Category Archives: Blog

Fukushima and the World Without Us

Polish photographer Arkadiusz Podniesinski–whose made a career of photographing abandoned and forgotten places–travelled to the site of the Fukushima nuclear disaster in September and has released a selection of images he captured within the 20km (12.5 mile) Exclusion Zone around the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power station.

They are, to say the least, breath-taking. They are like a photo essay from the end of the world.

The images reminded me of the book The World Without Us, by Alan Weisman: a non-fiction thought-experiment about what would happen to the natural and built environment if humans suddenly disappeared. Weisman details how our cities and houses would deteriorate (they’ll be forests within 500 years), how long man-made artifacts would last (hint: a really long time), and how remaining lifeforms would evolve without us around.

Weisman concludes that radioactive waste (along with bronze statues, plastics, and Mount Rushmore) would be among the longest-lasting evidence of human presence on Earth. Indeed, without human monitoring and intervention within weeks the world’s nuclear plants (over four hundred of them) would all melt down, while our petrochemical plants would erupt in flame, spewing poisonous clouds for decades to come. All the while, the world would slowly become wilderness again, with carbon dioxide levels returning to prehuman levels after the geological eyeblink of a mere 100,000 years.

If we could send back photos from the World Without Us, well, I rather suspect they’d look a lot like the photos from Fukushima.

– S.

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Who You Gonna Call?: Ghost Hunting In Norway

“We’re ready to believe YOU!”

In honour of Halloween (and since my family and I are going as the Ghostbusters this year) a quirky story from The Grey Lady herself: Norway has a ghost problem.

The article from last Sunday’s paper recounts the story of Marianne Haaland Bogdanoff, a travel agency manager, who apparently had a spook stuck in her office. Accorrding to the Times:

…when “weird things” — inexplicable computer breakdowns, strange smells and noises and complaints from staff members of constant headaches — started happening at the ground-floor travel office, she slowly began to put aside her deep skepticism about life beyond the here and now. After computer experts, electricians and a plumber all failed to find the cause of her office’s troubles, she finally got help from a clairvoyant who claimed powers to communicate with the dead. The headaches and other problems all vanished.

“I’m usually very psychic–I’m worried something terrible is going to happen to you.”

While attendance at traditional churches in Norway has dropped off precipitously in recent decades, according to opinion polls belief in, or at least fascination with, ghosts and spirits is surging in that country.

Ghosts, or at least belief in them, have been around for centuries but they have now found a particularly strong following in highly secular modern countries like Norway, places that are otherwise in the vanguard of what was once seen as Europe’s inexorable, science-led march away from superstition and religion.

Check out the full article–really interesting stuff (including the ghost of the dead Nazi who keeps messing with the tourism brochures…)

Happy Halloween!

– S.

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Cassini Probe Looks for Life on Enceladus Today

At some point today (Wednesday, Oct. 28, 2015), NASA’s Cassini spacecraft will take the deepest dive ever through the ejecta plumes of Saturn’s moon Enceladus. And this is particularly exciting for me, since while I find space exploration fascinating generally, I keep special tabs on my old friend Cassini.

We go WAY back.

Scientists hope this close flyby–approaching to within 30 miles of Enceladus’ surface at a blistering 19,000 mph (yeah–you read that right) will shed light on what’s happening beneath the moon’s icy surface. The belief is that Enceladus has a global ocean beneath its icy crust, and learning more about the contents of the plumes venting from that ocean will tell us a great deal about the possibilities of life hidden beneath the ice.

While Cassini wasn’t designed to look for life–its a planetary survey craft, after all–it does have a suite of instruments that can be re-purposed. Passing through the plumes (which eject into space through great fissures in the ice that NASA scientists refer to as ‘tiger stripes’) it will be able to sense what that frozen water contains. Research already indicates that Enceladus has salts, organic molecules like methane, CO2, and ammonia. If it can find molecular hydrogen–a tell-tale sign of hyrdrothermal activity beneath the ocean–then Enceladus will have all the requirements for the development of life as we know and understand it.

Good luck, Cassini! I’ll be watching…

– S.

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Evidence of Second Viking Outpost Found in Canada

In the 1960s two Norwegian archaeologists discovered a Viking base camp at L’Anse aux Meadows on the northern tip of Newfoundland. They dated the site to between 989 and 1020 AD, confirming the oldest known European contact with the New World (suck it, Columbus).

