The growing risk of a war in space

Geoff Manaugh writes: In Ghost Fleet, a 2015 novel by security theorists Peter Singer and August Cole, the next world war begins in space.

Aboard an apparently civilian space station called the Tiangong, or “Heavenly Palace,” Chinese astronauts—taikonauts—maneuver a chemical oxygen iodine laser (COIL) into place. They aim their clandestine electromagnetic weapon at its first target, a U.S. Air Force communications satellite that helps to coordinate forces in the Pacific theater far below. The laser “fired a burst of energy that, if it were visible light instead of infrared, would have been a hundred thousand times brighter than the sun.” The beam melts through the external hull of the U.S. satellite and shuts down its sensitive inner circuitry.

From there, the taikonauts work their way through a long checklist of strategic U.S. space assets, disabling the nation’s military capabilities from above. It is a Pearl Harbor above the atmosphere, an invisible first strike.

“The emptiness of outer space might be the last place you’d expect militaries to vie over contested territory,” Lee Billings has written, “except that outer space isn’t so empty anymore.” It is not only science fiction, in other words, to suggest that the future of war could be offworld. The high ground of the global battlefield is no longer defined merely by a topographical advantage, but by strategic orbitals and potential weapons stationed in the skies above distant continents.

When China shot down one of its own weather satellites in January 2007, the event was, among other things, a clear demonstration to the United States that China could wage war beyond the Earth’s atmosphere. In the decade since, both China and the United States have continued to pursue space-based armaments and defensive systems. A November 2015 “Report to Congress,” for example, filed by the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission (PDF), specifically singles out China’s “Counterspace Program” as a subject of needed study. China’s astral arsenal, the report explains, most likely includes “direct-ascent” missiles, directed-energy weapons, and also what are known as “co-orbital antisatellite systems.” [Continue reading…]

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Artificial intelligence: ‘We’re like children playing with a bomb’

The Observer reports: You’ll find the Future of Humanity Institute down a medieval backstreet in the centre of Oxford. It is beside St Ebbe’s church, which has stood on this site since 1005, and above a Pure Gym, which opened in April. The institute, a research faculty of Oxford University, was established a decade ago to ask the very biggest questions on our behalf. Notably: what exactly are the “existential risks” that threaten the future of our species; how do we measure them; and what can we do to prevent them? Or to put it another way: in a world of multiple fears, what precisely should we be most terrified of?

When I arrive to meet the director of the institute, Professor Nick Bostrom, a bed is being delivered to the second-floor office. Existential risk is a round-the-clock kind of operation; it sleeps fitfully, if at all.

Bostrom, a 43-year-old Swedish-born philosopher, has lately acquired something of the status of prophet of doom among those currently doing most to shape our civilisation: the tech billionaires of Silicon Valley. His reputation rests primarily on his book Superintelligence: Paths, Dangers, Strategies, which was a surprise New York Times bestseller last year and now arrives in paperback, trailing must-read recommendations from Bill Gates and Tesla’s Elon Musk. (In the best kind of literary review, Musk also gave Bostrom’s institute £1m to continue to pursue its inquiries.)

The book is a lively, speculative examination of the singular threat that Bostrom believes – after years of calculation and argument – to be the one most likely to wipe us out. This threat is not climate change, nor pandemic, nor nuclear winter; it is the possibly imminent creation of a general machine intelligence greater than our own. [Continue reading…]

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A molecule deep in space could help explain the origins of life

Discover Magazine reports: A peculiar new molecule hovering within a star-forming dust cloud in deep in space could help explain why life on Earth is the way it is.

The cloud, called Sagittarius B2, resides near the center of the Milky Way, and it’s there that researchers from the California Institute of Technology discovered an organic element that displays a key property shared by all life. Propylene oxide is the first element discovered outside of our solar system to exhibit chirality, or the presence of two distinct, mirror-image forms. Many complex molecules have this property, including myriad organic molecules necessary for life. The chemical formula of these two versions is exactly the same, but the structure is flipped.

All life on Earth is composed of chiral molecules, and the versions organisms use, either right- or left-handed, determines fundamental properties of their biology. For example, all living things only use the right-handed form of the sugar ribose to form the backbone of DNA, giving it that the signature twist. You can think of molecular handedness by picturing gloves — hence the “handed terminology”. The gloves, or molecules, may look similar, but you could never put a left-handed glove on your right hand. [Continue reading…]

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Yes, there have been aliens

Adam Frank writes: Last month astronomers from the Kepler spacecraft team announced the discovery of 1,284 new planets, all orbiting stars outside our solar system. The total number of such “exoplanets” confirmed via Kepler and other methods now stands at more than 3,000.

This represents a revolution in planetary knowledge. A decade or so ago the discovery of even a single new exoplanet was big news. Not anymore. Improvements in astronomical observation technology have moved us from retail to wholesale planet discovery. We now know, for example, that every star in the sky likely hosts at least one planet.

But planets are only the beginning of the story. What everyone wants to know is whether any of these worlds has aliens living on it. Does our newfound knowledge of planets bring us any closer to answering that question?

A little bit, actually, yes. In a paper published in the May issue of the journal Astrobiology, the astronomer Woodruff Sullivan and I show that while we do not know if any advanced extraterrestrial civilizations currently exist in our galaxy, we now have enough information to conclude that they almost certainly existed at some point in cosmic history. [Continue reading…]

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Theophrastus: The unsung hero of Western Science

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Andrea Wulf writes: In 345 B.C.E., two men took a trip that changed the way we make sense of the natural world. Their names were Theophrastus and Aristotle, and they were staying on Lesbos, the Greek island where tens of thousands of Syrian refugees have recently landed.

Theophrastus and Aristotle were two of the greatest thinkers in ancient Greece. They set out to bring order to nature by doing something very unusual for the time: they examined living things and got their hands dirty. They turned away from Plato’s idealism and looked at the real world. Both Aristotle and Theophrastus believed that the study of nature was as important as metaphysics, politics, or mathematics. Nothing was too small or insignificant. “There is something awesome in all natural things.” Aristotle said, “inherent in each of them there is something natural and beautiful.”

Aristotle is the more famous of the two men, but Theophrastus deserves equal bidding in any history of naturalism. Born around 372 B.C.E. in Eresos, a town on the southwestern coast of Lesbos, Theophrastus was 13 years younger than Aristotle. According to Diogenes Laërtius — a biographer who wrote his Eminent Philosophers more than 400 years afterwards but who is the main source for what we know about Theophrastus’ life — Theophrastus was one of Aristotle’s pupils at Plato’s Academy. For many years they worked closely together until Aristotle’s death in 322 B.C.E. when Theophrastus became his successor at the Lyceum school in Athens and inherited his magnificent library. [Continue reading…]

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‘Gene drives’ that tinker with evolution are an unknown risk, researchers say

MIT Technology Review reports: With great power — in this case, a technology that can alter the rules of evolution — comes great responsibility. And since there are “considerable gaps in knowledge” about the possible consequences of releasing this technology, called a gene drive, into natural environments, it is not yet responsible to do so. That’s the major conclusion of a report published today by the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine.

Gene drives hold immense promise for controlling or eradicating vector-borne diseases like Zika virus and malaria, or in managing agricultural pests or invasive species. But the 200-page report, written by a committee of 16 experts, highlights how ill-equipped we are to assess the environmental and ecological risks of using gene drives. And it provides a glimpse at the challenges they will create for policymakers.

The technology is inspired by natural phenomena through which particular “selfish” genes are passed to offspring at higher rate than is normally allowed by nature in sexually reproducing organisms. There are multiple ways to make gene drives in the lab, but scientists are now using the gene-editing tool known as CRISPR to very rapidly and effectively do the trick. Evidence in mosquitoes, fruit flies, and yeast suggests that this could be used to spread a gene through nearly 100 percent of a population.

The possible ecological effects, intended or not, are far from clear, though. How long will gene drives persist in the environment? What is the chance that an engineered organism could pass the gene drive to an unintended recipient? How might these things affect the whole ecosystem? How much does all this vary depending on the particular organism and ecosystem?

Research on the molecular biology of gene drives has outpaced ecological research on how genes move through populations and between species, the report says, making it impossible to adequately answer these and other thorny questions. Substantially more laboratory research and confined field testing is needed to better grasp the risks. [Continue reading…]

Jim Thomas writes: If there is a prize for the fastest emerging tech controversy of the century the ‘gene drive’ may have just won it. In under eighteen months the sci-fi concept of a ‘mutagenic chain reaction’ that can drive a genetic trait through an entire species (and maybe eradicate that species too) has gone from theory to published proof of principle to massively-shared TED talk (apparently an important step these days) to the subject of a US National Academy of Sciences high profile study – complete with committees, hearings, public inputs and a glossy 216 page report release. Previous technology controversies have taken anywhere from a decade to over a century to reach that level of policy attention. So why were Gene Drives put on the turbo track to science academy report status? One word: leverage.

