Gates’s TerraPower Breaks Ground on Small Nuclear Reactor

(p. A16) Outside a small coal town in southwest Wyoming, a multibillion-dollar effort to build the first in a new generation of American nuclear power plants is underway.

Workers began construction on Tuesday on a novel type of nuclear reactor meant to be smaller and cheaper than the hulking reactors of old and designed to produce electricity without the carbon dioxide that is rapidly heating the planet.

The reactor being built by TerraPower, a start-up, won’t be finished until 2030 at the earliest and faces daunting obstacles. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission hasn’t yet approved the design, and the company will have to overcome the inevitable delays and cost overruns that have doomed countless nuclear projects before.

What TerraPower does have, however, is an influential and deep-pocketed founder. Bill Gates, currently ranked as the seventh-richest person in the world, has poured more than $1 billion of his fortune into TerraPower, an amount that he expects to increase.

“If you care about climate, there are many, many locations around the world where nuclear has got to work,” Mr. Gates said during an interview near the project site on Monday. “I’m not involved in TerraPower to make more money. I’m involved in TerraPower because we need to build a lot of these reactors.”

Mr. Gates, the former head of Microsoft, said he believed the best way to solve climate change was through innovations that make clean energy competitive with fossil fuels, a philosophy he described in his 2021 book, “How to Avoid a Climate Disaster.”

Nationwide, nuclear power is seeing a resurgence of interest, with several start-ups jockeying to build a wave of smaller reactors and the Biden administration offering hefty tax credits for new plants.

. . .

In March [2024], TerraPower submitted a 3,300-page application to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission for a permit to build the reactor, but that will take at least two years to review. The company has to persuade regulators that its sodium-cooled reactor doesn’t need many of the costly safeguards required for traditional light-water reactors.

“That’s going to be challenging,” said Adam Stein, director of nuclear innovation at the Breakthrough Institute, a pro-nuclear research organization.

TerraPower’s plant is designed so that major components, like the steam turbines that generate electricity and the molten salt battery, are physically separate from the reactor, where fission occurs. The company says those parts don’t require regulatory approval and can begin construction sooner.

For the full story see:

Brad Plumer and Benjamin Rasmussen. “Climate-Minded Billionaire Makes a Bet on Nuclear Power.” The New York Times (Thursday, June 13, 2024): A16.

(Note: ellipsis, and bracketed year, added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date June 11, 2024, and has the title “Nuclear Power Is Hard. A Climate-Minded Billionaire Wants to Make It Easier.”)

Gates’s 2021 book, mentioned above, is:

Gates, Bill. How to Avoid a Climate Disaster: The Solutions We Have and the Breakthroughs We Need. New York: Knopf, 2021.

The Effect of Global Warming on Tropical Islands “Is Not an Exact Science”: Many Islands Are Stable or Even Growing

Environmentalists warned for decades that the biggest threat from global warming is to the survival of small low-lying islands. But as the late great physicist Freeman Dyson observed, the earth is more resilient than we know. In the three-full-page article quoted below, The New York Times (yes, The New York Times) reports that the small low-lying islands are mostly doing just fine.

(p. A6) On a wisp of land in the Indian Ocean, two hops by plane and one bumpy speedboat ride from the nearest continent, the sublime blue waves lapping at the bone-white sand are just about all that breaks the stillness of a hot, windless afternoon.

The very existence of low-slung tropical islands seems improbable, a glitch. A nearly seamless meeting of land and sea, peeking up like an illusion above the violent oceanic expanse, they are among the most marginal environments humans have ever called home.

And indeed, when the world began paying attention to global warming decades ago, these islands, which form atop coral reefs in clusters called atolls, were quickly identified as some of the first places climate change might ravage in their entirety. As the ice caps melted and the seas crept higher, these accidents of geologic history were bound to be corrected and the tiny islands returned to watery oblivion, probably in this century.

Then, not very long ago, researchers began sifting through aerial images and found something startling. They looked at a couple dozen islands first, then several hundred, and by now close to 1,000. They found that over the past few decades, the islands’ edges had wobbled this way and that, eroding here, building there. By and large, though, their area hadn’t shrunk. In some cases, it was the opposite: They grew. The seas rose, and the islands expanded with them.

. . .

(p. A7) It was Darwin who first theorized that atolls were burial sites for dead volcanoes, that these modest, almost shy, formations had astonishing pasts. Only later did scientists discover a key piece of their more recent history: Swings in sea level, they realized, had drowned and exposed the islands several times through the ages. Which didn’t bode particularly well for them today, now that global warming was causing the oceans’ rise to speed up.

To understand what had happened to the atolls since this acceleration began, two researchers, Arthur Webb and Paul Kench, decided to look down at them from above. The scientists collected aerial photos of 27 Pacific islands from the middle of the 20th century. Then, they compared them to recent satellite images. “I’m not sure we really knew what we would find,” Dr. Kench recalled.

Their findings caused an uproar.

The seas had risen an inch or so each decade, yet the waves had kept piling sediment on the islands’ shores, enough to mean that most of them hadn’t changed much in size. Their position on the reef might have shifted. Their shape might be different. Whatever was going on, it clearly wasn’t as simple as oceans rise, islands wash away.

Dr. Webb and Dr. Kench’s study, which came out in 2010, inspired other scientists to hunt for more old photos and conduct further analysis. The patterns they’ve uncovered in recent years are remarkably consistent across the 1,000 or so islands they’ve studied: Some shrank, others grew. Many, however, were stable. These studies have also added to the intrigue by revealing another pattern: Islands in ocean regions where sea level rise is fastest generally haven’t eroded more than those elsewhere.

And yet, to really grasp the forces at work, and to anticipate what they might do to the islands next, scientists also need to study atolls up close. Which is why Dr. Kench came back this spring to the Maldives.

On a blob of jungly land just a few miles north of the Equator, Dr. Kench walked past a section of beach that the currents had eaten away. Several palm trees lay toppled, half-buried in the sand.

“People obsess on that end of the island,” he said. Then he pointed up ahead. “This side has got bigger.”


The day before, another island in the same atoll was abuzz with activity. One group of scientists and graduate students measured currents using makeshift buoys. Another group fiddled with a tower-mounted sensor that mapped the waves running up the beach. A third team dove down to the seafloor, where they installed instruments within the intricate coral canyons that, from above, gave the reef its streaky, ethereal look.

One doctoral researcher, Aitana Gea Neuhaus, scooped up a spadeful of sand and beheld the miniature universe it contained: puzzle-piece fragments of coral and calcareous algae in a mad variety of shapes and textures; crushed shells of bivalves, crustaceans and single-celled foraminifera; the sugar-white sand particles that parrotfish churn out of their digestive tracts.

. . .

One morning, Dr. Kench and a few other researchers hacked away a clearing in the jungle and bored a hole in the ground. Down went a six-foot steel pipe.

They were trying to glimpse the island’s deep past, to reconstruct its major chapters, layer by ancient layer. And they had some idea of how far below ground to look, thanks to seismic measurements that Tim Scott, an ocean scientist at Plymouth, had taken. Still, he warned the group: “It’s not an exact science.”

Dr. Scott sledgehammered the pipe down. “This is the moment of truth,” Dr. Kench said.

They levered out the pipe and hoisted it above a tarp. Out came a messy line of sediment and gravel and coral bits. Everyone leaned in close. No group of people in human history had ever seemed more interested in some chunks of damp sand.

Dr. Scott tried to puzzle out why the fine and rough material were jumbled together, not crisply layered as they’d hoped. Gerd Masselink, a coastal scientist at Plymouth, grinned. “Well, you know, it’s not an exact science,” he said.

. . .

On its own, coral bleaching isn’t necessarily bad for islands. When corals go white and frail, they can become infested (p. A8) by even more of the cyanobacteria that parrotfish love to munch on. The parrotfish flourish; they produce more sand.

. . .

It’s . . . less-populated islands where scientists say people can still learn to coexist with expanding and contracting shores, to adapt to nature’s give-and-take.

The issue is whether people can wait. Whether their needs for modern services, for better lives, will lead them to demand sea walls and breakwaters and land reclamation, the very things that could diminish the islands’ natural resilience. Or whether they will simply leave.

