Friday, July 25, 2014
Day one construction on shipping-container apartments is mostly 'smooth
The 400-ton crane was all set, tucked between three sets of hanging
wires, two houses and a cantaloupe plant with a small hanging melon,
and John Creese was edgy.
"The first one's the only one that worries me. There will be a
learning curve," said Creese, who was helping orchestrate
Washington's heavy-machinery take on a barn raising Monday.
A dozen workers, including crane operator Ed Kane, had come from
Georgia and California and Baltimore to build a three-story
apartment building made of shipping containers--in three days or
Just before Kane lifted the first slate-blue container from the back
of a flatbed, Creese laid out the task: "He's got to pick it up,
swing it over the houses and drop it right where it goes. Hopefully,
it's nice and smooth and easy."
Creese leapt up on the corrugated-steel box to hook cables to the
container's corners, then climbed down and headed for a set of steel
and concrete columns jutting up where an old group house once stood.
Workmen swarm shipping containers being moved into place at a lot in
Northeast Washington to make a three story apartment building. (Bill
O'Leary/The Washington Post)
A young group of friends who met at neighboring Catholic University,
and an architect who teaches there, tore the place down earlier this
year to make way for an eye-catching steel, glass and translucent
plastic replacement that is supposed to glow like a light box. In a
city of soaring rents, their experiment in lower-cost, faster-moving
construction could lead to more affordable housing and, backers
hope, even a floating village of sea-container apartments on the
Creese's dad, Bill, has been working on containers in Baltimore for
more than 30 years, and oversaw the work slicing tall windows and
other openings in the 18 containers that will be stacked at Seventh
Street NE near where the District's Brookland and Edgewood
On Monday, John Creese and his brother Larry eyed the first
container as it was hoisted toward the sky, swept high over a pair
of neighboring homes and came toward its new foundation. Kane's
goal: "Just keep clearing the lines and stay away from houses."
As he lowered it to 100, then 50, then 20 feet, Kane's view was
blocked by a neighboring house and he had to work blind.
The Creese brothers grabbed a pair of ropes tied to the bottom of
the container and guided it toward 7-by-7-inch targets on a pair of
columns and reinforced walls.
Dan Gill, a second crane operator equipped with only a radio, stood
by and guided Kane through each gentle step. He was Kane's eyes.
"One end touched down," Gill told his partner. Then, repeating a
mantra that slowed with each word, Gill said: "Cabling down eeaazzy.
Cabling down eeaazzy."
The Creese brothers used the rope, and their hands, to nudge the
8-by-40 foot box into place. "I just barely touched it and it slid
right where it's supposed to be," Larry Creese said.
But it was still a hair off, and it had to be moved again. It was
too heavy to push--or sledgehammer--into place.
"I didn't eat no spinach this morning," John Creese said. "What do
you think, I'm Popeye the sailor man?"
Up again, then: "Cabling down, cabling down. Stop!" Gill said.
And there it was, all four corners, without the slightest clank or
thud. Just down.
"It's perfect," John Creese said.
The next five went easier, and they kept sliding one box beside the
They were planning to do six a day for two more days. But if they
can get the trucks coming in fast enough, they're going to try to
stack up the remaining 12 on Tuesday.
"We don't have to try to align everything together on the
foundation," Creese said. Instead, they can click them together,
Lego-style, with the same automatic locks that keep containers
stable on ships headed for America's shores.
They'll be "welded to the foundation, bolted together, twist-locked
together, then we'll also weld them together," Creese said. "When
it's done it will essentially be one building. They'll be joined
together in so many places there will be no possible movement."
Mike Laris came to Post by way of Los Angeles and Beijing. He's
written about the world's greatest holstein bull, earth's biggest
pork producer, home builders, the homeless, steel workers and
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Shipping container apartment being erected in Washington this week
They are the building blocks of the global economy, 20 million big
steel boxes sloshing across oceans on mammoth container ships.
Starting Monday, the first of 18 dented outcasts are set to be
stacked in a dug-out District basement, turning a deteriorating
student group house into an experiment in creating eye-catching
housing fast and on the cheap.
Among the questions raised by the effort: Can hundreds of thousands
of discarded sea containers, long talked up by designers, really
help create more affordable housing, or is it mostly a gimmick? And
just how do you bring humanity to the confines of an 8-by-40-foot
If the economics work and people actually enjoy living in lovingly
repurposed steel husks, the architects on the project have bigger
dreams, including floating hundreds of sea container apartments on a
barge in the Potomac and creating a homeless village on the river to
First, though, things have to go smoothly this week in a booming
swath of the District just down the street from Catholic University,
where theology graduate and former fullback Matthew Grace, 31, and
his business partner and Cardinals teammate Sean Joiner, 31, are
living with the anxiety-inducing results of a decision they made on
a snowy day last winter.
Instead of fixing up the aging rental house they bought in 2009 as
moonlighting real estate investors, they tore it down.
"There's not a lot of going back from that," Joiner said.
"You go from something you can rent to a big hole," Grace said.
For years, the young real estate entrepreneurs had been tapping the
architectural mind of Grace's fiancee for free: wall colors,
building materials, general notions about design. Grace had met
Kelly Davies at Catholic and traveled with her and architecture
lecturer Travis Price, to Ireland, where Price had taken students on
a design expedition he started decades ago.
