Science-Flavored Culture: Grounded, Tomorrowland, And More

This weekend marks the wide release in the U.S. of Tomorrowland, the second live-action feature directed by Brad Bird (perhaps best known for the animated film The Iron Giant).  Clips of the film as well as early reviews suggest the film will tangle with the retreat from the 1960s-style optimism about the future that is reflected in the namesake portion of the Disney theme parks.  I’ll likely have a #scifiscipol post about the film once I see it.

I’ve already posted about the film Good Kill, which stars Ethan Hawke as a fighter pilot trying to adjust to a life flying drones from half a world away.  There’s a play, Grounded, covering the same kind of journey taken by a female pilot.  Anne Hathaway currently stars in a production of the play ending this Sunday.

The fourth episode of Science Goes to the Movies is now online.  It’s picks up where episode three leaves off, with hosts Heather Berlin and Faith Salie continuing their film conversation with Neil deGrasse Tyson.  Films featured in this episode include Kingsman: The Secret Service and the documentary Particle Fever. 

Neal Stephenson just released his latest book, Seveneves, an epic that starts with the destruction of the moon.  You can read the first several pages online, but the story unfolds over five thousand years as the absence of the moon prompts civilization-changing acts.

It’s Not Just About The Bees

Earlier this week a U.S. government Task Force released a Strategy to Promote the Health of Honey Bees and Other Pollinators.  The strategy was requested by Presidential Memorandum last year and the task force is led by the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Agriculture.

The major goals of the strategy are:

  1. Reduce honey bee colony losses to economically sustainable levels (no more than 15%) within 10 years;
  2. Increase monarch butterfly numbers to protect the annual migration (225 million in the Eastern population by 2020); and
  3. Restore or enhance millions of acres of land for pollinators through combined public and private action (7 million within 5 years).

Accompanying the strategy is a Pollinator Research Action Plan, which has ten subject areas and five main action areas.  Those action areas are:

Establishing a baseline – Researchers would establish numbers and conditions for existing populations of pollinators, the better to understand what influences populations decline and how those populations change.

Assess environmental influences – Here is where researchers would examine the neonicotinoids and other chemicals used that may contribute to population declines.  Such environmental influences include pests, diseases and proper nutrition.

Restoring habitats – A major goal of the strategy, habitat restoration includes the plant species that depend on pollinators.

Understanding and supporting stakeholders – Another way in which this strategy is not all about the bees is its focus on those engaged with pollinators and the crops that rely on them.  It’s another reason economics are one of the subject areas of emphasis in the research action plan.

Curating and sharing knowledge – This area covers how the processes of research and data collection could or should be standardized to make it easier to communicate this research to other countries and to researchers in other fields.

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NASA And ESA To Conduct Asteroid Deflection Missions

Please keep your Michael Bay/Bruce Willis/Ben Affleck jokes to the comments, okay?

Both NASA and the European Space Agency will conduct missions to test the ability to deflect an asteroid off its path (H/T The Mary Sue, Blastr and  The joint effort is called the Asteroid Impact and Deflection Assessment (AIDA) mission.

The ESA component, the Asteroid Impact Mission, would launch in 2020 toward the binary asteroid system 65803 Didymos.  This is an Apollo asteroid, meaning it is close to Earth, not venturing out further than the orbit of Mars.  The AIM would leave a lander on the smaller asteroid, and position itself so to maximize observations of the Didymos system.  NASA would launch the Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) craft in 2021, and on arrival at the Didymos system, it would impact the smaller asteroid.  AIM would then observe the changes on the smaller asteroid and the system as a whole.  The measurements taken by AIM should help determine the necessary force to deflect an asteroid of a known mass by a particular amount.

The impact is scheduled for 2022.

Not All Scientists Are Opposed To GMO Labeling

ScienceInsider reported yesterday that scientists in Germany are calling for labeling of genetically modified organisms (GMO).  The petition (which should be online any time now) goes beyond labeling for GMOs in food, to include such organisms in feed, drugs, textiles, chemicals, and other products that have been produced using genetic engineering.  Should the petition receive enough signatures by a certain time, the German Bundestag would have to consider the proposal.