For the full story see:

Raymond Zhong, Jason Gulley and Jonathan Corum. “The Vanishing Islands That Failed to Vanish.” The New York Times (Saturday, June 29, 2024): A6-A8.

(Note: ellipses added; capitalized heading in original.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date June 26, 2024, and has the same title as the print version.)

The “Silver Linings” of Illegally Trafficked Corals

(p. D4) Corals are not plants: They are tiny invertebrates that live in vast colonies, forming the foundation of the world’s tropical reefs. Marine life traffickers hammer and chisel them off reefs in places like Indonesia, Fiji, Tonga, Australia or the Caribbean, then pack them into small baggies of seawater so they can be boxed up by the hundreds and shipped around the world. While most coral is shipped into the United States legally, individuals and wholesalers, growing in number, are being intercepted with coral species or quantities that are restricted or banned from trade, often hidden inside shipments containing legal species.

. . .

Corals are better left in the wild, experts say, but there are silver linings after illegally trafficked specimens are confiscated and properly cared for by experts. In fact, there’s a good chance you’ve seen a confiscated coral if you’ve visited some aquariums.

Walk past the Indo-Pacific Barrier Reef exhibit at the Georgia Aquarium, for instance, and you can view a Turbinaria coral that was confiscated in 2005, shortly after Ms. Stone joined the aquarium.

It took years for the Turbinaria to recover, but now the colony has grown to more than 2.5 feet in size under her care and taken on a shape like a giant eye.

For the full story see:

Jason Bittel. “Mobilizing a Network to Save Marine Corals.” The New York Times (Tuesday, June 25, 2024): D4.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date June 24, 2024, and has the title “Unlikely Wild Animals Are Being Smuggled Into U.S. Ports: Corals.”)

California Politicians Ban Test of Sprayed Seawater That Might Reverse Global Warming

Some environmentalists are only willing to cool the planet by the pain of less consumption.

(p. A14) Elected leaders in Alameda, Calif., voted early on Wednesday [June 5, 2024] to stop scientists from testing a device that might one day be used to artificially cool the planet, overruling city staff members who had found the experiment posed no danger.

. . .

The test involved spraying tiny sea-salt particles across the flight deck of a decommissioned aircraft carrier, the U.S.S. Hornet, docked in Alameda in San Francisco Bay. Versions of that device could eventually be used to spray the material skyward, making clouds brighter so that they reflect more sunlight away from Earth. Scientists say that could help to cool the planet and to fight the effects of global warming.

. . .

“The chemical components of the saltwater solution (which is similar to seawater) being sprayed are naturally occurring in the environment,” the report said. Staff recommended that the City Council allow the experiment to continue, . . .

. . .

Some environmentalists oppose research aimed at so-called climate intervention, also known as solar geoengineering. They argue that such technology carries the risk of unintended consequences, and also takes money and attention away from efforts to reduce the use of fossil fuels, the burning of which is the underlying cause of climate change.

For the full story see:

Soumya Karlamangla and Christopher Flavelle. “Leaders in California City Halt Cloud-Brightening Test.” The New York Times (Thursday, June 6, 2024): A14.

(Note: ellipses, and bracketed date, added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date June 5, 2024, and has the title “California City Leaders End Cloud-Brightening Test, Overruling Staff.”)

“A Major Environmental Group” Will Fund Geoengineering Research

(p. A18) The Environmental Defense Fund will finance research into technologies that could artificially cool the planet, an idea that until recently was viewed as radical but is quickly gaining attention as global temperatures rise at alarming rates.

The group hopes to start issuing grants this fall, said Lisa Dilling, associate chief scientist at E.D.F., who is running the project. She said research would focus on estimating the likely effects in different parts of the world if governments were to deploy artificial cooling technologies.

. . .

The Environmental Defense Fund has previously expressed skepticism about techniques like these. But Dr. Dilling says the discussion about ways to cool the planet isn’t going away, regardless of opposition. “This is something that I don’t think we can just ignore,” she said.

The group will fund what is sometimes called solar radiation modification, or solar geoengineering, which involves reflecting more of the sun’s energy back into space. Possible techniques involve injecting aerosols into the stratosphere, or brightening clouds to make them more reflective.

. . .

