Heliophage


Robots, robots everywhere
March 28, 2014, 10:39 am
Filed under: Published stuff

So the long project on robots I have been working on for a while has now come to fruition. The special report in the Economist, called Immigrants from the Future, starts here with an overview that uses colour from Darpa Robotics Challenge.

Then there are six further sections, one on why the field is hotting up (Good and ready), one on drones (Up in the air), one on service robots that may achieve a lot without getting noticed (The invisible unarmed), one on jobs (A mighty contest), one on care for the elderly (Seal of approval, which has my favourite pic) and a wrap-up, That thou art mindful of him.

There is also an editorial (which is probably most notable for putting a Stranglers song title on to the cover) and, god help us, a video. An off-cut about autism will shortly appear as my next Music of Science column in Intelligent Life. I may stick up an afterthought or two on this site next week,  but don’t have time to post them now, because I am taking a break.

For all that, I am insanely aware of how much this doesn’t cover — stuff that I learned about with fascination and couldn’t imagine not putting in, but in the end, didn’t. I’ve rarely so strongly had the feeling of paragraphs, even single sentences, that could swell up into decent articles in their own right if allowed to.

Lots of thanks to the many many people I talked to (including those whose work did not, alas, get a look in, see apve), and to the great colleagues who helped make the report a thing, rather than just something I waved my hands about, most notably the editor, Barbara Beck, the researcher, David McKelvey, Una Corrigan in art and Lloyd Parker and Phil Kenny in graphics. Also Patsy Dryden, who kept the travel schedule on the road.

No robots were harmed in the making of these articles



Music of Science: Suspiciously similar
March 2, 2014, 6:19 pm
Filed under: Published stuff

My new Intelligent Life column is about the origins of the moon, and more generally about how science makes the dissimilar similar, and the unearthly earthly.

By the time people actually got to the moon it was known to be deeply dissimilar to the Earth, a dead, drab, alien counterpart to our planet’s richness.

Science, though, thrives on finding similarities between apparently disparate things. A dolphin looks like a sharkbut as a mammal and a social hunter it is more like a wolf. The coasts of Uruguay and Namibia appear quite differentbut the rocks of which they are made are identical, laid down together in the same ancient sea before the opening of the South Atlantic pulled them apart. Perhaps most famously, the fall of an apple in a Lincolnshire garden, and the monthly swing of the Moon around the Earth, are manifestations of the same gravitational attraction. And in the 1970s, chemical analysis of Moon rocks showed that though the Moon looked nothing like the Earth, its crust was made of the same mixture of elements, in strikingly similar proportions.

Whole thing here

The full Music of Science back-catalogue can be found here.



Music of Science: on lasers
November 23, 2013, 11:27 am
Filed under: Published stuff

A new Music of Science column is up at Intelligent Life. In view of the column’s  title, I thought of starting it with that great riddle,

“‘Why is a laser beam like a goldfish?’

“‘Because neither of them can whistle'”

— but that seemed like too much work and too obscure a reference. So I started it like this:

It feels a bit like something that might have been issued by Q branch. In fact, it’s on sale at Boots the chemist. When you press a little gold button on the back, a prismatic pseudopod slides up behind the blades. From its top shines a tiny red eye of the sort you might have seen in “The Lord of the Rings” had it dealt with malevolent fruit flies rather than disembodied demigods. A perfect red line is projected across my cheekbone. My laser-guided beard trimmer is ready.

I notice that this is the second of these columns to have a Bond-based opener: coincidence, obviously, but if it happens again we’ll have to assume enemy action…

The rest of the Music of Science columns, with some annotations and second thoughts (including all the things other than goldfish that I left out of this one, like Paul Simon and sea bass) are available here.



Cosmic rays, cancer and Iain Banks
September 11, 2013, 3:13 pm
Filed under: Published stuff, Science fiction

My Intelligent Life column on Iain’s fateful cosmic context is up here. Excerpt

Iain Banks lived for 21,662 days—the only number in any of this of which we can be certain. There are a good 10 trillion cells in a human body, maybe more. The number of times his DNA was damaged was thus in the same ballpark as the number of grains of sand on all the beaches of the Earth. It’s a number that outdoes the number of stars in the galaxy by a factor of a billion.

