Two Presidents Make a Climate “Deal,” Two Astrophysicists Review a Movie, and One Spaceship Gets Ready to Fly | Vol. 2 / No. 3

Smokestacks, detail of "Coal Power Plant"; Photo: Flickr user eutrophication&hypoxia, CC BY 2.0
Smokestacks, detail of “Coal Power Plant”; Photo: Flickr user eutrophication&hypoxia, CC BY 2.0

US-China Climate “Deal”

News media outlets across the web this week jumped to cover the announcement that The United States and China had reached an unexpected (though wholly welcome) deal on tackling climate change. The sticking point is that it’s a deal between Presidents Barack Obama and Xi Jinping, which sorely limits its efficacy (and for anyone wondering how deals go without any penalties to back them up, just look up “League of Nations” in Wikipedia and let me know how that goes for you). Still, it’s a step in the right direction, as the US and China hold the top two spots in the coveted “who can pollute more?” championship, so any little bit helps. So let’s that a moment and see what they promised.

According to, President Obama has said they’ll “reduce emissions 26 to 28 percent below 2005 levels by 2025, with “best efforts” to hit the higher end of that range;” and President Xi has responded that they will “have its CO2 emissions peak around 2030, “make best efforts to peak early,” and increase the share of non-fossil fuels in its energy portfolio to “around” 20 percent by 2030.”

Laudable goals, to be sure. Grist also points out that while Republicans will argue that the US has to start reducing now and China will only have to start by 2030, that in a way that’s fair, too — the US has contributed so much more to global warming (to its own economic satisfaction) that for China to stop now seems pretty unfair. But with a Republican-led House and Senate, let’s just say I have a hard time believing the last two years of President Obama’s presidency will be fruitful on the environmental front.

Oh, and did I mention the Keystone XL pipeline bill passed the House this week? The President may yet veto it (on principle alone: it’s a bill that deliberately attempts to circumvent presidential authority — you might as well ask the Senate how they’d vote on a bill that took away Senate approval of a bill) but it’s not looking good.

Everyone's a critic. Photo: "Interstellar" / "MST3K"
Everyone’s a critic. Photo: “Interstellar” / “MST3K”

Astrophysicists Reviewing Interstellar (Warning: May Contain Spoilers)

I don’t know if this will contain spoilers, because I haven’t seen the film yet,* but as someone who really enjoys two things — science fiction movies and reviews of those movies by astrophysicists —  this week’s release of the Christopher Nolan-directed film Interstellar (starring Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway, Michael Caine, and Jessica Chastain) seems like a great opportunity. Ask and ye shall receive, friends: here’s reviews by not one but TWO of my favourite astrophysicists: Neil DeGrasse Tyson, who wants to know why they don’t just go to Mars (I’m sure Elon wonders the same); and Katherine (Katie) Mack, who really wishes she could be positive and leave it at “it did a really great job explaining relativity!” but sadly cannot. The TL;DR seems to be that if they hadn’t said “hey look at all the great science” it might’ve been okay. So next time, Nolan and company, you might want to offer a few caveats ahead of time. I’m sure I’ll get around to seeing it when it hits Netflix.

*As my friends will attest about my movie-watching habits, I typically average one in-theatre viewing experience per year, but this year I’m holding steady at zero. But I did just see “Man of Steel” on an airplane last week.

Orion on the move, Photo: NASA
Orion on the move, Photo: NASA

Orion’s Progress

This week, while everyone was watching Rosetta and Philae (check out yesterday’s post for more on that), NASA and the Orion team moved the spacecraft into position atop a ULA Delta IV Heavy rocket, ready for its December 4th (planned) launch. In the picture above you can see the capsule, safe inside its faring, with the tall launch escape system sticking out the top, all being transported across Space Launch Complex 37 at Cape Canaveral on Wednesday. If you’re not excited yet, you should be. This is NASA’s “next big thing” and it’s coming up soon! Check out the time lapse video below, and just try not to overdub it with a little Yakety Sax in your head.

A Better Week for Commercial Spaceflight

In better news for commercial spaceflight this week, we have two stories. First, this week news surfaced that Google is signing a billion-dollar land lease with NASA. The terms of the sixty-year deal, which leases roughly a thousand acres of the San Francisco peninsula-based former naval base known as Moffat Field (and home to the famous NASA Ames Research Center), include the aforesaid massive amount of cash, and a promise to restore the iconic Hangar One which also sits on the site. What Google wants with the land isn’t entirely specified, but as the Verge has reported in its coverage of the story: “Google has a growing interest in robotics, drones, balloons, and anything that can beam internet down from the sky — and this is a great location to test many of those things.”

The second good news story this week is about our old friend Elon Musk, and another venture he might be getting into: internet access. Specifically, it sounds as though he’ll be competing with Google to see who can get cheap internet access to the most people for the least money. This week rumours popped up that Musk was working out a “deal” (maybe a “partnership”, maybe an “agreement”) between SpaceX and a company called WorldVu Satellites Ltd. to create and put into orbit a fleet of “micro” satellites (we’re talking roughly 250lbs each here, not exactly cubesats) to provide global internet access. For more details check out the Verge, or, as Musk himself tweeted, wait “2 to 3 months” for the official announcement.

Ebola Trials

In more good news, in a follow-up to last week’s “grounds for tentative optimism” in Ebola-affected western Africa, this week news reports have it that clinical trials will begin on three separate treatments for the disease: two antiviral drugs and a trial of what’s being called “convalescent serum.” The drugs, favipiravir and brincidofovir, are both experimental, with favipiravir showing effectiveness against influenza, west nile, yellow fever, and more, and brincidofovir being developed to fight CMV, adenovirus, smallpox, and (more pertinently) ebola. Convalescent serum is an antibody-rich product derived from the blood of patients who have beaten the disease. All three trials will attempt to see if the treatments have a positive effect, and if so will no doubt be widened and put into use across the affected area. For more on the story, see the BBC.

Ethereum and Counterparty

In a news story that will probably only make sense to the more dyed-in-the-wool cryptocurrency fanatics, this week Bitcoin-based software maker Counterparty announced that they had ported the entire Ethereum contract system into Counterparty. Where Ethereum contracts previously had to be based on Ethereum’s own “currency” — “ether” — and therefore made on its own blockchain, now through Counterparty such contracts can be made based on the Bitcoin blockchain. If this news means nothing to you, then don’t worry about it. But if it does, rejoice — it’s another addition to the ecosystem that’s going to one day (hopefully) take “trust” out of the equation. Hopefully.

Best of the Rest

There was a lot more to see this week. Here’s some of it: China’s put robots in its robots; the US Navy wants a flying aircraft carrier — but actually has deployed a real, honest-to-god laser weapon; ESA’s working on a moon base plan; NASA’s testing an airplane with shapeshifting wings; Bitcoin miner-maker Hasfast has bitten the dust; Banksy might be a woman; Wired looks into the “science” of Thor’s hammer; NPR looks into the “science” of chocolate chip cookies; and one of my favourite web magazines Nautilus has a great piece on a program designed to trick the human brain.

That’s all for today. Have a great week.