Blog Archive for the ‘Long Term Science’ Category

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Time Bottled in a Dozen 50-Milliliter Flasks

Posted on Thursday, August 21st, 02014 by Catherine Borgeson
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The 12 evolving E. coli populations

Photo by Michigan State University

For most living organisms, 60,000 generations is an extensive amount of time. Go back that many human generations, or about 1,500,000 years, and there are fossils suggesting Homo erectus were widespread in East and Southeast Asia at that time. Even for the fruit flies, which geneticists have studied for over a century because of their conveniently short lifespans, 60,000 generations equals about 3,750 years. But biologist Richard E. Lenski has observed 60,000 generations in under 27 years–all from a single strain of Escherichia coli (E. coli), the common gut microbe.

On February 24, 01988 Lenski and his team at Michigan State University embarked on an ongoing long-term evolution experiment (LTEE) to gauge the importance of chance and history on the adaptation of bacteria.  He started 12 genetically identical “lines” in 50-milliliter flasks from a single strain of E. coli. The bacteria reproduced every few hours. In April of this year, the population reached the milestone of 60,000 generations. In an interview with previous SALT Speaker Carl Zimmer back in 02009, Lenski explained:

I’ve always been fascinated by this tension between chance and necessity, the randomness of mutation and the predictable aspects of natural selection.

bacterial-growth-oEvolutionary biologists think about natural selection as a never-ending process because the environment is alway changing. However, LTEE takes place under much different circumstances than the “real world.” It is a very simple environment with no other species present. Researchers can expose populations to the same daily environmental stresses: a boom-and-bust cycle. Every 24 hours the bacteria are transferred to fresh glucose medium for 6 hours or so followed by 18 hours of starvation.

This constant laboratory environment allows for basic and rather abstract questions. How reproducible or repeatable is evolution? How long can fitness keep increasing and how high can it go? Do organisms ever reach their peak? And while the selective pressures and unchanging environment are not typically found in nature, Lenski argues there is still high value to his experiment:

The fact that the real world is a changing environment and not sort of this artificial constant environment we’ve made in the lab is a really important issue. But it’s doesn’t really tell us the answer in the baseline case, what would happen if the world did not change? And at least to my mind, science often progresses by coming to grips with these special cases, that don’t necessarily exist outside the lab….It’s really hard to make sense of the complicated, constantly changing world around us if we can’t make sense of these special, really simple cases.

The most obvious strengths of using bacteria for experimental evolution is the speed of generations, but an even more important advantage is that E. coli can be frozen. Lenski and his team have frozen the bacteria every 500 generations, creating what they call a “frozen fossil record.” Lenski explained in an interview for Science Podcast:

At different time points along the way we freeze the cells down and the frozen cells are actually viable, so we can bring them back from the freezer, we can resurrect them, revive them. That allows us to directly compete organisms that lived at different points in time.  So in effect, it allows us to do time travel.  The dream of any evolutionary biologist.

Petri dishes of E. coli

Photo via Beacon

In the November 02013 issue of Science, Lenski and two members of his lab – Michael J. Wiser and Noah Ribeck – published their most recent work looking at fitness over the 50,000 generations. They measured how much the evolved bacteria have improved relative to their ancestors under the same environmental setup.

They found that all 12 lines show consistent responses to selective pressures. For example, their descendants now grow faster in their standard sugary broth, and all populations show an increase in cell size.

Yet variation lies hidden underneath these parallel changes. The fitness increases were nearly uniform in all 12 lineages, but not exact; the cell size grew in all of the populations, but by different amounts. When Lenski and his colleagues studied the bacteria’s DNA, they found that after thousands of generations, the populations’ genomes were full of alterations. These changes were different in each population and had accumulated at very different rates, suggesting a prominent role of chance in setting evolution’s course.

