Holding Back a Rising Sea

Last week I went to a presentation at MIT made by a group of engineers that are half way through building a high technology barrier to protect Venice from rising waters. The project goes under the name MOSE (Moses).

People standing in water in Venice

Tourists in a rather damp Venice

Venice is a city built on an island situated in a lagoon that has been artificially shaped by human intervention over the last 500 years. The problem of rising sea levels and storms has meant that the city is regularly flooded, and so the project is to build a barrier spanning the three large openings to the lagoon so that it can be sealed in times of high tide and storms.

The flooding has been exacerbated by works carried out in the 1980’s and 90’s to build an industrial zone that involved the drainage of marshland areas, leading to a softening of the ground that made the city actually sink.

This is a 50 billion Euro project, and one of the biggest of its type ever attempted. A look at the data about the Thames Barrier (the first of its type) shows that the problem of high tides is getting worse. It was closed four times in the 1980s, 35 times in the 1990s, and 80 times since 2000, but why?

Strangely enough the problem is related to global temperature rise as we might imagine but not so much because of the melting of the icecaps. The fact is that water expands when it is heated so warming even by a couple of degrees has the effect of increasing its volume. The International Panel on Climate Change state that 70% of the presumed rise will be due to this factor.

So back to the barrier. The entire project is quite an undertaking as this YouTube video demonstrates. Years of planning followed by years of preparation, reclamation of marsh lands and sea defense construction not to mention the construction of an off shore oil terminal so that the ships no longer have to enter the lagoon. But Criticism is also rife.

An aerial shot of part of the MOSE project

Part of the finished engineering works on the MOSE project in Venice

Some engineers criticize the project on purely technical terms, other groups point to the lack of environmental impact study and others the cost.

This video also on YouTube tells a completely different story to the one above. Critics are arguing (amongst other things) that we do not know all of the variables involved (which seems to be true) and that the entire ecosystem of the lagoon will change.

I am no engineer so I cannot argue about the choices made, but I do have one simple question. With all of the movement of water involved in this project (serious high tides and the passage of thousands of liters of sea water a minute) would it not have been possible to build something that produced electricity instead of consuming it in huge amounts?

Venice's flood defense plans

Details of how the flood defenses will work

The stakes are high as you might imagine, Venice is one of the most touristed cities in the world, but the high tides are flooding the monuments ever more regularly. We are talking about more than a meter of water, and footage on international TV of tourists walking on raised platforms through St Mark’s Square and fresco covered churches full of water does not go down well.

It is an old problem though, and one that is shared by many cities today. New Orleans is discussing a similar solution, and here in Boston the issue is also under debate.

They are all looking for a high technology solution to an age old problem that is getting steadily worse.


A couple of weeks ago whilst writing about nanotechnology and the associated risk involved in such engineering techniques I mentioned Nanoart.  This week I would like to expand and to present a gallery of examples.

nano playboy logo

To quote Cris Orfescu, founder of Nanoart 21, “NanoArt is a new art discipline at the art-science-technology intersections. It features nanolandscapes (molecular and atomic landscapes which are natural structures of matter at molecular and atomic scales) and nanosculptures (structures created by scientists and artists by manipulating matter at molecular and atomic scales using chemical and physical processes). These structures are visualized with powerful research tools like scanning electron microscopes and atomic force microscopes and their scientific images are captured and further processed by using different artistic techniques to convert them into artworks showcased for large audiences.”

One of the issues raised during discussion in my previous posts was about the usefulness and point of such artistic expression, so here I quote the NanoArt 21 website:

“The purpose is to promote  NanoArt worldwide as a reflection of a technological movement… a more appealing and effective way to communicate with the general public and to inform people about the new technologies of the 21st Century. NanoArt is aimed to raise the public awareness of Nanotechnology and its impact on our lives”.

There are several organizations that promote this form of expression and at least one international competition that offers cash prizes for the best examples (NanoArt 21 have an international competition). The German Centre for Research and Innovation hosted an exhibition of their collection in New York in 2011 and the number of artist/scientists involved seems to be growing.

The following gallery should give you an idea of this particular art form. Also take a look at the Nanobama here. The image is of nanotubes made in the shape of President Obama’s face, similar in style to the playboy above.

a guitar

A guitar


self explanatory


extra planetary

in blue

A nano landscape

You can find many other examples online. Do you like them? I personally like the 3D effect. It seems more accentuated because the images are created by electrons (electrically charged particles) rather than photons (particles of light). The electrons penetrate deeper into the structure creating images with more depth.

The Final Frontier

Have you ever looked up at the star filled sky and wondered what is out there? Thought about advances in technology that may allow you, yes you sir or madam, to venture forward and to boldly go. Well now you and your loved ones have the possibility!

Yes indeed, US based company Celestis is offering to take you into space, orbit the Earth and even bring you back. They also offer an orbit of the moon, and maybe even a landing, and all at a price that mere mortals can afford (Earth orbits for under $1000, the moon for under $10 000 and deep space for just a few thousand more).

All trips are guaranteed and insured and promise the highest level of space travel technology. The only drawback is that you have to be dead and cremated.

Spock had a space burial in Star Trek

Yes, Celestis are offering to take you or your loved one’s ashes to space (well about a chap stick sized capsule of them) for the experience of an after-lifetime. They have already conducted 10 Memorial Spaceflights and provide tracking data straight to the comfort of your laptop or phone.

Just imagine the scene, your relative passes every 90 minutes above your head, you take your laptop into the garden with your kids or even use your Starwalk app to follow the trajectory on an easy to understand user friendly map, and soon a dot in the sky passes and you wave at Grandma looking down at you. No need to change the flowers or trek half way across the country every anniversary, she comes to you. Some people are on several different trips so you choose frequency for you and the view for them.

Now my first thought was ‘what an incredible waste of resources, money, fuel, and willful creation of space junk’, but these thoughts are a bit harsh. The ashes are sent up on commercial satellites as paying passengers, so they do not in themselves create any of these problems and as the website argues, help to fund launches that may be of advantage to everyone and “support the vision of a robust future for humanity in space”.

So what do you think? Is this just folly or an interesting way to fund space exploration in this era of cutbacks and a business opportunity for the future? It might sound like a strange idea but would you like to give it a try?