Stewart Brand and The Way Forward

October 5, 2010

Last night I attended a speech by Stewart Brand which effectively opened the Gaining Ground Conference on urban sustainability in Vancouver.   For those who don’t know, Brand founded and edited the Whole Earth Catalog back in the 1960s.  He founded a number of organizations including The WELL (precursor to all the internet communities of today), the Global Business Network, and the Long Now Foundation.  He is a multi-volumed author and his latest book, which formed the theme of his speech last night, is called “Whole Earth Discipline: An EcoPragmatist Manifesto.”

In the book and in the speech, Brand takes what might be considered a contrarian position on issues such as cities, nuclear power and genetically-modified food — all of which he declares to be green — and on geo-engineering, which he believes will be necessary.  Brand believes that we have to work in these directions because no other set of policies can save the earth before we reach the tipping point to destruction.

With regard to cities, Brand remarked that the Renaissance was in fact the re-urbanization of Europe after the rural retreat caused by the collapse of Rome 800 years before.  It was the cities that drove progress, and he notes that city slums around the world are the breeding ground of the most interesting and progressive entrepreneurs.  These folks are poor and do not want to be poor any more; they do what is required to improve their lives and by doing, improve the cities at the same time by developing infrastructure.   He noted the development of Sausalito (where he has lived since the early 1960s) from a ramshackle locale to a gentrified space as an example of this process.

This development was described here earlier at: “What Slums Can Teach Us.”

Brand, like me, is a big pusher for nuclear energy.  I have no way of confirming his figures but he noted that one GW of power produced by nuclear energy results in 20 tons of waste. By comparison, one GW of power from coal-fired stations creates 800,000 tons of CO2. Further, he claims, there have never been any proven child defects as a result of nuclear disasters at Hiroshima, Nagasaki or Chernobyl.  Moreover, the area around Chernobyl is now one of the most successful wildlife areas — as a result of the removal of humans and human activity in the region.  He is in favour of very-deep bore holes for storage of the nuclear waste.

Stewart Brand is also a supporter of genetically-modified food primarily, it seems, because he sees it as the best way to deliver additional food and nutritional value.  Along the same lines, he believes that “garage biotech” will be the growing hobby — as programming was in the 70s and 80s.

He now believes — with reluctance, he admits — that some level of geo-engineering will be necessary as we are now not able to mitigate the effects of emissions in time.  He remarked that we would need three Mount Pinatubo-value eruptions each year to counter the rise in heat on the earth.  He has looked at atomizing seawater into the atmosphere to brighten the albedo affect from clouds which would help cool the earth.

Basically his point is that our problems are now so great that we will need to engineer ourselves out of them — ecological sentiment is simply not enough.  He hopes that the “legacy resistance” against older “new” technologies (nuclear, GM food, etc) will not stop us finding pragmatic solutions to the earth’s crisis.

The speech was the first in the new Fay & Milton Wong Theatre at the brand new SFU campus in the re-developed Woodward’s building.  It was a sold-out event at the 400-seat locale and attendees included BC Premier Gordon Campbell.

The Discovery of Asteroids

August 26, 2010

This is an extraordinary video.  It illustrates the discovery of asteroids in our solar system between 1980 and 2010.  The first time an asteroid is discovered it shown in bright white.  It then becomes green or, if it is an earth orbit-crossing asteroid it becomes red. Those asteroids that closely approach the earth are shown in yellow.  The years and the total number of asteroids are shown at the bottom left of the screen.  As the years pass, the number of asteroids discovered increases rapidly.  This is best seen at full screen.

More than 500,000 asteroids have now been found within the solar system, and thousands of them cross our orbit.  The scientists say that the rate of discovery is not slowing down.

In the video you can see the pattern of discovery follows the Earth around its orbit and most discoveries are made in the region directly opposite the Sun.  The orbital elements were created by Ted Bowell and associates at Arecibo. See this webpage for more info.

I got this video from

Weather In The Cold War

August 12, 2010

I am a devotee of linear history: I like to know the order in which things happened, what came first, what came next. Give me the timeline before giving me your explanation or analysis. In an earlier iteration of my blog, I tried to catalog some of these “cultural beginnings” and I have continued this here.

It will come as no surprise therefore that I just love the History of Science Timeline site.

