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The Anthropocene epoch: have we entered a new phase of planetary history?

It was February 2000 and the Nobel laureate Paul Crutzen was sitting in a meeting room in Cuernavaca, Mexico, stewing quietly. Five years earlier, Crutzen and two colleagues had been awarded the Nobel prize in chemistry for proving that the ozone layer, which shields the planet from ultraviolet light, was thinning at the poles because of rising concentrations of industrial gas. Now he was attending a meeting of scientists who studied the planet’s oceans, land surfaces and atmosphere. As the scientists presented their findings, most of which described dramatic planetary changes, Crutzen shifted in his seat. “You could see he was getting agitated. He wasn’t happy,” Will Steffen, a chemist who organised the meeting, told me recently.

What finally tipped Crutzen over the edge was a presentation by a group of scientists that focused on the Holocene, the geological epoch that began around 11,700 years ago and continues to the present day. After Crutzen heard the word Holocene for the umpteenth time, he lost it. “He stopped everybody and said: ‘Stop saying the Holocene! We’re not in the Holocene any more,’” Steffen recalled. But then Crutzen stalled. The outburst had not been premeditated, but now all eyes were on him. So he blurted out a name for a new epoch. A combination of anthropos, the Greek for “human”, and “-cene”, the suffix used in names of geological epochs, “Anthropocene” at least sounded academic. Steffen made a note.

https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2019/may/30/anthropocene-epoch-have-we-entered-a-new-phase-of-planetary-history

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Posted by on June 12, 2019 in Reportages

 

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How to reduce digital distractions: advice from medieval monks

Medieval monks had a terrible time concentrating. And concentration was their lifelong work! Their tech was obviously different from ours. But their anxiety about distraction was not. They complained about being overloaded with information, and about how, even once you finally settled on something to read, it was easy to get bored and turn to something else. They were frustrated by their desire to stare out of the window, or to constantly check on the time (in their case, with the Sun as their clock), or to think about food or sex when they were supposed to be thinking about God. They even worried about getting distracted in their dreams.

https://aeon.co/ideas/how-to-reduce-digital-distractions-advice-from-medieval-monks

 
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Posted by on May 20, 2019 in Uncategorized

 

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When biodegradable plastic is not biodegradable

The idea of a “biodegradable” plastic suggests a material that would degrade to little or nothing over a period of time, posing less of a hazard to wildlife and the environment. This is the sort of claim often made by plastic manufacturers, yet recent research has revealed supposedly biodegradable plastic bags still intact after three years spent either at sea or buried underground. So un-degraded were these bags that they were still able to hold more than two kilos of shopping.

The study’s authors, Imogen Napper and Richard Thompson at the University of Plymouth, tested compostable, biodegradable, oxo-biodegradable, and conventional polythene plastic bags in three different natural environments: buried in the ground, outdoors exposed to air and sunlight, and submerged in the sea. Not one of the bags broke down completely in all of the environments tested. In particular, the biodegradable bag survived in soil and sea almost unscathed.

https://theconversation.com/when-biodegradable-plastic-is-not-biodegradable-116368

 
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Posted by on May 14, 2019 in Uncategorized

 

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What animals can teach us about politics

In July 2017, when Sean Spicer, then the White House press secretary, was discovered hiding in the bushes to dodge questions from reporters, I knew Washington politics had become truly primatological. A few weeks earlier, James Comey had intentionally worn a blue suit while standing at the back of a room with blue curtains so as to blend in. The FBI director hoped to go unnoticed and avoid a presidential hug. (The tactic failed.)

