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How the Cretaceous coastline of North America affects US presidential elections

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 20, 2016

2012 Election Map

That’s a portion of the 2012 US Presidential election map of the southern states broken down by county: blue ones went Barack Obama’s way and counties in red voted for Mitt Romney.

But let’s go back to the Cretaceous Period, which lasted from 145 million years ago to 65 million years ago. Back then, the coastline of what is now North America looked like this:

Cretaceous Coast

Along that ancient coastline of a shallow sea, plankton with carbonate skeletons lived and died in massive numbers, accumulating into large chalk formations on the bottom of the sea. When the sea level dropped and the sea drained through the porous chalk, rich bands of soil were left right along the former coastline. When that area was settled and farmed in the 19th century, that rich soil was perfect for growing cotton. And cotton production was particularly profitable, so slaves were heavily used in those areas.

McClain, quoting from Booker T. Washington’s autobiography, Up From Slavery, points out: “The part of the country possessing this thick, dark and naturally rich soil was, of course, the part of the South where the slaves were most profitable, and consequently they were taken there in the largest numbers.” After the Civil War, a lot of former slaves stayed on this land, and while many migrated North, their families are still there.

The counties in which slave populations were highest before the Civil War are still home to large African American populations, which tend to vote for Democratic presidential candidates, even as the whiter counties around them vote for Republicans. The voting pattern of those counties on the map follows the Cretaceous coastline of 100 million years ago — the plankton fell, the cotton grew, the slaves bled into that rich soil, and their descendants later helped a black man reach the White House.

We Work Remotely

DNA evidence: humans are still evolving

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 19, 2016

Jerry Coyne, University of Chicago professor and author of Why Evolution is True, shares the results of a recent paper called Detection of human adaptation during the past 2000 years. In the study, DNA sequencing was used to find human genes that have changed so quickly in the past 2000 years that the authors conclude natural selection must be responsible.

Now, however, we can, by DNA sequencing, look at DNA directly, and with some fancy statistical footwork, get an idea of which genes have changed in frequency so fast that they must have been due to positive natural selection. That’s the subject of a new paper in Science by Yair Field et al. (reference and free download below). The authors conclude that several traits, including lactose tolerance, hair and eye color, and parts of the immune system, as well as height, have evolved within the last 2,000 years.

Other genes that might have changed during that period include those for infant head circumference, insulin levels, birth weight, and female hip size.

Scientists accidentally discover a process to turn CO2 into fuel

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 19, 2016

Scientists at Oak Ridge National Laboratory have stumbled upon a process that uses “nanospikes” to turn carbon dioxide into ethanol, a common fuel.

This process has several advantages when compared to other methods of converting CO2 into fuel. The reaction uses common materials like copper and carbon, and it converts the CO2 into ethanol, which is already widely used as a fuel.

Perhaps most importantly, it works at room temperature, which means that it can be started and stopped easily and with little energy cost. This means that this conversion process could be used as temporary energy storage during a lull in renewable energy generation, smoothing out fluctuations in a renewable energy grid.

This sounds like a big deal…is it now possible to limit the effects of climate change by sinking carbon while also placing less dependence on fossil fuels? Here’s the Oak Ridge press release. That this news is almost a week old already and we haven’t heard more about it makes me a bit skeptical as to the true importance of it. (Of course, CRISPR is potentially a massive deal and we don’t hear about it nearly enough so…)

Update: A relevant series of tweets from Eric Hittinger on “why creating ethanol from CO2 cannot solve our energy or climate problems”. Wasn’t fully awake when I posted this apparently because, yeah, duh. (via @leejlh)

A well-designed reissue of Newton’s Principia

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 18, 2016

Newton Principia

Small Spanish publisher Kronecker Wallis is doing a Kickstarter campaign to print a well-designed version of Isaac Newton’s Principia, one of the most important texts in science.

We have spent several months working on a desire. The desire to have a new edition of Isaac Newton’s Principia in our hands that is on a par with the importance of the text and of modern editorial design. To put it back on our shelves so that we can leaf through it from time to time and feel the pages beneath our fingers.

An opportunity has now arisen. Taking advantage of the fact that the original publication is to celebrate its 330th anniversary in 2017, we wish to republish it with an editorial design that pays attention to every last detail.

I am enjoying this trend of reviving old classics through the lens of modern design and packaging; see also the NYCTA Graphics Standards Manual, the NASA Graphics Standards Manual, and the Voyager Golden Record.

The Earth and I

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 18, 2016

Earth And I

From James Lovelock, The Earth and I is a look at our planet and the living things on it…how Earth came to be, what we understand about our planet, and how we live today. Lisa Randall, Martin Rees, Edward O. Wilson, and Eric Kandel have contributed writing to the book.

The Universe has 10 times more galaxies than we thought

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 17, 2016

Hubble Ultra Deep Field

A recent paper claims that the Universe has 10 times more galaxies than we previously thought: an estimated 2 trillion galaxies covering every single patch of sky visible from the Earth. But that doesn’t mean the Universe is more massive or that it contains more stars. Phil Plait explains:

Now, let me be clear. This doesn’t meant the Universe is ten times bigger than we thought, or there are ten times as many stars. I’ll explain — I mean, duh, it’s what I do — but to cut to the chase, what they found is that there are lots of teeny, faint galaxies very far away that have gone undetected. So instead of being in a smaller number of big galaxies, stars are divvied up into a bigger number of smaller ones.

So how many stars are there in the Universe? The Milky Way contains about 400 billion stars. Some massive elliptical galaxies house more than 100 trillion stars. Estimates of the total number are rough, but it’s probably around 10^24 stars…that’s a septillion stars, a trillion trillion. It’s absurd that we’d be the only planet in the Universe with life on it.

Richard Feynman’s Tiny Machines

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 06, 2016

In 1959, physicist Richard Feynman, who had already done work that would win him the Nobel Prize a few years later, gave a talk at Caltech that didn’t have much to do with his main areas of study. The talk was called There’s Plenty of Room at the Bottom and it was a scientist at the peak of his formidable powers asking a question of the scientific community: What about nanotechnology?

I would like to describe a field, in which little has been done, but in which an enormous amount can be done in principle. This field is not quite the same as the others in that it will not tell us much of fundamental physics (in the sense of, “What are the strange particles?”) but it is more like solid-state physics in the sense that it might tell us much of great interest about the strange phenomena that occur in complex situations. Furthermore, a point that is most important is that it would have an enormous number of technical applications.

Even though he made no formal contribution to the field, Feynman’s talk has been credited with jumpstarting interest in the study of nanotechnology. No recording exists of the original talk, but in 1984, Feynman gave a talk he called Tiny Machines, in which he recalled his original talk and spoke of the progress that had been made over the past 25 years. (via @ptak)

Zoomable tree of all life on Earth

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 04, 2016

Zooming Tree Of Life

OneZoom is an interactive zoomable map of “the evolutionary relationships between the species on our planet”, aka tree of life. Browsing around is fun, but you’ll want to use the search function to find specific groups and animals, like mammals, humans, and mushrooms. The scale of this is amazing…there are dozens of levels of zoom. (via @pomeranian99)

How German physicists reacted to the Hiroshima bomb

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 03, 2016

During World War II, a group of scientists led by Werner Heisenberg worked on designing a nuclear weapon for Nazi Germany. They were, thankfully, unsuccessful. After the war, the Allies detained ten German scientists in England for six months. Hoping to learn about the German bomb program, they secretly taped the scientists’ conversations. In August 1945, the scientists were told about the US dropping a nuclear bomb on Japan. Here’s a transcript of the resulting reaction and conversation.

Shortly before dinner on the 6th August I informed Professor HAHN that an announcement had been made by the B.B.C. that an atomic bomb had been dropped. HAHN was completely shattered by the news and said that he felt personally responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people, as it was his original discovery which had made the bomb possible. He told me that he had originally contemplated suicide when he realized the terrible potentialities of his discovery and he felt that now these had been realized and he was to blame. With the help of considerable alcoholic stimulant he was calmed down and we went down to dinner where he announced the news to the assembled guests.

“Professor HAHN” is Otto Hahn, who co-discovered nuclear fission in Germany right before the war and won the 1944 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for it. The rest of the world may have gotten there eventually, but think of how different the war (and resulting Cold War period) would have been if Germany had sequestered their scientific progress a couple years earlier or if Hahn and Lise Meitner had made the discovery a year or two later.

WEIZSÄCKER: I think it’s dreadful of the Americans to have done it. I think it is madness on their part.

HEISENBERG: One can’t say that. One could equally well say “That’s the quickest way of ending the war.”

HAHN: That’s what consoles me.

HAHN: I was consoled when, I believe it was WEIZSÄCKER said that there was now this uranium - I found that in my institute too, this absorbing body which made the thing impossible consoled me because when they said at one time one could make bombs, I was shattered.

WEIZSÄCKER: I would say that, at the rate we were going, we would not have succeeded during this war.

HAHN: Yes.

WEIZSÄCKER: It is very cold comfort to think that one is personally in a position to do what other people would be able to do one day.

I particularly like Heisenberg’s distinction between between theoretical and applied science:

There is a great difference between discoveries and inventions. With discoveries one can always be skeptical and many surprises can take place. In the case of inventions, surprises can really only occur for people who have not had anything to do with it. It’s a bit odd after we have been working on it for five years.

If this stuff interests you at all, I’d highly recommend reading Richard Rhodes’ The Making of the Atomic Bomb. (via real future)

Update: The complete transcripts of the secret recordings were collected into a book called Hitler’s Uranium Club. The story of the Allied sabotage of a key element in producing a German bomb is told in Neal Bascomb’s The Winter Fortress. Alex Wellerstein writes that the Nazis didn’t know very much about the Manhattan Project. (via @CarnegieDeputy, @hellbox, @AtomicHeritage)

Meet the nano sapiens

posted by Jason Kottke   Sep 28, 2016

Nano Sapiens

In a 1959 talk at Caltech titled There’s Plenty of Room at the Bottom, Richard Feynman outlined a new field of study in physics: nanotechnology. He argued there was much to be explored in the realm of the very small — information storage, more powerful microscopes, biological research, computing — and that that exploration would be enormously useful.

I would like to describe a field, in which little has been done, but in which an enormous amount can be done in principle. This field is not quite the same as the others in that it will not tell us much of fundamental physics (in the sense of, “What are the strange particles?”) but it is more like solid-state physics in the sense that it might tell us much of great interest about the strange phenomena that occur in complex situations. Furthermore, a point that is most important is that it would have an enormous number of technical applications.

