February freelance writings: Possible alien lifeform; risks of marine energy; and big air snowboarding

In case you missed them, here’s a few new pieces I’ve written and published for Scientific American and Hakai magazine last month. Thanks as usual to all of my excellent editors. I’m only posting brief excerpts here, so please check out the whole thing using the links below.


Enceladus Could Be Teeming with Methane-Belching Microbes

New lab experiments suggest a particular microorganism could be the source of methane emanating from the oceanic depths of Saturn’s icy moon.

One of many images of Saturn’s fascinating moon, Enceladus, from the Cassini spacecraft. (Credit: NASA)

Scientists and science fiction writers alike have long wondered about what forms alien life might take on other worlds. Now researchers have strengthened the case that, at least on Saturn’s icy moon Enceladus, some alien life might closely resemble a specific type of microbe found deep in our own planet’s seas. Such alien organisms may even be living there now, and if so, could conceivably become the first discovered beyond Earth.

“We had speculated about the possibility of life outside the ‘habitable zone’ in our solar system,” says Simon Rittmann, a biochemist at the University of Vienna, referring to the limited orbital region where starlight-warmed planets can host liquid water on their surfaces. “Now we’ve found in our modeling that some of the methane produced on Enceladus could be of biological origin.” Enceladus, of course, lies far outside the habitable zone, but nonetheless boasts a deep liquid ocean beneath its icy crust.

Rittmann led a team performing a series of experiments and modeling to determine if any three methane-producing microbes could grow in the crushing depths of the ocean’s cold, briny and alkaline waters. They argue one of these so-called “methanogen” species could indeed live there, encouraging more detailed research and missions to find out for sure…

[Read the entire article on Scientific American, published on 27 February.]


Measuring the Risks of Tidal Power

Researchers are investigating the possibility of environmental damage before the industry kicks off.

As the world seeks to cut its reliance on fossil fuels, scientists have been working to harness the forces of nature—from the sun and the wind to the waves and the tides—to produce reliable sources of renewable power. But just like the energy sources they seek to replace, such as carbon-spewing oil and coal, these new sources of green energy will inevitably cause some environmental damage.

Skeptics and scientists have raised a range of hypothetical ways in which wave and tidal power infrastructure could hurt animals. Maybe seals, seabirds, and fish will be sliced and diced by underwater turbines. Perhaps they will be disturbed by the sounds of underwater generators. Sharks and rays—sensitive to electromagnetic fields—might be thrown astray by subsea power cables. Seawater and sediment could be churned up, disrupting migrating and feeding animals. As with any new technology, it’s difficult to accurately gauge the actual threat posed by any of these imagined scenarios.

That’s why Andrea Copping, an offshore energy expert at the US Department of Energy-funded Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, set out to assess the risks posed by common forms of ocean energy infrastructure. She finds that tidal turbine blades present the most immediate danger to wildlife, but impacts would be rare, and in most cases non-lethal…

[Read the entire article on Hakai magazine, published on 22 February.]


Olympic Big Air Snowboarders Use Physics to Their Advantage

The PyeongChang Winter Games will debut big air snowboarding, where athletes who master the laws of physics will be most likely to medal and avoid injury.

One by one the world’s best snowboard jumpers will hurl themselves down a steep ramp, fly off a giant cliff of a jump and—while hurtling through the air—execute sequences of flips and twists so fast and intricate that you’ll need slow-motion replay to even see them happen.

Big air snowboarding makes its Winter Olympics debut this month in Pyeongchang, South Korea, along with mass start speed skating and curling mixed doubles. The snowboarding event is likely to be a big draw, with its 49-meter-high ramp—one of the world’s tallest—creating the potential for breathtaking new tricks as well as some spectacular and potentially dangerous wipeouts.

To excel in this competition, snowboarders will have to control their nerves and adrenaline while intuitively mastering the physics of angular momentum, energy conservation and snow thermodynamics, along with projectile motion (with themselves as the projectiles). Then there is the landing: A mistimed pop off the jump or one trick too many could lead to a broken wrist, ankle, knee or worse on the quick return to Earth…

[Read the entire article on Scientific American, published on 2 February.]

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