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The Downside of Citizen Science

This morning the New York Times reports on a story of citizen science gone terribly wrong:

A California businessman chartered a fishing boat in July, loaded it with 100 tons of iron dust and cruised through Pacific waters off western Canada, spewing his cargo into the sea in an ecological experiment that has outraged scientists and government officials.

You don’t have to be a scientist to conduct an experiment.  I encourage everyone to play with the physical and chemical properties surrounding them. But this is off the wall.  Leave the ecology experiments to the trained scientist. 

I don’t want to perpetuate the misconception that a scientist is a know it all.  I get it all the time, You have a Ph.D. so you know the answer to this…  Receiving a doctorate in philosophy does not mean that you hung around long enough to be filled-in on everything there is to know about everything.  On the contrary, the longer you study, the more specialized your study.  Scientists do not know everything, but a lot does go into becoming a scientist. 

Scientific training teaches you how to: evaluate a problem, establish its many variables, and design an experiment to gain knowledge on a given variable, independent of the others.  Scientists are trained to think critically of their own work. They evaluate the scope of a problem in detail before any experiments begin.  They habitually consider how studying one aspect of the problem will influence its many other facets.  They continually check-in with the original scope of an experiment to make sure the right questions are being asked, and they are not getting off task, throughout a project. 

The process is tedious and, conceivably, easily misunderstood.  An outside observer might say, Just try something alreadyYou have your theories, try something and see if it works.  But that is not how a conscientious scientists operates.  A conscientious scientist wants to understand the context of any answers they get from an experiment.  Without that, no valuable conclusion can be made from the experiment.  

Especially when it comes to ecology.  There is so much complexity in our ecosystem, any experiment involving it needs to be considered from multiple perspectives, most likely through computer modeling, before being carried to fruition by experts in the field.     

I love citizen science.  Involving interested individuals in data collection and analysis is a brilliant means of scientific outreach.  But experimental design is best left to trained scientists.    

Into My Cups… and Their Patent

This year I got a Kuerig for Christmas.  I wasn’t sure that I wanted one because I have grown quit attached to the baristas that pour my Grande Pike every morning and I was turned off by the K-cups; their storage logistics troubled me.  Now that I own a Kuerig and have purchased satisfying K-cup storage, I am a convert.  I am totally enamored with the machine.  It has the simplicity of an Easy Bake Oven.  I joyfully went through several rounds of popping in a  K-cup, brewing, and enjoying, before reality hit me – these little cups are non-biodegradable.

I throw the cups in the trash since there is no recycle number on the cup which, I suppose, is because they contain a filter and coffee grinds and can’t be recycled.  Yea, it’s not exactly the greenist technology. 

My brewing (ha!) love for the machine and its cups was put on hold (ok, I still need caffeine and it is so convenient – so not really) while I investigated further.  I pulled up US Patent 5, 325, 765 and found a patent so wonderful it deserves an award.  The Field of Invention section of the patent states:

This invention relates to an imperforate beverage filter cartridge which is adapted to hermetically contain a beverage extract and which is yeildably pierceable, both to accommodate an injection of liquid into the cartridge for combination with the extract to produce a beverage, and to accommodate an outflow of the beverage.

I am totally titillated and completely clueless.  I have no idea what any of it means, even though I hold the invention in my hands.  I am also now seriously considering applying for a job at a patent office if more than 50% of the patents are written like this and, I should admit, I have a bit of a crush on the patent filers for writing such a ridiculously awesome patent.   The Description of the Prior Art section is my favorite:

A general objective of the present invention is to provide an improved beverage filter cartridge which is small and compact yet has a high flow rate.

It is a further object (not objective) of this invention to provide an improved beverage  filter cartridge which is simple and has a few parts so it can be disposed of after a single use.

Cue patriotic music…

It is a further object of this invention to provide such an improved beverage filter cartridge whose filter is self supporting and does not collapse against the container even when wetted. 

We will no longer stand for collapsing filters…

It is a further object of this invention to provide an improved imperforate beverage filter cartridge which is hermetically sealed for freshness and against contamination.

I just love all this business about hermetically sealing…

It is a further object of this invention to provide an improved imperforate beverage filter cartridge which can be yeildably pierced for input and output flow without puncturing the filter. 

Yieldably pierceable?  What does that even mean?  The patent has other gems, like the use of the word convexity which I believe is intended to convey intelligence, but is so awkward it just makes me laugh.    

After reading through the patent I began to suspect the authors were outright making fun of the patent officers.  Or maybe this was intended as a distraction (goal achieved) from the reason I looked up the patent in the first place – to find out the cup material. 

            The material is a coextruded composite barrier sheet consisting of polystyrene, polyethylene, EVOH and adhesive. 

Hhmm, these are all recyclable materials.  What gives?  The company’s website states: “The K-Cup® package is made up of three main elements — the cup itself, a filter and an aluminum foil top. The polyethylene coating of the foil - as well as the process of heat-sealing the various elements – makes recycling difficult.”Me, 30 sec. after I woke up

 The New York Times and The Boston Globe both wrote interesting articles about K-cups.  If I put my environmental concerns before my caffeine concerns I would have read them in time to return my Christmas gift and go back to my baristas.  Now I am stuck with a dilemma, which neither of these articles helps me to address, contributing an average of three K-cups a day to a landfill.  Ugh.  

In my defense, do you have any idea how wonderful it is to have a superior cup of coffee 30 seconds after you wake up?  No?  Then you don’t have a Keurig.