Great Barrier Reef obituary goes viral, to the horror of scientists

Huffington Post reports: Dead and dying are two very different things.

If a person is diagnosed with a life-threatening illness, their loved ones don’t rush to write an obituary and plan a funeral. Likewise, species aren’t declared extinct until they actually are.

In a viral article entitled “Obituary: Great Barrier Reef (25 Million BC-2016),” however, writer Rowan Jacobsen proclaimed ― inaccurately and, we can only hope, hyperbolically ― that Earth’s largest living structure is dead and gone.

“The Great Barrier Reef of Australia passed away in 2016 after a long illness,” reads the sensational obituary, published Tuesday in Outside Magazine. “It was 25 million years old.”

There’s no denying the Great Barrier Reef is in serious trouble, having been hammered in recent years by El Niño and climate change. In April, scientists from the Australian Research Council’s Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies found that the most severe coral bleaching event on record had impacted 93 percent of the reef.

But as a whole, it is not dead. Preliminary findings published Thursday of Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority surveys show 22 percent of its coral died from the bleaching event. That leaves more than three quarters still alive ― and in desperate need of relief.

Two leading coral scientists that The Huffington Post contacted took serious issue with Outside’s piece, calling it wildly irresponsible. [Continue reading…]

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There may be two trillion other galaxies

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Brian Gallagher writes: In 1939, the year Edwin Hubble won the Benjamin Franklin award for his studies of “extra-galactic nebulae,” he paid a visit to an ailing friend. Depressed and interred at Las Encinas Hospital, a mental health facility, the friend, an actor and playwright named John Emerson, asked Hubble what — spiritually, cosmically — he believed in. In Edwin Hubble: Mariner of the Nebulae, Gale E. Christianson writes that Hubble, a Christian-turned-agnostic, “pulled no punches” in his reply. “The whole thing is so much bigger than I am,” he told Emerson, “and I can’t understand it, so I just trust myself to it, and forget about it.”

Even though he was moved by a sense of the universe’s immensity, it’s arresting to recall how small Hubble thought the cosmos was at the time. “The picture suggested by the reconnaissance,” he wrote in his 1937 book, The Observational Approach to Cosmology, “is a sphere, centred on the observer, about 1,000 million light-years in diameter, throughout which are scattered about 100 million nebulae,” or galaxies. “A suitable model,” he went on, “would be furnished by tennis balls, 50 feet apart, scattered through a sphere 5 miles in diameter.” From the instrument later named after him, the Hubble Space Telescope, launched in 1990, we learned from a series of pictures taken, starting five years later, just how unsuitable that model was.

The first is called the Hubble Deep Field, arguably “the most important image ever taken” according to this YouTube video. (I recommend watching it.) The Hubble gazed, for ten days, at an apparently empty spot in the sky, one about the size of a pinhead held up at arm’s length — a fragment one 24-millionth of the whole sky. The resulting picture had 3,000 objects, almost all of them galaxies in various stages of development, and many of them as far away as 12 billion light-years. Robert Williams, the former director of the Space Telescope Science Institute, wrote in the New York Times, “The image is really a core sample of the universe.” Next came the Ultra Deep Field, in 2003 (after a three-month exposure with a new camera, the Hubble image came back with 10,000 galaxies), then the eXtreme Deep Field, in 2012, a refined version of the Ultra that reveals galaxies that formed just 450 million years after the Big Bang. [Continue reading…]

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A plan to defend against the war on science

Shawn Otto writes: Four years ago in Scientific American, I warned readers of a growing problem in American democracy. The article, entitled “Antiscience Beliefs Jeopardize U.S. Democracy,” charted how it had not only become acceptable, but often required, for politicians to embrace antiscience positions, and how those positions flew in the face of the core principles that the U.S. was founded on: That if anyone could discover the truth of something for him or herself using the tools of science, then no king, no pope and no wealthy lord was more entitled to govern the people than they were themselves. It was self-evident.

In the years since, the situation has gotten worse. We’ve seen the emergence of a “post-fact” politics, which has normalized the denial of scientific evidence that conflicts with the political, religious or economic agendas of authority. Much of this denial centers, now somewhat predictably, around climate change — but not all. If there is a single factor to consider as a barometer that evokes all others in this election, it is the candidates’ attitudes toward science.

