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THE END IS NIGH 5 ways the world could end



I,SCIENCE Editors-in-chief Andrew Purcell Dan Wan


Sub-Editors James Goldsack Anna Perman Jan Piotrowski Kadhim Shubber Katya-yani Vyas

Features Thea Cuningham Pippa Goldenberg James Goldsack Ben Good Kate Hazlehurst Ali Rezaei Haddad Thomas Lewton Nathan Ley Maciej Matuszewski Chloe McIvor Jovan Nedic Anna Perman Jan Piotrowski James Pope Rebecca Pullen Elly Reynolds Katie Tomlinson Rosie Waldron George Wigmore

Production Holly Farrer Veronika McQuade Design Dan Wan News Team Alexandra Jenkin Chloe McIvor Nathaniel Wren Reviews Elizabeth Crouch Anna Perman David Robertson Camilla Ruz Rosie Waldron Photography Tom Welch Jan Piotrowski James Pope Andrew Purcell David Robertson Roberto Tenace

Web Editors Charles Harvey Pippa Goldenberg Online Media Content Andrew Bailey Katie Draper Ed Prosser James Pope Advertising manager joshua doyle with thanks to Dr steve cook

I, Science is produced and published in association with Felix, the student newspaper of Imperial College.


t is a torrid time for science. The winds of change batter the ivory tower and its once great turrets are showing signs of imminent collapse. This autumn, UK science has fought a battle for its future survival and scientists have taken to the streets of London to defend governmental investment in science. There are those who would argue that, in having successfully avoided some of the more draconian levels of cuts threatened, science actually won this battle. But is the widely-held perception of the settlement, as a victory for science, indicative of the poor state of affairs we currently have here in the UK? And, even if science did win this battle, has it nonetheless lost the war? In order to convince the coalition Government that the science budget should be protected, scientists have had to make a strong case for protecting their funding, based exclusively upon the economic benefits scientific research brings to the UK. In doing this, politicians and scientists alike seem to have somehow universally accepted that science is a utilitarian tool, whose raison d'être is the generation of revenue for the national economy. But what about science for science’s sake? Should scientific discovery really become a commodity with a value determined by liberal free market capitalism? This economic model may be all very well when it comes to producing the next iPhone or high definition television, but it does not incentivise theoretical far-reaching research into

life’s big questions. To this end, the I, SCIENCE team would like to remind all of you why science is of paramount importance on its own terms, not just for the betterment of individuals, but also for the advancement of our society as a whole. What better way to do this than to look at the ways in which science can be used to maximise the longevity of the human race? For our theme this issue, we have chosen to take a look at the five greatest threats to humanity’s survival. Of course, there are those who would suggest that science is more sinner than sinned against in this department, particularly with regards to threats such as climate change and nuclear warfare. However, science is also our greatest tool for coming up with ways to tackle all of these problems. Through our scientific development we may, one day, cast off the shackles of our precarious existence, subject to the whims of geological, biological and extra-terrestrial fortitude. Our lives may not be in the lap of the gods, but our survival certainly does, at least at present, depend upon a large slice of luck in avoiding many of the catastrophes presented to you in this issue. So, sit back, relax and enjoy reading about the myriad of ways in which our parlous existence on this planet could be snuffed out in an instant. And, on that cheerful note… …Merry Christmas from all of the I, SCIENCE team.

Andrew & Dan


how will the world end?

PAGE 8 18 point of no return

2010 was the International Year of Biodiversity. Did you know? More importantly, did you care?

20 are we destroying ourselves? Can we deny our inherently self-destructive nature?

28 remembering mandelbrot

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Behind the photo Under the bonnet


STUDENT SCIENCE The science of a night out


SCIENCE FRICTION Carbon capture vs nuclear power

Find out how fractal geometry shapes our ever-day lives.

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IMPERIAL NEWS Highlights from the College

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The Large Hadron Collider (LHC) has succeeded in creating a ‘mini Big Bang’. The LHC is the world’s highest-energy particle accelerator, and is run by the European Centre for Nuclear Research (CERN). Until recently, the colossal experiment concentrated on colliding protons, but after switching its attention to lead ions, it has taken a major step towards recreating the conditions immediatley after the Big Bang. The experiment, called ALICE, created the highest temperatures and densities ever produced in an experiment. A researcher on ALICE, David Evans, says these temperatures are more than 100,000 times hotter than the core of the sun. The extreme heat melts protons and neutrons to form what is known as a quark-gluon plasma. It is this plasma that is thought to represent the conditions immediately after the Big Bang. The plasma will be studied as it expands and cools, in order to learn more about the forces that bind the nuclei of atoms together.

Doubt is cast over Nobel Prize for Physics

A top researcher has accused the Nobel Prize committee of failing to explaining their decision accurately. Walt de Heer, of the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta, wrote a letter to the committee outlining a series of errors made in its background document. He explained that “The Nobel Prize committee did not do its homework”, before awarding the prize to Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov, for their work on graphene. Graphene is a carbon structure with great potential for use in electronics.

Embryonic stem cells get the go ahead in US

The first official clinical trial using embryonic stem cells to treat patients with spinal injuries has begun. The controversial technique, which uses cells taken from four or five day old embryos, has sparked a long running debate over the ethics of embryonic stem cell therapy. This is the first time such cells have been used in a clinical trial. It is hoped that injecting the cells into the spinal cord will help repair the damage done by injuries ranging from gunshot wounds to falls.

Cellular Metamorphosis

Transforming skin into blood may sound like a biblical miracle, but forget turning water into wine; a study published in Nature has caused a stir by transforming skin cells to blood cells without the transition through a stem cell-like state. The last two months have been extremely exciting for stem cell research. Developments have included the first embryonic clinical trial, and research into the potential ‘muscle-boosting’ effects of injected stem cells. However, this most recent breakthrough provides a simpler, and possibly safer, alternative to stem cells. We have already heard about induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells, which are modified adult cells that then have the potential to become any cell type. However, this is the first study to directly reprogramme human cells. This was achieved by infecting adult stem cells with a virus designed to insert a gene known as OCT4. The expression of this gene synthesises a protein that helps transform the cells into iPS cells. In this study they managed to make blood progenitor cells without going through an embryonic state first. This method produces cells that don’t cause teratomas; a type of tumour associated with iPS treatment. Another benefit is that the blood cells contain adult haemoglobin rather than the foetal form that is produced with iPS. However, it is much more difficult to get these cells to multiply in a lab, which could be problematic when considering their clinical potential.

Alcohol tops heroin as most harmful drug

The first week of November saw the publication of a new study by Prof David Nutt, which ranked 20 drugs on their harm to both individuals and society. Alcohol came out worst overall due to its highly damaging effects on society through widespread use. The worst culprit at the level of the individual was heroin. It is hoped that the study will help the government spread its efforts accordingly.

Cholera crisis in Haiti worsens

US science faces cuts

US scientists have been cushioned so far from the financial crisis that has been hitting the rest of the world. Barack Obama even included an increase in science funding in his budget request for 2011. However, in light of the recent midterm election results, the prospects for science could be very different. The Republicans gained control of the House of Representatives. With their aim to reduce the $1.4 trillion deficit, science policy is likely to feel the pinch. John Boehner, a Republican who is tipped to become House Speaker, recently issued a ‘Pledge to America’. According to the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), this pledge would mean reducing research spending by 7%.

Meningitis vaccine hope WHO and UNICEF have launched a campaign which aims to vaccinate all people aged 1 to 29 with a new vaccine against Neisseria meningitidis. The vaccine, called MenAfriVac, is the product of 10 years work trying to find a low cost solution for effective use in Africa. This is a promising step towards tackling the crippling cycle of epidemics that occur irregularly every 5-12 years.


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Epidemiologists have predicted that Haiti could be facing up to half a million new cases of cholera in the coming year. The water-borne bacterium Vibrio cholerae has thrived in post-earthquake Haiti due to the lack of sanitation and clean water. There have been 1,100 reported cases since the outbreak of the epidemic in October.

So, we’re all agreed then: science is vital...

Science dominated the headlines during the UK spending review this October, with scientists proving a force to be reckoned with. In response to the ‘Science is Vital’ rally, in which over 2,000 scientists congregated outside Whitehall, the government decided to spare science funding from the cuts. Instead, investment in UK science is to be frozen at its current level. In announcing this decision, George Osborne declared: “Britain is a world leader in scientific research, and that is vital to our economic success”. Whilst this freeze has widely been met with a sense of relief from scientists, many of whom had feared cuts as steep as 25%, it is important to note that this cash freeze amounts roughly to a 10% reduction in real terms over the next four years. Also the issue of capital gains spending is yet to be decided, which currently accounts for around 20% of the UK science budget.

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Personal apocalypse


cientists at Imperial College tions, the website is used by impact research London and Purdue University groups and many government agencies includhave unveiled their new and im- ing the US Air force, NASA and the US Deproved impact effects calculator, partment of Homeland Security. ‘Impact Earth’. First revealed in A major new addition is the tool’s ability to 2004, ‘Impact Earth’ is a web-based tool, de- estimate tsunami wave height at a given dissigned to quickly calculate the environmental tance away from the impact. Dr Gareth Coland regional consequences of an asteroid or lins of Imperial College told the BBC “This comet colliding with our planet. had been a popular request, but we didn’t put Lying awake at night worrying about being it in the original calculator because there simobliterated by an asteroid hurtling towards ply wasn’t consensus back then on what the us at breakneck speed may seem like an ir- hazard was. There’s since been some good rerational fear. However, the huge success of search and we now have a better understand‘Impact Earth’ suggests that many people are ing of the issue”. concerned about the effects of a real-life ArAn object the size of a football field collides mageddon (or Deep Impact depending on with planet earth roughly every 2000 years, where your loyalties lie). Originally intended causing significant local damage. The asteroid for scientists, unexpected public interest in Apophis is currently our biggest threat, posthe first impact effects calculator (receiving 10 sibly striking the Earth in 26 years time. ‘Immillion hits in its first week) sparked an over- pact Earth’ is a valuable tool in understanding haul and improvement of the programme as the possible effects such an event would have. knowledge has advanced. The interactive and visually exciting design is Users can choose the diameter and density now aimed at a broad global audience and has of the meteor, the velocity and angle of impact, sparked even larger public interest than exthe target material and their distance from the pected. The collision of extra terrestrial objects impact. While watching your custom-made with earth is a very real threat and should be of meteor plunge towards the earth, the website’s interest to everyone. algorithms calculate the full effects of the imSo, next time you’re lying awake worrying pact including seismic activity, the size of the about the apocalypse ‘Impact Earth’ can help. crater, the likelihood of a fireball and how far Just make sure the meteor you build is small, from the impact you would need to be in order slow and lands somewhere far, far away! to survive. Based on sound scientific calculaBy Chloe McIvor & Nathan Wren


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THE END is nigh

5 ways the world COULD end

This November, a team of Imperial students and academics completed an epic 140 day expedition from Alaska to Argentina. What makes their journey so astounding is that it was done in an electric supercar. The project, from the Energy Futures Lab, aimed to promote the value of electric vehicles in mitigating climate change. The car seems to have done just that, astonishing members of every community it visited along the way.

smartphones track flu Want to know who to blame for that horrible flu you’ve caught? Researchers at Imperial College and Edinburgh University believe that by using a combination of sophisticated GPS devices in phones and disease modelling techniques, the spread of airborne diseases such as flu could be tracked. In the event of a breakout, information about prevention and treatment could be delivered directly to those who are most at risk.

