A Hurricane, a NASA Administrator Pick, and a High-Powered X-Ray Laser | Vol. 4 / No. 45

Port Arthur, Texas, 31 August 2017 | Photo: SC National Guard, CC0 (Public Domain)

This week we’ve got stories about the role climate change played in making the disaster known as Harvey, a new pick for NASA administrator, and the starting up of a 3.4km-long X-ray laser called XFEL. It’s the news roundup for Sunday, September 3, 2017!

Climate Change and Harvey

No, climate change/global warming/whatever-euphemism-we’re-using-for-it-today did not cause hurricane Harvey, which as of the time I’m writing this has dropped twenty-seven trillion gallons of water on Texas and Louisiana. That’s an unimaginable quantity of water, by the way. That’s more than enough to fill an olympic-sized swimming pool for each and every one of the roughly 33 million living human beings in Texas and Louisiana—and then some. No, climate change did not cause Harvey, but the science is pretty clear that in many ways it certainly made Harvey worse. Hurricanes get their strength and moisture from the warmth of the water they’re over the top of, and the gulf was roughly 2.7-7.0 degrees warmer than usual in ways that are linked to climate change. It’s not yet known exactly how much of the rainfall was “our fault,” as it were, but some climate scientists think it could be as much as 30%. And these stronger, wetter storms are not mere outliers: they’re indicators of a new pattern emerging, and one we’re going to have to live with, rather than sticking our heads in the sand. You can read more about the storm at the Atlantic, and you can learn how and where donate to Harvey relief efforts at this NYT article.

 

Representative James Bridenstine (R-OK) | Photo: US Congress, CC0 (Public Domain)

A New Pick for NASA Administrator

At long last, the Trump regime has announced its pick for NASA Administrator, and it’s… not awful? They’ve picked a politician, a Trump ally named James Bridenstine, who currently represents Oklahoma in the US House of Representatives. So far it doesn’t seem like he’s a climate change denier (anymore, despite deeply incorrect statements he made in 2013 about global temperatures leveling off from 2003-2013), and he probably won’t gut environmental sciences. And he does seem pretty interested in commercial partnerships, which frankly any right-leaning space enthusiast in the US should be. So I don’t know. He’s not a scientist, but there are a lot of scientists at NASA and not a lot of politicians, so there’s an argument to be made that maybe it’d be a good thing to give NASA a little boost there? He’ll be vetted and will have to be approved by the Senate, so I guess we’ll see as news develops. You can read more about him over at AAAS Science magazine.

 

XFEL | Photo: Simon Bierwald, CC BY 2.0

XFEL Comes Online

XFEL, the European X-ray Free Electron Laser, came online this week after years of research and construction (and about a billion euros in costs). The 3.4km-long superconducting linear accelerator fires near light-speed electrons down its length, then causes them to oscillate using a series of magnets, which produces X-rays that align in wavelength in much the same way visible light does in a laser. In X-ray crystallography, the current technique used to image things like proteins and viruses, the same item has to be imaged many, many times to produce a kind of average appearance of the subject (each snapshot destroys the object and only partially reveals its shape). It’s hoped that XFEL, with literally trillions of X-ray photons being delivered in 50 femtosecond bursts 27,000 times a second, should be able to provide details of single objects. It’ll still destroy whatever it looks at, but we should get a look at the one thing, and not need a composite. With any luck it should give us a new and sharper look at the smallest things around. Check out the BBC for more.

 

Best of the Rest

As usual, there’s far more to get to than I ever can. So here it is: your weekly linkspam!

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

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Richard Ford Burley is a human, writer, and doctoral candidate at Boston College, as well as Deputy Managing Editor at Ledger, the first academic journal devoted to Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies. In his spare time he writes about science, skepticism, feminism, and futurism here at This Week In Tomorrow.

 

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