Tag Archives: megaprojects

Astrophysicists Find That Cities Grow Just Like Galaxies


Astrophysicists Find That Cities Grow Just Like Galaxies 

We’ve all looked out at the night sky and wondered at how much the stars look like strings of cities. But there’s more than a passing resemblance—according to a team of astrophysicists who compared the two, there’s a much deeper connection at work. We aren’t just made of stars, we act like them too.

A new study from two scientists at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics posits that way we group and grow across the Earth is remarkably similar to the way that galaxies grew in space during the early days of our universe. According to them, we can learn a lot about the mysteries playing out on the Earth’s surface by looking at what we know about the deep reaches of space.

Zipf’s Law: A Recap

First, a little background. If you’ve spent any time hanging around with urban planners, you’re probably familiar Zipf’s law, a mathematical formula that accurately predicts the size of large cities. If you’re not familiar with it, you should check out this excellent explainer on io9 by Annalee Newitz. The law was named for a linguist who noticed that in any given language, a small number of words are used more frequently than a large number of rarely used words. More specifically, the most-used word is always used twice as much as the second-most-used word, and three times as much as the third. And so on.

Oddly enough, Zipf’s law can also predict how a country’s large cities will grow. Basically, the city with the highest population in a country will be twice as large as the next most populous city, and three times as large as the third most populous city, and so on. Despite some caveats (that Newitz brings up), it’s a remarkably consistent and accurate law. But the most interesting thing about Zipf is that no one really knows why it works so well. It just does.

Astrophysicists Find That Cities Grow Just Like Galaxies 

Little Rock, Arkansas. Image: NASA

An Answer From the Universe

So no one truly understands what makes Zipf so accurate. And who would have guessed that two astrophysicists would be the ones to cast more light on the mystery?

On January 5th, Abraham (aka Avi) Loeb—Chair of the Department of Astronomy at Harvard—and Henry Lin published a paper called A Unifying Theory for Scaling Laws of Human Populations. In it, the duo recount how they borrowed a mathematical formula from cosmology that explains how galaxies form in the universe and applied it to how human cities form on Earth, and found that the two are remarkably similar.

Astrophysicists Find That Cities Grow Just Like Galaxies 

Image: Triff

Normally, the pair explain, scientists studying urban growth think of city size as the “fundamental entity,” while the population is the thing that forms based on the city’s size. But Loeb and Lin reversed that logic, thinking of population as the fundamental that drives the formation of cities. That opened up a lot of similarities to a topic they’re well-versed in—namely, how galaxies emerged out of matter. Here’s how MIT Technology Review explains the idea:

That is exactly how cosmologists think about the way galaxies evolved. They first consider the matter density of the early universe. Next, they look at the mathematical structure of any variations in this density. And finally they use this mathematics to examine how this density can change over time as more matter is added or taken away from specific regions.

But instead of galaxies and matter density, the team applied this model to cities and population density. And after checking their work against actual census data, they found it was remarkably consistent:

The situation is therefore conceptually and mathematically analogous to the formation of galaxies in the universe, where non-linear gravitational collapse occurs when the matter density exceed some critical value. Our conceptual advance here is also a practical one, since we can apply the mathematical tools developed in cosmology to the problem at hand.

Eventually the same model could be used to predict all sorts of non-linear structures, beyond space and cities, like epidemics: “Just as the development of models for non-linear structure formation in the universe led to a wealth of theoretical and observational work in cosmology,” they explain, “future work here could include the calculation of new observables such as the bias factor for the spread of epidemics.”

Looking at Earth to Explore Space?

If the names Loeb and Lin sound familiar, it’s because this isn’t the first time we’ve written about the team over the past year. The pair, along with a colleague named Gonzalo Gonzalez Abad, also published a paper suggesting that NASA’s future James Webb Space Telescope could be used to search for chlorofluorocarbons in the atmosphere of an inhabited exoplanet. In short, the team argued that looking for a planet’s pollution might be more efficient than looking for the planet itself.

Astrophysicists Find That Cities Grow Just Like Galaxies 

AP Photo/Alexandre Meneghini.

So this isn’t the first time that this team of astrophysicists have linked ideas about space and cities, and it probably won’t be the last. It seems the phenomena of Earth—the clouds of pollution, the waxing and waning of mega-cities—could provide remarkable insight into studying the universe beyond it, and vice versa.

