News & Current Affairs

September 8, 2008

‘Climate crisis’ needs brain gain

‘Climate crisis’ needs brain gain

CMS (M. Brice/Cern)

The UK alone has invested more than half-a-billion pounds in the LHC

The most brilliant minds should be directed to solving Earth’s greatest challenges, such as climate change, says Sir David King.

The former UK chief scientist will use his presidential address at the BA Science Festival to call for a gear-change among innovative thinkers.

He will suggest that less time and money is spent on endeavors such as space exploration and particle physics.

He says population growth and poverty in Africa also demand attention.

“The challenges of the 21st Century are qualitatively different from anything that we’ve had to face up to before,” he told reporters before the opening of the festival, which is being held this year in Liverpool.

“This requires a re-think of priorities in science and technology and a redrawing of our society’s inner attitudes towards science and technology.”

Huge expense

Sir David’s remarks will be controversial because they are being made just as the UK is about to celebrate its participation in the Large Hadron Collider, the world’s biggest physics experiment.

The Collider, built at the Cern laboratory under the Swiss-French border, is starting full operations this Wednesday.

It will seek to understand the building blocks of matter, and, in particular, try to find a mechanism that can explain why matter has mass.

This international venture is extremely expensive, however. The UK alone has contributed more than £500m to the LHC – the largest sum of money to date invested by a UK government in a single scientific project.

Sir David said it was time such funding – and the brains it supports – were pushed to answering more pressing concerns.

“It’s all very well to demonstrate that we can land a craft on Mars, it’s all very well to discover whether or not there is a Higgs boson (a potential mass mechanism); but I would just suggest that we need to pull people towards perhaps the bigger challenges where the outcome for our civilization is really crucial.”

Big ideas

Chief among these challenges for Sir David is the issue of climate change. When he was the government’s top scientist, he made the famous remark that the threat from climate change was bigger than the threat posed by terrorism.

He said alternatives to fossil fuels were desperately needed to power a civilization that would number some nine billion people by mid-century – nine billion people who would all expect a high standard of living.

“We will have to re-gear our thinking because our entire civilization depends on energy production, and we have been producing that energy very largely through fossil fuels; and we will have to remove our dependence from fossil fuels virtually completely, or we will have to learn how to capture carbon dioxide from fossil fuel usage,” he said.

Finding and exploiting clean energy sources was now imperative, he said; and Sir David questioned whether the spending on particle physics research in the shape of Cern’s Large Hadron Collider was the best route to that goal.

He even doubted whether Cern’s greatest invention was an outcome that could only have come from an institution that pursued so-called “blue skies research”.

“People say to me: ‘well what about the world wide web? That emerged from Cern’. Brilliant. Tim Berners Lee was the person who invented that. What if Tim Berners Lee had been working in a solar [power] laboratory? Perhaps he would have done it there as well. The spin-out would have come from the brilliant individual.”

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August 20, 2008

eBay insect fossil is new species

eBay insect fossil is new species

Aphid fossil (Richard Harrington)

The fossil was bought for just £20

A scientist who bought a fossilized insect on the web auction site eBay for £20 has discovered that it belongs to a previously unknown species of aphid.

Dr Richard Harrington, vice-president of the UK’s Royal Entomological Society, bought the fossil from an individual in Lithuania.

He then sent it off to an aphid expert in Denmark, who confirmed the insect was a new species, now extinct.

The bug has been named Mindarus harringtoni after the scientist.

I had thought it would be rather nice to call it Mindarus ebayi
Dr Richard Harrington, Rothamsted

“I was interested to see what it was because I’ve worked with a team of people involved in monitoring and forecasting aphids, those of greenfly and their relatives in this country,” Dr Harrington told.

“I looked at it with my team and we thought we could identify it down to the level of genus, but we had no idea what the species was.”

Dr Harrington sent the specimen to Professor Ole Heie, a fossil aphid expert in Denmark.

“He discovered that it was something that hadn’t been described before,” Dr Harrington explained.

The insect itself is 3-4mm long and is encased in a 40-50 million-year-old piece of amber about the size of a small pill.

“I had thought it would be rather nice to call it Mindarus ebayi,” said Dr Harrington.

“Unfortunately using flippant names to describe new species is rather frowned upon these days.”

