Category Archives: Science in Context

Near Earth Objects; the database designed to save humanity

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The media love natural disasters, even those that don’t exist. Last week (early October, 2017), dramatic footage of a (simulated) super-volcano eruption beneath Auckland city was aired by several international media outlets, with headlines announcing the city’s calamitous destruction. But there is no super-volcano beneath Auckland. The excitement was short-lived.  While Auckland smouldered (as if that wasn’t enough), it was announced that New Zealand’s North Island could experience a subduction zone earthquake that, in its aftermath, would leave 1000s dead. An interesting backdrop to New Zealand’s recent election. Having scared the local population to death, our purveyors of science moved on to the next concern; other “what ifs…”.

Asteroid impacts are no longer de rigueur; perhaps it’s the turn of super-volcanoes’, or because NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA) have stated, with some confidence, that no large impacts are expected within the next 100 years. And whereas the media may find this Continue reading

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Class 5; The Toba eruption – how a super volcano almost stopped humanity in its tracks

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Toba Lake, in northern Sumatra, occupies the ancient Toba caldera. One of its outlets, the Asahan River, is the site of some spectacular white-water, a kayaker’s delight. For anyone willing to run the river, spare a thought for your early human ancestors, who it seems, were lucky to survive the aftermath of a cataclysmic super volcanic eruption 74,000 years ago. Be thankful that they did. Continue reading

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A greener earth; Earth’s vegetation is responding to increasing atmospheric CO2

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Photosynthesis, a process that had its beginnings about 2.5 billion years ago, has an awesome responsibility; it keeps us breathing. It is a metabolic process in plants that uses the energy from sunlight to drive chemical reactions; reactions that produce amino acids, proteins, sugars and other compounds that create the architecture of plants.  The process takes atmospheric CO2, converts the carbon plus other nutrients to organic compounds, then expels the left-over oxygen. Plants help regulate the composition of the atmosphere – they are our other set of lungs.

It has been shown experimentally that photosynthesis increases in many kinds of plants (some more than others), as the supply of atmospheric CO2 also increases. On a global scale, this is referred to as greening of the earth, where both regional studies, and more recently satellite data show an overall increase in plant growth, and an increase in growing seasons. In Europe and North America, the seasonal leaf-out (or bud-break) for the period 1950 to the 1990s was 2-4 weeks earlier than pre-1950. Continue reading

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Hold a ‘0’ to the light and look through it – there is nothing, and everything

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Several years ago I read Jerry P. King’s The Art of Mathematics (1992). Chapter 3 deals with Numbers, and in it is a statement that has bothered me ever since “Although they are the most fundamental of mathematical objects, the natural numbers are not found in nature.” There are real numbers, but none exist in the natural universe. We may count two people, write the number on a piece of paper, or solve an equation that gives the answer as two, but the number ‘two’ does not exist – we cannot pick it up or put it under a microscope. I have kept an eye out for ‘one’, but even this basic singularity is elusive. Numbers, it seems, are an abstraction.

So where does this leave ‘zero’? Zero means nothing, zilch, emptiness; so is it even a natural number – is it an integer? Several commentators of mathematics and science have suggested Continue reading

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In praise of field work

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The class field trip is underway.  Teacher hands out the rap-around, virtual imaging glasses, and you are transported to a green horizon. In the background, there is an annoying kind of buzz, as teacher relates the topic of enquiry, asks questions, provides comments. Fellow students may even be projected into your virtual reality, their essence reduced to pixels. There’s a resounding crash – one student, suffering from vertigo, has fallen off their chair. Another has just thrown up from motion sickness.  All in a day’s field study. Off come the glasses. The green horizon vanishes. All except one of your classmates are still in their chairs, surrounded by the same four classroom walls. What was learned? Continue reading

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Io; Zeus’s fancy and Jupiter’s moon

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Zeus, the head-honcho of assorted Greek gods, heroes, nymphs, and mortals, was chiefly the God of the Sky, or Heavens. One of his minor portfolios was the upholding of Honour, but, as mythology relates, he didn’t put much energy into that particular task; he was a philanderer, much to the annoyance of his own wife, Hera (I guess his energies were directed elsewhere).  One such misdirection was Io, a mortal woman, who had the misfortune to be turned into a heifer by Zeus, to hide the infidelity from Hera. Io’s memory now survives as planetary body; one of the Galilean moons of Jupiter is named after her (to be named a moon of the Roman God Jupiter, seems like a historical slap in the face to the Greek deity). Continue reading

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An Italian job; seismic risk-assessment at risk

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Life is a risky business. Not a day goes by when some aspect of our lives comes under the gaze of risk assessment, an analysis of potential adversity, the probability that some event will impact our well-being. No black and white determinism here; we have become probabilistic entities. The seemingly simple act of driving your car, is translated into an actuarial assessment that determines the cost of insurance, a government’s health budget, a funeral director’s business plan, or a vehicle manufacturer’s liability. All are predicated on the probability of some event taking place – one chance in x occurrences. No luck, or absence of luck? Luck is when you win the lottery without buying a ticket.

Predicting natural phenomena, like volcanic eruptions, tornadoes, or earthquakes, is the stuff of science. The problem with these kinds of events is that they can have global impacts. How does Continue reading

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