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Science Saturday
Author: Will in Chicago    Date: 2014-08-09 12:49:52

As I am often wont to do on Saturdays, I thought that I would take a look at a few science stories.

Some climate change scientists and environmentalists fear that we may be approaching the point of no return.

Climate Change – Point of No Return

by Margaret Kimberley

Time’s up, or so planet earth seems to be telling humanity. Extreme weather conditions around the globe, including rising temperatures, droughts, crop failures, melting sea ice, rising sea levels, disappearing glaciers and the loss of plant and animal species all point in only one direction. The tipping point towards the sixth great extinction is taking place right now.

It is clear that these problems are all human made. Rising carbon dioxide levels caused by fossil fuel emissions are creating a series of catastrophes in ecosystems around the world. The processes are clear to anyone who pays attention.

Two large craters, one more than 200 feet in diameter, were recently discovered in the remote Yamal peninsula of northern Russia. In an extreme case of irony, Yamal is said to mean “end of the world” in the local Nenets language. Scientists have concluded that the holes were formed when a mixture of salt, water and natural methane gas exploded underground. They theorize that rising temperatures made the permafrost unstable and released methane, the key ingredient in the explosions. A temperature rise of only two degrees centigrade is enough to make permafrost thaw and begin a chain of terrible events.

All of the bad news is relevant as the United Nations prepares to host a Climate Summit on September 23, 2014 in New York. Past climate conferences haven’t provided much in the way of relief, as the United States and other industrialized nations subverted the 2009 Copenhagen climate accords. The supposedly environmentalist president Barack Obama and his European cohorts forced an agreement that allowed a two degrees increase in temperature. This seemingly small amount will kill humans and other species and brought the giant holes to Siberia and now more dangerously, methane from the sea. Climatologist Jason Box recently made this pithy comment on Twitter. “If even a small fraction of Arctic sea floor carbon is released to the atmosphere, we're f'd.”

While there is great concern about the future, there is concern at present about the Ebola virus. Fortunately,evidence shows that it is unlikely that the virus will become airborne.

Airborne transmission of Ebola unlikely, monkey study shows

No evidence found of macaques passing deadly virus to each other


Monkeys do not pass Ebola to one another through the air, researchers report. The result confirms observations of human outbreaks: Infection with the deadly virus requires contact with bodily fluids.

The study follows up on a 2012 report that raised concerns Ebola might be able to spread by air (SN: 12/15/12, p. 12). That study, led by infectious disease researcher Gary Kobinger of the Public Health Agency of Canada, found that macaques contracted Ebola when housed in cages near a pen containing piglets infected with Ebola. The animals never touched. The researchers said the finding meant that the virus probably floated to the monkeys’ cages as a fine airborne spray of particles shed by the pigs.

Pigs seem to give off more aerosolized viral particles than other species, says Derek Gatherer, a viral evolutionary biologist at Lancaster University in England. “If it’s going to spread by aerosols, then pigs are the species to do it,” he says.

But he doesn’t think the researchers definitively demonstrated airborne transmission of the Ebola virus. Virus-laden droplets of water could have splashed from the pig pen to the macaque cages when the researchers washed the pig enclosure, he says.

Meanwhile, other scientists have created a robot that can fold itself up. There is a video to the link.

In other news that make me wonder how close we are to something like Isaac Asimov's robots or Star Trek's Commander Data, a new computer chip mimics the human brain.

Postage-stamp size ‘neurosynaptic’ computer chip mimics the human brain

By Agence France-Presse

Friday, August 8, 2014 12:37 EDT

Researchers Thursday unveiled a powerful new postage-stamp size chip delivering supercomputer performance using a process that mimics the human brain.

The so-called “neurosynaptic” chip is a breakthrough that opens a wide new range of computing possibilities from self-driving cars to artificial intelligence systems that can installed on a smartphone, the scientists say.

The researchers from IBM, Cornell Tech and collaborators from around the world said they took an entirely new approach in design compared with previous computer architecture, moving toward a system called “cognitive computing.”

“We have taken inspiration from the cerebral cortex to design this chip,” said IBM chief scientist for brain-inspired computing, Dharmendra Modha, referring to the command center of the brain.

A bit further from Earth, a space probe called Rosetta is nearing a historic rendezvous with a comet.

Europe's Rosetta Spacecraft Makes Historic Arrival at Comet

After a decade in space and 4 billion miles, Europe's Rosetta spacecraft has made history: For the first time ever, a robotic probe from Earth is flying with a comet and will soon enter orbit.

The European Space Agency's Rosetta spacecraft arrived at its target, Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, today (Aug. 6) to end a 10-year journey across the solar system. The spacecraft performed an engine burn that brought it about 62 miles (100 kilometers) from the comet's surface.

Comet 67P/C-G and Rosetta are now flying about 251 million miles (450 million kilometers) from Earth. Engineers on the ground had to program the probe to go through a series of complicated burns and maneuvers to make the spacecraft's rendezvous with the comet a possibility. [Photos: Europe's Rosetta Comet Mission in Pictures]

"This is the end of 10 years of interplanetary flight," Rosetta Flight Director Andrea Accomazzo said during ESA's live comet rendezvous webcast Wednesday.

We are learning a lot about our world and universe. Let us hope that we use this knowledge wisely.

1 comments (Latest Comment: 08/09/2014 18:11:19 by Will in Chicago)
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