Potential Smoking Ban in Europe

No smoking symbol
Source: Wikipedia, created by Adalbertus.

New Scientist reported today:

The European Union’s health chief is to seek a “comprehensive ban” on smoking in public places across the group’s 27 countries, he announced on Tuesday.…All 27 EU governments, non-governmental organisations, consumers and the tobacco industry will be invited to put forward proposals on smoking bans by 31 May 2007. The Commission is expected to deliver its final recommendations in early 2008

This is all preliminary, but it is very good news. Extensive research has demonstrated the dangers of secondhand smoking (often called passive smoking or exposure to environmental tobacco smoke). Also increasingly apparent is the health detriment to employees of establishments where people smoke, and the improvement in health once smoking is banned.

In the United States, most smoking bans are at the city or county level, though many states have enacted some sort of regulation. No federal-level initiative yet exists. For more information, please see the Wikipedia article “List of Smoking Bans in the United States.”


Planet and Star Size Comparison

Via THS Earth/Space Science (a weblog for a 9th-grade science class), I came across this neat animation comparing the relative sizes of planets in our solar system and various stars. It really does a good job!

Humans evolved on Earth, and our brains do a poor job grasping sizes much larger (or much smaller) than that which we’d find in our typical environment. True, we can describe it mathematically, but it’s so difficult to really see the comparison.

Unfortunately, I do not know who the creator of this video is. No credits are given, and a web search was unsucessful. It is perhaps European, based on the spelling of the star names. If anyone has any information, please let me know.

Update: It appears the original video used copyrighted music without permission of the copyright holder, and has been removed. I changed the post to a different version of the video without music.

Update #2: The old link no longer worked (thanks, Sara!) so I updated it.

Bush on Climate Change

Yesterday evening, President Bush delivered the annual State of the Union address. I was quite (pleasantly) surprised to hear him state that climate change was a problem, and to discuss ways to change our energy usage. I’d never heard him so openly acknowledge climate change to be a problem. The relevant section is as follows (taken from the White House transcript, emphasis mine):

Extending hope and opportunity depends on a stable supply of energy that keeps America’s economy running and America’s environment clean. For too long our nation has been dependent on foreign oil. And this dependence leaves us more vulnerable to hostile regimes, and to terrorists — who could cause huge disruptions of oil shipments, and raise the price of oil, and do great harm to our economy.

It’s in our vital interest to diversify America’s energy supply — the way forward is through technology. We must continue changing the way America generates electric power, by even greater use of clean coal technology, solar and wind energy, and clean, safe nuclear power. (Applause.) We need to press on with battery research for plug-in and hybrid vehicles, and expand the use of clean diesel vehicles and biodiesel fuel. (Applause.) We must continue investing in new methods of producing ethanol — (applause) — using everything from wood chips to grasses, to agricultural wastes.

We made a lot of progress, thanks to good policies here in Washington and the strong response of the market. And now even more dramatic advances are within reach. Tonight, I ask Congress to join me in pursuing a great goal. Let us build on the work we’ve done and reduce gasoline usage in the United States by 20 percent in the next 10 years. (Applause.) When we do that we will have cut our total imports by the equivalent of three-quarters of all the oil we now import from the Middle East.

To reach this goal, we must increase the supply of alternative fuels, by setting a mandatory fuels standard to require 35 billion gallons of renewable and alternative fuels in 2017 — and that is nearly five times the current target. (Applause.) At the same time, we need to reform and modernize fuel economy standards for cars the way we did for light trucks — and conserve up to 8.5 billion more gallons of gasoline by 2017.

Achieving these ambitious goals will dramatically reduce our dependence on foreign oil, but it’s not going to eliminate it. And so as we continue to diversify our fuel supply, we must step up domestic oil production in environmentally sensitive ways. (Applause.) And to further protect America against severe disruptions to our oil supply, I ask Congress to double the current capacity of the Strategic Petroleum Reserve. (Applause.)

America is on the verge of technological breakthroughs that will enable us to live our lives less dependent on oil. And these technologies will help us be better stewards of the environment, and they will help us to confront the serious challenge of global climate change. (Applause.)

Some of the ideas Mr. Bush mentioned are pretty broad and he didn’t really give specific ways we could achieve these goals. Nevertheless, even promoting these goals is a great start. I also wish he didn’t place so much emphasis on technology coming to save us. I believe that it is vital that we modify our own habits as well, making changes and sacrifices ourselves. But the technology-to-the-rescue viewpoint is common in our society—for instance, people want to maintain their current eating habits and instead take a pill to control their weight. Yes, scientists will keep working on ways to combat global warming, but we’re going to have to do our part as well. It’s not enough to sit back and wait for someone else to come up with a solution.

For those interested in this topic, Jeffrey Kluger wrote an interesting article, “Bush Goes Green?”, in this week’s Time.

Climate Change Update (23 Jan 2007)

Greg Laden, at his blog, alerts us to another concerning story, this one in last week’s New York Times. As John Collins Rudolf reports, a somewhat unexpected effect of the Greenland ice melting is that new islands are being discovered. Pieces of land thought to be peninsulas turn out to be separate islands once the bridging glacial ice melts, and Arctic explorers have been discovering them by Greenland and Norway. The article states

All over Greenland and the Arctic, rising temperatures are not simply melting ice; they are changing the very geography of coastlines. Nunataks — “lonely mountains” in Inuit — that were encased in the margins of Greenland’s ice sheet are being freed of their age-old bonds, exposing a new chain of islands, and a new opportunity for Arctic explorers to write their names on the landscape.

The article goes on to discuss how this has prompted new editions of maps to be printed and what effects the rising sea levels will have. While discovering new islands is exciting for these explorers, it represents a disturbing trend, and they know it. Dennis Schmitt, discoverer of one of these islands, has provisionally named it Uunartoq Qeqertoq (“the warming island” in Inuit).

Continue reading “Climate Change Update (23 Jan 2007)”

Snow and Darkness

As snow is falling over much of the United States and we face the beginning of another work week, I thought I would leave you with one of my favorite poems, the ever-popular “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” by Robert Frost.

Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.

My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.

He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sound’s the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.

The woods are lovely, dark and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.

I suppose everyone draws his own meaning from poetry; I find the imagery to be so powerful and he conveys such emotion that this is one of the few (or only) poems I have memorized

Everyone should memorize at least one poem.

What Does the Atmosphere Say About Earth?

To date, astronomers have discovered about 209 extrasolar planets; that is, planets outside our solar system. From Earth, it is quite difficult to even detect them, much less learn anything about them. We haven’t been able to determine much about these planets—usually only the mass—though we’ve been able to get glimpses of atmosphere in a couple cases.

Of course, we have no idea if there is life on other planets, or how we might detect it. One way to think about it is to imagine what other life forms might think of Earth if they were to stumble across it.

Continue reading “What Does the Atmosphere Say About Earth?”

Navy May Restrict Sonar Use

There have been several news reports of harmful effects of sonar on dolphins and whales (and other marine creatures). As Noaki Schwarz reports in LiveScience, the United States Navy may be cutting back on its use of sonar. As the Navy has decided to become more environmentally friendly, it sought the approval of the California Coastal Commission; the commission has voted to place significant restrictions on sonar use. I hope that a good compromise between military exercise and marine animal health can be found.