Dec 2011

Countdown for 12/12/11


The Countdown for Monday 12/11/11

4. New global climate deal is a mixed bag but a step in the right direction. The United Nations climate change conference in Durban South Africa concluded on Friday Dec. 10th, reaching a deal that is significant for its inclusiveness (194 countries signed on) but also rather toothless. The agreement extends the Kyoto Protocol for several years, but includes no binding commitments for reductions of greenhouse gasses. Given the current global economic climate it may be the best that could have been achieved. The fact is, we are a global species with long-term global problems and no adequate system of governance to resolve these problems. At least we are having the conversation. The politics of the conference and the resulting deal are described in this Scientific American blog post. A somewhat more pessimistic assessment, which also describes the U.S. role at the talks as “widely perceived as obstructionist” was published in the Los Angeles Times.

3. Cool new 3-D views of Vesta “The Smallest Terrestrial Planet”. A 3-D video released last week shows off the craters, mountains and strange equatorial troughs of asteroid Vesta, as revealed by the DAWN spacecraft, which has been in orbit since July 15 Vesta is turning out to be such a complex and unusual world that some on the DAWN team have taken to calling it “the smallest terrestrial planet”. I don’t think we should really say that, since we don’t know how small terrestrial planets may be elsewhere in the galaxy. In fact, who knows, maybe we’ll even find a dwarf planet larger than Earth!?

2. Searching the Kepler Planets for Signals from ET. The SETI institute, has re-started the search for extraterrestrial radio signals from the Allen Telescope Array (ATA) in Northern California. The early candidates will include a targeted search of the star systems where the Kepler spacecraft has found planets. Highest priority will be given to those systems with planets that are likely to be in the “habitable zone” where a rocky planet would have the right climate for stable liquid water on its surface. Now, of course there are many guesses and assumptions enfolded into this program – why should we focus on “Earthlike” planets? Why should we assume that ET needs water? And even why should we expect them to be using radio waves? Or still living and/or broadcasting near their planet of origin? SETI is almost as much art as it is science. No search program can be obviously justified as the most logical one, since we don’t know anything about ET, other than the fact that they share the same universe as us and so presumably live within, and have discovered, the same physical laws. And as the lottery advertisement says “you can’t win if you don’t play”, and we have to search, and start somewhere. There is something romantic and enticing about searching these systems where we now know there are planets.

1. Zillions and Zillions! And finally, following on the “Meat Planet” Cosmos parody that we linked in a recent Countdown, here is another affectionate Sagan spoof, where someone with clearly too much time on their hands has edited all of the “millions” and “billions” uttered in Cosmos into a continuous macronumerological montage.

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