by Kiki Sanford
Inside a nondescript office building in Mountain View, California, a gathering took place recently that might have been a glimpse into the future.
At first, the people, like the building, didn’t offer many hints of what that future might look like. They came from all walks of life: young, old, students, businesspeople, men and women.
Then they started talking.
Rockets, microgravity, space planes, moon bases, gas stations in orbit – if you didn’t know better, you would think you had walked into a science fiction conference. But, in this case, reality is much better than fiction. These everyday people were learning how to design science experiments to take place in low Earth orbit.
The majority of attendees at the Space Hackers Workshop weren’t scientists. They were part of the growing movement of citizen science, experiments performed in a distributed way by non-specialists, tinkerers, and the scientifically curious. And now, building on the growing market for private space travel, citizen science is edging toward a new frontier: space.
Mathematically, the Greco-Roman-Etruscan number system is an endlessly repetitive number system that is inefficient and cumbersome. To write 3333, which we do by repeating the sign 3 four times, a Roman would have had to scribble down MMMCCCXXXIII—three times as many characters. And I challenge anyone to multiply this number by MMDCCCLXXIX—using only the Roman system (meaning without translating these numbers into what they would be in our base-10 number system and then back into Roman numerals). Surprisingly, this clunky old Roman number system, with its ancient Greek and Etruscan roots, remained in use in Europe until the thirteenth century!
Our base-10 system derives its power and efficiency from the fact that we use a zero. The zero here is not just a concept of nothingness (and something every schoolchild learns you are forbidden to divide by), but also a place holder. The zero is a sign we place in a location in a number when there is nothing there—to tell us, for example, that 40 means four tens and no units, or that 405 is four hundreds, no tens, and five units.
by Richard Schiffman
The recent boom in fracking has turned America into the Saudi Arabia of natural gas, almost overnight.
Proponents say that this burgeoning industry has ensured U.S. energy independence for years to come, and created a more climate-friendly alternative to dirtier-burning fuels like coal and gas. It has arguably also hastened the demise of the coal industry, as power plants switch in large numbers to the cheaper gas, resulting in U.S. CO2 emissions sinking to their lowest levels in nearly two decades. And with less smog-producing particulates and deadly mercury in the air, we can hope that respiratory illnesses like asthma may begin to decline.
But fracking poses its own risks. While our air has been getting cleaner, opponents argue that America’s water has been getting dirtier as the result of the hydraulic fracturing of shale. Fracking uses lots of water—up to seven million gallons for every well drilled—which is mixed together with sand and a witch’s brew of industrial chemicals, then blasted a mile into the earth to the shale formations where the natural gas is located. This high pressure stream shatters the rock and releases the gas, which geysers up to the surface to be recovered.
by Richard Schiffman
Bees are dying all over the world, and nobody is sure why it is happening. Up to 40 percent of U.S. beekeeper hives failed to survive the past winter, making this the worst season so far on record. In part this was the result of a mysterious and growing phenomenon called Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) in which bees fly off en masse and never return to their hive.
Agricultural production is beginning to take a hit from the loss of bees. In California’s Central Valley at the end of February, there weren’t enough commercially bred bees to pollinate all of the 800,000 acres of almond trees. Some desperate almond farmers actually flew in the precious insects from Australia to service their trees. Almonds aside, fully one out of every three bites of food that we eat were produced with the help of insect pollinators.
The thing about crossing into uncharted territory is that you may not know when, exactly, you have crossed into it. No one needs to tell that to the Voyager 1 spacecraft, which is currently at the center of a controversy about where the solar system ends and interstellar space begins.
Today, a press release from the American Geophysical Union initially stated Voyager had left our solar system. Two hours later, though, they issued a correction calling Voyager’s current location a “new region of space,” which is considerably less flashy (but equally scientifically valuable). The NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which oversees the spacecraft, weighed in with a press release saying that no, in fact Voyager was still in the solar system.
So why the controversy? What is the debate about the boundary of the solar system? And what is this “new region” of which the scientists speak?
