Category Archives: Science and Technology

Contextualising Cosmic Danger

asteroid_7

We all delight in some measure of fright. There is some allure in taunting the reaper, something endearing about the dark, deserted and blood-stained that we can’t quite explain. But it’s there. This weekend, fittingly around Halloween, our appetite for horror was indulged by yet another close encounter with a giant mass of rock hurtling through space. If it were to collide with earth, the impact of a meteorite this size would quite literally threaten our species with extinction. However, is such a scenario probable? To what degree has that appetite for horror caused us to distort the degree of danger posed by close encounters of the cosmic kind?

The object in question this time is called Asteroid 2015 TB145, although that may prove to be a misnomer. Some within the scientific community have begun to postulate that TB145 is in fact a comet. As a point of clarity: asteroids are the rocky remnants of planetary formation and orbit the sun, primarily in a belt between Mars and Jupiter. Comets, on the other hand, formed beyond the frost line, far from the warm embrace of our star. They are hence composed of rocky nuclei, blanketed in layers of ice which, upon approaching the sun, birth brilliant tails of dust and plasma. TB145 conspicuously lacks this characteristic coma, pointing to the conclusion that if our visitor is indeed a comet, the sun has eaten into its envelope of ice. The traveller from exile at the fringes of our solar system has, this time around, arrived as a corpse.

At closest approach, TB145, nicknamed Spooky, will pass a mere 480 000 km from our home planet. This ‘close shave’  is what has motivated the recurring narrative of earth narrowly escaping global devastation. Granted, on a scale of Astronomical Units, light-years and parsecs, the distance is indeed relatively miniscule, in much the same way that Alpha Centauri is a relatively close star. However, in assessing the danger, it is imperative to remember that on this astronomical scale, Earth is indeed a speck. To illustrate: suppose that Spooky’s orbit crossed into the space between its actual closest approach and the earth. The odds that it would, at random, collide with the earth can be conceptualised by imagining a ‘dartboard’ of radius 480 000 km, with earth as the bull’s eye. The probability is therefore approximated by taking the ratio of the area of the earth to that of the cosmic ‘dartboard’. From figure 1.1, it is apparent that this probability lies far below 1%. The danger, it seems, has been gravely overstated.

Figure 1.1

Figure 1.1

Admittedly, this model is simplistic and fails to account for the intricacies of celestial mechanics. The probability yielded then, is merely an order of magnitude approximation. It aims to illustrate the tremendous vastness  and pervading emptiness of space – the truth that, in the cosmos, the void reigns supreme. However, even when accounting for these shortcomings, it is evident that the chances of a collision within the closest approach are overwhelmingly slim. Moreover, Spooky – and scores of others like it – were on trajectories which we knew would never result in an impact with our home planet. Declaring that each one of these ‘nearly hit’ us is therefore akin to standing a hundred meters from the edge of a motorway and yelling that you narrowly avoided an accident each time a car whizzed by. When placed in proper context, the sensationalism sounds somewhat like the panicked ramblings of a paranoid mad man. Nonetheless, we cannot afford to be lulled into a false sense of security.

Much of the reason why events of this kind are met with alarm is not because the probability of impact is high, but rather because the consequences of such an improbable impact are so extraordinarily dire. Aware of the fate of those great reptilian beasts who roamed and ruled this planet before us, we know too well that an impact may lead to our extinction – an abrupt end to the anthropocene. Efforts, informed by data from objects like TB145, are underway to craft protocols that deal with the possibility of an asteroid impact. From nuclear detonation to a more understated, trajectory-altering nudge, plans are being developed to save earth from catastrophe. For the mad man, in all his crazed rambling, speaks in the spirit of a threat that, while improbable, is real: we simply cannot afford to find ourselves in the headlights of a car that has veered off the road.

These close encounters then, are a reminder from the cosmos that we cannot afford to neglect our space program, if we wish for our species to survive. They nudge us forward into a space-faring age, in which the repository of human potential will not be concentrated on a single planet. Perhaps most importantly, they provide us with a potent reminder of the vulnerability of our terrestrial home and allow us to contemplate our perilous existence upon it. As each asteroid streaks past earth, the message sent to us is clear: our cosmic neighbourhood, while alluring, is hostile to human life. With each near miss, our resolve to preserve this planet should be bolstered. We must realise that these threats of an existential kind needn’t come from the heavens.

