New freelance writings: planetary math, marine archaeologists, underwater robots, and a movie review

In case you missed them, check out my recent stories, from the search for life on distant worlds to clues of the collapse of civilizations on the bottom of the ocean. Thanks to my editors for helping these pieces turn out so well.


The Next Step In The Search For Aliens Is A Huge Telescope And A Ton Of Math

This illustration shows the possible surface of TRAPPIST-1f, one of the recently discovered Earth-sized planets in the TRAPPIST-1 system. (Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

Aliens could be hiding on almost any of the Milky Way’s roughly 100 billion planets, but so far, we haven’t been able to find them (dubious claims to the contrary notwithstanding). Part of the problem is that astronomers don’t know exactly where to look or what to look for. To have a chance of locating alien life-forms — which is like searching for a needle that may not exist in an infinitely large haystack — they’ll have to narrow the search.

Astronomers hoping to find extraterrestrial life are looking largely for exoplanets (planets outside Earth’s solar system) in the so-called “Goldilocks zone” around each star: a distance range in which a planet is not too hot and not too cold, making it possible for liquid water to exist on the surface. But after studying our own world and many other planetary systems, scientists have come to believe that many factors other than distance are key to the development of life. These include the mix of gases in the atmosphere, the age of the planet and host star, whether the host star often puts out harmful radiation, and how fast the planet rotates — some planets rotate at a rate that leaves the same side always facing their star, so one hemisphere is stuck in perpetual night while the other is locked into scorching day. This makes it a complex problem that scientists can start to tackle with powerful computers, data and statistics. These tools — and new telescope technology — could make the discovery of life beyond Earth more likely…

[Read the entire story on FiveThirtyEight, published on 21 July.]


Did Climate Change Bring Down Late Bronze Age Civilizations?

Marine archaeologists excavating the eastern Mediterranean are learning how the Bronze Age Mycenaean, Egyptian, and Anatolian Empires fell.

Clutching a set of drills, scuba divers plunge into a bay near the Gulf of Corinth, in central Greece. On the seafloor, they punch a 4.5-meter-deep hole into history. The divers are expecting to find sediment, bits of coral, and fish bones, but they’re hoping the core will reveal something more: evidence of the world of the ancient Mediterranean, and clues as to why multiple empires collapsed here more than 3,000 years ago.

The divers are part of a scientific team excavating on land and underwater to investigate why a string of Late Bronze Age civilizations toppled—the Mycenaean kingdom in Greece, the Hittite Empire in Anatolia, and the New Kingdom of Egypt. Each fell around the same time, in the 12th century BCE. Over the past year, the team has drilled nine cores. This month, they’re looking to open the first of the set.

“Each core is like gold,” says Thomas Levy, an anthropologist at the University of California, San Diego, and one of the leaders of the project. “It’s like a page of a book, an archive of paleoenvironmental data.” Levy believes the cores may help explain how climate change contributed to the rapid downfall of the Mycenaean civilization…

[Read the entire story in Hakai, published on 10 August.]


Solving how fish swim so well may help design underwater robots

Propeller-free robots may soon be swimming with style. A new model of how fish and other aquatic species are able to propel themselves forward without expending much energy may help create energy-efficient underwater robots that swim just like the real thing.

By closely studying and monitoring how fish, dolphins and other sea creatures swim, Mehdi Saadat at Harvard University and his colleagues found that many of them have remarkably similar styles that can be described with a simple model, depending on how fast and far the tail whips back and forth and the length of the animal…

[Read the entire story in New Scientist, published on 21 August.]


Bringing the Plight of Coral Reefs to Our Screens

New programs highlight coral bleaching, a process driven by climate change, which could destroy most coral ecosystems by 2050.

Reports of the Great Barrier Reef’s death have been greatly exaggerated. But if current climate trends continue, scientists say, by midcentury the giant living structure and most other coral reefs around the world will die.

This dramatic collapse of once colorful and vibrant marine ecosystems has accelerated in recent years, due to the relentlessly warming ocean waters. Following a third global coral bleaching event in less than two decades, a Netflix documentary, “Chasing Coral,” shows with captivating and depressing footage how, in a short time, climate change devastates the coral reefs. A segment of HBO’s Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel, also out this month, documents the ravages inflicted on the Great Barrier Reef in particular…

[Read the entire story in Inside Science, published on 19 July.]

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