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I Am Not Spock!Randall CalvinRandall Calvin


Posted 28/02/2015

By Randall Calvin

It is rare indeed for NASA to pay such singular tribute to a fictional TV series, and above all to its famous science officer. They say that many of their staff over the years became interested in science and engineering thanks to the Star Trek franchise.

When we look back at the original 1960s shows, we are perhaps struck by the poor costumes and tacky film sets, but from its first two pilot shows the studios actually invested a lot of money into the project.

Gene Roddenberry, Star Trek creator on set Gene Roddenberry, Star Trek creator on set

However, besides the concept and look of the product, it was the characters that made the show. Using vocabulary we didn’t understand as kids made no difference, we were fascinated by the adventures of the crew of the star ship Enterprise. So enormous was the fan base, that when NASA was looking for a name for its first space shuttle in 1981, under pressure from the star trek fan lobby; they had no choice but to name the shuttle…well you guessed it; Enterprise.

Gene RoddenberryGene RoddenberryGene Roddenberry was so ahead of his time, by introducing the half-Vulcan, half-human Spock. Initially in the first pilot, Roddenberry had wanted the Vulcan to appear red-faced, and we see Mr Spock smile in the role, but that all changed in the second version, and the character was set.

Mr, not Doctor Spock

Unlike other famous franchise fictional names like James Bond or even Sherlock Holmes, where different actors have featured in the starring role, but managed to ‘escape’ and move on to other things, Mr Spock became legendary, Mr Nimoy didn’t.

So much so that he authored two volumes of autobiography. The first was called I Am Not Spock (1975) and was controversial, as many fans incorrectly assumed that Nimoy was distancing himself from the Spock character. In the book, Nimoy conducts dialogues between himself and Spock. The contents of this first autobiography also touched on a self-proclaimed "identity crisis" that seemed to haunt Nimoy throughout his career. It also related to an apparent love/hate relationship with the character of Spock and the Trek franchise.

 

 

‘I went through a definite identity crisis. The question was whether to embrace Mr. Spock or to fight the onslaught of public interest. I realize now that I really had no choice in the matter. Spock and Star Trek were very much alive and there wasn't anything that I could do to change that.’

The second volume, I Am Spock (1995), saw Nimoy communicating that he finally realized his years of portraying the Spock character had led to a much greater identification between the fictional character and himself.

Leonard NimoyLeonard Nimoy

Nimoy had much input into how Spock would act in certain situations, and conversely, Nimoy's contemplation of how Spock acted gave him cause to think about things in a way that he never would have thought if he had not portrayed the character. The famous raised open hand gesture for example, was his own idea based on a Jewish blessing from his ethnic heritage.

As such, in this autobiography Nimoy maintains that in some meaningful sense he has merged with Spock while at the same time maintaining the distance between fact and fiction.

As a self-confessed fan all my life, it is sad to see Leonard’s passing, and whether it was his phrase, or Gene Roddenberry’s, I am grateful for the visionary secular parting lines; live long and prosper.

 

By Randall Calvin

 


 

New discovery on Neanderthals may prove they are closer to us than we imagined


Posted 22/02/2015

New findings proving that Neanderthals divided work by sex threatens to move humans from the pinnacle of the creation myth.

A team of Spanish researchers theorizes, based on grooves and nicks on the teeth of Neanderthals, that gender roles among that species were similar to gender roles of modern Homo Sapiens. Neanderthal men prepared the cutting tools and weapons, while women saw to the leather garments and clothing. This simple fact may well remove humans from the title of the last link of the evolutionary chain.

The great biologist Lynn Margulis (1938-2011) argued that science is hampered by the myth of the great chain of being. Humans occupy the penultimate link in that chain, halfway between God and stone, and that guaranteed the special place in the cosmos that physics and biology are determined to steal from us with each Copernican revolution every Monday, Wednesday and Friday.

If we are not gods, we are at least as close to them that the universe is capable of conceiving.

Well, how then to categorise Neanderthals? Those cousins that so much resemble us. The process began at the same time as we discovered the Neanderthals. 

 

 

A crew of workers, digging a limestone mine on the 9th of September, 1856 found bones in a cave in Feldhof, near Dusseldorf, and thought that the remains were those of a bear. Fortunately the foreman, rather than just discarding the bones, instead had the insight to keep them and handed the 16 fragments they had unearthed to a teacher from a nearby village, Johann Carl Fuhlrott, who had knowledge of anatomy and he realized at once that the remains were very old and belonged to a humanoid creature, although very different from us humans.

In honour of the teacher Fuhlrott, the discovery was more than relevant considering that Darwin’s publication of The Origin of Spices was three years away.

But the insults to that Neander Valley man had only started with the bear joke. One of the great scientists of the time, Rudolf Virchow, the father of one of the most essential unification theories in biology -the cell theory, Omnis cellula e cellula, which affirms that every cell comes from another- threw  the full weight of his prestige against the find, ruling that those fossil bones belong merely to  "an idiot with osteoarthritis."

This story has been repeated on other occasions in recent years. The evidence that Neanderthals might have interbred with Homo sapiens fresh out from Africa about 50,000 years ago gave birth to great debate. The discoverer of these findings, the geneticist at the University of Chicago Bruce Lahn, could not publish the findings in some of the main scientific magazines, such as Nature and Science, because paleontologists who reviewed the work decided that it was absolutely impossible that the two species could have produced fertile offspring.

 

We know now that Neanderthals divided their labour by sex, some evidence linked to the evidence that they had a culture, handled symbols and medicinal plants and mated with us. It took a technological feat -the Neanderthal genome read- to settle the question, and indeed there is genetic evidence that Neanderthals possessed the faculty of language (gen FOXP2).

However, on this particular issue the questions will always remain controversial, perhaps due to the lack of specimens and traces of their lifestyle to study from our recent extinct cousins.

 


 

Irish scientist makes final 100 for one-way Mars mission


 

Posted 16/02/2015

Dr Joseph RocheDr Joseph Roche

Out of 202,586 applicants, astrophysicist Joseph Roche has made the final round

Irishman Joseph Roche has made the final 100 candidates for the Mars One mission.

The Trinity College based astrophysicist was one of 202,586 applicants to the scheme, which aims to send 24 people to establish a colony on Mars.

The 55 million kilometre journey would be one-way, with no return planned for the volunteers.

Mars One is the brainchild of Dutch men Bas Lansdorp and Arno Wielders, who hope to establish a permanent human colony on the planet by 2025.

 

Bas Lansdorp, Mars One co-founderBas Lansdorp, Mars One co-founder

The list had been whittled down to 1,058 in January of last year, but almost a third dropped out after this point. Interviews with the project's chief medical officer reduced the number further to 100:

“During the interviews the candidates had a chance to show their understanding of the risks involved, team spirit and their motivation to be part of this life changing expedition,” said Lansdorp in a statement.

 

 

Mars One plans to cover much of the €4.4bn cost through a reality TV show based around the project.

The 100 selected include an even balance between males and females - 39 come from the Americas, 31 from Europe, 16 from Asia, 7 from Africa, and 7 from Oceania.

Bas Lansdorp and Dr Roche will give an interview on Irish radio later this week on the announcement. If the project ever actually gets “off the ground,” a question many people have asked:

What would you bring on a one-way trip to Mars?

 


 

CERN's two-year shutdown drawing to a close


 

Posted 15/02/2015

It's almost two years to the day since the team in the CERN Control Centre switched off the beams in the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at 7.24am on 14 February 2013, marking the end of the accelerator's first three-year run.

Hundreds of engineers and technicians have been repairing and strengthening the laboratory's accelerators and experiments in preparation for running the LHC at the higher energy. So what has the work achieved?

When the LHC restarts this year, the energy of particle collisions will be 13 TeV (or 6.5 TeV per beam) compared to 8 TeV (4 TeV per beam) in 2012. This higher energy will allow physicists to extend their searches for new particles and to check previously untestable theories.

