The Planetary News Radio – Episode 11: Is the Moon part of Mars?

Welcome to the Planetary News Radio Episode 11 with your host Bryan White. Today I’m going to do a Science in the News segment, and then I’ll talk briefly about some of the other projects going on with the Planetary News and a little bit about how to help support this podcast to keep it advertising free. Well, let’s get into the Science in the News segment. So again, just briefly, I’m looking at trending articles and science from various sources, and I haven’t really researched them a lot. I’m mostly just looking at the headlines and trying to understand what’s going on in the world and kind of get a sense for the pulse of science news.

And so let’s look here, Number one, “Trump prompts state of confusion over space policy with tweet”. So this is kind of funny, but it makes sense to me. I see where the confusion is. Trump actually tweeted, [paraphrasing], “That the moon is a priority. We shouldn’t be wasting time on Mars”, or something like that. But then he said, “the Moon is part of Mars” and as out of context as silly that sounds, I actually see where the confusion is from that tweet, and it’s actually not that wrong. What Trump should have said is that the development of technology and systems for travelling to Mars are also part of the development of the systems and technology for traveling to the Moon. So if we develop systems for traveling to the moon, we’re also developing systems to travelling to Mars. And that’s an important point because NASA had to make a decision on what to focus their resources on. As much as everyone would love to colonize Mars and the Moon, we have to choose one [first] because resources are limited. And so NASA’s made the decision that we will return humans to the moon first. That will be the priority.

But at the same time, this is going to help with future missions to Mars. And why So one of the things is is that NASA’s gonna be creating a new space station. So an orbital platform for sending astronauts to the moon. So now you have the Apollo missions. Historically, astronauts are restricted to launching on a rocket one way rocket, now breaching orbit, going straight to the moon. Now, with an orbital stop point, you could have a one rocket designed to exit the earth’s gravity, which is a very different process from actually just traveling across space to the moon. And so you can have the second stage of the Moon plan waiting in orbit or the second stage can be refueled. So if you can send fuel to orbit in multiple stages, you can accumulate more fuel in orbit. And then you don’t have to have everything packed on one trip on one rocket, because exiting your gravity is extremely challenging, extremely expensive, so every pound could cost thousands of dollars to get into orbit.

Having a stop point in low earth orbit on the way to the moon, it is a really good idea. And since the International space station is going to be decommissioned, it doesn’t make sense to continue adapting that. And so hopefully this new effort to build a Moon station will continue on to the building of another space station and that station will be used for future Mars missions. So, as silly as it is, what Trump said sounds silly, it’s actually fairly accurate. The mission to the Moon is part of the mission to Mars.

All right, so next up, speaking of the International Space Station (ISS), NASA and its international partners have been struggling to figure out what to do with it. What they’re saying is that NASA will open up the space station [to private tourism], and this has been talked about for a while. This is the first official announcement that NASA will open up the station to private visitors, and so they can pay cash to go visit the International Space Station. That’s great, because then if you could have enough visitors going to the International Space Station, it could support itself. NASA could afford to maintain it and then that station and another space station. The plan is to decommission the ISS by 2025 or something like that. But if it were to become profitable or break even in terms of funding and that funding came from private individuals or institutions, then I don’t see why the station would be decommissioned. And so then we’ll have NASA itself funding a Moon station in orbit, and then we’ll have the International Space Station still hanging around, so maybe we’ll have to space stations in the next 10 years, so that’s good.

A real quick astronomy note is that Jupiter will be the closest to earth it has been in some time, and so this week is a great week to see Jupiter and its Moons, or at least four of its Moons will be visible. Not necessarily to the naked eye but visible, using low magnification like binoculars or something like that. So I’m excited about that. Hopefully there is clear weather.

Here’s a headline from NBC News. Three islands disappeared in the past year. Is climate change to blame? Well, I don’t know because I didn’t read the article, but let’s think about Could that be the case? Could climate change cause an island to disappear? And the answer is yes. That is entirely possible. For a couple reasons, one would be raising water levels so the water gets hired. But there’s a lot of other forces, too, that cause islands to disappear. So erosion forces and things like that changing can suddenly transform an island that might have been growing, adding sand, actor and soil. So all of a sudden, fading away losing sand and all of these things can be influenced by climate. So again, I’m not looking into that. Too much more of us. Looking at the headline saying that sounds plausible. [In this case, it looks like sea-level rise is the most likely culprit].

There’s an exciting headline: “Incredible Pictures of NASA approved 3D homes to be built on Mars before humans arrived”. So again, back to the Moon/Mars controversy. One of the problems with getting to Mars is resource is resource transfer. Mars is a lot farther away so it’s a lot more expensive to carry materials with you. If colonists arriving on Mars could fabricate their own living structures from natural resource obtained on Mars, then that would free up a lot of space on the spaceship to bring them to Mars. In other words, if you can build your home when you get there, you don’t need to bring your home with you. And so that’s why a lot of colonization research is going into 3D printing. So if we could build homes or any type of structure, a greenhouse [for example], the ability to fabricate structures on Mars would be great, and I’m assuming that this will be tested on the Moon first. So as part of NASA’s “Moon first” plan hopefully we’ll see a 3D printer on the Moon.

Like I said, [in the Science in the News segment], I’m just looking at headlines. The reason why I do this is because here is a trending article that appears to be fake news. “Alien life search bombshell exo-moons may be home to extraterrestrial life”. So first of all, I wouldn’t call that a bombshell because the idea that any exo-planet or exo-moon could house life has been a major component of astrobiology for 30 or 40 years, since the first exo-planets were discovered. Scientists have always thought it possible that if there is alien life, either microbial or other, that it could possibly exist in a planet that is in the habitable zone.