In a reaction to Elon Musk’s plan to colonize Mars, David Galbraith suggests there might be plenty of room at the bottom for human civilization as well. Don’t colonize Mars, miniaturize humanity. Create nano sapiens.

If we think of this as a design problem, there is a much better solution. Instead of expanding our environment to another planet at massive cost, why wouldn’t we miniaturise ourselves so we can expand without increasing our habitat or energy requirements, but still maintain our ability to create culture and knowledge, via information exchange.

The history of information technology and the preservation of Moore’s law has been driven by exactly this phenomenon of miniaturization. So why shouldn’t the same apply to the post technological evolution of humankind as it approaches the hypothetical ‘singularity’ and the potential ability for us to be physically embodied in silicon rather than carbon form.

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.1

Galbraith also speculates about nano aliens as a possible explanation for the Fermi paradox:

Interestingly, the same rules of energy use and distance between planets and stars would apply to any extraterrestrial aliens, so one possible explanation for the Fermi paradox is that we all get smaller and less visible as we get more technologically advanced. Rather than favoring interstellar colonization with its mind boggling distances which are impossible to communicate across within the lifetimes of individuals (and therefore impossible to hold together in any meaningful way as a civilization) perhaps advanced civilizations stick to their home planets but just get more efficient to be sustainable.

Humans are explorers. Curiosity about new worlds and ideas is one of humanity’s defining traits. One of the most striking things about the Eames’ Powers of Ten video is how similar outer space and inner space look — vast distances punctuated occasionally by matter. What if, instead of using more and more energy exploring planets, stars, and galaxies across larger and larger distances (the first half of the Eames’ video), we went the other way and focused on using less energy to explore cells, molecules, and atoms across smaller and smaller distances. It wouldn’t be so much giving up human space exploration as it would be exchanging it for a very similar and more accessible exploration of the molecular and atomic realm. There is, after all, plenty of room down there.

Update: I knew the responses to this would be good. Galbraith’s idea has a name: the transcension hypothesis, formulated by the aptly named John Smart. Jason Silva explains in this video:

The transcension hypothesis proposes that a universal process of evolutionary development guides all sufficiently advanced civilizations into what may be called “inner space,” a computationally optimal domain of increasingly dense, productive, miniaturized, and efficient scales of space, time, energy, and matter, and eventually, to a black-hole-like destination. Transcension as a developmental destiny might also contribute to the solution to the Fermi paradox, the question of why we have not seen evidence of or received beacons from intelligent civilizations.

Before we get there, however, there are a few challenges we need to overcome, as Joe Hanson explains in The Small Problem With Shrinking Ourselves:

As it often seems in such matters, science follows science fiction here. In Kurt Vonnegut’s Slapstick (Amazon), the Chinese miniaturize themselves in response to the Earth’s decreasing resources.

In the meantime, Western civilization is nearing collapse as oil runs out, and the Chinese are making vast leaps forward by miniaturizing themselves and training groups of hundreds to think as one. Eventually, the miniaturization proceeds to the point that they become so small that they cause a plague among those who accidentally inhale them, ultimately destroying Western civilization beyond repair.

Blood Music by Greg Bear (Amazon) has a nano-civilization theme:

Through infection, conversion and assimilation of humans and other organisms the cells eventually aggregate most of the biosphere of North America into a region seven thousand kilometres wide. This civilization, which incorporates both the evolved noocytes and recently assimilated conventional humans, is eventually forced to abandon the normal plane of existence in favor of one in which thought does not require a physical substrate.

James Blish’s short story Surface Tension tells the tale of microscopic human colonists. (via @harryh, @mariosaldana, @EndlessForms, @vanjacosic, @chumunculus)

Update: For some years, director Alexander Payne has been working on a film called Downsizing:

“Downsizing,” after all, starts off in Norway and takes place in a not-too-distant future where humans are now able to shrink themselves to 1/8 their size as a means to battle over-consumption and the rapid depletion of earth’s natural resources, thanks to enlightened hippie-like Scandinavian scientists. “Smalls” get small, then become members of small cities (the main characters moves to a city called Leisureland) protected by large nets (keeps the bugs out) and built like Disney’s Celebration Town (all planned, all pre-fabricated). Small people cash-in their savings and retire small; 1 big dollar equals 500 small dollars. Smalls live on less food, less land, and produce less trash. As the story progresses, Americans are free to get small, but in Europe, where resources are beginning to truly run out, legislation arises suggesting 40% of the population get shrunk (whether they like it or not). For the big, the world grows smaller and scarier; for the small, the world grows bigger and scarier.

Word is that Matt Damon will play the lead role. Mr. Payne, consider a title change to “Nano Sapiens”? (via @stephenosberg)

Photo by Poy.

  1. This is not a straightforward matter however. The 6-inch human wouldn’t eat 1728 times less food…that would mean you could live on a Big Mac for a year. Small animals often eat a significant percentage of their body weights each day, which normal-sized humans never approach. For example, according to this chart a grey squirrel weighs about 21 oz and eats about 1.6 oz of food, the equivalent of a 180-pound human eating about 14 pounds of food a day.

Musk: SpaceX will start colonizing Mars in 7 years

posted by Jason Kottke   Sep 28, 2016

Yesterday, Elon Musk shared SpaceX’s plan for colonizing Mars. Gizmodo has a good overview of the plan.

SpaceX plans to build a “self-sustaining city” on Mars, according to its founder Elon Musk. But, while we now know a lot more about how SpaceX plans to get to Mars, details about how people will actually survive up there remain sketchy.

Musk dropped the news on Tuesday during an address at the International Astronautical Congress meeting in Guadalajara, Mexico, where he had promised to reveal how the company planned to send people to live on Mars.

“I don’t have an immediate doomsday prophecy,” said Musk, but he noted that he saw only two possible paths forward. “One path is to stay on Earth forever, and there will be some extinction event. The alternative is to become a multi-planetary species, which I hope you will agree is the right way to go.”

Musk says that human flights to Mars could start as soon as 2023. So audacious, I love it. I am so rooting for him to pull this off.

Update: Wait But Why has a characteristically entertaining and informative piece about SpaceX’s Big Fucking Rocket.

“It’s so mind-blowing. It blows my mind, and I see it every week.”

Elon’s pumped. And when you learn about the big fucking rocket he’s building, you’ll understand why.

First, let’s absorb the challenge at hand. It’s often said that space is hard. To this day, only a few hundred people have been in space, only a few countries have the ability to launch something into space, and the history of human space travel is littered with tragic launch failures. Firing something super heavy and delicate and full of explosive liquid up through the atmosphere without anything going wrong is incredibly hard.

But when we talk about humans going into space, we’re talking mostly about humans going into Low Earth Orbit, a layer of space between 100 and 1,200 miles above the ground — and normally, they’re headed only 250 miles up to the International Space Station. The only time humans have gone farther were the small handful of Americans who made it out to the moon in the 1960s, traveling about 250,000 miles away.

When Earth and Mars are at their closest, Mars is somewhere between 34 and 60 million miles away — about 200 times farther away than the moon and about 200,000 times farther away than the ISS.

The moon is just over one light second away.

Mars is more than three light minutes away.

Mars is far.

The mirror spider has built-in invisibility shield capabilities

posted by Jason Kottke   Sep 27, 2016

Mirror Spider

Mirror Spider

Photographer Nicky Bay has been documenting an arachnid he calls the mirror spider for past few years. He’s noticed that when the spider feels threatened, it can shift the mirrored plates on its abdomen to reveal itself and make itself look bigger, like a cloaked Klingon ship uncloaking for battle.

For several years, I have been observing the odd behavior of the Mirror Spider (Thwaitesia sp.) where the “silver-plates” on the abdomen seem to shrink when the spider is agitated (or perhaps threatened), revealing the actual abdomen. At rest, the silver plates expand and the spaces between the plates close up to become an almost uniform reflective surface.

Many animals have evolved the ability to camouflage themselves and I’d speculate that is what’s happened to the mirror spider. The mirrored surface reflects the spider’s surroundings and turns it somewhat invisible to potential predators. The mirror system is more complex than an abdomen matching the green of a particular plant, but is also more adaptive — the mirror works equally well on green leaves, brown branches, and black soil. (via colossal)

Update: I misread Bay’s explanation of the spider’s response to threats and have corrected it above. I previously stated “that when the spider feels threatened, it can shift the mirrored plates on its abdomen to make itself appear more reflective”, which is exactly wrong. (via @RLHeppner/status/780921795335581696)

Should we use CRISPR to engineer mosquitoes incapable of transmitting malaria?

posted by Jason Kottke   Sep 21, 2016

Thousands of people die every day from malaria, a disease that is transmitted to humans solely through mosquitoes. With CRISPR, scientists can easily genetically engineer mosquitoes incapable of transmitting malaria and using a technique called gene drive, they can force that genetic change into the native mosquito population. So, should we do it?

A timeline of the Earth’s average temperature

posted by Jason Kottke   Sep 13, 2016

XKCD Climate Change

From XKCD, a typically fine illustration of climate change since the last ice age ~20,000 years ago.

When people say “the climate has changed before”, these are the kinds of changes they’re talking about.

And then in the alt text on the image:

[After setting your car on fire] Listen, your car’s temperature has changed before.

The chart is a perfect use of scale to illustrate a point about what the data actually shows. Tufte would be proud.

Update: Tufte is proud. (via @pixelcult)

Watch time lapse videos of bacteria evolving drug resistance

posted by Jason Kottke   Sep 09, 2016

Researchers at Harvard have come up with a novel way of studying how bacteria evolve to become drug resistant. They set up a large petri dish about the same shape as a football field with no antibiotics in the end zones and increasingly higher doses of antibiotics toward the center. They placed some bacteria in both end zones and filmed the results as the bacteria worked its way toward the center of the field, evolving drug resistance as it went. Ed Yong explains:

What you’re seeing in the movie is a vivid depiction of a very real problem. Disease-causing bacteria and other microbes are increasingly evolving to resist our drugs; by 2050, these impervious infections could potentially kill ten million people a year. The problem of drug-resistant infections is terrifying but also abstract; by their nature, microbes are invisible to the naked eye, and the process by which they defy our drugs is even harder to visualise.

But now you can: just watch that video again. You’re seeing evolution in action. You’re watching living things facing down new challenges, dying, competing, thriving, invading, and adapting — all in a two-minute movie.