In November 02013, after hitting the 50,000 generation mark, Lenski published a blog piece thinking about the long-term fate of his long-term experiment. He questions who will take over when he retires, and how the experiment will be sustained. He imagines his experiment being carried out by another 49,999 generations of scientists, each one overseeing another 50,000 bacterial generations. That is 50,0002 generations, or 2.5 billion generations in total, and would take about a million years to achieve. If this were to happen, Lenski predicts that the bacteria will reduce their doubling time from their ancestors’ ~55 minutes to ~23 minutes–which would also require a lot of freezer space. Lenski writes:

I’d really like science to test this prediction!  How often does evolutionary biology make quantitative predictions that extend a million years into the future?  Maybe the LTEE won’t last that long, but I see no reason that, with some proper support, it can’t reach 250,000 generations.  That would be less than a century from now.  If the experiment gets that far, I’d like to propose that it be renamed the VLTEE – the very long-term evolution experiment.

richard-lenski

Richard Lenski examines the growth of E. coli. Photo by G.L. Kohuth/Michigan State University

 

Stefan Kroepelin Seminar Media

Posted on Wednesday, June 25th, 02014 by Andrew Warner
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This lecture was presented as part of The Long Now Foundation’s monthly Seminars About Long-term Thinking.

Civilization’s Mysterious Desert Cradle: Rediscovering the Deep Sahara

Tuesday June 10, 02014 – San Francisco

Video is up on the Kroepelin Seminar page.

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Audio is up on the Kroepelin Seminar page, or you can subscribe to our podcast.

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The Sahara and civilization – a summary by Stewart Brand

“Almost everything breaks in the desert,” Kröpelin began. He showed trucks mired in sand, one vehicle blown up by a land mine, and a Unimog with an impossibly, hopelessly broken axle. (Using the attached backhoe, it hunched its way 50 miles back to civilization.)

The eastern Sahara remains one of the least explored places on Earth, and it is full of wonders. Every year for 40 years Kröpelin has made multi-month expeditions to figure out the paleoclimatological changes and human saga in the region over the last 17,000 years. There are no guides, no roads. When you find something—astonishing rock art (there are thousands of sites), an amazing geological feature—you know you’re the first human to see it in thousands of years.

A great river, 7 miles wide, 650 miles long, once flowed into the Nile from the desert. Now called Wadi Howar, its rich, still unstudied archeological sites show it used to be a thoroughfare from the deep desert. A vast spectacular plateau called the Ennedi Highlands, as big as Switzerland, has exquisite rock art detailing pastoral herds of cattle and even dress and hair styles. Mouflon (wild sheep) and crocodiles still survive there.

Most remarkable of all are the remote Ounianga Lakes, some of them kept charged with ancient deep-aquifer fresh water because of the draw of intense evaporation from the hypersaline central Lake Yoa. In 1999 Kröpelin began a stratigraphic study of the lake’s sediment, eventually collecting a treasure for climate study—a 52-foot core sample which shows every season for the last 11,000 years.

For Kröpelin, many strands of evidence spell out the sequence of events in the eastern Sahara. From 17,000 to 10,500 BP (before the present), there were no human settlements along the Nile. But the Sahara was gradually getting wetter in the period 10,500 to 9,000 BP, and people moved in from the south. The peak of the African Humid Period, when the Sahara was green and widely occupied, was 9,000 to 7,300 years ago. Then a gradual desiccation from 7,300 to 5,500 BP drove people to the Nile, and the first farms appeared there. From 5,500 BP on, the Nile’s pharaonic civilization got going and lasted 3,000 years.

Unique artifacts such black-rimmed pots and asymmetric stone knives, once used in the far desert, turn up in the settlements that created Egypt. Kröpelin concluded: “Egypt was a gift of the Nile, but it was also a gift of the desert.”

And of climate change.

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Multi-Millennial Portraits: The Deep Time Photography and Writing of Rachel Sussman

Posted on Wednesday, June 4th, 02014 by Catherine Borgeson
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The oldest living things in the world are a record and celebration of the past, a call to action in the present, and a barometer of our future, writes artist and SALT speaker Rachel Sussman in The Oldest Living Things in the World.

When Rachel spoke for Long Now in 02010 her book on organisms that have lived 2 millennia or more was only partially complete. Four years later The Oldest Living Things in the World is published and on the New York Times Best Seller list.

And as we prepare to welcome her back to San Francisco this month, we thought we’d take a closer look and a deeper read of this remarkable book.

Over the past decade, Sussman has been searching the planet to photograph continuously living organisms that are 2,000 years or older. She begins at year “0” and travels backwards from there, capturing millennia of living past in a fraction of a second. She writes in her book:

These ancient survivors have weathered the millennia on every continent, in some of the world’s most extreme environments, enduring ice ages, geologic shifts, and humans’ spread across the planet. Many are so small that you could walk right over them, none the wiser. Others are so large that you can’t help but stand in awe before them. I’ve photographed thirty different species, ranging from lichens in Greenland that grow only one centimeter every hundred years, to unique desert shrubs in Africa and South America, a predatory fungus in Oregon, brain coral in the Caribbean and an 80,000-year-old colony of aspen in Utah. I journeyed to Antarctica for 5,500-year-old moss, and to Tasmania for a 43,600-year-old clonal shrub that is the last individual of its kind, rendering it simultaneously critically endangered and theoretically immortal.