"We were building monuments, and we needed hands," said Davies, who
is now at Price's firm.
Watching her work has helped Grace see the beauty in
independent-minded modern architecture.
"You ever read 'The Fountainhead'?" Grace asked, referring to the
Ayn Rand novel about a rebellious architect's fight against
conformists. Price and Davies could be the protagonists. "They're
like the Howard Roark guys," Grace said.
The 3300 block of Seventh Street NE will soon be home to a building
made of retired shipping containers. ( Bill O'Leary / The Washington
Grace and Joiner had tried getting into real estate back when they
were roommates at Catholic. But it wasn't until the easy-credit
housing boom of the mid-2000s that they bought their first rowhouse
on Capitol Hill.
They lived together in the basement, fixed it up and rented out the
upstairs, and slowly pieced together a half-dozen properties, which
they manage when they're not working their day jobs at a Bethesda
As landlords, they've rented to Catholic's football players and
other students, young professionals and others trying to keep up
with soaring District rents, they said. They have tried to keep
their costs low and have avoided being too ambitious in their
But problems with the foundation at their house on Seventh Street
NE, just down from the university and a towering new development at
the Brookland Metro station, left cracked walls, and they needed to
do something big.
They decided to hire Davies and her boss.
As Price sketched ideas and cost estimates for remaking the house,
"I was like, 'Stop what you're doing. What is that number?' " Grace
recalled. They couldn't afford it.
Then "Travis kind of sits back from the table and says, 'How about
we do it with shipping containers?' "
They thought it was crazy.
Then they didn't.
"I wanted to do this since I was in college myself," Price said last
In the '70s, as he pondered the question of "how to solve mass
housing," Price proposed building a 10-story steel frame for holding
sea container homes--"like a kind of 'Blade Runner' look," he
said. It was supposed to be "plug-and-play," meaning a family could
detach the utilities and move. "You're in a new city in your same
house," Price said.
He ended up putting the idea aside in favor of what he thought was a
better one: building a "passive solar house," which used sunlight
and shade to light, heat and partially cool the space inside.
Now, he's reached back into what he calls his "spiritual backpack"
with a chance to figure out if building a sea container apartment
really makes sense. While designers around the world have crafted
creative dwellings out of containers in recent years, Price's
clients have balked once they have seen the cost of the radical
modifications they expect in the simple rectangular structures.
Here, though, "we're actually using those existing units, and we're
not violating them dramatically," Price said. "That makes the
difference. You cut and paste. We could be a lot more theatrical,
but then you pay."
Some longtime Brookland residents view the coming sea container
house as part of a broader rush of development that has violated
A couple of houses down, Ewan Brown is feeling surrounded. Since he
arrived in 1990, a stream of neighbors have sold their properties to
developers or rented out their homes to students. As a huge new
apartment complex went up kitty-cornered from him, he felt the
rumble of jackhammers, and more is coming.
"My house shakes. I feel powerless and useless," Brown said. "You
want to live in peace with your neighbors, but they're not living in
peace with me."
Living in a container home has no appeal to him. He just wants to
tend his tomatoes. When the next big development goes up across the
street, "I know I'll have to leave," he said.
For Davies and the others behind the SeaUA project--a play on CUA,
the abbreviation for Catholic University of America--the container
apartment is a chance to make a beautiful and practical improvement
to the neighborhood.
Davies and Grace met in Brookland, and Grace has a home there. The
questions they ask themselves, Joiner said, are: Would we live here?
And would we want our sister to live here? "It's almost like the
golden rule," Joiner said.
Davies, the project architect, can sound euphoric describing what
they've done to try to bring the rusted boxes to life. The container
doors will be welded open, to create shade fins, and replaced by
windows that stretch nearly nine feet from floor to ceiling. Another
full-length window will sit opposite a mirrored wardrobe in each
"It's going to make the container feel like it's not this long
corridor. It's a full explosion into the outdoors," said Davies, 28.
Workers in Baltimore cut steel panels from the containers so there
will be open space for a kitchen and living room when the containers
are pushed together.
The containers will be on three levels, six containers per level,
with a cellar unit. Each of the four floors is designed as a single
apartment, each with six bedrooms and six bathrooms.
Walls to the outside from the main living areas will be made of a
kind of translucent plastic that's used for greenhouses. A stair
tower and addition will be covered with the same Polygal material.
"It's like a giant night light," Davies said.
The containers will have sound and heat insulation, birch plywood
walls and the original marine-grade plywood floors that once carried
cheap goods to American shores.
Older containers can sell for $2,000, though project backers won't
say how much they're spending overall or charging for rent. The
apartments are open to all but are being grabbed up by students from
Catholic because of the convenience, Price said, and most of the
units are spoken for.
"We budgeted a target that was very low compared to conventional
construction, and we're hitting it," Price said. If they stay on
pace, more radical things are possible, he said.
Small successes can beget bigger ones, Price said, just as the
little solar house he built in the '70s was followed by a
million-square-foot version in Tennessee years later.
