David Quammen has an interesting essay on Darwin, evolutionary theory, and how people react to it, at National Geographic's "Online Extra" site. Apparently it's a reprint of an article from the print magazine which appeared back in 2004. Quammen gives a good summary of the theoretical underpinning of the theory of evolution by natural selection, and puts it in historical context very nicely.
In the past few years people have become very concerned about the sudden decline in honeybee populations worldwide. The problem is called "Colony Collapse Disorder" and it has taken out 90 percent of wild honeybees in North America and nearly two thirds of domestic bees. Besides jacking up the price of honey, it has serious implications for all agriculture, as food crops need bees (and other insects) for pollination.
One of the main suspects in the bee crisis -- though it's pretty likely there's no one single cause -- is the destructive Varroa mite genus, which prey on bees. They're particularly dangerous because the mites also carry viruses deadly to bees, so even bees which escape mite infestation can still suffer from their presence.
There is hope, though: a group of British researchers at the University of Warwick have identified several kinds of fungus which are fatal to the Varroa mites. The hope is that counterpunching the mites with fungi can help bee populations recover.
(Yes, I'm late. Other deadlines and children are to blame. Carry on.)
When you envision the top predator of an ecosystem, what comes to mind is something like a thick-maned lion stalking prey on the African savannah, or a pack of wolves bringing down an elk. But a new study appearing in Nature this week suggests that in at least some ecosystems the parasites can give the more traditional top predators a run for their money.
Once again, the mighty Pink Tentacle blog has news of engineers in Japan combining two of that nation's abiding passions: robots and fish. The result is a robotic sea bream which moves just like a living fish and so can quietly spy on actual fish without disturbing them. This has a whole passel of applications in environmental monitoring and tracking fish for commercial fishing.
This isn't the first robot sea creature we've talked about, but it's probably the most realistic-looking. Which means next time you order sushi, be careful to watch out for dangling wires.
The Titan arum at Smith College is blooming. It only happens once every 3 to 5 years, and only lasts a few days, so be sure to have a look at their webcam. But make sure it's daylight hours on the North American east coast first, or else you'll just see a lot of dark.
Tomorrow is July 16, an interesting anniversary. Two milestones in technology both happened on that date. The first, in 1945, was the Trinity test -- the first atomic bomb detonation in the empty expanse of desert near Alamogordo, New Mexico. Twenty-four years later, on another July 16, three men atop a giant rocket in the steamy Florida summer set off on their way to the Moon.
These are quite possibly the two most important events of the 20th Century. Certainly they have massive symbolic importance -- the two sides of the technological coin. Atomic power gave humans the ability to cause massive destruction, while space travel allows us to explore and perhaps transform the Universe. It is the fundamental paradox of technology that every advance which increases your power to do good also expands your ability to do evil.
To some people, this paradox is intolerable. The potential misuse of technology outweighs any possible benefit. They want to renounce technology and go back to an imagined simpler past.
Alas, the genie never goes back in the bottle. With the possibility of Japan's ban on firearms during the Tokugawa era, history demonstrates that people never give up new technologies, at least not until something even newer replaces it. Even during the "Dark Ages" of early medieval Europe, very little Roman or Greek technology was lost -- Classical science and literature may have vanished, but the Middle Ages actually were a time of technological innovation.
For decades, the United States has been desperately trying to keep the nuclear genie in its bottle. Through economic aid (=bribes) and sanctions up to and including outright invasion, the U.S. has struggled to prevent nuclear proliferation. There have been short-term successes, but time is against us. Someday most nations will have access to nuclear weapons. Banning them won't do any good -- that will just mean the weapons will be kept, or put in the hands of "deniable" proxies.
Sound grim? Perhaps. The point is, the only cure for technology's dark side is -- technology. You can't make people be good, and you can't take the power to be bad away from them. The only other option is to put as much power in the hands of everyone and hope for the best. A human civilization planted on two or three worlds and dozens of smaller habitats throughout the Solar System would be much less vulnerable than our present state, stuck on one world. Let's hope we can realize the promise of Apollo rather than the threat of Trinity.