Does Climate Change Affect Our Weather? Yes. Yes, It Does.
What’s the different between weather and climate?
There are lots of ways to answer this. Weather is what’s happening now while climate is what you expect long term. Weather is your mood; climate is your personality. Weather is a dog walking with its person while climate is the person walking with the dog. Over time, say in 30 year chunks, weather kinda merges into climate.
But however you describe it, one thing is clear: Climate drives weather.
You don’t expect hurricanes at the North Pole. The conditions aren’t right to generate them. You don’t expect long, sustained rainstorms in the Atacama Desert for the same reason. Weather is the local and ephemeral effects of climate.
So what happens as the globe warms, and climates shift? As more water can stay evaporated in warmer air, and precipitate down in places not used to it, or not used to it in such amounts? Hurricanes are driven by warm water, so as water warms, hurricanes change (they don’t get stronger necessarily, but the strongest ones get significantly stronger).
Have no doubt: Weather is changing as climate does. But why believe me? Here are some professionals who can make their case well:
The recent floods in Louisiana, the extreme heat and drought, the records broken all over the world … it’s hard to pin any one of these events to climate change, but taken as a whole?
Weather is your mood, climate is your personality.
This video also points out something important: Climate change may be slow, but it’s not some nebulous threat in the future. It’s happening now.
And come November, we can do something about it.
Retro Posters Promote an Ancient Battle: Humans vs. Disease
Regular readers know I’m no fan of infectious diseases. Well, no one is, I suppose, but there are those who court them, thinking our body’s natural defenses are enough to prevent infection.
Sometimes that’s true. But tragically, many times it’s not. That’s why we need vaccines.
We also need to study these diseases, figure out how they behave, how they’re structured, and what we can do to prevent them from getting out of hand. One group at the forefront of this is the Center for Infectious Disease Research, a nonprofit organization that focuses on diseases like malaria, tuberculosis, HIV, and more. They have a grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, a group I have a great deal of respect for.
To increase visibility and public outreach, CIDR put out a series of very cool retro posters promoting their fight. I really like this style of art, and they’ve used it to great effect. The one at the top of this post is my favorite of the lot, with a superhero feel to it (and make no mistake, scientists researching these bugs are indeed heroes).
Here’s another one I really like:
I have to think the artist has seen the 1979 movie Meteor; there’s a scene where the Soviets and the Americans launch missiles at the incoming asteroid and it looks a whole lot like this artwork.
On the CIDR website, scientific director John Aitchison explains why the center is making these posters:
Our aim is to highlight the creativity, imagination, and passion that infectious disease scientists bring to this battle each day—and the optimism we see right at the epicenter of the struggle.
It is an interesting time to work in the field of infectious diseases. Zika and Ebola captured the world’s attention and concern like nothing we’ve seen since the dawn of the AIDS pandemic.
With the eyes of the world on these diseases, mountains were moved. Research dollars flowed in, red tape was cut, and the resulting forward progress over the ensuing months and years—researching and understanding the viruses, developing a pipeline of potential cures—amounts to more than has occurred in the previous decades for these diseases.
What this plainly demonstrated to me was the importance of public attention. When our will is there, when we are focused, when we have the imagination to see that life can fundamentally improve, we achieve great results for our collective health and safety.
Well said. But then he also says this:
Improving our world’s health starts with science. Period.
Hot damn! Yes, I couldn’t agree more. This is not why we humans invented science, but it may be one of the most important results of it. When we understand our world better, when we see reality for what it is, we can make all our lives better.
Not-so-incidentally, the CIDR takes donations.
Blue Origin Will Test Its Capsule Abort System ... in Flight!
Come October, the private space company Blue Origin will put on quite a show.
The company has already flown its New Shepard rocket four times into space—above the arbitrary but common-sense 100 kilometer height above Earth’s surface—and landed it successfully on its tail. It also have tested the crew capsule on top, deploying it more than once, including the last time when one parachute of three was purposely not used, to see how the capsule would do with only two (it landed just fine).
But the fifth flight of the rocket will be very different. To get certified by NASA for crewed flight, Blue Origin has to show that the crew capsule can escape rapidly on its own if the rocket below suffers a catastrophe (even if it only goes with private customers, Blue Origin still needs to prove it can do this). On the old Saturn V Apollo missions, this was done using a rocket mounted on a tower above the capsule (the so-called tractor or puller method). That added a lot of weight, and if it wasn’t used (it never was), it was ejected and thrown away after launch. That’s a waste of fuel and a perfectly good rocket.
