Hidden Numbers, Brought Into Daylight

FlatironThe mission of the Flatiron Institute is to advance scientific research through computational methods, including data analysis, modeling and simulation.

The institute, an internal research division of the Simons Foundation, is a community of scientists who are working to use modern computational tools to advance our understanding of science, both through the analysis of large, rich datasets and through the simulations of physical process.

If you are seeing the name above for the first time, so are we. It has come to our attention through this profile below. The questions raised are important. The answers, to the degree there are any, are fascinating. Thanks to longform journalism, which we need now more than ever, we have profiles like this:

Jim Simons, the Numbers King

Algorithms made him a Wall Street billionaire. His new research center helps scientists mine data for the common good.

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Simons is donating billions of dollars to science. But much of his fortune, long stashed offshore, has never been taxed. Illustration by Oliver Munday; photograph by Tim Sloan / AFP / Getty

By D. T. Max

A visit to a scientific-research center usually begins at a star professor’s laboratory that is abuzz with a dozen postdocs collaborating on various experiments. But when I recently toured the Flatiron Institute, which formally opened in September, in lower Manhattan, I was taken straight to a computer room. The only sound came from a susurrating climate-control system. I was surrounded by rows of black metal cages outfitted, from floor to ceiling, with black metal shelves filled with black server nodes: boxes with small, twinkling lights and protruding multicolored wires. Tags dangled from some of the wires, notes that the tech staff had written to themselves. I realized that I’d seen a facility like this only in movies. Nick Carriero, one of the directors of what the institute calls its “scientific-computing core,” walked me around the space. He pointed to a cage with empty shelves. “We’re waiting for the quantum-physics people to start showing up,” he said. Continue reading

Instagram’s Hashtag Alerts to Highlight Animal Abuse

This is the message that now appears on Instagram if you search for a hashtag like #koalaselfie

I post on Instagram a couple times a month, but I often browse pictures on the app at least once a day. I can’t say that I’ve encountered photos like those described in the NatGeo article below, but I’m still thankful that Instagram is taking action to try to keep it that way, by pointing out to people using certain hashtags involving wildlife that the animals may be suffering behind the scenes:

Instagram is rife with photos of cute wild animals—including the exotic and endangered. A picture of someone hugging a sloth or showing off a pet tiger cub is just a click away on the massively popular photo-sharing platform, which serves 800 million users.

But starting [December 4th], searches for a wide range of wildlife hashtags will trigger a notification informing people of the behind-the-scenes animal abuse that makes some seemingly innocent wildlife photos possible.

Instagram will now deliver a pop-up message whenever someone searches or clicks on a hashtag like “#slothselfie.” The message reads, in part, “You are searching for a hashtag that may be associated with posts that encourage harmful behavior to animals or the environment.”

Continue reading

Big Time Culinary Hydroponics

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At Farm.One, a hydroponic garden in TriBeCa, red-veined sorrel is prepared for a delivery. Credit Sarah Blesener for The New York Times

We have posted on urban farming and related topics numerous times since 2011, and hydroponics as its own topic of interest plenty of times as well. Culinary and/or gastronomic topics as related to agriculture are a magnitude of order more represented in these pages. Finally, they are combined for us in one amazing article, thanks to Alyson Krueger. If you only have time to look at the photos, those alone are worth the click:

Herbs From the Underground

Farm.One just opened an indoor rare herb and flower garden in a TriBeCa basement, and many prominent chefs are flocking to it.

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Katherine Chester, a farm hand at Farm.One, harvests for a morning delivery. Credit Sarah Blesener for The New York Times

In the basement of a loft-style building in TriBeCa that houses a vet, a dog swimming pool, an eye-and-ear infirmary, and a two-Michelin-starred restaurant, there is a working farm.

Farm.One is a hydroponic facility, which means that the plants do not grow in soil. Many of these farms are located indoors, in controlled environments, with artificial lighting.

