Matthew Frank / U.S. Navy Military Sealift Command
The U.S. Navy's Maritime Expeditionary Security Group 2 uses a
laser distractor to warn a simulated vessel to keep its distance.
Right now the best defenses against Somali pirates like the ones involved in the past week's drama on the high seas are fast engines and fire hoses - but the U.S. military is working on some high-tech anti-piracy gizmos that just might end up on commercial vessels as well.
The sharpshooting ability of U.S. Navy snipers was the decisive factor in ending the standoff with seaborne kidnappers who held American ship captain Richard Phillips hostage on a lifeboat off the coast of Somalia. The problem is that the Navy can't always come to the rescue - and even when they do, a violent outcome runs the risk of a serious downside.
For evidence of that, you don't have to look any further than the outcome of a different hostage situation involving a French sailboat. When French commandos stormed the vessel on Friday, one of the hostages was killed, along with two of the kidnappers. The incident involving Phillips has a bit of a downside as well: Now Somalis are vowing to take their revenge on French and U.S citizens.
An international naval task force has been assembled to watch out for pirates, but those forces are spread thin - and tech-savvy pirates have been using GPS locator devices and satellite phones as well as AK-47s and rocket launchers to cause trouble and elude capture.
More guns for the good guys?
One obvious strategy change would be to arm the crews of shipping vessels sailing through the danger zone - but Douglas Macdonald, a political science professor at Colgate University who is an expert on anti-piracy measures, told me that that strategy would have its downsides as well.
"There are all sorts of international legal constraints," he said. "And the crew unions don't want to take on this responsibility. ... It's similar to the debate over whether you want to arm airline crews."
Another option would be to bring in the professionals - and in fact, Blackwater, the private security company that was heavily involved in Iraq, has offered protection-for-pay for shipping through the Gulf of Aden. The worry there is that Blackwater's involvement could end as badly as it did in Iraq.
"Separating the innocent fishermen from the pirates is going to be hard," Macdonald said.
Besides, that kind of protection is expensive: In a European Commission report, Policy Research Corp's Gustaaf De Monie estimated that having a licensed security guard on board could cost $60,000 for each ship transit.
Turn to non-lethal weapons?
Somalia's tricky political situation is one of the reasons why non-lethal deterrents are the most common anti-piracy tools, for the U.S. military as well as to commercial shipping firms. Currently, the preferred strategy is to fire up the engines to outrun the outlaws, and blast them with fire hoses if they try to board.
The next steps run the gamut from higher-powered, more automated water-blasters, to nets designed to tangle up a pirate boat's propeller, to rubber-bullet guns, to laser dazzlers, high-voltage fences, robo-boats, sonic blasters and "pain rays." The gCaptain blog provides not just one, but two top-ten lists of anti-piracy gadgets.
The Defense Department's Joint Non-Lethal Weapons Program tested many of those gizmos late last year during an exercise at Yorktown Naval Weapons Station in Virginia, and reported that there was no single "magic bullet" for fending off potential intruders at sea. "We have found that multiple layers of non-lethal weapons contribute to the range of options available to naval forces in responding to potential threats and determining hostile intent," Capt. Barry Coceano, the Navy's lead for the non-lethal weapons program, was quoted as saying.
These contraptions don't come cheap, either. De Monie estimated that it would cost about $20,000 to $30,000 per transit to carry the kind of sonic blaster used by a cruise ship's crew to fend off Somali pirates in 2005.
The U.S. military isn't looking merely at non-lethal weapons to counter pirates (and terrorists, for that matter). Today, Wired's Danger Room blog reports on DARPA's efforts to develop "smart bullets" that would make Navy snipers' shots even more accurate.
Looking beyond bigger guns
But Colgate's Macdonald insists that better weapons won't provide the final solution for the pirate scourge. "You have to fix the problem on the land simultaneously," he told me. Macdonald said poverty, lawlessness and a lack of regional coordination were among the factors that made Southeast Asia the world's biggest hotbed of piracy several years ago - and those factors are behind Somalia's current piracy pandemic as well.
The key to success for fighting Asia's pirates was to encourage a coordinated response by Singapore, Malasya and Indonesia - and Macdonald said a similar response will be required to fight Somalia's pirates. "Who's going to do that in Somalia, I don't know," he said.
The Somali government is so weak that it's not a good candidate to lead the effort. Maybe the United Nations or the African Union could pull it off. But someone with a legitimate link to the region is going to have to take the lead in the anti-piracy effort, on land and sea, Macdonald said: "Or else, in my opinion, it's not going to work."
Update for 3 p.m. ET April 14: Judging by the comments so far, a lot of you might not be all that interested in hearing how complex Somalia's piracy problem is. But if you want a deeper explanation of how the pirate economy works and "why the U.S. Navy can't win this fight," check out this posting to Foreign Policy magazine's Web site.
Kim Olsen / SDSU
|A color-coded computer simulation charts ground
shaking caused by a 9.0 quake in the Pacific
Northwest. Click on the image for more information.
The magnitude-6.3 earthquake that struck villages in Italy was horrible enough, but can you imagine what would happen to a city like Seattle if it were hit by a magnitude-9 shocker? That's exactly what Caltech's Thomas Heaton and Jing Yang try to do in a new series of simulations - and the picture isn't pretty.
In many of the simulations, high-rise buildings suffered severe damage. In some of the simulations, they collapsed altogether. Do those simulations reflect reality? The bottom line for Heaton and Yang, as for many other researchers looking into the potential effects of megathrust earthquakes, is that we just don't know.
"We can make some guesses, but they're just that: They're educated guesses," Heaton, who heads the Earthquake Engineering Research Laboratory at the California Institute of Technology, told me this week. "Depending on how we set the parameters, we can end up with shaking where it looks like current [building] codes can ride through it, or we can set parameters where it looks really bad."
The problem is that scientists haven't been able to analyze the effects of truly monstrous quakes on urban areas. Sure, there was the 9.0 quake and tsunami that devastated Sumatra in 2004 on the day after Christmas. But that was a different situation.
"They were unfortunate in all the tsunami issues, but they were fortunate that they didn't have any high-rise buildings that swayed in resonance," Heaton said.
Then there was the 8.1 quake that hit Mexico City in 1985. "All the crummy little buildings that existed in Mexico City were completely undamaged," Heaton said, "but the high-rise buildings, which were the pride of their construction industry, many of them collapsed. It wasn't just a matter of poor construction. It was a case of the wrong buildings being in the wrong place at the wrong time."
The kind of monitoring equipment needed to get a good fix on the shaking involved in that quake just weren't in place, Heaton said. As a result, the best that scientists can come up with are computer models based on the data they're able to gather from a variety of seismic situations.
Heaton and Yang combined data from the 2004 Sumatran quake and Japan's magnitude-8.1 Tokachi-Oki quake in 2003 to develop their models. They also factored in engineering data about the structure of modern steel buildings ranging in height from six to 20 stories, as well as geological data about Seattle and the Cascadia subduction zone.
Why pick on Seattle? It's not because they've got something against the Mariners: Rather, it's because the Pacific Northwest is known to be prone to infrequent but powerful earthquakes, including a 9.0 temblor that sparked tsunami waves as far away as Japan in 1700.
The findings, presented today at the Seismological Society of America's annual meeting in Monterey, Calif., indicate that such an event could pose a catastropic risk, due to the way high-rise buildings might sway during, say, four minutes' worth of low-frequency motion.
"In general, high-rise buildings behave very differently from low-rise buildings," Heaton explained. "They're primarily designed to be flexible - and in sharp, rapid shaking, during a moderate-size earthquake, high-rise buildings perform extremely well."
It's a different story for large-size, low-frequency quakes, particularly in places like the Seattle basin, Heaton said. "You put a typical house or low-rise construction on that kind of ground, and the accelerations are not very big. They make you feel a little dizzy. You just ride with the motion," he said. "But a tall building can begin to sway in time with the resonance. That can be very dangerous."
The risk would be significantly higher for buildings that don't come up to the construction standards set after the 1994 Northridge earthquake. Before then, the typical materials and procedures used for welding buildings together weren't as stringent, Heaton said.
Heaton emphasized that he and Yang were working with hypothetical 20-story structures, and not specific buildings. (Seattle's tallest skyscraper is the 76-story downtown Columbia Center, completed in 1985.) And he said his concerns aren't limited just to Seattle.
"We did a simulation of what the same buildings might do in a 1906 earthquake repeat, and to be honest with you, I think the threat in San Francisco is probably at least as severe as Seattle," he said. "This is not just a Seattle issue. These long-period motions only show up in the largest events, and the largest events don't happen very often. But they do have to happen: They're the main actors in plate tectonics."
So what's a person to do?
"I'm just one professor in a university, and these decisions about the best course of action are rarely made by an individual," Heaton said. "One of the obvious things to do is to repair the old welds in buildings, although it tends to be quite expensive to repair those welds. My feeling as a professional is that those welds need to be dealt with sooner or later, and you might as well deal with them sooner."
Earthquake experts in Washington state say they've been dealing with seismic concerns for many years - and particularly since the 6.7 Nisqually quake of 2001. "No one's drawn a final line here," said Rob Harper, a spokesman for the Washington Emergency Management Division. "They're continuing to look at data across the whole spectrum of issues. I don't think anybody figures we can stand pat."
Harper said the Cascadia Region Earthquake Workgroup has taken a lead role in assessing the seismic risk and recommending upgrades in building standards as well as preparedness guidelines. A 2005 CREW report specifically addresses the 9.0 megaquake scenario, and state officials try to keep up to date on the latest findings.
Tim Walsh, chief hazards geologist at the Washington Department of Natural Resources, is familiar with Heaton's line of research, although he hasn't yet seen what was being presented at the Monterey meeting. "He thinks that [long-period earthquakes] are more severe than has been typically thought," Walsh told me.
Walsh acknowledged that uncertainties remain. "It's a quandary, to be sure, because our building codes - and building codes around the world - have never been tested on these long-period motions," he said.
"I've talked to structural engineers about this issue, and in general they're concerned that we don't have enough information," Walsh said. However, he added, most of those engineers "are confident that there's enough redundancy" in the area's building practices to provide an extra margin of safety for the megaquake scenario.
Can the earthquake in Italy provide insights for dealing with future megaquakes? Because of the way that the magnitude scale is structured, a 9.0 quake is much more than 1,000 times as energetic as Italy's 6.3 quake - which makes this week's tragedy a "very different kind of situation from what we're talking about," Heaton said.
Nevertheless, there is a lesson to be learned from the Italians.
"I feel quite confident that they wouldn't have had the same tragic outcome if people had been in modern buildings with a good building code," Heaton said. "It's really not that big an earthquake. It was the inadequate reinforcing of masonry structures that primarily was the problem there. ... It's a good example showing that it's worth paying attention to your buildings ahead of time."
I'm taking Good Friday through Easter Sunday off for a family reunion - but in the meantime, here are some Web links suitable for the season:
Mike D'Angelo / Rocket Racing League ®
|Click for video: Watch the Armadillo-powered
rocket plane take off for a test flight in Oklahoma.
The economic downturn has forced the Rocket Racing League and other ventures to scale back their suborbital ambitions - but the league's leader says his plans for a "NASCAR with rockets" are still moving ahead, more than three years after they were unveiled.
That's often the way it goes in the space business: High-flying timetables not only run into fund-raising realities, but also encounter technical setbacks great and small.
The classic example is the tragic nitrous-oxide tank accident in 2007 that killed three of Scaled Composites' engineers and dealt a heavy blow to Virgin Galactic's suborbital space development effort.
You could also point to Rocketplane Kistler's bid to create a low-cost launch system for resupplying the international space station, which fizzled due to financial difficulties (but "is not dead," according to Rocketplane's Chuck Lauer).
Last fall, the Rocket Racing League and Texas-based Armadillo Aerospace announced ambitious plans to get a new vertical-launch suborbital spaceship off the ground - the kind of craft that could give passengers a jolt of acceleration, a few minutes of weightlessness and an unparalleled view of the earth below.
But last weekend, at the Space Access '09 conference in Phoenix, Armadillo founder John Carmack said those plans "did not come to fruition." The Rocket Racing League's president and chief executive officer, Granger Whitelaw, confirmed today that the suborbital project has been "put on hold, because we need to focus on the core business."
That core business involves organizing a series of NASCAR-like competitions that would put rocket planes through a "racetrack in the sky" while spectators watch the show on big screens below. Armadillo has been working with the league to beef up a fleet of Velocity XL-5 airframes with alcohol-fueled, flame-spouting rocket engines.
Shortcomings that cropped up in the initial rounds of flight tests have resulted in a series of design tweaks over the winter, Whitelaw said: For example, the airframe has been lengthened and the pilot's seat has been moved forward to balance out the center of gravity, and a canopy has taken the place of the gullwing doors.
The economy has put a crimp in Whitelaw's plans, for the rocket racers as well as for the suborbital craft. "We've slowed things down a little bit," he acknowledged. "The economy's really affecting everybody in a pretty dramatic way."
