I’m a scientist. I’m blowing the whistle on the Trump administration

Joel Clement writes: I am not a member of the deep state. I am not big government.

I am a scientist, a policy expert, a civil servant and a worried citizen. Reluctantly, as of today, I am also a whistleblower on an administration that chooses silence over science.

Nearly seven years ago, I came to work for the Interior Department, where, among other things, I’ve helped endangered communities in Alaska prepare for and adapt to a changing climate. But on June 15, I was one of about 50 senior department employees who received letters informing us of involuntary reassignments. Citing a need to “improve talent development, mission delivery and collaboration,” the letter informed me that I was reassigned to an unrelated job in the accounting office that collects royalty checks from fossil fuel companies.

I am not an accountant — but you don’t have to be one to see that the administration’s excuse for a reassignment such as mine doesn’t add up. A few days after my reassignment, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke testified before Congress that the department would use reassignments as part of its effort to eliminate employees; the only reasonable inference from that testimony is that he expects people to quit in response to undesirable transfers. Some of my colleagues are being relocated across the country, at taxpayer expense, to serve in equally ill-fitting jobs.

I believe I was retaliated against for speaking out publicly about the dangers that climate change poses to Alaska Native communities. During the months preceding my reassignment, I raised the issue with White House officials, senior Interior officials and the international community, most recently at a U.N. conference in June. It is clear to me that the administration was so uncomfortable with this work, and my disclosures, that I was reassigned with the intent to coerce me into leaving the federal government. [Continue reading…]

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Congressman Rohrabacher wants to know whether there was an ancient civilization on Mars

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Maryam Mirzakhani, only woman to win a Fields Medal, dies at 40

The New York Times reports: Maryam Mirzakhani, an Iranian mathematician who was the only woman ever to win a Fields Medal, the most prestigious honor in mathematics, died on Saturday. She was 40.

The cause was breast cancer, said Stanford University, where she was a professor. The university did not say where she died.

Her death is “a big loss and shock to the mathematical community worldwide,” said Peter C. Sarnak, a mathematician at Princeton University and the Institute for Advanced Study.

The Fields Medal, established in 1936, is often described as the Nobel Prize of mathematics. But unlike the Nobels, the Fields are bestowed only on people aged 40 or younger, not just to honor their accomplishments but also to predict future mathematical triumphs. The Fields are awarded every four years, with up to four mathematicians chosen at a time.

“She was in the midst of doing fantastic work,” Dr. Sarnak said. “Not only did she solve many problems; in solving problems, she developed tools that are now the bread and butter of people working in the field.”

Dr. Mirzakhani was one of four Fields winners in 2014, at the International Congress of Mathematicians in South Korea. Until then, all 52 recipients had been men. She was also the only Iranian ever to win the award.

President Hassan Rouhani of Iran released a statement expressing “great grief and sorrow.”

He wrote, “The unparalleled excellence of the creative scientist and humble person that echoed Iran’s name in scientific circles around the world was a turning point in introducing Iranian women and youth on their way to conquer the summits of pride and various international stages.”

Dr. Mirzakhani’s mathematics looked at the interplay of dynamics and geometry, in some ways a more complicated version of billiards, with balls bouncing from one side to another of a rectangular billiards table eternally.

A ball’s path can sometimes be a repeating pattern. A simple example is a ball that hits a side at a right angle. It would then bounce back and forth in a line forever, never moving to any other part of the table.

But if a ball bounced at an angle, its trajectory would be more intricate, often covering the entire table.

“You want to see the trajectory of the ball,” Dr. Mirzakhani explained in a video produced by the Simons Foundation and the International Mathematical Union to profile the 2014 Fields winners. “Would it cover all your billiard table? Can you find closed billiards paths? And interestingly enough, this is an open question in general.” [Continue reading…]

 

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Climate change may make the planet too hot for humans sooner than you expect

David Wallace-Wells writes: It is, I promise, worse than you think. If your anxiety about global warming is dominated by fears of sea-level rise, you are barely scratching the surface of what terrors are possible, even within the lifetime of a teenager today. And yet the swelling seas — and the cities they will drown — have so dominated the picture of global warming, and so overwhelmed our capacity for climate panic, that they have occluded our perception of other threats, many much closer at hand. Rising oceans are bad, in fact very bad; but fleeing the coastline will not be enough.

Indeed, absent a significant adjustment to how billions of humans conduct their lives, parts of the Earth will likely become close to uninhabitable, and other parts horrifically inhospitable, as soon as the end of this century.

