Saturday, 27 November 2010

Food for thought: the rise and rise of gastro science on television

As something of an amateur foodie (and with a professional chef for a brother), I've been interested to note the expansion of a new documentary genre in the last few years: programmes dedicated to the science and technology aspects of food. Indeed, the BBC seems to broadcast a new series on the subject every month or so, but why now and more importantly, are they any good?

As an answer to the first question, there must presumably be some knock-on effect from the small army of celebrity chefs: Jamie, Gordon, Nigella and their ilk, not forgetting Heston, ready to metamorphose into The Muppet Show's Dr Bunsen Honeydew at any moment. But is that enough to have generated a new genre out of nothing in so short a time? Health worries in general and the enormous growth (slight pun intended) in obesity in the UK are no doubt also responsible. With one in eleven British children apparently receiving treatment for asthma and alarming obesity statistics constantly in the headlines, it's little wonder our diet is being scrutinised in ever-increasing detail.

Another possible influence on the production of these programmes is the scientific-leaning campaigns by the prepared foodstuffs industry, cajoling us to stay healthy via the consumption of 'isotonic' drinks and food containing 'friendly bacteria'. Yet even a casual examination of the evidence suggests these products are as much a result of marketing as medicine, with benefits yet to proven in any serious sense. Indeed, in the case of pro-biotic foods there may even be potential side-effects. But back to the programmes themselves: do they provide any useful information to combat the hype and worry or are they just more cheap airtime to replace the cookery shows broadcast ad nauseum?

The programmes have covered a wide range of topics, but mostly steer clear of matter-of-fact detailing in favour of light-heartened musings, vox populi taste tests and experiments of the 'disgusting science' variety. A primary purveyor of the latter is the BBC's Jimmy's Food Factory, in which farmer Jimmy Doherty attempts to make processed food (and chewing gum) using supposedly household equipment and ingredients. It has to be said, watching chips being made via a gas gun and tennis racket is fun, but hasn't this more in common with Jackass than the Open University? Whereas Delia, Hugh, and the Hairy Bikers/Bakers et al make at least some effort to provide useful information, there's not much about Jimmy's explosive experiments that can aid us to make wiser choices as food buyers.

Other series that might attempt a more serious approach suffer from experiments using subject groups and/or timescales that are obviously too small for meaningful correlations to appear. Another BBC show, E Numbers: an Edible Adventure, is a prime example of this. Presenter Stefan Gates attempted to overdose of E numbers courtesy of a single day's junk food binge, only to find he'd mostly stayed within the recommended daily allowance for E numbers but had eaten over 400% of his fat RDA, 500% of his salt, and over 200% of his sugar intake. Now is that surprising? No wonder one reviewer found it 'maddeningly superficial'; it seems to have more in common with The Supersizers brand of infotainment than anything else. In fact, I seem to remember a single discussion on food additives whilst at school twenty-five years ago that was more informative than these three episodes.

It's not all doom and gloom: the BBC's The Truth About Food has gone some way to balancing the above, with a good book and website to match, but this is far and away the high point of the genre. It seems to me producers are missing a trick by not examining the current (and near-future) developments in food processing, from increased use of nanomaterials to cloned farm animals and in vitro slabs of lab-grown meat. This latter may sound a touch Frankenstein-ish, but beef flesh grown in a tank would presumably save on a lot of methane production. Then there's aquaponics, where the nitrogen cycle from farmed fish can help feed edible plants which in turn reduce the build-up of dangerous chemicals in the tank, something I learned about the hard way whilst breeding three generations of tadpole shrimps earlier this year.

So, in conclusion, the potential of television to educate whilst entertaining seems to have been once again been well and truly scuppered. One up for the Rupert Murdochs methinks, and a minus several million for the Lord Reiths. Doh!

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Monday, 1 November 2010

Hot doughnuts and cold fusion: a never-ending story?

When there is much at stake we have a tendency towards self-delusion, ignoring unpleasant facts and concentrating instead on elements that will hasten our goal. If there is any such thing as a holy grail in contemporary science it surely has to be power generation via nuclear fusion, seemingly "just decades away" for rather more than that length of time. So are fusion researchers allowing dreams to obfuscate the facts?

The first fusion research was conducted in the 1950s by the Soviet Union, using doughnut-shaped magnetic field generators called tokamaks. Since then, various methods have been attempted with varying degrees of success, although none have achieved the ability to offer a greater output of energy than the amount input. A prominent contemporary non-tokamak project is the Lawrence Livermore Laboratory's National Ignition Facility in California. The project's integrated ignition experiments started this month after 13 years' development, using 192 lasers to create an energy pulse thirty times greater than ever achieved previously. At a cost of £1.2 billion, the NIF is seen by many as the best hope yet, but is now at least 25% over budget as well as behind schedule.

Meanwhile, tokamak research is continuing at various facilities, the best known being Iter (Latin for 'the way' but initially ITER - the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor - at least until 'thermonuclear' was deemed an unpopular word). Now being constructed in France, Iter is a collaborative effort between the EU, the US, Japan, Russia, China, South Korea and India. It is due for completion around 2019, but at a cost of £13 billion, it is also way over original estimates. The list of collaborators alone shows the importance of this immense project: after all, the dream of limitless energy for our descendents is worth the comparatively small effort in our time (although interestingly the Canadian Government was unable to remain in the project due to lack of funds). Britain itself contributes only about £20 million to the project each year, but in addition hosts the world's most powerful tokamak, namely the Joint European Torus (JET) in Oxfordshire.

Whilst fusion researchers publicise the advantages over current fission power stations, successful nuclear fusion at Iter would still produce thousands of tonnes of radioactive waste, albeit dangerous for only about a century as opposed to the millennia for the half life of fissile waste materials. In addition, critics claim the immense costs would be better spread across a range of fusion projects utilising different techniques, whilst environmental groups point out the money could build immense numbers of renewable 'green' power generators, from wind farms to solar collectors.

Indeed, it does seem that the member nations are putting all their eggs in one basket, considering the failures and hyperbole of the past few decades. In 1989, claims of cold fusion turned out to be premature when the results could not be replicated, whilst a 2002 claim for bubble fusion (sonofusion) also appeared to be precipitate. However, this hasn't led to scientists and engineers abandoning these techniques in favour of tokamaks or laser fusion. So is the immensity of the potential reward enough to keep researchers flogging a dead hypothesis? Then again, if the NIF and Iter fail to produce satisfactory results after a few years' operations, perhaps another generation of scientists and engineers will reconsider these somewhat discredited techniques.

One interesting development in recent years is the growing community of amateur physicists who are building homemade fusion reactors for as little as £30,000. As bizarre as it sounds, most of the materials are fairly easy to obtain, but unlike amateur astronomers for example, it is easy to wonder how these pint-size projects can compete with the billion-pound schemes mentioned above. The amateurs claim that their attempts may serve to initiate professional interest (and funding) in their non-tokamak methods. In view of the potential dangers of electrocution and x-ray radiation, their dedication is clearly admirable, if a little crazy. Then again, our species has rarely achieved a paradigm shift by playing it safe.

What is obvious to many is that we cannot afford to stop investing in large-scale fusion research: success would mean a relatively safe supply of non-fossil fuel energy for areas of the world where wind, wave and solar power cannot offer an on-demand supply. Nuclear fusion would not be at the mercy of the weather, nor occupy the immense amounts of space required for wind and solar farms, even if the former are offshore.

My own opinion is that fusion power will be an unfortunate necessity, at least until we can reduce energy consumption and the human population to sustainable levels - the latter being possibly rather less likely than building a break-even fusion reactor within a human lifetime. Research over the next decade will continue to consume enormous amounts of money, but only posterity will show if this is a great enough effort to stem the deleterious consequences that fossil fuels are having on the politics and economy of our species, in addition to the irreversible ecological effects rapidly coming over the horizon.

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Friday, 1 October 2010

Cybernetics: the fact and fantasy behind man-machine interfacing

Although it is a subject that has fascinated me for many years, cybernetics is not an area I know very much about. However, as that's never stopped me before I thought now would be a good time to explore a few of issues surrounding cybernetics, the theory and the practice. It's one of those scientific disciplines wherein the public perception owes far more to fiction than reality; although it doesn't appear to have generated the same level of active protest as say GM crops or cloning. This is somewhat surprising, considering that the 1970's television 'classic' The Six Million Dollar Man (and bionic spinoff series) aside, most fictional representations tend towards the negative. Dystopian fears of a loss of humanity and individualism, often linked to the hive mind or centralised control, are frequently portrayed in science fiction tales of cyborgs. As with many aspects of current technological research, the reality is often many decades behind even the most likely fictional scenario. But what exactly is cybernetics?

An aunt of mine recently quipped about being a 'bionic woman' after receiving an artificial kneecap, but the mere addition of man-made components into a biological entity isn't really what cybernetics is about. If anyone can be said to be the originator of the field it is American mathematician Norbert Weiner, who in 1948 wrote Cybernetics, or Control and Communication in the Animal and Machine. The title explains the core of it: it concerns the control of a system, not the simple amalgamation of organic and inorganic mechanisms. So although artificial limbs and other organs have been around for some time, the lack of controlled interactivity means these are not cybernetic systems. What really counts is mind over matter, such as the University of Reading professor nick-named 'Captain Cyborg' whose 1998 transmitter implant gave him control of various electronic devices. Clearly, this borders on the realm of super powers, a reminder that most fictional cyborgs have superior physical and/or mental abilities compared to non-augmented humans. So is the Nietzschean superman just waiting in the wings?

