The planet’s fate is already sealed

“Last month, deep in a 500-page environmental impact statement, the Trump administration made a startling assumption: On its current course, the planet will warm a disastrous seven degrees by the end of this century.

“A rise of seven degrees Fahrenheit, or about four degrees Celsius, compared with preindustrial levels would be catastrophic, according to scientists. Many coral reefs would dissolve in increasingly acidic oceans. Parts of Manhattan and Miami would be underwater without costly coastal defenses. Extreme heat waves would routinely smother large parts of the globe.

“But the administration did not offer this dire forecast, premised on the idea that the world will fail to cut its greenhouse gas emissions, as part of an argument to combat climate change. Just the opposite:

The analysis assumes the planet’s fate is already sealed.

“The draft statement, issued by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), was written to justify President Trump’s decision to freeze federal fuel-efficiency standards for cars and light trucks built after 2020. While the proposal would increase greenhouse gas emissions, the impact statement says, that policy would add just a very small drop to a very big, hot bucket.

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“The amazing thing they’re saying is human activities are going to lead to this rise of carbon dioxide that is disastrous for the environment and society. And then they’re saying they’re not going to do anything about it,” said Michael MacCracken, who served as a senior scientist at the U.S. Global Change Research Program from 1993 to 2002.

“The document projects that global temperature will rise by nearly 3.5 degrees Celsius above the average temperature between 1986 and 2005 regardless of whether Obama-era tailpipe standards take effect or are frozen for six years, as the Trump administration has proposed. The global average temperature rose more than 0.5 degrees Celsius between 1880, the start of industrialization, and 1986, so the analysis assumes a roughly four degree Celsius or seven degree Fahrenheit increase from preindustrial levels.

“The world would have to make deep cuts in carbon emissions to avoid this drastic warming, the analysis states. And that “would require substantial increases in technology innovation and adoption compared to today’s levels and would require the economy and the vehicle fleet to move away from the use of fossil fuels, which is not currently technologically feasible or economically feasible.”

“The White House did not respond to requests for comment.”

Text: Trump administration sees a 7-degree rise in global temperatures by 2100, Washington Post.

Pic: Surface of Venus.

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Allowed & Forbidden Universes

“On June 25, Timm Wrase awoke in Vienna and groggily scrolled through an online repository of newly posted physics papers. One title startled him into full consciousness.

“The paper, by the prominent string theorist Cumrun Vafa of Harvard and his collaborators, conjectured a simple formula dictating which kinds of universes are allowed to exist and which are forbidden, according to string theory. The leading candidate for a “theory of everything” weaving the force of gravity together with quantum physics, string theory defines all matter and forces as vibrations of tiny strands of energy. The theory permits some 10,500 different solutions: a vast, varied “landscape” of possible universes. String theorists like Wrase and Vafa have strived for years to place our particular universe somewhere in this landscape of possibilities.

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“But now, Vafa and his colleagues were conjecturing that in the string landscape, universes like ours—or what ours is thought to be like—don’t exist. If the conjecture is correct, Wrase and other string theorists immediately realized, the cosmos must either be profoundly different than previously supposed or string theory must be wrong.

[…]

“The conjectured formula—posed in the June 25 paper by Vafa, Georges Obied, Hirosi Ooguri, and Lev Spodyneiko, and further explored in a second paper released two days later by Vafa, Obied, Prateek Agrawal, and Paul Steinhardt—says, simply, that as the universe expands, the density of energy in the vacuum of empty space must decrease faster than a certain rate. The rule appears to be true in all simple string-theory-based models of universes. But it violates two widespread beliefs about the actual universe: It deems impossible both the accepted picture of the universe’s present-day expansion and the leading model of its explosive birth.

“Since 1998, telescope observations have indicated that the cosmos is expanding ever so slightly faster all the time, implying that the vacuum of empty space must be infused with a dose of gravitationally repulsive “dark energy.”

“In addition, it looks like the amount of dark energy infused in empty space stays constant over time (as best as anyone can tell).

“But the new conjecture asserts that the vacuum energy of the universe must be decreasing…”

Text: The Universe as We Understand It May Be Impossible, The Atlantic.

Pic: Oystein Aspelund, from Dark Brasilia

90 Percent

“Every year, millions of tonnes of plastic debris ends up in the sea – a global environmental problem with unforeseeable ecological consequences. The path taken by plastic to reach the sea must be elucidated before it will be possible to reduce the volume of plastic input. To date, there was only little information available on this. It has now been followed up by an interdisciplinary research team who were able to show that plastic debris is primarily carried into the sea by large rivers.

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“In the meantime, minute plastic particles can be found in the water in virtually every sea and river. This constitutes a serious and growing global environmental problem. There are enormous quantities of input each year and plastic weathers only very slowly. Marine life can be harmed by the tiny plastic particles floating in the water. One example of how this happens is when fish, seabirds or marine mammals mistake the particles for food and consume them. “It is still impossible to foresee the ecological consequences of this. One thing is certain, however: this situation cannot continue,” says Dr. Christian Schmidt, a hydrogeologist at the UFZ. “But as it is impossible to clean up the plastic debris that is already in the oceans, we must take precautions and reduce the input of plastic quickly and efficiently.”

“However, in order to take practical measures to reduce plastic input, it will be necessary to answer the initial questions: Where does all the plastic come from anyhow? And how does it get into the sea? Schmidt and his team addressed these questions in a study that recently appeared in the current issue of “Environmental Science & Technology” journal. For this purpose, the researchers analysed various scientific studies that examined the plastic load – that is the quantity of plastic carried by the water – in rivers. They converted the results of the studies into mutually comparable datasets and determined the ratio of these figures to the quantity of waste that is not disposed of properly in the respective catchment area. “We were able to demonstrate that there is a definite correlation in this respect,” says Schmidt. “The more waste there is in a catchment area that is not disposed of properly, the more plastic ultimately ends up in the river and takes this route to the sea.” In this context, large rivers obviously play a particularly large role – not only because they also carry a comparatively large volume of waste on account of their larger discharge. Schmidt says, “the concentrations of plastic, i.e. the quantity of plastic per cubic metre of water are significantly higher in large rivers than small ones. The plastic loads consequently increase at a disproportionately higher rate than the size of the river.”

“The researchers have also calculated that the ten river systems with the highest plastic loads (eight of them are in Asia and two in Africa) – areas in which hundreds of millions of people live, in some cases – are responsible for around 90 percent of the global input of plastic into the sea. “Halving the plastic input from the catchment areas of these rivers would already be a major success”, says Schmidt. “To achieve this, it will be necessary to improve the waste management and raise public awareness for the issue. We hope that our study will make a contribution to a positive development so that the plastic problem in our oceans can be curbed in the long run.”

Text: Rivers carry plastic debris into the sea

Pic: Rachel Honnery, ‘…researching marine plastics and their role as kipple’.

Wolves and Bunnies

“Population biology was a radical new field back in the early 20th century. Rather than just collecting statistics to describe animal populations, a few ambitious researchers like Alfred Lotka wanted to create basic mathematical models of things like predators and prey to predict the evolution of their linked populations. Predators (like wolves) eat prey (like bunnies) so they can make more wolf babies, thereby increasing the wolf population. Bunnies do a fine job of reproducing on their own, but if too many are eaten, their population numbers suffer. Today, population biologists, ecologists, and their compatriots use mathematical models to study everything from the spread of disease to the propagation of invasive species. The approach has even found its way to the study of human civilizations, including their collapse in places like Easter Island.

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“We used these tools to build a simple model for the evolution of a civilization with its planet. In our approach, the exo-civilization’s population and the planetary environment are braided together by energy use and its consequences. The planet gives the civilization energy resources. The civilization consumes them to do the work of civilization building. As a civilization harvests more power from the planet, its capacities soar. That includes the ability to make and feed more babies. This link between available energy (in the form of food for simple organisms) and rising birth rates is fundamental to population biology. And for human civilization the steep rise we’ve seen in population is closely tied to fertilizer involving fossil-fuel use. So greater energy will, in the beginning, mean bigger populations. But there’s no free lunch from a planetary perspective. Using all that energy has to result in feedback on the planet. That’s what we earthlings are just starting to see with climate change. If global warming gets really nasty, everything from energy harvesting to food production is going to get severely stressed and our large human population won’t be sustainable. That’s why our exo-civilization models linked rising planetary impacts with population declines. It was all pretty straightforward, requiring no assumptions about alien economics, sociology, or any other science-fiction ideas.

“But to allow for some choice on the part of the exo-civilization we also included a basic switch describing how the civilization could respond to changing planetary conditions. For the sake of simplicity, we imagined that the planet had just two kinds of energy resources. One had a high planetary impact (like fossil fuels). The other had low impact (like solar energy). In some models we allowed the civilization to switch from to one to the other as things got bad.

“So, what did the model tell us? We saw three distinct kinds of civilizational histories. The first—and, alarmingly, most common—was what we called “the die-off.” As the civilization used energy, its numbers grew rapidly, but the use of the resource also pushed the planet away from the conditions the civilization grew up with. As the evolution of the civilization and planet continued, the population skyrocketed, blowing past the planet’s limits. The population, in other words, overshot the planet’s carrying capacity. Then came a big reduction in the civilization’s population until both the planet and the civilization reached a steady state. After that the population and the planet stopped changing. A sustainable planetary civilization was achieved, but at a high cost. In many of the models, we saw as much as 70 percent of the population perish before a steady state was reached. In reality, it’s not clear that a complex technological civilization like ours could survive such a catastrophe…”

Text: Adam Frank, How Do Aliens Solve Climate Change? The Atlantic 

“You’re talking about memories…”

“UCLA biologists report they have transferred a memory from one marine snail to another, creating an artificial memory, by injecting RNA from one to another. This research could lead to new ways to lessen the trauma of painful memories with RNA and to restore lost memories.