What a gene drive does is simple: it ensures that a chosen genetic trait will reliably be passed on to the next generation and every generation thereafter. This overcomes normal Mendelian genetics where a trait may be diluted or lost through the generations. The effect is that the engineered trait is driven through an entire population, re-engineering not just single organisms but enforcing the change in every descendant – re-shaping entire species and ecosystems at will.

It’s a perfect case of a very high-leverage technology. Archimedes famously said “Give me a lever long enough and a fulcrum on which to place it, and I shall move the world. ” Gene drive developers are in effect saying “Give me a gene drive and an organism to put it in and I can wipe out species, alter ecosystems and cause large-scale modifications.” Gene drive pioneer Kevin Esvelt calls gene drives “an experiment where if you screw up, it affects the whole world”. [Continue reading…]

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Has the quantum era has begun?

IDG News Service reports: Quantum computing’s full potential may still be years away, but there are plenty of benefits to be realized right now.

So argues Vern Brownell, president and CEO of D-Wave Systems, whose namesake quantum system is already in its second generation.

Launched 17 years ago by a team with roots at Canada’s University of British Columbia, D-Wave introduced what it called “the world’s first commercially available quantum computer” back in 2010. Since then the company has doubled the number of qubits, or quantum bits, in its machines roughly every year. Today, its D-Wave 2X system boasts more than 1,000.

The company doesn’t disclose its full customer list, but Google, NASA and Lockheed-Martin are all on it, D-Wave says. In a recent experiment, Google reported that D-Wave’s technology outperformed a conventional machine by 100 million times. [Continue reading…]

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How the event that killed off the dinosaurs wiped out life in Antarctica

By James Witts, University of Leeds

The Cretaceous–Paleogene mass extinction 66m years ago was the most recent of five similar crises to have devastated life on Earth over the last 540m years. It rapidly killed off an estimated 76% of species around the globe, including, most famously, the dinosaurs.

But exactly how this event affected different areas of the globe has not been entirely understood. Some scientists have suggested that creatures living at high latitudes could have been sheltered from the worst effects of the mass extinction. Now our new research, published in the journal Nature Communications, reveals that this wasn’t the case – even marine molluscs in Antarctica were affected.

Scientists are still debating what caused the extinction. Many researchers believe it was a sudden crisis, triggered by a catastrophic asteroid impact. This formed the 200km Chicxulub crater, today buried off Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula. It also produced a thin layer of rock found all over the world known as the “K–Pg boundary”. This “fallout” layer is rich in debris from the asteroid impact and an element called Iridium, rare on Earth but common in space rocks. It coincides with many of the extinctions in the fossil record to within 32,000 years – a geological blink of an eye.

[Read more…]

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A skeptic bashing Skeptics

John Horgan, in a slightly edited version of a talk he gave recently at Northeast Conference on Science and Skepticism, writes: I hate preaching to the converted. If you were Buddhists, I’d bash Buddhism. But you’re skeptics, so I have to bash skepticism.

I’m a science journalist. I don’t celebrate science, I criticize it, because science needs critics more than cheerleaders. I point out gaps between scientific hype and reality. That keeps me busy, because, as you know, most peer-reviewed scientific claims are wrong.

So I’m a skeptic, but with a small S, not capital S. I don’t belong to skeptical societies. I don’t hang out with people who self-identify as capital-S Skeptics. Or Atheists. Or Rationalists.

When people like this get together, they become tribal. They pat each other on the back and tell each other how smart they are compared to those outside the tribe. But belonging to a tribe often makes you dumber.

Here’s an example involving two idols of Capital-S Skepticism: biologist Richard Dawkins and physicist Lawrence Krauss. Krauss recently wrote a book, A Universe from Nothing. He claims that physics is answering the old question, Why is there something rather than nothing?

Krauss’s book doesn’t come close to fulfilling the promise of its title, but Dawkins loved it. He writes in the book’s afterword: “If On the Origin of Species was biology’s deadliest blow to supernaturalism, we may come to see A Universe From Nothing as the equivalent from cosmology.”

Just to be clear: Dawkins is comparing Lawrence Krauss to Charles Darwin. Why would Dawkins say something so foolish? Because he hates religion so much that it impairs his scientific judgment. He succumbs to what you might call “The Science Delusion.” [Continue reading…]

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All European scientific articles to be freely accessible by 2020

The Netherlands EU Presidency 2016: All scientific articles in Europe must be freely accessible as of 2020. EU member states want to achieve optimal reuse of research data. They are also looking into a European visa for foreign start-up founders.

And, according to the new Innovation Principle, new European legislation must take account of its impact on innovation. These are the main outcomes of the meeting of the Competitiveness Council in Brussels on 27 May.