Blue Origin has engines mounted below the capsule, which can be used to push the capsule away from the rocket in case of emergency. They tested this system dramatically in 2012, but it hasn’t been tested in flight, which is critical. And that brings us to the fifth flight of New Shepard: On that flight, scheduled for October of this year, the capsule will use the abort rocket to propel itself away from the main rocket during the ascent, which is when a catastrophe is most likely to happen. Not only that, but the company plans on doing this when the rocket is undergoing the maximum pressure from atmospheric passage during the flight, when the rocket will be moving faster than the speed of sound.
I guess that if you’re going to test a system, test it hard.
Here’s an animation of what this might look like:
The capsule will roar away from the rocket rapidly, and then (hopefully) parachute back safely to Earth. The rocket itself will not be as stable without the capsule on top, and will get a helluva kick as the capsule roars off. It may very well break up under the stress. Even it it survives the initial trauma, it’ll likely fall the rest of the way to the desert floor and impact at high speed. It’ll still have quite a bit of fuel on board, so, as CEO Jeff Bezos notes in an email, “…its impact with the desert floor will be most impressive.”
Most impressive. But if it does survive and lands, Bezos says it’ll be placed into a museum, which is fitting. It’s the first rocket ever to go into space and then land again vertically, let alone do it again three more times. It’s quite an accomplishment.
I’m interested in the fact that Bezos made this announcement at all; it was only a couple of years ago that everything the company did was kept secret until after it was accomplished. It seems that the string of successes has made Bezos (deservedly) more confident about Blue Origin’s ability to get things done.
I also have to wonder if SpaceX getting so much publicity is behind this as well. Elon Musk’s company has been sending cargo to orbit for some time, and has made huge strides in being able to reuse a vehicle. The loss of a Falcon 9 on the pad during fueling in early September was a major setback, of course, and will no doubt delay the first launch of a previously flown booster, which was set for later this year. It’s not clear when that will happen now.
Still, Bezos suddenly announcing events beforehand is interesting. They’ll even hold a live webcast of the launch when it occurs. I’ll have more information when we get closer to the time of launch. Stay tuned.
I Didn’t Even Know Mars Had a Southwest
Since 2012, the Curiosity rover has been tooling around the surface of Mars. It landed in Gale Crater, an ancient impact site nearly 100 kilometers across, and its destination has been the base of Mt. Sharp, the informal name of Aeolis Mons, the crater’s central mountain that towers 5.5 kilometers above the ground.
One of Curiosity’s science goals is to look for signs where conditions for life may have been good a billion or more years ago. This means finding things like clays and other minerals that form in water.
Or, say, like sandstone.
Curiosity is currently in a spot on lower Mount Sharp called the Murray formations, named after planetary scientist Bruce Murray. This area used to be a dune field an eon or two ago, but then filled with water and formed a lake. That water is long gone, but it profoundly affected the sand it soaked into. It deposited sediments in between the sand grains, cementing them together to form sandstone. When the water went away, winds began to erode the sandstone, and after enough time, carved the Murray Buttes.
Aren’t these beautiful? They look like they could’ve been photographed in Utah or New Mexico, but this is Mars! Curiosity took them on Sept. 8, just a few days ago.
The layering you see is from when this was still a dune field. The wind would blow the sand off the dunes, sorting and layering it. Some of the layers were on the dune slopes, and were tilted with respect to the other layers. Once mineralized it formed angled layers called “cross bedding,” and created incredible scenes like this:
Seriously. What a view! And different regions eroded at different rates, giving a profile of sharp, jagged edges against the butterscotch Martian sky.
The reddish color is from iron oxide—rust—in the dust of Mars, and in fact is the same reason there’s so much red sandstone in the American southwest. Long ago there were the ancestral Rocky Mountains, before the present ones, which were rich in iron. They eroded over millions of years, and the rusty remains formed a sea bed. That inland sea went away, and now we have red sandstone everywhere (it’s a very common building material in Colorado).
All that happened here on Earth from about 300 million to 50 million years ago. It’s possible the sandstone you see in these images on Mars was already old by then.