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So the end is nigh, is it? You may be more accustomed to reading sentiments like this on cardboard signs held aloft by unwashed, ponchowearing nutters at Speaker’s Corner, sporting beards you could hide a hadron collider in. Such prophecies of doom may not even seem out of place scrawled in faeces across the walls of public toilets. Yet, here we are, a science magazine, albeit a student one, telling you that our days really could be numbered. In saying this we do not mean to scaremonger, nor do we mean to sensationalise. We simply think it prudent, particularly at a time when the role of science in society is coming under increasing scrutiny, to remind ourselves of some of the bigger issues we must rely on science to tackle. And many of these issues must be tackled sooner rather than later, if we are to ensure the future survival of the human race. Stephen Hawking has famously suggested that humans are unlikely to survive to the end of this new millennium, while the outgoing president of the Royal Society, Lord Rees of Ludlow, has said that we only have a fifty per cent chance of making it to the end of this century. Who are we to argue with men of such stature? Thus, in keeping with the optimistic zeitgeist, we at I, SCIENCE have selected our five most fear-inspiring apocalyptic scenarios for your perusal...

rare fossil modelled Imperial scientists have created a 3D model of an ancient soft-bodied filter feeding organism, known as Drakazoon, using a rare fossil discovered six years ago. The fossil was cut into slices, photographed and recombined using computer imaging. The model suggests that Drakazoon’s body was segmented. The discovery has reignited the debate over whether earth’s first creatures were made up of repeated units, or had more of a slug-like form.

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Going viral s a potential threat to the end of humanity pandemics seem popular candidates, in Hollywood at least. The emergence of new diseases is often accompanied by media frenzy and wide-

spread fear. In Hollywood films, the disease is often the consequence of human manipulation and conveniently has symptoms which provide a commentary on the nature of man. In reality, pandemics are almost always new or mutated diseases to which there is no global immunity. Last year, swine flu was the latest pandemic to capture our headlines. Fortunately for us, swine flu was much less lethal than seasonal flu but throughout history there have been pandemics which have had huge death tolls.

The history of pandemics We are aware of pandemics from a very early age. Primary school children learn about the bubonic plague, often under its more sinister pseudonym The Black Death. They even unwittingly make reference to it when reciting playground favourite, ‘Ring a Ring o’ Roses’. It is no wonder that this pandemic has made such an impact on our culture; the Black Death was one of the deadliest in human history. This outbreak is estimated to have killed up to 60% of the European population. The plague is thought to have been carried from Asia to Europe by fleas residing on the black rats that were familiar, but uninvited, passengers on merchant ships. There was no natural immunity to the bubonic plague in Europe resulting in the high death toll. The Black Death was at its peak in Europe in the mid 14th century, however the first instance of bubonic plague can be traced as far back as the 6th Century AD when it is estimated to have killed 40% of the population of Constantinople. International shipping was responsible for the spread of the bubonic plague and an increasing reliance on worldwide trade is thought to have caused a series of cholera pandemics in the 19th century. Cholera was, and still is, endemic in much of Asia. However, on at least seven separate occasions new strains have spread along trade routes causing worldwide pandemics.

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ince the Avian flu virus emerged in 2003, over 300 people have died from the disease, the most recent deaths being this summer in Egypt and Indonesia. Considering this, it is important to know how this avian influenza mutates. Currently the virus is transmitted from animals to humans only. But it could mutate, allowing it to transmit from human to human. This would have dire consequences. The process by which two different viruses, or strains of the same virus come together to form a new subtype is known as an antigenic shift. Antigens are the proteins which trigger your body’s immune reaction. During infection, the genomes of the different influenza strains are exposed, including the RNA which codes for antigens. If two different viruses infect a cell at once, and the genomes of both are exposed, their genes may combine, giving rise to a new strain which will have a mixture of the surface antigens of the original strains. The surface proteins of avian flu strains are hemagglutinin and neuraminidase, giving us the ‘H’ and ‘N’ of HxNy, the term for new combinations of these proteins. For instance, if a human and avian influenza virus infect an animal simultaneously, then an antigenic shift could occur, producing a new virus strain. This virus will have a hemagglutinin and/or neuraminidase from the avian virus, while at the same time containing genes from the human virus. This strain might have the ability to infect humans and spread from person to person. People will not have adequate immune protection against this strain as it has surface proteins not previously encountered by the immune system. Consequently, this leads to an influenza pandemic. A large number of virologists believe that sooner or later the H5N1 virus will undergo a mutation that produces a new variant that is as deadly as the current strain but as easily transmitted from human to human similar to most of the other flu strains. If an H5N1 pandemic does occur, experts think that somewhere between a 25% and 50% of us would get ill. In addition, around one percent and five percent of those who are infected would die. That means that should a mutation in the virus occur, the death toll could range between 16 million and 160 million.

Rosie Waldron explores the deadly risks of pandemics




20th Century Pandemics: Viruses The medical and sanitary advancements of the 19th and 20th centuries reduced the risk of bacterial pandemics. A viral pandemic is now our greatest threat, in particular a highly infectious virus that is prone to mutations and capable of trans-species infection; specifically influenza. Influenza viruses are classified into three types: A, B and C. All influenza viruses change gradually through random mutation resulting in an epidemic every few years. Influenza A viruses may also change abruptly leading to a new subtype which may have the potential to cause a pandemic. There have been three major influenza pandemics in the 20th century. The first, and worst, started in 1918; the ‘Spanish Flu’ pandemic. The disease had a very high mortality rate and spread across the world with breathtaking speed infecting a fifth of the world’s population and killing more than World War 1. Spanish Flu is unlikely to have originated in Spain, it simply received greater attention there than other European nations involved in World War 1. While the origin of Spanish Flu is unknown, the virus has been identified as H1N1, a variant of which was responsible for the 2009 swine flu pandemic.

Are we all going to die of a horrible disease? Medicine continues to make advancements at breathtaking speeds and diseases which were once feared are now all but eradicated through vaccination. However, there are aspects of modern life which can exacerbate the spread of pandemics. We exist in global times and the world is more interconnected than ever before. As was apparent with swine flu, when a pandemic emerges, its spread is now exceptionally rapid. This globalisation can go some way to protect us; immunity can now exist at the worldwide level. Zoonosis, where a disease gains the ability to infect more than its original host species, is now a great concern. Animal to human zoonosis is thought to have been responsible for the recent outbreaks of avian flu and swine flu.

Influenza is, at present, the most likely candidate for the next pandemic however there is also worry of a resurgence of bacterial pandemics as antibiotic resistance increases. The World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates that a new pandemic could result in 7.4 million deaths. If the pandemic became severe we could also expect shortage of vaccines, antivirals and antibiotics; strained and overcrowded medical facilities; and significant shortages of personnel resulting in reduced community services and economic instability. If that all sounds a little bleak, at least ‘unusual’ strains will be detected immediately by WHO global surveillance. Or you might take comfort in the government’s preparedness strategy. Reassured? I’m not sure I am, but after the false starts of SARS and swine flu a real pandemic might give the media something to look forward to.

BY Ali Rezaei Haddad

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nuclear renaissance


Atomic anhilation


Maciej Matuszewski contemplates a radioactive end


uclear power and weapons have fascinated man since they were first developed. While controlled fission has brought many advantages to humanity it has been our natural tendency to focus on its destructive possibilities. Are they, however, as big a threat as people imagine? Or have they been overhyped?


The atomic bomb is usually what first comes to most people’s minds when one mentions nuclear threats. Such weapons are indeed frightening. A one megaton warhead, a not uncommon yield, can create a mile-wide fireball. Its destructive range would extend far further, with the shockwave created by displaced air able to flatten distant buildings. The wave of intense heat given off by the fireball would also cause horrific burns. A ten megaton warhead would be able to completely destroy the majority of central New York, including most of Manhattan. This was a real fear during the Cold War, with the USSR and USA having enough bombs to obliterate all of one another’s major cities. Although the Cold War is over, the threat of nuclear destruction is still very real. Israel, a country surrounded by enemies, has been secretly developing nuclear weapons almost since its foundation, while India and Pakistan, two antagonistic neighbouring states also have nuclear capabilities. Fortunately, neither of these situations appear to be threatening enough to indicate that nuclear war is either imminent, or even likely. However, the chance of it happening still remains, especially with rogue and unpredictable states, such as North Korea and Iran, showing signs of developing their nuclear programs.

TERRORISM We also cannot count out the threat of terrorists. While they may not have the resources to build a complete nuclear bomb, many groups could very well be planning to use a ‘dirty bomb’. This would use conventional explosives to disperse highly radioactive material, such as enriched uranium or waste from nuclear power stations over a very large area. This material could cause death through radiation sickness and greatly increase the risk of cancer in


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later life for those who survived. The material required for such a device is surprisingly easy to find. While the countries of the former Soviet Union are infamous for their lax control of their nuclear materials other nations are not completely free from blame either. Law enforcement agencies are working hard to prevent dangerous material getting into the hands of the wrong people, but the International Atomic Energy Agency believes that smuggling of such materials is widespread, and up to 85% of it goes undetected.