Under the presidency of Netherlands State Secretary for Education, Culture and Science Sander Dekker, the EU ministers responsible for research and innovation decided unanimously to take these significant steps. Mr Dekker is pleased that these ambitions have been translated into clear agreements to maximise the impact of research. ‘Research and innovation generate economic growth and more jobs and provide solutions to societal challenges,’ the state secretary said. ‘And that means a stronger Europe. To achieve that, Europe must be as attractive as possible for researchers and start-ups to locate here and for companies to invest. That calls for knowledge to be freely shared. The time for talking about open access is now past. With these agreements, we are going to achieve it in practice.’

Open access means that scientific publications on the results of research supported by public and public-private funds must be freely accessible to everyone. [Continue reading…]

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How did Earth warm enough to support life?

Space.com reports: Life on Earth may owe its existence to incredibly powerful storms that erupted on the sun long ago, a new study suggests.

Potent and frequent solar eruptions could have warmed the planet enough for life to take root, and also provided the vital energy needed to transform simple molecules into the complex building blocks of life, such as DNA, researchers said.

The first organisms evolved on Earth about 4 billion years ago. This fact has long puzzled scientists, because in those days, the sun was only about 70 percent as bright as it is today.

“That means Earth should have been an icy ball,” study lead author Vladimir Airapetian, a solar scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, said in a statement. “Instead, geological evidence says it was a warm globe with liquid water. We call this the Faint Young Sun Paradox.” [Continue reading…]

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The range of the mind’s eye is restricted by the skill of the hand

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Jonathan Waldman writes: Sometime in 1882, a skinny, dark-haired, 11-year-old boy named Harry Brearley entered a steelworks for the first time. A shy kid — he was scared of the dark, and a picky eater — he was also curious, and the industrial revolution in Sheffield, England, offered much in the way of amusements. He enjoyed wandering around town — he later called himself a Sheffield Street Arab — watching road builders, bricklayers, painters, coal deliverers, butchers, and grinders. He was drawn especially to workshops; if he couldn’t see in a shop window, he would knock on the door and offer to run an errand for the privilege of watching whatever work was going on inside. Factories were even more appealing, and he had learned to gain access by delivering, or pretending to deliver, lunch or dinner to an employee. Once inside, he must have reveled, for not until the day’s end did he emerge, all grimy and gray but for his blue eyes. Inside the steelworks, the action compelled him so much that he spent hours sitting inconspicuously on great piles of coal, breathing through his mouth, watching brawny men shoveling fuel into furnaces, hammering white-hot ingots of iron.

There was one operation in particular that young Harry liked: a toughness test performed by the blacksmith. After melting and pouring a molten mixture from a crucible, the blacksmith would cast a bar or two of that alloy, and after it cooled, he would cut notches in the ends of those bars. Then he’d put the bars in a vise, and hammer away at them.

The effort required to break the metal bars, as interpreted through the blacksmith’s muscles, could vary by an order of magnitude, but the result of the test was expressed qualitatively. The metal was pronounced on the spot either rotten or darned good stuff. The latter was simply called D.G.S. The aim of the men at that steelworks, and every other, was to produce D.G.S., and Harry took that to heart.

In this way, young Harry became familiar with steelmaking long before he formally taught himself as much as there was to know about the practice. It was the beginning of a life devoted to steel, without the distractions of hobbies, vacations, or church. It was the origin of a career in which Brearley wrote eight books on metals, five of which contain the word steel in the title; in which he could argue about steelmaking — but not politics — all night; and in which the love and devotion he bestowed upon inanimate metals exceeded that which he bestowed upon his parents or wife or son. Steel was Harry’s true love. It would lead, eventually, to the discovery of stainless steel.

Harry Brearley was born on Feb. 18, 1871, and grew up poor, in a small, cramped house on Marcus Street, in Ramsden’s Yard, on a hill in Sheffield. The city was the world capital of steelmaking; by 1850 Sheffield steelmakers produced half of all the steel in Europe, and 90 percent of the steel in England. By 1860, no fewer than 178 edge tool and saw makers were registered in Sheffield. In the first half of the 19th century, as Sheffield rose to prominence, the population of the city grew fivefold, and its filth grew proportionally. A saying at the time, that “where there’s muck there’s money,” legitimized the grime, reek, and dust of industrial Sheffield, but Harry recognized later that it was a misfortune to be from there, for nobody had much ambition. [Continue reading…]

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The ex-anarchist construction worker who became a world-renowned scientist

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Daniel Gumbiner writes: “See these lichens here? I don’t know how you see them but, to me, I see them as a surrealist.”

