Robotics expert helps global leaders decide ‘killer robots’ policies

12 May 2014

• Robotics expert invited to UN to debate pros and cons of autonomous weapons
• Nations to consider questions relating to the technical, ethical, legal and military/operational issues of ‘killer robots’
• Governments meeting for the first time to discuss the use of fully autonomous weapons systems

One of the world’s leading robotics experts is heading to the United Nations this week to help global leaders understand the pros and cons of lethal autonomous weapons systems. 

Professor Noel Sharkey from the University of Sheffield’s Department of Computer Science is holding a debate with Professor Ronald Arkin from the Georgia Institute of Technology at the UN’s Convention of Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW) in Geneva to explore the growing global concern over the dangers of ‘killer robots’. Professor Noel Sharkey from the University of Sheffield's Department of Computer Science

During recent years, a number of leading robotics experts, international aid agencies and governments have become increasingly concerned about the dangers posed by lethal autonomous weapons systems amid the growing technological advances being made in the field.

As a result of these concerns, an international campaign has started to stop the development of ‘killer robots’ which can be used to identify and attack a target without human intervention.

Professor Sharkey, who is a world renowned expert in robotics and artificial intelligence at the University of Sheffield, said: “We are a group of concerned academics who have been pushing for international discussion on this issue for the last 5 years.

“We launched a campaign from the House of Commons last year calling for a new international treaty to be developed to prohibit these weapons systems. Although fully autonomous weapons are not in operation yet, a number of states are well underway in research, development and testing of related technologies. Weapons with greater levels of autonomy are already starting to be put in action.”

During a UN meeting last year, a new mandate on lethal autonomous weapons systems was agreed. The mandate instructed the organisation of this week’s ‘Meeting of Experts’ to discuss the questions related to emerging technologies in this field, marking the first time governments are holding dedicated discussions on the issue.

Following the meeting, a report will be submitted to member states to objectively reflect on the discussions held.

“If we do not put an end to this trend for automating warfare now, we could face a very bleak future where machines are delegated with the decision to kill humans. This is perhaps the ultimate human indignity and crosses a fundamental moral line which needs to be considered and addressed,” Professor Sharkey added.

The first round of discussions will take place in Geneva from 13-16 May 2014. Governments, civil society, international organisations and other experts, will discuss technical, ethical, legal and military/operational issues around autonomous weapons systems. A decision on next steps will be taken at the annual meeting of the Convention on Conventional Weapons at the UN in November 2014.

Additional information

The University of Sheffield

With almost 25,000 of the brightest students from around 120 countries, learning alongside over 1,200 of the best academics from across the globe, the University of Sheffield is one of the world’s leading universities.

A member of the UK’s prestigious Russell Group of leading research-led institutions, Sheffield offers world-class teaching and research excellence across a wide range of disciplines.

Unified by the power of discovery and understanding, staff and students at the university are committed to finding new ways to transform the world we live in.

In 2011 it was named University of the Year in the Times Higher Education Awards and in the last decade has won four Queen’s Anniversary Prizes in recognition of the outstanding contribution to the United Kingdom’s intellectual, economic, cultural and social life.

Sheffield has five Nobel Prize winners among former staff and students and its alumni go on to hold positions of great responsibility and influence all over the world, making significant contributions in their chosen fields.

Global research partners and clients include Boeing, Rolls-Royce, Unilever, AstraZeneca, Glaxo SmithKline and Siemens, as well as many UK and overseas government agencies and charitable foundations.


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Bucks Groan Loud and Fast to Get the Girl

See Inside
Scientific American Volume 310, Issue 5

A fallow buck judges a rival’s call to tell whether he can be trounced in a mating contest

May 1, 2014
|By Jason G. Goldman


When a male fallow deer wants to mate, he isn’t shy about letting everyone around him know. The males, also called fallow bucks, can produce their mating calls as many as 3,000 times each hour during the mating season. Those calls serve two functions: to attract females and to deter rival males. Yet there is more hidden in the groans of fallow bucks than first meets the ear, according to a new study in Behavioral Ecology.

Every October around 25 bucks gather in Petworth Park in England’s county of West Sussex, where each stakes out a territory, hoping to entice a female at a feral conclave of romance, combat and deer calling, an event known as a lek. “Leks are really rare in mammals, and they’re really rare in ungulates. Fallow deer are the only species of deer that we know that lek,” says Alan McElligott of Queen Mary, University of London, who oversaw the study.

Mating calls reveal information about the caller, such as body size or dominance rank, which is useful both to interested females and to rival males—and every conceivable type of fallow deer utterance turns up at the lek. In one study, McElligott found that the quality of groans decreased over time. “The mature bucks stop eating for a couple of weeks,” over the course of the lek, McElligott explains, so “they are really worn out.”

