Riding a comet

Part of Amazing science + The present moment

Here’s a thing that’s happening this week in the solar system: a European space probe named Rosetta, launched a decade ago, is about to land on a comet.


If the maneuver is successful (and we should know by Wednesday morning) it will take samples and perform chemical analyses of what it finds there.

I have only the most cursory understanding of the scientific significance of such a mission, but (for example) one story I’ve heard many times: that (just perhaps) the basic organic molecular building blocks of life itself may have originated first in comets. Or not, who knows?

Here’s a link (for now at least) to a live feed of the event:,2817,2471982,00.asp

The story continues to unfold.

The lander part of the probe, named Philae, touched down successfully and securely on the comet, which I have to think was a nice moment for those who designed, built, launched and guided it. Unfortunately, Philae came down in the shade, and isn’t getting enough sun (from hundreds of millions of miles away, after all) to recharge its batteries. Apparently it got as far as detecting organic molecules, and then shut down. There’s hope (I hope) that as the comet gets closer to the sun, the lander might just wake up again. That would be great.

Space, the final frontier. There is some dismay about our lack of progress in space, given that except for Apollo (in the astonishing sixties), humans have never made it out of Low Earth Orbit. The money, it seems, just isn’t there, and NASA has fallen on lean times compared to its heyday. As we’ve always known, people add a great deal to the cost of spaceflight. However, we seem to be doing pretty well with robots these days, and of course the robots are getting smarter all the time. The important thing is to keep going.

There’s a Rosetta mission blog out of the European Space Agency, so maybe that’s a place to keep track of what comes next.


Another boiling frog

Part of Matters unravelling + The present moment

There’s a story out now that the city of São Paolo, with a population of roughly 20 million people, is currently suffering its worst drought in 80 years, and is on the verge of running out of water:

In the context, I don’t understand what “running out of water” means. I wouldn’t think it would be a purely binary state, but rather a matter of degrees. However, it sounds dire nonetheless.

It seems the problem (some say) is connected with deforestation of the surrounding rainforest, and its effect on the region’s hydrogeology. Take away the trees, and reservoirs don’t get recharged.

What’s noteworthy about this, to my mind, is that the immediate crisis has almost certainly been building over decades, and might have been foreseeable, but there’s been no corresponding development of any political will to do anything about it (so one can infer from the current situation). Humans are bad at long range planning; and yet we’re beset by long range problems.


No room on the ark

Part of Apocalypse pending

More bad news.

Reuters tell us that according to the Living Planet Report by the World Wildlife Fund, “the world populations of fish, birds, mammals, amphibians and reptiles fell overall by 52 percent between 1970 and 2010, far faster than previously thought.”

It makes you wonder how much further the trajectory of destruction can extend. I haven’t read the report, so you know, this is just hearsay, but you can get the full story here.



Part of Business as usual + The present moment

I posted an article recently about the number of cars in the world—said to be roughly one billion.

Juxtaposition: here’s another report, claiming that on average, automobiles are parked—that is, serving no transportation purpose—for roughly 95% of their lifespan.

Add to that a consideration for the number of car trips made by one person at a time, the inherent inefficiency of internal combustion engines, the land devoted exclusively to storing automobiles, and the hours an automobile owner must work to pay for their vehicle, and it adds up to an astonishing price.

Have you ever noticed? We often speak of cars being “on the road,” as in “the average age of cars on the road,” or “the number of cars on the road.” At any given time, however, the vast majority of cars are apparently not on the road. Imagine that instead we spoke of our cars “in the driveway” or “in the parking lot.” Hmm… somehow I don’t think it’ll catch on.



Children with guns and armour

Part of The present moment

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