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Fight for the Farm

As scientists, for the past nine years we have grown accustomed to being treated with indifference by the federal Conservative government. We might have expected a little more respect from our colleagues in the health sciences, but as the actions of Jack Kitts, CEO of The Ottawa Hospital have shown, that was a faint hope.

The Civic Hospital is in need of an upgrade, unfortunate for the Central Experimental Farm so temptingly located next door. Jack Kitts’ vision of the future, his hospital of the future, is a land-wasteful, sprawling high technology wonderland that he wants built on the Central Experimental Farm’s research plots. But “Kitt’s Folly” is no worthy replacement for “Fisher’s Foresight”, as the Civic Hospital came to be known, not when it comes at the cost of more than a century of continuous research and an ongoing 26-year field trial; and absolutely not when there are other sites in Ottawa that should be considered instead.

Plants are remarkable organisms. They have to be: they germinate, sprout, grow and set seed all in one spot. Rooted to the ground, they must have an armory of defenses and adaptations to survive and thrive. They cannot simply get up and relocate. In agricultural research, you quickly learn that one of your greatest sources of experimental variation – the noise in your data – comes from differences in soil and growing conditions. The value and the privilege of running repeated experiments on the same location is not something we take lightly, nor should anyone take for granted. Hence while it may be entirely possible to pick up and relocate a laboratory and all its research, and continue as though nothing has changed, to do the same with agricultural field trials is to change an experiment so much that it essentially becomes a new experiment. There isn’t another option for the Central Experimental Farm apart from staying where they are and continuing an excellent and highly cited research program. If they have to move elsewhere they won’t be continuing. They will be starting over.

The only response to Jack Kitts, when he stretches out his hand begging for the Central Experimental Farm’s land to build his folly, is not to move. It’s to plant our roots firmly in the ground and say: No. You move.



Further reading: Pete Anderson at ActiveHistory

Carleton University, affectionately known to alumni as “Last Chance U” and to residents of Ottawa as “that other place”, today announced the appointment of Jim Harrison to the newly created and controversial Chair of Dadaist Geology. The position grants full tenure and the holder will be expected to teach according to Dadaist principles.

Professor Jim Harrison, a former mechanical engineer who found that a commitment to chaos and irrationality was an impediment to building functional bridges, is looking forward to starting his new job. “The Geology Department has long taken the position that nothing can ever really be known for sure, so why bother finding out? It’s a perfect fit for my personal pedagogical philosophy. This appointment is a wonderful opportunity to push the boundaries of what academics can teach to students.”

The new chair is a radical departure from the normally staid traditions of academia, but par for the course at Carleton. Dr. John Willis, of the Canadian Institute of Research and a Carleton alumni, commented: “The Geology Department has always made the effort to avoid the strictures of convention. You say scientific consensus, they say massive worldwide conspiracy. You say anthropogenic global warming, they say no, climate always changes. This new approach is a natural evolution for them. It’s nice to see it explicitly stated. Some students would get upset when they turn up for a class on a scientific topic and end up watching grainy YouTube videos of confused elderly men ranting about an imminent ice age. At least now they won’t be surprised.”

While some people may be concerned with the establishment of a university teaching position that is opposed to actually educating students, Carleton University is standing by their new Professor.

The Dean of Studies, who only agreed to be interviewed with a dark-suited union rep present in the room, carefully explained: “Under the collective agreement, lecturers have the freedom to express their opinions, and well, oddly enough there’s no requirement that course content be based on actual scientific knowledge, wait, really? Right. And, well, tenure is an important institution for ensuring the freedom to express, shall we say, controversial ideas, so Professor Harrison has our support. I mean our full support.”

The Chair of Dadaist Geology was funded by Sincore, an oil company with extensive operations in the Alberta oil sands. When reached for comment, a spokesman explained that Carleton was a natural choice: “we have plenty of qualified geologists up here. What we need are people to do the more menial, yet still essential, tasks. Like flipping burgers. So long as Carleton’s Geology Department can graduate people with basic motor skills, we’re happy. Besides, if we wanted field geologists we’d go to UBC.”

