A New Look at Animal Evolution

By Adam D.A. Manning (@AdamManning)

The evolution of life is an endlessly fascinating subject to study. The richness of the ever-changing chronicle of living things is part of the beauty of nature and in recent decades a new approach to viewing the evolution of the terrestrial vertebrates (that is the reptiles, birds, and mammals) has emerged which challenges our conventional categories.

Reptiles, birds, and mammals have long been the three main groupings of backboned animals that fully live on (or above in the case of birds) the land.  This is derived from our everyday observations of these animals as they are today, but the fossil record reveals a somewhat different tale.

The earliest reptiles evolved from their amphibian ancestors between 310 and 320 million years ago, in the late Carboniferous period.  Shortly after the emergence of the reptiles (known as the sauropsids), a new group called the synapsids evolved from them, splitting the amphibians’ descendants in two.

For a while this divergence seemed to be favouring the synapsids. This is the group of animals that includes mammals (and therefore humans as well), but it also includes a varied assemblage of all sorts of other species.  The earlier synapsids included the familiar Dimetrodon, which had a large “sail” on its back and was roughly four metres long. It was a top predator for its time, that being the early Permian period and animals like Dimetrodon later evolved into the therapsids.

Dimetrodon fossil
Dimetrodon fossil

Therapsids were a very diverse group of animals, such as Lystrosaurus from the early Triassic, which became one of the most successful vertebrate land animals of all time.  Another remarkable species from the later Triassic was Lisowicia, one of the most massive animals of its time, comparable in size to an elephant. The ancestors of the mammals within the therapsids were in a group called the cynodonts, which included the fearsome wolf-sized predator Cynognathus, again from the Triassic. 


Whilst the synapsids seemed the more dominant since diverging from their more reptilian ancestors, something was happening to challenge that dominance during the Triassic. The sauropsids were diversifying into all sorts of new types, including the dinosaurs and the crocodylomorphs, that is the crocodiles and all their ancestors. Crocodiles and the group they belong to have been an enormously successful family of animals, with an abundant range of all manner of different types, far more than those we are familiar with today. There were also numerous aquatic types within the sauropsids, such as the dolphin like ichthyosaurs, and flying and gliding species as well.

The catastrophic extinction event at the end of the Permian and the start of the Triassic is well known as causing the extinction of a significant majority of all species.  There was another, albeit less cataclysmic, extinction event at the end of the Triassic and start of the Jurassic, roughly 200 million years ago.  The Triassic-Jurassic extinction saw the demise of all the therapsids apart from the mammal-like cynodonts. 

The Jurassic period and the Cretaceous that followed it saw the sauropsids in the ascendant, causing the Mesozoic to often be referred to as the Age of the Dinosaurs.  Whilst the therapsids were limited to those cynodonts that had survived, they went onto evolve into a great many diverse species, including the true mammals and their ancestors. 

Mesozoic mammals and their relatives are often thought of as small, unobtrusive shrew or mouse like animals, and many were.  Yet here too, there was a surprising divergence of body types.  These included tree-climbers, species that glided and animals that had a burrowing lifestyle, like moles.  Another extraordinary Jurassic animal from this group was the beaver-like Castorocauda, which was adapted for living partially in the water, and had a pelt of fur.  One of the largest Mesozoic mammals was the Cretaceous carnivore Repenomamus, and there is evidence that it ate dinosaurs.


For all this mammalian diversity, there is no doubt that the sauropsids dominated throughout the Jurassic and the Cretaceous.  The mass extinction at the end of the Cretaceous that included all the non-avian dinosaurs was only a temporary setback as the birds, as descendants of the dinosaurs and part of the sauropsids, not only survived but went on to thrive. 

Including the birds, there are today more species of sauropsids than synapsids.  Whilst it is tempting to think of the time after the Mesozoic as an age of mammals, it is perhaps more valid to think of it as a continuation of the age of sauropsids, just as it has been for the last 200 million years or so.  At a personal level, most of the wild animals most people will see are sauropsids, rather than synapsids. The reptiles and birds we see today are really part of the sauropsids, whilst the mammals, including us, are the only survivors of a much larger group, the synapsids.

The fossil record helps us to understand the story of life in all its richness and can often challenge preconceptions based on our snapshot of living things as they are today, showing us new relationships and connections and enhancing and deepening our appreciation and love of the natural world.

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The Facts About Theories

By Adam D.A. Manning (@AdamManning)

“Evolution is just a theory”, we sometimes hear, disapprovingly muttered.

“Climate change, it’s just a theory”, it is said, as if that was enough to stop the flood of evidence about our changing climate.

Calling something “just a theory” is often used as an easy way to belittle science. Referring to theories in this way makes it sound as though they are flimsy nonsense, easily rebutted and not to be taken seriously. Is that really the case?

Inevitably when discussing the meaning of words, it can be easy to descend into wordplay. The definition of a word changes over time and ultimately depends on the way it is used. At any point in time, one word may also have several different usages and the differences between them may be rather subtle.

In the scientific context in which we are interested, “theory” has quite a precise usage. “Theories”, the paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould wrote, “are structures of ideas that explain and interpret facts” (1). An established scientific theory will have been rigorously scrutinized and will form part of the body of knowledge. It will be a concept that is generally accepted and recognized.

That said, there is nothing immutable or invulnerable about a scientific theory. Einstein’s theory of gravitation has replaced Newton’s (although Newton’s is still good for most practical purposes). Indeed, even facts are not certainties either, but both make up elements of our knowledge of the world through science.

To say “it’s just a theory” about evolution, gravity or climate change is misinformed and lazy. To deride theories in this way is a much used and thoughtless denigration of science that often conceals an attack on a naturalistic outlook on the world, as if scientific knowledge is arbitrary and of little value.

This attitude is regularly accompanied by either a misleadingly innocent disregard or a surprising unawareness of the profound influence and power science has in our lives; from the practical, such as the technology we routinely use, or the medicine we take, to the astonishing and wondrous, in providing us with our understanding of the universe, from the most microscopic to the grand view of all that we can observe. Far from being “just a theory”, scientific theories are instead hard-fought-for knowledge, without which modern society would be impossible and our lives immeasurably poorer, both physically and mentally.

(1) Stephen Jay Gould, Evolution as Fact and Theory, 1981.

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Standing Up for Sexual Selection in Human Evolution

By Adam D.A. Manning

Evolution by natural selection as set out in Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species from 1859 is often thought of as a constant and bloody struggle for survival.  Here, living organisms are engaged in an incessant fight to survive long enough to reproduce and over the long stretches of geological time, species adapt to their environment so as to enhance their prospects of leaving descendants. Those that don’t leave descendants become extinct.

