Posts Tagged ‘news’

Busy Bee, Sorry Simon

March 6, 2010

Sorry about the lack of posts, like all good scientists i’ve been inundated with work of late.  Poor excuse I know but still I apologise. To make up for my lack of post here are some current science stories that have interested me:

New Scientist – Theory of everything!

BBC – Dino Deaths

Guardian – Bad Boys

Ta ra!

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Fusion: Hotter Than the Sun

February 3, 2010

Incidentally light (and heat) leaving the sun travels for 8 minutes, exactly the same time it takes to turn an apple pie into a lethal weapon.  Fusion power is what powers the sun and there is hopes that it could be harnessed here on earth.  At the centre of the sun hydrogen atoms (specifically the isotopes deuterium and tritium) fuse together to produce helium, this process releases an enormous amount of energy.  Scientists hope to one day reproduce this process on earth, and a new finding has brought us one step closer.

Experiments at the National Ignition Facility in the US have shown that ignition of fusion fuel could be achieved using a laser.  By firing 192 lasers at a tiny pellet of deuterium and tritium, plasma was successfully produced without obscuring the lasers themselves.  Handling plasma has always presented a hurdle to progressing with fusion power.  At temperatures of 109 K very little can survive, so creating vessels to contain the plasma requires more than just reinforced steel.

The ITER is the vessel that scientist hope can contain the plasma of a fusion reaction so that heat can be extracted from it.  A collaborative effort between 7 national and supranational bodies, the ITER is due to begin construction of its tokamak in 2011.  A tokamak uses magnetic fields to confine the plasma rather than physical methods, this allows the plasma to be created without damaging any structures.  If all goes to plan construction should be complete by 2018.  Bringing us ever so closer to creating our own mini-sun here on earth.

Peer Review

January 21, 2010

Anyone that has read Ben Goldacre’s Bad Science will know the importance of the peer review system to science.  Scientists will write papers on any discoveries and submit these papers to journals for publication.  This way their work can be scrutinised and critically assessed by other experts in the field.  These journals are rarely read by the general public though.  Publications such as New Scientist and Nature provide a link from scientists to the public, but much of the science news we digest is reported by the media without verification of facts and figures.  We wouldn’t expect important decisions to be based on hearsay?

In 1998 Syed Hasnain, an indian glaciologist, stated he thought all the glaciers in the eastern and central portions of the himalayas would disappear by 2035.  These claims were never repeated in a peer-reviewed journal and Syed now says his claims were speculative.  However these claims were reported as “very likely” in a 2007 report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.  The IPCC have now apologised for the mistake, however the question of how and why the claim was included in the first place still remains.

At times the world of science can seem murky and underhand.  Occurrences like the Climategate scandal show that information isn’t always freely available to those that want to or need to see it.  The peer-review system can lead to some scientists being frozen out if they want to publish unpopular views.  A balance must be struck, we want reliable data that has been critical assessed by experts, but we want that information widely available too.  It is important though that any science news story is supplied with appropriate published sources of the original study, so look out for mentions of papers and where they are published, so you don’t get caught out like the IPCC.

Professor Simon

What ever happened to Swine Flu?

January 19, 2010

In the summer of 2009 swine flu was on everyone’s lips, quite literally in the minds of the World Health Organisation.  Warnings of a new pandemic led to hilarious sightings of surgical masks being worn by some members of the public.  Summer came and went, the massacre never came, but we were promised swine flu by the bucket load this winter.  It never came.  So why all the fuss?  Members of the Council of Europe are asking the same question.

The contraction numbers of swine flu in the UK may never be known as many ‘sufferers’ were prescribed the antiviral Tamiflu without even seeing a doctor.  We do know that deaths were far lower than some projections suggested.  Should the WHO be made to answer to suggestions that swine flu was blown out of proportion?  The role of the media in the coverage of swine flu must be also acknowledged.  The summer is often a slow news period and fear sells newspapers, or in the 21st century increases web traffic.

The most significant feature of swine flu was the speed at which it spread around the globe.  We now live in the age of international travel, and the H1N1 virus seemed to spread like wild fire.  The slow rate in which vaccines were produced exposed some of the problems we may have if a more virulent virus spreads as easily as swine flu.

On a final note, rather than fuss about wasted money buying vaccines for a flu we couldn’t predict, shouldn’t we be happy we didn’t die?

Professor Simon