Thursday, May 16, 2013

Overactive Sunspot AR1748 (Picture of the Day: 5/16/13)

AR1748 released an X1.2 solar flare on Tuesday, the weakest flare this spot has produced. Source

Space weather scientists have been intrigued by a "new" sunspot known as AR1748. This sunspot has released not one, not two, not even three, but four X-class solar flares in a three day period from Sunday to Tuesday. Not only is this an unusual amount of flares in an unusually short period of time, X-class solar flares are the strongest type of flare that the Sun can experience. This sunspot should be facing the Earth sometime this weekend, so we might be see some aurorae in the near future if it fires off any coronal mass ejections (CMEs).
My phone alerts me to the Sun's activities, and I remember that it kept going off over and over during the weekend and into early week. This sunspot certainly does keep one on one's toes.
For more information, check out this article.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Dwarf Lemurs and Space Travel (Picture of the Day: 5/15/13)

A Crossley's fat-tailed dwarf lemur, Cheirogaleus Crossleyi. Source

This fat-tailed dwarf lemur, shown here, is known to hibernate. A lot of animals hibernate, so why is this lemur so special? We have known that these animals can sleep for up to 7 months for almost a decade now, but they are making headlines now with new research being done with them. See, the thing about these lemurs is that they are primates, much like us humans. They are the only primates known to hibernate. The general idea is, if we could understand these dwarf lemurs better, we could figure out how to make humans hibernate for deep-space travel. We'll just have to see what comes of this.
To learn more, check out this article.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Novus Terra

After a long break in posting to make room for finals and other such testing, I thought it would be a good idea to start up again with the product of one of my finals. This semester I took an anthropology course titled: Anthropology and Contemporary World Problems. This course dealt with cultural anthropology and related it to problems in the world today to help bring students an understanding of the cause and scope of global issues. I found the course very enlightening and a lot of fun. The final exam was a take-home essay, and I thought that my essay was relevant to the scope of this blog. So, without further ado, I present my essay.

Novus Terra: The Problems of a Global Community
(Anthropology Final Essay)
Abram Nothnagle

In every age there is a crisis. It would be nice to believe that the problems of today are unique and will go away once they are solved, but such a belief leaves the truth far behind. Every period in history has seen its share of starvation and disease, fought against extinction in countless wars, and has been subject to a never-ending stream of prophecies of doom and destruction. In the face of such historical plights, how can we say that our problems are unique and that our fears are valid? We can say that our problems are unique because we now have a chance to break the cycle of crisis, and we can say that our fears are valid because our crises could destroy us if we let them. In every age there is a crisis, but in this age there is a chance to escape the prophecies of the End of the World.
Our world, not just one individual country, is faced with a number of problems. Life would be too easy if we only had one thing to worry about, so the universe, in its infinite wisdom and benevolence, has decided to make things interesting and has provided us with a veritable sea of horrible and terrifying obstacles to occupy our imaginations. We are threatened by a total collapse of our environment, by rampant starvation and overpopulation, by ethnic conflict and the threat of war, and by the ever present need to reach beyond the limited bounds of Mother Earth. Which problem will we solve first? Which of these quandaries will get the better of us and drag us down into the oblivion of societal collapse? Only time, and the human will to persevere, can tell.

