Science & technology

#1122 Save the world, starting with bees

Pollinating the lupine in Rotary Marsh, Kelowna, British Columbia

Just when news of the day threatens to make optimism look like a fool’s errand, I learn about a 4-decade-old organization that connects scientists and citizens around an important goal: to protect invertebrates and their habitat. Since 1971 the Xerces…


#1113 Lettuce in LED-lit tiers; food factory of the future grows in Japan today

The future is today; lettuce factory in Japan; photo from video below

The future is today; lettuce factory in Japan; photo from video below

Food waste accounts for somewhere between 30 and 40 percent of all the food produced around the world. That is a shocking number. That means land, seed, water, storage, manufacturing and everything else that contributes to the food on our table is wasted.

Like a Phoenix rising from the ashes, a Sony factory abandoned in the wake of the 2011 tsunami is producing lettuce with only 3 percent waste. According to Truth Atlas (a good source of hope), one of the main reasons for that impressive percentage is water. It isn’t leaching through the soil, and it isn’t evaporating, at least not the way it would in a conventional lettuce-growing operation.

Shigeharu Shimamura, a plant physiologist, is CEO of Mirai Co. He explained that conventional farms can grow 26,000 plants on an acre of land. By stacking the plants and growing them under LED lights, the plant factory can harvest 10,000 heads a day in a much smaller space than an ordinary farm. In terms of feeding a burgeoning population, the ability to grow lettuce is a small start, but this factory is pioneering techniques that can be applied to other kinds of food plants.

Maybe it’s my age, but I have a hard time getting excited about food grown in tiers in a 2300 square metre factory. I think I’m lucky. I will go to my grave with the image of seed, soil, water and sun producing a miracle of food. Still, it appears we humans are reproducing like rabbits and using up the planet’s resources at shocking speed. A factory like this will stave off disaster while we figure out more rational ways of living in harmony with the beautiful earth.

With water and food in peril, a growing population to feed, and the future of my grandchildren at stake, I am encouraged by the creativity of people such as Shigeharu Shimamura. They are working hard to ensure a future for all of us.


#1093 Proud to celebrate growing diversity


Canada made same-sex marriage legal nationwide nine years ago. Not only did the country not fall apart, the family crumble, and morality fade away, that act in support of equality and social justice has had a healing effect. While we…


#1081 Have you heard your vegetables scream? These scientists have


Big fat green caterpillar; photo by Richard Wellis Sinyem, via Flickr Creative Commons

Years ago someone told me Joseph Campbell had said, “A vegetarian is someone who has never heard a vegetable scream.” I can’t verify the real author of the quote, but before anyone protests, let me just say he (or she or whoever said that) was on the right track.

Yet another study has confirmed plants have a far richer sensory life than we usually attribute to them. Heidi Appel and Rex Cocroft, both researchers at the University of Missouri-Columbia, published their research in the July 2014 issue of Oecologia. They did not claim to have heard plants scream, but they did discover plants respond to sound.

The scientists sent some acoustic energy plantward. What that means is that they recorded the sounds of a caterpillar chewing a leaf and then played it to plants with no caterpillar in sight. The plants responded with defensive chemicals that warned the enemy to bug off. So when they put caterpillars on the plants, the greenies were ready, and the caterpillars turned up their mandibles in disgust. What’s more, the plants could tell the difference between the sounds of caterpillar vibrations and those of wind or non-attacking insects.

The findings conjure images of sound equipment in farm fields, maybe even replacing some of the chemicals used in agriculture. Appel told the university’s news bureau, “This research also opens the window of plant behavior a little wider, showing that plants have many of the same responses to outside influences that animals do, even though the responses look different.”

It opens a lot of windows for me. If we internalize the notion, supported by science, that every morsel of food we eat is capable of a far richer inner life than we ever dreamed, maybe we will be filled with gratitude for the gift. And if we are filled with gratitude, we will be better stewards of the earth.

This gives me hope.

The first video will introduce you to the researchers. The second is a satirical song from the Arrogant Worms. Be sure your sense of humour is intact before you watch it.


