Failed Empire

Chronicling the collapse of a failed society

Category Archives: Science

Harbingers of Climate Change: Dust Bowl-Size Droughts Spread Through the United States

Texan farmer stands in drought-stricken land

As if things weren’t bad enough, we now have droughts on the scale of the Dust Bowl era to contend with:

Drought Spreading through the United States Rivals Dust Bowl Era

 In other climate news, Texas and 13 other states stretching from Arizona to Florida continue to face one of the worst U.S. droughts on record. Some say the drought c
ould rival the Dust Bowl Days. In Texas, the U.S. Department of Agriculture recently designated all 254 counties in the state natural disaster areas.
While impossible to assert with any degree of certainty, there is a strong likelihood that the current bout of severe drought is related to human-induced climate change.  All over the world, weather patterns have been shifting to such a large degree that even the most skeptical climate change deniers have noticed the difference.  Brutal winters, searing summers, massive storms, widespread flooding – all occurring with greater and greater frequency, in locales that historically have rarely or never experienced such events.
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EWG’s Dirty Dozen: The 12 Most Toxic Fruits and Vegetables

farmers applying pesticide spray

From Mother Jones:

Every year, Environmental Working Group sifts through USDA testing data and figures out which “dirty dozen” fruits and veggies deliver the largest doses and the widest variety of pesticides. This year’s winner, announced Monday: apples. According to EWG, 92 percent of the apples tested by USDA carried two or more pesticide residues. And even as supermarket shelves feature a pretty narrow range of apple varieties—Red Delicious, Granny Smith, etc.—farmers are spraying them with a stunning diversity of poisons. Altogether, USDA picked up no fewer than 56 distinct pesticides on the apples it tested, EWG reports.

And the full list from EWG:

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Breakthrough in Melanoma Treatment Highlights Innate Flaws of For-Profit Health Care

melanoma cells

It’s always gratifying to see breakthroughs in the ongoing struggle against cancers of all kinds:

A newly developed pair of drugs has been shown to be successful in the treatment of the deadly skin cancer melanoma.

Designed by Bristol-Myers and Roche, to work in different ways, the drugs vemurafenib and Yervoy have successfully treated late-stage patients who, according to WebMD had precious few options in the past.

Dr. James Larkin worked on the trials of both drugs and said this is the first advancement in melanoma treatment since the 1970s.

This makes these the first drugs to prolong survival from a type of cancer that claims the lives of more than one in 10 of its victims. … Once the cancer spreads from its original mole-like lesion, metastasizes, the mortality rate climbs to 85 percent.

Clearly, the creation of two groundbreaking medications in the fight against melanoma is a refreshing development in our epic battle against one of the world’s biggest killers.  We should all be thankful that the precision of science allows us to accomplish such tasks, as without science we would be lost in the face of such lethal afflictions.  But it is also important to recognize that our current system of research, development and administration of medical care just isn’t good enough.

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Self-Destructive Religious Beliefs Strike Again: KY to Build Creationist Theme Park While Slashing Education Budget

Continuing with the anti-religious theme, let us now turn to Kentucky, where creationism apparently trumps education every time:

In December, I reported that the Kentucky creationism theme park set to open in 2014 will “include dinosaurs.” The park “will feature a 500-foot-long wooden replica of Noah’s Ark containing live animals such as juvenile giraffes.” It will also include “a replica of the Tower of Babel with exhibits.” …

Now the park has been granted $43 million in state tax breaks. At the same time, “the state has gone through eight rounds of budget cuts over the past three years,” including cuts to “education at all levels” and a pay freeze for all teachers and state workers. …

In addition to the tax incentives, approved unanimously by the state’s tourism board, taxpayers may have to pony up another $11 million to improve a highway interchange near the site.

This is the very definition of idiocy, and another prime example of why we need to fight against religious belief in every way we can.  It is not simply a matter of respecting the beliefs of others, allowing people to live according to their own wishes.  The problem, as anyone who has ever met a fundamentalist Christian or Muslim understands, is that a substantial percentage of religious people are not content to keep their views and way of life to themselves.  Spreading religion is built into the very fabric of their belief system, as is the case with every successful collection of memes.

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Green Revolution: IPCC Asserts Renewable Energy Could Meet 80% of Needs

In a welcomed move to embrace the inevitable, the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has released a report suggesting that renewable energy sources could meet 80% of all energy needs within our lifetimes:

Renewable sources such as solar and wind could supply up to 80 percent of the world’s energy needs by 2050 and play a significant role in fighting global warming, a top climate panel concluded Monday.

But the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change said that to achieve that level, governments would have to spend significantly more money and introduce policies that integrate renewables into existing power grids and promote their benefits in terms of reducing air pollution and improving public health.

There is nothing here that should surprise anyone, but the report will undoubtedly be attacked by the science-phobic Luddites of the fringe right.  Already, there are indications that the initial findings of the panel were watered down in order to satisfy oil-giants Saudi Arabia and Qatar:

 Greenpeace and other environmentalists said Saudi Arabia and Qatar, two oil-rich states that don’t have an interest in alternatives, successfully watered down the report’s language on the cost benefits of renewables – a charge the Saudis denied.

Obviously, there are still major hurdles to be overcome in the transition to renewable energy.  But these obstacles are hardly insurmountable, and their existence should by no means discourage us from attempting to make that transition.  Fossil fuels are part of an old paradigm:  they are dirty, polluting, inefficient, and increasingly difficult to extract.  Simply because we have been using them for so long, and because ongoing reliance on them appears to be the easiest course of action, is not a sufficient reason to continue doing so.