In other words, if the planet is not too close to its star, has the right temperature for organic synthesis to occur, and has some solvents like water or ammonia, then it’s entirely plausible that life could exist. Now, that’s my criticism here: [the wording of the headline]. This headline is “Alien life search bombshell”. Not really a bombshell. The problem with exo-moons and exo-planets is that even if they did have life on it, how would we know? So we’d have to find a way to detect the signature of life on a planet only from its atmosphere, because that’s all we can really see from a telescope. So these planets are many light years away, typically so we can’t visit them and see if there are living organisms there. So we need a system to detect the signature of life from a telescope.

And there’s some work that’s been done on that because we know if we were to point a telescope at earth, what would we look for? Could we determine that Earth had life if we were pointing to telescope at Earth from a light year away? And so, yes, we do know there is some signatures we can look for, like really high oxygen content in the atmosphere would be a suggestion, but again, we won’t be able to confirm that [with physical data]. In our lifetimes, we’ll never be able to confirm that [because of the extreme distance of even the closest exoplanet, which is over 4 light years away]. So that’s why this title, I think, is a little disingenuous and so I’m calling out this article. I’m not naming it, just calling out the headline as [potential fake news].

And so that’s it today for the Science and the News segment. I’ll just talk real quick about one of the other projects I’m starting, which is the Planetary Information Engine (PIE), which is sort of like a three stage process. It’s beginning as a wiki, and so the wiki is going to be constructed to gather scientific knowledge, kind of like an encyclopedia, but a more directed encyclopedia – a little less free-form than Wikipedia. [It will have] more structure towards natural language processing (NLP). And so the idea is that an information engine is something that could be used by an artificial intelligence system to augment your own intelligence or a person’s own intelligence. And so that’s the [new] project I’m starting as well, the Planetary Information Engine, and I’ll have more about that as I get further along.

Hope you enjoyed this podcast. That’s Bryan White with the Planetary News signing out.

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The Planetary News Radio – Episode 10: Ancient North Siberians, Octopuses as Lab Rats, and Microplastics Invade Deep Sea

Hello. Welcome to the Planetary News Radio Episode Number 10 with your host, Bryan White. I’m going to be doing a Science in the News segment today, which is a brief summary of trending science news articles. I haven’t reed or researched most of these articles unless it was something controversial. So I’m just giving background information based on the headline. So depending how good the headlines are kind of influences how much information I can give about the article.

First up, I have here “DNA from 31,000 year old milk teeth leads to the discovery of a new group of ancient Siberians”. Ancient humans. This is a really exciting area of research because we found out that pretty much anything say, around the last 50,000 years, we can get DNA from now if we can find bones and the bones haven’t been completely fossilized. There’s still organic material in the bones. We can extract DNA and do genetic and genomic analysis on these bones and teeth are a great example of that. [There is] lots of organic material inside of teeth. And so we’ve discovered there’s several species of ancient humans in Eastern Europe, across through Russia, and Siberia, and in Asia. And so while there were radiations of humans out of Africa multiple times, some of those radiations included ancient humans that migrated into Siberia and Asia. In Europe, some of those became Neanderthals. [In Russia and Asia,] some of those became Denisovans, and I don’t know if this new species has been named yet [(Ancient North Siberians)]. This is really considered a subspecies of [ancient human, which are still considered Homo sapiens sp.].

Most of these species would have been able to interbreed with each other. So a good rule of thumb for mammals is if the divergence time for two groups is less than 200,000 years, then hybridization was most likely possible. So modern humans and Neanderthals were [able to hybridize, which] we know it’s proven for a fact that they hybridized because we have genomic data. Using [just] the rule of thumb, we know that Neanderthals and modern humans diverged about 300,000 years ago, and when they met again in Europe, they were only separated by about 200,000 years of evolution, and so they were able to hybridize. So the same thing with this [newly discovered group whose] teeth are only 31,000 years, so certainly these would have been able to hybridize and interbreed with modern humans, Homo sapiens sapiens.

So [this is] just more evidence of new, different groups of ancient humans. And why is that important? Well, it helps paint the picture of the migration and really the prolific amount of adaptation that modern humans underwent in terms of evolutionary change over the last 200,000 years. We really had our own adaptive radiation, just like birds and reptiles and dinosaurs. Humans are one of our own great adaptive radiation stories in terms of evolutionary history, so it’s always cool when we find new human species or unique genetic groups.

So let’s see, we [have] another StarLink article. “Astronomers call for urgent action on you on SpaceX’s StarLink satellites”. Apparently, astronomers are still concerned over the magnitude of the number of satellites that Elon Musk is going to be putting out into orbit around. [It will be] 12,000 satellites [in total], and this is now still a trending story every week for the last couple weeks since the initial launch has occurred. Like I said last time, I think it’s a fair criticism, but it also forces us to think about space junk in general, which is good. So Maybe Elon Musk is doing us a favor by forcing the conversation, and hopefully there’s some resolution with these satellites and [policies towards “space junk”].

Here’s another interesting evolution biology topic or medical two. The newest lab rat has eight arms octopuses, big brains and unique behaviour spur basic research. Why would octopuses be a really good animal to use in the lab as a research subject? Well, let’s think about rats. Rats are intelligent. They’re small. They’re relatively easy to cultivate. You could have a colony [colony of rats]. They reproduce in the lab. They have a short lifespan, and that life span is about the time that it takes most experiments to perform. But what are the problems with rats? There’s a lot of problems with rats. One of them is that rats get cancer very easily, [upwards of 80% in some cases]. At least in lab stocks of rats, as opposed to wild rats. We’ve been cultivating rats for so long in the lab in a lab setting that they’re very, very likely to get cancer over the course of a two year life span. And so, if you want to do a cancer study on rats, that’s a problem because most of these rats will inevitably get cancer no matter what, whether they’re being exposed to something that is actually increasing their cancer risk or if they’re just living over the course of a normal life span.