Even when we train our eyes on climate change, we are unable to comprehend its scope. This past winter, a string of days 60 and 70 degrees warmer than normal baked the North Pole, melting the permafrost that encased Norway’s Svalbard seed vault — a global food bank nicknamed “Doomsday,” designed to ensure that our agriculture survives any catastrophe, and which appeared to have been flooded by climate change less than ten years after being built.

The Doomsday vault is fine, for now: The structure has been secured and the seeds are safe. But treating the episode as a parable of impending flooding missed the more important news. Until recently, permafrost was not a major concern of climate scientists, because, as the name suggests, it was soil that stayed permanently frozen. But Arctic permafrost contains 1.8 trillion tons of carbon, more than twice as much as is currently suspended in the Earth’s atmosphere. When it thaws and is released, that carbon may evaporate as methane, which is 34 times as powerful a greenhouse-gas warming blanket as carbon dioxide when judged on the timescale of a century; when judged on the timescale of two decades, it is 86 times as powerful. In other words, we have, trapped in Arctic permafrost, twice as much carbon as is currently wrecking the atmosphere of the planet, all of it scheduled to be released at a date that keeps getting moved up, partially in the form of a gas that multiplies its warming power 86 times over.

Maybe you know that already — there are alarming stories every day, like last month’s satellite data showing the globe warming, since 1998, more than twice as fast as scientists had thought. Or the news from Antarctica this past May, when a crack in an ice shelf grew 11 miles in six days, then kept going; the break now has just three miles to go — by the time you read this, it may already have met the open water, where it will drop into the sea one of the biggest icebergs ever, a process known poetically as “calving.”

But no matter how well-informed you are, you are surely not alarmed enough. Over the past decades, our culture has gone apocalyptic with zombie movies and Mad Max dystopias, perhaps the collective result of displaced climate anxiety, and yet when it comes to contemplating real-world warming dangers, we suffer from an incredible failure of imagination. The reasons for that are many: the timid language of scientific probabilities, which the climatologist James Hansen once called “scientific reticence” in a paper chastising scientists for editing their own observations so conscientiously that they failed to communicate how dire the threat really was; the fact that the country is dominated by a group of technocrats who believe any problem can be solved and an opposing culture that doesn’t even see warming as a problem worth addressing; the way that climate denialism has made scientists even more cautious in offering speculative warnings; the simple speed of change and, also, its slowness, such that we are only seeing effects now of warming from decades past; our uncertainty about uncertainty, which the climate writer Naomi Oreskes in particular has suggested stops us from preparing as though anything worse than a median outcome were even possible; the way we assume climate change will hit hardest elsewhere, not everywhere; the smallness (two degrees) and largeness (1.8 trillion tons) and abstractness (400 parts per million) of the numbers; the discomfort of considering a problem that is very difficult, if not impossible, to solve; the altogether incomprehensible scale of that problem, which amounts to the prospect of our own annihilation; simple fear. But aversion arising from fear is a form of denial, too.

In between scientific reticence and science fiction is science itself. This article is the result of dozens of interviews and exchanges with climatologists and researchers in related fields and reflects hundreds of scientific papers on the subject of climate change. What follows is not a series of predictions of what will happen — that will be determined in large part by the much-less-certain science of human response. Instead, it is a portrait of our best understanding of where the planet is heading absent aggressive action. It is unlikely that all of these warming scenarios will be fully realized, largely because the devastation along the way will shake our complacency. But those scenarios, and not the present climate, are the baseline. In fact, they are our schedule. [Continue reading…]

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We live in a galaxy in the middle of nowhere

Evan Gough writes: Ever since Galileo pointed his telescope at Jupiter and saw moons in orbit around that planet, we began to realize we don’t occupy a central, important place in the Universe. In 2013, a study showed that we may be further out in the boondocks than we imagined. Now, a new study confirms it: we live in a void in the filamental structure of the Universe, a void that is bigger than we thought.

In 2013, a study by University of Wisconsin–Madison astronomer Amy Barger and her student Ryan Keenan showed that our Milky Way galaxy is situated in a large void in the cosmic structure. The void contains far fewer galaxies, stars, and planets than we thought. Now, a new study from University of Wisconsin student Ben Hoscheit confirms it, and at the same time eases some of the tension between different measurements of the Hubble Constant.

The void has a name; it’s called the KBC void for Keenan, Barger and the University of Hawaii’s Lennox Cowie. With a radius of about 1 billion light years, the KBC void is seven times larger than the average void, and it is the largest void we know of. [Continue reading…]

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Most Americans like science — and are willing to pay for it

Bethany Brookshire writes: Americans don’t hate science. Quite the contrary. In fact, 79 percent of Americans think science has made their lives easier, a 2014 Pew Research Center survey found. More than 60 percent of people also believe that government funding for science is essential to its success.