Whatever the critics say, students are excited about the new course outline. In an upcoming palaeontology lecture students will be expected to flop around on the floor in front of the chalkboard like lungfish, pretend to develop rudimentary appendages, and slowly ‘evolve’ their way to their desks. For another class, Harrison has built a climate model entirely out of bike parts, sprockets, springs, and the remains of a small wind-up clock. In a hands-on approach to climate modeling, it will be used to falsify the greenhouse effect by showing that when exposed to carbon dioxide it fails to warm up.

At time of writing, the course was fully subscribed.


Entirely unrelated news:

CASS report and commentary on climate change teaching at Carleton University

Also relevant  

“We can’t even forecast how these clouds are going to move in the next week. Our understanding of the physics is so bad that we can’t even do that. So to think that we could do a whole planet for 50 years in the future…”

It’s a tired argument, this idea that because we can’t predict weather we certainly can’t predict climate. You’d expect to hear it from James Inhofe or a cranky uncle; you should never hear it from a university lecturer teaching a course on climate change. Unless you are a student at Carleton University, right here in Canada’s capital.

Heartland wants to fund the creation of K12 curricula that would teach students every long-debunked climate denial argument under, and including, the sun. They could save their anonymous funder’s money and just copy wholesale from Carleton University’s course “Climate Change: an Earth Sciences Perspective”, currently taught by Mr. Tom Harris, a former oil industry lobbyist.

The Committee for the Advancement of Scientific Skepticism (CASS, a science watchdog that more often takes an interest in pseudoscientific nonsense like homeopathy or dodgy nutrition claims in the media), part of the Centre for Inquiry Canada, has turned its attention to the teaching of science denial at Carleton University with the publication of a report fact-checking 142 separate claims made by Tom Harris in the course. It’s nothing short of a huge embarrassment for Carleton University, and for the Earth Sciences department that approved the course.

In the report, CASS provides fully quoted statements made in the course with detailed rebuttals for each one. Considering that this class is taught in one of the top 10 Canadian universities, it’s a shocking read.

I’ve gone through the document and tallied each time an argument appears, using skepticalscience.com’s list of the most common skeptic arguments as a template.

Argument Number of mentions
We’re heading into cooling / ice age / solar minimum 12
Models are unreliable 8
CO2 is not a pollutant 7
Warming will be good (i.e. for Greenland), and is better than cooling 6
It’s Urban Heat Island effect 5
CO2 is plant food 5
There is no consensus 4
Temp record is unreliable 4
Clouds provide negative feedback 4
The IPCC consensus is phoney 4
It’s only a few degrees (or a fraction of degree) 4
Climate’s changed before 3
It’s the sun 3
Hockey stick is broken 3
It’s cosmic rays 3
Sea level rise is exaggerated 3
Greenhouse effect has been falsified 3
Extreme weather accompanies cooling, not warming 3
It’s not sea level rise, its land subsidence 3
Animals and plants can adapt 2
CO2 lags temperature 2
Climate sensitivity is low 2
Human CO2 is a tiny % of CO2 emissions 2
Water vapor is the most powerful greenhouse gas 2
IPCC is alarmist 2
CO2 limits will harm the economy 2
It’s a natural cycle 2
Global warming stopped in 1998, 1995, 2002, 2007, 2010, ???? 2
Tree-rings diverge from temperature after 1960 2
Dropped stations introduce warming bias 2
It’s been warmer in the past 2
N2O is not a serious pollutant 2
CO2 levels have been much higher in the geologic record 2
Hurricanes aren’t linked to global warming 1

That’s not including another 41 separate arguments, including the ridiculous OISM petition project, claiming there’s no tropospheric hot spot, the oceans are cooling, Jupiter is warming, Climategate, and of course saying that scientists can’t even predict the weather.

Even a little fact-checking shows up erroneous, misleading and long-debunked claims. It’s hard to imagine how anyone could defend this course; academic freedom must at some point slam head-long into the obligation to teach things that are understood to be true. We do not accept creationism or intelligent design in our classrooms, regardless of the personal beliefs of the instructor, because we know its nonsense. We absolutely should not accept this.

Students deserve better than this cynical, distorted and mean-spirited view of the scientific enterprise. It’s tragic to see students presented with unbalanced and incomplete material. How can you tell students that tree rings do not track with temperature in the 20th century and not explain the divergence problem in full? It’s a fascinating issue, but presenting only one side short-changes inquiring minds.

It’s a review course, so students aren’t expected to have a deep understanding of the primary literature. Even so, it’s incumbent on the instructor to present the prevailing scientific opinion. It’s clear that isn’t what happens.

Harris sums up the course in the last lecture with take-away messages for the students:

* The only constant about climate is change.
* Carbon dioxide is plant food.
* There is no scientific consensus about climate change causes.
* Prepare for global cooling.
* Climate science is changing quickly.

There’s a place for discussion of controversies in climate science, and there’s an appropriate way of doing that. It isn’t in a review course for non-scientists and non-specialists who lack the domain expertise to know they are being played.

And it certainly isn’t in a course taught by an individual who doesn’t appear to even grasp the difference between weather and climate.

Read the full report here.


Tim Ball, already facing libel action from Canadian climate scientist Andrew Weaver, has been hit with another suit. This one comes from Dr. Michael Mann who is suing Ball and the Frontier Centre for Public Policy for an interview in which Ball stated that “Michael Mann at Penn State should be in the State Pen, not Penn State.”

Following the Canada Free Press in what is becoming a tradition of having to clear up the mess left after Tim Ball speaks, the Frontier Centre for Public Policy has scrubbed the offending interview from their website. 

Desmogblog has more on the story.

After Canada Free Press posted an apology and a retraction to climatologist Andrew Weaver for comments made by denialist Tim Ball, we learn that Professor Weaver is in fact now suing Tim Ball for libel.

The suit claims Tim Ball libeled Weaver in his article “Corruption of Climate Science Has Created 30 Lost Years”, published on the Canada Free Press website between January 10th – 19th, 2011. The suit can be read in its entirety at DeSmogBlog, which also reports that Canada Free Press has “stripped from its publicly available pages pretty much everything that Ball has ever written.”

Perhaps they shouldn’t have printed his nonsense in the first place.

Read more here.

Canada Free Press, a bastion of anti-science crankery, has posted an apology to Dr. Andrew Weaver for comments made by the denialist Tim Ball:

On January 10, 2011, Canada Free Press began publishing on this website an article by Dr. Tim Ball entitled “Corruption of Climate Change Has Created 30 Lost Years” which contained untrue and disparaging statements about Dr. Andrew Weaver, who is a professor in the School of Earth and Ocean Sciences at the University of Victoria, British Columbia.

Contrary to what was stated in Dr. Ball’s article, Dr. Weaver: (1) never announced he will not participate in the next IPCC; (2) never said that the IPCC chairman should resign; (3) never called for the IPCC’s approach to science to be overhauled; and (4) did not begin withdrawing from the IPCC in January 2010.

As a result of a nomination process that began in January, 2010, Dr. Weaver became a Lead Author for Chapter 12: “Long-term Climate Change: Projections, Commitments and Irreversibility” of the Working Group I contribution to the Fifth Assessment Report of the IPCC.”  That work began in May, 2010.  Dr. Ball’s article failed to mention these facts although they are publicly-available.

Dr. Tim Ball also wrongly suggested that Dr. Weaver tried to interfere with his presentation at the University of Victoria by having his students deter people from attending and heckling him during the talk.  CFP accepts without reservation there is no basis for such allegations.

CFP also wishes to dissociate itself from any suggestion that Dr. Weaver “knows very little about climate science.”  We entirely accept that he has a well-deserved international reputation as a climate scientist and that Dr. Ball’s attack on his credentials is unjustified.

CFP sincerely apologizes to Dr. Weaver and expresses regret for the embarrassment and distress caused by the unfounded allegations in the article by Dr. Ball.

That’s a welcome piece of news, although I don’t know how or to what extent this apology was prompted by Dr. Weaver’s libel case against the National Post. No news on that as yet.

Qualifications creep

Meet Gavin Cooke.

He is “a former journalist and television researcher. He studied Energy and Environment while at University in Newcastle and is based in the North East Of England.”

That’s the author description for his 2009 book “2025: Ice Bound Britain.”

Meet Gavin Cooke a year later, on the publication of his new book “Frozen Britain: How the Big Freeze of 2010 is the Beginning of Britain’s New Mini Ice Age”:

Climatologist Gavin Cooke takes a comprehensive and detailed look at global warming and the ‘Big Freeze’ of 2010 to explain how Britain will freeze before it fries.”

From journalist to climatologist in just one year. Here’s the secret, as explained in an interview with The Sun:

“He is quick to admit that he hasn’t got the scientific background of those who have spent a lifetime studying climate change. What he has brought to the table is his enthusiasm for the subject, his tracking of the arguments and a desire to make sense of a blizzard of information, so to speak.”

He thinks its sunspots.

It isn’t sunspots.

It’s good to see a story from a branch of science with which I am familiar make the headlines, although the headlines themselves have been somewhat surprising. “Stanford researchers find electrical current stemming from plants”, says the University press release. They didn’t find it, really. We knew it was there. “Ultrasharp Nano-Electrode Harnesses Electric Current from Plant Cell?” is better, although ‘harnesses’ implies the current could be put to some sort of useful work, which is unlikely, given the vanishingly small amount of current. “Stealing electricity from algae” is perhaps a better headline, as that is exactly what was achieved.

And what was achieved was, in my opinion, something remarkable.

Plants make for marvellous experimental subjects. No ethics approval required, no need to consider the health and well being of the plant. Genomes have been cracked, distantly related species interbred. Plants have been bombarded with radiation to create mutations, and genes introduced from entirely different kingdoms of life into plants, such as a gene encoding an anti-freeze protein from fish into tomatoes. The science of plant breeding is thousands of years old, the study of plants fascinated the Greeks, and taxonomy and plant anatomy bloomed in the Enlightenment. Despite this long history, there are aspects of plant science that remain technically challenging.

One such challenge is phloem analysis. Plants carry the nutrients produced through photosynthesis through specialised tissues called phloem. The sieve tube elements in the phloem, cells that are arranged end to end, with sieve plates at the adjoining walls, form a tube capable of transporting photosynthates like sucrose. While we know in general terms what comprises the phloem sap, accurately identifying the specific components carried in the sieve elements is a surprisingly difficult task. When a sieve element is cut, allowing phloem sap to exude, the contents of other cells are also released, contaminating the sample. The sap can be diluted by water from the xylem. Sap exudation rates are rapidly limited when sealing mechanisms in the plants are activated, and by the loss of the turgor pressure that drives phloem sap translocation. Collecting pure phloem sap is tricky. The solution to the phloem sap collection problem is by necessity ingenious, and uses aphids.

Aphids feed on the sap in phloem, and they do it so effectively – without interrupting sap flow – that their bodies overfill with it, excreting the excess as honeydew. Aphids are able to insert their stylet into the sieve element without reducing the turgor pressure in the phloem, maintaining a continuous flow of sap.

(From Zimmermann and Brown 1971.)

The aphid’s ability to do so neatly solves the problem for scientists of how to collect phloem sap, and only phloem sap: one cuts off the aphid stylet from the aphid, once it is inserted into the sieve element, with a laser. The stylets continue exuding sap even when separated from the insect. It’s an ingenious solution to a tricky problem, and one that came to mind on reading about about the Stanford research.

"We believe we are the first to extract electrons out of living plant cells," said the lead author, WonHyoung Ryu. It is incredibly tricky to directly analyse phloem sap, even though it can be obtained in millilitre quantities. One can imagine it to be orders of magnitude more difficult to directly intercept electron flow between protein complexes, located inside organelles, inside single plant cells. And all without the aid of a ready made nanoprobe like the aphid’s stylet.

The electrons in question are produced during the process of photosynthesis. Light energy is absorbed by photosynthetic reaction centers and then used to split H2O, generating H+ and electrons. The H+ generates a pH gradient across the thylakoid membrane which, together with high energy electrons (e-), reduces inorganic carbon to sugars and polysaccharides. These are the electrons we are interested in. When a molecule of chlorophyll in the reaction center of PSII absorbs a photon, an electron in the chlorophyll is excited to a higher energy state. The state of the electron is highly unstable, so it is rapidly transferred into what is called the electron transfer chain, a series of molecules that flow electrons from one photosystem to another. In fact, as a consequence of the high energy reactions taking place in the photosystem II reaction center, the D1 protein at the core is rapidly degraded and replaced; photoinhibition occurs when the rate of D1 breakdown exceeds the rate of D1 repair, a condition that can occur in high light conditions. Generating high energy electrons is not without cost.

Of course, the electrons are there for a reason. One electron transport chain provides energy for the synthesis of ATP, via chemiosmosis, while the 2e- that reach the end of that electron transport chain reduce the chlorophyll in PSI. When light excites chlorophyll in PSI, its electrons are transferred via another electron transport chain to NADP+ reductase, creating 2NADPH. Both ATP and NADPH are essential molecules, used for transporting chemical energy and the synthesis of lipids and nucleic acid, respectively.

By inserting an Au nanoelectrode into the algal chloroplast, the researchers were able to extract electrons directly from the electron transport chain. Molecules in the electron transport chain donated electrons to the nanoelectrode; electrons were extracted from either plastoquinone (the PQ pool) or Ferrodoxin (Fd), at the point when the electrons were at their highest energy level immediately after being excited by light. The figure below shows the two possible locations of the electrode and the two possible electron donors.


Electrons have been harvested from the electron transport chain before, using chemical mediators such as p-benzoquinone (BQ). To do that, the organelles that contain the photosynthetic apparatus, the thlyakoid membranes, are bathed in a solution of BQ and illuminated. When the light comes on, electrons produced in photosystem II are accepted by BQ, which is reduced to p-hydroquinone (QH2). 

Directly intercepting electrons from the electron transport chain, with an electrode, and without the use of a mediator like BQ, is what makes this such an achievement.

Nothing like this had been done before, and a number of obstacles had to be overcome to do it this time. The nanoprobe had to be designed, it had to be able to penetrate through cell membranes without killing the cell, and the algal cell had to remain stationary. A mutant of Chlamydomonas that has no motility was crossed with a strain of Chlamydomonas with a cell wall minus phenotype, to obtain an algal cell that wouldn’t swim around and, without cell walls, could be easily penetrated by the nanoprobe. The nanoprobe itself was just 100 nm thick, and had to be carefully positioned within the thylakoid stack (see inset box in the figure).

It makes for a fine piece of basic research. However, the reporting on the story focused not so much on the aspects discussed above but on the potential for generating bioelectricity. It’s like visiting a restaurant that makes great steaks, but only ever tries to sell the sizzle. Yet far from this being a story blown out of proportion by the press, bioelectricity generation is the motivation given for the research. The abstract concludes with the following: “This result may represent an initial step in generating “high efficiency” bioelectricity by directly harvesting high energy photosynthetic electrons.” It’s only fair, then, to examine the sizzle.

As their introduction states, “abundant solar energy is stored and converted into chemical bond energy by photosynthesis… one approach for extracting energy from the photosynthetic conversion process is to harvest the biomass stored as polysaccharide and convert it to ethanol, longer chain alcohols or hydrogen.”

True, and there is a theoretical limit to how much solar energy can be converted this way to polysaccharide; around 25-27 %, although in the real world this conversion efficiency is considerably lower.

So what can be done about it? “To increase the efficiency of light energy conversion, we evaluated the feasibility of generating bioelectricity by extracting e- from the photosynthetic electron transport (PET) chain before they are used to fix CO2… This approach potentially reduces energy losses associated with the multistep transformation of solar energy into products used for the production of biodiesel and bioelectricity.”

Ryu described the amount of electricity drawn from the cell, one picoampere, as “so tiny that they would need a trillion cells photosynthesising for one hour just to equal the amount of energy stored in an AA battery”. And there’s the rub. It may be a more efficient way of tapping solar energy than burning biofuels, but it isn’t any where near as effective. Solar energy isn’t a limiting factor for plant life and it isn’t complicated to grow a crop. Biofuels as a means of utilising solar energy may not always be economical, and may even be carbon positive, but they do work, and they work at meaningful scales of power generation.

In contrast, this isn’t a technique for producing useful bioelectricity, and nor will it be anytime soon. Stealing electrons from the process of photosynthesis in algal cells was not without consequence, as the cells died after about an hour. The amount of current harvested didn’t exceed the energy used in running the experiment (that is, the voltage applied to the electrode), so there was no net gain. Even the suggestion of scaling up the size of the chloroplast and electrode, to be able to capture more electrons, won’t solve the problem of the vanishingly small amounts of current involved, the technical challenges of fixing the cells so they don’t move, the difficulty of correctly inserting an electrode into each cell, and then having to start all over after an hour when the cell dies. It may be a more efficient conversion of solar energy to electricity than biofuels, but that’s just sizzle. 

The meat of the story can be found, at least for me, in just a single line in their introduction:

“In addition, the system allows direct monitoring of specific charge transfer reactions in live cells, leading to broad applications for investigating developmental processes and the responses of cells and organelles to light and chemical stimuli.”

It didn’t need to be sold as a breakthrough in clean energy. For photosynthesis research, the effort to elucidate one of the most important biological reactions on Earth, this technique is a great investigative tool. It’s as innovative as the aphid’s stylet, a true milestone in scientific discovery and an exciting piece of research. That’s more than good enough.


Neatly underscoring just how unusual the winter of 2009-2010 was here in Canada, the Ottawa Tulip Festival is facing the prospect of a lack of tulips.

CBC reports that crews have already started pulling up some tulip beds a week before the festival is even due to start.

It isn’t all bad. The late blooming beds are still going strong, although they might not last the full two weeks of the Festival. And there are some beds that have yet to flower.


Yes, this winter it snowed in Europe and the U.S. But it was damn hot up here.

Climate Scientist Sues National Post for Libel

Weaver Seeks Unprecedented Order to Remove Stories That “Poison” the Internet

VANCOUVER, BRITISH COLUMBIA–(Marketwire – April 21, 2010) – University of Victoria Professor Andrew Weaver, the Canada Research Chair in Climate Modelling and Analysis, launched a lawsuit today in BC Supreme Court against three writers at The National Post (and the newspaper as a whole), over a series of unjustified libels based on grossly irresponsible falsehoods that have gone viral on the Internet.

In a statement released at the same time the suit was filed, Dr. Weaver said, “I asked The National Post to do the right thing – to retract a number of recent articles that attributed to me statements I never made, accused me of things I never did, and attacked me for views I never held. To my absolute astonishment, the newspaper refused.”

Dr. Weaver’s statement of claim not only asks for a Court injunction requiring The National Post to remove all of the false allegations from its Internet websites, but also seeks an unprecedented Court order requiring the newspaper to assist Dr. Weaver in removing the defamatory National Post articles from the many other Internet sites where they have been re-posted.

“If I sit back and do nothing to clear my name, these libels will stay on the Internet forever. They’ll poison the factual record, misleading people who are looking for reliable scientific information about global warming,” said Weaver.

The suit names Financial Post Editor Terence Corcoran, columnist Peter Foster, reporter Kevin Libin and National Post publisher Gordon Fisher, as well as several still-unidentified editors and copy editors. It seeks general, aggravated damages, special and exemplary damages and legal costs in relation to articles by Foster on December 9, 2009 (“Weaver’s Web”), Corcoran on December 10, 2009 (“Weaver’s Web II”) and January 27, 2010 (“Climate Agency going up in flames”), and Libin on February 2, 2010 (“So much for pure science”).

The Statement of Claim was filed April 20, 2010 at the BC Supreme Court Registry at the Vancouver Courthouse: Weaver v Corcoran and others, SCBC No.102698, Vancouver Registry. Court record information and documents are publicly accessible online at Court Services Online: https://eservice.ag.gov.bc.ca/cso/index.do.

Good luck to Professor Weaver with the suit. Even if the Post is forced to remove the false allegations, they will be up against the Streisand Effect when it comes to taking down reposts on other websites. Which may be the point of the court injunction; the Sisyphean task may be onerous enough to make them think twice about defaming him.

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