Instead, Professor Heie named the new species after Dr Harrington.

“It’s not uncommon to find insects in amber… but I’m not sure that one has turned up on eBay that has been undiscovered before. It’s a rather unusual route to come by [a new species],” the researcher, based at Rothamsted Research in Hertfordshire, explained.

He said the insect would have fed on a tree called Pinetes succinifer which is itself now long since extinct.

August 7, 2008

Scientist ‘lone anthrax attacker’

Scientist ‘lone anthrax attacker’

Bruce Ivins at a 2003 awards ceremony

Dr Bruce Ivins had helped with the investigation into the attacks

A US scientist who killed himself last week was the sole person responsible for the deadly anthrax attacks in 2001, new  FBI papers allege.

Dr Bruce Ivins alone controlled flask RMR1029, used in the attack, could not account for unusual overtime in labs and issued death threats, the FBI says.

The anthrax-laced letters killed five people, made another 17 sick, and unsettled a nation traumatised by 9/11.

Dr Ivins, 62, died shortly after being told he was about to be charged.

The FBI had been under pressure since his death to reveal the details of the investigation and its papers were unsealed by a judge on Wednesday.

FBI director Robert Mueller briefed the victims and their families about the case before publication.

In a news conference later, the US attorney for the District of Columbia, Jeffrey Taylor, said: “We consider Dr Ivins was the sole person responsible for this attack.”

Overdose

The papers say Dr Ivins had possession of anthrax spores with “certain genetic mutations identical” to those used in the sole deadly biological attack on US soil.

The letters were sent to media offices and politicians a few days after 9/11.

Mr Taylor said flask RMR1029 was “created and solely maintained” by Dr Ivins and that no-one could have had access to it without going through him.

Mr Taylor set out a number of other points of evidence against Dr Ivins, including:

  • He worked inordinate hours at night in the lab at the time of the attacks, could not account for the work and had not done similar overtime before or since
  • He sent a threatening email to a friend involved in the case and threatened in counselling sessions to kill people
  • He sent defective anthrax samples when taking part in the investigation into the attacks
  • He was a frequent writer to the media and often drove to other locations to disguise his identity as the sender of documents
  • Print defects in envelopes used in the attacks suggest they may have been bought at a post office in 2001 in Frederick, Maryland, where he had an account
  • After one search, he discarded a DNA coding book under surveillance

The Kevin Connolly in Washington says that although there is some hard scientific evidence, such as the flask, much of the case against Dr Ivins set out here is circumstantial.

Dr Ivins worked at the army biological weapons laboratory in Fort Detrick, Maryland.

ANTHRAX PANIC, 2001
Anthrax investigation in Washington DC 2001
First anthrax-laced letter is mailed on 18 Sept, 2001
Florida sees first of five deaths, three weeks later
The dead are two postal workers in Washington, a New York hospital worker, a Florida photo editor and an elderly woman in Connecticut
Panicked Americans try to stock up on antibiotic Cipro
Postal depots shut for de-contamination; mail is irradiated
Senate offices shut for weeks
Hoaxes become an almost daily occurrence
Plans to deal with a biological weapons attack updated

The investigation initially centred on one of Dr Ivins’s colleagues, Dr Steven Hatfill. He later sued the justice department and won a $5.82m (£2.94m) settlement this June.

The papers say Dr Ivins became the focus of attention in 2007.

One affidavit in the papers says Dr Ivins reported to a co-worker that he suffered “incredible paranoid, delusional thoughts at times” and “‘feared that he might not be able to control his behaviour”.

Dr Ivins also sent an email a few days before the anthrax attacks, warning Osama “Bin Laden terrorists” had access to anthrax, the FBI says.

The email used language similar to that in the anthrax letters, it was alleged.

Dr Ivins was also immunised against anthrax in early September 2001.

The release of the papers coincided with a memorial service for Dr Ivins at his work place in Fort Detrick.

Dr Ivins died in hospital on Tuesday last week apparently after an overdose.

A lawyer for Dr Ivins said after his death that he had suffered “relentless accusation and innuendo”, and that his innocence would have been proven in court.

But a social worker said in filed court documents that Dr Ivins had “a history dating to his graduate days of homicidal threats, plans and actions towards therapists”.

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