[What are some reasons octopuses might make good lab animals?] Octopuses are less cultivated in the lab, [or at least were used in lab experiments more recently], so we probably don’t have very many generations worth of octopus evolution happening in a lab. It would be easier to collect them from the wild and generate a new stock [to improve and maintain lab-strain genetics]. Since lab rats are so domesticated compared to their wild counterparts, it would be problematic to intermix lab rats with wild rats, especially because you have the problem of aggression. So you don’t want to create really aggressive lab rats. It might improve their genetic stock, but then again, you have a problem of having more wild, aggressive rats.

Octopus can be aggressive, but it’s different. They’re a very different animal in terms of behavior. They’re contained in a marine environment. They’re probably not really being handled by the researchers. In other words, an octopus is less likely to reach around and bite a researcher because the environment that the octopus is being stored in isn’t going to be one where the researchers are routinely handling them with their hands. I imagine you can create these lab complexes for octopus to live in, where the researchers don’t really have to interact with them, and they don’t have to worry about getting bit. Octopuses do have a beak that could hurt a human. It could draw blood. But again, they’re not really aggressive, they’re mostly defensive animals, so octopus is not really threatened. Even a wild octopus shouldn’t be a problem. Now they will try to escape, but that’s part of their intelligence. So you have this animal that has a really fast generation time, it has a genetic stock could be easily replenished from the wild, it’s highly intelligent, it’s probably smarter than rats. It’s not really aggressive [compared to rats]. On the negative side, it’s probably more expensive to cultivate because you need all the marine equipment. But stuff like that is coming down in terms of pricing because of advances in material science. So as material science advances, it becomes easier to cultivate an animal like an octopus and then for sets of experiments that will work on an octopus. In other words, if you’re not trying to test a [mammal-specific] hormone, obviously that won’t work. Or it might if you could genetically engineer octopus to do something like a mammal. So maybe we can even test human medicine on octopuses if it’s easy to genetically modify them.

The great dying nearly erased life on Earth. Scientists see similarities today, the great dying, of course, being the Permian extinction, where 90 percent of marine life went extinct at the end of the Permian period around 300,000,000 years ago. And I think maybe 70% of all land life went extinct. And so we see Similar is of that today because of the rapid extinction rates that were seen on the Earth. And so we know that the Permian extinction was accompanied by rapid changes in climate, and a lot of those changes would have been recorded in the geological history in the fossils in the rocks around that time. So we’re probably seen similar patterns of a very rapid global climate change too rapid for animals to adapt, especially marine animals that tend to be more sensitive.

Apparently, the Mars lander Insight is having a problem with its instruments. So “NASA finally has a plan to free Insight’s extremely stuck probe”. So it sounds like the heat probe on Insight os stuck. Insight is an interesting probe on Mars because it’s not a robotic rover like Opportunity [and Spirit were]. It is a It is a stationary probe whose primary mission is to study the geology and geologic activity of Mars. So it has a seismometer that is actually measuring earthquakes on Mars and some other types of thermal instruments. So the fact that one of its probes are stuck is not good, but maybe this can be resolved.

Here’s another controversial topic. “Microplastics have invaded the deep ocean and the food chain”. That’s not good. So micro plastics real problem, because we’re finding out now that it’s permeated our entire water system, including the ocean and freshwater. These are microscopic bits of plastic that now we know we’re drinking and eating, and not just us [(humans)]. All life on earth now potentially being exposed to this. We don’t know the cumulative effects or long term effects of this because it’s just recently happened [the article says we are] finding out that microplastics have permeated all the way down to the deep sea, which means the entire oceanic ecosystem can be impacted from this all the way from the bottom up. So [some of] the primary producers in the ocean are phytoplankton or very tiny, tiny animals [(zooplankton)]. Phytoplankton are photosynthesizing organisms that float up and down in the water. And so now it sounds like, they’re saying, is that microplastics have permeated the entire oceanic column, which means primary producers will be affected as well as secondary producers and secondary consumers.

So if the oceanic ecosystem has been permeated to this degree with microplastic suggests that there could be a cumulative effect and this could lead to an ecosystem collapse. And so I think that’s kind of what we’re waiting for right now. In terms of conservation biology, we’re waiting to start seeing signs of these major ecosystem crashes. We already see signs of top level consumers [being harmed, such as] whales, sea turtles, things like that that are eating fish all the way up the food chain. We already see that they’re being impacted because they’re getting the worst degree of bio-accumulation because they’re eating fish and crustaceans that even in phytoplankton have been absorbing microplastics. So, you know, at the highest level we already get an impact. We get birds stomachs filled with plastic, things like that. So this microplastic problem is really scary. And hopefully my guess is that there will be some extreme measures taken, probably in the next five years to alleviate this. That’s my hope. But I think that it will happen because I think we’ll start seeing more direct [negative] impacts of it that will drive some of those changes.

All right, and that’s all I had today for this Science in the News segment. That’s Bryan White signing out the Planetary News Radio. Thanks for listening. If you’d like to support this podcast that had a patreon going, the link for that is in the feed. The transcripts for all of these podcasts are also on the website, so there’s a link to the website in the feed, and if you would like to join a discord chat, that link is also there. Hopefully, we get people asking questions and things like that in the discord, so thanks for listening. Have a great day.

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The Planetary News Radio – Episode 9: Artemis Moon Mission, Video Games and Gun Behavior, and Sabertooth Cat Fights

Hello and welcome to the Planetary News Show Episode 9 with your host Bryan White. Today I’m going to do another “Science in the News Segment”. Just to explain really brief, this [segment] is me talking about  recent trending science news articles that I haven’t necessarily read the article, but I might have looked up some of the background or some of this controversial checked in on it. I it sounds like I’m next to a family of ducks, that’s because I am so they’re just chilling. We’re all just chilling here by the river in Corvallis, Oregon, talking about science. These are probably some of those friendliest ducks I have ever happened to cross. All right, let’s get started.

