I couldn’t find any single story to dig into for today, so instead I’m changing things up a bit. Rather than one, more in-depth story, I’m giving you quick looks at three different stories from the world of politics and science that I found interesting. If you get interested, there will be links to more stories at the bottom.
One of the bigger stories in the news today is that Syria’s chemical weapons equipment is now out of commission. Thanks to the deal brokered between Russia, the US, and Syria, no military action will be taken if Syria gives up its chemical weapons stores, and with this move the Syrian government is beginning to make good on that agreement. The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons oversaw the destruction of the equipment necessary to construct chemical warheads. This does not mean that the country no longer has toxic agents such as sarin or mustard gas. They now simply lack the ability to put those agents into weapons. The Syrian government has until mid 2014 to actually destroy all of their stocks of chemical agents, but for now this is a big step forward. Given how tense and potentially dangerous the situation was immediately following the chemical attacks back in August, it’s reassuring to see a relatively peaceful solution being carried out successfully. Admittedly there is still that brutal civil war that’s been raging for two and a half years now, but for now I’ll count this as a small victory towards some semblance of peace.
Thorium, a naturally occurring radioactive element named after the Norse god of thunder, is looking like it may just be the new uranium. Both Britain and Norway are working on ways to incorporate the compound into nuclear energy reactors. Former U.N. weapons inspector Hans Blix has come out in support of research around thorium as an energy source, citing its higher stability and its inability to be used in nuclear weapons when he spoke with BBC News. What I think is probably the most interesting part of this story is how little danger thorium poses in a nuclear reactor. When uranium reactors overload and their reactions get out of hand, the reaction quite literally keeps going, with the uranium continuing to break down and release dangerous radiation sot that end up getting situations like Fukushima. With a thorium reactor though, all you need to do is flip the switch and the thorium stops its own reaction. With more and more damage still being found from Fukushima’s catastrophic on what feels like a monthly basis, the idea of a compound that would circumvent that danger seems too good to be true. Hopefully it isn’t.
Lastly, we have a story about budget cuts. When have budget cuts ever been bad news? Oh, wait…damn… Anyways, NPR took a look at what kind of damage will be done to our national science programs with the looming cuts the sequester promises for the next year. Now that the government shutdown has ended, I’ve seen a lot of stories chronicling how damaging that period was for a wide variety of experiments and disciplines. What I haven’t seen that much of is this, an article looking forward and reminding us that while these experiments may be back online, they won’t necessarily last. The story talks about Titan, a supercomputer housed at Oak Ridge National Laboratory down in Tennessee, which was formerly the most powerful in the world. It was just recently passed up by a new supercomputer built in China. Now it’s pretty normal for another country to design a new one of these supercomputers that is better than ours; powerful countries tend to swap the No. 1 spot pretty regularly. With the budget cuts looming though, researchers at Oak Ridge are worried that soon we may not be one of those countries involved in the swap. Getting funding for any kind research is getting tougher and tougher, which is only pushing us further and further behind those countries which are still pouring money into their science programs, and Titan is a great example of this. Both the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation are approving fewer and fewer grant proposals, shutting out both up and coming researchers and experienced veterans alike. While it is nice to have the government functional again (or at least as functional as it gets these days), we should really keep in mind that unless they actually start working together our country is only going to suffer as the sequester progresses. I focused on science here, largely because it’s what I know the most about, but it is most certainly not the only area that will be hurt. We should probably be concerned about that.
I hope you enjoyed these. Here are the original stories I found and some others you may like:
This one’s pretty in-depth, but there’s a lot of good information here. Like seriously, a lot: