Saturday, October 22, 2005

On a wing and a scare

Bird flu is once again the topic of the week, so much so that even The Economist felt it necessary to weigh in with a big overview. I put together a long piece in the science section, with contributions from quite a few staff and foreign correspondents. Apart from the broad science overview, it also contains interesting material on pandemic economics and how businesses are preparing. The package made the cover in Asia (see picture right).

In a flap
Oct 20th 2005
From The Economist print edition
Alarm over bird flu has focused attention on preparing for a human version

HOWEVER much fear there is over bird flu spreading in Asia and Europe, at present the disease tends to make birds sick and not humans. This may change, and some countries are preparing for a pandemic of human influenza. This is wise, given the huge costs of having a significant fraction of the workforce off sick or nursing relatives. But the best way of preventing a human pandemic might be to monitor and limit the spread of bird flu...

I also worked on story coverage in our daily website, Global Agenda.

The spreading bird-flu menace reaches Europe

Oct 20th 2005
From The Economist Global Agenda
European countries are taking emergency measures to contain the spread of a deadly strain of bird flu—which has already led to the deaths of millions of birds and over 60 people in Asia—after its arrival in Russia, Romania, Turkey and possibly Greece. The disease is a serious threat to the world’s sizeable poultry industry but its spread round the globe also increases the chances of it mutating into a form that causes a human pandemic

Finally, we had an opinion piece in the leader section. This was mostly the work of more senior staff.

On a wing and a scare (subscription only)
Oct 20th 2005
Preparing for an influenza pandemic makes sense. Panic doesn't

Thursday, October 20, 2005

Earthquake scientist back in the Andaman Islands

Officialdom moves far more slowly than the media. That is unfortunate because after hanging around in New Dehli for three days Dr Roger Bilham, geophyiscist, decided last Saturday to head back to the Andaman Islands where his services were wanted.

Sadly, thanks to the publicity surrounding the case, Dr Bilham could probably have had a visa many times over for his post-earthquake studies in northern Pakistan. What is most interesting about the case is that it illustrates that science is widely viewed as something abstract and irrelevant to everyday life. What possible use could a geophysicist be? And its not just stressed out Pakistani visa officials in New Dehli that think that the aftermath of a disaster is "not a time for intellectual pursuits".

Is this just fear that scientists might get in the way in the face of a disaster? Or is science failing to convince the world that it has something to offer at times like these, that there might be something important we could learn? Because the time immediately after an earthquake, is also the time preceeding the next. Especially in this part of the world. A lost opportunity, sadly.

Anyway, while I was trying to whip up publicity for this I recorded a commentary on NPR. By the time it was broadcast, Dr Andaman was backin Port Blair. Listen.

Thursday, October 13, 2005

Pakistan refuses a visa to earthquake scientist

One of the world’s leading experts on Himalayan earthquakes has been refused a visa for entry into Pakistan. Dr Roger Bilham, of the University of Colorado in the US, had been working in the Andaman islands when the powerful magnitude 7.6 quake struck near Muzaffarabad, the capital of Pakistani-administered Kashmir.

When he heard the news, Dr Bilham set out on the 1,500 mile journey to Pakistan in the hope of gathering valuable geophysical data in the aftermath of the quake. However visa officials in New Delhi told him that scientists would not be allowed in the country because this was not a time for “intellectual activities”.

This is despite the fact that Pakistani Interior Ministry announced earlier this week that the country would be visa-free for at least a week in order to facilitate foreign entry for “all flying into Pakistan…. to join hands with us in our moment of distress”.

For years, Dr Bilham and colleagues at the University of Colorado in the United States have warned that the Himalayan region is long overdue a large quake. Unfortunately it appears that the Kashmir quake released only a tenth of the energy that is stored—so more earthquakes are expected in the region. Dr Bilham’s work in the journal Science in 2001, suggested that at least two magnitude 8 quakes threaten the Himalayas and its rapidly growing population.

Dr Bilham is currently collaborating with scientists in Pakistan, at the University of Peshawar’s Centre for Geological Excellence. He had been hoping to join them in order to find out what the recent quake might mean for future quakes, both here and in the Himalayas more broadly.

Speaking from New Delhi, Dr Bilham said that in the coming days cracks in the ground would be lost in the rains, and the location and amount of afterslip would tell him a great deal about the properties of the earthquake rupture zone.