Watch the video…it’s wild. What’s most interesting — or scary as hell — is that once the drug resistance gets going, it builds up a pretty good momentum. There’s a pause at the first boundary as the evolutionary process blindly hammers away at the problem, but after the bacteria “learn” drug resistance, the further barriers are breached much more quickly, even before the previous zones are fully populated.

Scientists discover giraffes are actually four separate species

posted by Jason Kottke   Sep 09, 2016

Giraffe Species

Suddenly, there are four species of giraffe now. Previously there was only one. Scientists have analyzed the genetic code of hundreds of giraffes in Africa and found much variation in their DNA, enough to split one species into four.

Some of the differences were as large or larger than the differences between brown bears and polar bears.

Despite their similar appearances, members of the different species don’t appear to mate with each other. It’s amazing that scientists didn’t know this until now.

The Kingdom of Speech

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 29, 2016

Kingdom Of Speech

In his new book The Kingdom of Speech, Tom Wolfe argues that speech and not evolution is responsible for the many achievements of humans. Wolfe, the author of The Right Stuff and The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, went on NPR the other day to talk about the book. This comment about Darwin’s view of speech stuck out (emphasis mine):

He could not figure out what it was. He assumed, because of his theory, that everything evolved from animals. And didn’t even include it in his theory, language, until he decided that it came from our imitation of the cries of birds. And I think it’s misleading to say that human beings evolved from animals — actually, nobody knows whether they did or not. There are very few physical signs, aside from the general resemblance of apes and humans. The big evolution, if you want to call it that, is that this one species, Homo sapiens, came up with this ingenious trick, which is language.

It’s one thing to say that speech did not evolve from the utterances of previous animals and was instead invented by humans, but it’s quite another to assert that humans did not evolve from animals at all.1 Gonna be fun to sit back and watch the controversy roil on this one. (via @JossFong who said “lazy saturday, just listening to @NPR when ….. WHAT”)

  1. Q: Where does Tom Wolfe get his water?

    A: From a “Well, actually…”

Our potential neverending hot American summer

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 22, 2016

The frying of America

In today’s installment of terrifying graphics about climate change, the NY Times made a series of three maps showing the potential rise of 100 degree temperatures across the United States if current greenhouse gas emission trends continue through the end of this century. Look at the areas in orange and red on the 1991-2010 map: what sort of landscape do you picture? Keeping that landscape picture in your mind, look at the orange and red areas on the 2060 and 2100 maps. Yep! And Phoenix with 163 days above 100 degrees — that’s every day from March 25th to September 4th over 100 degrees.

P.S. A word about climate change and rising temperatures. The temperature that climate scientists typically reference and care about with regard to climate change is “the average global temperature across land and ocean surface areas”. According to the NOAA, the average temperature of the Earth in the 20th century was 13.9°C (57.0°F). In 2015, the average global temperature was 0.90°C (1.62°F) above that.

In order to avoid dangerous effects of climate change, climate scientists advocate keeping the global average temperature increase below 2 degrees (and more recently, below 1.5 degrees). In late 2015, 195 nations came together in Paris and agreed to:

[Hold] the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels, recognizing that this would significantly reduce the risks and impacts of climate change

That’s degrees Celsius, not Fahrenheit. I don’t know about you, but as an American, when I hear 2 degrees, I think, oh, that’s not bad. But 2°C is an increase of 3.6°F, which does seem significant.

Note also that it specifies keeping the temperature “below pre-industrial levels” and not below 20th century levels. It is maddeningly difficult to track down an exact figure for the pre-industrial global temperature, partially because of a lack of precise data, partially because of politics, and partially because of the impenetrability of scientific writing. From a piece Eric Holthaus wrote for FiveThirtyEight earlier this year:

It sounds easy enough to measure global warming: see how hot it was, compare it to how hot it used to be. But climate scientists have several ways of measuring how hot it used to be. NASA’s base period, as I mentioned above, is an average of 1951-80 global temperatures, mostly because that was the most recently available 30-year period when the data set was first created. By chance, it’s also pretty representative of the world’s 20th-century climate and can help us understand how much warmer the world has become while many of us have been alive.

Other organizations go further back. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the body of climate scientists that was formed to provide assessments to the United Nations, bases its temperature calculations on an 1850-1900 global average. There was about 0.4 degrees of warming between that time period and the NASA base period.

Climate scientists often refer to that 1850-1900 timespan as “pre-industrial” because we don’t have comprehensive temperature data from the 1700s. But meteorologist Michael Mann, director of Penn State University’s Earth System Science Center, has argued that an additional 0.25 degrees of warming occurred between the start of the Industrial Revolution (around 1750) and 1850. Including Mann’s adjustment would bring February 2016 global temperatures at or very near 2 degrees above the “pre-industrial” average.

I now completely understand why some people deny that anthropogenic climate change is happening. Seriously. I looked for more than 30 minutes for a report or scientific paper that stated the average global temperature for 1850-1900 and I couldn’t find one. I looked at UN reports, NASA reports, reports from the UK: nothing. There were tons of references to temperatures relative to the 1850-1900 baseline, but no absolute temperatures were given. Now, I don’t mean to get all Feynman here, but this is bullshit. When the world got together in Paris and talked about a 1.5 degree increase, was everyone even talking about the same thing? You might begin to wonder what the scientists are hiding with their obfuscation.

Anyway, the important point is that according to climate scientists, we are already flirting with 1.5°C of global warming since pre-industrial times. Which means that without action, the spread of those Phoenician temperatures across the circa-2100 United States is a thing that’s going to happen.

Possible Earth-like planet discovered orbiting star nearest Earth

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 19, 2016

Exoplanet Art

The scientific rumor mill is saying that astronomers in Chile have discovered an Earth-like exoplanet orbiting the star nearest Earth, Alpha Proxima, a mere 4.25 light years away. As they say, “huge if true”.

The hunt for exoplanets has been heating up in recent years. Since it began its mission in 2009, over four thousand exoplanet candidates have been discovered by the Kepler mission, several hundred of which have been confirmed to be “Earth-like” (i.e. terrestrial). And of these, some 216 planets have been shown to be both terrestrial and located within their parent star’s habitable zone (aka. “Goldilocks zone”).

But in what may prove to be the most exciting find to date, the German weekly Der Spiegel announced recently that astronomers have discovered an Earth-like planet orbiting Proxima Centauri, just 4.25 light-years away. Yes, in what is an apparent trifecta, this newly-discovered exoplanet is Earth-like, orbits within its sun’s habitable zone, and is within our reach. But is this too good to be true?

If you read the article, there’s cause for skepticism but an official announcement is coming next week so we’ll know for sure one way or the other.

The other cool thing? If there is a planet there, plans are already underway to build a project to get probes to nearby Alpha Centuri in 20 years, Project Starshot:

In the last decade and a half, rapid technological advances have opened up the possibility of light-powered space travel at a significant fraction of light speed. This involves a ground-based light beamer pushing ultra-light nanocrafts - miniature space probes attached to lightsails - to speeds of up to 100 million miles an hour. Such a system would allow a flyby mission to reach Alpha Centauri in just over 20 years from launch, and beam home images of possible planets, as well as other scientific data such as analysis of magnetic fields.

Perhaps they can redirect their target slightly?

Update: It appears as if the rumors were true. Phil Plait writing at Slate:

The planet, called Proxima Centauri b or just Proxima b (exoplanets are given their star’s name plus a lower case letter in order of discovery, starting with “b”), orbits Proxima every 11.2 days. It has a mass of no less than 1.3 times the Earth’s, so if it’s rock and metal like Earth it’s only a bit bigger. It’s a mere 7.3 million kilometers from the star-a lot closer than Earth’s distance from the Sun of 150 million kilometers!-but Proxima is so faint and cool it receives about two-thirds the amount of light and heat the Earth does. That means that it’s in Proxima’s habitable zone: It’s possible (more or less) that liquid water could exist on its surface.

That’s coooool.

The coming CRISPR revolution

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 11, 2016

Perfect eyesight. Curing cancer. Designer babies. Super-soldiers. Because of CRISPR, genetic engineering might make tinkering with life as easy as playing with Lego.

Imagine you were alive back in the 1980’s, and were told that computers would soon take over everything — from shopping, to dating, and the stock market, that billions of people would be connected via a kind of web, that you would own a handheld device orders of magnitudes more powerful than supercomputers.

It would seem absurd, but then all of it happened. Science fiction became our reality and we don’t even think about it. We’re at a similar point today with genetic engineering. So let’s talk about it.

Relatedly, I’m finishing up Neal Stephenson’s Seveneves right now and while it starts out as space science fiction, much of the book is concerned with the sort of genetic engineering issues discussed in the video.

The biggest war in animal history

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 10, 2016

According to theoretical biologist Suzanne Sadedin, the biggest war in animal history (humans included) is happening right now.

Once upon a time there was a tiny brown ant who lived by a swamp at the end of the Paraná River in Argentina. Her name, Linepithema humile, literally means “humble” or “weak”. Some time during the late 1800s, an adventurous L. humile crept away from the swamp where giant river otter played and capybaras cavorted.

She stowed away on a boat that sailed to New Orleans. And she went to war.

Update: And bang, here’s the supporting science in the form of a 2010 study.

Here, we perform inter-continental behavioral analyses among supercolonies in North America, Europe, Asia, Hawaii, New Zealand and Australia and show that these far-flung supercolonies also recognize and accept each other as if members of a single, globally distributed supercolony. Furthermore, populations also possess similar genetic and chemical profiles. However, these ants do show aggression toward ants from South Africa and the smaller secondary colonies that occur in Hawaii and California. Thus, the largest and most dominant introduced populations are likely descended from the same ancestral colony and, despite having been established more than 100 years ago, have diverged very little. This apparent evolutionary stasis is surprising because, in other species, some of the most rapid rates of evolutionary change have occurred in introduced populations. Given the spatial extent of the Argentine ant society we report here, there can be little doubt that this intercontinental supercolony represents the most populous known animal society.

The “25 years and beyond” section of the Facebook product roadmap contains a single word, unlined twice in red ink: ants. Can ants be trained to look at ads though?

Update: Radiolab also did a segment on these ants. (via @minwoolee)

Update: Wow, the Argentine ant is having a bit of a moment…I didn’t expect this to be my most updated post of the week. Annalee Newitz just dropped a long article about their world domination: Meet the worst ants in the world.

UC Berkeley environmental scientist Neil Tsutsui helmed an effort to sequence the genome of L. humile, in part to find out where the invading group had originated. He and an international team of colleagues published the results of their analysis in 2011. They compared the genomes of Argentine ants in California to those of native populations, and Tsutsui told Ars that they were initially surprised by the results. “I was expecting Buenos Aires to be the source, but it was actually a city upstream called Rosario,” he said. “It turns out that in the late 19th century, when the ants were moving around, Rosario was actually a bigger shipping port than Buenos Aires. So it made more sense as a source for introduced populations.”

Genetic evidence supports the idea that the ants made their way from Port Rosario all across the globe. Subsequent sightings of the ants in the United States show that they also hitched rides on trains from New Orleans, ultimately arriving in California in 1904. Trucks probably transported them throughout the state. But how could such fragile creatures survive these journeys in giant machines and go on to found insectile empires? With their countless queens and nomadic lifestyle, they turned out to be the ultimate adapters.

Che Guevara and Lionel Messi are also from Rosario and have taken over the world in their own way. (via @tcarmody)

How it happened: the discovery of bacteria in the 1670s

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 09, 2016

Antonie van Leeuwenhoek ran a draper’s shop and was a local politician in Delft, Netherlands in the mid-17th century. During this time, he developed an interest in making lenses and hit upon a technique for making lenses with extremely high magnifications for the time, 270x and perhaps even 500x normal magnification. These lenses allowed him to discover that there were tiny organisms living in his mouth.

Ed Yong, Joss Fong, and Julia Belluz discuss van Leeuwenhoek’s achievement and microorganisms in general in the video above and in an interview.

It is undeniable that antibiotics have been a tremendous health good, maybe one of the greatest health goods of all time. They have brought so many infectious diseases to heel and saved so many lives.

But it’s also clear that they have negative effects on our microbiome. So they are indiscriminate weapons. They kill the microbes that we depend upon and that are good for us as well as the ones that are causing disease and causing us harm. They’re like nukes, rather than precision weapons.

So we’re in a difficult situation now, where on the one hand we’re running out of antibiotics, and the rise of antibiotic-resistant bacteria is a huge public health threat. But at the same time we’re aware of the need to preserve the microbiome.

Yong just came out with a book on microbes called I Contain Multitudes. (Perhaps Whitman was speaking literally?)

The Origin of (almost) Everything

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 09, 2016

Origin Almost Everything

Oh, this new book from Jennifer Daniel and New Scientist looks great: The Origin of (almost) Everything.

Together they take us on a whistle-stop tour from the start of our universe (through the history of stars, galaxies, meteorites, the Moon and dark energy) to our planet (through oceans and weather to oil) and life (through dinosaurs to emotions and sex) to civilization (from cities to alcohol and cooking), knowledge (from alphabets to alchemy) ending up with technology (computers to rocket science). Witty essays explore the concepts alongside enlightening infographics that zoom from how many people have ever lived to showing you how a left-wing brain differs from a right-wing one.

And Stephen Hawking wrote the foreword. You fancy, Jennifer Daniel!

The Perseid meteor shower should be great this year

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 08, 2016


Every year, the Earth moves through the debris from the Swift-Tuttle comet, resulting in the Perseid meteor shower. This year, the Earth is predicted to move through a particularly dense part of the comet’s wake, which may mean twice the number of shooting stars during this year’s shower. Here’s how to watch:

The best way to see the Perseids is to go outside between midnight and dawn on the morning of Aug. 12. Allow about 45 minutes for your eyes to adjust to the dark. Lie on your back and look straight up. Increased activity may also be seen on Aug. 12-13.

I always find these directions confusing, so to be clear: the best viewing for the Perseids is the night of Aug 11 (Thu) into the morning of Aug 12 (Fri). Good luck!

Chemical make-up of movie theater air shifts w/ movie moments

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 08, 2016

A study undertaken by a group of German scientists suggests that the chemical makeup of the collective breath of movie audiences change in reaction to what’s happening on the screen.

Human beings continuously emit chemicals into the air by breath and through the skin. In order to determine whether these emissions vary predictably in response to audiovisual stimuli, we have continuously monitored carbon dioxide and over one hundred volatile organic compounds in a cinema. It was found that many airborne chemicals in cinema air varied distinctively and reproducibly with time for a particular film, even in different screenings to different audiences. Application of scene labels and advanced data mining methods revealed that specific film events, namely “suspense” or “comedy” caused audiences to change their emission of specific chemicals.

Humpback whales: the Guardian Angels of the sea

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 03, 2016

There is evidence that humpback whales deliberately disrupt killer whale hunts, saving other animals from being killed by them.

Marine ecologist Robert Pitman observed a particularly dramatic example of this behavior back in 2009, while observing a pod of killer whales hunting a Weddell seal trapped on an ice floe off Antarctica. The orcas were able to successfully knock the seal off the ice, and just as they were closing in for the kill, a magnificent humpback whale suddenly rose up out of the water beneath the seal.

This was no mere accident. In order to better protect the seal, the whale placed it safely on its upturned belly to keep it out of the water. As the seal slipped down the whale’s side, the humpback appeared to use its flippers to carefully help the seal back aboard. Finally, when the coast was clear, the seal was able to safely swim off to another, more secure ice floe.

