UCSB Scientists Make Top 100

The December issue of Discover magazine was recently published, containing the company’s picks for the top 100 science stories of the year. Four of the stories focused on research done by UCSB scientists.

One was on spintronics, a special form of computing that uses the property called spin, rather than the charge of electrons as ones and zeros in binary code. David Awschalom of UCSB’s Center for Spintronics was interviewed for the article.

Another was on the world’s first telesurgery, performed by Computer Motion, Inc. Telesurgery surgeons in New York operated a surgical robot in France by remote control over fiber optic lines, successfully removing the gallbladder of a French patient. Computer Motion is owned and run by Yulun Wang, a former UCSB professor. Steven Butner, an engineering professor at UCSB, served as a technical adviser on the project.

John Alroy of UCSB’s National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis appeared for his claim that Mammoths were hunted to extinction by early bands of humans.

Finally, John Ruhl of UCSB’s Physics Dept. appeared for his discovery of the shape of the universe, using a balloon telescope in Antarctica.

Researchers Study Prehistoric Santa Barbara Flood

UCSB geology professor Edward Keller and graduate student Amy Selting have found what they believe is the origin of a prehistoric debris flow that occurred near what are presently the Rocky Nook Park and the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History.

The debris flow, which occurred thousands of years ago, most likely originated in Rattlesnake Canyon, near Skofield Park. Keller and Selting believe the debris flow occurred after a landslide blocked the canyon causing water from Rattlesnake Creek to build up and finally lead to what is now called the Mission debris flow.

Keller and Selting studied the boulders in Rocky Nook Park, which are piled on top of each other with space in between. The space is a result of finer sediments that sat between the boulders during the debris flow, but were then washed away.

“These boulders are composed of sandstone from the Santa Ynez Mountains and we believe they record a catastrophic debris flow that occurred sometime in the recent geologic past,” Keller said.

The researchers noted that the last debris flow reached speeds of up to 100 miles per hour and stopped at what is now the intersection of State Street and Alamar Avenue.

Study Shows Many Species Have Invalid Names

The world may have fewer species than scientists think because of poor naming techniques, according to a research paper by UCSB geology professor John Alroy.

Species start out as valid when they are named, but scientific disagreement over time leads to those names getting invalidated and then revalidated, Alroy said. He estimated the size of each pool and concluded that nearly one-fifth of species names in use now will be invalidated.

“What this result tells us is that we are remarkably ignorant about biodiversity,” Alroy said. “It shows not only that there are tons of species we haven’t even found yet, but that for the few species we do know about, we barely even have the names straight – and the most basic thing you can know about a species is its name.”

Certain orders have more invalid names than others. Large mammals tend to be among the best-named groups, because many of the names have existed since the 19th century. More recently named species are more troublesome.

“Small mammal orders, such as rodents, seem to have worse names, not because the names are intrinsically bad, but because they are often quite recently proposed, so there has not been enough time yet to ferret out the bad names,” Alroy said.

Alroy, who authored a paper on extinction last June that stirred up a controversy that extended past the geology world, has worked with geological statistics for years.

The invalid species name project came from statistical data Alroy has gathered for other studies over the last 15 years.

“I thought about the bad names problem for years but just couldn’t figure it out, and then had a light bulb go on last spring,” Alroy said. “It was a classic ‘eureka!’ moment. That’s the kind of thing that makes science so much fun.”

Compiled by Josh Braun, Sarah Healy and Eric Simons