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Friday, February 23, 2024 — Houston, TX

Sarah Frazier

NEWS 2/12/15 5:40pm

Rice professor links Mayan decline to drought

Rice University professor of earth science Andre Droxler and a graduate student have found further evidence that the disappearance of the Mayan urban civilization was linked to a drought.“The decline of the Maya was so unexpected...it was very fast," Droxler said. “The demise of the Maya could well be connected to this one-century drought."Droxler said he and earth science graduate student Ayca Agar Cetin used measurements of titanium in layers of old sediment to reconstruct the rainfall history for the Yucatan Peninsula, where the Maya lived.“When you have … high precipitation, these metamorphic rocks are going to be altered chemically and release titanium," Droxler said. “[The titanium] goes to this lagoon, it settles down, and you have a kind of a record.”The team used X-ray fluorescence to identify the elements in cores of sediment from a location off the coast of Belize.“You can scan the core, and it gives you certain elements," Droxler said. “You could see there was a trend [in the titanium measurements].”According to Droxler, they compared the measurements of titanium and aluminum in this sediment to estimate how much rain there was in the region during that time — more titanium means more precipitation.“This titanium aluminum ratio becomes a precipitation record,” Droxler said. “We call this a paleo-precipitation proxy.”Using X-ray fluorescence, they identified a century-long period of low titanium, which meant there had been very little rainfall during that time. The drought period corresponds to the time the Maya abandoned their southern urban civilization, Droxler said.“The Maya kind of disappeared between 800 and 900,” Droxler said. “Some of them migrated … [to] the northern side of the Yucatan Peninsula [at] Chichen Itza.”Droxler said another major Maya city, Chichen Itza, was abandoned about 150 years after the southern urban civilization.“Chichen Itza was abandoned at 1040,” Droxler said. “[1000-1100] is another point where you have low precipitation.”Droxler’s work is just another piece of evidence pointing toward the idea that drought was a major factor in the demise of the Maya urban civilization.“There are at least three different types of paleo-precipitation records [that support this], plus [the] tropical cyclone record.” Droxler said.Another study that Droxler collaborated on used sediment samples to show there were fewer tropical cyclones during these periods, which supports the drought hypothesis, Droxler said.  “When you have … very little precipitation, you have no cyclone,” Droxler said.Droxler says an understanding of how climate affected the Maya civilization is more than just historically interesting.“It’s very important for us to study the past … to try to assess the change in climate we’ve witnessed in the past 50 years,” Droxler said. “How will our civilization … react to this change of climate?”Droxler said a drought of even a few years can significantly change an area.“The summer [of 2011] with no rain, in Memorial Park we lost one-third [to] one-half of all the trees,” Droxler said. “Imagine if that summer [were] three or four years in a row. South Texas would have changed completely.”

NEWS 12/3/14 7:21am

Local journalist discusses future of spaceflight

Houston Chronicle journalist Eric Berger spoke on the current state and possible future of America’s space program Nov. 19 at Duncan Hall.Berger, who has researched the American space program for the past year, said one of his driving questions is the disparity between the U.S. government’s stated goals and their actions for space exploration.“How could a functional government that valued a space program — and knew literally for decades that the space shuttle's end would come — fail to put in an adequate plan to replace the shuttle?” Berger said. “To some extent, the U.S. government is dysfunctional, and, sadly, space flight doesn’t rank as high on the political agenda as a lot of us would like.”Berger said America’s lack of progress in space exploration is partly due to a lack of clear vision for the space program."Every president since Kennedy has failed to articulate a clear goal for NASA and provide the resources necessary to reach that goal," Berger said.Officially, NASA’s goal is to reach Mars by the 2030s, but that may not be possible at this point, according to Berger.“To achieve [a human landing on Mars], not in the 2030s but in the 2040s or 2050s, more likely … we would need the kind of commitment to NASA we haven’t seen in a long time,” Berger said. “NASA’s own advisory committee … suggested NASA is probably going to stay [near the Earth and moon] for the next 20 to 30 years.”Berger said NASA’s unrealistic timeline for reaching Mars will not help the organization’s image.“If you’re telling everyone you’re going to go to Mars in the 2030s and then you don’t get there, you just basically set your whole agency up to fail,” Berger said.Berger said a common suggestion among people he interviewed is for NASA to plan missions to the moon as precursors to a Mars mission.“Why not the moon?” Berger said. “It’s close, you can prove a lot of technology you need to go to Mars and … all of the international partners that NASA works on [the International Space Station] with want to go to the moon.”According to Berger, the moon’s ice may even prove an important resource for space exploration.“There’s enough fuel on the moon in form of water … to launch the equivalent of a space shuttle every day for 2,000 years,” Berger said. “If you’re going to go out and explore space, water is essential — you can drink it, shield yourself from radiation [and] provide breathable oxygen or hydrogen for fuel cells.”Berger said the rise of less-expensive vehicles produced by commercial space companies may help promote space exploration.“To really open up space, you have to lower the cost of getting stuff into orbit,” Berger said. “NASA advisors told Congress that the space shuttle would lower the cost … down to $25 a pound. The actual cost, over 135 missions in 30 years, was $25,000 a pound.”Berger said his personal prediction for America’s space program is not optimistic.“[In] the most likely scenario, unfortunately, not much changes at NASA,” Berger said. “It continues to talk boldly about going to Mars in 2030. The president or Congress or both say, ‘We’ve had enough of the budget situation and we don’t want any more major international partnerships.’ We don’t think about bringing China or India or other countries into the ISS partnership. NASA ends up with a rocket that looks great, is totally badass to launch, but is too expensive to fly very often. After the space station stops flying … what is [Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center] doing? Flying a manned mission every three or four years? Maybe the center will revert back to where it came from — Rice University.”

NEWS 11/12/14 8:01am

Rice reflects on Kennedy's famous moon speech

As part of the homecoming lecture series, Director of Rice Space Institute David Alexander reflected on Nov. 7 on how Rice is continuing the legacy of President John Kennedy’s famous speech at Rice Stadium.“[Kennedy’s speech] is one of the highlights of the hundred years of Rice,” Alexander said at the lecture, titled “Continuing the Legacy of the Kennedy Speech at Rice Stadium." “It’s still relevant in 2014, [roughly] 50 years after the speech.”According to Alexander, some of Rice’s current programs and accomplishments are a direct result of Rice’s role in the early space program.“Rice created the very first department dedicated to the space sciences,” Alexander said. “Over the course of 50 years, we’ve graduated 248 Ph.D.s. We have instruments on the moon.”The space race was primarily motivated by the prospect of beating the Soviet Union, Alexander said.“There was this competition for all the wrong reasons,” Alexander said. “It wasn’t about science, it wasn’t about technology. [It] was the drive … to prevent the Russians from claiming technological superiority.”However, the space program has been key to the United States’ technological and economic development, according to Alexander.“The biggest spin-off [of the space program] was the number of people who entered science, technology, engineering and math,” Alexander said. “The American economy became the economy of the world because of [this].”According to Alexander, the space program has motivated cooperation with other nations in a way Kennedy probably could not have predicted.“[Kennedy would] be amazed that right now the biggest piece of hardware we have in space was built by different countries [and] one of the partners is Russia,” Alexander said.Kennedy would likely be discouraged by the lack of progress since the moon landing, according to Alexander.“Kennedy said we’d get to the moon by the end of the decade, and we did,” Alexander said. “[But] he’d be very surprised … by how little we’ve done in the 45 years since.”McMurtry College senior Shane Alpert said she hopes Rice will continue the legacy of collaboration with the space program.“I think Rice should be involved with … the future of the space program,” Alpert said. “Their connection to NASA is partially why I chose to attend Rice, and it’s an important role that they should continue to hold.”Alexander said thinking about space needs to change.“We need to be thinking of space as … what it does for us on Earth,” Alexander said. “Space isn’t just a destination; it’s a resource.”

NEWS 10/28/14 4:39pm

Rice hosts conference on science/religion dialogue

Elaine Howard Ecklund, director of the Religion and Public Life Program at Rice University, presented the results from a survey on the relationship between science and religion. The conference, titled “Matter and Meaning: Exploring the Religion and Science Dialogue,” was held at various locations across campus on Oct. 24.

NEWS 10/7/14 5:19pm

Rice alum gives lecture on climate-change skepticism

Andrew Dessler (Lovett ’86), a professor in the Department of Atmospheric Sciences at Texas A&M University, gave an overview of the rhetorical practices used by climate change skeptics at the James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy on Oct. 1. Dessler said a small number of scientists are cited frequently by skeptics, giving the impression that there are more skeptical scientists than there really are. The idea of climate change as primarily human-caused is supported by 97 percent of climate scientists, he said.“There are so few of these [skeptical climate scientists] that they’re endlessly recycled,” Dessler said. According to Dessler, climate change skeptics put out alternative publications to share their ideas. However, Dessler said the body of reports supporting the science of climate change outweigh the relatively few skeptical reports. “There are so many of these reports written, and they all say the same thing,” Dessler said. “It is extremely likely that human influence is a dominant cause [of global temperature increase].”Dessler said it is unlikely climate change skeptics are motivated by money. “In the debate — on both sides — very few people are getting rich,” Dessler said. “People see the facts they want to see. Giving people facts is not the solution to this issue.”According to Dressler, the risks of rising temperatures make climate change a pressing issue.“I’m not sure [the effects of climate change are] going to be bad, but there are lots of ways it could be really, really bad,” Dessler said. Dessler said rhetoric that emphasizes doubt about climate change tends to delay policy changes that could stave off negative effects of climate change; however, scientific doubt of climate change is overstated “Everyone basically agrees,” Dessler said.  Sid Richardson College senior Maddie Camp said she thinks it is important to examine skeptics’ viewpoints to make progress on climate policy.“Because climate change is really a policy issue, skeptics bottleneck the whole process of beginning to address climate change, so it makes sense to understand that barrier and think about how we can move past it,” Camp said.

NEWS 2/19/14 6:10am

Religion and science partnership possible

Preliminary results of a survey of over 10,000 Americans presented at an American Association for the Advancement of Science symposium on Feb. 16 indicate that Americans have mixed perceptions of the relationship between religion and science, according to study conductor Elaine Howard Ecklund.

NEWS 3/7/13 6:00pm

Researchers find drug to bolster healthy hearts

A bioengineering research group at Rice University recently made an important discovery in finding that an antibiotic could be useful in reducing calcification of heart valves.  Calcifications turn a normally flexible and strong heart valve into a rocky structure, according to associate professor of bioengineering Jane Grande-Allen, whose lab published the findings.  "[The heart valves] can't open and close normally," Grande-Allen, the deputy speaker of the Faculty Senate, said.