Blog Society 19 August 2014
Changila, a male elephant, before being shot dead for his tusks outside Samburu National Reserve Kenya.
courtesy of David Daballen

Scientists for the first time have put a figure on the damage to elephant populations in Africa from ivory poachers, determining that they are responsible for an average 2% decline in numbers every year since 2010, which puts the species at risk of extinction.

Up until now, no one has really known exactly what effect the poachers have, given that they operate under the radar and data collection has not been co-ordinated.

The sheer volume of elephants being killed is shocking.

From 2010 to 2012 the kill rate was 7% a year – some 33,630 elephants a year, the researchers believe – and in 2013 it was probably 5%. Set that against an estimated 4.2% population increase if there were no illegal killing and you can see why numbers are falling.

And its not just the number of kills that is threatening the species. The poachers are causing havoc among those elephants that survive the guns. The elephant population across the continent suffers from few prime-aged males, strongly skewed sex ratios, and social disruption in the form of collapsed families and increased numbers of orphans – a tragedy for animals that are social, family-oriented and intelligent enough to understand the nuances of human society.

Perhaps even more depressing than all this is the correlation the scientists found between the ivory price and the deaths. When illegal ivory is seized in large quantities – ironically to discourage the trade – the price goes up and more of the majestic animals are slaughtered to cash in.

George Wittemyer of Colorado State University and his colleagues, who compiled the data, began by investigating elephant poaching rates at a local scale, surveying elephant carcasses in Kenya’s Samburu National Reserve to distinguish between illegal and natural causes of mortality.

To estimate poaching across Africa, the authors combined demographic data for the species with carcass survey data at 45 sites across the continent. The research is published today by PNAS.

The authors...

Cat Sparks and friends at Loncon 3, the 72nd World Science Fiction Convention

Cosmos Science Fiction editor Cat Sparks reports from London...

“Space is big. Really big,” as Douglas Adams famously began his Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. So is the ExCel centre where Loncon 3, the 72nd World Science Fiction Convention is currently under way. You could land half a dozen space ships here and no one would notice.

ExCel nestles slap bang in the middle of London Docklands, a picturesque location peppered with large crane-like objects – presumably relics of actual cargo loading machinery but reminiscent of Martian war machines frozen mid-invasion.

Loncon 3 has had about 9,000 visitors from around the world, including 160 Aussies and a large European contingent, a mix of writers, editors, illustrators, publishers, gamers, fans and academics of the genre. (There are not many costumes – the cosplay crowd have their own enormous conventions).

The eclectic range of program items on offer include panels such as “Speculative biology: an introduction”, “Rewriting gender defaults”, “Better eating through chemistry”, “How to make a dwarf mammoth”, “Mythology and folklore in anime”, “Decontextualising steampunk”, “Climate change: does the future need to be plausible” and “Why aliens are cool again”.

There are also practical, hands-on advice panels on writing and pitching novels and comics, on how to find an agent, podcasting, world-building, space missions and digital art. If you can think of something even vaguely speculative there’s probably a panel on it, as well as Kaffee klatsches, literary beers and autograph signings with famous authors, plays, concerts and awards ceremonies. While flitting between panels today I encountered mohawk punks, men in kilts, a cyberman and a Tiki-themed Dalek.

Then there’s the literary star spotting – some of the biggest names in the field have come along to share their knowledge and expertise including Robert Silverberg, Brian Aldis, Joe Haldeman, Audrey Niffinegger, Cory Doctorow, Kim Stanley Robinson...

Blog Biology 15 August 2014

After years of being told to eat less salt to reduce the risk of heart attack and stroke, a new study suggests that too little sodium may actually pose health risks.

The study, published in the prestigious New England Journal of Medicine, tracked more than 100,000 people from 18 countries over more than three years. It found that people consuming less than 3,000mg of sodium a day had a 27% higher risk of death, heart attack or stroke than those consuming 3,000 to 6,000mg (above 6,000mg health risks did increase).

Even the lowest intake in the study is well above most health authorities' guidelines which range between 1,500 and 2,300mg a day.

The research has faced criticism from some scientists, however, for its method of estimating sodium levels from a single urine test instead of the preferred method of over 24 hours at multiple times. Salim Yusuf of McMasters University in Ontario, senior author of two papers on the new study, said that was impractical in such a big group.

