Can a City *Really* Sue an Oil Company for Climate Change?

The city of Richmond, Calif. juts into the San Francisco Bay like the head of a rhinoceros looking west across the water, toward San Quentin State Prison and the tony towns north of the Golden Gate. It’s a low, industrial town, and 2,900 acres of it is an oil refinery. Chevron is Richmond’s biggest employer, and through taxes contributes about a quarter of the city’s total budget.

Chevron is also Richmond’s eternal nemesis. Industrial accidents are an ongoing issue. A fire at the refinery in 2012 sent 15,000 people to hospitals, resulting in a city lawsuit and a $5 million settlement. And in January Richmond joined six other California cities in suing oil companies for growing coastal threats related to climate change—primarily the sea level rise jeopardizing Richmond’s working coastline.

“We have 32 miles of shoreline on San Francisco bay, more than any other community, and a substantial amount of it is low-lying and subject to inundation,” says Tom Butt, Richmond’s mayor. “The root of this lawsuit and my biggest disappointment with these fossil fuel companies is that they’re all more interested in perpetuating themselves than they are in making a transition. They’re more interested in self-preservation than preserving the planet.”

In addition to the California cities’ various lawsuits, New York, Seattle, and municipalities in Colorado have read more

Inconvenient Minifauna and the Invasion of the Hammerhead Flatworms

If I told you that flatworms had invaded France, you might say, c’est la vie. A worm is a worm, after all. But then I’d tell you they’re also known as land planarians, and you might think that sounds rather more alien. Then I’d say they’re also called hammerhead flatworms, and you might start getting nervous. Oh, and they grow to a foot long and release secretions from their hammerheads that glue them to their native French prey, the innocent little earthworms. Mon dieu!

Endangered species have their charismatic megafauna—charming critters like pandas and elephants that operate as ambassadors of sorts, drawing attention to the cause of conservation. We might say, then, that the hammerhead flatworm is a new class of indicator species: the inconvenient minifauna. This particularly conspicuous infiltrator is a creature that, based on the amount of read more

The Physics of Accelerating Spacecraft in *The Expanse*

If you like science fiction, I can recommend a show for you—The Expanse. It takes place in the not-so-distant future all right here in our own solar system. There are no pew-pew lasers or faster-than-light space travel. When humans are on a spacecraft, they either “float” around or use magnetic boots (except when the spacecraft is accelerating). There are no “inertial dampeners” in The Expanse. Not only that, but it has interesting characters and a compelling plot. I like it.

As it turns out, The Expanse has three seasons all on the SyFy Network—but they did not renew for season 4. My plan was to write a physics piece about The Expanse to encourage another studio to pick it up. It seems my plan might have already worked—as Amazon Studios might be taking over. Hopefully.

OK, now for some physics. Let’s look at this flash back scene that shows the invention of the Epstein drive. The basic idea is that the space craft use some type of read more

Give the Robots Electronic Tongues

Humans lives their lives trapped in a glass cage of perception. You can only see a limited range of visible light, you can only taste a limited range of tastes, you can only hear a limited range of sounds. Them’s the evolutionary breaks.

But machines can kind of leapfrog over the limitations of natural selection. By creating advanced robots, humans have invented a new kind of being, one that can theoretically sense a far greater range of stimuli. Which is presenting roboticists with some fascinating challenges, not only in creating artificial senses of touch and taste, but in figuring out what robots should ignore in a human world.

Take sound. I’m not talking about speech—that’s easy enough for machines to recognize at this point—but the galaxy of other sounds a robot would encounter. This is the domain of a company called Audio Analytic, which has developed a system for devices like smart speakers to read more

Are Avocados Toast?

This story originally appeared on Grist and is part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

Chris Sayer pushed his way through avocado branches and grasped a denuded limb. It was stained black, as if someone had ladled tar over its bark. In February, the temperature had dropped below freezing for three hours, killing the limb. The thick leaves had shriveled and fallen away, exposing the green avocados, which then burned in the sun. Sayer estimated he’d lost one out of every 20 avocados on his farm in Ventura, just 50 miles north of Los Angeles, but he counts himself lucky.

“If that freeze was one degree colder, or one hour longer, we would have had major damage,” he said.

Avocado trees start to die when the temperature falls below 28 degrees or rises above 100 degrees. If the weather turns cold and clammy during the short period in the spring when the flowers bloom, bees won’t take to the air and fruits won’t develop. The trees also die if water runs dry, or if too many salts accumulate in the soil, or if a new pest starts chewing on its leaves. “All of which is quite read more

Ingestible Sensors Electronically Monitor Your Guts

The human gut is a 30-foot-long black box. Well, black tube. For decades doctors have been trying to decode the dark, slimy terrains of the GI tract—probing both ends with cameras and scopes and liters of oral contrast liquid. But those medieval days may soon be behind us.

