Will Sweden Be The First Country To Get Rid Of Cash?

from: http://arstechnica.com

Several major banks in Sweden no longer carry cash, and if you want to buy a candy bar at the corner store, you pull out your phone. Even homeless people selling newspapers on the street take credit cards. By the end of last year, four out of every five transactions in the country were cashless. And new research has found that the amount of money in circulation has dropped around 40% to 50% over the last six years.

An app called Swish, launched by Swedish banks, is helping drive the change. The app allows people to digitally transfer funds between bank accounts as quickly as handing over cash (perhaps more quickly if you’re wallet is very disorganized). “It takes about two seconds to transfer the money, which gives it a character similar to cash,” says Niklas Arvidsson, a professor at Sweden’s KTH Royal Institute of Technology who studies the transition away from cash.

Though other countries have similar apps, like Venmo in the U.S., they don’t work in real time; a transfer might take one day or even two. The U.S. app Dwolla wants to bypass the traditional Automated Clearinghouse system to make instantaneous transfers, but so far only a few banks of signed on to its service. Sweden, on the other hand, has been quick to embrace it: It now has over 3 million users, out of a population of 9.5 million.

Sweden has a history of being quick to adopt financial innovations. The country installed its first ATM machine in 1967, two years before the U.S. Now they’re ripping the machines out (between 2010 and 2012, banks removed around 900 ATMs). The move to digitize everything has been happening for awhile—Sweden was also early to adopt direct deposits and paying with plastic. By this century, unions started pushing to get rid of cash as a way to protect workers like bus drivers from robberies—if you get on a bus now, you can’t pay with paper money.

“There is also a demographic development behind this,” says Niklas Arvidsson, a professor at Sweden’s Royal Institute of Technology who studies the transition away from cash. “Younger people do not start using cash but instead move directly into new services, while older people—who are the most frequent users of cash—reduce their spending as they get older and older.”

The move helps make robberies less likely and may reduce organized crime (the banks that still accept cash are suspicious when anyone tries to make a deposit) and tax evasion. It’s cheaper for the country overall, because electronic transactions cost less than handing cash. And, for most people, it’s more convenient—imagine never having to walk six blocks to the nearest ATM again.

Of course, even in hyper-connected Sweden, not everyone has a smartphone or a debit card. “The main challenges is to create a payment service system that allows everyone in a society to make a payment and to receive money in a convenient way,” Arvidsson says. “There are people without bank accounts, mobile phone subscriptions and access to Internet, and there must be solutions also for them. Cash is a good solution for this group and there must be solutions also in a cashless society.”

Privacy is another issue. “The questions of integrity and freedom are other issues. If all payments are possible to trace and the government—for some reason or the other—is not acting in the best interest of their citizens, there will be problems. Being able to trace money is of course good for a government that wants to reduce organized crime but there is also a possibility that this is abused by corrupt regimes.”

The country won’t become 100% cash-free immediately—the country’s central bank would have to change the law and say that cash is no longer legal tender. “This is not likely to happen before 2030,” says Arvidsson. “There are no indication that politicians are considering that move. The introduction of new Swedish bills and coins, which is happening now, actually points to the conclusion that the central bank and politicians plans for the possibility that cash will be around until at least 2040. Then there will be a need for a decision that either says that we should introduce new bills and coins or to make the step into a 100% cashless society.”

Still, the country may get close to eliminating cash much sooner and could be practically cashless in 8 to 10 years.

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How Mexico is becoming the drone capital of Latin America | Fusion

by Rafa Fernandez De Castro
Andy Dubbin

Rafa Fernandez De Castro

Rafa Fernandez De Castro is a Fusion consultant for Mexico and Latin America. He covers Mexican youth, politics, culture, narcos and funny stuff once in a while.

Mexico is getting high on drones.

A lack of strict aerospace regulations combined with a growing manufacturing and aerospace industry could turn the country into the drone capital of Latin America. Mexico recently opened the first drone pilot academy in region, and now hopes to become a global competitor in the high-flying industry.

“We saw a wave of consumers buying drones, but they didn’t know how to operate them,” Jose Luis Gonzalez, director of Mexico’s Drone Academy and CEO of Unmanned Systems, told Fusion. So he opened a drone academy in Mexico City and began offering a 9-hour course. They’ve already graduated 50 drone pilots in less than a year.

It’s part of why Mexico is fast becoming an ideal testing ground for the development of drones, Gonzalez says.

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A painting in Gonzalez’ office depicts an Aztec God using a drone to take over the world.

“Mexico has low production costs and there’s skilled labor that can turn the nation into a key player in the drone industry,” he said. “There’s a big entrepreneurial spirit here.”

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Gonzalez isn’t the only one developing the Mexican market. A local company known as Unmanned Systems Technology International has released a drone known as MX-1, which is being marketed as “a proudly Mexican aircraft backed by thousands of hours of conceptualization, design, prototyping and flight tests,” according to its website. The MX-1 drone can allegedly fly for up to seven consecutive hours and reach a cruising speed of 68 mph. Other companies such as 3D Robotics are also fabricating drones in Mexico.

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The MX-1 via http://www.usti.mx/

Mexico is also finding new uses for drones, from protecting endangered animal species to improving agricultural practices and preventing forest fires. Earlier this month a group of researchers announced they will be using drone photography to enhance land cultivation and fertilization techniques.

The Mexican government is reportedly using drones to monitor crime-ridden areas, develop naval operations, and monitor some of the country’s state-owned oil pipelines.

There’s also been innovation by the criminal world. Some narcos are now apparently using drones to smuggle drugs across the U.S.-Mexico border.

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A meth-carrying drone crashed in a Tijuana parking lot last January / via SSP Tijuana.


And then there’s singer Enrique Iglesias foolishly cutting his fingers while trying to grab a hovering drone during a concert in Tijuana —an incident that fits into a category all its own.

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Overall, Mexico has embraced drone technology quicker than other countries in the region. In May many chilangos flocked to Mexico City’s first drone expo to learn about the development and use of the so-called multirotor drones.

The government shares the public’s enthusiasm. Last March, Mexico’s Aerospace Navigation Service commissioned a video shot by a drone flown over Mexico City’s airport. “It turned out wonderful. We’ve gotten rave reviews,” air traffic controller Alejandro Ruiz de la Fuente told the Washington Post. “We know that back in the United States it’s not allowed.”

While drones have an increasingly military connotation in the U.S., in Mexico and many parts of Latin America drones are mostly viewed as fun, useful and educational tools. In Peru drones are reportedly being used to monitor archeological sites, while in Chile some universities have begun offering courses in piloting. Brazil is using drones to help protect the Amazon.

But drone fun is also creating new problems. Argentina’s government recently moved to protect people’s privacy by regulating the use of drones to prevent candid photographs and videos shot from above.

Now the U.S. could spoil some of the fun if it continues to militarize drone use in Latin America. The United States Southern Command or SOUTHCOM has already deployed unarmed drones on joint military exercises and missions in Central and South America. The war on drugs also appears to be prompting Latin America to ramp up the use of U.S.- and Israeli-manufactured drones against traffickers.

Some of the drones being used in the region by SOUTHCOM:

“With regard to Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), it is hard to predict the extent to which they’ll be employed to counter transnational organized crime in the SOUTHCOM area of responsibility in the long-term,” Southern Commander spokesman Jose Ruiz told Fusion.

Ruiz said SOUTHCOM has “been able to periodically employ” a model known as the RQ-4 Global Hawk, but wouldn’t offer details about the mission. “Operational security precludes us from discussing specifics, but when utilized by SOUTHCOM to support detection and monitoring operations, the RQ-4 is configured with non-lethal, surveillance capabilities; and missions that include time over the sovereign airspace of a partner nation are closely coordinated with the host-nation government through the U.S. embassy before being approved and scheduled.”


Alejandro Sanchez, a drone expert at the Council of Hemispheric Affairs, told Fusion there have been occasions when unarmed U.S. drones have entered Mexican airspace. “A U.S. drone helped triangulate the cellular network of drug lord Joaquin ‘El Chapo’ Guzman, pinpointing his whereabouts for Mexican authorities,” he said.

So far, no U.S. drones flown over Latin American airspace have been known to be weaponized. But experts say it might be only a matter of time before there are armed drones circling the region.

Sanchez says based on the U.S. experience, Latin American militaries are realizing drones can change the tide of war. He thinks the lack of technological know-how might be the only binding constraint preventing Latin American countries from developing their own weaponized drones. “I think security forces in Latin America see drones favorably,” he said.

The U.S. recently passed legislation allowing the sale of armed drones to ally nations. And Sanchez thinks Mexico and Colombia could be the first countries in line to buy them.

Israel is also a major player in the drone industry. A 2014 report by COHA says Israel is the main provider of drones to Latin America, selling “some $500 million worth of drone technology to Latin American clients between 2005 and 2012.”

For now, Latin America’s drone market remains unarmed and mostly unregulated.

“I think in Mexico and most of Latin America they are viewed as toys,” Sanchez said. “But there will be a point when we we’ll have to talk about privacy laws, drones flying in airports and residential areas. They are devices that can be used by reputable agencies, but also criminals.”

Fusion looks at how drone technology is changing the way we see the world in our special, Drone Nation. Click here to watch.

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Your Favorite Meat Snack Just Got Classified As Cancerous

Joshua A. Krisch Oct 23, 2015 at 4:04 PM

WHO declared processed meats as dangerous as cigarettes and alcohol (Photo Illustration: Diana Quach/Vocativ)

The World Health Organization just classified processed meats (bacon, deli meats, hotdogs) as “carcinogenic to humans” and all red meats as “probably carcinogenic to humans”, in light of multiple studies that suggest these popular meats are linked to colorectal cancer, pancreatic cancer and prostate cancer. Their findings are due to appear in Volume 114 of the IARC Monographs.

Here’s an excerpt from the journal Lancet Oncology:

Overall, the Working Group classified consumption of processed meat as “carcinogenic to humans” (Group 1) on the basis of sufficient evidence for colorectal cancer. Additionally, a positive association with the consumption of processed meat was found for stomach cancer. The Working Group classified consumption of red meat as “probably carcinogenic to humans” (Group 2A). In making this evaluation, the Working Group took into consideration all the relevant data, including the substantial epidemiological data showing a positive association between consumption of red meat and colorectal cancer and the strong mechanistic evidence. Consumption of red meat was also positively associated with pancreatic and with prostate cancer.

The Battle Against Breast Cancer: A Brief History

Rumor circulated on Friday that IARC would make this controversial move, and we covered it. Below is Vocativ’s analysis of the rumors, which have now been confirmed with the official release of the IARC report:

The Daily Mail, citing anonymous sources, claims that the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer plans to designate processed meats such as bacon, salami and hotdogs as Group 1 carcinogens (compounds known to cause cancer in humans) while designating all other red meats as mere Group 2A carcinogens (probably carcinogenic).

The IARC decision would put bacon in some strange company:

It wouldn’t be unprecedented, however. Previous IARC recommendations have placed both diesel fuel and the popular insecticide glyphosate on the list of Group 1 Carcinogens—and, in doing so, stoked international fears of traffic fumes and GMOs. Still, many of the IARC’s more than 1,000 carcinogenic compounds are the sort of things we eat, drink, breathe or engage in mindlessly. While we’re terrified of eating insecticides, IARC considers them less dangerous than smoking, drinking or even working as a painter.

To be fair, the red meat scare has some decent science behind it. Studies have shown that eating more than 18 ounces of red meat per week significantly increases your risk of colorectal cancer and that processed meats are at least as dangerous. Besides cancer, red meat has recently been linked to shorter lifespans and heart disease, and in 2014 the IARC cited several ominous studies linking processed meats to cancer.

We Give Up. Let’s Just Say Coffee Cures Everything

Still, it’s unclear whether red meat actually causes cancer. Studies showing “links” between meat and cancer are notoriously unreliable, for effectively the same reason that we’re not sure any food causes any disease. There are a lot of strange chemicals in our diets, we’re constantly exposed to sunlight (the ultimate carcinogen) and we inhale toxic fumes in cities and on farms.