What else about universe could help us understand natural phenomena here on Earth? It’s an awesome, unexpected thought—that the patterns strewn across deep space look so much like the ones we’re unwittingly acting out here at home.

Top image: The Koreas by Night, via NASA.


Kelsey Campbell-Dollaghan

Original source: Gizmodo


The dark side of Silicon Valley

California’s booming tech industry has created the most extreme wealth disparity in America. Josie Ensor investigates the tale of two cities

6:00AM GMT 26 Nov 2014

He settles himself in for what is going to be a long night – taking off his scuffed leather shoes and resting his head against a window opaque with condensation.

Jimmy, 47, has had the same routine for the last three years since losing his job as a chef at Microsoft.

He gets on the bus at midnight and rides the same 35-mile journey between San Jose and Palo Alto, California, until sunrise. He can spend up to $8 (£5) a night just trying to keep warm and off the streets – money he can ill afford.

The 22 bus is the only route that runs 24 hours in Silicon Valley and it has become something of an unofficial shelter for the homeless.

They call it Hotel 22.

A homeless man sleeps onboard bus route 22, known as Hotel 22

This small pocket of the Golden State has become the most extreme example in the US of the growing schism between the haves and have nots.

Santa Clara – the county which encompasses Silicon Valley – has the highest percentage of homeless in America, according to the latest Department of Housing report.

Yet it also has the nation’s highest average household income and some of the most expensive homes in the country – all down to the high-tech economy on its doorstep.

Silicon Valley is enjoying the most sustained period of wealth creation in history, but the area is crippled by income disparity. Where once a robust middle-class thrived, there exists only the super-rich and the extreme poor.

The 22 bus drives past Jimmy’s old employer Microsoft, as well as the headquarters of Google, Facebook and Apple.

On our journey, we pass a “Google bus” going in the opposite direction towards San Francisco. Employees are ferried to and from work in their own private blacked-out coaches dubbed “Gbuses”, which have themselves come to be a symbol of the inequality.

“It’s a tale of two cities,” Jimmy says. “At least that’s the poetic way people describe what’s going on here.

“What these techies don’t realise though is that we’re no different to them – they’re just one misstep, one paycheck away from being us.”

Jimmy, who moved from Chicago to California in the early 1990s for work, is wearing a slightly mottled suit and tie, as he does most days, in the hope it will help him find a job. He sends off a dozen applications a day from the local library, but he rarely even hears back.

He keeps a length of rope wrapped round his ankle, hidden under his trouser leg, “just in case one day I decide I’ve had enough.”

According to the most recent census data, as many as 20,000 people will experience homelessness in the county this year.

Protesters block a bus taking Apple employees to work in Silicon Valley in December 2013

Those who are not sleeping on the streets here are sleeping in what is known as The Jungle – the largest homeless encampment in the US. Hundreds of makeshift tents and treehouses go on for miles in a lawless sprawl.

Ray Bramson, the City of San Jose’s homelessness response manager, says: “There’s 5,000 sleeping rough on any given night – we just can’t deal with that.”

Over the last few years rent in the area has skyrocketed, in some cases up to 300 per cent of the national average.

“When you think homeless, you think of someone on the streets with no money, no job,” he says. “That’s changed. Being employed no longer guarantees you can afford to rent here. People simply lack the sustainable wages they need to survive.”

The state’s minimum wage was recently increased from $8 to $10 an hour. “It’s a step in the right direction,” Mr Bramson says, “but unfortunately the self-sufficiency standard is around $15.”

Our bus jolts to a stop as the driver spots someone waiting in the dark at the side of the road. It is now 2am. He lays down the ramp for the woman, who has a large cart full of her worldly belongings.

She is not the only woman, Sandra Pena spends one night a week on Hotel 22.

A well-spoken, well-educated and strikingly beautiful woman of 52, she is not the average night passenger.

Silicon Valley (ALAMY)

She spent nine years working as a technician for Arantech – which was at one time one of the bigger tech firms in Silicon Valley, until she was made redundant in 1989.

Shortly after, she decided to start up her own construction business, which enjoyed some success.

But at the height of the recession in 2009 she lost it all and had her home repossessed.

She started living out of her truck, doing odd job for neighbours, until she could no longer afford that either.

“I was hit by everything at once, and sometimes you just can’t pick yourself up from that,“ says Sandra, who is wearing pristine blue jeans and a button-down blouse. “Never, ever, would I have imagined myself in this situation.”

