Week In Review: The Extremes

UNC-TV Science Week In Review: October 10, 2013
The Extremes


Science is a tool: a method of examination that allows us to investigate and describe the phenomena we experience daily. Science’s proper application has told us how we use the oxygen we breathe in and how the carbon dioxide we breathe out can be recycled by plants or stored in water when everything works correctly, normally.

But atoms, molecules, organisms, environments and planets don’t always behave normally. Every day, scientists observe aberrations and extremes that they must be up to the task of explaining. This week, North Carolina scientists provided explanations for a few of these out-there occurrences.

Extreme Political Views Correlate with “Belief Superiority”
If you’ve been following the controversy surrounding the Federal Government shutdown, you’ve probably heard the phrase, “political extremism,” or something similar. The principle is essentially that politicians to the far-right and far-left are unwilling to compromise on issues surrounding the economy and health care. Now, a timely study from Duke University might help to explain why compromise is so hard to come by.

Psychologists surveyed 527 men and women about their political beliefs and found that people at the extremes of the political spectrum exhibit what is called “belief superiority.” Belief superiority essentially translates to “my thoughts are correct and yours are clearly wrong.”

Interestingly, liberals and conservatives experienced belief superiority on different issues. Liberals felt superior in their beliefs on not basing laws on religion, not using torture in interrogations and providing government assistance to the needy. Conservatives, on the other hand, were more set in their beliefs about voter identification, taxes, and affirmative action.

Their findings were published in the journal Psychological Science.

Late Devonian Extinction
In the fields of ecology and environmental science, few occurrences are as extreme as extinction events. As the name would imply, extinction events, or mass extinctions, wipe out entire species, and lots of them. Geologists from Appalachian State University are studying the causes of one of the top five of those events in history: the Late Devonian Event, which occurred about 350 to 400 million years ago.

Why is the Late Devonian Event important? The scientists researching it believe that it was caused by a dramatic climate change due to a huge change in the amount of greenhouse gas concentration. Also worth noting is that the scientists believe the tipping point was when the carbon dioxide concentration in the atmosphere reached 400 parts per million. Currently, that concentration is very close to 400 parts per million.

Now don’t panic, because there’s one other cool thing about the Late Devonian Event that I haven’t told you yet. While we’re putting greenhouse gases into the air, which causes climate change, Earth’s inhabitants 400 million years ago were taking the greenhouse gases out! Their climate change went the other way! The biggest achievement in evolution at that time was plant veins, which allowed plants to grow bigger and in more places. When they removed enough carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, the planet cooled and glaciers formed. Such a drastic change caused massive extinctions, especially in the oceans.

The researchers from Appalachian State, who were working with the United Nations International Geosciences Programme, studied geochemical traces in Central Asia to determine what effects the event might have had on that part of the world.

Fish Kills In Tar-Pamlico and Neuse Rivers
On the subject of mass extinctions, millions of dead and dying menhaden fish are turning up in the Neuse and Tar-Pamlico Rivers here in North Carolina, and scientists from the NC Division of Water Quality are trying to figure out why.

To make matters worse, this isn’t the first time that menhaden have died en masse in North Carolina. A similar fish kill happened around this time last year. Last time, scientists from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration found that it was due to a water mold called Aphanomyces invadens, which grows in cooler water.

Scientists also think that an algae bloom may have contributed to the fish kill. Algal blooms can change the oxygen concentration in water, harming fish. Menhaden fish typically migrate to the ocean around this time of year, so some scientists think that the fish that are dying may be the weaker ones who have not yet made it to the ocean and would be more succeptible to environmental changes.

The mold, algae and water from these rivers are not harmful to humans, the Division of Water Quality says.

Early Osteoporosis
You probably associate osteoporosis with the aging population, but more studies are showing drops in bone density in a different population. Wake Forest University researchers are examining drops in bone density in collegiate long distance runners. 

The researchers will track 20 runners of the Wake Forest cross country team for two semesters and measure what effect their training has on their bone densities. The eventual goal of the research is to use the data to assess how much wear-and-tear a collegiate training plan places on bones, and with that information, design less harmful training plans.

- Daniel Lane

Daniel Lane covers science, medicine and the environment as a reporter/writer. He is currently pursuing a master's degree in medical and science journalism at UNC - Chapel Hill.

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