homeaboutarchives + tagsshopmembership!
aboutarchivesshopmembership!
aboutarchivesmembers!

kottke.org posts about science

Infographic of the fascinating timeline of the far future

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 17, 2017

Timeline of The Far Future

Timeline of the far future is one of my favorite pages on Wikipedia. It details what might happen to humanity, human artifacts, the Earth, the solar system, and the Universe from 10,000 years from now until long past the heat death of the Universe. Information is Beautiful has made a lovely infographic of the timeline.

Reading through the timeline is a glorious way to spend time…here are a few favorites I noticed this time around as well as some from my first post.

August 20, 10,663: “A simultaneous total solar eclipse and transit of Mercury.”

20,000 years: “The Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, the 1,000 sq mi area of Ukraine and Belarus left deserted by the 1986 Chernobyl disaster, becomes safe for human life.”

296,000 years: “Voyager 2 passes within 4.3 light-years of Sirius, the brightest star in the night sky.”

1 million years: “Highest estimated time until the red supergiant star Betelgeuse explodes in a supernova. The explosion is expected to be easily visible in daylight.”

1 million years: “On the Moon, Neil Armstrong’s ‘one small step’ footprint at Tranquility Base will erode by this time, along with those left by all twelve Apollo moonwalkers, due to the accumulated effects of space weathering.”

15.7 million: “Half-life of iodine-129, the most durable long-lived fission product in uranium-derived nuclear waste.”

100 million years: “Future archaeologists should be able to identify an ‘Urban Stratum’ of fossilized great coastal cities, mostly through the remains of underground infrastructure such as building foundations and utility tunnels.”

1 billion years: “Estimated lifespan of the two Voyager Golden Records, before the information stored on them is rendered unrecoverable.”

4 billion years: “Median point by which the Andromeda Galaxy will have collided with the Milky Way, which will thereafter merge to form a galaxy dubbed ‘Milkomeda’.”

7.59 billion years: The Earth and Moon are very likely destroyed by falling into the Sun, just before the Sun reaches the tip of its red giant phase and its maximum radius of 256 times the present-day value. Before the final collision, the Moon possibly spirals below Earth’s Roche limit, breaking into a ring of debris, most of which falls to the Earth’s surface.

100 billion years: “The Universe’s expansion causes all galaxies beyond the Milky Way’s Local Group to disappear beyond the cosmic light horizon, removing them from the observable universe.”

A tour of our solar system’s eclipses

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 16, 2017

In a meditative video for the NY Times, Dennis Overbye takes us on a tour of eclipses that happen in our solar system and beyond.

On the 21st day of August, 2017, the moon will slide between the Earth and the sun, painting a swath of darkness across North America. The Great American Solar Eclipse. An exercise in cosmic geometry. A reminder that we live on one sphere among many, all moving to the laws of Kepler, Newton and Einstein.

Humans have many more vantage points from which to observe solar eclipses than when the last solar eclipse occurred in the US in 1979. I had no idea that the Mars rovers had caught partial solar eclipses on Mars…so cool. (via @jossfong)

Scientists think the first Americans arrived by boat

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 15, 2017

The prevailing theory of how the Americas were settled has been than human hunters followed big game across the ice-free land bridge between North America and Asia around 13,000 years ago. These are the Clovis people you may have learned about in school. But evidence is mounting that the first humans to settle the Americas came down the Pacific Coast somewhat earlier than that.

The Cedros Island sites add to a small but growing list that supports a once-heretical view of the peopling of the Americas. Whereas archaeologists once thought that the earliest arrivals wandered into the continent through a gap in the ice age glaciers covering Canada, most researchers today think the first inhabitants came by sea. In this view, maritime explorers voyaged by boat out of Beringia — the ancient land now partially submerged under the waters of the Bering Strait — about 16,000 years ago and quickly moved down the Pacific coast, reaching Chile by at least 14,500 years ago.

Part of the problem in confirming this hypothesis is that the rise in sea level that accompanied the melting of the glaciers (a 120-meter rise globally) submerged likely settlement sites, trapping archeological evidence under hundreds of feet of ocean. (via @CharlesCMann)

The size of life: the differing scales of living things

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 10, 2017

In the first in a series of videos, Kurzgesagt tackles one of my favorite scientific subjects: how the sizes of animals governs their behaviors, appearance, and abilities. For instance, because the volume (and therefore mass) of an organism increases according to the cube of the increase in length (e.g. if you double the length/height of a dog, its mass roughly increases by 8 times), when you drop differently sized animals from high up, the outcomes are vastly different (a mouse lands safely, an elephant splatters everywhere).

The bit in the video about how insects can breathe underwater because of the interplay between the surface tension of water and their water-repellant outer layers is fascinating. The effect of scale also comes into play when considering the longevity of NBA big men, how fast animals move, how much animals’ hearts beat, the question of fighting 100 duck-sized horses or 1 horse-sized duck, and shrinking people down to conserve resources.

When humans get smaller, the world and its resources get bigger. We’d live in smaller houses, drive smaller cars that use less gas, eat less food, etc. It wouldn’t even take much to realize gains from a Honey, I Shrunk Humanity scheme: because of scaling laws, a height/weight proportional human maxing out at 3 feet tall would not use half the resources of a 6-foot human but would use somewhere between 1/4 and 1/8 of the resources, depending on whether the resource varied with volume or surface area. Six-inch-tall humans would potentially use 1728 times fewer resources.

See also The Biology of B-Movie Monsters, which is perhaps the most-linked article in the history of kottke.org.

Voronoi diagram of people enjoying a park

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 03, 2017

Voronoi Bryant Park

Starting with an overhead shot of people sitting out in the sun in NYC’s Bryant Park, Rod Bogart laid what’s called a Voronoi diagram on top of it. A Voronoi diagram is a way of mapping out areas where any point in a given area is closer to a seed point than it is to any other seed point. You can think of it as a sphere of influence…and in this case, you can see how the park-goers have organized themselves into having their own personal space. As Bogart says:

It’s fascinating to see the real world optimization problem of wanting to get a nice large patch of grass.

I often think about Voronoi diagrams when I get into an elevator.

