Doug Bennett

About 150 million years ago, snakes roamed about on well-developed legs. Now, two University of Florida researchers have discovered how snakes’ legs eventually disappeared.

Snakes lost their legs due to a trio of mutations in a genetic switch — known as an enhancer — that controls the activity of a gene required for limb development, according to research by Martin Cohn, Ph.D., a professor of molecular genetics and microbiology in the UF College of Medicine, and Ph.D. candidate Francisca Leal. The findings appear today (Oct. 20) in the journal Current Biology.

Taken together, the mutations in the enhancer of a gene known as Sonic hedgehog disrupt a genetic circuit that drives limb growth in snakes. Cohn and Leal made their discovery by studying genetic activity in developing python embryos and by comparing DNA sequences of snake and lizard genomes. While some snakes, such as cobras and vipers, are completely limbless, pythons and boa constrictors have retained some vestiges of their leg structures.

In embryonic pythons, Leal and Cohn found that the three mutations work cumulatively to abolish a region of the Sonic hedgehog enhancer where proteins bind to DNA, known as transcription factor binding sites. That affects the way genetic information is ultimately transcribed. Essentially, the enhancer functions like a genetic “switch” that turns on the Sonic hedgehog gene during limb formation. With three activators of the switch deleted in pythons, the Sonic hedgehog gene only flickers on before going silent, ending the process of leg growth in the embryo.

“It’s exciting to know the precise nucleotide changes that are responsible for limb reduction,” Cohn said.

Surprisingly, the rest of the genetic machinery for developing legs has remained in place for millions of years and still exists in pythons and boa constrictors. Leal and Cohn found that python embryos form leg “buds” and turn on the entire genetic program needed to make legs, but the circuit breaks down after the Sonic hedgehog gene switches off.

Although the Sonic hedgehog enhancer is degraded, other enhancers remain intact, including those that facilitate the activity of a gene called Hoxd13, which is needed to build hands and feet. The researchers found the cellular beginnings of the entire leg skeleton, all the way to the toes, in python embryos. But by the time the young pythons hatch, all that remains is a tiny rudiment of the femur.

“The results tell us that python limb development progresses much further than we knew before. They make embryonic legs but the cells don’t complete the process of skeletal development,” Cohn said.

So while pythons and boas retain rudimentary legs, more advanced snakes ultimately lost their legs altogether. The work by Leal and Cohn helps to explain exactly how that happened. In the laboratory, they found that completely limbless snakes such as cobras and vipers show more extensive decay of the Sonic hedgehog limb enhancer than pythons and boa constrictors.

During the past 20 years, other scientists have described snake fossils with functional hind legs outside their rib cages. The fossils are estimated to be at least 90 million years old, and while at least one of these species likely retains the legs of its limbed ancestors, some scientists believe that legs re-evolved in other snakes. Cohn thinks that their discovery of a transitory leg skeleton in python embryos shows the relics of ancestral snake legs and could have provided the raw material for limbs to re-appear. The mutations that eliminated snake legs likely arose around 100 million years ago during the Upper Cretaceous period, according to Cohn and Leal’s genomic studies.

In 1999, Cohn published groundbreaking research detailing the molecular basis of limb loss during snake evolution. He credits Leal, who has a background in herpetology, for wanting to revisit the topic now that technology has advanced the understanding of snake genomics.

Because some of these transcription factor binding sites had not yet been discovered in mammals, the latest findings also create an opportunity to go back into mouse models and perhaps even humans to look for mutations in the same genomic regions, Cohn said. While there are no immediate plans to do that, he said the findings in snakes demonstrate the power of evolutionary and comparative biology to pave new roads for biomedical science.

Leal said it is thrilling to confirm that certain snakes have retained the molecular machinery for making limbs for millions of years.

“This surprising conservation and the specific modifications in the snake genome are a clear testament of their ancestry. Snakes clearly evolved from limbed ancestors and their genomes demonstrate this,” she said.

The research was supported by funding from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, a Maryland-based science philanthropy that funds biomedical research and science education.

Science & Wellness

Florida consumer sentiment ticks downward before the election

October 28, 2016
Colleen Porter

Consumer sentiment among Floridians declined 1.5 points in October to 90, according to the latest University of Florida consumer survey. The reading is the last one before the November election.

“Consumer sentiment is 1.5 points lower than the current year’s average,” said Hector H. Sandoval, director of the Economic Analysis Program at UF’s Bureau of Economic and Business Research.

Among the five components that make up the index, three decreased and two increased.

Perceptions of one’s personal financial situation now compared with a year ago showed the greatest increase this month, climbing 3.5 points from 81.0 to 84.5.

Opinions as to whether now is a good time to buy a big-ticket item such as an appliance plummeted 9.9 points from last month, from 102.1 to 92.2. This outlook is shared by all Floridians independent of their socioeconomic condition, but may be influenced by anticipation of upcoming holiday sales. 

“This unfavorable perception of present conditions is the main force behind the overall decrease in the index this month,” Sandoval said.

Expectations of personal finances a year from now dropped 3.2 points to 97.6. Expectations of U.S. economic conditions over the next year decreased nine-tenths of a point to 84.4, and expectations of U.S. economic conditions over the next five years rose 3.1 points, from 88.2 to 91.3.

“Future expectations have remained unchanged with low variation over the last 10 months, but they might shift following the elections,” Sandoval said.  

Since May, the Florida unemployment rate has remained unchanged at 4.7 percent, the lowest level since the last recession. Moreover, according to the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity, “Since December 2010, Florida businesses created more than 1.2 million jobs, exceeding the nation’s annual job growth rate for four and a half years.”

Florida’s economy kept adding jobs statewide in September. Of particular note: The Florida labor force—the number of Floridians with paid jobs or looking for work—increased as well, after five months of declines.

“Contrary to the performance of Florida, the nation’s unemployment rate has increased since May, from 4.7 to 5.0 percent in September. Although, both the U.S. and Florida have experienced economic growth in recent quarters, a downturn in economic activity may be expected,” Sandoval said.

“The outcome of the presidential elections will clear up much uncertainty, but a new economic perspective will arise for the nation. November’s consumer sentiment reading will be very important to gauge Floridian’s perceptions and expectations about future consumption, as the holiday sales season begins,” Sandoval said. 

Conducted Oct. 1-23, the UF study reflects the responses of 408 individuals who were reached on cellphones, representing a demographic cross-section of Florida.

The index used by UF researchers is benchmarked to 1966, which means a value of 100 represents the same level of confidence for that year. The lowest index possible is a 2, the highest is 150.

Details of this month’s survey can be found at http://www.bebr.ufl.edu/csi-data

Society & Culture

UF neuroscience study sheds light on effect of methamphetamine on the brain

October 21, 2016
Michelle Koidin Jaffee
neuroscience, brain

University of Florida Health neuroscience researchers have published findings revealing new insights into the abnormal firing of neurons in the brain associated with dopamine release after intake of the drug methamphetamine. The findings appear in The Journal of Neuroscience.

The study identifies a novel mechanism for how methamphetamine adversely affects the firing pattern of dopamine neurons, providing new understanding of how to potentially treat methamphetamine addiction and its neurotoxic effects following long-term exposure to the drug. Dopamine is a chemical messenger released during pleasurable activities such as eating and sex.

In the article, “Methamphetamine Regulation of Firing Activity of Dopamine Neurons,” lead author Min Lin, M.D., Ph.D., and Danielle Sambo, a neuroscience graduate student, confirm a long-held hypothesis that methamphetamine extensively releases dopamine in the brain via a carrier called dopamine transporter in what is called a “reverse transport” of dopamine.

