Sustainability Article

Multiple Authors
By: Katherine Harmon Courage, Knowable Magazine

This story was originally published by Knowable Magazine.

From mask wearing to physical distancing, individuals wield a lot of power in how the coronavirus outbreak plays out. Behavioral experts reveal what might be prompting people to act—or not.

With many states and towns lifting strict stay-at-home orders, people are faced with a growing number of new decisions. Mundane logistical questions—Should I go get my hair cut? When can I picnic with friends? What should I wear to the hardware store?—during the Covid-19 pandemic carry implications for personal and public health, in some cases life-or-death ones.

Vanessa Bates Ramirez’s picture

By: Vanessa Bates Ramirez

Long before coronavirus appeared and shattered our preexisting “normal,” the future of work was a widely discussed and debated topic. We’ve watched automation slowly but surely expand its capabilities and take over more jobs, and we’ve wondered what artificial intelligence will eventually be capable of.

The pandemic swiftly turned the working world on its head, putting millions of people out of a job and forcing millions more to work remotely. But essential questions remain largely unchanged: We still want to make sure we’re not replaced, we want to add value, and we want an equitable society where different types of work are valued fairly.

To address these issues—as well as how the pandemic has impacted them—this week Singularity University held a digital summit on the future of work. Forty-three speakers from multiple backgrounds, countries, and sectors of the economy shared their expertise on everything from work in developing markets to why we shouldn’t want to go back to the old normal.

Jessica Reiner’s picture

By: Jessica Reiner

For more than 20 years, a class of man-made, potentially cancer-causing chemicals called per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) has commonly been found in humans and the environment. These chemicals are used in a variety of industries and can be found in many consumer products, such as food packaging and cleaners. Many early studies showed PFAS could even be found in remote locations like the Arctic.

There is one that I remember well in which 21 of the top PFAS researchers wrote about the measurement challenges that were hindering research. I was in graduate school at the time, and this paper really resonated with me. The authors pointed out that data for these chemicals should be accurate, precise, and reproducible because it was likely these data would be used as a foundation for regulatory decisions. As I look at the current news, it seems that these regulatory decisions are now being made under the Environmental Protection Agency’s PFAS Action Plan.

Carrie Van Daele’s picture

By: Carrie Van Daele

Crossing the street or stepping backward when you encounter another person has already become a habit, as has a routine elbow bump, instead of a handshake.

And that is definitely what is needed during a health crisis. But when the time is right, as a society we must bounce back to social connectivity to prevent productivity and relationships from being forever damaged.

Humans are social beings. Sure, we have varying levels of desire for social interaction; some of us want to spend time alone, while others are more inclined to want to hang out in groups. But in one form or another, we all strive for connection with one another.

The physical distancing and forced isolation was a shock to our social system. Although it is helping the health emergency, in the long run it will hinder companies’ efforts to ramp up productivity.

During the late 1970s, I remember the Big Three automotive companies launched a “Quality of Work Life” workshop to rebuild trust between employees and their superiors after an economic downturn resulting in layoffs. The Big Three knew ramping up productivity would happen only with repaired relationships.

Gleb Tsipursky’s picture

By: Gleb Tsipursky

So many companies are shifting their employees to working from home to address the Covid-19 coronavirus pandemic. Yet they’re not considering the potential quality disasters that can occur as a result of this transition.

An example of this is what one of my coaching clients experienced more than a year before the pandemic hit. Myron is the risk and quality management executive in a medical services company with about 600 employees. He was one of the leaders tasked by his company’s senior management team with shifting the company’s employees to a work-from-home setup, due to rising rents on their office building.

Specifically, Myron led the team that managed risk and quality issues associated with the transition for all 600 employees to telework, due to his previous experience in helping small teams of three to six people in the company transition to working from home in the past. The much larger number of people who had many more diverse roles they had to assist now was proving to be a challenge. So was the short amount of time available to this project, which was only four weeks, and resulted from a failure in negotiation with the landlord of the office building.

