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November 10, 2015 / jpschimel

Greenhouse Gas Production by Faculty Seminars

Mitch Wagener and I wrote this years ago when I was at the University of Alaska and he was a Ph.D. student. We originally published it online as part of the “First International Virtual Symposium on Mad Science.” That always bugged me because there was no “mad science” involved—we actually collected the data and it’s all real. I still list this as a “technical report” on my C.V. I hadn’t been able to find a copy of this for a long time, but one recently appeared and I thought this blog would be a good place to give it new life. I hope you find it entertaining.

The Production of Greenhouse Gases in Faculty Seminars

Stephen M. Wagener and Joshua P. Schimel

University of Alaska Fairbanks

Recently Hungadunga and McCormick (1991) observed that, in the natural course of their duties, academic biologists produce only a little less CO2 and CH4 than do feedlot cattle. As an interesting aside, they also found that only politicians ranked higher than cattle in the production of these gases. Unfortunately, university administrators were not tested.

It had long been observed at our institute that during faculty seminars the room—lovingly referred to as the Autoclave—gets stuffy and people often fall asleep. We named this phenomenon Seminar Narcolepsy Syndrome (SNS, pronounced snooze). It is also evident that some seminars cause a much higher level of SNS than do others. We hypothesized that the SNS might be caused by excessive CO2 in the seminar room. This raised several issues that we addressed in this experiment: Is SNS actually caused by CO2? Is this phenomenon related to the seminar topic? How might faculty seminars contribute to the production of the greenhouse gases CO2 and CH4?

During the fall and winter of 1991-1992 we took air samples at four locations in the seminar room at 15 minute intervals during faculty seminars. The sample takers were various graduate students and faculty. We also measured beginning and ending temperatures and counted the attendees. We analyzed samples using gas chromatography. We wished to also measure relative humidity and atmospheric mercaptans, but our GC was not set up to analyze mercaptans and we were persuaded that using a sling psychrometer during the seminars would be disruptive.

The ornithology and mammalogy seminars generated the most carbon dioxide per capita. This is not surprising considering the excitement these subjects generate at our biological institute. Since people respire less while asleep, dips in CO2 during the plant ecology, stream ecology and invertebrate zoology seminars probably indicate people nodding off. The microbial ecology seminar produced by far the most methane, although there was a sharp drop 15 minutes before the end. This corresponds to certain people (probably mammalogists) leaving early. Methane concentrations actually went down during the plant ecology seminar.

Discussion

Our initial hypothesis was that high CO2 induced SNS and caused the audience to fall asleep. In fact we found the opposite: mammalogy and ornithology seminars caused some serious heavy breathing and greatly accelerated CO2 production. Other subjects had both higher incidences of SNS and reduced CO2 build up. It is possible that at a microbiology institute, micrographs of bacterial conjugation would stimulate heavy breathing, while moose conjugation might induce SNS. We suspect that a seminar on human conjugation would induce heavy breathing in all academic institutes.

Spectators at plant ecology seminars appear to be facultative methanotrophs. The only other animals known to consume methane are several species of marine clam; this relationship may therefore require a major reevaluation of the place of plant ecologists in the phylogenetic tree. We also found that carbon dioxide accumulates faster in the east half of the seminar room, while methane increases faster in the west side. This could be due to the fact that certain people consistently sit in the same spot. The effect is that the seminar room can generate its own weather patterns.

We have the following recommendations for making faculty seminars more eco-friendly:

  • Only boring seminars should be allowed. Not only would this reduce the production of greenhouse gases, but it would have the added benefit of reducing the overall stress level of attendees.
  • Each attendee should be encourage to bring a potted plant. Tomato plants would be ideal if one has a strong opinion about the seminar presenter. However, attendees should probably wait until after the seminar to get themselves potted.
  • Room lights should remain on at all times to encourage photosynthesis. However, this could also have the negative and unrealistic effect of encouraging people to stay awake.
  • No one should be allowed in the seminar room who had the burrito special for lunch.

References

Hungadunga, M.L. and F.G. McCorrnick. 1991. Human sources of greenhouse gases. North Dakota Journal of Natural Gas Production 107:23-45

Table 1. Seminar topic, attendance, temperature, and gas concentrations

                                Number of     Temperature      Ending CO2      Ending CH4

Seminar Topic         Attendees            ° C                     %                     ppm

Ornithology                      70                    27                     0.15                 2.19

Mammalogy                     60                    26                     0.19

Plant Ecology                   75                    27                     0.14                 1.88

Plant Taxonomy               50                    26                     0.10                  2.37

Invertebrate Zoology        75                    26                      0.15

Stream Ecology                75                    25                     0.11                 2.31

Biochemistry                    30                    26                      0.04

Microbial Ecology            50                    26                      0.09                  4.42

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One Comment

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  1. Cindy Corbitt / Feb 10 2016 1:20 pm

    I have been talking about this scientific work for over 20 years and was so happy to serendipitously find a copy of it here! As an attendee in most of the seminars studied for this report, I suspect that I was not a major contributor to the CO2 levels, as I slept through many of them. I blame the lack of ventilation in the seminar room and the fact that I was working hard most of the time. The methane…well…

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