Coinciding pretty well with the release of Blade Runner in 1982, cyberpunk has spent almost three decades concentrating on the darker side of the man-machine interface via concepts such as dehumanisation, technologically–boosted eugenics, and mutilation. The latter often seems to revolve around updated versions of traditional techniques of physical adornment such as piercing and tattooing, practiced in many cultures around the world but seemingly derided and devalued in the West for some centuries prior to revival under the original punks of the 1970s. This in turn has surely inspired the most violent aspects of cybernetics – the invasive bodily procedures apparent in the Borg and Cybermen - that suggest the field is merely an updated version of Frankenstein's experiments, with mutilation at its core.

Yet aren't people already dabbling in subtle variants of this, whether by cosmetic surgery or the body-building foods and drugs now so prevalent? But back to the ideas of a carbon-based entity controlling objects of silicon, what about the development of smart textiles, allowing the wearer direct interfacing with electronic devices from medical monitors to mobile entertainment systems? Clearly, the future of cybernetics will involve more than one path, some rather less obvious than others.

Recent projects that are worth mentioning include the University College of London's Intraosseous Transcutaneous Amputation Prosthesis (ITAP) project for attaching prosthetic limbs and digits via a titanium rod, the University of Southern California's artificial retina research, and German company Otto Bock Healthcare's thought-controlled prosthetic arms. Whilst these projects are aiming to restore lost physicality, the US military's Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has been working on another acronym-laden project, HI-MEMS: Hybrid Insect Micro-Electro-Mechanical Systems, involving healthy organisms. The idea is to implant bio-electromechanical interfaces into insects so that they can be used for...I've no idea, and I'm not sure they do either. Perhaps a case of overdosing on cyberpunk guru William Gibson? As with all areas of high technology, the US Department of Defense is enthusiastic on the grounds there might just be a military advantage in there somewhere. And there is evidence of them experimenting on other animals too, such as sharks (anyone remember Doctor Evil's demand for "sharks…with lasers"? Well, they're on their way.)

One area that hasn't traditionally had much involvement with cybernetics is nanotechnology, but the latter is proving to be a growth area (or should that be shrinking area?) Perhaps the future will rely more on countless microscopic implants rather than obvious lumps of metal and plastic grafted onto the body. And that in turn brings its own hint of danger. I've not read any cyberpunk myself, but what if we all end up stuffed to the gills with nanobots, repairing cellular mutations, de-clogging our arteries, adding memory backup to our ageing synapses, etc, all at the beck and call of our silent thoughts? And then along comes the next generation of computer hackers and virtual virus designers, able to reprogramme our nano-sized helpmeets to obey their commands? "Resistance is futile!" Just a thought...

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Wednesday, 25 August 2010

Carving niches: are there still roles for amateur scientists?

Until the mid-nineteenth century the majority of scientists seem to have been unsalaried, so the barrier between paid practitioners and the rest of us is relatively recent. It has been said that with the contemporary emphasis on expensive equipment and increasing specialisation there is no room for dabblers in the field, but there is plenty of evidence to negate this. A good starting point is this year's BBC Amateur Scientist of the Year competition, which garnered over 1300 applications, some admittedly a bit on the fruitier side. So whilst Britain doesn't have anything to compete with the USA's Society for Amateur Scientists, there's clearly no lack of enthusiasm.

But of course anyone can dream up a bizarre idea without putting in the 99% perspiration afterwards. It is the latter that proves the mettle of the amateur scientist, prepared to doggedly test a hypothesis or utilise scientific techniques as and when time becomes available. It also seems to be true that there are very few amateur theoreticians: by and large, if you engage in science for fun, you're a practical person at heart. Many dedicate years to the cause, from those who tally local wildlife numbers (occasionally identifying new species, of which there are still plenty to be described scientifically) to the likes of Simon Cansick, whose website provides constantly updated weather forecasting data for his Yorkshire village. Mr Cansick may sound like the archetypal British eccentric, but his level of accuracy has apparently caused local farmers to snub the Met Office in favour of instead.

The two main areas I've always considered easy for an amateur to explore are astronomy and palaeontology, mostly because the necessary equipment is comparatively cheap and readily available. Whilst large telescopes can cost a fortune, some enthusiasts build at least some of the mount themselves (as recommended by Patrick Moore, no less), if not necessarily going to the lengths of the brother and sister team William and Caroline Herschel, who several centuries ago cast telescope mirrors using the likes of horse dung for moulds. As a child I had a small refractor which was reasonably adequate for the limited seeing conditions in the light polluted sky of my small home town. I did however build my own observatory shed, complete with a sliding roof made from old wardrobe doors. Ah, the folly of youth!

Whilst it may seem daft for backyard astronomers to compete with 10 metre reflectors and orbiting telescopes, the world record for visual discoveries of supernovae is held by the Australian amateur Robert Evans, who has mostly utilised a variety of reflectors with primary mirrors under 50cm. Another example of amateurs at the forefront is the network, which helps part-time astronomers hunt for extra-solar planets using a combination of backyard telescopes and digital cameras, although to be sure the latter need to be in the several thousand pounds range.

As for palaeontology, I have already covered the delights of fossicking in an earlier post, although sad to say my daughters recently came away empty-handed from a trip to the Isle of Wight. Chips off the old block, they were lulled into thinking they might find dinosaur bone or even pterosaur remains by a University of Portsmouth palaeontologist they spoke to at the Royal Society's Summer Science Exhibition. Instead, the family returned with depressingly lightweight sample bags, the stars of which were a heavily worn tooth (most likely crocodile) and a possible gastrolith. As a brief aside, I must mention that the Royal Society event at London's South Bank Centre was in itself a superb example of encouraging amateur participation in science, with even my four year old donning goggles and latex gloves to conduct some nanoparticle experiments.

All in all, the idea that amateurs cannot conduct useful or even just enjoyable science couldn't be more wrong. And with the likes of cardboard telescope and microscope kits available for under twenty pounds, children can easily get on the bandwagon too, perhaps with a touch of parental persuasion. Now I have to go back the workbench and a 12 volt rotary grinding tool, as I've promised my children I'll find out whether the Isle of Wight tooth could just possibly be from a small iguanadon after all...

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Thursday, 29 July 2010

Lies, damned lies and the dubious world of cosmetics advertising

Let's face it, most people's ability to analyse statistics is pretty poor. In fact we can consider ourselves lucky if we know anything beyond mean, median, and mode, and certainly left- and right-skewing isn't a popular topic of conversation. Perhaps that's why the multi-billion pound global beauty industry uses such bizarre examples in their advertising, on the grounds that few punters will understand any of it. Not being a regular reader of women's magazines most of what I pick up is via flicking between TV channels, occasionally spotting some famous actress or supermodel accompanied by such interesting statements as '83 out of 114 women agree' (although I made that one up).

Isn't it fairly obvious that there are two concerns here? Firstly, the figures aren't easy to simplify to lowest common denominators, lacking the nice, rounded character of say, 80 out of 120. Secondly, the numbers are so small. Following the MMR scandal and its case study group of 12, surely few could think such a low sampling as my fictional 114 could be taken as a worthwhile trial? Yet I cannot think of a single example from this sector where the study (if we can call it that) exceeded 200. Are the numbers parts of some elaborate in-joke by the cosmetics industry or are they based on genuine data, in which case are the polls conducted by marketing agencies with very short attention spans?

Despite recommendations that the UK's Cosmetics, Toiletries and Perfumery Association members are meant to adhere to, outsider knowledge of what the beauty product multinationals get up to is minimal. Most companies test their products on other animals before moving onto humans, but how scientific is the research conducted on the latter? If the advertising figures are based around how punters ‘feel' (surely a profoundly subjective word), there is more than a hint that the research hasn't involved standard scientific procedures such as double-blind or placebo experiments.

And of course, no information is given as to where the punters were found: in statistical terms, how random was the sampling frame? So despite the sophisticated research that often goes into developing the products, their marketing appears to offer the antithesis in the form of essentially worthless polls and neo-scientific yet nonsensical compound words. Even innocent-sounding phrases such as "natural looking skin" aren't worth anything; after all, isn't all skin natural looking if it is free of make-up and cosmetic surgery? A combination of genetics and lifestyle - I really hate that last word - are responsible for the condition of your skin, with few people nowadays failing to recognise that sunbathing smokers are unlikely to retain a youthful complexion even with the aid of pots of ground up chicken feet and the food of queen bees.

That the product manufacturers have kept one step ahead of the cynicism is perhaps not all that difficult to explain. Our popular culture and media are obsessed with youth (which is nothing new - take classical Greece as an example) but at least modern legislation prevents the use of obviously insane ingredients. After all, it is far less than a century since radium was used in hair cream and toothpaste. It seems we may have slightly less gullibility than previous generations, yet even a temporary improvement in our appearance is inviting enough to fork out vast sums of money for.

But is all this about to change? In the last few years a radically different range of beauty products has been in development that appears to be rather more than usual temporary Polyfilla. Trials are taking place involving skin cream that may be an early form of "cosmeceutical", able to restore the structure of skin rather than simply obscuring aging and damage. As for me, I'm watching with interest the research into mimicking the effect of enzymes that prevent loss of hair colour - or even reverse it. What, vain? Me? Surveys suggest that only 1 in 10 men don't mind the natural greying process. Okay, I made that one up too!

Tuesday, 29 June 2010

How to look smart: textiles with intelligence

Although cybernetics, the truly personal interfacing of man and machine, has long been discussed in both fact and fiction, far less attention has been paid to futuristic clothing, Star Fleet velour and shiny foil suits aside. The past decade has seen a proliferation of technologies aimed at developing clothing that does more than just provide comfort and display. The creation of smart textiles that react to both external environmental factors and the wearer's body promises a wide range of uses, from health and medicine, via sports, to ultra-portable information technology.