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Graciosa Aims to be World’s First Carbon-Free Island by 2012

A step in the right direction:

The tiny island of Graciosa off the coast of Portugal is undergoing a silent revolution. A German company is trying to make the 4,500-strong community energy self-sufficient and independent.

Berlin-based “Younicos” wants to harness and store the power generated by the wind and the sun on a scale large enough to supply the entire island.

Company founder, Clemens Triebel describes his vision:

“We would have a place in the world where already today, the energy supply with renewables would be ensured one hundred percent, without the people living there having to suffer from poorer quality or other disadvantages compared to other industrialized countries.”

The bottom line about Gracioca’s move towards a complete reliance on renewable energy is this:  we have the capacity to do it, even today.  If communities and nations around the globe merely made the effort and directed sufficient resources to the cause, there is no reason to believe we could not attain total energy self-sufficiency.  The only thing which prevents us from realizing that goal is a simple lack of motivation; instead of utilizing our intellectual and material wealth for creative purposes with benefits for all, we prefer to squander our wealth on weapons and war.

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BP Disaster Highlights Urgent Need for Renewable Energy

One year later, Boston.com has an excellent photo essay exploring the lingering devastation of the tragic BP disaster:

What is the cost of spilling almost five million barrels of oil into the ocean? How do you measure that cost? In GDP reduction? In lives affected? In environmental impact? And how do you measure the cost when long-term effects are impossible to calculate yet, and when a significant portion of the spilled oil is still unaccounted for? One year since the Deepwater Horizon platform exploded, killing 11 workers, there are measurable effects, and many more unknowns.

The stirring collection of photos includes several then-and-now pictures, comparing conditions in the immediate aftermath of the spill to those of today:

May 22, 2010

April 8, 2011

One of the first things one notices about the photos above is the dreary lack of color resulting from the erosion of the shore and the mass destruction of the marsh grasses and mangrove trees.  The once thriving marshland of the fragile coastal ecosystem has been utterly devastated by the spill and the myriad chemical dispersants released afterwards.  Dead dolphins and sea turtles continue to wash up on the shores of the Gulf coast, and the remnants of oil are still to be found virtually everywhere.

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More Dead Birds Found in Alabama

The mysterious spate of dead birds and fish continues:

Three hundred dead birds fell from the sky in Alabama on Friday. The carcasses of grackles, who appear similar to blackbirds, were found along Interstate 65 in Alabama. Wildlife biologist, Bill Gates told WAFF television he saw the bodies of the dead birds scattered all over the snow along the side of the highway.

Scientists have not confirmed if the mysterious Alabama bird deaths are related to other sudden birds deaths being reported in the southern United States and worldwide.

On New Year’s Eve, 5,000 blackbirds died suddenly in Beebe, Arkansas. Two days later, 500 blackbirds fell dead in Pointe Coupee Parish Louisiana. More birds were then reported dead in Gilbertsville, Kentucky, and thousands of doves inexplicably died in Italy.

In addition to the bird deaths, millions of fish have washed up dead, during the same period of time.

The cause of the massive increase in dead birds and dead fish has occurred simultaneously over the past three weeks. No solid data has been discovered to explain the deaths.

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The Decline Effect Demonstrates Strength of the Scientific Method, Not Weakness

There is a fascinating article up at the New Yorker [h/t Susie Madrak] dealing with the disturbing trend of a “decline effect” in all types of scientific research.  The article is rather lengthy but worth the read.

The gist of it is that when a newly discovered phenomena tend to be well-supported by research in the early days, but become undermined by newer studies as time goes on.  The author cites the example of “verbal overshadowing,” a concept which claims that people who try to verbally describe an experience immediately afterwards will be less likely to accurately remember it.  In the original study, it is was overwhelmingly demonstrated that verbal overshadowing exists.  As the years progressed, however, the effect became less and less pronounced in progressive studies, until even the original researcher is now unable to replicate his original findings.

The article asserts that similar occurrences are happening in a broad swathe of scientific research, from psychology to biology to pharmacology.  It suggests that the causes of the decline effect are largely grounded in pervasive biases among the experimenters.  That is, the beliefs and expectations of the scientist inadvertently alters the outcome of the experiment.  Although this phenomenon has been widely recognized, the article implies that it is far more pervasive than many would like to admit.  In fact, it even goes so far as to suggest that the scientific community is preventing discussion of the decline effect, an accusation with profound ramifications for a society as deeply dependent on science as ours.

Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of the article was the implication that the decline could be attributed to the fact that we know so very little about existence itself:

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The Top Ten Scientific Breakthroughs of 2010

The steady march of science continues unabated, much to the chagrin of religious fundamentalists everywhere.  2010 has been a very busy year, and Science magazine has compiled a list of the ten most profound scientific developments.  Topping the list was the first quantum machine, the very purpose of which boggles the mind:

Physicists Andrew Cleland and John Martinis from the University of California at Santa Barbara and their colleagues designed the machine—a tiny metal paddle of semiconductor, visible to the naked eye—and coaxed it into dancing with a quantum groove. …

Then they raised the widget’s energy by a single quantum to produce a purely quantum-mechanical state of motion. They even managed to put the gadget in both states at once, so that it literally vibrated a little and a lot at the same time—a bizarre phenomenon allowed by the weird rules of quantum mechanics.

Other highlights from the list included the creation of a synthetic genome, the sequencing of neandertal DNA, vast improvements in the efficiency of DNA sequencing, and the development of two fresh methods to prevent the transmission of HIV:

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