Sussman’s project also explains what it means to be in the year 02014 and the temporal tension that comes with photographing Deep Time. She uses the analogy of being in deep water–just like deep water, it is a battle to stay in Deep Time:

“It’s difficult to stay in Deep Time – we are constantly drawn back to the surface. This vast timescale is held in tension with the shallow time inherent to photography. What does it mean to capture a multi-millennial lifespan in 1/60th of a second? Or for that matter, to be an organism in my 30s bearing witness to organisms that precede human history and will hopefully survive us well into future generations?”

This 5,500-year-old moss bank lives right around the corner from where the Shackleton Expedition was marooned 100 years ago on Elephant Island, Antarctica. It was a victory simply being able to locate it. These days it’s easier to get to Antarctica from space. (Rachel Sussman via Time)

She has long been interested in the relationship between humanity and nature and expressed that through making landscapes. Contrary to what the book title may suggest, Sussman does not look at her subjects as “things” but over time came to see them as individuals. Instead of focusing on the aesthetics or the composition of landscape photography, she found herself creating portraits of these individuals. Her task became to capture their essence and spirit in order to better connect with them and through them to connect with Deep Time:

I approach my subjects as individuals of whom I’m making portraits. There’s a way to anthropomorphize the experience of these ancient organisms that have bore witness to millennia, which is something that is so outside of our human understanding of what a life span is–it is so outside of our temporal comfort zone.

This 9,950-year-old tree is like a portrait of climate change. The mass of branches near the ground grew the same way for roughly 9,500 years, but the new, spindly trunk in the center is only 50 or so years old, caused by warming at the top of this mountain plateau in Western Sweden. (Rachel Sussman via Time)

The end result of Sussman’s 10-year project is an archive; one that is part art and part science. Her book contains 120+ photos of the thirty subjects. Accompanying the photographs, Sussman writes of her personal journeys searching for these ancient organisms with insights from scientists who research each of them. Her essays weave together scientific explanations with artistic portraits, and invite the reader to understand and partake in her experience. The multiple layers of her work interconnect to help conceptualize the experience of being alive for thousands of years.

Lichens in Greenland that grow only one centimeter every hundred years.

Sussman writes about her experience photographing The Senator, a now-deceased Bald Cypress whose 3,500-year life was ended by a man-caused fire. In another adventure she had overcome her fear of deep water and learn to scuba dive (while injured) in order to photograph the 2,000-year-old Brain Coral, the first member of the animal kingdom she encountered to surpass the two-thousand year mark.

The Siberian Actinobacteria (pictured above) is believed to be the oldest continuously living thing, dating somewhere between 400,000 and 600,000 years old. It lives underground in the permafrost where the colony was found by planetary biologists who were looking for clues to life on other planets by investigating one of the most inhospitable places on Earth.

Over the course of their investigation, they found that these remarkable bacteria are actually doing DNA repair at temperatures below freezing, meaning that they are not dormant; they have been alive and slowly growing for half a million years.

This puts the life of a 5,000-year-old Bristlecone Pine into perspective, which is also featured in her book as the “oldest unitarian organisms.”

Sussman’s approach evolved as her work spanned multiple years, disciplines, continents and personal struggles.

I don’t think it would be the same if I had just used a checklist and went around the world and was done in a year. There is something about over the years wanting to do justice to this work. I realized I needed to keep myself in the story and to be vulnerable. It’s not an overly personal story but just that I’m a character in it. People need to have an entry point where they can connect. That’s really the point of looking at these organisms as individuals. But also the window is partially being pulled open by me as a person who is trying to communicate something that I’ve experienced, or learned, or some philosophical musing, or just how hard it was. I think it’s a way to remind people that nature and this idea of Deep Time are not so distant from our everyday lives. All of these things are intertwined and you bounce back and forth between the here-and-now and long-term thinking. The longer I’ve spent thinking about Deep Time and these old organisms, I find it now easier to connect with that.