The study also found:

  • Sodium levels generally correlate with the risk of high blood pressure. But this link is strongest when sodium intake is high and not when consumption is low.
  • A different nutrient – potassium, found in vegetables and fruits – seems to lower blood pressure and heart risks, and offsets sodium's effect.
  • People who consume 3,000mg to 6,000mg of sodium a day had the lowest risk of heart problems or death from any cause. More or less sodium raised risk.

Blog Space 15 August 2014
One of the crew members aboard the International Space Station recorded this early evening photo of the entire Iberian Peninsula. Part of France can be seen at the top of the image and the Strait of Gibraltar is visible at bottom, with a very small portion of Morocco visible near the lower right corner.

NASA has collected a staggering 1.3 million pictures of Earth taken from the International Space Station – about a third of them taken at night. But the problem is they don't know what many of the pictures are of, which is why they need the help of the public to identify the location of the images.

The Complutense University of Madrid has launched a crowdsourcing project called Cities at Night to sift though the space station's nighttime imagery, sort it into categories and then match images to specific map references.

It's not going to be as easy as it sounds. To an astronaut north and south aren't really very useful concepts and so there is no telling the orientation of the pictures, or which way the astronaut was pointing the camera when the picture was taken.

It's not a job that can be automated either, as the project's website says:

Your collaboration is really important because algorithms cannot distinguish between stars, cities, and other objects (i.e. moon).

The project has a practical purpose – the main objective of collating all this data is to study light pollution that comes from cities.

You can get more information and sign up at and follow the project through the Twitter handle @cities4tnight

Blog Climate 14 August 2014
The Ice Age commeth – or at least that's what an Australian government adviser would have us believe. [Image: Fox] The Ice Age commeth – or at least that's what an Australian government adviser would have us believe.

The chief business adviser to the Australian government, Maurice Newman, has poured scorn on the idea of global warming saying our concerns about climate change have left us "ill-prepared" to deal with the prospect of "global cooling", something he suggests is much more likely.

In a report in The Australian newspaper (paywalled) he sounds a dire note:

Having put all our eggs in one basket and having made science a religion, it bravely persists with its global warming narrative, ignoring at its peril and ours, the clear warnings being given by Mother Nature.

He bemoans how governments have accepted the consensus scientific view: primitive civilisations offering up sacrifices to appease the gods, many governments ... used the biased research to pursue “green” gesture politics. This has inflicted serious damage on economies and diminished the West’s standing and effectiveness in world affairs.

Newman makes much of the pause in global warming which he says is "now nearly 18 years old".

We wish he would read Cosmos where we covered the latest research that explains the pause in expected warming. The report is here, although the short answer is that the oceans have so far taken the strain and when they stop doing so – as they inevitably will – heat will return to the atmosphere very quickly.

Then there is the US Navy (not what we'd describe as a bunch of hysterical hippies bent on destroying "the West's standing and effectiveness in world affairs"), which accepts without doubt that the planet is warming and is preparing strategy based on an ice-free Arctic by the summer of 2029.

Newman's comments have added to the alarm among many climate scientists Down Under who fear the country is backing away from the commitment to battle climate change.

The Australian Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, who gave Newman his job, in 2009 dismissed climate change as "absolute crap". And, although he claims now to believe that the climate is changing as a result of human...

Blog Society 14 August 2014

Svati Kirsten Narula at Quartz has used the New York Times' online tool Chronicle, which measures how frequently any given word or phrase has appeared in the paper since 1850, to track diet fads.

It’s possible to pinpoint exactly when the New York Times first used the phrase “gluten free” (1978) and to see that the number of articles mentioning that phrase in 2014 was triple the number in 2010.

Narula notes how fickle our nutritional fears can be:

The chart above represents a succession of diet trends from 1990 to today: first fat was the enemy, then carbohydrates were, and now gluten is the most controversial substance in America’s ongoing nutrition hysterics.

Earlier, the New York Times economics reporter Neil Irwin examined the rise and fall of the popularity of certain specific foods - 1996 was the year with the most mentions of "fried calamari", a phrase that first appeared in the paper in 1975.

Blog Space 13 August 2014
ROGR the robot is put through his paces at the University of Colorado
NASA/Bob Granath

Researchers at the University of Colorado have produced a robot that could be both gardener and butler to pioneering astronauts.