“When people abuse methamphetamine, the level of dopamine and the duration of this high level of dopamine is much, much longer than, for example, cocaine,” said Lin, an assistant professor in the department of neuroscience. “Cocaine-induced increase in dopamine is about 30 minutes to a maximum of 45 minutes. Methamphetamine is 10 hours.”

The research team sought to understand the way in which methamphetamine increases dopamine release from neurons about a thousand-fold above normal. In a mouse model, the study found a unique mechanism in which methamphetamine prompts a “reverse transport” of dopamine via the dopamine transporter from inside a neuron to the outside.

Using electrophysiology, high-resolution microscopy and biochemistry, the researchers showed that because long-term exposure to methamphetamine decreases firing activity of dopamine neurons, the “reverse transport” process is the central mechanism for methamphetamine stimulation of dopamine release in the brain, said co-author Habibeh Khoshbouei, Pharm.D., Ph.D., an associate professor of neuroscience at the Evelyn F. and William L. McKnight Brain Institute of the University of Florida.

“When you add methamphetamine, for the first one to two minutes, dopamine neurons fire much, much faster,” Khoshbouei said. “But the prolonged effect of methamphetamine actually decreases the firing activity of dopamine neurons. This is the first time this mechanism is understood.”

The new findings will help to guide development of novel therapeutic approaches, Khoshbouei said.

“Because methamphetamine is neurotoxic, people who have been exposed to methamphetamine for a long time show Parkinson’s-like symptoms,” she said. “If you can treat that, you potentially can alleviate the untoward long-term effects of methamphetamine.”

Science & Wellness

University of Florida joins student effort to host free, nonpartisan transportation to the polls

October 25, 2016
Shelby Taylor

The University of Florida, in collaboration with the Andrew Goodman Foundation Vote Everywhere Ambassadors and the Bob Graham Center for Public Service, will offer free transportation to the polls on Wednesday, Nov. 2, from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Shuttles will provide roundtrip transportation for UF students from the J. Wayne Reitz Union Breezeway to the early voting polling site at the Supervisor of Elections Office, 515 N Main Street. In addition to the free shuttle service, pizza, activities and giveaways will be available for participants to enjoy while they wait.

“Many students, particularly those who live on campus, lack reliable transportation to get them to and from the polls,” said Ryan Mockabee, a Vote Everywhere Ambassador and lead organizer for the event. “By providing this free service to students, we hope to offer a hassle-free alternative to Election Day voting.” 

Early voting locations are open every day — from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. — until Saturday, Nov. 5. Registered Alachua county voters can cast their ballot at any early voting site. For more information and to find where to early vote, visit http://www.votealachua.com/Voter-Information/Early-Voting.

Campus Life

13 reasons spiders are cool, not scary

October 28, 2016
Stephenie Livingston

1. The VAST majority of spiders are not harmful to humans.

spider on hand

2. Bolas spiders don’t build a typical web, but instead hunt with a glob of sticky glue that they dangle from a silk thread. During the day, these tiny, harmless spiders camouflage themselves by mimicking bird poop.


3. Spiders are voracious predators when it comes to insects — they eat a variety of things that people don’t like: mosquitoes, flies, agricultural pests…pretty much anything.


4. This jumping spider from Kenya eats female mosquitoes that have fed on blood.

jumping spider from Kenya

5. Some spiders mimic other animals, like this species that wears a Halloween-appropriate ant costume.

spider in ant costume

6. Some spiders are good moms -- Wolf spider females carry their babies on their back.

Wolf spider

7. This spider common to North Florida spits sticky glue onto its prey to subdue it.

spitting spider

8. Spiders smell with organs on their feet.

spiders smell with feet

9. Spiders hear with hairs on their legs.

spiders hear with legs

10. Males trying to impress a female will sometimes offer her gifts, often a web-wrapped insect. Others, like this guy, dance for their lady.

web-wrapped insect

11. One spider in Morocco projects itself across sand like a cartwheel.

12. Some spider silk is stronger than steel.

spider silk

13. Baby spiders are adorable.

Science & Wellness

SEC Announces 2016-17 Academic Leadership Development Program Fellows

October 18, 2016
Bryant Wellbourne, SEC

The 14 universities of the Southeastern Conference have each selected several faculty and administrators to participate in the 2016-17 SEC Academic Leadership Development Program, the league office announced Monday. 

The SEC Academic Leadership Development Program (SEC ALDP) is a professional growth initiative that seeks to identify, prepare and advance academic leaders for roles within SEC institutions and beyond. It has two components: a university-level development program designed by each institution for its own participants and two, three-day, SEC-wide workshops held on specified campuses for all program participants.

“It is our strong belief that helping to prepare administrators for the next phase of their careers has the potential to impact all of higher education, both now and in the future,” said SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey. “Our universities make a significant investment in these individuals, and we are proud to work with them through this program.”

Since its creation in 2008, more than 300 faculty and academic administrators have completed the SEC ALDP, and program alumni have taken leadership roles as deans and provosts, among other senior-level positions, at universities around the SEC and country. For example, Dr. Laurence Alexander from the University of Florida’s 2012-13 cohort is currently the Chancellor at the University of Arkansas-Pine Bluff, and Dr. Michael Hardin from the University of Alabama’s 2008-09 cohort is currently Provost at Samford University.

“The program cemented that I want to continue in administration despite knowing the challenges,” said Dr. Ana Franco-Watkins, Undergraduate Program Director in the Department of Psychology at Auburn University and former participant. “The connections I’ve made at Auburn and with other SEC ALDP fellows have provided me with a network and base to continue with my future trajectory.”

This year’s SEC ALDP workshops will be October 17-19 at the University of Alabama and February 22-24, 2017 at Mississippi State University.

The SEC Academic Leadership Development Program is part of SECU, the academic initiative of the Southeastern Conference. The SEC supports and promotes the endeavors and achievements of the students and faculty at its 14 member universities.

Click here for the full list of 2016-17 SEC ALDP fellows.

Campus Life

Ancient strain of cholera likely present in Haiti since colonial era

October 27, 2016
Evan Barton

A non-virulent variant of the deadly Vibrio cholerae O1 strain has likely been present in Haitian aquatic environments for several hundred years, with the potential to become virulent through gene transfer with the toxigenic strain introduced by UN peacekeepers, according to research published today by scientists at the University of Florida’s Emerging Pathogens Institute.

“Since the 2010 earthquake and cholera epidemic in Haiti, researchers have debated whether toxigenic Vibrio cholerae was already present in Haiti’s aquatic environments,” said Dr. J. Glenn Morris, MD, a professor in the University of Florida’s College of Medicine and the director of the Emerging Pathogens Institute. Morris is a senior author of the study, published online October 27, 2016 in Scientific Reports.

“While the strain responsible for the 2010 cholera epidemic was almost certainly introduced from outside of Haiti by U.N. Peacekeeping troops, this study suggests that cholera was present in Haiti at some point in the past, possibly as early as the time of Columbus.  These ‘ancient’ strains are now non-toxigenic, and consequently cannot cause cholera.  However, their identification raises questions about whether these older strains might interact with the toxigenic V. cholerae O1 introduced by UN peacekeepers, becoming virulent in the process,” Morris said.

Although the V. cholerae species of bacteria are common throughout the world, the toxic strains V. cholerae O1 and V. cholerae O139 are primarily found in Asia and Africa. Investigators isolated two non-toxic V. cholerae O1 strains from estuaries in Port-au-Prince Bay, initially thinking that the isolates were foreign toxigenic strains that had lost their virulence genes.