More of my “Music of Science” columns can be found here. And here is me on Iain in a previous century.

And here are some other pieces on Banks, in the contexts of religion, writing and science fiction, by friends of his and mine: Francis Spufford in The New Humanist ; Simon Ings at ArcKen Macleod in The Guardian.



All that is solid…
August 6, 2010, 8:23 am
Filed under: Earth history, Geoengineering, Nature writing, Published stuff

The Economist has an occasional column called Green View which looks at all sorts of environmental issues, though with a preponderance of climate stuff: in the past few months we’ve looked at arctic ice, business and biodiversity, tuna farming, Svalbard (of course), Climategate, malaria and climate change, the Hartwell paper, future urbanisation and a bunch of other stuff. Since I’m the Energy and Environment Editor I sort of own this slot, though I don’t write every one of the pieces that goes in. And since there’s a lot less blogging around these parts than there used used to be, I thought some of you might like to know this.

This page lists a whole lot of the columns (and a few other things that have strayed in by mistake), but as of a few weeks ago it is probably not being updated any more due to a change in the way we publish things on line. A couple of weeks ago there was a piece on what geoengineering could mean for different regions that might be of some interest to readers of this blog. Excerpt:

Uncertainty about who might do best from what sort of project allows discussions of geoengineering to take place without the parties to the debate knowing in any detail where any nation’s specific interests might lie. This introduces what the philosopher John Rawls called a “veil of ignorance”; making decisions as if such a veil existed, Rawls thought, was a good basis for justice. (If regional outcomes could be predicted accurately, a different Rawlsian idea, that of the difference principle, might come into play. This states that just action consist not just of improving things for everyone, but specifically for improving things for the worst off, and would give the effects of geoengineering on the least developed countries a particular importance.)

And this week, rather atypically, there’s a piece on the Earth’s core, and the way things you don’t expect to be transitory turn out so to be. Excerpt:

The Earth is a recycling scheme that has been running for a third of the age of the universe. Microbes and plants endlessly pull carbon, nitrogen and oxygen from the atmosphere and pump them back out in different forms. Water evaporates from the oceans, rains down on the land, pours back to the seas. As it does so it washes away whole mountain ranges—which then rise again from sea-floor sediments when oceans squeeze themselves shut. As oceans reopen new crust is pulled forth from volcanoes; old crust is destroyed as tectonic plates return to the depths from which those volcanoes ultimately draw their fire.

Anyone who likes that second piece might want to check out the essay in Seeing Further (Amazon UK) which I blogged about here, or the Earthrise piece I did for the Times a few years ago, which also covers some similar ground. (Out of ideas, or following a ceaseless process of re-creation? You decide…)



Steve Schneider, 1945-2010

This week’s Economist carries an obituary of Steve Schneider. Excerpt:

Mr Schneider’s high profile as a proponent of action on climate change—he was the editor of an important journal, Climatic Change, and an influential member of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) more or less from its inception—would have made him a favourite target for such antagonists anyway, but he came in for particular scorn because of his willingness to discuss the inevitable tensions between advocacy and academic integrity. Critics of Mr Schneider, including this newspaper, portrayed him as giving in to this tension, and being willing to tell “necessary lies” when it suited his purposes. He countered such attacks vehemently, saying such a conclusion rested on a slanted reading of what he had said on the subject. He had no time for advocacy without truth.

Many comments and memories on this post of Andy Revkin’s

Also, here’s a review of Steve’s last book, Science as a Contact Sport (Amazon UK|US) I did for China Dialogue. Excerpt:

To sit next to Steve Schneider while listening to someone else give a talk about climate science is like watching a DVD with a commentary track by an insightful but rather grumpy director. As the speaker makes her points, Schneider, a veteran climate scientist now at Stanford University, will mutter about who first made all the interesting points in the talk, and when this or that bit of science was first appreciated, and how stupid people have been not to act on this knowledge years ago.