That a major environmental group like the Environmental Defense Fund is investing in solar geoengineering research sends a powerful message, said Larry Birenbaum, a partner at the LAD Climate Fund, one of the groups funding the research. He said his group had been urging environmentalists for years to pay attention to solar geoengineering.

“We’re not going to convince everyone about the necessity for research,” said Mr. Birenbaum, a former senior vice president at Cisco Systems. “The climate community in general needs to be convinced, because this is on the fringe now, and it deserves not to be.”

For the full story see:

Christopher Flavelle. “Experiments to Artificially Cool the Earth Are Getting a Major Backer.” The New York Times (Tuesday, June 11, 2024): A18.

(Note: ellipses, and bracketed year, added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date June 10, 2024, and has the title “Environmental Group to Study Effects of Artificially Cooling Earth.”)

Mountains Are Not Sublime if You Need a Plain to Survive

(p. 13) Most of the people who have lived on this planet since the invention of agriculture have been peasants.

. . .

The cultivators, it is often assumed, are dreadfully uncultivated. And this alleged lack of sophistication has made them fair game for every kind of depredation. The food they produce has been expropriated by their overlords, by marauding armies and by totalitarian states. They have been conscripted as cannon fodder; entangled in debt and dependency as sharecroppers and serfs; starved, sometimes deliberately, in famines and prisons; forcibly converted to their masters’ religions; herded onto collective farms and slaughtered mercilessly when they revolt.

. . .

. . . very few of the countless millions who have eked a living from the land left enduring accounts of their own lives.

“This,” Joyce wrote, “is a world of a very ancient form of silence, peasant silence, something enmeshed in cultures that are largely oral in nature.”

. . .

“The wild as our sublime,” he writes, “makes no sense to the peasant.” (Joyce cites a Polish peasant interviewed in the 1960s who said, “I like it where the plain is; when I was in America I saw a mountain, and this was an awful view.”)

. . .

Joyce shows how the supreme value of the peasant is generational survival: The great task is to hand on to the child the land the peasant has inherited, making one’s own existence a kind of interlude between past and future.

For the full review, see:

Fintan O’Toole. “Fanfare for the Common Man.” The New York Times Book Review (Sunday, March 10, 2024): 13.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the review was updated Feb. 28, 2024, and has the title “A Love Song to His Roots.”)

The book under review above is:

Joyce, Patrick. Remembering Peasants: A Personal History of a Vanished World. New York: Scribner, 2024.

Egyptians May Have Tried Surgery on Brain Cancer 4,600 Years Ago

(p. D2) Scientists led by Edgard Camarós, a paleopathologist at the University of Santiago de Compostela in Spain, were studying an approximately 4,600-year-old Egyptian skull when they found signs of brain cancer and its treatment.

. . .

Using a microscope, he and Tatiana Tondini of the University of Tübingen in Germany and Albert Isidro of the University Hospital Sagrat Cor in Spain, the study’s other authors, found cut marks around the skull’s edges surrounding dozens of lesions that earlier researchers had linked to metastasized brain cancer. The shape of the cuts indicated that they had been made with a metal tool. This discovery, reported in a study published Wednesday [May 29, 2024] in the journal Frontiers in Medicine, suggests that ancient Egyptians studied brain cancer using surgery. If the cuts were made while the person was alive, they may have even attempted to treat it.

. . .

The new discovery not only expands scientific knowledge of Egyptian medicine, it may also push back the timeline of humanity’s documented attempts to treat cancer by up to 1,000 years.

For the full story see:

Jordan Pearson. “An Ongoing Search: In an Ancient Egyptian Skull, Evidence of a Cancer Treatment.” The New York Times (Tuesday, June 4, 2024): D2.

(Note: ellipses, and bracketed date, added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date May 29, 2024, and has the title “Ancient Skull With Brain Cancer Preserves Clues to Egyptian Medicine.” Where the wording of the versions differs, the passages quoted above follow the online version.)

The study co-authored by Camarós, and mentioned above, is:

Tondini, Tatiana, Albert Isidro, and Edgard Camarós. “Case Report: Boundaries of Oncological and Traumatological Medical Care in Ancient Egypt: New Palaeopathological Insights from Two Human Skulls.” Frontiers in Medicine 11 (2024) DOI: 10.3389/fmed.2024.1371645.

On the antiquity of cancer, see also:

Haridy, Yara, Florian Witzmann, Patrick Asbach, Rainer R. Schoch, Nadia Fröbisch, and Bruce M. Rothschild. “Triassic Cancer—Osteosarcoma in a 240-Million-Year-Old Stem-Turtle.” JAMA Oncology 5, no. 3 (March 2019): 425-26.

Rex Murphy Saw We Are Governed by People Who Look Down on Us

(p. B12) Rex Murphy, a Canadian newspaper, radio and television commentator who delighted his country’s conservatives with sharp attacks on environmentalists, liberal politicians and what he called their “woke politics,” died on May 9 [2024] in Toronto. He was 77.

His death, from cancer, was announced on the front page of The National Post, the widely read daily newspaper for which he wrote a column, one of several he had over the years in Canadian papers, including The Globe and Mail in Toronto. His editor at The National Post, Kevin Libin, said Mr. Murphy died in a hospital.

. . .

Mr. Murphy’s sharp political turn to the right — from commenting for centrist outlets like the CBC and The Globe and Mail, where he had a regular column until 2010, to the right-wing views he espoused at The National Post — had its roots in his own working-class background, in the view of those who knew him.

. . .

He regularly took on what he deemed the sins of “woke” politics and “wokeism.” In a February 2023 column, he wrote: “I have finally fixed upon the definition of progressivism. It means the dismissal of everything that counts, unconcern with what makes life hard for most, and a scorn for the realities of day to day; instead shepherding to very particular political interest groups.”

In his final days there were diatribes against critics of Israel during its war with Hamas and against the liberalism of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

. . .

Mr. Murphy was animated, Mr. Libin said, by “the sense that we were being governed by people who looked down on us.”

. . .

Throughout his career, Mr. Murphy set great store by verbal expression. His fans and his critics agreed that his distinctive, sometimes high-flown use of English was what set him apart from his country’s other journalists. Profiles noted that he was as devoted to the works of John Milton as he was to “The Simpsons.”

For the full obituary see:

Adam Nossiter. “Rex Murphy, 77, a Pundit on the Right in Canada.” The New York Times (Friday, May 24, 2024): B12.

(Note: ellipses, and bracketed year, added.)

(Note: the online version of the obituary was updated May 23, 2024, and has the title “Rex Murphy, a Dominant Pundit on the Right in Canada, Dies at 77.”)

Bdelloids Frozen for 24,000 Years Return to Life and Reproduce

(p. D2) Bdelloids can . . . come back to life after tens of thousands of years in deep freeze, according to a study published Monday [June 7, 2021] in the journal Current Biology. Bdelloids are one of a handful of teensy creatures, including tardigrades, that are known to survive incredibly inhospitable conditions.

. . .

For the study, scientists collected samples by drilling about 11 feet below the surface of permafrost in northeastern Siberia. They discovered living bdelloid rotifers locked in the ancient permafrost, whose average temperature hovers around 14 degrees Fahrenheit.

. . .

Radiocarbon-dating revealed the bdelloids were 24,000 years old. They then bounced back and were still capable of reproducing once thawed.

For the full story see:

Marion Renault. “The Deepest Sleeper: It Makes Rip Van Winkle Look Like an Amateur.” The New York Times (Tuesday, June 15, 2021 [sic]): D2.

(Note: ellipses, and bracketed date, added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date June 7, 2021 [sic], and has the title “This Tiny Creature Survived 24,000 Years Frozen in Siberian Permafrost.” Where the versions differ, in the passages quoted above I follow the online version.)

The study mentioned above is:

Shmakova, Lyubov, Stas Malavin, Nataliia Iakovenko, Tatiana Vishnivetskaya, Daniel Shain, Michael Plewka, and Elizaveta Rivkina. “A Living Bdelloid Rotifer from 24,000-Year-Old Arctic Permafrost.” Current Biology 31, no. 11 (June 7, 2021): R712-R713.

Species Shifting Their Range Due to Climate Change May Have Enabled the “Playing Around With Resources” That Invented Farming

(p. D6) In the 1990s, archaeologists largely concluded that farming in the Fertile Crescent began in Jordan and Israel, a region known as the southern Levant. “The model was that everything started there, and then everything spread out from there, including maybe the people,” said Melinda A. Zeder, a senior research scientist at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History.

