FC107: 3D Damascus Steel

Plus, silent owl wings, giant mech warriors, big wave surfing, and good news on global inequality, hydrofluorocarbons, air pollution in China and re-wilding in Australia

FC107: 3D Damascus Steel

Good news you probably didn't hear about 🌈

In the first half of 2020, renewables (solar, wind, hydro and biomass) didn’t just beat out coal on the European grid — they beat out all fossil fuels put together. As a result, the continent's power sector CO2 emissions fell by 23%. Coal's game in Europe is well and truly up, and gas isn't too far behind. Ember

Has global inequality in the last two decades gotten worse, or gotten better? The answer will probably surprise you. During the 2000s and 2010s, the global Gini coefficient dropped by 15 points and the earnings share of the world's poorest half doubled. The reason this feels surprising is that most of us hardly ever read journalism written by people from Asia, Africa and South America. Uppsala

In a similar vein, the Social Progress Index measures the social and economic performance of all the world's countries over time. According to the 2020 report, the world has improved on 8 of 12 key measures in the past decade. 95% of countries have improved by one point or more, and only 2% have declined.

A new study in The Lancet has shown that between 2013 and 2017, air pollution in 74 key Chinese cities fell by a third, driven by a 85.4% decline in household air pollution and a 12% decline in PM2.5. As a result, the death rate attributable to air pollution has plummeted by more than 60%, saving hundreds of thousands of lives.

The United States Senate has passed a bipartisan agreement to phase out hydrofluorocarbons, a potent greenhouse gas that is widely used in air conditioners and refrigeration. Lawmakers were swayed by a combined push from industry and environmentalists (unlike coal, oil and natural gas, HFCs don't have a lobby). WaPo

Conservationists in Australia have eradicated all feral cats and foxes from a vast 9,570-hectare fenced area at Mallee Cliffs National Park, creating the largest feral predator-free safe haven on the mainland and paving the way for the largest re-wilding project ever to be undertaken in the state of New South Wales. AWC

Indistinguishable from magic 🐇

Mathematicians have always wondered whether it's possible to draw a straight line over the surface of a 12-sided dodecahedron that would eventually return you to your starting point without passing through any corners. Why? Who knows - they're mathematicians - and they've finally figured out the answer. Apparently it was a lot harder than it sounds. Quanta

German engineers have developed a 3D printing method that produces metal that's harder and stronger than Damascus steel, but doesn't require forging skills or furnaces. "Our material has a tensile strength of 1,300 megapascals and 10% elongation, showing superior mechanical properties to those of ancient Damascus steel." 3D Printing Industry

Researchers in California have built a system that can see through fog based on the movement of individual particles of light, or photons. It's an amazing technical achievement. Essentially they've developed X-ray vision without X-rays. The hope is that someday, a descendant of this system could see through the gas clouds of moons and planets. Stanford

Australian scientists have developed artificial skin that reacts to pain in the same way humans do. Made from stretchable, extremely thin electronics, it responds to pressure and temperature with the same speed as nerve signals, opening the way to better prosthetics, smarter robotics and non-invasive skin grafts. Sci Tech Daily

A group of legends in Canada have spent 14 years building a giant four-legged exoskeleton mech warrior and we can't believe this is actually a thing. Furrion Exo-Bionics (THAT IS HOW YOU NAME A MECH WARRIOR COMPANY PEOPLE) is now offering members of the public the chance to become pilots. The Mechs have arrived. Daily Hive

giant mech warrior striding through deserts and forests
Video game? Or real life?

Off the beaten track in the Dark Forest 📡

When illustrator Wendy Xu came across a video of ecologist Merlin Sheldrake during some late night Youtube rabbit-holing, his words felt so visual she was compelled to draw them. Her magical, illustrated love letter to his work is the best possible combination of art, science, poetry and prose. Do yourself a favour and read it. Catapult

As esports explode, millions of starry-eyed kids are dreaming of becoming a professional video game players. With so much money floating around it's like the Wild West, so naturally the hustlers are moving in. Can't help but think of shady rock 'n roll managers from the 1960s and 1970s when reading this. History doesn't repeat itself, but it certainly rhymes. Wired

Owls are an evolutionary marvel. Apparently we don't really know how they're able to fly so quietly. It's possible they manipulate airflow via tiny adjustments of their wings, but scientists aren't even close to understanding this process, which operates at multiple scales, from the entire wing, down to individual feathers and even the microscopic level. Knowable Magazine

Cognitive scientist Ann-Sophie Barwich says that Descartes was wrong. Our senses do not 'deceive' us, but instead are built on experience. In the act of learning a skill (whether it's wine-tasting or mathematics) we don't just change our brains, we alter our consciousness, allowing us to perceive more of the world. "Sensory expertise enrichens the content of conscious awareness." Neo.Life

Maya Gabeira surfed the biggest wave in the world this year, but because she was a woman, was judged differently. An excellent explanation of why old school attitudes to gender in sports suck, and how surfing missed an amazing opportunity to celebrate a woman winning head-to-head in sport with a man (we're certainly not going to miss the opportunity to show you this wave). Atlantic

woman surfing a massive wav
"We're sorry, but because your genitals are the wrong shape, we're going to have to use different criteria to judge this one."

Human Kind 💖

Meet Sanduk Ruit.

He grew up a tiny village in one of the remotest regions of Nepal with no electricity, no school, no health facility, or any modern means of communication. His family were subsistence farmers, but managed to save enough to send him to school in India, where he trained to become an eye surgeon. His mission, he decided, would be to help restore eyesight to the poor.

In the 1990s, while training in Australia, he learned about a cataract micro-surgery technique using implanted intraocular lenses. He improved it, developing a new, simpler technique and reducing the cost of the lenses from $300 to $3. He then headed into the field, setting up makeshift operating rooms in tents, classrooms, and even animal stables, and sometimes walking up to seven days to reach patients in Nepal’s most remote villages.

Over the past 25 years, he's restored the sight of over 130,000 people across Asia and Africa. His nonprofit organisation, the Tilganga Institute of Ophthalmology, has trained over 650 doctors to conduct small-incision cataract surgery, and the technique is now used in over 60 countries and taught in US medical schools.

"My patients are my life and soul. Life is so short and there are so many more things to achieve."

Doctor looking at screen
This surgeon has restored sight to 130,000 blind people.

We know things have felt unusually apocalyptic this week. The devastating wildfires in California and Oregon, Hurricane Sally and the flooding in Alabama, Florida and Mississippi, the Greenland ice caps sheering off and the awful news about fires in the wetlands of the Pantanal. On top of it all, the gut punch of the WWF Living Planet report, showing that since 1970, the average population size of the planet's wild animals has dropped by more than two thirds. That grief and anger you're feeling? We're feeling it too. Our relationship with nature is broken, and we've run out of time.

What we would offer you is this. The ship is turning. Up to 48 bird and mammal extinctions have been prevented since the 1990s. Without the efforts of conservationists, extinction rates would have been three to four times higher. The global rate of deforestation in the last decade has dropped by around a third, and since 2000, protected areas have increased from 10% of global land area to 15%, and from 3% of oceans to around 7% today. The clean energy revolution is accelerating, and we now have both the technological and economic means to decarbonize and get to net zero.

Is it enough? Not even close. We're moving too slowly. Millions of people have their shoulders to the wheel, but the force of hundreds of years of industrial inertia is proving hard to overcome.

So here's something you might want to think about. What are you for? So often, we define ourselves based on what we are against, what we don't like, what we don't want. We spend so much time fighting against hatred, stupidity and destruction that we forget to be for love, ingenuity and regeneration. There's an energetic component to this - not in the woo woo sense, but in the real sense, the place from which we get our drive.

Give a damn, but don't forget to remember what it's for, and let that be the spot in which you plant your feet as we try turn this thing around.

We'll see you next week.


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