That fatigue is reflected in their calls, but do other males notice? Because the lek is such a spectacle, the deer in Petworth Park are accustomed to human interlopers, which allowed Queen Mary postdoctoral scholar Benjamin J. Pitcher to cart a sound system around without interrupting the festivities.

Broadcasting prerecorded calls, he discovered that deer can distinguish those made early in mating season, when males are still healthy, from those made later, once they are fatigued. If a rival male sounds exhausted, it might be worth trying to displace him from his territory. If a subordinate male is to challenge a dominant one, it is best to be sure that he can actually win.

Protesters Clash with Police over Waste Incinerator Plan in East China

BEIJING (Reuters) – Protesters in eastern China clashed with police at a rally against plans to build a huge waste incinerator that residents fear will be harmful to their health and add to pollution.

Choking smog blankets many Chinese cities and the environmental degradation resulting from the country’s breakneck economic growth is angering its increasingly well-educated and affluent population.

Two of the protesters told Reuters that the demonstrations, which have lasted for more than two weeks, turned violent with hundreds of police descending onto the streets of Yuhang, close to the tourist city of Hangzhou.

“There have certainly been injuries,” one of the protesters, Wu Yunfeng, said by telephone. “The police have closed down the roads into Yuhang and locked the site down.”

Another protester, who declined to give her name, said several police cars had been overturned.

A police officer, reached by telephone, said the demonstration had already ended. He declined to provide further details.

Reuters was unable to reach the local government for comment.

On Friday, the official Hangzhou Daily newspaper defended the construction of the incinerator, saying the technology it would use was safe and up to standard.

Hangzhou, capital of prosperous Zhejiang province and best known in China as the site of a famous lake, has seen its lustre dimmed in recent years by a recurrent smog problem.

Pictures on China’s Twitter-like Weibo site showed police fighting with protesters and at least two protesters with blood streaming down their faces.

Another picture showed several hundred people surrounding a large group of police.

“We don’t want our children and grandchildren to get cancer. Give us back our beautiful home,” read one letter of protest carried on Weibo.

Reuters was not able to independently verify the pictures’ authenticity.

About 90,000 “mass incidents” – a euphemism for protests – occur each year in China, triggered by corruption, pollution, illegal land grabs and other grievances.

Late in March, hundreds of residents of the southern town of Maoming staged protests against plans to build a petrochemical plant there, for fear it would contribute to pollution.

(Reporting by Ben Blanchard and Matthew Miller; Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky)

Weight Gain During Pregnancy May Protect Babies from Chemicals

Gaining more weight during pregnancy can substantially reduce a baby’s exposure to pesticides that accumulate in a mother’s body, according to new research


Gaining more weight during pregnancy can substantially reduce a baby’s exposure to pesticides that have accumulated in a mother’s body, according to new research.

Pregnant women who don’t gain enough weight lose fat when the fetus grows. This releases fat-soluble chemicals such as DDT into the bloodstream, which reaches the fetus.

“This study suggests that sufficient weight gain during pregnancy may help to dilute certain chemicals that store in fat, reducing exposure to the fetus,” said Jonathan Chevrier, an epidemiologist at McGill University in Montreal who did not participate in the research.

Exposure to persistent organic pollutants, or POPs, in the womb has been linked to developmental disorders and learning delays, reduced immune system function and changes in hormones.

Only a few studies have investigated how pregnancy weight gain may affect a baby’s exposures.

In the new study, scientists compared weight gain for 325 expectant mothers from Avilés, Spain, with the levels of 35 chemicals in their babies’ umbilical cord blood. Included were brominated flame retardants, organochlorine pesticides such as DDT and polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs.

The babies’ exposure to all the chemicals decreased as pregnancy weight gain increased, according to the study. However, when the scientists accounted for other factors known to influence concentrations – such as a mother’ s age and how much fish she ate – the association was significant for only two chemicals: a byproduct of the insecticide lindane called beta-HCH and a DDT metabolite.

DDT was banned in the United States in 1972 because it was building up in the environment. Agricultural use of lindane was banned in 2006 due to concerns over its effects on the nervous system.

For every pound of pregnancy weight gain, the researchers saw a 0.75 percent decrease in DDE in the cord blood and a 1.4 percent decrease in beta-HCH. For the average woman who gained about 31 pounds during pregnancy, that’s about a 22 percent decrease in DDE and a 42 percent decrease in beta-HCH.

The researchers from Spain’s University of Oviedo wrote that if a pregnant woman has inadequate body fat, she could lose fat stores during the last trimester, when the baby grows rapidly. “This mobilization effect to meet the fetal demand may trigger the release of POPs to the bloodstream, where they may become available and cross the placenta barrier,” they said in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives.

The U.S. Institute of Medicine and the World Health Organization recommend that normal-weight women (determined by the Body Mass Index) gain between 25 and 35 pounds during pregnancy. In the new study, more than 40 percent of mothers gained excessive weight while 25 percent of mothers gained too little. Mothers were asked to recall their own starting weight, so it’s possible that some may have gained more or less than recorded.