However, on closer examination, they discovered that these isolates were more similar to strains that caused the first cholera pandemics than they were to modern pandemic strains of the bacteria.

“When we used the genomic data to trace the history of these isolates, we found that they shared a common ancestor with the ‘modern’ cholera strains around 1548,” said Taj Azarian, a postdoctoral fellow at the Harvard School of Public Health and a graduate of the Department of Epidemiology at UF's College of Public Health and Health Professions and College of Medicine. 

“This was well before any records of cholera in Hispaniola,” said Azarian, one of the main authors of the publication.

Although the researchers suggest that these cholera strains may have been in Haiti’s aquatic environments since the 1500s, they admit that it is also possible that the strains were introduced at some time after that – becoming endemic, though not pathogenic, well before the 2010 cholera outbreak.

Similarly, the researchers have not yet established the likelihood of modern, toxigenic cholera strains trading genetic information with these older strains, rendering the older strains harmful through the process. The isolates analyzed in the study shed new light on the history of the pathogen, however.

“These non-toxigenic strains are believed to be the progenitor of known toxigenic V. cholerae strains, including both the Classical and El Tor biotypes,” said Afsar Ali, a research associate professor in the College of Public Health and Health Profession’s department of environmental and global health and a faculty member at the Emerging Pathogens Institute. Ali is the co-first author of the paper, along with Azarian.

The researchers relied on phylogenetic analysis to determine the last common ancestor of toxigenic V. cholerae O1 and the non-toxigenic V. cholerae O1 isolates found in Port-au-Prince Bay.

“To analyze the isolates we used a computational technique called molecular clock analysis, which allows us to date the origin of strains isolated from the environment,” said Marco Salemi, an associate professor in the UF College of Medicine’s department of pathology, immunology and laboratory medicine and a member of the Emerging Pathogens Institute. Salemi is a senior author of the study and oversaw the phylogenetic analysis.

Underscoring the significance of these findings, he said the study shows that non-pathogenic cholera strains with the potential to acquire pathogenic genes have been circulating in this region for a significant amount of time, and that such bacterial reservoirs can potentially give rise to new epidemic strains.

Azarian emphasized the need for increased surveillance.

“As cliché as it sounds, if you don’t look, you won’t find,” he said.  “Prior to the 2010 epidemic, no one was looking for cholera in Haitian waterways.  It was only when we started surveillance for the epidemic strain that we discovered these isolates that provided insight into the evolutionary history of pandemic cholera.  The same could be said about other pathogens like Ebola and Zika viruses prior to the recent epidemics.  There was little effort in surveillance, which we now know was a mistake.  More resources should be put into identifying emerging pathogens and assessing their epidemic potential.  In the end, you never know what you may find.”

Global Impact

Rivals Unite: UF and FSU gospel choirs join for unity concert

October 19, 2016
UF News

In light of the racial tension our country has experienced this year, two of Florida’s oldest rival universities will come together for a unity gospel concert on Saturday, Nov. 5.

University of Florida and the Florida State gospel choirs will join for their fall concert from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. at the Curtis M. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts on the UF campus. UF President Kent Fuchs will commence the event, which includes performances by gospel recording artist Jovonta Patton. 

As the two rivals join musical forces, they encourage people of all ages, ethnicities and genders to come together for a night of harmony and solidarity, said event organizer and choir member Sanethia Thomas, a doctoral student with UF’s computer and information science and engineering department.

“We hope the event will provide an opportunity for students and the community to gather in honor of both victims of racial violence and local law enforcement officers who are working hard to build peace,” Thomas said. “We want to bridge differences and foster positivity and peace through music.”

The concert is free and tickets (limit 4 per person) will be available at the Phillips Center box office beginning Wednesday, Nov. 2. There will be reserved seating for law enforcement the night of the event. The event is sponsored by the UF Office of the Provost.

Campus Life

January symposium to focus on implicit bias

October 13, 2016
UF News

The University of Florida will host a symposium in January focusing on implicit bias and understanding the unconscious roots of thoughts and feelings.

Hosted by UF’s Office of the Provost and the Bob Graham Center for Public Service, the 2017 Provost Symposium is scheduled for Jan. 26-27 at Emerson Alumni Hall.

Kate Ratliff, an assistant professor in UF’s department of psychology and executive director of Harvard University’s Project Implicit, will open the two-day conference with a presentation on hidden biases and will present data collected from an “automatic associations” assessment to be administered in advance of the symposium.

New York Times op-ed columnist Charles Blow will offer a keynote address on Day Two of the conference. Blow’s columns focus on politics, public opinion and social justice.

More information will be posted at: bobgrahamcenter.ufl.edu.

Campus Life

Solving a snake mystery

October 24, 2016
Alisson Clark
snakes, reptiles, herpetology, zoology, college of liberal arts and sciences, seahorse key

When the sun goes down, this beach comes alive with venomous snakes. Take a walk with the scientist trying to understand them.

Science & Wellness

A hero for shelter animals

October 26, 2016
Alisson Clark
Hero Veterinarian Awards, veterinary medicine, American Humane, Hero Dog Awards

Through the University of Florida's Community Veterinary Outreach Program, shelter animals get the treatments they need to become adoptable, rescue groups get care they couldn’t otherwise afford and veterinary students get hands-on experience. Meet the program's founder, who is also this year's American Humane Hero Veterinarian.

Society & Culture

As Brazil tilts rightward, Lula’s leftist legacy of lifting the poor is at risk

October 5, 2016
Terry L. McCoy

Terry L. McCoy, UF professor emeritus of Latin American studies and political science, argues that Luis Inacio 'Lula' da Silva's center-left policies, which helped lift millions of Brazilians out of poverty, is a legacy worth preserving.

The Brazilian senate’s impeachment of President Dilma Rousseff in August ended about 13 years of center-left government by the Workers Party (PT). Then in September, a federal judge dealt the party and its legacy an equally devastating blow when he indicted her predecessor and party icon, Luis Inacio “Lula” da Silva, on corruption charges.

Rousseff’s removal and Lula’s pending trial for participation in the corruption scheme that cost state oil company Petrobras billions of dollars have cast a shadow on the future of the programs he launched and she sustained.

By far Lula’s most important achievement was incorporating the poor – politically and economically – into the nation. While in office, Lula pursued a pragmatic agenda balancing social reform with economic growth, which produced not only significant gains for the lower class but for the whole country.

On his eight-year watch, the economy boomed, poverty plunged and incomes and living standards soared. Lula left office in January 2011 with an 83 percent favorability rating. International recognition of his accomplishments resulted in Brazil being awarded the 2014 World Cup tournament and 2016 Olympic Games.

From 1999 through 2014, I produced an annual assessment of the environment for business and investment in Latin America’s 18 largest economies, of which Brazil is the biggest. During this study, I made frequent trips to Brazil and witnessed the remarkable rise of Lula and his Workers’ Party (PT). In 2009, The Economist captured the spirit I and many others felt at the time when it portrayed Rio’s famous Christ statue taking off like a rocket. Under Lula, it seemed, Brazil had finally turned the corner on the boom and bust cycles of the past.

Now, with Lula indicted, his successor impeached and the new president promising to take the country to the right, is his legacy as the president of poor Brazilians at risk?

‘Leader of the poor’ learns market economics

Lula got his start in politics during the military dictatorship, which ruled from 1964 until 1985, as a labor leader and founding member of the socialist PT. Prior to 2002, he had failed three times in bids to become president.