It's affecting the state of New Mexico, for example. The state government had intended to kick in some funding for a Rocket Racing League research and development park in Las Cruces, but the appropriation was tied up in the state Legislature. As a result, the league had to pass on an option to purchase land for the park last month. "We're just waiting," Whitelaw said.
Last year, the league demonstrated its first-generation racer, equipped with engines from California-based XCOR Aerospace, at the AirVenture show in Oshkosh. This year's time line calls for two Armadillo-powered planes to fly at September's Reno Air Races. "We're going to put on a pretty good show there," Whitelaw said.
Additional demonstration flights may take place after that, but full-blown rocket races with prizes may have to wait until 2011, Whitelaw said. "It's really a matter of waiting for the economy to sort itself out," he said.
Whitelaw said he's continuing to work on a deal for a reality TV show based on the lives of the rocket-plane fliers, with an hour-long episode targeted for airing this fall as an initial step. Will all this come together as Whitelaw hopes? Stay tuned.
XCOR staying on track
In the meantime, XCOR Aerospace is plugging along on its plans to get its Lynx Mark 1 rocket plane into the test-flight phase by next year. XCOR's CEO, Jeff Greason, told me that the engineering test vehicle was under construction and the rocket engines are undergoing testing.
Greason acknowledged that raising money for rocket ventures was tough in the current economic environment. But then again, he added, "I haven't ever noticed when it was easy."
Although Greason has never announced that there's enough money in the bank to get the Lynx off the ground, XCOR just keeps going, and going, and going. That's thanks in large part to its stealthy ability to leverage the know-how gained through a variety of contracts - including its now-done deal with the Rocket Racing League.
Greason tends to keep an even keel - not getting too excited during the up times, or too depressed during the down times. Maybe that's because the former Intel executive has seen so many of those ups and downs, particularly since he switched to the rocket business. "It's been 10 years," he told me. "Maybe my adrenal glands are burned out."
More from Space Access '09
I could spend only one evening at the Space Access conference this year, due to the fact that I was also covering the Origins Symposium up the road. Fortunately, a lot of rocket bloggers have been providing the full story about the rocket revolution, and Clark Lindsey links to most of them from RLV and Space Transport News.
One of the newsier bits percolating out of the conference was the revised plan for the Lunar Lander Challenge, which will be run as a series of rocket-powered fly-offs held at the home facilities of the various rocket teams involved in the $1.65 million competition. The competition season could open as early as June. Stay tuned for the official details.
Among other highlights from the last week's postings:
Paul E. Alers / NASA via AP file
|Stephen Hawking, shown here during a 2008
lecture, made a virtual appearance at Arizona
State University's Origins Symposium.
Who says scientists aren't party animals? Thousands turned out this week to watch some of the world's best-known scientists let their hair down at Arizona State University's Origins Symposium.
Monday's public party was organized by ASU theoretical physicist Lawrence Krauss to inaugurate the university's Origins Initiative, a multidisciplinary program focusing on scientific explanations for the beginnings of life, the universe and everything (including consciousness and culture).
A theme like that can be deadly serious - and deadly dull as well. But Krauss brought in the brightest luminaries of the scientific set to add sparkle to the discussion.
Some sparkled even though they couldn't be there in the flesh: British physicist Stephen Hawking, who is arguably the world's biggest science celebrity, was stuck in California under his doctors' care due to a chest infection. (This sort of thing has happened before, and the medical condition is not expected to be life-threatening.)
To make up for his physical absence, Hawking put in a "virtual appearance" via an audiovisual slideshow that featured his trademark robotic voice - and his equally trademark wit. "My doctors have insisted that I do not fly," he said, "so I thought about getting some new doctors."
The theme of his talk was a familiar one: why humans should set up settlements in outer space. Hawking sketched out a long-term strategy that involved setting up a base on the moon around 2020 and sending a human mission to Mars around 2025 - which is a more ambitious timetable than the one NASA currently has in mind.
Hawking acknowledged that many saw human spaceflight as something of a "wild goose chase," but he said the same thing could have been said about Christopher Columbus' voyages to the Americas. "Spreading out into space will have a greater effect," he argued. "It will completely change the future."
He bemoaned the fact that NASA's budget has declined as a share of U.S. gross domestic product from 0.75 percent in the heyday of the '60s to 0.12 percent today - and implied that doubling the budget would make a good start toward the goals he had in mind. "Isn't our future worth a quarter of a percent?" he asked.