I stand alone in the elevator, right in the middle, equidistant from the four walls. Before the doors close, a woman enters. Unconsciously, I move over to make room for her. We stand side by side with equal amounts of space between the two of us and between each of us and the walls of the elevator. On the 12th floor, a man gets on and the woman and I slide slightly to the side and to the back, maximizing the space that each of us occupies in the elevator. At the 14th floor, another man gets on. The man in front steps to the back center and the woman and I move slightly toward the front, forming a diamond shape that again maximizes each person’s distance from the elevator walls and the people next to them.

See also “the human ellipse”.

Browse the British Library’s online copy of Leonardo da Vinci’s 570-page notebook

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 02, 2017

Leonardo's Notebook

Leonardo's Notebook

Leonardo's Notebook

Leonardo da Vinci was an avid taker of notes. Over the course of his working life, he filled thousands of pages with drawings, sketches, equations, and his distinctive mirrored handwriting. The British Library has one of Leonardo’s notebooks and has digitized and put all 570 pages of it online. It’s interesting to see all of the spare geometric line drawings and then every once in awhile there’s this wonderfully rendered 3D-shaded tiny masterpiece in the margin when more detail was required. (via open culture)

A visual explanation of quantum mechanics

posted by Jason Kottke   Jul 27, 2017

From the ViaScience YouTube channel comes this 31-part video explainer of quantum mechanics. As the introduction video notes, there is a fair bit of math in these videos presented at a quick pace, but if you took calculus in high school or college and remember the notation, that (and the pause button) should get you through this pretty well. (via @jsonpaul, who calls the series “fantastic”)

Why is the upcoming total solar eclipse such a big deal?

posted by Jason Kottke   Jul 20, 2017

Well, the short answer is that they don’t happen all that often and when they do, they’ve visible from only a small bit of Earth. Joss Fong elaborates in a video for Vox.

The next total solar eclipse to visit the US will be in 2024. If an eclipse happens to come to your town, you’re lucky. Any given location will see a total solar eclipse only once in more than 300 years, on average. The vast majority of us will have to travel to an eclipse path if we want to see a total eclipse in our lifetimes.

I’m off to Nebraska in August to meet up with some friends and see the eclipse. (And that 2024 eclipse Fong mentions? The path of totality goes right over my damn house. Woooo!) But no matter where you are in North America, you can enjoy the eclipse…just make sure you buy some safety glasses (and other supplies) if you want to look directly at the Sun. (via @veganstraightedge)

Beating cancer is a team sport

posted by Jason Kottke   Jul 20, 2017

Senator John McCain has been diagnosed with a particularly aggressive form of brain cancer. The tumor has been removed and McCain is recovering at home with his family. I wish Senator McCain well and hope for a speedy recovery.

In the wake of his diagnosis, many of those expressing support for McCain reference his considerable personal strength in his fight against cancer. President Obama said:

John McCain is an American hero & one of the bravest fighters I’ve ever known. Cancer doesn’t know what it’s up against. Give it hell, John.

McCain’s daughter Meghan references his toughness and fearlessness in a statement released yesterday. Vice-President Joe Biden expressed similar sentiments on Twitter:

John and I have been friends for 40 years. He’s gotten through so much difficulty with so much grace. He is strong — and he will beat this.

This is the right thing to say to those going through something like this, and hearing this encouragement and having the will & energy to meet this challenge will undoubtably increase McCain’s chances of survival. But what Biden said next is perhaps more relevant:

Incredible progress in cancer research and treatment in just the last year offers new promise and new hope. You can win this fight, John.

As with polio, smallpox, measles, and countless other diseases before it, beating cancer is not something an individual can do. Being afflicted with cancer is the individual’s burden to bear but society’s responsibility to cure. In his excellent biography of cancer from 2011, The Emperor of All Maladies, Siddhartha Mukherjee talks about the progress we’ve made on cancer:

Incremental advances can add up to transformative changes. In 2005, an avalanche of papers cascading through the scientific literature converged on a remarkably consistent message — the national physiognomy of cancer had subtly but fundamentally changed. The mortality for nearly every major form of cancer — lung, breast, colon, and prostate — had continuously dropped for fifteen straight years. There had been no single, drastic turn but rather a steady and powerful attrition: mortality had declined by about 1 percent every year. The rate might sound modest, but its cumulative effect was remarkable: between 1990 and 2005, the cancer-specific death rate had dropped nearly 15 percent, a decline unprecedented in the history of the disease. The empire of cancer was still indubitably vast — more than half a million American men and women died of cancer in 2005 — but it was losing power, fraying at its borders.

What precipitated this steady decline? There was no single answer but rather a multitude. For lung cancer, the driver of decline was primarily prevention — a slow attrition in smoking sparked off by the Doll-Hill and Wynder-Graham studies, fueled by the surgeon general’s report, and brought to its full boil by a combination of political activism (the FTC action on warning labels), inventive litigation (the Banzhaf and Cipollone cases), medical advocacy, and countermarketing (the antitobacco advertisements). For colon and cervical cancer, the declines were almost certainly due to the successes of secondary prevention — cancer screening. Colon cancers were detected at earlier and earlier stages in their evolution, often in the premalignant state, and treated with relatively minor surgeries. Cervical cancer screening using Papanicolaou’s smearing technique was being offered at primary-care centers throughout the nation, and as with colon cancer, premalignant lesions were excised using relatively minor surgeries. For leukemia, lymphoma, and testicular cancer, in contrast, the declining numbers reflected the successes of chemotherapeutic treatment. In childhood ALL, cure rates of 80 percent were routinely being achieved. Hodgkin’s disease was similarly curable, and so, too, were some large-cell aggressive lymphomas. Indeed, for Hodgkin’s disease, testicular cancer, and childhood leukemias, the burning question was not how much chemotherapy was curative, but how little: trials were addressing whether milder and less toxic doses of drugs, scaled back from the original protocols, could achieve equivalent cure rates.

Perhaps most symbolically, the decline in breast cancer mortality epitomized the cumulative and collaborative nature of these victories — and the importance of attacking cancer using multiple independent prongs. Between 1990 and 2005, breast cancer mortality had dwindled an unprecedented 24 percent. Three interventions had potentially driven down the breast cancer death rate-mammography (screening to catch early breast cancer and thereby prevent invasive breast cancer), surgery, and adjuvant chemotherapy (chemotherapy after surgery to remove remnant cancer cells).

Understanding how to defeat cancer is an instance where America’s fierce insistence on individualism does us a disservice. Individuals with freedom to pursue their own goals are capable of a great deal, but some problems require massive collective coordination and effort. Beating cancer is a team sport; it can only be defeated by a diverse collection of people and institutions working hard toward the same goal. It will take government-funded research, privately funded research, a strong educational system, philanthropy, and government agencies from around the world working together. This effort also requires a system of healthcare that’s available to everybody, not just to those who can afford it. Although cancer is not a contagious disease like measles or smallpox, the diagnosis and treatment of each and every case brings us closer to understanding how to defeat it. We make this effort together, we spend this time, energy, and money, so that 10, 20, or 30 years from now, our children and grandchildren won’t have to suffer like our friends and family do now.

An appreciation and reevaluation of Contact, 20 years after its theatrical release

posted by Jason Kottke   Jul 12, 2017

Contact, based on Carl Sagan’s book of the same name, is on its face a movie about science vs. religion. On the 20th anniversary of its release, Germain Lussier rewatched the film and came away with a different impression: director Robert Zemeckis wanted viewers to think about our relationship to media and technology.

Once Ellie and her team discover the signal from Vega, seemingly every scene in the film features a monitor or some kind of television-related paraphernalia. Whether that’s unpacking a TV to unveil the Olympic footage, people watching news reports on CNN, a terrorist videotaping himself, or multiple scenes in the screen-filled Mission Control, Contact is filled with monitors, forcing both the characters and the audience to watch them. Full scenes of the film are made up of fuzzy TV footage. There are numerous press conferences on TV. The selection of the Machine representative unfolds via the news. Ellie’s interactions with Hadden are almost entirely done over a monitor. Even in scenes where the camera is in a room with the characters, Zemeckis often films them watching TV, or simply puts TV monitors in the frame to constantly remind us they’re there.

But that’s not it. People video chat regularly, which was not common in 1997. The terrorist attack on the Machine is first discovered on a TV monitor and subsequently played out there too. Then, finally, what’s the smoking gun of Ellie’s whole trip at the end of the movie? Eighteen hours of video footage. I could go on and on with examples where Contact uses television and monitors, but once you start seeing the film’s obsession with video, it’s almost comical how often it’s used. Which poses the obvious question, “Why?”

In this light, the organized religion & organized science depicted in the film are just other forms of mediated experience, separate from the personal experience of seeing something with your own eyes.

Contact is one of my favorite movies — I watch it every 12-18 months or so — and this makes me appreciate it all the more. And I had forgotten how good the trailer was:

It’s dead simple: that amazingly resonant Vega signal sound over a series of quickly cut scenes that tells the story in miniature. Surely this belongs on best movie trailers lists as much as any of these.

Oh, and while I’m not generally a fan of reboots, I would love to see what Denis Villeneuve could do with Sagan’s story. I’m also not crazy about Jodie Foster — I find her less and less tolerable as Arroway with each viewing — so it would be cool to see another actress in the role. Arrival’s Amy Adams is almost too on the nose…how about Lupita Nyong’o, ?Emma Watson, Janelle Monáe, Brie Larson, or Emma Stone?

How to safely enjoy the 2017 solar eclipse, a buyer’s guide for normal people

posted by Jason Kottke   Jul 12, 2017

Solar Eclipse Illo

Important update: Since I published this guide a month ago, NASA and the AAS have updated their recommendation on buying solar safety glasses due to reports of counterfeit eclipse glasses. They no longer recommend looking for the ISO rating alone but only buying from a recommended manufacturer. If you have purchased glasses or are going to purchase glasses, read this page carefully before using them, paying particular attention to this bit:

Unfortunately, you can’t check whether a filter meets the ISO standard yourself — doing so requires a specialized and expensive piece of laboratory equipment called a spectrophotometer that shines intense UV, visible, and IR light through the filter and measures how much gets through at each wavelength. Solar filter manufacturers send their products to specialized labs that are accredited to perform the tests necessary to verify compliance with the ISO 12312-2 safety specifications. Once they have the paperwork that documents their products as ISO-compliant, they can legitimately use the ISO logo on their products and packaging.

Even more unfortunately, unscrupulous vendors can grab the ISO logo off the internet and put it on their products and packaging even if their eclipse glasses or viewers haven’t been properly tested. This means that just seeing the ISO logo or a label claiming ISO 12312-2 certification isn’t good enough. You need to know that the product comes from a reputable manufacturer or one of their authorized dealers.

Amazon recently sent out emails to the buyers of the plastic-framed glasses I bought and linked to here (“habibee 4-Pack Black Plastic Eclipse Glasses CE & ISO Certified 2017 Safe Solar Eclipses Viewing Shades Block Sun Ultraviolet UV Lights Goggles”), saying that they have “not received confirmation from the supplier of your order that they sourced the item from a recommended manufacturer” and, to their credit, have automatically issued refunds to those buyers. They also appear to have removed any products from their site that aren’t sourced from a recommended manufacturer. This doesn’t necessarily mean the glasses are faulty…it just means the solar filter paper used for the lenses can’t be sourced. Again, read this page carefully before deciding to use any glasses you may have purchased. I tested a pair this morning, looking at bright light bulbs and they seem appropriately dark, but as noted by the AAS, who knows about the UV and IR filtering? I’m throwing mine out.

The cardboard-framed glasses I linked to (while currently sold out) are manufactured by American Paper Optics, which is on the AAS’s list of reputable vendors. Also on the list is the manufacturer of the solar filter sheets, Thousand Oaks Optical. The two cardboard camera lens covers I linked to have been deleted from Amazon, a sign that their sourcing cannot be verified. I’ve updated the links and text below to only include links to products on the list of reputable vendors. Most are sold out at this point anyway, so…

I wish I’d had these new NASA and AAS recommendations a month ago…I obviously would have followed them closely in making buying choices & recommendations. That some unscrupulous manufacturers are using people’s enthusiasm for science and viewing the eclipse to sell potentially harmful products makes me angry and sick to my stomach. Luckily Amazon is doing the right thing here with refunds and safety notices. And thanks to NASA and the AAS for their guidance…again please read this before using your eclipse glasses, even ones you may have gotten free from your public library or through other organizations. /end update

On August 21, 2017 across the entire United States, the Moon will move in front of the Sun, partially blocking it from our view. For those on the path of totality, the Moon will entirely block out the Sun for more than 2 minutes. I’ve been looking forward to seeing a total solar eclipse since I was a little kid, so I’ve been doing a lot of research on what to buy to enjoy the eclipse safely. Here’s what I’ve come up with.

I’ve oriented this guide toward the enthusiastic beginner, someone who’s excited about experiencing the wonder of the eclipse with their friends & family but isn’t interested in expensive specialty gear or photography (like me!). And, again, since you will be able to see this eclipse from everywhere in North America to some degree, this guide applies to anyone in the US/Canada/Mexico.

In planning for eclipse viewing, please check out NASA’s safety notes for more information. Make sure that whatever you buy, it’s properly rated for naked eye solar viewing. Looking directly at the Sun without a proper filter can cause permanent damage, particularly through binoculars, a camera lens, or a telescope.

Note: If you’re going to get eclipse supplies, now is the time. Some of this stuff will probably be very difficult to find (or very expensive) as we approach August 21 — for instance, shipping estimates on Amazon for some of the glasses are mid-August already.

Solar eclipse glasses are essential. Right up until the Sun goes completely behind the Moon (if you’re on the path of totality), you will want to look at the crescent-shaped Sun and you’ll need certified safety glasses to do so. Regular sunglasses will not work! Do not even. There are several options…find some in stock that ship soon. Note: If you have young kids, splurge for the plastic framed glasses (if you can find them…most are sold out now)…my testing indicates the cardboard ones don’t stay on smaller heads as well.

Make a pinhole viewer. A pinhole viewer will let you see the shape of the eclipsed Sun without having to look directly at it. This Exploratorium guide should get you started. All you need in terms of supplies you probably have lying around at home: aluminum foil, paper, cardboard, etc. I suspect Kelli Anderson’s This Book is a Camera ($27) might also work if you play with the exposure times?

Apply good sunscreen. You’ve got your eye protection down, now for the rest of yourself. The eclipse is happening in the middle of the day in much of the country, in what you hope will be complete sunshine, so bring some sunscreen. The Sweethome recommends this SPF 70 Coppertone for $9. Wear a cap. Stay in the shade. Bonus for shading yourself under trees: the gaps between the leaves will form little pinhole lenses and you’ll see really cool patterns:

Solar Eclipse Leaves

A nice pair of binoculars. If you’re in the path of totality, you might want a pair of binoculars to look more closely at the totally eclipsed Sun (after checking that it’s safe!!). I’m guessing you don’t want to buy a pair of specialty astronomy binoculars, so the best binoculars are probably ones you already own. If you don’t already have a pair, The Wirecutter recommends the Midas 8 x 42 binoculars by Athlon Optics ($290) with the Carson VP 8x42mm ($144) as a budget pick. (For solar filter options, see below.)

A solar filter for your camera. If you have a camera, they might make a solar filter for whatever lens you want to use. Hydrogen alpha filters will allow you to see the most detail — “crazy prominences and what-not” in the words of a photography pal of mine — but are also pretty expensive. You can buy solar filter sheets ($29) to make your own lens coverings for your camera, binoculars, or telescope. Quality will likely not be fantastic, but you’ll get something. Safety warning: place any filters in front of lenses or it can burn a hole in the filter (and then into your eye); i.e. don’t use binoculars in front of safety glasses!!

Note for budding solar photographers: Shooting the eclipse will be challenging. First there’s too much light and you’ll need a filter. Then when totality occurs, you’ll be in the dark needing a tripod and a fast lens. Plan accordingly…or leave it all at home and look at the thousands of photos taken by pro photographers after the fact.

Ok, that’s it. Have a good eclipse and stay safe!

Update: I removed a reference to the plastic-rimmed safety glasses I ordered because the image has changed on this item since I ordered them and published this guide…it’s now a wire-rimmed pair of glasses. I would recommend getting something else instead, just to be safe. (thx, @kahnnn)

Update: NASA has been alerted that some of the paper glasses being sold are not safe for viewing the eclipse. When buying, look for the ISO icon (referencing 12312-2) and for glasses made by these recommended manufacturers: American Paper Optics, Rainbow Symphony, Thousand Oaks Optical, or TSE 17. (via @ebellm)

Update: The Wirecutter has released their guide to The Best Solar Eclipse Glasses and Filters and they recommend the Celestron EclipSmart 2x Power Viewers (2-pack for $10), which provide not only certified eye protection but a nice 2X zoom.

Climate change: a plausible worst-case scenario for humanity

posted by Jason Kottke   Jul 10, 2017

Climate Worst Case

After talking with dozens of climatologists and related researchers, David Wallace-Wells writes about what will happen to the Earth and human civilization without taking “aggressive action” on slowing climate change. It is a sobering piece.

Since 1980, the planet has experienced a 50-fold increase in the number of places experiencing dangerous or extreme heat; a bigger increase is to come. The five warmest summers in Europe since 1500 have all occurred since 2002, and soon, the IPCC warns, simply being outdoors that time of year will be unhealthy for much of the globe. Even if we meet the Paris goals of two degrees warming, cities like Karachi and Kolkata will become close to uninhabitable, annually encountering deadly heat waves like those that crippled them in 2015. At four degrees, the deadly European heat wave of 2003, which killed as many as 2,000 people a day, will be a normal summer. At six, according to an assessment focused only on effects within the U.S. from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, summer labor of any kind would become impossible in the lower Mississippi Valley, and everybody in the country east of the Rockies would be under more heat stress than anyone, anywhere, in the world today. As Joseph Romm has put it in his authoritative primer Climate Change: What Everyone Needs to Know, heat stress in New York City would exceed that of present-day Bahrain, one of the planet’s hottest spots, and the temperature in Bahrain “would induce hyperthermia in even sleeping humans.” The high-end IPCC estimate, remember, is two degrees warmer still.

Carbon is not only warming the atmosphere, it’s also polluting it.

Our lungs need oxygen, but that is only a fraction of what we breathe. The fraction of carbon dioxide is growing: It just crossed 400 parts per million, and high-end estimates extrapolating from current trends suggest it will hit 1,000 ppm by 2100. At that concentration, compared to the air we breathe now, human cognitive ability declines by 21 percent.