In addition, he was worried that over the next few weeks some of these natural features might be bulldozed out of existence. While some of the most important parts of the surface displacement can be measured after a delay of a few weeks—large afterslips may lead to a misinterpretation of these effects.

Reacting to the decision, Dr Bilham said, “Though understandable in the present crisis, this will impair our potential knowledge of future earthquakes in the Himalaya. Specifically it will eliminate possibilities for determining immediate afterslip, and may result in the loss of subtle surface features that occurred during this rare Himalayan earthquake.” In other words, time is of the essence.

Although Dr Bilham was told that other scientists would not be allowed in, structural engineers from around the world also want to visit the region as soon as possible to find out more about how buildings in Kashmir failed in the quake. This evidence will need to be gathered before construction teams move in.

Currently a team of engineers from the UK Earthquake Engineering Field Investigation Team, is pulling together a group that hopes to visit Kashmir to find out how buildings performed and collect geological and seismographic data. The EEFIT team usually tries to visit earthquakes within 10 days of an earthquake.

While there is no suggestion that this is anything more than a random decision made by overwhelmed local officials, Dr Bilham has had a long and troubled history of access to this region that has hampered his work on Himalayan seismology.

This is particularly troubling given that the Himalayas contains a network of underground faults that are unmapped and poorly monitored by seismic instruments. There is also a rapidly expanding population in this earthquake-prone region.

Five years before the earthquake in Bhuj, in India’s Gujarat state, he was refused permission to travel to the border region by the Indian authorities. “I couldn’t get there,” he says. Two years before the Andaman Island quake, when he was working on another scientific article, he was refused permission to travel there.

“Kashmir is yet another region where you can’t do any research, India and Pakistan are very reluctant to let anyone close to that part of the world,” he added. Nepal too, has proven problematic until recently. Only Bhutan has proven helpful. The King, says Dr Bilham, has taken a personal interest in allowing his research.

Unfortunately, while geophysics may know no boundaries, politicians do and this has presented difficulties for outside scientists wanting to better understand Himalayan seismology. India, Bangladesh and Pakistan comprise almost precisely what geologists call a tectonic plate. The Indian plate is moving northwards at about 5cm a year, a force that also generates the Himalayas. The movement of the Indian plate also caused the
Sumatra-Andaman earthquake earlier this year.

If Dr Bilham cannot get a visa in the next day he will return to the Andaman Islands where he is helping to build the first ever “tilt meter” in India.

“It’s a 300m long water pipe that will tell us whether the Andamans are continuing to tilt and flood the eastern coast,” he said. This will help in deciding how best to reconstruct the harbour of Port Blair.

Similarly, Pakistan is likely to need help in finding the safest places to rebuild in Kashmir. For that, the world’s leading geophysicist might come in handy.

Update-17th October
Roger Bilham left Delhi over the weekend for Port Blair in the Andaman Islands. It is possible he will attempt to return to Pakistan in a few weeks.

Further links:
1. Preparing for the unknowable, Oct 13th 2005, The Economist,
Why the Kashmir earthquake happened and what might be done
2. Seismologist keen to get into Pakistan faces delays, Nature.
3. US Geological Survey--Earthquake information about Pakistan.
4. Amateur Seismic Centre--Pakistan Earthquake and guide to great earthquakes in Asia. And further information about seismicity of Pakistan.
5. Dr Bilham's website with links to further information on the Kashmir quake

Sunday, October 09, 2005

Pakistan earthquake--big one still to come

On 8th October at 3.50am UTC, a magnitude 7.6 earthquake hit northern Pakistan. Over the following day, a series of large aftershocks were recorded by the US Geological Survey. The quake epicentre is just between India and, in Kashmir. This is in the Pir Panjal Mountains near the border town of Muzaffarabad. It is 70-odd miles north of Islamabad.

In the early phase of any disaster like this, the predicted numbers of casualties can fluctuate wildly. But it has been clear since yesterday midday that this would be serious. There were reports that whole villages had been wiped out, and that large buildings had collapsed in cities. We also know that the Gujarat earthquake in India in 2001 (which was only slightly smaller in magnitude) killed 14,000 people in the final reckoning.