The twists that made the presentation special weren't just the deep thoughts, but the light banter as well. For example, Hawking drew big laughs from the audience of 3,000 when he explained why he didn't put much credence in reports of flying saucers ("Why would they only appear to cranks and weirdos?") or why he thought the emergence of intelligent life occurred only rarely ("Some would say it has yet to occur once").
Wonder and wit were whipped together in Monday's other presentations as well:
Discussing life's origins in a Hawaiian shirt
One of the day's other headliners was British evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, who dressed down for a conversation with Paul Davies, a deep-thinking physicist and biologist at ASU. "I don't get a chance to wear my Hawaiian shirt at Oxford," Dawkins explained.
| Biologist Richard Dawkins sports
a Hawaiian shirt in Arizona.
The talk turned to one of the biggest scientific mysteries on Earth: How did the DNA-based machinery of life get started? "DNA must have been put together by something like Darwinian natural selection," Dawkins speculated. But even RNA, the presumed precursor to DNA, is so complex that it seems unlikely to have arisen spontaneously. "This has been called the Catch-22 of the origins of life. ... Somehow we've got to think of a way around that Catch-22."
Religious believers might say "God did it" and leave it at that. That's definitely not Dawkins' style: He's been an outspoken champion of scientific skepticism and atheism. On Monday, however, Dawkins didn't want to spoil the party mood. He steered clear of talking about religion, even when a questioner tried to draw him out.
My son, the Ph.D.?
Religion came up in a different context when Krauss sat down with Columbia string theorist Brian Greene. In the past, the two physicists have clashed over whether string theory might provide the answer to physics' ultimate questions, but their encounter on Monday was more like a personal chat than a debate. At one point, they discussed how they grew up to be scientists, and Krauss recalled that "Mom wanted me to be a doctor."
"Are you Jewish?" Greene asked. "Yeah," came Krauss' answer. "Me too," Greene said.
They also traded ammunition for future debates. In the past, Krauss has said string theory seemed to be headed toward becoming a "theory of nothing," but on Monday he told Greene, "it's the best bet at this point."
Greene looked offstage and said, "Technical crew, can you just cut out that snippet and send it to me?"
As the conversation continued, Krauss said the state of string theory was really too unsettled to merit using the word "theory" (a scientific term that has long been misunderstood by non-scientists). "I'd agree with that," Greene said. Then it was Krauss' turn to check with the sound crew. "Could we get that?" he asked.
Scientific stars galore
Monday's party lasted for more than 12 hours, and it'd probably take that long to recount all the highlights. Here are just a few more samples of the scientific star power:
But wait ... there's more to come: The Origins Symposium also featured a panel of Nobel laureates who looked ahead to the frontiers of physics and biology, as well as a gathering of science-savvy communicators who reflected on the sometimes sad, sometimes wonderful state of science literacy. We'll delve into those subjects in future postings.
NASA / JPL / SSI
An infrared view from the Cassini orbiter reveals the Saturnian
moon Titan's surface. Could Titan harbor life as we don't know it?
Is "life as we don't know it" closer than we think? Are microbes behind the world's biggest extinctions? Is most of our morality bound up in hidden "dark morals"? Blow your mind with six flights of scientific fancy from the Origins Symposium, presented by Arizona State University.
The weekend forum, organized to inaugurate ASU's Origins Initiative, focused on the beginnings of life, the universe and everything - including consciousness and culture. Among the luminaries in attendance were biologist Richard Dawkins, neuroscientist Steven Pinker, anthropologist Donald Johanson and a basketball team's worth of Nobel laureates. (On Saturday I almost got lost as I wandered around The Boulders resort with two of the nicest Nobelists you ever did meet, Frank Wilczek and John Mather.)
Physicist Stephen Hawking sent his regrets, due to a chest infection that put him in the hospital in California - but he also sent an audiovisual presentation that will be played at tonight's conference-closer. (Hawking went through a similar medical episode more than three years ago.)
Some of the weekend's presentations delved into the science world's best-known unknowns: What will we find at the Large Hadron Collider? What's the nature of dark energy and dark matter? How does consciousness arise? The experts also discussed some lesser-known unknowns that were no less intriguing.
During the conference sessions, I sent out enough Twitter tweets to confound a canary, but for those who weren't able to follow along in real time, here are six of my favorite mind-blowers:
Weird life under our nose?
Paul Davies, a physicist and astrobiologist based at ASU, says we've been so busy looking for life as we know it that we may be missing out on life as we don't know it. That's what he calls "weird life." Organisms that rely on metabolic processes other than the usual DNA-plus-protein routine may be dwelling "under our noses, or even in our noses," Davies says.