I love this mission of looking for life on Mars. When I see pictures like these I am strongly reminded of how Earth-like Mars can be, and how clement it once was. When the Earth was still too hot after its formation to support life, Mars was cool enough to get a head start. We know life here started up relatively easily, so why not Mars? It was doomed, since the planet’s lack of a magnetic field allowed the Sun to strip away most of its atmosphere and its water.
But it’s possible Mars once had life, and we could find the remains of it, or some other indication it once existed. I hope we actually do find it, because the implications of that would be profound.
But I also love that we, as a species, have chosen to make this search at all. I think it says something important and special about us that we do.
To Beat Trump, Clinton Needs to Bring Science to the Debates
What do the presidential candidates think about science?
Normally, these topics barely get a head nod from the hopefuls. But this year is very very different. Donald Trump, who barely can make two coherent sentences in a row on any topic, has released a torrent of anti-science nonsense. Most notably he’s called climate change a hoax, picked a global warming denier (and creationist) as his vice president, and hired a denier as his energy adviser. He’s anti-vaccination, thinks the California drought doesn’t exist, and has said NASA makes America look like “a third world nation”.
Heck, the cohort of candidates is so bad that when Hillary Clinton said “I believe in science” when she accepted the Democratic nomination, the internet practically carried her around on its collective shoulders.
But these are generalities. What do the candidates really think about scientific topics, like space exploration, mental health, energy, public health, what to do about climate change, and more?
A coalition of scientists wanted to know just that, so they drafted a series of 20 questions for the candidates. Calling this challenge Science Debate 2016 (this was also done in 2008 and 2012), they asked the candidates to answer.
Well, three of four have. Gary Johnson has not responded as yet, but Clinton, Trump, and Stein have. And their answers are interesting.
Well, not Trump’s so much. I’ll get back to him in a moment.
The most surprising answers to me were Stein’s. Some of her stances I agree with: We need more renewable energy, for example. Many I don’t, like completely dumping nuclear energy, and demilitarizing space. For the former, nuclear energy in this country is decades behind cutting edge, and it’s time we at least look into making it cleaner, safer, and more secure. Also, like it or not, there are bad guys out there, and military use of space is needed to be able to collect intelligence. That actually saves more lives than it costs.
I was fascinated by her statements on vaccines; she hasn’t been entirely anti-vax in her earlier statements, but she’s pandered mightily to that group. In these answers she is far more clear about the necessity of vaccines. But after everything else she’s said, I am very skeptical about this new tact.
Clinton’s responses were also interesting, in that unlike the other candidates, she outlines a lot of specifics on many of the topics. Usually these sorts of answers are mushy, but she (well, her staff) actually lays out quite a few details about taking action on climate change, energy, and more. I agree with quite a bit of what she wrote, including her plans for climate change (though I still wish she were even more aggressive about it), securing the internet, helping those with mental health issues, and more.
I was disappointed, however, in her passage about space exploration. There’s not much really there in her statement aside from praising NASA. I’d love to hear more about her ideas about Earth science, future exploration of the solar system, ensuring funding for NASA, and more. President Obama has done things I’ve liked and things I haven’t with regard to NASA, and I’d very much like to know whether she plans on continuing in his footsteps.
And that brings us to Trump. Of all the candidates, his statements at Science Debate are the most transparently from his staff; the grammatical contrast with his public speeches and tweets is, well, dramatic.
But the thing is—and this is no surprise at all—there’s almost no content to his answers. Like his other public statements, they are all generalities and no substance at all. Reading them too, his anti-science leanings come out. I mean, c’mon, he thinks global warming is a hoax (he can’t even bring himself to answer the Science Debate question without putting scare quotes around the words), so of course his answer there is just verbal dancing. The GOP has made it clear it wants to sell off federal land in national parks, so his statement, “Laws that tilt the scales toward special interests must be modified to balance the needs of society with the preservation of our valuable living resources,” is fairly transparent.
His answer to the question about space exploration is even less weighty than Clinton’s, just saying space exploration is great. There are no details there at all.
I could go on, but I think the point is clear. Trump lies about everything, saying only what satisfies his immediate political expediencies. He has abandoned the dog whistle of racial and sexist politics, and is instead now using a megaphone. White supremacists and misogynists have heard him loudly and clearly. His ability to garner votes in black America is essentially dead (he’s polling the worst of any GOP candidate in decades), and women are avoiding him in droves.