Scientists have said for years that earthquakes were overdue in this region. Sadly, they can't say exactly where and when they will hit. India is moving into Asia at a steady rate (about 1mm a week), and as this accumulated energy builds up it has to be released. Thus earthquakes happen at a fairly steady rate, causing earthquakes across the subcontinent... see map. And in an interview after the quake, Dr Roger Bilham of the University of Colorado warned that the quake has not been strong enough for the pent up stress to be relieved. The big one, then, is still to come. In fact, given the rapid urbanisation in India, and poor housing, geologists have been warning that the magnitude 8 earthquake expected in the next decade is likely to kill 1m people (see reference to Roger Bilham).

What everyone will start remembering soon is that earthquakes don't kill people--buildings do. In Bhuj, Gujarat, there were building codes but these were ignored. The same is likely to be true on both sides of the border this time round, despite efforts made by the Indian government made in the wake of the last disaster. Of course, both of these are poor countries, but it is going to be hard for state authorities to justify not enforcing building regulations in schools and government buildings.

More information
1. US Geological Survey--Earthquake information about Pakistan.
2. Amateur Seismic Centre--Pakistan Earthquake and guide to great earthquakes in Asia. And further information about seismicity of Pakistan.
3. Historical Himalayan Earthquakes--from the website of geologist Roger Bilham.
4. Roger Bilham, University of Colorado--a personal website by this university academic with much regional information about earthquakes as well as links to articles about the risk of global urban earthquakes, and an article about historic and future earthquakes in India.
5. For up-to-date reports on casualities visit India's disaster management ministry.

Friday, October 07, 2005

The 1918 flu virus is reborn

Scientists in Atlanta have recreated the 1918 flu virus that wiped out an estimated 50m people. The researchers say that they need to find out what made it so dangerous, in order to prepare for the next influenza pandemic.

They have come to one interesting conclusion already, that the 1918 virus was an avian flu virus that jumped into humans--rather than a human virus that acquired a few genes from an avian flu. Obviously this is not good news given the outbreak of bird flu in Asia, but the researchers say that the bird flu virus has not picked up enough of the mutations it would need to jump into humans--yet.

Unhappy rebirthday, Oct 6th 2005, Scientists have recreated the 1918 flu virus in order to reveal its secrets. The Economist.

And listen:
On the 4th October 2005, scientists and government representatives briefed the world’s media about the recreation of the 1918 flu virus. They revealed that since August of this year, the virus has been contained at the Centres for Disease Control in Atlanta, where researchers have been trying to understand what made the virus so dangerous. Listen to the briefing.

Further reading
Influenza is very much the topic of the day. To keep up with this story, there are a number of blogs keeping a close eye on bird flu epidemic in Asia, and the policy machinations with regards to flu preparedness.

Bird Flu Today--news blog. Excellent source of news from around the world on this topic.

Effect Measure--a blog about science and policy in public health, focused on bird flu and the threat of pandemic influenza. At the moment there is discussion of the President's leaked flu action plan.

Avian Flu, what we need to know--a news blog.

Bird flu Updates--a news and opinion blog.

Also this week in the Economist:
Racing rockets, Oct 6th 2005. (subscription required)
Green seafood arrives, Oct 6th 2005. (subscription required). Two British fisheries are told they are eco-friendly.

Thursday, September 08, 2005

Lessons from Chernobyl

This week saw some good news. According to a group of experts, we should not expect a large number of deaths due to the accident at Chernobyl nuclear power plant in 1986. Four thousand people is certainly a lot. But some had feared that tens of thousands might die. This number of deaths from radiation induced cancer is in fact only 3% of the 25% who will die from cancer anyway. And in many cases it will not be possible to see elevated rates of cancers in the statistics. The exception to this will be in the most highly irradiated 100,000 people, such as emergency workers. Here it is possible to detect a rise in the rates of leukemia, a cancer of the blood and the most common form of radiation induced cancer.

So many people in the region, though, have lived the past 20 years believing their lives will be curtailed by the contamination they received. In fact, most people received a relatively small dose, well within the normal range that humans receive. Yet their lives have been blighted because of the fear of something that cannot be seen or touched or tasted was far worse than reality. Chernobyl remains such an icon in history. But Bhopal was by far the worst industrial accident.

Incidentally, in the forthcoming Economist piece there is a chart showing a rise in birth defects in Belarus. In both contaminated and uncontaminated regions the rise is the same. Radiation has not made it less safe to have children. So what is causing the rise? Better reporting, say the scientists.

