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Monthly Archives: June 2013

Star Trekking Today – An Update

Six months ago I wrote my second ever blog post, without much hope of receiving more than a few hits. Then the good folks of WordPress were nice enough to Freshly Press me. This was both extremely surprising since I had next to zero experience of blog writing and extremely welcome as it gave me an instant audience of people who share my interests.

The post in question (found here) discussed how many of the technologies found in the Star Trek franchise are not only possible but in some cases are already being used today, a concept that excited my readers for different reasons, whether it be nostalgia for the TV series or because it inspired hope for the future.

But my, how quickly things change in just six months. There have been so many advances in Star Trek technologies alone, its hard to keep up. And that’s not including other more general technology discoveries too. Makes you proud to be human in this lactic galaxy of ours. So, what’s happened in the last 6 months?

3D Printer/Replicator

In the last article I likened 3D printers to replicators due to their ability to ‘print’ objects seemingly from nothing. One of the criticisms of this was that true replicators (in the Star Trek sense) can make food and drink. Well guess what, how about a 3D printed burger? Scientists were already looking into making transplantable organs by ‘printing’ cells into the shapes of organs, so why not just print a slab of meat to cook for your dinner? US company Modern Meadow are working on doing just that. In the mean time, why not head to London this June where the first lab-grown meat will be served up.

Colonisation

Thousands upon thousands of people across the globe have applied for one way tickets to colonise Mars as part of the Mars One program. The first group are scheduled to arrive in about 10 years from now, after 7 months of space flight (through severe solar radiation which is normally filtered by the Earth’s atmosphere). FYI, they’re still taking applications if you’re interested in joining one of the biggest and most elaborate suicide missions in history. Bear in mind that if once you reach Mars, there will be no means of return so you’re stuck on the red planet for the rest of your life.

Civilian Space Flight

For those of you looking for something a bit safer but no less groundbreaking, you can now buy tickets for a spaceflight to the upper atmosphere, high enough to see space from space but not so high that you can never come back. So far the flights, offered by Virgin Galactic, are solely for the wealthy and have a varied clientèle of space tourists, from Stephen Hawking to Justin Bieber (hopefully not on the same flight). Tickets are available here for the princely sum of $250,000.

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Tricorders

Finally, tricorders are getting closer as you can now buy gadgets to attach to your smart phone to help diagnose illness/disease, with some attachments already FDA approved. I’m sure that on the foot of this, engineers are already working on specially made tricorder-like medical devices to progress from smartphone attachments. The true market for the smartphone diagnoses will undoubtedly end up being for those who prefer self-diagnosis at home. Read more here.

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What a difference six months makes. Be sure to check back again in another six months for another update when who knows what will have happened. At this pace don’t be surprised to find yourself browsing it as light reading on a shuttle to someplace far far away…

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Posted by on June 23, 2013 in Future, Star Trek, Technology

 

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Earthworms – A Great Bunch of Lads

There has been a lot of publicity over the last few years regarding the massive contribution of bees to biodiversity and food production across the globe and the dire consequences we should expect now that their numbers are literally dropping like flies, due to disease and pesticides.

But they are not the only creatures driving on agriculture in this way. They may not even be the biggest contributors to boosting food production. While bees a busy working in the air, there is another force of nature working tirelessly is a subterranean metropolis.

A major habitat upon which agriculture heavily relies is the soil which supports the vast majority of farming in the world, whether it be crop growing, livestock feed, forestry or simply paddocks. Good quality soil provides a valuable resource for farmers but even the soil relies on other factors to keep itself in good condition, such is the nature of a diverse ecosystem. The flora and fauna of a soil perform countless acts, each contributing to the delicate balance, keeping it in top condition. Perhaps the best known of these is the earthworm. Without the earthworms soil is generally of a much lower quality and with their help the soil is happy which keeps the farmer happy. But do the farmers return the favour?

Earthworm_Jim_by_Trebeck

Earthworms carry out a number of functions in the soil, even if they don’t know it. They are just going about their own worming business but in doing so they have a knock on effect that impacts on those above the soil. They vastly mix up the soil by carrying up new soil from deep down and by carrying organic matter down deeper into the soil in their gut. Each year worms bring up 10-20 tonnes of earth per acre. Not only do the worms distribute the nutrients, both organic and inorganic, but they also aid in the uptake of these nutrients by plants. Simply by burrowing they provide the plant roots with tracks to follow, requiring less effort on the plants part. As well as this, the tracks aerate the soil, important for nitrogen fixation and provide drainage. This can particularly important in avoiding surface water.

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Earthworm Society of Britain

Where earthworms have diminished, dramatic reductions in soil porosity have been identified with consequent lower water infiltration and a significant build up of un-decomposed surface matter was observed on Dutch farms where the earthworms and other soil fauna were no longer present.

The actions of farmers, however, may actually be discouraging the growth of earthworms. For example, it has been shown that ploughing land can dramatically reduce the numbers of earthworms and other soil invertebrates. The earthworms can also come under chemical attack from overuse of fertilizers and pesticides, also affecting a range of other organisms which the chemicals do not target. This highlights the importance of thoughtful practice on farmers behalf as their actions can have long lasting and sometimes irreversible effects on the local biodiversity.

No measures have been introduced to protect the soil biota specifically despite its overwhelming importance to agriculture. However, the EU nitrates directive and various water quality acts have contributed to cleaning the earthworm’s environment. Of course the world is not completely ignorant of the importance of earthworms, it is even possible to buy batches of them to improve soil or for compost heaps and there are actions farmers can take to promote earthworm numbers in their land. If the farmers were to reduce the nitrogen spread on the land and instead plant clover in their grassland, they can have the benefit of the clovers nitrogen fixation abilities and also reduce cost by saving on fertilizer. This way the clover can be included in silage for winter and the earthworms are free from artificial chemical surplus in the soil.

I think it’s fair to say that the contribution of earthworms to the economy is greatly underestimated. The contribution is in the billions of euro/dollars when you take into account the amount of trade that stems from the land (livestock, tillage, crops etc.). It also suggests that the presence of earthworms increases forage production by 25% when compared to production in the absence of worms.

In a world where population is predicted to dramatically increase over the next few decades, especially with the emergence of major new Asian economies, the strain on land resources is going to increase to breaking point. Techniques that are sustainable to soils need the contribution of earthworms should be investigated closely as the over use of fertilizers on such a large scale can leave the planet in a state that can only lead to disaster and large scale famine. The techniques currently used for intensive farming are not conducive to earthworm growth and as highlighted they are far more useful to the farmer alive than absent.

Is it any wonder Darwin himself said of earthworms;

‘It may be doubted whether there are many other animals which have played so important a part in the history of the world, as have these lowly organized creatures.’

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Posted by on June 22, 2013 in Biology

 

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