Mesmerised by profit, we continue to deplete earth’s resources. Recklessly, we fuel a runaway greenhouse effect that drives climate change and global warming. Nuclear and biological weapons continue to sit in our stockpiles, straining for release. For as long as these characteristics of the human age continue to exist, the destruction of our species is in no need of any help from a rogue asteroid. So the next time the excessive panic machine begins to rumble, remember that after the threat has disappeared into the void, a danger lingers to our continued existence on this planet. And it springs directly from the sins of our species.

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An Invitation to Dream Again, in our Age of Cosmic Apathy

65e732632ca383e919ad6e2d41f48d36-Astrobio Award graphic

And on the 14th of July, the storm that was brewing within them burst forth. It shook the foundations of an Old Order long-assumed to be unshakable. In time, it would come to shape their world.

Last week, at the edge of our planetary neighbourhood, New Horizons made history. For nearly a decade, the small spacecraft has barrelled towards the fringes of our solar system, with a helpful nudge from the colossal gravity of Jupiter. Beyond the orbit of Neptune, lies Pluto and its largest moon, Charon, tidally locked into a perpetual stare as they whirl in a grand cosmic waltz. Back on earth, we watched through the lens of New Horizons as this captivating image slowly grew sharper. On Bastille Day this year, it whizzed by Pluto, returning the clearest images ever of the mysterious icy world. Once again, the public eye was allowed to feast on the majesty of a world never before seen in such dazzling clarity.

The momentous nature of this occasion has not been lost on the public. The flyby has been treated with the reflective nostalgia one would expect from the final addition to our solar system’s family portrait. A family which stubbornly clings on to its misfit of a ninth member. As understandable as this attachment to the ‘nine we all learnt in school’ may be, the notion that the last box has been ticked is a problematic one. The issue is rather aptly highlighted by Dennis Overbye, who recently wrote in the New York Times, “None of us alive today will see a new planet up close for the first time again.”

Overbye’s assertion underlines a gloomy, despondent perspective – that the trailblazing eras of space exploration lie either behind us, in the moon landing euphoria of the 60s and 70s, or so far ahead of us that we will have perished before it becomes a reality. By this seemingly prevalent perspective, we are the Limbo Generation – born too late to witness the excitement of manned missions to the moon, but too early to witness us traverse interstellar space. Apathy is the well-fed beast that sleeps at our feet. Indeed, if we concede to this perspective, it will become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

But why concede now? Despite all our affection for the public’s planetary underdog, it would be foolish to allow our nostalgia to obscure reality. There are worlds beyond Pluto, in the icy wasteland of the Kuiper Belt, that have as much a right to being called planets as Pluto does (one of the reasons for the dwarf planet’s infamous demotion). After the hype has died down, New Horizons will continue to hammer on into the Kuiper Belt with the intention of further discovery. Those worlds beckon us, as do our neighbours, their moons and the endless potential they hold. Within the solar system, there are still many worlds for us to explore, many caves for us to bravely enter, many more oceans into which we will boldly set sail. The most groundbreaking discoveries then, lie ahead of us, well within our reach (something which, to his credit, Overbye acknowledges as a possibility). Still, why concede to the notion that we are confined to the solar system?

Admittedly, the assumption that we are limited to our planetary neighbourhood is not without reason. With our current technology, attempting to cross the chasm of nothingness which separates us from even the nearest stars would take longer than the age of human civilisation. It makes about as much sense as Magellan grabbing an old broomstick as his oar and opting to circumnavigate the globe on a four-poster bed with some floaties strapped to it. For now, interstellar space travel is beyond our capabilities. However, that may change more quickly than we expect.

At the turn of the twentieth century, when the Wright brothers first gave humanity wings, it was scarcely imaginable that we will have walked on the moon before that century had ended. The New Horizons mission, trekking across an astronomical distance so vast that it takes light more than five hours to make the same trip, was once confined to the territory of science fiction – as interstellar exploration is now. It takes a level of undue boldness, masquerading as rationality, to declare that the jump from science fiction to science fact will not occur in our lifetimes. Unfortunately, the impulse to smugly dismiss even a visit to an exoplanet is one that is frequently indulged in our time. Somewhere along the line, we seem to have lost something.

Space is the great repository of human dreams. As the Cold War ended and the momentum from the moon missions died down, our dreaming masses seem to have tragically dwindled. Cynicism has seeped in and our exploratory endeavour has been displaced by distraction. While skepticism has its place, it is high time we hand power back to the imagination. It would be a grave judgement on our species if we are incapable of caring about the exploration of the universe in the absence of a beating war drum and an adversary on the other side of the Iron Curtain.

