A Game of Planets: Pluto the Imp

In the latest issue of the National Geographic magazine, the cover displayed a beautiful computer generated image of a dwarf planet, the mysterious Pluto, and its extremely interesting satellite, Caron. The featured article spanned several pages relating a short history of Pluto’s discovery, theories about what kind of surface and atmosphere it may have and, most importantly, details regarding NASA’s spaceship, New Horizons, that will fly by this tiny planet on 14th of July 2015, at a distance of only 12.500 kilometers away.

An illustration of the New Horizons spaceship

Several attempts were made in the past to uncover the existence of a rumored ninth planet in the Solar System, including that of the Boston aristocrat and agnostic Percival Lowell, who dedicated himself to discovering “Planet X”. Unfortunately, he died in 1916 without fulfilling his dream.

Percival Lowell (1855-1916)

Nevertheless, only fourteen years later, the long sought planet was discovered by a 24-year-old man, Clyde Tombaugh. He originated from a farm in Kansas, where he learnt how to build telescopes from car parts and other elements. Despite not having any training whatsoever in the field of astronomy, Tombaugh’s perfectionism and dedication lead to the uncovering of the frozen planet at the Lowell Observatory, where he had been hired a few years prior to his discovery. The finding was revealed on 13th of March 1930, 75 years after Percival Lowell was born.

Clyde Tombaugh (1906-1997)

Pluto was named after the suggestion of a little girl from England, whose inspiration was the Roman god of the Underworld, which matched the new planet: incredibly desolate, cold and unknown. Temperatures on Pluto can easily reach -240 degrees Celsius and it needs 248 years to orbit the Sun.

New Horizons itself needed one year of travel to reach Jupiter, where using its massive gravity, it sped up to 83.000 kilometers per hour (1.6 million kilometers in a day!) and thus managed to shorten the journey by 4 years. It needed 8 years though to travel the distance between Jupiter and Pluto. At such speed even a grain of dust can be lethal for the spaceship and scientists are trying to discover possible sources of such formations due to the proximity of comets and ice dwarfs in the Kuiper Belt, a tumultuous world beyond Neptune, where Pluto silently orbits and rotates opposite to Earth’s own rotation. Therefore, the Sun rises in the west and sets in the east.

The Solar System: Since 2006 Pluto is no longer considered a proper planet, but a dwarf planet.

Pluto is two thousand times smaller than Earth, and Caron itself, discovered in 1978, is half its size. The fascinating thing about Caron is that, compared to how our Moon was formed, it broke away from Pluto in a single, enormous piece and together they created a binary system because of the satellite’s size.

On board New Horizons, among American flags and other “souvenirs”, there is a small vial containing Clyde Tombaugh’s ash, carrying a part of him in the proximity of Pluto and further into the great unknown and vast expanse of the galaxy until fuel tanks run dry or another careless stellar traveler comes its way.

Let’s Talk About Marine Protected Areas

According to the latest data from MPAtlas only 2.12% of the world’s oceans are currently protected. This surface accounts for 11.333 Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) and the latest significant addition was announced by the British government earlier this year: the area around Pitcairn Islands, which happens to be the largest marine reserve in the world.

In 1988 the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), at its 17th General Assembly, adopted the following definition of MPAs:

“Any area of intertidal or subtidal terrain, together with its overlying water and associated flora, fauna, historical and cultural features, which has been reserved by law or other effective means to protect part or all of the enclosed environment.”

Currently there are seven types of compliant MPAs including: Strict nature reserve, Wilderness area, National park (marine park), Natural monuments or features, Habitat/species management area, Protected seascape and Sustainable use of resources.

More marine reserves are needed

More marine reserves are needed

For years scientists have repeatedly shown that the establishment of MPAs results in the recovery of biodiversity and fish biomass, the protection from natural disasters and the reduction in poverty.

In 2009, a scientific paper by Lester et al. has shown evidence that the implementation of no-take marine reserves can counterattack the negative effects of overfishing, resulting in the rehabilitation of biomass and species richness.

Coral reefs and mangroves are natural barriers against natural disasters, including the force of waves. Mangroves protect the coast from erosion and they capture carbon from the atmosphere. The implementation of MPAs in coastal areas is essential both for the marine ecosystems and the 3.5 billion people who inhabit them.