NASA has chosen its first 3 partners for its Artemus Moon return mission. This is really popular right now. NASA’s making some major headway on its goal to return to the moon. NASA’s goal to return to the moon is picking up, so they’re going to send a robotic lander and a robotic orbiter by 2020, and humans on the moon by 2024. It’s chosen it’s private partners, and they’re starting to contract this out. So we’ll have boots on the ground on the moon by 2024. That’s exciting.

Let’s see what else? SpaceX Starlink satellite again in the news for concern over the idea that it might block out [the view of] stars [once they are] in orbit. Since the total fleet of this Starlink

satellite orbit is supposedly something like 12,000 satellites, it’s a legitimate concern. I don’t know how valid it is because there’s already thousands of pieces of space junk orbiting the Earth, and people haven’t really been complaining about that. So I think people should think about this and apply logical consistency. And so if you’re going to criticize Elon Musk for polluting orbit, then I think you should also criticize all of the other institutions that have been doing that for the last 50 years. But again, I see a logical inconsistency here with people complaining about it [because] I don’t see a real push for removing space junk anywhere, [just a recent focus on Starlink].

Here’s an interesting one, its potentially controversial so I did actually go look at the research article. [The title of the article is,] “Study considers length between violent video games and behavior with guns”, and this was published in one of the JAMA Network journals. Now what this study concluded was that a group of children who played video games that had guns in the video game we’re more likely to pick up and use a disabled gun, pull the trigger, and point it at their peers than children who had played games that only had swords or children that did not play violent video games. What this says [to me] is you had kids who went and they played a game with guns in it, so now they know what a gun is in the game. Presumably, they can see the trigger that and see how to hold a gun. So you taught them how to hold and use a gun. The result of this study is children play a game that teaches them how to use an object and they see the object in real life, they pick it up and play with it. That makes total sense. But I would like to see is if they’d put out swords and see if kids who played the sword game also were likely to play with swords. [This was included with the study but with Nerf/foam swords]. And so really, they’ve just confirmed the fact that kids emulate what they see in video games.

Now they do have a valid point, because now the sword is one thing, but in the instance of the gun, you have truly taught the kid how to play with a gun. And so if you are a family and you have guns and you leave your gun sitting out and your child has played video games that have guns in it, that child is more likely to pick up and play with a gun in an unsafe way. So if anything that stresses families who do have guns to be protective of the gun if they have children that are exposed two video games but also in general if they have children. People who have guns should be locking them up and preventing children from accessing them, unless for some reason that child is specifically being trained to use a gun (e.g., sport shooting), then that’s a different story. In other words, accidental play behavior is what should be avoided. So that’s an accurate headline because all the headline says is that there’s a link between violent video games and behavior with guns, presumably all the games that have guns or violent because you’re shooting people.

Let’s see what else. “Juno Space probe identifies changes in Jupiter’s magnetic field.” That’s interesting. So the Juno space probe is really cool because it spent many years [(2011 launch year)] traveling to Jupiter and arrived there in 2016 and begin photographing its moons which gave us a much clearer pictures of Jupiter’s atmosphere. And the nice thing about Juno is that at the end of its mission, which should be in 2021, it will descend into the atmosphere of Jupiter. And if you remember in the movie 2001 a Space Odyssey, they descend in the atmosphere of Jupiter. And, of course, all sorts of weird, strange things happen in that movie. And so we’ll find out what types of weird, strange things might happen to Juno as it descends into the atmosphere of Jupiter, a fitting end for a probe.

Let’s see, invasive flowering species might overpower native ones because of warming climate. Well that’s makes sense. That’s likely true. I wouldn’t call that a new new result, maybe a “new to you” result.

Let’s see what else flipping my pages here, “Physicists create a stable, strongly magnetized plasma jet in the laboratory”. That’s interesting, because plasma is a stable, sustained stream of ionized gas. This is only charged gas particles that are being expelled from some creation point. And this is what large parts of stars are made of. This is saying that they’ve created a stable stream of plasma that’s magnetized and at supersonic speeds. So it’s a supersonic stream of plasma that’s magnetized. This is closer to the surface of what a star might be putting out, so it’s a better system to study what types of electromagnetic effects are happening on the surface of a star. So that’s kind of cool.

Astrocytes protect neurons from toxic buildup. I mean, that’s a true statement, and maybe I’ll take a minute here to. Critique that statement. That’s something you might read out of a textbook, so this doesn’t really tell me anything new [or draw my interest in to read the article]. Astrocytes are [nerve] cells that surround neurons along with [types of] glial cells and support those neurons. And part of that support presumably would be toxin removal. So it’s an entire system around neurons involved in actual neural networks and synaptic processing that supports them and astrocytes are part of that. So this doesn’t seem terribly interesting to me, I’m just actually criticizing this title as being boring.

“Climate change is already affecting global food production unequally”. That it is also true or something I would expect again. It doesn’t tell me anything new, though, just from the headline

Eruption of ice volcanoes through liquid water over the frozen surface of Pluto. That’s a good title that tells me something new, because last time we talked about Pluto having water, and now we’re talking about an eruption. So there was an eruption on the surface of Pluto, and maybe that’s how we know that there was water underneath it. So that’s it. A good title.

See what else? This was an interesting one, “Punctured school suggest saber-toothed cats fought amongst themselves”, and then it’s a picture of a sabre-toothed cat skull impaling another sabre-toothed cat skull. And I kind of think this is a little funny because I don’t know what else they would be doing other than fighting, because they used the word “suggest” [in the title]. But I suppose since we weren’t actually there, all we have are the fossils. It is a suggestion. It’s a very strong suggestion based on this picture. Definitely looks like these sabre-toothed cats were fighting. Now, the interesting thing is that this would confirm that the tooth of a sabre-toothed cat was actually strong enough to break through bone and could be used in fighting. A lot of times in mammals or large vertebrates you find, or in in general, in the animal kingdom, you find lots of structures that aren’t actually used in fighting that look like they might be. A good example might be horns on a chameleon or rhinoceros beetle. [They’re used for locking/grappling during a fight, but not necessarily for actually impaling during a fight]. [So a lot of structures that look they are for fighting might just be] for show or for sizing up other members of the same species, but not necessarily for actually damaging another member of the species. And it looks like here now they’ve confirmed at least that sabre-toothed cats could indeed use their teeth for fighting. So that’s cool.

Last one for this episode, “Black hole created in the lab confirmed Stephen Hawking’s radiation theory”. That’s interesting, because that makes me want to read the article, because there was a big controversy with black holes when Stephen Hawking first proposed them that they would infinitely gain mass. And so the question was, “Do you or infinitely continue to gain mass? Do black holes ever lose mass?” And the answer was later hypothesized to be, yes, they do lose mass – they bleed out energy in the form of radiation, and this radiation is named Hawking Radiation. And so this is black Hole created in a lab. That’s really cool. I want to read that because I want to see how they did that. And so maybe this is something in a particle accelerator that mimicked some properties of a black hole for a split second. I don’t think they actually created a black hole. [These are actually sonic black holes that are made using water, but that mimic the relativistic properties of a black hole.] I think this is a sensationalist title, but maybe they mimic some property of a black hole that would suggest that hawking radiation exists, some curious how they did that, and that’s all that I highlighted today to look at, so I will sign out.

And that’s Bryan White signing off with The Planetary News Radio. Thanks for listening and have a good day.

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The Planetary News Radio – Episode 8: New Fracking Methods, a Hidden Ocean on Pluto, and Other Science News

Hello. Welcome to The Planetary News Radio Episode 8 with your host, Bryan White. Today I’m going to do a segment called Science in the News, and this is kind of like taking the pulse of the internet in regard to science. What I have is just a list of headlines of recent science based trending articles and I haven’t researched the articles, I haven’t read them. All I’m doing is I’m just looking at headlines, and I’m taking the pulse. I just want to know what’s going on in a general sense, just to get an idea of where things are at with popular topics in science and so I don’t miss anything major or important.

The first thing up on this list is “PhD Programs drop standardized exam”. That’s important because PhD [(and other graduate)] programs historically have required a GRE (graduate record examination) to get into graduate. It’s a standardized way to measure capacity or ability and there’s been a lot of criticism about using standardized tests and measure graduate level capacity. And so you see a lot of institutions are dropping GREs entirely for [entry into] graduate programs. One of the first places to do this was UC Berkeley, which dropped the GRE for its biology program and now presumably we are seeing more schools dropping this, and I see that is a good thing for science. I think that if you create a standardized test and people train themselves to pass and do well on standardised tests, then all you end up with our people who are really good at doing standardized tests. So I’m glad to see that a lot of institutions or shifting away from this and maybe taking a more holistic approach to graduate entry, let’s see what’s next.

“Elon Musk’s 12,000 StarLink satellite network has a big problem”. I’ve been seeing a lot about this. So Elon Musk wants to create a satellite Internet called Starling and could presumably have hundreds or thousands of satellites. He’s launched 60 so far, so there’s a string of 60 satellites now orbiting around the earth, and they’re in a very low orbit right now. And so I believe the orbit slowly adjusts itself, but right now they’re in a low orbit, and so you can see the satellite’s fairly easily from the ground, so that’s a problem. It’s [potentially] very distracting for astronomers, and you see a lot of complaints about this network. So the concern is that when the full system is 12,000 satellites long, how much of the sky will be blocked out by this network? So it’s a legitimate concern, but we don’t really know yet. Some other uses of the network might offset that. For example, Elon Musk has said that this network would also be capable of removing space junk. So maybe as the satellites age, they can be repurposed to collect and bring down other pieces of debris in orbit and maybe balance out total space junk floating around Earth. So in general, space junk is a problem. That’s really good topic to talk about later.

Astronomers spot Forbidden Planet in Neptunian Desert”. So this is a planet that’s been spotted where it’s not supposed to exist, and that probably means that the planet is too close to its star. In other words, it hasn’t been obliterated by the star. That’s interesting, because planets that are close to their stars lose matter and mass slowly gets stripped away by radiation, so you see planets [that orbit to close] slowly getting absorbed by their stars. So you would not expect a planet to persist for very long in that range. That suggests, interesting things about this planet. Either there’s something strange about the star or something strange about the planet, and I don’t know, So this makes me curious. I want to go look at it more. But right now I’m not. This is just the headlines, So this isn’t really interesting thing to go look at later. [Scientists hypothesize either the planet began much larger than it currently is or it only recently migrated into the Neptunian zone (< ~1 million years ago)].

“Watch the first solar eclipse ever captured on film”. A year 1900 total solar eclipse. The oldest one ever [recorded]. So there’s a video of a solar eclipse, but not only a solar eclipse, the first ever video of a solar eclipse, has been released. That’s interesting because the year was 1900 and it kind of makes you think for a minute how long humans have been doing astronomy, much before film was invented. We already had a sophisticated understanding of astronomy, and so we think this film is something hi tech [compared to a simple 1900’s telescope], but astronomy, in all of its complexity, really needed only a low tech solution [(telescope)] to collect data. And so we’ve had telescopes for hundreds of years but only movies for only 100 years. That’s an interesting fact to know.

[This story again, “Ancient supernova prompted human ancestors to walk upright”. I talked about that an entire episode last time, which, if you missed, is the idea that a supernova caused a increase risk in forest fires or an increased rate of forest fires. And that might have driven humans to walk upright in ancient humans to walk upright. And so a new theory in the arena of human by P does and theories so that I would expect to develop more.

The James Webb telescope emerges successfully from final thermal vacuum test. So the James Webb telescope is going to be the new Hubble, the new most advanced telescope that we put into orbit around the Earth. So the fact that that’s getting close to being completed is really important and hopefully will begin to see amazing results from that fairly quickly.