Even so, he might have traction to status quo white male America. I hope this is not the case, but I fear it may be.
But not when it comes to science. A discussion of science could give Clinton an edge. Polls show that concerns among Americans over global warming are at an eight-year high, with 64 percent expressing a great deal or fair amount of worry on the topic. Trump flatly denies global warming exists. That gives Clinton an advantage right there. Even better, Republicans are expressing more concern about warming as well, and that strikes right to the heart of the very people Trump is disenfranchising.
Clinton has a chance here to widen her gap ahead of Trump. Science has become a wedge issue in GOP politics.
Our technological advances, our engineering, our education, our infrastructure, our health care system, our energy generation, even our ability to produce food and water rely entirely on our ability to understand the science behind these issues. If we ignore the science—and I don’t think this is an exaggeration at all—we are endangering our ability as a nation and a people to exist.
So while in the past I haven’t thought that a science debate would really help much, I’ve changed my position on it. I endorse this idea, whether it’s in the form of an actual debate or just these public policy statements issued by the candidates.
Remember, Trump’s view of science is dim. Clinton has nothing to lose and much to gain by bringing up science between now and November, while Trump has everything to lose. And that’s a situation I’d very, very dearly like to promote.
So kudos to Sheril Kirshenbaum and Shawn Otto, the minds behind Science Debate 2016. Please go to the Science Debate website and read what’s there. It has a huge amount of information, including what you can do to urge the candidates to talk science. Be a part of this movement, and be a part of making sure that science takes its rightful place in the political discourse.
Xkcd Takes on Global Warming
My friend Randall Munroe is a wonder. He is more than just ridiculously smart; he knows how to access all that wonderful knowledge stored in his brain, combine various pieces of it, and then present it in innovative ways that somehow make complex issues easy to understand, and even fun.
In a recent issue of his web comic Xkcd he tackles global warming, and literally turns it sideways.
Instead of plotting temperature vertically and time on the horizontal axis as is usually done, he makes time vertical, starting 22,000 years ago. That makes the temperature move from cooler on the left to the present record heat we’re seeing today on the right. The beauty of this is that it gives him room to comment, to draw. I strongly urge you to read the whole thing. It’ll take a few minutes, but it’s oh so worth it. (Note: Make sure you read the alt text by hovering your mouse over the comic.)
This Illusion Knows When You Are Looking at It
Regular readers know I have a love of optical illusions, and I have a really freaky one for you once again.
The image above is from master illusion maker Akiyoshi Kitaoka. Take a look at it. It’s a pattern of intersecting vertical, horizontal, and diagonal lines, making a grid of sorts. In a regular pattern where the lines intersect Kitaoka has placed a black circle surrounded by a thin white ring.
Go ahead, focus on one of those circles. Notice anything?
Yeah. When you look at one circle, all (or most of) the others disappear! What the what?
I’ll note that all the images in this article are JPGs, so they’re not animated or anything like that. They are true illusions. Kitaoka calls this one the Ninio Extinction Illusion, after Jacques Ninio, who published a paper about it. It’s a variation of what’s called the Hermann grid illusion, which you may have seen before:
It’s just dark square tiles with white alleys in between. If you fix your gaze on one alley intersection, it looks white, but all the others look gray!
A variation on this is called the scintillating grid. At the places where the gray alleys intersect, small white circles are inserted, just touching the corners of the black tiles:
As you move your gaze around, small black circles seem to appear and disappear in the white circles everywhere except right where you’re looking, as if they know where you’re gazing. It makes the grid look like it’s flashing, or scintillating. It’s bizarre.
Kitaoka’s illusion takes this to the next step, separating the circles so they’re dispersed a bit more. When you look at one, it’s very difficult to see any others, as if they disappear when you don’t look at them (Schrödinger’s dots?).
So what causes this? It was first thought that it had to do with the way the grid fell on the retina in your eye, where cells called photoreceptors react to the light. However, other researchers have found that can’t be true, because changing the grid a bit destroys the illusion, even though the cells should react the same way. This has led them to believe the illusion happens in the brain itself, in the primary visual cortex located in the back of the brain. However, it’s still not clear what sort of misfiring is going on that tricks your brain into thinking the dots are appearing and disappearing.