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Amazon neon cherry dianthus and neon rose magic dianthus. Credit Sarah Blesener for The New York Times

The new two-room space, which opened in November in a former cycling studio for high-altitude training and an old storage area, is only 1200 square feet. There is no fresh air or natural light; there is not even a window. Yet the venue can grow around 580 varieties of rare herbs and flowers (200 at a time) that supply New York’s top restaurants. Le TurtleLe CoucouMission Chinese Food, and The Pool get regular deliveries from Farm.One, sometimes several times a week. Continue reading

Kelp Forest Versus Kelp Farm

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Kelp forest commentary is not new to our pages, but much more frequently the generic category seaweed has been highlighted for its farming potential. We have apparently not give sufficient attention to the specific value of natural kelp forests. Thanks to Yale 360 and science writer Alastair Bland for this story:

As Oceans Warm, the World’s Kelp Forests Begin to Disappear

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The progression of the destruction of a kelp forest in Tasmania by urchins, photo 1/3.

Kelp forests — luxuriant coastal ecosystems that are home to a wide variety of marine biodiversity — are being wiped out from Tasmania to California, replaced by sea urchin barrens that are nearly devoid of life.

A steady increase in ocean temperatures — nearly 3 degrees Fahrenheit in recent decades — was all it took to doom the once-luxuriant giant kelp forests of eastern Australia and Tasmania: Thick canopies that once covered much of the region’s coastal sea surface have wilted in intolerably warm and nutrient-poor water.

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The progression of the destruction of a kelp forest in Tasmania by urchins, photo 2/3.

Then, a warm-water sea urchin species moved in. Voracious grazers, the invaders have mowed down much of the remaining vegetation and, over vast areas, have formed what scientists call urchin barrens, bleak marine environments largely devoid of life.

Today, more than 95 percent of eastern Tasmania’s kelp forests — luxuriant marine environments that provide food and shelter for species at all levels of the food web — are gone. With the water still warming rapidly and the long-spine urchin spreading southward in the favorable conditions, researchers see little hope of saving the vanishing ecosystem.

Diver_surveying_overgrazed_reef_web The progression of the destruction of a kelp forest in Tasmania by urchins, photo 3/3. The Australian island state has lost more than 95 percent its kelp forests in recent decades. COURTESY OF SCOTT LING Continue reading

Crowdfunding Conservation

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The ruined castle of La Mothe-Chandeniers in central western France. The crowdfunding site Dartagnans organized an effort to buy the chateau for 500,000 euros. Guillaume Souvant/AFP/Getty Images

Thanks to National Public Radio (USA) for this signal that trust, the cement of civilization, is alive and well in some quarters:

7,500 Strangers Just Bought A Crumbling French Chateau Together

It’s late 2017. By now, crowdfunding has been used to finance filmsboard gamesclassical musicscientific research and infertility treatments.

Dart.jpgAdd this to the list of things bought with collective purchasing power: A chateau in the French countryside, complete with moat.

Mais oui!

The platform used to raise the funds announced on Friday that the castle had been purchased by milliers d’internautes – that is, thousands of Internet users, who each paid at least 50 euros (about $60) to “adopt” the chateau and help restore it. In just 40 days, the site raised the 500,000 euros it needed to buy it. Continue reading

Entomological Society Krefeld, Citizen Scientists Making A Difference

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Thomas Hörren, a member of the Entomological Society Krefeld, collecting beetles from a soil sample. CreditGordon Welters for The New York Times

Thanks to Sally McGrane for this important article:

KREFELD, Germany — In a nature preserve in western Germany, an elderly gentleman approached a tent-like structure that was in fact a large trap for flying insects. Peering through thick eyeglasses, the 75-year-old retired chemist checked the plastic bottle attached at the top, filled with alcohol and bugs.

Then, with a glance at the clear, late-autumn sky, the man, Heinz Schwan, recalled comparing a 2013 haul from a trap like this one to samples taken in the same place some 20 years earlier. The drop was huge: “75 percent,” Mr. Schwan, a caterpillar lover, said.

Alarmed, the group of local insect enthusiasts Mr. Schwan is co-chairman of ran similar tests in different locations the next year. And the next year. And the next. Continue reading

Hastening Evolution

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A North American snail kite in Florida. Researchers say the bird species has rapidly evolved larger beaks and bodies to eat a larger, invasive snail. CreditRobert Fletcher/University of Florida

Things Looked Bleak Until These Birds Rapidly Evolved Bigger Beaks

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The invasive snails are two to five times larger than the native species, and young kites with larger bills that were able to feed on them were more likely to survive their first year. Credit Robert Fletcher/University of Florida

Conservationists have been sounding the alarm over invasive species for years, warning of the damage they can cause to habitats and native animals. But in Florida, an invasive snail might be helping an endangered bird species come back from the brink, researchers say.