Making creative use of the environment is primate politics at its best, as is the role of body language such as sitting on a throne high above the grovelling masses, descending into their midst with an escalator or raising one’s arm so underlings can kiss your armpit (a pheromonal ritual invented by Saddam Hussein). The link between high evaluations of debate performances and the candidates’ heights is well known – taller candidates have a leg up. This advantage explains why short leaders bring along boxes to stand on during group photos.

https://www.theguardian.com/science/2019/mar/12/what-animals-can-teach-us-about-politics

 
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Posted by on May 13, 2019 in Uncategorized

 

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Here’s to naps and snoozes

A few months ago, two Americans arrived for a meeting at a sprawling, corporate campus in Sichuan Province in China. (They asked not to be named because their work is confidential.) To get to the conference room, they crossed a vast span of cubicles where hundreds of young engineers were busy at their desks, a scene replicated on every floor of the 10-storey building. The meeting was to discuss a dense, text-heavy document, and it began with the client reviewing the day’s agenda: they’d talk until 11am, break for lunch, have nap time, and then start again at 2pm.

Lunch was in a cafeteria the size of a football field where women with hair nets and soup ladles regulated the movement of a column of people. The visitors lost sight of their hosts, so they got into line, bolted down their meal, and retraced their way to the building where they’d had their meeting. When the elevator door opened, the window blinds were drawn, the computer screens were off, and the whole floor lay in grey shadow. The workday could have been over but for the fact that people lay about everywhere, as switched off as the ceiling lights.

https://aeon.co/essays/its-time-to-celebrate-the-humanity-of-the-communal-snooze

 
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Posted by on May 9, 2019 in Reportages

 

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Why the sleep industry is keeping us awake at night

Hardly a day goes by without some new story about sleep in the papers, on TV or in our news feeds. Sleep is everywhere. We’re told relentlessly how much of it we need, what will happen if we don’t get it, and how much the economy loses through tired workers. Sleep experts broadcast their advice and opinions as if some new philosopher’s stone has been found, and sleep books now grace both bestseller lists and bedside tables.

Adverts for mattresses, once a rarity, now regularly punctuate commercial breaks and the global sleep aid industry will reach an estimated $76bn this year. Just as the media constantly tell us what food we should eat and what exercise we should take, we are now instructed on how and when we must sleep. Whereas a few decades ago there were only a handful of sleep disorders that one could suffer from, today there are more than 70. And with more disorders come more cures, more experts, more revenue.

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Companies boast of their new sleep policies, with sleep hygienists eager to get into the boardroom. US insurance giant Aetna, which has almost 50,000 employees, gives them a bonus for getting more sleep, with workers receiving an extra $25 per night if they manage to sleep 20 seven-hour nights or more. If shut eye is a problem, don’t worry, we are told, as once your sleep tracker identifies you as insomniac, you could receive cognitive therapy via your smartphone that will help you sleep healthily.

https://www.theguardian.com/books/2019/mar/09/the-big-sleep-business-are-we-being-sold-an-impossible-dream

 
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Posted by on May 9, 2019 in Reportages

 

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The Pentagon’s Plans to Program Soldiers’ Brains

His speech then took a turn: “Now, we’ve had a lot of interesting tools over the years, but fundamentally the way that we work with those tools is through our bodies.” Then a further turn: “Here’s a situation that I know all of you know very well—your frustration with your smartphones, right? This is another tool, right? And we are still communicating with these tools through our bodies.”

And then it made a leap: “I would claim to you that these tools are not so smart. And maybe one of the reasons why they’re not so smart is because they’re not connected to our brains. Maybe if we could hook those devices into our brains, they could have some idea of what our goals are, what our intent is, and what our frustration is.”

So began “Beyond Bionics,” a talk by Justin C. Sanchez, then an associate professor of biomedical engineering and neuroscience at the University of Miami, and a faculty member of the Miami Project to Cure Paralysis. He was speaking at a tedx conference in Florida in 2012. What lies beyond bionics? Sanchez described his work as trying to “understand the neural code,” which would involve putting “very fine microwire electrodes”—the diameter of a human hair—“into the brain.” When we do that, he said, we would be able to “listen in to the music of the brain” and “listen in to what somebody’s motor intent might be” and get a glimpse of “your goals and your rewards” and then “start to understand how the brain encodes behavior.”

