At 100, James Lovelock Has New Ideas About Gaia and Earth’s Future

By Corey S. Powell | September 14, 2019 5:10 pm
Our blue-marble planet, imaged by the DSCOVR spacecraft. Life maintains a stubborn balance here — but for how long? (Credit: NOAA/EPIC)

James Lovelock has a lot to celebrate. The renowned British futurist and environmentalist just enjoyed a 100th birthday party with his wife and friends. Over his long career he has seen his once-controversial Gaia hypothesis steadily gain significant acceptance among his colleagues. And capping all that, he has just published Novacene, a book that predicts the impending end of the world – but does so in a gently, almost loving style. Lovelock may be the happiest pessimist I’ve ever spoken to.

Optimism has always been baked into Lovelock’s worldview. In 1974, at a time of energy crises and political crisis, he came up with his signature idea about life on Earth, working in conjunction with evolutionary biologist Lynn Margulis. The Gaia hypothesis posits that Earth behaves as a single, self-regulating organism.

Over billions of years, as the Sun has grown brighter and continents have risen above the seas, life has influenced the composition of the land, water, and air in ways that have helped keep temperatures stable within the narrow range that is necessary for biology. Without life, Earth might have frozen solid or boiled over; with life, it has remained just right. The problem, according to Lovelock, is that we are nearing the limits of what Gaia can do.

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A Love Letter to the Last Planet

By Corey S. Powell | September 1, 2019 3:57 pm
The crescent of Neptune and Triton, captured by Voyager 2 on August 25, 1989, as the spacecraft was fleeing from the planet toward interstellar space. (Credit: NASA-JPL)

Thirty years ago this week, the Voyager 2 spacecraft flew past Neptune, providing the first up-close look at the last planet in the solar system*. The anniversary tugged generously at my heart. You see, I fell in love with Neptune as a kid, back when I was in the second grade.

We all had to read about a planet and tell a few sentences about why we liked it. I got assigned Neptune. Neptune? Everybody wanted Saturn or Mars, or at least Jupiter. But as I read about Neptune, distant and dim, I got hooked. It was a planetary underdog, full of mysterious possibilities.

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Beyond the Apollo 50th Anniversary, with Poppy Northcutt

By Corey S. Powell | August 8, 2019 6:57 am
Frances “Poppy” Northcutt at work in the Mission Planning and Analysis room at NASA’s Mission Control (Houston) during the Apollo program, circa 1968.

The 50th anniversary of Apollo 11 came and went in a blaze of nostalgia for the moment when humans made their first awkward footfall on another world–a moment when (for the true believers, at least) it seemed like humans might keep going and start exploring the whole solar system in person. But Apollo was about much more than Apollo 11, and the space race was about much more than Apollo.

In many ways we are still learning the lessons from those heady days. Politically motivated goals are no way to build a sustainable program of exploration. Modern computer power doesn’t necessarily provide much help with basic engineering challenges. Anticipating and preparing for disaster is an effective way to maximize the likelihood of success. And judging from the number of Twitter trolls complaining bitterly that NASA now refers neutrally to “crewed” or “human” spaceflight (rather than “manned,” as in the old days), the culture wars of the Moon-landing era are still not fully settled.

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Apollo as it Really Happened: A Conversation with Tom Jennings and Mike Massimino

By Corey S. Powell | July 8, 2019 6:34 am
For children of the 1960s, Apollo was a not a single event but an extended way of looking at the world. Here, boys watch the Apollo 8 Christmas Eve broadcast. (Credit: Bruce Dale/National Geographic Creative)

The 50th anniversary of Apollo 11–which kissed lunar soil on July 20, 1969–has prompted a flood of retrospectives. My local Barnes & Noble features an entire long table covered with anniversary books. If you want a lightly fictionalized big-screen account of Apollo 11, you can watch the unexpectedly engaging Damien Chazelle drama First Man. And if you want a documentary, you’ll find a bewildering number of options. One of them is not like the others, however.