For PCBs, there may have been no significant link to weight gain because the mothers’ consumption of fish is a stronger factor determining their babies’ exposures. PCBs have been linked to reduced IQs and other effects in children exposed in the womb.

This article originally ran at Environmental Health News, a news source published by Environmental Health Sciences, a nonprofit media company.

Fracking Fluid Rules Considered by Feds

By Valerie Volcovici

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The Obama administration announced its first steps on Friday toward what could be tighter regulation of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, that has revived U.S. oil and gas production, seeking public input on whether companies should be forced to disclose the contents of so-called fracking fluids.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said it would gather public comment for 90 days on whether it should require chemical manufacturers to disclose what is in the fluids that are injected into shale seams to release trapped oil or gas, a technology that has transformed the oil and gas industry.

The so-called “advanced notice of proposed rulemaking” came as a response to a petition by the environmental group Earthjustice under a section of the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA). The act enables anyone to petition the EPA to initiate an amendment or repeal of rules requiring chemical testing, imposing regulatory controls and requiring information.

The EPA said its notice may not result in any formal measures at all, and it would consider non-regulatory approaches.

“Today’s announcement represents an important step in increasing the public’s access to information on chemicals used in hydraulic fracturing activities,” said James Jones, EPA’s assistant administrator for the Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention.

He told reporters Friday that the agency wants to use the process to learn what is happening at the state level and what voluntary mechanisms are available for reporting.

Although drillers fear greater disclosure may jeopardize commercially secret formula for the fluids they use to coax the maximum oil or gas out of a given well, the industry has become more transparent in recent years, responding to concerns about potential public health implications of fracking.

Hydraulic fracturing is regulated on a state-by-state basis and currently does not face significant federal oversight. Some of the biggest oil and gas producing states already require some level of disclosure about the mix of chemicals and fluids they use to frack thousands of wells across the country.

Earthjustice had asked the EPA to require chemical manufacturers and processors to publish detailed information about the content of fluids used in fracking. It also requested that those companies submit all health and safety studies available on those fluid mixtures.

The EPA had denied other parts of Earthjustice’s 2011 petition, including a request for companies to conduct toxicity tests on fracking liquids. The agency said in its initial response to the 2011 petition that it would take an approach that would “minimize reporting burdens and costs” and try to avoid duplication.

Deborah Goldberg, an attorney with Earthjustice, said Friday that stringent federal rules are needed because not all states are equipped to regulate.

“Some of the states do something. Some don’t. A lot of the disclosure they require is enforced rarely and poorly,” she said.

(Reporting by Valerie Volcovici; Editing by Jonathan Leff, Ros Krasny, Susan Heavey and Nick Zieminski)

To Hades and Back: Snailfish Surprise in the Kermadec Trench

Source: NOAA

ABOARD THE R/V THOMAS G. THOMPSON—On the scale of the Pacific Ocean, the Kermadec Trench looks like a thin line snaking down from southwest to northeast just off the northeastern tip of New Zealand’s North Island. But when you zoom in and look even at the coarse detail that the ship’s multi-beam sonar can reveal, you see features that, unless you fly airplanes for a living, exceed the scale and grandeur of anyone’s daily experience. Then you overlay the line marking a typical mile-long Nereus transect and you have to zoom in even further to make it something other than just a dot on the map.

The trench reaches a depth of 10,047 meters and there is no way to grasp the enormity and complexity of what’s down there because there is nothing up here with which to compare it. And we only have pinpricks of images and samples on which to hang our language and ideas to describe it. Yet scientists have only recently been able to peel back some of the overlaying depths to paint in the broadest strokes an image of life in the deep, life that shares the planet with us, and how it is able to survive on a part of the planet that is so alien to us. Part of the reason they are able to do so is because of the development of tools like Nereus.

Mario Fernandez, Casey Machado, Tim Shank, and Santiago Herrera (left to right) in the Nereus control room during an 8-hour dive to 6,000 meters. (Photo by Ken Kostel, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution)

Nereus went to 7,000 meters today and took almost eight hours to get down and back. In the additional eight hours it spent on the seafloor, scientists watching rapt through a bank of monitors on the ship collected 16 sediment cores, specimens of seven organisms, and hours of ultra high-definition video that will be poured over for months or years to come. And yet it only traveled one kilometer along a feature that is more than one thousand kilometers long and contains countless small habitats, cracks and crevasses where things could hide and almost certainly are hiding. Still, the sediment samples will almost certainly tell us something about the diversity of microbial life in the Kermadec, the animals collected will help quantify how much carbon is taken up by hadal organisms or how proteins manage to fold correctly under adverse conditions, and the imagery will give hard data about the sheer abundance and diversity of things living on what was once thought to be a barren seafloor.

