5 Intriguing Things: Wednesday, 2/5

A power grid attack, arctic archaeology, synthetic biological failure, cancer culture, and a goat simulator.

1. Last April, some unknown force carried out a seemingly professional attack on a California power grid substation, knocking out 17 transformers with AK-47s.

"The attack began just before 1 a.m. on April 16 last year, when someone slipped into an underground vault not far from a busy freeway and cut telephone cables.

Within half an hour, snipers opened fire on a nearby electrical substation. Shooting for 19 minutes, they surgically knocked out 17 giant transformers that funnel power to Silicon Valley. A minute before a police car arrived, the shooters disappeared into the night... 

'This wasn't an incident where Billy-Bob and Joe decided, after a few brewskis, to come in and shoot up a substation,' Mark Johnson, retired vice president of transmission for PG&E, told the utility security conference, according to a video of his presentation. 'This was an event that was well thought out, well planned and they targeted certain components.'"

 

2. Warming in the northern latitudes gives archaeologists lots of new material. But the speed of the climate change challenges their ability to preserve it

"The fortuitous discovery of the Bronze Age shoe helped the local heritage management office push for an organized rescue program to locate, assess, and search dozens of sites in the mountains of Oppland. It’s an effort that combines archaeology with high-tech mapping, glaciology, climate science, and history. When conditions are right, it’s as simple as picking the past up off the ground. 'The ice is a time machine,' says Lars Pilö, an archaeologist who works for the Oppland County council. 'When you’re really lucky, the artifacts are exposed for the first time since they were lost.'

In Scandinavia and beyond, the booming field of glacier and ice patch archaeology represents both an opportunity and a crisis. On one hand, it exposes artifacts and sites that have been preserved in ice for millennia, offering archaeologists a chance to study them. On the other hand, from the moment the ice at such sites melts, the pressure to find, document, and conserve the exposed artifacts is tremendous. 'The next 50 years will be decisive,' says Albert Hafner, an archaeologist at the University of Bern who has excavated melting sites in the Alps. 'If you don’t do it now they will be lost.'

 

3. Despite their ambitions to displace fossil fuels, synthetic biology companies have failed to scale up

"LS9 is one of several companies founded on the premise that synthetic biology—advanced genetic engineering that radically changes the way an organism functions—could be used to make new strains of bacteria and yeast that would produce not just the common biofuels ethanol and biodiesel but also hydrocarbon fuels that are nearly identical to gasoline, diesel, and jet fuel. Such fuels could be used more widely than existing biofuels, which typically need to be blended with conventional fuels or require special infrastructure.

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