https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2018/11/the-pentagon-wants-to-weaponize-the-brain-what-could-go-wrong/570841/

 
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Posted by on April 23, 2019 in North America

 

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Human Drugs Are Polluting the Water—And Animals Are Swimming in It

What impels small salmon, called smolts, out of their nursery brooks to the ocean? Across thousands of miles, the fish transmogrify from fingerlings into trollish adults—hook-jawed, toothy, and, in the case of many males, humpbacked. Though reversing the journey does not rescind their metamorphosis, the big fish famously return, waggling against currents, vaulting over dams, and pushing together, like a blade, toward the very gravel beds where, years earlier, they hatched.

The salmon “pulse,” as some people describe this recurrent migration, is a marvel of animal tenacity. But it matters for reasons beyond natural spectacle. The fish’s life cycle draws nutrients from forested areas to the ocean and then back upstream, onto floodplains, into woodlands, and higher still, to alpine lakes. En route, salmon bodies feed wolves, foxes, eagles, otters, flies, and others. Grizzlies and black bears lug the fish into the underwood, plucking the richest organs and leaving the carcasses. Spruce forests in the Pacific Northwest have been fertilized by salmon: Tree rings record years of abundant fish as well as thinner seasons. Nearly a quarter of the nitrogen available to a river’s encircling woodland may have been derived from dropped or stranded salmon.

https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2019/05/pharmaceutical-pollution/586006/

 
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Posted by on April 20, 2019 in Uncategorized

 

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The Day the Dinosaurs Died

If, on a certain evening about sixty-­six million years ago, you had stood somewhere in North America and looked up at the sky, you would have soon made out what appeared to be a star. If you watched for an hour or two, the star would have seemed to grow in brightness, although it barely moved. That’s because it was not a star but an asteroid, and it was headed directly for Earth at about forty-five thousand miles an hour. Sixty hours later, the asteroid hit. The air in front was compressed and violently heated, and it blasted a hole through the atmosphere, generating a supersonic shock wave. The asteroid struck a shallow sea where the Yucatán peninsula is today. In that moment, the Cretaceous period ended and the Paleogene period began.

A few years ago, scientists at Los Alamos National Laboratory used what was then one of the world’s most powerful computers, the so-called Q Machine, to model the effects of the impact. The result was a slow-motion, second-by-second false-color video of the event. Within two minutes of slamming into Earth, the asteroid, which was at least six miles wide, had gouged a crater about eighteen miles deep and lofted twenty-five trillion metric tons of debris into the atmosphere. Picture the splash of a pebble falling into pond water, but on a planetary scale. When Earth’s crust rebounded, a peak higher than Mt. Everest briefly rose up. The energy released was more than that of a billion Hiroshima bombs, but the blast looked nothing like a nuclear explosion, with its signature mushroom cloud. Instead, the initial blowout formed a “rooster tail,” a gigantic jet of molten material, which exited the atmosphere, some of it fanning out over North America. Much of the material was several times hotter than the surface of the sun, and it set fire to everything within a thousand miles. In addition, an inverted cone of liquefied, superheated rock rose, spread outward as countless red-hot blobs of glass, called tektites, and blanketed the Western Hemisphere.

https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2019/04/08/the-day-the-dinosaurs-died

 
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Posted by on April 19, 2019 in Reportages

 

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Whiteflies are such a pest because they hack the way plants communicate

WHEN SOME plants are attacked by herbivores they fight back by producing irritants and toxins as their leaves get chewed up. Certain insects, however, can resist these defences. Among the best at doing this, and hence one of the most troublesome crop pests, is the whitefly. Remarkably, as new research shows, whiteflies enhance their dastardly deeds by hacking a biological early-warning communications system used by plants.

https://www.economist.com/science-and-technology/2019/03/30/whiteflies-are-such-a-pest-because-they-hack-the-way-plants-communicate

 
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Posted by on April 9, 2019 in Uncategorized

 

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