This view of evolution as red in tooth and claw mischaracterizes the totality of Darwin’s thought. In the Origin of Species, Darwin briefly refers to what he calls sexual selection, which he refers to as not “a struggle for existence, but on a struggle between the males for possession of the females”.  The peacock is perhaps the clearest example of the concept with its beautiful tail feathers, which it flourishes to attract the attention of a peahen. Its beauty aside, the peacock’s tail must be an ungainly hindrance to the bird in its daily life; its length when trailing on the ground and visibility when displayed must make it easier for a predator to catch.  If evolution was just a struggle to survive, why did the peacock have such an impediment to its chances of survival?

So striking was the example of the peacock in suggesting that there was more to evolution than just a struggle for existence that in 1860, Darwin wrote, “[T]he sight of a feather in a peacock’s tail, whenever I gaze at it, makes me sick!”  Peacocks and other examples of such displays lead to Darwin developing his ideas on sexual selection in a later volume entitled The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex in 1871, yet this aspect of his theory of evolution has never received the same degree of attention as the concept of natural selection by adaptation, in part due to resistance by some of his original supporters.

Birds offer some of the most obvious illustrations of the concept, including the birds of paradise with their extraordinary plumage, saturated in colour. Bowerbirds are another striking example. Male bowerbirds make great efforts to create elaborate bowers, or nests, ornamented with stones, shells and even human debris such as bits of plastic.  The females inspect them and, after a number of visits to different bowers, elect to mate with the male they deem to have created the best.

These characteristics do not directly assist in survival except in the limited sense of attracting a mate. If the characteristic leads to an increase in opportunities to mate that outweighs the risks in additional visibility to predators, it assists in the species’ survival.

Sexual selection plays a role in mammal courtship as well. In many species, the larger a male is, the more likely he is to mate.  Females generally choose larger males to mate with, presumably on the basis that larger babies are more likely to survive, dominate others and then mate in turn.  Male characteristics that suggest larger size add to their attractiveness to females. Male koalas and hyenas, for example, give out bellows and barks to attract a mate and it seems the deeper the sound, the more attractive it is to females as this suggests a larger male.

In deer, sheep and cattle, the males grow horns or antlers, which can be large and unwieldy.  The larger the antlers or horns, the more likely the male animal is to mate.  This illustrates how such characteristics can become so pronounced; a feedback loop sets in whereby the females chose to mate with the male with the largest antlers, the best bower and so forth and so males are born which inherit that characteristic. The modification is selected for across the generations, becoming more pronounced.

It is fascinating to consider human evolution from this perspective.  The most profound aspect of human evolution, the factor that really defines what it is to be human, is being bipedal.  No other primate, or indeed mammal, has the same bipedal form of locomotion that we do.  It is possible that the emergence of our higher level of intelligence is only as a consequence of first becoming fully bipedal.

Full bipedalism in our human ancestors followed the divergence between humans and chimpanzees from a common ancestor, around six million years ago.  A number of theories have been suggested for why our ancestors became fully bipedal and one of the first was that climatic changes in Africa lead to the opening up of savannas and the reduction in forests. As a consequence, our human ancestors descended from their formerly arboreal habitats, spent more time on the ground and, as a result, became bipedal from striding around their new habitat.

Yet paleoclimatic evidence suggests this environmental change, if it occurred, did not happen around the time that fossil evidence points to bipedalism developing. Other theories include the idea that being upright allows humans to be cooler as more of their body is higher off ground level and also decreases the amount of body area that is directly exposed to the sun. This regulatory control offered advantages in maintaining body temperature and an increased chance of survival.

It is also possible that partial bipedalism is a characteristic of our older ancestors, including the joint ancestors of chimpanzees and humans, and that chimpanzees are the ones that have changed the most by becoming functionally quadrupedal. Gibbons, for example, are often bipedal when climbing in trees and walking along thin branches and provide an illustration of the nature of our possible original partial bipedalism.  According to this theory, human ancestors were already partially bipedal when living an arboreal lifestyle and perfected this when travelling on ground level, whilst chimpanzees took a different course.

The fossil record for human ancestors is far from complete and it is challenging to draw a conclusion from it that definitively establishes why our ancestors became fully bipedal.  This is especially so if the reasons for this were primarily behavioural as it is likely that this will have to be inferred from the fossil evidence.

Bipedalism has a number of disadvantages to humans compared to our quadrupedal great ape relatives. Most significantly, it makes childbirth more difficult and dangerous for both mother and baby. It also makes humans more susceptible to back and knee problems and meant that our ancestors sacrificed the foot’s opposable “thumb” and its ability to grasp objects.

If standing and walking upright has such significant drawbacks, it might be as a result of factors that are not directly related only to survival. This suggests that our bipedal gait is due to sexual selection instead, at least in part. Sexual selection can radically alter an organism’s form and behaviour, as it did with the peacock, so it is not out of the question.

Richard Dawkins has suggested that it might be as simple as that – standing upright became an attractive trait at some point amongst our ancestors. In his book The Ancestor’s Tale: A Pilgrimage to the Dawn of Life he suggests that at some point in our evolution, those who engaged in the new “fashion” of standing and walking on two legs were attractive to potential mates, gained reproductive success and left descendants whereas, over time, those who weren’t bipedal failed to mate.  As described above, this trait could quickly become established and grow more and more pronounced as the generations passed by. At least initially, the practical utility of being bipedal may have been irrelevant.

Standing upright might have also been important in terms of sexual selection as being bipedal helps in displaying the body to potential mates. An example of such a display could be human female breasts, which are larger than those of other primates. Chimpanzee breasts are flatter unless they happen to be lactating, in which they are enlarged to store milk.  Human breasts are permanently in this larger condition and it is possible this is a display to attract a mate. If so, this would be an unusual example of a female displaying to attract a mate. Standing upright helps display the breasts more easily.

Similarly, it has been suggested that standing upright helps the male display his genitals to females. Dawkins has elaborated on this point by noting that male humans, unlike other great apes, lack a penis bone or baculum. An erection in the human penis is entirely due to blood pressure and Dawkins suggests that the lack of a baculum has evolved so that the erect penis can act as an indicator to a potential mate of both physical and mental health.  This might seem speculative, but points such as these are potentially fundamental to human reproductive success and so could have played an important role in our evolution.

An interesting point to consider is that human evolution may have been subject to much more randomness than either natural or sexual selection might imply.  At the genetic level, evolution is due to random mutations. Given a large population and a long period of time, we can interpret changes in the organism’s form or behaviour as making it better suited to survive or attract a mate. Yet if the population is small, such changes do not have sufficient individuals to produce a pronounced difference and the random background of mutations and events can prevent natural or sexual selection from playing the role in the species’ evolution that we would normally expect.