Having been born in 1949, I decided to look at what happened in 1950 and the first thing I noticed was that in 1950 we have the first weather forecast by an electronic computer. The 24-hour forecast took 24 hours to compute. Of more interest to me was the purpose behind the work:

“As a committed opponent of Communism and a key member of the WWII-era national security establishment, [John] von Neumann hoped that weather modeling might lead to weather control, which might be used as a weapon of war. Soviet harvests, for example, might be ruined by a US-induced drought.”

Science for the greater good, eh?

I’m Ready For My Close Up, Mr DeMille!

January 16, 2009

A technological breakthrough that may “revolutionize the way we look at viruses, bacteria, proteins, and other biological elements” hasn’t received the press I think it deserves.   IBM have developed an MRI that is one hundred million times better than today’s standard MRIs.  I can’t even count that high!

By extending MRI to such fine resolution, the scientists have created a microscope that, with further development, may ultimately be powerful enough to unravel the structure and interactions of proteins, paving the way for new advances in personalized healthcare and targeted medicine. This achievement stands to impact the study of materials from proteins to integrated circuits for which a detailed understanding of atomic structure is essential.


In addition to its high resolution, the imaging technique has the further advantages that it is chemically specific, can “see” below surfaces and, unlike electron microscopy, is non-destructive to sensitive biological materials.

Muons For Mayans

September 1, 2008

OK, I’m excited.  Particle physics and archaeology are coming together to investigate Mayan mounds, most of which have not been excavated.  No-one really knows what is inside these impressive structures.  But now, scientists working with muon detectors are coming to help.

The first major experiment of the Maya Muon Group will bridge the disciplines of physics and archeology. The particle detectors and related systems are designed specifically to explore ruins of a Maya pyramid in collaboration with colleagues at the UT Mesoamerican Archaeological Laboratory. The Maya Muon Group will travel to La Milpa in northwest Belize to make discoveries about “Structure 1” – a jungle-covered mound covering an unexplored Maya ruin.

Pointing out that dense materials block more muons, Patel explains that a muon detector can actually detect rooms, spaces, and caves inside what seems to be solid:  A detector next to a Maya pyramid, for example, will see fewer particles coming from the direction of the structure than from other angles: a muon “shadow.” And if a part of that pyramid is less dense than expected – containing an open space for, say, a royal burial – it will have less of a shadow. Count enough muons that have passed through the pyramid over the course of several months, and they will form an image of its internal structure, just like light makes an image on film. Then combine the images from three or four devices and a 3-D reconstruction of the pyramid’s guts will take shape.

Fascinating stuff.  The article at BLDGBLOG goes much further and is well worth the read.

Germs ‘R’ Us

June 7, 2008

There isn’t as much of each of us as we thought. The latest research suggests that each of us contains ten times as many bacteria as human cells — we are, in fact, just a small minority of our own bodies!

Changes in these microbial communities may be responsible for digestive disorders, skin diseases, gum disease and even obesity. Despite their vital imporance in human health and disease, these communities residing within us remain largely unstudied …

Martin Blaser of New York University has been working to identify the various bacteria that live on the human skin and help to form a protective barrier on the outside. Before he started his research it was estimated that fewer than 100 different species of bacteria lived on the skin … Blaser now estimates the number of different bacteria species living on the skin could approach 500 …

Due to their overwhelming numbers, the fact that their byproducts can be found in most human fluids, and the evidence of their potential role in health and disease, it is quite possible that mapping and understanding the human microbiome may be as important or more important to understanding human health than mapping and understanding the human genome.

So remember, wherever you are and whatever you are doing, you are never alone.


February 22, 2008

Kisses are such glorious business that it seems a shame, perhaps, to allow scientists to get their grubby hands into the entrails of such a wonderful experience.

“Kissing,” said evolutionary psychologist Gordon G. Gallup of the University at Albany, State University of New York, last September in an interview with the BBC, “involves a very complicated exchange of information—olfactory information, tactile information and postural types of adjustments that may tap into underlying evolved and unconscious mechanisms that enable people to make determinations … about the degree to which they are genetically incompatible.”

… In the 1960s British zoologist and author Desmond Morris first proposed that kissing might have evolved from the practice in which primate mothers chewed food for their young and then fed them mouth-to-mouth, lips puckered. Chimpanzees feed in this manner, so our hominid ancestors probably did, too. Pressing outturned lips against lips may have then later developed as a way to comfort hungry children when food was scarce and, in time, to express love and affection in general.

So says (and so much more) a fascinating piece in Scientific American.

Me?  I just like the taste and the texture and the smell and the cuddling that goes along with the kissing.  It would be a far less wonderful space my lover and I inhabit if we didn’t kiss so much.  That much I do know.


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