Jim al-Khalili talks to Steven Pinker, a scientist who’s not afraid of controversy. From verbs to violence, many say his popular science books are mind-changing. He explains why toddlers say “holded” not held and “digged” rather than dug; how children’s personalities are shaped largely by their genes and why, he believes the recent rioters had plenty of self-esteem.
Tagged with “science” (55)
Our science team takes stock of the textbook landing of Nasa’s Curiosity rover on Mars. Plus, we discuss why science in film works – and why it sometimes doesn’t.
This week we’ve assembled a panel of experts to feed your appetite for information about Nasa’s new star, the Mars Curiosity rover.
The plucky robot landed on the red planet at 6:14am UK time and immediately sent back images of its surroundings. Guardian science correspondent Ian Sample takes us through the complex landing procedure; planetary scientist Geraint Jones from University College London tells us what it’s like to be in the control room back on Earth when your lander reaches another planet; and our new astronomy blogger, Stuart Clark, walks us through Curiosity’s scientific goals.
Talking of alien worlds, science fans will be pleased to know that the Wellcome Trust has launched a new prize to encourage the production of high-quality feature films inspired by biology and medicine: from genetics and infectious diseases to consciousness and mental health.
Here to discuss good and bad science on the big and small screen are the Wellcome Trust media fellow and podcast regular, Kevin Fong, and the Wellcome Trust’s games and film expert Iain Dodgeon.
We also have the space junkie and self-confessed geek Helen Keen on the show. She’s hoping to win audiences at this year’s Edinburgh Fringe festival with a show that exposes her love for all things robotic. We’ll talk to her about her new show – Robot Woman of Tomorrow – and get her thoughts on the Curiosity rover too.
One reason lots of people don’t want to think long term these days is because technology keeps accelerating so rapidly, we assume the world will become unrecognizable in a few years and then move on to unimaginable. Long-term thinking must be either impossible or irrelevant.
The commonest shorthand term for the runaway acceleration of technology is “the Singularity”—a concept introduced by science fiction writer Vernor Vinge in 1984. The term has been enthusiastically embraced by technology historians, futurists, extropians, and various trans-humanists and post-humanists, who have generated variants such as “the techno-rapture,” “the Spike,” etc.
It takes a science fiction writer to critique a science fiction idea.
Along with being one of America’s leading science fiction writers and technology journalists, Bruce Sterling is a celebrated speaker armed with lethal wit. His books include The Zenith Angle (just out), Hacker Crackdown, Holy Fire, Distraction, Mirrorshades (cyberpunk compendium), Schismatrix, The Difference Engine (with William Gibson), Tomorrow Now, and Islands in the Net.
The Seminar About Long-term Thinking on June 10-11 was Bruce Sterling examining “The Singularity: Your Future as a Black Hole.” He treated the subject of hyper-acceleration of technology as a genuine threat worth alleviating and as a fond fantasy worth cruel dismemberment.
Dr. Mae Jemison was the first black woman in space. Now, she’s leading a wildly ambitious project: to achieve interstellar travel in the next 100 years. She’s with us.
Think Star Trek and you won’t be far off. A new Pentagon project is putting out seed money for interstellar travel. Humans, rambling around among the stars. It’s called the 100 Year Starship project. It’s as wildly ambitious as just about anything you can imagine.
The spaceship, its energy source, its passengers’ survival – full-blown or just as DNA… all giant challenges. Not to mention that we’re sort of broke and not even flying space shuttles right now. Leader of the new effort: astronaut Mae Jemison, the first black woman in space. She’s with us.
This hour, On Point: the 100 Year Starship.
The idea of exploiting the natural resources on asteroids has been around for more than a century. But a new company called Planetary Resources has the financial backing of some big names in high tech, and hopes to launch specially-designed prospecting spacecraft within two years.
“About 74,000 years ago,” Lynas began, “a volcanic event nearly wiped out humanity. We were down to just a thousand or so embattled breeding pairs. We’ve made a bit of a comeback since then. We’re over seven billion strong. In half a million years we’ve gone from prodding anthills with sticks to building a worldwide digital communications network. Well done! But… there’s a small problem. In doing this we’ve had to capture between a quarter and a third of the entire photosynthetic production of the planet. We’ve raised the temperature of the Earth system, reduced the alkalinity of the oceans, altered the chemistry of the atmosphere, changed the reflectivity of the planet, hugely affected the distribution of freshwater, and killed off many of the species that share the planet with us. Welcome to the Anthropocene, our very uniquely human geological era.”
