The Zombie Diseases of Climate Change

The Arctic permafrost was once an area full of vegetation. But it’s been freezing for 35,000 years or so. Every summer it thaws slightly, and every winter it refreezes.

As climate change sets in, the summers have got longer and the winters are warmer. This means more of the permafrost melts, and the remnants of that vegetation—protected from decomposition by the freezing temperatures—is exposed.

As it melts, microbes and other forms of life will reawaken. What forgotten pathogens lie beneath?

And then, as they watched, a virus appeared in their viewfinder: Pithovirus sibericum, a massive ovular virion that had survived 30,000 years frozen in the ice core. It was also the largest virion ever discovered.

“We tried to isolate amoeba viruses without knowing they were going to be giant viruses—and a totally different type of virus than we already know appeared,” Claverie said. “It turns out the viruses we are getting [in the permafrost] are extremely abnormal, extremely fancy.”

Claverie and Abergel’s viruses aren’t a threat to humanity—yet. But human pathogens have also survived freezing and thawing in the permafrost. Last summer, an outbreak of anthrax in Siberia infected dozens of people and killed one child. The vector of disease is thought to be the thawing and decaying carcass of a reindeer killed in 1941.

And a team of Canadian scientists recently found a strain of bacteria, Paenibacillus, in a cave in New Mexico that had been closed off for more than 4 million years. Though harmless to humans, the ancient bacteria was resistant to most clinical antibiotics, including most of the newest and most aggressive. The discovery suggested that bacteria can survive the most exotic and remote environments.

The problem is compounded by our desire to access precious metals, rare earths, petrol, gas and gold throughout the arctic. If, say, Russia wants to access them, millions of tonnes of permafrost needs to be moved for the first time in millions of years.

Even more worrisome are the microbes we don’t know. “No one really understands why Neanderthals went extinct,” Claverie said. Sometimes, he catches himself when talking about these possible permafrost-locked diseases—they may have threatened humans or human relatives in the past, he’ll say. Then, he’ll change tense, emphasizing that they could do so again.

Source: The Zombie Diseases of Climate Change – The Atlantic

The amateur cloud society that (sort of) rattled the scientific community

Jon Mooallem wrote a wonderful piece last year about clouds, their identification and classification, and being part of a group of likeminded people:

He was, by then, closing in on his 10th year as head of the Cloud Appreciation Society and, as he’d done after 10 years with The Idler magazine, he was questioning his commitment to it. Somehow, being a cloud impresario had swallowed an enormous amount of time. He was lecturing about clouds around the world, sharing stages at corporate conferences and ideas festivals with Snoop Dogg and Bill Clinton and appearing monthly on the Weather Channel. Then there was the Cloud Appreciation Society’s online store, a curated collection of society-branded merchandise and cloud-themed home goods, which turned out to be surprisingly demanding, particularly in the frenzied weeks before Christmas. The Cloud Appreciation Society was basically just Pretor-Pinney and his wife, Liz, plus a friend who oversaw the shop part time and a retired steelworker he brought on to moderate the photo gallery. It was all arduous, which Pretor-Pinney seemed to find a little embarrassing. “My argument about why cloud-spotting is a worthwhile activity is that it’s an aimless activity,” he said. “And I’ve turned it into something that is very purposeful, that is work.”

At the same time, he realized that he’d conjured a genuine community of amateur cloud-­lovers from all over the world but regretted never doing anything to truly nourish it; it felt so “fluffy,” he said, “with no center to it, like a cloud.” Soon, that spectral society — that cloud of people on the Internet — would be celebrating its 10th anniversary. “I’m thinking that it might be a nice reason to get everyone together,” he said.

It looks like a fish until you grab it, and then it looks like a naked chicken breast

Nicholas St. Fleur writes for the New York Times about Geckolepis megalepis, a species recently discovered in Madagascar with a remarkable way of escaping danger:

The fish-scale gecko has a freaky way of eluding danger. When snatched by an attacker, it rips off its scales and skin so it can slip away unscathed. Basically, it streaks to survive.