#1075 Organic vegetables and fresh fish from a backyard setup


Modules of the Livingbox system; graphic clip from video below

It makes sense that a home-aquaponics unit comes from innovators in a dry land, where both water and fertile soil are in short supply. Israel’s LivinGreen had developed the Livingbox. It can be constructed where water is at a premium and soon be providing fish and vegetables for the dinner table.

Times of Israel spoke with Nitzan Solan, the co-creator of Livingbox who called it:

…the perfect system, because it lets anyone anywhere grow vegetables without the need for fertile soil, or running water and electricity, and with minimal farming skills. It could help feed people in the developing world, providing them with access to fresh, nutritious food, while helping them maintain a clean environment.

With a $20,000 prize from the International Pears Foundation and Tel Aviv University, the start-up company is one step closer to making its modular system available commercially. With five square meters of space, a family of four or five can produce a lot of organic food in a self-sustaining, closed system. The modular system is also suitable for farmers, who can build larger arrays for commercial purposes.

The Times of Israel article and the video below are brief introductions to a system that holds considerable promise for expanding the food supply. Livingbox gives me hope.


#1070 Tesla Motors throws down the sustainability gauntlet at gas guzzlers


Tesla brings the rainbows; photo by Steve Jurveston, via Flickr Creative Commons

Kudos to Tesla Motors. On June 12, 2014 the manufacturer of electric cars made an unusual announcement: They went open source. That means any company acting in good faith can have free access to their proprietary technology.

Announcing the decision, which applies to both existing and future patents, Tesla’s CEO, Elon Musk, said:

Tesla Motors was created to accelerate the advent of sustainable transport. If we clear a path to the creation of compelling electric vehicles, but then lay intellectual property landmines behind us to inhibit others, we are acting in a manner contrary to that goal. Tesla will not initiate patent lawsuits against anyone who, in good faith, wants to use our technology.

The move puts Tesla ahead of the automotive pack in terms of walking the sustainability talk. It is also smart marketing, likely to appeal to electric-car buyers. Making their technology open source challenges hide-bound, fossil-fuel-guzzling, car manufacturers to step up the the plate and act on behalf of the planet.

Take that, Texas, Arizona, Virginia, Maryland and New Jersey. All five states have been in the forefront of the ban-the-Tesla movement. Other states are also trying to put on the brakes, including Ohio, New York, Massachusetts, Minnesota and North Carolina. Their heads are stuck firmly in the proverbial sand if they think consumers are willing to be forever chained to the gas pump. Climate change, environmental degradation and peak oil make those anti-Tesla actions look not just silly but downright criminal.

So good on you, Tesla. You not only made a smart marketing move. You made a corporate step in the right direction and threw down the gauntlet to the automotive industry. That gives me hope.

Now…let’s have a chat about real sustainability and actual affordability, Tesla. Electric cars should be available for those of us without deep pockets. If the company really wants to make a difference in terms of sustainable transportation, it can’t make cars only for the well-heeled. It also has to look beyond cars and to ways of moving people around with less of a drag on the planet. Maybe even look at why we are so hungry for the new and different that we are reluctant to take a look at the impact of our restlessness on the environment.

So really, what gives me hope with Tesla’s announcement is that a major corporation is opening its secret vaults, inviting the competition to make changes. I am a fan of the open-source movement, the sharing of what we learn, the generosity of the Web community. Together we can come up with alternatives to the consumer society Tesla markets to, alternatives to the endless hunger for New and Better, alternatives that remind us that real wealth is in each other, not more stuff.

You can follow Tesla Motors on Facebook, Twitter, Vimeo, and Google+

Tesla Motors Sizzle Reel from Tesla Motors on Vimeo.


#1061 Did you ever hear a rat laugh?

Black and white rats

Rats are seriously unimpressed by human jokes, but you can make them laugh. How? Tickle them. The scientist who is credited with that discovery is neuroscientist Jaak Panksepp. He and his colleagues discovered that not only did rats engage in…


#1043 Britain’s first woman Nobel Prize winner

Molecular model of penicillin

Fifty years ago Dorothy Crowfoot Hodgkin was awarded the 1964 Nobel Prize in chemistry, yet most people have never heard of her. Hodgkin was one of the founders of protein crystallography. Thanks to her research, we know the structure of…