New freelance writings: space war risks, our climate future, and our universe’s future

In case you missed them, here’s a few pieces I’ve recently written and published in Nature and Undark magazines. Thanks as usual to my excellent editors! I’m only posting brief excerpts here, so if you’re interested, please check out the whole thing using the links below.

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NEW DELHI, INDIA – JANUARY 26: Anti-Satellite Weapons (ASAT) from Mission Shakti during Republic Day Parade at Rajpath, on January 26, 2020 in New Delhi, india. (Photo by Ramesh Pathania/Mint via Getty Images)

As Risks of Space Wars Grow, Policies to Curb Them Lag

A pair of recent reports point to growing space threats, but efforts to prevent conflicts are stagnant or out of step.

On April 22, Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps announced a successful launch of what they described as a military reconnaissance satellite, which came after several failed attempts. The satellite joined a growing list of weapons and military systems in orbit, including Russia’s test of a missile system designed to destroy satellites, also in April, and India’s test of an anti-satellite weapon, which the country launched in March 2019.

Experts like Brian Weeden, director of program planning at the Secure World Foundation (SWF), a nonpartisan think tank based in Broomfield, Colorado, worry that these developments — all confirmed by the newly reestablished United States Space Command — threaten to lift earthly conflicts to new heights and put all space activities, peaceful and military alike, at risk. Researchers at SWF and the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a nonpartisan think tank in Washington, D.C., both released reports this year on this rapidly evolving state of affairs. The reports suggest that the biggest players in space have advanced their space military abilities, including anti-satellite weapons, which destroy satellites, and technologies that merely disrupt spacecraft, for instance by blocking data collection or transmission.

Many of these technologies, if deployed, could ratchet up an arms race and even spark a war in space, the SWF and CSIS researchers caution. Just blowing up a single satellite scatters debris throughout the atmosphere, said Weeden, co-editor of the SWF report. Such an explosion could hurl projectiles in the paths of other spacecraft and threaten the accessibility of space for everyone…

[Read the entire essay in Undark magazine, published on 6 July.]


Book Review: A Hopeful Vision of Our Planet’s Future

In “The Future Earth,” Eric Holthaus outlines an ambitious path toward mitigating climate change over the next 30 years.

In a remote pocket of the Pacific Ocean lie the Marshall Islands, which nearly 60,000 people call home. But the islanders are facing the grim and very real prospect of losing their entire country in their lifetimes. One resident, Selina Leem, spoke at the Paris climate summit in 2015, passionately arguing that she refuses to lose her homeland, which will be inexorably enveloped by the seas unless governments worldwide take dramatic and rapid action to mitigate climate change.

In his new book, “The Future Earth,’’ climate journalist and meteorologist Eric Holthaus describes this and other imminent human impacts of climate change. Even if carbon emissions decline gradually, scientists’ projections for rising sea levels, stronger hurricanes, deluging floods, and more intense droughts and wildfires threaten many people and communities. But rather than dwell on such apocalyptic predictions — ground that has been thoroughly tread by other writers — Holthaus seeks to craft an aspirational vision of the future of our planet and society.

“We will have to share with one another alternative visions of a shared future, stories about how climate doom is not inevitable,” he writes. Instead, he believes that if we persistently focus on positive views of what lies ahead, it could create enough of a cultural shift so that radical change becomes possible, giving a chance of survival to all vulnerable peoples…

[Read the entire piece in Undark magazine, published on 31 July.]


Crunch, rip, freeze or decay — how will the Universe end?

Astrophysicist Katie Mack’s book explores all the ways the cosmos could destroy itself.

Scientists know how the world will end. The Sun will run out of fuel and enter its red-giant phase. Its final burst of glory will expand and engulf the closest planets, leaving Earth a charred, lifeless rock. Our planet has around five billion years left.

With this grim image, theoretical astrophysicist Katie Mack begins her book on the end of the Universe — a much more uncertain prospect. Cosmologists generally look backwards, because all the evidence they can examine with telescopes is far away and concerns things that happened long ago. Using the motions of distant stars and galaxies to predict possible futures involves more speculation.

In Mack’s hands, this speculation makes for a fascinating story. Humans are, she writes, “a species poised between an awareness of our ultimate insignificance and an ability to reach far beyond our mundane lives, into the void, to solve the most fundamental mysteries of the cosmos”…

[Read the entire piece in Nature magazine, published on 10 August.]

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