“It looks like a fish until you grab it, and then it looks like a naked chicken breast,” said Mark D. Scherz, a doctoral candidate at Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich. The torn-away scales reveal the gecko’s pink flesh, and through its translucent tissue you can see its spine and blood vessels. “It’s bizarre, it’s really surprising, and it’s quite uncomfortable when you see them,” he said.

It may seem like a gruesome getaway, but it doesn’t hurt the lizard. It loses its skin and scales with extreme ease and regenerates them in full a few weeks later. The new scales grow in with a different pattern than the previous ones, but other than that are nearly indistinguishable from the originals.

NASA’s visions of the Future

NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab produced some retrofuturist posters a while back.

Imagination is our window into the future. At NASA/JPL we strive to be bold in advancing the edge of possibility so that someday, with the help of new generations of innovators and explorers, these visions of the future can become a reality. As you look through these images of imaginative travel destinations, remember that you can be an architect of the future.

Here are a couple. You can download full-size files (200 MB TIFF!) from the NASA site to print out.

NASA's Grand Tour poster

NASA's Mars poster

A limit to human longevity

Brian Resnick reports for The Verge on how the average human lifespan is increasing, but the maximum remains constant:

The researchers analyzed the Human Mortality Database, which contains hundreds of years of population and mortality data for 38 countries.

They saw that while the percentage of people living to 70 has risen greatly since the 1900s (due to increased survival in childhood and better health care), the same cannot be said of people living past 100.

There are some gains in longevity after age 100, but they are much more modest. And the gains drop to near zero approaching 110.

By the time we reach later life our DNA has accumulated damage and our organs stop working. More of us are reaching later life, but there’s an apparent ceiling. The researchers estimate that a human living to age 125 is a once-in-a-10,000-year event. I can kiss goodbye to seeing the next century, then.

The effect of wolves in Yellowstone

Wolves were reintroduced to Yellowstone National Park in 1995 after a 70-year absence. The changes were more far-reaching than anyone expected.

It started with them thinning the deer population, and the resulting chain reaction saw a huge increase in biodiversity and even unexpected changes in physical geography. The wolves changed the rivers!

Foldscope: an origami microcope

Hannah Yi, for Quartz:

Foldscope is an origami microscope made with a single sheet of paper that’s embedded with electronics and lenses. It costs less than $1 to build. Manu Prakash is the inventor of this low-cost scientific tool. He wants microscopes to be as ubiquitous as pencils and plans on shipping one million Foldscopes by the end of 2017.

Prakash is a 2016 MacArthur follow, winning $625k to continue his ‘frugal science’ work.

A weeklong cruise for conspiracy theorists

Bronwen Dickey, for Popular Mechanics:

It was a bit after seven, and I should have been downstairs on Plaza Deck, dressed in formal attire and enjoying dinner with the conspiracy theorists. There were about a hundred of them, and they were nearing the end of their week—the last week in January—aboard the Ruby Princess. Many of them were older people, and each of them had paid $3,000 (not including airfare and beverages on board) to participate in the first-ever Conspira-Sea Cruise, a weeklong celebration of “alternative science” hosted by a tour company called Divine Travels. For the past five days, they had debated UFOs, GMOs, government mind-control programs, vaccines, chemtrails, crop circles, and the Illuminati’s plan for world domination, all while soaking up the mystical energies of three Mexican tourist towns known mainly for wet T-shirt contests and Señor Frog’s.

Participation in a metaphysical polemic

1: The DNA of a London Underground Station

This is endlessly fascinating:

On 1st December 2015 Transport for London (TfL) unveiled its new design bible, the Design Idiom. Though the name may sound grandiose, the goal is simple: create a document that captures the design aesthetic of the Underground, so that good design can help drive decision-making at London Underground.

“It’s all about bringing good design to the forefront of our thinking.” explains Mark Evers, Director of Customer Strategy at TfL. “Very simply, setting out the key principles that can help us deliver well-designed stations in the future, every time.”

“This Design Idiom is about taking that step back and making sure that in the future we are thinking far more holistically about the way we should be undertaking work on our stations.”

