Something massive, with roughly 1,000 times the area of Earth, is blocking the light coming from a distant star known as KIC 8462852, and nobody is quite sure what it is. As astronomer Tabetha Boyajian investigated this perplexing celestial object, a colleague suggested something unusual: Could it be an alien-built megastructure? Such an extraordinary idea would require extraordinary evidence. In this talk, Boyajian gives us a look at how scientists search for and test hypotheses when faced with the unknown.
Tagged with “nature” (18)
Wanda Diaz Merced studies the light emitted by gamma-ray bursts, the most energetic events in the universe. When she lost her sight and was left without a way to do her science, she had a revelatory insight: the light curves she could no longer see could be translated into sound. Through sonification, she regained mastery over her work, and now she’s advocating for a more inclusive scientific community. "Science is for everyone," she says. "It has to be available to everyone, because we are all natural explorers."
Rachel Armstrong proposes we should harness the computing power of the natural world to create new sustainable ways of living.
Four Thought is a series of thought-provoking talks in which speakers air their thinking, in front of a live audience, on the trends, ideas, interests and passions that affect culture and society.
Jesse Ausubel: Nature is Rebounding: Land- and Ocean-sparing through Concentrating Human Activities - The Long Now
In the field of environmental progress the conflict between anecdote and statistics is so flagrant that most public understanding on the subject is upside down.
We worry about the wrong things, fail to worry about the right things, and fail to acknowledge and expand the things that are going well.
For decades at Rockefeller University Jesse Ausubel has assembled global data and trends showing that humanity may be entering an exceptionally Green century.
The most important trend is “land-sparing”—freeing up ever more land for nature thanks to agricultural efficiency and urbanization.
Ausubel notes that we are now probably at “peak farmland“ (so long as we don’t pursue the folly of biofuels).
Forests are coming back everywhere in the temperate zones and in many tropical areas, helped by replacing wild logging with tree plantations.
Human population is leveling rapidly and we are now probably at “peak children.”
Our energy sources continue to “decarbonize,” and a long-term “dematerialization” trend is reducing the physical load of civilization’s metabolism.
In the ocean, however, market hunting for fish remains highly destructive, even though aquaculture and mariculture are taking off some of the pressure.
In this area, as in the others, rigorous science and inventive technology are leading the way to the mutual flourishing of humanity and nature.
At age 7, Deborah Blum starts a mystery when she interrupts her parent’s dinner party. So their guest, famed biologist E.O. Wilson, investigates.
I turned the tinted glass tablet over in my hands, looked at the perfectly ground edges, felt the silk-like quality of the cool surface and finally held it up and looked though it. The effect was astonishing, unreal, unexpected.
“I suppose you’re going to tell me that this is some sort of quantum shit?”
The suited executive at my side smiled a pained, corporate smile and looked around nervously — as though he expected the chaos of the kitchen to have suddenly sprouted thrusting microphones and whirring news cameras.
“I’m not going to tell you anything, John — and I advise you not to ask. The terms of this demonstration are clearly laid out in the agreement, and we are paying you after all …”
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Oh, yes — they were paying all right, a sudden windfall that had landed on my kitchen table like manna from a clear blue sky. Enough money to let me finish the book, buy in some kit for the next project and maybe even fix the chimney.
I gently placed the tablet back in its foam-padded case, it made me nervous just holding it. “Does this stuff at least have a name? I’ve got to call it something in the report.”
He gave me a sheepish look. “We’re calling it ‘OwlPlex’ … Sorry, marketing seemed to think the military would like it.”
Yes, I’m sure the military will like it. A sheet of glass, barely a centimetre thick, with no wires or power supply — yet it acted as the highest resolution, most powerful, colour-perfect image intensifier I’d ever seen. And I’ve seen a few, in a shadowy technical career that I no longer like to think about, let alone talk about. I still had some questions though — whether he wanted them or not.
“Where does the power come from? It can’t do this without any input.”
He smiled again and pointed out of the window, across the beach and towards the hills. “Sunshine. It soaks up energy when light falls on it, then releases it slowly as the light fades — augmenting the photons that are passing through it at the time. And before you ask, I really can’t say any more. Oh, but don’t drop it — it’s the only prototype …” He stood up, made some pointed comments about security and edged his way to the door. “I’ll be back next week. Remember, we are looking for insights here. Novel applications, things the kids in Development haven’t thought of.”