The first and foremost concern on the mind of the developed world is that of “Global Warming” or climate change. Mankind, with all of its ingenuity and technology, has found method after method of destroying the very planet that they live on. From even the great city of Ur, humans have been destroying the land they live on and themselves with it. For the people of Ur, destruction was wrought by over-irrigation and the resulting salinization - the accumulation of salts in soil due to irrigation that causes a loss in fertility1 - that accompanied it2. Their problem was that their agriculture was unsustainable, and it destroyed the land that they farmed. They grew too much, too fast, and had no way of knowing what they were doing to the earth. For them, there was no solution, and their civilization collapsed. Still today, all over the world, irrigation systems much like those used in Ur are being used. This has lead to a similar problem of salinization in the Middle East, Northern China, Central Asia, in the San Joaquin Valley of California, in the Colorado River Basin, and countless other world regions3. This repercussion of irrigation is causing a massive drop in agricultural yields worldwide and has been the cause of much starvation and misery. The problem is not even over yet, unless something is done to reverse, or at least stop, the process of salinization, then starvation will only continue and get worse, and diseases bred from the dead land could threaten many more lives. The only way to “de-salinize” soil is to flush it with water, a costly solution that does not necessarily solve the problem as it contaminates ground water and nearby rivers. If a farmer is extremely wealthy, or supported by a wealthy nation, then desalinization plants can be constructed to remove the salt from rivers to make them usable after desalinization of the soil has taken place, or to counteract the problem of salinization before desalinization becomes necessary. But what can be done in countries where this process of desalinization is too costly? Sadly, unless more technology is developed, nothing can really be done to reclaim this overused soil. The only true solution to the problem in such cases is to stop it from happening in the first place. Salinization can be prevented during irrigation by allowing 10-20% of the water used to “leach” into the soil, that is, the water must be allowed to soak into the soil and be drained off to carry away excess salt4. But even this method of prevention is not free of problems. The salt carried away by the leaching moves down-river and could contaminate water supplies or damage the fertility of soil elsewhere. Given this problem, it is important to practice sustainable agriculture. The risk to the water system from irrigation must be considered and agriculture appropriately controlled to prevent any further damage. There are no easy solutions to the environmental problems that we face, but there are solutions.
When it comes to the environment, humans have to deal with much more than just salinization. Global climate change is one of the biggest buzz words in the media today, and it is of paramount concern to our environment. Primarily, global climate change is due to the overall heating of the atmosphere as a result of an increase in the levels of so called “greenhouse gases”, so named for the “greenhouse effect” that they have on our plane. As these gases accumulate, gases like carbon dioxide and methane, infrared radiation is absorbed into the atmosphere and not released back into space, as it normally would be. This process causes a gradual increase in global temperatures, which can have a wide range of detrimental effects on the planet as a whole. Anything from massive crop dying to seemingly paradoxical brutal winters.