The purpose is to remind anyone listening than climate science has a history, if a fairly brief one, and that the message of that history is reasonably consistent — scientists have believed much what they believe now about global warming for decades, and if climate scientists in general and Schneider in particular had been listened to better, the world would have faced up to the issue better and sooner.

This personal memoir by Schneider provides a similar effect…

Image courtesy of Stanford, I believe



Svalbard diary
June 28, 2010, 5:58 pm
Filed under: Nature writing, Published stuff

The view from Mt Zeppelin, about 22:00

I’ve just been up to Svalbard, in the high arctic, for a symposium on climate change. Here are some excerpts from a correspondent’s diary over at The Economist.

Day 1

…How sustainable it is for 40-odd people to travel a very long way in order to attend yet another meeting on climate change is obviously open to debate. At the same time, old Arctic hands say that it is impossible to appreciate what is happening in the Arctic without at least some experience of being there, and there is no real way of proving them wrong. There’s also the possibility that the combination of people, topic, setting and isolation (because of the nature of some of the research Ny Alesund is a wi-fi, Bluetooth and mobile phone-free zone) will conjure new freshness into potentially tired discussions. Certainly it’s not an opportunity to turn down. [whole entry]

Day 2

…Perched up above the last working Longyearbyen mine (“Mine 7”, which produces only enough coal as the town’s power station needs) two radio telescopes gaze up into the sky. One, like most such dishes, can swivel around. The other is fixed, looking almost straight up; built to study the aurora, rather than the stars, it can see most of what it needs by looking straight up the earth’s near-vertical magnetic field lines. When turned on, these radio telescopes use as much as 20% of the electricity generated from the coal that is being mined out of the ground beneath as they tickle the northern lights above, listening for faint echoes. [whole entry]

Day 3

…The air is cool. The light is warm. The colours have changed in response to the sky. The soil, such as it is, seems darker, richer. The plants have taken on a fuller set of greens, mixed through with lichen orange and the persistent, almost-afterburn purple of saxifrage in summer flower, deeper the longer you look. Standing water, of which there is a lot, has turned sky-vault blue—except for that which forms the larger, more distant ponds, and reflects the mountains beyond. The fjord, by contrast, is lighter now than the puddles, almost milky. [whole entry]

Two of the "Three Crown" peaks, after midnight

Day 4

…In the late afternoon (sun west by southwest, over the airstrip) the symposium took to the water, heading to the top of the fjord to look at the glaciers under clearing skies. Bijou icebergs floated almost stationary in the still water. A flock of kittiwakes, startled, flashed up from their station at the point where meltwater and seawater meet. Scientists talked of kelp and copepods. The ice at the end of the Kongsfjord towered above us. But less so than once it would have. Many of the other glaciers no longer reach the sea, retreating to their mountain lairs, folded moraines left behind them.

Studies of fjord-floor sediments show that the glaciers are further back now than they were when Vikings sailed to Iceland and Greenland (and, possibly, Svalbard, though if so they left no trace of their presence for their descendants other than disputable references in some sagas). It is possible they were this shrunken in the northern hemisphere’s early post-ice-age warmth, 8,000 years ago, but that is not certain.[whole entry]

Day 5

…By the time the passengers for the third flight have been ferried out to the airstrip, perhaps a kilometre out of town, the top of Mt Zeppelin, at 474 metres, is in cloud, too, and snow is beginning to blow in from the northeast. The base’s radio telescope, part of a worldwide network that defines the absolute reference frame for GPS navigation, among other things, scans the now slate-like sky with a whirring creak. It is because of the dish’s sensitive measurements that wifi, bluetooth and mobile phones are banned in Ny Alesund. The Dornier turns up, we pile in, and the base quickly vanishes below us. It will be the last fixed wing flight out of Ny Alesund for a while. [whole entry]

Ny Alesund, from the airstrip

All pictures by me, available under Creative Commons share-alike: More pics here




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