Mario Fernandez, Casey Machado, Tim Shank, and Santiago Herrera (left to right) in the Nereus control room during an 8-hour dive to 6,000 meters. (Photo by Ken Kostel, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution)

Once Nereus is safely on deck, a scrum of scientists collects samples from the vehicle’s payload basket. (Photo by Ken Kostel, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution)

“The small number of samples we have beginning in the 1950s changed the way we think about trenches,” said Tim Shank, a biologist from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and chief scientist on this National Science Foundation-funded mission. “I’m not surprised if I get surprised anymore about life in the deep sea. And I don’t think I’ve seen even the beginning of what’s down there.”

We had a pleasant surprise yesterday, as well, when the hadal lander came back and a first look at the video elicited groans from the Aberdeen group because the baited pole was hanging over the edge of a small cliff. In the past, such a placement would mean hours of nothing on video because snailfish, the one fish species found at that depth, essentially pass out if they expend too much energy and so spend all their time moving languidly along the seafloor.

Partway into the collection of one-minute video clips, however, a snailfish could be seen doing something it had never been seen to do before: swim up. In an instant, the conception of the snailfish as a purely benthic species was rewritten.

Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) biologist and cruise chief scientist Tim Shank examines a shrimp brought up in a fish trap deployment. Shank has described three species of hydrothermal vent shrimp over the course of his career. (Photo by Ken Kostel, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution)

University of Hawaii biology grad student Mackenzie Gerringer dissects one of two snailfish recovered from 7,000 meters. (Photo by Ken Kostel, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution)

This is puzzling because theoretically fish shouldn’t be able to survive deeper than about 8,500 meters, and if they can swim up in the water column they might just decide to migrate deeper at some point to take advantage of the food and habitat down there. But at some point beyond that depth the difference in osmotic pressure between fish cells and seawater flips, meaning that the cellular physiology in fish would have to change in order to expel water rather than keep it in. Some marine fish can do this (think of salmon returning from the ocean to spawn), but they take time for their physiology to reboot and they have evolved the mechanism to do so.

And all this because the lander accidentally found itself perched on the edge of a cliff! What would researchers have found if the lander had been turned the other way or if Nereus had gone a different direction on one of its transects? Something even more amazing? More of what we already know? Nothing at all? It would be easy to become paralyzed by the size of our efforts in relation to the enormity of the trench and the challenges it takes to get there. The key is to not think of all the missed opportunities or random chances, but rather to focus on the data that’s come in because we are making the effort and on the much richer, more detailed picture that will be drawn of life on Earth if we continue to explore this massive, unexplored ecosystem.

“I think as a species if we’re toing to think about life on this planet and what it takes to survive on our planet, we better understand what’s going on in trenches,” said Shank.

[embedded content]

Mapping with Multibeam from Woods Hole Oceanographic Inst. on Vimeo.

[embedded content]

Understanding Deep-Sea Fish from Woods Hole Oceanographic Inst. on Vimeo.

The Strangest Objects Ever Shot into Space – The Countdown #47

Deli meat, sporting equipment and colonial artifacts are just some of the random objects astronauts have carried with them into orbit. In this episode of The Countdown we share five of the weirdest ones.

Host/writer: Sophie Bushwick
Production assistant: William Herkewitz
Edited by Kathryn Free & Eric R. Olson
Producer: Eric R. Olson

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Comment: Russell Brand English A Level will be refreshing and rigorous

Andrew Linn, Professor of History and Linguistics at the University of Sheffield, comments on proposals by exam board OCR to introduce a new English A-level featuring comedian Russell Brand’s evidence to a committee of MPs on drug addiction and treatment.

Russell Brand English A Level will be refreshing and rigorous

by Professor Andrew Linn, 9 May 2014, posted on The Conversation

The exam board OCR recently announced a new English Language and Literature A Level that they intend to offer from 2015. The proposed syllabus boasts that “the range of texts to be studied is to be the most diverse yet for any English A Level”. The spread covers Emily Dickinson and William Blake, but also more recent non-literary and spoken material. OCR’s press release cites Russell Brand’s presentation to the parliamentary committee on drug addiction and Jeremy Paxman’s interview with rapper Dizzee Rascal on BBC’s Newsnight as examples.

Few things raise blood pressures more precipitously than the nature and quality of education, and when combined with the spectre of cultural and linguistic change, this upbeat and apparently innocuous press release was destined to unleash a splenetic torrent of complaint.

Straight English Literature A Level will have a different syllabus, as will English Language. This combined language and literature course will be about recognising and analysing the cornucopia of ways in which language can and does function, using both literary and linguistic techniques to achieve that. And this is something to be celebrated.