I am sitting in the UC Riverside herbarium, speaking to Kerry Knudsen, Southern California’s only professional lichenologist. We are looking at his collection of lichens, which consists of over 16,000 individual specimens, all of them neatly organized in large green file cabinets. Knudsen has published over 200 peer-reviewed scientific papers on lichens, and discovered more than 60 species that are new to science. It is an extraordinary output, for any scientist, but Knudsen has achieved it in only fifteen years. Science is his second career. For more than two decades he worked in construction. Before that, he was a teenage runaway living in an anarchist commune in Chicago.

“He’s amazing,” said Shirley Tucker, a retired professor of botany at LSU. “He came out of nowhere and became an expert in the most difficult genera.”

A lichen is a fungus in a symbiotic relationship with an algae or a cyanobacteria. The fungus essentially farms the algae or cyanobacteria, who are able to harvest energy from the sun through photosynthesis. In return, the fungus provides the algae or cyanobacteria with protection, but the relationship is a little one-sided.

“The algae is trapped,” Knudsen explained. “It has a lot of tubes going into it. It’s controlled by chemical signals … The first time I saw it under the microscope, I wanted to join the Algae Liberation Front. I mean, it looked bad.”

Scientists believe that lichen evolved over 500 million years ago, about the same time as fish. Although lichen make up 8 percent of the world’s biomass, they are rarely considered by the amateur naturalist, and therefore have very few common names. [Continue reading…]

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Why physics is not a discipline

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Philip Ball writes: Have you heard the one about the biologist, the physicist, and the mathematician? They’re all sitting in a cafe watching people come and go from a house across the street. Two people enter, and then some time later, three emerge. The physicist says, “The measurement wasn’t accurate.” The biologist says, “They have reproduced.” The mathematician says, “If now exactly one person enters the house then it will be empty again.”

Hilarious, no? You can find plenty of jokes like this — many invoke the notion of a spherical cow — but I’ve yet to find one that makes me laugh. Still, that’s not what they’re for. They’re designed to show us that these academic disciplines look at the world in very different, perhaps incompatible ways.

There’s some truth in that. Many physicists, for example, will tell stories of how indifferent biologists are to their efforts in that field, regarding them as irrelevant and misconceived. It’s not just that the physicists were thought to be doing things wrong. Often the biologists’ view was that (outside perhaps of the well established but tightly defined discipline of biophysics) there simply wasn’t any place for physics in biology.

But such objections (and jokes) conflate academic labels with scientific ones. Physics, properly understood, is not a subject taught at schools and university departments; it is a certain way of understanding how processes happen in the world. When Aristotle wrote his Physics in the fourth century B.C., he wasn’t describing an academic discipline, but a mode of philosophy: a way of thinking about nature. You might imagine that’s just an archaic usage, but it’s not. When physicists speak today (as they often do) about the “physics” of the problem, they mean something close to what Aristotle meant: neither a bare mathematical formalism nor a mere narrative, but a way of deriving process from fundamental principles.

This is why there is a physics of biology just as there is a physics of chemistry, geology, and society. But it’s not necessarily “physicists” in the professional sense who will discover it. [Continue reading…]

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‘Nobody knew what you would see on the other side of a mountain’

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Carl Zimmer writes: As a boy growing up in Denmark, Eske Willerslev could not wait to leave Gentofte, his suburban hometown. As soon as he was old enough, he would strike out for the Arctic wilderness.

His twin brother, Rane, shared his obsession. On vacations, they retreated to the woods to teach themselves survival skills. Their first journey would be to Siberia, the Willerslev twins decided. They would make contact with a mysterious group of people called the Yukaghir, who supposedly lived on nothing but elk and moose.

When the Willerslev twins reached 18, they made good on their promise. They were soon paddling a canoe up remote Siberian rivers.

“Nobody knew what you would see on the other side of a mountain,” said Eske Willerslev, who is now 44. “There were villages on the maps, and you wouldn’t even see a trace of them.”

Dr. Willerslev spent much of the next four years in Siberia, hunting moose, traveling across empty tundra and meeting the Yukaghirs and other people of the region. The experience left him wondering about the history of ethnic groups, about how people spread across the planet.

A quarter of a century later, Dr. Willerslev is still asking those questions, but now he’s getting some eye-opening answers.

As the director of the Center for GeoGenetics at the University of Copenhagen, Dr. Willerslev uses ancient DNA to reconstruct the past 50,000 years of human history. The findings have enriched our understanding of prehistory, shedding light on human development with evidence that can’t be found in pottery shards or studies of living cultures. [Continue reading…]

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