Artist Rachel Sussman (photo by Victor G. Jeffreys II)

Long Now is proud to bring Rachel back to San Francisco for two very special events: on June 12th, 02014 with fellow photographer Mario Del Curto discussing photography and the natural world at swissnex. And then on June 13th Rachel appears at The Interval, Long Now’s new venue at Fort Mason, to talk about the book and her experience creating it.

We hope you’ll join us for one or both of these opportunities to see Rachel Sussman in person and hear more about her remarkable work.

Proof: The Science of Booze by Adam Rogers

Posted on Thursday, May 29th, 02014 by Mikl Em
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Proof debuts at The Interval
Photo by Adam Rogers

The earliest evidence of a deliberately made alcoholic drink comes from a 10,000 year old piece of Chinese pottery. Lab tests revealed traces of a fermented mixture of rice honey and fruit. It would have been hard to mix those ingredients and keep it from fermenting.

Adam Rogers has held that shard of pottery in his hand and made an eminent archaeologist nervous in the process. He tells that story and many more in his new book Proof: The Science of Booze which tells the ten-millennia story of alcohol history from Yeast to Hangover.

Adam Rogers Speaks at The Interval
Photo by Alexander Rose

Long Now was honored to host the launch of Proof this week for the first salon talk at The Interval, our new bar and cafe. We are not yet open to the public, but we knew this was the perfect way to debut The Interval as a venue for smaller talks to complement our ongoing Seminar series.

If you missed his talk here, Bay Area folks can see him speak tonight (Thursday, May 29) at California Academy of Sciences’ “Chemical Reactions” NightLife event. Adam will also be talking about Proof in a few cities around the country including June 4th in Washington DC, on June 5th in New York City, and in Los Angeles (TBA).

Adam Rogers, author of Proof: The Science of Booze
Photo by Celine Mikahala Grouard

An experienced science journalist and great storyteller, Adam is the articles editor at Wired, and he also knows his booze. In fact his knowledge of the local spirits and bar scene have been invaluable to Long Now as we planned and built The Interval.

It was Adam’s recommendation that led us to Jennifer Colliau who designed and runs The Interval’s bar. And Adam connected us with St George Spirits who helped us make some very special whiskey and gin which have helped us raise construction funds for The Interval.

You’ll find the full story of Long Now’s Bristlecone Gin in Proof, learn about an alternate reality where Americans drink saki rather than whiskey, and learn more science than you knew existed about hangovers. Adam first began this line of boozy writing in 02011 when he wrote an award-winning story about a whisky fungus.

Reception for the book so far has been very positive:

Adam Rogers writes masterfully and gracefully about all the sciences that swirl around spirits, from the biology of a hangover to the paleontology of microbes that transform plant juices into alcohol. A book to be savored and revisited.
— Carl Zimmer, author of A Planet of Viruses former Long Now speaker

Reading Proof feels just like you’re having a drink with a knowledgeable and enthusiastic friend. —Adam Savage, host of MythBusters

Congratulations to Adam and here’s to the continued success of Proof. It was wonderful to celebrate it and The Interval’s debut together.

Adam Rogers launches Proof at The Interval
Photo by Alexander Rose

The Interval at Long Now is an intimate event venue that serves coffee, tea, beer, wine, and sensational cocktails in a time-themed menu. The Interval opens for regular hours in June, and will host a few salon talks each month, more events will be announced soon.

Sylvia Earle & Tierney Thys Seminar Primer

Posted on Tuesday, May 6th, 02014 by Charlotte Hajer
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undersea4National Geographic Explorers-in-Residence Sylvia Earle & Tierney Thys are among the world’s leading champions of ocean conservation. Through research, writing, and public outreach, they raise awareness of the ocean’s myriad beauties – and its vital importance to all life on the planet.

Sylvia-Earle_cKipEvans_0263_sml-300x200Sylvia Earle is a pioneer in the field of ocean conservation and marine engineering. She is the founder of Deep Ocean Engineering and Deep Ocean Exploration and Research, companies that develop the tools required for deep ocean exploration – from robotic submersibles to specialized lighting and cameras. She holds a PhD in marine biology from Princeton, has served on the National Advisory Committee on Oceans and Atmosphere, and was appointed chief scientist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) in 01990 – becoming the first woman to hold that post. Her publications number more than 190, and include both academic articles and children’s books about the deep ocean.