Ingestible sensors—pill-sized electronics that ping your smartphone with data after you pop and swallow—have started to arrive on the market. They don’t do much yet: Mostly they measure pH, temperature, and pressure or monitor whether or not patients have taken their meds. But researchers are cooking up novel sensing technologies to detect a much broader range of medical molecules.

Like say, cramming millions of genetically engineered glowing bacteria inside a AAA-battery-sized capsule to diagnose stomach bleeds—as demonstrated by scientists in Timothy Lu’s lab at MIT, in a study published Thursday in Science.

Bacteria, you see, are microscopic sensing machines. Take Lactococcus lactis, read more

This Digital Pill Prototype Uses Bacteria to Sense Stomach Bleeding

The human gut is a 30-foot-long black box. Well, black tube. For decades doctors have been trying to decode the dark, slimy terrains of the GI tract—probing both ends with cameras and scopes and liters of oral contrast liquid. But those medieval days may soon be behind us.

Ingestible sensors—pill-sized electronics that ping your smartphone with data after you pop and swallow—have started to arrive on the market. They don’t do much yet: Mostly they measure pH, temperature, and pressure or monitor whether or not patients have taken their meds. But researchers are cooking up novel sensing technologies to detect a much broader range of medical molecules.

Like say, cramming millions of genetically engineered glowing bacteria inside a AAA-battery-sized capsule to diagnose stomach bleeds—as demonstrated by scientists in Timothy Lu’s lab at MIT, in a study published Thursday in Science.

Bacteria, you see, are microscopic sensing machines. Take Lactococcus lactis, read more

This Robotic Pollinator Is Like a Huge Bee With Wheels and an Arm

You like eating, yes? Apples, oranges, berries? For these foods we can thank bees and their extraordinary pollinating powers. Unfortunately, to show our appreciation, humans are killing off bees in staggering numbers—destroying their habitats and poisoning them with pesticides. And at the same time, our population is skyrocketing, which means if we can’t get our act together, we have to somehow feed more people with fewer pollinators.

Well, living pollinators, that is. In a greenhouse at West Virginia University, a machine called the BrambleBee is learning to roll around pollinating blackberry bushes, knocking their flowers around (blackberry flowers self-pollinate, so bees or robots just have to jostle them to spread around the pollen). It’s no replacement for bees, but in a world with too many humans and not enough pollinators, robots like this could help feed our kind.

The BrambleBee works not unlike a self-driving car. First it uses lidar, read more

Scientists Are Using AI to Painstakingly Assemble Single Atoms

Forget ruby-encrusted swords or diamond-tipped chainsaws. The scanning probe microscope is, quite literally, the sharpest object ever made. Hidden under its bulky silver exterior is a thin metal wire, as fine as a human hair. And at one end, its point tapers to the width of a single atom.

Scientists wield the wire not as a weapon, but as an intricate paintbrush—using its needlelike tip to position single atoms on a tiny semiconductor canvas. Ever since scientists at IBM invented the scanning probe microscope some 35 years ago, researchers have used it to create designs both goofy and groundbreaking. They’ve written nanometer-sized letters and Chinese characters. They’ve produced a stop-motion film out of individual carbon monoxide molecules. And they’ve used the machine to make the tiniest transistor of all time—out of a single atom.

A tungsten wire, a quarter milimeter at its base, sharpened to a single atom wide.

Robert Wolkow/University of Alberta

But it’s read more

Watch SpaceX Launch NASA’s Next Earth-Observing Satellites

SpaceX is flexing its ridesharing muscles today as its flagship rocket—the Falcon 9—prepares to loft two sets of spacecraft: a pair of Earth-observing satellites for NASA and a set of five Iridium Next communications satellites.

NASA’s identical twin spacecrafts, together dubbed the Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment Follow-On, will orbit the Earth in tandem, mapping changes in the planet’s water and ice content. The highly sensitive satellites will do this by measuring changes in the Earth’s gravitational field—together helping scientists better understand the effects of climate change and potentially predict future events.

Grace-FO follows in the footsteps of the original Grace mission, which operated from 2002 to 2017. During the original 15-year mission, scientists found changes all around the world, including significant melting of Greenland’s ice sheets. And they’re hoping Grace-FO will provide insight into why these changes are occurring.

To do read more