Thursday, February 15, 2024

Goodbye to PVC?

The word “vinyl” might sound innocuous, bringing to mind everyday items like LP records, flooring, pipes, or shiny plastic pants. The plastic this name refers to — polyvinyl chloride (PVC) — is the world’s third-most widely produced synthetic polymer, with more than 50 million tons cranked out each year for everything from window frames to food wrap, fake leather car seats to medical products. It’s everywhere.

But environmentalists and NGOs have been raising alarms about PVC for decades. Scientists have established that its precursor chemical is carcinogenic; that some of the additives used to make it flexible can muck with hormones; and that it can spew noxious compounds, especially when burned. It’s “the worst of the worst” when it comes to plastics, says Judith Enck, a policy expert with Beyond Plastics, a nonprofit based at Bennington College in Vermont. Now, vinyl’s heyday may finally be drawing to an end.

Read my story in Yale Environment 360


Monday, February 12, 2024

Seeing double

Scientist sleuths are turning up plenty of cases of duplicated images in academic papers; sometimes that's an innocent mistake or even intentional, but sometimes it's a sign of sloppy science or worse. Journals are trying ever harder to spot duplicated or altered images before they go to press. My explainer for Nature.

Thursday, February 8, 2024

The electric car battery revolution

Most EVs today are powered by lithium ion batteries, the current king of battery tech. But other batteries are now inching into the market for electric cars. We now have sodium ion batteries, offering cheap prices on some Chinese cars this year. And solid state batteries could be in cars within perhaps 5 years, letting cars go further on a single charge. 

Look even further ahead and we might have lithium air batteries, which can really pack power in, running planes and air taxis.

Read all about it in Nature:


Friday, January 26, 2024

Air pollution from the tar sands

Canada's tar sands use a lot of energy and water to pull up oil, which releases more CO2 per barrel and leaves giant tailings ponds on the landscape. Now here's something else to worry about: air quality.

My story for Nature

Thursday, December 21, 2023

2023 in Review!

If you fancy catching up on all the hottest developments in science from 2023, here's my roundup for Knowable Magazine.

And, since climate change is particularly close to my heart as a topic, here's one startling graph that really shows how weird 2023 was. What they're plotting here is the monthly temperature anomaly (in other words, how weirdly hot the month was). 2023 is a real standout, though 2016 was also super strange. Both are/were El Nino years (a natural climate pattern that also makes things hot, on top of climate change).

Thursday, December 14, 2023

OpenAI’s chief scientist, and the origins of ChatGPT

"As a teenager, Ilya Sutskever knocked on Geoffrey Hinton’s door at the University of Toronto in Canada and asked for a job. “He said he was cooking fries to make money over the summer, and he would rather be working for me doing AI,” says Hinton, who is often recognized as the godfather of modern artificial intelligence (AI)."  Sutskever later co-founded OpenAI, and, at age 38, is one of the architects of the blockbuster chatbot app ChatGPT. How did he get there, and what's next for AI? Read my profile in Nature's 2023 end of year special.

Friday, November 24, 2023

Kerfuffle at OpenAI

Open AI, the tech company behind the blockbuster conversational bot ChatGPT, had a weird dust-up last week as they fired, then re-hired, their charismatic chief exec Sam Altman.

Here's my article for Nature on What the OpenAI Drama means for AI progress -- and safety.

Tuesday, November 21, 2023

"Where I work"

Sometimes I write mini profiles for Nature that highlight an interesting scientist's work through a photo and a sense of place.

Here are some of those articles:

‘Ash was falling like rain’: how I became a volcanologist
Using hyrax latrines to investigate climate change


Trying to end plastic pollution

UN delegates are trying to bash out a Plastics Treaty with the ambitious goal of ending plastic pollution. They met last week in Nairobi to mark the half-way point towards the treaty, which is supposed to be written and signed in 2024. But progress was frustratingly slow. People at the meeting said a few nations with fossil fuel interests were blocking progress, slowing things down and making the draft treaty just get longer instead of shorter. Sigh.

Here's my story for Nature:

The scale of the problem has become epic. There is SO MUCH PLASTIC in our lives. I find it hard to imagine a world without plastic wrappers and packaging but that's where we're now trying to go... 

In my view, hopefully the treaty will:

- set a legally-binding cap for how much virgin plastic the planet is allowed to make per year. (Some people are saying cap it at 2025 levels. Others say it needs to be waaay lower: Greenpeace says it should be 75% lower than 2019 levels. We shall see)

= list out chemicals of concern (like PVC) and work to phase them out. Apparently there are around 13,000 chemicals in plastics, of which many thousands are already known to be toxic. Sigh.

- set a requirement for USE of recycled plastics in new material (because the problem isn't how much plastic we collect to recycle, but what happens to it after it's recycled. Right now there just isn't much demand for it, because virgin plastic is cheap)

and more...

Some UN treaties are really specific about what things need to happen (like the Montreal Protocol, which killed off ozone-depleting substances). Others are pretty vague (like the Paris Agreement, which tells countries to set their own targets for greenhouse gas reductions). Scientists are hoping the Plastics Treaty (whatever it gets called in the end) will be ambitious, specific, legally binding... Fingers crossed!