Links and Comments, 6 April 2021: Sciencey Things

When life began in the universe; how or whether civilizations die; why people like closed-captioning

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Scientific American, 4 April, Ari Loeb: When Did Life First Emerge in the Universe?, subtitled “We don’t know, but we could try to find out by searching for it on planets orbiting the very oldest stars.”

(The author just published a book, Extraterrestrial: The First Sign of Intelligent Life Beyond Earth, about that “Oumuamua” that passed through the solar system in 2017, taken by some as … the title of this book.)

Interesting piece because it distinguishes the origin of life on Earth, which is pretty well established as being about 3.5 billion years ago (about a billion years after the formation of the Earth), with the origin of life anywhere in the universe. How could we tell?

The writer has some ideas —

One way to determine how early life started in the cosmos is to examine whether it formed on planets around the oldest stars. Such stars are expected to be deficient in elements heavier than helium, which astrophysicists call “metals.” (in our language, unlike that of most people, oxygen, for example, is considered a metal). Indeed, metal-poor stars have been discovered in the periphery of the Milky Way, and have been recognized as potential members of the earliest generation of stars in the universe. These stars often exhibit an enhanced abundance of carbon, making them “carbon enhanced metal poor” (CEMP) stars. My former student Natalie Mashian and I suggested that planets around CEMP stars might be made mostly of carbon, so their surfaces could provide a rich foundation for nourishing early life.

–but no specific answers.

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Washington Post, 1 April, Annalee Newitz: Civilizations don’t really die. They just take new forms., subtitled, “Why do we tell apocalyptic stories about the end of society?”

The author writes science fiction and has published at least two nonfiction books, most recently Four Lost Cities: A Secret History of the Urban Age.

I’ve commented here before that the eternal success of the United States of America, many of whose citizens see the nation as the culmination of history, is my no means guaranteed.

It’s hard to escape the sense that we’re living through the last days of the American experiment. In Texas, an “Arctic outbreak” was followed by rolling blackouts that left much of the state without power during the deadly chill, even as a raging pandemic made it dangerous to seek out crowded public shelters. Last fall, the West Coast was scorched by the biggest wildfires in its history during a heat wave. “Mass-casualty” shootings take place almost every day. Meanwhile, our whole political system seems near the point of implosion, as armed mobs threaten lawmakers and politicians speak openly of secession.

The idea of civilizational collapse goes back thousands of years, but each era imagines it anew, always as a form of annihilation and erasure.

But the historical record shows that reports of the end times always turned out to be wrong.

In truth, our apocalyptic stories are far too simplistic to capture what actually happens when a society melts down. … Instead, as we’re witnessing in the United States today, it changes without ever breaking completely from the past. It is far from obvious that a society ever really dies.

Some comparison with Jared Diamond’s Collapse: How Socities Choose to Fail or Suceed (2004) would be worthwhile. (When I have the time.)

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Salon, 4 April, Mary Elizabeth Williams: Why your brain loves closed captioning, subtitled, “Captioning has taken off among the non-hearing impaired — and for good reason.”

I agree with most of these reasons. I turn on closed captions whenever I can, when we watch a movie or TV show. My reason is not that I am hard of hearing, it’s that I’m hard of … distinguishing speech. Whatever that’s called. This is why I prefer exchanging e-mails rather than talking on the phone.

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