In defence of Instagram and space elevators

Digital hoarding, getting to space without a rocket, and everything you never wanted to know about fatbergs.

Here’s a bumper edition of stuff I’ve written over the last couple of months. Read to the end if you want a very expensive way to prove Elon Musk wrong (and, I guess, help humanity become a properly spacefaring species).

Marie Kondo-ing your digital life

Towards the end of last year I spent some time thinking about my own digital possessions, while researching a feature about the emerging research on digital hoarding for BBC Future.

I came to what some people would probably think is a weird conclusion for someone writing about why it pays to declutter your digital life: my New Year’s resolution would be to post on Instagram more.

For the feature I had spoken to Jo Ann Oravec, a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, who told me that her aunt, who recently died aged 100, had kept six carefully-curated photo albums that spanned her whole life. In her old age, she would look back over the photos and feel a sense of satisfaction at a life well lived. Even when her health deteriorated and she could no longer remember every event in the album, it still made her happy to look over those photos.

While speaking to Oravec I realised that my own photo collection was a total mess. All I have to show from a two week holiday to California in September is an amorphous blob of blue and green on my camera roll – a few gems, mixed in with endless duplicates and an embarrassingly large number of photos of my forearm as I tried to get the hang of a selfie stick.

So on New Year's Day I made myself actually sit down and look through my photos from the year, and post something. And it felt good! I realise that Instagram isn’t the whole solution to this (for one, it probably won’t last as long as those photo albums did, at least not in its current form) but it will at least make me sit down and review my photos, so it’s a start.

How to get to space if you hate rockets

One thing I would post on Instagram with zero hesitation is the view from an elevator ride up to space. A space elevator is exactly what it sounds like. You build a giant structure with one end on Earth and one end in space – technically in geostationary orbit – and run some elevator cars between them.

It’s one of those ideas that people get excited about every now and again but that most write off as too fantastical to work. So I went into researching this New Scientist feature on whether we’ll ever build one quite sceptical, but emerged a little less so.

The biggest obstacle still in the way is finding a material strong enough to support such a tall structure. Graphene (that all purpose wonder material) is the latest to be touted as a possibility, but is yet to be made in large enough quantities. Only time will tell if it could work in reality – but it will also need people (specifically, people with money to spend on research) to get behind the idea, or we’ll never find out.

If you need any additional motivation, Elon Musk has said before that he doesn’t think the idea “makes sense” right now, so you’d also get to prove him wrong.

The rest:

Flow Neuroscience wants to use electricity to help your depression at home - but does it work? (The Daily Beast)

It’s set to be the first headband you can buy online to treat depression in your own home – without a prescription or the supervision of a doctor.

Here’s what scientists searched for in 2018: AI is up, stress is down (Nature News)

The most-searched keywords in the Scopus database and on Google, revealed.

5 things the ISS has done for us (BBC Focus)

The International Space Station is 20 years old – here are some of the scientific advances that have been made in low Earth orbit.

Bringing tech to the farm (Technologist)

Technology is helping farmers feed the world. It can also make agriculture more environmentally friendly – for conventional and organic farmers alike.

Using data to make cities greener (Technologist)

As politicians stall when it comes to dealing with climate change on a national level, local data-based projects are trying to reduce carbon emissions on their own doorsteps

All you want to know about fatbergs but were too disgusted to ask (New Scientist)

Huge lumps of fat and waste keep appearing in sewers, particularly in the UK – are they really on the rise, or are we just paying more attention?

Until next time: say hi at @kahoakes, or lurk at kellyoak.es.

– Kelly