Enjoy the pick of the week’s science and technology stories from around the web, as selected by Bob Trevelyan, editor of The Browser.
The vanishing groves
Ross Andersen | Aeon | 16 October 2012
A superb essay on the world's oldest trees, the bristlecone pines of California, and their interaction with humans, land and climate. They live high up in small alpine pockets; their record is one of astonishing endurance in inhospitable climates. In times of drought they virtually shut down, roaring back to life when conditions improve. The most ancient among them is estimated to be at least 4,800 years old. "I can take you up to a point that’s higher than any living tree, and higher than any of the dead trees we’ve ever found," says one expert, "and I can show you where, two years ago, I found a little foot-high bristlecone pine growing."
Where will the next pandemic come from? And how can we stop it?
David Quammen | Popsci | 15 October 2012
The best guess: A human disease that comes from wildlife, probably from a subgroup known as RNA viruses. They're highly adaptable, jump species, and disappear quickly or kill. "Over the last half dozen years, I have asked eminent disease scientists and public-health officials the same two-part question: 1) Will a new disease emerge, in the near future, sufficiently virulent and transmissible to cause a pandemic capable of killing tens of millions of people? and 2) If so, what does it look like and from where does it come? Their answers to the first part have ranged from maybe to probably. Their answers to the second have focused on zoonoses, particularly RNA viruses. The prospect of a new viral pandemic, for these sober professionals, looms large. They say it might happen anytime."
Alpha Centauri and the new astronomy
Lee Billings | Centauri Dreams | 16 October 2012
The discovery of a new planet outside our solar system is a fascinating development, opening the way to a "New Astronomy" that focuses not on the edge of space and the beginning of time, but on the nearest stars. "Among the planet-hunters, the question is no longer whether life exists elsewhere in the universe, but rather how far removed the next-nearest living world might be... It seems increasingly likely that small planets exist around most if not all stars, near and far alike, and that Alpha Centauri B may possess additional worlds further out in clement, habitable orbits, tantalizingly within reach."
Google throws open doors to its top-secret data center
Steven Levy | Wired | 17 October 2012
A visit to the "beating heart of the digital age". It's a server farm in North Carolina and, says Levy, "This is what makes Google Google: its physical network, its thousands of fiber miles, and those many thousands of servers that, in aggregate, add up to the mother of all clouds. This multibillion-dollar infrastructure allows the company to index 20 billion web pages a day... Only critical employees have been permitted even a peek inside. Until now."
This must be heaven
Sam Harris | Sam Harris | 12 October 2012
You may have heard about or read the recent Newsweek cover story in which a neurosurgeon, Eben Alexander, described his experience of the afterlife. He'd contracted bacterial meningitis and fallen into a coma in which state he'd experienced visions of intense beauty. His account of life on the other side, following his recovery, sounded lovely, butterflies and all. But, says Harris, the conclusions the doctor drew from his sublime adventures seemed alarmingly unscientific. Fearing that something may have misfired in his own brain, Harris enlisted the opinion of a neuro-imaging expert to interpret Dr Alexander's account of his experience.