Our climate is supposed to move slowly, in concert with many other slow moving things like ecosystems, evolution, global economies, politics, and civilizations. When the pace of climate change quickens? A lot of those slow moving things are going to break. Heat, drought, famine, coastal flooding, pollution, disease, war, forced migration, economic collapse…humanity will survive, but the worst case scenario is not pretty. And of course, the most vulnerable among us — the poor, young children, the elderly, pregnant women, the disabled, and the otherwise disadvantaged — will undergo the most suffering.

Update: And once again, addressing climate change isn’t about saving the planet, it’s about preserving humanity and preventing human suffering. As Seth Michaels tweeted: “‘the planet’ will be fine. the patterns and structures that determine where we live, what we eat, how we get along? *that’s* what’s at stake”. (via @lauraolin)

Update: A piece like this was going to be controversial and some of the responses are worth reading.

Climate scientist Michael Mann:

I have to say that I am not a fan of this sort of doomist framing. It is important to be up front about the risks of unmitigated climate change, and I frequently criticize those who understate the risks. But there is also a danger in overstating the science in a way that presents the problem as unsolvable, and feeds a sense of doom, inevitability and hopelessness.

The article argues that climate change will render the Earth uninhabitable by the end of this century. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. The article fails to produce it.

Eric Holthaus: Stop scaring people about climate change. It doesn’t work.

The real problem is that time and time and time again, psychology researchers have found that trying to scare people into action usually backfires. Presented with the idea that the planet that gives us life might be dying, parts of our brain shut down. We are unable to think logically.

Our brain’s limbic system is hard-wired to prioritize these kinds of threats, so we shift into fight-or-flight mode. And because the odds look stacked against us, most choose to flee. If anything, strategies like this make the problem worse. They take people willing to read something like “The Uninhabitable Earth” and essentially remove them from the pool of people working on real-world solutions.

Robinson Meyer: Are We as Doomed as That New York Magazine Article Says?

Many climate scientists and professional science communicators say no. Wallace-Wells’s article, they say, often flies beyond the realm of what researchers think is likely. I have to agree with them.

At key points in his piece, Wallace-Wells posits facts that mainstream climate science cannot support. In the introduction, he suggests that the world’s permafrost will belch all of its methane into the atmosphere as it melts, accelerating the planet’s warming in the decades to come. We don’t know everything about methane yet, but the picture does not seem this bleak. Melting permafrost will emit methane, and methane is an ultra-potent greenhouse gas, but scientists do not think so much it will escape in the coming century.

Andrew Freedman: Do not accept New York Mag’s climate change doomsday scenario.

In several places, the story either exaggerates the evidence or gets the science flat-out wrong. This is unfortunate, because it detracts from a well-written, attention-grabbing piece. It’s still worth reading, but with a sharp critical eye.

In recent years, scientific evidence has solidified around central findings, showing that sea level rise is likely to be far more severe during the rest of this century than initially anticipated, and that key temperature thresholds may be crossed that make life difficult for some kinds of plants and animals to survive in certain places.

What if the Earth suddenly turned flat?

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 23, 2017

Disc Earth

We all know the Earth is (nearly) spherical. Wellllll, not everyone does. So what if our planet did suddenly turn flat? Gizmodo recently asked a bunch of scientists this question and the answer came back: certain death for all life on Earth. More specifically, seismologist Susan Hough says:

If the earth were to suddenly flatten, presumably all sorts of hell would break loose. I guess it would depend on how flat is flat. If we’re talking pancake flat, gravity would be an immediate problem: gravitational attraction goes as G(m1*m2)/r^2, where G is the gravitational constant, m1 & m2 are two masses, and r is distance. A sphere is the 3D shape that maximizes surface area relative to volume, which kind of gives gravity the biggest bang for its buck. If you flatten the sphere, the far side gets closer to the new center point, but the ends spread way out, so surface gravity goes down at the center, and way down at the edges. Lose gravity and bye-bye atmosphere.

Other first-order problems: heat, radioactivity, etc. In our spherical earth, both of these are concentrated in the core. If the earth were flattened, they would have to go somewhere-presumably a lot closer to the surface.

The view from Mars

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 21, 2017

Mars Opportunity 2017

NASA’s Opportunity rover started exploring the surface of Mars in January 2004. Its mission was supposed to last about 90 days, but over 13 years later, Opportunity is still rolling around the red planet, doing science and taking photos. Jason Major processed a few of Opportunity’s most recent snaps of the Endeavour Crater and they’re just wonderful. I’m especially taken with the one included above…it belongs in a museum!

Quantum entanglement effects observed over 100s of miles

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 19, 2017

A group of Chinese scientists say they have demonstrated the effects of quantum entanglement over a distance of 1200 km (745 miles).

Entanglement involves putting objects in the peculiar limbo of quantum superposition, in which an object’s quantum properties occupy multiple states at once: like Schrodinger’s cat, dead and alive at the same time. Then those quantum states are shared among multiple objects. Physicists have entangled particles such as electrons and photons, as well as larger objects such as superconducting electric circuits.

Theoretically, even if entangled objects are separated, their precarious quantum states should remain linked until one of them is measured or disturbed. That measurement instantly determines the state of the other object, no matter how far away. The idea is so counterintuitive that Albert Einstein mocked it as “spooky action at a distance.”

What’s weird to me is that all the articles I read about this touted that this happened in space, that an ultra-secure communications network was possible, or that we could build a quantum computer in space. Instantaneous communication over a distance of hundreds of miles is barely mentioned. Right now, it takes about 42 minutes for a round-trip communication between the Earth and Mars (and ~84 minutes for Jupiter). What if, when humans decide to settle on Mars, we could send a trillion trillion quantum entangled particles along with the homesteaders that could then be used to communicate in real time with people on Earth? I mean, how amazing would that be?

Update: Well, the simple reason why these articles don’t mention instantaneous communication at distance is that you can’t do it, even with quantum entanglement.

This is one of the most confusing things about quantum physics: entanglement can be used to gain information about a component of a system when you know the full state and make a measurement of the other component(s), but not to create-and-send information from one part of an entangled system to the other. As clever of an idea as this is, Olivier, there’s still no faster-than-light communication.