A senior researcher at the Large Hadron Collider says a new particle could be detected this year that is even more exciting than the Higgs Boson.

To prepare the machine for this new energy frontier, 18 of the LHC’s 1232 superconducting dipole magnets, which steer particle beams around the accelerator, were replaced due to wear and tear. More than 10,000 electrical interconnections between dipole magnets were fitted with splices – pieces of metal that act as an alternative path for the 11,000 amp current, saving the interconnection if there is a fault.

The machine will operate at a higher voltage to run the higher energy beams, and has been fitted with new sets of radiation-resistant electronics. The vacuum system that keeps the beam pipe clear of stray molecules has been upgraded, and the cryogenics system for the LHC's superconducting dipole magnets has been refurbished.

Bunches of protons in the accelerator will be separated in time by 25 nanoseconds compared to 50 nanoseconds. The LHC will thus deliver more particles per unit time, as well as more collisions, to the experiments. To prepare for the challenges of more collisions, the LHC experiments, including ALICE, ATLAS, CMS and LHCb, underwent full consolidation and maintenance programmes, including upgrades to their subdetectors and data-acquisition systems.

The CERN IT department purchased and installed almost 60,000 new cores and over 100 petabytes of additional disk storage to cope with the increased amount of data that is expected from the experiments during run 2. Significant upgrades have also been made to the networking infrastructure, including the installation of new uninterruptible power supplies.

When the LHC starts up again this spring, CERN's accelerators and experiments will be ready.

"It could be as early as this year. Summer may be a bit hard but late summer maybe, if we're really lucky," said Prof Beate Heinemann, who is a spokeswoman for the Atlas experiment, one of the big particle detectors at the LHC.

"We hope that we're just now at this threshold that we're finding another world, like antimatter for instance. We found antimatter in the beginning of the last century. Maybe we'll find now supersymmetric matter."

This could force the first so-called supersymmetric particle to appear in the machine, with the most likely candidate being the gluino.

Its detection would give scientists direct pointers to "dark matter" which could give important insights into the mysteries of the universe.

 

What is CERN



What is the universe made of? How did it start? Physicists at CERN are seeking answers, using some of the world's most powerful particle accelerators.

At CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research, physicists and engineers are probing the fundamental structure of the universe. They use the world's largest and most complex scientific instruments to study the basic constituents of matter – the fundamental particles. The particles are made to collide together at close to the speed of light. The process gives the physicists clues about how the particles interact, and provides insights into the fundamental laws of nature.

The instruments used at CERN are purpose-built particle accelerators and detectors. Accelerators boost beams of particles to high energies before the beams are made to collide with each other or with stationary targets. Detectors observe and record the results of these collisions.

Founded in 1954, the CERN laboratory sits astride the Franco-Swiss border near Geneva. It was one of Europe's first joint ventures and now has 21 member states. 


 Safer Internet Day


Posted 10/02/2015

Raquel JimenezRaquel Jimenez

By Raquel Jimenez

The 12th Safer InternetDay was celebrated worldwide on Tuesday 10 February 2015. The theme for the day was clear:    "Let's create a better internet together". Once again, everybody was invited to join this platform in marking the day and working together to build a better internet for all, but particularly children and young people.

According to Eurostat, a large majority of Europeans make use of the internet, and often on the way;

In 2014, half of the EU population aged 16-74 used the internet on portable computers or handheld devices through a mobile phone network or wireless connection when not at home or at work. Although still one sixth of Europeans has never used the internet, the proportion of 'non-users' varies significantly between Member States.

Today, children in Europe start using the Internet on average when they are 7 years old. One in three goes online via mobile phones, game consoles or other mobile devices. At the same time, many young children say there are not enough good things for them to do online.

They need the skills and tools for using the Internet safely and responsibly.

With the aim of promoting safe, responsible use of the internet by children and young people, and protecting them from illegal and harmful content and conduct online. In 1999, the European Commission (EC) created the Safer Internet Programme.