Heading into the 2002 election, Lula had the overwhelming support of the rural poor, urban working class and shanty town (favela) dwellers, or roughly 40 percent of the population (voting is is mandatory in Brazil). As the son of a poor family who migrated to Sao Paulo from the impoverished northeast, he was one of them.

But their support alone was not enough to win the election or govern the country.

So he sought to broaden his electoral appeal by moving his economic policies to the center. In his October 2002 “Letter to the Brazilian People,” Lula pledged to adhere to the market friendly policies that had been an anathema to the PT faithful.

Lula narrowly missed a first round victory but won in a landslide in the runoff and took office in January 2003. He had convinced the business community and investors that they could work with the new PT, while also maintaining the support of his base.

Lula’s legacy

Lula’s strategy won the presidency, but his supporters on the left grew concerned that promoting growth would take priority over deepening social justice. As it worked out, the two goals worked hand in hand for Lula.

While his appointment of a former banking executive to head the central bank reinforced their concerns, Lula and his advisers argued that sustaining growth and lowering inflation were necessary to raise the living standards of all Brazilians, especially the poor.

The strategy paid off, positioning Brazil to fully profit from the global commodity boom. Exports and foreign investment soared. From 2004 to 2011, growth averaged over 4 percent a year and inflation moderated.

Growth generated good jobs. Unemployment fell to historically low levels. Millions of workers moved into the formal sector with higher wages and full benefits. The expanding economy also meant more credit for low-income consumers.

The administration took additional steps to ensure poor Brazilians were fully incorporated into the growing economy. It strengthened the national minimum wage and social security and unemployment insurance programs. These changes protected the living standards of nearly 50 million low-income Brazilians.

Lula used the economic boom to fund his signature social program, the Bolsa Familia. A conditional cash transfer program, it gives a monthly stipend to poor mothers who keep their children in school and make sure they get regular health checkups. The goal was to invest in future generations while raising the incomes of poor families.

On the 10th anniversary of the program in 2012, the World Bank heralded the Bolsa Familia as a “new lesson for the world” on poverty reduction. From 2003 to 2012, the poverty rate dropped from nearly 40 percent of the population to under 20 percent. Brazil was finally becoming a middle-class society.

A legacy sustained, then squandered

Lula easily won a second term in 2006, continuing the same policies. When he left office in 2010, because of term limits, his popularity swept his fellow PT politician and handpicked successor into office. Rousseff became Brazil’s first female head of state.

During her first term, Rousseff followed the Lula model. But economic growth began to lag, dragged down by falling commodity prices, making it more difficult to fund Lulas’s social programs. And the Petrobras corruption scandal emerged as a major challenge for the government.

The heart of the scandal is a bribery scheme in which businesses paid off elected officials and Petrobras executives in return for inflated sweetheart contracts. The scandal has reached the highest levels of government and the corporate world. Although President Rousseff has never been accused of direct involvement, it occurred on her watch.

Rousseff managed to narrowly win a second term in 2014, but a deep recession and the escalating scandal turned the public against her. And Vice President Michel Temer and the parties allied with the PT in Congress followed suit. Her position became untenable, and Rousseff was impeached, not for corruption but unauthorized movement of funds to cover holes in the budget.

Will the legacy survive?

With her conviction, Temer of the center-right Brazilian Democratic Movement Party assumed presidency, a position he holds through 2018.

Rousseff charges that her impeachment was a “parliamentary coup” carried out by conservatives to roll back progressive measures enacted by Lula and her. But Temer vowed to maintain – even strengthen – the Bolsa Famiia and Lula’s other popular social programs.

Whether Temer’s commitment to can survive competing demands for diminished fiscal resources is questionable. More troubling, Temer’s all-white, all-male cabinet announced a retreat from the inclusive politics of the Lula-Rousseff years (he recently added a woman).

For now, it seems voters are suspicious of both Temer and the PT leaders he succeeded. In the first round of national municipal elections held on Oct. 2, the PT suffered its worst defeat since Lula became president. It lost more than half of the municipalities it had controlled, among them four of five of the largest cities that had PT mayors.

President Temer’s party, however, was not the major beneficiary of the PT’s defeat. It was the center-right Social Democratic Party, Brazil’s third-largest party.

But in general, the high rates of abstention and null and blank ballots indicate the extent to which Brazilians are disgusted with all parties and politicians.

Nevertheless, the PT is still the party of the poor, and Lula its leader. With Lula going on trial and the party widely discredited among those who gave it a mandate to govern in 2002, it is not clear who will represent Brazil’s poor going forward.

This article originally appeared in The Conversation on Oct. 4, 2016.

Global Impact

Why do science issues seem to divide us along party lines?

October 18, 2016
Lauren Griffin

Lauren Griffin, manager of UF’s Journal of Public Interest Communications in the College of Journalism, investigate the differing ways in which liberals and conservatives view science, observing that the split may be more about cultural and personal beliefs than feelings about the science itself.

Much has been made about the predictable partisan split between presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump on issues of science and public policy. But what about their supporters? Can Americans really be that far apart in terms of science?

That liberals and conservatives have different opinions toward science is taken as a given. Typically, conservatives are painted as anti-science, with some studies suggesting their mistrust of science is increasing. Liberals, on the other hand, are usually assumed to be more receptive to science in general and more supportive of using science to shape policy.

Noting that party affiliation is different than political ideology – not everyone who identifies as liberal is a Democrat and not everyone who identifies as conservative is a Republican – these characterizations certainly seem to be true when we look at major leaders of the political parties. Many Republican politicians have publicly expressed doubts over the scientific consensus on climate change, for instance. At the top of the Republican presidential ticket is Donald Trump, who has called climate change a Chinese hoax and is on the record as supporting any number of other conspiracy theories. Conversely, Hillary Clinton’s line at the Democratic National Convention – “I believe in science” – was met with resounding applause.

Assuming that the stated views of outspoken politicians reflect the personal beliefs of voters within their parties is tempting. After all, voters elect politicians, presumably on the basis of having comparable worldviews. But research suggests that the link between partisanship and views on science may not be so cut and dried. Buried in the data is a much more nuanced relationship that’s well worth examining. As a sociologist who focuses on ways to communicate science issues to the public, I’m interested in how a more clear-eyed view of this connection could be used to help combat anti-science attitudes.

Quantifying the science trust gap

In 2015, researchers asked 2,000 registered voters how deferential they felt politicians should be to science when creating public policy on a variety of issues. On a 10-point scale, participants ranked whether politicians should follow the advice of scientists (10), consider scientific findings in conjunction with other factors (5) or ignore scientific findings completely (1). Issues included climate change, legalizing drug usage, fetal viability, regulating nuclear power and teaching evolution, among other topics.

The participants then responded to questions about their political affiliation and ideological views, religious beliefs and other demographic variables.

Most people supported trusting the recommendations of scientists on policy issues, even politically contentious ones. The average score for all participants across all issues was 6.4, and the lowest-scoring issue (letting same-sex couples adopt children) was 4.9. The results suggest, in other words, that even on divisive issues, Americans think that politicians should take scientific recommendations into consideration when making public policy.

Breaking down responses based on political leanings did reveal some partisan differences. When it comes to deferring to scientific experts on policy issues, conservatives and independents look a lot alike. Averaged across issues, independents said policymakers should weigh science and other factors more or less evenly (5.84), only slightly more than conservatives did (5.58). Liberals, on the other hand, expressed much higher rates of deference to science – across issues, they averaged 7.46.