But in recent years, Dr. Zeder and other archaeologists have overturned that consensus. Their research suggests that people were inventing farming at several sites in the Fertile Crescent at roughly the same time. In the Zagros Mountains of Iran, for example, Dr. Zeder and her colleagues have found evidence of the gradual domestication of wild goats over many centuries around 10,000 years ago.

People may have been cultivating plants earlier than believed, too.

In the 1980s, Dani Nadel, then at Hebrew University, and his colleagues excavated a 23,000-year-old site on the shores of the Sea of Galilee known as Ohalo II. It consisted of half a dozen brush huts. Last year, Dr. Nadel co-authored a study showing that one of the huts contained 150,000 charred seeds and fruits, including many types, such as almonds, grapes and olives, that would later become crops. A stone blade found at Ohalo II seemed to have been used as a sickle to harvest cereals. A stone slab was used to grind the seeds. It seems clear the inhabitants were cultivating wild plants long before farming was thought to have begun.

“We got fixated on the very few things we just happened to see preserved in the archaeological record, and we got this false impression that this was an abrupt change,” Dr. Zeder said. “Now we really understand there was this long period where they’re playing around with resources.”

Many scientists have suggested that humans turned to agriculture under duress. Perhaps the climate of the Near East grew harsh, or perhaps the hunter-gatherer population outstripped the supply of wild foods.

But “playing around with resources” is not the sort of thing people do in times of desperation. Instead, Dr. Zeder argues, agriculture came about as climatic changes shifted the ranges of some wild species of plants and animals into the Near East.

Many different groups began experimenting with ways of producing extra food, which eventually enabled them to start a new way of life: settling down in more stable social groups.

For the full story see:

Carl Zimmer. “The First Farmers.” The New York Times (Tuesday, October 18, 2016 [sic]): D1 & D6.

(Note: the online version of the story has the date Oct. 17, 2016 [sic], and has the title “How the First Farmers Changed History.”)

The 2015 study co-authored by Dani Nadel and mentioned above is:

Snir, Ainit, Dani Nadel, Iris Groman-Yaroslavski, Yoel Melamed, Marcelo Sternberg, Ofer Bar-Yosef, and Ehud Weiss. “The Origin of Cultivation and Proto-Weeds, Long before Neolithic Farming.” PLOS ONE 10, no. 7 (July 22, 2015): e0131422.

When Ocean Temperatures Dropped 30 Million Years Ago, Some Species Migrated to Warmer Waters; Others Developed New Traits

(p. D2) The Southern Ocean around Antarctica was once warmer. Then about 30 million years ago, the temperature dropped. Few fish could survive temperatures that were just above seawater’s freezing point, and they either migrated to warmer waters or went extinct.

One bottom-dweller held on. Through the power of natural selection, its descendants developed traits that let them survive these unlikely conditions. Today, the Antarctic blackfin icefish, or Chaenocephalus aceratus, thrives in these frigid waters with no scales, blood as clear as water and bones so thin, you can see its brain through its skull.

For the full story see:

JoAnna Klein. “Skullduggery: It’s Not Hard to See How His Brain Works.” The New York Times (Tuesday, March 5, 2019 [sic]): D2.

(Note: the online version of the story has the date Feb. 28, 2019 [sic], and has the title “How the Icefish Got Its Transparent Blood and See-Through Skull.”)

The article quoted above references the following academic article:

Kim, Bo-Mi, Angel Amores, Seunghyun Kang, Do-Hwan Ahn, Jin-Hyoung Kim, Il-Chan Kim, Jun Hyuck Lee, Sung Gu Lee, Hyoungseok Lee, Jungeun Lee, Han-Woo Kim, Thomas Desvignes, Peter Batzel, Jason Sydes, Tom Titus, Catherine A. Wilson, Julian M. Catchen, Wesley C. Warren, Manfred Schartl, H. William Detrich, John H. Postlethwait, and Hyun Park. “Antarctic Blackfin Icefish Genome Reveals Adaptations to Extreme Environments.” Nature Ecology & Evolution 3, no. 3 (March 2019): 469-78.