Now, archaeologists have confirmed a second Viking site in the Tanfield Valley on the southeast coast of Baffin Island. They’ve found pelt fragments from Old World rats; a whalebone shovel similar to those used by Viking settlers in Greenland to cut sod; large stones that appear to have been cut and shaped by someone familiar with European stone masonry; Viking yarn; and whetstones showing traces of copper alloys such as bronze—materials known to have been made by Viking smiths but unknown among the Arctic’s native inhabitants.

Full details here.

I’ve always loved anything Viking-related, so in my mind the only thing cooler than this would be if the archaeologists had discovered these guys

– S.

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Finding Yourself by Losing Yourself in Fiction

I’ve mentioned before how I sometime sit in the dark, drinking whiskey, wondering whether this whole “fiction thing” has any redeeming social value.

Well, looks like I have even MORE reason to be hopeful that fiction–the lie that tells the truth–can actually make positive change in people’s lives.

Researchers at Ohio State University examined what happened to people who, while reading a fictional story, found themselves feeling the emotions, thoughts, beliefs and internal responses of one of the characters as if they were their own–a phenomenon the researchers call “experience-taking.”

They found that, in the right situations, experience-taking may lead to real changes, if only temporary, in the lives of readers.

One of the researchers said experience-taking is different from perspective-taking, where people try to understand what another person is going though in a particular situation, but without losing sight of their own identity.

“Experience-taking is much more immersive–you’ve replaced yourself with the other,” she said.

The key is that experience-taking is spontaneous – you don’t have to direct people to do it, but it happens naturally under the right circumstance.

– S.

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Foresight and the Doomsday Seed Vault

I’ve posted before about the the Svalbard Global Seed Vault: the so-called “doomsday” seed vault tunneled deep into the permafrost of the Norwegian Arctic, but I’d honestly hoped I’d never have to post about a need to use it. After all, it’s stated purpose is to store seeds of key agricultural crops from around the globe so that in the event such crops are lost due to a man-made or natural apocalypse staples like rice, wheat, lentils, etc. can be reestablished. So, in order to use it, something really bad has to happen first.

And then the war in Syria happened…and kept happening. And it was the ongoing devastation in Syria that prompted the first-ever withdrawal from the doomsday seed bank.

In secret shipments last month, about 38,000 seed samples including wheat, barley, lentil and chickpea–strains that had been specifically bred for cultivation in arid parts of the world–were sent from Norway to research stations in Morocco and Lebanon operated by the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas, or ICARDA. The centre is located in Aleppo but is no longer able to make full use of its facilities due to the war in Syria.

Nearly two-thirds of the specimens withdrawn last month are unique varieties of ancient crops from across the Middle East and Africa. They will be used by ICARDA to fulfill requests for crop diversity from breeders, researchers and farmers around the world, so they can develop and test new strains to cope with a changing climate and new diseases. The varieties delivered to the Morocco gene bank will be sown in the coming season, with some seeds collected and returned to the vaults at Svalbard for safe-keeping.

The costs of the war in Syria (and spilling out into surrounding regions) has been incalculable, first (of course) in human life, but also in the loss of civil society, infrastructure, and even the common heritage of all mankind in the destruction by ISIS of antiquities like those in Mosul, the and historical sites like Palmyra. It would have been all too easy for this contribution to the world’s crop biodiversity to be lost, too, to barbarism and ignorance.

But in this one respect, at least, there is some glimmer of hope that this precious heritage–the legacy of generation of farmers and botanists–has be saved through an act of selfless foresight on the part of we human beings, and that it will be preserved alongside so many others for the benefit of future generations. It is the kind of grand foresight human beings are often possessed of, sadly, only in fiction.

And that, I suppose, gives me hope.

– S.

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October 19, 2015 · 1:00 pm

20 New Lines from The Epic of Gilgamesh Discovered in Iraq, Adding New Details to the Story

Think of it as the Director’s Cut.

The Epic of Gilgamesh, one of the oldest narratives in the world, got a surprise update last month when the Sulaymaniyah Museum in the Kurdistan region of Iraq announced that it had discovered 20 new lines of the Babylonian-Era poem of gods, mortals, and monsters. Incredibly, this came about because of the looting that followed the US invasion of Iraq and Baghdad in 2003.

The tablet dates to the Neo-Babylonian period (the best Babylonian period, if you ask me) circa 2000-1500 BC, and fills in a missing part of tablet V of the epic.

These extra lines not only add to the poem’s length, but clear up some of the mysteries in other chapters. The new lines show Gilgamesh and his companion Enkidu meeting a monkey, and feeling guilty over killing Humbaba, the guardian of the cedar forest, who is now seen as less a monster and more a king.

Well, I for one, still don’t trust Humbaba. #Team Enkidu, all the way!

– S.

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