It seems that for a long time, our human ancestors suffered from just this perilous condition.  In the six million years or so since we diverged from chimpanzees, for the vast majority of the time, the line of animals that lead to the chimpanzees outnumbered our ancestors. We have, until very recently, been generally unsuccessful animals, with an insignificant population. Genetic studies of chimpanzees indicate they are more evolved animals than we are, as evolution has had more material to act upon. As a result, random mutation may be a more important factor in human evolution than we might care to think.

The transition to full  may have arisen as a result of many of these factors acting together; it is unlikely that it was just one cause. For example, perhaps sexual selection started the process but when the practical advantages gave our bipedal ancestors a better chance of survival, the change really took hold.  The incompleteness of the fossil record and the generally interpretative context of much of these issues suggest it is possible that there will never be a definitive answer as to how or why humans became fully bipedal.  As more fossils are uncovered, more will be learned about our ancestors and our evolution and it will be fascinating to see the story unfold.

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Looking Back at the Millennium’s Eclipse

By Adam D.A. Manning

Disclaimer: Viewing a Solar Eclipse can be dangerous. Do not look directly at the Sun as this can cause pain, damage to your eyes and sight and even blindness

1999 always sounded like a momentous year growing up in the 70s and 80s; the last year with a 1 at the front (until 10,000 of course!), the last year of the nineties and the last year of the 1900s. To many people, it was also the latter bookend of the twentieth century and the second millennium for that matter; maybe 2000 was the proper terminal point, but that just didn’t sound right. 2000 sounded more like a starting point – 1999 had a finality all of its own from sheer numerical content. Prince sang a song about it and there was even a stylish science fiction TV series set in that year.  The real 1999, supposedly ending in the biggest party in history, was always going to have difficulty competing with the expectation.

In England, the year 1999’s special role in letting in the Millennium included an extraordinary event that had long been predicted with total certainty – a total eclipse of the Sun, due on 11th August of that year. This momentous interplanetary interplay was entirely fitting to the times and in the long final decades of the twentieth century, the eclipse’s approach was hailed with excitement and curiosity.

A solar eclipse is the blocking of the Sun, to a lesser or greater extent, by the Moon. This only happens rarely as the Moon’s orbit is at a different angle to the plane of the Earth’s orbit around the Sun.  The Moon and the Sun are almost exactly, but not quite, the same size in the sky as seen from the Earth as each other; an unusual and striking coincidence.

The Sun is roughly 400 times further away from the Earth than the Moon is. At the same time, the Sun’s diameter is roughly 400 times that of the Moon. As a result, the relative ratios of size and distance mean that they are both roughly a half of a degree in diameter across in the sky. If the situation were any different, solar eclipses would not occur in the way they do.

In fact, the Moon spends the majority of it’s time slightly too far away from the Earth to occupy exactly the same size in the sky as the Sun. As a result, slightly more solar eclipses are what is called “annular” rather than total – that is rather than blocking out the Sun’s disc entirely, the Moon can only occupy most of it but not all, leaving a ring or annulus of the Sun visible behind it.

The Moon’s distance from the Earth varies during its orbit and sometimes it is closer than usual. It is during these points that the Moon is almost exactly the same diameter in the sky as the Sun and the full total solar eclipse can take place.

The distance between the Earth and the Moon is growing over time at the rate of nearly four centimetres per year, or roughly the same speed as the rate at which fingernails grow.  At this rate, it will take a very long time, perhaps in the order of a half a billion years or so, before this effect will have an appreciable difference on eclipses, but the general progression will mean more annular eclipses than total.

When, finally, Wednesday 11th August 1999 arrived, there was the dawning realisation that a solar eclipse visible in England would, inevitably, be impaired by less than perfect weather.  On the day itself, a colleague and I took some time out from the office to observe it from a nearby park in Portsmouth.  At the time, I took with me a hand held mini-cassette tape machine, feeling suitably proud of my technological recording mechanism, to record any such observations.


Nearly eighteen years later, for the first time I’ve gone back and listened to the tape, having to borrow a now virtually obsolete tape machine to listen to it. Such is the march of technological innovation that my ten-year old daughter has never seen a cassette tape machine, of any sort, in operation before.

Though, as an English eclipse, the cloud and modest sunshine meant the event was perhaps less cosmically impressive than it might have been, it’s clear from the tape that we found it to be an absorbing, odd and vaguely disturbing experience.  There was already a diminution to the light when we entered the park at around 10.50am that morning, with a noticeable slice missing from a top corner of the Sun’s disk.  As the minutes ticked by, the gloom became more profound and the wind driven clouds curled and roiled darkly across the diminished face of our star.

The park where we sat in Portsmouth has an aviary in it, in addition to the normal pigeons, crows and other birds that normally strut and flutter about.  As the darkness gathered, unsettlingly the birds noticeably quietened. The absence of this normal background noise of life added to the unease that was slowly building. The light level dropped to around that of twilight, but it was twilight with a distinctively silver tone.


As the cloud whisked across the face of the Sun and Moon in their astral embrace, a shining crescent, thinly blazing, could be glimpsed every now and then. This far from the zone of totality, our eclipse was only ever going to be partial, but it was still an extraordinary sight.

As the maximum point of the eclipse, it grew colder and the wind picked up. The silver twilight, the hush of the life in the park, the gusts and the dropping temperature combined in a surprisingly disturbing, eerie experience. These points were punctuated by the firing of a cannon, presumably on the orders of the City Council, and it was easy during these moments to understand how terrifying an eclipse might have been for people of earlier ages, bereft of our clear understanding of the Solar System’s mechanics and with only their imaginations to play out on what might be happening.


Soon though, the normal daylight returned and for some minutes the rising light levels manifested as pretty and unpredicted pink and orange shades on the clouds near to where the Sun and Moon passed in the sky. Once again, all was well.

America’s eclipse on 21st August 2017 looks very promising; bisecting the United States, it is almost certain to have stretches of clear, or at least clear enough, skies for an uninterrupted total eclipse. Millions of people should be able to enjoy this extraordinary spectacle and for those of us not in the USA, it can be viewed on the NASA website at https://eclipse2017.nasa.gov/. If you can, do experience it – but keep your eyes safe!

Image sources:



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The Age of Dinosaurs – Today

By Adam D.A. Manning

“The dinosaurs are not extinct.”

Robert T. Bakker, Paleontologist.

Imagine the dinosaurs, imperiously soaring, loftily above lowly, scurrying mammals. They are the rulers of all they survey from one horizon to the other.  Is this hierarchy confined to a prehistoric scene, 100 million years ago? No. This is our world, today.

