A Bit More Detail

Assorted Personal Notations, Essays, and Other Jottings

Posts Tagged ‘science

[LINK] “Alien life could thrive in the clouds of failed stars”

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Science Magazine‘s Joshua Sokol shares the wonderfully plausibly bizarre idea of alien life floating in the upper atmospheres of brown dwarfs.

There’s an abundant new swath of cosmic real estate that life could call home—and the views would be spectacular. Floating out by themselves in the Milky Way galaxy are perhaps a billion cold brown dwarfs, objects many times as massive as Jupiter but not big enough to ignite as a star. According to a new study, layers of their upper atmospheres sit at temperatures and pressures resembling those on Earth, and could host microbes that surf on thermal updrafts.

The idea expands the concept of a habitable zone to include a vast population of worlds that had previously gone unconsidered. “You don’t necessarily need to have a terrestrial planet with a surface,” says Jack Yates, a planetary scientist at the University of Edinburgh in the United Kingdom, who led the study.

Atmospheric life isn’t just for the birds. For decades, biologists have known about microbes that drift in the winds high above Earth’s surface. And in 1976, Carl Sagan envisioned the kind of ecosystem that could evolve in the upper layers of Jupiter, fueled by sunlight. You could have sky plankton: small organisms he called “sinkers.” Other organisms could be balloonlike “floaters,” which would rise and fall in the atmosphere by manipulating their body pressure. In the years since, astronomers have also considered the prospects of microbes in the carbon dioxide atmosphere above Venus’s inhospitable surface.

Yates and his colleagues applied the same thinking to a kind of world Sagan didn’t know about. Discovered in 2011, some cold brown dwarfs have surfaces roughly at room temperature or below; lower layers would be downright comfortable. In March 2013, astronomers discovered WISE 0855-0714, a brown dwarf only 7 light-years away that seems to have water clouds in its atmosphere. Yates and his colleagues set out to update Sagan’s calculations and to identify the sizes, densities, and life strategies of microbes that could manage to stay aloft in the habitable region of an enormous atmosphere of predominantly hydrogen gas. Sink too low and you are cooked or crushed. Rise too high and you might freeze.

On such a world, small sinkers like the microbes in Earth’s atmosphere or even smaller would have a better chance than Sagan’s floaters, the researchers will report in an upcoming issue of The Astrophysical Journal. But a lot depends on the weather: If upwelling winds are powerful on free-floating brown dwarfs, as seems to be true in the bands of gas giants like Jupiter and Saturn, heavier creatures can carve out a niche. In the absence of sunlight, they could feed on chemical nutrients. Observations of cold brown dwarf atmospheres reveal most of the ingredients Earth life depends on: carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, and oxygen, though perhaps not phosphorous.

Written by Randy McDonald

December 10, 2016 at 8:30 pm

[LINK] “Elephant Refugees Flee to Last Stronghold in Africa”

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National Geographic‘s Christine Dell’Amore’s feature is quite right to identify the elephants fleeing poachers into Botswana as refugees, I think. What a terrible situation.

The elephants swim across the river in a straight line, trunks jutting out of the water like snorkels. With low, guttural bellows, they push their bodies together, forming a living raft to bolster a calf too tiny to stay afloat on its own.

This pachyderm flotilla has a dangerous destination in mind: The grassy shores of Namibia, where elephants are literally free game for legal hunters. The animals will risk their lives to feed here before fording the Chobe River again, back to the safety of Botswana’s Chobe National Park.

To avoid ivory poachers in neighboring Namibia, Zambia, and Angola, elephants like this family are fleeing in astounding numbers to Chobe, where illegal hunting is mostly kept in check. (See National Geographic’s elephant pictures.)

“Our elephants are essentially refugees,” says Michael Chase, founder of the Botswana-based conservation group Elephants Without Borders, which works to create transboundary corridors for elephants to travel safely between countries.

Elephants aren’t the only animals battling for survival in the dry, harsh world of northern Botswana. Tune in to the three-part miniseries Savage Kingdom on November 25 at 9 p.m. ET on Nat Geo WILD.
But while Chobe offers some protection, it’s not the most welcoming stronghold. The increasingly dry ecosystem is buckling under the pressure of supporting so many of the six-ton animals, which each eat 600 pounds of food daily.

Written by Randy McDonald

December 10, 2016 at 8:30 pm

[BLOG] Some Tuesday links

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  • Apostrophen’s ‘Nathan Smith notes that his husky loves the winter that has descended on Ottawa.
  • blogTO notes Toronto’s continuing housing price spikes.
  • D-Brief notes that chimpanzees apparently are built to recognize butts.
  • Dead Things reports on discoveries of the first land vertebrates.
  • The Dragon’s Gaze notes the weird patterns of KIC 8462852.
  • Marginal Revolution considers Westworld’s analogies to the Haitian Revolution.
  • Steve Munro looks at the latest on the TTC budget.
  • Window on Eurasia notes the controversial nature of the new official doctrine of Russia’s nationhood.

[LINK] “Killer whales eating their way farther into Manitoba”

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CBC News reports on changing mammal populations in Hudson’s Bay, with killer whales potentially displacing not just polar bears but belugas, too.

The food chain in Hudson Bay is drastically changing as killer whales take advantage of less sea ice and eat their way into Manitoba, a researcher in Arctic mammal populations says.

Steven Ferguson, a researcher with Fisheries and Oceans Canada and the University of Manitoba, will be presenting his findings in Winnipeg this week at ArcticNet 2016, the largest single gathering of scientists focused on the rapidly changing Arctic.

“We are seeing a lot more killer whale activity in Hudson Bay and they are a top predator. They are really a magnificent, interesting predator — highly efficient,” Ferguson said.

Killer whales are not a fan of sea ice because it bothers their dorsal fins. However, sea ice is melting earlier and forming later each year.

Ferguson said that means killer whales are spending more time farther into Hudson Bay and “they are there to eat.”

Written by Randy McDonald

December 5, 2016 at 9:00 pm

[URBAN NOTE] “The Noiseless Revolution”

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Torontoist’s Chris Bateman describes how, in 1883, Toronto adopted standardized time.

Before time was standardized around the world, Toronto’s public clocks, such as the one at St. Lawrence Hall, were set based on the position of the sun observed at the Toronto Observatory at University College. Photo from the Toronto Public Library, E 9-234.

The approximately 17-and-a-half minutes between 11:35 and 11:52 a.m. on November 19, 1883, didn’t officially exist in Toronto.

When the time reached 25 minutes to noon on that day a little over 133 years ago, the city’s public clocks at St. Lawrence Hall, Osgoode Hall, Union Station, and at various fire stations quietly skipped almost 20 minutes ahead.

This was the day the Toronto switched to standard time, abandoning forever its own hyper local time calculations in favour of a system synchronized with towns, cities, and countries around the world.

Remarkably, and quite improbably, the origin of this chronological shift lies in a typographical error in a train timetable in the 1876 Official Irish Travel Guide.

Written by Randy McDonald

November 28, 2016 at 7:30 pm

[LINK] “How science and First Nations oral tradition are converging”

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CBC News’ Nicole Mortillado describes how scientific confirmations of the oral traditions of First Nations culture is changing the way science works in Canada.

The long history of First Nations people isn’t one that can be found in books. Instead, it is a rich documentation detailed throughout time — a collective enterprise carried on by tradition and culture.

Oral tradition has often been discounted as just stories — but science is proving that the facts behind those stories certainly shouldn’t be discounted.

Last week, a study published in the journal Nature Communications linked the genomes of 25 Indigenous people who lived 1,000 to 6,000 years ago with 25 descendants in the Lax Kw’alaams and Metlakatla First Nation in British Columbia.

The ancient DNA was taken from archeological sites in the Prince Rupert area of B.C. that contain human remains. The researchers concluded that the genomes of the descendants were altered as a result of European colonization, making them more resistant to western viruses.

However, the other outcome of the DNA study was confirmation that the Metlakatla First Nation has been in the region for thousands of years — something the Metlakatla have long asserted through oral tradition.

The researchers also found that roughly 175 years ago, the population of Coast Tsimshian in the region declined by as much as 57 per cent. This coincides with colonization and the spread of diseases such as smallpox, the accounts of which have also been passed down in First Nations oral tradition.

“Science is starting to be used to basically corroborate what we’ve been saying all along,” said Barbara Petzelt, an archaeologist with the Metlakatla First Nation, one of the researchers in the study.

Written by Randy McDonald

November 23, 2016 at 10:45 pm

[BLOG] Some Tuesday links

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  • blgoTO notes how the Guild Inn was once a popular resort.
  • Centauri Dreams notes the import of real scientists in Arrival.
  • Crooked Timber notes that anti-Trump Republicans did not seem to matter in the election.
  • The Dragon’s Gaze looks at cutting-edge options for studying exoplanets.
  • False Steps notes a proposed American spacecraft that would have landed on water.
  • Far Outliers notes the pointless internment of foreign domestics in Second World War Britain.
  • Lawyers, Guns and Money looks at the potential impact of a Michael Bloomberg presidential run.
  • Marginal Revolution looks at the development of apps which aim to find out the preferred songs of birds.
  • Steve Munro and Transit Toronto look at ongoing controversy over the 514 Cherry streetcar line’s noise, including upcoming public meetings.
  • The Power and the Money’s Noel Maurer suggests the election of Trump could lead to the election of a similar populist to the presidency of Mexico.
  • The Volokh Conspiracy deals with the odd and seemingly meaningless distinction made by Americans between “republic” and “democracy”
  • Window on Eurasia wonders if Trump’s negotiating style might lead to worse Russian-American relations and looks at his business history in Russia.