NUCLEAR ENERGY There is also a threat closer to home, in the form of accidents involving nuclear energy. Nuclear power stations have reactors filled with fuel rods containing U-235 atoms. When the nuclei of these atoms absorb neutrons, they split in a process known as nuclear fission, releasing a lot of energy and more neutrons, which can go on to cause further fission. A coolant then takes the heat energy produced by this reaction away to a heat exchanger, where water is turned into steam, and used to drive the turbines of an electricity generator. Nuclear reactors have many in-built safety features, including control rods to absorb excess neutrons and thick concrete walls to prevent the escape of radioactive material. However, these have been known to fail; most

spectacularly in the 1986 Chernobyl incident in the Ukraine. Fuel rods overheated after the power plant’s operators turned off, or removed many key safety features for testing. This resulted in a lack of cooling, and a dangerously high rate of fission within the reactor. What coolant there was evaporated, resulting in a pressure build up that broke through the reactor’s walls. Large amounts of radioactive material were spread over the neighbouring countryside and towns, causing about 100 nearby settlements to be permanently abandoned. People are still suffering as a result of the radiation they absorbed, and it is estimated that 17,000 people overall will die due to Chernobyl. This accident, however, was due to human error. Better training could ensure that something like it never happened again. As early as 1973, the US Atomic Energy Commission estimated that, with proper safety procedures, the country could expect only one major accident every 10 million years. Engineers have recently designed new types of reactors, in which it would be impossible for the fuel to get hot enough to breach the reactor walls, further improving safety. We do certainly face nuclear threats. But they are not as big or insurmountable as often reported. We must be vigilant but at the same time there is no need to overreact. Some questions may remain over weapons, but nuclear power almost certainly doesn’t spell doom for the human race.

s of 2009, only 17.9% of energy in the UK came from nuclear energy, and in October this year, the government gave the green light to eight new reactors. Growth in the global population, industrial development, reduction in the output of oil and decommission of nuclear stock, amongst other factors, will lead to an increase in energy demand that will have to be met imminently. The only readily available energy source capable of coping with such expansion in demand is nuclear power, as renewables are both intermittent and time-consuming to install. Furthermore, the dangers of greenhouse gas emissions are becoming increasingly apparent, leading to a political consensus that fossil fuels must be replaced by low-emission energy sources. 14 million megawatts of power is consumed annually across the world, 85% of which comes from fossil fuels, which release over 24 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide annually. One country to champion renewable energy is Denmark, where 18% of its energy comes from wind power. Despite this investment, Denmark produces nearly 7 times as much carbon dioxide in energy production than France, where 77% of the electricity comes from nuclear power. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has shown that the carbon footprint of nuclear power is comparable to that of wind and solar, making “nuclear effective [greenhouse gas] mitigation option”. Nuclear power is also relatively economical. A study by the Department of Energy in the USA has shown that nuclear power is only more expensive than two technologies: geothermal, which is not an option in this country; and biomass, which is high–emission. Efficiency is definitely important in reducing the need for greater energy production, but this cannot not be the whole story. Only advanced nuclear power provides a viable option for long-term sustainable energy generation. Geological evidence shows that there is likely more than 35 million tonnes of uranium that can be economically mined. Certain designs of reactors can also be fuelled by thorium, which is four times as plentiful in the Earth’s crust as uranium. By 2013, 29 new reactors will start operation in 13 different countries. In many countries, residents are accepting the need for nuclear power. Communities in Finland and Sweden have accepted local construction of permanent nuclear waste disposal sites. Nuclear waste, as well as power generation is not as dangerous as it once was, with a very low associated risk. Sites have been found in the UK for secure and stable nuclear waste storage and some reactors can re-use the waste before it is buried. There are many drivers for the new nuclear renaissance and it is time to embrace nuclear energy as a core technology in our low-emission revolution.

BY JAmes goldsack

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A change for the worse Thea Cunningham examines climate change consequences




Mismanagement of environmental systems will leave global populations at risk. No longer able to adequately provide their services, disrupted ecosystems will render us yet more vulnerable to the negative effects of environmental change, such as increases in mean global temperature. A warmer climate will result in a loss of biodiversity that will compromise crop pollination services, which in turn will affect food security. Disrupted water cycling and provision – a fundamental service – is a significant threat too; a drier environment will increase the demand for water to a level higher than some ecosys-


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Kate Hazlehurst discusses the danger from within f an asteroid decided to take a shine to our watery planet, couldn’t we distract it with a gentle nudge, or a handsome movie star with an enormous bomb? And if we get overrun by superbugs, or consumed by the Sun, or if Cheryl Cole stops making sweet music, surely we could do something, before things got really out of hand? Yes, in the face of most global catastrophes, we’d be alright. However, there is one force of nature that no-one can hide from. Last year our television screens and Facebook feeds were filled with terrible scenes of the unpronounceable Icelandic volcano Eyjafjallajökull, spewing ash over Europe and causing chaos across the western world. However, variations on “I got stuck in the Dominican Republic, and we had to stay at our hotel for an extra week!” was about as bad as it got. The truth is, none of us have really seen what a volcano is capable of. What we witness are tiny, insignificant dribblings of lava and little puffs of ash; mere schoolboy demonstrations of the power that volcanoes possess. About 74,000 years ago, in what is now the Lake Toba region of Sumatra, the largest explosive event of at least the past 100,000 years occurred. Toba’s supervolcano erupted with unfathomable power, releasing the force equivalent to 100 million Hiroshima bombs. Palaeoclimatologists believe that it triggered a period of global cooling which may have caused a ‘bottle neck’ in human evolution – a near extinction of the entire human race. Toba was by no means an isolated event. Proponents of the ‘Armageddon asteroid’ might like to take note of a 2005 British report, which found that a supervolcano eruption is five to ten times more likely than a globally destructive asteroid impact. So should we be building underground bunkers and organising a mass exodus to the moon? The chance of a supervolcano eruption happening tomorrow is pretty small, but in short, no one really knows when the next super-eruption will be. Many volcanologists believe that when it does happen, it will shatter the peaceful, unassuming beauty of Wyoming, USA. Yellowstone National Park is a veritable talent show of volcanic activity, containing geysers, steam

population increase

ecosystem disruption

Sleeping beauty


lobal environmental change is placing the future of humanity under considerable threat. As temperatures rise, glaciers melt and vegetation patterns change, there is an increasing need for us to put sustainable systems into place to ensure we minimise the long-term impact these changes will have on our way of life. Our resilience to environmental change is greatly dependent upon ecosystem services. Ecosystems provide us with an enormity of regulating, provisioning and supporting services, without which we simply could not survive. These services define the health of our population, but the ability of ecosystems to continue providing these services is now at risk as a direct consequence of anthropogenic climate change.

As the global population grows, so does the demand for resources. Urban sprawl has destroyed the wealth and functions of our natural forests and wetlands, with industrial and consumer action wreaking havoc on the natural world. In 2001, the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, called for by the United Nations, warned that human actions are putting such a strain on the environment that the ability of the planet’s ecosystems to sustain future generations could no longer be taken for granted. Also, according to a later edition of this assessment, released in 2005, approximately 60% of ecosystems are being degraded or used in an unsustainable manner.

HOW THE WORLD WILL END: Supervolcanoes

tems will be able to replenish it. It is estimated that by 2030, the global demand for water will exceed its supply by 40%. Together, food scarcities, coastal changes and extreme weather conditions will drive populations away from regions with inadequate service systems to those richer in provisions. The United Nations estimates that 200 million people could be displaced as a result of climate impacts by 2050. Surges in population density in urban areas will send epidemic and mortality levels soaring, whilst exacerbating the problems already faced in vulnerable, povertystricken communities. Where do we go from here? Predicting the impact of environmental change on ecosystem services remains a challenge, since ecosystems are often nonlinear and unpredictable. An intact natural environment is crucial for enabling us to cope with, and recover from, environmental change. The sooner we acknowledge this truth, the more readily we can determine our fate in the face of global environmental change. Ecosystem services are our life support. Humaninduced environmental change is affecting the ability of ecosystems to perform these services. This in turn renders us more vulnerable to the effects of environmental changes, such as global warming.

vents, mud volcanoes and steaming hot springs. To top it all off, the national park sits on an underground magma chamber with a volume 6,000 times that of an Olympic swimming pool. If any volcano has the potential for a super-eruption, Yellowstone would be it. A huge area of the United States would be devastated if Yellowstone unleashed its awesome power. Perhaps most worrying for us would be the huge volume of sulphuric compounds released into the atmosphere, which could cause a global ‘volcanic winter’ by reflecting incoming solar radiation. The knock-on effects of widespread famine, disease pandemics, and the collapse of agriculture and infrastucture would cause social and political upheaval. It is extremely difficult to predict the overall impact of

“Perhaps most worrying for us would be the huge volume of sulphuric compounds released into the atmosphere, which could cause a global ‘volcanic winter’ by reflecting incoming solar radiation.” a supervolcanic eruption, since changes in climate would vary depending on the eruption’s latitude. It would be fair to say that the effects would be, in all cases, devastating. Supervolcano eruptions are unpredictable, unstoppable and above all, inevitable. However, as the official line from the US Geological Survey (USGS) states, “there is no evidence that a catastrophic eruption at Yellowstone is imminent.” The USGS also freely admits that the ground surface of the volcano is indeed ‘inflating’, albeit very slowly. And there are always the other supervolcano candidates to consider; Long Valley, California; Lake Taupo, New Zealand; the Valles Caldera, New Mexico; Aira, Japan, to name a few. In short, we should hope that our volatile planet continues to behave itself. If a supervolcano is unleashed, there will be a lot more to worry about than a few cancelled flights and an extended holiday in the Caribbean.

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Terror in the heavens Thomas Lewton looks up to the sky for Earth’s downfall


arth-engulfing black holes, continentcrushing asteroids, crop-cremating supernovae. Sounds like science-fiction, or at worst the rant of a lunatic — and largely you’d be right. Not that these things don’t happen, it’s just that they’re extraordinarily rare and you’re probably better off minding that car screeching past you than worrying about our collective planetary plight; after all, these kind of events are out of our hands. Not content with fate, however, these mischievous hands of ours may inadvertently be bringing equivalent dangers into our backyard.

Black Holes In Fritz Leiber’s short story A Pail of Air, Earth has been torn away from the Sun by a passing “dark star”, causing the Earth’s atmosphere to freeze. The only way to breathe is to thaw the atmospheric “snow” over a fire. Such a disaster scenario could actually occur if a rogue black hole passed close to the solar system. Similarly, it’s suggested that passing dark matter (the invisible stuff holding galaxies together and making up 80% of the mass of the Universe) could shake loose some comets in the outer solar system, firing them Earthwards. The difficulty with understanding the risk from black holes and dark matter is in their name: we can’t see them directly and only infer their existence through their effect on surrounding luminous matter. It’s thought that there are hundreds of intermediate black holes (and by intermediate mass it is meant thousands of solar masses) roving around our galaxy. However, the chances of one passing close enough to throw the Earth out into deepest space are pretty slim. As for being sucked into a black hole, the biggest contender is the supermassive black hole at the centre of our galaxy— a whopping four million solar masses. But it’s a misconception that black holes somehow act as cosmic vacuum cleaners; until surrounding stars fall over the event-horizon, the black hole appears to them like any other big ball of matter. If a single solar mass black hole were to suddenly replace the Sun, the orbit of the Earth would remain exactly the same.