These findings are interesting because we tend to think of independents as the middle-of-the-road in American politics. If conservatives and independents are on the same page, though, it means that liberals are the outliers, so to speak. In other words, rather than most people putting an emphasis on science while conservatives steadfastly ignore it, the truth is that many people want other factors included in policy discussions. It’s liberals who are further from the pack on this issue, wanting more emphasis on science than their peers.

Do these stem cells strike you as more liberal or conservative? Penn State, CC BY-NC-ND

It’s not their politics, it’s their values

Other research has similarly found that science denial can run the political spectrum. For instance, another study examined attitudes about climate change, evolution and stem cell research and found that partisan identification was not necessarily a good predictor of how someone will feel about these controversial issues. In fact, very few participants were found to be skeptical of science across the board. And reactions to these specific issues were more tightly linked with religious attitudes than with political ones.

Other scholarship echoes these findings. Indeed, research does suggest that a certain segment of the population places more trust in religion than in science for understanding the world. But even among this group, science and religion are seen as conflicting only on certain topics, including the Big Bang and evolution.

One area in which political beliefs do have an impact is the kinds of scientists that liberals and conservatives are likely to trust. A 2013 study of 798 participants found that conservatives put more faith in scientists involved in economic production – food scientists, industrial chemists and petroleum geologists, for instance – than in scientists involved in areas associated with regulation, such as public health and environmental science. The opposite was true for liberals. Again, this suggests that it’s not simply a matter of conservatives being skeptical of science in general; there’s a much more nuanced relationship between political leanings and trust in scientific expertise.

So why does it appear that liberals and conservatives are living in different worlds when it comes to issues of science? Partisanship clearly plays some role in how people view science and their willingness to trust scientific information. And because these disagreements tend to come on high-profile issues like climate change and evolution, about which there is already so much controversy, it’s easy to get the impression that the liberal and conservative divide on science must run incredibly deep.

Comes down to cultural cognition

To help explain why people fall in line with their fellow partisans on these high-profile issues, consider the theory of cultural cognition. This social sciences concept suggests it’s hard for people to accept new information that poses a threat to their values system. Addressing climate change, for instance, is often talked about in terms of government regulation of carbon pollution. For conservatives who oppose government involvement in the economy, this poses a threat to an idea they hold very dear.

People like to stick together and share beliefs commonly held within their group. Sign image via www.shutterstock.com.

No one likes to be wrong, of course. Cultural cognition theorists take this a step further and argue that there are social consequences to taking a position about a political issue that runs counter to what your community believes – just ask conservative former congressman Bob Inglis, who was defeated by a primary challenger in 2010 after speaking out on climate change.

From loss of business to strained interpersonal relationships, being the black sheep is hard. Rather than changing their beliefs about government regulation, then, it’s cognitively more comfortable for conservatives in conservative social circles to maintain skepticism about climate change. It’s less an inherent distrust of science, then, but rather a need to discount the science that supports policies that threaten a deep belief.

Everyone is subject to this effect. There are studies that suggest it’s stronger for conservatives, but liberals, too, come to mistrust scientific information when it challenges their worldviews. For instance, a 2014 study found that liberals will display the same sort of evidence-ignoring behaviors as their conservative counterparts when faced with arguments that go against their beliefs about policies like gun control. (Claims about liberals exhibiting anti-science bias on the issues of vaccination and genetically modified organisms are increasing, though they are challenged by recent studies.)

In other words, these divides may not reflect Americans’ attitudes toward science so much as other cultural and personal beliefs.

Get past assumptions to common ground

Having a more complete understanding of when and why liberals and conservatives trust science helps avoid oversimplifications. It’s an important stopgap using oversimplified assumptions to denigrate those who disagree with us politically.

None of this is to suggest that the anti-science viewpoints exhibited by Republican politicians on issues such as climate change should be ignored. Nor is it an argument that since “both sides” can fall for anti-science rhetoric, it can be waved away.

Rather, these findings indicate that, in theory, it’s possible liberals and conservatives could work together to encourage politicians to base policy recommendations on sound science, at least on some issues.

Maybe even more importantly, understanding the social and cultural issues surrounding the acceptance or rejection of science is a first step toward crafting messages that resonate with members of the public who question the science on hot-button issues. Research suggests using the right kind of messenger – someone who is trusted within the community – can be key to moving the needle. Science communications scholars have been hard at work devising other tactics to help reach people on issues of science. Hopefully they’ll trust the growing body of social science evidence to help guide their efforts.

The ConversationThis article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Society & Culture

Why Zika has infected so many people in Puerto Rico

October 28, 2016
Diana Rojas

University of Florida Ph.D. candidate Diana Rojas explains why it’s difficult to contain a mosquito-borne infection such as Zika when conditions are ideal for it to spread.

The United States declared Zika a public health emergency in Puerto Rico in August 2016.

Over 28,000 cases of Zika were reported in Puerto Rico as of Oct. 26. In contrast, just over 4,000 cases of Zika were reported in the continental U.S. and Hawaii by the same date. Most of these cases are travel-related, meaning that people are infected while abroad. But in Puerto Rico, 98 percent of Zika cases are locally acquired. It is estimated that up 80 percent of people who are infected with Zika are asymptomatic, which means that reported cases may be just a fraction of those who may be infected.

The U.S. Surgeon General said that one in four Puerto Ricans could be infected by the end of the year. A recent study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated that 5,900 to 10,300 pregnant women might get infected during the initial Zika outbreak in Puerto Rico. In the absence of effective interventions like birth control or mosquito control, about 100 to 270 infants may be born with Zika-related microcephaly from mid-2016 to mid-2017.

So why is Zika so much worse in Puerto Rico than in the continental U.S.?

Mosquito-borne diseases are complex. Environmental, social, political and cultural factors can influence their transmission. And Puerto Rico, like other parts of the Caribbean and Latin America, has the perfect mix of conditions for a mosquito borne virus to spread widely.

A health worker prepares insecticide before fumigating a neighborhood in San Juan, Jan. 27, 2016. Alvin Baez/Files/Reuters

Environmental factors

Since the Zika virus was identified in Brazil, it has spread through most of the countries in the Western Hemisphere, Latin America and the Caribbean, including the continental United States. All these areas have something in common: the Aedes aegypti mosquito.

Ae. aegypti mosquitoes can also transmit Chikungunya and dengue viruses. This species is prevalent in Puerto Rico, where temperature, humidity and rainfall make it a perfect place for mosquitoes to breed all year long.

By contrast, in most of the states in the continental U.S., these environmental conditions are met just at the end of spring and during summer (though this is slowly shifting over time, thanks to climate change).

The only state with confirmed local transmission of Zika virus is Florida, and transmission there is occurring in only two areas in Miami-Dade County. Up to Oct. 26, 2016, 180 local related Zika infections have been confirmed.

But it is expected that with the lower temperatures during winter the risk of Zika will also decrease, because mosquitoes need optimal temperatures to reproduce.

Ae. aegypti breeds close to where people live

Ae. aegypti mosquitoes like to feed on people, and often breed in stagnant water in households or in areas near where people live.

In areas without infrastructure to supply water to the entire population or with inappropriate waste management, people may store water in or near their homes or leave waste containers and tires uncovered. This can create more breeding sites for the mosquito. More mosquitoes means more mosquito bites.

In Puerto Rico, Aedes mosquito-breeding sites are mainly used and discarded car tires, which the government is trying to collect to reduce mosquito densities and contain the spread of the virus. Pails, pets’ water bowls and water fountains, for example, also contribute to the problem.