The programme is managed by the Directorate General for Information, Society and Media and highlights the shared responsibility of NGOs, educational establishments, law enforcement bodies, industry and families in online safety initiatives across the European Union member states. In 2004, the Insafe network was set up to spearhead awareness activities within the Safer Internet Programme.

Over the years, Safer Internet Day (SID) has become a landmark event in the online safety calendar. Starting as an initiative of the EU SafeBorders project in 2004 and taken up by the Insafe network (www.saferinternet.org) as one of its earliest actions in 2005, Safer Internet Day has grown beyond its traditional geographic zone and is now celebrated in more than 100 countries worldwide, and across all continents.

From cyberbullying to social networking, each year Insafe aims to be at the forefront of emerging online issues and chooses a topic reflecting current concerns. For SID 2015, the focus will be on "Let's create a better internet together".

Over the years, the activities covered awareness-raising, fighting illegal content, filtering and content labelling, involving the civil society in child online safety issues and creating a solid database of information related to the use of new technologies by young people.

New research revealed that increasing numbers of both adults and children have been on the wrong end of cruel or abusive online behaviour. A survey of over a thousand 11-16-year-olds by the UK Safer Internet Centre found that, although the internet is a “positive place” for most kids, 30% still claimed that someone had been “mean” to them online at least once in the past year.

“Adults are as likely as children to have occasionally seen people post things that attack a certain group, e.g. racist, sexist or homophobic comments (41%), or share gossip or rumours about others (38%) on the internet,” F-Secure chief research officer, Mikko Hypponen said.

A few ways ordinary web users can create a better internet together” – as per the theme of this year’s Safer Internet Day, include asking more questions about any data collection features of new hardware, and using a separate browser for sites like Facebook and Google so these internet firms can’t track your web activity.

Other tips are to avoid unknown websites and unsolicited, suspicious emails; only enter confidential data onto an HTTPS site; ensure OS, key apps and security tools that are up-to-date; use hard-to-guess passwords; and don’t re-use passwords across multiple accounts.

The truth is that the internet can develop on two different roads: it can either continue to slide away from our digital freedoms, or users take action to try to preserve a free and open internet.

 

By Raquel Jimenez for EU Spectator

 


 

 

Urbanisation in Europe, new map allowing built-up areas analysis


 

Posted on 08/02/2015

Covering all rural and urban areas in the EU,the new European settlement map created by the Joint Research Centre (JRC) provides the first comprehensive overview of all built-up areas in Europe.

 

 

More accurate, complete and consistent than any other existing maps, it constitutes a valuable tool for modellers and scientists.

The new map was created using the Global Human Settlement Layer tool.

It allows analysis and comparison of built-up areas, population density and other urbanisation aspects of specific areas. It can be used in different areas such as urban planning, demographic growth analysis or disaster management.

The European settlement map provides detailed data on built-up areas in Europe. It makes it possible to have an estimation of the surface area occupied by buildings, the size of the buildings as well as the number of people living in any neighbourhood in Europe.

 

 

It facilitates the assessment of territorial cohesion and urbanisation across the continent. It makes it possible to analyse land cover through the comparison of built-up areas and the total available area in specific zones, and to calculate population densities on the basis of the dimensions of built-up areas versus the number of people living in them. The map also classifies European settlement types based on population density.

A huge amount of satellite images and data were used for this map. The map was produced using a new state-of-the-art technology and a method developed by the JRC – the Global Human Settlement Layer (GHSL), which is able to automatically analyse a large amount of data coming from different satellite sensors, at different resolutions, from anywhere in the world and taken at different moments in time. Mathematical morphology and other image processing techniques were used to identify man-made structures. The data was then processed using tailor-made algorithms developed by the JRC. Modelling techniques were used to derive information about phenomena observed at urban and regional scales.

The Joint Research Centre (JRC) is the European Commission's in-house science service which employs scientists to carry out research in order to provide independent scientific advice and support to EU policy.

