News & Current Affairs

September 22, 2008

Dutchman’s Noah’s Ark opens doors

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Dutchman’s Noah’s Ark opens doors

The ark at Schagen

The ark is nearly three storeys high

A half-sized replica of the biblical Noah’s Ark has been built by a Dutch man, complete with model animals.

Dutch creationist Johan Huibers built the ark as testament to his literal belief in the Bible.

The ark, in the town of Schagen, is 150 cubits long – half the length of Noah’s – and three storeys high. A cubit was about 45cm (18in) long.

The ark opened its doors on Saturday, after almost two years’ construction, most of it by Mr Huiber himself.

‘Past comprehension’

“The design is by my wife, Bianca,” Mr Huibers said. “She didn’t really want me to do this at all, but she said if you’re going to anyway, it should look like this.”

Life-size models of giraffes, elephants, lions, crocodiles, zebras and bison are included in the ark’s interior.

The Bible’s Book of Genesis says Noah kept seven pairs of most tamed animals and one breeding pair of all other creatures in the boat, which survived a catastrophic flood sent down by God to punish man.

John Huibers in the ark

Mr Huibers spent nearly two years building the ark

Mr Huibers, a contractor, built the ark out of cedar and pine – because Biblical scholars are still not sure as to which type of wood was used in the ark’s construction.

He began building in May 2005, after he dreamed of the Netherlands being flooded.

“In February 1992, I had a dream that Holland will become flooded. The next day, I found a book about Noah’s Ark in the local bookshop, and since then, my dream has been to build the ark,” he said.

Visitors were stunned. “It’s past comprehension,” Mary Louise Starosciak told the Associated Press.

“I knew the story of Noah, but I had no idea the boat would have been so big.”

The ark includes a 50-seat theatre showing a segment of the Disney film Fantasia retelling the story of Noah’s Ark.

US visitor Lois Poppema told AP she thought the Netherlands was the right place for an ark to be built: “Just a few weeks ago we saw Al Gore on television .. saying that all Holland will be flooded.

“I don’t think the man who made this ever expected that global warming will become [such an important] issue – and suddenly having the ark would be meaningful in the middle of Holland.”

September 19, 2008

EU sets new slaughterhouse rules

EU sets new slaughterhouse rules

Battery chickens at farm in Sicily

Chickens are often stunned with an electrified “waterbath”

The European Commission says new legislation is needed to improve animal welfare at European slaughterhouses.

Current EU rules on animal slaughter are “outdated in many respects,” the commission said on Thursday.

Under a new proposal, abattoirs would have to ensure proper training for staff and monitor the efficiency of their stunning equipment.

But current stunning methods would not be banned. The proposal still requires approval by all 27 EU governments.

The new legislation will not take effect until it is approved by the European Parliament and the ministries concerned – a process that could take up to three years.

The commission says each slaughterhouse should have an animal welfare officer.

The “waterbath stunner” used for poultry would not be banned, “despite its welfare disadvantages”, the commission said.

Use of carbon dioxide to kill animals would still be allowed, despite the concerns expressed by scientists.

The commission says there is a lack of commercially viable alternatives to those methods of slaughter.

Minimizing pain

The new proposal defines the scope of stunning and slaughter methods more strictly and states that gas stunning of birds must be irreversible.

“Stunned animals will have to be regularly monitored to ensure they do not regain consciousness before slaughter,” the commission says.

Third countries exporting meat to the EU would have to meet similar standards.

But small slaughterhouses will be exempt from some of the provisions.

The proposal also covers the killing of animals for fur, the slaughter of male day-old chicks and culling for disease control purposes.

Every year nearly 360 million pigs, sheep, goats and cattle as well as several billion poultry are killed in EU slaughterhouses, the commission says.

The European fur industry accounts for another 25 million animals.

The lobby group Compassion in World Farming expressed regret that the commission failed to demand alternatives to the electrified water bath and carbon dioxide gassing methods, the AFP news agency reported.

Neil Parish MEP, Conservative chairman of the European Parliament’s agriculture committee, welcomed the commission proposal.

“In the UK we already have generally high standards for slaughtering animals, but this is not the same across the EU, where standards are patchy to say the least. We need to level the playing field and these new regulations should help to do that,” he said.

September 14, 2008

Taxi drivers ‘have brain sat-nav’

Taxi drivers ‘have brain sat-nav’

Sid James in a London cab (BBC)

The knowledge: London cabbies are famous for knowing their way around

Scientists have uncovered evidence for an inbuilt “sat-nav” system in the brains of London taxi drivers.

They used magnetic scanners to explore the brain activity of taxi drivers as they navigated their way through a virtual simulation of London’s streets.

Different brain regions were activated as they considered route options, spotted familiar landmarks or thought about their customers.

The research was presented at this week’s BA Science Festival.

Earlier studies had shown that taxi drivers have a larger hippocampus – a region of the brain that plays an important role in navigation.

Their brains even “grow on the job” as they build up detailed information needed to find their way around London’s labyrinth of streets – information famously referred to as “The Knowledge”.

