Nature Hacking

Four ways scientists are co-opting nature to solve the problems of the 21st century This past summer, the super-chef Dan Barber, who runs a restaurant/farm in New York, brought news of a bizarre, paradoxical creation: ethical foie gras. Seriously. It was amazing to hear, especially for foodies. But..

Four ways scientists are co-opting nature to solve the problems of the 21st century

This past summer, the super-chef Dan Barber, who runs a restaurant/farm in New York, brought news of a bizarre, paradoxical creation: ethical foie gras. Seriously. It was amazing to hear, especially for foodies. But the lesson is bigger, because of exactly how that ethical foie gras was created.The farmer that makes the foie gras takes advantage of a natural instinct in geese: to gorge themselves during winter, in preparation to fly south. But rather than force feeding the geese, as all other farmers would to create foie gras, he provides them with a goose paradise-all the figs and goodies they can eat, and a protective fence that keeps them safe from predators. The set-up is so cushy that the geese will call to their wild cousins, flying overhead-hollering about the incredible digs they've got, until the wild geese land. And they stay-their goal, ultimately, being to find the best place to live and breed, rather than just to fly south.Notice how the farmer accomplished this: Rather than creating a synthetic process (like force feeding), he created a system that satisfies the geese, and takes maximum advantage of the instincts with which nature has supplied them. That is, he hacked nature's imperatives, and re-engineered them to his ends.Scientists are doing the same to fight global warming. What Barber presented as merely a parable of how we'll cook in the 21st century might be a principle so broad that one day we'll look back and regard naturally invented solutions as inexorable as evolution or the bell curve.Now, this insight is to be distinguished from what's often called biomimicry-looking at nature and trying to copy it as best we can. (Granted, biomimicry holds great promise: Scientists are looking for ways to mimic photosynthesis, so that we'll be able to use only sunlight and water to create abundant hydrogen, just like plants. A massive breakthrough came last year, in fact. The surfaces of moth eyes and butterfly wings, to cite another example, are teaching us how to build more efficient solar panels.)Dan Barber's foie gras example isn't biomimicry. Rather, it suggests that we might be able to take preexisting natural processes, and alter them just enough to fashion a sustainable future for ourselves. This is more than a coincidence of shared interest. If you were to summarize evolution's sweep, you might say that nature has, by necessity, solved the problem of carbon saturation, at least in miniature-simply because it's a fundamental hurdle for living in some of the earth's varied ecosystems. To that end, nature has engaged in a two-billion-year engineering experiment via evolution. Here are a few examples of how scientists are already taking advantage:1. Hacking into microbes What if we could hack into microbes, using their prior molecular processes to create drugs or biofuels? Michelle Chang, of UC Berkeley is doing just that, taking bacteria that usually live in extreme conditions and designing them so that they'll perform chemical processes-such as converting plant waste into biofuel-that are too difficult or expensive to perform at large scale.

The same goal-cheap, quick ways to break down plants for biofuel-might also be achieved with help from the fungi that cause wood to rot. They're adapted to turn wood into sugar. Few organisms can, and scientists have decoded the fungus genes so that others might create biofuels more efficiently.2. Changing the color of plantsThe colors on the surface of the earth affect how much light and heat are reflected back into the atmosphere. That's one reason why polar ice melts are so troublesome-the white of the ice reflects enormous amounts of energy back into space. One scientist wants to take advantage of this by creating crops that reflect more light. The professor that has proposed the idea thinks that, all told, the effect could reduce warming by .1 degree Celsius-a significant number, when you consider that we're likely to see two degrees of increase by 2100.3. Using plants to soak up carbon Meanwhile, plants themselves are engines for soaking up carbon, and scientists have been seeking to rejigger that process to fight global warming for some time. One incredibly simple idea is to simply drown crop residues, thus removing carbon from circulation in the world's ecosystems.4. Super fast growing plantsRecently scientists took microbes that usually colonize trees, and combined them with bacteria that naturally break down contaminants. That allowed them to create poplar trees and clean soil. But then things got even more interesting: It turns out, their engineered microbes make trees grow faster in normal soil-which suggests new ways to make super-fast growing plants for carbon sequestration or biofuel, on marginal land that isn't being used for agriculture. (A huge problem, because biofuel crops will otherwise take up arable land, driving up food costs.)
via Collection of the New-York Historical Society / Wikimedia Commons

Fredrick Douglass was born into slavery in 1818. At the age of 10 he was given to the Auld family.

As a child, he worked as a house slave and was able to learn to read and write, and he attempted to teach his fellow slaves the same skills.

At the age of 15, he was given to Thomas Auld, a cruel man who beat and starved his slaves and thwarted any opportunity for them to practice their faith or to learn to read or write.

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via Thomas Ledia / Wikimedia Commons

On April 20, 1889 at the Braunau am Inn, in Upper Austria Salzburger located at Vorstadt 15, Alois and Klara Hitler brought a son into the world. They named him Adolph.

Little did they know he would grow up to be one of the greatest forces of evil the world has ever known.

The Hitlers moved out of the Braunau am Inn when Adolph was three, but the three-story butter-colored building still stands. It has been the subject of controversy for seven decades.

via Thomas Ledia / Wikimedia Commons

The building was a meeting place for Nazi loyalists in the 1930s and '40s. After World War II, the building has become an informal pilgrimage site for neo-Nazis and veterans to glorify the murderous dictator.