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So far, so safe. But that could all change, thanks to the work of meddling physicists working deep underground on the world’s most energetic particle accelerator: the Large Hadron Collider (LHC). Some speculative theories predict that the high energy proton collisions at the LHC could produce microscopic black holes, sucking the Earth into oblivion. Physicists stress, however, that any black holes produced would evaporate instantly before any mass accretion could occur. What’s more, cosmic rays of much greater energies than the LHC bombard our upper atmosphere every day, so even if these strange objects are produced, the consequences won’t be all that dramatic. However, physicists are never content with their latest toy and we can be sure they’ll keep building bigger, more energetic particle smashers as long as humanity lasts. But as we move further into the realm of the unknown it would be wise to keep our eyes peeled— as President of the Royal Society Sir Martin Rees notes: “It isn’t good enough to make a slapdash estimate of even the tiniest risk of destroying the world”. Indeed, some physicists joke that high energy particle colliders may be the answer to the Fermi Paradox; we can’t find any evidence of extraterrestrial civilizations because they all wind up building particle smashers that suck their planets down a black hole.

Near-Earth objects and gamma ray bursts On June 30 1908 a factory-sized meteoroid exploded in the air above Tunguska, Siberia releasing the same energy as a thousand nuclear bombs and leveling thousands of square kilometers of forest. The rate of such events was estimated by Eugene Shoemaker to be one every 300 years, while he thought the rate of meteor explosions equivalent in energy to the nuclear bomb that destroyed Hiroshima to be one every year. On realising the source of the devastation, scientists were understandably concerned and initiated a host of asteroid tracking programs. NASA has since identified more than 800 large near-Earth objects with potentially devastating consequences for the human race.

It would take an object as big as five miles across to a cause a mass extinction on Earth like the one which is thought to have killed off the dinosaurs. However, it doesn’t take that much to send the world into turmoul. Asteroids only half a mile across would devastate the ozone layer for years after impact, producing a hole as big as that observed above the Antarctic in the 1990s and seriously harming global food production. A gamma ray burst (produced when very highmass stars collapse to form a black hole) occurring in the Milky Way could wreak similar havoc for our atmosphere. The vast flood of radiation would destroy up to half the Earth’s ozone layer and may stop photosynthesis occurring in the world’s oceans to a depth of 80 meters, starving the Earth of oxygen.

“asteroids only half a mile across would devastate the ozone layer for years after impact” But the chances of a humanity-annihilating meteor or blinding gamma ray burst heading our way anytime soon are pretty slim. Ozone-destroying asteroids only happen once every 200,000 years and the only reported fatality from a meteor impact is an Egyptian dog killed in 1911. Likewise, the relatively small number of gamma ray bursts detected suggests they are extremely rare events, with only one burst per galaxy roughly every million years or so. Moreover, the intense radiation from a burst is the result of vast amounts of energy being squeezed into a thin beam. This means that, unless it’s pointing directly at us, we’re safe. Had it been left unchecked, the destruction of the ozone layer by CFC pollution, would have had the potential to cause as much damage as any meteorite or gamma ray burst. The risks of introducing a new technology without proper testing are also apparent in the first nuclear bomb tests; physicist Edward Teller speculated that the explosion could be energetic enough to ignite nitrogen in our atmosphere. As the pace of technological innovation accelerates, rather than panicking about unknown cosmic catastrophes, perhaps we should be keeping check on our own potential for destruction.


he scenario has been played out in Hollywood blockbusters again and again, but what would really happen to humanity if Bruce Willis and co. weren’t around to stop an asteroid from hitting the planet? The best way to answer this question is to look to the past. 65 million years ago, when a 10km-wide asteroid collided with the Earth in what is now Mexico, it wiped out the dinosaurs, along with almost all other species of reptiles, birds and terrestrial plants. However, mammals are perennial survivors and around half of mammalian species endured. They survived primarily because they were small, fast-breeding and adaptable. They were able to burrow and hide to escape the new natural dangers. Survival rates were particularly high for those mammalian species which lived around fresh water ecosystems fed by dead organic matter and thus, were affected less by the changes to the global environment. Whether or not we would survive an impact depends greatly on the magnitude of the collision, and this is a complicated issue. If the asteroid was of a smaller size than that which killed off the dinosaurs, then humans in some areas might have some hope for initial survival. The most interesting phase in this struggle comes after the initial impact has passed. Despite the changes we have made to the world it is likely we would face the same kind of pressures for survival as our ancient mammalian ancestors, such as acid rain, fire, habitat-loss and depletion of food sources. The higher cognitive capacity of humans means that we are likely to continue to be able to overcome some of the challenges by changing the environment around us. However, the land is very unlikely to be able to support all of those who initially survive the impact and further large reductions in the human population will occur. Another interesting possibility that could occur if we do not survive is that evolution could result in the emergence of a species with human-like intelligence. In The Ancestor’s Tale, Richard Dawkins speculated about a post-human world in which species of rats and cockroaches have survived. He suggests that the release of nuclear material would speed up mutation rates. This and the extreme competition between rats and their fellow survivors might favour more agressive and intelligent rats, eventually resulting in “herds of giant grazing rats stalked by sabre-toothed predatory rats”. They could even create films called Anthropocene Park, in which giant humans, recreated by rat scientists, escape from a theme park and destroy everything in their path. Whilst the prospects for humanity are hard to predict, we should probably be thankful that, for now at least, we only have to endure this kind of thing in the cinema.


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Under the bonnet


rguably humankind’s greatest achievement, combustion engines have transformed our society since the Industrial Revolution. However, motor vehicles produce 900 billion tonnes of CO2, accounting for 15% of total global emissions. With temperatures steadily rising, this invention could end up being humanity’s poisoned chalice. This photograph is an example of a four-stroke internal combustion engine, first designed by Nickolaus Otto in 1876. Power is generated by the expansion of a ignited gas in the presence of an oxidiser, such as air. The resulting pressure applies force to a moving part of the engine to generate kinetic energy. Common to most motor vehicles, this engine operates in four distinct phases: intake, compression, combustion and exhaustion.

1. Intake



Opening the intake valve allows vaporised fuel and air to be drawn into the combustion chamber by the downward motion of the piston.

2. Compression



Closing the intake valve creates a sealed vessel containing the fuel and air mixture. As the piston begins to move up the gases are compressed under high pressure.

3. Combustion

An electrical spark plug ignites the fuel, creating an increase of pressure in combustion chamber. The Ideal gas law states that an increase of temperature creates a relative increase in pressure. This pressure forces the piston downwards at high speed.

4. Exhaustion As the piston reaches the end of the down stroke, the exhaust valve opens. The waste gases are expelled from the chamber as the piston returns to its starting position. This system dramatically improved upon earlier designs, which burnt fuel externally to heat an expanding fluid. Using rudimentary principles known to the Ancient Greeks, these early machines were hugely inefficient. Each cycle of a four stroke engine only requires a drop of fuel to generate the necessary force to drive the piston. Despite this, increasing heat and a build up of exhaust gases within the system limit efficiency to 20-25%.

photo and words by jan piotrowski


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Nearing the point of no return

the bee ALL and end all


George Wigmore asks what governements are doing to help safeguard the world’s biodiversity THE IMPORTANCE OF BIODIVERSITY Biodiversity refers to the variety of species, genes and ecosystems that exist in a given area, and is a key indicator of the health of any ecosystem. A biologically diverse environment provides a wide range of social benefits and ecosystem services, and it is time for us to realise that a decline in biodiversity will adversely affect environmental stability worldwide.


t is estimated that as many as 140,000 species become extinct every year. However, the vast majority of extinctions remain undocumented – the rate of loss is simply too rapid for scientists to have a hope of keeping track. To help combat this staggering extinction rate, the UN declared 2010 ‘The International Year of Biodiversity’, raising awareness of the importance of biodiversity through activities and events staged all over the globe. As we approach the end of this year, it is time to take stock and look back at just how successful the UN programme has actually been. According to Professor Bob Watson, chief scientific adviser to DEFRA and former chairman of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), we are approaching a “point of no return”. Extinctions due to pollution, habitat loss, climate change and deforestation, have played a huge role in the recent dramatic loss of biodiversity. Rainforest habitats contain a phenomenal amount of biodiversity; the Amazon alone accommodates an estimated 2.5 million species of insect, and one in five of all bird species. Quite simply, it is imperative for us to protect this richness.

Copenhagen all over again? Despite this year’s grandiose title of ‘The International year of Biodiversity’, the COP10 biodiversity conference in Japan this October was blighted by poor publicity and general apathy. As a result, little has entered the public consciousness with regards to the pressing concerns surrounding rapidly decreasing global biodiversity.

“the Amazon alone accommodates an estimated 2.5 million species of insect, and one in five of all bird species. Quite simply, it is imperative for us to protect this richness.” The major outcome from the conference was the agreement of a 20-point strategy to be implemented by governments worldwide over the next 10 years. This aims to help tackle the mass extinction of spe-

the five major extinctions: Are we heading for a human-caused sixth?


2. Late Devonian ~365 mya 1. End Ordivician ~450 mya

5. End Cretaceous ~65 mya

3. Permian ~250 mya


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Economic Impact Another biodiversity-related initiative which culminated in Japan was The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity (TEEB) study. This study began in 2007 in response to a proposal by the G8+5 Environment Ministers and aimed to highlight the major global economic benefits of biodiversity, as well as the growing costs of biodiversity loss and ecosystem degradation. TEEB study leader, Pavan Sukhdev, has highlighted the “multi-trillion dollar importance to the global economy of the natural world”, noting that “many communities and countries are already seeing the potential of incorporating the value of nature into decision-making.” The study calls for the protection of economically valuable ecosystem services through an array of policy instruments and mechanisms.