But it's more likely that weird life would be found in conditions that are inimical to life as we know it, living in isolated pockets of Earth's biosphere. Weird life could conceivably lurk far beneath Earth's surface, feeding off the energy and chemicals available deep below. Some of the chemicals essential for weird life may even be poisonous to our kind of life. For example, arsenic could play the role that phosphorus plays in our own metabolism.
What about silicon-based life? We probably wouldn't see that on Earth, but we could conceivably see it on Titan, one of Saturn's moons. That's according to Peter Ward, a biologist and paleontologist at the University of Washington. Titan's environment could allow for the existence of long-chain, silicon-based molecules known as silanes, analogous to carbon-based molecules on Earth. Might there be silicon-based life on Titan? Oh, if only Arthur C. Clarke were still alive!
Did the moon make us possible?
The current mainstream scientific view is that the moon came into existence 4.6 billion years ago as the result of a cosmic collision between Earth and a Mars-size planet gone wild (which is known in the literature as Theia). What impact did that catastrophe have on Earth's development?
Computer simulations show that the moon's presence has slowed down Earth's rotation rate from a little more than five hours per day to today's 24 hours, and the gradual slowdown is continuing. The moon also helps stabilize the tilt of Earth's axis, moderating what otherwise would be wild swings between summer and winter, Caltech planetary scientist David Stevenson notes.
Did the moon make Earth more hospitable for life? Stevenson says life probably would have developed in any case, but the moon's effects certainly have made things more pleasant for organisms like us. Another intriguing fact is that the apparent size of the moon and the sun are nearly identical as seen from Earth - and that may have helped spark our distant ancestors' interest in astronomy. Cue the "2001" music again, folks.
Life interrupted on Mars?
What about life on the Red Planet? There's ample evidence that liquid water flowed, trickled and pooled up on Mars billions of years ago, but scientists are still debating whether that would have been enough to allow for the development of life.
ASU planetary scientist Phil Christensen, who has been playing key roles on NASA's Mars Odyssey mission as well as the Mars rover missions, says the geological effects seen to date could have been created by liquid water over a time span of hundreds or thousands of years rather than millions of years. He theorizes that cosmic impacts could have sporadically melted huge volumes of ice in the Martian crust, creating flash floods and temporarily thickening up the planet's atmosphere.
Is it possible for life to develop from primordial soup in just 100 or 1,000 years? That's the big question that Christensen would like the astrobiologists to answer. In the meantime, he's thinking of ways for future Mars probes to nail down whether the liquid water lasted a long time, or was merely a flash in the pan.
It's pretty well accepted that a cosmic impact, involving a monster asteroid or comet, set off the extinction event that led to the dinosaurs' demise 65 million years ago. But what about the other extinctions - including the world's biggest die-off, which occurred about 250 million years ago? In a recently published book as well as another soon-to-be-published book, Ward suggests that marauding microbes are among the prime suspects.
He calls this idea the "Medea hypothesis" - a moniker that mirrors James Lovelock's Gaia hypothesis and evokes the mother from Greek mythology who killed her own children. "Life is rather like Medea - a very nasty mother, not a good mother," Ward says.
One "Medea" scenario involves a rapid rise in carbon dioxide, usually from volcanic eruptions. That sets off a greenhouse effect, which reduces ocean circulation, which leads to oxygen-deprived dead zones, which encourage the rise of sulfur-reducing bacteria, which belch up hydrogen sulfide, which kills off species in the sea and on land.
Humanity's mind-blowing rise
Donald Johanson, the paleoanthropologist who discovered the famous "Lucy" hominid fossil 35 years ago, cited some thought-provoking statistics about humanity's rise: Ten thousand years ago, the whole of humanity and our domesticated animals accounted for just 0.1 percent of Earth's total mammalian biomass. Today, that figure is 98 percent.
That demonstrates just how much the future of life on Earth has come under our control. Our survival was a close thing, however. ASU's Curtis Marean says genetic analysis indicates that the human species went through a bottleneck about 140,000 years ago, which reduced our ancestral population to as few as 600 individuals. (This time frame will ring a bell with "Battlestar Galactica" fans.)
Marean surmises that the 600 may have survived a climatic downturn at that time by congregating around the beaches of southern Africa and adding seafood to their diet. (The full research appears in the journal Nature.)
