In Memory, on the Moon

Neil Armstrong, first man to walk (and take a photograph) on the Moon, died August 25th at the age of eighty-two. Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin turned a primordial fantasy into reality, and what we knew was possible changed in the space of a television broadcast. On Universe, Claire L. Evans honors the human spirit as explorer of the solar system, writing “Going to the moon has a tendency to turn test pilots into poets.” Now, with machines like Curiosity in the vanguard, we will have to wait a while for true Martian poetry. On Starts With a Bang, Ethan Siegel says that Armstrong’s last act on the moon was to leave a “small package filled with items memorializing previously deceased pioneers in space exploration.” May his memory outlast the footprints he left on a windless world.


Threatening Zoonoses

Filovirus Entry by AJ Cann

Two weeks after an outbreak of Ebola in Uganda, the same disease is circulating in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. But the outbreaks have been caused by two distinct subtypes of virus, meaning they were not spread from one country to the other. The same thing happened in 1976, when over 500 people died in the two regions, hundreds of miles apart. Tara C. Smith asks, “Is this just coincidence that Ebola has twice now broken out in two different places at the same time, but with different viral subtypes?” If not, and specific environmental or ecological conditions are triggering these outbreaks, then science may someday be able to predict or prevent them. Meanwhile, on Life Lines, Dr. Dolittle reports that an arenavirus common to rodents has been observed in snakes for the first time, causing them to “to stare off into space, appear like they were drunk and even tie themselves into knots they could not escape.”

Runaway Warming

The extent of Arctic sea ice undulates like a yearly sine wave—rising in October, peaking in winter, and melting all spring and summer. This September we are likely to observe the lowest of lows; Greg Laden writes “There is less sea ice in the Arctic Circle than recorded in recent history.” More ice has also melted in Greenland this season, with 4 weeks still to go. Greg says, “glacial melting is both more important than one might think and also more complicated.” For example, the albedo of Greenland’s ice sheet (the proportion of sunlight reflected back into the atmosphere) varies depending on the snowpack. “The white fresh frozen snow that falls over the winter is highly reflective,” but “as it melts and gets slushy and mixes with water is has lower albedo.” This is an example of a feedback mechanism, as warmth and melting allows more sunlight into the ice. Additional feedback could occur as methane, a potent greenhouse gas, is freed from polar ice sheets.

Published in 2012

Information exchange defines us as humans, and perhaps even as living things. In 2012, we’re approaching a whole new level. Greg Laden introduces us to Apple’s iBook, which handles images better than a generic eBook. Greg says “An iBook can be a product that has almost no writing in it at all, or it can be a way of producing a written work that has mostly words and stuff.” While “words and stuff” may be undervalued in an increasingly visual, interactive, and abbreviated mediasphere, it has never been easier to get your words published, and in front of eyes around the world, for free. On A Few Things Ill-Considered, contributor H.E. Taylor shares a homebrewed, post-Peak-Oil novel called The Bottleneck Years. And Kevin Bonham adds an academic perspective on We Beasties, writing “I think that moving towards open access and even entirely different models for disseminating scientific information is one of the most important causes in modern science, and I think we should pursue every angle to convince people of its merit.”

New Wheels on Mars

Despite NASA’s teasing prospect of a crash landing, the Curiosity rover touched down on Mars without a hitch.  It is the biggest, most expensive, and best-equipped scientific instrument to ever reach the Red Planet.  On Thoughts from Kansas, Josh Rosenau writes:

With its plutonium-fueled power plant, its robotic arms, and its rock-destroying lasers, Curiosity’s goal is to survey Mars and dig into the planet’s past.  It will track the geology of the planet in greater detail than any previous rover or lander has done.  It will take pictures with higher resolution and greater sensitivity than any previous mission to Mars.  It will monitor radiation and the environment around it, getting us closer to a sense of what it would be like to stand on Mars.

Curiosity carries 72 kilos of scientific apparatus (compared to its predecessors’ 5.5).  Ethan Siegel says that Curiosity “may wind up teaching us more about Mars’ geologic and atmospheric history than all other prior missions combined.”  NASA’s older rover, Opportunity, continues to explore the Martian surface, but its sibling Spirit bit the dust in 2011.  The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter also photographed Curiosity as it parachuted toward the ground.

Ultimately, Curiosity may say whether life once existed, still exists, or will exist on Mars.

Ethan Siegel says the mechanics of the Curiosity landing have already proved we could put humans on Mars.  And PZ Myers nominates the first pioneers.  On Universe, Claire L. Evans writes “I find it profoundly moving, not only because something inconceivable has been accomplished, but because we can look at Curiosity’s shadow and understand, without hesitation, that it’s our own.”  Curiosity is a vanguard, gone to Mars in our place.  It is more sensitive, less forgetful, alone and anaerobic, but still human.

Inadvertent Overkill

In Uganda, the fourth outbreak of Ebola in twelve years has killed sixteen people. On We Beasties, Kevin Bonham says the virus is “readily transmissible,” kills quickly and assuredly, “and the way it kills is gruesome – causing massive bleeding from all orifices.” These may seem like dominant characteristics, but a virus is not a predator. Bonham says Ebola viruses, like other emerging diseases, are “poorly adapted for our immune systems,” and wipe out their hosts too quickly to spread. But all that can, of course, change. On Aetiology, Tara C. Smith details the history of outbreaks in Uganda, and the methods of transmission from person to person. She says that fruit bats are likely reservoirs for the virus, with non-human primates acting as an amplifying species.

Global Warming Reiterated

At first glance, Richard Muller’s “conversion” from global-warming skeptic to true believer—based on research funded by global warming denialists—is a welcome surprise. Hey, people can change their minds! But on Stoat, William M. Connolley takes a more critical view. Connolley asks, “Everyone who has doubts gets to run their own re-analysis of the temperature record? Wouldn’t it be quicker if people just read the existing literature?” Most of the data used by Muller has been around for years, and so has his conclusion: that humans are rapidly raising the temperature of this planet by releasing carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Greg Laden writes, “It’s over. The whole climate denialism thing, that is.” But some people will still say we’re wrong.