Pitman has collected 115 incidents of humpbacks messing with orca hunts. (via @unlikelywords)

Permafrost thawing in Russia has led to an anthrax outbreak

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 01, 2016

A Siberian heatwave has led to permafrost thaws that have released long-dormant anthrax bacteria, resulting in the hospitalization of 13 people and the death of over 1500 reindeer.

Citing earlier work from 2007, they estimated anthrax spores remain viable in the permafrost for 105 years. Buried deeper, the bacteria may be able to hibernate for even longer. At the same time, where meteorological data were available they indicate temperatures in Yakutia are increasing.

“As a consequence of permafrost melting, the vectors of deadly infections of the 18th and 19th centuries may come back,” the scientists warned, “especially near the cemeteries where the victims of these infections were buried.” Cattle grave sites should be monitored, they concluded, and “public health authorities should maintain permanent alertness.”

Another one of those delightful little climate change gotchas, like the near-death of the Great Barrier Reef.

Update: Eric Holthaus talked to some experts and climatologists and yes, pathogens released by warming are something we were warned about and we need to be concerned about it.

Romanovsky says the possibility that additional pathogens may be released from the permafrost, if that is indeed the source, makes it even more important to study this specific outbreak closely. Once in the water supply, in theory, a future pathogen could spread outside the local area, carried by people or by migrating birds or animals.

Though the current outbreak is happening during an unusual period of extreme warmth, Romanovsky says that, “if it gets warmer in the future, and it seems like it will, the thawing permafrost could be massive.” A further degradation of the permafrost would allow more opportunity for the emergence of sequestered microbes.

Israel achieves breakthroughs in freshwater making tech

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 01, 2016

In the biggest water miracle since Christ walked on the Sea of Galilee,1 Israel has turned certain drought into a surplus of water. Conservation helped — low-flow shower heads, recycling waste water for crop irrigation — but much of the gain came from vastly improved desalinization techniques, which they hope can spread across the region and the world.

We are standing above the new Sorek desalination plant, the largest reverse-osmosis desal facility in the world, and we are staring at Israel’s salvation. Just a few years ago, in the depths of its worst drought in at least 900 years, Israel was running out of water. Now it has a surplus. That remarkable turnaround was accomplished through national campaigns to conserve and reuse Israel’s meager water resources, but the biggest impact came from a new wave of desalination plants.

Perhaps the world won’t end in water wars after all.

Update: Of course, technological advances can affect politics in many ways. Instead of sharing the tech, Israel can use their water advantage to put political pressure on their neighbors, as when Israel cut water supplies to the West Bank earlier this year during Ramadan.

Even without politics, desalinization is problematic…there’s the small matter of where to put all that salt:

Brine disposal is a big problem in much of the Middle East. The gulf, along with the Red and Mediterranean seas, are turning saltier because of desalination by-products — and the region is the epicenter of desalination worldwide, with the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain and Oman making up 45 percent of global desalination capacity. This brine is typically twice as salty as seawater, and advanced desalination plants still produce approximately two cubic meters of waste brine for every one cubic meter of clean water.

(thx, jennifer & nathan)

  1. [That’s your lede? Ok, I quit. -ed]

I Contain Multitudes

posted by Jason Kottke   Jul 07, 2016

I Contain Multitudes

Crackerjack science writer Ed Yong is coming out with his very first book in a month’s time. It’s called I Contain Multitudes (good title!) and is about “astonishing partnerships between animals and microbes”.

Every animal, whether human, squid, or wasp, is home to millions of bacteria and other microbes. Ed Yong, whose humor is as evident as his erudition, prompts us to look at ourselves and our animal companions in a new light-less as individuals and more as the interconnected, interdependent multitudes we assuredly are.

The microbes in our bodies are part of our immune systems and protect us from disease. In the deep oceans, mysterious creatures without mouths or guts depend on microbes for all their energy. Bacteria provide squid with invisibility cloaks, help beetles to bring down forests, and allow worms to cause diseases that afflict millions of people.

I will read anything described as “like a David Attenborough series shot through a really good microscope”.

NASA extends the missions of nine spacecraft

posted by Jason Kottke   Jul 05, 2016

While we’re on the subject, NASA announced late last week that they are extending the missions of nine spacecraft sprinkled about the solar system. Included are the New Horizon probe, which will wing off to study an object in the Kuiper Belt after doing so well with Pluto and the rover Opportunity, which was slated for a mission lasting just over 90 days but has now spent more than 12 years exploring the surface of Mars.

The Dawn mission to Ceres is another spacecraft whose duration has been extended, beating long odds. Part of the spacecraft’s functionality had not been working for some time, but was recently repaired.

It was a bit unexpected because Dawn is low on fuel. “Less than a year ago, I would have thought it was ridiculous that the spacecraft would even be operating at this point,” said Marc D. Rayman, the chief engineer for the Dawn mission.

The Dawn spacecraft was designed to use four spinning wheels to pivot in different directions. But at its previous destination, the asteroid Vesta, two of the four wheels overheated and failed. At Ceres, the wheels stayed off, and the spacecraft used its thrusters instead to pivot.

In December, Dawn reached its lowest orbit, just 240 miles above Ceres. Dr. Rayman said he and his team had expected Dawn to exhaust its remaining propellant by March.

But they spun up the wheels again. That succeeded, cutting the use of the thrusters. “It all worked out beautifully,” Dr. Rayman said. That left enough fuel to contemplate doing something more.