February 28, 2020

17.10.09: Pondering the Possible Fate of the Earth.

Colossus-The Forbin Project: a Sci-Fi classic that kicked off the talks!

What’s the future of humanity and life on Earth? Will we have a good multi-billion year run until our Sun swells into a red giant boiling away our atmosphere, or will we first do the job of snuffing ourselves out? Earlier this year, some of the leading thinkers of our time gathered near Harvard University at the Arrow Theater to discuss just these weighty concepts. Dubbed Crossroads: The Future of Human Life in the Universe, each talk in the series was 30 minutes long and solicited an avalanche of enthusiastic questions. Some of the highlights:

-Gerrit Verschuur discussed the Drake equation and just how prevalent any interstellar neighbors might be; at a guesstimated 2,500 light years, we may be pretty, well, spaced out!

-Maira Zuber discussed the future of space travel in the solar system and the difficulties of overcoming probably the biggest engineering problem; prolonged radiation exposure.

-Astronomers Dimitar Sasselov, David Charbonneau, and paleontologist Peter Ward of Rare Earth fame discussed the slew of recent exoplanet findings and the quest for the true coin of the realm; Earth-like worlds around other stars. Most interestingly, the idea was proposed that a “super-Earth” may be more conducive to the development of life, and our own planet may represent the bottom rung of habitability; indeed, as Ward notes, “Rare does not mean unique!” Another interesting proposal by Ward is what he termed the Medea Hypothesis, a sort of anti-Gaia Hypothesis, were the Earthly biosphere may actually occasionally become detrimental to life, and thus fuel mass extinctions. The name comes from perhaps the worst Mom in mythological history!

-Finally, big time elder thinker Freeman Dyson of Princeton urges that our very search methods for life might be flawed, and that we should be looking for “what is detectable, rather than only whats probable.” he also proposed missions targeting such possible abodes for life such as Europa, the icy large moon of Jupiter.

Whatever the future of humanity is, one gets the impression from the visionary speakers presented that it is NOT endless consumerism. The message in the history of life on Earth is clear; evolve or die. No one will save us but ourselves, and the future is collectively ours to choose!

07.10.09: The Ig Nobels Rock Cambridge!

Forget the Nobel prizes with their stuffed shirts and ivory tower scientists, the Ig Nobels are where the real science gets done! Unveiled to a full house at Cambridge, Massachusetts this past weekend, these sort of “anti-Nobels” feature down and dirty, no-holds barred science in the rough. Billed as “Science that makes you laugh, then makes you think”, the Ig Nobels are sponsored by the Center for Improbable Research. This years’ fare didn’t feature any astronomical themes, but were fascinating as usual. Some highlights;

Veterinary Medicine:Exploring Stock Manager’s Perceptions of the Human-Animal Relationship on Dairy Farms and an Association with Milk Production.” by Catherine Douglas and Peter Rowlinson of Newcastle University. Apparently, if Mrs. O’Leary’s cow was named “Sprinkles”, Chicago would have fared better.

Peace Prize: “Are Full or Empty Beer Bottles Studier, and does their Fracture Threshold suffice to break the Human Skull?” Stephan A. Bolliger, et al. In the Journal of Forensic and Legal Medicine. Possibly, the best option might be “C.”, to successfully duck!

Chemistry Prize: “Growth of Diamond Films from Tequila.” Javier Morales, Miguel Apatiga, and Victor M. Castano of the Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico. We here at Astroguyz would have been proud to test the psychosomatic effects of said diamonds…there’s just something about scientists and alcohol that screams Ig Nobel!

Honorable Mention: Donald Unger, who cracked the knuckles in his left hand every day for sixty years to study its effect on inducing arthritis… Katherine Whitcome, for analyzing the center of gravity of pregnant women… and Ireland’s police service for writing fifty driving tickets to the nation’s worst driver, thereby winning the Ig Nobel for Literature…

So don’t forget, you’ve now got 365 days to nominate your favorite wacky PhD thesis for 2010…hooray for mad science!