California companies lead the effort to save the world with microbes, California connection: meet 2018 Nobel Prize winner in chemistry Frances Arnold, Carnegie Observatories and the GMT, Questioning “Disaster tourism” in California, Feeling the Force in Anaheim and more

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Week of May 31, 2019


California companies are leading the effort to save the world with microbes


Overfishing is arguably one of the most significant threats to the human food supply on the planet. Approximately three billion people in the world rely on both wild and farmed seafood as their primary source of protein, and ten percent of the world’s population depends on fisheries to make a living.

One the of dirty little secrets of the global commercial fish industry is that it takes fish to make fish. While many people see farmed fish as an ideal solution to meeting our protein needs in the future, the reality is that feeding farmed fish right now requires massive inputs of so-called forage fish, namely small fish like anchovies, herring, menhaden, capelin, anchovy, pilchard, sardines, and mackerel that occur in large numbers in the ocean, particularly the cold Southern and Northern latitudes. A multi-billion dollar industry is dedicated to using large ships that ply the ocean with nets to bring up millions of tons of forage fish every year.

So is there a way to feed farmed fish that reduces the need to trawl the seas for forage fish? It turns out that one California company is working on a solution, and it involves one of the most abundant organisms on earth: bacteria.

NovoNutrients is a Mountain View, California, startup, whose offices lie close to both Facebook and Google. The company is harnessing the new technology of synthetic biology or synbio to get bacteria to do our bidding, creating proteins using the same tiny organisms that curdle milk into yogurt and cause innumerable diseases.

California Science Weekly

Chemistry / Nobel Prizes

California connection: meet Frances Arnold, the 2018 Nobel Prize winner in chemistry


The 2018 Nobel Prizes, announced in October, included a very special California name: Frances Arnold. Dr. Arnold is a professor of chemical engineering at the California Institute of Technology, an institution that has seen its share of Nobel winners: 39.  She calls La Canada Flintridge home, adding brain power to a city already loaded with brilliant minds (JPL is headquartered there).  

A wonderful profile of Dr. Arnold can be found in this week’s New York Times, written by the always witty and fun Natalie Angier. The piece does an admirable job of explaining directed evolution, the process she developed that is now widely used to generate novel enzymes and other biomolecules by harnessing cellular machinery. Her process is being used to develop biofuels, medicines, agricultural prodiucts and even in laundry detergent to remove stains. 

It is only the 52nd time in history that the Nobel prize was awarded to a female scientist. That’s out of a total of 892 awards (17%) given since the prize was created by Alfred Nobel, the inventor of dynamite, who established the prize in 1895. It should be noted that the brilliant French chemist Marie Curie won it twice. 

The Nobel site also has a wonderful series on women in science that’s worth reading in its entirety. It’s very well illustrated and put together. The piece on Dr. Arnold is particularly good. 

The New York Times   Nobel Prize

Astronomy / Space

Carnegie Observatories and the Giant Magellan Telescope 

Carnegie Observatories

While many science institutions in California are extremely well-known (we cover many of them here), one Pasadena organization gets little media attention, but is arguably one of the most important places in the world in astronomy.  

The Carnegie Observatories, located in Pasadena, is playing a leading role in humanity’s grasp of the origins of the cosmos. Scientists at the Carnegie are working at the Las Campanas Observatory in Chile’s Atacama desert, home to the twin Magellan telescopes, and site of the future Giant Magellan Telescope (GMT).  

The Giant Magellan Telescope is arguably one of the most important astronomic scientific instruments ever constructed. When completed in 2025, it stands to revolutionize our view and understanding of the universe. The GMT is a segmented mirror telescope using seven incredibly precise reflecting surfaces that have been shaped and polished to within a wavelength of light, approximately one-millionth of an inch. It will have a resolving power of almost 25 meters, dwarfing that of most other terrestrial-based telescopes. In fact, it will have ten times the resolution of the Hubble Space Telescope, NASA’s current workhorse for mirror-based astronomical observation. That means it will resolve points of light 10 times sharper than Hubble.