Although self-serving, Shalene McNeill of the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association put it best: “Cancer is a complex disease that even the best and brightest minds don’t fully understand,” McNeill told Reuters. “Billions of dollars have been spent on studies all over the world and no single food has ever been proven to cause or cure cancer.”

Junk Science: The GMO Debate Is Over

When it comes to food, however, people get extra nervous—and the meat industry knows that. If the IARC goes after red meat, it’ll likely kick off an era of warning labels on hotdog packages and annoying health freaks lecturing us on the evils of bacon. We may even see an aggressive meat tax, or an age limit on bacon consumption, or restrictions on how much beef you can purchase. Sure, it’s a stretch. But the United States has legally limited other Group 1 carcinogens in similar ways. Will D.A.R.E one day teach kids to Say No To Deli?

Ultimately, it won’t matter whether or not red meat actually causes cancer. If the IARC chooses to classify processed meats as Group 1 carcinogens, the masses could immediately flee from bacon and lunch meats.

“It’s our 12-alarm fire,” Betsy Booren of the North American Meat Institute told Meatingplace after the IARC’s preliminary report came out in 2014. “Because if they determine that red and processed meat causes cancer—and I think that they will—that moniker will stick around for years.”

“It could take decades and billions of dollars to change that.”

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Study: Sperm whales speak in ‘clan dialects’

Study: Sperm whales speak in ‘clan dialects’

© Mauricio Cantor / Whitehead Lab / Dalhousie University

Humans might be forgiven for believing that they are the only species that engages in a level of social learning complex enough to form distinct cultures, generating things like language and art. But from dolphins to prairie dogs, science is showing that many animals do have complex language systems.

In a study recently published in Nature Communications, researchers have found that sperm whales not only have such a language system, but that they seem to have distinct dialects, suggesting that these whales use cultural learning to form multilevel, social structures, where individual whales with the same behaviours seem to band together in what the scientists are calling "clans."

These "clans" consist of whales that communicate with similar, dialect-like patterns of clicks called "codas," which were different from the echolocation sounds used for hunting. Surprisingly, these dialects are not linked to geography per se, with most young whales "conforming" and choosing to perform codas used by their families or social group, says Mauricio Cantor, one of the study’s authors on CBC:

What is really interesting is they all use the same waters at the same time, so they could potentially hear or listen to all these codas, but they choose to stick with their own pattern.

Dalhousie University/via

The researchers used over 18 years of recorded whale communications in their study, in addition to employing computer simulations to find out how this surprising diversity of whale language might have evolved. It appears to come down to sperm whales sticking with others that behave and speak like themselves, explains Cantor:

Which is similar to what we see in human populations. I just find really, really fascinating that an animal that is completely different and lives in a completely different environment – they have some striking similarities with our societies… Our findings suggest another line of evidence for animal culture.

We all tend to interact more with likeminded individuals. If we figure out somehow that we’re not as different [from] other animals, maybe we can improve our relationship with the natural world or with nature.

Read more over at CBC and Nature Communications.

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Food Growing Up | Cleanleap

Image Credit: Dragonfly NYC Vincent Callebaut

The Hanging Gardens of Babylon. One of the seven wonders of the ancient world. Attributed to King Nebuchadnezzar II and described by writers of the time as a pensile paradise. Resembling large green mountains constructed of mud bricks; these gardens were the pride of the ancient Babylonians. Legend has it that the King created the gardens for his queen who missed the green hills and valleys of her homeland. Who would have thought that this gesture of affection would set the trend for modern agriculture today? Vertical farming, the act of growing food in high-rise buildings, could change the way we produce food in the future.

Feeding The Masses As The World Goes Urban

It is said that by the year 2050, nearly 80% of the Earth’s population will reside in urban centres. Already Kenya’s capital, Nairobi, is home to nearly 4 million people. With the devolution of government, facilitating more direct investment into counties, the growth of urban centres throughout the country is inevitable. While this is a sure sign of development, rapid urbanisation is likely to encroach on farmland and push food production farther away from town centres.

Limited access to ever-shrinking tracts of arable land coupled with a rising population will no doubt increase the cost associated with producing food and bringing it to the urban populace. It could even put to question the land’s ability to produce sufficient food especially in the face of climate change. It is this global trend that has experts sounding the alarm and asking, "How are we going to feed all these people?"

Cultivating The Concrete Jungles

Concrete jungles, with tall buildings for trees and traffic for undergrowth, have grown out of a need to accommodate large numbers of people in comparatively small spaces. When you run out of space to expand horizontally the only solution is to build upward. But could this be true for agriculture as well?

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), throughout the world, over 80% of the land that is suitable for raising crops is already in use. Growing crops in the heart of cities has been fielded as a possible solution to addressing a growing population’s need for food and easing the pressure on the world’s available arable lands. It has been suggested that a 30 storey, 27,800,000m2 vertical farm could feed 50,000 people, providing 2,000 calories for every person each day. But is it really possible to grow food in buildings?

A Thing Called Agritecture

The term agritecture is defined as buildings that grow food. The kind Kenneth Yeang, an architect, ecologist and author of Malaysian descent has been designing for years. Named by The Guardian as one of 50 people most likely to save the planet, Kenneth first developed the concept – and built prototypes – of mixed-use buildings in the late 80’s. The open-air buildings were climate responsive high-rises in which plant life could be cultivated alongside human dwellers. Kenneth’s vision was to make urban farmers out of urban dwellers and so envisaged these vertical farms for personal and community use.

Dr. Dickson Despommier, award-winning professor of public health at Columbia University began looking into ways to commercialise this concept in the late 90s. In his book, "The Vertical Farm", which some consider the industry’s bible, he promotes the mass cultivation of plant and animal life for commercial purposes in hermetically sealed skyscrapers.

So What Exactly Is A Vertical Farm?

"To put it simply, a multi-storied greenhouse" says Despommier. But vertical farms are far from simple.

They are buildings typically several stories tall where crops are stacked in enclosed spaces. Plants at most vertical farms are grown hydroponically, or without soil, in a sterile environment with precisely controlled climate. They are nourished through a recycled nutrient- rich water solution. Some such farms rely on aeroponics, where the water solution is misted onto the plants’ roots and others still on aquaponics where waste from farmed fish is used as a fertilizer for the crops. There are sensors in place to detect even the slightest dip in nutrient levels.

Artificial lighting, more and more by LEDs than fluorescent bulbs, is required to mimic the sun’s rays. The internal environment in these buildings must be carefully monitored at all times because even the slightest change in growing conditions could result in a failed crop.

Why Farm Vertically?

Proponents say vertical farms can surpass the productivity of existing agricultural spaces by up to 20 times, and while traditional farming allows for an average of 3 growing seasons, vertical farms would be productive throughout the year. This method of farming is also said to use 70% less water, and could virtually eliminate the need for pesticides and by extension GMOs thanks to a strictly controlled growing environment with sophisticated air filtration systems to keep out pests.

With vertical farming, food could be grown anywhere in the world regardless of climatic conditions due to the carefully artificially controlled environment. This method of farming is also said to be more environmentally friendly than traditional farming because it would significantly cut down the cost (both monetary and ecological) of transporting food over large distances as well as prevent the run-off of agricultural waste into rivers and other natural water bodies.

But these farms are more than just a response to the looming global challenges, they are also aligned with the demands of an increasingly aware global consumer who is not only keen to reduce his/her ecological footprint but also to gain access to healthier, locally grown foods. At the groceries section of Kenyan supermarkets, for instance, one can always overhear the question "is this local or imported?" with a clear preference for the former.

But Is It feasible?

10 years ago, vertical farms existed mostly as conceptual drawings with few actual prototypes. In recent years, however, interest has grown tremendously and now over 400 farms exist worldwide (at varying scales) in Japan, Korea, Singapore, the US, Canada and Sweden. Despite their increasing popularity, one major hurdle stands in the way of vertical farms taking root globally. The cost.

Image Credit: Comcrop Singapore Today Online

As one opposing view points out, "it takes a stock market to build a skyscraper", illustrating the fact that urban real estate is not cheap. The cost of setting up a high-rise building in Nairobi, Kenya’s capital is roughly KES 40,000 or USD 470 per m2. The aforementioned 30-storey building would therefore cost tens of billions of shillings, hardly a negligible financial investment.

In addition to the cost of construction there are very high energy costs associated with running the farms. The cost of artificial lighting, heating and other vertical farming operations would exceed the benefit of these farms’ close proximity to the areas of consumption. This would certainly be true in Kenya where the high cost of energy still remains a serious impediment to the growth of industries.

The Downside to Going Up

In addition to feasibility issues vertical farming brings with it an array of social and economic challenges.

Running on very sophisticated technology these farms remain largely inaccessible to developing nations. Even Kenya, despite being Africa’s Silicon Savannah, is not yet equipped to take on this technology. With the bar set so high, this innovation remains the preserve of developed nations rendering one of its greatest selling points – increased global access to food – moot.

This farming method could also have a negative impact on rural communities. In Kenya, 80% of the food produced comes from rural small-scale farmers who depend on this income to sustain themselves. With the translocation of food production to cities, rural economies would take a major hit. Cutting off this source of income would not only exacerbate the divide between the rich and poor but would also see rural communities affected by various nutritional deficiencies as a result of being unable to practice even subsistence farming.

These farms could also spell doom for the world’s arable lands and ecological sanctuaries which would soon be ‘developed’ given the available alternative of planting indoors.

While traditional farming relies heavily on favourable weather conditions for a good crop yield, vertical farms rely heavily on technology, which could fail putting the farm at stake.

If Despommier’s concepts are to be implemented fully, with animals also being vertically farmed, we could inadvertently cement the factory farming model, which has seen a sharp decline in popularity over the years.

An Opportunity In Disguise

Despite its pitfalls, Despommier argues that vertical farming presents an opportunity to innovate and explore alternative, more cost effective energy sources.

Besides the usual geothermal, wind and solar power, he cites human faeces as an underrated energy source stating "New York City defecates the equivalent to 900 million kilowatt hours in electricity every year, yet we spend billions of dollars trying to throw that stuff away when we could get energy from it by incineration".

He is not alone in recognising the opportunity. Already, large companies such as Philip’s and Toshiba are developing state of the art, low cost LED lighting systems to respond to the growing need. Others still are developing what they call "smart farms" that can easily be installed in one’s home and monitored remotely through a mobile device.

Still A Ways To Go

Vertical farming is still very much in its infancy. But all the efforts going into making the technology more affordable combined with further innovations in agritecture could see it become a feasible food production method even in the Silicon Savannah.

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The health effects of a world without darkness – Rebecca Boyle – Aeon

An eternal electric day is creeping across the globe, but our brains and bodies cannot cope in a world without darkness

Sound dominated my senses as we left the village of San Pedro de Atacama and walked into the desert night. The crunch of shoes on gravel underlay our voices, which were hushed to avoid waking any households or street dogs. Our small group of astronomy writers was escaping from light and, without any flashlights or streetlamps, we struggled to see, so our other senses were heightened. Land that looked red by day was now monochromatic, the rods in our retinas serving as our only visual input.

After about 15 minutes of hiking, we stopped to take some pictures of the sky. I fumbled with my gear and tried to get my bearings, but everything was alien. I was horribly jet-lagged after 10 hours hunched against the window of a 757, another two-hour flight north from Santiago and a two-hour bus ride, and it wan’t just my oxygen-hungry brain that put me out of sorts. The Atacama Desert looked like Mars as drawn by Dr Seuss; I was surrounded by wrong-coloured cliffs and swirling rock formations. But I was determined to photograph something even more bizarre: the Large Magellanic Cloud, a dwarf galaxy you can see only from the southern hemisphere. I perched my camera on a rock and aimed at the sky, but the cosmic smudge would not resolve in my viewfinder. I stood, brushed dirt from my jeans, and looked up.

The unfamiliar sky momentarily took away what little breath I had left at 8,000 feet in elevation. Above the horizon was the conspicuous Southern Cross. Orion was there, too, but looked as disoriented as I felt, upside down to the world. And there were so many constellations I’d never seen, with hopeful, Latinate names such as Dorado and Reticulum. Countless stars blazed into view as I stared into the smear of the Milky Way.

To most people who have travelled outside the developed world – whether to camp or to meditate or to hunt – such bright and plentiful stars are a glorious sight. But this beauty instilled in me a creeping sense of guilt. At home, 1,500 miles north, I wouldn’t recognise such spangled heavens. From where I live in the American Midwest, the stars might as well not exist. After journeying millions of years, their light is swallowed by city glare and my porch lantern. Those that make it through will still fail: not even bright Betelgeuse can outshine my iPhone. Yet I am an astronomy writer, a person who thinks about stars and planets all the time. What does my neglect of the night sky say about the rest of humanity?

‘We are all descended from astronomers,’ the astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson intones in the rebooted version of the TV show Cosmos. This is as poetic as it is true. Everyone owns the night sky; it was the one natural realm all our ancestors could see and know intimately. No river, no grand mountain or canyon, not even the oceans can claim that. But since Edison’s light bulbs colonised our cities, the vast majority of humans has ceased to see those skies. More than 60 per cent of the world, and fully 99 per cent of the US and Europe, lives under a yellowy sky polluted with light. For many of us, the only place to see the milky backbone of our own galaxy is on the ceiling of a planetarium. Although humans are diurnal, factories and Twitter and hospitals and CNN are not, so we must conquer the darkness. As a result, almost everything industrialised people build is lit up at night. Malls, hospitals, car dealerships. Streets, bridges, air and sea ports. Buildings on a skyline. These artificial lights identify our cities all the way from the moon. If aliens ever do drop by, this might be their first sign that someone is home.

But cosmology, the study and interpretation of the universe, has always depended on a star-choked dark sky. Ancient civilisations from the Greeks to the Pawnee looked to the stars and saw not only creation tales, but active participants in their lives. Christians, who invest great meaning in the good of light and the evil of darkness, spread a starry message, too: the star of Bethlehem as a beacon to salvation. A millennium and a half later, Galileo looked up and saw a new version of the cosmos, breaking the dawn of modern science. And Edwin Hubble discovered the expansion of the universe by the candlelight of supernovas. All of this happened under virginal skies and, by any measure, we don’t have those anymore. We look at our glowing rectangles, and we opt out of that shared heritage.

Nowhere is light pollution more apparent, almost achingly so, than in satellite images of the Earth from space. The continental United States seems to split in half: the eastern side is brighter than the west, except for the klieg lights of Las Vegas. Highways innervate America, connecting luminous dots of small towns and big cities. Across the Atlantic, Europe shimmers. Moscow is a radiant nine-pointed star. The Nile Delta glows like a dandelion sprouting from mostly indigo Africa. Farther east, Hong Kong and Shanghai are ablaze, and the demilitarised zone separates dark North Korea from South Korea more cleanly than if the peninsula had been cleft in two. Developed society, it’s clear, is where the light is.

Human-controlled light has pierced the night for thousands of years, long before Edison. Campfires warmed our ancestors’ feet and cooked their meals; the Harvard anthropologist Richard Wrangham argues in his book Catching Fire (2009) that gathering around a flame to eat and to commune with others is, in fact, what made us human. Not just fellowship but safety has long been the primary rationale for pushing back the night. ‘Evil spirits love not the smell of lamps,’ as Plato put it. Comforting, lambent lamplight led us safely home by tattling on the people and potholes and animals that would otherwise do us harm. By the early 17th century, residents of cities such as Paris and London were admonished to keep lights burning in the windows of all houses that faced the streets, as the historian A Roger Ekirch notes in his book At Day’s Close: Night in Times Past (2005). Taxpayers funded oil lamps and candlelit lanterns for the avenues, while only genteel households could afford fine beeswax or spermaceti candles; most people relied on tallow, made from animal fat.

Despite their utility, these artificial lights were sources of danger in their own right. Huge swathes of cities – notably London and Chicago – were consumed in conflagrations that started as accidents, born of the necessity of using flames to see. By the 1800s, gas lamps reduced fire risks, but cities were by no means safer from crime; gaslit London in the late 1880s, full of foggy halos casting shadows down dark alleys, is as famous for murder as anything else. Even now, artificial light provides an artificial sense of security. A 1997 report from the US National Institute of Justice found no conclusive correlation between night-time lighting and crime rates. The International Dark Sky Association, a dedicated group of night-time advocates, points out that bright, glaring lamps create sharper contrasts between light and darkness, blinding drivers and homeowners alike.

And even so – what price safety! A young but rapidly growing field of research suggests that night-time light itself is far more dangerous than the dark. In a 2012 report, an American Medical Association committee called electric lighting a ‘man-made self-experiment’ creating potentially harmful health effects. Humans, and everything else that lives on this planet with us, evolved during billions of years along a reliable cycle of day and night, with clear boundaries between them. Staunching the flood of artificial light can help restore this divide. Our well-being, and that of our fellow creatures, might depend on us doing so – or at the very least trying. The loss of night-time darkness neglects our shared past, but it might very well cut short our futures too.

he midnight desert was quiet while I knelt with my camera last spring, but the Atacama was far from asleep. Beetles and red scorpions scuttled across the dirt. Vallenar toads crouched on the lomas. South American grey foxes sniffed the earth, hunting furry viscachas and Darwin’s leaf-eared mice. Great horned owls circled overhead, hunting the rodents and the foxes. Nocturnal animals such as these make up 30 per cent of all vertebrates and 60 per cent of all invertebrates on Earth, according to an estimate by the German biologist Franz Hölker and colleagues. These night-dwellers are the most obvious victims of artificial light. Light pollution interferes with their natural rhythms in myriad ways.

To gauge levels of light pollution, scientists use lux, which is a measurement of illuminance that counts how many photons per second strike our eyes. As an example, the planet Venus, at its brightest, produces 0.0001 lux. In the natural nightscape, plants and animals are exposed to light levels that max out around 0.1 to 0.3 lux, during the week around full moon. By contrast, a typical shopping mall gushes 10 to 20 lux at night. That is 200,000 times brighter than the illuminance of a moonless evening.

For migratory birds that fly at night, artificial light is a deadly siren. In New York every September, columns of light shine skyward in tribute to the destroyed World Trade Center towers. Tens of thousands of migrating birds, trying to navigate by the moon and stars, fly into the beams and circle, zombie-like, until someone shuts the lights off. Birds also collide with glittering buildings and lighthouses and are stunned, falling to their deaths. It is such a widespread problem that cities from Toronto to Chicago adopt lights-out campaigns during peak migrations.

In mammals, from mice to men, the effects of melatonin suppression might be far worse

Sea turtles also need a dark sky atlas to find their way. Newly hatched on the Atlantic coast, they are confused by beaches bathed in light and follow a false moon, turning away from the safety of the sea. Florida wildlife officials and even NASA have spent decades trying to build better beach embankments, using old railcars, driftwood and sand dunes to mask the artificial light streaming from highways and launch pads.

Almost all bat species are nocturnal, hunting out insects, frogs, nectar, pollen, fruit and other bats when it is dark. Omnivorous bats use echolocation rather than vision to track their prey, but extra light is far from helpful. Insect-eating bats chose different foraging routes to avoid just 0.4 lux of light, according to a 2009 study led by Emma Stone of the University of Bristol. Fruit bats avoid the glare, too. Costa Rican short-tailed bats, given a choice between pepper plants growing in the dark and plants illuminated by sodium lamps, chose the dark twice as often. There are ecological consequences: changing their flight paths alters the ‘seed rain’, showered by defecating bats, that can be crucial to recolonising clear-cut rainforest. Along with changing the eating habits of bats, light can have direct physiological effects, another study found. Juvenile bats that hailed from illuminated buildings were smaller – their wings were shorter and they weighed less – than those born to the dark.

For pelagic ocean animals, who live in the liminal space between the surface and the sea floor, the light of the moon and the sun are the only landmarks. Dazzling boats in coastal waters – another luminous activity visible from space – lure fish to the surface and into nets, but also interfere with marine organisms’ navigation, hunting and mating habits.

Including moths to a flame, nocturnal invertebrates are the most well-recognised examples of creatures disoriented by light. Insects congregate around light sources until they die of exhaustion (or, caught in the spotlight, are eaten by birds and bats). In a 2012 study, the Exeter scientist Jonathan Bennie found that light pollution changed the composition of ecological communities among five major invertebrate groups. ‘Street lighting changes the environment at higher levels of biological organisation than previously recognised,’ Bennie and his co-authors wrote, ‘raising the potential that it can alter the structure and function of ecosystems.’

This is true for diurnal creatures, too. Animals that make their living during the day are still disrupted by artificial night-time light. Occasionally, artificial light can be beneficial by extending the hours of day – in a 2012 study, the biologist Ross Dwyer and his colleagues at the University of Exeter found a waterbird called the common redshank foraged longer and more effectively at night along an industrialised Scottish estuary. But as with the insects, this carries consequences for the broader ecosystem.

On land, artificial lighting causes a cascade of negative physiological changes in diurnal creatures, many brought about by delayed release of the hormone melatonin. Davide Dominoni and his colleagues at the Max Planck Institute in Germany found it was suppressed in European blackbirds exposed to just 0.3 lux at night. These birds developed their reproductive systems a month earlier, and moulted earlier, than birds kept in the dark. A different study, by Travis Longcore of the Urban Wildlands Group in Los Angeles, found that blue tits under the influence of streetlamps laid their eggs earlier than those experiencing dark nights. And in mammals, from mice to men, the effects of melatonin suppression might be far worse.

The National Sleep Foundation says that more than 90 per cent of Americans regularly use some type of electronic device in the hour before bed. Photo by Rex Features

A growing body of evidence shows that light pollution exacerbates, and might directly cause, cancer, obesity, and depression, the troublesome triumvirate of industrialised society. One of the first people to notice this correlation, at least as it applies to cancer, is Richard Stevens, a professor at the University of Connecticut, respected cancer epidemiologist, and mild insomniac. In the early 1980s, Stevens and other researchers were beginning to realise there was little or no connection between diet and rising rates of breast cancer, contrary to what had been suspected. As Stevens puts it, it was like a light bulb going on when he realised that, in fact, a light bulb going on might be a culprit.

‘I really did wake up in the middle of the night in my apartment in Washington state, and realise I could read a newspaper by the light from a street light. And I wondered, what’s that?’ he told me. ‘So I started calling around. I started to learn about circadian rhythmicity. And about this hormone called melatonin.’ His 1987 paper ‘Electric Power Use and Breast Cancer: A Hypothesis’ was one of the first to report the potential connection between rising cancer rates and artificial night-time light exposure, something he and others have continued to report in the intervening 27 years.

Melatonin is produced in the pineal gland, a small pine-cone-shaped knob in the centre of the vertebrate brain. It is derived from serotonin, a neurotransmitter that is involved in mood and appetite. And melatonin is an antioxidant, which protects DNA from damage; this has important implications for cancer biology. Stevens has published research demonstrating melatonin can prevent breast tumours in rats. But the hormone’s chief role is in regulating the daily sleep-wake cycle by causing drowsiness and lowering core body temperature. Melatonin has the same basic function in people, birds, fish, amphibians, and other mammals. Production of melatonin should begin at dusk, when we are supposed to sleep. Light – not wakefulness itself, but light – shuts it off, as Stevens emphasised to me.

A remarkably recent discovery helps explain what’s going on. In 2000, scientists noticed a light-capturing pigment, which they called melanopsin, in the retina. It’s a different pigment from the types in our cone- and rod-shaped photoreceptors, which helped me see the monochrome landscape of the midnight Atacama. In 2002, the biologists David Berson of Brown University and Samer Hattar of Johns Hopkins University rediscovered a special type of cell that uses this pigment (they were first described, but then forgotten, in 1923). They were dubbed ‘intrinsically photosensitive retinal ganglion cells’ – simply put, they have nothing to do with vision, but they sense light, whose presence they communicate directly to the brain. Blue light, to be specific. By studying the eyes of primitive creatures such as lampreys and hagfish, scientists can tell that these special cells have been present in the vertebrate retina for at least 500 million years. This means that since the dawn of backboned animals, all such creatures have been equipped to track the day and night, and calibrate their metabolic cycles accordingly.

The light-exposed rodents got fat, even though they were eating the same number of calories as their dark-sequestered mates

When you think about the fact that humans figured out fire 250,000 years ago and electricity just 130 years ago, the importance of light to our brains and biology starts to become clearer. As Stevens puts it, circadian biology is at the core of all biology, human biology included. Randy Nelson, a circadian biologist at Ohio State University, has been studying light’s effects on depression and obesity since 2004, when one of his graduate students was hospitalised for a staph infection. The student complained bitterly about the bright lights in his room and in the hospital hallway, which robbed him of sleep and stressed him out. Nelson and another graduate student, Laura Fonken, decided to investigate this complaint using rodents as experimental subjects. They found that mice who were exposed to constant bright light exhibited depressive symptoms, behaving listlessly and ignoring their sugar-water treats. Remarkably, they then found that the same happened when the mice were exposed to only 5 lux at night, when the animals were normally active. This is equivalent, Fonken notes, to leaving a television on in your bedroom, or a computer screen next to your head as you nod off. Later, the team worked with diurnal Nile grass rats instead of nocturnal mice, and found the same thing. The rats exhibited not only depression, but demonstrable changes in neuronal connectivity in the hippocampus, the part of the brain involved in learning, memory and affective responses.

Along the way, Fonken also noticed something unexpected: the light-exposed rodents got fat, even though they were eating the same number of calories as their dark-sequestered mates. What changed was their circadian rhythms; like a snacky night owl, they were eating when they should have been inactive, upending their digestive and metabolic activity. One side effect of inbreeding lab mice is that some of them do not produce melatonin, Fonken told me, which means something else might have been interrupting their internal timepieces. Fonken looked at gene expression and noticed changes in a gene known helpfully as CLOCK (Circadian Locomotor Output Cycles Kaput), among others. Messenger RNA molecules were activated by light, switching multiple genes on or off to regulate circadian rhythms. Fonken guards against drawing too many human conclusions from these rodent studies, but epidemiological evidence suggests the implications for people could be profound.

ather than falling, night, to the watchful eye, rises,’ writes Ekirch in At Day’s Close. Shadows creep up lows and valleys first, then consume hillsides and houses and the tallest buildings. Muted greys and deeper blues chase off the sun until finally the sky leaks no colour. When we sleep according to a solar cycle, melatonin production follows this pattern, rising with the night. But artificial light tamps it down. This is frustratingly apparent for a special class of humans who experience sunsets every 90 minutes: astronauts.

One of the most frequent complaints of orbital crew members is insomnia; they pop sleeping pills on a regular basis, and still get only about six hours of shuteye, though they’re allotted eight. Steven W Lockley, a Harvard neuroscientist, recommends altering the light to improve matters. In 2012, he advised NASA engineers to change the light bulbs on the International Space Station to a type of LED that can display blueshifted light during the ‘day’, when the crew is working, and red-shifted light when they need to rest. Why the difference? That crucial ganglion, the circadian photoreceptor, is particularly sensitive to light toward the bluish end of the red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo and violet visible-light spectrum.

Blue light also pours from the phone, tablet or computer screen on which you’re reading this. This light, in a wavelength very similar to daylight, has been shown to exacerbate insomnia in scores of studies. In 2007, Belgian researchers surveyed 1,656 teenagers about their use of mobile phones after lights-out, and found those who used a phone less than once per week were more than twice as likely to be ‘very tired’ a year later as those who never did. Using a phone after lights-out about once a week increased the risk of being ‘very tired’ by five times. In 2012, researchers at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute showed that two hours of exposure to a bright tablet screen at night, like an iPad or a Kindle, reduced melatonin levels by 22 per cent. And the National Sleep Foundation says that more than 90 per cent of Americans regularly use some type of electronic device in the hour before bed.

There is a great difference between natural night waking and electronic-induced insomnia, Stevens points out. In his history of the night, Ekirch explains that temporary night-time waking – of the type that used to plague Stevens – is hardly unnatural. Humans have aroused in the middle of the night since time immemorial to pee, snack, chat with relatives and neighbours, make love, and simply enjoy ‘quiet wakefulness’. ‘There is every reason to believe that segmented sleep, such as many wild animals exhibit, had long been the natural pattern of our slumber before the modern age, with a provenance as old as humankind,’ Ekirch writes. The unnatural part is that, now, we get up and we turn on the light, silencing melatonin.

Insomnia is hardly the worst side effect of light pollution. Shift workers, who rise with the night and work awash in blue light, experience not only disrupted circadian rhythms and sleep deprivation, but an increased risk of breast and prostate cancer. These cancers, which require hormones to grow, are suppressed in the presence of melatonin, Stevens has shown. In 2010, Stevens published a review of breast cancer sensitivity in 164 countries, and found a 30 to 50 per cent increased risk of cancer in nations with the worst light pollution, but no increased prevalence of non-hormonally dependent cancers in the same populations.

‘Our use of electric light in the modern world is disrupting our circadian sleep and our biology. There is no question about that. Does that have physiological consequences? There is more and more evidence that it does,’ Stevens told me. ‘The epidemiological studies are the crudest, but the most important.’

I am a night-time chronotype and I drink electricity as thirstily as anyone

As we discussed a litany of light-related problems, I asked Stevens: ‘Is it a legitimate question to ask if light is the major factor in depression, obesity, and cancer? Is there potential for light to be the reason behind all of those things?’

‘Yes,’ he said flatly. ‘No doubt about it.’

The day is coming when doctors might feel confident saying so, he added, just as they now say that smoking causes lung cancer. The murky part is what to do about it.

torrent of light is what you might call a ‘First World problem’. Even as Western cities try to bring back starlit nights, students throughout developing countries in southeast Asia and sub-Saharan Africa still read by candlelight. Economically depressed regions tend to be darker; after the collapse of communism, satellite imagery showed several countries in the former Soviet Union were dimmer at night.

When we, in the industrialised world, do manage to turn off the lights, there are measurable, beneficial effects on our circadian rhythms. In a widely reported paper last summer, Kenneth Wright at the University of Colorado at Boulder took eight students camping in the Rocky Mountains for two weeks. They weren’t allowed to use any artificial light after the sun went down – only the sanguine glow of campfire. After a week, melatonin started to rise at sunset, peak in the middle of the night, and taper just at sunrise, which Wright called a ‘remarkable’ result. ‘Internal biological time under natural light-dark conditions tightly synchronises to environmental time, and in this regard, humans are comparable to other animals,’ he wrote.

Of course, very few of us are going to camp outside nightly, or stop working at 4:30pm in winter, let alone shut down power plants and global commerce. And even as I mourn the loss of night, I am no Luddite myself. I read Wright’s study and so many others while sitting in bed, hours after the sun had set, bathed in the bluish spectrum of light emitted by my iPad. I am a night-time chronotype and I drink electricity as thirstily as anyone.

But there are a few things we can all do.

As NASA has found, redshifted lamps, rather than a blue hue, are a better choice for bedside reading. Chronobiologists are concerned about the fluorescent swirls that will comprise the majority of American light fixtures when the ban on incandescent bulbs finally sets in. They emit too much blue light – we should use red-shifted LEDs instead. The same goes for many building lights and streetlamps. Along with keeping us more awake, this light is especially intrusive for the same reason the sky is blue: it scatters more readily, causing even more light pollution.

Downward-directed streetlamps can illuminate larger areas while casting fewer shadows and errant upward glow. Smarter, more efficient use can cut wasted light, wasted money and wasted energy. This has been a powerful factor in bringing back the night in towns from Brainerd, Minnesota, to Paris – the City of Light. Since July 2013, the French capital has been going dark for several hours at night to save money and ‘reduce the print of artificial lighting on the nocturnal environment’, in the words of its Environment Ministry. In a paper published this January, Exeter’s Jonathan Bennie and colleagues reported that some economically developed regions, especially throughout Europe, are trending darker.

For those of us addicted to our glowing phones and tablets, an app called F.lux can help. It ‘warms’ your device’s display screen so that it shifts red in the evening, more closely matching incandescent bulbs and the hue of the setting sun. Just a brief glimpse at your mobile phone at bedtime is enough to expose your retinas to artificial light, so fighting such a comprehensive intrusion might be an exercise in futility. But even if we can’t completely quench our thirst for light, we can all make one small gesture, which could prompt us to unplug a little more.

I try to do this whenever the sky above St Louis is clear. After I climb out of my car but before I open the fence gate and the hinge cheeps, before I step onto the deck and the wood sags and the motion-sensor light turns on, I stop, and I look up. I nod at Jupiter, blazing in the east. I greet Orion in his more familiar, northern form. I squint at the moon if it is there and I let my eyes open wide, hoping more stars will leak through the city haze and reach me standing there, in the darkness.

1 April 2014

Read more essays on astronomy, ecology & environmental sciences, sleep & dreams and wellbeing

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Elon Musk has the perfect argument for raising NASA’s budget

Billionaire Elon Musk has a really compelling reason to ramp up NASA’s budget: We need to become a multi-planet species to ensure the survival of the human race, and we need NASA’s help to do it.

There’s a story Musk likes to tell about the time he went surfing on the NASA website looking for a timeline for when NASA would be going to Mars.

He didn’t find a date, so now he’s planning on doing it himself using his rocket company SpaceX, and hope that it inspires people enough that the government will bump up NASA’s budget.

Then we’ll have a decent shot at setting up a permanent Mars colony and making humans a multi-planet species.

Blogger Tim Urban sat down with Musk for an in-depth article on SpaceX and Mars called "How (and Why) SpaceX Will Colonize Mars," and asked him about NASA’s budget:

Musk believed — and still believes — that around 0.25% of US GDP, or about 1% of the budget, should be dedicated to space. He makes it clear that he’s not suggesting a return to the 4%-of-the-budget days of the 60s — just an increase from the less-than-0.5% level it’s at today. "For 1%," he says, "we can buy life insurance."

By "life insurance," Musk means establishing a thriving human colony on another planet before a catastrophic disaster hits the Earth and wipes out the human race, like the asteroid that took out the dinosaurs. Earth has already experienced five mass extinction events, so some argue it’s only a matter of time before another disaster strikes.

That means we need a back up copy of the human race, and according to Musk, that’s a plenty compelling reason to double NASA’s budget.

It doesn’t look like that’s going to happen anytime soon, though. The problem is that Congress keeps failing to approve President Obama’s budget requests, as NASA administrator Charles Bolden explains in an August op-ed for Wired.

"Since 2010, the President has received approximately $1 billion less than he requested for NASA’s Commercial Crew initiative," Bolden writes. "During this time we’ve sent $1 billion to Russia."


If history had gone differently and NASA was allowed to ride the momentum it built up during the incredible Apollo moon missions in the 60s and 70s, some experts argue that humans would have set foot on Mars long ago. We’d have a colony there already, or at least we’d be regularly sending manned missions to explore it.

Instead, NASA suffered its first monster round of budget cuts in the 70s; The budget peaked in the 60s at about 4.4% of the federal budget, but by the end of the 70s it was well below 1%. And in the decade after we landed on the moon, NASA cut its in-house staff by a third.

Such a dramatic budget cut forced NASA to scale back its grandiose plans for space exploration, including its Mars missions, and instead it put a more modest space shuttle program in place.

The budget cuts weren’t over though. NASA was forced to shut the doors on its space shuttle program in 2011. Right now the budget is hovering just under 0.5% of the federal budget.

Maybe we’ll see how much interest Musk and SpaceX can drum up if they pull off a Mars landing. If that happens, maybe we’ll get Congress on board to give NASA a serious shot at Mars.

We’re expecting Musk to unveil his plans for a giant Mars spacecraft that can seat 100 people sometime this year.

SEE ALSO: Here’s why I left ‘The Martian’ with a terrible sinking feeling

NOW WATCH: The biggest science mistakes in ‘The Martian’

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