(thx, everyone)

If you can’t explain something in simple terms, you don’t understand it

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 15, 2017

Feynman Blackboard

In the early 1960s, Richard Feynman gave a series of undergraduate lectures that were collected into a book called the Feynman Lectures on Physics. Absent from the book was a lecture Feynman gave on planetary motion, but a later finding of the notes enabled David Goodstein, a colleague of Feynman’s, to write a book about it: Feynman’s Lost Lecture. From an excerpt of the book published in a 1996 issue of Caltech’s Engineering & Science magazine:

Feynman was a truly great teacher. He prided himself on being able to devise ways to explain even the most profound ideas to beginning students. Once, I said to him, “Dick, explain to me, so that I can understand it, why spin one-half particles obey Fermi-Dirac statistics.” Sizing up his audience perfectly, Feynman said, “I’ll prepare a freshman lecture on it.” But he came back a few days later to say, “I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t reduce it to the freshman level. That means we don’t really understand it.”

John Gruber writes the simple explanations are the goal at Apple as well:

Engineers are expected to be able to explain a complex technology or product in simple, easily-understood terms not because the executive needs it explained simply to understand it, but as proof that the engineer understands it completely.

Feynman was well known for simple explanations of scientific concepts that result a in deeper understanding of the subject matter: e.g. see Feynman explaining how fire is stored sunshine, rubber bands, how trains go around curves, and magnets. Critically, he’s also not shy about admitting when he doesn’t understand something…or, alternately, when scientists as a group don’t understand something. There’s the spin anecdote above and of his explanation of magnets, he says:

I really can’t do a good job, any job, of explaining magnetic force in terms of something else you’re more familiar with, because I don’t understand it in terms of anything else you’re more familiar with.

Feynman was also quoted as saying:

I think I can safely say that nobody understands quantum mechanics.

Pretty interesting thing to hear from a guy who won a Nobel Prize for explaining quantum mechanics better than anyone ever had before. Even when he died in 1988 at the end of a long and fruitful careeer, a note at the top of his blackboard read:

What I cannot create, I do not understand.

Oldest homo sapiens fossils found in Morocco, dating back 300,000 years ago

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 08, 2017

Oldest Human Jawbone

The oldest known fossils of homo sapiens have been found in Morocco. The bones date back to ~300,000 years ago, more than 100,000 years earlier than previous fossils found. Here’s Carl Zimmer reporting for the NY Times about the paper in Nature:

Dating back roughly 300,000 years, the bones indicate that mankind evolved earlier than had been known, experts say, and open a new window on our origins.

The fossils also show that early Homo sapiens had faces much like our own, although their brains differed in fundamental ways.

Until now, the oldest fossils of our species, found in Ethiopia, dated back just 195,000 years. The new fossils suggest our species evolved across Africa.

“We did not evolve from a single cradle of mankind somewhere in East Africa,” said Phillipp Gunz, a paleoanthropologist at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Liepzig, Germany, and a co-author of two new studies on the fossils, published in the journal Nature.

The previous oldest fossils were found clear across the continent in Ethiopia, in eastern Africa. From a New Yorker article on the discovery:

And the specimens in question were found not in East Africa, which has become synonymous with a sort of paleoanthropological Garden of Eden, but clear on the other side of the continent — and the Sahara — in Morocco. “We’re not claiming that Morocco is the cradle of modern humankind,” the lead author, Jean-Jacques Hublin, of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, said at a press conference yesterday. Rather, he added, our emergence as a species was pan-African. “There is no Garden of Eden in Africa — or if there is, it’s Africa,” Hublin said. “The Garden of Eden is the size of Africa.”

Vivid new images and flyby videos of Jupiter

posted by Jason Kottke   May 30, 2017

Jupiter South Pole Juno

NASA’s Juno spacecraft is currently orbiting around Jupiter and taking some of the best photos and scientific measurements we’ve seen of the solar system’s largest planet. The photo above is of Jupiter’s south pole, gathering point for massive cyclones.

Early science results from NASA’s Juno mission to Jupiter portray the largest planet in our solar system as a complex, gigantic, turbulent world, with Earth-sized polar cyclones, plunging storm systems that travel deep into the heart of the gas giant, and a mammoth, lumpy magnetic field that may indicate it was generated closer to the planet’s surface than previously thought.

“We are excited to share these early discoveries, which help us better understand what makes Jupiter so fascinating,” said Diane Brown, Juno program executive at NASA Headquarters in Washington. “It was a long trip to get to Jupiter, but these first results already demonstrate it was well worth the journey.”

Using data and photos from Juno, Gerald Eichstädt and Seán Doran have created these videos that approximate what it might look like flying by Jupiter in a spacecraft.

Wonderful.

A biologist explains CRISPR to people at five different levels of knowledge

posted by Jason Kottke   May 26, 2017

For the second part of an ongoing series, Wired asked biologist Neville Sanjana to explain CRISPR to five people with different levels of knowledge: a 7-year-old, a high school student, a college student, a grad student, and an expert on CRISPR. As I began to watch, I thought he’d gone off the rails right away with the little kid, but as soon as they connected on a personal issue (allergies), you can see the bridge of understanding being constructed.

The first installment in the series featured a neuroscientist explaining connectomes to five people.

The Biodiversity Heritage Library on Flickr

posted by Jason Kottke   May 25, 2017

Biodiversity

Biodiversity

Biodiversity

Biodiversity

The Biodiversity Heritage Library maintains a huge trove of plant and animal drawings that they’ve put up on Flickr for free.

The Biodiversity Heritage Library (BHL) is a consortium of natural history and botanical libraries that cooperate to digitize the legacy literature of biodiversity held in their collections and to make that literature available for open access and responsible use as a part of a global “biodiversity commons.”

Over 110,000 images are available, organized into hundreds of albums. You could easily lose an entire afternoon in there.

P.S. While the Biodiversity Heritage Library doesn’t appear to be an official participant, Flickr’s The Commons project remains one of the under-appreciated gems of the Web.

Is the Great Barrier Reef dead?

posted by Jason Kottke   May 23, 2017

Due to the unprecedented bleaching events over the past few years, the Great Barrier Reef has been eulogized extensively in the media. But it’s not actually dead. Yet. In this video for Vox, Joss Fong explains how corals form, bleach, and die and how our response to climate change might be the only thing that can save the Great Barrier Reef and the world’s other coral reefs from death.

Here’s how we know the Earth is round

posted by Jason Kottke   May 23, 2017

Flat-Earthers aside, people have known that the Earth is round since at least the 3rd century BC. This quick video explores a few of the ways we know the world is spherical, some of them quite simple to recreate as experiments. See also Top 10 Ways to Know the Earth is Not Flat.

(5) Seeing Farther from Higher

Standing in a flat plateau, you look ahead of you towards the horizon. You strain your eyes, then take out your favorite binoculars and stare through them, as far as your eyes (with the help of the binocular lenses) can see.

Then, you climb up the closest tree — the higher the better, just be careful not to drop those binoculars and break their lenses. You then look again, strain your eyes, stare through the binoculars out to the horizon.

The higher up you are the farther you will see. Usually, we tend to relate this to Earthly obstacles, like the fact we have houses or other trees obstructing our vision on the ground, and climbing upwards we have a clear view, but that’s not the true reason. Even if you would have a completely clear plateau with no obstacles between you and the horizon, you would see much farther from greater height than you would on the ground.

This phenomena is caused by the curvature of the Earth as well, and would not happen if the Earth was flat.

Update: Carl Sagan explains how Greek astronomer and mathematician Eratosthenes figured out how the Earth was round in ~200 BC.

(via @preshit)

Studying climate change with small self-contained ecosystems

posted by Jason Kottke   May 17, 2017

Carl Zimmer reports that a team of Australian scientists have developed a useful way of studying the effects of climate change: they’re building small-scale ocean ecosystems in the lab and manipulating different variables and studying the outcomes. The approach is a middle-of-the-road effort to minimize the number of variables typically present in a real-world ecosystem like a coral reef while having the habitats be large enough to observe the effects they’re looking for without oversimplifying.

To test the effects of climate change, Dr. Nagelkerken and his colleagues manipulated the water in the pools. In three of them, the researchers raised the temperature 5 degrees - a conservative projection of how warm water off the coast of South Australia will get.

The scientists also studied the effect of the carbon dioxide that is raising the planet’s temperature.

The gas is dissolving into the oceans, making them more acidic and potentially causing harm to marine animals and plants. Yet the extra carbon dioxide can be used by algae to carry out more photosynthesis.

To measure the overall impact, Dr. Nagelkerken and his colleagues pumped the gas into three of the pools, keeping them at today’s ocean temperatures.

In three others, the researchers made both changes, heating up the water and pumping in carbon dioxide. The scientists left the remaining three pools unaltered, to serve as a baseline for measuring changes in the other nine pools.

An amazingly well-preserved dinosaur found in Canada

posted by Jason Kottke   May 14, 2017

Nodosaur

In 2011, an excavator operator working in a Canadian mine uncovered a group of unusual looking rocks. The rocks turned out to be the remains of a dinosaur called a nodosaur that died about 110 million years ago. The nodosaur was so well preserved that it looks like a stone statue of a dinosaur instead of just fossilized remains.

The more I look at it, the more mind-boggling it becomes. Fossilized remnants of skin still cover the bumpy armor plates dotting the animal’s skull. Its right forefoot lies by its side, its five digits splayed upward. I can count the scales on its sole. Caleb Brown, a postdoctoral researcher at the museum, grins at my astonishment. “We don’t just have a skeleton,” he tells me later. “We have a dinosaur as it would have been.”

The photos are amazing…it really does look like a statue.

A world map for fossil finds

posted by Jason Kottke   May 12, 2017

Fossil World Map

The Paleobiology Database Navigator is a world map that shows where hundreds of thousands of fossils have been found. The data is maintained by an international group of paleontologists and you can filter the map by type of fossil and when it was found. There’s even a toggle to flip back and forth between the current placement of the continents and much earlier Pangea-like configurations. (via @srikardr)

The latest SpaceX rocket launch and landing, start-to-finish

posted by Jason Kottke   May 01, 2017

This is cool. SpaceX has built a reusable rocket for launching things into space. The rocket takes off, separates from its payload, and then lands back on Earth, upright and intact on a landing pad. They’ve had several successful missions but this morning, they webcast the launch and return of the rocket with footage from long-range cameras and a camera fixed to the side of the rocket from start to finish.

The launch happens at 11:58, at 14:24 the main stage separates from the payload, and at 21:00, it’s on the ground — the whole thing is over in 9 minutes. And the views are super-clear (until clouds and exhaust from engines cloud the view right at the end) and the long continuous shot of the rocket is astounding…it looks totally fake, like out of a sci-fi movie.

Speaking of sci-fi, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk shared a better view of the rocket landing on Instagram…here it is on YouTube:

Look at the landing gear delicately fold down about 2 seconds before the landing. Looks totally CG! I’ve seen footage of these landings dozens of times and it’s still incredible.

Race, identity, and genetic stories

posted by Jason Kottke   May 01, 2017

Finding out about your family history through a DNA test can be a thrilling or disturbing experience, particularly when it comes to race and identity. In the NY Times, researcher Anita Foeman writes about asking people how they identify and then DNA testing them. A man named Bernard identifies as black and predicted his test would show 50% European and 50% African ancestry (his father was black and his mother was white):

His comments before the test: My mother said, “I know you are me, but no cop is going to take the time to find out your mother is white.” She was very specific about raising me as a black man.

His DNA test showed he is “91% European, 5% Middle Eastern, 2% Hispanic; less than 1% African and Asian”:

Thoughts about his ancestry results: What are you trying to do to me? You have caused a lot of problems in my family. I know my nose is sharp and my skin is light, but my politics are as black as night. Today, I don’t identify as mixed. I reject my white privilege in a racist America. There is no way that I or my kids will identify as anything other than black.

In a follow-up newsletter, Times reader Carl Johnson writes:

I am a 55-year-old American male of African descent. I have a dark complexion and grew up in rural East Tennessee with my mother’s relatives. I wanted to have DNA testing done to confirm rumors of my Native American heritage. To my surprise, my results were 84 percent West African, 14 percent European, and 2 percent East Asian.

My bigger dilemma is: How do I embrace my European origins? It’s assumed that the European DNA was obtained by force during slavery. I think that is most likely. But what if my European ancestors were indentured servants who worked closely with African slaves and a real romance evolved, despite the cultural norms of that time, and now here I am?

If I am true to myself and the scientific evidence that provides richness to the DNA I’ve inherited, I now need to figure out a way to honor all of me and those who survived to make me possible. The journey and adventure continues.

I got DNA tested many years ago and I just went back to look at the results. My parents’ grandparents (or great grandparents, don’t really know) settled in Minnesota and Wisconsin in the mid-to-late 1800s as part of a wave of upper Midwestern immigration from Germany and Scandinavia.1 Unsurprisingly, my results came back as 100% European — mostly Northern European with some Eastern European2 — but with more British and Irish than I suspected (12%):

You most likely had a grandparent, great-grandparent, or second great-grandparent who was 100% British & Irish. This person was likely born between 1850 and 1910.

Huh.

  1. This resulted in some interesting family stories. During WWII, my great uncle Jens Jensen (Danish!) was fighting with the US Armed Forces over in Europe while his wife Hulda (German!) was sending food and clothing to family members in Germany. He was still wound up about it even 40 years later when I heard the story — “I was getting shot at by Nazis and she’s sending them goddamned care packages!” — but stories like that were always accompanied by a wink and a grin, so at least some of the sting had dissipated.

  2. In the 1800s, the territories of Prussia and Germany often included Poland. I don’t know exactly where my branch of the Kottke family lived in the “Old Country” but I’ve heard that it’s more likely to be in modern-day Poland than within the present German borders.

The absurd precision involved in detecting gravitational waves

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 27, 2017

Back in September 2015, the LIGO experiment detected gravitational waves formed 1.3 billion years ago when two black holes merged into one. The physics is pretty straightforward but to get the measurement, scientists had to build one of the most sensitive machines ever built. How sensitive? To get an accurate result, they needed to measure a distance of 4km with an accuracy of 1/10000th the width of a proton. This video from Veritasium looks at how the scientists and engineers accomplished such an amazing feat.

Seinfeld-sourced paper gets into “legit” science journal

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 26, 2017

John McCool suspected that a scientific journal called the Urology & Nephrology Open Access Journal was essentially a pay-to-publish journal with a flimsy peer-review process. So he wrote a paper based on a bogus medical condition made up for an episode of Seinfeld and submitted it to them.

This was inspired by the classic 1991 episode “The Parking Garage,” where the gang can’t find their car in a mall parking garage. Eventually, Jerry has to urinate; he goes against a garage wall and gets busted by a security guard; and he tries to get out of it by claiming that he suffers from a disease called “uromycitisis” and could die if he doesn’t relieve himself whenever and wherever he needs to.

I went all out. I wrote it as Dr. Martin van Nostrand, Kramer’s physician alter ego, and coauthored by Jay Reimenschneider (Kramer’s friend who eats horse meat) and Leonard “Len” Nicodemo (another of Kramer’s friends, who once had gout). I included fake references to articles written by the likes of Costanza GL, Pennypacker HE, and Peterman J. I created a fake institution where the authors worked: the Arthur Vandelay Urological Research Institute. In the Acknowledgements section, I thanked people such as Tor Eckman, the bizarre holistic healer from “The Heart Attack” episode, giving him a “Doctor of Holistic Medicine (HMD)” degree.

The Arthur Vandelay Urological Research Institute!! That’s some top-shelf trolling right there. If you read the full paper, you’ll also see references to Steinbrenner and Lloyd Braun. Of course the journal accepted and published it:

The journal was excited to receive this “quality” and “very interesting” case report. A mere 33 minutes after receiving it, a representative notified “Dr. van Nostrand” that it had been sent out for peer review (a process the journal’s website touts as “rigorous”). Three days later, reviewer comments were returned to me, and I was asked to make a few minor changes, including adding lab test results from when the patient was in the emergency room. I made these up, too, and promptly resubmitted the revised case report. Soon after, it was officially accepted for publication.

The publication eventually figured out it had been pranked and had a quick back-and-forth with McCool about it.

Preemie lambs successfully grown to term in artificial wombs

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 25, 2017

Artificial Womb

Researchers at The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia have succeeded in gestating premature lambs in artificial wombs. The abstract from the paper in Nature Communications:

In the developed world, extreme prematurity is the leading cause of neonatal mortality and morbidity due to a combination of organ immaturity and iatrogenic injury. Until now, efforts to extend gestation using extracorporeal systems have achieved limited success. Here we report the development of a system that incorporates a pumpless oxygenator circuit connected to the fetus of a lamb via an umbilical cord interface that is maintained within a closed ‘amniotic fluid’ circuit that closely reproduces the environment of the womb. We show that fetal lambs that are developmentally equivalent to the extreme premature human infant can be physiologically supported in this extra-uterine device for up to 4 weeks. Lambs on support maintain stable haemodynamics, have normal blood gas and oxygenation parameters and maintain patency of the fetal circulation. With appropriate nutritional support, lambs on the system demonstrate normal somatic growth, lung maturation and brain growth and myelination.

The Atlantic’s Olga Khazan translates what that might mean for human babies born prematurely.

One reason preterm birth is so dangerous is that, for an underweight baby, the first few breaths of air halt the development of the lungs. “Infants that are currently born and supported in a neonatal intensive care unit with gas-based ventilation demonstrate an arrest of lung development,” Partridge says, “which manifests in a long-term, severe restriction of lung function.”

With the artificial womb, the infant would continue “breathing” through the umbilical cord as its floats in amniotic fluid, which would flow into and out of the bag. Using its tiny heart, the fetus would pump its own blood through its umbilical cord and into an oxygenator, where the blood would pick up oxygen and return it to the fetus-much like with a normal placenta. In addition to boosting lung growth, the amniotic fluid would protect the baby from infections and support the development of the intestines.

If this does work for humans, there’s a possibility that at some point using artificial wombs may be safer (or just preferable for some people) than women carrying babies to term…which would have an interesting effect on childbirth (to say the least). And as Khazan mentions, there are potential implications related to abortion rights:

If they ever materialize, artificial wombs may stir concerns among pro-choice advocates, since the devices could push the point of viability for human fetuses even lower. That might encourage even more states to curtail abortions after, say, 20 weeks’ gestation. But speaking with reporters Monday, the Philadelphia researchers emphasized they don’t intend to expand the bounds of life before the 23rd gestational week. Before that point, fetuses are too fragile even for the artificial wombs.

Update: There’s a short video clip of the lamb in the artificial womb as well: