Rena: Where’s the physics?

On Tuesday night I attended a very informative and lively discussion at Cafe Scientifique on the Rena disaster. (For readers not in NZ, the Rena is the container ship that has been stuck on Astrolabe reef off the coast of Tauranga for the last few weeks, shedding oil and containers into the sea – see for example, this article.) I say ‘attended’; in fact, I was MC for it – but that didn’t make it any less interesting for me. We’d pulled together a panel of five people from the university to talk about various aspects of the situation – two oceanographers, two chemists, and a biologist.

One immediate question that sprang to my mind is ‘Where’s the physicist?’ I think  that often when people start putting ‘environment’ and ‘science’ together, the immediate thought is biology, and then maybe a bit of chemistry/geology/oceanography/ecology etc, with physics left off the end.  In fact, there was  physics talked about, in terms of what the oil does to the surface of the ocean. The oil changes the surface tension which in turn changes the pattern of the waves, and therefore the ways in which sunlight is reflected and infra-red light is emitted, and this kind of change can, if its substantial enough, be monitored from space. This means you have a way of remotely monitoring where the oil goes. At this point I could have jumped in with a few comments, having experience from my previous job of what the sea ‘looks like’ in infra-red. However, being MC, and having questions come from the floor thick and fast,  I felt it might be better to allow others to talk.

My point here is that there is physics in ‘environmental’ stuff – it’s not all about the biology.

There was also a fair bit of discussion around the way ‘science’ is done – for example, the way that controlled experiments need to be done before jumping to conclusions. As an example, Chris Hendy, a chemist, described measurements of the arsenic content of the oil on the beaches (which appears on the face of it to be high!) However,  the ‘oil sample’ he had was a mix of oil and sand, so, to get a meaningful measurement, he had to also measure the arsenic content of the sand alone. And, lo and behold, it’s the sand that has the arsenic in, not the oil. (Where’s it come from? – probably it’s of geothermal origin)

So, overall, science got a good hearing, as it should at Cafe Scientifique.  Unfortunately, as one of our panel commented, it looks like Rena isn’t going to lead to a ‘funding bonanza’ for the scientist.

Finally, I should have said a couple of weeks ago that PhysicsStop is now three years old. Wow. For the record, this is the 465th entry.

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