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



Back pages: Ooops I contracted a meme
June 25, 2010, 5:04 pm
Filed under: Published stuff

Last weekend I had the pleasure of seeing Richard Thompson perform his “Thousand years of popular music” set as part of the Meltdown Festival on the South Bank. It’s not giving away too big a secret to reveal that it ends with this highly excellent Britney Spears cover.

As a result of this exposure, I found that the song kept coming back to me in odd moments as I set off on my subsequent travels (of which more will be blogged shortly). This prompted a memory of an earlier piece, written for Newsweek eight years ago, which I thought I’d paste here for whatever entertainment it brings.

**

Silly Ideas Are Attacking My Brain

I woke up this morning and, regrettably, I didn’t have the blues. Instead I had a bit of Britney Spears. Many people may enjoy thinking of Ms. Spears as they drift into the arms of Morpheus. Waking up with her, though, is disconcerting. The hook line to “Oops… I Did It Again”–a song only the deaf can avoid–was going round in my head before I’d had anything resembling a coherent thought. Indeed, it delayed the process considerably. I feel debilitated, and I’m thinking I might sue. While I’m at it, I may also lay into Pete Bellotte, Giorgio Moroder and Donna Summer for “Love to Love You Baby.” This tune is currently being heard in a Diet Coke ad in which tediously pretty people make eyes at each other while the magnificently hangdog Wolf Saxon is scandalously neglected. That said, I may sue Wolf Saxon, too, for having such an unfeasibly memorable name. These people are contaminating my mind.

Continue reading



Earthly Powers
April 23, 2010, 3:50 pm
Filed under: Published stuff

A headline we decided against...

There are a couple of pieces on volcanoes, the environment and the bigger picture in The Economist this week. Here’s some of the reporting:

Over the weekend both airlines and research agencies made test flights. Air France-KLM, British Airways, Lufthansa and others carried out over 40 flights. Subsequent engine inspection apparently revealed no unacceptable damage. On April 21st the CAA established a new rule, deeming regions thought to have less than 2,000 micrograms of dust per cubic metre safe for flight. That threshold, the CAA says, was provided on the basis of data from equipment-manufacturers; Rolls-Royce, the leading European maker of jet engines for airliners, has made no comment on this. The new safety level is about 100 times higher than the background level of dust at ground level. It is also considerably higher than anything seen by research aircraft over Britain since the eruption started; those flights have encountered no patches of sky with an ash density of more than 400 micrograms per cubic metre, 20 times the background level.

If the exercise two years ago did not capture the range of problems that an Icelandic volcano might cause, it did show that the general situation was entirely foreseeable. A ridge of submerged mountains runs down the middle of the Atlantic Ocean; Iceland is the result of a “hotspot” in which material rises from deep within the Earth, pushing part of this ridge up into the air. Both hotspots and mid-ocean ridges are volcanic, so Iceland is doubly so. It boasts a fearsome array of volcanoes, 33 of which have erupted once or more since the end of the last ice age, around 12,000 years ago.

And here’s a taste of the leader:

One of the things that went missing in the shadow of that volcanic dust was a sense of human power. And as with the quiet skies, this absence found a welcome in many hearts. The idea that humans, for all their technological might, could be put in their place by this volcano—this obscure, unpronounceable, C-list volcano—was strangely satisfying, even thrilling.

Such pleasure in the face of overpowering nature, as seen from a place of safety, was at the heart of the idea of “the sublime” as expressed by the great conservative Edmund Burke 250 years ago, and its aesthetic and spiritual allure remains strong. The sublime offers solace and inspiration, but it makes a poor guide to policy. For humans are not completely powerless in the face of nature: rather the reverse…

When people talk about the charms of powerlessness in the face of nature, part of what they are saying is that they don’t want to be bothered with facing up to what humans can do, and to what they might have at risk. The business of looking after a planet requires being bothered in advance—and not just about little matters like volcanoes.



Some catching up: Asilomar
April 18, 2010, 8:19 pm
Filed under: Geoengineering, Published stuff

Asilomar morningSpending a week on the beautiful North California coastline with a bunch of interesting people talking about a fascinating topic is obviously a chore, but I girded my loins and took the plunge. The Asilomar meeting on the regulation of geoengineering research was intended to echo the Asilomar meeting of 1975, which set out procedures for moving beyond the moratorium on genetic engineering experiments that had been set up the year before. Alexis Madrigal looked at the historical precedent in some detail. Not an exact parallel, as pointed out by various people at the meeting, whose views were taken on board by The Economist

There are, however, important differences between the subjects. One is that in the 1970s it was clear that the ability to move genes between creatures was going to bring about a huge change in the practice of science itself, and biologists were eager for that to happen. Modern climate scientists, by contrast, usually see geoengineering research as niche, if not fringe, stuff. Many wish it would go away completely. Another difference is that in the 1970s there was a worry that DNA experiments could in themselves present dangers. With geoengineering the dangers are more likely to be caused by large-scale deployment than by any individual scientific experiment.