Coral reef

A healthy coral reef next to a mangrove forest

Recently it has been discovered that mangroves in Hurricane Hole in St. John are harboring at least 30 species of corals. The corals have sought the protection of the mangrove habitat in order to escape elevated temperatures and an increasing ocean acidification. Due to massive coral bleaching events around the world, more species may flee the unshaded shallow waters and hide under mangrove forests where they can thrive. The US Geological Survey (USGS) reported that:

 “Boulder brain corals, for example, were found in abundance under the mangroves and were healthy, while many of those in unshaded areas a short distance away were bleaching.”

Boulder brain coral (Colpophyllia natans)

MPAs can greatly boost the economy and it has been shown in a recent analysis commissioned by WWF that increased protection of critical habitats would result in net benefits of between US $490 billion and US $920 billion over the period of 2015-2050.

Despite the massive amount of data that serves as evidence for the benefits of creating more marine protected areas around the globe, there are numerous misconceptions regarding MPAs, including the false assumption that all marine protected areas are no-take or no-fishing zones, when in reality most MPAs are deemed as multiple use conservation areas that allow fishing, diving, boating and swimming. A great deal of criticism comes from tribal communities that live in coastal areas and fully depend on the exploration of marine life and material resources.

Currently there’s an international effort to preserve larger areas of the planetary ocean but I feel these actions are not enough because of the accelerated downfall of marine life and the poisoning of water due to industries, such as oil extraction in many parts of the world. The global economy heavily relies on the oceans and therefore governments should understand better the importance of preserving the marine ecosystems and not take them for granted as if their produce is infinite. Despite our past mistakes, the world keeps forgetting that in the end what we reap is what we sow.

Why humans run the world

ideas.ted.com

History professor Yuval Noah Harari — author of Sapiens: A Brief History of Mankind — explains why humans have dominated Earth. The reason is not what you might expect.

70,000 years ago humans were insignificant animals. The most important thing to know about prehistoric humans is that they were unimportant. Their impact on the world was very small, less than that of jellyfish, woodpeckers or bumblebees.

Today, however, humans control this planet. How did we reach from there to here? What was our secret of success, that turned us from insignificant apes minding their own business in a corner of Africa, into the rulers of the world?

We often look for the difference between us and other animals on the individual level. We want to believe that there is something special about the human body or human brain that makes each individual human vastly superior to a dog, or a pig, or…

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The Bliss of Not Knowing

For a long while I have been constantly updating myself with news of social or political nature such as the war in Syria, the Charlie Hebdo attack, the desperate situation of the migrants in the Mediterranean and of those in refugee camps, the Scottish independence referendum or the presidential elections in Romania. I have always believed that knowing is where the true power comes from but how can someone resist not being shaken to the core by the ravages such knowledge leaves behind?

Exactly one year ago I have written about people tending to ignore “unpleasant” news no matter how real and current they may be. Not many can control their emotions when faced with the harsh reality of our world and I’m not sure I can either. Of course, I’m still convinced today as I was back then that even if I cannot always physically help those who need it, the least I can do is learn about their pain but for my own sake I have to reduce the intake of information until I learn how to harness the feelings various situations invoke in me.

My daily ritual for quite a long time was wake up and drink a steaming cappuccino while reading the news on my laptop. Slowly I realized that this routine not only managed to agitate me first thing in the morning, but it replaced other more productive habits such as writing or reading a book (the latter is my evening ritual).

I enjoy discussing the latest news with my parents or my friends because I feel we all are responsible to be aware of the world we live in but I never asked myself whether there’s a limit to how much news a person can deal with. I often feel so guilty for not learning earlier about certain events and I certainly am uncomfortable now that I decided to reduce the amount of news I read on a daily basis. Does not knowing right away equal with not caring?

I have noticed those around me who don’t know a thing about the world outside their sphere of existence and I realized they’re so happy. I’m not sure I would like to be in their shoes because being aware of the terrible societies we live in makes me less naive, but it makes me wonder what is easier: to live happily ignorant or sadly aware?