The Environmental Impact of Bitcoin ‘Mining’

Video: University of Chicago paleontologist Neil Shubin, one of our favorite explainers of all things scientific, shares some recent stories from the world of science. Read about each of them below.

The price of Bitcoin surged to a record high of more than $60,000 last week on the back of surging demand after tech billionaire Elon Musk put $1.5 billion into the cryptocurrency in February. 

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The soaring price has many environmentalists concerned because the process of “mining.” Bitcoin demands a huge amount of energy as vast banks of computers work to solve complex problems which allow blocks of transactions to be chained together. As those problems are solved, Bitcoin miners are then rewarded with new Bitcoins.

“With Bitcoin, what they do is they mine it using computer algorithms — computer problems that must be solved. And what it takes is enormous computing power,” said Shubin. “So, what you have are these whole computer server farms consisting of hundreds of computers set up around the world to mine for Bitcoin. The challenge with that is that is consumes a ton of energy … particularly in the last year when Bitcoin use has gone way up.”

According to the University of Cambridge’s Bitcoin Electricity Consumption Index, Bitcoin mining now consumes more energy than the entire country of Argentina.

Zebrafish brain lights up to the music of MC Hammer

An Australian neuroscientist and DJ has recorded what happens to the brain of a zebrafish as it responds to the sounds of MC Hammer’s “U Can’t Touch This.” The result is a stunning video that shows different parts of the brain lighting up in response to the beat.

“What it’s showing is that different parts of the brain are active during different parts of the song,” said Shubin. “So, there’s a specific region that’s recording voice, another one for bass and so forth. It turns out there is incredible complexity to the neural response to sound and music in these fish.”

Shubin said the researchers are working to understand the basic wiring of the brain to shed light on the nature of autism.

“They’ve had these genetic models for autism and that’s how they discovered this. They’re actually looking at how autism may affect hearing and how (the brain) processes sound and it turns out zebrafish are a very good model for that.”

Self-decapitating sea slug

Scientists in Japan have discovered a sea slug that has a bizarre adaptation — it can decapitate itself and live on.

Researchers in Japan observed a sacoglossan sea slug decapitate itself and then grow a completely new body in less than a month. After shedding its body, the head was able to move independently and survived on algae until it grew a new body.

Shubin said the research may one day help scientists understand how humans could regrow damaged limbs and organs.

“These creatures can build a whole body back from just a disembodied head. How does it know how to build a whole body back? If you think about the applications to humans with regeneration, wound-healing — that’s something we should be jealous about,” said Shubin.

Light-activated material could lead to super-efficient solar panels

Researchers at Tufts University have created a material that bends and twists toward light that could potentially lead to the development of super-efficient solar panels that would automatically align themselves to the sun.

Shubin said the devices have two layers of material — one that contracts and one that expands when exposed to light — and would be perfect for solar panels of the future.

“You (could) have a solar panel that could respond to where the sun is in the sky and move toward it like a plant,” said Shubin. “That would be a fabulous way of obtaining more solar energy from the sun.”

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