Take Five: Save the planet, build your house of dagga

The house of hemp
Gizmag this week reported on the first house built of hemp in the United States.

The exterior of the house was built using a material called Hemcrete—a concrete-like substance made of industrial hemp, lime and water—and the interior was lined with recycled paper panels. Last year a consortium of parties involved in sustainable development built a renewable house using the same substance.

The material is perfect from a sustainability point of view.
Hemp requires few pesticides and no herbicides, and is said to yield three times as much fibre than cotton per acre.

Although grown for commercial use in countries such as France and Canada, it is illegal in the US, so Americans who wish to follow suit will face the prohibitive costs of importing hemp.

It’s hard to fathom why industrial hemp should remain outside the law in the US. Even though it is part of the cannabis family, unlike marijuana, it is not psychoactive. The designers say you’d have to “smoke the master bedroom”—over a ton of hemp—to get high.

Mercedes Benz—where cars are grown
This might be out there on the edges of reality but the idea is too nifty to ignore. Mercedes Benz unveiled the unlikely concept car, the Biome, at the Los Angeles Auto Show this year.

Designer Hubert Lee described the car as “a natural technology hybrid” that would “form part of our earth’s ecosystem”.

It sounds like a dream—which of course it is. But who wouldn’t want to dream this dream? Made of “BioFibre” that’s grown in a lab, it would trap solar energy and store it in a liquid chemical called “BioNectar” which it would in turn use as fuel; its only emissions—oxygen. Weighing in at under 400kg, instead of going to the scrapheap at the end of its life, the car would be composted.

So will it ever be more than a dream? Some say the car is on its way to development and may be released in 2015. But honestly, I wouldn’t hold my breath. Electric cars have been a proven concept for decades and how many of those do we see on the streets?

No cancer prevention in veggies
This week the Guardian reported that a ten-year review of research involving over a million people found that eating vegetables offered little protection against cancer.

Tim Key, the scientist who conducted the review, found little connection between an increase in fruit and vegetable intake and cancer rates. Key said that while “a certain level of intake is necessary to prevent nutrient deficiencies, intakes above that level do not make the relevant tissue ‘super healthy’”. Instead it was found that cutting back on smoking and drinking alcohol would have a greater effect on cutting cancer risk.

But don’t ditch those brussel sprouts just yet. Eating the recommended five servings of fruit and veg a day can help people maintain a healthy weight, which does play a role in cancer risk. It also provides benefits for other health issues, such as diabetes and heart disease.

Here come the drones
The New York Times has reported on the growing international interest in robot soldiers. The machines, whether they’re located in a sniper-hunting humanoid body, a disembodied drone sentimental or a trundling tank, largely perform sentinel duties and are controlled by technicians using wireless controllers that greatly resemble video game displays.

The US army already relies heavily on robots in its war in Afghanistan. Some drones control unmanned aircraft while others have been designed to search vehicles at checkpoints and to disarm improvised explosive devices.

According to the newspaper, 56 countries are currently developing robotic weapons. But there are ethical issues to consider. Some say it would not be possible to train a robot to make the sort of ethical decisions that are required on the field while others believe robots, unlike humans, would be unable to act in anger and so would have fewer ethical lapses on the battlefield.

As long as the system is not called SkyNet, I believe I’ll be open to the idea.

The universe is a big place
Astronomers now say that there may be as many as three times more stars in the universe than was previously thought. Carl Sagan may have spoken about his “billions and billions” of stars but if he were still here, it’s likely his trademark word would suddenly morph into “trillions and trillions”.

According to BBC News new observations of other galaxies, conducted with powerful new telescopes, have enabled scientists to discover many more red dwarf stars than were previously thought to exist. Red dwarfs, which are smaller and less powerful than our own sun, burn for billions of years and so may provide the long-term stability required to allow complex life to flourish in nearby planets.

Yale university researchers this week told the journal Nature that there may be many more stars, and in turn planets, than was once thought—perhaps even “trillions” of Earth-like worlds.

Now all we need is for someone to discover warp speed and we’ll be well on our way to forming the Federation.

Faranaaz Parker

Faranaaz Parker

Faranaaz Parker is a reporter for the Mail & Guardian. She writes on everything from pop science to public health, and believes South Africa needs carbon taxes and more raging feminists. When she isn't instagramming pictures of her toddler or obsessively checking her Twitter, she plays third-person shooters on Xbox Live. Read more from Faranaaz Parker