The Ruined Sky

“The astronomy community is on edge. The growing number of satellites streaming through low Earth orbit is making it almost impossible to get a clear view of the sky. 

“The true threat these mega-constellations pose to the astronomy community is only just beginning to be understood. A report released last week by the American Astronomical Society concluded that they will “fundamentally change astronomical observing” for optical and near-infrared investigations moving forward. “Nighttime images without the passage of a sun-illuminated satellite will no longer be the norm,” the authors write.

“The first Starlink satellites were already clearly visible shortly after launch  last year, and some observatories found their images of the night sky ruined. On Thursday, SpaceX is set to launch its latest batch of Starlink satellites, with a set of 60 to join the fleet of 653 that have been launched since May 2019. In a several years the entire network is expected to swell to 12,000 satellites, with a possible expansion to 42,000. London-based OneWeb […] just found FCC approval for 1,280 satellites to provide broadband services to US consumers, and the company is proposing a constellation that could eventually expand to 48,000 satellites. Amazon finally received approval for its Project Kuiper proposal to launch 3,236 satellites for its own satellite internet service, and this is likely just the beginning. Astronomy as we know it will never be the same.”

Text: Satellite mega-constellations risk ruining astronomy forever, MIT Technology Review

Pic: Hélio Oiticica, Metasquema 464, 1958.

From London to Rome

“The process, known as natural organic reduction, turns a corpse into two wheelbarrows’ worth of soil in four to six weeks. The body is placed in a reusable hexagonal steel container along with wood chips, alfalfa and straw. By carefully controlling the humidity and ratio of carbon dioxide, nitrogen and oxygen, the system creates the perfect conditions for a class of heat-loving (thermophilic) microbes that dramatically accelerate the normal rate of decomposition.

“It’s a bit of a surprise that when the microbial activity starts up and there’s enough feedstock, a whole different class of organisms, called thermophilic organisms, become active,” said Carpenter-Boggs.

“The pilot found that everything, including bones and teeth, is reliably transformed into compost (non-organic materials such as pacemakers and artificial hips are screened for and recycled). The soil was also found to contain low levels of coliform bacteria, an indicator of biological safety, meaning that relatives could safely scatter their loved ones’ remains like ashes, or use them to plant a rose bush or fertilise a vegetable patch.

“The process reportedly uses an eighth of the energy of cremation. According to Carpenter-Bogg, cremation in the US produces as much CO2 as burning 800,000 barrels of oil – for an individual, that is equivalent to taking a flight from London to Rome.”

Text: Hannah Devlin, Human composting could be the future of deathcare, Guardian UK.

Pic: Ricky Swallow, Younger Than Yesterday, 2006

Moving away from its home star…

“Maybe that’s why we’ve never heard a peep from anywhere. It’s not just that the universe is too big. Which it is. That’s the main reason. But then also, life is a planetary thing. It begins on a planet and is part of that planet. It’s something that water planets do, maybe. But it develops to live where it is. So it can only live there, because it evolved to live there. That’s its home. So, you know, Fermi’s paradox has its answer, which is this: by the time life gets smart enough to leave its planet, it’s too smart to want to go. Because it knows it won’t work. So it stays home. It enjoys its home. As why wouldn’t you? It doesn’t even bother to try to contact anyone else. Why would you? You’ll never hear back. So that’s my answer to the paradox. You can call it Euan’s Answer.” Later: “So, of course, every once in a while some particularly stupid form of life will try to break out and move away from its home star. I’m sure it happens. I mean, here we are. We did it ourselves. But it doesn’t work, and the life left living learns the lesson, and stops trying such a stupid thing.” Later: “Maybe some of them even make it back home. Hey—if I were you, Freya? I would try to get back home.” Later: “Maybe.” 

 Kim Stanley Robinson, Aurora.

“We do not know what the future will be…”

“It is a truism that we do not know what the future will be. But we can see trends. We do not know if the power of human ingenuity will help sufficiently to change the environmental trajectory we are on. Unfortunately, the recent years of innovation, investment and patenting indicate how human ingenuity has increasingly been channelled into consumerism and financial engineering. We might pray for time. But the evidence before us suggests that we are set for disruptive and uncontrollable levels of climate change, bringing starvation, destruction, migration, disease and war.

“We do not know for certain how disruptive the impacts of climate change will be or where will be most affected, especially as economic and social systems will respond in complex ways. But the evidence is mounting that the impacts will be catastrophic to our livelihoods and the societies that we live within. Our norms of behaviour, that we call our “civilisation,” may also degrade. When we contemplate this possibility, it can seem abstract. The words I ended the previous paragraph with may seem, subconsciously at least, to be describing a situation to feel sorry about as we witness scenes on TV or online.

But when I say starvation, destruction, migration, disease and war, I mean in your own life. With the power down, soon you wouldn’t have water coming out of your tap. You will depend on your neighbours for food and some warmth. You will become malnourished. You won’t know whether to stay or go. You will fear being violently killed before starving to death.

“These descriptions may seem overly dramatic. Some readers might consider them an unacademic form of writing. Which would be an interesting comment on why we even write at all. I chose the words above as an attempt to cut through the sense that this topic is purely theoretical. As we are considering here a situation where the publishers of this journal would no longer exist, the electricity to read its outputs won’t exist, and a profession to educate won’t exist, I think it time we break some of the conventions of this format. However, some of us may take pride in upholding the norms of the current society, even amidst collapse. Even though some of us might believe in the importance of maintaining norms of behaviour, as indicators of shared values, others will consider that the probability of collapse means that effort at reforming our current system is no longer the pragmatic choice. My conclusion to this situation has been that we need to expand our work on “sustainability” to consider how communities, countries and humanity can adapt to the coming troubles…”

Text: Jem Bendell, Deep Adaptation: A Map for Navigating Climate Tragedy

Image: Depiction of Hell, by Hieronymus Bosch

The Border Between Life & Non Life

“According to two papers published in Cell on January 11, 2018, the making of memories and the processes of learning resemble, of all things, a viral infection. It works like this: The shells that transport information between neurons are assembled by a gene called Arc. Experiments conducted by two research teams revealed that the Arc protein that forms a shell, functions much like a Gag, a gene that transports a virus’s genetic material between cells during an infection. For example, the retrovirus HIV uses a Gag in exactly this manner.

“We already know, thanks to the work of Lynn Margulis, that a number of organelles that power the cells of plants and animals descended from bacteria. This is called the endosymbiotic hypothesis. It’s now widely accepted as a fact of life. Margulis, who passed away in the winter of 2011, also believed that spiral bacteria evolved into the cilia and flagella that animal cells, such as sperm, use for mobility. (She went as far to suggest that the processes of animal thought or cognition were connected with cilia.) The spiral theory is still controversial. But now that scientists have basically concluded that the processes of memory and learning are closely related to innovations independently developed by viruses and adopted by animals deep in time (“Arc works in a similar fashion right across the tree of life, from flies to humans”), it seems foolish to not seriously re-envision animal and plant biology along Margulian lines.

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“There is more to think about. Most scientists consider viruses to be non-living. In fact, popular science writer Ed Yong recently made a statement in his piece, “The Viruses That Eavesdrop on Their Hosts,” that concerned a new discovery made by another brilliant scientist, Bonnie Bassler, and her student, Justin Silpe (that viruses can listen to the language bacteria uses for what’s called quorum sensing): “Viruses are not even technically alive! They’re entirely different entities from bacteria, yet they are intercepting and interpreting the same molecular messages. It’s like a rock eavesdropping on a bird.”

“If we can compare a rock to a virus—which appears to come alive when infecting a cell, and appears to be dead when doing nothing—then we must begin to suspect that there’s something life-like in non-biological things like clouds and hills. Are viruses really the border between life and non-life? Is there a border? A break? The 20th century Russian biochemist, Alexander Oparin, maintained there was a continuum from the inorganic to the organic. This is clearly the case from the stand point of the chemical elements. There is nothing in life that cannot be found in non-living things. We have known this since the 19th century, which experienced the demise of vitalism. But life appears to be not like a rock. And a virus appears to be more like life than a rock. Also life is weird. Viruses are weird. A rock is not. Lastly, it seems that animals and trees are wholly Margulisian—meaning, they are chimerical, or monsters that emerged from and are not separate from the ambiance of microganisms…”

Text: Charles Mudede, By Far the Strangest Scientific Discovery of 2018: Your Memories Are a Viral Infection, thestranger.com

Image: Rene Magritte, A Sense of Reality. 1963.