Called “her deepness” by the New York Times and the New Yorker, Earle has led more than 100 diving expeditions and logged more than 7,000 hours under water. She set a depth record of 1,250 feet in a 01979 solo dive off the coast of Oahu, and led an all-female team of aquanauts on an extended mission at an ocean-floor habitat and laboratory as part of the Tektite Program, a collaboration between NASA, GE, and the Navy to examine the biological and psychological effects of long-term isolation in small spaces.

Earle has led a number of Sustainable Seas Expeditions with the NOAA, and has pursued the establishment of protected areas in the ocean as a National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence. She won a TED prize in 02009 for her wish that people

would use all means at [their] disposal – films, expeditions, the web, new submarines – and campaign to ignite public support for a global network of marine protected areas; Hope Spots large enough to save and restore the ocean, the blue heart of the planet. How much? Some say 10 percent, some say 30 percent. You decide: how much of your heart do you want to protect? Whatever it is, a fraction of one percent is not enough. My wish is a big wish, but if we can make it happen, it can truly change the world, and help ensure the survival of what actually — as it turns out — is my favorite species; that would be us. For the children of today, for tomorrow’s child: as never again, now is the time.

She founded Mission Blue in order to pursue that wish of establishing “hope spots” – protected areas that can serve as the “seeds of tomorrow’s healthy ocean:”

Networks of marine protected areas maintain healthy biodiversity, provide a carbon sink, generate life-giving oxygen, preserve critical habitat and allow low-impact activities like ecotourism to thrive. They are good for the ocean, which means they are good for us.

t2cameraEarle has long been a mentor to Tierney Thys, whom National Geographic describes as “the next generation’s champion of ocean exploration.” A Marine biologist, Thys has devoted her career to the Mola mola, or giant ocean sunfish. Enchanted with the ocean from a young age, she began working with Earle at Deep Ocean Engineering before obtaining a doctorate in zoology at Duke, specializing in the biomechanics of swimming muscles in fish.

Today Thys is a leading expert on the ocean sunfish, a very large yet mostly unknown open ocean fish. Her research team tags the creatures and collects tissue samples in efforts to learn more about their reproductive habits, their use of ocean currents to travel across the world, their jellyfish diet, and the size of their population. In a 02003 TED talk, Thys explains what the Mola mola might teach us about life in the open ocean, and shows that marine research can awaken a love for the ocean in all of us.

I don’t think I could say it any better than the immortal Bard himself: “One touch of nature makes the whole world kin.” And sure, it may be just one big old silly fish, but it’s helping. If it’s helping to unite the world, I think it’s definitely the fish of the future.

Thys is also an educator and filmmaker: she works with nonprofits and research institutes to advance public understanding of science and the environment through films. She has written, narrated, and produced documentaries about the ocean and global environmental change with the Sea Studios Foundation, where she was the Director of Research until 02008, as well as TED Ed.

Earle and Thys both work to raise public awareness of the oceans and the vital role they play in sustaining life on the planet. As Earle writes in the Huffington Post,

Human beings are sea creatures, dependent on the ocean just as much as whales, herring or coral reefs. The big blue area that dominates the view of earth from space was once our home and today represents 97 percent of the biosphere where life exists, providing the water we drink and the air we breathe. And we are destroying it.

The two will meet on stage at the SFJAZZ Center on May 20th to lead their audience on a journey into the world’s oceans. They will explore the mysteries of the life it holds, discuss the ways we are threatening its health, and review what humanity can do to protect its well-being. You can reserve tickets, get directions, and sign up for the podcast on our Seminar page.

Mariana Mazzucato Seminar Primer

Posted on Monday, March 10th, 02014 by Andrew Warner
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20130831_WBD000_0

Since the Enlightenment and its corresponding assumptions of social-technological progress, scholars have debated what political and economic systems best facilitate technological growth.
These days, one of the common assumptions of the technology sector is that the government is fundamentally a limiting force when it comes to innovation. This view is a well-established conservative position since the advent of the Chicago School of Keynesian Economics, but even among progressives, there’s a strong sentiment that the government doesn’t have what it takes to innovate and bring new technologies to the helm. Headlines seem to support this theory: it takes the private sector a fraction of the cost to send rockets to space, new laws banning disruptive technology companies like AirBnb and Uber seem to crop up every week. A cursory glance at this issue would seem to suggest that when it comes to developing new technologies, Thomas Jefferson’s maxim still rings loud and true: That government which governs best, governs least.