Multiple Authors
By: Donald J. Wheeler, Al Pfadt

Each day we receive data that seek to quantify the Covid-19 pandemic. These daily values tell us how things have changed from yesterday, and give us the current totals, but they are difficult to understand simply because they are only a small piece of the puzzle. And like pieces of a puzzle, data only begin to make sense when they are placed in context. And the best way to place data in context is with an appropriate graph.

When using epidemiological models to evaluate different scenarios it is common to see graphs that portray the number of new cases, or the demand for services, each day.1 Typically, these graphs look something like the curves in figure 1.


Figure 1: Epidemiological models produce curves of new cases under different scenarios in order to compare peak demands over time. (Click image for larger view.)

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By: The Hechinger Report

Students generally learn about moles, atoms, compounds, and the intricacies of the periodic table in college, but Daniel Fried is convinced kids can learn complex biochemistry topics as early as elementary school.

Fried is an assistant professor of chemistry at Saint Peter’s University in New Jersey, and in his spare time, he creates biochemistry lessons for kids, teaching fourth through sixth graders at a nearby Montessori school and sharing lessons with other teachers and homeschooling parents around the country and world.

“When the kids are young, they’re highly motivated,” Fried says. “It’s easy to teach them. They pick up on the patterns so quickly. They appreciate everything.” High school and college students, by contrast, take a lot more work to engage, and Fried has found getting children interested in biochemistry to be a breeze—especially when they hear they’ll soon be able to correct older siblings or cousins. “The harder part is getting the adults on board to allow it to happen,” he says.

Stephanie Parker’s picture

By: Stephanie Parker

This story was originally published by Knowable Magazine.

An anthropologist looks at the myriad ways we link food to place—and whether it really could make a difference.

“Local food” is a term loaded with virtue for many people. Some with environmental concerns lean toward local because food grown nearby requires less energy for transportation. Others find it reassuring to meet a farmer and know where their food comes from and how it was grown.

Others may think of local food as fresher, more nutritious, and more likely to be grown organically, or they view “local” as a way to boost local economies and invest in their communities.

But the very definition of local food is elusive. If it’s about food that was grown nearby, how nearby should that be? Fifty miles away? One hundred? Somewhere within one’s state or country? And for those whose definition of “local” means pride in regional cuisines, does it matter where the ingredients were grown?

NIST’s picture

By: NIST

Unlike diamonds, solar panels are not forever. Ultraviolet rays, gusts of wind, and heavy rain wear away at them over their lifetime. 

Manufacturers typically guarantee that panels will endure the elements for at least 25 years before experiencing significant drop-offs in power generation, but recent reports highlight a trend of panels failing decades before expected. For some models, there has been a spike in the number of cracked backsheets—layers of plastic that electrically insulate and physically shield the backsides of solar panels.

The premature cracking has largely been attributed to the widespread use of certain plastics, such as polyamide, but the reason for their rapid degradation has been unclear. By closely examining cracked polyamide-based backsheets, researchers at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) and colleagues have uncovered how interactions between these plastics, environmental factors, and solar panel architecture may be speeding up the degradation process. These findings could aid researchers in the development of improved durability tests and longer-lived solar panels. 

By: John Wenz

For most of us, the word “robot” conjures something like C-3PO—a humanoid creature programmed to interact with flesh-and-blood people in a more or less human way. But the roster of real-world robots is considerably more varied. The list includes Boston Dynamics’ dog-inspired robots, Dalek-like security bots, industrial arms on an assembly line, and any number of flying insect-inspired robots. If a machine is designed to do a complicated task in an automated fashion, it’s a robot.

A robot, it turns out, doesn’t even need to have a fixed shape. That’s the vision of researchers who work in modular reconfigurable robotics (MRR) and are pursuing bots that can assemble themselves, by rearranging similar or identical parts into whatever shape suits the task at hand. These robots can take the form of snakes, lattices, trusses, and more, and can be set to any challenge—providing construction support, doing repair work, or scouring for survivors after a natural disaster.

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