Humans vs animals
Meanwhile in the 10km immediately surrounding the reactor, where agriculure, industry and houses are forbidden, the largest wildlife are doing very well indeed. The area has become a wildlife sanctuary for moose, roe deer, Russian wild boar, foxes, river otters, rabbits as well as the endangered black stork. (See the report here) . As it notes, the effects of humans on wildlife are worse than the worst nuclear power plant accident in history.

Chernobyl wiki
International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA)

Motorcylist Elana Filatova has explored the towns and villages around the Chernobyl reactor by bike. Her photostories from the region can be found at Kid of Speed.

Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Fly me to the moon

For wannabie space cadets who have been so far greatly let down by NASA's failure to sent them into orbit, the private sector is coming to save them from abject misery. In early August, an American company called Space Adventures said they would be able to organise a private trip to the Moon for two people. The catch is that they'll need $200m to do it. Oh, and you don't get to land but you can take pictures out of the window.

It sounds like a vast amount of money but $200m it isn't possible to launch a single shuttle. Space Adventures has figured out what has eluded the US Federal government for more than four decades: that space needn't be so goddam expensive. Trouble is, $100m a ticket is still a lot of cash for one person.

Holidays around the moon, August 11th 2005
Got $100m? Then an American firm can fly you to the moon

Friday, August 05, 2005

How to catch the flu

Worries continue over the spread of bird flu around the world. Two newly published research studies suggest that if an outbreak of human influenza were to occur, that it could be eliminated completely if the area was targeted with antiviral drugs. The article and editorial argued that a global stockpile of drugs was a very worthwhile idea. Even if the attempt to eliminate the outbreak were to fail, any serious attempt at it could well delay the wider spread of such an outbreak and buy governments a little time to ramp up the production of vaccines and to put flu preparedness plans into operation. Sadly, very few governments actually have these in place.

Article: Containing a pandemic, Aug 4th 2005

Editorial: Catching the flu, Aug 4th 2005
(This article requires an Economist subscription)

The trials and tribulations of the shuttle

I’m never normally short of a word or two to say on the subject of the shuttle. Before the recent launch of Discovery, I reminded Economist readers why the shuttle was an ancient and unreliable vehicle that had to go. It seemed timely to explain that the only thing really keeping the shuttle programme going is the desire to complete as much as possible of the space station—which is literally a pointless waste of space.

Winging it, Jul 14th 2005
The shuttle is soon to return America to human space flight. But it must be grounded

In August, as Discovery was finally launched to the sound of debris popping off the shuttle’s external tank. There was intense media interest in the story—far too much in my opinion. The normally brilliant New York Times leading the pack with an exhausting, and exhaustive, blow-by-blow account of the mission in which no factoid was too trivial to be unearthed and speculated on at great length.

But every outlet was to blame. To “oohs” and “aahs” from a gasping audience of millions we were regaled with the minutiae of a shuttle trip thrown into stark relief because we were all given the impression of imminent danger. It was news as theatre at its very best. What is wrong with this was that after the launch it was clear that it was the safest in years as the debris shedding that caused the crash of Columbia had been greatly reduced. The other big change was that the shuttle was bristling with monitors and was photographed and filmed intensely througout its flight. We all were given plenty of graphic images to fret about.

So it pains me greatly to admit that I too joined the throng of those contributing to the excess of column drama inches with an excessively long piece about the details of Discovery’s flight. It was written under protest. I may have thought that there was nothing of interest to write about the shuttle that week, but I was firmly reminded that this was news.

But the only reason it was news was because we wrote about it all so much. Sigh.

Onwards and downwards, Aug 4th 2005
A near miss for the shuttle and red faces at NASA

Friday, July 22, 2005

Bird flu kills in Indonesia

As avian influenza continues its seemingly relentless spread around the world the number of human cases, and fatalities, from the flu increases. This story covered the first deaths in Indonesia and growing fears of human-to-human spread.

There is some debate about human-to-human transmission, especially on the blogs that are covering this story most intently. Some would argue that this has happened and there is already ample evidence of this. They cite clusters of cases in families where the second case must have been caught from another family member and not from a common source (say contact with infected birds). Virologists say that even if the case has spread from human-to-human this does not necessarily mean that the virus has mutated into one that is easily transmitted. It may be, they say, that the first infected family member exudes so much infective material that it is picked up by other members of the family.

This article, on June 21st 2005 in The Economist is a short update of the situation in Indonesia.

Further reading on avian influenza:
World Health Organisation Avian flu FAQ
Wikipedia – avian influenza

Blogs about influenza
Effect Measure
Avian flu, What we need to know.
Bird flu today
Recombinomics, What's new.