I remain skeptical that the no-label position regarding GMO’s is the right move, so I welcome this petition effort.  Opposing labeling makes it look like there’s something to hide, which feeds into GMO opponents’ argument that the development and use of GMO’s has been deceptive in some fashion.  It also strikes me as anti-democratic and anti-transparency.  And while those might not be value positions linked to science, they are important values in policy decisions (the current debates over the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement suffer from a similar challenge since the text of the agreement is not widely available).

Arguably the pro-GMO side has won, given the prevalence of these organisms in many items.  But the effort to prevent labeling has the potential to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.  Maybe the German scientists are onto something.

Science and Technology Guests on Late Night, Week of May 18

Tonight’s episode of StarTalk focuses on science and religion.  The interview guest is Richard Dawkins, and Neil deGrasse Tyson is joined at the Rose Center with comedian Eugene Mirman and Father James Martin.  Martin is a Jesuit priest and author who you might remember from his multitude of appearances on The Colbert Report.  (While I know Stephen Colbert will be hosting The Late Show as himself, I’d be surprised if Father Martin didn’t make an appearance.)

Speaking of The Late Show, David Letterman ends his hosting tenure on Wednesday.  What will happen on that last show has been kept under wraps, so it’s possible you might see clips of past science or technology themed guests (such as the kid scientists Letterman often hosted).  Stephen Colbert will take the desk at The Late Show in September.

With the Memorial Day holiday coming this weekend, some shows are in repeats this week (and others will be in repeats next week).  Regrettably, there are no chances this week to catch up on any science and technology content you may have missed the first time.

Conan provides the biggest guest of the week, Clio Cresswell.  She is a mathematician and is on tonight due to her 2004 book, Mathematics and Sex.  A very distant second is a Friday appearance on The Talk by the show’s technology reporter/correspondent Chi-Lan Lieu.

NASA Needs To Print Its Shelters

During the Bay Area Maker Faire this weekend NASA and America Makes announced a new Centennial Challenge.  The 3D Printed Habitat Challenge asks competitors to develop 3D printing solutions that can help construct off-Earth habitat using materials either found at the site, reused from the mission, or some combination.  Put another way, NASA would like to build a habitat without having to haul the building materials from Earth.

There has been some 3D printing done in space, but this challenge would require printing on a much larger scale.  There are three phases to this challenge: Design, Structural Member and On-Site Habitat.  For now, the focus is on the Design phase.

Interested parties have until July 15 to submit their registration package, which includes an architectural sketch of the proposed habitat and description of the construction approach.  Each submission will be evaluated by a jury and those selected to continue will have to send in a full architectural design concept.  Teams might as well have the full concept ready, as the deadline for those will be August 3, not long after the registration packages are due.  Judges will select 30 entries for final review and judging at the New York Maker Faire, held September 26-27.

For more details on the design phase of the challenge, including rules and registration requirements, consult the Challenge website.  Details on the other two phases of the challenge will not likely be available until the registration opens for those competitions in late September.  While top prize in the design phase is $50,000, top prize in the other phases is $1.1 million.

Coming Attractions: Slingshot, Seeds of Time, Good Kill

I’ve discussed the recently released robot films already, but there are a few movies coming soon with science or technology themes worth your attention.

The Slingshot documentary, focusing on the water purification device developed by Dean Kamen, should see a limited release sometime in July.  More details (and dates for other screenings) are available on the film’s website.

Another documentary coming soon focuses on the Svalbard Global Seed Vault (H/T ScienceInsider).  Seeds of Time will be released in New York and Los Angeles later this month.  It tracks the efforts of Cary Fowler as he works with the Global Crop Diversity Trust to solidify and secure seed stocks for the global seed vault.

The fictional entry in this list is Good Kill, which opened in the U.S. this weekend.  The film follows drone operators in the United States as they deal with the fighting they are conducting overseas.  It stars Ethan Hawke and is directed by Andrew Niccol, who also directed the film Gattaca about a future society where genetics determines social standing (among other things).