Category Archives: Science

How to spend Heathrow free wifi efficiently

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The Ashbridges are renowned for the their punctuality, at the very least we hope. So can we really take that too far?

After a long, long wait for a new swanky visa stamp, I am finally making my way back stateside, and with 5 hours on my hands (and I am already checked in) what is a girl to do? Ponder on important life issues perhaps?

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What are the advantages and disadvantages of being 5 hours early for your flight? 

Or not.

 The Advantages:
1) With 5 hours to kill, queues are a joy because there is no way Heathrow madness can affect you. YOU are luxuriously early and time is of no consequence. And incidentally “The Daily Telegraph” indicates that some scientists somewhere think queues are good for you (please don’t judge, it came free with my Buxton Water!). So not only are you standing, but you are standing for the good of you own health. Bonus.
2) The airport lady is still in relaxed mode because at this point, the day is ever so young. She has a good old natter with you and you get upgraded to more leg room and she ignores the fact that your bag is clearly overweight, jam-packed full of M&S office attire. And as you leave she wishes you all the very best in finding a lovely lawyer man “like from that show The Good Wife”
3) You can drink the bottle of water (Buxton Spring) you bought over the course of several minutes, instead of seconds, thus not upsetting your already temperamental tummy given the prospect of long haul flying.
But conversely, what could be the downside to all this promptuousity (Not a real word)?
The Disadvantages:
1) You have hours to wait in terminal 3, which is NOT terminal 5!
2) Heathrow only offers 45 min free wifi to keep guests amused. Timing this is irrelevant as some hours will have to be spent sans wifi

3) When revealing your profession (because Americans are nosey before letting you back into the land of opportunities) you are directly compared to Sheldon from The Big Bang Theory. You don’t enjoy this comparison but smile nonetheless because your bag is clearly overweight and your legs dream of stretching out in the exit rows!

And so, in conclusion, being early ALWAYS pays off, although wifi could perhaps be better spent (5 min remaining).
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Do Humans Have the Genetic Ability to Become Mutant Superheroes?

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My latest post on policymic.com

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My favourite mutant segmented tube!

Before I jump into why humans may or may not have the potential to spawn superhero offspring, let’s first consider the simple earthworm (bear with me). No. In fact. The mutant earthworm.

These super power night crawlers are as distinct from normal earthworms as humans are from mice. Specifically, invincible segmented tubes have recently appeared in an old copper mine in Devon. This is no ordinary copper mine of course. Left derelict after dangerously high levels of arsenic were discovered in the soil, this mine has been abandoned and was supposed lifeless for nearly two centuries. But Professor Mark Hodson, at the University of York, has discovered a new species of earthworm capable of living in these poisoned soils due to the process of natural selection. Somewhere along the timeline, chance mutations occurred in an earthworm rummaging in this lethal plot and it didn’t die along with its peers. One thing led to another, and now these “superworms” reside there with a genetic profile all of their own, surviving their regular earthworm ancestors in this elegant example of evolution.

But do modern day humans also undergo evolution, so that we too can adapt to form superstar abilities?

Well, around 60,000 years ago, humans left Africa and started to spread across the globe, to all corners and all environmental extremes. We see differences in our populations as a result. The original dark skin has been replaced with paler skin, particularly in Europe and Asia, due to genetic mutations occurring in the migrating populations reaching land of less sunlight, i.e. the north. But many scientists believe that nowadays, natural selection has been slowed by our human resourcefulness to invent. Perhaps, they propose, we have cleverly educated our way out of evolution through advances in modern medicine and engineering.

And yet there are still cases being discovered where human populations have evolved to their more extreme surroundings. Take the Nepalese and Tibetans for example. They have lived in high altitude Himalayan villages for over 10,000 years. A sea-level human would struggle and could even die from this low oxygen environment. Visitors would have to adapt to the low oxygen by generating more red blood cells to carry more oxygen around the body. But more red blood cells mean a greater chance of blood clotting, and this is bad news.

When scientists tested the hemoglobin in the red blood cells of Sherpas and Tibetans, they found that these locals did not need to overproduce hemoglobin to sustain their daily life in the clouds. In fact, these discrete populations have evolved to improve their oxygen circulation instead. With wider blood vessels and a unique and more complex network of capillaries they can happily go about their business without any risk of altitude sickness. Superhero name? Hemoglobin man!? OK no. I agree. That was weak.

However, except for these few specific cases of extreme environmental pressures, the current form of our species seems to not really take part in natural selection. In Shakespeare’s day, one-in-three babies didn’t reach 21 years of age. Today, 99% of children make it to adulthood. That is nearly all of the population reaching reproductive age and passing their genes forward. Furthermore, by sheltering our bodies with clothing we don’t even need to evolve to have thicker fur like polar bears to withstand cold temperatures, or by farming the land, populations can rely on plentiful and regular supplies of food, so the genetically weak can be nurtured. Survival of the fittest and the less fit and in fact the really unfit is now possible on our technologically advanced planet.

The advent of superhero humans will just have to wait then, because short of a deadly pandemic ravaging the Earth or another Armageddon-type event (Asteroid threat) that would drastically alter the playing field, our species will continue along a relatively stable genetic path.

And unfortunately for this amusingly misleading headline, this means no sign of our version of Spider-Man in the near future.