But should the United States spend more money on scientific research than it already does? A layperson’s answer to that question depends on how much that person thinks the government already spends on science, a new study shows. When people find out just how much — or rather, how little — of the federal budget goes to science, support for more funding suddenly jumps. [Continue reading…]

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Trump in space: ‘At some point in the future, we’re going to look back and say how did we do it without space?’

Buzz Aldrin bemused by Trump:

The Washington Post reports: President Trump’s ceremony Friday to bring back the National Space Council began to confuse people even before it took place.

It was, Trump would say, a big deal: an executive order to resurrect an advisory council that kick-started the first moon missions 60 years ago, went dormant in the 1990s, and could now lead astronauts into deep space — even Mars.

“At some point in the future, we’re going to look back and say how did we do it without space?” is how the president put it.

Yet the signing surprised many: The White House had not listed the ceremony on the president’s calendar, no one from NASA headquarters came, and the only female astronaut in attendance was left off the thank-you list.

Not to mention the president’s sometimes baffling remarks about the cosmos. [Continue reading…]

CBS News reports: The science division of the White House’s Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) was unstaffed as of Friday as the three remaining employees departed this week, sources tell CBS News.

All three employees were holdovers from the Obama administration. The departures from the division — one of four subdivisions within the OSTP — highlight the different commitment to scientific research under Presidents Obama and Trump. [Continue reading…]

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Turkey drops evolution from curriculum, angering secularists

The New York Times reports: Turkey has removed the concept of evolution from its high school curriculum, in what critics fear is the latest attempt by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government to erode the country’s secular character.

Starting in September, a chapter on evolution will no longer appear in ninth graders’ textbooks because it is considered too “controversial” an idea, an official announced this week.

“Our students don’t have the necessary scientific background and information-based context needed to comprehend” the debate about evolution, said the official, Alpaslan Durmus, the chairman of the Education Ministry’s Education and Discipline Board, which decides the curriculum, in a video posted on the ministry’s website.

The news has deepened concerns among Mr. Erdogan’s critics that the president, a conservative Muslim, wants to radically change the identity of a country that was founded in 1923 along staunchly secular lines. [Continue reading…]

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China makes leap toward ‘unhackable’ quantum network

The Wall Street Journal reports: Chinese scientists have succeeded in sending specially linked pairs of light particles from space to Earth, an achievement experts in the field say gives China a leg up in using quantum technology to build an “unhackable” global communications network.

The result is an important breakthrough that establishes China as a pioneer in efforts to harness the enigmatic properties of matter and energy at the subatomic level, the experts said.

In an experiment described in the latest issue of Science, a team of Chinese researchers used light particles, or photons, sent from the country’s recently launched quantum-communications satellite to establish an instantaneous connection between two ground stations more than 1,200 kilometers (744 miles) apart.

Using the quantum properties of tiny particles to create a secure communications network is scientifically and technically demanding, according to security researchers, and China is years away from being able to build one.

If China ultimately succeeds, such a system could undermine U.S. advantages in penetrating computer networks.

The Pentagon, in an annual report on China’s military delivered to Congress last week, described the quantum satellite launch in August as a “notable advance in cryptography research.”

While the U.S. is also pursuing quantum communications, it has concentrated more attention and resources on research into quantum computing. European physicists have developed many of the theories and basic practices underlying quantum encryption, but their Chinese counterparts are better-funded with government resources.

Disclosures by former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden in 2013 about U.S. spying on Chinese networks rattled Beijing, and have pushed the country to bolster cybersecurity measures in a variety of ways.

“The Snowden revelations undoubtedly played a part in the drive towards quantum technologies, as it revealed the degree of sophisticated threat Chinese counterespionage and cyberdefenses were facing,” said John Costello, a fellow specializing in China and cybersecurity at the nonpartisan Washington-based think tank New America. [Continue reading…]

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Life-giving chemical compound found orbiting infant stars in space

AFP reports: Two teams of astronomers said Thursday that they have for the first time detected a key chemical building block of life swirling around infant stars that resemble our sun before its planets formed.

The molecule, methyl isocyanate, “plays an essential role in the formation of proteins, which are basic ingredients for life,” said Victor Rivilla, a scientist at the Astrophysics Observatory in Florence, Italy, and co-author of a study published in Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.

The findings could offer clues on how chemicals sparked into living matter on Earth several billion years ago.

At the very least, they show that elements crucial for the emergence of life “were very likely already available at the earliest stage of solar system formation,” said Niels Ligterink, a researcher at Leiden Observatory in the Netherlands and lead author of a second study in the same journal. [Continue reading…]

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Trump’s reneging on Paris climate deal turns the U.S. into a rogue state

Joseph Stiglitz writes: Donald Trump has thrown a hand grenade into the global economic architecture that was so painstakingly constructed in the years after the end of the second world war. The attempted destruction of this rules-based system of global governance – now manifested in Trump’s withdrawal of the United States from the 2015 Paris climate agreement – is just the latest aspect of the US president’s assault on our basic system of values and institutions.

The world is only slowly coming fully to terms with the malevolence of the Trump administration’s agenda. He and his cronies have attacked the US press – a vital institution for preserving Americans’ freedoms, rights and democracy – as an “enemy of the people”. They have attempted to undermine the foundations of our knowledge and beliefs – our epistemology – by labelling as “fake” anything that challenges their aims and arguments, even rejecting science itself. Trump’s sham justifications for spurning the Paris climate agreement is only the most recent evidence of this.

For millennia before the middle of the 18th century, standards of living stagnated. It was the Enlightenment, with its embrace of reasoned discourse and scientific inquiry, that underpinned the enormous increases in standards of living in the subsequent two and a half centuries.

With the Enlightenment also came a commitment to discover and address our prejudices. As the idea of human equality – and its corollary, basic individual rights for all – quickly spread, societies began struggling to eliminate discrimination on the basis of race, gender, and, eventually, other aspects of human identity, including disability and sexual orientation.

Trump seeks to reverse all of that. His rejection of science, in particular climate science, threatens technological progress. And his bigotry toward women, Hispanics, and Muslims (except those, like the rulers of Gulf oil sheikhdoms, from whom he and his family can profit), threatens the functioning of American society and its economy, by undermining people’s trust that the system is fair to all.

As a populist, Trump has exploited the justifiable economic discontent that has become so widespread in recent years, as many Americans have become downwardly mobile amid soaring inequality. But his true objective – to enrich himself and other gilded rent-seekers at the expense of those who supported him – is revealed by his tax and health-care plans. [Continue reading…]

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Jupiter is much stranger than scientists thought

The Atlantic reports: About every eight weeks, hundreds of millions of miles away, a basketball court-sized spacecraft named Juno swoops toward Jupiter. For a few hours, Juno loops around the planet’s poles at high speed, sometimes getting within 2,100 miles of its atmosphere. It surveys Jupiter’s swirling, opaque cloud tops, and then gets flung out to the other edge of its orbit, beyond Callisto, the planet’s cratered moon.

Jupiter is surrounded by a massive magnetic field that produces belts of radiation capable of frying Juno if it wasn’t wearing 400 pounds of protective titanium. The poles are a haven from the strongest radiation, and it’s there that Juno can aim its various scientific instruments at Jupiter’s cloud cover and collect data.

These flybys, which began when Juno entered Jupiter’s orbit last summer, have produced some stunning photographs of the gas giant’s polar regions, unlike the typical views published in textbooks over the years. They have also provided plenty of useful observations for scientists around the world, the first of which were published Thursday, in multiple studies in the journals Science and Geophysical Research Letters.

At Jupiter’s poles, Juno has observed oval-shaped features, powerful cyclones which measure up to nearly 900 miles wide, according to one of the studies in Science. The finding isn’t surprising, given how good Jupiter is at producing storms. The planet is home to winds blowing at several hundred miles per hour, and storms the size of Earth. But scientists hadn’t observed storms like this at Jupiter’s poles until Juno showed up. They were surprised by the number of cyclonic storms they observed, as well as the differences in the weather patterns on the south and north poles. [Continue reading…]

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The Vatican sees no conflict between faith and science

The Daily Beast reports: If you think faith and science can’t share common ground, think again. Experts in both realms met last week at the Vatican Observatory to prove their theory that you can’t have one without the other. “If you have no faith in your faith, that is when you will fear science,” said Brother Guy Consolmagno the Vatican’s chief astronomer, whose works include such titles as “Would you Baptize an Extraterrestrial?

Brother Consolmagno led the three-day conference called Black Holes, Gravitational Waves and Spacetime Singularities at the Vatican Observatory’s Castel Gandolfo labs outside of Rome, the former papal summer residence that is remote enough to allow for clear stargazing with minimal light pollution.

He challenged astronomers, cosmologists. and other experts in the field who also believe in God to “come out” and talk about the intersection of faith and fact. What he ended up with are talks like, “The Internal Structure of Spinning Black Holes” and “The Big Bang and its Dark-Matter Content: Whence, Whither, and Wherefore.” Not once in the whole program does the word “God” or “religion” even appear, which is rare for a conference sponsored by the Vatican.

