Friday, March 21, 2008

arthur c. clarke (1917 - 2008)

On Wednesday, the world said goodbye to perhaps the most famous science fiction writer of all time, Arthur C. Clarke, who passed away in his adopted country of Sri Lanka at the age of 90. Although he was most well known for scribing the novel that was the basis for the classic film 2001: A Space Odyssey, Clarke had a prolific career both as a writer and as a promoter of human space endeavors.

Clarke was a space fan from an early age. After discovering a science fiction magazine at 13, he was hooked for life. He promptly joined the British Interplanetary Society, whose members believed that space travel would be commonplace in short order. After serving in World War II as a Royal Air Force officer, Clarke dabbled in aeronautics and engineering. But his career as a writer took over in 1945, when he published a story in the same sci-fi magazine he'd fawned over as a kid. The rest, as they say, is history.

On top of his writing, Clarke had a habit of making crazy predictions about how the world would be bettered by technology. Some of these, such as the use of geostationary satellites for telecommunications, actually came true. But the vast majority—like his conjecture that cold fusion (nuclear reactions in room temperature) would become reality by the first few years of the 21st century—were no more than Jetsons fantasies. Clarke was a believer in the paranormal for much of his life, although he claimed to have given up on pseudoscience in his golden years. Old habits apparently die hard, though: Several years ago, my research for an article on alien theories revealed that he believed Mars to be populated with lush trees.

Crazy though it sometimes seemed, Clarke's visionary imagination served for many years as an important inspiration for scientific endeavors both real (like the International Space Station) and fictional (Star Trek creator Gene Rodenberry was a big fan). Later in his life, Clarke racked up quite a few awards and honors, including British knighthood, his own asteroid (4923 Clarke), and even his own dinosaur, Serendipaceratops arthurcclarkei! Needless to say, Clarke is one space cadet who will be sorely missed and not soon forgotten. &infin

Sunday, March 16, 2008

it's not easy being green...

Put down that green beer and watch this video, people! Holidays have feelings, too, ya know...

Happy St. Patty's day, everyone—including Mr. Patrick himself! &infin

Friday, March 14, 2008


Bad news for critter owners in Southeast Asia: The Vietnamese government has banned the sale and ownership of hamsters!

Apparently, hamster ownership has become a fad ("hamster clubs" are pretty popular), and the government has imposed the law from the fear that unregulated furries could be harmful to public health. What that exact harm is appears unknown, at least according to one government official.Yet, owners now face a serious dilemma: destroy your pet or face a fine of 30 million dong (about $1,900).

Wow. $1,900 is no chump change! It will certainly make people think twice about buying a hamster...or it may just make them get creative about hiding them. But I really don't see pet owners killing their pets, so the worst-case scenario will probably be pet hamsters being let loose into the wild—which actually could become a problem. I think the Vietnamese government really needs to rethink this situation and come up with a better solution!

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

storing our seed

It looks like we have a new way to save us from ourselves. No, it isn't some fad diet or a miracle recipe for procuring gasoline from thin air... It's the Global Seed Vault, a new international repository for up to 4.5 million seed samples, which would become critically important were some global catastrophe to wipe out all other seeds in the world.

Opening for "business" last week, the vault is every bit as much a doomsday plan as it sounds. The scientists and technologists running the program—which is based out of a bunker under 500 feet of Arctic rock on the Norwegian island of Svalbard—say the reality is that climate change and the increased use of genetically modified crops is causing a serious concern about the future of our world's plants. Among other things, genetic diversity has gone way down, and that means that farm crops are more susceptible to catastrophic blights and natural disasters.

Seed banks have existed in various forms throughout the world, but they've often been located in politically unstable regions. What's more, the systems that these banks used were far from uniform. The new Global Seed Vault, which is being financed by both private and government funds, will try to gather as many different storable plant seeds as possible in an effort to both preserve the gentic identity of some soon-to-be-extinct species and also to provide us with a backup plan in the event that humankind or nature depletes our ecosystem of our primary producers.

It's a really interesting idea; I wonder whether a Noah's ark half a mile underground is next!

Update: Here's a nice 60 Minutes news article about the seed bank.

Saturday, March 01, 2008


The following are some of my favorite images of the past couple of weeks...

A tanker carrying thousands of new cars tips over in the frigid North Pacific, near Alaska. Photo credit: U.S. Coast Guard

An astronaut puts the finishing touches on the long-awaited Columbus laboratory on the International Space Station. Photo credit: NASA

Stunning photograph of some hills near the village of Kilaneh in Kurdistan. Photo credit: jamesdale10

Brilliant yellow fighter jet from the RAAF Airshow in Edinburgh, UK.
Photo credit: updated

Massive engines of an F/A-18 impress viewers at the RAAF Airshow.
Photo credit: updated

In honor of leap day, NatGeo dug up from its archives this 1982 photo of a jumping armadillo. Ha. Photo credit: National Geographic Society