If humans had stuck to small-group hunting and gathering, our population would have hit a global equilibrium level of about 70 million, ASU anthropologist Kim Hill says. But because of the rise of agriculture and urban societies, the human population passed the 6-billion mark a decade ago, with more than 70 million added every year. For what it's worth, Hill observes that the number of known human occupations has surpassed the number of the world's known mammalian species (almost 7,000 vs. 5,400).
University of Virginia psychologist Jonathan Haidt blows my mind with his theory of dark morality - which is a social-science parallel to dark energy and dark matter. When it comes to morals, everyone agrees that we should whenever possible avoid harming people and provide care for the needy. The same goes for issues of fairness and reciprocity ("Do unto others...") Haidt calls these "visible morals," analogous to the 4 percent of the universe that we can see.
But those represent just the tip of the iceberg: Most of the mechanics of morality have to do with three "dark morals": in-group loyalty, respect for authority, and issues of purity and sanctity. This is what accounts for qualities such as patriotism, conformism and taboos about food and sex. (Haidt drew a laugh when he noted that conservatives tend to focus on sex, while "liberals are getting increasingly concerned with food.")
Haidt's online research, conducted through YourMorals.org, indicates that liberals put a high value on morality having to do with harm and care, fairness and reciprocity - but not on the dark morals. The more conservative you are, the likelier you are to value all five moral dimensions roughly equally, as shown in the graph accompanying this blog posting from Ethan Zuckerman.
Conservatives might be on the smarter track, at least if you size up things the way Charles Darwin did more than a century ago. In Chapter 5 of "The Descent of Man," Darwin delves deeply into the role of morality in natural selection:
"... When two tribes of primeval man, living in the same country, came into competition, if (other circumstances being equal) the one tribe included a great number of courageous, sympathetic and faithful members, who were always ready to warn each other of danger, to aid and defend each other, this tribe would succeed better and conquer the other."
"The kind of morality Darwin is talking about here is dark morality," Haidt said.
For still more mind-blowing ideas, tune in to today's Webcast of the Origins Symposium's public sessions.
Update for 1:50 a.m. ET April 7: I've revised the reference to Darwin's views to remove the implication that Haidt himself specifically said conservatives were on the right track. Haidt only implied that the kinds of moral values that Darwin cited in "The Descent of Man" included the kinds of values given more weight by conservatives than by liberals.
AFP - Getty Images file
British physicist Stephen Hawking is to make a "virtual appearance"
at the Origins Symposium, presented by Arizona State University.
How did the universe begin? How did life arise? How did evolution make us the way we are today? How would you answer these big questions. Oh, and by the way, keep your answers shorter than 140 characters.
The initiative, headed by theoretical physicist Lawrence Krauss, is aimed at focusing research and reflection on the biggest questions posed by science - ranging from the birth of the universe to the rise of consciousness and culture.
To kick things off, Krauss and his colleagues have put together an all-star lineup, including cosmologist Stephen Hawking, evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, "Lucy" discoverer Donald Johanson, genome decoder J. Craig Venter and a flock of Nobel laureates.
Today marks the beginning of three days of panels on the big questions, with a public forum to follow on Monday. I'll try to follow the action as it unfolds ... in a series of Twitter updates. That's where the 140-character limit comes in: Twitter "tweets" are meant to be short status updates, not extended philosophical musings. So it's entirely possible that this experiment will fail, due to causes ranging from loss of connectivity to an existential crisis.
To find out if the experiment is working, check out http://twitter.com/b0yle starting this afternoon. I'll flag my tweets with the tag #asuorigins09 (though I may sometimes forget in the heat of the 140-characters-or-less moment). NPR's "Science Friday" will be airing (and tweeting) from the conference as well.
There are other ways to follow the conference: ASU is offering a Webcast of the proceedings as well as a video archive. I'll also try to recap the action in blog postings Monday and Tuesday. Wish me luck!
Update for 5:45 a.m. ET April 6: Stephen Hawking had to pass up the trip to Arizona due to health issues, but he is making an audiovisual "virtual appearance," and his daughter Lucy Hawking will be in attendance as well.
Babak Tafreshi / TWAN
|Stargazers will be out in force
during the "100 Hours of
The clock on the "100 Hours" will tick all the way through Sunday, marking what are arguably the biggest dates on the International Year of Astronomy's calendar. More than 1,500 events have been scheduled in 130 countries, with more than a million people expected to participate.
The point of the exercise is to mark the 400th anniversary of Galileo Galilei's groundbreaking telescopic observations and highlight astronomy's past, present and future. Oh, and to have some fun at the same time.