Bread

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That sister of mine is quite magnificent at the thoughtful present. She really achieves a relevant gift and this usually entails me working for my dinner.

Just before Christmas, I was advised to keep Thursday 20th December free. A highly anticipated prize, I was turning down every Tom, Dick and Harry so that I was prepared for whatever she could throw at me: impromptu space flight? dinner with Alec Baldwin or one of my other crushes? really the list is endless.

What she is capable of never ceases to amaze me.

Well, long story short, turns out the bread baking class she had signed me up for, at Le Pain Quotidien (Bleecker Street venue), was cancelled last minute and thus the surprise had to be revealed prematurely and the class rebooked. For February 16th in fact.

And so here we are.

I have just returned, via the F train, back up to my apartment, laden with enough bread to feed 5,000. Jesus, God bless him, could have done with me a while back. I have made deliveries en route however, some might say like a wheaty Robin Hood, and now I am left with a couple of baguettes, 3 dinner rolls filled with chocolate pellets and 2 batards of walnuts, apples and sultanas (my personal favourite). I also have a quarter of the pizza we made and dined on at the communal table and that, dear readers, will be for my lunch tomorrow!

So, now lethargic from over-doughing myself, I am going to cheat a bit and show you my afternoon spent in SoHo insteaad of telling you any more. I do hope you don’t feel short-changed.

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My apron

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I spy with my little eye? A highly desirable Kitchen Aid AND the pizza toppings for later on

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Yep I was covered in flour (King Arthur Company in particular) from toe to tip

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Squidgy, bubbly dough weighed out on some retro scales

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This is where we filled the proofed dough with toasted walnuts, apples and sultanas

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Rollin’ rollin’ rollin’

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Baguettes in their couche (snug as a bug in a rug as you can see) and a monster pizza shovel

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Yes that is chocolate and butter. And yes they are going in the middle of mini dough balls

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The posh “Pain d’Epi” style. Tres joli

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Pain d’Epi d’Ashbridge

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Yeah. I pretty much made all of this toute seule!

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Making our dinner to finish. A combination of dough, gravity and knuckles (in summary)

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Preparing the bread for the oven. Give the old carbon dioxide some pretty holes to sizzle out of

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Eh voila. I think my work here is done.

Magnifique? Super? SUPER COOL? 

Mais oui!

NASA Landsat 8 Satellite Launch This Monday!

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Here is my latest post on policymic.com

NASA Landsat 8 Satellite Launch: Where It’s Going and What It Could Mean For the Future

And my Q&A with NASA Project Scientist Dr Jim Irons?

1.   After reading the pieces in Wired and Nature this evening it is clear the continuity of this mission is crucial to the mapping of landscape and land usage but what would it mean to not have that coverage post-2016 when Landsat 7 runs out of fuel?

With both Landsat 7 and Landsat 8 in operation, one of the satellites will fly over any parcel of land once every eight days.  This is particularly useful for those who wish to observe the seasonal phenology of vegetation canopies, for example, those who use Landsat data to track crop development during the growing season.  If cloud cover intervenes, the eight day coverage is just barely sufficient for those sorts of applications and many wish for even more frequent Landsat coverage.  When Landsat 7 is decommissioned, those sorts of applications will become problematic with only the 16 day coverage afforded by a single Landsat 8 satellite.  Part of the research agenda in the near future will be to learn to use Landsat data in concert with data from other satellites, such as the ESA Sentinel-2 satellites, to obtain more frequent temporal coverage of an area.

 

2.   Other than the landscape mapping of Earth, what other information does the Landsat offer to the general public and does the improved technology offer any other insight into global patterns such as population data for human geographers?

The Landsat sensors basically measure the amount of light reflected or emitted at multiple wavelengths from the surface of the Earth for every pixel in an image.  All manner of information is derived or inferred from these measurements.  In many cases, the information is derived from several sources of data and Landsat images are just one, often important, part of the analyses.  For example, in recent years researches have develop models for measuring evapotranspiration rates using Landsat data in concert with meteorological data.  In another interesting application, penguin populations in Antartica have been estimated from Landsat observations of the extent of guano stains on the ice and that requires some other knowledge of the density of penguins per unit area in their rookeries.  The Landsat satellites cannot directly measure population densities of humans and images can be used to observe and measure the expansion of urban development, for examples, and human geographers can estimate population if they know the number of people per unit area, kind of like penguins.

jansimson.com

jansimson.com

3.   What are the fields of science that will most and best use the data that will be coming in?

Similar to the answer above, a wide scope of Earth science fields will use LDCM data.  I am not prepared to state that one or two fields will best use the data.  Climatologists were certainly look at the impact of climate change on the land surface and how those changes feed back to the climate system.  Forestry, agronomy, hydrology are obvious examples of the fields that will use the data.  The cryospheric sciences and even marine science will find uses.  The scope of fields that will use LDCM data is broad and diverse.

 

4.   You have said it probably wont live as long as some of its predecessors, but what would be your best estimate and how long would you hope to have a functional Landsat 8?

Every satellite component has a design life.  The design life of Landsat 5 was five years and that satellites remarkably remained in operations for over 28 years.  The design lives of the LDCM spacecraft and the OLI are five years.  The design life of TIRS is three years.  The spacecraft will contain enough propellant to maintain it’s operational orbit for at least 10 years.  We are obviously hoping that the satellite and instruments exceed their design lives.