Ever since the invention of the gasoline powered automobile in 1885 by Karl Benz5, our atmosphere has had to deal with an ever-increasing influx of carbon dioxide and other pollutants, such as lead. At the outset of the automobile, this machine was a luxury item that could only be afforded by a few individuals, and was thus not much of a threat to the environment. However, many businesses found an opportunity to turn a massive profit, and the production cost of motor vehicles dropped dramatically, opening up the floodgates for consumer vehicles. First it was only the developed world that could afford vehicles for every citizen, but now we are seeing an increase in purchasing power around the world, and many more motor vehicles are finding their way onto the roads. We have to look no farther than China to find where this is becoming a growing concern. The population of China is 1.3 billion people6, who are increasingly able to afford vehicles. Compounding the problem of the massive increase in the number of motor vehicles on the road is the problem of China’s low emission standards. Gasoline sold in China is not unleaded, as it is in places like the United States, putting out millions of tons of toxic chemicals on top of the choking CO27. All over the world trends like this continue. Developing nations build large industries and give their populations more buying power to purchase pollutant-emitting vehicles with little regulation on the emissions that these vehicles give off.
A similar problem to that of motor vehicles comes from industry itself. Much of the world’s electrical power is generated from coal burning power plants or from the combustion of other pollutant-emitting substances. Metals, like steel, used for anything from cars to trashcans are smelted by burning coal, and virtually every product used in daily life comes from large manufacturing plants that are massive contributors of environmental pollutants. The most obvious harmful byproduct from these industries is the carbon dioxide from the burning of materials and the accompanying soot, but the problem is deeper than that. Almost every manufacturing plant has some form of toxic byproduct that is not an atmospheric pollutant. Whether it be formic acid from the production of rubber products or the chemical wastes from the production of energy drinks, more often than not, these byproducts are dumped into water systems, like rivers or lakes, and contaminate the ecosystem for miles around any given production plant. In places like the United States or countries where the Kyoto Protocols have been signed and heavy regulations environmental regulations are enforced, this problem is not so bad, but many countries around the world haven’t signed the Kyoto Protocols or have not enforced any real form of environmental regulations. As industry booms in these developing countries, the problem of global warming only gets worse and worse. Nowhere has this been more obvious than in the former Soviet Union where steel-producing plants pumped hundreds of thousands of tons of waste into the atmosphere and pesticides and chemical fertilizers all but destroyed the ecosystem8.
Currently, climate change has reached such and advanced state that it may seem like humanity will never be able to reclaim the ecosystem that once housed it, and this might be true to a certain extent, but hope is not lost. Much of the progress of climate change can be halted, if not reversed, by simple regulations. Most nations are attempting to enforce some form of environmental control over the multitude of corporations that produce the consumer goods that have ruined our soil and atmosphere, but it is not enough. Further regulations are needed, and research into sustainable sources of energy must be furthered so that solar panels and windmills can replace the coal burning furnaces that provide us with much of our power today. Furthermore, we currently have the technology to scrub the atmosphere of greenhouse gases and to return our world to the way it once was9. It is within human power to fully transition from combustion power to wind, solar, and electrical power, and further to scrub the atmosphere of CO2 and completely alleviate the burdens of climate change. Why isn’t this being done? The simple answer is that it is costly and no direct economic benefit can be seen. This is where anthropology comes in. The study of culture lets us see how people think about the possible solutions to things like climate change. It is possible to reverse global warming, but it is very costly. Resources must be appropriated and man-hours spent to achieve such monumental goals, but no one wants to pay for it. From a capitalist mentality, there is no direct benefit to anyone to implement these plans. No business can be built on the principles of carbon sequestration because there is no good or service to sell. The problem is not that the technology doesn’t exist; the problem is in the culture itself. The solution, therefore, is to change the culture itself so that people will believe that it is worthwhile to reverse global warming.