I will come straight off the fence and say that I think the proposals look like they will be both refreshing and rigorous. Of course, not everyone shares this enthusiasm. A Department of Education source is quoted as saying that: “Schools should be aware that if they offer this rubbish in place of a proper A-level, then pupils may not get into good universities.” And there are many comments peppering articles on the subject along the lines that “Britain has had it” and “this is awful”.

We see a more measured response in Laura Barton’s piece in the Guardian. “Language evolves – get over it”, she says. Newsnight, on the other hand, concluded its broadcast on May 7 with a rerun of part of the interview with “Mr Rascal”, subtitled in mock Shakespearean. So for, against, or just taking the piss, the chattering classes are doing what they do best.

But this is not the first time there has been blood on the carpet over the English syllabus. When it was suggested to the Regius Professor of History at Oxford in 1877 that the teaching of English Literature be associated with the School of Modern History, he replied: “To have the History School hampered with dilettante teaching, such as the teaching of English Literature, must necessarily do great harm to the School.”

Agonising over whether teaching English would be, in the words of the Professor of Moral Philosophy, “to reverse the Renaissance”, delayed the establishment of the Oxford English School until 1894. And to convince their opponents of the rigour of the degree, the syllabus committee prescribed compulsory study of the dead Gothic language as a counterweight to the “miserably inadequate training” offered by such options as “Authors from 1700 to 1832”. So there is a century-long tradition of those who are not themselves teachers or students of English seeking to protect their own position by inveighing against any innovation in this domain.

It was English literature that was viewed as being too “soft”, too “frivolous” to study a century and a half ago. Today, it is non-literary uses of language that have become the whipping boy. But there is plenty that a student of English could learn from Russell Brand’s speech to the parliamentary committee. It is an incongruous moment when Russell Brand enters the formally structured and formally clad arena and Keith Vaz MP bids him “have a seat”. This in and of itself provides food for thought and analysis.

It is clear from his first utterance that Brand does not speak with an RP accent. What are the phonetic and phonological features which make him recognisably different from his interlocutor, the effortlessly smooth Vaz, and how can these be described using the appropriate technical tools? Does his pronunciation matter? What is the rhetorical impact of its juxtaposition to his complex syntax and vocabulary (what Brand calls his “propensity for verbosity”)? Should some forms of language be reserved for some contexts and not others? What happens when our expectations in this respect are challenged? What makes for effective rhetoric – and is this just a matter of linguistic choice, or is making a striking and memorable presentation about more than just the language forms we select?

The Department of Education needn’t fret. Any student who has thought hard about and engaged with the richness of language by asking and finding answers to questions like these will be welcome at the good university in which I work.

English – as a language – is not a gold standard to be admired from afar. It is a repertoire performed as much by the Secret Footballer as by Shakespeare, and the parts of that repertoire worth studying – tweet or tetrameter – are those which surprise us into thinking differently about the world.

Compulsory Gothic, anyone?

Tornado Forecaster Moonlights as Great Plains Storm Chaser [Slide Show]

“Have you seen a 5-inch hailstone?” asks John Allen. “Seeing a stone like that is pretty amazing. Seeing it fall? Pretty amazing. Being in Oklahoma, when there’s a Porsche dealership outside the gas station you’re hiding (in), and hearing the hailstones hit Porsches? Kinda fun.”

Allen, 27, is 6-foot-5 with reddish-brown hair and grey eyes behind rimless glasses. He leans forward, gesturing gracefully as he speaks, fingers rotating and pulling the air to illustrate his favorite subject: severe weather. It is a subject that has enthralled him since childhood, and enticed him to move from his native Australia; the United States, with its tumultuous weather, is the ideal location for severe storm research.

Behind Allen, sunlight streams through the lobby windows of the International Research Institute for Climate and Society in Palisades, north of New York City. The only break in the placid scene is the jarring photograph of forked lightning on his laptop screen, a picture Allen took the first time he brought his wife storm chasing with him in Australia.

>> Click here to view the slide show

When he’s not researching tornado prediction and climate change, Allen drives 10,000 miles a year chasing storms across America’s Great Plains, home of the world’s strongest and most numerous tornadoes. “In Australia it’s a little bit benign,” Allen says. “There’s a lot more power (in the U.S.). You have a lot more respect for what the atmosphere can do here.” His work tries to make order of a swirl of day-to-day forecasting, the larger-scale fluctuations of climate, the excitement of storm chasing and the exactitude of science.

The western suburbs of Sydney, where Allen grew up, are prone to hailstorms. In the early 1990s, storms rained 3-inch hail on houses and cars. “I’d go outside and measure the hailstone after they fell,” he says. Once, “I actually went out during the hail storm, which promptly got me yanked back inside.”

As a teenager, he drove into the country in search of storms with his Minolta camera. He began chasing more seriously after meeting fellow storm chaser Brad Hannon on a hilltop during a lightning storm in Melbourne.

“[John] and I chase very well together,” Hannon says. “I’m better at driving on the chase, and John’s very good at navigating and interpreting data on the fly.”

