Wombats, weights, and worldwide woes

The past month has been a busy one for me. It was that time in the semester when my students give me papers and exams to grade…and when I pick up pesky respiratory viruses. I was very grateful for a break this week with time off to rest, recuperate, relax, and spend time with family over the Thanksgiving holiday. I’ve kept an eye on the science news, though. I like to share science news with my students and social media circles, and several stories caught my eye for different reasons. I always find it interesting to see which topics break through the constant barrage of information (and misinformation) available each week that give us insight into new scientific knowledge, or the process of science itself.


Maybe you saw this story. It seemed to be everywhere last week. Wombats are, by most standards, considered to be very cute Australian marsupials. It turns out they also have cute poop. Scientists have known for years that wombats create cube-shaped feces that pile up in stacks. Scientists have been studying the behavioral adaptations of wombats for a long time, but few scientists considered how the unusual shape is actually created in the first place. That is, until mechanical engineer Patricia Wang and her colleagues from Georgia Institute of Technology combined principles of fluid dynamics with anatomy experiments to demonstrate that the wombat’s intestine stretches in specific ways that likely create the cube shapes in the drying feces. Wang reported the team’s work at a scientific conference, and then the story of wombat poop hit the news. For more comprehensive reporting on the story, check out one version here, from Katherine Wu of “NOVA Next” and PBS. 

A wombat (Vombatus ursinus). They have cube-shaped poop. Image credit: JJ Harrison (jjharrison89@facebook.com) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, from Wikimedia Commons

I saw the wombat story reported widely for a day or two before I took the time to read it. But I’m glad I did. It’s highlights the curiosity and investigative process that’s so important for basic scientific inquiry, as well as the collaborative and cross-disciplinary teamwork that’s a hallmark of many types of scientific research today. This type of story isn’t about a health breakthrough, or a finding that will change the world. But it reminds us what we still don’t know about the world around us, and how each piece of incremental research adds to a growing body of knowledge that expands our appreciation of the natural world in our midst.


Meanwhile, an international coalition of scientists and representatives met in France this month to officially change the way in which we define the standard unit of weight: the kilogram (kg). Although other types of measurements in the International System of Units (SI) no longer rely on any type of physical or human-manufactured object to define them, the kilogram was an outlier. A kilogram has been defined as the mass of a very specific piece of metal kept under heavy security in France. But it has slowly been losing a tiny bit of mass over time, which is undesirable in the standard-bearer for a unit of weight. The new measurement relates the mass of the metal standard to energy parameters of photons, which don’t change and should be universally available and recognized.

Replica prototype kilogram stored in Bethesda, Maryland, USA. Image credit: Unknown author [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

This story also was widely reported (see this link to an article by Vicky Stein for PBS NewsHour for more details about the science and the process of changing the standard of a unit of measure). Changing the official standard for a kilogram is a big deal, and it requires international cooperation. It has interesting scientific applications and practical considerations for our worldwide system of weights and measures. A celebration of the advances in science and technology–not to mention international agreement–that allowed scientists to achieve this goal certainly was a happy moment to celebrate in the news. 

Worldwide woes…

The last widespread news report I’ll mention caught my eye only yesterday, when the latest National Climate Assessment was published by the United States federal government. Quickly, news outlets around the world summarized the findings and context of the report. (See this PBS NewsHour report, for example, or this report from the BBC for more information.) This government publication about the various impacts that climate change is having on different aspects of life in the United States comes at an important time. The United States is facing changing local weather conditions across the country. Currently, severe drought in California has contributed to ongoing wildfires, and the Southeast is still cleaning up after devastating hurricane-driven floods and winds. The Midwest and East Coast have faced colder weather, even as global data show the Arctic circle warming at a rate unprecedented in modern history. Extreme weather events have been predicted in climate models dating back decades. What we do with the information that climate change is here now, rather than in the hypothetical future, is critical for nations and communities around the world to decide, if we are to move forward in ways that minimize future problems. As the report makes clear, doing nothing is an expensive and potentially deadly proposition. 

Hurricane Florence, in September 2018, viewed from the International Space Station. Image credit: NASA [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

I first tackled writing about climate change here just last summer, but it feels like so much more has happened since then. The United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released their own most recent report in October, with predictions of areas of crisis around the world in just a couple of decades. (See this report from The New York Times for an overview.) News stories reporting on the many severe weather and climate conditions, especially in the U.S. and Europe, are now a regular occurrence. In October, Margaret Sullivan of the Washington Post suggested that the news media must cover climate change now “like it’s the only story that matters.” Will this be the new normal for climate reporting? Time will tell.

…who cares?

When teaching science literacy to students, I help them navigate through the challenges of learning about peer-reviewed scientific publications–intelligible most of the time only to fellow scientists in the same field of research. We discuss what kinds of scientific findings make good news for a general audience, or make a good story for a science website or magazine. It’s easy for science news to get buried under the many other stories vying for decreasing column inches (or web pages) of traditional journalism. At the same time, many new sources have appeared that make finding news about science easier…but only if you go looking for it, and it finds its way to you. It’s also easy to get sucked in by sources peddling in scientific misinformation, either by accident or on purpose. Alan Burdick of The New York Times, which is celebrating 40 years of their science section, discussed the bright moments and discouraging aspects of science journalism in a recent column. Reporting on science is important, he asserts, but it is competing against other journalistic priorities for our attention and risks misinterpretation and misrepresentation. Thinking about how and where we read about science is an ever-changing landscape. The roles that scientists, journalists, other science communicators, and educators play in sharing stories about science is entering a new phase, so it’s good to think about what the landscape of science news will be like in the future.

In the meantime, I’m encouraged that climate change now seems to be getting some sustained media coverage, although of course the problems creating the headlines are deeply disconcerting. I remain hopeful that we can start to work together to limit the worst of the predicted impacts, but we need to continue to keep the issue in the foreground. We also need to keep hearing the stories of exciting new science findings, medical breakthroughs, and the work of positive and dedicated scientists, to balance the gloom and doom and remind us of what science can do: bit by bit expand our understanding of the world around us. Sometimes that process takes a step or two backward. At its best, science continues to build our appreciation for nature and the things we need to know that may benefit us in the future…and sometimes it can even be fun to learn something new. I’m looking at you, cute wombats.

I think science news always goes better with a warm beverage. Image credit: Pixnio. Public domain.

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