Now here’s an interesting one, “Swapping water for CO2 could make fracking greener and more effective”, fracking being a short word for hydraulic fracturing, which is the act of injecting high pressure fluids under ground in order to cause fractures. So it’s a hydraulic fracture, and as those fractures are caused, then oil and gas will seep through into the cracks, and then that oil and gas could be extracted from the rock, but only under the [presence] of that fracturing. And so how you do that fracturing? Historically it has been done with water. So you inject the ground with water and what this article is suggesting that that could be done with carbon dioxide instead of water.

Why is that important? Well, for one hydraulic fracturing absolutely wrecks the water and ecosystem anywhere that it’s done at, because once you use the water, you can’t just dump it back in to a river or a stream. That water is now toxic, so you need two things: You need, one a source of water, and that water cannot go back, and then: Two, you need a place to put the water because not only can you not put the water back, it’s now toxic, and so it’s worse than just being used up. It’s completely unusable for some period of time, so there’s all sorts of ways that this could be done. Either the water is reused and could be used multiple times, but then presumably eventually the chemistry of the water would be altered such that it can only be reused a certain number of times and eventually has to be stored somewhere. And the other way is to just store the water in a pool and wait for to evaporate. And so when you do that, all the chemicals are left behind which creates a waste pit that is highly toxic. And a lot of these toxic components, like radio nuclides bio-accumulate in the environment. So if that pit leaks, if ground water leaks from that and carries the concentrated toxins from the hydraulic fracturing, that will bio-accumulate because fish will absorb the radionuclides and then animals eat the fish, so on and so forth [up the food chain].

These waste pits really jeopardize entire ecosystems. So hydraulic fracturing is really damaging to the ecosystem outside of the [actual] fracturing [itself]. So on top of all of that [above-ground] damage, you’re also cracking the earth in a way that can cause earthquakes. The idea that the water component might be able to be removed, if we could use a CO2 instead of water as the fracturing material, that would be great. As I discussed previously, it’s really tough to make moral change in America’s current political spectrum. So the moral issue here being that hydraulic fracturing is bad for the environment and things that are bad for the environment are bad. But we can’t stop because we need the oil and we need the gas because our economy depends on it. But if we could do something small, like shift away from water and [use CO2 instead], that could help offset some of that damage. That would be great. So I support that. If that is the case, that could be done. That’s great. We could see an immediate lessening of the damage of hydraulic fracturing. You’re still causing permanent damage to the ground. We don’t know what the long term effects will because it’s only been done for the past, say, 50 years routinely, so we don’t know the long term damage of fracturing these rocks underground. We do know that short term they do cause earthquakes.

All right, let’s look at what’s next. “Mysterious SpaceX crew dragon explosion is still being investigated”, so the SpaceX Crew Dragon is SpaceX’s human piloted, reusable component of the SpaceX fleet. There was an explosion recently during the testing of this module, which is maybe a setback on the timeline for when that module will become usable. We don’t know this [happened and it] is still being investigated. It’s not necessarily good or bad news. You would expect explosions that happen during early testing phases, although with a crew module of an explosion happening is really bad because you will have people in the system. So this system has to be way better than the automated ones. The automated ones might crash all the time, or more frequently. That’s fine. There’s no people on there. The risk of loss of life is much more important. So hopefully SpaceX will be able to achieve the same result as it has with its automated systems as with its crewed systems, and so that we can have safe crewed spaceflight again, which we haven’t had, really, at least in the United States. We have been dependent on other countries, mostly Russia, since the space shuttle program was ended which has probably been 10 years now, or something like that.

So what else? “Sonic black holes produced Hawking radiation may confirm famous theory”. So hawking radiation is really interesting because when black holes were first discovered, the idea that the black hole would infinitely continue increasing in Mass was really it was important to know if that were the case. And so eventually hawking decided or determined that it’s not the case that black holes actually do lose energy in the form of radiation. They named Hawking radiation after Stephen Hawking’s theory that black hole could even evaporate eventually. So a very large black hole that’s still gaining mass is not going to evaporate, but a small one, [or shrinking one], once it goes past a certain point, if it’s not gaining any more mass, it’s only losing energy through hawking radiation energy being converted from mass, [at which point it could evaporate]. The very small black hole might evaporate very quickly, and so that’s interesting that hawking radiation is being confirmed. We’re always looking for empirical confirmations of these theoretical concepts, especially with theoretical physics.

Here’s another one, “Ammonia detected on the surface of Pluto’s hints at subterranean water”. This is really interesting because we keep finding out that planets and moons and dwarf moons and even large asteroids might have water on them. Not just water in the rocks but actual underwater oceans or frozen surface oceans frozen, and now Pluto is in the list of celestial bodies that might have an underground ocean along with Europa and a few others.

And that’s a good segue way to this next one, “Without a champion Europa Lander falls to NASA’s back burner, and another one on that big space challenges could put NASA’s European missions on ice”. That is not good to hear. Europa, as I just mentioned, is one of the first moons in this in our solar system that has water has an ocean under its surface. So we really want to explore Europa. That’s one of the places we think has a high probability of having at least microbial life. Even there on the surface or underwater in the ocean. So Europa should be a really high priority target. It sounds like NASA’s losing that priority. Maybe moon missions are being pushed up. So we should track that we should follow up on that.

“Your sea floor may be destined to become diamonds”. Well, that makes sense because the sea floor rotates and subducts under the continents and goes down to the core of the Earth, where it would presumably undergo conditions to form diamonds in some cases. So I’m not sure why it may be I’d have to look at the article again. I’m just looking at the headline and just going off, the headline says. And what I would think about it. And so my question now would be why, with the sea floor not become diamonds, that’s my question.

What’s next? “NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover finds a clay cache”. Oh, that’s interesting. Why would play be important? So one of the theories for the origins of life is focused around clay because clay has some interesting electromagnetic properties that might allow things like ions and it’s early cellular proto-cell structures to develop [into cells]. The other, more popular, theory being hydrothermal vents. So the clay itself could be [considered an] organic material. So if you think of clay as something that is related to organic materials, if Mars has a cache of clay, that could be a cache of organic materials. It could also contain bio-materials. So that’s why finding clay would be really interesting. And presumably Mars should have clay because it had a water cycle. If there’s some exposed clay on the surface, that would be a really lucky find.

And it looks like that’s all I had on my list today. So thanks for listening again. I’m going to keep mentioning these two things. That’s Bryan White signing off with The Planetary News Radio. Thanks for listening.

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The Planetary News Radio – Episode 7: Preserving Biodiversity – Insects, Fungus, and Plastic

Hello. Welcome to the Planetary News Radio Episode 7 with Bryan White. The date is May 29th. It’s around four o’clock in the afternoon in Corvallis, Oregon. I’m outside again. So I apologize in advance for any strange sounds, although I’m in a quiet area, and that’s a good segue way to what I’m going to talk about today, which are insects. Now, the air temperature is finally warming up and I saw a Mayfly today, a little late in the season, although I haven’t been looking for them. But mayflies typically will emerge in May into adulthood. The order name for mayflies is Ephemeroptera, probably from the root ephemeral meaning temporary, which is strange because they’re actually quite long lived as larva, so Mayfly larva might spend two or three years eating in the stream and then swim up, moult, metamorphose into an adult, reproduce, and then die all in about a week. In fact, they’re so short lived as adults that their mouth parts are fused shut. They don’t eat anymore. So unlike a butterfly, that eats as a caterpillar and continues to eat as an adult, Mayflies are done once they pass through the larval form. And so that’s what’s going on now. Mayflies. They’re out and about, seasonal insects.

[Which brings me to the topic of this podcast,] “Why are insects special”? I mentioned in the previous talk about my idea for why we should preserve all biodiversity. Why should we value all biodiversity? It’s not physically possible to preserve every species, but we can certainly agree that there is a scientific value to preserving biodiversity, and insects are a great example. Insects or one of the most speciose as animal groups go. They might be the most speciose animal group, aside from maybe nematodes. Estimates of the total number of species for insects might range somewhere to 5 million, [up to 30 million including undiscovered species] with the total number of all animal species being [at least] 10 million. So that would mean insects make up maybe [at least] half of all animal species by count, maybe not by biomass, but that’s an incredible amount of diversity.

So what’s going on when that much diversity is happening [within a single taxonomic group]? A couple of things. One is that insects are different from vertebrates [in some key ways]. What allows them to adapt in terms of evolutionary time more quickly than vertebrates? [For one], they’re less constrained by their skeleton and by their body plan. So insects are more tolerant of maybe minor changes in their body structures: mouthparts, feeding structures, reproductive structures, and their flying/walking structures. So all of these things are much more flexible, whereas even a small change and the number of fingers that a human has could be could have a severe impact. Maybe not in modern times missing a finger isn’t too big of a deal. But maybe 1 million years ago, missing a finger was a big deal, and you might not have survived. So you see, chimpanzees have 10 fingers and humans have 10 fingers. We’re separated by 7 million years of evolution. [In the case of insects], within that same amount of time, [you’ll see them] duplicating appendages, losing appendages and things like that much more frequently, so insects are hyper adaptable. They’re out there filling all of these ecological niche spaces.

A good way to think about an ecological niche is that the environment is an N-dimensional hypervolume. There’s all these dimensions that could be occupied, [where each dimension represents a unique ecological environment], and an organism will go and occupy what it’s already adapted to, but then it might shift and adjust and fill various other dimensions in the ecological hyperspace. [After some more time] it might divide into more species, and those species might diverge and fill more of this space, until eventually the entire ecosystem space is filled by something. In a small ecosystem, this might be only one or two species. In a large ecosystem, it could be hundreds or thousands of species all the way up [through the trophic levels], from bacteria up to primary apex predators.

Insects are hyper adaptable, which means they can go into an ecosystem and fill all those little voids in the N-dimensional hypervolume that aren’t currently being occupied by an organism. You have primary producers, secondary producers, you have consumers, all within the insect world, so you have a full ecosystem just based on insects. That’s a lot of biodiversity. Every one of those ecological niches requires a genetic change in the organism, so every time a new species evolves, or diverges from an old species, one species splits for some reason, or even new variability within the species. Anytime a species gains in new adaptation, that’s a new piece in the genome. It’s a new genetic element that’s [translates into a] new physiological element. It’s a new piece of biological information, and my argument is that biological information is extremely important, but not just the genome. The genome isn’t enough. We need the phenotype, so we need to know how the genome builds itself. Builds the proteins in the organism. So we want to be able to see organism’s alive in their natural habitat in order to understand the genomic component to that diversity.

[To recap] what I’m just presenting here, is an argument that insects are very speciose, therefore, they have lots of biodiversity, and therefore they have lots of unique genetic elements. Now here’s a question someone might pose to me. Are any of those genetic elements useful? And the answer is, “I don’t know”. Maybe they might be. Some of them might be useful, and some of them might not. It depends on your definition of useful. For example, a fungus that grows on a tree might not be immediately useful, however, fungus growing on a tree [might be] breaking down wood lignin the molecule, and so this fungus is secreting a chemical that can break down lignin. Wood is a very strong material we know, because wood survive thousands and thousands of years intact. We use it to build houses, things like that. It’s kind of similar to plastic. Lignin is a polymer. Trees are building themselves as a polymer. So if we want to develop a chemical process for breaking down plastic [(a polymer)], we might look at something like a fungus that eats wood, [specifically] the wood rot class of fungus.

[Suppose someone did experiment to see if wood rot fungus could break down plastic, but it didn’t work. Then you might say,] “Well, lignin is too different from plastic. We can’t use this fungus to break down lignin because the molecule is too different from plastic”. And I might respond, “Well, okay, are there any organisms that do produce a molecule that do break down plastic”? [Which it just so happens that] there are. There are bacteria that will happily degrade petroleum based products like oil. However, these bacteria, they may be marine and have to be grown in [sea water], and so we want to do is create a genetically modified organism that has the structural properties of a fungus, [but the chemical properties of the bacteria]. We want to make a wood rot fungus that can degrade plastic, and so we could take the gene from the bacteria and [transfer it into the fungus so that the fungus can] produce the plastic degradation chemical. And now we have a fungus that can break down plastic.

[Using this method we end up with something] a little more useful than the bacteria, because now you could do is you could take a landfill and create an environment that will grow this fungus and plastic mashed in together, and we can erode the plastic. While you could do this directly with the bacteria [that can decay plastic], then you would have to do an active process because you have to keep the bacteria alive. You have to culture the bacteria, and so you need energy. And so my suggestion is to use the fungus because it doesn’t require extra input energy. All you do is you put it outside and you let it go, but it has [to have] that chemical [acquired from bacteria] to break down plastic, otherwise, it’ll just sit there. And maybe we can tweak the fungus a few other ways so it can grow in soil and we might have to modify its habitat a little bit. We want to keep the soil moist so the fungus has water to conduct its chemical reactions when it add some nutrients. But for the most part, [with] fungus, you just put it out and it grows. And if this fungus has a chemical that breaks down bacteria, we could create landfills that can destroy plastic. And that will help solve our plastic problem.

What about with insects? Well, maybe we could do the same thing. We can make a caterpillar that can break down plastic. Maybe there’s a parasite that lives inside of caterpillar that digests compounds similar to plastic, and so maybe there already is a caterpillar out there that can break down plastic. [The point is, if we have the available biodiversity, we can create as many different types of “plastic degrading organisms as feasible]. We could just have the fungus. Or we could have the fungus and the caterpillars, and so we could create an entire ecosystem where the fungus and the caterpillar are growing and living together. The caterpillars eat, deposit, nitrogen and things like that into the soil. The fungus grows, and it’s a whole little life cycle, all based on the degradation of plastic without any added energy input. We don’t need to run an expensive, dirty, fire based bioreactor that burns trash puts out chemicals. It’s all passive.

So how does that link back to my original statement? Well, if we lose that species of caterpillar, then we lose [the ability to create] that entire system. So if a caterpillar that could break down plastic goes extinct before we’ve figured out how to cultivate it in the lab, then we lose this entire opportunity to degrade plastic and this really efficient, really cool way. And we don’t know what’s out there, [there might be other organisms and biochemicals out there that we haven’t even imagined possible yet]. So every time we lose a species, we don’t know what we lost. Maybe we’re losing plastic degraders. And maybe it doesn’t matter most of the time, and probably 90% of the time it didn’t matter, [in terms of biochemical diversity when a species was lost]. Maybe the special biochemical adaptations that the organism had were already duplicated [in another species], and other members of the genus, or the order, [or some other] higher taxonomic level. Maybe that animal wasn’t that unique and so we didn’t really lose that much information. [But again,] we don’t know what’s out there, [so we don’t know what we’re losing in terms of physiological biodiversity]. We don’t [really have] anything cataloged [in a meaningful way to address this problem].

If we really wanted to answer the questions, “What are we losing [in terms of genetic engineering potential]?” and “Are we losing an important species?”, we have to catalog the species [in a meaningful way]. Now, how could we do that? Well, we have to find them and sequence their DNA. Sequencing DNA is really good for cataloging [and understanding diversity]. But if we want to actually create real biological systems, we need to have the animals or the organism’s alive. And so that’s why biodiversity [itself] is so important and why preserving [as much] biodiversity [as possible] is so important. If we think of [living organisms as being filled with] these as tiny molecular machines that are jam packed full of information that we can learn from for how to create our own systems, our own molecular machinery, then biodiversity becomes really important.

And sure, maybe someday in the future of humanity, there will be a time where we don’t need animals anymore. And maybe that’s a question for future humans to answer. [In a future where] biodiversity no longer serves a function in the human economy. [In other words, when even the knowledge we could gain from the genetics of animals is no longer relevant], will we still keep animals? Will our descendants 500 years from now have zoos just for fun, just to look at animals and remember where we originated from? Remember that we are animals. Maybe we’ll have zoos. Maybe we’ll make new animals. Maybe humans will merge and split and divide into 10 new different species. We don’t know what’s going to happen [in 500 years], but when we lose the species, we lose the option.

So that is more insight into my thinking and the reason I think this way is because again, as I mentioned previously, my goal is not to just be a animal rights activist. My goal is to be pragmatic. I’m saying there is a real pragmatic reason to keep animal diversity life, [and all] biodiversity alive. And so this argument should work across the entire political spectrum. I should be able to convince a fiscal conservative or liberal that preserving biodiversity is important because it’s an investment in humanity. It’s not just to feel good, although it might make us feel good. Feeling good about animals is just an added benefit. And trees, we are, after all, apes. We were born in the trees. We left them, but we still need them. It’s okay to like trees. We should enjoy wildlife and the outdoors and nature, and we should be able to have a good reason for keeping it around. So that’s what I’m offering, [a reason to preserve biodiversity that can appeal to all humans].

I’m sure I’ll talk more about this as I formalize the idea more, but I think this was a really good example. Insects and fungus. Interestingly, both organisms that use chitin as there primary structural bio-protein. There’s something special about chitin. It’s an interesting molecule for evolutionary genetics, but I won’t say more in this episode. I’ll let everyone think about this topic. This is Bryan White signing off with The Planetary News Radio. Have a good day.

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