In college, Allen’s interest in meteorology blossomed into a career. He earned his PhD in meteorology at the University of Melbourne, studying how climate change will impact severe weather in Australia.

“He’s got this combination of excellent observational skills from taking photographs (and) understanding of the day-to-day severe weather . . . but also the understanding of the larger-scale climate variations,” says David Karoly, his academic advisor at Melbourne. “Most people work on either the climate or they work on severe weather – but not on combining the two.”

Allen came to the U.S. for a post-doctoral position at Columbia University, joining prediction specialist Michael Tippett to develop a seasonal tornado forecast. Allen’s suited for the work because he has both scientific and practical knowledge, says Tippett. “That’s really an important part of our work, having someone who can provide that.”

The tornado forecasts they’re developing are based on environmental conditions associated with tornadoes and hail. They focus especially on assessing the rain potential of storm clouds and on wind shear — the sometimes-chaotic variation in the direction and speed of wind at various heights.

Currently, the federal government’s Storm Prediction Center forecasts the likely locations of severe weather events five to eight days in advance. Allen wants to make predictions reliable at least a month out. We already have seasonal predictions for other weather events, like rainfall or hurricanes, he says. “What if we could know that May is going to be an incredibly hectic month?”

Though the predictions Allen is working on are promising, they’re not yet reliable, in part because he hasn’t been issuing them long enough to have an assessable track record. “One of the big challenges is getting a long enough dataset we can evaluate it on,” says Harold Brooks, a meteorologist at the National Severe Storms Laboratory in Norman, Okla. “We’ve got a bunch of questions (such as) does it work better some times of the year than others?”

The need for reliable longer-term forecasts is more urgent than ever, as some elements of severe weather become more common with climate change and a growing population moves into more storm-prone areas. Reliable tornado prediction is especially important in the Great Plains states, where the tumultuous weather has awed Allen since his first storm-chasing trip in the U.S. in 2010.

“The absolute power of watching a storm go from nothing to a tower 60,000 feet into the air, and producing no hail to baseballs inside 10 minutes is mind-blowing,” he says.

It’s hard to return to working at a computer after that. “It inspires me, though, because I’ll see something out in the field . . . and it’ll start me onto another research path,” Allen says. “Sometimes taking a step out is actually the best thing you could possibly do for your research.”

Storm chasers are a diverse lot, encompassing thrill seekers, researchers collecting data, and people who just want to glimpse some of the planet’s most extreme weather. What draws him, Allen says, is “the fact that a structure can exist in the sky, built out of cloud, that looks incredibly organized, and yet the whole system is completely chaotic.”

Yet the other side of this beautiful chaos is the obliteration storms cause, which every storm chaser must wrestle with. “You see this storm start to form into the most diabolical tornado,” he says, and, “you realize you’re powerless to stop it . . . and you know that people are going to die.”

Allen has seen the destruction up close. Near Piedmont, Okla., in 2011, pink chunks of insulation, 2-by-4s, and a Barbie doll fell from the sky around his car. He saw the vast “column of nothing” left in the nearby town of Moore last year. And in Grove, also in Oklahoma, while avoiding the 2011 tornado that plowed through Joplin, Mo., he found a trailer that had been tossed 400 yards and splayed open, its carriage ripped out. Through the shredded trees he glimpsed boots, a piece of couch, a chair.

“Seeing things like that really makes you realize how much damage these things are doing,” he says. “They’re tearing up someone’s life.”

Allen takes measures to minimize the risks. He plans escape routes, doesn’t over-rely on radar, and avoids crowded metropolitan areas where projectiles and panicked drivers multiply. Finally, he keeps his distance from funnel clouds – 1 to 3 miles or more, depending on how fast and volatile the storm.

“It scares the living heck out of me when I see people (who) don’t treat the storm with respect,” he says. “There are some people who do it in a very dangerous fashion.”

One of the victims of the enormous tornado that hit El Reno, Okla., last spring was a man who tried to get a closer look but had no experience with storms. “He was literally an amateur who’d never seen a storm before in his life,” says Allen. “He went out and took a picture with his cellphone and was dead 10 minutes later.”

The safest way for amateurs to get involved, Allen says, is to join an experienced chaser or even a storm chasing tour group, most of which drive very safely and don’t get too close.

“What’s a better situation: a person who has no idea what they’re doing going out and chasing a storm,” Allen says, “or someone with a group of people that has a professional forecaster (and) a professional driver used to driving in severe weather conditions who can keep them safe?”

None of those steps eliminates risk, even for a skilled chaser like Allen. Once, while setting up his camera, Allen felt static in the air and dropped to the ground moments before a lightning bolt crashed 20 yards up the road (“I’m a bit of a lightning rod,” he says). Another time, he drove right through a weak tornado to avoid the 3-inch hailstones raining next to it.