5579b77b74fa8628aaa2b0fb97317742e3d7b6c1_254x191Enter Mariana Mazzucato. Currently the RM Phillips chair in the Economics of Innovation at the University of Sussex, she also has a long resume of academic positions at other prestigious universities, including University of Denver, London Business School, Open University, and Bocconi University. Her research focuses on the role of the State in modern capitalism, and her analysis runs counter to the tech communities’ common understanding of how technologies come to market. Mariana Mazzucato’s research shows that many of the technologies that form the backbone of our technological revolutions were the direct result of multi-decade research by the state. Consider the examples of computers, the internet, and GPS–all of these technologies were developed and funded by the government for decades before entering the consumer market, and it’s impossible to imagine an iphone without these technologies.

In his 02011 SALT talk, Geoffrey West noted that the average lifespan of a company is merely 10 years. On such short time scales, it’s hard for companies to invest in technologies that don’t have immediate market potential. It’s not a coincidence that Apple or Google came to fruition under the auspices of a government that heavily invested in these technologies: the computer manufacturer was able to build its first machine by virtue of a $500,000 investment from an obscure government entity, and the search engine’s revolutionary algorithm was developed through research that was funded by the National Science Foundation. When one then considers the network of publicly-funded universities and labs (which developed technologies such as HTML and touchscreens), the mythos of the lone entrepreneur/inventor starts to look incomplete at best.

Mazzucato’s analysis forces us to ponder a rather uncomfortable question: Why do we systematically downplay these long-term investments by the government, and champion the companies that bring these mature technologies to market?

To learn more about the economics of innovation, come see Mariana Mazzucato on March 24th at the SFJAZZ Center in San Francisco. You can reserve tickets, get directions and sign up for the podcast on the Seminar page.

Subscribe to the Seminars About Long-term Thinking podcast for more thought-provoking programs.

ICE/ISEE-3 To Return To An Earth No Longer Capable of Speaking To It

Posted on Monday, February 24th, 02014 by Charlotte Hajer
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International Cometary Explorer (NASA)

This August, a pioneer in space exploration returns to Earth after more than 30 years of service. The spacecraft is still in good, functioning condition, and could possibly be assigned to another mission. Sadly, however, we seem to have forgotten how to speak its language.

The probe, a collaboration between NASA and ESA, was one of three crafts launched in 01978 to study the the interaction between solar wind and Earth’s magnetosphere. Named the International Sun-Earth Explorer-3 (ISEE-3), it was the first-ever object to be sent into heliocentric orbit at the first Lagrangian point – a particular location between Earth and Sun, where our planet’s gravitational force cancels out the Sun’s pull in such a way that a satellite essentially orbits in tandem with Earth.

Upon completion of its mission in 01983, the probe was repurposed and re-christened: now called the International Cometary Explorer (ICE), it circled the moon a few times to gather speed, and then flew off to chase after two comets. ICE intercepted comet Giacobini-Zinner in 01985 before catching up with Halley’s comet in 01986, and making history as the first spacecraft to study two comets directly.

After a brief third mission to study coronal mass ejections, NASA officially decommissioned the probe and shut down communications with its systems. Nevertheless, the agency discovered in 02008 not only that ICE had failed to power off, but also that 12 of its 13 instruments were still functioning. They entertained the idea of sending ICE off to study another corner of the Solar System – only to learn that the equipment needed to communicate with ICE is no longer available, and too cost-prohibitive to rebuild. The Planetary Society’s Emily Lackdawalla explains:

Several months of digging through old technical documents has led a group of NASA engineers to believe they will indeed be able to understand the stream of data coming from the spacecraft. NASA’s Deep Space Network (DSN) can listen to the spacecraft, a test in 2008 proved that it was possible to pick up the transmitter carrier signal, but can we speak to the spacecraft? Can we tell the spacecraft to turn back on its thrusters and science instruments after decades of silence and perform the intricate ballet needed to send it back to where it can again monitor the Sun? The answer to that question appears to be no.

For the past 15 years, ICE has been patiently orbiting the Sun at a speed slightly higher than that of Earth. Now that it’s catching up with us again from behind, researchers realize there’s much more exploration that ICE could have helped us with. Unfortunately, we simply don’t seem capable of mustering the resources we need to communicate with ICE. Lackdawalla muses,

I wonder if ham radio operators will be able to pick up its carrier signal – it’s meaningless, I guess, but it feels like an honorable thing to do, a kind of salute to the venerable ship as it passes by.

