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Discussions on global warming and manned space flight, Sahara solar power July 9, 2009

Posted by Mike Trudeau in Climate Change, Technology, The Future.
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Two interesting discussions to point out today.
First, RealClimate has a brief article about the G8 countries agreeing to try to avoid anything more than two degrees of global warming. The comments vary from hopeful to sceptical and all the way out to cynical.
Second, space scientist Wes Huntress posted an article on The Space Review giving advice about the future of manned space exploration. It’s well worth a read, and the discussion in the comments section is enlightening.
The debate surrounding the future of manned spaceflight is an tricky one, especially as robotic technology gets cheaper and more powerful (see this awesome photo). I would love to see humans land on Mars in my lifetime, but I have a hard time coming up with rational arguments for sending them. Personally, I think we should be looking at the moons of Saturn and Jupiter (specifically Europa, Titan and Enceladus) for signs of life. These would be robotic missions, and I would hate to see them postponed in favour of human missions.
Is human space exploration only considered because of its public appeal, or its space-cowboy, Apollo-era sense of adventure? Is there anything wrong with that? I’d like to see your arguments for human spaceflight if you’ve got any.

There could be some good news coming for supporters of solar power: an article at the Economist says a meeting will take place on July 13 to drum up support for enormous solar power stations to be built in the Sahara. The meeting will be hosted by Munich Re, which has invited 20 other big companies including Siemens and Deutsche Bank.
It would be a hugely expensive project, but would aim to supply %15 of Europe’s power in 2050 as well as most of North Africa’s.

I hadn’t thought about power as a potential export from Africa before. Could generating and exporting power boost the economies of developing nations?

Finally, check out this story about blind people learning to “see” with echolocation! I had no idea!

Very smart birds, and Freeman Dyson thinks we should look for flowers on Europa May 8, 2009

Posted by Mike Trudeau in Animals, Climate Change, Extraterrestrial life.
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Here‘s a great article by the BBC about how birds are much smarter than we give them credit for. The first video is amazing. The crow sees food at the bottom of a short “chimney,” so takes a piece of wire and bends it into a hook to pull the food out!
For a long time I thought great apes and humans were the only animals that used tools. Now we see that not only do birds (specifically corvids, ie crows, ravens etc) use tools, but they can actually make them too. I had no idea.

Also, check out Freeman Dyson’s argument about methods for searching for extraterrestrial life (especially on Europa) in this New Scientist article. He uses flowers that grow in Antarctica as an example to suggest that we should look where it would be easier to detect, instead of trying to figure out how and where it would have evolved.

As the article mentions later though, the surface of Europa is bombarded with a huge amount of radiation from Jupiter, which could make life very difficult for flowers.

Space.com has an interesting article about how the radiation bombardment might actually give life a boost by producing a wider variety of chemicals that small life-forms could live off.

Freeman Dyson is a climate sceptic, and The New York Times has a very, very long article about him and his views here. Discover magazine blog Intersection has a scathing review of the article here.

Climate change quickens, geoengineering and animal stories March 10, 2009

Posted by Mike Trudeau in Animals, Climate Change, Cybernetics.
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To all the journalists-to-be out there, is this what we’re going to have to do to get jobs now?

There’s been a lot in the news these last two weeks about scientists saying that all our feeble efforts to reduce emissions and slow down global warming may now be to little, too late.

New Scientist had a disturbing article last week. I was surprised to see something so alarming coming from the New Scientist, as they usually seem more moderate. It’s a very bold piece of doom for you to digest before bed. I only wish I could show you the map that illustrated the article in the magazine. Grim. I recommend you read it and then move to Canada.

Basically, scientists are starting to say that things are getting worse, faster. Here’s an example from Scientific American. I’m surprised it even gives climate change deniers the time of day, when you consider just how serious things are starting to look.

This is a good place to find the basics of climate change.

Disturbingly, scientists are beginning to lean more towards geoengineering to stop the atmosphere from heating up. This has been all over the news for the last two weeks or so. Geoengineering is using artificial means to cool the planet instead of letting it cool itself naturally. Ideas for this are varied and extreme, with the most famous one being orbiting reflective shades. Other ideas include filling the atmosphere with a haze to planting especially reflective crops. You can read more about it in any of the links above.

In lighter news, animals! Here’s a story about a clever chimp who hid piles of rocks around his habitat, waiting for an opportunity to throw them at passersby.
For those of you who think they’ve seen everything, here’s an article about (and photograph of) an elephant with a prosthetic leg.
Finally, a baby blue whale was captured on film for maybe the first time ever. See the footage on the National Geographic website. Among other staggering facts, the article says baby blues gain two hundred pounds a day while nursing.

Orbiting Carbon Observatory Fails to Reach Orbit February 24, 2009

Posted by Mike Trudeau in Animals, Climate Change, Nasa.
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AAARRRgh! Seven years of gruelling engineering, testing and planning and 270 million US dollars went crashing into the ocean near Antarctica earlier today.

If you haven’t already heard (and embarassingly it was my mother that tipped me off), Nasa’s Orbiting Carbon Observatory (OCO) suffered a rocket malfunction three minutes after its launch.

It looks like the two-part (“clamshell”) fairing surrounding the satellite failed to open. The fairing protects the satellite as the rocket leaves the atmosphere, and is very heavy. The rocket didn’t have enough power to carry the satellite and its fairing into orbit so fell back to Earth, crashing into frigid antarctic waters.

The OCO was meant to measure carbon dioxide in the Earth’s atmosphere, and hopefully pinpoint previously unknown carbon sinks and sources. This would have helped us understand how our climate is changing. Which it is.

You can read about the mission and its failure right here on the Nasa website. There is a good video here of the moment the failure was announced. Listen for the order not to leak to the press! Also, here‘s a (rather dry) video of the press briefing following the failure, introduced by a bright red man in a bright yellow suit. Extraterrestrial? Must investigate further…The video is full of Nasa vaguenesses like “about eighty milliseconds later…”

If you get tired of the briefing you should watch the Jupiter and Saturn mission videos. Exciting!

The BBC also has a good thorough article about the mission background.

Apparently there aren’t enough spare parts to rebuild another OCO immediately, and we’ll have to wait to see what they decide to do. I feel terrible for those involved. What a crushing disappointment.

All is not lost, however. Japan launched it’s own Ibuki or Gosat satellite last month, which has a similar purpose and is so far doing just fine.

But enough bad news! This is the absolute craziest fish I have ever seen. It’s got a see-through head! And those are its eyes! It’s called a barreleye apparently. I wonder why…

If that’s not freaky enough for you, think about scientists growing human teeth in a laboratory. Your teeth.