Saturday, March 21, 2009

Set To Strauss

Friday, March 20, 2009

An Idea Of Scale

It’s hard to believe how far we are from anything else created by humankind. Except for our own, now-derelict third stage, nothing made by people or from the Earth — nothing — is within more than a billion miles of New Horizons.
(Via Bad Astronomy.)

Thursday, March 19, 2009

All The News We Can Fit In A Window

From the always great Shorpy site, which features high-definition images of old photographs, an example of blogging, 1940s style.

The Death Of Grass

The world's leading crop scientists issued a stark warning that a deadly airborne fungus could devastate wheat harvests in poor countries and lead to famines and civil unrest over significant regions of central Asia and Africa.

Ug99 — so called because it was first seen in Uganda in 1999 — is a new variety of an old crop disease called "stem rust", which has already spread on the wind from Africa to Iran. It is particularly alarming because it can infect crops in just a few hours and vast clouds of invisible spores can be carried by the wind for hundreds of miles.
If there ever was a problem crying out for a biotech fix, this is it. Conventional cross-breeding to produce resistant varieties takes time, and is a Red Queen's race. The best long-term fix would be to cut our reliance on a handful of monoculture crops with very little genetic variance and a consequent high susceptibility to disease, but in the short term we'll have to bite the biotech bullet. Especially if (when) ug99 reaches North America. Or else get used to eating potatoes and seaweed (or each other).

Shaping up to be a hell of a century, isn't it?

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Insert Disingenuous Remark Here

The short list for the 2009 Arthur C. Clarke Award:

Song of Time: Ian R. MacLeod - PS Publishing
The Quiet War: Paul McAuley – Gollancz
House of Suns: Alastair Reynolds – Gollancz
Anathem: Neal Stephenson – Atlantic
The Margarets: Sheri S. Tepper – Gollancz
Martin Martin’s on the Other Side: Mark Wernham – Jonathan Cape

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

The High Life

Via Universe Today, a report that Indian scientists have used a high-altitude balloon to send a sampling package into the stratosphere, and retrieved samples of live fungi and bacteria, including three previously unknown species of bacteria with higher than usual resistance to UV. Claims are being made that this is proof of the Hoyle/Wickramasinghe panspermia theory - that bacteria raining down from space seeded Earth with life. After all, these bacteria are unusual, and they were found in a region of the Earth's atmosphere that's not only next door to space, but also doesn't usually mix with lower layers where life might be expected to be found because it's sealed off by the topopause. Are these examples of Paul Davies' 'shadow life'?

Anyone who remembers claims that Martian bacteria were found in a meteorite retrieved from the Antarctic icesheet will know that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. Panspermia theories have gained respectability in recent years, but there's still no hard evidence for them - and the evidence needs to be diamond-hard. This isn't. Claims like this have been made before, and are still being debated (bacteria could reach the stratosphere when volcanoes loft dust into it, for instance). But it is very interesting. What are all those species of fungi and bacteria doing, way up high, at the edge of space? Are they active and continually present, or temporary visitors? Is there an ecosystem we don't know about?

EDIT: Just remembered that Robert Heinlein wrote a short story ('Goldfish Bowl') about giant insubstantial inhabitants of the stratosphere that were far in advance of human beings. Maybe those scientists should be a bit more careful when they're poking around up there.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Strange Days

Jack Womack is currently guest-blogging at William Gibson's joint. If you're into deep esoteric weirdness and practical demonstrations on why the past really is another country, stop by and check it out.
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