In 2008 the smart fabrics industry in the European market alone was estimated to be worth over three hundred million Euros. To this end, the European Union created a research cluster with the quasi clothes-related if slightly tortuous acronym SFIT, or Smart Fabrics, Interactive Textile. With a growth rate forecast at 20% per year the sector shows great promise - and how much of it will revolve around consumerist infotainment gadgetry is anyone's guess. As an example of what is already available, the British company Peratech produces a wide range of electro-conductive smart fabrics under the Elektex banner. MP3 players and BlueTooth devices are amongst those incorporated into their clothing, and I assume it won't be too long for some form of television or viewing capability is built in, perhaps utilising sunglasses or head-up display technology.

The increasing miniaturisation of electronics and materials in general will undoubtedly lead to clothing and accessories constructed of elements arranged at a nano level. Recent developments in computer interfacing, such as the roll-up keyboard, suggest it may not be too long before people are wearing items more intelligent than they are (although in many cases that wouldn't be too difficult!) Much has been written about technology at the nano scale, including research into creating nano-bots that can be injected into the human body to destroy infections or fatty deposits. At a rather less invasive level, it is easy to see that smart fabrics could be developed for the slow release of pharmaceuticals or to monitor heart rate, respiration etc. The New Zealand company Zephyr have already developed two products: the kinky-sounding bio-harness and the shoe pod, both containing sensors woven into the textile. When combined with data storage components the products can record physiological information. No doubt the military are keeping as keen an eye on these developments as much as professional sports concerns.

Speaking of the armed forces, in February this year the UK's Ministry of Defence awarded a research grant to the British firm Intelligent Textiles Limited with the aim of developing fabrics that could back up if not replace military field equipment such as radios. Combined with innovations such as the aforementioned roll-up keyboard it seems strange how late has attention been paid to these developments. Clearly, there are benefits for many areas, although whether companies will persuade their executives to include such items in their travel luggage may appear a step too far in the work-life balance threshold.

Back on the health front, the simplest use of smart materials may be fabrics able to aid allergy sufferers, or at least warn them of impending doom (I would dearly love a built-in pollen detector!) Research is also being carried out into fabrics that change colour if they reach a pre-set level of ultraviolet radiation exposure within a time limit; clothing with this non-permanent photo chromic technology might prove to be of immense value to the Australasian market, with the southern ozone hole predicted not to heal for at least half a century.

One area you might expect to see high-tech developments, that of astronaut clothing, has received relatively little public attention apart from EVA (i.e. spacewalk) suits. In the 1970s the Soviet Union developed the elasticated Penguin suit to help cosmonauts exercise their otherwise wasting muscles on long-duration flights. A more high-tech approach is now being developed since the European Space Agency engaged the Danish firm Ohmatex last year to design and manufacture a 'smart sock' to monitor muscle activity via built-in sensors.

Another European venture is the international Biotex project, which aims to develop fabrics with built-in biosensors that can analyse the pH levels and mineral balance of the wearer. One civilian use would be analysis of energy expenditure, extremely useful for those on diets - as in, yes, you can have another chocolate biscuit, you've used up extra calories today. Indeed, the American NuMetrex range of clothing already has something along these lines, along with heart rate and pulse monitors, although from what I've read they are as yet of more use to healthy people than those with cardio-vascular conditions.

On a slightly more esoteric note, transatlantic research teams involved in the recent 2010 Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences have developed a concept for interactive clothing that responds to the wearer's emotional as well as physical state. The Wearable Absence project aims to deliver complex, personalised audio-visual content when certain physiological conditions are met. Although early days, this could prove to be incredibly useful technique for therapy on the move.

However, it is not all plain sailing for the smart textiles industry: recent studies have suggested that certain smart materials incorporated into clothing, from the tiny silver particles used in anti-odour socks to more exotic substances such as carbon nanotubes, may pose long term health or environmental risks. There have even been discussions in the European Parliament Environment Committee for a ban on some of these materials as part of a wider interest in their adoption in various types of consumer goods.

But ultimately, smart materials are just too good to be abandoned altogether, even if there is a multitude of teething problems ahead. But once these issues are ironed out (geddit?) many of us will no doubt wonder how we ever managed to live without clothes that could power our personal entertainment and phone devices, supply satNav data, monitor our vital signs, offer emotional support in times of stress, and be of course completely self-ironing.

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Monday, 24 May 2010

Come fly with me: private industry and future of manned spaceflight

As Major Tim Peake undergoes training as the first British citizen to join the European Space Agency's (ESA) Astronaut Corps, it's an interesting time to consider to what extent manned spaceflight will migrate from the state to private sector over the next decade or two. With the International Space Station (ISS - you can see the acronyms mounting) soon to be without the shuttle fleet, not to mention short of an emergency escape vehicle following on-again/off-again Crew Return Vehicle projects, some form of return to earth vehicle will surely be needed. Back in the 1980s at least one Soviet cosmonaut is supposed to have required a prompt return to Earth following a medical problem, but the ISS crew is too large to squeeze into a single venerable Soyuz ferry. It looks like NASA has managed to resurrect the Orion Crew Exploration Vehicle as a lifeboat, eventually…but in the meantime, will the ISS be forced to look to the private sector?

The current centre of attention as far as private manned spaceflight goes is Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic, with its $200,000 price tag for a suborbital hop in a SpaceShipTwo. The flight plan is nothing new - NASA's first two astronauts did something similar nearly half a century ago - but for a private company to achieve this is, or rather will be, astonishing. Any attempt to compare the development of spaceflight to commercial air travel is a failure: the differences in scale and logistics are too profound to allow any meaningful comparison. The margins for error are that much smaller with spaceflight, and whilst the cost of astronaut training is considerable, the cost of a space vehicle that much more. Unfortunately, and ironically, the success of science fiction has led to a widespread ignorance concerning the practicalities and dangers facing astronauts. For example, low Earth orbit has the mounting danger of man-made junk and debris, ranging from lost tools to frozen ejected fecal matter, with estimates for 'detectable' objects alone put at 10,000. According to NASA, this constitutes a 'critical level' of debris. One Soyuz mission in the 1980s suffered minor impact damage to a window, although this could have been a micrometeroid rather than man-made. Nonetheless, seeing as Star Trek deflectors aren't yet fitted as standard, at some point someone is presumably going to have start clearing up this mess.

In variance to Western capitalists looking to make commercial achievements in the human spaceflight sector (unlike say the existing success with communications and other unmanned satellites), both China and India are developing state-led programmes. The first Chinese manned spacecraft, a souped-up Soyuz clone, launched in 2003, whilst the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) plans, with Russian aid, to launch its first astronauts circa 2015. Whether politics and national pride will push American and European entrepreneurs to compete is open to question, but it's possible they will sit alongside raw commercialism as a driving force, with science taking a poor fourth place. Then again, President Obama's speeches have contained arguments along just these lines. Following on from the 2004 Commercial Space Launch Amendments Act, NASA instigated several ISS-orientated programmes such as Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) and Commercial Resupply Services (CRS), the intention being to free NASA from mundane day-to-day operations thus leaving more resources for R&D (research and development, if you weren't sure). Although initially intended to be cargo craft only, the potential for private sector crewed spacecraft, such as the SpaceX Dragon, is seen as the obvious next step. The problem is that some of the potential private contractors have very little experience of space operations. Or indeed, none. For every Boeing or Lockheed Martin there are an awful lot of small companies looking for a piece of orbital pie; if the success rate matches that of earlier attempts, there are going to be a lot of aerospace corporations filing for bankruptcy.

As early as the 1970's private companies attempted to build satellite launchers, such as OTRAG (go on then: Orbital Transport und Raketen AG, if you must know), only to founder due to technological difficulties, funding shortfalls and political pressure. More recent failures include the now defunct Rotary Rocket company's Roton crewed transport, and NASA's dropping of Rocketplane Kistler in 2008, but in these cases the lack of technical success was the primary cause. It would appear the future, at least for the USA, lies in cooperation between state and industry. Whether the latter will gain riches from microgravity research in pharmaceuticals and smart materials remains to be seen; as Carl Sagan once argued, many of the so-called Apollo breakthroughs could have probably been made for far less money than was spent on the moon landing programme. Perhaps a decline in fossil fuels may lead to new exotic energy projects, such as the mining of lunar helium-3, but the global economy may have to be on much more steady footing for anything as epic as this to be considered. Otherwise it's difficult to identify just where a private contractor could be certain of potential returns from manned spaceflight. Perhaps Richard Branson's quick thrills approach may be the best bet for now!

But are there any indicators as to what the near future might hold? SpaceX Dragon and the recently curtailed Orion are both conventional capsule designs. More advanced projects such as the (initially unmanned) Lockheed Venture Star were cancelled due to difficulties with the engine design, perhaps a primary reason for NASA deciding to play it safe with the Constellation programme's Orion and the Altair lunar lander. Speaking of the latter, President Obama's speech earlier this year placed human expeditions to the moon and Mars in the 2025-2030 time bracket, a safe distance from his White House tenure. I seem to recall all US presidents since, and perhaps including, Reagan, have taken a pot-shot at a manned Mars mission (acronym: mmm - speaks for itself, really.) I would take any such timescale with a large pinch of salt. Admittedly, Obama has proposed large budget increases for NASA, guaranteed to generate more than 2,500 jobs in Florida alone. But like many aspects of the Soviet Union's Five Year Plans, is the intention to promote economic growth, the outcome of the projects themselves being on secondary importance? US presidents of the past few decades have not exactly been known for their scientific acumen. Competition between private companies is an ideal way of generating R&D whilst minimising tax payers' investments, but if these corporations don't succeed in establishing a comprehensive level of interaction with NASA there could be trouble afoot. After all, it isn't so many years since a software contractor mixed up imperial with metric units, causing the in-flight loss of the Mars Climate Orbiter.

One potential benefit of increased manned space travel that has been advanced by both the White House as and NASA is the promotion of spaceflight to the general public. With digital entertainment and web empowerment, along with environmental and economic concerns, having taken centre stage in the minds of the post-Apollo generations, an increase in space tourism may have greater impact on the public than the lacklustre coverage of the ISS. If Virgin Galactic can pull off it's enterprise (N.B. that's a joke - the first Spaceship Two will of course be named VSS Enterprise), then perhaps spaceflight will become cool again. This in turn may inspire a new generation of engineers and designers, especially to seek much-needed alternatives to fossil fuels. In an idea reminiscent of Arthur C. Clarke's children's novel Islands in the Sky, last year the brewery company Guinness announced a competition prize of a seat on a Virgin Galactic craft. So although it may be a far cry from the Pan Am Orion spaceplane in 2001: A Space Odyssey, nonetheless it's very much a case of "watch this space..."

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Sunday, 2 May 2010

Scary Soap and Worm World: science toys for the young and not so young

There have been junior versions of telescopes, microscopes, and chemistry sets available for many years, but the past decade or so has seen a veritable explosion of science-orientated items for both children and the young at heart. It isn't just the likes of the Science Museum shop either: online retailers in particular offer a profusion of activities and experiments, ranging from extremely expensive assembly kits to grow your own crystal sets for under £10.

One of the interesting aspects to all this merchandise is how much of it follows a clear gender demarcation - 'disgusting' science for the boys versus perfume, incense and DIY toiletry products for the girls, with the stereotypical packaging pushing the delineation home. Although there are some products not for delicate (the bottom burp machine springs to mind), and a few of rather dubious taste such as soft toys shaped like E. Coli or the Ebola virus, there is an enormous array of items that promote science-based learning whilst providing lots of fun.

It isn't just inanimate activities that are available, but an increasingly range of experiments involving real animals. From Worm World via butterfly terrariums to ants in gel (based on a real Nasa experiment), children are now able to play biologist, farmer, even God, to a variety of creatures. The only project I have had direct experience of raised some interesting questions, as all good experiments should. As a starting point I had to consider my own relation to the project, since I'm not particularly keen on animal experimentation except as an absolute necessity; I was therefore fairly pleased to see that the instruction manual stated the creatures should be treated carefully, being after all living things. In the planning stages I also discovered a small but international community with a passionate dedication to their animals, but where for many the line between pet and subject lies, I'm still uncertain.

The species involved is intrinsically interesting due to its longevity: forget the coelacanth, if you really want to see a living fossil - in the form of an animal that has barely changed its external morphology in eons - then look to Triops longicaudatus, a freshwater shrimp that has been found fossilised in seventy million-year old rocks from the late Cretaceous. The shrimp-rearing products are marketed under a variety of names such as Triassic Triops (inaccurate - it is an even older sister species T. cancriformis that has been around since the Triassic), Dinosaur Shrimp (some fairly obvious marketing there), even Star Wars Naboo Sea Creatures!

Most kits consist of the same basic components: eggs (including those a few other, smaller, marine invertebrates), food, a container, and accessories. Unlike their smaller, commercially-available, crustacean cousins known as sea monkeys (actually brine shrimp), Triops even appear to exhibit signs of individualism, bizarre as it sounds for virtually blind creatures with a dust mote-sized brain. So although the kits are marketed at children over six years old, supposed adults such as me quickly find ourselves caught up in their well-being. In fact, the ability to raise and nurture the wee beasties is rather more complicated than the instructions would have you believe. A combination of light, temperature, oxygen and the right sort of water (distilled/deionised for hatching; bottled mineral water for adults) are merely the start of something that drove me to exactitudes not seen since school chemistry lessons. Unfortunately, this left my children with a somewhat backseat role, simply adding the food and observing with magnifying glasses through the increasingly murky water.

Of course engaging children in raising triops is good practice for said chemistry lessons, not to mention introducing them to the fundamentals of biology. Unlike some of the sad stories I discovered from other customer reviews, we did manage to raise three shrimps from egg to adult, although they all died around three weeks old (of a potential average seven- to ten-week lifespan). The project inspired questions concerning birth, reproduction - which is complex with triops and their female-biased or hermaphroditic populations - and death, in addition to providing examination of a miniature ecosystem and its food chain, daphnia being the rapidly-consumed base. One interesting outcome of all this was that it suggested youngsters (human, not shrimp) are not innately endowed with empathy, since my seafood-loving children asked if they could eat their pets after they died. Admittedly, they asked this before the animals were born, not after their death.

Although one individual died from moulting complications (despite a futile last-minute addition of iodine to the tank), there were no observable causes for the others' deaths, leading me to investigate optimal conditions in greater detail. However, I found it difficult to get agreement on even fundamentals such as the best water temperature and type of light cycle. The one book I could find (all of 30 or so pages long) doesn't go into details on raising them, whilst the most authoritative-sounding material elsewhere seems to negate the creature's 'wild' existence in many respects: after all, if their long-dormant, desiccated eggs come to life after a desert rain shower, then might not the night sky be dark due to rain clouds? Yet experienced breeders recommend 24-hour light for at least the first three days. It isn't just the minor carbon footprint of leaving an angle poise lamp on for days on end, but constant light leads to algal growth which clouds the water and may have other side effects. Clearly, those interested in breeding triops could benefit from rather more experimentation, since my children and I are hardly up to the role!

Interestingly, the only professional experiment reports I could find seemed more in the vein of the archetypal crazy scientist (think Dr. Bunsen Honeydew on The Muppet Show or The Fast Show's Professor Denzil Dexter: "We took some Triops eggs and froze them, but they still hatched, so then we boiled some more, and they hatched too. Then, when they were adults, we tested oxygen levels by super-gluing their carapaces…") I'm sure you get the picture. It has to be said that triops are useful experimental subjects for a variety of important reasons, from the here and now of fighting tropical diseases to the future of long-duration manned spaceflight involving astronaut hibernation. And if like me you're interested in trilobites, I think they're next best thing since the Permian extinction robbed us of those creatures some 251 million years ago. But as for "triops are instant pets - just add water" - that has to be a major understatement, and then some...

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Thursday, 15 April 2010

In thrall to the machines: Or how to open a packet of biscuits

It says 'Tear here' so I gently pull the red strip, ripping a ragged diagonal line in completely the wrong place. More pulling and the shiny material shreds into a dozen thin strips, dislodging crumbs. A bit more and the top third suddenly rips off the packet, causing biscuits to cascade into the tin. So much for following the instructions. Then why did I tear here? Because it told me to, along with all the 'Lift this flap', 'Open other end' and numerous additional petty directives that rule the lives of us consumers.

Einstein has been quoted as saying "It has become appallingly obvious that our technology has exceeded our humanity." I'm not sure that this wasn't his response to nuclear weapons and Mutually Assured Destruction, but are we as some commentators suggest in danger of becoming a variant of the degenerative, docile Eloi in H.G. Wells' The Time Machine? From birth we are brought up to obey a myriad of procedures that give the appearance of improving our quality of life but have their rationale in manufacturing efficiency and the corporate balance sheet, locking us into a sophisticated socioeconomic profile that overrides individualism. Until the machines we increasingly rely upon achieve a much more sophisticated level of communication, are we are instead instructed to think in machine-like ways to achieve a viable interface? If so, at what cost to fundamental human traits such as initiative? Essentially, were the blank-faced bureaucrats of 2001: A Space Odyssey a more accurate prediction than Arthur C. Clarke's technophiliac Profiles of the Future?

Lest I sound like a socialist luddite, I have to admit to both utilising and enjoying much of the digital technology on offer, but as a means to an end, not an end in itself. And I only go so far - no Bluetooth headset for me! But then I also don't have a Wii, Playstation, DS, wall-mounted flatscreen television, Blueray DVD…yet I don't think I'm missing out on anything. But then I also don't consider it necessary to spend my time on public transport telling friends over the phone that yes, I'm on public transport!

The gee-whiz factor of bigger, faster and louder associated with the macho 'hard' technology of industrialisation has been largely superceded by digital and virtual technology that appeals to both genders. The irony is that whilst the latter is alleged to promote empowerment of the individual, we are in many ways just as subservient to the manufacturing corporations as ever. Where and when devices and software become available are driven by economic factors such as long-term release cycles, meaning upgrades appear staggered over a year or so rather than clumped together in a single update. So far this has done little to abate the enthusiasm for digital communications, entertainment, and navigation technology, despite the impact on consumer debt and the enormous amount of time spent continually learning how to use it all. (I'm not a violent man, but in my opinion most instruction manual authors should be strangled at birth).

But then it is astonishing how fast items such as mobile phones have been taken up by the general public for leisure use, much to the surprise of manufacturers who initially assumed a business-orientated user model. The proliferation of non-core functions has shown that most people find it easy to assimilate cutting edge technology, despite remaining as in the dark as ever regarding the varied theoretical and practical underpinnings. Surely there must be a danger in increasingly placing more and more of our daily lives in the hands of the few who sell us the hardware and software, whilst having no idea how any of it works?

A major cause for concern, as always, is that this ignorance has allowed the proliferation of scare-mongering stories concerning potential health hazards. As far as I am aware, drivers using mobile phones are in far greater danger than the average user is from the radiation emission, yet the debate continues. And speaking of vehicles, the fallibility of satellite navigation devices has yet to be properly addressed, despite police warnings. Drivers seem frequently to be so subservient to their satnav as to leave all common sense behind, as I found to my cost when an articulated lorry driver followed the directions for a shortcut down my obviously too narrow residential street and promptly wrote my car off. The over-reliance on devices or software can also lead to problems if there is not a non-digital back-up. I remember some years ago visiting a branch of a well-known restaurant chain whose staff utilized electronic ordering pads: due to a software failure they were having to work with old-fashioned pencil and paper, leading to a 45 minute backlog for diners. Clearly, basic arithmetic isn't the only skill to suffer these days!

The fact that extremely fine motor skills are usually essential for effective operation of computer and other interfaces, screen readers not withstanding, is frequently overlooked. This, as much as technophobia, can prove a fundamental stumbling block to the elder generations who are encouraged to join the 'online community' or suffer ostracism. But then however good it may be for someone who is infirm or housebound to have a webcam/Skype or even an internet connection, nothing can wholly substitute for direct face-to-face interaction. Indeed, are today's children growing up lacking (even more) social niceties, having largely replaced personal interaction with digital proxies such as texting and social networking websites? I suppose the proof will be in the next few years when the first wholly-immersed such generation reach adulthood...

The development of Web 2.0 technologies, whereby the internet becomes a two-way interface, is a powerful tool for human interaction and grass-reports campaigning, and certainly one of the best things to come out of the digital revolution. But the sheer speed of the paradigm severely limits error-checking, leading to a vast amount of noise and thus sensory overload and overproduction of information. The slick multi-media presentation of information on the web can appeal far more, especially to children, than the old-fashioned printed word, which can lead to a lack of critical thinking. After all, if it looks pretty and sounds good, then surely it must be true? There have always been errors in text books and science popularisations, but the self-proofing of Web 2.0 material can only be worse by several degrees of error. As yet the delivery technology is far superior to the ability to quality control the content. Whether the ease of access to content outweighs the shortcomings is another area that will no doubt receive a great deal of attention in the next few years, from educationalists and parents alike.

Clearly, the future for humanity lies with a post-industrial society (as per Alvin Toffler's The Third Wave), wherein information and virtual products are at least as important the material world. But with high technology in the hands of powerful multinational corporations and public knowledge largely restricted to front-end user status, we face a serious possibility of losing social and cognitive skills as more aspects of our lives become inextricably bound with the wonderful worlds of electrons and silicon. As for any Second Lifers out there, I'll save virtuality addiction for another time...

Thursday, 1 April 2010

Blown away: some weird and wonderful animal defence mechanisms

At a time when environmentalists are calling for farmers to swap cattle for non-ruminant species such as kangaroos in an effort to stem bovine methane emission, a recent report by a leading Argentinean palaeontologist reminds me of Karl Marx's popular axiom "History repeats itself first as tragedy, second as farce".

The report's theme concerns animal defensive mechanisms, a classic example of truth being infinitely stranger than fiction. Consider for instance the bombardier beetle, an innocuous enough looking insect that when endangered can squirt a boiling liquid from its rear abdomen. Okay, that's only mildly weird. Well what about the several species of frogs and newts that when threatened extrude internal claws or spines by puncturing their own skin? Or the Asian carpenter ants whose soldiers literally self-destruct in the defence of their colony, in the process spraying a sticky poison over their attackers? Surely if anyone needed a good argument against Creationism then this panoply of the bizarre would suit admirably, since it postulates an equally bizarre, not to say warped, sense of humour on behalf of a Creator.

But the news from Argentina may well outshine (if that is the right word) all of the above, not least from the sheer scale of the animals involved. The main players are those undisputed giants of the dinosaur world, the South American titanosauria sauropods of the mid- to late-Cretaceous. Partial remains found over the past twenty years imply species such as Argentinosaurus may have reached lengths of 40 metres, thereby exceeding their better-known Jurassic relatives such as Diplodocus by around 20 per cent.

In 2002 Fernando Calvo, Professor of Natural Sciences at La Salta University in Argentina, became intrigued by sauropod growth patterns and nutrition. Although coprolites (fossilised poo) have not been found for any species of Argentinean titanosaur, the study of microscopic phytoliths, silicified plant fragments, suggest these animals enjoyed a broad plant diet. The notion that Mesozoic vegetation consisted primarily of conifers, cycads, horsetails and ferns has been overturned by recent discoveries of palms and even tall, primitive grasses. Since modern grazers such as cattle can survive solely on such unpromising material, how about titanosaurs?

Calvo and his team began a study to go where no scientists had gone before and assess the potential digestive systems of Argentinosaurus and its relatives. One of the luxuries of an enormous bulk is being able to subsist on nutritionally-poor foodstuffs, a case of sheer quantity over quality. The La Salta group hypothesised that their native sauropods were amongst the most efficient of digesters just because of their size: by the time plant material had worked its way through such a large digestive tract most of the nutrients would be absorbed, no doubt aided by gastroliths, literally stomach stones deliberately swallowed to help churn the material.

The preliminary report was published in March last year and quickly became notorious in palaeontological circles. For there was no delicate way of describing the findings: the titanosaurs would easily top the Guinness Book of Records' list of “World's Greatest Farters”. Whilst sauropods did not have the multiple stomach arrangements of modern ruminants the hypothesis was clear: titanosaur herds would have been surrounded by an omnipresent cloud of methane.

For Calvo, the next step came several months later when a tip-off from a farmer in Chubut led to an astonishing series of finds. The site, whose exact location remains secret, revealed the semi-articulated fragments from a tight-knit group of three predatory Giganotosaurus and approximately 15 per cent of the skeleton of a single, adult Argentinosaurus. Team member Jose Chiappe led the extraction work on the latter colossus and postulated that it had died slowly, perhaps due to blood loss following an attack.

What were far more intriguing were the positions of the attackers: all three had a slumped, head-down attitude, implying sudden collapse and virtually instantaneous death. Calvo found himself asking the obvious: how could they have died? Whereas a Diplodocus tail was well-formed for use as a whip, it was a much more gracile animal than its Cretaceous counterparts. The larger bulk of Argentinosaurus didn't bode well for a fast reaction: by the time a titanosaur had noticed the approach of a Giganotosaurus it would have had precious few seconds to position its tail for a whiplash response. Then Chiappe remembered an Early Cretaceous site in Liaoning Province, China, where animals had died of suffocation due to volcanic gases.

The resemblance in the post-mortem postures of the Giganotosaurus led to an incredible but as yet unpublished hypothesis: if correctly positioned, a frightened titanosaur could have defended itself by the simple expedient of raising its tail and expelling gaseous waste directly into the conveniently-placed head of an oncoming predator. An initial calculation based on scaling up from modern animals suggested an adult titanosaur could have produced about one tonne of methane per week. Computer simulations suggest a sustained five-second burst at close range would have K-O'd an eight-ton Giganotosaurus, and with a brain barely half that of Tyrannosaurus, it's unlikely the predators had the wherewithal to avoid their fate. If only the late Michael Crichton had known this, perhaps he would have written a scene involving an ignominious demise at the rear end of a sauropod for some of the characters in Jurassic Park (Jurassic Fart, anyone?) Or since this occurred in the Cretaceous, in the name of scientific accuracy perhaps that should that be Gone with the Wind?

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Saturday, 20 March 2010

Come all ye faithful: do faith schools threaten British science education?

With the announcement of a New Life Academy in Hull opening later this year the debate over religious education in Britain has become more intense than ever before. Of course we need to take Richard Dawkins' rhetoric with a pinch of salt, but has the current administration allowed or even provided financial support for fundamentalist organisations to infiltrate the British education system at the expense of science and rational thought?

The Hull Academy will follow the Accelerated Christian Education curriculum that amongst other tenets supports the literal truth of the Bible. So how likely is it that the UK will take on aspects of the American Bible Belt, with critical thinking and enquiry subservient to dogma and absolute belief? One of the main criticisms of the ACE system is its reliance on learning by rote, yet at least in their pre-teens, children are shown to benefit from such a system. It appears to do little to quench their thirst for exploration and discovery, which if anything is largely stamped out by an exam-obsessed education system. If all learning is given via rote there is an obvious problem, but in the vast majority of British faith schools this does not seem to be the case.

Alongside the four Emmanuel Schools Foundation academies, the NLA Academy is an easy target for those fearing religious extremism. But outside of Hollywood, the real world is rarely so easy to divide into good and bad. Not only are the ESF schools open to all faiths but an Ofsted inspection failed to support the allegations of creation science being taught. Even if these faculties were heading towards US-style fundamentalism, linking their techniques to all faith schools would be akin to arguing that the majority of British Jewish children attend the Yiddish-speaking private schools in North London's Stamford Hill orthodox community. Parents who are desperate to indoctrinate their children will take a do-it-yourself approach if they cannot find a school to deliver their requirements.

Many senior religious figures of various faiths, including the Archbishop of Canterbury Dr Rowan Williams, have stated that they do not want creationism taught in schools. If there is any stereotyping in this subject, it is here: most fundamentalists concentrate solely on evolutionary theories, natural selection and its implicit linking of mankind to other animals, rather than any other branch of science. Although the age of the Earth (and therefore the universe in general), as well as the sun-centred solar system, is sometimes denied for its disagreement with the Bible and the Koran, there are few extremists prepared to oppose other cornerstones of modern science. Clearly, would-be chemists should feel safe, potential geo- and astrophysicists less so, and those considering a career in evolutionary biology should not move to the American Midwest (or even Hull!)

