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Putting the snurfer to work in order to measure snowfall

Q.  What do the following scientific achievements have in common:  1. Creation of the first computer language compiler, translating English language instructions into machine code; 2. Study of the links between cholesterol and heart disease and the effects of cigarette smoking on the lungs; 3. Cloning HIV and genetically mapping the entire virus; 4. Discovery of “mobile genetic elements,” the capacity of genes to change position on a chromosome?

A.  These were all achievements by women scientists, says Susan Dominus in “Smithsonian” magazine.  1. Grace Murray Hopper, mathematician, computer scientist and rear admiral in the U.S. Navy, led a team in the 1950s that created the first computer language compiler.  2. Marie Maynard Daly became the first African-American woman in the U.S. awarded a PhD in chemistry from Columbia University in 1947.  3. Flossie Wong-Staal, virologist and molecular biologist, emigrated from China to study at UCLA.  4. Cytogeneticist Barbara McClintock was the first woman to receive an unshared Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1983.

Science historian Margaret Rossiter championed these and other women astronomers, botanists, entomologists, chemists and physicists and “almost single-handedly” made the history of women in science relevant.  Reflecting more than a decade of toil in the archives, her study “Women Scientists in America: Struggles and Strategies to 1940” (1982) brought hundreds of buried and forgotten contributions to light.

Q.  “Generating Light from Darkness” is the title of a recent article in the journal “Joule.” Too good to be true?

A. Engineering professor Aaswath Raman (UCLA) and his colleagues constructed a device which, when aimed at the night sky, generates enough electricity to power a small light-emitting diode (LED).  Powered from the temperature difference between the surface of Earth and the near-absolute-zero of outer space, it employs an off-the-shelf thermoelectric generator designed to absorb heat from ambient air and radiate it into the sky.

The prototype generates only 0.0025 Watts per square metre (W/m2) of radiative surface area, but the authors think improved designs could reach 0.5 W/m2.  They write: “A large fraction of the world’s population still lacks access to electricity, particularly at night when photovoltaic systems no longer operate.  The ability to generate electricity at night could be a fundamentally enabling capability for a wide range of applications, including lighting and low-power sensors.”

Q.  How does the U.S. National Weather Service (NWS) measure snowfall, and where does a “snurfer” fit into the calculation?

A.  In 1890, the U.S. Congress formed the Coop, one of whose goals is “to provide observational meteorological data, usually consisting of daily maximum and minimum temperatures, snowfall, and 24-hour precipitation totals,” reports Dan Lewis on his “Now I Know” website.  Currently, the NWS relies on a massive, national volunteer network of rain and snow watchers, over 8,700 cooperative observers whose collective work become the official weather site.

To measure snow, volunteers use a “snowboard,” originally called a “snurfer,” a portmanteau of “snow” + “surfer.”  The snowboard, a piece of plywood 16 x 16 inches, is placed on the ground and used as a base for the measurements.  This is critical, Lewis says, since it gives a hard, flat surface from which to get accurate snow measurements.  (All NWS Coop volunteers go through a training program to get this right.)

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