BY Elly Reynolds


4. End Triassic ~205 mya

6. Anthropocene Extinction


cies and the loss of vital habitats. As part of the plan, governments have agreed to boost the worldwide area of protected land to 17%, and strive for marine protected areas covering 10% of our oceans by 2020. These measures have been applauded by several NGOs, with WWF Director General, Jim Leape stating “Governments have sent a strong message that protecting the health of the planet has a place in international politics and countries are ready to join forces to save life on Earth”. He says that the agreements reached “reaffirm the fundamental need to conserve nature as the very foundation of our economy and our society”.

nyone who has been stung by a bee may not be overly concerned at the thought of bees becoming extinct, but the loss of bees could cost the UK £440m every year. With UK bee populations having decreased by over 18% just last year, farmers and conservationists alike are becoming extremely concerned. Bees are pollinators; as they move from flower to flower collecting nectar they also distribute pollen. In this way plants are cross-fertilised and produce fruit. In the absence of bees, flowers become increasingly dependent on wind to disperse their pollen. This results in a small group of plants continually sharing the same genes over several generations. Over time, this ‘in-breeding’ will lead to a decrease in the fruit yield that these plants can produce, and an increase in the likelihood of them becoming diseased. As more and more land in the UK is being used for agriculture, the natural habitats where bees thrive are disappearing. Now bee-colonies occupy smaller areas, further away from their neighbours. In a similar manner to the wind-pollinated flowers, these small colonies of bees quickly become in-bred and so less capable of fighting off disease. In addition, the increased use of pesticides, to ward off plant-parasites and other insects that eat the fruit, is also having a detrimental effect on the population of bees. For this reason, many bee-conservationists are targeting cities, which, although more polluted than the countryside, are at least free from pesticides. Without bees pollinating plants, we will see a decrease in the yield of the fruit and vegetables we take for granted here in the UK. As a knock-on effect, we will also see a decrease in meatproduce because of the reduced amount of food available to feed livestock. This decline in bee populations is not restricted to the UK; the problem is being seen worldwide. Thus, not only are our food crops at risk, but so is our cotton supply. Who would have thought that the loss of one furry little insect could have such catastrophic global consequences?

So, whilst it is clear that the issue of declining biodiversity has not made it into the public consciousness in the way that climate change or other more ‘sexy’ environmental matters have, this does not mean governments are not taking note. While much remains to be done, the first small steps to protecting the array of species populating our planet have been taken this year in Japan. Let us not, in just over a century of industrialised life, put asunder the products of millions of years of evolution.

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expansive thought


Humans = Lemmings?




rom the 19th century onward, it was well established that the coastlines of continents showed an uncanny resemblance to each other. This created the possibility that they had once existed as an unbroken landmass named Pangea, from the Greek for “whole Earth”. However, some coastlines fitted far from perfectly, leaving large gaps between certain continents. In 1933, Otto Hilgenberg realised that if the Earth was less than half its current size, the continents would fit perfectly to form an unbroken shell. This led him to propose the “Expanding Earth” theory; that the Earth had once existed in a much smaller state, and had gradually grown to its current size. According to Hilgenberg, the Earth began it’s life a mere 22,000 km in circumference. Growing at around 6cm/year, it reached its current size of 40,000 km approximately 200 million years later. Despite providing an attractive account of continental drift, the expanding Earth theory failed to stand up to any sustained scrutiny. No account was made to explain the emergence of extra matter, and it could not explain why the Earth has shown no further expansion in its 4.6 billion year old life. Additionally, it lacked a feasible mechanism forproviding the huge force needed drive the expansion against the force of gravity. A radial increase of just 20% would require more energy than is contained within the chemical bonds of all matter on Earth. Put simply, it is impossible. Advocates claimed that the laws of nature may have changed during this period of expansion, making energy concerns irrelevant. Thankfully, this last ditch attempt to legitimise expansionist claims was quashed with the emergence of plate tectonic theory in the 1970s, which states that convection currents created by super-heated magma are responsible for continental drift. So, when you next use the phrase “it’s a small world”, remember that if Hilgenberg were right, long ago it could have been a whole lot smaller.


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ren’t humans clever? We have colonised every corner of the world, and created a global community. It is the large and magnificently organised human brain which has enabled us to do this. Your brain has complex systems in place that allow you to distinguish between what is true or false, and what is rational or irrational. These systems are the basis of reason, and the foundations of science. However, these systems can fail us, making us blind to the threats humankind faces, or simply unwilling to act to save ourselves from them. For instance, we cannot hold two conflicting notions in our head; it hurts us, it can even cause us severe distress. We feel an urgent need to change one of the two conflicting things. This is called cognitive dissonance, and it helps us to order things in our head. When we hold two conflicting beliefs in our heads, our brain’s mechanism for dealing with this is simply to modify the less deeply-held of these beliefs. On the whole, this is a good way to deal with the world, and helps us avoid having to constantly change our mind about things. However, this inherent strategy can also render us completely oblivious to things that are problematic, or even cause us to flatly refuse accepting evidence which contradicts our more deeply- or longer-held beliefs. We have grown up in a consumer society, which tells us we need a car to get around, and that we must have the latest gadgets and clothes. Changing our old habits is pretty difficult - even though most of us know we should recycle more, drive less and live simply, it’s pretty hard to fight the ideas of ‘normal life’ we have held since childhood This phenomenon is called ‘persistence in error’ - a pretty self-explanatory term; if we have grown up with a certain lifestyle, we are unwilling to abandon it. Our methods of perceiving the world also don’t help the cause. We filter out a significant proportion of the information which comes into our sensory organs, thus helping us to focus our attention on the things which are important. This is brilliant. It is how we have been able to apply ourselves to great feats of engineering, to pay attention to the important social signals given off by those around us, and reach work every day without stopping to look at everything and listen to every conversation we hear. But, you guessed it, it also has its downside. We miss out on a hell of a lot. Imagine somewhere you pass every day: The Queen’s Tower, for instance. If the whole thing were demolished overnight, you’d probably notice it on your way onto campus next morning. Now imagine if, every week, The Queen’s Tower were shortened by a few centimetres, a ‘creeping normalcy’ of tiny changes, which you hardly notice amongst all the other things grabbing your attention. Over the year, The Queen’s Tower gets shorter and shorter. You would hardly notice if it got down to ankle height, and then the next week it’s gone. This ‘landscape am-

J.  Robert  Oppenheimer  

We may have the technological solutions to help fight environmental change and create a sustainable society, but do we have the right psychology? Anna Perman investigates

Informa(on   Birthday   22  April  1904   Home  town   New  York   Rela(onship  status   Married  to    KiKy  Harrison   J  Robert  Oppenheimer  has  aKended  Harvard,  Cambridge,  GoOngen...     next  stop  Caltech    and  Berkley...  no  rest  for  the  wicked    1927  


J  Robert  and  Max  Born,  Paul  Dirac,  Linus  Pauling  are  now  friends   J  Robert  likes  black  holes  and  quantum   tunnelling       J  Robert  Oppenheimer  is  working  on  America’s  nuclear  defences  at  the   ManhaKan  Project  1942  



J  Robert  just  checked  into  Los  Alamos  


J  Robert  is  aKending  Trinity  nuclear  test    1944   J  Robert  Oppenheimer  today  I  am  relieved   but  shocked  –  what  have  we  created?   J  Robert  Oppenheimer   I  have  blood  on  my  hands     Bombs  dropped  on   Hiroshima  and   Nagasaki   1945  

   J  Robert  has  joined  the  Atomic  Energy  Commission  1947   J  Robert  Oppenheimer  is  keen  to  avoid  an  arms  race  with  the  USSR   1947   J  Robert  Oppenheimer  has  been  accused  of  being  a  communist  –   AGAIN  1953   J  Robert  Oppenheimer  has  been  stripped  of  security  clearance  but  is   enjoying  academic  life  1954  

   J  Robert  has  joined  Princeton   PHOTOGRAPHY BY jan piotrowski Would you notice if the Queen’s Tower was shrinking?

nesia’ is part of the reason that we are capable of hunting animals to extinction and completely deforesting whole areas. It doesn’t happen all at once, but only when we see the difference between our planet now and 50 years ago can we see the effect years and years of slow deforestation has had. But do we really notice it while it is happening? Hopefully, our human ingenuity will provide us with ways to overcome these failings. For instance, keeping photos, maps and records might help us to wake up to the way we are killing the planet. And a slow culture change is taking place to help instil more environmental awareness in future generations. There is hope yet, but we need to be aware of our flaws and use our stupendous brain power to overcome them.

J  Robert  Oppenheimer  is  re(ring  –  the   end  is  near   1966  



Student science

May contain alcohol Meet Ruth. She’s getting ready for a big night out, all in the name of science. Whilst she’s drinking we’ll be thinking “Just arrived at Stu’s house for a couple of sneaky drinks to wet my whistle before hitting the pub.”

booze and neurotransmitters Neurotransmitters are chemicals which are sent between neurones and allow the communication of a signal. 1. Glutamate Alcohol inhibits glutamate receptor function, meaning you might suffer malcoordination, slurred speech, staggering, memory disruption, and blackouts. 2. Gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) Alcohol enhances GABA receptor function, providing feelings of calm, anxiety-reduction and tendency to sleep. 3. Dopamine Alcohol raises dopamine levels, explaining drunken excitement and heightened stimulation. 4. Endorphins Alcohol raises endorphin levels. Hence, you become happy and drunken falls aren’t painful.


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Before heading out for a night on the town, many of us indulge in some rapid pace, high stamina drinking. During these drinking sessions, alcohol is absorbed very quickly through the lining of the stomach and circulates around the body. Alcohol really does go straight to the head, as only six minutes after consuming alcohol brain cells undergo some distinct changes. The walls of neurones are composed of two barriers, separated by a layer fat that enables electrical signals to be conducted. Alcohol destabilises neurone walls, and reduces the concentration of protective substances such as creatine, and in turn prevents electrical signals being sent as normal. Whilst drugs such as cocaine and morphine act at highly specific receptor sites, alcohol is as precise as a hand grenade, affecting a huge variety of neurotransmitters. This produces a wide range of effects, and can explain why everyone reacts to alcohol in a slightly different way.

“Queueing at the bar, getting the first round in. Hope the barman’s quick because I’m bursting!” Normally, the amount of water in the blood is tightly regulated by the pituitary gland, which produces the hormone vasopressin. Vasopressin increases the permeability of kidney tubules and allows re-absorption of water. Alcohol inhibits the production of vasopressin, resulting in decreased re-absorption of water and causing large volumes of water to be lost in urine. Unfortunately, this also leads to a loss of four times more liquid than is gained and causes dehydration. Urination may be induced 20 minutes after alcohol consumption, prompting us to ‘break the seal’.

“Right. Bladder Empty. Now for the dancefloor.” Listening to music elicits strong activation in areas of the brain associated with reward and motivation. Responses to other survival-related stimuli such as food, sex and drugs show similar patterns in brain circuitry. Recruitment of the reward centre suggests that music may have once been important for survival, facilitating the social cohesion of large groups. Even young babies appear to innately possess the perceptual skills necessary to appreciate music, strengthening the case for the evolutionary importance of music. The basal ganglia is an area of the brain heavily involved in processing rhythm, making it essential for co-ordinated dancing. However, alcohol inhibits activity in this area, leading to increasingly cringe-worthy dancing.

“Just caught a boy giving me the eye I’m going to make a move.” Flirting strongly activates the limbic system, which is responsible for regulating the brain’s emotional responses. Functional MRI studies have shown that whilst flirting, the limbic system bypasses the more rational neo-cortex, in a way that prevents decision making in brain damaged patients. Dr Antonio Darmasio, MD and head of neurology at the University of Iowa believes that by blocking rational decision making, nature is making sure that it is only sexual attraction that has a say. Studies have shown that women are attracted to androstenol, a pheromone released in male sweat. However, androstenol is only attractive when fresh, so don’t give up on laundry day just yet. Interestingly, this pheromone is also secreted by truffles, justifying long standing claims of their aphrodisiac qualities. Humans are also unconsciously attracted by smell to mates whose major histocompatability complexes (MHC) differs from their own. MHC are genes related to the immune system; so this behaviour evolved to increase genetic diversity and surival within a population.

“Some slapper just moved in on my boy, and knocked over my drink. What is her problem?” Alcohol may encourage aggression by disrupting normal brain function in a number of ways. Alcohol weakens brain activity involved in restraining impulsive behaviour, making us less inhibited. Whilst we also experience a disruption in information processing, which can lead to misinterpretation of facial expressions. Anxiety levels are also reduced when drinking, which makes us less willing to avoid dangerous situations. In addition, the dark, crowded, loud drinking pub/club environment has been shown to cause frustration. When combined, these factors make us less able to assess the situation and more likely to give in to violent impulses.

“Why am I here on the sofa? How the hell did I get home?” Familiar with feelings of shame, despite a complete lack of memory? Memory loss from drinking can be caused by the GABA signalling system in the brain, which inhibits brain activity. The conversion from short to long term memories is disrupted as the inhibition acts particularly strongly on the hippocampus, the part of the brain responsible for forming and consolidating memory. The breakdown of alcohol creates a by-product of ethyl esters, disrupting the balance of positive charge within neurons. Coupled with a decreased level of oxygen in the brain, this also acts to disrupt the function of the hippocampus. Blackouts are often caused by rapid drinking on an empty stomach, leading to high alcohol concentration in the blood.

Beer goggles Alcohol is well known for skewing the perception of attractiveness of potential partners, and reducing sexual inhibitions. Researchers at Manchester have quantified this ‘beer goggles’ effect with a complex formula.

β = (An)2 x δ(S+1) √L x (Vo)2 An = number of units of alcohol consumed S = smokiness of the room (graded from 0-10, where 0 clear air; 10 extremely smoky) L = luminance of 'person of interest' (candelas per square metre) Vo = Snellen visual acuity (6/6 normal; 6/12 just meets driving standard) δ = distance from 'person of interest' (metres; 0.5 to 3 metres)


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Science Friction

freshwater scarcity

Nuclear Power

Waking up to the world’s water waste

Vs VsVs Vs Vs

Vs Vs Vs


New technology can help reclaim the Earth’s water supplies by Pippa Goldenberg

Carbon Capture James pope

Can we really hope to meet our ever-increasing energy demands solely through the use of renewable technologies? Two Imperial scientists discuss how existing technologies can be used to provide low-CO2 energy for the future. PHOTOGRAPHY BY jan piotrowski

Professor Bill Lee is deputy chair of the Governmental Committee on Radioactive Waste Management and believes that nuclear power must play a role in providing future energy solutions if the lights aren’t soon to go out. Dr Tara La Force is a lecturer in the department of earth science and engineering, who speaks internationally on issues surrounding carbon capture and storage. She believes that this technology can help us minimise the environmental damage caused by burning fossil fuels.

Which is the most carbon efficient of the two technologies? BL – With nuclear, the only CO2 comes from the mining of the ore and the cement that’s used in the production of the [nuclear] power station. TLF – Nuclear is actually the lower carbon option. You can capture about 85% of the CO2 from a [coal] power station using membrane technology, but to crank that up to 100% of CO2 emissions you have to start looking at much more expensive technologies.


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How do you get rid of waste from fossil fuels and nuclear power plants? BL – The intermediate level waste, which is not so nasty, goes typically into cement and then a steel can. The nasty stuff goes into glass and into a steel container. The hope is that this will be buried geologically at some point. TLF – You take power plant effluence and separate out the CO2 and compress it until it’s a super-critical fluid. Then you inject it underground into porous rocks, or maybe a deep saline aquifer, or even an oil and gas reservoir.

Which technology is the most cost-effective? BL – Nuclear is expensive upfront, we’re talking many hundreds of millions of pounds, and the government is expecting the industry to find the money to build the reactors. TLF - The government has planned up to a billion pounds for a carbon capture and storage demonstration project. Although we talk about carbon capture and storage as a nearterm technology, by near term we mean the next ten to fifteen years, because building the necessary infrastructure is going to take time.

BL – Nuclear waste products could be used in all sorts of applications: small power packs in space vehicles could be nuclear-driven for example. Also, various radionucleides have interesting properties and behaviours that we use in medical applications.

TLF - You can’t really phrase this as an either/ or question. We’re going to have to try basically everything, especially efficiency. I think a lot of people just get bogged down in “I don’t like this about nuclear” or “I don’t like that about carbon capture and storage”. We have to look at nuclear and wind and carbon capture with coal and also efficiency savings or we’re going to be in a lot of trouble.

TLF – The only possible use of CO2 that I’m familiar with at a very large scale is in enhanced oil recovery. If you inject CO2 into oil reservoirs, it will improve your oil recovery.

BL – I’m entirely in agreement. If we don’t start building capability for electricity production now, in four or five years, the lights will go out and then there’s a problem.

Could the waste be recycled?

1 kg of beef 15,500 litres of water

1 pint of beer 1 kg of cheese 75 litres 5000 litres of water of water


n the debates about dwindling natural resources, water is often left out of the picture. Perhaps unsurprisingly, we take water for granted - it’s everywhere we look: as rain, the mains supply, reservoirs and oceans… the supply seems endless. The key word here is ‘seems’. Water is a precious resource, fundamental to all life on Earth, and yet not much is said about our limited supply. It’s not just dripping taps either: water is used to make the food we eat and the clothes we wear. All of us leave behind a ‘water footprint’, and a pretty big one at that. It’s not all bad news though. The world is waking up to the problem, and innovative new technologies and strategies are being developed to create new sources of water and recycle old ones. Perhaps the fastest growing of these is desalination. Although energy costs drive up the price, this popular technology creates safe drinking water from seawater. Arid, coastal countries such as Israel are investing large amounts of money in bigger and better desalination plants. Some, if not most, desalination plants use a technique known as ‘reverse osmosis’ (RO). In normal osmosis, water will move across a semi-permeable membrane (one that will allow water, but not salts, through) from a solution with a low salt concentration to one with a high salt concentration until the concentrations even out. But, if enough pressure is applied to the high concentration solution, the water can be forced back across the membrane, producing more water with a low salt concentration – the desalinated water. However, solving the problem isn’t just about accessing new sources of water. The keyword, as with regards to all environmental matters, is sustainability. Yes, the oceans are pretty huge, so we’re not likely to run out of water from there any time soon: but is this really what we want to aim for? In order to waste as little water as possible, we need to re-use

our wastewater. And yes, that does include sewage. Reclaimed water, as it’s known, has a lot of applications outside our drinking water system – irrigation and flushing toilets, to name two – so it’s certainly not about drinking recycled sewage. Plus, it’s not just sewage water (or ‘blackwater’) that we waste: used bathwater, washing machine water and dishwashing water (‘greywater’) can all be re-used, but the infrastructure just isn’t there in most countries. The technology’s there though, and has been for a while. On the International Space Station for example, there’s a working system to recycle wastewater called ECLSS that has been used since May 2009. Also, in Tel Aviv 100% of wastewater is treated, and the reclaimed water used for agricultural and public water. Sewage reclamation plants use three stages. First, the solids in the wastewater are filtered out through a series of physical barriers. Secondly, the water enters reactors filled with bacteria, which consume the organic material in the water. Finally, the water is purified by forcing it at great pressure through sand and it is then pumped out of the plant, safe and ready for agricultural use. These are just two of the ways that water waste can be reduced, or even eliminated. There are also some crazier schemes (such as the Red-Dead canal, a project proposed to pump water from the Red Sea across to the dwindling Dead Sea) and some exciting new technologies (like ultraviolet water treatment) around. It’s definitely worth keeping an eye on your water waste, too, because with supplies dwindling and water metering gaining popularity, it’ll soon be a closer problem than you think. For more information, visit


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Most Fatalities Bhopal Gas Tragedy


Most Sustained Contamination Niger Delta, Nigeria


Most Ridiculous

‘Hell’s Gate’

By James pope


MOST COUNTRIES AFFECTED Chernobyl Nuclear Disaster


ince the 1970s, rusting pipelines have vented an estimated 2.5 million barrels of crude oil into the Niger Delta – enough to fill 800 Ethos swimming pools – destroying swathes of mangrove forest, decimating fish stocks and sparking civil unrest. Every year, Nigeria’s oil industry flares enough natural gas to keep the UK supplied for three months; releasing carcinogens, toxic compounds and vast quantities of CO2.

4 O

n 26th April 1986, a massive explosion ripped through Chernobyl’s Reactor 4 in Ukraine, releasing 400 times more radioactive material than the Hiroshima bomb. Pripyat city was evacuated, firemen collapsed with thyroid cancer and a bone-poisoning, birth-defect causing, leukaemia inducing plume spread across Europe. Today, sheep in Cumbria are still tested for radioactivity, trees in Ukraine’s Red Forest display bizarre mutations and abandoned Pripyat stands as aneerie monument to man getting it oh-so wrong.


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housands died when an asphyxiating cloud of toxic pesticide – released from an over-filled factory tank –swept across Bhopal on December 3rd 1984. Initially denying the problem, factory owners Union Carbide India eventually blocked the leak when blind and frothmouthed victims began arriving at the local hospital. The estimated death toll of between four and fifteen thousand makes Bhopal’s the largest loss of human life resulting from industrial negligence that the world has ever seen.

Most Landscape-altering Aral Sea, Kazakhstan/Uzbekistan


ince the 1960s, irresponsible irrigation has shrunk the Aral Sea – formerly the fourth largest lake in the world – to one tenth of its original size. Fishing villages and trawlers lie useless in the desert – 120km inland. Rain seldom comes and when the wind blows, the locals choke on dust laced with toxic fertiliser.


n 1971, geologists drilling for natural gas near Darvaza, central Turkmenistan, opened a huge crater of dangerous methane. Unable to drill further due to the risk of explosions, they came up with a surprising solution for getting rid of it. Rather than capturing the gas, they cunningly decided to set it alight... and it’s still burning ferociously today, releasing tonnes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

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Bringing Order to Chaos Fractals, a word that the vast majority of people don’t know. Of those that do, very few really understand its meaning, let alone the impact fractals have on everyday life. Yet they have come to help us understand some of the most complex problems that exists today. So what are they and more importantly, where did they come from? Jovan Nedic finds out “Clouds are not spheres, mountains are not cones, coastlines are not circles, and bark is not smooth, nor does lightening travel in a straight line”

Benoit B. Mandelbrot


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f you were to look at the world around you, you would quickly realise that fractals appear in nature more often than you might think. Take for example a tree, which has one thick trunk, that then splits into thinner branches, each of which have their own, slightly smaller branches, who in turn have their own even smaller branchlets. This self-repeating pattern, where each iteration becomes progressively smaller than the previous one, is what is referred to as a fractal pattern. In a similar vein, the river networks around the world, vegetables such as the romanesco brocolli, the snowflakes that fall from the sky and even the lungs in our bodies all have this same, self repeating pattern, showing that fractals really do exist everywhere we look. Benoit B. Mandelbrot, a Polish-born mathematician, was the first to coin the word fractal in 1975 to describe an object which exhibits similar characteristics, no matter what the magnification. Initially shunned by the academic world, Mandelbrot carried on his research, expanding his fractal theories to the natural world in his 1982 paper entitled the Fractal Geometry of Nature and eventually into the financial world. He warned in his 2005 book, The (Mis)Behaviour of Market, that traders were under the impression that a financial market is predictable and could withstand large fluctuations. Four years later, he was proved right when markets across the globe began to crash. Mandelbrot was a rare type of scientist, one that could not only communicate his views exceptionally well to the rest of the scientific community, but also to the general public, often giving popular lectures on the subject.  Following the news of his death in October 2010, there was a sudden media explosion with feature articles on the “father of fractal geometry”. Quite rightly so! But the vast majority of these articles and features failed to fully comprehend the impact his work had on all walks of life. In simple terms, Mandelbrot’s work brought order to chaos, and found a method to describe the unpredictable. His work and theories have expanded into numerous fields from cosmology to geography, as well as engineering and medicine, each time giving an insight into phenomena that people thought too unpredictable to model. Take turbulence for example, a phenomena that is inherently unpredictable and unsteady yet occurs in the vast majority of fluid dynamic problems. The wind blowing against your face as you walk

down the high street, the water flowing around objects in a river, even the air flowing over cars and aircraft, are all turbulent. For the past century, fluid dynamists’ have been using a regular mesh grid to generate turbulent flows in their wind tunnel experiments and have then developed models to describe the effect turbulence would have on a variety of examples. But is the air that buildings, cars or aircraft experience accurately modelled by this simple mesh? Going back to the tree example, which we have already shown to be fractal in nature, it is not too difficult, therefore, to imagine that the air passing through these trees would also have fractal properties. The realisation of this is both simple and frightening at the same time; our turbulence models could be wrong!  Although it may appear that the last 100 years of work have all been for nothing, the reality is that the solutions are incomplete and by applying fractal theory, we expand our understanding of the problem. This work is in fact being carried out right here at Imperial, under the supervision of Professor Vassilicos from the Department of Aeronautics. Understanding the fractal nature of turbulence has led to several important discoveries, with the work by Professor Vassilicos and his team suggesting that a new class of turbulence should be defined. It has even led to patents of several fractal applications, including mixers in chemical plants, ventilation systems, aircraft spoilers and even improving combustion levels in engines. In other scientific disciplines, fractals have been used for fracture mechanics in materials science, studying the failure modes of materials which can be highly irregular. They have also been used for signal and image compression, whereby an image is analysed to search for self-repeating patterns that are saved as codes, instead of saving the individual pixels, thus saving space. Outside the realms of science, fractals have been found to exist in music and have been used to generate some stunning artistic images, including works by Jackson Pollock. Even though the Father of Fractals is no longer with us, it is clear that his ideas have had an affect on a wide range of subjects and applications, with many scientists and engineers taking up the challenge of fractals. Mandelbrot spent most of his life expanding our understanding of the natural world through his love of fractals and it is not surprising that when once asked what the B in Benoit B. Mandelbrot stood for, he simply replied “Benoit B. Mandelbrot”. 

“Mandelbrot spent most of his life expanding our understanding of the natural world through his love of fractals”

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Is cancer a modern disease?




Nathan Ley looks into a recent claims that cancer is the product of modern living



his October, an article in Nature made headlines across the globe with its claim that cancer is a modern, anthropogenic disease. The report, by Professor Michael Zimmerman and Professor Rosalie David was based on their study of hundreds of Egyptian and South American mummies. The teams from the Universities of Pennsylvania and Manchester, claimed to have found only three individuals with signs of cancer. This lead them to conclude that cancer is “limited to societies that are affected by modern lifestyle issues, such as tobacco use and pollution resulting from industrialisation” This claim is both dangerous and wrong. Firstly, cancer is inherently linked to age; as people grow older, mutations accumulate in their DNA. Therefore, older people have a greater chance of acquiring a mutation in a key gene, resulting in tumours. The National Cancer Institute estimates that the average age of death of modern cancer patients is 73. Almost all of the mummies examined in this study were of people who had died before the age of 50. The study’s findings are therefore misleading, as most of the mummies died before the age when the majority of cancers first occur. Of course, there are some ‘common’ bone cancers that primarily affect children. However, the prevalence of these cancers is relatively low, roughly 1 in 10,000. Consequently, Zimmerman and David’s report


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high society exhibition wellcome collection until 27 february

has come in for heavy criticism from research organisations and cancer charities alike. The statement “there is nothing in the natural environment that can cause cancer” has been singled out for particularly strong abuse. Henry Scowcroft, of Cancer Research UK, has suggested that Zimmerman and David should “take a look at the big orange burny thing in the sky”. It is true that poor lifestyle choices, such as smoking, over-eating and simply not doing enough exercise, can all play a role in the development of cancer. But the authors seem to have simply overlooked natural factors, such as U.V. rays, background geological radiation, and a whole host of naturally-occurring carcinogens. Also, bacteria and viruses, such as the human papilloma virus, are known to cause cancer. Frankly, David and Zimmerman seem to have gotten more than a little carried away with some of the claims they have made in their report. Their sensationalism could be dismissed as over zealous self-publicising, were it not for the delicate nature of their research. With cancer affecting over 1 in 3 people in the UK, the subject needs to be approached responsibly. Not only was their research scientifically appalling, but the claims the authors have made are, in the words of a Cancer Research UK statement, “both confusing and misleading, and certainly don’t reflect the huge amount of scientific evidence piling up about the true causes of this devastating disease”.

Contagious fun at ‘Lates’ the science of bioterrorism, science musuem 27 october 2010


n the last Wednesday of every month, an all-adult crowd are invited to sample the delights of the Science Museum, free from the usual distraction of over-excited children. October’s theme was bio-terrorism and when I arrived at 6:30pm, the length of the queue outside suggested a good night was in store. After being herded into the museum’s entrance hall, an official looking man with a loudspeaker informed us that there had been a bioterrorism attack in the South Kensington area. The woman next to me started screaming and spewing blood and we were informed that we were to spend the evening searching the museum for a vaccine. After donning the protective suit and hygiene mask I had been presented with on entering, I headed straight to the bar. If we were all going to die, I might as well go down partying! Looking my best after customising my mask and suit with a selection of fur, feathers and glitter, I went in search of entertainment and hopefully the vaccine. After a slight detour, my friends and I attempted

ATTENDED by rosie waldron

to gain immunity by uncovering clues in the darkened Medical Gallery. Unfortunately, our attention spans were as limited as the supply of torches and we soon abandoned our quest in favour of the interactive fun of Launchpad, the Science Museum’s hands-on gallery. If you prefer your education straight up, there were short shows from real doctors and microbiologists. For party animals, the silent disco was well worth the lengthy queue, just for the novelty alone. ‘Tent City’ was presumably where we were to stay until the area was declared safe, but all the tents had been commandeered by canoodling couples playing connect four. Fortunately, creating realistic-looking pustules from stage make-up provided the perfect distraction for those unfortunate enough to witness any snogging. I left without the vaccine and without really having learnt much about bioterrorism. However, the Science Museum Lates provide a unique opportunity to enjoy a child-free museum and an alternative night out.

by david robertson

ifteen stops on the Piccadilly line did nothing to shake off the twinges of my subtle hangover. The bracing air on the short walk from King’s Cross to the Wellcome Collection picked me up a bit, and the calm, quiet exhibition space brought the world back into full focus. How appropriate that I was visiting High Society, the new Wellcome display about “mind-altering drugs in history and culture.” High Society’s not a whizzbang affair, though there are a few multimedia displays, which I dare say, would best be viewed under the influence. The real value in this exhibition is in the detail: there’s everything from footage of an MP taking mescaline for a science experiment to a photographic essay of the descent into laudanum-induced haze. The old books, in particular, offer some golden nuggets for the sharp-eyed visitor. My personal favourite, as an Aussie, was discovering in a 1797 self-help guide that the punishment of being shipped off to Botany Bay (Australia’s original penal colony) ranked just above the gallows as a penalty for drinking spirits “morning ... day and night”. High Society makes for an entertaining couple of hours, best enjoyed with a slice of self-reflection and, if that’s not available, an open mind to the wonders and dangers of psychotropic exploration.

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Reviews books

Weeds by richard mabey RRP £15.99, out now


ichard Mabey’s new book is as much a story about human nature as it is

about plants. After all, a plant is only a weed when humans say it is. We’ve been worried about weeds for a long time and Mabey has to stretch back to the birth of farming in order to start his story. As the book meanders its way through human history, it weaves together science, literature, poetry and art to tell the tale of our love-hate relationship with weeds. Mabey covers everything from cannabis to the triffids and although his tangents can sometimes be distracting, human beings are the backbone of this book and this gives the story the direction it needs to keeps its bearing to the end. Mabey’s passion for the subject is infectious, he talks about each plant like it’s an old friend, and his writing is both lively and full of humour. What makes the story so compelling is that it makes you think. Mabey tips your old way of looking at the world until s ordinary objects suddenly take on deeper, more symbolic meanings. These ideas will linger with you long after you’ve turned the last page. By Camilla Ruz

Also out now Delusions of Gender: The real science behind sex differences by Cordelia Fine RRP £8.54, out now A witty and acidic attack on the latest pseudo-science claims on the differences between the sexes. Life Ascending: The Ten Greatest Inventions of Evolution by Nick Lane RRP £8.54, out now Having recently won the Royal Society Prize for Science Books, Life Ascending is a gripping account of the ten most ingenious inventions of life, from DNA to consciousness.


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christmas lectures AN INTERVIEW WITH

RADIO & PODCASTS the Infinite monkey Cage, November 2010 on Radio 4


don’t know about you, but most of my general knowledge starts with the phrase ‘someone in a pub once told me that…’. Sitting about making wisecracks is a great way to learn. The Infinite Monkey Cage stands out amongst BBC science programmes for one simple reason: it is funny. Presenters Robin Ince and the rather lush Brian Cox treat science the way we all do. They are sometimes irreverent, always intelligent, and you will come away knowing something new without even realising it.

short Science, Wednesdays 12.00 on IC radio


hought all student radio was two guys sitting in a basement somewhere exchanging knob-jokes and playing the odd obscure tune? You’re pretty much right, but every once in a while, a gem like Short Science comes along. Elizabeth Hauke has built short science up from a student radio show to one with an international listenership. Overcoming the trials of student radio with consummate professionalism, Elizabeth makes curious and controversial science easy and fun. By Anna Perman


Anna Perman caught up with Dr Miodownik to chat about science, new legs, and why materials are like our children. This year’s Royal Institution Christmas lecture series, entitled ‘Size Matters’ will be given by material scientist Dr Mark Miodownik of King’s College London. The lectures, which will be broadcast on BBC 4, starting next Tuesday, focus upon the importance of size in determining the properties of materials, from the very small, to the absolutely enormous.

How does materials science shape the way we live our lives? I guess the important thing is that everything is made out of something. It is everywhere. In wider society, people tend to try and ignore matter in general, and concentrate on relationships. I can kind of see the point of this, but the stuff around us is as much a part of us as our relationships are. They're our creations, they're our children, and our parents; they're all of these things.

We've had the Stone Age, the Bronze Age and the Iron Age, but what is the material of the age we are in now? And what about the future?

Lost Land of the Tiger September 2010 on BBC1

I think ours will be the age of biomaterials, I'm pretty sure of that. All of the science that is really exciting at the moment is about rebuilding the human body, and I think people will become more used to this. In the same way that people have become used to the dentist saying “I'm going to take that out and give you a new tooth”, it will start to happen that doctors will go “I need to whip out your liver or kidney, or your leg”, and say “I'm going to give you a new leg”. I think that kind of stuff is going to happen over the next 40 years, and it's going to be driven by materials science. Of course, it's going to have widespread implications for peoples' mobility, longevity, how they get older. And it's going to have huge implications for sport.


his was a particular highlight from this year’s TV programming, and my personal favourite of 2010. In a new adventuring style of format from the BBC’s Natural History Unit, a unique team of experts ventured into the vastly diverse landscapes of Bhutan. They crept through undergrowth, clambered over the Himalayan mountains and swept down rivers in search of the beautiful and rare wild tigers. Folklore and rumours surrounded the existence of these tigers, which are incredibly endangered. If the team could demonstrate their existence from the lowland jungles to the hostile high altitudes then there could be hope for a tiger ‘corridor’. This space would stretch not just across Bhutan, but across the Asian continent, and would mean that the tigers might not be doomed just yet. The genuine passion of the expedition team


The Christmas lectures are a great chance to get kids excited about science. What was it then, when you were young, that first sparked your scientific interest?

was incredibly touching, as they hunted literally high and low. Gordon Buchanan, an experienced big cat cameraman, is one to watch for the future. I have to confess that when he watched footage, giving concrete evidence that the tigers were there, I shed a tear. Ok, maybe several. By Lizzy Crouch

I was really lucky that I had a dad who just brought home some really crazy things. He once brought home a bottle of hydrochloric acid, which he then he poured over some metal causing it to bubble away. I mean, those things when you're a kid just make you realise that the world is much more exciting than you'd hitherto thought. I also learned from my dad that common sense is not always a good guide to understanding the world. It's quite exciting to be in a discipline that involves disregarding your common sense. That's quite a revolutionary thing to tell a kid, when everyone else is going “can't you use your common sense”, and then there's all of us going ”well, you know, when you stop listening to your common sense things get a lot more interesting”. So I suppose, although a lot of my friends went into the arts, science has always attracted me more, because I've always felt it is more revolutionary in its approach to the world.

christmas lectures Lecture 1: Why Elephants Can’t Dance Tuesday 14th December, 2010 BBC 4 Lecture 2: Why Chocolate Melts and Jet Planes Don't Thursday 16th December, 2010 BBC 4 Lecture 3: Why Mountains Are So Small Saturday 18th December, 2010 BBC 4

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An Optimist’s Tour of the Future: By Mark Stevenson Out 6th Jan 2011 £12.99 Just in case you’re feeling a little depressed about the chances of human survival, this book charts one man’s journey into the future. Thankfully, it’s not all bad news.

Radiolab Described by host Jad Abumrad as “a science show for poets”, Radiolab explores science from all angles, layering together interviews, sound effects and commentary. This is a treat your ears truly deserve. Download it at or on iTunes.

Soul Dust By Nicholas Humphrey Out 6th Jan 2011 £12.99 A leading psychologist tries to answer life’s biggest questions through scientific advances in our understanding of evolution and the brain. The Emperor of all Maladies By Siddhartha Mukherjee (below) Out 20th Jan 2011 £13.99 A ‘biography’ of cancer, this book tells the story of the disease from the very beginning and attempts to answer the all-important question– what next?

It Is Rocket Science! Helen Keen’s (below) successful Edinburgh comedy show, profiling the weird and wonderful people who have taken humans into space, is to be broadcast soon as a series. Keep an eye on the Radio 4 website for dates.

TELEVISION Monday December 13th This World: Pakistan’s Flood Doctor. BBC 2 London 7:00pm to 8:00pm Jane Corbin travels with a leading surgeon as he performs life-saving operations and delivers medical aid in flood-hit Pakistan. The Joy of Stats BBC 4 11:00pm to 12:00am Professor Hans Rosling presents a documentary about statistics, exploring their history, how they work mathematically and how they can be used in today’s computer age. He also demonstrates an ingenious way of modelling crime reports in near real time.

Tuesday, December 14th

Naked Scientists The team from Cambridge strip down complicated science and probe into its deeper recesses. Get their weekly podcast at iTunes for science news and in-depth features.

Pompeii: Life and Death in a Roman Town BBC2 9:00pm to 10:00pm Pompeii: one of the most famous volcanic eruptions in history. Cambridge professor Mary Beard (below) uses evidence from an extrordinary discovery to create one of the most comprehensive scientific snapshots of Pompeian life ever produced.

Short Science IC Radio’s very own science show presented by Elizabeth Hauke and broadcast every Wednesday at 12 noon. Available on itunes and of course at

Sleights of Mind: What the neuroscience of magic reveals about our brains. By Sandra Blakeslee, Stephen L. Macnick & Susana Martinez-Conde Out 3rd Jan 2011 £7.79 Leading neuroscientists and magicians from all over the world come together to try and explain consciousness, memory, attention and belief.


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Science Magazine podcast The best round up of proper science news for serious types. Want to regale your friends with stories of stem cells, black holes and particle physics? This is all you need to know from the world of science. Also available on iTunes. Geekpop Hayley, Jim and their legions of listeners rifle through the cupboards of the internet for hidden musical science delights. To listen to their podcasts, go to

events & exhibitions Beautiful Equations BBC 4 9:00pm to 10:00pm Art critic Matt Collings plunges into the world of mathematical equations. As he explores the most famous equations in science: Einstein’s E=mc2, Dirac’s equation on antimatter and Newton’s laws of gravity, Collings realises concepts of beauty and elegance underlying scientists’ work.

The Beauty of Diagrams BBC 4 8:30pm to 9:00pm Marcus du Sautoy explores the story behind the double helix, arguably the most famous and significant scientific diagram of the last 100 years. The image, created by Odile Crick has become a cultural icon, adorning everything from dog chews to perfume.

Friday, December 17th Natural World BBC 2 8:00pm to 9:00pm [Repeat] Butterflies: A Very British Obsession Wildlife documentary featuring the fascinating lives of Britain’s beautiful butterflies filmed in exquisite detail. A search for butterflies in some of the most beautiful parts of Britain leads to the intriguing possibility that a passion for butterflies could help us preserve the landscapes that we love.

Jimmy’s Food Factory BBC 1 London 8:00pm to 8:30pm Science series in which farmer Jimmy Doherty asks what really goes into supermarket food. In the process he uncovers something unexpected about an ice cream van favourite and the huge effort that goes into making prawn crackers.

Life BBC 4 7:00pm to 8:00pm [Repeat] Series narrated by David Attenborough, which uncovers the extraordinary behaviour of our planet’s animals and plants.

Sunday, December 20th Yellowstone BBC 2 7:00pm to 8:00pm [Repeat] Another chance to see this iconic series, following the extraordinary wildlife of Yellowstone National Park.

After Hours Natural History Museum – Free Event Friday 28 January, 18:00-22:00 Live music, a bar and natural history – a real night out! IMAX 3D Cinema Science Museum IMAX - Free for Imperial students with ID card Open daily Check out the Wild Ocean, Hubble Telescope or a bunch of other spectacular new IMAX films for free!

Thursday, December 16th

Saturday, December 18th

Wednesday, December 15th

What is a Drug? The Wellcome Collection – Free Event Thursday 20th January, 19.00-20.30 Explore the shifting definitions of drugs in culture and history.

Astronomy Photographer of the Year National Maritime Museum Royal Observatory – Free Exhibition. Open until 27th February A showcase of incredible images of the sky, from our solar system to deep space.

Wildlife Photographer of the Year Natural History Museum – Cost £4.50 Open until 11 March, 2011 See the best wildlife photos of the past year.

Sexual Nature Natural History Museum – Cost £4.00 Opens 11th February Take a look at how the Animal Kingdom reproduces in a special exhibition. London Futures The Museum of London - Free Exhibition. Open until 6th March Interwoven digital artwork and photography explores the future of London under climate change.

Atmosphere Science Museum - Free Exhibition Opened 4th December The newest addition to the Science Museum; a hands-on gallery making sense of climate science. Gaia Cabaret Science Museum Dana Centre - Free Event Wednesday 19th January, 19:00-20:30 See songs and sketches offering an artistic take on James Lovelock’s Gaia theory.

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I, Science - Issue 16 (Winter 2010/11)