More seriously, what of more subtle approaches by the mainstream denominations? A 2004 New Statesman article maligned an Anglican school in Canterbury for its attempts to inculcate infants with religious sensibilities via techniques that sounded more like a New Age cult than the Jesuit approach, but since then there has been little in the way of comparable stories. Whether senior figures in the Church of England see faith schools as a way of replenishing their ever-diminishing flock is unknown, but there is no solid evidence for such a master plan. Britain has a long and let's face it, fairly proud history of ordained ministers who have dabbled in the sciences, although few who could be compared with the Augustinian monk Gregor Mendel, the father of modern genetics. Although T.H.Huxley (A.K.A. Darwin's bulldog) railed against the ordained amateurs, his main bone of contention concerned Anglican privilege: comfortable sinecures allowing vicars to delve in the sciences whilst the lower social orders including Huxley had to fight tooth and claw to establish a paid profession.

There are many examples of religiously devout scientists who can be used to diffuse the caricatured 'us and them' mentality, perhaps the best-known current British example being particle physicist the Reverend John Polkinghorne. Organisations such as the International Society for Science and Religion, and the Society of Ordained Scientists, both of which claim Polkinghorne as a member, are against intelligent design from both a faith and science perspective. Whilst the hardline atheists might deem these groups as intending to both have their wafer and eat it, there are clearly a wide range of attitudes in support of current scientific theories at the expense of a literal belief in religious texts. But then don't most Christians today express a level of belief as varied as the rituals of the numerous denominations themselves, often far short of accepting literal Biblical truth? Believers find their own way, and so it is with scientists who follow conventional belief systems.

However, one potential danger of teaching science in faith schools may be a relic of Darwin's contemporaries (and of course Darwin himself initially aimed for a church career), namely the well-intentioned attempt to imbibe the discipline with a moral structure. Yet as our current level of knowledge clearly shows, bearing in mind everything from natural selection to asteroid impact, we cannot ally ethical principles to scientific methods or knowledge. Scientific theories can be used for good or evil, but it is about as tenable to link science to ethics or moral development as it is to blame a cat for torturing its prey. Of course children require moral guidance, but it must be nurtured via other routes. Einstein wrote in 1930 of a sense of cosmic religious feeling which has no need for the conventional anthropomorphic deity but to my mind seems more akin to Buddhism. As such he believed that a key role of science (along with art) is to awaken and preserve this numinous-like feeling. I for one consider this is as far as science can go along the road to spirituality, but equally agree with Huxley's term agnosticism: to go beyond this in either direction with our current, obviously primitive state of understanding, is sheer arrogance. If we wish to inculcate an open mind in our children, we must first guarantee such a thought system in ourselves. All else is indoctrination, be it religious or secular.

One of the ironies of faith schools in a nation where two thirds of secondary school children do not see themselves as religious practitioners, is that they are generally considered to supply a high standard of education and as such are usually oversubscribed. But all in all, there is little evidence to support this notion, since any oversubscribed institution is presumably able to choose a higher calibre of student whilst claiming to the contrary. Current estimates suggest 15% of British children attend faith schools, with a higher proportion in some regions (such as over 20% of London's secondary school places) but as low as 5% in more rural areas. Clearly, parents who want a good education for their children are not being put off by the worry of potential indoctrination. As has become obvious over the past few years, there are large increases in attendance at school-affiliated churches just prior to the application period: a substantial number of parents are obviously faking faith in return for what they deem to be a superior education.

For the moment it seems science education in Britain has little to worry about from the fundamentalists, at least compared to the divisiveness and homophobia that the National Secular Society deem the most prominent results of increasing faith-based education. We must be careful to ensure that as taxpayers we do not end up funding creationist institutions, but we can do little to prevent private schools following this approach. On a positive note, the closest faith school to me has a higher level of science attainment than its non-religious rivals. I admit that I attended an Anglican school for three years and appear to have emerged with as plural a stance as could be wished for. Indeed, I look back fondly on the days of dangerous chemistry experiments before health and safety-guaranteed virtual demonstrations began to supplant this fun aspect of school science: if you haven't used a burning peanut to blow the lid off a cocoa tin, you haven't lived!

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Sunday, 7 March 2010

How green is my alley? Reduce, reuse & recycle

British artist Richard Hamilton's 1957 definition of pop art included the terms 'transient', 'expendable', 'mass-produced', and 'Big Business'. We've come a long way since similar contemporary cultural attitudes led to throwaway clothing and disposable furniture, but there's still plenty that needs to be done before we achieve anything approaching sustainable development. The recent news articles showing that like the Pacific, the North Atlantic Ocean has its own enormous patch of floating plastic waste, clearly define a multinational problem: but what can the average Briton do to help the environment?

The three green 'R's of reduce, reuse and recycle involve a lot of statistics published by a variety of concerns, ranging from manufacturers to environmental groups. Going with the old saying that there are lies, damn lies and you-know-what, how can the public find a way through the minefield? As an example, estimates for the UK's annual waste total vary from 100 million to 400 million tonnes - although even the lower figure is more than enough! In recent years there have been several scandals involving potentially dangerous waste collected by local councils for recycling, only to be sent to developing countries where it is picked over by scavengers. Clearly, in some cases, out of sight is also out of mind.

Perhaps this shouldn't be too surprising considering how quickly we've had to adopt ecologically-motivated measures, but another concern is the enormous regional variation in recycling collection, waste processing and recovery. Lack of processing plants and a deficiency of recycling knowledge within councils supply yet another example of the postcode lottery. In response to this some local communities are taking matters into their own hands, such as the Somerset village of Chew Magna, where the inhabitants are attempting to gain zero waste status.

In addition to the lack of processing facilities another issue is sorting, although the use of high-tech approaches such as x-ray fluorescence and infra-red spectroscopy may increase efficiency, especially of plastics where recycling can create enormous savings in everything from oil to water. It isn't just the percentage that is recycled that counts, but how effective the processing and recovery methods are and whether as a nation we can reduce the amount of waste in the first place. Britain is an intensely consumerist nation and as if we need further proof, our household waste continues to grow by about 3% each year.

One of the most astonishing statistics (you see, they keep on cropping up), is the estimated 17.5 billion plastic bags given away in British shops every year. This amounts to over 130,000 tonnes of plastic, very few of which are composed of biodegradable material. An example of how quickly habits could change is shown by Ireland's introduction of a tax on plastic bags in 2002, which lead to an almost immediate reduction of over 90%. What's the difference to the UK? As far as I can tell, it boils down to the simple fact that unlike in Ireland, we have companies who make plastic bags: far be it from the Government to inhibit sales within our increasingly pitiful manufacturing base.

Despite the popularity of city allotments we are so divorced from food sources as to blindly follow use-by dates without actually checking the food itself. Recent evidence, including personal experiments by yours truly, show that in many cases the dates are wildly pessimistic (fingers crossed, I haven't been poisoned yet.) Again the figures vary widely, but estimates for food wastage in Britain range from 2.5 million to 8 million tonnes per year, which even for the lower figure equates to 18 million tonnes of carbon dioxide. Food safety scares have a lot to answer for, but surely effective food science education of adults as well as children is the obvious solution? After all, it would save us at least £10 billion per year on our shopping bills.

Of course it isn't just the consumer who is at fault: British industry must bear much of the blame. Every year we each spend up to one-sixth of our food budget on packaging, much of which uses standard sizes to cut manufacturing costs at the expense of material wastage. We could do worse than look at South Korea, where over the past decade legislation has reduced both the size and materials that can be used for packaging processed foods.

Another issue is planned obsolescence. Both the Trading Standards Institute and the Office of Fair Trading investigate consumer claims of items ceasing to work shortly after the initial warranty expires, but there are plenty of less obvious instances of products deliberately built to limits short of their potential working life, such as printer cartridges and rechargeable batteries. More insidious still is the use of advertising and clever marketing, combined with long-term release cycles, to promote a more rapid replacement of items than is really necessary. This 'obsolescence of desirability' is particularly obvious with mobile phones, which rapidly outstripped manufacturer's sales estimates in the early 1990s and are now updated on the basis of a fashionable new function or user interface rather than improvements to their core purpose. There can be no better illustration of the needlessly short life span of electronic goods than the seven metre tall WEEE Man sculpture at the Eden Project in Cornwall, which is composed of the consumer goods the average British citizen gets through in a lifetime - including no less than 35 mobile phones!

One irony is that the rapid development of storage formats over the past few decades has created a cycle of obsolescence from floppy disks to laser discs at a time we most need to counter expendability. Perhaps the current generation of 'virtual' devices such as Ipods and Ipads will help offset this, as long as their material and energy costs don't outweigh the savings in paper and packaging.

We cannot be in any doubt that things are changing for the better, but the big question is whether it is fast enough. The world's third largest retailer, Tesco, plans to be carbon neutral…in about forty years time. Many office buildings are already zero carbon and the Government plans for all new homes to be built to this standard from 2016. Meanwhile the Welsh firm Affresol has developed TPR, a wholly-recyclable substance stronger than concrete yet made mostly of waste and intended to provide load-bearing walls for buildings; fingers crossed for their pilot project!

Obviously just cutting back on domestic waste and power consumption will not do as much as reducing fossil fuel usage, but every little bit helps. A final shocking statistic: every Christmas this nation uses 8,000 tonnes of wrapping paper. Do we really need that amount? And as for carbon-trading - that's a whole other issue...

Thursday, 25 February 2010

Are we alone? Wow, Little Green Men and the SETI faithful

According to the film version of Arthur C. Clarke's novel 2010: Odyssey Two, we now live in 'The Year We Make Contact'. Therefore it seems apt to take a quick look at the history of SETI, the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence, just in case fact should follow fiction. The recently-discovered antics of the Australian octopi that use coconut shells as mobile homes prove that it isn't just the music-loving, film-making and now liquid-quantifying chimpanzees who erode the boundaries between Homo sapiens and other animals. The Gallup mark mirror test has shown that apes, elephants, dolphins and even some birds have a degree of self-awareness exceeding that of human babies less than several months old. When combined with research into animal tool use and the archaeological evidence for rituals conducted by our extinct Neanderthal cousins, our species' mental abilities appear less and less distinctive. So if there are varying degrees of self-aware animals down here, what are the chances of intelligent life "up there"?

New analysis of the Murchison meteorite fragments which landed in Australia in 1969 has found 14,000 carbon-based compounds, including dozens of amino acids different from those known on Earth. If anything, this evidence is more intriguing than the now infamous Martian meteorite ALH 84001 which has so far failed to provide conclusive evidence of fossilised alien nanobacteria. But the idea of life being able to survive outside our comfortable biosphere has gained credence over the past few decades with the discovery of extremophiles, including the diverse organisms that live around submarine volcanic vents and the microbes that can survive gamma radiation several thousand times the dosage lethal to humans.

Whilst there has been a growth of interest in exobiology since the NASA experiments on Mars in the mid-1970s via the two Viking landers, a good deal of today's research investigates the notion of intelligent life elsewhere, largely via radio astronomy. Notable organisations include the Planetary Society, co-founded by the late Carl Sagan, and the Seti Institute, co-founded by Jill Tarter, the real-life model for Sagan's fictional Contact protagonist Eleanor Arroway. Yet despite the lack of positive data after half a century's effort, both the pro and con lobbies maintain passionate support for their ideas. One of the best-known SETI pioneers is American astronomer and astrophysicist Frank Drake, whose eponymous equation has been argued by both sides despite being deemed by some, including author Michael Crichton, as scientifically worthless. This stems from the fact that most of the values in the Drake equation, aiming to establish the potential number of civilisations in the galaxy capable of interstellar communication, are as unknown as when first written in 1960. Over the decades many researchers have had a go at 'filling in the blanks' and achieved results ranging from one (us) to over a million. Clearly, it is not an equation that can be resolved utilising our current knowledge of astrophysics, biology and almost everything in between.

As might be expected the UK's involvement in SETI has been somewhat minimal, although the 76-metre diameter Lovell Radio Telescope at Jodrell Bank has been used intermittently in this context since the late 1990s. Last month even saw the Royal Society host a SETI conference that included such astronomical luminaries as Martin Rees, Jocelyn Bell Burnell and Frank Drake. Unfortunately the traditional British no-nonsense approach lost Jodrell Bank in particular (and the country in general) its chance for pioneering SETI research when Bernard Lovell, in a decision he apparently later regretted, turned down a request to use the very same, then-named Mark 1, radio telescope in 1959.

Although over four hundred planets have been discovered (mostly indirectly) around other stars, none are obviously in the 'Goldilocks zone' where it is believed conditions are suitable for life. Having said that, the recent discoveries of water, mostly as ice, on the Moon, Mars, and two or three other satellites, are obviously positive signs. Then again, there is an enormous difference between those who support the notion of alien microbial life as opposed to intelligent organisms able to transmit signals between solar systems. As early as 1950 physicist Enrico Fermi developed his famous paradox which states that if there are any alien societies capable of interstellar travel, or just communications technology comparable to ours, then we should have found evidence by now. Despite several false alerts such as Jocelyn Bell Burnell's 1967 discovery of pulsars (which she initially labelled as LGM or 'Little Green Men') and the never-repeated 'Wow!' signal detected at Ohio State University in 1977, there has been no unequivocal evidence from the electromagnetic spectrum. In addition, and despite the plethora of orbiting telescopes from Hubble to WISE, there is no evidence for astro-engineering artefacts such as Dyson spheres that a more advanced civilisation might be able to construct.

One international project that has shown the immense level of international grass roots support for the hypothesis is SETI@home, which over the past decade has utilised five million home computers to process radio telescope signal data. Even though such current projects do not involve public money or remove time from research with seemingly more potential of success, there is still plenty of vociferous opposition, even from the scientific community. Arguments range from the practical, such as if we are already moving to fibre optics and digital signals perhaps radio broadcasts are too rare to be detected (some groups have now started laser-based research), to intense speculation on alien motives, which is clearly more in the realm of psychology than science. One of more interesting of the latter is the idea of deliberately non-communicative aliens: since like everyone else SETI researchers have the hard-wired human instinct for exploration, how can we have knowledge of an extraterrestrial psyche until we achieve contact? We surmise at our peril!

Of course another problem facing SETI is the manner in which it has been linked to the lunatic fringe. The unfortunate interest shown in the hypothesis by everyone from New Age mystics to conspiracy theorists taints the idea as verging on pseudoscience, regardless of how scientific the investigations themselves have been. In 1993 NASA's main SETI programme, at one point renamed the High Resolution Microwave Survey in an effort to remove the 'giggle factor', was cancelled after less than one year's operation. But then is it that surprising that US Government support has frequently been withdrawn, leaving only privately funded SETI projects as per today? High-profile supporters including Steven Spielberg and Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen may have boosted its status, but is SETI strictly scientific despite its methods and technology? After all, we could listen for thousands of years without receiving evidence, but as the old adage goes, absence of evidence is not necessarily evidence of absence.

Certainly the zeal with which Carl Sagan, probably the best known SETI advocate from the 1970s to 1990s, approached the enterprise had an almost religious air to it. His novel Contact develops this aspect by making the heroine rely solely on faith rather than physical evidence of her meeting with an extra-terrestrial. It could be argued that by presenting the alien in the guise of the protagonist's father, Sagan replaced conventional religiosity with a paternal God-like being with astounding powers. As Arthur C. Clarke's Third Law states (and as the Aztecs and many others found to their cost): 'Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic'.

One of Sagan's early claims from the era of Vietnam and Watergate was that receipt of a signal would not only show the possibility of surviving technological adolescence but might also provide information to help us do the same. Since scientific thought is entrenched in the historical and cultural biases of the scientists involved, not to mention the increasing use of models and metaphors at the cutting edge, how easy would it be to understand even scientific concepts from a culture probably millennia more advanced than our own? Even if we could decipher alien scientific data, the next obvious problem is might we inadvertently destroy ourselves via some form of industrial accident, or developments in the $1.2 trillion per annum arms race, brought about by precipitant use of advanced technology? This displays another danger of SETI research: the wide-ranging but pointless speculation in lieu of hard evidence. Until we receive a message, all such conjecture is only of use to acknowledge our own hopes and fears. Even the mildly optimistic notion of extra-terrestrial contact bringing wonder or enchantment to humanity could be countered by slow translation progress in this era of the 140-character Tweet. When the news reports over the ALH 84001 meteorite were at their height in the mid-1990s, I remember work colleague telling me she was heartily sick of hearing about it. Clearly one person's mysterium fascinans (as Stephen Jay Gould might have phrased it), is another's mind-numbing tedium!

How long we will keep listening for is also open to question. If after a few more decades of concerted effort we have still not found definitive evidence, one possibly positive outcome might be the increased promotion of eco-awareness via the obvious rarity of own biologically-active planet. But current estimates suggest we have so far undertaken only about one hundred-trillionth of the radio coverage deemed necessary for a thorough search. It will be at least decades before we can afford to build even robot craft capable of travelling interstellar distances in reasonable spans of time, so until then we have little choice but to rely on our various types of receiver. So why bother at all? For the comparatively small sums involved, there's not much else that could provide such an astonishing potential return. As for the pessimists out there, I can offer nothing better than Monty Python's Eric Idle: "And pray that there's intelligent life somewhere out in space / 'Cause there's bugger all down here on Earth!"

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Monday, 15 February 2010

Palaeontological pastimes: fossicking for all the family

What do the Isle of Wight, the Dorset coast and a park in south-east London have in common? Answer: they are all popular stomping grounds for amateur fossil hunters, adults and children alike. Discovering fossils in Britain has a long pedigree, as shown by the antiquity of common names for popular species such as the Jurassic oyster Gryphaea: the Devil's toenail. Equally telling are the museum specimens of ammonites with snake heads carved on them, which were sold over the centuries as 'petrified serpents'. Whilst carving heads doesn't exactly do much for fossils in scientific sense, it is at least an improvement on the Chinese folk tradition of grinding up 'dragon bones' to make medicines!

Fossicking as a popular activity has grown enormously over the past few decades, both in the UK and elsewhere. During the first half of the nineteenth century talented British amateurs such as Mary Anning and Gideon Mantell pioneered techniques to respectively excavate and examine Mesozoic fossils, but since then the field appears to have almost wholly dominated by professionals. So why is it that over the past few decades fossil hunting has become a widespread activity for both children and their parents?

It's probably best to start with two books concerning those ubiquitous prehistoric beasts, the dinosaurs. Until the 1980s most books portrayed them as lumbering, frequently swamp-dwelling animals: slow, simple-minded, and boringly monochrome. Then in 1986 American palaeontologist Robert Bakker wrote The Dinosaur Heresies: New Theories Unlocking the Mystery of the Dinosaurs and Their Extinction, which promoted a more active, bird-like metabolism. Bakker's research (in many aspects now considered more mainstream than heretical) had the good fortune to be published at the same time that research into the 65 million year old iridium layer was gaining attention. In 1990, Michael Crichton's novel Jurassic Park became a bestseller shortly before the publication of a flurry of articles and papers discussing the Chicxulub crater in Mexico. For a while this enormous impact crater was combined with the worldwide iridium layer to offer a definitive solution to the dinosaurs' demise via asteroid impact, although the hypothesis has becoming increasingly untenable since. In the meantime, Steven Spielberg's 1993 film adaptation of Crichton's book became the highest-grossing film in history, confirming that dinosaurs were back in the public imagination on an unprecedented scale.

The continual development of computer-generated graphics has since led to numerous dramas and documentaries featuring these and other extinct ecosystems, often courtesy of the Discovery Channel and the BBC. Museums have also got in on the act, with dynamic, frequently animatronics exhibits ranging from the three-quarter sized Tyrannosaurus Rex at the Natural History Museum in London to the tiny hatchling at Oxford's equivalent. There have also been some international theatrical exhibitions featuring full-size reconstructions, including the £10 million Walking with Dinosaurs show at the O2 and Wembley Arena, as well as the new temporary exhibition at Parklife Oxford Street in London. Dinomania and then some!

Although these commercial enterprises have only been made feasible by the advances in animatronics and computer graphic technology, they appear closely tied to the flood of new finds and resulting theories. Many specialists now speak of a golden age of dinosaur discovery, supported by the recognition of a new species every few months and computers used to rapidly produce life-like reconstructions. The number of exciting finds, especially from China, supports the idea of a dinosaur renaissance, although hasty speculation on the dino-bandwagon often seems to drown out sober fact. One recent key discovery is the feathers and protofeathers found on various species: current research of their microscopic melanosomes has led to a claim of multi-coloured, possibly striped dinosaurs; a far cry from the bland grey and brown illustrations I remember from the 1970s. With embryo-containing eggs and nests also being found around the world, many aspects of dinosauria are becoming as well known as species alive today. Perhaps it is the increasing familiarity of some of these animals (as in their resemblance to giant proto-birds) which helps generate a feedback loop between scientific exploration and media exposition. The day of the dull dinosaur is over.

As for the British Isles, the popularity of dinosaurs has been used to generate enormous interest in amateur fossil hunting, with the Isle of Wight, home to the earliest ancestor of T-Rex, often considered the best location in Europe for finding dinosaurs. The island contains the Dinosaur Isle and the Dinosaur Farm Museum attractions, which combined with Norfolk's Dinosaur Adventure Park show there's no shortage of family-oriented 'edutainment'.

Of course there are many other genera to be found in the UK: the three-volume set of British fossils published by the Natural History Museum runs to over 500 pages. The main groups I have found whilst fossicking around the country are echoed by the limited choice of native specimens available in fossil shops, namely belemnites, ammonites, shark's teeth, and to a lesser extent, trilobites. Whilst these are mostly small specimens (anything large tends to be discovered by commercial operators after winter storms), there are still occasional finds showing the potential for amateurs. These include the 600,000 year old elephant found at West Runton beach in Norfolk; and Baryonyx, a 9.5 metre long fish-eating dinosaur that was discovered in a Surrey clay pit.

Many locations offered organised walks, including some just for one family at a time. Herein lies another reason for the popularity: many fossil-bearing strata are found in extremely accessible locations such as the coastline of popular holiday resorts, so it's far easier to combine a beach holiday with a fossil hunt than at equivalent, frequently remote sites in Australia or the USA. There is even a Family Fossil Hunt course on the Pembrokeshire Coast in Wales, aimed at introducing families to the joys of fossicking. For those who come away empty-handed (often the adults, since children usually have better eyesight and are closer to the ground), numerous gem shops and websites sell fossils in addition to paraphernalia such as geology hammers, goggles, and magnifiers. Again, many items are clearly aimed at children, including party bags (some with chocolate ammonites) and starter sets containing items such as dinosaur coprolites (fossilised dung).

By and large, fossil hunting is a fairly harmless activity. As long as you keep an eye on the tide and don't dig into cliff faces, there's not much that can go wrong with a leisure pursuit that can cost nothing more than some ziplock bags to contain your finds. If fossils are not extracted when exposed, the weather or wave action will soon erode or fragment them. As long as any unusual specimens are reported it's doubtful scientific information is being lost (unlike with metal detectorists, where archaeological context is everything). Without sounding too much like a public information film from the 1950s, fossicking is a healthy pursuit for all the family that can help promote interest in biodiversity and evolution (although if it is anything like what can be overheard at the Natural History Museum, the pre-teens often know more about it - Greco-Latin species names included - than their parents). And after all, in many locations as soon as you get bored you can always go back to building sandcastles!

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Thursday, 4 February 2010

Don't Catch the Cod: the ebb and flow of marine biology in the UK

About quarter of a century ago I was walking along the north Welsh coast when I came across an extraordinary sight: dozens of large, pink jellyfish, some a metre across, were lying stranded on the beach. I later discovered that these were Rhizostoma octopus - jellyfish despite the name and so-called because of their eight tentacles - marooned during a gathering to breed. In a country not known for unusual fauna, events like this give food for thought about the unknown creatures living just off our shores. Since fifty to eighty percent of all life resides in the sea, there's obviously a lot more out there besides cod, haddock and plaice. Another exotic but almost unknown organism that inhabits British waters is Regalecus glesne, a species of oarfish that grows up to 11 metres long and is therefore probably the longest bony fish in existence today. With more than a passing resemblance to the classic sea serpent of yore this king of herrings has rarely been seen alive, with only around fifty known strandings over the past two and a half centuries. Incidentally, this category excludes the cartilaginous basking shark, at 20 tons the second largest fish in the world and commonly to be found around the British coastline. Lucky for us, it's a filter feeder!

For a nation where it is impossible to live much more than 100 km from the sea, we appear astoundingly ignorant of our marine neighbourhood. In an early example of what has now become a cliché, pioneer environmentalist Rachel Carson pointed out in The Sea Around Us (1951), that the oceans remain the last great frontier on Earth. We are only now realising just how little we know about the role marine organisms play in everything from climate stability to food chains. Speaking of marine cuisine, a thoughtful example of changing attitudes can be found in Arthur C. Clarke's 1957 novel The Deep Range, which concerns the herding of whales for food, at least until a Buddhist leader campaigns for the slaughter to stop. Interestingly, it was the recordings of humpback whale song in the 1960s that started the anti-whaling movement, gaining popularity through the 1970s (including a UK top-forty single Don't Kill the Whale in 1978), leading to an eventual, if not outright, ban in 1986. Not that, if given half a chance, several nations wouldn't like to see 'scientific whaling' increased to the level of commercial operations...

If whaling shows the traditional viewpoint of the oceans as a limitless larder, another popular notion but somewhat at odds is to treat the sea as an ever-obliging rubbish tip. Despite the likes of Jacques Cousteau starting campaigns as early as 1960 to halt the dumping of nuclear waste from ships, it is generally recognised that the Irish Sea is one of the most radioactive in the world thanks to land-based pipelines. The rest of our coastal waters aren't much better off, being subject to pollution from oil, bilge water, sewage and nitrogen fertiliser run-off, all of which do little for the health of marine organisms. As an extreme example, in 1988 half of Britain's seal colonies were lost due to immune deficiency linked to pollution, with smaller-scale outbreaks reoccurring since.

Going back to the perception of the sea as a food store par excellence, the E.U. announced last year that over 80% of fish stocks in the region were over-fished, the classic example of the fishfinger's friend, North Atlantic cod, having reduced by over 98% in three decades. Whilst many people may not worry whether their children eat pollock/pollack or coley instead, a rapid decline in a few species could have unforeseen consequences, as with the proliferation of a rapidly expanding Humboldt squid population which is currently supplanting the dwindling number of sharks as top predator off Mexico's west coast.

But at least as important as well-known species are the minute marine organisms that will continue to require a high level of research for decades to come. Microscopic phytoplankton are responsible for at least half of all photosynthetic activity, thereby regulating atmospheric oxygen content, in addition to being the base of many food chains. Evidence is even beginning to favour the CLAW hypothesis (the 'L' being co-author James Lovelock), in which one group of phytoplankton is viewed as an essential component of the cloud condensation cycle. So what happens 'down there' may have an enormous influence of what goes on over our heads. The Gaia hypothesis (in the strictest feedback loop sense) could be alive and well, after all...

Whilst we are currently lacking the kind of public fervour seen in the 1970s anti-whaling campaigns, marine biology in the UK appears to be flourishing. There are about sixty higher education courses to chose from with an apparently good success rate in obtaining relating jobs. The subject is often taught as one of several components, including conservation and oceanography; what interests me is this way it so readily interacts with other disciplines, ranging from chemistry to meteorology, and thereby uses a wide gamut of scientific tools, from observation satellites to remotely-operated vehicles or ROVs. On that basis alone it is currently one of the most exciting areas of science in Britain, as well as being increasingly relevant to our quality of life. One scheme involving British scientists in recent years was some of the earliest research into pouring iron sulphate powder into the oceans, in an effort to stimulate plankton production (and thereby other marine life), reduce carbon dioxide, and decrease atmospheric temperature. The recent licences issued for nine new offshore wind farms around the UK will presumably provide research for marine biologists too, as current studies indicate the short-term disruption is more than compensated for by the turbines doubling as artificial reefs.

An example outside the scope of the promising Marine and Coastal Access Act 2009 but now under active consultation, is the controversial campaign to turn the Chagos archipelago in the British Indian Ocean Territory into the world's largest marine reserve. Although protection status would obviously be a positive move, the primary downside would be the permanent dispossession of the local inhabitants: such is the complexity facing sustainable development projects. Closer to home, we can't all be involved in marine conservation, but it's very easy for anyone to help preserve biodiversity - simply find an alternative to cod to go with your chips!

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