Monday, July 18, 2005

Podcasting from the frontiers of science, technology and current affairs

In the course of writing and reporting about science and technology, I come across a lot of interesting people and new ideas. Particularly in my travels I'm privileged to hear some of the world’s leading thinkers and scientists talk about what they do, and what the future holds. In the past, all the recordings I’ve made have been for personal use only, to back up my note taking. But technology moves fast and podcasting offers a way of sharing audio files more widely.

In the coming months and years I, along with a close friend, will put out some of the best or most useful recordings as podcasts. The FrontierSounds project is only just starting but the first two podcasts can be downloaded directly from the links below.

Burt Rutan takes off
The designer of the first private spacecraft, SpaceShipOne, talks about the future of spaceflight. This was recorded at the 2005 meeting of the National Space Society in Washington D.C. Date: May 19 2005. Download this mp3

Autism-what the future holds
Where might research into autism take us in the future? Listen to a media briefing on the subject with six of the UK«s leading autism researchers. Recorded in London at the Science Media Centre. Speakers include: Professor Simon Baron-Cohen from the Autism Research Centre at the University of Cambridge & Dr Tony Charman at the Institute of Child Health. Date: June 28 2005. Download this mp3

Friday, June 24, 2005

How to escape from a towering inferno

This is a silly story from the Paris Air Show. It describes a Russian-designed system for jumping safely out of tall buildings and although it is a really neat idea, one would be forgiven for thinking that it will probably never see the light of day. Still, never wanting to stifle invention, we did think our readers would be interested to hear more.

Burning ambitions, Jun 23rd 2005 | PARIS

Tuesday, June 14, 2005

Destination Moon and other stories

A busy month, with a trip to the remarkable Paris Airshow. Throw together tens of thousands of people on a sprawling site with bad maps and you have a recipe for chaos and confusion. It's still fun.
Most of the business gets done in what are known as "chalets". These are actually nothing like chalets but are a highly evolved form of portakabin with shiny plate glass doors and highly designed interiors and exteriors, patios, garden furniture, personal chefs. They all have receptions equipped with pretty ladies with shiny hair. One even had its own waterfall.
It is as if there is some kind of one-upmanship going on at the airshow. I can almost imagine the executives enviously eyeing the waterfall and making a note that they should get a bigger one next year.

Articles from the Paris arishow are forthcoming. Recent offerings in The Economist include...

Genes improve a woman's sex life
Top tip for a better sex life: better genes
Jun 9th 2005

NASA's lunar vision
Why is America returning to the moon, and what does the new “vision” for NASA mean for science?
May 26th 2005

Designs for a moonship (subscription required)
NASA's plans for lunar travel are already being pieced together
May 26th 2005

Sunday, May 22, 2005


Space conventions are the sort of place where you meet men with too many pins in their lapels and wide eyes. On my first evening in DC, last Thursday, I met a man in the lobby who was convinced that there are trees on Mars... or at least some sort of foliage. "It's in the pictures!" he explained, his eyes widening. He also seemed to think that there was some kind of alien base on the far side of the Moon. You have been warned.

Monday, May 02, 2005


The Lancet, a prestigious medical journal, editorialised on malaria a week an a half ago. It said that rising rates of malaria may be the fault of an international group trying to halt the spread of the disease called Roll Back Malaria. I thought this was a fascinating story (the journal obviously did too as it put out a press release on it) but as I looked into it, I couldn't find any support for the ideas in it.

The result of my investigation led me to some conclusions. For one thing it is not clear that the global burden of malaria is actually increasing. Any global rise could be down to better monitoring of cases.
In southern Africa, there is a problem. Resistant forms of the parasite have been emerging and causing havoc. The Lancet believes that more information should have been given to these countries earlier on about how the nature of the disease was changing. The trouble is, had the information been given it does not mean that the treatment or the money to pay for the treatment would have been available. It has only been very recently that problems of the supply of artemesin (a drug that treats these resistant forms of the disease) have been overcome. And bottlenecks in supply of this product (derived from natural sources) are still an issue.
I find it hard to agree with the conclusion that the group Roll Back Malaria "does more harm than good" but that is what the Lancet says in its press release so it must be true.

The editorial is found here. My piece in The Economist is here but requires a subscription.

