June 27, 2008
It’s happened. We’re in the early 21st century, and it’s now possible for a space suit to look hopelessly outdated. I mean, would you pilot a 1950s vehicle off the planet in something that looks like it recently came off a baked potato? I think Devo once made a music video in more sophisticated space apparel than this.
But it’s fun looking at the progression of space suit fashion in this NASA slideshow (link is at lower left of page). You even get some glimpses of the future, both conceptual drawings and shots of astronauts testing out the new designs on a dusty Washington lake bed. There’s also the famous 1984 shot of the first untethered spacewalk – a prospect that still makes me shiver.
The slideshow doesn’t offer any pics of women in space (even though 40 American women have achieved escape velocity). If you hanker for a break from all the manliness, check out NASA’s tribute to Sally Ride, who last week celebrated her 25th anniversary as the first American woman in space.
On the fashion side, keep your eyes peeled for the next major development. On July 4, Mattel rolls out “Space Camp Barbie.” Who says we’re losing our edge in science and technology?
June 24, 2008
Long ago, economists realized that people are largely motivated by self-interest. They put the best face on this rather disheartening fact of human nature by inventing ways to shunt the selfish toward the common good. Today, the global marketplace takes selfishness as a central tenet, and by the way it’s thriving, it appears they were right.
But not always, according to economist Samuel Bowles, in the current issue of Science. Apparently, there is some good in all of us that is still pretty hard to buy – some stubborn attraction to doing the right thing that, Bowles argues, policy makers would do well to pay attention to.
Among his examples are a group of parents taking their kids to daycare in Haifa, Israel. The daycare center instituted a charge for parents who showed up late in the afternoon to pick up their kids.
What happened? Tardiness didn’t drop out – it doubled. In the researchers’ evaluation, parents began to see late pickup as a service they were entitled to buy. Until lateness cost anything, the parents were more likely to view it as an imposition on the poor overworked daycare staff. But the fee changed that.
As Bowles described it, in a marketplace populated by schemers and grabbers:
“Prices do the work of morals, recruiting shabby motives to elevated ends.”
But it’s not shabby motives that lead people to give blood rather than sell it, Bowles pointed out. In another study, students were allowed to simulate governments, giving away money but making “laws” about what percentage must be returned. The most generous returns came when people were under no obligation to return any money at all.
This scenario reminds me of that little let-down you get when you donate to public broadcasting and a tote bag or coffee mug arrives as a thank-you. Hold on, I say to myself, I donated because I’m a good person and I enjoy spirited car-repair advice. Have I just become a mere customer?
I’m heartened by Bowles’s argument. Next, I want to see economists tackle the blogosphere. Does jettisoning one’s thoughts into the fiberoptic universe – whether via post or comment – count as selfish or noble? Is it for your own good, or someone else’s?
(Image by Allan Ramsay (1766) of David Hume – who, according to Bowles, “advocated that public policies should be designed for ‘knaves’”)
June 19, 2008
It’s called astrobiology: the idea that life emerged somewhere in the cold reaches of space, and only made it to Earth belatedly, after stowing away on a meteorite or comet. It sounds far-fetched, but astronomers have a growing body of evidence that supports the idea. They added another piece this week, in the journal Earth and Planetary Science Letters.***
And after all, say the astrobiologists, life had to originate somewhere. Reassuringly, their leading proposals involve scenarios considerably more humble than standard Hollywood images of luminous humanoids arriving in gleaming steel cylinders.
In this week’s finding, scientists isolated from an Australian meteorite two molecules called uracil and xanthine, each of which consists of 12-15 atoms of carbon, oxygen, nitrogen, and hydrogen. (The carbon in the samples differed in makeup from what’s found on Earth, indicating the find wasn’t the result of contamination once the meteorite landed.)
The find suggests that somewhere out in space conditions are right for such complicated molecules to form spontaneously. Even more exciting, uracil and xanthine are precursors of two pivotal molecules in living organisms, RNA and DNA. The way astrobiologists interpret this, life may not have zapped into existence in a single, unique flash in some earthbound primordial soup after all (which was the way I learned it in school).
Rather, the building blocks may form, en masse, in cold interstellar factories, and then perhaps travel the cosmos on the backs of comets, waiting for a crash landing. Like little starter kits.
(Image: Bill Saxton, National Radio Astronomy Observatory/National Science Foundation)
June 13, 2008
Now there’s one more thing that’s bigger in Texas: the turtles. Andrew Revkin at Dot Earth reports that a leatherback sea turtle has nested on the Padre Island National Seashore for the first time since the 1930s.
Leatherback turtles are the largest sea turtles in the world, growing to nearly 10 feet long and weighing almost a ton. In other words, it’s a turtle the size of a horse. Like many other sea turtles, they are highly endangered. Threats include altered beaches, unintentional catch in the fishing industry (sound familiar?), and floating, discarded shopping bags that resemble their main prey, jellyfish – yet another reason to carry a cloth bag with you to the grocery store.
Check Dot Earth for a shot of the massive mother’s 6-foot-wide tracks heading up into the dunes. Our pic opts for the other end of the spectrum, an hour-old baby leatherback making a twilight dash for the surf in Costa Rica.
Today’s turtle surprise is reminiscent of the unexpected return of a wolverine and a wolf we told you about earlier this year. We’re glad to hear it.
(Image: Charles Eldermire)
June 9, 2008
Score one for consumer clout: dolphin populations in the heavily fished eastern tropical Pacific may be starting a recovery, according to scientists at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. That stems (at least partly) from the early 1990s movement to make canned tuna “dolphin safe.” Before tuna-fishing fleets adopted the practice, dolphin numbers in the Pacific had dwindled to between one-third and one-fifth of their original numbers, according to NOAA.
At the time, tuna fishing wasn’t just a matter of accidentally catching dolphins: fishing boats pursued groups of dolphins – even scouted for them with helicopters – then surrounded them with nets to catch the hordes of tuna that swam with them. Now the tuna fleets use other methods, and the dolphin catch has dropped to nearly nil (from a 1970s high of 700,000 per year in the eastern Pacific). After far-ranging ocean surveys, NOAA scientists are encouraged by tentative signs of recovery in two of 10 dolphin species, but they still aren’t sure why it has taken more than a decade.
The dolphin story may be headed for a happy ending, but our phenomenal appetite for tuna – well over 3 million metric tons every year – has shifted the burden to other species. Instead of setting nets around dolphin groups, fishermen switch their attention to floating debris and mid-ocean buoys, where they catch thousands of sea turtles, sharks, and slower sea-life along with the tuna.
If it sounds like fishermen are to blame here, remember that they’re not eating all that tuna themselves. But fans of tuna melts and seared ahi (present bloggers included) do have choices. Some supermarkets have begun to carry “sustainable” canned tuna caught with old-fashioned hook and line. It’s a more laborious method, but nearly everything that’s landed is an actual tuna. The main adjustment you’ll need to make: it’s about $5 a can. The way I look at it, after decades spent gouging dolphins, maybe it’s time we paid the price for a while. That’s a consumer action I can get behind.
(Image: Spinner dolphins: NOAA National Marine Fisheries Service, Southwest Fisheries Science Center)