FAQ for Science in the News

How can sea ice extent be hitting record highs while glaciers are collapsing, and why wouldn't cutting off access to GPS base stations impact GPS use? Individual stories can result in a jumbled picture, so let us help you untangle the science behind current events.

The starting questions come from discussion threads, conversations on other social media platforms, and even real-life humans asking their friendly neighbourhood scientist to clear up some confusion. I'd love to help out with that nagging sense of dissatisfaction at puzzle pieces not fitting together by giving you some extra context, so add your questions, or jump in to help someone else out with theirs.

...it feels a little weird/dirty to self-splice into Observation Deck twice in one day, but apparently I've been writing stories specifically for you today.

When Does Science News Confuse You the Most?

Science shows up in the news all the time, but the individual reports can build a confusing picture without someone to provide context. If you're befuddled, this is an open Frequently Asked Questions for science in the news. (...and maybe just a bit of science beyond the news!)

Fire tornado from the Corona Fire in November 2008. Photography credit: David McNew/Ghetty Images

Antarctic ice sheet collapse vs. record sea ice extent

The West Antarctic ice sheet has hit a state of inexorable collapse that will eventually result in sea level rise, yet last September Antarctic sea ice hit record extents. What gives?

Airborne radar survey of ice thickness of the Thwaites Glacier in West Antarctica. Image credit: David Shean/University of Washington


Why sea ice is spreading is a bit To Be Determined based on more research, but the quick answer is that area doesn't equal volume. The ice sheets are thinning, spreading out over a larger area while melting to smaller volume. Even worse, as that ice spreads out over the ocean, the contact with seawater instead of bare rock increases melting rates.

Russian GPS Base Stations

Nothing has happened yet, but Russia is threatening to cut off access to GPS base stations within its borders. Yet even if it happens, it will have no impact on regular GPS use. So, who cares?

The geoid. Image credit: University of Texas Center for Space Research/NASA

Base stations are a passive part of the network, used in research into continental deformation and measuring the geoid. The geoid is the equipotential field of the earth, the gravitational sea level and how it changes with respect to density anomalies. Careful measurement of the geoid is necessary for making accurate maps and keeping our satellites in orbit. The impact of losing the base stations in Russia wouldn't be catastrophic, and we can find different ways to get the data, but it would be irritating.

Sea Surface Height vs. Sea Surface Temperature

It's shaping up to be an El Niño year. It will only be an El Niño if the sea surface temperatures get warmer and stay warmer, yet we're displaying maps of sea surface height anomalies. What's the correlation between temperature and height?

Sea surface height anomaly. Image credit: NASA/Earth Observatory

Warm things take up more volume. Warmer waters literally grow larger through thermal expansion, producing a visible bulge in the sea surface. Conversely, colder waters contract and shrink, drawing the sea surface down. By tracking how the sea surface is anything but level, we can use the height anomaly as a proxy for ocean temperatures. That's the simple answer, but EleniRPG continues with a more in-depth explanation.


What news stories are leaving you puzzled about the science? I'll try to track down the answers or find someone who can, updating the main article based on our discussions.


We've gone thoroughly off-topic for news-only science, and that's just fine! Here's a few of my favourite threads so far:

Density in the Kitchen

Flan cakes are baked all at the same time, so why do the layers stay separate instead of merging into a homogeneous flan-cake mess?

Image credit: Jules Food Blog

The secret is in the water bath. The dessert bakes with a half-bath of water, keeping the lower half cooler (limited to water boiling temperature) than the upper half (unlimited upper temperature). This makes the flan bake first, then the lighter cake batter creeps up along the sides, switching places with the flan and baking second.

On a related note, what about layered cocktails?

Image credit: Evan Swigart

MadChem tackled that, starting:

Floated cocktails exploit differences in density caused by different alcohol and sugar contents of different mixers and spirits. Because the differences are usually pretty small, you have to be careful when layering so you don't interrupt the interface too much.

Later continuing:

They do disperse into the water slowly; it will eventually become 'isotropic' (the same all the way through). However if you layer them carefully enough the interfacial area is very low relative to the volume of each liquid and the time it takes to become isotropic is proportional to interfacial area so it takes a long to become isotropic. You will have finished your drinks hours (maybe days) before they would become truly isotropic.

What's the Big Deal about Quantum Computing?

Captain Janeway's Cat asks:

I can't wrap my head around the fact that [quantum computers] can process multiple possibilities at the same time and how that's different from a regular binary processor.

PhysicsEmily jumps in with a detailed answer on how qubits store more information than a single bit, allowing for faster processing speeds:

In a traditional computer you have bits that are either zeros or ones and all operations are done in binary. In a quantum computer the most basic quantum bits, called qubits, can be either zero or one or a superposition of both. Now each number is actually trinary, so it carries more information than your typical binary bit. You can also use a three (or more) level system to have 0, 1, 2, a superposition of any two of those, or a superposition of all 3 for each qutrit.

Increasing Complexity in the Physics of a 3-Body Problem

The interaction of two bodies in physics (the 2-body problem) is tractable, something that can be assigned and solved in introductory physics courses. But moving into the generalized n-body problem, even just up to the 3-body problem, makes a mess of elegance. mwhite66 asks, How can one extra rock render our science useless?


Ryan Carroll and Benjamin Pope both jump in with responses, starting general and continuing in more detail into how the constraints of a 2-body problem allow simplifications that don't work when those constraints go away.

The Most Recent Decade of Climate Change

Quick aside to tell you how much I love you for holding a curious, calm discussion on climate change where people are genuinely trying to help each other understand a complex, difficult topic that has been polarized in the news cycle. You are wonderful, and I am so proud that I can recommend that yes, do read the comments!

elisethestrange asks:

What has actually been happening global temperature wise for the last 15 years or so? And have those "hockey stick" graphs actually been discredited or do some people just want them to be?

Several people jumped in with resources: I recommend here for how 1998 was a particularly hot El Niño that makes short-term trends look weird, here on how climate is still warming, even if it doesn't look much like a hockey stick, and here for links to climate data archives.

Why is Calculus So Useful?

caffeineheadache is confused by the apparently universal nature of calculus, askingHow is it that such a basic premise can have applications in so many fields?

Image credit: Splung

Rucian offers a practical approach to visualizing what calculus actually is: You're trying to find the area of some funny shaped curve. One way to approximate this area is to "pixelate" the curve into blocks. The smaller the blocks, the closer the approximation


I jump in with a more philosophical approach about the interaction of physics and math, and the value of being able to clearly define change.

Want to learn yet more cool things? FlowerGirlPhysicist hosts Friday Physics.