“I think in the not-too-distant future, we could potentially use RNA to ameliorate the effects of Alzheimer’s disease or post-traumatic stress disorder,” said David Glanzman, senior author of the study and a UCLA professor of integrative biology and physiology and of neurobiology. The team’s research is published May 14 in eNeuro, the online journal of the Society for Neuroscience.

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“RNA, or ribonucleic acid, has been widely known as a cellular messenger that makes proteins and carries out DNA’s instructions to other parts of the cell. It is now understood to have other important functions besides protein coding, including regulation of a variety of cellular processes involved in development and disease.

“The researchers gave mild electric shocks to the tails of a species of marine snail called Aplysia. The snails received five tail shocks, one every 20 minutes, and then five more 24 hours later. The shocks enhance the snail’s defensive withdrawal reflex, a response it displays for protection from potential harm. When the researchers subsequently tapped the snails, they found those that had been given the shocks displayed a defensive contraction that lasted an average of 50 seconds, a simple type of learning known as “sensitization.” Those that had not been given the shocks contracted for only about one second.

“The life scientists extracted RNA from the nervous systems of marine snails that received the tail shocks the day after the second series of shocks, and also from marine snails that did not receive any shocks. Then the RNA from the first (sensitized) group was injected into seven marine snails that had not received any shocks, and the RNA from the second group was injected into a control group of seven other snails that also had not received any shocks.

“Remarkably, the scientists found that the seven that received the RNA from snails that were given the shocks behaved as if they themselves had received the tail shocks: They displayed a defensive contraction that lasted an average of about 40 seconds.

“It’s as though we transferred the memory,” said Glanzman, who is also a member of UCLA’s Brain Research Institute.

“In the field of neuroscience, it has long been thought that memories are stored in synapses. (Each neuron has several thousand synapses.) Glanzman holds a different view, believing that memories are stored in the nucleus of neurons.

“If memories were stored at synapses, there is no way our experiment would have worked,” said Glanzman, who added that the marine snail is an excellent model for studying the brain and memory.”

Text: Biologists ‘transfer’ a memory between snails, University of California.

Pic: Paul Rumsey, Snail, 1988-93.

“Read and write the language of the brain…”

“The therapeutic potential for the device is exciting. From helping to restore sight to the blind, hearing to the deaf, to reinstating sensation in patients with peripheral nerve damage and helping amputees control prosthetic limbs.

“This has great potential for neural prostheses, since it has the precision needed for the brain to interpret the pattern of activation,” says Mardinly. “If you can read and write the language of the brain, you can speak to it in its own language and it can interpret the message much better.” Mardinly is already thinking beyond therapeutic uses, towards augmenting human experience: “This is one of the first steps in a long road to develop a technology that could be a virtual brain implant with additional senses or enhanced senses.”

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“We’re still a ways off before you can plan your next staycation at a 3D Shot themed resort and spa. As of now, the researchers are testing a prototype in the visual, touch and motor areas of mice brains.

“The mice are showing similar patterns of neural response correlating to sensory stimuli. The next step is training the mice so scientists can observe behavior changes that correspond to the stimulation. Studying behavioral cues is the best measure of success because you can’t ask a mouse if it’s experiencing the ripe, mushroomy taste of Limburger cheese as you flash holograms into its cortex.

“The researchers plan to scale-up the device’s capacity to interpret and create from a broader terrain of brain matter while scaling-down the device to make it portable enough to slip inside a backpack.

“They’re also working towards capturing neural patterns inside the brain with the goal of reproducing sensory experience and playing it back through holography.”

Text: Scientists Project Holograms Into The Brain To Create Experiences, Forbes.

Surface Trawls

“Publication of the garbage patch study coincided with a new report from Britain, Foresight Future of the Sea, that found plastic pollution in the ocean could triple by 2050 unless a “major response” is mounted to prevent plastic from reaching the ocean. The report declared plastic pollution to be one of the main environmental threats to the seas, along with sea-level rise and warming oceans.

“The study included two aerial surveys in October of 2016 that took 7,000 images, and 652 ocean surface trawls conducted in July, August, and September of 2015 by 18 vessels.

“The surface trawls also filled in the rest of the story.

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“Fifty plastic items collected had a readable production date: One from 1977, seven from the 1980s, 17 from the 1990s, 24 from the 2000s, and one from 2010. Researchers also found 386 objects with recognizable words or sentences in nine different languages.

“The writing on a third of the objects was Japanese and another third was Chinese. The country of production was readable on 41 objects, showing they were manufactured in 12 different nations.

“The study also concluded that plastic pollution is “increasing exponentially and at a faster rate than in surrounding waters.” Others are not as confident that the conclusion indicates a dramatic change in distribution of marine debris. Much of the world’s marine debris is believed to lie in the coastal regions, not in the middle of oceans.

“Leonard says he was impressed with the scope of the study. “It’s strong science,” he says. “But at the same time, in this field, the harder we look, the more plastic we find.”

Text: The Great Pacific Garbage Patch Isn’t What You Think it Is, National Geographic