Scientific American July 2011
The Latest in Science News
Cybersecurity: Hacking the Lights Out (p 70)
Fifty years after Yuri Gagarin became the first human to travel into space on April 12, 1961, Lawrence M. Krauss reassesses the reasons why we send people into space.
Human space travel is dangerous and expensive-most of the huge cost goes into keeping humans alive during the process. Technology has progressed a lot since 1961, and robots have now been sent to places humans could never have survived in. Establishing a permanent presence on Mars, meanwhile, would cost many tens of billions of dollars-an inconceivable amount in the present economic climate.
"This is not to say that sending humans into space is entirely pointless," Krauss writes in the Forum section of this month's Scientific American. "If our species is to survive, our future will probably require outposts beyond our own planet." But before human space exploration can be reconsidered, "we are going to need all the creative thinking we can muster."
Health Care: The Best Medicine (p 50 & p 12)
There are large amounts of useful patient data stored in health records that could be analyzed to help physicians better assess treatment options while reining in the cost of health care in the U.S. Such a powerful health care system could help solve some of the pragmatics and cost conundrums that we are presently stuck in, Sharon Begley writes in this month's Scientific American.
Presently the scientific basis for many medical treatments is often flimsy or even nonexistent; but the cost of rigorously testing all potential treatments is often prohibitive, ranging in hundreds of millions of dollars. One financially feasible and scientifically reasonable method for determining which therapies are most effective would be to tap into medical records already available through large health networks.
Another option, discussed by the editors in this month's Science Agenda, is to follow the model suggested by the positive results of a study involving several Philadelphia hospitals: extensive follow-up visits with patients once they are discharged.
Climate Change: The Last Great Global Warming (p 56)
The levels of carbon dioxide release and current speed of warming across the globe could lead to extinctions on a scale worse than previously thought, an article in this month's Scientific American suggests.
The Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum (PETM)-an ancient warming event that occurred about 56 million years ago-is often thought of as a potential framework for future climate change. Many believe that knowledge of what happened in the aftermath of the PETM could help us foresee what may be in store for our future. Recent findings, however, suggest that the rate at which levels of CO2 are increasing today far exceeds that of the PETM era. Lee R. Kump posits that this could impact potential coping strategies.
During the PETM, droughts, widespread fires and thawing permafrost blighted the planet, but there were no notable extinctions. This may have been due to the long time over which the PETM occurred, which gave species time to adjust and adapt. Kump argues that the increased rate of warming today would not allow enough time to do this. In addition, modern plants and animal have many obstacles in place-many due to urbanization. For example, roads, railways, dams, cities and towns block migratory paths to more suitable climates. Most large animals are also penned into areas that are surrounded by habitat loss, so their chances of moving are very slim.
Kump writes that while current global warming in set to greatly exceed expectations, it may not be too late to avoid the "calamity that awaits us."