2: My first book: Adventures in learning to read Japanese

All readers are familiar with the sensation of falling into a book. By their very nature, books invite you to immerse yourself in the world they have constructed. When it comes to a book in another language, however, such immersion feels both familiar and alien. While reading Kokoro no mori, I felt like a seasoned explorer suddenly sent to scope out Mars: the process was the same, but everything else was totally different. I had to attune myself to the rhythms of another language, to slowly gather an instinct for its patterns and structures, its particular logic. After spending so long in comfortable, well-trod terrain, finding myself in a new one was intimidating, exhilarating, and mesmerizing, all at once.

I’m currently learning Italian and, a few weeks ago, I opened up La Gazzetta dello Sport. Big mistake. I could feel the motivation evaporating out of me. I can hardly imagine reading a novel in another language.

3: Toward a new fantastic: Stop calling it science fiction

This is a wonderful paragraph:

This attitude toward science is widespread and can be found in both the resurgence of the popular television show Cosmos, as well as with popular websites like “I Fucking Love Science,” both of which exist in some form to produce questionably accurate infographics for social network sites. In terms of the latter, we are able to see the confusion: When my cousin posts a picture of a wild-looking insect from an exotic part of the world with the caption “I Fucking Love Science,” I am not sure what I am supposed to be celebrating. Is my cousin an enthusiast of the natural world? An advocate of empirical methodologies? Is his participation in a metaphysical polemic willing or unwitting? Either way, science did not give us the tap-dancing mating ritual of the rainbow spider, and it sure as hell is not the gatekeeper for my enjoyment of it.

4: Why we all dream of being jewel thieves

Stories about burglaries and heists don’t often appeal to me. But using them as jumping off points to discuss city topology, that’s something else entirely:

These examples are not only fascinating on their own as infrastructural factoids or as urban esoterica: They are also evidence that the logic of the city of London is already a logic of secret connections and startling proximities. Putting this knowledge to work in order to access bank vaults or to plunder safe deposit boxes is thus, in some ways, just an everyday temptation encountered by living in England’s capital city—as if cutting holes through walls, or digging tunnels between buildings, is, perversely, one of the more efficient ways of moving through the city.

The fabric of London, then, is one defined by perforation: serendipitous adjacencies that allow for movement out of sight and across property lines, through walls, from one building to another. After all, in a city where you can open a door in the base of a statue and walk underground to an entirely other neighborhood, in a sense, why not dream of bank tunnels?

5: When San Diego hired a rainmaker a century ago, it poured

As California endures its worst drought in 1,200 years, residents of the Golden State are turning to extreme—and desperate—measures to quench their collective thirst. Sun-baked farmers are hiring “water witches” to divine underground water sources with forked branches, while a company called Rain on Request has pledged to end the drought by building electrical towers that would induce rainfall by ionizing the atmosphere. When California found itself in a similar parched position exactly 100 years ago, the city of San Diego did something that seems even more bizarre—it hired a rainmaker. The thing is, it might have worked. After Charles Mallory Hatfield began his work to wring water from the skies, San Diego experienced its wettest period in recorded history. So was the rain an act of God or an act of Hatfield?

6: Dear architects: sound matters

A nice interactive look at how architects should consider sound in their plans. (This works on all devices but is best on a desktop with headphones.)

7: Windows 95 on a Nintendo 3DS is as strange as you’d think

8: Word count for web pages

Key takeaway:

Word counts can be harmful to usability. Structured, user-centred, well researched content is all you need.

9: 25 years after its imperial phase: Who killed shoegaze?

With the release of MBV’s Loveless, 1991 marked the high water mark for shoegaze before the music press turned its back with a nose-high snort of derision. Ben Cardew looks over the history of the genre and asks if its decline was simply because the music just got boring.

10: Style guide best practices at Beyond Tellerrand

Brad Frost:

Last month I was in beautiful Berlin for the wonderful Beyond Tellerrand conference, where I had the opportunity to talk about style guide best practices and all that goes into creating and maintaining successful pattern libraries.