Price is searching for land along the Potomac for his next dream
project: a multistory sea-container apartment complex floating on a
massive barge connected to the land by a bridge.
"Sort of Sausalito meets Holland meets D.C., maybe down by the
Nats," Price said. "It's sort of like Watergate for the masses, on
City officials were noncommittal, saying that such ideas are
fascinating but that they'd need to know more.
"When we're presented with these kinds of questions, the first thing
we're going to do is see if the code will allow them," said Matt
Orlins, spokesman for the city's Department of Consumer and
After the containers are welded together this week, the remaining
construction is scheduled to be completed by the end of August.
It's an iron deadline.
"It's more than a want. It's a 'better be' on my end," Davies said.
Grace and Davies are getting married in September and riding a
Harley across the country for their honeymoon before flying back the
day before Joiner's wedding.
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By PETER ANDREY SMITH
Sweet, salty, sour and bitter--every schoolchild knows these are
the building blocks of taste. Our delight in every scrumptious
bonbon, every sizzling hot dog, derives in part from the tongue's
ability to recognize and signal just four types of taste.
But are there really just four? Over the last decade, research
challenging the notion has been piling up. Today, savory, also
called umami, is widely recognized as a basic taste, the fifth. And
now other candidates, perhaps as many as 10 or 20, are jockeying for
entry into this exclusive club.
"What started off as a challenge to the pantheon of basic tastes has
now opened up, so that the whole question is whether taste is even
limited to a very small number of primaries," said Richard D.
Mattes, a professor of nutrition science at Purdue University.
Taste plays an intrinsic role as a chemical-sensing system for
helping us find what is nutritious (stimulatory) and as a defense
against what is poison (aversive). When we put food in our mouths,
chemicals slip over taste buds planted into the tongue and palate.
As they respond, we are thrilled or repulsed by what we're eating.
But the body's reaction may not always be a conscious one. In the
late 1980s, in a windowless laboratory at Brooklyn College, the
psychologist Anthony Sclafani was investigating the attractive power
of sweets. His lab rats loved Polycose, a maltodextrin powder, even
preferring it to sugar.
That was puzzling for two reasons: Maltodextrin is rarely found in
plants that rats might feed on naturally, and when human subjects
tried it, the stuff had no obvious taste.
More than a decade later, a team of exercise scientists discovered
that maltodextrin improved athletic performance--even when the
tasteless additive was swished around in the mouth and spit back
out. Our tongues report nothing; our brains, it seems, sense the
"Maybe people have a taste for Polycose," Dr. Sclafani said. "They
just don't recognize it consciously, which is quite an intriguing
Dr. Sclafani and others are finding evidence that taste receptors on
the tongue are also present throughout the intestine, perhaps
serving as a kind of unconscious guide to our behavior. These
receptors influence the release of hormones that help regulate food
intake, and may offer new targets for diabetes treatments, Dr.
Many tastes are consciously recognized, however, and they are
distinguished by having dedicated sets of receptor cells. Fifteen
years ago, molecular biologists began figuring out which of these
cells in the mouth elicit bitter and sweet tastes.
By "knocking out" the genes that encode for sweet receptors, they
produced mice that appeared less likely to lap from sweet-tasting
bottles. Eventually, the putative receptors for salty and sour also
In 2002, though, as taste receptors were identified, the evidence
largely confirmed the existence of one that scientist had been
arguing about for years: savory.
Umami is subtle, but it is generally described as the rich, meaty
taste associated with chicken broth, cured meats, fish, cheeses,
mushrooms, cooked tomatoes and seaweed. Some experts believe it may
have evolved as an imperfect surrogate for detecting protein.
Since then, researchers have proposed new receptor cells on the
tongue for detecting calcium, water and carbonation. The growing
list of putative tastes now includes soapiness, lysine, electric,
alkaline, hydroxide and metallic.
"The taste field has been absolutely revolutionized," said Michael
Tordoff, a biologist at the Monell Chemical Senses Center. "We've
made more progress in the last 15 years than in the previous 100."
One candidate for the next basic taste appears to have emerged as
the front-runner: fattiness. The idea has been around for a while,
and many scientists thought it was not a specific taste, more like a
texture or an aroma.
But researchers recently identified two taste receptors for
unsaturated fats on the tongue. And fat evokes a physiological
response, Dr. Mattes has found that blood levels of fat rise when we
put dietary fat in our mouths, even without swallowing or digesting
Hours after a meal, the taste of fatty acids alone can elevate
triglyceride levels, even when the nose is plugged. But fat, like
umami, does not have a clear, perceptible sensation, and it is hard
to distinguish a texture from a taste.
Dr. Mattes says that fat may have a texture that we like (rich and
gooey) and a taste that we don't (rancid).
If so, the taste may serve as part of our sensory alert system. When
food spoils, he notes, it often contains high levels of fatty acids,
and the taste of them may be "a warning signal."
Although there is still no consensus beyond sweet, salty, sour,
bitter and savory, the research makes clear there is more to taste
than a handful of discrete sensations on the tongue. Before long,
scientists may have to give up altogether on the idea that there are
just a few basic tastes.
"If you're talking three, four, five, six, you can still call it a
pretty exclusive club," Dr. Mattes said. "If you start getting
beyond that, is the concept really useful?"
