Modern alchemy, fusion energy and more presented at AAAS meeting

Friday, Feb 22, 2013

A possible Higgs boson of cancer and steps to give natural biodiversity a fighting chance were among the topics Princeton University researchers discussed during the 2013 American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) annual meeting in Boston Feb. 15-17.

Below are summaries, arranged chronologically, of the research presented.

Virtual water trade helps cope with climate change

Ignacio Rodriguez-Iturbe, James S. McDonnell Distinguished University Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering

Climate change will likely push nations to adjust their trading patterns to better conserve water as resources become scarcer or more unevenly distributed across the globe. Specifically, countries that can use water efficiently in agriculture will become more active trading partners with countries that cannot. Researchers led by Rodriguez-Iturbe integrated hydrology, climate-change and trade-policy models to study the "virtual water trade," wherein they tracked trade in crops and other food in terms of the amount of water required to produce them. They looked at the level of trade that will likely take place between various parts of the world, and then predicted how much water would likely be available for use in growing crops around the world. They concluded that in most scenarios the total amount of virtual water trade will decrease by 2030, but the amount of water saved as a result of the trade will increase. Much of the change pertains to the trade in wheat, which will increasingly be grown in places with efficient water use and shipped to places where growing wheat requires more water.

A fighting chance for nature: Prognosis for and relevance of biodiversity on our new small planet

David Wilcove, Professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology and Public Affairs

An abundant variety of animals, plants, fungi and microbes buttress the ecosystems that humanity needs to flourish. Yet this biodiversity is threatened by numerous human activities, and conservation — while plausible — is increasingly difficult to enact for cultural, political and economic reasons. Wilcove will discuss three indicators for gauging the planet's biodiversity: the percentage of bird, mammal and amphibian species, respectively, that are considered endangered; the integrity of animal communities, and the ability to protect those animals from encroachment and poaching; and the abundance of migratory species, which carry out crucial roles such as pollinators. All three indices are trending downward with animal species and natural areas rapidly disappearing, particularly in developing nations. The already-difficult task of ensuring healthy ecosystems will be further hamstrung by climate change, new industrialization and a lack of international cooperation.

Mission impossible: "Proof-first" management of complex adaptive systems

Simon Levin, George M. Moffett Professor of Biology

Efforts to conserve the natural world must acknowledge that ecosystems and economic markets are vast intertwined and unpredictable systems wherein individual actions generate communal consequences. Known as "complex adaptive systems," such frameworks require a unique consideration of the motivations and limitations of individual members, in this case, people and governments. Steps toward sustainability must anticipate and understand the varying degrees to which people balance natural preservation with economic pursuits — balances that can change unpredictably depending on factors such as economic fortunes and national leaders. Yet current conservation work is largely reactive and inefficient. Creating a sustainable future requires institutions and policies that can foresee and quickly adapt to ecological and economic changes, foster cooperation among conflicting or apathetic people and nations, and properly balance conservation (such as in the form of regulations) with society's economic needs.

A Higgs boson for cancer? Physics of cancer: The impact of heterogeneity

Robert Austin, Professor of Physics

Despite incredible advances in our understanding of biology and millions of research dollars spent, cancer remains a leading cause of death worldwide. Moving toward a cure will require a new understanding of cancer as a disease with varying characteristics, or heterogeneities, that make it resistant to conventional one-size-fits-all approaches. Yet that very heterogeneity may provide a key to controlling cancer. Austin, director of the Princeton Physical Sciences-Oncology Center, a five-institution center funded by the National Institutes of Health, will explore cancer from a physics perspective. Austin compares cancer research to the stage of understanding that high-energy physics was in the 1960s: a bewildering array of particle resonances with little underlying qualitative or quantitative understanding — in other words, a great deal of heterogeneity. However, theory and experiment unified that knowledge into what we now call the Standard Model. Austin will argue that a Standard Model for cancer could arise out of the vast complexity of the disease as we currently understand it, and could provide insight into the possible existence of a "Higgs boson," a factor that may be the linchpin of cancer's heterogeneity.

Wisdom Can Be Painful: Third Molar Impaction in Human Populations and Its Evolutionary Significance

Alan Mann, Professor of Anthropology

The dramatic increase in the size of the brain over the course of human evolution forced changes to the skull's architecture. Those shifts left today's humans with a shortened dental arcade that often cannot accommodate an adult's 32 teeth. The final tooth to erupt, the third molar known as a "wisdom tooth," often ends up either out of alignment or impacted. That can lead to chronic pain, but generally not death. Thousands of years ago, a genetic change or changes brought about the suppression of the calcification of the third molar. This reduced problems with the third molar and allowed people with the change to reproduce at a slightly greater rate than those without it. The frequency of third molar suppression has increased, with 25 percent of individuals in many human populations lacking at least one third molar. Medical interventions available in the developed world have reduced the positive selective value of this change, but it remains a "scar of human evolution" in much of the developing world.

Iron into "Gold": Modern alchemy for industrial commodity chemical and pharmaceutical synthesis

Paul Chirik, Edwards S. Sanford Professor of Chemistry

Precious metals used in the manufacture of consumer goods could be replaced with less expensive iron-based compounds using techniques developed by Paul Chirik, Princeton's Edwards S. Sanford Professor of Chemistry. The current manufacture of pharmaceuticals, adhesives, shampoos and other silicone-containing products relies on chemical reactions involving costly and rare precious-metal catalysts such as iridium, rhodium and platinum. Because the catalyst often remains in the final product, a considerable amount of these metals are lost. In a turn of modern alchemy, the Chirik group developed a method to replace these expensive metals with less costly and more widely available "base metals" such as iron, cobalt and manganese. The strategy has focused on manipulating base metals to mimic the highly efficient electron transfer of precious metals during catalysis.

Harness the sun: Issues and paths to magnetic confinement fusion energy

George "Hutch" Neilson, advanced projects director at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory (PPPL)

Scientists around the world have crossed a threshold into a promising and challenging new era in the quest for fusion energy, says physicist George "Hutch" Neilson. The new phase began with the construction of ITER, a fusion facility of unprecedented size and power that the European Union, the United States and five other countries are building in France. With construction of ITER under way, many national fusion programs are embarking on their own projects to demonstrate the production of electricity from fusion energy. These nations are considering demonstration programs in generating electricity from fusion that would mark the final step before the construction of commercial fusion facilities by midcentury. Such programs have brought worldwide researchers together to discuss common challenges in annual workshops that the International Atomic Energy Agency began sponsoring last year.

Results from the Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe (WMAP)

Lyman Page, Henry De Wolf Smyth Professor of Physics

The Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe (WMAP) has completed nine full years of mapping the cosmic microwave background in five frequency bands. With these data, the WMAP team has charted the power spectrum down to the cosmic variance limit to beyond l=500 and the first three acoustic peaks are accurately measured. From the temperature and polarization spectra, the parameters of the Lamda-CDM model — the standard model for studying the Big Bang — are deduced. Through including external data sets, extensions to the standard model are tested. These extensions include the properties of neutrinos, constraints on dark energy and other cosmic information. In this talk the most recent results from WMAP are presented.

Into the belly of the beast: Antarctic whaling in the 20th century

D. Graham Burnett, Professor of History

Princeton Professor of History D. Graham Burnett will explore and summarize one to two of the more relevant chapters from his recently published book, The Sounding of the Whale (Univ. of Chicago, 2012), which examines the history of cetology in the 20th century. His talk will connect the history of Antarctic whaling to the knowledge gained from this industry, which nearly hunted blue whales to extinction. Burnett also will highlight the obvious local ties between Boston and the history of New England whaling.