So even though this illusion is simple in setup, why it actually works is something of a mystery. How about that?
And of course, I love it when that happens. Our brains are so easy to fool: We see colors that aren’t there, patterns that aren’t there, motion that isn’t there, faces that aren’t there, hear sounds that aren’t there. It’s a testament to the slapdash nature of evolution. Our brains weren’t designed; they accumulated over millions of years, adjusting here and there as circumstances and natural selection warranted. What we have now sitting in our skulls isn’t so much a finely tuned computer as a seriously jerry-rigged Rube Goldberg machine.
Always remember that when someone claims they saw a UFO or a ghost, and swear they know what they saw. Because the odds are really, really good they don’t.
Tip o’ the parafoveal vision to my friend Tracy King.
Watch Evolution Occur Before Your Eyes
This is truly stunning: Scientists have released a video showing evolution in action.
They built a table more than a meter long and put down a culture agent that allows bacteria (specifically, E. coli) to grow. But they set it up in a very interesting way. At each end of the table they allowed the bacteria to grow freely. But just inside these free zones they slathered a broad swath of an antibacterial substance, at a dose just more than enough to kill the critters. Then, next to those, they put down stripes at a dose 10 times that needed to kill them. Next to those were stripes 100 times the lethal dose, and then finally, in the center, a hyper-deadly patch 1,000 times stronger than needed to kill the original strain.
The video of what happens is staggering. Watch:
Yegads. Now, to be clear, we know this sort of evolution can happen, because it’s been seen both in the lab and in the world; antibacterial resistant diseases are popping up all over the place and are a real threat. We’ve also seen bacteria evolve in real time; a similar experiment (minus the video) was done with E. coli that shows them evolving to eat citrate, something they couldn’t do before.
The difference here is just how visual the video is. The bacteria seem to be stopped by the lethal barrier, but they still reproduce near the border. When they do, random mutations in the genetic code occur, and at some point one or more of the baby bacteria just happened to get a resistance to the drug. It was able to pass that mutation on, and when it does, the new bacteria spread outward like an alluvial fan from a flood.
Mind you, bacteria all over the place on the table were probably evolving some sort of resistance, but only the ones near the edge were able to spread out into the Forbidden Zone. As you can see, it happened multiple times as well in each strip.
The researchers noted they could also see phenotypical (structural) changes in the bacteria as well. That’s not surprising, but it’s still rather amazing to know. Note that the doubling rate (the time it takes for the population to double) for E. coli is about 20 minutes, which is one reason it makes this particular bacterium useful for this experiment. The entire video covers about two weeks of real time.
This video will be a powerful tool for teachers to show their students how evolution works. I’ll note though that it may not actually help convince creationists. A poll of Americans shows that an overwhelming majority of them (90 percent) believe bacteria can evolve a resistance to drugs, but only about 60 percent believe that humans evolved through natural selection. Some people pick and choose their science—not a terribly scientific attitude—and the ones who don’t believe in evolution probably won’t be swayed by a video like this.
It’s hard to know what will sway them, though I’ve found being polite and answering their questions simply (and showing where those questions are ill-posed, no doubt because they get their science from people who don’t understand it) can help. It won’t work with everyone, but I strongly suspect it works a lot better than mocking them.
Even so, I reserve the right to point out just how ridiculously wrong legislators can be when it comes to this topic, too.
Still, this video is amazing, and I hope as many people see it as possible. I think it can help show the reality of evolution (imagine this process running not just two weeks, but for, say 2 billion years) and how complex life could have evolved from simpler samples. Because that is reality, and I think it’s our duty, and our privilege, to understand how we came to be.
Down Under and Spinning the Wrong Way
We live on a giant spinning ball of rock and metal.
That is such a counterintuitive statement! Standing on its surface, the Earth looks flat, but that’s an illusion borne of the Earth’s huge size compared with us. The spheroidal nature of our planet becomes apparent when you travel around it; the clues are everywhere.
One of the best, and most disconcerting for me personally, is viewing the skies from the Southern Hemisphere. Stars not visible from the Northern Hemisphere, hidden from us boreal observers by the bulk of our planet, become visible.
But it’s more than that. I’ve been to Australia twice, and one of the most unsettling aspects of watching the stars from Down Under is that they move in the wrong direction.
That video, taken by Alan Dyer, shows four views, one in each of the cardinal directions, as seen at the OzSky Star Safari near Coonabarabran, in New South Wales, Australia, in April. If you’re even passingly familiar with the northern sky this video will be decidedly unfamiliar; seeing the Milky Way’s satellite galaxies (the Large and Small Magellanic Clouds) at all is impossible from (for example) the United States. The same is true for the inky Coal Sack, a dark dust cloud in the plane of the Milky Way that hides the stars behind it, and for the austral constellations and stars.
But for all that, it’s seeing stars rise and set backward that really throws me off.
The Earth spins west to east, so the stars rise in the east and set in the west. In the Northern Hemisphere, facing south, the Earth’s spin means the stars move left to right. But if you travel south of the Equator your orientation is upside-down relative to what you’re used to, flipping right and left. From Australia (and facing, say, east) the stars rise and move to the left. The setting stars move to the right.
This gave me no end of trouble in Australia. I orient myself during the day using the Sun, and my intuition kept throwing me off. I had to stop and think about directions whenever I walked around. It was odd, but it also had the advantage of making me more aware of where I was and how wonderful it is to live on the surface of a mildly lumpy sphere.
I also want to point out a couple of things in the video. You can sometimes see a faint reddish and greenish glow near the horizon; that’s likely airglow, a dim luminescence caused by atoms and molecules in the upper atmosphere emitting light as they lose energy absorbed during the day from the Sun. Also, if you keep your eyes fixed on one spot in the sky in the view to the north, you’ll see some “stars” that don’t move; those are geosynchronous satellites, taking 24 hours to orbit the Earth once. That makes them appear to be fixed on the sky as the stars move past.
The OzSky Star Safari looks like a lot of fun; the dark sky and magnificent sprawl of stars must be something to behold. And if you look at the astronomers scurrying around in the time-lapse, you’ll see a couple of very large Dobsonian telescopes (the ones that look like laser cannons pointing upward). I can only imagine what the view through those eyepieces must be like!
Someday I hope to find out. It’s good to sometimes shake up your world view, to get some perspective, and see things literally moving the wrong way. It forces you to reconsider just how amazing our Universe can be … even if it’s just our little piece of it.
Hank Green Tells You How to Register to Vote
My friend (and former boss) Hank Green has done something amazing: He and his team (Nicole Sweeney, Nick Jenkins, Taylor Behnke Peters, and Derek Knabenbauer; Nicole and Nick worked on my Crash Course Astronomy series) have created a series of videos—50 of them!—giving U.S. citizens information on how to vote in their individual state.
Watch the introductory video to see why they made them:
It may not surprise you to know I agree with Hank fully here; a lot of people are talking about withholding their vote this election as a “protest” vote, but that logic doesn’t hold water. Doing that means your voice simply isn’t heard. It’s not a protest vote. It’s literally doing nothing.
Also, in this election there will be “down-ballot” consequences; people tend to vote straight party tickets. I make no bones about saying for whom I’m voting; Donald Trump is a hate-filled racist with no real stands on any issue except to support whatever is of immediate expediency to his ego. He also denies all manners of science. Hillary Clinton is far more supportive of womens’ issues, LGBTQ rights, minority issues, and she has publicly declared her support of science.
I’ll note that two other candidates are running, too; a free-market libertarian named Gary Johnson, and Green Party candidate Jill Stein. Johnson has some interesting stands but falls flat on his face when he says that the government should do nothing to mitigate global warming. He literally wants to let the market decide … the market that is run (and paid for) by the fossil fuel industry. So yeah, I’ll take a hard pass there. Stein denies quite a bit of science, parroting anti-vax rhetoric and saying other silly things.
I don’t think Johnson or Stein stand a chance, but they can siphon votes from the other candidates. And as I said, down-ballot voting will be critical in this election. A lot of truly awful people are running (or rerunning) for House and Senate seats, and we’ve seen stunningly inhumane behavior from many sitting in state governments. These people must be kept out of power.
So go find Hank's video for your state, watch it, and register! Every vote matters. Yours, mine, even (and maybe especially) that weird relative who says vaguely or overtly racist things at family gatherings.
Disagree with them? Then go make your vote count.