The name “dinosauria” was first used by biologist Richard Owen in 1842, at around the same time that Charles Darwin had formed his theory of natural selection. On the Origin of Species, Darwin’s seminal work beautifully describing his theory, was published in 1859.  In the years immediately following publication, fossils of a particular animal were discovered that would shock scientists and add much needed evidence to the debate about evolution.

These were from southern Germany and were of a wholly unknown species. It was given the name Archaeopteryx, meaning “ancient wing” or “ancient feather”, due to the clear remains of fossilised feathers around its body. It dated from roughly the middle of the Age of Dinosaurs (referred to as the Mesozoic era).

The first fossilised skeleton of Archaeopteryx was discovered in 1861 and was so peculiar it caused a sensation. Possessing features that seemed both bird like (or avian) and reptilian, some wanted to categorise it as a type of dinosaur, while Richard Owen decided it was a bird.  Biologist Thomas Huxley, nicknamed Darwin’s Bulldog due to his vocal support of natural selection, declared that it was a transitional fossil, its intermediate nature showing the evolution of birds from a dinosaur ancestor.

When On the Origin of Species was originally published, the fossil record was limited, with few, if any, notable examples of transitional species. Darwin’s reference to them is unsurprisingly guarded as a result yet Huxley and others soon trumpeted Archaeopteryx as the evidence supporting evolution that the theory’s critics said had been missing. Archaeopteryx was coupled with other striking examples from newly discovered fossils, most notably the gradual evolution of the horse in North America from small, multi-toed animals to the present much larger one toed animals.  Evolution occurring through the transformation of species was becoming clearer as more fossils were uncovered.

Yet the dinosaur origin of Archaeopteryx and by extension birds, whilst popular, was not accepted by everyone in the nineteenth century and later many scientists renounced the idea.  The early twentieth century saw the ascendancy of a theory that the origin of the birds lay in a more primitive family of reptiles called thecodonts (a now obsolete term) that predated dinosaurs.  An apparent lack of clavicles (or collarbones) in dinosaur fossils at that point distinguished them from modern birds, which all had clavicles, and this formed the foundation for the thecodont origin theory.  The thecodont origin of birds became the generally recognised wisdom on the issue until the late twentieth century.  Any similarities between early birds and the smaller dinosaurs they had been compared to, such as Compsognathus, were a coincidence due to convergent evolution and nothing more.

This coincided with the prevailing popular concept of dinosaurs as large, slow, cold blooded creatures. The word “dinosaur” became an insult for anything that was behind the times, moribund and on the way to extinction. Dinosaurs were considered by some as uninteresting animals that had only lead to an evolutionary dead-end when they all died out at the end of the Mesozoic.

It is tempting to think of ideas about dinosaurs as largely being unchanging, given that they existed so long ago. Once facts are discovered about them, that must be it, we might think. Yet like all areas of science, new discoveries often lead to old ideas being challenged and a long established concept may evolve into new, fresh insight.

The sixties were a time of revolutionary thoughts in many areas, including dinosaurs.  New findings concerning a relatively small carnivorous dinosaur called Deinonychus lead paleontologist John Ostrom to the conclusion that some dinosaurs, at least, had been active, energetic animals with sophisticated capabilities and not such lethargic, dull beasts after all.  Further studies indicated that dinosaurs were warm blooded, like mammals and birds, and not cold blooded like other reptiles.

This revisionism went further. Ostrom noted the numerous similarities between Deinonychus and the earliest birds, including Archaeopteryx, and declared that the apparent lack of a clavicle in dinosaur fossils was an insufficient basis for rejecting the dinosaur-origin theory. Other fossils, including those of Tyrannosaurus Rex, made it clear that dinosaurs had a clavicle in any event.

This new approach was very controversial and the subject of heated debate for a number of years. Unlike On the Origin of Species, it was to be several decades before fossil evidence caught up with theory. Starting in the nineties, spectacular new fossils from the Mesozoic were uncovered in China, revealing a range of new avian species from the era. These included bird like animals that pre-dated Archaeopteryx.  All of them were clearly similar to dinosaurs.

Perhaps even more shocking was the discovery of fossils of feathered dinosaurs, again from China in the 1990s. The absence of feathered dinosaurs prior to their discovery had been a point that opponents of the dinosaur-origin theory had relied upon. Their discovery strengthened the link.  The presence of feathers has been discovered for a number of dinosaur species, mostly small carnivorous types belonging to the coelurosaur group (or clade), including relatives of Compsognathus and even species closely related to Tyrannosaurus Rex. Paleontologists now believe that many species of dinosaur, possibly including Tyrannosaurus Rex itself, had feathers, or feather-like, coverings.

With this new wealth of fossil evidence, many paleontologists accept that birds evolved from dinosaurs. Indeed, so close is the relationship that birds are considered to be part of the dinosaur group.  Specifically, birds are part of the coelurosaur clade of dinosaurs and are the only dinosaurs that did not die out at the end of the Mesozoic, some 66 million years ago.

Turkey Vulture (Cathartes aura)

Two families of feathered coelurosaurs, the troodontids and the dromaeosaurids, are considered to be the closest relatives of the birds and, like all the other non-avian dinosaurs, became extinct at the end of the Mesozoic era.  They are normally viewed as having evolved from the same earlier dinosaurs that gave rise to the birds themselves, in parallel with Archaeopteryx and the others. They kept their feathers but did not attain flight, unlike the avian dinosaurs. Reconstructions of these species suggest animals that were weirdly bird like, yet maintained a distinctly dinosaur, alien quality about them.

So bird like are these two families, some have suggested in fact they belong to the avian dinosaurs themselves and so are directly descended from earlier birds.  In a similar way to ostriches and emus, these birds lost the ability to fly but retained their feathers.  So, not only are birds really dinosaurs, some (normally considered to be non-avian) dinosaurs may have actually been birds!

Following the end of what is usually thought of as the Age of the Dinosaurs, that is 66 million years ago, birds flourished and evolved into the multiplicity of forms that we know today.  Some are highly intelligent animals and all of them are superbly adapted to their environment.  Of the land dwelling vertebrate animals, the birds are the most successful, having the highest number of species. They live on every continent and for every one human, it is estimated that there are roughly forty birds. It is truly the Age of the Birds.

If, as we have seen, birds are in reality dinosaurs, then the great Age of the Dinosaurs did not vanish but continues to thrive today.  During the Mesozoic, mammals were generally small animals, scurrying furtively to and fro, out of the way of their dinosaur superiors. An Allosaurus, Diplodocus or Corythosaurus might march by, unimpressed by our ancestors’ existence, towering above the furry beasts.

And in our time, when we look up and spy the eagle, the pigeon or the seagull soaring serenely above our heads, occasionally deigning to look down at us scuttering about, we might wonder, perhaps with a little imagination, has anything really changed?