The New California Water Atlas

Posted on Saturday, February 1st, 02014 by Austin Brown
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California_Water_Rights

Almost forty years ago, California’s young new governor faced the challenge of leading his state through one of its worst droughts ever. Around that time, a group of cartographers had been hoping to develop a comprehensive and definitive atlas of the state and one of them suggested the idea to an advisor to the governor’s office, Stewart Brand. In light of the crisis, a scaled-back, more focused atlas detailing California’s water systems garnered support from members of the administration and governor Jerry Brown.

Several years later, in 01979, California’s Office of Planning and Research published the California Water Atlas, an attempt at “providing the average citizen with a single-volume point of access to understanding how water works in the State of California,” as the volume’s foreword, written by Project Director and Editor William L. Karhl, put it.

Several decades later, California is once again governed by Jerry Brown. Drought has returned and so, coincidentally, has the water atlas. The New California Water Atlas seeks to revive and update the original’s citizen-serving, data-sharing approach by offering online, interactive maps.

bio-boundaries

Headed up by Laci Videmsky, a project director at the Resource Renewal Institute, The New California Water Atlas operates as a non-profit project, rather than directly out of the Governor’s office. Now moved to the web, it also seeks to publish not a single volume, but a growing body of tools and interactive visualizations with regularly updated data.

Videmsky spoke with me about the project from Berkeley, where he also lectures for the College of Environmental Design at the University of California. He described at length how the original Water Atlas inspired this new project and about what’s in store.

Videmsky first encountered the original Atlas when his wife brought it home from UC Berkeley’s library. “Both of us were in awe,” he says.

Around this time, Videmsky explains, he’d been exploring the world of web mapping, open data and open government:

I was really interested in the ethos of open government and how people were using data, thinking about transparency and accountability, and how their systems communicate with government and the kinds of technologies they were using to connect people. And most of this work was being done at the city level and then at the federal level and also most of it was related to various amenities and services that were often not natural resources, so I wondered, why don’t we take this open government and open data to natural resources agencies? They are civic institutions and they could benefit from this.

One area he began researching was California’s system of granting water rights.

I was learning how to do web mapping and I called the state water board to download their data from their site. They had kind of an older application that they’d built a while back that kind of half works and doesn’t have an easy way to search or to download data, and they were actually nice enough to just give me their whole data set.

The_California_Water_Atlas

Not long after these extracurricular efforts, he walked into the office of Huey Johnson, founder and president of the Resource Renewal Institute (and a former SALT speaker), and noticed a copy of the Water Atlas. Johnson had been the Secretary for Resources in Jerry Brown’s first administration and served on the Water Atlas’s advisory board along with Stewart Brand. They got to talking about the original Atlas, as well as some of Videmky’s efforts to visualize water data.

I showed him this interactive map that I’d made with the water board data and the lightbulb went off and we started having conversations about open government and how open data’s kind of changing the way government works and how we can maybe do that for California water.

It was out of that conversation that the New California Water Atlas was born and from that early prototype map that the site’s first big visualization would eventually grow. Videmsky and others are currently working on two more interactives for the site, with hopes of many more being developed as the project grows. The first focuses on groundwater levels:

We’re working on groundwater – so another state agency called the Department of Water Resources, which actually funded the first atlas, they have a data set of all the water levels in the ground of about 15,000 groundwater elevation monitoring wells. We downloaded from their water elevation monitoring system about 500,000 records which represents about 30 years of data for the whole state. It was very laborious – it took us a month to get 30 years.

Using the final product, Californians will be able to zoom into an area of the state on a map and move a slider to view the last 30 years of fluctuations in groundwater levels.

Another interactive in the pipeline will track water prices across the state:

I’m starting a collaboration with the California Public Utilities Commission to make data available to visualize water prices. Water isn’t priced according to scarcity, it’s priced according to the price of delivering the water. So I think it’d be really, really interesting for people to be able to compare what they paid for water.

Something Videmsky has found to be consistent with the original Atlas is the eagerness of state agencies to share their data, despite budgetary and technical challenges. Stewart Brand wrote in the original’s afterword:

Some of it was easier than expected. The state government probably has more information on water than any other subject, but early fears that the information would be jealously guarded by the agencies turned out to be incorrect. At every level, from local to state to federal, people were generous with their data and their time.