The Cold War is over, yet our world is no utopia in its wake. One may ask then why we should turn our eyes to the stars when our own terrestrial home is in such fantastic disarray. While the pursuit of space science has many a benefit to a nation and economy, not least of which is the creation of a realm in which dreams can be pursued (as championed gloriously by Neil deGrasse Tyson), the desire to explore space runs deeper. We wade into the dark cosmic waters, because it is who we are.

We are the clay, mixed by the hands of giants long fallen, birthed from the remnants of stars long dead, moulded by the grand forces of sex and death. We were brought forth in chaos, from the precision of randomness. We are a manifestation of the universe’s self-contemplation – “A way for the Cosmos to know itself,” as Carl Sagan famously declared. We are drawn to discovery, enchanted by exploration. The will to wander is written into our DNA. In our age of cosmic apathy, we must rekindle that will…

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Pluto and its moons are named after the deities, features and creatures of the Ancient Greek underworld. In the final lines of his famed work, Inferno, Dante Aligieri emerges with the Poet Virgil from Hell, that popular underworld of Christian mythology, to rebehold the stars. As New Horizons sails away from Pluto, we too must unshackle our capacity to dream and turn our faces to the stars. Once again, we must indulge our will to wonder about wandering.

A Personal Polling Station: Internet Voting and The Future of the Electoral System

Google's Doodle on May 7, the date of South Africa's general election

Google’s Doodle on May 7, the date of South Africa’s general election

At the dawn of South African democracy in 1994, millions of liberated citizens left their homes, unhindered by the shackles of segregation, to assume their position at the country’s helm on April 27th of that year. South Africa’s first free election-a culmination of decades of struggle-was a victory for democracy and saw invigorated voters display remarkable patience as they stood in seemingly endless queues, oblivious to the brutality of the African sun above, to make their mark and steer the country into a new future. On May 7th of this year, South Africans are once again given that opportunity to oust the establishment-in a country with a political landscape that has tremendously transformed over the past two decades. Regardless of this altered national dialogue however, the voting mechanism has not evolved and millions of ballots will be cast this year as they were 20 years ago-by making a mark on a piece of paper in a designated voting station.

In a world where the internet permeates ever facet of life, this method seems increasingly anachronistic. For years, the possibility of utilizing the technology of the net to conduct a national election was considered an inevitability by scores of internet users. This dream materialized in 2007, when the Baltic Republic of Estonia offered voters the opportunity to remotely cast their ballots from behind the screen of their nearest computer. Four years later, candidates were propelled to the Riigikogu, Estonia’s parliament, by an election in which 24.3% of voters indicated their choice online, with some even exploiting newly mandated chipped mobile phones. Less than a decade after it began by nudging municipal polling stations into the cyber world, the great Estonian Experiment was a resounding success. However, few nations have followed into the realm of internet democracy-for Estonia is far from typical.

With a mere 1.3 million citizens, the small Northern European state’s population is dwarfed by those of larger nations, such as the world’s populous democracy-India-which houses more than one billion people within its borders. Therefore, the logistical challenges surrounding the deployment of a remote e-voting system to accommodate Estonian voters are barely comparable to those which will be faced when deploying it within a country with a far larger populace. Sites attempting to cope with the traffic created by millions of voters may find themselves struggling to drink from what is effectively a fire hydrant. Moreover, unlike the prevailing attitude in most other countries, internet access is deemed to be a human right in Estonia and the net penetration rate in the Baltic state, widely considered one of the most wired countries in Europe, is among the highest in the world. Put simply: Estonia is the perfect candidate for the deployment of digital democracy.

Consequently, few states have only partially repeated Estonia’s success and those that have done so are exclusively developed, first world nations like Australia, Canada and Austria. For third world countries, where basic infrastructure in sectors like healthcare and education are inadequate, the notion of an internet-based voting system is considered to be but a pipe dream. Even countries like Brazil, Venezuela and India, which have implemented e-voting systems at polling stations, are far from the levels of internet penetration needed to accommodate a viable remote voting system. However, the obstacles which face a web-based democracy exceed infrastructural inadequacy.

For every 100 citizens in either the United States or the United Kingdom, more than 80 had access to the internet in 2012, according to statistics compiled by the World Bank-yet neither of these countries have embraced remote internet voting with the same fervor seen in Northern Europe. This can easily be attributed to the possibility of voter fraud and the fear of malicious hacking (when Estonia held their first virtual election in 2007, a bot-scanner was unsuccessfully deployed by a hacker to identify possible vulnerabilities in the system before it was deflected by CERT-the Computer Emergency Response Team). Furthermore, in a geopolitical climate wherein cyber-warfare has become commonplace, virtual elections would create a new front for potential exploitation by a rival nation. Politicians often reflect the concerns of their electorate when addressing the possibility of ceding a key component of their democracy to a realm which is still seen by many as dark, duplicitous and arcane.