Payment where it is due

In March I took a ten-day trip to Panama. While I was there, I was struck by a number of interesting connections. The Panama canal is crucial to the economy of Panama, and is absolutely vital for the swift transit of goods around the world. Yet because the canal is operated by a series of freshwater locks, the whole system depends on a continuing supply of water from the environment. It turns out that this fact has not escaped the scientists who work in Panama, nor the money men and various plans are already underway to try and reforest the canal watershed in order to maintain a regular supply of water. In researching the piece, it became clear that this is very much part of an emerging approach to the environment that involves payments for environmental services--and that science is the key to defining and quantifying these for economists. The result was a three-page article in The Economist that was tied to a cover and leader (op-ed) about rescuing environmentalism. The full article can be read free online from the link below.

Environmental economics
Are you being served?

Apr 21st 2005 | PANAMA CITY

Environmental entries are starting to appear on the balance sheet. Perhaps soon, the best things in life will not be free

AT THE Miraflores lock on the Panama Canal it is possible to watch the heartbeat of international trade in action. One by one, giant ships piled high with multi-coloured containers creep through the lock's narrow confines and are disgorged neatly on the other side. If it were not for the canal, these ships would have to make a two-to-three-week detour around South America. That would have a significant effect on the price of goods around much of the world. It is therefore sobering to consider that each ship requires 200m litres of fresh water to operate the locks of the canal and that, over the years, this water has been drying up. (Continues...)

Friday, April 15, 2005

Out for a duck

This week sees the publication of a two-page piece about Avian influenza, aka “bird flu”, which was co-authored by my colleague in Bangkok. Essentially the piece points out that bird flu is now endemic in Asia with little chance of being eliminated from the domestic flocks in the next few years. It goes on to explain that this means there is a reservoir of this virus from which something nasty, and more easily transmissible between humans, could emerge.

In some rich countries governments are hoping to provide a first line of defence against any consequent outbreak of human influenza with the antiviral drug Tamiflu. They are then hoping that work underway now on a vaccine will enable them to gear up production rapidly if, and when, a human influenza pandemic emerges from the avian influenza. But even at current rates of antiviral production, all the countries that want Tamiflu will not see their orders filled for a couple of years. I get the strong impression from the World Health Organisation that it feels like it is having to chivvy governments and companies along in order to get this basic vaccine development done. And I wonder if I detect some degree of frustration at the lack of progress?

In the event of a human influenza pandemic, how poor countries will tackle the problem, when they have no facilities for making vaccines even if the recipe is known, is entirely unclear. Should a pandemic emerge, countries with the facilities to produce vaccines would service the needs of their own population first.These are the rich nations.

Of course everyone wants to make sure that their own country is served first, but I wonder whether global stockpiling of vaccines and anti-retrovirals might be an idea as well, so that these could be focused on areas where epidemics break out—in the hope of preventing a pandemic (a global outbreak). SARS was prevented from spreading worldwide by stamping it out in a very careful matter. On the other hand, of course human influenza is a different matter, and much more easily transmitted.

Given that this is not a predictable event, it is really tough to come up with answers. As the Asian tsunami showed the solutions seem so obvious after the event.

The spread of bird flu in Asia
Bird flu is now endemic in Asia. This is frightening for everyone
Apr 14th 2005

Finally, a short little item from the week previously about a bioprospecting operation out in Panama. This one requires a subscription.

Finding medicines in odd places
Searching for drugs in a tropical country
Apr 7th 2005

Saturday, April 02, 2005

One-third of paradise and other stories

It has been a busy time in the last month or so. Two big pieces published in that time that are outside of the Economist subscription wall. The best, I think, is one reporting on a meeting in Washington where there was a discussion about how much of the fabled Iraqi marshlands could be restored. The scientists reckon this is about 30%, the article, though, raises some issues about the actual practicality of achieving this.

One-third of paradise
Feb 24th 2005 | WASHINGTON, DC
Can southern Iraq's marshes be restored?

The second story is a little bit more arcane but a fascinating one if you are at all interested in the saga of America's space programme. It highlights an odd bit of American non-proliferation legislation that will prevent the US buying Russian Soyuz rockets, the article argues that it could have profound implications for the future of the space programme.