When there are no free beds at the local shelter, Sandra sleeps on the bus.

“I get the day pass for $6 – which if you buy at the right time can last you all through the night to the next morning,” she says. “I like it for the quiet …. and the alone time.

“The only downside is that you get woken up at the end of the line and are made to wait 15 minutes to get on the next one,” she says.

As a native of Santa Clara she has seen the area change beyond recognition.

Apple’s new headquarters in Cupertino

It was once known for its orchids, earning it the nickname the Valley of Heart’s Delight. Until the 1960s, it was the largest fruit production region in the world and Del Monte was the biggest employer in town.

Then the tech companies started moving in, growing outward from Stanford University, which had begun nurturing start-ups with grants and academic support.

“Growing up here it was all ranches and orchids, I was a cowgirl. You had everything you could want, and great weather all year round. I don’t blame them all for coming here, but they offer the people who live here nothing,” says Sandra, who is currently completing a building course at an employment centre, which she hopes will lead to a job.

Chris Richardson, director of programme operations at the homeless organisation Downtown Streets, which has been helping Sandra, said: “Hotel 22 is an open secret in the homeless trade – for a couple of bucks people can get a relatively undisturbed night’s sleep.”

He says the problem has become so out of control there are twice as many homeless as there are available beds.

“You see camps of people sleeping rough just two miles from Sergey Brin’s (Google co-founder) house,” he says. “And the irony is, not even his engineers get paid enough to live here.

“We are trying to get tech billionaires involved in what we’re doing. They donate millions to good causes, but almost nothing to the local community they are helping destroy.

“It’s not necessarily their fault, but they are stakeholders in the homelessness problem and have the power and brains to change it.”

Eileen Richardson, Downtown Street’s founder, is a venture capitalist and former tech CEO herself, previously heading up the online music site Napster. She volunteered with the homeless on a sabbatical leave 10 years ago and was so shocked by what she saw she started up her own organisation to help.

At their weekly meeting, the team leader makes an announcement to the some-100 guests gathered – Google is hiring. The company is holding a jobs fair in a few weeks’ time and they are looking for chefs, cooks and cleaners.

Some groan, but most are keenly listening and a group stay behind after to sign up. In desperate times you cannot be too proud to “make a deal with the devil”, one guest says.

Original source: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/northamerica/usa/11249291/The-dark-side-of-Silicon-Valley.html

Do mega sports events have a legacy? What about entrepreneurships related ones?

I find this article on mega sport events very interesting . Liz Such, the author, writes on the legacy of London Olympic games and whether it has had an impact on physical activity of young people. I like most her final reflection:

It seems the ‘inspire’ slogan was successful as a social marketing message in the sense that it was received and understood by the young people in this study. Its longevity, however, can only be judged by sustained change in physical activity patterns of young people and this is located in the negotiations of everyday life in which young people and family members engage. The effects of sport mega events do not, as other research has shown, ‘trickle down’ to the general population and get us out of our armchairs but ‘diffuse’ or ‘trickle though and around’ our relational everyday lives. It is my suggestion that it is through family and peer networks that sport legacy policy could lever longer-term outcomes from what is huge economic investment.

Concretely, it was the bold sentence what caught my attention and led me to write this post. The idea that the important changes in our life take place after everyday life negotiations with our family member. I’d also include friends and acquaintances. I do believe that this idea is also applicable to other situations, like entrepreneurship related events. I’ve noticed, both in Poland and Spain, a growing interest in such events as competitions for the best entrepreneurial idea, the best entrepreneur awards, entrepreneurs conferences, etc. (Well, actually I think that they are being, at a great extent, the core of the current economic public policy in many cases). Needless to say that they are often wrapped in sophisticated and expensive marketing campaigns and funded by public institutions. The aim of all these events are always the same, that is, highlight the success in life and business of a young and apparently regular person (I mean in terms of income) and how he or she managed to start up from zero. But, what’s the real legacy of this. Do these events really encourage new entrepreneurships?

Another response from some of the Liz Such’s interviewees may shed light on this issue:

“I was like, ‘wow, I can’t do that’ basically what I thought about the whole thing it’s like ‘oh God, I’m rubbish at everything’”

Here is my (research) question:  do (public funded) mega entrepreneurship related events encourage or discourage new entrepreneurs? What’s more, what are the psicological effects on those young people unable to start up new projects for economic or whatever reasons.

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