Consider, for example, what has been occurring in Congress. Rep. Lamar Smith, the Texas Republican who chairs the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology, is a climate change denier. Smith has used his post to initiate a series of McCarthy-style witch-hunts, issuing subpoenas and demanding private correspondence and testimony from scientists, civil servants, government science agencies, attorneys general and nonprofit organizations whose work shows that global warming is happening, humans are causing it and that — surprise — energy companies sought to sow doubt about this fact.

Smith, who is a Christian Scientist and seems to revel in his role as the science community’s bête noire, is by no means alone. Climate denial has become a virtual Republican Party plank (and rejecting the Paris climate accord a literal one) with a wide majority of Congressional Republicans espousing it. Sen. Ted Cruz (R–Texas), chairman of the Senate’s Subcommittee on Space, Science and Competitiveness, took time off from his presidential campaign last December to hold hearings during the Paris climate summit showcasing well-known climate deniers repeating scientifically discredited talking points.

The situation around science has grown so partisan that Hillary Clinton turned the phrase “I believe in science” into the largest applause line of her convention speech accepting the Democratic Party nomination. Donald Trump, by contrast, is the first major party presidential nominee who is an outright climate denier, having called climate science a “hoax” numerous times. In his responses to the organization I helped found, ScienceDebate.org, which gets presidential candidates on the record on science, he told us that “there is still much that needs to be investigated in the field of ‘climate change,’” putting the term in scare quotes to cast doubt on its reality. When challenged on his hoax comments, campaign manager Kellyanne Conway affirmed that Trump doesn’t believe climate change is man-made. [Continue reading…]

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Rewriting Earth’s creation story

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Rebecca Boyle writes: Humanity’s trips to the moon revolutionized our view of this planet. As seen from another celestial body, Earth seemed more fragile and more precious; the iconic Apollo 8 image of Earth rising above the lunar surface helped launch the modern environmental movement. The moon landings made people want to take charge of Earth’s future. They also changed our view of its past.

Earth is constantly remaking itself, and over the eons it has systematically erased its origin story, subsuming and cannibalizing its earliest rocks. Much of what we think we know about the earliest days of Earth therefore comes from the geologically inactive moon, which scientists use like a time capsule.

Ever since Apollo astronauts toted chunks of the moon back home, the story has sounded something like this: After coalescing from grains of dust that swirled around the newly ignited sun, the still-cooling Earth would have been covered in seas of magma, punctured by inky volcanoes spewing sulfur and liquid rock. The young planet was showered in asteroids and larger structures called planetisimals, one of which sheared off a portion of Earth and formed the moon. Just as things were finally settling down, about a half-billion years after the solar system formed, the Earth and moon were again bombarded by asteroids whose onslaught might have liquefied the young planet — and sterilized it.

Geologists named this epoch the Hadean, after the Greek version of the underworld. Only after the so-called Late Heavy Bombardment quieted some 3.9 billion years ago did Earth finally start to morph into the Edenic, cloud-covered, watery world we know.

But as it turns out, the Hadean may not have been so hellish. New analysis of Earth and moon rocks suggest that instead of a roiling ball of lava, baby Earth was a world with continents, oceans of water, and maybe even an atmosphere. It might not have been bombarded by asteroids at all, or at least not in the large quantities scientists originally thought. The Hadean might have been downright hospitable, raising questions about how long ago life could have arisen on this planet. [Continue reading…]

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Sesame particle accelerator project brings Middle East together

The Guardian reports: In the sleepy hillside town in al-Balqa, not far from the Jordan Valley, a grand project is taking shape. The Middle East’s new particle accelerator – the Synchrotron-Light for Experimental Science and Applications, or Sesame – is being built.

In a region racked by violence, extremism and the disintegration of nation states, Sesame feels a world apart; the meditative peace of the surrounding countryside belying the advanced stages of construction inside the site, which is due to be formally inaugurated next spring, with the first experiments taking place as early as this autumn.

It’s a miracle it got off the ground in the first place. Sesame’s members are Iran, Pakistan, Israel, Turkey, Cyprus, Egypt, the Palestinian Authority, Jordan and Bahrain. Iran and Pakistan do not recognise Israel, nor does Turkey recognise Cyprus, and everyone has their myriad diplomatic spats.

Iran, for example, continues to participate despite two of its scientists who were involved in the project, quantum physicist Masoud Alimohammadi and nuclear scientist Majid Shahriari, being assassinated in operations blamed on Israel’s Mossad.