In his new film Apollo: Missions to the Moon, director Tom Jennings has stripped away all of the artifice of dramatic reenactments, talking-head interviews, and portentious narration. Instead, he has assembled an experience constructed entirely out of recovered moments. Everything you see here was recorded as it happened, and in many cases rarely seen since then. This approach was inspired by Jenning’s childhood memories of a Saturday morning kids’ show called “You Are There,” hosted by Walter Cronkite. Each episode faked the experience of being at a famous moment in history (the sinking of the Titanic, the Battle of the Alamo). Jennings mimics that approach, but using real footage instead.

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Life Among the Dwarfs

By Corey S. Powell | June 30, 2019 11:00 pm
Red dwarf stars are the parent suns of most of the planets in the universe. Whether they are good parents is the subject of intense debate. (Credit: NASA-GSFC/S. Wiessinger)

When I was an astronomy-obsessed kid, I learned that most of the stars in our galaxy and beyond are very similar to our Sun. No less an authority than Carl Sagan wrote that the Sun is an ordinary, even a mediocre star.” If that insight diminished the importance of our place in the universe, it also made it seem likely that there must be many other living worlds around us. If the Sun is a typical star, couldn’t the Earth be a typical planet?

Except that Sagan was wrong, or at least misleading. More than 90 percent of the stars in the Milky Way are cooler and dimmer than the Sun. A full three-fourths are red dwarfs, the smallest of the small. Furthermore, dwarf stars seem to be especially likely to have rocky planets. Together, those statistics indicate that there are a trillion planets around red dwarfs in our galaxy, including at least 100 billion potentially habitable Earth-size worlds. The big unknown is whether those planets are actually habitable — that is, if the genuinely typical Earth-size worlds out there are really anything at all like our own.

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Could the Big Bang Be Wrong?

By Corey S. Powell | June 15, 2019 3:02 pm
A short history of the universe since the time of the Big Bang. We can directly observe more than 13 billion years of change, but the beginning itself is an enduring mystery. (Credit: ESA)

The Big Bang is the defining narrative of modern cosmology: a bold declaration that our universe had a beginning and has a finite age, just like the humans who live within it. That finite age, in turn, is defined by the evidence that universe is expanding (again, and unfortunately, many of us are familiar with that feeling as well). Those two ideas–a singular cosmic beginning, followed by billions of years of cosmic growth–are so strange that some people have never made peace with them. As a result, skeptics have been questioning the validity of the Big Bang model for as long as there has been a Big Bang model.

Among mainstream cosmologists, doubts about the Big Bang largely melted away in the 1960s with the discovery of the cosmic microwave background–an omnidirectional buzz of radiation that makes sense only as a relic from the hot, early era of the universe. But around the fringe, the doubts have persisted. Lately they have intensified, inspired by a puzzling discrepancy in different measurements of how the universe is expanding. Even scientific centrists acknowledge that our understanding of the early universe is glaringly incomplete. So now is a prime time, it seems to me, to dig into the big question: Could the Big Bang be wrong?

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What Flavor is Your Solar System?

By Corey S. Powell | May 31, 2019 4:14 pm

Pan may be the most food-like of all moons. This image taken by Cassini near the end of its mission in 2017. (Credit: NASA/JPL/SSI/Kevin M. Gill)

I spend a lot of time on science Twitter. It’s a great source of breaking research news (as long as you curate your Twitter feed carefully), but also a fascinating peek into the human psyche. People who love astronomy naturally connect it to the other things that they are passionate about: politics, family, cats, science fiction…and food. Lots and lots of food.

It’s strange that there aren’t any constellations dedicated to food, considering how readily the human mind makes the connection. (I suppose you could argue that most of the animal constellations are potentially food-related, especially Lepus, the hare being pursued by Orion, but that isn’t quite the same thing.) Post a picture of on of Saturn’s moons, and pretty soon there are arguments breaking out over whether it looks like a pierogi, an empanada, or a ravioli.

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The Moon is Finally Getting the Attention It Deserves

By Corey S. Powell | April 30, 2019 11:56 pm

China's Chang'e-4 lander and its little rover, Yutu-2, were observed by NASA's Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter in February. Note the movement of Yutu-2 between the frames--the first surface exploration on the far side of the Moon. (Credit: NASA/GSFC/Arizona State University)

China’s Chang’e-4 lander and its little rover, Yutu-2, were observed by NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter in February. Note the movement of Yutu-2 between the frames–the first surface exploration on the far side of the Moon. (Credit: NASA/GSFC/Arizona State University)

We’ve reached another “will they or won’t they?” cliffhanger in the long-running soap opera, When Will Humans Return to the Moon? Last May, NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine promised that a crew would be landing there by 2028. “To many, this may sound similar to our previous attempts to get to the Moon,” he admitted. “However, times have changed. This will not be Lucy and the football again.” A month ago, Vice President Pence added a big plot twist, now declaring that “it is the stated policy of this administration and the United States of America to return American astronauts to the Moon within the next five years.”

A  return to the Moon by 2024? Despite the bold rhetoric, it’s a weak “maybe” at best.

Unofficial sources estimate that fulfilling Pence’s goal will cost around $40 billion over the next five years–which is to say, twice as much as the entire annual NASA budget. Congress would have to approve that spending, and so far there’s no obvious political support for it. But even if human exploration gets kicked into the future yet again, robotic exploration of the Moon is definitely taking off–and this is where the drama gets real, and really interesting.

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MORE ABOUT: China, SpaceIL

A Beautiful Look at a Hostile Planet

By Corey S. Powell | April 8, 2019 5:33 pm

A jaguar with its fresh kill on a river bank in Brazil's Pantanal. Jaguars hunt crocs? Who knew? (Credit: National Geographic/Adrian Seymour)

A jaguar with its fresh kill on a river bank in Brazil’s Pantanal. Jaguars hunt crocs? Who knew? (Credit: National Geographic/Adrian Seymour)

One of the great challenges in searching for life on other planets is that we still have so much to learn about life on our own Earth. Amazingly, that is true not only at the micro level of biochemistry and genetic codes, but at the macro level as well. You would think that there would be little left to learn about elephants, bears, penguins, and jaguars–the creatures sometimes lumped together by jaded zoologists as “charismatic megafauna”–but you would be wrong.

The new series “Hostile Planet” (its second episode premieres tonight at 8PM EDT on National Geographic) offers abundant evidence in that regard. At first glance, it looks like something you have seen before, another documentary show about nature, red in tooth and claw. It does indeed showcase quite a few megafauna of the charismatic variety. But the settings, the visuals, and above all the behaviors caught on camera are a revelation.

Giving an additional twist to the formula, the host of the show is Bear Grylls, an adventurer and survivalist best known for shows like Man vs Nature and Survivor Games. Here he flips the roles, presenting the animals as the precarious survivors–or not, as is often the case.

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Dark Matter is Real. “Dark Matter” is a Terrible Name for It

By Corey S. Powell | April 1, 2019 1:18 pm

Galaxy NBC 1052-DF2 contains no dark matter, a group of astronomers claim. Counterintuitively, that could help us fiture out what dark matter is. (NASA/ESA/P. van Dokkum)

Dwarf galaxy NGC 1052-DF2 is now one of two galaxies that appear to contain no dark matter, a group of astronomers claim. Counterintuitively, this finding could help reveal what dark matter truly is. (Credit: NASA/ESA/P. van Dokkum)

Astronomers have been grappling with the mystery of dark matter for a long time, and I mean a looong time. The history of dark-matter investigations goes back at least to 1906, when physicist Henri Poincaré’s 1906 speculated about the amount of “matière obscure” in the Milky Way. Or really, it goes to back to 1846 and the first successful detection of dark matter: the discovery of the planet Neptune, whose existence had been inferred by its gravitational pull well before it was actually observed.

Since then, scientists have identified many different dark components in space: collapsed stars, interstellar dust, hot gas, planets, black holes. Unfortunately, none of those can account for the genuinely invisible dark matter that seems to make up 26 percent of the mass of the universe, outweighing all ordinary matter more than five to one. Failure to identify dark matter has gone on so long that some people have started to wonder if the whole concept is amiss. The recent discovery of two galaxies that seem to contain no dark matter at all hasn’t helped. As often happens these days, some wags on Twitter immediately started joking that dark matter sounds like the fictitious “aether” that physicists sought in the 19th century.

But those jokes miss the exciting truth–in fact, they get it exactly backwards. Dark matter is real. It just may be even stranger and more complicated than we thought.

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