It stayed on the table for four days before I worked up the courage to test it fully. At nightfall I eased the tablet from the case, gripped it carefully in one hand, and turned off the light. One side of the glass glowed like a backlit laptop screen, bright but not too bright, showing me the litter on the floor under the table — including a half chewed mouse that the cat had left there. Making a mental note to clean up, I opened the back door and allowed myself a slow, tuneless whistle as the garden and hillside erupted on the screen into glorious deep autumn hues. The effect was startling, addictive — and I knew exactly what everyone was going to want for Christmas this year.
I awoke in full daylight, with the cat pointedly stropping the end of the sofa in a way that meant he was hungry and wanted feeding now. As he ate, I looked around the room wondering what novel ideas I could come up with to justify my fee. The wall next to the fireplace was home to some of my favourite photographs, shot on 5 × 4 film to get the maximum quality. Pictures of the surrounding countryside: the headland with its granite cliffs, the tranquil sweep of the beach where the seals haul out with their pups, the pattern of dry stone walls enclosing bog cotton and coarse grasses.
The old madness returned. It took only an hour to kludge together a holder for the tablet and secure it like a filter to the pin-sharp prime lens of the ancient technical camera. The fridge still held a box of slow, fine-grained monochrome film, so as darkness fell I loaded up the dark-slides, then hefted the tripod onto one shoulder, picked up the camera and set off.
My assumption was that the tablet would allow a constant exposure, but after the first few photos it was clear that the tablet was fading from a lack of daylight. Cursing, I increased the shutter timing to compensate — guesstimating a 30-second exposure to harvest a final image from the rapidly dimming tablet.
After development, the images were as sharp as I had hoped — with none of the raster artefacts I would have seen from a conventional system. The content of the last image was, like everything to do with the tablet, unexpected. After a few moments of silent thought I wandered out into the kitchen for tea and a long, long ponder — strongly regretting that I’d given up drinking.
As I looked out over the long-deserted beach in the dawn light, I tried to visualize it as the tablet had imaged it: wooden fishing skiffs hauled out on the shingle, nets drying on the close cropped turf beyond, a single row of whitewashed cottages with split-stone roofs and racks of drying fish. The scrunch of gravel told me that my executive friend was returning, and I was wryly pleased that I’d found his killer application.
I made a bet with myself that no one had taken a time exposure through the fading glow of dying OwlPlex before. Developers today are too hasty, you see — you need to take a long view, just as OwlPlex itself does in those crucial seconds as some weird internal field collapses. In retrospect though, a less distracted man wouldn’t have left the tablet so close to the edge of the table. It was all the opportunity the cat needed.
As E.O. Wilson accepts his 2007 TED Prize, he makes a plea on behalf of all creatures that we learn more about our biosphere — and build a networked encyclopedia of all the world’s knowledge about life.
Futures is Nature’s weekly science fiction slot. Adam Rutherford reads you his favourite from this month, Survivors and Saviours, by Philip T. Starks.
Once long past, listening gave clues for survival. Now we listen unconsciously, blocking noise and tuning in to what we want to hear. Yet the unwanted sounds we filter out tell us a lot about our environment and our lives. Broadcaster Teresa Goff listens for the messages in our walls of sound.
As civilization has become more mechanized, more urbanized and more digitized, the amount of noise has increased in tandem. This noise, according to Garrett Keizer, author of The Unwanted Sound of Everything We Want: A Book about Noise , "is a window for understanding some of the paradoxes and contradictions of being human." If you take the sum total of all sounds within any area, what you have is an intimate reflection of the social, technological, and natural conditions of that place.
Hildegard Westerkamp, a founding member of the World Forum for Acoustic Ecology, says that "Environmental sound is like a spoken word with each sound or soundscape having its own meanings and expressions." So when you listen to the noise, what does it have to tell you? "Noise is a pit of interpretation," says noise musician Brian Chippendale. Broadcaster Teresa Goff goes into the pit with her documentary, The Signal of Noise.
A radical re-assessment of human progress from one of the world’s most exciting public thinkers.
In his latest work, Steven Pinker explores the ways in which modernity and its cultural institutions are actually making us better people.
In ‘The Better Angels of our Nature’, Pinker traces a history of progress that reveals the historical circumstances and “civilising forces”, from commerce to cosmopolitanism, that have brought us to the most peaceful era humankind has yet experienced. Join Steven Pinker at the RSA for a fascinating insight into the conditions, norms and policies that combine to engage the "better angels" of human nature - our capacity for co-operation, empathy and altruism.
Speaker: Steven Pinker, Johnstone Family Professor in the Department of Psychology at Harvard University and author of ‘The Better Angels of Our Nature: The Decline of Violence in History and Its Causes’ (Allen Lane, 2011).
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