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It Really Is Rocket Science

By Adam D.A. Manning

Space has long been a wonderful source of inspiration for many people. Numerous scientists and engineers have pursued careers from having the touchpaper of their imagination lit by the thrill of exploring Space, whether that be in the context of science fiction such as Buck Rogers or Star Trek or the real deal, such as the Apollo moon missions.

Even those, such as myself, who do not have a Space career can still get involved and learn more. Recently the British Interplanetary Society (BIS) held a special day of talks billed as an “Introduction to Rocket Science” which was an opportunity for the curious to hear from leading experts. The BIS is the world’s oldest space advocacy organisation and has for over eighty years looked ahead in visionary thinking about the exploration of Space.

To my delight, none other than the prestigious Royal Institution (RI) in London was the venue for this blast off into astronautics. The RI is a cherished organisation in the UK and many of us are familiar with the science-themed Christmas Lectures that are held there. The talks were held in the same lecture hall used for the Christmas Lectures, which gave proceedings a special, historical atmosphere.

As always, the BIS warmly welcomed members of the audience and prior to the launch of the event, I noted how many young children were in attendance. As a father, it is clear to me how quickly children grow up and so reaching out to them with events of this type is so important in firing their imaginations and giving them a valuable look into these areas.

The day featured a variety of presenters on all sorts of Space related topics and included some practical experiments, which reminded me vividly of the famous Christmas lectures. This included a beautiful, ultra-light model aircraft powered by a rubber band to demonstrate the principles of flight, followed later by a dramatic combustion of an alcohol-based liquid in a canister to loudly demonstrate something of the power of a real rocket engine.

Several of the speakers touched on how their careers had progressed and this included Abbie Hutty, a Senior Spacecraft Structures Engineer who is working on the ExoMars rover vehicle. In doing so, she built on the theme of reaching out to the youngsters in the audience and planting the idea in their minds that they too might one day get involved for real. She spoke compellingly about the fascination of her work and the sense of achievement.

One of the most powerful presenters at the day was Professor Chris Welch, a Fellow of the BIS. He described how hearing a talk by Carl Sagan at the RI in 1977 on the importance and urgency of the human exploration of Space had motivated him in turning his interest into his vocation. Later Professor Welch debated on a key issue for Space exploration: Are astronauts really needed or should all exploration be left to robotic missions? The view of the audience was unsurprisingly that human exploration of Space should continue.

Another star speaker was Cady Coleman, a NASA astronaut and a veteran of two Space Shuttle missions and a stay on the International Space Station. It was a special thrill to me, along with many others in the audience, to hear for the first time from someone who had been in space. Cady Coleman soon earned the gratitude of her RI audience with kind remarks about British space hero Tim Peake, referring to him as an exemplary astronaut and a gifted science communicator.

The extraordinary growth in the discovery of extrasolar planets (that is planets outside of our Solar System) was the subject of another talk. Dr Don Polacco detailed the progress in finding these, including extrasolar Earth-like planets, and noted the tendency for somewhat over-enthusiastic, if not to say inaccurate, headlines that can arise from new findings. I was particularly fascinated by his view that if we should one day be able to communicate with an extrasolar civilisation, the chances are that they would be millions or even billions of years more advanced than us.

It was an enlightening and entertaining day with a rich diversity of speakers. Hearing directly from leading academics and practitioners helps take an interest off the page and here, this feeling was bolstered by being at the RI, with its prominent role in advancing scientific knowledge. Attending events of this sort are not only a great way to learn more – they can inspire a feeling of being involved, of being an active participant ready to take further steps in an adventure into science. 

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What Does the Pledge of Allegiance Teach?

Photographer: Mark Wilson/Getty Image

By Leyden Marks

In many schools across the United States, school children routinely stand to recite the contemporary Pledge of Allegiance in their classrooms, usually in the morning.

Some of the common arguments against this repetitive school-day exercise are familiar to me. (Some background on various text versions and the dissimilar complaints follows below). However. I haven’t heard before, from anyone else, one thing that really bugs me regarding the practice.

I just don’t like what the ritual itself teaches to classrooms of youngsters across that nation

Here’s my protest:  It seems to me that this incessant “pledging of loyalty to the nation” is teaching students that it’s acceptable, even expected, that you don’t really need to mean what you say!

In school, with the Pledge, superficiality and hollowness in one’s declarations is ratified.

In school, just uttering the words of assurance repeatedly is actually passable behavior. You needn’t have to mean them. In fact, it seems that you aren’t even expected to mean them.

In school, you must repeat the Pledge of Allegiance (over and over, again and again) because you apparently didn’t take to heart what you just said yesterday (or last week) when we previously said the Pledge. Or maybe conditions somehow changed overnight?

It appears that the school suspects that you didn’t seriously mean what you said before. Why else would it be asking you to keep up the loyalty pronouncements?

If you took the pledge seriously in the first place, you’d say it, and that’d be that. You’d have genuinely pledged.

Some People’s Take on the Pledge

Students today can escape this persistent ritual, if they seriously wish to do so. Not every student has to participate because, in 1943, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of plaintiffs who sought exemption from the exercise on religious grounds. (Subsequently, schools could no longer require students to recite the Pledge if it was contrary to their religious beliefs.) Taking pledges was serious business for those Jehovah’s Witnesses folks.

In a later case against the practice, an atheist (a quite serious one) complained about the phrase “under God” in the Pledge. Michael Newdow was also taking the Pledge content quite seriously.

Those two words had been inserted into the text of the Pledge in 1954 by an act of Congress. Filed initially in 2000, the claimant contended that those added words endorsed religion and thus violated the Establishment Clause of the U.S. Constitution. (Rationale: The practice of teachers, as agents of the government, leading students in a pledge acknowledging God promotes the belief the nation is under God, and that would be an article of monotheistic belief).

Wikipedia offers a summary of that case, which stirred much public controversy at the time and culminated in the Court simply avoiding the actual constitutional question that the claimant had raised. So the Pledge ritual has maintained its 1954 wording to date.

Looking Back Briefly at the Pledge Ritual

Even before 1954, the Pledge wording had changed from the original text, which was created for a one-time flag-raising ceremony in Columbus Day celebration, but was quickly transformed into a ritual.

The first (Oct. 12, 1892) stated:

“I pledge allegiance to my Flag and to the Republic for which it stands, one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”

Notice the words “my Flag” in the first pledge. This phrase was in the Pledge until 1924, when a National Flag Conference announced that the words “my Flag” would be changed to “the Flag of the United States of America.” (This change stemmed from a fear that that the children of immigrants might confuse “my Flag” for the flag of their homeland)

Thus the second pledge was:

“I pledge allegiance to the Flag of the United States of America, and to the Republic for which it stands, one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”

The “under God” phrase was added during the Eisenhower administration at the urging of the Knights of Columbus in order to distinguish the United States from the “godless atheistic’ communistic Soviets. President Dwight D. Eisenhower, fearing an atomic war between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, joined the lobbyist requesting changes be made

The original Pledge was recited while giving a stiff, uplifted right hand salute. This manner was criticized and discontinued during WWII, due to its being so alike the gesture used by citizens of Nazi Germany to salute Hitler. The mode of saying the pledge shifted to one of uttering the words with right hand held over the heart, which was established practice by 1954 when the final change in wording took place.

To Pledge [Anything] – Doesn’t it Mean Something?

According to the dictionary, a pledge is a “solemn promise.’ You make a promise, a serious promise. Some dictionaries follow that with “…to do something” or “…to refrain from doing something.”

Google it, and see if you don’t agree that the term’s various meanings should convey something serious. To pledge is to make a sincere, earnest, intense vow.

If that’s the case, then why has the Pledge of Allegiance become so not like a vow?

As a promise, it’s shallow and hollow, not heartfelt and sincere. It isn’t really an honest, grave, pledge of loyalty, anyway.

In a marriage ceremony, one takes a vow. It’s serious. Although the feeling may dwindle and even disappear over time and circumstance and end with divorce, the one-time vow works at the time. It certainly isn’t repeated next day at breakfast Ornext week

Nor does it have to be repeated, ever again. One has pledged. It was a deep promise, sober, intense (certainly not frivolous). Even if, after many years, a couple decides to “renew the vows, the occasion is taken as one with some solemnity. A pledging to one another is intense.

But what about the Pledge of Allegiance? This pledging of loyalty to the nation. The words being uttered are mechanically issued. Much like the scout pledge, too oft-repeated, the substance rings rather hollow. “Saying the Pledge’ in the classroom, words routinely uttered, becomes more like hanging up one’s coat before being seated than issuing a genuine promise. One needn’t really take it to heart.

Are these who so loudly protest any change whatsoever in the current Pledge (like going back to the pre-“under God” secular version to which everyone might accede), the same automatons who

memorized the words before they could think what making a real sincere loyalty vow would entail?

They’ve been taught. Quite enough back then (and now) to simply utter the words over and over again. One takes the words seriously, perhaps, but not the Pledge.

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Space Law and Extraterrestrial Resources – Who Owns the Moon?

By Adam D.A. Manning

The legal aspects of the ownership and use of lunar and other extraterrestrial resource, such as asteroids, and their implications for endeavours of this sort are important in considering how space development may proceed. The law will have an influence on such efforts, particularly if they are private and commercial, as the nature of ownership will directly influence how they can be used and sold.

The dawning of the Space Age in 1957 with the flight of Sputnik 1 and the International Geophysical Year of 1957/58 focussed thoughts on the need for a legal regime to manage and regulate space activities. The United Nations was quickly recognised as the most appropriate forum for drawing up the principles involved. An important influence on this developing body of legal principles was the Antarctic Treaty System, which viewed Antarctica as a pristine wilderness that needed to be preserved. Outer space was seen in a similar way.

After a series of UN resolutions setting out initial principles in the early sixties, the Outer Space Treaty (1) was enacted in 1967 and is the most important legislation in this area. Article 1 refers to outer space as the “common province” of all mankind. This concept is continued in Article 2, which states that outer space, including the Moon and all other celestial bodies (apart from the Earth of course!) cannot be owned or appropriated by any nation state. The prohibition set out in Article 2 includes ownership by way of occupation; for example simply occupying a site on the Moon, as in a base or station, does not of itself confer rights of ownership.

The Treaty envisages bases being built on the Moon or Mars, for instance, but says that other nations will have the right, subject to reasonable notice, to inspect them. So, if a company builds a mine on the Moon with some secret commercial processes, it has to allow other people in to inspect. These obligations apply to companies or individuals of state parties to the Treaty, as the Treaty makes nation states responsible for the actions of their citizens and legal persons (such as companies) while they are in space.

The Outer Space Treaty was ratified by a large number of countries and is considered an important source of legal principles that apply to space, principles that are likely to be long lasting and very influential.

To some countries, the Outer Space Treaty did not go far enough. The developing nations were concerned that if the space faring nations (which were of course powerful, developed nations) utilised the resources to be found in space, they would be left even further behind. After much negotiation, in 1979 a further UN treaty known as the Moon Agreement (2) was enacted that sought to advance these issues.

As well as repeating the prohibition on ownership of territory in outer space, the Moon Agreement goes further by prohibiting the ownership of any of the substance of a celestial body, such as the Moon’s regolith or the minerals to be found in asteroids. Instead, it proposes an international regime that would administer and regulate the exploitation of the resources of outer space. These resources are, according to the Moon Agreement, the “common heritage of mankind”, a concept that requires the exploitation of outer space resources to be for the benefit of all humanity and in particular developing countries which are not in a position at present to directly explore the Moon or other parts of space.

Other Articles in the Moon Agreement require that those exploring space must take measures to avoid the disruption of the “existing balance” of the environment of the Moon, or other parts of outer space.

This is a profoundly different approach than the simply exploitative and as a result the Moon Agreement was not ratified by any of the space faring nations. The USA felt that it was too “socialist” and the Soviet Union disliked the concept of the common heritage, fearing it too similar to a concept of “inheritance” and the wealth this implied. As a result, the international regime it sought to instigate was never taken any further. This unfinished legal regime complicates the position for companies interested in the exploration and even exploitation of space, as they have no clearly enforceable rights of ownership to whatever they find or use.

These Treaties were drawn up in a time when access to space was the preserve of nation states. Now private enterprise seeks to push back the final frontier. In the USA, this has prompted fresh legislation, including the SPACE Act (3). Headlines have been written suggesting the SPACE Act entitles individuals and companies to claim territorial rights to asteroids or parts of the Moon. This is misleading. The Act supports, within the context of the USA’s domestic law, claims by US citizens and companies to rights to extraterrestrial resources, but makes it clear that this is subject to the USA’s international obligations, for example under the Outer Space Treaty.

Earth bound precedents can help us consider how Space Law might move forward. The Antarctic Treaty System, a forerunner for Space Law in this area, has been successful in halting commercial development in its jurisdiction. Yet do these same concerns of preservation apply quite so clearly on the Moon or to asteroids? A closer analogy is the law of the deep seabed, where the common heritage of mankind principle is relevant as well. The deep seabed could be a source of mineral resources, in a way that is reminiscent of hopes for minerals from asteroids or the Moon. The International Seabed Authority administers this legal regime and its history could provide insights into how Space Law in this area might develop.