The Vatican’s Pontifical Academy of Sciences is also absent from the scene, although it has sponsored similar events in the past to try to sort out the murky waters between hard facts and blind faith. The academy’s chancellor, Bishop Marcelo Sánchez Sorondo, told The Daily Beast in 2013 that the two are not mutually exclusive. “If we don’t accept science, we don’t accept reason,” said Sánchez, “and reason was created by God.”

On the question of climate science and climate change, Pope Francis is not only convinced, he’s vehement. After the election of Donald Trump’s climate-change-skeptic administration last year, the pope noted that politicians had “reacted weakly” to the needs of humanity on this score and deplored “the ease with which well-founded scientific opinion about the state of our planet is disregarded.” [Continue reading…]

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Morning glory seeds are tough enough for an interplanetary trip

Katherine Kornei writes: Natural sunscreens help morning glory seeds survive doses of ultraviolet (UV) radiation that would burn most humans to a crisp, according to a new study. The hardy seeds of the common flowering plant would probably even survive a voyage between planets, say the researchers. This might help researchers decide which species to send on future missions to Mars, a place that is bombarded with UV light because of its thin atmosphere. It also validates the concept of panspermia, the idea that life might have hopscotched through our solar system—or others—by hitching a ride on asteroids or comets.

“These results add to the fast-growing body of evidence showing that panspermia is not only possible, but absolutely inevitable,” says Chandra Wickramasinghe, director of the Buckingham Centre for Astrobiology at the University of Buckingham in the United Kingdom, who was not involved in the study.

The research began a decade ago, when astronauts placed about 2000 seeds from tobacco plants and a flowering plant known as Arabidopsis thaliana on the outside of the International Space Station. For 558 days, the seeds were exposed to high levels of UV light, cosmic radiation, and extreme temperature fluctuations—conditions that are lethal to most forms of life. [Continue reading…]

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How the March for Science finally found its voice

Ed Yong writes: They marched for science, and at first, they did so quietly. On Saturday, as thousands of people started streaming eastward from the Washington Monument, in a river of ponchos and umbrellas, the usual raucous chats that accompany such protests were rarely heard and even more rarely continued. “Knowledge is power; it’s our final hour,” said six enthusiastic people—to little response. “What do we want? Science! When do we want it? After peer review!” shouted another pocket of marchers—for about five rounds.

Scientists are not a group to whom activism comes easily or familiarly. Most have traditionally stayed out of the political sphere, preferring to stick to their research. But for many, this historical detachment ended with the election of Donald Trump.

His administration has denied the reality of climate change, courted anti-vaccine campaigners, repeatedly stated easily disproven falsehoods, attempted to gag government scientists, proposed enormous budget cuts that would “set off a lost generation of American science,” and pushed for legislation that would roll back environmental and public health protections, pave the way for genetic discrimination, and displace scientific evidence from the policy-making process. Sensing an assault on many fronts—to their jobs, funds, and to the value of empiricism itself—scientists are grappling with politics to an unprecedented extent. “You know something is wrong when people around the world must protest for science,” said Erich Jarvis, a neuroscientist at Rockefeller University, to the assembled crowds. [Continue reading…]

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Global ‘March for Science’ protests call for action on climate change

The Guardian reports: Hundreds of global protest marches in the name of science kicked off in Australia and New Zealand on Saturday, ahead of large crowds expected across the US.

Tens of thousands of scientists are this weekend rallying around the world in a rebuke of Donald Trump’s dismissal of climate science and attempts to cut large areas of scientific research.

More than 600 marches, largely concentrated in the US, Europe, South America and Australia, began amid warnings from organisers that science is “under attack” from the Trump administration.

Placards demanded “science not silence”, declared “there is no plan b”, and offered support from “florists for research-based legislation”, showing the crowd was not restricted to those in scientific community.

Chants asked what people wanted? “Science”, the marches bellowed. When? “Following peer review.” [Continue reading…]

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Cosmic speck: Earth as seen from Saturn

 

Space.com reports: The Cassini spacecraft spotted Earth as a bright speck (and the moon as a smaller speck) between Saturn’s broad rings as the craft prepares for its final dive into the ringed planet’s atmosphere.

Cassini was 870 million miles (1.4 billion kilometers) from Earth the night of April 12-13 when it snapped this photo, which shows Earth — and the even tinier moon, a faint dot to its left — framed between the icy rings of Saturn. At the time the photo was taken, the southern Atlantic Ocean was facing the spacecraft’s lens, NASA officials said in a statement. [Continue reading…]

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