And last spring, in El Reno, Allen and his wife, Rose, found themselves in the path of the storm that spawned a 2.6 mile-wide tornado. The May 31 storm unexpectedly accelerated from 25 mph to nearly 60 mph and changed direction. Three experienced storm-chasing researchers died, the first ever killed by a tornado; a Weather Channel vehicle was thrown 200 yards, injuring the crew.

“We ended up about a mile off that monster tornado with 318 mph winds racing behind us,” Allen says. As the storm moved toward Oklahoma City, he and his wife became gridlocked among thousands who’d fled. Luckily, the tornado collapsed and the storm eased before reaching them.

Tornadoes like El Reno, while harrowing, won’t stop Allen from riding into the field armed with camera, maps, and a first-aid kit. He doesn’t want to give up the warm, moist smell rolling off the cornfields as a storm draws in air, or winds too strong to stand in, or the cannons of thunder and waterfall roar of an approaching tornado, or the feeling in the air, charged and humid. “The atmosphere is almost primed,” says Allen. “It feels like something’s about to explode.”

Soon, Allen hopes to bring his research into the field by using sounding balloons to collect data on how storms transform the surrounding air. “People think I’m a bit of a weather weenie,” he says. “I happily take that term.”

This article is reproduced with permission from Climate Central. The article was first published on May 7, 2014.

Sudsy Science: Creating Homemade Bath Bombs

Bring Science Home

A Mother’s Day Treat from Science Buddies

May 8, 2014
|By Science Buddies


Key concepts
Chemical reaction
Have you ever had a refreshing bath with bubbles or bath salts? What if you could use chemistry to create a bath-time treat that incorporated both fizzing bubbles and soothing salts? Such a combination does exist, and it’s called a bath bomb. If you have never experienced one, these “bombs” become fizzy when they touch the water. Why? It is due to a chemical reaction taking place between different ingredients within the bath bomb. In this activity you’ll get to make your own homemade bath bombs and explore how changing the ratio of the ingredients affects how much the bath bomb fizzes when it comes into contact with water. Then you can use your perfected method to make some bath bombs as a gift for Mother’s Day!
Bath bombs can have a wide range of ingredients, including bath salts (which can help sooth muscles), food coloring, fragrances and other components. There are, however, a few key ingredients that most homemade recipes have: baking soda and citric acid. Why is this? When baking soda and citric acid are mixed and are then put in water, they undergo a chemical reaction. The reaction produces lots of bubbles, which you see as the bath bomb dissolves in the water. These bubbles that make the water become so fizzy are made of carbon dioxide gas.
Another ingredient that is often used in homemade bath bombs is cornstarch. This ingredient can act as a dry “filler” that gets mixed in with the reactive baking soda and citric acid in the bath bombs. In this activity you’ll explore how changing the amount of cornstarch filler affects how fizzy the bath bombs turn out and you’ll figure out what goes into making the most impressive bath bomb.

  • Citric acid (This is usually available at grocery stores in the canning section.)
  • Baking soda
  • Cornstarch
  • Water
  • Measuring spoons
  • Vegetable oil
  • Food coloring (at least two different colors)
  • Medicine dropper
  • Forks and spoons for mixing
  • Optional ingredients to add to your bath bombs: Epsom salts and fragrance (such as essential oils).
  • Four bowls
  • A muffin tray or ice cube tray (If you are using a muffin tray, you can dry the bath bombs for 45 minutes in an oven or overnight at room temperature. If you live in a very humid environment, it’s recommended to oven dry the bath bombs. If you use an ice cube tray, however, you can only dry the bath bombs overnight at room temperature.)
  • A bathtub to make a hot bath and test your bath bombs in


  • If you are using a muffin tray, preheat the oven to 170 degrees Fahrenheit (or its lowest setting). Always have an adult help when using the oven.
  • Note that the recipe amounts given in this activity are for approximately filling one muffin cup, or about three ice cube cups, but this greatly depends on the exact size of the cups in your muffin or ice cube tray. If you want to make additional bath bombs, you can double or triple the recipes.


