30 May 2009

Does radiation scare you?

When I was at school, there was a locked room in the corner of our physics lab. And in that room, in a tightly-sealed, lead-lined box, was an old clock. It looked innocuous, but it was the most radioactive thing in the building. Decades earlier, the hands of that clock had been painted with radium -- to make them glow in the dark. And it came out of its box only once a year, so we students could wave a Geiger counter over it and marvel at its popping radioactivity.

That clock, under lock and key, put the fear of God into us innocent students. And, for some people, that fear never really goes away. Writing online this week for The Guardian, environmental campaigner Oliver Tickell claims that we are all living in a dangerous radiation-ridden world, in which global authorities are silently covering up the real risks. His piece is filled with lots of unsubstantiated statistics, including that "as many as a million children across Europe and Asia may have died in the womb as a result of radiation from Chernobyl" and that experts "underestimate the health impacts of low levels of internal radiation by between 100 and 1,000 times."

Now, if there's one thing we students were taught, it's that too much radiation isn't safe. But we also learned that it has its uses. Sure, clock hands have something else to make them glow these days, but we still use different forms of radioactive materials for everything from sterilising deadly flies, producing power, and treating cancer. This week, for example, the International Atomic Energy Agency announced a new programme with the World Health Organisation to help accelerate cancer treatments in low- and middle-income countries.

So the danger is that people like Tickell will throw the radioactive baby out with the bathwater, and make people fear peaceful uses of radiation when they don't need to. Fact is, we need a bit of radiation in our lives.

Clock picture from PeriodicTable.com

It's hip to be a square


Followers of this blog may know that I am am a somewhat dedicated follower of geek fashion. So I had to love Intel's new advert, in which the co-founder of the USB is given the rock star treatment (in the office, anyway). Oh, if the world were really like this...

28 May 2009

Angels, Demons and Anti-matter

I admit it, I can't help picking out scientific anomalies when I watch movies. It's stupid, really, because Warners Bros and Universal Studios are not scientific journals and we can't expect to hold them up to the same standards...

Even so, the latest movie to catch the attention of nit-picking physicists is Angels and Demons, based on the novel by Dan Brown. In the film, a bomb using antimatter produced at the particle physics laboratory CERN, is used to threaten the Vatican. And apparently, in case you were concerned, this is impossible. I got a press release from University College London telling me so:
"Dr Robert Flack of the UCL Institute of Origins, says: A bomb using antimatter is not viable because it would take longer than the age of the universe to produce enough antimatter to fuel such a device. Rather than putting the fear of God in us, we should be grateful for antimatter's growing role in modern medicine and physics. For example, a PET scanner (positron emission tomography) uses antimatter to create 3D images of the brain."
Oh, you UCL scientists, you're even geekier than I am.

25 May 2009

Nuking the poverty fly

The tsetse fly is the scourge of Africa. So much so, in fact, that it's been referred to as the 'poverty fly'. It infects 75,000 people and kills three million livestock every year across a belt of central Africa... And there has so far been no way to get rid of them.

But the International Atomic Energy Agency has a programme in place that promises to eradicate the fly altogether: Sterilising the male tsetse fly so that it can no longer reproduce. It might sound bizarre (how do you nuke millions of individual flies?), but it works. In the last 50 years, scientists using this process have managed to eradicate entire tsetse species. And thanks to funding in the 1980s, the beautiful island of Zanzibar is completely free of tsetse flies.

Problem is that, even though the IAEA trains 20 scientists a year to work on tsetse fly eradication, there's still a shortage of experts. According to Jorge Hendrichs, the head of the insect and pest control section of a joint UN Food and Agriculture Organization and IAEA project, You need to create reliable management teams that are not corrupt or [do not] have other interests... A number of the [IAEA] fellows disappear into the private sector, or simply disappear during training.”

22 May 2009

Want to work in defence?

These days, being a scientist or engineer working in the defence industry doesn't only mean developing weapons. That's one thing I learned writing my latest feature for Science Careers. In truth, a defence career can be about force protection, humanitarian technologies, emergency equipment, security, communications...

That said, it's still pretty controversial. As one interviewee told me, "It's the only area in which you may be asked to develop machines that will kill people." To be honest, I'm on the fence on this one. I believe many countries need to stay technologically up-to-date to maintain national security (and so help protect lives), but at the same time, scientists throughout history have found it morally difficult to see their discoveries used for death and destruction. Scientists do have a responsibility to make sure they understand the ethical implications of their work.

Leopold Infeld, a physicist in the 1930s and a friend of Albert Einstein, said it well: “We [scientists] are not fighters... We care little for power; no great political leader has ever arisen from our circle…We are trained in too many doubts to employ force and to express unconditional belief. But in the fight against destruction our words and thoughts may count.”

19 May 2009

Freebies are all I have...

When I went freelance, I gave up all the good things: Holiday pay, sick leave, annual bonuses, staff Christmas parties... All of it. What I have left is the occasional freebie. Usually, this is a pen from a well-meaning PR agency, or maybe if I'm lucky, a mousemat.

I say this, because I have been offered the most delicious freebie of the year: The new Asus Seashell netbook. My fiancee and I were wandering down Tottenham Court Road last week, when a group of Asus representatives dangled one before us. It was ours, on one condition: That they take our photo, and that this photo earn more votes on their site than any other photo. So please, click on this link, and vote for us.

I have wanted a netbook since I did an item about them for BBC Woman's Hour in the New Year (that's 5 months!). But if you don't do it for me, do it for all the hardworking freelancers out there.

Support the Singh

Simon Singh is one of the reasons I became a science journalist (and not only because he's also a British Punjabi). He wrote Fermat's Last Theorem, which proved it was possible to make science fascinating and gripping... He's a science communicating icon. But today, he's in trouble.

Singh recently co-wrote a book called Trick or Treatment, about bogus health cures, and in the course of his research and promotion for the book, managed to irk the British Chiropractic Association by saying: "This organisation is the respectable face of the chiropractic profession and yet it happily promotes bogus treatments". They sued him for libel and, incredibly, a judge agreed with the BCA. Show support for the unstoppable Singh on his facebook page.

How do you like your books?

Paper or plastic? For this week's Digital Planet radio show, on the BBC World Service, I'm reporting from the gargantuan British Library in London about e-books and how text gets digitised. Staff there have the mammoth task of page-by-page scanning the world's oldest books, and have just ended a project digitising 70,000 19th Century texts.

But the big question for libraries, publishers, authors, bookshops and search engines is whether e-books will ever make it big. Right now, reading an entire book on your laptop can get annoying, and portable electronic readers are pretty expensive. Also, if you like pictures, or the simple tactile pleasure of flicking through a paper book, an e-book just can't cut it.

That said, digitisation is a dream for people with an interest in rare or historic tests. The British Library, for example, uses a system called Turning the Pages to allow visitors to browse through ancient texts, including the oldest printed book, dating back to 860 from China. It's totally brilliant ... Check it out online.

Above photo from the British Library.

18 May 2009

They're listening!

We all complain that nobody asks us what we think, right? Well, for a while now, the National Institutes of Health in the United States have been asking the public about their views on proposed new funding rules for stem cell research. It's been a genuine chance for people to shape the future of this groundbreaking and controversial area of science. Yet, believe it or not, few scientists so far have responded. Not even stem cell scientists.

The result is that, if the rules pass through unchanged, most existing stem cell research in the US might have to stop. It's a terrible waste, and partly because people haven't offered their comments when asked. The deadline is May 26, so find out how to send in your two cents worth here... before it's too late.

On the same theme, in the UK, the venerable Royal Society is hosting a conference next year, called Tomorrow's Giants, to discuss science's vision for the next 50 years. If you're a scientist and you want the ear of other leading scientists and policymakers, then you are being offered the chance to take part in regional meetings all across the country, and also post your views on the fabulous Nature Network site. Topics planned so far include the impact of web 2.0 on how scientists share data, communication between industry and academia, and issues affecting careers and research.

Don't say they never ask, because they do.

11 May 2009

Pass me that purple tomato...

... 'Cos it's tasty and good for me! Well, that's what GM researchers think anyway. I have a feature in this month's New Humanist magazine about the benefits of genetically-modified crops, particularly in a food crisis. And purple tomatoes are one cancer-busting variety that is being developed by scientists hoping to boost the nutritional value of our food by splicing a gene here or there.

Despite its virtues, there are still plenty of people out there who would rather eat insects than a 'frankenfood.' The psychology behind anti-GM is very strange. In the United States, for example, GM crops are so widespread that you can barely live a day without eating them, whereas in Europe you would have to hunt them down. In fact, I haven't even seen a GM-containing product in the UK for years.

In Europe, at least, a lot of the problem is down to years of scaremongering and bizarre myths that have propagated around GM foods. Some people believe they can damage your DNA, or that eating them is equivalent to consuming pesticides. One woman I found on the Internet even claimed she was allergic to all GM foods... Let's hope she never visits the US then.

8 May 2009

Getting rid of weapons ain't cheap

You might think that building weapons costs millions, but disposing of them is not cheap either. The US Defense Department has asked for $550.4 million next year to have any hope of getting rid of the country's mammoth stockpile of chemical weapons by an international deadline in 2012. Russia is similarly suffering from a funds shortage to deal with its stockpile.

Since all this money is expected to come from the government, the recession can't be helping the disarmament process. Could the bankers on Wall Street have anticipated that their shenanigans would end with the US struggling to meet its international obligations to disarm itself of deadly weapons? Oh, in what crazy ways the world works.

7 May 2009

A heated stem cell debate

Since I tend to cover engineering and physical sciences more than the biological, I've never really had the chance to explore the ethics around stem cell research. But recently the editors over at Cell's journal, Stem Cell, gave me the chance to report on a stem cell debate at the Royal Albert Hall, in London - specifically organised for teenagers from British schools, but including an expert panel of scientific and ethical luminaries.

Although nobody got violent, it did get pretty heated. You can read the feature in the latest issue (paid access only, sorry). Now, I've never had an ethical problem with using early-stage embryos for medical research, especially if it could save lives. But what surprised me was that, even amongst scientifically-literate schoolchildren, the issue is still hugely divisive. And, for many (particularly those with religious convictions) even a fertilised egg feels equivalent to a human life.

In the scientific community, it's easy to dismiss views as ignorant if they don't tally with your own convictions but, as the debate proved, education alone isn't always enough. It takes time, effort, and even then you may never win everyone over.

Picture of the debate above by Sheila Burnett.

6 May 2009

Microsoft's new toys

I've just returned from a visit to Microsoft's research labs in Cambridge, where I and other journalists were lucky to get a peek at some of the latest gadgets and ideas being developed by their super-keen scientists. Among the most popular were SenseCam, a wearable camera that takes panoramic shots regularly throughout the day to create a kind of virtual, visual memory of everything you see; and a small touch-screen notepad called Wayve that lets you upload photos, emails and write post-it-style notes (nice for the busy family).

But most interesting was to find out what Microsoft's bigwigs believe will be the future of computing. Apparently, we are now in a mobile communications phase that will eventually give way to a multitude of interfaces - a Surface-style screen in every room and for all environments... Yeah, if I ran a software company, I'd wish for that too.

Andrew Herbert, Managing Director of Microsoft Research Cambridge, suggested that some of these interfaces might even talk to us with humanoid faces and Hal-like automated voices. That's something that the public isn't used to yet. In fact, a demonstration of what this might look like elicited a few giggles from the crowd. But watch this space, cos you never know.

Photo of Wayve from Pocket-lint, who were there today.

5 May 2009

Wired UK: Brains scans that find you guilty

These days, glossy magazines can feel a bit of a luxury, but if you don't mind shelling out £3.90 then why not get the latest edition of Wired UK, in which I have one of the cover stories. It's about brain imaging technologies being used in Indian courts to determine whether suspects can be pinned to the crime.

I spent most of January in Mumbai and Gujarat trying to figure out the truth behind this story and, like the experts can attest, there are indeed some worrying signs that people are stretching the boundaries of what is possible with brain imaging. Of course, scientists can't read your mind... So my lesson was to beware anyone who says otherwise.

And my experience of working with the fresh Wired UK team (given the magazine only launched here last month)? It was good. Although I did all the interviews and research, the writing itself was definitely a collaborative effort between myself and the editors. They seem keen to build an intelligent magazine, not only for tech geeks, but geeks of all shapes and sizes. Good luck to them, and feel free to leave your views here!

1 May 2009

How to spot the green baloney

I spent some of Wednesday evening this week in the company of popular science writer and my virtual acquaintance, Brian Clegg, who was at the swanky bar inside Waterstone's Piccadilly discussing his latest book, Ecologic.

I must admit, I had only read two-thirds of it by the time I got there, but I finished the rest today and it is a brilliant read. He basically does what Ben Goldacre does around health (and I understand Ben is particularly busy now thanks to pig flu panic), but for environmental hogwash. There's good advice on how to be really green, and what just looks green but isn't.

In particular, I liked his charge that the industry around being 'carbon neutral' is more about image and guilt than sparing carbon dioxide emissions. Especially since so many celebrities spout on about their carbon neutrality while at the same time hopping on their private jets.

I also liked the section on organic food. I have fought a long and bitter battle with my mother, who always buys organic fruit and veg, to convince her that this is just a marketing ploy. Brian very niftily explains why. Hope my mum reads it.