Sunday, January 31, 2010

Book Review: The World Without Us

The World Without UsAnother great read called The World Without Us, this time on a best seller by Alan Weisman. This is a book that hypothesizes what would happen to Earth if mankind disappears overnight. It does not attempt to explain why and how humans can suddenly vanish.  Instead it tries to portray how cities and other man-made artifacts will collapse, in addition to how other lifeforms will adapt.  To illustrate its points, this piece utilizes vivid examples like the crumbling of New York City -- think Will Smith racing the red Camaro through a run-down and overgrown Times Square in I Am Legend.  This publication has also inspired various TV series like Life After People on the History Channel.  

Here are some interesting points:

1.  Our houses, built of the usual suspects (wood, clay, bricks), will fall easily to nature.  Their biggest enemy is water that seeps through the smallest cracks, thaws and freezes over time.  Although most roofs are waterproof, water can always find a way to rust and loosen the nails that hold the shingles together. Once inside our habitats, it will quickly wreak havoc by molding walls, wooden floors and other furniture. 

2.  New York City will rot from underneath.  It all starts with the extensive subway network which had effectively punched winding holes throughout the city foundation.  These lines will flood within days as water pumps malfunction, causing the sewers above them to also overflow. The flooding weakens the soil structures, causing roads to cave in and pavements to crack.  As water attacks from beneath, rain water will amplify the results from above.  More importantly, it has an accomplice in plants. Plant life will find a way into these cracks and their roots in turn will "break more ground." The combined effects of these forces will eventually tumble the skyscrapers in Manhattan, one at a time. 

3.  While modern man-made structures quickly falter without human maintenance, the structures that will last the longest are surprisingly, the ones that have stood for thousands of years.  These include the pyramids of Egypt and the Stonehenge of England.  Other man-made evidence that will survive the test of time include radioactive materials, bronze statues, plastics, and Mount Rushmore. 

4.  Wildlife will also find a way back into cities and towns as domesticated pets fall prey to the lack of human care. They are the first to go as their food supplies dwindle. Wild animals from nearby countryside will take over and flourish. So does infestation of wild plant species as they outgrow the locals. Over time, cities will be concealed by massive vegetation growth.  A study of the Mayan civilization is provides a clear illustration.  Before their discovery, various Mayan towns including their massive pyramids were well concealed by heavy vegetation in the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico. The point being nature will flourish where there is no human presence. The case study used in the book was the Korean DMZ. 

5.  The author also hypothesized that mega faunas will one day return because evolutionary pressures to outrun human hunters no longer exist. As the theory goes: mega faunas like the woolly mammoths were easy targets for early hunters. By bringing down these big animals, our ancestors guaranteed themselves ample food supplies, clothing and weaponry resources.  With such advantages, the sure-fire extinction of mega faunas was inevitable. Without humans however, wild animals can afford to evolve into giants again!

Overall, this book is an entertaining read.  The thought experiments were very visual and easy to extrapolate.  I would recommend this non-fiction for some good bedtime reading.


-PTS

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Battle at Kruger

Here is an amazing footage taken by a tourist a few years ago at Kruger National Park in South Africa. A lion pride startled a buffalo herd, attacked and grabbed a calf near shore, only to be surprised by a sneaky crocodile. A tug of war then ensued and the lions claimed victory over the croc. However, the victors soon found themselves losers as the buffalo herd returned, fought off the lions and rescued the calf! 



A whole show was produced by Nat Geo Wild based on this short film!  Here are some key points from the experts in the show:

1. Had the leading buffalo stood its ground, the lions might not have charged because the buffalo had numbers.  By turning and running, the herd immediately became prey.

2. The lions were well positioned nonetheless and attacked from three angles.

3. The lions tried to kill the calf by suffocating it. One lion bit its trachea, another its nostrils, but they did not get the job done.

4. The 600-pound croc battled against four 300-pound lions. Numbers won in this case.

5. The calf's cry prompted the buffalo herd to return. Numbers once again prevailed.

6. If you pay close attention, there was one brave buffalo (far right) that fought off two lions by itself.  It chased off one and threw another five feet in the air with its deadly horns.

This is nature at its best, and all caught on tape by an amateur!


-PTS

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Canberra Deep Space Communication Complex

Happy New Year! This is my first post in 2010, after a brief hiatus celebrating year end festivities. Apart from watching the magnificent NYE fireworks in Sydney, I managed to do some sightseeing in Canberra and stumbled into the Canberra Deep Space Communication Complex (CDSCC). This place was a godsend as I have always had a deep obsession in astronomy.

The CDSCC is part of NASA's Deep Space Network (DSN) and only one of three facilities around the world. The other two are in Goldstone, California and Madrid, Spain. There are four giant radio antennas in this complex.  Each are referred to by a "Deep Space Station" or DSS number. These "dishes" are enormous. The largest one, DSS-43, is 70m in diameter, and is a whopping 23 stories tall when standing on one end. It is the biggest of its kind in the Southern Hemisphere. Owing to high security, i.e. fences,  I could not get a close-up shot to do its monstrous size justice.

Operating 24/7, the antennas provide two-way communication with unmanned spacecrafts and space telescopes exploring the planets, moons, comets and other stellar objects throughout the solar system. Think of them as the central post office between various mission sites on Earth and the spacecrafts in orbit. Mission scientists on Earth route packets of data, such as course correction commands and software updates to these antennas for upload. Received data include vehicle health and position, plus images and data collected by science instruments aboard the vehicles. These antennas are ultra sensitive. Transfer ranges can be up to billions of kilometres from Earth. In fact, they can detect signals 20 billion times weaker than a watch battery. Go figure!

Within the complex, there is a small visitor centre that is free to the public. In there, you can find information on past space exploration missions and interesting facts about the planets in our solar system. The crown jewel exhibit is a moon rock sample, extracted during the Apollo 11 mission.  Carbon dating puts this rock at over 3.5 billion years old.

This place is a must-see if you are into astronomy and space exploration. I found the half hour drive from downtown Canberra relaxing and scenic as well. Have you been there before? And what did you think of it?


-PTS