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Golden Scholars: Predicting doom for vision and for the planet

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UC Berkeley researchers warn that it's time to curb our bad habits to save our vision and to save all life on the planet.

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Due to changes in last week's schedule for Thanksgiving, the Golden Scholars post was bumped, so pardon some older links. But fret no longer because we're back!

Quick links

Researchers at Berkeley Lab are taking a look at the double-jeopardy threat of permafrost: If global warming causes excessive thawing, then permafrost will thaw and result in the release of this once-frozen carbon.

Richard Rothstein (senior fellow of the Chief Justice Earl Warren Institute on Law and Social Policy at the Berkeley School of Law) wrote a piece for the Washington Post looking into the history of Ferguson that led to its racial divide. Note: The article was written before the Grand Jury's decision not to indict Officer Darren Wilson.

Professor of law and director of the Haas Institute for a Fair and Inclusive Society John Powell believes the shooting in Ferguson is indicative of systemic problems that require systemic solutions.

UC Berkeley contributed to research that explained why--physiologically--adolescents and young adults don't listen to their mothers.

Alumni Aysha Massell and Scott Stoller are working to stabilize and restore Strawberry Creek:

Berkeley Lab's William Collins and Heinz Frei have been named Fellows of the American Association for the Advancement of Science for their work in climate science and chemistry/solar energy, respectively.

Emmunify--made of Berkeley alumni and faculty--is working to create a standardized and easy-to-use system to maintain vaccination records for patients in underdeveloped countries.

Based on the rising tuition rates at UC Berkeley, professor of sociology Claude Fischer takes a look at the changes in state funding and--primarily--the balance between being a research university vs. one that offers practical education.

A fantastic profile of our most recent Nobel Laureate Randy Schekman, explaining his groundbreaking research and his mission to revolutionize scientific publishing.

Physicist Andrew Westphal is here to explain how Berkeley's Advanced Light Source learns about the early solar system from comets:

We previously discussed UC Berkeley's work in creating adaptive screens with vision-corrective applications; it was named one of Scientific American's "World-Changing Ideas" for 2014. I'll have more on vision problems and screens (but a bad connection) down below!

Profiling Karl Hendrick--professor of mechanical engineering and director of Berkeley's Vehicle Dynamic Laboratory--who has dedicated over 40 years to researching and developing smartcars.

President Obama recently presented the National Medals of Science to ten individuals. UC Berkeley is the institution of the most recipients--three. Congratulations to David Blackwell, Alexandre J. Chorin, and Judith P. Klinman! The ceremony is shown below, with start times listed parenthetically for Blackwell (44:07), Chorin (39:45), and Klinman (41:11).

In my day, something something about kids playing outside! Technology ruins everything!

You may want to sit down, but the increase in the number of devices and the growing saturation of technology in the world may be having a detrimental effect. I'm not just talking about the complete obliteration of social skills; according to professors of and experts in vision at UC Berkeley, the rise in the use of screens is coinciding with dramatic increases in myopia/nearsightedness.

In the early 1970s, about 25 percent of 12- to 54-year-old Americans were myopic. By the 2000s, more than 41 percent had the condition, research finds. [Professor of vision science and optometry Christine] Wildsoet and her team have trouble finding non-myopic controls for their studies, and clinicians like Maria Liu, head of Berkeley's Myopia Control Clinic [and assistant professor of clinical optometry and vision science], see children as young as 4 with severe myopia.

Hipsters everywhere are happy that they'll finally have an excuse for wearing glasses!

This problem isn't limited to the US; experts are observing these trends at an accelerated rate internationally, where those lifestyles have a greater emphasis on up-close work. On the other hand, the oudoors-y nature of Australia may be a factor in their reduced rates of myopia.

And this isn't just about having to endure eyeglasses or stick ungodly materials into your eyes just because they're called "contacts;" myopia changes the shape of the eye, resulting in the increased risk of "retinal detachment, glaucoma and cataracts."

Wildoet and Liu also outline some tips to combat these deleterious effects on your vision.

[T]he "20-20-20" rule: Every 20 minutes of close-up activity--be it reading a book, working on a laptop or texting on a cellphone--look at something about 20 feet away for about 20 seconds. "It can give your eyes a little bit of a break; it of course gives your mind a bit of a break, too," he says.

That strategy is well-founded. Animal studies, for instance, show that "the total impact to the overall myopic development is very, very different" for long stretches of near focus compared with that same amount of time broken into smaller stints, Liu says.

You should also get regular eye exams, eat eye-healthy foods, and stop freaking out that your terrible vision will be passed onto your kids--heredity only seems to be responsible for ~15% of the condition.

So, if your job involves staring at screens, go take a break and tell your boss you did it for science. Meanwhile, I have to figure out if staring at screens that simulate the outdoors counts as looking at the outdoors.

Literal doom?

One of the more controversial CGB memes is the proclamation of "dooooom" as opponents find it unnecessarily negative. However, professor of integrative biology Anthony Barnosky thinks it's genuinely time to warn of the impending doom of the sixth mass extinction event in the history of the Earth.

As a paleontologist, he knows that die-offs are common in Earth's history, but the scale of today's threat is potentially much larger than the planet has seen in millions of years, approaching that of five previous mass extinctions, which obliterated uncounted species now seen only in the fossil record.

Life experience as well as analysis of past extinctions have made him a vocal advocate for policy changes to slow greenhouse gas emissions and prevent a sixth mass extinction that could even include humans.

Barnosky and his Furdie wife Liz Hadly are strongly advocating making changes in our behavior now to prevent this catastrophe. They are publishing books and papers and working with members of government like Governor Jerry Brown to bring awareness and change to this issue.

"A lot of it is starts with talking with your friends about the issues and building awareness and a social movement that political and business leaders will listen to," he says.

Barnosky remains optimistic that change from the bottom will move legislators at the top to do something about climate change.

"It absolutely means we have to start now, though," he says. "We have got this little window where we can really go into high gear and have a very substantial and good outcome. If we postpone this for 5 or 10 years, our chances of making it turn out all right are very much reduced.

Barnosky lays out some changes that individuals can make to contribute to avoiding this extinction event:

  • Eat less meat or more environmentally-conscious (e.g., grass-fed) meat. Which is so depressing to me, but something that is doable.
  • Use the Monterey Bay Aquarium's Seafood Watch app to determine sustainably harvested fish.
  • Avoid food with palm oil, which is typically harvested from non-sustainable plantations.

So, is it still wrong to shout "dooooom?"