As Videmsky put it:

A lot of state agencies don’t have the resources either in staff or money to improve the way they make water understandable and water data available to the public. And so there’s definitely a need for private-public partnerships and that’s actually happening in many different sectors. We get a lot of moral support from the agencies. They’re very excited about this. We’re making something that’s very visible, highly accessible and so they’re really eager to participate.

Beyond helping the state’s agencies tell their stories, Videmsky is also exploring the idea of making a platform for citizens to tell theirs as well.

One idea – this is not implemented – but one idea is to allow for, almost a site within a site so a user would be able to create a blog around a certain geographic area. They’re dealing with issues locally that are important to them, like groundwater contamination, so it’d almost be like a citizen atlas, where citizens’ science sits alongside authoritative data. There are a lot of stories to tell that are not necessarily data stories but personal stories.

Additionally, they’re looking for help from programmers, translators (they want the site to be in both English and Spanish), designers and data-wranglers. Much of their work is open-sourced on GitHub, where they’d be happy for help building part of the visualizations or cleaning up the data.

Keeping the project open-source isn’t just a collaborative choice, though. Videmsky sees it as a way to help the project bear long-term fruit. While the original Atlas was a single volume, the web will allow the new Atlas to live and grow along with the state and possibly to be adopted by other states or for analyzing other natural resources. Along other long-term lines, Videmsky said they’re looking for a good institutional partner to help support and archive the data so that the database of California’s water system they hope to build can continue to grow and inform the state’s citizens for generations to come.

“Climate Change and Us” Event Video Now Live

Posted on Monday, December 23rd, 02013 by Andrew Warner
link   Categories: Announcements, Events, Long Term Science   chat 0 Comments

Rarely do we get to hear directly from the scientists who compile, analyze, and synthesize the most recent climate change data. On December 13th, swissnex San Francisco, in partnership with The Long Now Foundation, hosted an event that explained the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s most recent report, and what types of solutions would be needed to avoid pervasive climate shifts.

The evening started with a video highlighting the process of creating an IPCC report, and then a presentation from IPCC scientist Thomas Stocker on the conclusions of the report. The report divided the future into four possible scenarios, 2.0, 4.0, 6.0, and 8.0 degree shifts in mean global temperatures, allowing each country and policy maker to see the relative effects of each level of climate change. The news for even a 2.0 degree shift isn’t good, but the speakers did a great job of balancing the stark news with fruitful discussion of different avenues for addressing the causes.

The rest of the evening featured a diverse panel of experts on the report’s key takeaways for the scientist, the citizen, and the entrepreneur. Participants included former SALT speakers Saul Griffith and Paul Hawken, IPCC scientists Gian-Kasper Plattner and Thomas Stocker, and Susan Burns of the Global Footprint Network. After the event, swissnex hosted a reception in the venue to allow the audience to continue the conversation started on stage.

This embedded video is a 10 minute preview. The full video is available at Fora.TV

Wake up, Rosetta!

Posted on Monday, December 16th, 02013 by Austin Brown
link   Categories: Long Term Science, Rosetta   chat 0 Comments

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Almost ten years ago, the European Space Agency launched a probe with the goal of approaching and studying a comet. The probe was named Rosetta because, just as the Rosetta Stone allowed historians to piece together an ancient language and unlock a great deal of human history, the Rosetta probe will give us a better understanding of comets than we’ve ever had and possibly help us unlock a great deal of our solar system’s history.

The ESA invited Long Now to include one of our Rosetta Disks (in early prototype form at the time) on the probe. The Rosetta mission, therefore, serves a second purpose (after its comet research) as an off-world archive of several thousand human languages.

In search of its target, Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, Rosetta performed several slingshot fly-bys of our solar system’s inner planets, the last of which happened in 02009.

Rosetta has been in hibernation mode ever since, speeding its way toward Comet 67P. It needs to wake up in January to begin preparing for its August rendezvous and the ESA wants some help rousing it:

In a competition that opens today, ESA invites you to mark this important milestone in the Rosetta mission by sharing a video clip of you shouting “Wake up, Rosetta!”

You can upload your video clip and share it with the world via ESA’s dedicated Facebook page.

Be creative and imaginative – you can include friends, family, colleagues, members of your team, social clubs, and school groups, or even put together a flash mob to create a memorable video shout.

Creators of the two most popular videos will get to watch the Rosetta probe drop a lander named Philae onto the comet from mission control in Germany! Details and how to enter. You can keep up with the Rosetta mission on Facebook and Twitter.