science


David Dunlap telescopeBy a remarkable coincidence, Amy and I had moved to a city with its very own open-to-the-public telescope: the David Dunlap Observatory. Most weekends while the weather isn’t too cold, the observatory opens its doors to the general public and allows them access to the 74-inch reflecting telescope, the largest in Canada and responsible in part for the first direct evidence of black holes. Amy and I queued up for a while, took a look at the Moon very close up and then went out onto the Observatory lawn to take a look at Jupiter and its moons through the local astronomers’ hobby scopes.

Tourist-3We also got the chance to test out my awesome birthday present from Amy – a hand-held 20×50 Soviet telescope in fetching party-approved colours. The stamp reads TУPИCT-3 (sometimes Romanised as TYPNCT-3), which translates to “Tourist-3”, and the manufacturer stamp indicates that it was made at the Lytkarino Optical Glass Factory (ЛЗОС/LZOS) just outside of Moscow. With a tripod (which I have, thanks to standardised thread sizes), it’s easily capable of resolving the nearer and larger heavenly bodies when the light pollution permits. I now have to figure out some way of attaching it to my camera.

Dugald night skyEvery summer, debris from the Swift-Tuttle comet enters the Earth’s atmosphere and burns up, producing the Perseid meteor shower. Eager to see some shooting stars (which are not stars at all), Amy and I headed out to Dugald and the relatively clear air on the farm. We braved the mosquitoes until the wee hours, saw several meteors (peak activity is usually just before dawn, but we had things to accomplish the following day and didn’t stay up that late) and failed to capture any of them on camera (mostly due to very long image processing times for long exposures). In the picture to your left, you may be able to make out the constellations Cassiopeia in the top right, and Perseus just below it. The cookies pictured below are unrelated to meteor showers, and were baked to send to Amy’s grandparents. For those unfamiliar with imperial cookies, they consist of two sugar cookies stuck together with raspberry jam, iced with almond-flavoured icing and finished with a piece of glace cherry (very similar to Bakewell tarts, fr British readers).

Imperial cookies (1)Imperial cookies (2)

After twenty years of formal education, the time has come to leave the world of academia and take a look at the world around me. Yes, you read that right – my PhD is finally done and dusted and I’m heading off travelling next month for a couple of years.

This blog will be updated as and when I can get online with awe-inspiring tales of escapades and general derring-do. Feel free to comment with sightseeing recommendations and variations on, “I can’t believe you’re travelling while I’m stuck here”.

Nature has a nicely ironic article this week – Brian Alters (a researcher at McGill University in Montreal) has had his application for funds to research the popularisation of intelligent design turned down. The reason? Apparently he presumes that the theory of evolution is correct. The authors managed to get a nicely acerbic comment (from Philip Sadler of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Massachusetts) in:

“If he was trying to answer the question as to whether all this popularisation had had an impact, he just saved the government $40,000. He found the evidence without doing the study.”

A welcome change this week – New Scientist has reported some positive news. One article outlines the Clergy Letter Project, an open letter supporting evolutionary theories which was signed by 10,000 members of the clergy. The other (subscription only, as usual) deals with “green theologians” – Christians who have decided that taking care of God’s Earth might be a better idea than destroying it. Significantly, the US National Association of Evangelicals (who make up 40 % of the Republican Party) are starting to advocate green reform. The Apocalypse may be averted yet.

Developments in electricity storage technology continue to gather momentum, and WorldChanging has just published a summary of the most promising developments. However many times we have to say it, it’s always going to be true: any future energy economy will have to be based around electrons, and we are going to need more efficient ways of storing them.

Via WorldChanging

It comes as no surprise when politicians fail to plan beyond the next election, but I would have expected better of (most) scientists. An article in New Scientist Space details the story so far of a particular asteroid hitting the Earth (the current estimate is a 1 in 1600 chance in 2102); newsworthy because further refinements of measurements have actually increased the likelihood of a collision. While apocalyptic images of ten-kilometre wide craters and global cooling serve some purpose, the shocking part is a quote from one of the scientists:

“[it] is a serious problem, but not for our generation”

Not for our generation, eh? If it turns out to be on a collision course, how long do you think it will take to us to figure out, pay for and implement a way of deflecting it? This is something that needs talking about now – even if the asteroid misses (most likely), it’s got a lot of friends out there.

On the various lists of things you can do to improve the environment, tree planting is consistently rated highly. It improves the local greenery, removes carbon dioxide from the environment and is a tactile reminder that you’ve done your part. This week, however, articles in Nature and The Guardian reveal that it’s not as green as we’ve been thinking.

Done properly, large-scale tree planting has a hugely beneficial effect. However, it will also deplete groundwater and nutrient supplies – and release carbon into the atmosphere if the forest is logged or burned. As usual, nothing is ever simple. The Guardian report has some good guidelines for investing in carbon-reducing projects.

Nature: Tree planting not always green
The Guardian: Tree-planting projects may not be so green

According to a recent article in New Scientist, one can reduce carbon emissions more by going vegan than by driving a hybrid car. This should be fairly obvious to any aspiring environmentalist – efficient as they are, hybrid cars still run on petrol.

New Scientist reported back in August that circumcision could protect men against HIV. The full report went out in October, which (as usual for interesting articles) is behind a subscription wall. However, Nature Medicine has also covered the story and made it publicly accessible.

As pointed out in the article, the results of one study are by no means proof, but current thinking seems to lean towards the belief that there is a beneficial effect. This to me is a bit of a double-edged sword. Anything that reduces the infection rate is worth doing, but the only sureties are physical barriers. If people get into the mindset that circumcision will make them immune to infection, then they are far less likely to use condoms – with the possible result that incidences of other STIs will start to rise.

The study authors have the right idea when they talk about using this alongside other preventative measures. Not unlike using contraceptive pills as well as condoms to prevent pregnancy, this is something where one might like to make assurance double sure.

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