There was no consensus at the end of the meeting, but there was a statement by the steering committee. The Economist concludes

The participants … generally endorsed a set of five overarching principles for the regulation of the field that were presented recently to the British Parliament by Steve Rayner, a professor at the Saïd Business School, in Oxford.

The “Oxford principles”, as they are known, hold that geoengineering should be regulated as a public good, in that, since people cannot opt out, the whole proceeding has to be in a well-defined public interest; that decisions defining the extent of that interest should be made with public participation; that all attempts at geoengineering research should be made public and their results disseminated openly; that there should be an independent assessment of the impacts of any geoengineering research proposal; and that governing arrangements be made clear prior to any actual use of the technologies.

The conference’s organising committee is now working on a further statement of principles, to be released later. Meanwhile Britain’s main scientific academy, the Royal Society, and the Academy of Sciences for the Developing World, which has members from around 90 countries, are planning further discussions that will culminate at a meeting to be held this November.

Producing plausible policies and ways for the public to have a say on them will be hard—harder, perhaps, than the practical problem of coming up with ways to suck up a bit of carbon or reduce incoming sunshine. As Andrew Mathews, an anthropologist at the University of California, Santa Cruz, puts it, it is not just a matter of constructing a switch, it is a matter of constructing a hand you trust to flip it.

Both the fine people with books out on the topic were there and gave their own accounts. Here’s a bit of Eli Kintisch, author of “Hack the Planet“, in Science:

Although the climate scientists may have accomplished less in a week than did their biologist forebears, they did make progress. The conference organizers declared that geoengineering research is “indispensable” but said that it should be done with “humility.” Governments and the public should work together to decide what schemes are “viable, appropriate, and ethical,” the statement added. Cuts in greenhouse emissions should be a priority, it said, mirroring statements by the American Geophysical Union and the U.K. Royal Society.

Most conferees believe the possibility of climate tipping points has placed geoengineering on the global agenda. And so last week’s meeting—The Asilomar International Conference on Climate Intervention Technologies, or Asilomar 2, as it was dubbed—was driven both by fears of climate catastrophes and the potentially dangerous steps that scientists or politicians might take to avert them. It was “a meeting … we all wished was not necessary,” conference organizer Margaret Leinen of the Climate Response Fund in Alexandria, Virginia, told the participants.

And here’s Jeff Goodell, author of  “How to Cool the Planet“, afforded more opportunity for opinion and colour over at Yale360,

Lesson one: Geoengineering is a tabula rasa in the public mind. Like most of the attendees, I was well aware of the fact that geoengineering is an unfamiliar idea to many people. But I had not seen any actual data on this. Nor had I really grasped the implications of it.

One of the most enlightening presentations of the week was from Anthony Leiserowitz, director of the Yale Project on Climate Change, who presented the results of a long-running study on the public perception of global warming. In his most recent survey, he had thrown in a few questions about geoengineering. When asked, “How much, if anything, have you heard about geoengineering as a possible response to climate change,” 74 percent of respondents said “nothing.” The 26 percent that had heard about geoengineering turned out to be wildly misinformed — more than half thought it referred to geothermal energy. Only 3 percent of the people who had heard about geoengineering were correctly informed about it. “The public basically knows nothing about this,” Leiserowitz told the attendees. “That is both a great challenge, and a great opportunity.”

The other 4 lessons are: Nobody has any clear idea how to resolve the inequalities inherent in geoengineering; People will be talking about banning field experiments; It’s all about the money; and trust is everything.

Jeff Tollefson at Nature leads with Rob Socolow, who gave one of the meeting’s best talks (ppt, html)

“Be very careful.” The warning, from Robert Socolow, a climate researcher at Princeton University in New Jersey, came at the end of a meeting last week that aimed to thrash out guidelines for the nascent field of geoengineering. The discipline aims to use global-scale efforts to control the climate and mitigate the worst effects of anthropogenic warming — but the techniques used could also have far-reaching, unintended consequences.

Jeff also gets the best of many quotes from David Keith (“People aren’t discussing apples and oranges, they are talking about apples and oranges and Porsches and whales and moons”) that enliven much of the coverage. (Pablo Suarez probably runs him a close second for most quoted non-organiser)

Jim Giles at New Scientist takes in more of the science than most accounts, neatly highlighting some new wrinkles, before ending up with the opposition to the ideas (which was aired in the local paper, among other places):

A lack of consultation could fuel campaigns against geoengineering similar to those that have derailed the use of genetically modified crops in Europe, Shobita Parthasarathy warns. Such protests seem to be taking off already. While delegates were talking in Asilomar, a body of over 70 environmental, health and social groups published an open letter attacking the meeting. “Such a discussion cannot happen without the participation of the full membership of the United Nations,” it reads. “Determining guidelines for geoengineering research and testing in the absence of that debate is premature and irresponsible.”

Also worth mentioning: the California poppies, which I fell for the first time I visited the site, and still find entrancing.

Images by me: licensed under creative commons




Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 31 other followers