Bay Area Skeptics

The San Francisco Bay Area's skeptical organization since 1982

Memorial Day SciSchmooze

Able, a seven-pound rhesus monkey, and Baker, a one-pound squirrel monkey, both females. Photo credit: Life Magazine

Hello again Science Fans!

First off, thanks to Herb for filling in for me last month while I was traveling. Today we have a lot of catching up to do!

Happy anniversary to The Sierra Club which was founded on this date in 1892 in San Francisco!

Some of you are old enough to remember the beginnings of the “space race”, with the US pitted against the Soviet Union to see which one would be the first to create the technology to get man to the Moon. In 1959, we still didn’t know if humans could survive in space, so on this date Able and Baker, two monkeys, were launched aboard a Jupiter rocket for a suborbital flight. Both survived the flight, although Able died from the effects of anesthesia given to her a few days later to remove some electrodes.

Think how far we’ve come from that day!

I had saved an article from historian Heather Cox Richardson for last month’s SciSchmooze about the origins of Earth Day. While it has passed, the history is worth reading about, if for no other reason than to understand how much politics has changed since the first Earth Day in 1970.

In her article, Dr. Richardson mentions current Republican efforts to weaken the Environmental Protection Agency. This week, the Supreme Court limited the agency’s power to regulate water pollution. The logic behind the decision seems arbitrary to me, and is potentially environmentally devastating.

Many think that the issue of climate change is relatively new. But news of climate change first went “viral” way back in 1953, 70 years ago, when a Canadian physicist told the American Geophysical Union that industrial activity was discharging carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and connecting that to global warming. His talk and warning was the first time CO2 was implicated as the cause of warming, not orbital wobbles or sunspots. Yet still today, climate change deniers refuse to accept this fact.

The United Nations weather agency issued a report saying we will surpass the 1.5 degree C threshold within 5 years, moving the timeline up significantly from previous estimates.

On a more immediate time scale, El Niño seems to be in our future (90% chance), and there is a better than 50% chance that it will be a strong one. Here’s more on this ocean heating event. A strong El Niño by itself could send global temperatures up by 1.5 degrees Celsius.

What would extreme heatwaves, coupled with power blackouts, mean for us? In Phoenix, AZ, fully one half of the city’s residents would need emergency medical care for heat stroke or other heat-related illnesses. That’s nearly 800,000 people! Needless to say, Phoenix isn’t prepared for such an event.

Yet, studies show that extreme weather events cause more damage, but fewer deaths, than they used to. According to the UN, there has been a staggering rise in the number of such events.

New York City is sinking, partly due to the weight of all the buildings sitting on it! Rising sea levels there, as well as other places, threaten many coastal cities, including portions of the San Francisco Bay shoreline.

We, as humans, know a lot about how the Universe works. Yet modern physics is only roughly 300 years old, a blip in the big scheme of things. If you’re looking for something to ponder this week, try this article on the importance of time to physics and how it might explain life.

Volcanoes are erupting in Mexico (Popocatépetl) and Italy (Etna), while Nyamulagira in the Congo and Kilauea in Hawaii are showing signs of pending eruptions. Learn more about volcanoes here. Volcanoes aren’t unique to Earth. The Juno spacecraft has sent back some incredible images of Io, Jupiter’s volcanic moon. Next door, orbiting around Saturn, Enceladus is spouting huge plumes of water vapor into space, as seen by the James Webb Space Telescope.

Betelgeuse is behaving strangely again, pulsing from dim to bright twice as fast as in the past. The closest red giant star to Earth, Betelgeuse is now 150% of its usual brightness. It is 600 light years away from Earth, so what we are seeing now actually happened 600 years ago.

Also in the cosmic past, but our present, a supernova (designated SN 2023ixf) is developing and can be watched online. This is the closest supernova to earth in a decade, although it isn’t “close” at all, and it is visible with many backyard telescopes due to its brightness.

Most of you have seen the movie “Contact”, staring Jody Foster. In the film, Jody plays a scientist, based on Jill Tarter of the SETI Institute, who is searching for signals from aliens. She finds one such signal, and chaos ensues here on Earth. SETI Institute is in the midst of simulating what might happen if such a signal was detected now and there are several events listed in our calendar around this simulation.

A few months ago, I wrote about artificial intelligence and ChatGPT. Here’s an article about the dangers of AI and our electoral process. It is worth learning about the possibilities to help you discern what to believe as the next Presidential election cycle draws near.

Lots of doom and gloom in this week’s Schmooze, so let’s end on something upbeat. A number system invented by Inuit middle school students and their teacher roughly 30 years ago will soon be available on smartphones and computers as the Kaktovik numerals come into the digital realm, thanks to support here in Silicon Valley.

Enjoy the holiday weekend, and take some time to reflect on the true meaning of Memorial Day. Have a great week in Science!

Upcoming Events:
Click to see the next two weeks of events in your browser.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *