Blog Action Day 2009: Climate Change

Blog Action Day 2009 This is my first time participating in Blog Action Day, a global campaign that harnesses the power of blogs to raise awareness about important issues. The topic this year is climate change, something most people are already aware of, but about which much still needs to be done.

Today I heard about the United States’ first “climate refugees,” an entire village that must move because the sea ice that protected their shoreline has melted and storm surges have eroded the shore right to their doorsteps. To make matters worse, the permafrost is also melting, so their homes are gradually sinking into the ground. In fact there are several villages in Alaska that are now in the same situation, and hundreds more that are threatened. Rather ironic for a state dominated by “drill, baby, drill” climate change deniers.

I think that most of us who live in the real world know what climate change is all about. Burning millions of years worth of stored carbon, in the form of fossil fuels, over a couple of centuries has increased the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere far beyond its natural levels. Carbon dioxide holds in heat from Earth that would otherwise radiate into space, and so the climate is warming, which is causing massive changes, mostly negative ones, in the Earth’s ecosystems.

It is the rate of change that is so devastating to natural systems. Most species can adapt to slow gradual changes, which happen naturally all the time due to the wobble in our planet’s rotation and changes in the intensity of the Sun. It is sudden changes that exceed nature’s capacity to adapt. The dinosaurs, who had survived 160 million years of natural climate variation, were likely wiped out by sudden climate change after a space rock hit the earth. The impact would have filled the sky with dust, shading the sun and slowing plant growth enough for the large herbivores, and their predators, to starve out.

Obviously what is happening now is warming rather than cooling, but the consequences may be no less serious. Tropical rainforests, which contain about 80% of all species, are at risk of drying out and being replaced by species-poor savannahs. This would comparable to the greatest mass extinctions in our planet’s history, with the unique distinction of being wholly caused by a single species.

So what can we do about it? This is a painful question because almost every aspect of our lives is now dependent on fossil fuels. Science and technology make our modern lives possible, but fossil fuels make them happen. If we want to cut back on fossil fuels we either have to cut back our consumption, or how many new consumers we produce, or both. Certainly much can be done by promoting efficiency, but as long as we keep producing more goods, and more kids, any efficiency gains will be swamped by growth just as surely as Arctic coastal villages will be swamped by the sea.

The touchiest subject here is population, but there are ways of dealing with it humanely. Decades of humanitarian work in the developing world has revealed a very simple equation: educating girls and women results in smaller families. It’s already happening, but more can be done by supporting NGOs that work specifically with girls and women in the developing world. I like the Global Fund for Women, but most development agencies have programs aimed at educating girls that you can earmark your donations for.

Westerners already have a low birth rate, but we consume so much more than the world’s poor that having one child here is the same as an Indian woman (theoretically) having over 30 children! Since we are all competing in the same globalized food market, and there are already a billion people malnourished or starving in the world, having children in the West has very real consequences for children elsewhere. Luckily we have the freedom to choose whether or not to have a family, and have many other options for finding fulfillment in our lives.

For us, reducing consumption is critical. The easiest way to do this is to simply buy less stuff. Everything we buy takes fossil fuels to make, transport, and sell, so the less we buy, the less fossil fuels we burn. Putting off purchases, making do, borrowing, or buying used are all ways to reduce our consumption. If you’re worried about the economy, spend your money on human-powered things like live theatre or a weekly massage. Reducing our direct use of fossil fuels is also good, and I think we all know how to do that by now: drive less, fly less, turn off the lights, turn down the heat, etc.

But if you really want to make a difference, and save even more money, become a vegetarian. It may be the single most impactful thing one can do to stop climate change. The production of meat in industrialized countries is not only cruel, it is extremely energy-intensive, consumes large amounts of grains that could be used to feed people, and used and pollutes vast quantities of water. Eating meat is also very unhealthy, and only necessary in places where there is no access to a variety of plant foods (e.g. the far North). So you can stop animal cruelty, save the environment, feed the hungry, stop global warming, live longer, and save money on groceries and health care all in one fell swoop. If you don’t believe me, just Google “vegetarianism and the environment.”