 


 

Science – the poor cousinRandall CalvinRandall Calvin


 Posted on 02/02/2015

By Randall Calvin

 

When I was a child growing up in the 1970s trying to formulate my own ideas of what was the meaning of life, things were very straightforward.

One went to church every Sunday, said the rosary and bowed to the array of Catholic iconography in every room in our house. Then quite innocently I sat before the television one evening in the mid-1980s and heard an American scientist with a Russian name say the following:

Carl Sagan (1934-1995)Carl Sagan (1934-1995)The Cosmos is all that is, or ever was, or ever will be. Our contemplations of the Cosmos stir us; there is a tingling in the spine, a catch in the voice, a faint sensation, as if a distant memory, of falling from a height. We know we are approaching the greatest of mysteries’. That man was the late science educator - Carl Sagan, who sadly died in 1995. 

 

At that time our greatest concern was the Cold War and the terrible economic recession in Europe and the USA, history now simply calls the latter the Reagan-Thatcher era. The Iranian Shia revolution in 1979 was a mere minor aside, at least we thought at the time. I mention that to illustrate how humanity can easily slip back in time, and how secular humanist reason (science) can so easily be crushed. But I consoled myself, that was then.

                            Carl Sagan (1934-1995)

 

However in 2015, rather than the headlines being grabbed by incredible further scientific achievements, the dreams of Carl Sagan are almost completely drowned out by religious extremists. Whether Muslim or Christian. With the Western media obsessed with every word that comes from Pope Francis, to the barbarism of the so-called IS-ISIL, or the rise of literalist evangelical Christians in the United States and beyond, one wonders what went wrong?

One tiny glimmer of hope came to my attention recently (at least in the UK) with the appointment of Physicist Professor Brian Cox, scientist and TV presenter to the post of - Professor for Public Engagement in Science by the Royal Society. He has pledged to change the perception of science and to further engage with the public on the appreciation of the subject in its own right, but also to emphasise how the UK needs to increase investment if the country is to compete on the world stage.

Around 50% of the UK’s GDP is generated around what the government calls ‘knowledge intensive service and industry.’ But a recent report on science and innovation strategy published by the government in late 2014; while highlighting the figure quoted above, conceded that the UK invests less than all her key competitors globally in science. For example:

Investment in research and development figures as per GDP %

  • UK – 1.8% Brian Cox - Professor for Public Engagement in Science for the Royal SocietyBrian Cox - Professor for Public Engagement in Science for the Royal Society
  • USA – 2.7%
  • Germany – 2.8%
  • South Korea – 4.0%

The charismatic scientist underlines the fact that although the British figure is relatively low, the country nonetheless punches far above its weight due to excellent universities, not to mention Britain’s outstanding historical record in the scientific endeavour.

His basic message is that investment in science is not a self-indulgent exercise - his love affair with the subject, but that it is essential to the economy. He says Britain will need nearly another million scientists and engineers in the coming years if they are to remain globally competitive.

Listening to him speak on the BBC I thought for a moment I was hearing a political speech, or a lecture in economics. However that is how it has always been, from the days of the great Carl Sagan; pleading for money, making your pitch to political committees, justifying a budget grant, however small.

To many, like myself, his pronouncements should make perfect sense to anyone, but to borrow from a religious phrase, it is difficult to get some people to see the light!

Unless one lives in a cave, we see that science is everything to us today, from the moment we are born to keeping us alive in a hospital at the end of our lives, and everything in between – transport, technology, engineering, communications, entertainment, sport… well you get my drift.

I have always marvelled at the double standard when it comes to funding the military, or religious organisations without question, and yet that which we depend on so much, that helps us to understand who and what we are, where we come from, where we are going and why; that inspires us, from CERN to Seattle, that poor second cousin; science has constantly to justify itself, and beg for crumbs from the political table.


EU Spectator wishes Professor Brian Cox all success in his new appointment.

 

By Randall Calvin