The population of North American snail kites — birds that use curved beaks and long claws to dine on small apple snails in the Florida Everglades — had been dwindling for years, from 3,500 in 2000 to just 700 in 2007. Things began to look particularly bleak in 2004, when a portion of the Everglades was invaded by a species of larger snail that the birds had historically struggled to eat. Ornithologists assumed the shift would hasten the snail kite’s decline. Continue reading

St. Kilda, Now For The Birds

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A northern fulmar in flight near Boreray, an uninhabited island in the archipelago of St. Kilda. Photograph by Philip Mugridge / Alamy

A beautiful several minutes of historical reading, thanks to Fergus McIntosh:

A Trip to St. Kilda, Scotland’s Lost Utopia in the Sea

In 1877, George Seton, a visitor to the tiny Scottish archipelago of St. Kilda, observed that the men living there had an unusual physiological characteristic. “The great toes of the cragsmen are widely separated from the others, from the circumstance of their frequently resting their entire weight on that part of the foot in climbing,” Seton wrote. These men with prehensile feet were residents of the most remote settlement in the British Isles, forty miles out in the North Atlantic, where seabirds, garnered from the towering cliffs, formed the major part of their diet. A hundred years after Seton, another visitor wrote that “even today a boat setting out for St. Kilda is by no means assured of reaching its destination.”

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A St. Kildan hunts seabirds on the cliffs of Hirta, May 26, 1923. Photograph by Trinity Mirror / Mirrorpix / Alamy

These were unnerving words to recall as I stood, clad in oilskins and a lifejacket, on the pier at Uig, on the Isle of Skye, at seven o’clock one morning in August. Though the air was cold and still, the sky a smooth overcast, the captain of our small boat assured us that the ocean swell would make the journey to the islands uncomfortable, and that the weather could worsen at any moment. Continue reading

Magpie & Elk, Collaborating

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A magpie on an elk in Alberta, Canada, looking for winter ticks. Credit Rob Found

Thanks to the Trilobites feature on the New York Times website for this story of collaborative friendliness between species:

Chances are that’s a shy elk looking back at a bold magpie, in the photograph above.

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Scientists wonder if shy elk compensate for their bashfulness by accepting the grooming magpies. Credit Rob Found

They get along, so to speak, because the elk needs grooming and the magpie is looking for dinner. But they may have never entered into this partnership if it weren’t for their particular personalities, suggests a study published Wednesday in Biology Letters.

Let’s start with the elk. In Canada’s western province of Alberta, they’ve been acting strange. Some have quit migrating, opting to hang around towns with humans who protect them from predators like wolves. Others still migrate. Continue reading

Doomsday Discussion

Each day we scan the news for stories that will help make sense of the environmental challenges facing humanity, with special attention to potential solutions and collective action taken to rise up to those challenges. Earlier this year we declined to link out to this story that was a collection of doomsday scenarios:

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The Uninhabitable Earth

Famine, economic collapse, a sun that cooks us: What climate change could wreak — sooner than you think.

By David Wallace-Wells

This article reporting on a recent panel at Harvard University has caused us to reconsider the decision:

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Nikhil Advani (from left), David Wallace-Wells, Elizabeth Wolkovich, Nancy Knowlton, and Campbell Webb.

…Unfortunately, that vision isn’t fiction, but rather Wallace-Wells’ summation of climate change’s little-discussed worst-case scenario for the year 2100.

“I think there’s real value in scaring people,” the journalist said Wednesday during a panel at the Geological Museum, sponsored by the Harvard University Center for the Environment.

The event, “Hope and Despair: Communicating an Uncertain Future,” explored whether doom and gloom are more effective than hope in spurring climate action. Panelists agreed that fear is a potentially powerful lever, but also insisted on the importance of covering success stories. Progress is an important motivator, keeping people from succumbing to despair in the face of bad news. Continue reading