The building was a thorn in the side to local government and residents to say the least.

RELATED: He photographed Nazi atrocities and buried the negatives. The unearthed images are unforgettable.

For years it was owned by Gerlinde Pommer, a descendant of the original owners. The Austrian government made numerous attempts to purchase it from her, but to no avail. The building has served many purposes, a school, a library, and a makeshift museum.

In 1989, a stone from the building was inscribed with:

"For Peace, Freedom

and Democracy.

Never Again Fascism.

Millions of Dead Remind [us]."

via Jo Oh / Wikimedia Commons

For three decades it was home to an organization that offered support and integration assistance for disabled people. But in 2011, the organization vacated the property because Pommer refused to bring it up to code.

RELATED: 'High Castle' producers destroyed every swastika used on the show and the video is oh-so satisfying

In 2017, the fight between the government and Pommer ended with it seizing the property. Authorities said it would get a "thorough architectural remodeling is necessary to permanently prevent the recognition and the symbolism of the building."

Now, the government intends to turn it into a police station which will surely deter any neo-Nazis from hanging around the building.

Austria has strict anti-Nazi laws that aim to prohibit any potential Nazi revival. The laws state that anyone who denies, belittles, condones or tries to justify the Nazi genocide or other Nazi crimes against humanity shall be punished with imprisonment for one year up to ten years.

In Austria the anti-Nazi laws are so strict one can go to prison for making the Nazi hand salute or saying "Heil Hitler."

"The future use of the house by the police should send an unmistakable signal that the role of this building as a memorial to the Nazis has been permanently revoked," Austria's IInterior Minister, Wolfgang Peschorn said in a statement.

The house is set to be redesigned following an international architectural competition.

via Chela Horsdal / Twitter

Amazon's "The Man in the High Castle" debuted the first episode of its final season last week.

The show is loosely based on an alternative history novel by Philip K. Dick that postulates what would happen if Nazi Germany and the Empire of Japan controlled the United States after being victorious in World War II.

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via Mike Mozart / Flickr

Chick-fil-A is the third-largest fast food chain in America, behind McDonald's and Starbucks, raking in over $10 billion a year.

But for years, the company has faced boycotts for supporting anti-LGBT charities, including the Salvation Army, the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, and the Paul Anderson Youth Home.

The Salvation Army faced criticism after a leader in the organization implied that gay people "deserve to die" and the company also came under fire after refusing to offer same-sex couples health insurance. But the organization swears it's evolving on such issues.

via Thomas Hawk / Flickr

The Fellowship of Christian Athletes explicitly announced it was anti gay marriage in a recent "Statement of Faith."

God instituted marriage between one man and one woman as the foundation of the family and the basic structure of human society. For this reason, we believe that marriage is exclusively the union of one man and one woman.

The Paul Anderson Youth Home teaches boys that homosexuality is wrong and that same-sex marriage is "rage against Jesus Christ and His values."

RELATED: The 1975's singer bravely kissed a man at a Dubai concert to protest anti-LGBT oppression

In 2012, Chick-fil-A's CEO, Dan Cathy, made anti same-sex marriage comments on a radio broadcast:

I think we are inviting God's judgment on our nation when we shake our fist at Him and say, "We know better than you as to what constitutes a marriage". I pray God's mercy on our generation that has such a prideful, arrogant attitude to think that we have the audacity to define what marriage is about.

But the chicken giant has now decided to change it's says its charitable donation strategy because it's bad for business...Not because being homophobic is wrong.

The company recently lost several bids to provide concessions in U.S. airports. A pop-up shop in England was told it would not be renewed after eight days following LGBTQ protests.

Chick-fil-A also has plans to expand to Boston, Massachusetts where its mayor, Thomas Menino, pledged to ban the restaurant from the city.

via Wikimedia Commons

"There's no question we know that, as we go into new markets, we need to be clear about who we are," Chick-fil-A President and Chief Operating Officer Tim Tassopoulos told Bisnow. "There are lots of articles and newscasts about Chick-fil-A, and we thought we needed to be clear about our message."

RELATED: Alan Turing will appear on the 50-pound note nearly 70 years after being persecuted for his sexuality

Instead, the Chick-fil-A Foundation plans to give $9 million to organizations that support education and fight homelessness. Which is commendable regardless of the company's troubled past.

"If Chick-Fil-A is serious about their pledge to stop holding hands with divisive anti-LGBTQ activists, then further transparency is needed regarding their deep ties to organizations like Focus on the Family, which exist purely to harm LGBTQ people and families," Drew Anderson, GLAAD's director of campaigns and rapid response, said in a statement.

Chick-fil-A's decision to back down from contributing to anti-LGBT charities shows the power that people have to fight back against companies by hitting them where it really hurts — the pocket book.

The question remains: If you previously avoided Chick-fil-A because it supported anti-LGBT organizations, is it now OK to eat there? Especially when Popeye's chicken sandwich is so good people will kill for it?


Oh, irony. You are having quite a day.

The Italian region of Veneto, which includes the city of Venice, is currently experiencing historic flooding. Venice Mayor Luigi Brugnaro has stated that the flooding is a direct result of climate change, with the tide measuring the highest level in 50 years. The city (which is actually a collection of 100 islands in a lagoon—hence its famous canal streets), is no stranger to regular flooding, but is currently on the brink of declaring a state of emergency as waters refuse to recede.

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