If either countries or companies are seeking to use and exploit the resources of space, these legal issues will have to be looked at again to ensure they have the rights to do so and indeed recently the American government has shown an interest in doing so. Unless we are content to see a tragedy of the commons (4) in space or a lawless free for all, the rule of law is going to be important in ensuring the enormous investment required is safeguarded.

  1. The full name for the Outer Space Treaty is the Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, Including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies. See http://www.unoosa.org/oosa/en/ourwork/spacelaw/treaties/introouterspacetreaty.html

  2. The full name for the Moon Agreement is the Agreement Governing the Activities of States on the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies. See http://www.unoosa.org/oosa/en/ourwork/spacelaw/treaties/intromoon-agreement.html

  3. The full name for the SPACE Act is the Spurring Private Aerospace Competitiveness and Entrepreneurship (SPACE) Act of 2015. See https://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/BILLS-114hr2262enr/html/BILLS-114hr2262enr.htm

  4. The tragedy of the commons” is a scenario referred to by economists. An illustration of this, considered in the nineteenth century, involves an area of common land on which cattle may graze. Each herder, acting rationally, would be inclined to add additional cattle to his herd to gain more from grazing on the land. If all the herders do this, in time the land involved would be overexploited, to the detriment of all. The point is of general application in a wide range of contexts, including the oceans, the atmosphere, the seabed, and so forth.

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Climate Change – What Happens Next?

By Adam D.A. Manning

As a possible apocalyptic scenario, climate change is sometimes ranked alongside, or even superior to, nuclear war in severity.  Headlines tell us that the ever escalating concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere will relentlessly push the temperature higher, unleashing all manner of dangers and adversity, threatening our way of life and harming Earth’s ecosystems. Sometimes it seems so terrifying that we are taken beyond the point of caring and prefer a blissful ignorance as to what awaits us.

For all the doom mongering, it is curious how rarely this striking account of the future is directly related to our own lives or that of future generations. I have two children under the age of ten; what will climate change mean to their futures, or the lives of their children?  Obviously I am concerned as a parent, but more broadly what will climate change practically mean to us as individuals and as a society?

I’ve tried to look into this with an open mind and to use respected sources of information.  It’s obvious that climate change and climate science generally are highly complex.  There is a lot of information available and whilst it is tempting to wish for a simple one page summary, there are so many variables covering such a range of factors that concise overviews are in danger of being misleading.

The most important point in predicting how the climate may change is an estimate of how concentrations of greenhouses gases, the most well known of which is carbon dioxide, in the atmosphere may vary in the remaining decades of the twenty-first century.  If matters continue as they are, with no reductions, the amount of greenhouse gases will increase over time.  By contrast, even if all emissions of greenhouse gases stopped today, the existing levels in the atmosphere will still have some effect on global climate in the years to come.

As a UK citizen, my reading first took me to a report from our government, produced principally by its Met Office (Met here being short for Meteorological) entitled, “UK Climate Projections: Briefing report” from 2010. The Met Office in the UK is a credible authority on climate and the weather. The introduction from Professor Robert Watson, Chief Scientific Advisor, begins, “[T]hat the world’s climate is changing is irrefutable.”  One of the observed trends in the report is that the temperature in central England has already increased by 1°C since the 1970s.

This summary looks at projections for 2080 which are based on what is called a “medium emissions scenario”. This term refers to a projection of how emissions of greenhouse gases will change in the future and the medium emissions scenario is one of economic growth coupled with a moderately reduced use of fossil fuels. It is a middle path between a higher level involving strong economic growth and a lower level in which significant reductions in the use of fossil fuels is achieved.

In this projection, by 2080 the temperature across all parts of the UK will increase, more so in summer than in winter and more in the south than the north.  By that point, the mean summer temperature is projected to increase by 4.2°C in southern England. The figure quoted here is merely the central estimate in a range of values.  This increase in temperature leads to more 10-day dry spells (without rain) throughout the UK especially in southern England and Wales.

Predictions of temperature increase of this sort provide a measure of the forthcoming changes but tell us little of the practical effect on our lives. My reading took me to another report from the Met Office entitled, “Climate: Observations, Projections and Impacts” from 2011 which contained more interpretation of the likely effects.  It noted the additional deaths caused by heat waves and severe storms in the past, the implication being that if these become more frequent, more deaths will occur.

Chapter 3 of the report looks at impact projections of climate change, whilst noting the degree of uncertainty involved.  Strikingly, whilst the UK is presently a country with few concerns about food security, the report suggests in the most severe of scenarios, climate change could affect crop yields, particularly in the south, and that this might, unless managed, lead to exposure to undernourishment.  As the temperature increases and the number and length of dry spells grows, periods of drought and water stress will increase.  The UK, in my experience, responds poorly to droughts (as a rainy nation, we’re simply not used to it) and I can only imagine the difficulties these might cause.

The increase in drought in the summer is accompanied by an increase of the risk of flooding in the winter, due to more rainfall.  The UK has experienced a number of incidents of serious flooding in recent years and these are a disaster for those affected, with homes and possessions destroyed or damaged. The risk is enhanced for coastal areas due to higher sea levels.

The overall picture that emerged was one of a changing yearly cycle with more extreme weather episodes.  The UK always seems to respond poorly to extreme events of this sort and so climate change looks like it would unleash a degree of chaos (and consequent expense) as a result.  And these were predictions from a scenario involving a moderately reduced reliance on fossil fuels.

I was interested to see what research had been carried out on the implications of climate change in the USA and so, naturally, went to the USA’s Environmental Protection Agency’s website. My difficulty was that the temperature changes were all given in °F rather than °C!

Usefully, a section entitled “US Key Projections” set out some headlines that a layperson like myself could absorb.   A temperature increase of a similar nature to that suggested in the UK was set out.  One projection that caught my eye was that, “[C]limate models project that if global emissions of greenhouse gases continue to grow, summertime temperatures in the United States that ranked among the hottest 5% in 1950-1979 will occur at least 70% of the time by 2035-2064.” So, by the middle of this century, temperatures that would have been considered extremely hot during the middle of the twentieth century will be common unless the increase in greenhouse gases is halted.

With regard to precipitation, the EPA predicts that storm tracks in the USA will move northward and the strongest type of winter storms are expected to become stronger and more frequent.  The amount of rainfall in heavy precipitation events is likely to increase in most regions.  Northern areas of the country are predicted to become wetter and southern areas drier.  As the ocean warms, the intensity of Atlantic hurricanes is likely to increase.