By Dave Levitan
Diamond City, North Carolina, is not actually a city, in that no one actually lives there. People did live there, though, back in 1899. That was when a major hurricane hit the community, on a small barrier island near Cape Hatteras. Homes were destroyed, animals were killed, and graves were uncovered or washed away in the storm according to a conservation group in the area. By 1902, all 500 residents in Diamond City had picked up and left.
The people there didn’t have computer climate models, or rapidly rising seas, or any understanding of increasing storm vulnerability; they just had a desire not to deal with what they assumed would be a constant problem. That problem, of course, is one that anyone living on the East Coast is confronting, especially with the waters of Hurricane Sandy still slowly receding from our coastal consciousness. The question is, when should people in New Jersey, Long Island, Maryland, and elsewhere start thinking about leaving behind their own versions of Diamond City?
By Govert Schilling
Just over a week ago, at three miles above sea level in the Chilean Atacama desert, Atacameño indians offered gifts to Mother Earth in a traditional ceremony to bless a decidedly modern object: the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA). Four days later, on March 13, the largest-ever ground-based astronomical observatory was officially inaugurated. “ALMA is now a reality, and not a fairy tale anymore,” said Dutch astronomer Thijs de Graauw, the project’s director.
ALMA (Spanish for “soul”) consists of 66 antennas, most of them 40 feet across. They are equipped with sensitive receivers to detect millimeter and submillimeter waves from space – radiation in between radio waves and infrared light. This relatively long-wavelength radiation is emitted by the coolest objects in the Universe, such as the dark molecular clouds that spawn new stars and planets. What’s more, interstellar molecules, including complex hydrocarbons and other molecules necessary for life, can only be identified using this type of radiation. Cosmic millimeter and submillimeter radiation has never been observed in much detail before, so astronomers all over the world have eagerly anticipated the ALMA inauguration.
By Julie Sedivy
Is the film industry guilty of lowballing the intelligence of its audience? It’s not hard to find bloggers, critics and movie insiders (including actor Colin Firth) who think so. A common criticism is that Hollywood seems to believe that viewers are bereft of any creative thought or imagination, and simply want to ingest a pasty mush of cozy clichés, simplistic story lines and cartoon characters. Audiences, the complaint goes, simply aren’t being asked to do any work. This criticism implies that being made to do some mental work is a vital part of what makes a movie rewarding and pleasurable.
Film critic Katherine Monk clearly buys into this view, but offers an original slant: in a recent article for the Vancouver Sun, she blames sophisticated visual effects technology for what she argues is the growing trend to treat viewers as passive sets of eyeballs detached from human imaginations. The problem, she writes, is that current technology has gotten too good at depicting reality, robbing us of the opportunity to construct our own with whatever materials the movie is able to offer.
By Amy Shira Teitel
The year was 1962. The Cuban Missile Crisis was at its peak, and it had been only days since President Kennedy learned that the Soviet Union was establishing missile sites in Cuba. The U.S. Air Force was on DEFCON-2. American and Soviet military forces were an order away from launching a nuclear attack.
But on Saturday, October 27, it wasn’t a military general or political leader who nearly upended that delicate world balance and set off World War III. It was the aurora borealis.
By Eliza Strickland
What can you learn from getting your genome sequenced? If you’re a relatively healthy person like me, the answer is, not much… at least not yet.
I embarked on a mission to get myself sequenced for my recent article “The Gene Machine and Me.” The article focused on the sequencing technology that will soon enable a full scan of a human genome for $1000, and to make the story come alive, I decided to go through the process myself. I got my DNA run through the hottest new sequencing machine, the Ion Proton, and had it analyzed by some of the top experts on genome sequencing, a team at Houston’s Baylor College of Medicine.
The Baylor team has been intimately involved in many of the most important advances of genome sequencing over the last decade. And their accomplishments reveal both the astoundingly rapid progress of the technology, and how far we have yet to go. Here’s a synopsis: the story of five genomes.