Population growth and internal migration, particularly to unplanned urban areas with poor sanitary conditions, can move more people into areas where Ae. aegypti mosquitoes densities are higher. This is characteristic of Latin America and the Caribbean overall.

In Puerto Rico, as in other tropical areas, window and door screens and air conditioning aren’t as common as they are in the continental U.S. These are considered luxuries for most of the medium and low socioeconomic classes. Simple things like window screens, use of repellent or air conditioning make a difference.

As part of Zika prevention efforts, the government of Puerto Rico is installing or repairing window and door screens in low-income households with pregnant women and women of childbearing age within the public housing system.

A worker uses a forklift to store abandoned tires at a temporary collection center in San Juan, Jan. 27, 2016. Alvin Baez/Reuters

Political and cultural factors

The most effective way to prevent mosquito-borne diseases is to control mosquito densities. But mosquito control strategies, such as insecticides and elimination of potential breeding sites, are unsustainable and ineffective in complex transmission settings like Puerto Rico and other tropical areas.

For instance, health officials have known these breeding sites are a major factor in the spread of mosquito-borne illnesses in Puerto Rico for a long time. But efforts to eliminate these sites and control the spread of diseases have not been successful due to multiple environmental and social conditions that make the ideal setting for the mosquito to breed and difficult to control.

In contrast, in the U.S. the mosquito densities are low and the population takes action in doing its own pest and mosquito control, reducing the mosquito populations that can lead to an outbreak.

The fact that mosquito-borne infections are so common in Puerto Rico means that perceived risk from Zika is low. Dengue, for instance, is endemic in Puerto Rico. If Zika is not perceived as a high risk, that means many people do not use repellent or wear long sleeves and long pants as additional protection against mosquito bites.

Puerto Rico’s ongoing economic crisis has weakened the island’s health sector, which can lead late detection of outbreaks, delaying control strategies.

However, the Zika funding bill Congress passed on Sept. 28 allocated money to fight the virus, as well as to support Medicaid and local health centers in Puerto Rico. This funding may help control transmission of the virus (mosquito control) and fund preventative efforts, like vaccine development.

It’s possible to reduce mosquito-borne diseases, even in places where the conditions are ideal for mosquitoes like Ae. aegypti to flourish. Getting rid of standing water – even small amount in flower pots or bird paths – eliminates places where female mosquitoes lay their eggs. Installing window screens and mosquito repellent can keep mosquitoes at bay.

The ConversationThis article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Science & Wellness

Athletes have coaches, why not teachers?

October 21, 2016
Charles Boisseau

NFL quarterback Tom Brady has a coach. So does tennis superstar Serena Williams. Same goes for many of America’s most successful CEOs.

So why not teachers?

Scholars at the University of Florida’s College of Education and two nonprofit educational organizations are recommending just that: all teachers should have a skilled coach as a way to improve the nation’s educational system.

Research has shown that strong coaching can greatly improve a teacher’s practice and student learning -- yet a majority of teachers say they don’t receive regular professional coaching, according to a new report from the UF Lastinger Center for Learning, developed jointly with the groups Learning Forward and Public Impact.

“Coaching is for everyone,” said Don Pemberton, director of the Lastinger Center, which serves as the college’s teaching and learning innovation incubator.

“There is kind of a stigma in education that coaches are only provided to the weak teachers,” Pemberton said. “In our work, we have reimagined coaching for all teachers. Anyone can gain value from it as they do in sports, and as CEOs do. We believe that should be the case in education. It’s really about human development.”

Nationwide, just half of teachers reported receiving coaching in a recent 12-month period, and only 12 percent had weekly coaching sessions, according to a 2014 survey funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and cited by the researchers.

This new report, “Coaching for Impact: Six Pillars to Create Coaching Roles that Achieve Their Potential to Improve Teaching and Learning,” is aimed at schools and administrators nationwide in hopes of developing a framework and conversation about the importance of teacher coaches. The UF Lastinger Center teamed up on the research, writing and dissemination of the report with Learning Forward, a Dallas-based professional association for kindergarten-to-12th-grade teachers, and Public Impact, a Carrboro, N.C.-based organization working to improve learning for all U.S. children.

UF education professor emerita Dorene Ross served as project leader for the Lastinger Center.

Pemberton said the report comes at a time that schools across the country are spending tens of millions of dollars on implementing some form of coaching for teachers but these programs haven’t been fully conceptualized and developed to have the greatest impact.

“The question is how to get more value? It’s a field that is ready for some innovation,” Pemberton said.

The report serves as a roadmap for schools: It summarizes the findings of academic research, provides effective coaching models and makes recommendations for incorporating high-quality coaching in the daily routine at schools.

The authors cite six “pillars” necessary to implement successful coaching programs:

  • Commitment of education system leaders
  • Careful selection of teacher coaches
  • Shared responsibility for student outcomes by the coaches and the teachers they coach
  • Clarification of roles, time allotted and culture
  • Adequate training and support
  • Improved compensation for coaches to attract and retrain great teachers in coaching positions

Pemberton and Ross acknowledged more study was needed about ways budget-constrained school districts can provide higher or “differentiated” pay to teacher coaches.

One step toward that goal is professionalizing the coaching field through formal certification programs. The Lastinger Center’s Coaching Academy has become a national leader in certifying teacher coaches in preschool through high school, with more than 1,500 coaches either certified or currently enrolled in the program.

It is working with seven Florida school districts, all 30 of Florida’s early learning coalitions, and the Charleston, S.C., school system to develop coaching programs, including specialty ones aimed at early childhood education, literacy and STEM (science, technology, engineering and math). The center also has contracted with the state of Georgia to develop a statewide designation for preschool coaching.

Ross said, “We think the more school districts invest in coaching the more they will realize how valuable coaching is, especially as coaches show they are truly improving the practice of teachers and, ultimately, student achievement.”

Society & Culture

Stellar guest marks 50 years of campus speakers

October 5, 2016
Ashley Grabowski
Accent, student government, guest speaker, astronaut

The University of Florida’s student-run speakers bureau, ACCENT, launched its 50th year of bringing prominent and influential people to campus with a stellar guest: America’s first year-round astronaut, Navy Capt. Scott Kelly.

photo of Scott Kelly

ACCENT, the nation’s largest student-run speakers bureau, hosted the event at the Phillips Center for the Performing Arts and provided free tickets to UF students.

Kelly’s 20 years of working with NASA, paired with his vibrant personality, made for an engaging and thought-provoking presentation. The 52-year-old now-retired astronaut spent nearly a year – 340 days, to be exact -- aboard the International Space Station with Russian cosmonaut Mikhail Korniyenko. Kelly’s stay ended March 1, 2016. During the mission, he set the record for the total accumulated number of days spent in space by an American astronaut: 382.

Kelly illustrated his journey to becoming an astronaut through quirky anecdotes, candid commentary and relatable challenges, saying “it’s not that people decide to be extraordinary, it’s that they decide to do extraordinary things.”

Kelly highlighted moments of failure in his career’s development as opportunities for learning and growth, making them surprising catalysts to his later successes.

“I was ready to take risks, to fail, to make mistakes … I think if you’re not ready to fail then you won’t ever see what your potential really is,” Kelly said. These ideas were especially relevant to his student audience.

Kelly concluded the evening by offering a Q&A opportunity for student audience members. Questions ranged from detailed inquiries about space station procedure to the first food Kelly enjoyed upon his return to Earth—a banana.

Campus Life

First Pluto, now this: Discovery of first binary-binary calls solar system formation into question

October 19, 2016
Rachel Wayne
Astronomy, binary system, College of Liberal Arts and Sciences

Everything we know about the formation of solar systems might be wrong, says University of Florida astronomy professor Jian Ge and his postdoc, Bo Ma. They’ve discovered the first “binary–binary” – two massive companions around one star in a close binary system, one so-called giant planet  and one brown dwarf, or “failed star” The first, called MARVELS-7a, is 12 times the mass of Jupiter, while the second, MARVELS-7b, has 57 times the mass of Jupiter.

Astronomers believe that planets in our solar system formed from a collapsed disk-like gaseous cloud, with our largest planet, Jupiter, buffered from smaller planets by the asteroid belt. In the new binary system, HD 87646, the two giant companions are close to the minimum mass for burning deuterium and hydrogen, meaning that they have accumulated far more dust and gas than what a typical collapsed disk-like gaseous cloud can provide. They were likely formed through another mechanism. The stability of the system despite such massive bodies in close proximity raises new questions about how protoplanetary disks form. The findings, which are now online, will be published in the November issue of the Astronomical Journal.

HD 87646’s primary star is 12 percent more massive than our sun, yet is only 22 astronomical units away from its secondary, a star about 10 percent less massive than our sun, roughly the distance between the sun and Uranus in our solar system. An astronomical unit is the mean distance between the center of the Earth and our sun, but in cosmic terms, is a relatively short distance. Within such a short distance, two giant companions are orbiting the primary star at about 0.1 and 1.5 astronomical units away. For such large companion objects to be stable so close together defies our current popular theories on how solar systems form.

The planet-hunting Doppler instrument W.M. Keck Exoplanet Tracker, or KeckET, developed by a team led by Ge at the Sloan Digital Sky Survey telescope at Apache Point Observatory in New Mexico, is unusual in that it can simultaneously observe dozens of celestial bodies. Ge says this discovery would not have been possible without a multiple-object Doppler measurement capability such as KeckET to search for a large number of stars to discover a very rare system like this one. The survey of HD 87646 occurred in 2006 during the pilot survey of the Multi-object APO Radial Velocity Exoplanet Large-area Survey (MARVELS) of the SDSS-III program, and Ge led the MARVELS survey from 2008 to 2012. It has taken eight years of follow-up data collection through collaboration with over 30 astronomers at seven other telescopes around the world and careful data analysis, much of which was done by Bo Ma, to confirm what Ge calls a “very bizarre” finding.

The team will continue to analyze data from the MARVELS survey.

Science & Wellness

Weight loss information on top Spanish-language websites often inaccurate

October 4, 2016
Elizabeth Hillaker Downs

It can be hard enough to shed unwanted pounds. For Spanish speakers seeking weight loss information online, it could be even harder, thanks to the prevalence of inaccurate and incomplete information on popular Spanish-language weight loss sites, report researchers at UF Health and the Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center.

The information on the sites was compared with recommendations made by the 2015 Dietary Guidelines for Americans and the American College of Sports Medicine, and quality scores ranged from four points for “excellent” to no points for “nothing” in three key domains: nutrition, physical activity and weight-loss-related behavior change. Only 12 percent of the 66 websites the team analyzed scored more than six out of 12 points on the accuracy and completeness of their weight loss content.

The researchers published their findings recently online in the journal Obesity.

In addition, the quality of the sites in Spanish is substantially lower than comparable sites in English, with 23 percent of websites in English scoring more than six out of 12 points on these same domains, according to findings from an earlier study conducted by one member of the UF Health research team, François Modave, Ph.D., an associate professor of health outcomes and policy, and colleagues at Texas Tech University HSC at El Paso.

“The bottom line is that the weight loss information that Spanish speakers in the U.S. are most likely to see is poor,” said Michelle Cardel, Ph.D., R.D., an assistant professor in the department of health outcomes and policy in the UF College of Medicine. “This is a particularly serious issue given that 42.6 percent of Hispanic adults in the U.S. have obesity and they are the nation’s fastest-growing demographic. Our study reveals one possible contributing factor to these obesity rates: misinformation online.”

About 38 percent of Hispanics in the U.S. report mainly speaking, writing and reading in Spanish, indicating the importance of evaluating Spanish-language websites for the quality and comprehensiveness of their content. To conduct the study, a set of 30 weight-loss queries were generated by native Spanish speakers, based on questions in the previous study done in English.

Since 90 percent of all clicks on search engines have been shown to be on one of the first five nonsponsored links, the research team identified the first five nonsponsored entries for the 30 different weight loss queries in Spanish, ultimately garnering a bank of 66 websites for analysis.

Specifically, the team examined the nutrition-related content for information on healthy eating patterns, balancing energy input and output, and limiting saturated and trans fat, sugar, refined grains and sodium. Regarding physical activity, the team checked for specific recommendations regarding moderate and vigorous activity and muscle strengthening. Lastly, they analyzed the content for suggested behavior changes, such as setting weight loss goals, improving diet, increasing physical activity, addressing barriers to change, self-monitoring, and strategizing how to maintain a healthy lifestyle.

Blogs had the lowest average content score at 2.2 out of 12, and they often pointed to sites that were commercial in nature and provided very low-quality information. In addition, 94 percent of the websites included unsubstantiated claims, which the research team defined as any weight loss recommendations that did not align with current evidence-based recommendations. Only 45 percent included reputable references. 

The team noted that no websites from the medical, government or university communities ranked within the first five entries of the Spanish-language searches. Websites of this nature provided some of the highest-quality information in the earlier study conducted on weight loss websites in English and comprised 13.5 percent of the websites the earlier team analyzed.

“It is important to note that high-quality information in Spanish is available on the internet — just not within the top-ranked sites, which is where the vast majority of people go for their information,” said Modave, who added that commercial sites may be investing more in search engine optimization since high-quality sites in Spanish start to appear on page three or further in the search engine results.

“To fix this,’’ Modave said, “we recommend that organizations with high-quality information pay attention to search engine optimization. It is not enough to have evidence-based content on your site if most people who need it will never scroll down far enough to see it.”

Science & Wellness

UF expands resources for high school tutoring via new partnership with Tutor Matching Service

October 10, 2016
UF News

A new partnership between the University of Florida and Tutor Matching Service has created the first-ever opportunity for high school students across Florida to be tutored online by skilled and certified UF tutors.

UF runs a robust tutoring program for its own students at the Broward Teaching Center, and this partnership makes available this type of service statewide for K-12 students who would like to book a private tutor.

The new tutoring resource is an addition to the resources offered by the U Matter, We Care Initiative which was launched at UF in 2011. The initiative was founded to provide students in distress with coordinated support and increased access to a wide variety of resources to improve student success.

“Our new community tutoring initiative provides a way for us to impact the K-12 community, and it also affords our UF students with important job skills and experience. We are looking forward to expanding our tutoring reach to Gainesville as well as the rest of Florida,” said Leslie Pendleton, director of UF’s Machen Florida Opportunity Scholars Program.

UF students who wish to become tutors can sign up online. All approved tutors must pass a background check, enrollment verification and conduct record check by UF staff. Tutors can be booked for an online or in-person tutoring session.

Minors wishing to hire a tutor are required to have parental permission and use a parent credit card to book a session. Searching by subject such as “AP Chemistry,” a list of eligible tutors will appear. Parents and students can then message or instantly book the perfect tutor. Online tutoring sessions can also be facilitated through an integrated and easy-to-use online tutoring platform called GoBoard.

“We are thrilled to be working with the University of Florida on this initiative. We have worked hard over the years to bring a user-friendly mobile app, quality messaging and booking systems, and intelligent calendar integration to colleges and universities across the country that strive to help their communities. We believe that this technology will be a huge benefit to the U Matter, We Care initiative and the wider Florida community,” said Katie Funk, assistant director of Tutor Matching Service.

To learn more about the UF Community Tutoring Initiative, become a tutor or book a session, go to http://www.umatter.ufl.edu/resources/tutoring

About U Matter, We Care

Founded in 2011, U Matter, We Care serves as UF’s umbrella initiative for UF’s caring culture and provides students in distress with support and coordination of the wide variety of appropriate resources.  Families, faculty and students can contact umatter@ufl.edu seven days a week for assistance.

About Tutor Matching Service

Tutor Matching Service (TMS) is the preferred online tutoring partner of colleges and universities across the country. TMS was created in 2009 to help university learning centers facilitate tutoring to improve student learning outcomes and graduation rates, at no cost to schools. TMS is used in a variety of ways at different institutions, but is often used by parents to hire online or in-person college tutors for their children in high school. Learn more at www.tutormatchingservice.com.

Campus Life

How an 'architect of destruction' became a national symbol

October 10, 2016
William Keegan

An embarrassing showing at the World’s Fair kicked off the construction of Columbus’ legend. Anthropologist William Keegan reflects on the explorer’s posthumous rise and fall.

The story of Christopher Columbus, as with all legends, involves a series of great successes and horrible failures.

Columbus’s current favorability rating hovers somewhere close to those of Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. This was not always the case – he was once a revered figure who represented the American dream.

Columbus was a narcissist. He believed he was personally chosen by God and that no one else could achieve his mission. His stated goal was to accumulate enough wealth to recapture Jerusalem. After 1493, he signed his name “xpo ferens” – “the Christbearer.”

The King and Queen of Spain revoked their initial support for his first voyage to the New World because Columbus’s demands for nobility and hereditary rights were so excessive. The monarchs changed their minds only after it was calculated that the expedition would cost Spain the equivalent of $7,000 (in 2016 US dollars). Isabella did not have to “hock her jewels” to foot the bill.

Columbus’ personal qualities led to his downfall. In 1496, he became governor of the colony based at Santo Domingo, modern Dominican Republic – a job he hated. He could not convince the other colonists, especially those with noble titles to follow his leadership. And, he was an incompetent administrator. The colony was largely a social and economic failure. The wealth that Columbus promised the Spanish monarchs failed to materialize, and he made continuous requests for additional support. Finally, he left the colony to go exploring.

Inspiracion de Cristobal Colon by Jose Maria Obregon Museo Nacional de Arte, CC BY-SA

Conditions were so dire by 1500, the Crown sent Francisco de Bobadilla to investigate. Bobadilla’s first sight, at the mouth of the Ozama River, was four Spanish “mutineers” hanging from gallows. Under authority from the King, Bobadilla arrested Columbus and his brothers and sent them to Spain in chains. Columbus waited seven months for an audience at the court. He refused to have his chains removed until the meeting and even asked in his will to be buried with the chains.

Although the Spanish rulers wanted Columbus to disappear, he was allowed one final voyage from 1502 to 1504. He died in 1506, and went virtually unmentioned until he was resurrected as a symbol of the United States.

Inventing Columbus

My interest in this American icon began 35 years ago with a search for his first landfall. I wanted to understand the man who wrote the only accounts of the Native Bahamians, known today as Lucayans.

In the mid-18th century, scholars brought to light long forgotten documents about Columbus and the early history of the New World. Among the most important was Bartolome de las Casas’ three volume, “Historia de las Indias.” This book had been suppressed because it documented Spain’s harsh treatment of the Native peoples. It is the foundation for the “Black Legend” – a depiction that “blackened” Spanish character by depicting it as repressive, brutal, intolerant, and intellectually and artistically backward.

The second was the personal journal of Christopher Columbus from his first voyage, published in 1880. Gustavus V. Fox, Abraham Lincoln’s Assistant Secretary of the Navy, used the latter in his attempt to determine the first island on which Columbus landed.

In 1828, American writer and author of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, Washington Irving, attempted to revive his flagging career by writing the first biography of Christopher Columbus in English. His embellishments created the great hero whose legend we continue to celebrate: “He was one of those men of strong natural genius, who appear to form themselves; who, from having to contend at their very outset with privations and impediments, acquire an intrepidity in braving and a facility in vanquishing difficulties.” And, Irving wrote that Columbus was the first to believe in a round earth – a fact that was proved 1,000 years before Columbus.

Renewed scholarly interest in Columbus coincided with political motives to deny Spain any remaining claims in the Americas. Spain’s American colonies declared independence, one by one, from the beginning of the 19th century. Simón Bolivar, and other Creole revolutionary leaders, embraced a broader philosophy which highlighted their Roman ancestry. The complete conversion of Spanish America to Latin America arrived with the U.S. invasion of Cuba and the six month Spanish-American War in 1898. The last of Spain’s colonies were liberated.

Columbus likely would have slipped back into obscurity if not for American hubris.

The Columbian Exposition

In 1889, France put on what reviewers described as the most spectacular World’s Fair possible. Held on the Champs de Mars in Paris, it’s crowning achievement was the Eiffel Tower. For some reason, the U.S. did not realize that it needed to put on a good show in Paris. Europeans viewed the poor quality of the exhibits as a reflection of U.S. inferiority.

Looking West From Peristyle, Court of Honor and Grand Basin of the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition. The Project Gutenberg EBook of Official Views of The World's Columbian Exposition

After the embarrassment in Paris, the United States wanted to prove to the world it was the equal of Europe. Cities across the country competed to host a fair in the U.S. Chicago wanted to demonstrate it was equal to the older eastern cities of New York and Philadelphia and submitted the winning bid.

No one has claimed credit for the theme of the Exposition, but the timing was fortuitous. The Columbian Exposition and World’s Fair was timed to coincide with the 400th anniversary of Columbus’ arrival in the New World. President William H. Harrison presided over opening ceremonies on Oct. 12, 1892.

It was called the “White City” – collection of nine “palaces” designed by America’s greatest architects, conceived and constructed in only 26 months. Outside the White City was the grittier Midway, which is now a common feature of carnivals and fairs. The Fair debuted the first Ferris wheel, and gave visitors their first taste of carbonated soda, Cracker Jack, and Juicy Fruit chewing gum. An enormous 264-feet tall Ferris wheel transported 36 cars each carrying up to 60 people on a 20 minute ride. More than 28 million tickets were sold during the six months the Columbian Exposition was open.

Seventy-one portraits of Columbus, all posthumous, hung in a Grand Gallery. Following Washington Irving’s descriptions, Columbus became the embodiment of the American Dream. The son of simple wool weavers and someone who had a great dream, challenged the greatest scholars of his day, and boldly went where no man had gone before. Better yet, he was Italian. The world could deny that Spain had any part in the discovery of the Americas.

President Harrison declared a national holiday – Columbus Day – to coincide with opening of the Columbian Exposition. It was officially recognized by Congress in 1937.

As the United States prepared for the 500th anniversary, the pendulum swung again. The devastating impact of his “discovery” on Native peoples throughout the Americas led protesters to decry Columbus as a “terrorist.”

Columbus the man died more than 500 years ago. Columbus the legend is still being dismantled. His story illustrates the blurred borders between myth and history – how an architect of destruction can be turned to a national symbol.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Society & Culture

Got a Story Idea? We're interested in hearing about it.

Tell Us