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Back (page) to nature: understanding the Earth with computer science

When we think of understanding nature, we tend to think of sciences like biology, chemistry, physics or ecology. However there are some surprising ways that computer science can help us understand the natural world around us, from the small to the large scale.

a leaf with dew on it. In one of the dewdrops is an image of the Earth


The bluetongue virus is spread by insects, and if a sheep or cow is bitten by an infected insect it can kill. Cases of bluetongue used to be very rare in Britain, but changes in climate make it easier for the virus to survive in the UK, and some experts believe it could become a significant threat to livestock farming in the coming years. To help combat this virus you need to know what it looks like first. Rather than create a normal 3D computer graphic of the virus, researchers at Warwick University used computer technology to create a plastic model of it that researchers can touch. The molecular data about the virus is sent to a 3D printer, which then uses a laser to melt plastic powder into the correct 3D shape. Having the bluetongue virus in scientists’ hands will hopefully help in finding the cure.

Motto: A virus in the hand can be handy


Bees are really, really important! As they travel around to collect nectar they pollinate the flowers they land on. Without bees, life on Earth could become very bleak. Unfortunately bees in Europe are vanishing. It’s little to do with Dalek invasion plans; it’s probably because the habitats where they nest and forage for nectar are becoming damaged and polluted. In Britain three species of bees are now believed to be extinct and another eight are in serious trouble. Understanding how bees behave in the wild would help conservation efforts, but how do you follow a bee? One answer from scientists at Queen Mary, University of London is to use RFID technology (Radio Frequency IDentification). This is the same technology that is used in the Oyster cards that have replaced tickets on buses and trains in London. These devices store an ID on a tag. It can be read just by holding the tag near a special reader. Tags can be stuck on a bee without hurting it, but it lets the researcher know when that bee is around. Bee readers can be set at the entrance to the hive, or out in the fields so that each time the bee goes by, click! The computer records it. Using this information may help us make life better for these hard working and useful insects.

Motto: RFID and follow that bee

the Earth seen from space


Nature doesn’t get much bigger than the planet Earth, and as challenges go you can’t get much bigger that getting to grips with global climate change. Computer science is helping sift through all kinds of data to try and understand what’s going on. Looking at how temperatures, ocean gulf streams, ice shelves or sea levels might change requires the ability to predict from the present to the future. Satellites, expeditions, weather stations and so on collect massive amounts of important data about our planet, and feed these into computer simulations. The simulations are complex mathematical descriptions of the world that help predict, given the past and current data, how future events could unfold. (For more on complexity, see page xx.) Computer scientists are applying techniques called data mining and machine intelligence to pull together all these different sources of data, often from very different databases, and automatically extract the important information. They’re also helping the simulations run faster by spreading them over networks of machines, allowing results in days rather than months.

Motto: All together now, can we fix it?