For those of you still recovering from watching THAT asteroid-induced tidal wave take out a father and daughter as they calmly contemplated their imminent deaths (see the movie “Deep Impact” for details), the idea of grabbing asteroids in space might make you sigh with relief.
In April this year, NASA announced a budget proposal for the “Asteroid Initiative”, which would use robotic technology to capture small asteroids that are hurtling towards Earth. After capture, the asteroid would be placed in a stable orbit around the Moon. Astronauts could then visit the rock to take samples or use it as a sunny stopover on future journeys to Mars.
The proposed launch date for the capture craft is 2017-ish.
But in the last few weeks, debate around the Initiative has hotted up. NASA announced a Grand Challenge to find out more about asteroid threats to our planet and now the space agency is being told to take a chill pill. Scientists are disgruntled because they weren’t consulted. They think the mission should be more clearly defined or it could end in disaster. On top of this, of course, there’s always the issue of cost.
If capturing an asteroid sounds like sci-fi to you, here’s a shortened version of how it would work…sorry about the music…I couldn’t resist.
I’ve never been one to make New Year’s resolutions but I always find myself looking back on the fading year to glean a message for myself. This year I fought to re-gain perspective and remember what’s important in life. To help me tell you what I mean by that, I need look no further than NASA’s Black Marble: City Lights 2012.
If you look at the entire Black Marble image of Earth, you can see that the city lights of my home country, Australia, are insignificant compared to the rest of the world. If you then look more closely at the image of Australia (below), it is Nature’s rampaging fires over Western Australia that light up our continent, dwarfing the lights of our major cities.
No matter how important we think we are, the forces of Nature will win out in the end. It might sound strange but I find my own insignificance in the Universe surprisingly comforting.
Image credit: NASA Earth Observatory/NOAA NGDC. Images taken from theSuomi NPP satellite on cloud-free nights in April and September 2012 were assembled to give this perspective of planet Earth.
Citizen science is a hot topic right now and will only grow over time. Citizen science projects are studies where non-professional scientists help with the research. You can get involved in citizen science projects in a number of ways. Sometimes the work is online and on other occassions it involves hands-on field observations. It’s totally up to you and your interests.
“Brain porn” is a term given to the simplistic (and reductionist) thinking that leads to attempts to use neuroscience (especially brain-scanning technologies) to explain the way the human brain works. This recent suite of articles discusses neuroscience, neuroscientists and the complexity involved in describing the human brain.
1. Let’s kick things off with a swift kick to the idea that neuroscience can explain nearly everything, including voting for the Republicans (Quart’s example in this first article) and even playing poker (as Blum mentions in article 5 below).
2. This piece runs through some of the issues around drawing too many conclusions from brain imaging. I will paste a quotation from this article below because it is relevant to article number three in this selection:
“Scientists are also still struggling to construct theories about how arrays of individual neurons relate complex behaviors, even in principle. Neuroscience has yet find its Newton, let alone its Einstein.”
1. We’ve all heard of “white noise” but scientists have uncovered a smell they are calling “olfactory white”. The “white” or bland smell is based on a combination of odours and would probably not be found in nature. But it will help scientists to learn about the human olfactory system and brain.
2. A jumping spider called Nefertiti recently returned from a 100-day stay at the International Space Station. The experiment, devised by 18-year-old Egyptian Amr Mohamed, tested whether Nefertiti would be able to adjust her hunting methods in a low-gravity environment and then readjust back on Earth. The video shows how Nefertiti got the hang of hunting in low gravity.
5. Severe stress and chronic stress have opposite effects on the behavioural response of animals. This discussion of a study in mice shows scientists edging closer to understanding the physiology of severe stress.
1. A NASA supercomputer has modelled how winds move aerosols around the Earth. You can see dust (red) from the Sahara, the movement of carbon (green) from fires in Africa and Australia, sea salt (blue) in tornadoes and hurricanes over the Pacific and sulphates (white) from a volcanic eruption. For snapshots of these features or for more information go to this NASA webpage:
2. Physics moves forward when new findings conflict with existing theories. But at this early stage, it looks like the Higgs-like particle fits exactly with the existing theory (the Standard Model). But don’t worry, there is still hope that future data will throw up something unexpected.
3. I have never felt comfortable with the idea that some people use the “medical model” to fully account for psychological conditions. The medical model would direct a doctor to treat a psychological problem as if it is a physical affliction, like a broken leg. In other words, it all comes down to biology or the physical condition of the brain or body. Read this article for the argument against the medical model of addiction.
4. Rappers had their brains scanned in two situations: while they were freestyling and while they were reciting memorised lyrics. Comparing the two sets of brain scans helped researchers to understand the creative process.
My mother and I once had an argument. Actually, we had many arguments but the one I’m talking about involved a hypothetical situation. I argued that if you took a whole lot of people from 2000 years ago and plonked them in our time, they would be able to pick up all the technology we use and have the same intelligence as we do. Even though she couldn’t use the video recorder, she argued that they wouldn’t be able to cope and would have lower intelligence.
I always thought our discussion was pretty obscure but I have just read that, in the absence of my mother, others have carried on the argument.
1. This isn’t a joke. Researchers have published an article in PLOS ONE about the types of bacteria found in belly buttons. This blog post is from one of the scientists and explains some of the backstory to this study.
5. The Public Library of Science (PLOS) launched a new journal earlier this year to help quickly disseminate credible information during and after natural disasters. It’s called PLOS Currents: Disasters.
2. Wilson da Silva, Editor-in-Chief of COSMOS magazine, wrote this fabulous read. Who would have thought that an earthquake in Indonesia would result in a great work of literature on the other side of the world? It’s like the opposite of the “butterfly flaps its wings…” concept.
3. Out of the social media around Hurricane Sandy came the conversation about fake photos of sharks on the streets of New York and the Statue of Liberty being engulfed by waves. So this piece analysing the ability of twitter to verify information was an interesting case study.
4. We’ve known for some time that mothers carry the DNA of their children in their bodies. Now they’ve found mothers can carry the DNA of their sons in the brain. This article is a great trip into the backstory of fetal DNA in mothers.