  • In one bowl mix one and one third tablespoons (tbsps.) of citric acid, two and two thirds tbsps. of baking soda and two tbsps. of cornstarch. If you are using Epsom salts, you can also add two teaspoons (tsps.) to the mix.
  • In a second bowl mix one tsp. of vegetable oil, one tsp. of water and two drops of food coloring. If you want to include fragrance, also add 15 drops into the mixture. Be sure to rinse and clean the medicine dropper and measuring spoons in between measuring the different ingredients.
  • Using a clean medicine dropper, add a few drops of the wet mixture to the dry ingredients in the first bowl. What happens when you add a drop of the wet mixture? You should see it fizz—this is the bath bomb reaction taking place! Because you don’t want the bath bombs to react yet, quickly press down on the fizzy spot with the back of a clean spoon. This should stop the fizziness. Mix in the damp spot with the rest of the ingredients in the bowl. Repeat this process until you have added, and thoroughly mixed in, all of the wet ingredients (a few drops at a time) to the dry ingredients.
  • Tip: Part of the challenge of making homemade bath bombs is adding the right amount of wet ingredients. If you live in a humid environment, you may not need to add all of the wet ingredients. If the bath bomb mixture appears to continue to puff up even after you have thoroughly mixed in some wet ingredients, then the mixture may be too wet. If this happens, start over making the bath bombs from the beginning, but this time use less water in the recipe. If you find that this first recipe works better using less water, adjust the following bath bomb recipe similarly.
  • Use a clean medicine dropper to drop one drop of vegetable oil into each cup on the tray that you will be using. Then use a finger to spread the oil all around each cup’s surface.
  • Fill one of the tray’s cups with the bath bomb mixture. Add a spoonful at a time and use the back of the spoon and/or the palm of your hand to press the mixture down into the cup continually as the mixture is added to the cup. If you are filling multiple cups, evenly divide up the mixture between them.
  • In a third bowl combine one tbsp. of citric acid, two tbsps. of baking soda and three tbsps. of cornstarch. If you are using Epsom salts, add in two tsps.
  • In a fourth bowl mix one tsp. of vegetable oil, two and one half tsps. of water and two drops of a different food coloring. If you want to include fragrance, also add 15 drops. Be sure to rinse and clean the medicine dropper and measuring spoons in between measuring the different ingredients.
  • Use a clean medicine dropper to slowly mix the wet mixture with the dry ingredients in the third bowl, one drop at a time, as you did before, using the spoon to press down on fizzy spots and continually stir the mixture. Fill the tray’s cups as similarly as possible to how you filled them for the first bath bomb recipe.
  • Let the bath bombs dry. If you are using a muffin tray, dry the bombs overnight or turn off the oven (which was preheated to 170 degrees F) and let them stay in the (turned off) oven for 45 minutes with the oven door closed. If you are using a plastic ice cube tray, dry the bath bombs overnight at room temperature. Once the bath bombs have dried, carefully remove them from the cups.
  • Tip: If the bath bombs are very crumbly, the recipes may not have had enough water in them. To fix this, you can remake the bath bombs but try using a little more water.
  • Get ready to toss the bath bombs into a bath! Fill a tub with hot (but not scalding) bathwater. Then place the bath bombs in the tub. What happens when the bath bombs are placed in the water? Is a bath bomb made from one recipe fizzier than a bath bomb made from the other recipe? Does one take longer to dissolve than the other one? Which do you think worked best? How do you think the amount of cornstarch in the recipes is related to your results?
  • Extra: In this activity you tested your bath bombs in hot bathwater, but they might behave differently in colder water. You could use a stopwatch or timer to see how long they take to dissolve in hot water and then compare it with placing them in cold water. Do the bath bombs take a different amount of time to dissolve depending on water temperature?
  • Extra: Instead of citric acid, you could experiment with making bath bombs using citric acid substitutes, such as cream of tartar or lemon juice. How do bath bombs made using a citric acid substitute compare with those made using citric acid?
  • Extra: In this activity you tried varying the amount of cornstarch but you could try making bath bombs without any cornstarch. If bath bombs are made that don’t have cornstarch, how do they compare with those made with cornstarch? Are they very different?

Observations and results
Did the bath bomb made using more cornstarch (following the second recipe) take longer to dissolve than the one made with less cornstarch (following the first recipe)? Did the one made with less cornstarch fizz more?
When a bath bomb comes in contact with water, the baking soda and citric acid react to make carbon dioxide bubbles. This is an acid–base reaction, where baking soda (also called sodium bicarbonate) is a weak base and citric acid is a weak acid. The cornstarch acts as a “filler” to control the reaction between the baking soda and citric acid. In this activity the second recipe used more cornstarch, and less baking soda and citric acid, compared with the first recipe. Consequently, you should have seen that a bath bomb made using the first recipe produced more vigorous bubbles and impressive fizzing, and dissolved much faster, compared with a bath bomb made using the second recipe. (The size of the bath bombs also affects how long it takes them to dissolve, because larger bath bombs will typically take longer than smaller ones to dissolve. But because the bombs from the different recipes should have been similar in size, this factor should not have greatly affected the comparison.)
If you have extra bath bombs and want to save them for later, put them in a sealable plastic bag. Once you’ve settled on your favorite recipe, you can also make them and give them out as gifts!
More to explore
What’s New, CO2? Get to Know a Chemical Reaction (pdf), from the American Chemical Society
Try This: A Chilling Recipe, from the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization
Fun, Science Activities for You and Your Family, from Science Buddies
Shimmy, Shimmy Soda Pop: Develop Your Own Soda Pop Recipe, from Science Buddies