No plan B for outer space
Mar 10th 2005 America's plans for humans to explore space may cause it to relax its laws on weapons proliferation

Another space story, this one behind the subscription wall. A young researcher in the US has been analysing pictures from the Hubble telescope and argues in her PhD thesis that the images owe rather more to artistic license than those behind the pictures let on. The piece goes on to say that it is the popularity of images from Hubble that have given the instrument such widescale support, and why there is such a fight on to preserve it. Many of the images go through a lot of processing in order for them to look like the amazing polished pictures we see, and some artefacts (i.e. things that are not there) are left in the picture for effect. This may not matter, but it isn't science. What I didn't get the space to mention in the piece, but is well known, is that the Hubble Archive Project-the team that creates these pictures-actually has a tiny amount of dedicated telescope time in order to take the pictures. This has been slightly controversial because a telescope that was designed and built for science is being used to take pretty pictures. This tiny diversion of resources is finally paying off as even the politicians join the fight to save Hubble.

Heavenly light
Feb 24th 2005 | WASHINGTON, DC People are too attached to Hubble's pictures to let the space telescope go

This is a little round up of the Millennium Ecosystem Report, an accurate but slightly depressing global view of the state of the planet's ecosystem services. A forest, a grassland, a wetland, a pond are all examples of ecosystems. A byproduct of the species that live in them are a number of services, such as water filtration and pollination of crops. Basically a lot of stuff we get from nature for free. The good news is that it is becoming increasingly clear that these services are something that we depend on and that there is quite a lot we can do to improve their status. Subscribers only.

Habitats for humanity
Mar 31st 2005 A new report suggests that humanity is stretching its natural assets

Finally, a little piece that tries to clear up confusion about whether or not life on Mars has been discovered. The short answer is that it hasn't, although several reports have suggested an announcement is imminent. Subscribers only.

Life on Mars!!! (Not)
Mar 3rd 2005 Martians, or the lack of them, sow discord on Earth

Thursday, February 03, 2005

Mysterious titan and other stories

A little article on Titan that discusses the mysterious white moving blob. Nobody knows what it is but in a sequence of images from the lander, there is a pale object that appears to move across the camera's field of vision. Is it real, or just a statistical anomaly to do with the way the sequence of pictures were stitched together? Possibly. But we are not talking aliens. The latest speculation is that it is a snowflake.

Space exploration: Moon river? Jan 20th 2005 (subscription required)

And this article upset quite a few people. Some people are convinced it is supporting Summers for making his remarks, and others that I am attacking him. For the record, while I think the idea of whether women think differently from men is an interesting subject, and might even be worth considering in the context of why so few women are making it in science, what I thought of him raising the issue and the manner in which he did it is summed up in the title that I gave to the piece.

Sex and academia: Birdbrained Jan 20th 2005 (subscription required)

Tuesday, January 11, 2005

Watching paint dry

Describing something dull as being as interesting as watching paint dry might be surprisingly innacurate at the small scale. If it were possible to take a video of polymers in the paint coming together and forming stable structures, and water molecules lifting off the surface, it would be fascinating to watch. Something like watching ice crystals growing on a window in slow motion or a flower blooming on a time-lapse camera. Previously, it has not been possible to watch and record atoms and molecules do their stuff in real time. Now, though, it is. A new machine from a company called Infinitesima allows this, and one of the first markets they expect for it is for companies studying the properties of drying paint. Subscribers to the Economist can read more: Not as boring as you thought, Jan 6th 2005.

Thursday, January 06, 2005

Small wonders....

On December 30th at 8.30pm (repeated on January 1st), my radio documentary Grey Goo's Sticky Mess was broadcast. At the time of writing this programme is still available online here.... A programme transcript is also promised at some time in the New Year. If you are unable to get hold of either of these, please email me at

On January 1st, my survey of nanotechnolog--called Small Wonders--was also published in The Economist. There is also a radio interview with me as an online link. I have a limited number of spare copies of this survey, so if you'd like to read it please email me your details at the address above.

Finally, two recent articles published, one in November about sorting sperm with optical tweezers.

Also coming up this week is another bit of nanowizardry in the form of a machine that can make videos of atoms and molecules, making it finally possible to watch paint dry in thrilling detail.

Virgin Galactic is ready for take off

In the Christmas edition of The Economist, check out an article about the incipient private space tourism industry. "One small step for space tourism..." is in the edition dated December 16th 2004. A little bit of overmatter on this article is that one of the plans for tourists paying for $200,000 flights is to actually mould each reclining seat to the individual passenger. (The seats will have to be recliners to reduce the effects of the G-forces of the spaceship.) Passengers will be given this seat as a souvenir to take home with them.