Maps matter way beyond finding the nearest coffee shop

a vintage map of the world

A Skype conversation skips across continents with no perceptible lag. The manufacturing economy cranks forth like a containerized, globally integrated, seamless, just-in-time wonder. Hollywood films are released simultaneously in Boston, Berlin and Beijing, often finding larger audiences in China than anywhere else.

It’s enough to make the world seem flat. Not so fast, says Robert Kaplan. [more]

How the Chernobyl nuclear disaster led this woman to catch a wave

Inna Braverman

With wave power, it all seems pretty straightforward.

Waves come from the wind. Wind power is already a big-time clean-energy source (producing about 2.5 percent of the world’s electricity and growing). Water is 784 times denser than air, providing a lot more energy per cubic meter. Plus, people tend to live near coasts where the waves are: in the United States, for example, more than half the population lives within 50 miles of the ocean and all that potential energy.

It’s not straightforward. Complexities abound, ranging from where to site wave power installations (Offshore? Underwater? Free-floating or anchored?) to how to transmit the power they generate. And while not trivial, that’s the easy part. The hard part has to do with actually harnessing those wind-driven waves.

Wind blows in one direction, a relatively consistent, unidirectional power source, at least in the span of a few seconds. Waves are up and down and back and forth by nature. You can’t just miniaturize a wind turbine, sink it in the drink and fire up a toaster with water-born electrons.

So when Inna Braverman tells you that the company she co-founded — Tel Aviv, Israel-based Eco Wave Power — has come up with a really good way to harness those waves and fire up those toasters, know that it’s a big deal. [more]

Alex Szalay: Big data a big step forward for science

There have been three major eras in the history of science, as Johns Hopkins University astrophysicist and computer scientist Alex Szalay describes it. The first, which lasted for millennia, was empirical, involving mostly the recording of data: Chinese star charts, Leonardo da Vinci’s codices on how turbulent water flows, Tico Brahe’s recording of the motions of planets. The second era, which he calls the theoretical paradigm, launched when Brahe gave his observations to Johannes Kepler, who came up with the laws of planetary motion. [more]

World War III is coming, and you’ll never believe who’s going to start it

Gene Wilder as Dr. Frankenstein

At first blush, the key players in George Friedman’s World War III scenario seem to have been plucked from a random-country generator: Japan, Turkey, and… Poland?

But take a step back. First, consider the source. Friedman, 68, has been in the geopolitical strategy game for decades. He founded the Austin, Texas-based geopolitical intelligence firm Stratfor in 1996 and led it until retiring in 2015. Along the way, he wrote bestselling books of immense scope and ambition, including The Next 100 Years and, most recently, 2015’s Flashpoints: The Emerging Crisis in Europe. In 2016, he founded Geopolitical Futures, a geopolitical forecaster focused, as he puts it, on allowing readers “to distinguish the significant from the trivial” in a world “inundated with information.”

His World War III scenario is another example of Friedman’s ability to drink in a deluge of information and distill it down to a fascinating, plausible (if counterintuitive), and indeed significant essence. What’s more, it is not nearly as crazy as it sounds. [more]

The secret to finding life on other planets is not to look for life as we know it

University of Colorado philosopher Carol Cleland, PhD

Perhaps one day we’ll send a spacecraft to a rocky planet orbiting Proxima Centauri. And perhaps the first images arriving back from across 4.2 light years of space will feature a purple Proxima Centurian peering straight back into the camera.

In the popular imagination, alien life has tended to focus on the take-me-to-your-leader/humans-as-snacks variety. Those who have been paying attention, though, know that the life we’re most likely to find on Proxima b, Mars or anywhere else will be microscopic. That sort of life might have very little resemblance to the microbes we’re used to here on Earth.

This gives rise to what appears at first to be a scientific problem, but which in fact something else entirely. The question of how to recognize alien microbes, which astrobiologists assume to be the universe’s most common life form, is to no small degree a philosophical challenge. Philosopher Carol Cleland has been a leading voice in helping NASA and the astrobiology community figure out ways not to miss extraterrestrial microbes right under our robotic emissaries’ noses. [more]