“We were keen to go beyond brain structure – and see what activity is going on inside the brains of taxi drivers while they are doing their job,” said Dr Hugo Spiers from University College London.

Taxi driver's brain

The scientists used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to obtain “minute by minute” brain images from 20 taxi drivers as they delivered customers to destinations on “virtual jobs”.

The scientists adapted the Playstation2 game “Getaway” to bring the streets of London into the scanner.

After the scan – and without prior warning – the drivers watched a replay of their performance and reported what they had been thinking at each stage.

“We tried to peel out the common thoughts that taxi drivers tend to have as they drive through the city, and then tie them down to a particular time and place,” said Dr Spiers.

The series of scans revealed a complex choreography of brain activity as the taxi drivers responded to different scenarios.

The hippocampus was only active when the taxi drivers initially planned their route, or if they had to completely change their destination during the course of the journey.

The scientists saw activity in a different brain region when the drivers came across an unexpected situation – for example, a blocked-off junction.

Another part of the brain helped taxi drivers to track how close they were to the endpoint of their journey; like a metal detector, its activity increased when they were closer to their goal.

Changes also occurred in brain regions that are important in social behaviour.

Taxi driving is not just about navigation: “Drivers do obsess occasionally about what their customers are thinking,” said Dr Spiers.

Animals use a number of different mechanisms to navigate – the Sun’s polarized light rays, the Earth’s magnetic fields and the position of the stars.

This research provides new information about the specific roles of areas within the brains of expert human navigators.

September 7, 2008

Shun meat, says UN climate chief

Shun meat, says UN climate chief

Cow road sign

Livestock production has a bigger climate impact than transport, the UN believes

People should consider eating less meat as a way of combating global warming, says the UN’s top climate scientist.

Rajendra Pachauri, who chairs the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), will make the call at a speech in London on Monday evening.

UN figures suggest that meat production puts more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere than transport.

But a spokeswoman for the UK’s National Farmers’ Union (NFU) said methane emissions from farms were declining.

People may not realise that changing what’s on their plate could have an even bigger effect
Joyce D’Silva
Compassion in World Farming

Dr Pachauri has just been re-appointed for a second six-year term as chairman of the Nobel Prize-winning IPCC, the body that collates and evaluates climate data for the world’s governments.

“The UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) has estimated that direct emissions from meat production account for about 18% of the world’s total greenhouse gas emissions,” he told BBC News.

“So I want to highlight the fact that among options for mitigating climate change, changing diets is something one should consider.”

Climate of persuasion

The FAO figure of 18% includes greenhouse gases released in every part of the meat production cycle – clearing forested land, making and transporting fertiliser, burning fossil fuels in farm vehicles, and the front and rear end emissions of cattle and sheep.

Rajendra Pachauri, IPCC chairman

Dr Pachauri has chaired the Nobel Prize-winning body since 2002

The contributions of the three main greenhouse gases – carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide – are roughly equivalent, the FAO calculates.

Transport, by contrast, accounts for just 13% of humankind’s greenhouse gas footprint, according to the IPCC.

Dr Pachauri will be speaking at a meeting organised by Compassion in World Farming (CIWF), whose main reason for suggesting people lower their consumption of meat is to reduce the number of animals in factory farms.

CIWF’s ambassador Joyce D’Silva said that thinking about climate change could spur people to change their habits.

“The climate change angle could be quite persuasive,” she said.

“Surveys show people are anxious about their personal carbon footprints and cutting back on car journeys and so on; but they may not realise that changing what’s on their plate could have an even bigger effect.”

Side benefits

There are various possibilities for reducing the greenhouse gas emissions associated with farming animals.

They range from scientific approaches, such as genetically engineering strains of cattle that produce less methane flatus, to reducing the amount of transport involved through eating locally reared animals.

“The NFU is committed to ensuring farming is part of the solution to climate change, rather than being part of the problem,” an NFU spokeswoman told BBC News.

BBC Green Room logo

Unnatural roots of the food crisis

Snared in a homemade ‘NitroNet’

“We strongly support research aimed at reducing methane emissions from livestock farming by, for example, changing diets and using anaerobic digestion.”

Methane emissions from UK farms have fallen by 13% since 1990.

But the biggest source globally of carbon dioxide from meat production is land clearance, particularly of tropical forest, which is set to continue as long as demand for meat rises.

Ms D’Silva believes that governments negotiating a successor to the Kyoto Protocol ought to take these factors into account.

“I would like governments to set targets for reduction in meat production and consumption,” she said.

“That’s something that should probably happen at a global level as part of a negotiated climate change treaty, and it would be done fairly, so that people with little meat at the moment such as in sub-Saharan Africa would be able to eat more, and we in the west would eat less.”

Dr Pachauri, however, sees it more as an issue of personal choice.

“I’m not in favour of mandating things like this, but if there were a (global) price on carbon perhaps the price of meat would go up and people would eat less,” he said.

“But if we’re honest, less meat is also good for the health, and would also at the same time reduce emissions of greenhouse gases.”

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