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many analysts believe potential catastrophes were averted due to the pro-active action from governments, corporations and individual consumers (U.S. Senate, 2000),
Special Committee on the Year 2000 Technology Problem. 2000. Y2K Aftermath – Crisis Averted: Final Committee Report. February 2000. U.S. Senate.
Although the necessity and economic effects of pre-Y2K investments in information technology modernization remain controversial, some subsequent economic and productivity gains were probably accrued (Kliesen, 2003).
Kliesen, Kevin L. 2003. "Was Y2K behind the business investment boom and bust?," Review, Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, Jan: 31-42.
Harvey Newstrom <firstname.lastname@example.org> , 14/7/2014 5:08 AM:
So imagine if these were not fixed and most spreadsheets, credit cards, ATMs, gas-pumps, web pages, home computers, and networking equipment all quit working on the same day. It could have been bad if they were not fixed in advance.
This is what intrigues me. How well can society handle time-correlated, widely distributed but disparate errors? We know that resilience to correlated errors is lower, and supply chains and other extended social infrastructures are vulnerable if there are enough breakages along them. But we also do not know how errors that could look like almost anything would affect the system.
The closest scenario is geomagnetic storms (c.f. http://www.lloyds.com/~/media/lloyds/reports/emerging%20risk%20reports/solar%20storm%20risk%20to%20the%20north%20american%20electric%20grid.pdf and the recent http://arxiv.org/abs/1406.7024 ) or perhaps EMP: one should expect temporally correlated, widely dispersed outages. In the case of EMP there might also be faults in potentially everything with an embedded processor: it is not clear how for example cars or complex systems like airports fare if there appears intermittent faults in a certain fraction of processors.
Spike's point is well taken: a lot of people made a big deal out of it, but went for the big drama model of what could happen. Even if one thinks that is likely, one should assign a higher probability of muddling through a society with hightech friction amped up.
Anders Sandberg, Future of Humanity Institute Philosophy Faculty of Oxford University
By DENNIS OVERBYE
The future, it is often said, belongs to those who plan for it. And
astronomers have been busy working the proverbial smoke-filled rooms
(or whatever passes for them today) where the destiny of big science
is often shaped and crisscrossing one another in airports on
fund-raising trips. Now they are about to have something to show for
More than a decade after competing groups set out to raise money for
gargantuan telescopes that could study planets around distant stars
and tune into the birth of galaxies at the dawn of time, shovels,
pickaxes and more sophisticated tools are now about to go to work on
mountaintops in Hawaii and Chile in what is going to be the
greatest, most expensive and ambitious spree of telescope-making in
the history of astronomy.
If it all plays out as expected and budgeted, astronomers of the
2020s will be swimming in petabytes of data streaming from space and
the ground. Herewith a report card on the future of big-time
Video: The Shadow Universe RevealedJULY 15, 2014
Video: A Galaxy Far, Far Away...Will Hit OursMAY 28, 2014
On June 20, officials from the European Southern Observatory blew
the top off a mountain in northern Chile called Armazones, breaking
ground for what is planned to be the largest, most powerful optical
telescope ever built. Known as the European Extremely Large
Telescope, or E-ELT, it will have a segmented mirror 39 meters
(about 128 feet) in diameter, powerful enough to see planets around
distant stars. By comparison, the largest telescopes now operating
are 10 meters in diameter.
The European Southern Observatory is a consortium of 14 European
nations and Brazil, which has agreed to join but is still waiting
for its Parliament to ratify the move. Brazil's official entrance
would put the group more than 90 percent of the way toward the $1.5
billion in 2012 dollars the telescope is projected to cost, enough
to begin big-ticket items like a dome, said Lars Christensen, a
spokesman for the consortium.
The telescope should be ready on June 19, 2024. "We'll all be back
here," said Tim de Zeeuw, the group's director general, at the
That's not the only mega telescope project out there. Two years ago,
another group of astronomers blasted away the top of another
mountain in Chile, Las Campanas, where they plan to build the Giant
Magellan Telescope. That telescope will have at its heart a set of
seven eight-meter mirrors ganged together to make the equivalent of
a mirror 25 meters in diameter. Three of those mirrors have been
cast and polished at the University of Arizona, one of the Giant
Magellan partners. A fourth mirror is on order for next year.
Wendy Freedman, the director of the Carnegie Observatories, one of
the spearheads of the Magellan collaboration, said by email that
members were now in the final phases of forming a limited liability
corporation, the legal and financial entity that will build and own
the telescope. To date, the group has raised about $500 million of
the $880 million (2012 dollars) needed for their telescope. On
Monday, Dr. Freedman announced that the São Paulo Research
Foundation in Brazil was joining Giant Magellan.
She expects construction to begin later this year. "Our plan is to
be on the air with the first four mirrors taking early science data
in 2021," she said. "So things are continuing to go very well."
In Hawaii, there will be no blasting needed, just some grading with
a bulldozer, on Mauna Kea, where yet another group of astronomers
plans to build a telescope 30 meters in diameter--the simply named
Thirty Meter Telescope--on a plateau just below the nearly
14,000-foot summit. Mauna Kea, the highest peak in the Pacific, is
already home to 12 telescopes, including the twin 10-meter
telescopes at the Keck observatory and a pair of eight-meters,
making it the busiest mountain in astronomy.
It is also a sacred place for Hawaiians, many of whose ancestors
have been buried up there. As a result, it's not so easy gaining
permission to add yet another telescope, said Michael Bolte of the
University of California, Santa Cruz, a co-director of the project,
an international collaboration led by Caltech and the University of
California and now doing business as Thirty Meter Telescope
International Observatory LLC.
"I think we're finally free and clear to build on that site," Dr.
Bolte said in an interview, saying they had chosen an unobtrusive
spot for the telescope. He expects to begin grading a road to the
site this summer as soon as the project clears its last hurdle with
the Hawaiian authorities.
The Thirty Meter Telescope will cost $1.2 billion in those same 2012
dollars. By early next year, when India and Canada are expected to
become full members of the corporation, Dr. Bolte said, they will
have 85 percent of the money needed; they are still looking for more
partners. A grand groundbreaking ceremony is being scheduled for
"It's a crazy science," Dr. Bolte said, ticking off the names of
historical benefactors of astronomy and telescope financiers, "that
facilities at the forefront tend to be built with private money,"
something that rarely happens in, say, physics.
Big Mirrors, Big Views
Hale reflector on Palomar Mountain, in San Diego County, was
considered the practical earthly limit, but in the 1980s,
astronomers devised ways to build bigger, thinner, mirrors that
would not sag, leading to a bevy of eight-meter mirrors as well as
the two 10-meter Kecks. The Magellan, the smallest of the new breed,
however, will be six times as powerful as the Kecks in scooping up
distant dim starlight; the others will be even more powerful.
Northern Chile is dry and high, with little light pollution. The
area already bristles with telescopes, and more are under
The Hubble Space Telescope is only 94 inches, about 2.4 meters in
diameter. It gains its power not from size but from being above the
atmosphere, which blurs and filters the light from stars.
Increasing their powers even more, the new telescopes will be
equipped with a technology that did not exist the last time around:
adaptive optics, the ability to adjust the shape of the mirrors to
minimize or cancel the effects of the atmospheric turbulence that
causes stars to twinkle. The result, astronomers say, is that these
telescopes will be able to detect fainter objects than Hubble can,
like planets or bits of galaxies coming together, and more clearly.
A Boom in Chile
The inauguration of these new telescopes, early in the next decade,
will further enshrine the Atacama Desert in Chile, which is
bone-dry, high, dark and blessed with remarkably steady air, as the
center of world astronomy. The region already is home to, among
other observatories, the Atacama Large Millimeter/sub-millimeter
Array, or ALMA, an international project that is the world's most
expensive radio telescope, and the European Southern Observatory's
Very Large Telescope, an array of four eight-meter telescopes near
the site of the coming Extremely Large Telescope.
The whole neighborhood, in fact, is booming. But for red tape,
construction was also supposed to have started this month on the
Large Synoptic Survey Telescope on Pachón Mountain, in, yes, Chile.
That telescope, a joint project of the National Science Foundation
and the Department of Energy, is eight meters in diameter. That
mountain was dynamited back in 2011. The project director, Steve
Kahn of Stanford, said that a news release was already written and
waiting for the moment when the project, officially the LSST
Corporation, receives formal approval from the National Science
Foundation to start spending money.
"I am sure we will get started officially soon, but unfortunately,
this process isn't over until it is over," Dr. Kahn wrote in an
A ceremony for laying the "first stone" is planned for next spring
in Chile, he said.
The National Science Foundation has budgeted $473 million to build
the telescope. The Energy Department is kicking in $165 million for
a 3,200-megapixel camera, which will produce an image of the entire
sky every few days and over 10 years will produce a movie of the
universe, swamping astronomers with data that will enable them to
spot everything that moves or blinks in the heavens, including
asteroids and supernova explosions.
Among the Stars
What about outer space, where the stars actually are?
It was front-page news two years ago when the National
Reconnaissance Office, which operates spy satellites, gave NASA two
space telescopes the same size and design as a Hubble that had been
sitting in a warehouse. Some astronomers, notably the former
astronaut and Hubble repairman John M. Grunsfeld, NASA's associate
administrator for science mission, suggested that one of these could
be used to jump-start a mission to study dark energy.
The National Academy of Sciences had ranked that mission atop the
to-do list for this decade, but it was ambushed by the rising cost
of NASA's James Webb Space Telescope (more on that later).
Partners in Telescope Making
A billion-dollar telescope capable of outperforming Hubble can't be
built by a backyard stargazer or even a single university. The
Thirty Meter Telescope in Hawaii and the Giant Magellan in Chile,
both now on the verge of construction, are the products of
international teams that have pursued their dreams even through a
* Thirty Meter Telescope
Association of Canadian Universities for Research in Astronomy
California Institute of Technology
Department of Science and Technology of India
National Astronomical Observatories of the Chinese Academy of
National Astronomical Observatory of Japan
University of California
* Giant Magellan
Australia Astronomy Limited
Australian National University
Carnegie Institution for Science
Korean Astronomy and Space Science Institute
Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics
Texas A&M University
University of Arizona
University of Chicago
University of Texas at Austin
Sao Paulo Research Foundation
A committee from the academy has recently endorsed the idea of using
the spy telescope, which is 2.4 meters in diameter, for the mission,
instead of the originally envisioned one-meter telescope. The
academy agreed that the bigger telescope would enhance the
scientific returns of the mission, now known as Wfirst-AFTA, for
Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope-Astrophysics Focused Telescope
Assets, but warned that it could increase the cost and complexity.
Congress directed NASA to spend $56 million on the mission in the
last fiscal year, 2014, and the proposed budget for 2015 includes
about $14 million.
If this keeps up, said David Spergel, an astronomer at Princeton who
is involved with the academy and the telescope, the mission could
start as early as 2023, near the time the European Space Agency will
send up its own dark energy probe, known as Euclid. By then, he
said, the mission's name would probably be less of a mouthful. "The
good thing about Wfirst-AFTA," Dr. Spergel wrote in an email, "is
that there is no way that we will keep that name."
Among the possibilities that NASA is studying closely is adding a
coronagraph to the telescope. Coronagraphs are basically opaque
disks that were invented to black the intense light from the sun so
astronomers could study the feathery faint corona of hot gases
streaming outward from it. Exoplanet hunters are eager to deploy
them to look for planets around distant stars. Getting a coronagraph
on the dark energy telescope would be a valuable step toward a
future mission, once known as the Terrestrial Planet Finder and now
known by the placeholder name of New Worlds Telescope, long a dream
of exoplanet hunters, that would be able to study Earthlike planets
for signs of habitability, weather and life.
And then there is the most expensive and high-flying "big eye" of
all, NASA's James Webb Space Telescope, which Nature magazine once
called "the telescope that ate astronomy." Named for a former
administrator of NASA, it is the successor to Hubble (which is still
going strong, thank you), but is almost three times its size, with a
6.5-meter-diameter mirror that will have to fold out like a flower
The Webb telescope was supposed to be launched this year, but was
late and burned past its $5 billion budget like one of NASA's
rockets, devouring money that could have gone toward other projects.
The House Appropriations Committee once voted to cancel it, but the
project was reinstated with a budget cap of $8 billion and a launch
date of 2018.
Since then, no news has basically been good news for Webb. It is
still on track for 2018, NASA says. In July the agency reported that
it had finished testing the framework that will hold the leaves of
the telescope mirror and scientific instruments in place.
Heat and Light
The Webb telescope was built to study the first stars and galaxies
that emerged in the hundred million years or so after the Big Bang,
a missing period in cosmic history. It is therefore designed to
record infrared radiation rather than visible light because objects
at that distance and vintage are flying away from us so fast, by the
rules of the expanding universe, that their light has been
"redshifted" to longer wavelengths.
As it happens, infrared, or heat radiation, is an excellent way to
study planets, which tend to emit more heat than light. Astronomers
have long hoped that spectroscopic observations of an exoplanet
atmosphere might reveal the signatures of life, such as oxygen or
Recently, some astronomers have suggested they might even be able to
see industrial pollution as well, in particular chlorofluorocarbons,
the greenhouse gases that also destroy ozone. Over a few millenniums
of industry, the thinking goes, some of these gases could build up
to levels detectable from far away and stay that way for 50,000
It would be ominous, however, Henry W. Lin, a student at Harvard,
and his colleagues wrote in a paper submitted to The Astrophysical
Journal, if astronomers see the markers of pollution around some
distant planet but no indications of present life. That detection,
they wrote, "might serve as an additional warning to the
'intelligent' life here on Earth about the risks of industrial
pollution." The future belongs to those who plan and care for it.
Last but hardly least is the Hubble Space Telescope, which has been
providing humanity with matchless cosmic postcards from its perch
above the sky ever since it was launched in 1990 and first fixed in
1993. Hubble was last visited and serviced by astronauts--
presumably for the final time--in 2009. Matt Mountain, the
director of the Space Telescope Science Institute, reports that it
is doing well. A recent NASA review concluded, he said in an email,
that "Hubble is operating at or near the highest level of
performance and scientific productivity in its history."
Recent estimates of its orbit suggest that it will re-enter Earth's
atmosphere no earlier than 2027 and will probably stay up well into
the 2030s. Its main instruments are likely to still be working in
2020. That means the Hubble will still be operational when the Webb
telescope goes up in 2018.
"It looks like it," Dr. Mountain said. "We are certainly setting our
planning that way."
* 21 July 2014 by Alun Anderson
Alun Anderson is a consultant for New Scientist
* Book information
* Thinking Big: How the evolution of social life shaped the
human mind by Clive Gamble, John Gowlett and Robin Dunbar
* Published by: Thames & Hudson
* Price: £18.95
* Book information
* Human Evolution: A Pelican introduction by Robin Dunbar
* Published by: Pelican Books
* Price: £5.99
The idea of human as networker is fast replacing the idea of human
as toolmaker in the story of the human brain, claim two new books on
"HELL is other people," goes Jean-Paul Sartre's famous line. It is a
hell that may have created us and our culture, judging by two new
books. They show that the idea that we are defined by our struggles
to deal with our fellow humans is shaking up archaeology and how we
think about the key force driving human evolution.
The first book is Thinking Big by archaeologists Clive Gamble and
John Gowlett and evolutionary psychologist Robin Dunbar. It is the
story of a seven-year project - From Lucy to Language - that
confronted archaeologists with the social brain hypothesis of human
The result is a dramatic demolition of the "stones and bones"
approach to archaeology, which keeps researchers firmly fixed only
on the physical evidence they dig up, and a move towards a grand
look at the evolving human mind. There is "more to humanity than the
bits of chipped bone", write the authors as they seek a framework
for all human psychological traits, from kinship and laughter to
language and ceremony. Old dogma is derided as never moving beyond
"WYSWTW" (What You See is What There Was).
The second book is a solo effort by Dunbar, the key thinker behind
the social brain hypothesis. In Human Evolution, he lays out the big
ideas that the archaeologists later took up. At its heart is the
observation that as brains grew bigger, so did the groups we live
in: bigger brains were built for and by social life. Modern humans
have a cognitive limit of about 150 friends and family (the
well-known "Dunbar's number"). Within that circle are an average of
five "intimates", 15 best friends and 50 good friends. Chimps have
an average community size of 55.
Studies of living, non-human primates show why you might need
bigger brains to live in bigger groups. The more others are
around, the more likely you are to be bullied out of a juicy food
patch or a safe sleeping site. Such stress can be hell, especially
for low-ranking females, who can be driven into infertility. To
cope, primates create cliques of allies which they sustain through
the pleasurable endorphin rush induced by regular mutual grooming.
This solution fails if groups grow bigger, for there is not enough
time for one-on-one attention. Bigger brains are key to developing
smarter ways of dealing with others, the theory goes.
For Dunbar, these included laughter and singing, both great
endorphin-releasers within groups. There was also fire, which gave
light so evenings could be used for cooking and more "social
grooming". Then came language, together with a growing ability to
read others' intentions, which ultimately made it possible to tell
stories, maintain far-flung relationships and use religion to
The Thinking Big archaeologists take from Dunbar the grand
hypothesis that social life drives human change, switching from a
view of "man the toolmaker" to "man the networker". Alongside
that, the proven relationship between brain size,
group size and mental skills makes it possible to estimate the size
of groups our ancestors lived in and their capacity to interact with
A fresh look at the Neanderthals is telling. They dominated Europe
for 250,000 years, much longer than modern humans. They were
skilled hunters, toolmakers and had mastered fire. Their brain
size suggests they lived in groups of about 110 and had the
cognitive skills to understand the feelings of others. That fits
well with archaeological evidence that older and disabled
Neanderthals were cared for: they perhaps knew compassion.
So why did they vanish so fast during a time of changing climate,
when modern humans prospered? It may be that their mental skills
were not quite adequate to maintain relationships beyond immediate
group members, something we can do easily. That may have been
crucial to our success: in hard times, bigger networks can mean
gaining help from distant friends who are still doing well, and who
you'll help in turn. Without that "social storage" of resources,
local extinction may loom. Archaeological evidence again tallies
with the social brain theory: one study shows that 70 per cent of
the raw materials of Neanderthal tools travelled less than 25
kilometres, while 60 per cent of those of contemporaneous humans had
travelled more than 25 kilometres.
The two books fit well together but are very different. Thinking Big
inspires, but much wonderful research is passed over too briefly
amid general argument. An exception is a story from Beeches Pit, a
400,000-year-old site in the east of England. Archaeologists there
painstakingly reassembled the flint flakes struck from a rock in the
process of making a hand axe. Two flakes were found burnt bright
red; they had fallen into a fire just in front of the axe-maker. We
can almost see our ancestors working around what must have been a
communal fire, for no one person could have gathered enough wood to
keep it burning.
Dunbar's solo work, Human Evolution, however, is a must-read. It has
the great strength of showing you the inner workings of an
imaginative mind, while allowing you the freedom to think, and even
to disagree about whether that hellish social pressure really has
given us our distinct cognitive design, along with science and the
* 20 July 2014 by Katia Moskvitch
Katia Moskvitch is a science writer in London
Forget black holes, weirder stuff happens in white ones (Image: Jen
Stark, photograph: Harlan Erskine)
Black holes suck - but do they have mirror twins that blow? A
far-flung space telescope is peering into galactic nuclei to spot
one for the first time
PHYSICS is full of opposites. For every action, there's a reaction;
every positive charge has a negative; every magnetic north pole has
a south pole. Matter's opposite number is antimatter. And for black
holes, meet white holes.
Black holes are notorious objects that suck in everything around
them. Famously, not even light can escape their awesome gravity.
White holes, in contrast, blow out a constant stream of matter and
light - so much so that nothing can enter them. So why have so few
people heard of them?
One reason is that white holes are exotic creatures whose existence
is speculated by theorists, but believed by few because no one has
ever seen one. Now Nikolai Kardashev and his colleagues at the
Astro Space Centre in Moscow are hoping to change that using a vast
radio telescope with a view equivalent to that of a dish 30 times
wider than Earth. They are aiming to identify what lies at the heart
of many galaxies. If they confirm the existence of white holes, they
will cast into doubt our current notion of what lies at the centre
of galaxies - including our own.
It would also be vindication at last for physicist Igor Novikov, who
was the first to theorise their existence in 1964. Back then, black
holes were called frozen stars, and were even less well understood
than they are today. Novikov did what theoretical physicists do when
confronted with situations that are impossible to test in the
laboratory: he used pure reasoning to ask what would happen to a
black hole if time were to flow backwards. His thought
experiment yielded a new kind of object that spewed matter and light
continually: a white hole.
Others ran with the idea. What if a black hole was attached to a
wormhole, a shortcut through space-time that connects two regions of
our universe, or maybe even two different universes? The black hole
would draw in matter, while at the other end of the wormhole there
would be a white hole emitting it.
Many physicists, though, have found the notion of a white hole hard
to swallow. After all, black holes are thought to form when a
massive star collapses under its own gravity; the collapsing matter
results in a singularity at its core. This is the heart of a black
hole, where all physical quantities diverge to infinity and all the
known laws of physics break down.
But in the time-reversed version, "a white hole existed in the past,
and somehow exploded outward", says Novikov. Even he concedes the
fundamental problem: "Researchers accepted that, from a mathematical
and theoretical standpoint, white holes could exist. But there were
questions about how such an object could actually form."
Wormholes offered a way, but there were theoretical problems with
them, too. They seemed to collapse as soon as they formed, shutting
down the white hole too. Novikov himself outlined this instability
problem in the 1970s. A decade later, however, theoretical physicist
Kip Thorne of the California Institute of Technology showed that
wormholes could indeed be stable, which gave the
white hole theory a boost. Even this month, Carlo Rovelli and Hal
Haggard at Aix-Marseille University in France showed that
quantum theory can transform a collapsing black hole into an
expanding white hole.
Perhaps the fact that we have found no signs of a white hole,
despite peering ever deeper into space, is a more fundamental
problem. Enter a space telescope called RadioAstron whose wildly
elongated orbit takes it out to a distance of 350,000 kilometres -
nearly as far as the moon and 30 times wider than Earth's diameter.
Launched from Kazakhstan's Baikonur Cosmodrome in 2011, its dish
is only 10 metres across. But when its signals are combined with
those from radio telescopes on Earth, the resulting images are as
sharp as those from a dish 350,000 kilometres wide.
Right now, RadioAstron's resolution is 20 times better than that of
any telescope on the ground. It is so good that it can pick out
objects covering an angle of 27 microarcseconds - the size a snooker
ball would appear on the moon as viewed from Earth. Kardashev and
his colleagues have used RadioAstron to survey 100 active galactic
nuclei, the compact regions at the centre of galaxies that are much
brighter than expected. Many astronomers think that these owe their
brilliance to supermassive black holes. As the black hole sucks in
gas, the unlucky matter is sent swirling around and gets hot enough
to sparkle before plunging into oblivion.
But could some of these dazzling displays instead be due to matter
and light streaming out of a supermassive white hole? Novikov thinks
so: "Certain active galactic nuclei are not black holes, as most
researchers suggest, but exist in the form of white holes, linking
our universe to another universe."
If RadioAstron can make a detailed enough image, then it should be
easy to tell black holes and white holes apart, says Kardashev. "If
it's a black hole, then in the middle there should be a dark spot on
the image," he says. "And if it's a white hole, then there should be
a bright spot in the centre."
But perhaps the reason we haven't seen a white hole is that we've
been looking in the wrong place at the wrong time. Alon Retter, an
astrophysicist who now works for Israel Aerospace Industries in Tel
Aviv, thinks so. What's more he believes that we may already
have caught one flickering into existence.
In 2006, NASA's Swift satellite detected a gamma-ray burst
called GRB 060614. Such bursts are usually associated with
supernovae or regions of high star formation, but GRB 060614 was
neither. Retter believes that it may instead have been a white hole.
He argues that white holes will appear as temporary flashes, rather
than shining continuously, because all that matter and light coming
out will collapse under its own gravity into a black hole.
Kardashev and Novikov agree with Retter's ideas. "The nature of
these flashes in the sky is still unclear," says Kardashev. "So once
we spot a gigantic powerful gamma-ray burst with a lot of radio
radiation, we will take a close look with RadioAstron and try to
determine its shape and size for the first time." That could provide
important clues about its source. "It may be a white hole or a
wormhole. Maybe the flashes are coming from another universe."
Retter calls his idea a "small bang" - a spontaneous emergence of a
white hole. If we extrapolate this thought, he says, we could assume
that our entire universe is the result of a white hole that emerged
as the big bang.
Hardly anyone is hunting for white holes these days, but hopefully
that will change. With each passing day, RadioAstron is beaming back
more observations of fine structures in active galactic nuclei. "It
is not theoretically excluded that the central engine in active
galactic nuclei is something more interesting than a supermassive
black hole," says Konstantin Postnov, an astrophysicist at Moscow
State University. "So let's keep our eyes open and not discard even
very exotic possibilities."
Region of space-time that sucks in everything nearby
A black hole in reverse, it blows out matter and light
Tunnel that connects two regions in space-time
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