Some of those global alterations made by humans may be approaching tipping points—-thresholds—-that could destabilize the whole Earth system. Drawing on a landmark paper in Nature in 2009 (“A Safe Operating Space for Humanity,” by Johan Rockström et al.) Lynas outlined the nine boundaries we should stay within, starting with three we’ve already crossed. 1. Loss of biodiversity reduces every form of ecological resilience. The boundary is 10 species going extinct per million per year. Currently we lose over 100 species per million per year. 2. Global warming is the most overwhelming boundary. Long-term stability requires 350 parts per million (ppm) of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere; we’re currently at 391 ppm and rising fast. “The entire human economy must become carbon neutral by 2050 and carbon negative thereafter.” 3. Nitrogen pollution. With the invention a century ago of the Haber-Bosch process for creating nitrogen fertilizer, we doubled the terrestrial nitrogen cycle. We need to reduce the amount of atmospheric nitrogen we fix per year to 35 million tons; we’re currently at 121 million tons.
Other quantifiable boundaries have yet to be exceeded, but we’re close. 4. Land use. Every bit of natural landscape lost threatens ecosystem services like clean water and air and atmospheric carbon balance. “Already 85% of the Earth’s ice-free land is fragmented or substantially affected by human activity.” The danger point is 15% of land being used for row crops; we’re currently at 12%. 5. Fresh water scarcity. Increasing droughts from global warming will make the problem ever worse. In the world’s rivers, “the blue arteries of the living planet,” there are 800,000 dams with two new large ones built every day. The numeric limit is thought to be 4,000 cubic kilometers of runoff water consumed per year; the current number is 2,600. 6. Ocean acidification from excess atmospheric carbon dioxide is increasingly lethal to ocean life such as coral reefs. The measure here is “aragonite saturation level.” Before the industrial revolution it was 3.44; the limit is 2.75; we’re already down to 2.90. 7. The ozone layer protects the Earth from ultraviolet radiation. One man (Thomas Midgley) invented the chlorofluorocarbon coolant that rapidly reduced stratospheric ozone, and one remarkable agreement (Montreal Protocol, 1987) cut back on CFCs and began restoring the ozone layer. (In Dobson units the limit is 276; before Midgley it was 290; we’re now back up to 283.)
Two boundaries are so far unquantifiable. 8. Chemical pollution. Rachel Carson was right. Human toxics are showing up everywhere and causing harm. Coal-fired power plants are one of the worst offenders in this category. (Lynas added that nuclear waste belongs in this category but “the supposedly unsolved problem of nuclear waste hasn’t so far harmed a single living thing.” 9. Atmospheric aerosols—-airborne dust and smoke. It kills hundreds of thousands of people annually, the soot causes ice to melt faster, and everyone wants to get rid of it. But one beneficial effect it has is cooling, so Lynas proposes “we could move this pollution from the troposphere where people have to breathe it up to the stratosphere where it can still cool the Earth and no one has to breathe it. That’s called geoengineering.”
Lynas proposed that the goal for the future should be to get the whole world out of poverty by 2050 while staying within the planetary boundaries. Among the solutions he proposed are: clean cookstoves for the poor (they cause 1.6 million deaths a year); better GM crops for nitrogen efficiency and concentrated land use; integral fast reactors which run on nuclear waste (a recent calculation shows the UK could get 500 years of clean energy from its present waste, and the resulting IFR waste is a problem for 300 years, not for thousands of years); international treaties, which are crucial for dealing with global problems; carbon capture (everything from clean coal to biochar); and ongoing “dematerialization,” doing ever more with ever less, including more intense farming on less land. “Peak consumption,” Lynas noted, has already arrived in much of the developed world.
Noted author and futurist Vernor Vinge is surprisingly optimistic when it comes to the prospect of civilization collapsing.
“I think that [civilization] coming back would actually be a very big surprise,” he says in this week’s episode of the Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast. “The difference between us and us 10,000 years ago is … we know it can be done.”