“We’re cooperating very well together,” said Giorgio Paolucci, the scientific director of Sesame. “That’s the dream.” [Continue reading…]

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Potentially habitable planet discovered right next door

Scientific American reports: It was just over 20 years ago — a blink of a cosmic eye — that astronomers found the first planets orbiting stars other than our Sun. All these new worlds were gas-shrouded giants like Jupiter or Saturn and utterly inhospitable to life as we know it — but for years each discovery was dutifully reported as front-page news, while scientists and the public alike dreamed of a day when we would find a habitable world. An Earth-like place with plentiful surface water, neither frozen nor vaporized but in the liquid state so essential to life. Back then the safe bet was to guess that the discovery of such a planet would only come after many decades, and that when a promising new world’s misty shores materialized on the other side of our telescopes, it would prove too faraway and faint to study in any detail.

Evidently the safe bet was wrong. On Wednesday astronomers made the kind of announcement that can only occur once in human history: the discovery of the nearest potentially habitable world beyond our solar system. This world may be rocky like ours and whirls in a temperate orbit around the Sun’s closest stellar neighbor, the red dwarf star Proxima Centauri just over four light-years away. Their findings are reported in a study in the journal Nature.

Although technically still considered a “candidate” planet awaiting verification, most astronomers consulted for this story believe the world to be there. Scarcely more than the planet’s orbital period and approximate mass are known, but that is enough to send shivers down spines. Proxima Centauri shines with only about a thousandth of our Sun’s luminosity, meaning any life-friendly planets must huddle close. The newfound world, christened “Proxima b” by scientists, resides in an 11.2-day orbit where water — and thus the kind of life we understand — could conceivably exist. And it is likely to be little more than one-third heavier than Earth, suggesting it offers a solid surface upon which seas and oceans could pool. In a feat of discovery that could reshape the history of science and human dreams of interstellar futures, our species has uncovered a potentially habitable planet right next door. [Continue reading…]

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Ancient Venus may have been much like Earth

The Washington Post reports: For a 2-billion-year-long span, ending about 715 million years ago, Venus was likely a much more pleasant spot that it is today. To observe Venus now is to witness a dry and toxic hellscape, where the planet heats up to a scorching 864 degrees Fahrenheit. A super-strong electric wind is believed to suck the smallest traces of water into space. With apologies to Ian Malcolm, life as we know it could not find a way.

But travel back in time a few billion years or so. Ancient Venus, according to a new computer model from NASA, would have been prime solar system real estate, to the point it may have been downright habitable.

That life would find Venus amenable hinges on two main factors. Venus would have needed much balmier temperatures, and it also would have needed a liquid ocean — which is a significant if, although elemental traces such as deuterium indicate water existed on Venus at one point. As Colin Wilson, an Oxford University planetary physicist, told Time in 2010, “everything points to there being large amounts of water in the past.”

Venusian temperatures, too, appear to have been far cooler when the solar system was younger. NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, in a report published Thursday in the journal Geophysical Research Letters, calculated that the average surface temperature 2.9 billion years ago was about 50 degrees Fahrenheit. Such temperature would have made Venus, surprisingly for a planet closer to the Sun, a bit chillier than Earth was at the time. [Continue reading…]

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Discerning order in randomness

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Kevin Hartnett writes: Standard geometric objects can be described by simple rules — every straight line, for example, is just y = ax + b — and they stand in neat relation to each other: Connect two points to make a line, connect four line segments to make a square, connect six squares to make a cube.

These are not the kinds of objects that concern Scott Sheffield. Sheffield, a professor of mathematics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, studies shapes that are constructed by random processes. No two of them are ever exactly alike. Consider the most familiar random shape, the random walk, which shows up everywhere from the movement of financial asset prices to the path of particles in quantum physics. These walks are described as random because no knowledge of the path up to a given point can allow you to predict where it will go next.

Beyond the one-dimensional random walk, there are many other kinds of random shapes. There are varieties of random paths, random two-dimensional surfaces, random growth models that approximate, for example, the way a lichen spreads on a rock. All of these shapes emerge naturally in the physical world, yet until recently they’ve existed beyond the boundaries of rigorous mathematical thought. Given a large collection of random paths or random two-dimensional shapes, mathematicians would have been at a loss to say much about what these random objects shared in common.

Yet in work over the past few years, Sheffield and his frequent collaborator, Jason Miller, a professor at the University of Cambridge, have shown that these random shapes can be categorized into various classes, that these classes have distinct properties of their own, and that some kinds of random objects have surprisingly clear connections with other kinds of random objects. Their work forms the beginning of a unified theory of geometric randomness. [Continue reading…]

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Are ‘New Atheists’ undermining the atheist cause?

 

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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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