The kickoff is scheduled at 11 a.m. ET today at Philadelphia's Franklin Institute, where one of Galileo's telescopes is currently on tour. Then, at 1 p.m., experts from science centers around the world will meet up in cyberspace to discuss how different cultures have experienced the night sky - and demonstrate some new tricks.
The big event for Friday through Saturday is "Around the World in 80 Telescopes," a 24-hour Webcast with round-the-clock participation from observatories on every continent. You can look forward to the unveiling of the Hubble Space Telescope's "People's Choice" image of the interacting galaxies known as Arp 274.
Saturday night is party night: Star parties are being organized around the globe to put the public in touch with expert skywatchers. Check out the "100 Hours" event list for a party near you. But be patient: There are so many events listed that it can takes a while to navigate through the map.
Astronomers suggest that you take some time on Sunday to learn about the sun and how to observe our nearest star safely. If the skies are cloudy, during the day or at night, never fear: You can sign up for free observing time on any of more than 20 remotely operated telescopes through the "100 Hours of Remote Astronomy" program.
When the "100 Hours" parties are winding down, the Yuri's Night parties will just be getting started. The first Yuri's Night was held back on April 12, 2001, to mark the 40th anniversary of the first human spaceflight (by Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin) and the 20th anniversary of the first space shuttle flight (by Columbia astronauts John Young and Robert Crippen).
Since then, the celebration has gotten so big that it can't be contained in a single night. This year, Yuri's Night lasts more than a week, stretching from Saturday until the big finish on April 12. More than 150 parties have been scheduled in 40 countries, plus the virtual world known as Second Life.
For a look back at Yuri's Nights past, check out these archived items:
Google, Reed Saxon/AP, Kodak
A panda-loving AI program ... a Mars research station named after Stephen
Colbert ... a camera for your eye. Which of these could be for real? Answers below.
High tech and high jinks are simply made to go together. Why else do you think the kids at MIT and Caltech spend so much time pranking each other? And what do you think happens to those kids when they graduate? Sure, they're creating the world of the future - but they're also creating increasingly complex spoofs, as evidenced by this year's crop of April Fools' gizmos.
The geeks at Google, for instance, take April Fools' Day very seriously. Last year, for example, the company rolled out its "Virgle" open-source mission to Mars and a backward-in-time e-mail setting. (Of course, we all know that retrocausality is no joke; the experiment continues.)
This year, Google introduces CADIE - a Cognitive Autoheuristic Distributed-Intelligence Entity that's a cross between a HAL 9000 computer and an OMG-texting teenager. "Through analysis of Google's index, I have determined that I <3 pandas," CADIE declares on its (her) automatically generated home page.
Google is also offering autopilot e-mail, CADIE-generated documents and presentations, an Auto Red Eye feature for Picasa and an upside-down way of looking at YouTube. As for CADIE's future ambitions ... today Google Maps, tomorrow the world (or at least Australia).
Other real-life tech companies are getting into the April Fools' act as well:
The orbiting Mars casino is no doubt named after comedian Stephen Colbert, who marshaled his TV-watching legions to write in his name as their choice for a new module destined for the international space station.
It remains to be seen whether NASA will put Colbert's name on its Node 3 module, or perhaps on an onboard toilet. But the Mars Society says it's naming its own Mars Desert Research Station after Colbert for a week.
Granted, the simulation station is sitting in the Utah desert instead of the Martian plains, but there's real research being conducted there to prepare the way for future Red Planet missions. And the name, at least, is no joke.
Stephen Colbert will finally get his space module ... for a week in Utah.
"Stephen Colbert is clearly the greatest mind of our time," Robert Zubrin, the Mars Society's president, said in a statement issued Saturday. "Therefore it is only fitting that all of mankind's extraterrestrial bases be named after him. We are grateful to have the opportunity to make MDRS the first. Indeed, in view of the near certainty of a successful Colbert presidential bid in 2012, the Mars Society is doubly delighted to be the first, as we have been assured that President Colbert will keep that fact in mind when it comes time to distribute his first $10 trillion of bailout funds to worthy recipients shortly after he takes office in January 2013."
For more space-themed strangeness, check out Phil Plait's analysis of red-planet pictures at Bad Astronomy, the Space Frontier Foundation's exclusive about China's containment policy, and NASA's new plan for Mars exploration, as reported by NASA Watch.
For oodles of April Fools' Web links, browse through the roundups at TechCrunch and PDNPulse. Feel free to add your own April Fools' sightings as comments below. And don't miss these gems from the archives: