Astronauts See The World Better Than Everyone Else

“I feel more of an environmentalist. There are definitely areas where the Earth is covered with pollution almost all the time.”
—Astronaut Scott Kelly

Scott Kelly, an American astronaut came back to Earth last week after almost one year on the International Space Station (ISS), the longest for any American. (Canada’s Chris Hadfield spent nearly half a year of his life as the ISS commander a couple of years ago, the longest any Canadian has spent in space.) During Kelly’s extended time off our planet, he had ample opportunity to see Earth from a vantage point very get to experience with their own eyes. Just like Hadfield, he shared his experiences on social media gaining him a Twitter fan base of almost one million followers. And just like Hadfield, Kelly’s unique perspective has allowed him to realize just how fragile our planet is, and why we have to do what we can to protect it.

As Kelly put it in his last press conference before coming home:

The more I look at Earth and certain parts of Earth the more I feel more of an environmentalist. There are definitely areas where the Earth is covered with pollution almost all the time. And it’s not good for any of us. There are weather systems that I’ve seen while I was up here that were places that were unexpected. Storms bigger than we’ve seen in the past. And this is a human effect. You can tell that that is not a naturally occurring phenomenon.

Kelly managed to witness some extreme weather including the strongest storm we’ve ever observed on our planet, Hurricane Patricia in October 2015. He also saw the strongest storm ever recorded in the southern hemisphere, Winston just last month. It’s becoming increasingly difficult to chalk these extremes all up to coincidence.

He also got to see how polluted our planet has become:

There are definitely parts of Asia, Central America that when you look at them from space, you’re always looking through a haze of pollution. As far as the atmosphere is concerned, and being able to see the surface, you know, I would say definitely those areas that I mentioned look kind of sick.

According to a study published in Nature, air pollution has killed more than three million people on Earth while Kelly was on the ISS. As much as seventeen percent of all deaths in China are attributed to air pollution.

This kind of environmental epiphany that Kelly has experienced is nothing new for people who get to experience his perspective. As Michael Mann, the director of the Earth System Science Center at Pennsylvania State University put it:

[Kelly’s] evolution as an environmentalist seems to mirror the experiences of Carl Sagan, whose concern about our environment and environmental sustainability was a natural outgrowth of his love of cosmology, planetary science, and space exploration.

Chris Hadfield had a similar experience. In his words:

We just need to be more responsible in the decisions we make and think of the longer term, more than five years, more than the upcoming elections, more than just one lifespan, and think about our grandchildren and even further.

It’s a shame that we might need to leave the planet to appreciate how important it is to protect it.

400PPM: A Brilliant Documentary From a Brilliant Young Lady

I’m very impressed with Maya Burhanpurkar. She is a teenager who lives in my home town of Barrie and is currently my old high school: Barrie North Collegiate (Go Vikings!). And she’s an impressive young scientist: she represented Canada as a finalist at the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair and was selected one of 90 finalists for the 2013 Google International Science Fair out of over 50,000 other entries. At the tender age of 12, Maya developed an intelligent-antibiotic which selectively kills pathogenic bacteria such as E-coli but preserves the body’s helpful intestinal microbiota bacteria for which she received the S.M. Blair Foundation award for innovation at the Canada-Wide Science Fair. (And these are only a handful of her accomplishments. You can check out her Wikipedia page if you’d like to see more.)

So Maya has applied her impressive skill sets to an issue she care deeply about: climate change. “400PPM” is the name of her new documentary produced through STAMx Youth Inc, a non-profit organization she founded dedicated to inspiring, educating, and empowering youth around the world to leverage Science, Technology, Arts, and Math to create a better society for all. All parties involved in the production of 400PPM were unpaid volunteers.

Maya became passionate about the plight of the Inuit people as perhaps the first victims of ethnocide-by-climate-change. She traveled to the Arctic as part of an expedition to witness the unfolding crisis for herself. She was so impacted by what she saw that she decided to bring her experience to the rest of the world by producing this documentary. In it she collaborates with such personalities as astronaut Col. Chris Hadfield, novelist Margaret Atwood, explorer Dr. Wade Davis, and environmentalist Nobel Laureate, Dr. Brad Bass. 400PPM tells an important story in a little more than 30 minutes and I encourage you to watch it.

Neil deGrasse Tyson's New Talk Show Starts Tonight!

“We are trying to reach people who don’t know they like science, and people who know that they don’t like science. We are doing this through the use of three pillars: science, pop culture, and comedy.”
—Neil deGrasse Tyson

What will you be doing tonight at 11 p.m.? I suggest you watch my hero Neil deGrasse Tyson’s new show StarTalk. For astronomy geeks like me, Tyson has been well-known for many years, but he came into more mainstream prominence last year with his amazing reboot of Carl Sagan’s Cosmos series. Tonight marks the first episode of a new weekly science talk show on the National Geographic Channel. But it’s not just science: pop culture manages to make a significant presence in the show. You can expect a number of comedians to help keep things light.

Tyson is adapting his popular podcast into a talk show format but promises that by bringing pop culture into it, the science part will be easy to take for non-science viewers. For example, tonight’s episode has George Takei as his guest, and everybody loves the original helmsman of the Enterprise. Others you can look forward to later in the season include former President Jimmy Carter, director Christopher Nolan (the Batman trilogy), evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins (sometimes referred to as “Darwin’s Rottweiler”), and my favourite astronaut Chris Hadfield (thanks again for recommending my book, Chris!).

I strongly recommend you watch this series, whether you’re scientifically minded or not. It will promise to be both enlightening and entertaining. And if one responsibility of a scientist is to help educate the masses about the current understanding of science in a way they can appreciate, then no one today is doing a better job of this than Neil deGrasse Tyson.

And just maybe this will help achieve our goal of tackling the problems our planet faces today, because without understanding there can be no real action.

Chris Hadfield Recommends My Book

“Humility is the solid foundation of all virtues.”

I’ve always tried my best to be humble, a trait that was instilled in me by my parents I believe. So I try not to brag about my accomplishments generally. But of course, sometimes it becomes necessary when you are trying to promote a message about global warming and climate crisis, and a book you’ve written on the subject needs to be purchased in order to help with that goal.

Last November I had the opportunity to meet up with Col. Chris Hadfield, arguably the world’s most famous astronaut at the moment thanks in part to successful use of social media to help make the International Space Station cool to everyone and not just space geeks like me. (Oh, and an awesome cover of a David Bowie tune helped too.) He was speaking at a local event and shared images and stories about his adventures and had the audience enthralled.

The event helped raise money for a very worthwhile cause: Ghana Medical Help, bringing medical equipment and supplies to a country in need. (The founder and CEO is Chris’s niece Kelly Hadfield. Is there anything these Hadfields can’t do?) I won an auction item and received a personalized copy of Chris’s latest book “You Are Here: Around the World in 92 Minutes” along with a chance to meet him and get a photo. I couldn’t resist using the opportunity to pass along a copy of my own book because I figure astronauts have a unique perspective of Earth that the rest of us can’t possibly achieve and that perhaps he might appreciate my efforts to help preserve our planet for future generations.

So it was a pleasant surprise to see that when Kobo Café (part of Indigo e-books, a Canadian equivalent to Kindle) interviewed him a few months ago and asked him what his top six favourite non-fiction books were, mine was the first on his list. (You can see the proof in this link.) Interestingly, the links to the first three books on the webpage don’t work (mine included), although the other three do. For convenience, here’s the proper links to both the Kindle and Chapters websites.

I’m honoured that Chris Hadfield has read my book and has gone far enough to recommend it. So for one day, forgive my lack of humility in sharing this fact. Next blog it’s back to business.

Earth Hour Happens Tomorrow: How Will You Celebrate?

Tomorrow night, millions of people all over the world will be turning off their lights for one hour beginning at 8:30 p.m. in their efforts to honour Earth Hour. Will it make a difference in emissions? Sure, any reduction in energy usage means a reduction in greenhouse gases. Will this reduction in emissions make a significant difference to the problem? Probably not. It would be like a smoker deciding not to smoke for part of one day every year; the overall risk for smoking-related diseases is not all that much different.

So why do it then? I can think of a few reasons. One is that it’s meant to raise awareness to the general public about one very important component to helping tackle global warming and climate change; that is, to reduce our energy usage and to learn that our lives aren’t destroyed in the process.

Another is to make a symbolic stand. If you can show your support in this small way, it acknowledges to those around you that you believe global warming is real and that we’re a part of the problem. As each year goes by, more people are taking this stand.

And another important reason is to use the opportunity to reflect. In this year’s campaign, the organizers are suggesting you contemplate what you can do to help during that hour, in your “moment of darkness.” As part of their efforts, a number of celebrities have uploaded videos to encourage you to participate.

I thought about posting one from William Shatner, but opted instead for a real astronaut. Chris Hadfield, Canada’s most famous citizen to view our planet from space had some pertinent words to explain why he thinks it’s an important event to participate in. See what you think, but please consider doing your part to make a difference.

Even if it’s just for one hour.