The EPA’s website has useful sections exploring the implications of climate change on different aspects of life in the USA.  They state, for example, that, “[C]limate change may especially impact people who live in areas that are vulnerable to coastal storms, drought, and sea level rise or people who live in poverty, older adults, and immigrant communities.”  Also from the USA, NASA has reported that February 2017 was the second warmest February on record in 137 years and that January 2017 was the third warmest January.

Turning to the global scale, the United Nations declared recently that 2016 was the hottest year on record, surpassing the exceptionally high temperatures of 2015. According to the UN, over the 130 year period leading up to 2012, global temperatures increased by 0.85°C.  For each one degree of temperature increase, grain yields decline by about 5 per cent. Wheat, maize and other major crops have experienced significant yield reductions at the global levels during the period 1981 to 2002 due to a warmer climate, a trend that is likely to continue as the temperature rises.

The UN predicts temperature increases by the end of the twenty-first century of a similar nature to that by the EPA and the UK’s Met Office.  At the global scale, the UN stresses that climate change will disrupt “national economies, costing people, communities and countries dearly today and even more tomorrow”.  It can also exacerbate threats such as food and water scarcity, as is already being seen, which can lead to conflict.  This could add to international tensions as nation states respond to these challenges.

This overview of predictions and implications lead me to realise that my curiosity about how, precisely and in detail, climate change would affect the lives of my great-grandchildren (if I am fortunate enough to have any) would only in reality be able to grasp a general outline of the parameters involved. Yet that was enough to get a sense of the profound and swift changes the world might undergo during the lives of my immediate descendants – and my life too of course.

Though wherever I looked there were cautious words about how, even if all emissions stopped now, the climate will be distorted for centuries to come, there were still encouragements about how, at this late hour, plans could be made and action taken to ward away the direst futures. Poorer countries can be helped, in the UN’s words, to “leapfrog to cleaner, more resilient economies.”   The challenge of climate change threatens all peoples and could be the spur to more international cooperation. Time is short though and the need is pressing and more urgent as ever year goes by.  Our children and the children that follow them, the dream and promise of our future generations, need us to get to work right now, today, in doing as much as we can to sort this out as individuals, countries and a world.

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Space Based Solar Power – the key to a bright future?

By Adam D.A. Manning

Solar energy directly beamed to Earth’s surface from space has for over fifty years been proposed as a cheap and endless source of energy.  In more recent years, this Space Based Solar Energy (SBSP) has also been suggested as a way to tackle climate change by weaning us away from fossil fuels. Yet for all its perceived usefulness, the practical implementation of such plans is as far away now as it has ever been.

solar_panel_satelliteOriginally proposed by Dr. Peter Glaser in 1965, the concept involves satellites in orbit converting solar energy from our Sun and converting this into a form that is then transmitted down to a receiving station on the Earth’s surface below, either by microwave or laser transmission. The advantage over solar panels on Earth is that solar energy in space is effectively continuous; the weather or the day/night cycle cannot interfere. Without the barrier of the atmosphere, solar energy is more powerful as well.  SBSP seeks to directly tap the endless and enormous energy of our Sun and put it to use here on Earth.

This startling idea could provide a way to break our civilisation’s dependence on fossil fuels and to reorder the geo-political relationships derived from our petroleum based economy.  SBSP received more attention during the 1970s and in particular became associated with the studies on large-scale space habitats undertaken by Dr Gerard O’Neill.  Analysis at the time indicated that to really make an impact, the structures in space required by SBSP would have to be enormous.  Satellites with arrays of solar panels over a kilometre in diameter were outlined in the more far-sighted reports.  These issues were seized upon by critics and the concept became somewhat discredited.

sbspdemorenderIn the decades that have followed, new studies have returned to the idea. The tantalising prospect of cheap, abundant energy means interest has never entirely disappeared.  One common theme is that no fundamental breakthrough in science is required to deliver SBSP; the challenges are those of scale and cost.  As well as the huge infrastructure required, another issue is the very large number of launches from Earth that would be required and their resultant costs.  One suggestion on how to tackle this is to use materials taken from the Moon’s surface as the building blocks for the power satellites, thus cutting down on the number of launches from Earth’s high gravity well.

the-case-for-space-solar-power-coverMore recent consideration focuses on the use of new techniques and technologies to reduce the costs required in creating a viable SBSP system.  The original studies envisaged armies of workers in space being required to assemble the power satellites; modern studies note how robotics can be used instead, especially when combined with 3D printing techniques.  John C. Mankins’ book, The Case for Space Solar Power is an accessible and fascinating look at the development and current state of studies on SBSP.

Practical experiments related to SBSP have taken place, for example in Japan.  This involves the beamed transmission of energy over a distance of over fifty metres.  If SBSP is to move forward, experiments in space are needed to prove the technology involved. An example of this could be a power satellite, somewhat smaller than the eventual structure at only 50 metres in diameter, being placed in geosynchronous orbit and beaming down power to a collecting station on the surface below.

The promise of SBSP is potentially a world wide revolution in energy creation.  SBSP could offer clean, continual power at very little cost, once the enormous installation required is in place.  Freed from needing fossil fuels, our civilisation can potentially step away from additional carbon loading of the atmosphere.

Yet there are many counterpoints to be made.  Elon Musk, of Tesla and SpaceX fame, takes the view that SBSP is impractical as, in his view, by the time SBSP derived energy has been partially absorbed by the atmosphere and is received, the level is not that much different from conventional solar panels placed on Earth’s surface. The suggestion is that it would be cheaper and more efficient to obtain all the energy SBSP might provide by an appropriate number of conventional solar panels on Earth’s surface instead.

sbspdemoframeAs well as the power satellites, which would still be very large even with the application of modern techniques, the receiving stations on Earth would be huge as well.  To collect the radiation at ground level will require stations that are estimated to be, again, over one kilometre in diameter. The safety of the microwave or laser transmissions to Earth from the power satellite is also another key issue. Advocates suggest these would be at such a low level that it would be safe for birds or aircraft to fly through; opponents are not so sure.

The issue of cost is the most important factor in deciding if SBSP is viable and, as with safety, opinions are divided.  It seems that launch costs are a key here. These never did reduce as dramatically as the studies from the 1970s predicted.  The analysis must focus on whether SBSP derived electricity is cost effective compared to that from other sources, such as nuclear power stations.

The potential for answering both our ever-growing energy needs and the escalation of climate change will renew interest in SBSP. Such a huge project requires government intervention, yet it remains to be seen if democratic governments elected every semi-decade or so can implement such a substantial plan and see it all the way to fruition.  It is interesting to note that the Chinese government is studying SBSP as a possible means of tackling its pressing energy needs.  Perhaps what is needed is a race, like the Moon race of the Apollo years, to finally see SBSP leap off the drawing board and into orbit.

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