The Remotely Operated Gardening Rover (ROGR) will tend plants on a space station or colony on Mars as well as doing the cleaning and delivering food to the astronauts.

ROGR is a small wheeled robot designed to wander a space station tending to remotely monitored plants that would be scattered throughout a space station, placed wherever there is room for them. This concept earned the overall project its name: "Plants Anywhere: Plants Growing in Free Habitat Spaces." But that system would require automated control as Nature World News explains:

The idea of having plants virtually everywhere - making use of forgotten nooks and crannies - is also more easily integrated into a space station, as opposed to crafting a whole new facility or section... Of course, no one astronaut would ever be asked to keep track of every plant, especially if they would be so scattered.

Roger is part of the university's contribution to NASA's eXploration HABitat (X-Hab) Academic Innovation Challenge – an initiative to prepare for future deep-space missions.

Our next issue of Cosmos magazine is devoted to the wonderful world of robots that is about to revolutionise almost everything we do.

Blog Mathematics 13 August 2014
Stanford's Maryam Mirzakhani makes history today.

Maryam Mirzakhani, a professor of mathematics at Stanford, has been awarded the 2014 Fields Medal – often dubbed the "Nobel Prize of mathematics". She is the first woman to win the prize since it was established in 1936.

Officially known as the International Medal for Outstanding Discoveries in Mathematics, the Fields Medal will be presented by the International Mathematics Union at the International Congress of Mathematicians in Seoul later today.

Mirzakhani's specialises in the fields of geometry and dynamical systems, particularly in understanding the symmetry of curved surfaces, such as spheres, the surfaces of doughnuts and of hyperbolic objects. While mostly theoretical, it has implications for physics and quantum field theory, Stanford said in a news release.

The work ... could have impacts concerning the theoretical physics of how the universe came to exist and, because it could inform quantum field theory, secondary applications to engineering and material science. Within mathematics, it has implications for the study of prime numbers and cryptography. Despite the breadth of applications of her work, Mirzakhani said she enjoys pure mathematics because of the elegance and longevity of the questions she studies.

Mirzakhani was born and raised in Tehran and at first wanted to be a writer until her mathematical talent became plain in high school.

"It is fun – it's like solving a puzzle or connecting the dots in a detective case," she says.

Blog Space 12 August 2014
Perseid Visibility Map for 2014

The early hours of tomorrow morning is the best time to see the Perseid meteor shower as the Earth travels through the debris that lies in the path of the Swift-Tuttle comet. But where is the best place?

The show is so named because the meteors appear to radiate from the constellation Perseus and it happens every year from mid-July, peaking between 9 and 14 August when more than 60 meteors an hour streak through the night sky.

Here's a handy map from NASA which shows where you can see the fireworks – unfortunately for Melbourne, the home of Cosmos, there will be none. You'll have to tell us what it was like.

The Perseids are best seen in the Northern Hemisphere or the higher latitudes in the Southern Hemisphere – further south than about Brisbane and Perseus is just too close to the horizon to see much of anything.

But for the REAL ringside seat you have to go to space. Astronauts aboard the International Space Station see the meteors streak past almost at eye level.

NASA analysed Ron Garan's photo of a fireball below and believes it was caused by a piece of debris only 1 centimeter in diameter colliding with the Earth's atmosphere at more than 200,000 kph.

A Perseid meteor as photographed by Ron Garan while aboard the International Space Station on 13 August 2011.
Ron Garan/NASA

Blog Technology 12 August 2014

What with years of research – not to mention Discovery Channel's Shark Week coming round with such regularity – you'd think we knew all there was to know about sharks. But it seems there is still a lot we have to learn about even basic behaviour of the animals.

A new project by biologists from the Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology and the University of Tokyo's Atmosphere and Ocean Research Institute follows the lead of the GoPro brigade – they strapped a camera on a shark's back to see what happened. The results are "as awesome as you’d expect".

The cams recorded Hawaiian sandbar sharks diving in close formation (see video) with other species (including hammerheads and blacktip reef sharks) and chasing members of the opposite sex. The team had never seen multiple shark species congregating. “This is our first ever shark's-eye view,” says ecologist Carl Meyer.