Weird Ways Science Is Screwed
Science is all about solving problems. How did we get here? How does that thing work? How many of those can I eat before dying? Except there are some problems that science isn't capable of solving, namely because they're problems with science itself ...
The Svalbard Seed Vault is Screwed
Situated amid the arctic tundra, there's a vault whose contents hold the key to surviving the apocalypse. Guns? Canned goods? Toilet paper? Please, God, let it be toilet paper. No, no, and no. It's seeds. To be precise, the vault holds nearly a million seeds and grains, comprising 6,000+ species taken from all over the world -- so that if/when the end comes, we can revert back to being agriculturists like our prehistoric ancestors, albeit without the dinosaurs.
In the years since this vault opened, however, the apocalypse has gone from being a fun thought exercise involving out-of-control nanomachines and supervolcanoes to something that's staring us directly in the face. On the plus side, all those seeds, right?
Um, no, actually. As it turns out, the seed vault isn't an impenetrable, indestructible fortress of solitude. Thanks to climate change, the permafrost on the island peninsula where the vault is located, is melting at an accelerated rate that scientists never could've predicted. It's this permafrost that, along with the vault's air conditioning system, helps to keep the seeds in stasis for when we need them.
"Couldn't they put in a bigger air conditioning unit?" Maybe, but that's not going to help much in the long-term. The loss of the surrounding snow, ice, and permafrost could also cause the vault to become structurally unstable, as has already happened to several nearby houses and structures, which have started to wobble as the icy bedrock which they're anchored to has begun to melt.
And the vault is melting, by the way. In 2017, melted permafrost water flooded the main entryway into the vault, which damaged a bunch of electrical equipment and forced renovations totaling a cool (literally) $13 million. The seeds were safe the whole time because they're secured behind a secondary vault door, but that shit is still concerning considering at the current rate, Svalbard is going to be between seven and ten degrees hotter by 2100.
Put it this way; don't get too attached to carbs.
No-One Can Agree On What To Do With the Last Remaining Samples of Smallpox
On May 8, 1980, the 33rd World Health Assembly stood before the world and announced that smallpox -- a disease that has plagued humanity since 10,000 BC -- had been curb-stomped out of existence.
This was a bit of a half-truth. Although there hasn't been an outbreak of smallpox since 1980 (*touches wood*), the World Health Organization arranged for two samples of the virus to be kept behind, in case we ever needed them. For additional security, the vials were then split between the U.S. and Russia, where they remain to this day -- in Atlanta, and Novosibirsk Oblast, respectively.
That was nearly forty years ago, and to put it lightly, everyone is starting to wonder when the WHO is going to hang up their letterman jacket, stop clinging to the past, and incinerate those samples before something bad happens. In 1999, see, the WHO formed an advisory committee to oversee the samples, approve/reject research proposals involving them and, ultimately, make the call on when to pull the plug, something that it has steadfastly refused to do.
The thing is, though, there isn't a clear-cut answer to this dilemma.
The argument made by the WHO (and a large contingent of scientists) is that keeping the samples enables scientists to research vaccines and other treatments that may help us if smallpox ever decides to make a reappearance, which is a fair point seeing as how, several years ago, researchers found previously-unknown vials of live smallpox sitting in someone's office -- and besides, we've been trying to get rid of ebola for the last umpteen years. No matter what we do, it keeps coming back.
To sum up, then, getting rid of the samples may leave us defenseless in the face of a future smallpox pandemic. That sounds pretty convincing, to be honest, it's hard to see how the doubters are going to come back from that one.
On the flip side, just as many scientists and authorities have argued that there's no research nowadays that can't be done on gene fragments that have been sequenced from the live virus, as well as other strains like monkeypox -- and that by keeping the samples around, we're only increasing the likelihood that the virus might accidentally (or intentionally) be released, which is a fair point seeing as last year, the facility holding one of these samples was hit by a gas explosion. The virus was never in danger of being released, but that's not exactly reassuring, is it?
Us, though? We write fart jokes for a living; this is waaaay above our pay grade. Considering that by some estimates, smallpox has killed more than any other disease in the history of the world, we really don't mind if they take their time to really think it through. We're in the process of getting fucked by one pandemic; we really don't need another.
Scientists Are Having Their Research Hijacked by Racists
Whenever a new scientific discovery happens, the universe makes a coin flip. Heads, the discovery changes the world for the better; tails, the worse.
No discipline encapsulates this lottery better than genetics, which of late, has made great strides towards answering the big questions about how the human race developed ... While at the same time, it accidentally emboldened white supremacists and gave them a bunch of new memes with which they can turn disaffected dipshits onto their cause.
In recent years, for instance, white supremacists have begun to adopt milk as their official drink -- beating out Kristall Pepsi and White Power Claw.
While some of these folks are definitely trolls, there's a hardcore contingent who have because several years ago, a study found that the genetic trait that allows humans to digest lactose (a key ingredient of milk) is more common in white people than other races. The white supremacist movement is so hollowed-out at this point that "white people can drink milk better than other races" is considered a win.
On the face of it, this points towards the need for scientists to start engaging directly with these idiots and debunking their arguments before they can gain traction, but shock horror that doesn't work. Remember that study about milk? You should; it was only three sentences ago. It didn't find that only white people can drink milk, just that they can drink it slightly better than other races. That kind of nuance doesn't make for a dank meme, however, so it becomes "only white people can drink milk." You can't shut down people who deliberately misrepresent scientific research with appeals to logic and reason because if they valued those things, they wouldn't be misrepresenting the science, would they?
Elon Musk's Satellites Have Kinda Ruined Astronomy (And It's Only Going to Get Worse)
In November 2019, astronomers were observing the Magellanic Clouds when suddenly, the sky started falling -- or at least, that's how it looked. Was it comets? Was it aliens? Was it comet-riding aliens? No, it was Elon Musk fucking up their livelihoods.
As CEO of SpaceX, one of Musk's biggest projects is Starlink, a series of privately-owned satellites that, one day, will be able to provide internet access to people all over the world. The only hurdle, however, is that achieving this requires flooding the sky with satellites -- which Musk and SpaceX have been doing with gusto lately, firing up dozens (sometimes as many as 60) at a time.
While that might be great for people who like the internet, however, it's not so great for the astronomers who are now having to deal with Musk's satellites interrupting their stargazing and, more importantly, destroying their observations.
Thanks to how these satellites are designed as well as the low altitude they fly at, these satellites reflect a lot of light -- so much so that estimates suggest they're brighter than 90 percent of all other objects in orbit around our planet. When these satellites fly over telescopes, the amount of light they're reflecting back can and does, cause photographs taken by these telescopes to be massively overexposed -- or as one astronomer put it, "like trying to see a firefly in the vicinity of the sun."
On the surface, the solution is simple: just don't observe space at the same time these satellites are passing over. That's a neat idea, but A) they were there first, and B) that's going to become impossible as space gets more and more industrialized. Even if the impossible happens and Musk stops being the dumbest smart person, a whole host of telecommunications companies -- as well as Amazon -- are also planning to fill the skies with their own satellites.
If these companies get what they want, we're looking at a scenario where there are 50,000 private satellites in low-orbit around the planet. As Caitlin Casey puts it, "The fact that one person, or one company, can take control and completely transform humans' experience of the night sky, and not just humans, but every organism on Earth ... that seems profoundly wrong."
And you know? She's right. But that's capitalism, baby!
Top image: Johan Swanepoel/Shutterstock