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Lectures for a New Year: Parrots, the Universe, and Everything

Today I've got a doozy of a lecture for you. I present what is likely Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy author Douglas Adams's last public appearance -- he died of a heart attack on May 11, 2001, mere days after this talk at UC San Diego was filmed. This is a man in the prime of his life, about to be struck down. And he is cracking wise throughout, telling truly wonderful, engaging stories, but with a shattering message: just as our world is being pulled together by information technology, we are destroying species faster than ever before (unless you count, as he says, the points at which Earth has been hit by asteroids).

In the lecture, Adams recounts his hilarious adventures traveling the world studying endangered wildlife, learning about the odd, endearing lives of vanishing species...and what animal extinction means for the lives of humans. The talk was given about a decade after Adams published his favorite book, Last Chance to See. He took to the stage eleven years after the book was released, to tell its story -- this was a lecture of love, not promoting a hot new book. As Adams says in his introduction: "Virtually every author I know, their own favorite book is the one that sold the least."

Even if you're a fan of The Hitchhiker's Guide, you may not have read Adams's other work, or even heard of it. (I haven't read Last Chance to See and have only the vaguest familiarity with his Dirk Gently novels.) This lecture will convince you that the man's most under-appreciated book is well worth a read.

Topics: a monkey looking at a lemur, advances in twig technology, dragons, snakes, the Venom Fridge, forgetting how to fly, the Blue-footed Booby, the Friendship Store, condoms for recording dolphins, humans, and Carl Sagan.

Not covered: life, the universe, and everything.

For: anyone interested in nature, people who like jokes, fans of Douglas Adams, anyone who enjoys a good yarn about the natural world, and those who are not scandalized by a fleeting f-bomb or two.

Representative quote:

So just imagine if you will, this male Kakapo sitting up here, making all this booming noise which, if there's a female out there--which there probably isn't--and if she likes the sound of this booming--which she probably doesn't--then she can't find the person who's making it! (Laughter.) But supposing she does, supposing she's out there--but she probably isn't--she likes the sound of this booming--she probably doesn't--supposing that she can find him--which she probably can't--she will then only consent to mate if the Podocarpus tree is in fruit! (Laughter.)

Now we've all had relationships like that ... (Laughter.) (Applause.)

Further Reading

The book is Last Chance to See, and it was made into a BBC 2 series featuring Stephen Fry. There was also a BBC Radio series in 1989, which is now available online for free...if you're in the UK.

If you're unfamiliar with Adams (which I find unlikely), check out his website, which notes that there is a Douglas Adams Memorial Lecture series. Hmm, I'll have to check that out. See also, his Wikipedia entry. Oh, and if you're going to be in London on March 11, 2012, there's a 60th birthday celebration for DNA!

Transcript

A complete transcript is available. The YouTube video does not have proper closed captions.

Suggest a Lecture

Got a favorite lecture? Is it online in some video format? Leave a comment and we'll check it out!

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science
Why a Howling Wind Sounds So Spooky, According to Science
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Halloween is swiftly approaching, meaning you'll likely soon hear creepy soundtracks—replete with screams, clanking chains, and howling winds—blaring from haunted houses and home displays. While the sound of human suffering is frightful for obvious reasons, what is it, exactly, about a brisk fall gust that sends shivers up our spines? In horror movie scenes and ghost stories, these spooky gales are always presented as blowing through dead trees. Do bare branches actually make the natural wailing noises louder, or is this detail added simply for atmospheric purposes?

As the SciShow's Hank Green explains in the video below, wind howls because it curves around obstacles like trees or buildings. When fast-moving air goes around, say, a tree, it splits up as it whips past, before coming back together on the other side. Due to factors such as natural randomness, air speed, and the tree's surface, one side's wind is going to be slightly stronger when the two currents rejoin, pushing the other side's gust out of the way. The two continue to interact back-and-forth in what could be likened to an invisible wrestling match, as high-pressure airwaves and whirlpools mix together and vibrate the air. If the wind is fast enough, this phenomenon will produce the eerie noise we've all come to recognize in horror films.

Leafy trees "will absorb some of the vibrations in the air and dull the sound, but without leaves—like if it's the middle of the winter or the entire forest is dead—the howling will travel a lot farther," Green explains. That's why a dead forest on a windy night sounds so much like the undead.

Learn more by watching SciShow's video below.

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Space
SpaceX's Landing Blooper Reel Shows That Even Rocket Scientists Make Mistakes
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SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket launches.
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On March 30, 2017, SpaceX did something no space program had done before: They relaunched an orbital class rocket from Earth that had successfully achieved lift-off just a year earlier. It wasn't the first time Elon Musk's company broke new ground: In December 2015, it nailed the landing on a reusable rocket—the first time that had been done—and five months later landed a rocket on a droneship in the middle of the ocean, which was also unprecedented. These feats marked significant moments in the history of space travel, but they were just a few of the steps in the long, messy journey to achieve them. In SpaceX's new blooper reel, spotted by Ars Technica, you can see just some of the many failures the company has had along the way.

The video demonstrates that failure is an important part of the scientific process. Of course when the science you're working in deals with launching and landing rockets, failure can be a lot more dramatic than it is in a lab. SpaceX has filmed their rockets blowing up in the air, disintegrating in the ocean, and smashing against landing pads, often because of something small like a radar glitch or lack of propellant.

While explosions—or "rapid unscheduled disassemblies," as the video calls them—are never ideal, some are preferable to others. The Falcon 9 explosion that shook buildings for miles last year, for instance, ended up destroying the $200 million Facebook satellite onboard. But even costly hiccups such as that one are important to future successes. As Musk once said, "If things are not failing, you are not innovating enough."

You can watch the fiery compilation below.

[h/t Ars Technica]

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