Findings, music, and occasional reflections by Paul Woodward

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A big-data approach to history could help save the future

Laura Spinney writes: In its first issue of 2010, the scientific journal Nature looked forward to a dazzling decade of progress. By 2020, experimental devices connected to the internet would deduce our search queries by directly monitoring our brain signals. Crops would exist that doubled their biomass in three hours. Humanity would be well on the way to ending its dependency on fossil fuels. A few weeks later, a letter

The death of old scientists clears the way for new advances

Veronique Greenwood writes: New ideas advance in science not just because they are true, but because their opponents die, physicist Max Planck wrote in 1948. He was referring to a fundamental theory that, at the time, provoked a nasty feud, yet today is taught in nearly every high school physics classroom. The belief that science advances one funeral at a time is the kind of folk mythology in which any

How science has shifted our sense of identity

Nathaniel Comfort writes: In the iconic frontispiece to Thomas Henry Huxley’s Evidence as to Man’s Place in Nature (1863), primate skeletons march across the page and, presumably, into the future: “Gibbon, Orang, Chimpanzee, Gorilla, Man.” Fresh evidence from anatomy and palaeontology had made humans’ place on the scala naturae scientifically irrefutable. We were unequivocally with the animals — albeit at the head of the line. Nicolaus Copernicus had displaced us

New evidence that an extraterrestrial collision 12,800 years ago triggered an abrupt climate change for Earth

The muck that’s been accumulating at the bottom of this lake for 20,000 years is like a climate time capsule. Christopher R. Moore, CC BY-ND By Christopher R. Moore, University of South Carolina What kicked off the Earth’s rapid cooling 12,800 years ago? In the space of just a couple of years, average temperatures abruptly dropped, resulting in temperatures as much as 14 degrees Fahrenheit cooler in some regions of

Scientists endorse mass civil disobedience to force climate action

Reuters reports: Almost 400 scientists [now 1,140] have endorsed a civil disobedience campaign aimed at forcing governments to take rapid action to tackle climate change, warning that failure could inflict “incalculable human suffering.” In a joint declaration, climate scientists, physicists, biologists, engineers and others from at least 20 countries broke with the caution traditionally associated with academia to side with peaceful protesters courting arrest from Amsterdam to Melbourne. Wearing white

The chemistry at the heart of the Universe

Caleb A. Scharf writes: It’s a relatively little-known fact outside of astrophysics that the key to the first stars in the universe, and the earliest structures condensing out of the primordial murk, was chemistry. Specifically, the key was the formation of molecular hydrogen or H2. A pair of atoms bonded together and capable of rotating and vibrating. A few years ago I wrote about some of the details in this

New study suggests subterranean continents in Earth’s mantle untouched for more than 4 billion years

GeoSpace reports: Ancient, distinct, continent-sized regions of rocks, isolated since before the collision that created the Moon 4.5 billion years ago, exist hundreds of miles below the Earth’s crust, offering a window into the building blocks of our planet, according to new research. The new study in the AGU Journal Geochemistry, Geophysics, Geosystems used models to trace the location and origin of volcanic rock samples found throughout the world back

Science is deeply imaginative. Why is this treated as a secret?

By Tom McLeish My latest book, The Poetry and Music of Science (2019), starts with my experiences of visiting schools and working with sixth-form pupils in general-studies classes. These students, aged 17-18, would tell me that they just didn’t see in science any room for their own imagination or creativity. Not just on one occasion but repeatedly I heard this from young people bright enough to have succeeded at any

Why carbon dioxide has such outsized influence on Earth’s climate

The Orbiting Carbon Observatory satellite makes precise measurements of Earth’s carbon dioxide levels from space. NASA/JPL By Jason West, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill CC BY-ND Climate Explained is a collaboration between The Conversation, Stuff and the New Zealand Science Media Centre to answer your questions about climate change. If you have a question you’d like an expert to answer, please send it to I heard that

DEA seeks major increase in federally-approved cannabis production to meet growth in research needs

The Motley Fool reports: The U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) had an opportunity to reschedule or de-schedule marijuana back in the summer of 2016 in response to two petitions but chose not to take any action. However, news out of the DEA this past week might signal that the regulatory agency is changing its tune, or at least softening its stance, on marijuana. As reported by Forbes, the DEA has

How rich donors like Epstein (and others) undermine science

Adam Rogers writes: Imagine a billionaire with an abiding interest in science, but also in having sex with young girls. He’s famous, our billionaire, and he associates with what used to be called boldface names, some of whom know—they’d have to, right?—about his habits. But they let it go. And eventually the billionaire’s name gets associated with all sorts of do-gooderish public endeavors, before the truth gets told—mostly after the

Can physicists rewrite the origin story of the universe?

Jess Romeo writes: During a 2015 conference on theoretical cosmology at Princeton University, Roger Penrose, a pioneer in the field of mathematical physics, was asked to speak on a panel about the origin of the universe. For decades, the leading theory had been that, during roughly the first trillionth of a trillionth of a nanosecond following the Big Bang, there was a single period of extremely rapid expansion, known as

White House pressured NOAA to repudiate weather forecasters who contradicted Trump’s erroneous hurricane predictions

The New York Times reports: The White House was directly involved in pressing a federal scientific agency to repudiate the weather forecasters who contradicted President Trump’s claim that Hurricane Dorian would probably strike Alabama, according to several people familiar with the events. Mick Mulvaney, the acting White House chief of staff, told Wilbur Ross, the commerce secretary, to have the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration publicly disavow the forecasters’ position

NOAA’s chief scientist stands up for scientific integrity and against political interference

A Message from Craig McLean: Hurricane Dorian and Exceptional Service, addressing his colleagues, states: During the course of the storm, as I am sure you are aware, there were routine and exceptional expert forecasts, the best possible, issued by the NWS Forecasters. These are remarkable colleagues of ours, who receive our products, use them well, and provide the benefit of their own experience in announcing accurate forecasts accompanied by the

NOAA’s chief scientist to investigate why agency backed Trump over its experts on Dorian, while NWS director backs forecasters

The Washington Post reports: The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s acting chief scientist said in an email to colleagues Sunday that he is investigating whether the agency’s response to President Trump’s Hurricane Dorian tweets constituted a violation of NOAA policies and ethics. Also on Monday, the director of the National Weather Service broke with NOAA leadership over its handling of Trump’s Dorian tweets and statements. In an email to NOAA

We scientists must rise up to prevent the climate crisis. Words aren’t enough

Charlie Gardner and Claire Wordley write: As scientists, we tend to operate under an unspoken assumption – that our job is to provide the world with factual information, and if we do so our leaders will use it to make wise decisions. But what if that assumption is wrong? For decades, conservation scientists like us have been telling the world that species and ecosystems are disappearing, and that their loss