The next biggest problem that plagues our world is that of starvation and overpopulation. Humans have an unbridled ability to propagate and adapt to almost any environment the world can supply. This has caused many people to live where agriculture cannot be sustained or where agriculture can be sustained, but populations have grown too much for the land to support them. There are two main problems to focus on with this topic, the problem of food production, and the problem of overpopulation. The first problem, food production, concerns the human ability to produce enough food to feed the population, but this ties into the second problem because the ability to feed the population depends on the size of the population. Problems like salinization, as mentioned before, and topsoil erosion have drastically reduced the human ability to produce food. All over the world, agricultural plots are being unsustainably farmed, and thus production potential is being lost. As land becomes infertile humans look to find new land to farm. This causes problems like deforestation or the destruction of natural marshlands. As trees and other native vegetation are cleared for agriculture, soil cohesion is lost and topsoil, which is vital for agriculture, is degraded and pesky things such as landslides begin popping up. As wetlands are destroyed for use in pastures or for agricultural products, floods begin to occur. Nature has set up a lot of checks and balances over time to maintain the homeostasis of the environment, but as humans expand farther and farther looking to increase their land usage these balancing systems are destroyed and ecological disasters follow. For example, soil from clear-cut forests is only fertile for a year or two before it becomes unusable10, but the repercussions of that clear-cutting last much, much longer. The carbon dioxide sequestering ability of those trees is lost and the binding forces from the vegetation are eliminated, causing soil to erode and collapse. Furthermore, biodiversity is lost as old growth forests are cut down. There are millions of species yet undiscovered by humanity, most of which are in tropical rainforests, rainforests that are being cut down to make way for agriculture, human residences, and for the sale of wood. As biodiversity is lost, the environment is destabilized in ways that we cannot know, and many possible medicines and food sources that have yet to be discovered by humans disappear. Then there is the destruction of wetlands. Wetlands are like the world’s sponges. Not only are they home to an uncountable number of species, but they also provide a way for water to be filtered into aquifers and they act as buffers against natural flooding and the like. When these wetlands are destroyed to make way for farms, water becomes a big problem. Aquifers can dry up, ground water can be contaminated, and most of all, flooding occurs. The floods caused by the destruction of wetlands can destroy the very farms that replaced them, and can cause further damage to nearby civilization, causing even more famine and disease.
There is another problem with food production besides the search for arable land. Oftentimes, countries, like Mexico or India, have enough arable land to feed their populations, but the land is not used for the native populations. All too often, agriculture is done entirely for the benefit of foreign nations. Luxury foods, like bananas or tomatoes, are often grown for international sale while the people of the native populations starve. This is yet another problem with capitalism and culture in general. In many nations, people focus on material gains for themselves and not necessarily for the benefit of their own countries.
The problem of food production is not easily solved, but it can be solved. One of the main solutions is the utilization of sustainable agricultural practices, like the prevention of salinization. But even beyond that, there are technological solutions to the problem of food production. In the past, genetic engineering and the breeding of new crops has gone a long way towards increasing agricultural yields, but this genetic engineering is not the final solution. As our understanding of biology and genetics increases with time, it is entirely conceivable that we will be able to produce new crops that are resistant to disease, insects, weather fluctuations, and can produce more food in shorter time with less water. These genetically engineered crops could very well be the “holy grail” of agriculture that will end hunger globally, but that is a lot to hope for. Even without this “holy grail” of genetically engineered plants, we can still reduce, and even eliminate hunger. The solution for this comes with improved farming techniques. Old-fashioned farming utilizes only the two-dimensional surface area of the land and is subject to seasonal changes. Because of these limitations, a new form of farming must be developed, a greenhouse form of farming. Within greenhouses, many of the environmental limitations of old farming can be eliminated by temperature control. Pesticides can be rendered unnecessary because pests can be kept outside of enclosed structures. Lighting can be controlled to grow any crop in any environment, and the fertility of the soil is irrelevant, meaning that, theoretically, even rice could be grown in a desert. Furthermore, the two-dimensional limitations of old farming plots can be surpassed. In a greenhouse with artificial lighting, crops can be grown in three-dimensions, with rows of plants being grown on top of each other. Currently, these solutions are expensive and thus not quite as attractive for many farmers, but the technology can produce a continual supply of crops regardless of season, and the maintenance costs can be more than made up for. If more research is done into these novel farming solutions, and they can be implemented on a global scale, then land can be much better utilized and hunger can be greatly combated.
The other half of this problem is the problem of population growth. Humans have a natural inclination to reproduce; it is in our biology. This desire to procreate is what has kept us, and every other living organism, alive throughout the millennia, but it comes as a problem in today’s world. Obviously, children must be born in order to perpetuate the human race; the problem is that too many children are being born. We live in a world where the obstacles to human life are rapidly being destroyed, allowing us to propagate without restraint. As our populations increase, the need for food and land also increases. No matter how well humans learn to farm, it will ultimately be insufficient to feed the entire population if the population continues to grow. There are conflicting theories on the causes of population growth. Some people say that poverty causes population growth, while still others say that wealth causes population growth. The fact of the matter is that developing nations are experiencing an explosion in population while developed nations have mostly leveled out11. This is bad because populations are growing in nations that are not necessarily able to feed their populations.
The most obvious solution for this population growth is some form of population control, like the Chinese one-child policy, but these solutions have their own problems. The one-child policy in China has seen a massive shift in the female-male ratio, as male children were culturally preferred to female children. Any form of population control will have to take culture into consideration. Will one gender be preferred if we limit the number of children one can have? Will the people accept these new restrictions? What will happen economically if we don’t have as many young people? These questions, among many, must be answered before any policy can be created. But there could also be other solutions. It is true that some nations, like Germany12, have managed to achieve a population growth rate of nearly 0%, but there are still nations, like Bahrain12, that have growth rates of nearly 5%. What is the major difference between these two countries? Neither of them have implemented population restrictions, so why is there such a stark difference between their rates of population growth? One explanation is wealth. Some theories hold that countries have lower birth rates as they become more affluent. However, countries like Moldova12 who have managed to somehow have a negative population growth, yet are not considered wealthy countries, combat these theories. Obviously the problem is not so clear cut as “high income equals low population growth” even though the general trends would seem to indicate that. If the problem of overpopulation is ever really going to be solved, then the causes of population growth must be addressed. If the causes can be found, then unique solutions might be adapted specifically for those causes. Only through anthropological research, the studying of the people and their life ways, can the problem be understood, and only through understanding can the problem ever be fixed.