Speaking of Google, did you know that Google has committed to going carbon neutral? I was quite happy to discover that since this blog lives on their servers. Not long ago I asked my previous host, Typepad, if they were doing anything about their climate impact, and I was told that have no plans whatsoever to do anything about it. Meanwhile, Google has enacted a detailed program of increasing server efficiency, using more renewable energy, and buying carbon offsets. Yet another reason to be glad I moved my blog!

Just in case there is anyone still reading, I’d like to plug one organization that is geared specifically at offsetting the carbon footprint of our beloved books. The US alone uses about 30 million trees each year to make books, so it’s not a small issue. While trees are a renewable resource and are theoretically carbon neutral since they fix carbon, that is only true if they harvested sustainably and replanted. I know from working on forestry issues that this doesn’t always happen, even where it is required by law. Climate related drought, fire, and insect infestations make it even more doubtful that all the trees felled to make books will be replaced.

Enter EcoLibris, an American organization that works with partners in the developing world to plant trees that not only take CO2 out of the atmosphere but provide wildlife habitat, restore water flows, and do all the other wonderful things that trees do. The price is quite reasonable, just a dollar to plant a tree to offset one book, with volume discounts if you want to do your whole library at once. Planting trees is one of the best things that can be done for both people and the environment, so it’s hard to go wrong. Ideally, all of our books will be some day be printed on recycled or tree-free paper, but until then it’s nice to have a way to lessen the impact of our favourite pastime.

If you still haven’t had enough climate change talk, check out the Blog Action Day website to see some of the other 10,000 13,000 blogs from 153 155 countries that are blogging about climate change today. If you’ve blogged about it too, do leave me a link!

Aaaaand we’re back.

So, how was everyone’s summer? I know there are still a couple of weeks left but the deepening angle of the sun tells me that the end is near. I trust that a good time was had by all. I spent a good part of my summer making some improvements to Rancho Bookworm (i.e. my apartment) and enjoying the company of a certain new member of the pack. I have been reading all the while but nothing especially blog-worthy (with the exception of Lying Awake, which is so profoundly blog-worthy that I don’t know how to approach it). Most enjoyably, I have been wending my way through the Anne of Green Gables books, primarily in audio format. (Right now Anne is busily arranging marriages for all her spinster friends.) Anne’s dreaminess is well-suited to summer, but now that summer is ending it’s time to get a little more serious. I’m sure that Anne the scholar and schoolteacher would agree.

Autumn is probably my favourite time of year. The cool, damp weather is so refreshing after the heat-induced torpor of summer that, paradoxically for a time when nature is winding down, it renews my energy. Add to that the anticipation of back-to-school time and I’m ready to hit the books. I think 17 years of schooling has deeply ingrained in me the connection between September and starting new learning adventures with fresh enthusiasm. Yes, summer has been fun and frolicsome, but now it’s time to get back to learning and studying and doing things that don’t require a trip to the hardware store.

Of course, back-to-school time would not be complete without a trip to the stationery store, and I found something there recently that might be of interest to other bookworms. Staples is selling a handy metal bookstand for a mere three bucks. Despite the low price I’ve found that it does an excellent job. It’s quite sturdy and has rubber tips that keep slippery pages in place. It handles large heavy books and pocket paperbacks equally well. Alas they only seem to be available in Canada, but they are Staples brand so perhaps your local store can get them in.

Staples wire study stand — click image for more info.

Another nice thing about this time of year is that it gets darker sooner, which means I don’t have to stay up past my bedtime to look at the stars. I just found something that will make stargazing even easier. As you may recall, the Astronomy Reading Challenge calls for some stargazing with a guide (EVA1). It turns out the guide doesn’t have to be a book, it could be a laptop with Stellarium installed on it. Stellarium is a free, open source, multi-platform, real-time sky charting program that is easy to use by absolute beginners. There are other free sky chart applications out there, but they tend to be rather technical and geared towards experienced astronomers. With Stellarium you can be stargazing in a matter of minutes. I found it easy to figure out the options and get it set up for my location. What makes Stellarium especially useful as a field guide is that you can switch it to night mode, which turns the display red to save your night vision.

Stellarium has a number of interesting features, such as showing constellations from various cultures. You can also do fun things like zoom in on celestial objects. I zoomed in on Jupiter, which was up last night, and was shown the planet and its moons at their present locations, orbiting in real time. Pretty cool. Even cooler is that you have the option of using a panoramic image of your own back yard as the background scenery for Stellarium. It doesn’t get much more personalized than that! If you’ve ever wanted to learn your way around the night sky, I can’t think of an easier way than Stellarium. Give it a try!


My back yard view according to Stellarium. See more screenshots here.

“Decoding the Heavens” by Jo Marchant

Decoding the Heavens by Jo MarchantDecoding the Heavens: A 2,000-Year-Old Computer—And the Century-Long Search to Discover its Secrets (phew! long title!) is a very well-written and well-researched account of the discovery and study of the Antikythera Mechanism. The Antikythera Mechanism (which I’ve posted about before) is a complex geared device made in Greece in the second century B.C. and recovered from an ancient shipwreck off the Greek island of Antikythera in 1901. Put simply, it displays the positions of heavenly bodies over time. By turning a knob on the side, pointers on three dials mark the passage of time on various scales—solar months, lunar months, Olympiads, etc.—and predicts the positions of the sun, moon (with its phases), important zodiacal stars and possibly the known planets as well. It represents not only the state of the art of astronomy at the time, but also the most advanced mechanical engineering known from the ancient world. However it was probably not a scientific instrument. Why turn a knob around and around when you can easily look things up in a table or do a quick calculation? It is thought that this was actually a luxury item, a personal planetarium for some rich and powerful individual who wanted to have the universe at his fingertips.

We know all this now, but it took a long time and a tremendous amount of painstaking work to get to this point. The mechanism itself is in pieces and badly corroded by sea water. Early archaeologists paid little attention to it. Attempts were made to study it visually, but it was not until it was x-rayed that it started to reveal its true functions. Jo Marchant tells the story of the individuals who caught the Antikythera bug and studied it obsessively for years, sometimes at great personal risk and cost, sometimes without giving due credit to their predecessors and colleagues. They all wanted to be known as the one who discovered what the Antikythera Mechanism did.

This made me think about how science works. The macro view is that knowledge is built up, brick by brick, on the foundation of those that came before—a sort of grand collaboration over time. But the micro view is individuals striving to make major discoveries all by themselves and not being too particular about how they cut out the competition. Would cooperation achieve greater results, or does the lure of glory accelerate scientific progress?

In any case, the lure of glory has led us to understand the Antikythera Mechanism, though some details remain murky. It is likely that it showed the position of the 5 planets then known to the Greeks but those parts of the mechanism are missing except for one gear. Some of the inscriptions on the faces of the device—instructions for its use—have also been lost to corrosion. We still don’t know for sure who made it, where it was made, or who it was made for. But I think what we do know about it is more important that what we don’t. It tells us that the ancient Greeks were far more sophisticated engineers than we though, and more importantly, it tells us to be more careful about making assumptions about the past. So many artefacts have been lost to time and accident, and genius can be so fleeting, that we shouldn’t assume we’ve already seen it all. Though it is possible to trace some legacy of this technology through time to modern clock-builders, the Antikythera Mechanism really represents a geographically-isolated tradition that was snuffed out by the Roman conquest of Greece. There are contemporary accounts of similar geared instruments but, in the absence of hard evidence, scholars dismissed them as fables. If it were not for the accidental discovery of the shipwreck of the island of Antikythera, we would, in our hubris, have continued to underestimate ancient Greek technology. Two thousand years later and the Greeks still have much to teach us.

Derek Price, King of the Autodidacts

[Derek de Solla Price] was born in 1922 to Philip Price, a tailor, and Fanny de Solla, a singer. The couple didn’t have many material possessions, but they had enough money to indulge their young son in his love of Meccano, which was all the rage at the time. With enough ingenuity, the red and green painted girders, pulleys and cogs could be built into pretty much anything a boy could imagine—a bridge, a crane, a car, a spaceship—and Price wasn’t short of either ingenuity or imagination. The toy instilled in him a passion for mechanics and for how things work, which stayed with him for life….

Despite his talent, Price didn’t have the money or the background to go to university, so he followed a less conventional route to pursuing the subjects that he loved. He got a job as a lab assistant at the newly opened South West Essex Technical College, which enabled him to study part-time for a degree at the University of London. The physics equipment there was one glorious step up from Meccano. Square and black with clunky dials and flickering green screens, the oscilloscopes, voltmeters and spectrometers were as heavy as stones, and packed full to bursting with valves and wiring. With such instruments you could make sense of things; you could measure the whole world! Price spend hours taking these devices apart, tinkering with them and putting them back together, until his fingers and his heart were intimately familiar with their workings.

He got his degree in physics and maths in 1942 and the college—seriously short-staffed because of the war—instantly promoted him to lecturer. He worked in one classroom often for eight hours straight, learning the curriculum as he taught it. He also carried out research for the military on the optics of molten metals, and the University of London awarded him a PhD for it in 1946. Once the war ended, however, there was no job for him in London… He accepted a teaching position at the young Raffles College in Singapore….

Singapore was wonderful and exotic and it inspired in Price a new love for oriental culture and its history. It also introduced him to the history of science. Raffles College acquired a full set of the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society—the journal of Britain’s foremost scientific body, with such worthy members over the centuries as Humphry Davy, Isaac Newton and Robert Hooke. The college library was still being built, so Price seized his chance and took the beautiful calf-bound volumes home with him—into ‘protective custody’, he joked. Accustomed by now to teaching himself everything, he used them as bedtime reading, starting with the first volume from 1665 and working his way through.

—Jo Marchant, Decoding the Heavens: A 2,000-Year-Old Computer—and the Century-Long Search to Discover its Secrets

Price’s reading of the Royal Society papers aroused an interest in the history of science, particularly the history of scientific instruments, especially clockwork and astronomical instruments. When he found out about the Antikythera Mechanism there was only one thing to do: go to Athens!

"The History of Astronomy"—A Very Short Review

The History of Astronomy: A Very Short IntroductionI recently finished the first book on my list for the Astronomy Reading Challenge. The History of Astronomy: A Very Short Introduction by Michael Hoskin is part of a series of “very short introductions” covering a dazzling variety of topics, published by Oxford. This very slender but dense volume covers the history of astronomy from prehistory to the mid-19th century, just before the birth of modern astrophysics. It tells the story of how humans gradually grew to understand the true nature of the solar system and started exploring the cosmos with the help of telescopes.

Astronomy began as astrology, an attempt to understand and predict events by the movement of the stars and planets. The Babylonians were particularly eager astrologers, and their meticulous records were very valuable to later researchers trying to create accurate calendars and navigational aids, and ultimately for those trying to study the physical nature of the planets and stars.

While I was reading the book I was also perusing my new Peterson Field Guide to Stars and Planets and was struck by the fact that though we know so much more about the universe than the ancients, we still talk about what we see in the sky in much the same way. Stars are still mapped on the “celestial sphere,” very much like the sphere studded with stars that early astronomers conceived, complete with north and south poles. Star charts are bisected by the “ecliptic,” the path the sun takes across the sky, even though we know it is the Earth that is moving. Astronomers talk about stars and planets rising and setting, and we still locate everything in the cosmos as we always have, relative to our position on the Earth. As much as we can turn the solar system, galaxy and universe around in our minds and view them from any angle, we only ever actually view them from the same place the ancient Greeks did, right here on our wobbly little planet, or just above it in the case of space telescopes. If a medieval astronomer used to using an astrolabe was brought here in a time machine, he would probably have a much easier time finding his way around the sky than I do, no matter how much I might know about galaxies and black holes. I actually find it quite confusing to consider the stars and planets from an Earth-centered perspective, but since I’m on Earth I had probably better get used to it!

I have two other very short introductions waiting to be tackled next, on Galaxies and Cosmology. I look forward to more enjoyable astronomical confusion!

Get Ready for 100 Hours of Astronomy!

100 Hours of Astronomy

Starting Thursday astronomers all over the world will be sharing their work with the public for 100 hours straight. Over 1500 events in 130 countries have been planned for the 100 Hours of Astronomy, a cornerstone project of the International Year of Astronomy. It’s a good opportunity to complete one of your EVAs for the Astronomy Reading Challenge. If you can’t make it to an event in your area, you can also participate in Around the World in 80 Telescopes, a global live webcast from 80 different observatories. This is not likely to be repeated, so don’t miss it! The websites have all the information you need, and you can also get updates on Twitter @100Hours and @telescopecast. Get ready to be amazed!

Around the World in 80 Telescopes

UPDATE: It seems that so many netizens are interested in astronomy that we crashed the servers! Oops. It seems to be working now, so if you tried earlier and didn’t get anything, try it again now. Right now I’m watching real time observation of black hole. Wow. You can also watch recorded webcasts from all the previously visited telescopes so you won’t miss a thing. Enjoy!

UPDATE II: They are still having the occasional outage, but one can amuse oneself by reading the associated live chat at Disappointed starwatchers are sharing theories about the outages—aliens, coronal mass ejections, Conficker, black holes, DRM, Earth Hour, Linux…

Give a ‘Scope, Get a ‘Scope

Galileoscope One of the major initiatives of the International Year of Astronomy is to bring astronomy to underprivileged children around the world. For this they needed affordable telescopes that children could put together and operate in any environment. A group of astronomers and engineers got together to design such a telescope and the result is the Galileoscope.

It is a new and improved version of the telescope Galileo used to discover the moons of Jupiter and the rings of Saturn. The optics have been much improved, with various options for configuring the lenses depending on what you want to observe. The body is made sturdy ABS plastic and is easy to assemble, with no tools required. You can mount the Galileoscope on a tripod, and it accepts standard optical accessories so you can shoot photos or video through it. A great deal of thought has been put into this telescope and the result is a truly useful apparatus at a very affordable price.

The Galileoscope

Inspired by the One Laptop Per Child initiative, the creators of the Galileoscope are giving people the opportunity to donate one or more of the the telescopes, at a discount, when they buy one. You can buy a Galileoscope for a mere $15, but donating one is only $12.50. That’s less than most people spend on coffee in a week! It seems like a small price to pay to give a child the universe.

Find out more at the Galileoscope website.

Happy Darwin Day!

Today is the 200th anniversary of the birth of Charles Darwin, father of evolutionary biology. This year is also the 150th anniversary of the publication of one of the most influential books ever written, On the Origin of Species.

Now, let’s be clear. Evolution is not a theory. What Darwin theorized was the main mechanism that causes it, natural selection. It’s not “the theory of evolution” but “the theory of evolution by natural selection.” Evolution itself is a fact that is literally written in stone and written in every living thing on the planet. It was described long before Darwin, and even the ancient Greeks had an idea of it. What Darwin did was painstakingly put together his minute observations of natural history into a scientific explanation of how species change and diversify over time.

As a biologist I am particularly indebted to Darwin and his contemporaries for elucidating the mechanisms behind evolution. Modern biology is founded on evolution; biology just doesn’t make sense without it. Natural selection is without question one of the most powerful scientific discoveries of all time, and Darwin deserves a place next to the likes of Newton and Einstein in the pantheon of science.

Darwin at Cambridge If you saw any television news today you know that there were special celebrations of Charles Darwin, including the unveiling of a statue of him as a student at Cambridge (take that, Oxford!). In fact the celebrations began last summer, commemorating the day Darwin first presented his findings to the Linnean Society, and will continue until the 24th of November this year, the exact date on which On the Origin of Species was published. The Natural History Museum in London has a special website dedicated to Charles Darwin and his discoveries: Attenborough fans might enjoy the video on (animal) evolution at the Wellcome Trust’s Tree of Life site. A more thorough treatment of the history of life on Earth is the Tree of Life Web Project, which today is featuring party balloons and an animated gif showing Darwin blowing out a candle on a birthday cupcake! Silly biologists.

In case you didn’t already love Neil deGrasse Tyson…

Check out Amers favourite astrophysicist on The Daily Show this week. The interview is fun; the follow-up is hilarious. Thanks to the stupidities of television, I have to post separate links for American and Canadian viewers. If you’re not in either of those countries you’ll have to fend for yourselves!

Note: Links are time-limited.

Canada: InterviewFollow-up

USA: InterviewFollow-up