Perhaps it is this fundamental public distrust of the internet, no doubt exacerbated by Edward Snowden’s revelation of its abuse by an intrusive spying apparatus, as well as missteps such as the botched roll-out of the Obamacare website, which is primarily to blame for the lack of definitive action towards establishing comprehensive internet voting in countries which are theoretically capable of making that leap. It is therefore imperative that the public reclaims that trust, by reducing government control over the net (which may allow incumbents to rig polls) as well as by devoting a portion of their time to learning the ostensibly foreign language of the net. Only then will citizens realize that while cyber-voting methods have vulnerabilities, the problems they face are not new (election fraud was not invented by malicious hackers) and like their real world equivalents, they can be equipped with mechanisms which can reliably detect, reduce or eliminate breaches in the system. After all, an educated public is indispensable to the proper functioning of a democracy and if a democracy is to adopt the platform of the net, then the public must understand it-if government is to remain accountable to the people.

As more aspects of our lives, from our social interactions to our banking transactions, are integrated into a web-based environment, it is not a far cry to imagine that our electoral process may follow. However, if South Africa (as well as other nations) are to recreate Estonia’s success, we must first remedy many of the issues which have shaped the debate in this year’s elections-primarily the provision of basic infrastructure-as the voting system will predictably remain anachronistic if widespread suffering endures as a remnant of centuries of oppressive colonial and racist rule in a comparable anachronism. Expanding the reach of the net is a cause which has been adopted by tech giants like Mark Zuckerberg (through Internet.org) and if coupled with a greater understanding of the nature, potential and limitations of the internet, may well create a culture conducive to an internet-mediated democracy.

We cannot definitively know whether the polarizing political debate surrounding this issue will keep it from becoming a reality-but I wouldn’t write off the idea that one day in the not-so-distant future, citizens will have the opportunity to, in a matter of minutes, exercise the basic right of democracy from behind a PC within the comfort of their homes-if they so desire. The question is now what it always has been: what do we truly desire?

The Drone Journalist

drone journalism

In the 21st Century, the word ‘Drone’ is often associated with war, death and fear. So, what exactly is a drone? A drone, also known as a UAV (unmanned aerial vehicle), is an aircraft controlled by pilots from the ground (often utilizing a mobile app). There are numerous types of drones; basically they fall into two categories: those that are used for surveillance purposes and those that are armed with missiles and bombs. We need to focus on the surveillance aspect, instead of those drones being used in the theater of war.

About two years ago, drone journalism came into the public eye after an activist launched a small unmanned aircraft. He used the drone to fly over riot police to capture things his eyes could not. The photos were extraordinarily different from the photos we see in the news of the protest coverage. These images went viral and made its way into mainstream media.

This leads us to wonder-imagine if the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear meltdown in 2011 were to be captured with the use of drones. News organizations accused the government of concealing the extent of the damage and the discharge of radiation, but were unable to challenge official figures. A drone equipped with an array of cameras and Geiger Counters (radiation detectors) would have provided a fast and cheap check on the official story and represented citizens’ interests.

A few months ago a drone was used to capture the atrocious ruins left in the wake of the Philippine typhoon-which left hundreds killed and thousands injured. Journalists were not able to get through, whereas the drone boasts the clear advantage of aerial photography-flying over revealing miles of devastation.

Projects at the universities of Nebraska and Illinois are also exploring drone development for journalism. Matt Waite, the founder of Drone Journalism Lab, a research project to determine the viability of remote airborne media, is leading the research.

Even though there are many pros to drone journalism there are many cons too. As Matt Waite said “While the technology is amazing and moving very rapidly, you are still talking about less than an hour of flight time (for) the drone I have, which is really a toy,”.Waite predicts that while the courts debate principles, including freedom of speech, freedom of the press and privacy, “there’s going to be a lot of litigation”. It will be “at least five to seven years before those are settled matters” he added.

Waite believes that all of the major news stations will have drones the moment that they become legal. He believes that it will be up to the news organisations to be ethical and do the right thing when it comes to privacy.

There may be many hurdles to overcome for drone journalism, with privacy coming into the public eye following the Snowden leaks. Nonetheless, it highlights a fundamental fact-that the UAV indeed has potential beyond the battlefield it occupies today.

Raeesa Tilly