Whenever humans speculate about the far future, they must be concerned about their own survival into that future. The fear that we won’t survive to that future does not come from global warming or starvation, for most human groups believe that these problems can be addressed before they become extinction level events. The fear really comes from war. Humans are gluttons for conflict. Throughout all of recorded history there have been wars; terrible conflicts between humans that have left hundreds, then thousands, and then millions dead. As technology has advanced, so too has our ability to kill. First it was just stone and stick that were used to kill, then came metal and the sword, then bow and arrow, followed by steel and gun, and finally championed by atom and nuclear bomb. Still today, even after the king of all weapons has already been developed, humans are trying to create newer and better weapons, like unmanned drones and newer and cheaper guns. If humanity is ever going to survive well into the future, then the problems of war and ethnic conflict must be addressed.
Let us start close to home. The most recent conflicts that is still on everyone’s mind are the current and past wars of the United States’ involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan. Of these two wars, only the war in Iraq has ended. The cause of this conflict was “to disarm Iraq, to free its people, and to defend the world from grave danger”13. The purpose of US involvement in Iraq was a response to the possible threat from nuclear weapons, but it was more accurately due to a desire to eliminate a totalitarian regime and impose a democratic style of government on the people there. As early as three months from the start of the war, the capital had been taken and Saddam Hussein deposed. The war was supposed to be over at this point, but it was not. The war officially lasted well into 2010, over 7 years of conflict13. Why did the war take so long to end? The answer is an anthropological and cultural one. The United States fought war in an old fashioned way. They were used to the antiquated tactics of World War I and World War II, where the enemy was known and would fight face-to-face in trenches and the theatre of war. Iraq was different. The Iraq war became a conflict of “terror”. Guerilla cells opposed the United States’ imposition of a western democratic way of life and frequently made attacks to show it. The war was not face-to-face, and thus it took a long time to end, and caused countless deaths, both Iraqi and American. The same problem that the US had in Iraq is happening in Afghanistan today. And this isn’t something new, either. The US had the same troubles in Vietnam. All of this bloodshed and pain comes from a simple misunderstanding of culture. One nation tries to impose its will upon another for one reason or another, but their cultures are not compatible. No matter how hard they try, the “imposer” will be thwarted at ever turn by some caveat of the native belief system.
Further, ethnic conflict is a serious problem in many parts of the world today. Ethnic conflict will be defined here as the conflict, oftentimes lethal conflict, between two ethnic groups. We have to look no farther than Africa to see where ethnic conflict has become a problem, and to see why it has become such a problem. Africa went through a long and troubling period of colonization that saw its essential conquest by European powers14. These European nations divided Africa into distinct principalities that later became countries when the Europeans “left” the continent. This might seem all fine and dandy, but the problem was that these Europeans did not take into consideration the native cultural identities of the people that they were dividing. By the end of the colonial period of Africa, the African countries contained a multitude of rival ethnic groups within themselves, dividing the very fabric of any government they tried to set up. These rival groups being forced to contact one another caused mass conflicts and terrible suffering. We need look no farther that Rwanda to see where this is evident. Everyone is familiar with the Rwandan Genocide, when the Hutu and Tutsi ethnic groups committed terrible acts of violence against each other, and thousands were killed14. What many people don’t understand, however, is that the Hutu and Tutsi were both a part of the same culture. They shared a language, they shared a territory, and they shared many of the same beliefs. The Hutu and Tutsi were not two rival nations, or two separate people fighting each other. These two groups were in fact just two ethnic groups forced together. The Rwandan Genocide is just the most widely known ethnic conflict, but this problem pops up all over the world. Whether it be the various ethnic groups of Sudan or the people of Nigeria, all over the world ethnic groups are forced into contact and thus conflict with one another.
The causes of this conflict are more than just simple contact, however. The main cause is sovereignty.  These ethnic groups all want the ability to make decisions for themselves and to be allowed to be free from control by outside powers. But, more often than not, other ethnic groups want control. In the Hutu-Tutsi situation, the Tutsi dominated the Hutu. In ancient Rome, the Romans tried to dominate the northern Germanic tribes. In much of the Middle East today, the Shi’ites and the Sunni are vying for political domination15. In Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Turkey there are the Kurds who want political autonomy, yet are separated by arbitrary political boundaries15.  These problems are present all over the world, and cannot be solved by military might. The problem is that these cultures don’t understand each other. Each ethnic group thinks of every other ethnic group from their own cultural perspective. They all seem to think that the other cultures can be assimilated, but oftentimes these groups are so vastly different that they can never be truly integrated. So what possible solutions are there? Honestly, the best solution might just be the philosophy of “live and let live”. Trying to fight other nations to impose your own laws and values is a doomed proposition. We can never truly force our opinions on others. If a group of people disagrees strongly enough, they will never sit by and be subjugated. The same thing goes for these ethnic groups. All too often nations with arbitrary political boundaries try to impose their own rules and life ways on the ethnic groups that happen to wander into their land. The problem is, those ethnic groups don’t think of themselves as a part of that nation. There might be some terrible and unforeseen consequences of giving each ethnic group its own autonomy, but it might be the only way to truly stop the conflict. If it is impossible to give autonomy to each group, then their cultures must be understood. For example, the Kurds in Iraq cannot be forced to accept Iraqi law, but they can be encompassed by the Iraqi government.  Each culture must be understood, and governmental policies concerning them must take this culture into consideration when making laws and policies towards them. Only through understanding can peace ever be truly achieved.

Finally, the last of the top four problems that our world must face is that of the limitations of our own planet. There are solutions to climate change, hunger, poverty, overpopulation, and ethnic conflict, but the solutions are difficult to implement and inherently imperfect. Over time, we will slowly use up the resources of Earth. Our planet is but an insignificant speck orbiting a lonely star which is itself just a speck among billions of specks floating around in our galaxy which is itself just a speck among trillions floating, lonely, in our universe. Humanity is driven to expand by our most basic urges. We want to live and to gain dominion over the universe that we can manipulate. Eventually, Earth will not be enough for us. We will need more resources than this one planet can provide, and we will need more room to live than one planet can supply. It will become necessary to leave this planet and to colonize the solar system, and eventually beyond. Therefore, our final problem is the problem of leaving Earth, the problem of intrastellar and interstellar travel.
Take the problem of ecological collapse first. If climate change is not reversed, then the biological diversity of our planet will plummet, causing starvation, disease, and even potentially extinction for our species. It is possible that climate change can be stopped, but it is by no way guaranteed. By leaving our planet, we can plant life, or find life, on other worlds, thus ensuring the continued survival of the human race and the species that we manage to transplant to other worlds. Survival can only be assured once more than one planet can be harnessed.
Take the problem of starvation and overpopulation. We are running out of space to plant crops and places to live. If we could travel beyond the bounds of our tiny world and make our way to other solar systems with other habitable worlds, then we could acquire more land to live on and to grow crops on, not to mention the discovery of native plants and animals that could potentially supply us with an abundant food supply. It has been estimated that as much as 10% to 20% of the global landmass has been affected by salinization3, while still another 10% to 20% of the world’s dry lands have been subject to deterioration and desertification16. It is readily apparent that our world is quickly being used up, and our land is being destroyed. It might be possible to reclaim this land, but it would be costly and time consuming. The most powerful solution would be to colonize another planet, where a “powerful solution” is one that offers a doable solution that would solve the problem for a long period of time. Think of how long it took humanity to damage this planet to the level that it has been damaged. If we could obtain just one more habitable world, and practice sustainable agriculture there, then all of our ecological, food, and living problems could be solved for hundreds of years.
Finally, let’s look at the ethnic conflicts that plague our societies. One of the major problems is that ethnic groups are forced to live under the jurisdiction of foreign ethnic groups against their own will, purely because of some fluke of geography that drew political boundaries around a group that never wanted to be a part of that nation. We cannot give these ethnic groups their autonomy because no one wants to give up the land that has been cut out for them, but if we could find new and uninhabited land, then why couldn’t these ethnic groups be offered a place to live, free from the grips of others? There are obvious problems with the fact that many groups would not want to leave their ancestral lands or would not have the money to pay for the interstellar flight, but it opens up another possibility for solving many of these group’s problems. It is also conceivable that opening access to an entire new world worth of resources could spawn conflict over those resources, but the sheer cost of interstellar flight would make it economically disadvantageous to have wars on Earth over the resources on Novus Terra.
How could this extra-solar colonization be achieved? The fact of the matter is that the technology and resources exist today to allow a mass human exodus from Earth, but it would take a long time and we have yet to locate a habitable planet beyond Earth. The first step would be increased funding to exoplanet identification and analysis. Already, organizations like NASA are scanning the skies with missions like the Kepler to identify and analyze exoplanets17. As technology advances, these analyses become more and more precise, even to the point where we have already begun to identify Earth-sized planets elsewhere in our galaxy. Planets like Kepler-62 e and Kepler-62 f have been identified that could both be similar to Earth in mass, and covered in water, the fundamental element of Earth-like life18. Further, a nearly Earth-massed planet, Alpha Centauri B b, has been identified in our very back yard19. To truly be able to send a mission to a planet beyond our solar system, we’d have to know that it was habitable before we even started. It is becoming more apparent that we will soon find a habitable world that we can verify, and it is certain that we will find that planet if more funding and time goes to exoplanet research. The next step is building the spacecraft. Current technologies would not allow us to even get to Alpha Centauri, the arguably trinary star system about five light years from our planet, without it taking hundreds, even thousands, of years. This time scale is far too great for any human civilization to seriously consider, but it is technically possible to achieve such a space flight. Either through further advances in cryogenics, the preservation of humans through freezing, or by building a generational spaceship, it is possible to jump from one star to the next using the technology currently available or the technology that will be available very soon. If it is decided that hundreds of years is too long, then improved propulsion systems will be necessary. Already, technologies like ion engines could provide thrust to a spacecraft over a long period of time to accelerate it to nearly the speed of light. As speed increases towards light-speed, the object under acceleration experiences time more slowly. This means that a star system over 100,000 light years away could be reached by an observer from within the spacecraft itself in less than 50 years, well within the lifespan of one human. If further research is put into propulsion systems like this, it is conceivable that the time requirements of interstellar journeys could be drastically reduced.
It may seem unlikely, but it is very much possible to colonize other worlds, if a society with sufficient resources were to decide to do it.

After this analysis of global problems, it seems like the most important anthropological concept is that of culture. I don’t mean any nebulous and indistinct definition of “culture”, I mean how culture impacts every action we do and every interaction we have. Most of our problems today are caused by culture. Environments are destroyed by cultures that utilize polluting technologies for their own benefits. Famine is created by cultures that sell their goods overseas in order to earn money, instead of feeding their own people, or by unsustainable agricultural techniques passed down through their culture. Overpopulation is caused by cultures that encourage child production. And most of all, conflict and war is caused by a misunderstanding of culture and a failure of different cultures to interact. Each society, and many subsets within each society, is defined by its culture, where “culture” defines their practices and beliefs and general way of living. What policy makers and everyday citizens must understand is that culture is different all over the world, and thus one group’s decisions may seem insane from the point of view of another group, yet are still logically consistent. It is impossible for us to solve global problems without first understanding how cultures interact.
This concept of culture is also related to anthropology because it defines the main concern of cultural anthropologists20. There is an entire branch of anthropology dedicated to the analysis and understanding of cultures around the world, and applying this understanding to further understand the impact of culture on the world as a whole.

1. Cultural Anthropology, Sheldon Smith, Philip Young. Pg. 321
2. Cultural Anthropology, Sheldon Smith, Philip Young. Pg. 195
4. Drainage for Agriculture.
8. Cultural Anthropology, Sheldon Smith, Philip Young. Pg. 239-240
11. Cultural Anthropology, Sheldon Smith, Philip Young. Pg. 434-442
14. Cultural Anthropology, Sheldon Smith, Philip Young. Pg. 300-309
15. Cultural Anthropology, Sheldon Smith, Philip Young. Pg. 328-348
20. Cultural Anthropology, Sheldon Smith, Philip Young

Friday, May 3, 2013

RoboBee, First Flying Robotic Insect (Video of the Day: 5/3/13)

It is finally upon us, the dawn of the Age of the Robotic Insects! Robert J. Wood, principal investigator for the RoboBee project, and a graduate student of his have finally developed a tiny, flying robot that has been 12 years in the making. The problems here are how to get tiny wings to both give enough lift to raise the tiny machine off the ground, and how to control its flight. This tiny robot weighs a mere 80 milligrams and has two separately controlled wings to provide it with lift. The next step for the RoboBee is to develop a light enough battery so that it no longer has to be tethered to power, but the rig will still offer researchers insights into wing design even before that battery is developed.
For more information, check out this article.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

World's Smallest Movie (Video of the Day: 5/2/13)

IBM has gone above and beyond with their marketing. They have actually figured out how to use a scanning tunneling electron microscope to move and view thousands of carbon atoms to make a movie. The technology to do this has existed in the past, but no one has ever used it to this extent before now. This is an astounding achievement by the company, considering that this movie is literally made on an atomic level. I, personally, am impressed.
For more, check out this article.