Lasers to Alpha Centauri

Last week for Slate I wrote about the ambitious proposal to send small spacecrafts dubbed “starchips” to the Alpha Centauri system. This was a fun article that was actually months in the making, though the news of $100 million funding seemed to come out of nowhere.

I first learned of Phil Lubin’s ideas to use lasers for interstellar travel at the 100 Year Starship symposium last fall. The conference was full of zany proposals, but Lubin’s seemed, somehow, to not be as crazy as some others. PhotonRocketbyGGZelkinHis explanations were clear and he acted as surprised as anyone that the physics of relativistic travel for small, laser-propelled spacecraft was sound. (He shopped his calculations around to physicist far and wide–the crankier critic the better–and no one could prove any show stoppers.)

Skeptics will say that laser-based space travel will never get enough money to actually fly. I suspect this might be the case. Still, there’s no doubt it’s an inspired and inspiring idea.

Check out the Slate article here.

Check out Lubin’s extensive roadmap for interstellar flight here.

Check out this fun article from 1960 about a different but related kind of photon propulsion here.

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The Bored Astronaut


Last month I got an email from Max Nesterak, a journalist at NPR who works on the podcast called Hidden Brain. He had read my piece in Aeon about being bored during the the four-month isolation mission back in 2013, and wanted to know what it was like to be so bored. So I told him.

Here’s a sample:

Kate Green is a science journalist. She spent four months living in this tiny dome with five others. She wrote about her experience in Aeon.

She says that before she went in, she considered herself a person who never got bored.

“Well, things wear on you over the course of four months.” Green says. “And by things I mean a static environment. We were talking to the same five people every single day. Our home was a white dome with puffy walls that did not change day to day.”

Listen to the full podcast here.

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Swim Food

After a long delay, here is a post about the very-fun-to-research piece I wrote for Lucky Peach about the food marathon swimmers eat when they swim for a hours on end.

Check it out here.


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Interstellar Band-Aids

I have a new piece up at The Atlantic about a better wound dressing for deep cuts, lacerations and burns. These dressings–which can be 3-D printed into customizable shapes and have been shown to significantly reduce the time it takes a wound to heal–are being developed by an Aurora, CO company called Sharklet Technologies.

Last fall, Chelsea Magin of Sharklet presented the product-in-development at the 100 Year Starship Symposium. Clearly, better dressings aren’t just good for an imaginary starship. They could also be used on in hospital burn units, on battlefields, or anywhere else resources are limited and healing quickly is critical.

Details on how the dressing works and what sharks have to do with it are in the full article here.


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Eyes on the River


Pacific Standard just published my piece on mapping rivers above and below the surface in its January/February 2016 issue. This was a fun one that grew out of reading a 2012 NYT blog post about a nascent river-mapping project by a guy named Kristian Gustavson. For years, I just couldn’t get the idea of river mapping out of my mind. So I contacted Gustavson and he was kind enough to host me on one of his river runs down the Sacramento back in 2014. I got an up-close view of the kind of cowboy science he and his team were doing.

It was great, but I needed to find others who were collecting compelling visual data for monitoring waterways. Turns out, there’s a growing need to track river ecosystems because dams are being removed and more rivers are flowing freer than they have for decades. I was excited, then, to come across FishViews, a company out of the Pacific Northwest that’s tackling the challenge of river mapping with serious verve and engineering muscle. Inspiring stuff. Add in the non-profit American Rivers’ mapping collaboration with Google, there seemed to be enough activity around river mapping to warrant a full fledged story.

Here’s an excerpt:

The thing about a wild river is that it’s not all rapids. A wild river—a protected resource in the United States and other countries—can be a trickle or a torrential flow; its water can be silty or clear; it can carve through canyons or spread out over grasslands; and a single wild river can be all these depending on the season and terrain.

The thing that makes a river wild is that its course hasn’t been significantly diverted by dams or other engineering projects: It experiences all its seasons and naturally supports its plants and animals. Simply put, a wild river flows free.

I didn’t know it until recently, but I’d never seen a wild river. Almost every waterway that looms large in the American psyche is significantly engineered, or, more often, over-engineered. The Colorado, Columbia, and Mississippi, just to name a few, are all significantly dammed to make reservoirs of ready water for communities far and wide.

This summer, though, I did experience a wild river, one of the few remaining in the West—virtually. I was able to pull up water-level shots and take a float trip down the Yampa in northwest Colorado.

You can read the piece here.

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