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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