Construction of the Magellan is underway and you can follow its progress here.   

Carnegie Observatories


Questioning “Disaster tourism” in California

San Francisco Chronicle

The 2018 Camp Fire in Paradise, California fire wiped out a small community of mostly retired homeowners who sought out the quiet, forested glens in Northern California as a place to spend the waning years of their lives. The fire is considered the deadliest in California history and resulted in the death of 88 people and the destruction of 13,696 homes.  

The San Francisco Chronicle delves into the idea of “disaster tourism”, following several people who made a special effort to visit the destroyed town to see the damage for themselves, take pictures and video. They were not alone. Apparently, three cleanup workers were fired after posting insensitive images of the devastation on social media. And one artist spray-painted chilling images around Paradise.  

For the people who once called Paradise home, let alone for the relatives of the ones who lost their lives in the tragic fire, the idea of people poking around to gaze, paint and take selfies in the ruins might have distasteful quality. 

San Francisco Chronicle

Space / Companies

Feel the Force in Anaheim

Disney Theme Parks

It was 53 years ago this month that Disneyland delighted (or annoyed, depending on your tolerance for earworms) visitors with the opening of the It’s a Small World ride. Perhaps it’s fitting, or a sign of how much more commercialized the world has become, that this week (Friday, May 31, in fact) saw the opening of Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge, a new 14-acre addition to the theme park that capitalizes on Disney’s $4 billion, 2012 purchase of the Star Wars franchise from Lucasfilm. The centerpiece of the new addition is a 100-foot long Millennium Falcon.   

The New York Times gets a personalized tour of the new addition, and seemed to think it was both “jaw-dropping” and incomplete, since several of the marquee attractions still aren’t open. In the Los Angeles Times, the reporter both appreciated and questioned how interactive it is, as it forces people who don’t know each other to work together to achieve various goals. 

We can’t help pity the parents who will not only pay nearly $120 per person to enter the park, but will then have to shell out an additional $200 for a hand-built lightsaber. 

New York Times     Los Angeles Times


Could a drought in California be linked to a drought in the Midwest? A recent Stanford-led study looks at so-called “Domino droughts”. (Stanford Water in the West)

Some lovely shots, recently discovered, of California’s desert landscapes from the 1920s, all shot by two women.  (Atlas Obscura)

A bill making its way through the California legislature will allow “harvesting” of roadkill. With a permit. Didn’t know it was illegal, but apparently, it is.  (CalMatters)

Elephant seals speak in dialects, but they may be losing them. Wow, this is so interesting. Who knew? There are numerous rookeries of elephant seals around California.  (The Atlantic)

The Aquarium of the Pacific in Long Beach has a new wing called Pacific Visions that just opened. (Aquarium of the Pacific)

Hawthorne, California-based SpaceX’s internet-beaming Starlink satellites are totally bumming out astronomers. (Axios)

Saving pets is apparently a big – and expensive – thing near San Francisco. (Alta Online)

Spotting wildfires around California may get easier with an array of new cameras. (NY Times)

The Petersen Automotive Museum in Los Angeles has a new exhibit: ‘Hollywood Dream Machines’ with over 40 vehicles from cinema history, including Blade Runner, A Clockwork Orange, Mad Max: Fury Road, Back to the Future, and RoboCop. (Smith Journal)

Speaking of the Carnegie Observatories (see above) NASA’s Transiting Exoplanets Survey Satellite discovered that a nearby system hosts the first Earth-sized planet. Carnegie scientists were involved in the discovery. (Carnegie Observatories)

A rare (and very smelly) corpse lily is set to bloom in Long Beach. (LA Times)

Excellent story on the decline of the vaquita porpoise, a marine mammal that is almost extinct in the Gulf of California. (Undark)

You may soon get a sandwich delivered to you by drone in San Diego.  (Freight Waves)

That’s it! Have a great week, and please send your friends an invitation to sign up for the California Science Weekly newsletter. 

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