Vinge has a proven track record of looking ahead. His 1981 novella True Names was one of the first science fiction stories to deal with virtual reality, and he also coined the phrase, “The Technological Singularity” to describe a future point at which technology creates intelligences beyond our comprehension. The term is now in wide use among futurists.
But could humanity really claw its way back after a complete collapse? Haven’t we plundered the planet’s resources in ways that would be impossible to repeat?
“I disagree with that,” says Vinge. “With one exception — fossil fuels. But the stuff that we mine otherwise? We have concentrated that. I imagine that ruins of cities are richer ore fields than most of the natural ore fields we have used historically.”
That’s not to say the collapse of civilization is no big deal. The human cost would be horrendous, and there would be no comeback at all if the crash leaves no survivors. A ravaged ecosphere could stymie any hope of rebuilding, as could a disaster that destroys even the ruins of cities.
“I am just as concerned about disasters as anyone,” says Vinge. “I have this region of the problem that I’m more optimistic about than some people, but overall, avoiding existential threats is at the top of my to-do list.”
What kind of future do you want to live in? What excites or concerns you about the future? Intel Futurist Brian David Johnson poses these questions as part of The Tomorrow Project, an initiative to investigate not only the future of computing but also the broader implications on our lives and the planet. Science and technology have progressed to the point where what we build is only constrained by the limits of our own imaginations. The future is not a fixed point in front of us that we are all hurtling helplessly towards. The future is built everyday by the actions of people. The Tomorrow Project engages in ongoing discussions with superstars, science fiction authors and scientists to get their visions for the world that’s coming and the world they’d like to build.
The future is Brian David Johnson’s business. As a futurist at Intel Corporation his charter is to develop an actionable vision for computing in 2020. His work is called “future casting” – using ethnographic field studies, technology research, trend data and even science fiction to provide Intel with a pragmatic vision of consumers and computing. Along with reinventing TV, Johnson has been pioneering development in artificial intelligence, robotics, and using science fiction as a design tool. He speaks and writes extensively about future technologies in articles and scientific papers as well as science fiction short stories and novels (Fake Plastic Love, Nebulous Mechanisms: The Dr. Simon Egerton Stories and the forthcoming This Is Planet Earth). He has directed two feature films and is an illustrator and commissioned painter.
From creating remote-sensing CubeSats to analyzing aerogel: how the public is hacking into open source space exploration.
As technology shifts from a means of passive consumption to active creation, people are collaborating on a massive scale. The endeavor of Spacehack.org is to transform that into more of a community, so that space hackers can easily connect and interact.
Amateurs were once considered to be at the crux of scientific discovery, but over time have been put on the sidelines. Despite this, citizen science is witnessing a renaissance. Agencies such as NASA no longer have a monopoly on the global space program and more participatory projects are coming to life to harness the power of open collaboration around exploring space on a faster schedule.
Instead of complaining about where our jetpack is, we can now demand to figure out how to take an elevator to space . And, while you still can’t own a CubeSat as easily as an iPod, you can join a SEDSAT-2 team and learn how to engineer one.
There’s also GalaxyZoo , which opened up a data set containing a million galaxies imaged by a robotic telescope. Why projects such as these are important is because robots are actually kind of dumb. Humans are able to make classifications that well-programmed machines can’t. Currently, 200,000 humans are identifying over 250,000 galaxies.
If tinkering with spacecrafts is more your speed, the Google Lunar X PRIZE is a competition to send robots to the moon. However, you don’t need to be a robotics engineer to participate. Team FREDNET , the first open source competitor, is open for anyone to join.
While the concept of open source has resonated around the world and beyond, there is still much education to be done. NASA and the ESA have made large quantities of their data open, but have yet to facilitate developer communities that allow for active contribution to the code rather than just feedback on finding bugs.
Spacehack.org , a directory of ways to participate in space exploration, was created for this reason, among others. Many of these projects are buried in old government websites or do not clearly communicate how someone can get involved. It is with great hope that it will not only encourage the creation of more participatory space projects, but also urge existing ones to embrace the social web.
Theoretical physicist Michio Kaku describes some of the inventions he thinks will appear in the coming century — including Internet-ready contact lenses, space elevators and driverless cars — in his book Physics of the Future.