Daryl Ilbury

Archive for October, 2011|Monthly archive page

When babies become Mars bars

In Eish!, Politics on October 31, 2011 at 7:51 am

The seven billionth baby...apparently. Photograph: Erik De Castro/AFP/Getty Images

Meet Danica May Camacho – the world’s seven billionth inhabitant.

Except, of course, she’s not. Over the last couple of weeks the media has been buzzing with news that ‘sometime next week’, then ‘sometime this week’, then ‘sometime tomorrow’, the world’s seven billionth person would be born. Now unless babies are Mars bars on a production line, we can never know how many are produced each day. Furthermore thousands of unregistered babies are born every day to mothers in poor rural areas who have no access to primary health care.

And I suppose that’s why UN representatives, various international dignitaries and the world’s media converged on a state-run hospital in Manila in the Philippines to welcome onto this bloated planet a baby girl. Danica had been selected by the UN as one of several babies born on this day to symbolise the global population milestone of 7 billion people.

South Africa, arguably Africa’s most developed nation, is conducting its census this year. The country has a pretty good idea of how many people live within its borders, but the reality is that most African countries don’t; so the world may already have more than seven billion people.

Of course the whole idea of ‘The Seven Billionth Baby’ is to make us think earnestly about the challenges of sustainability…before shrugging and then switching on the TV to watch the next semi-reality show. How’s that for irony?

As for baby Danica…apart from receiving potential long-term damage to her newborn retinas from the hundreds of camera flashes, she receives a scholarship grant for her education. Use it wisely, Danica.

If you want to know what happened to the five- and six billionth babies, your can read about them in The Guardian.

Scientists to be burnt at the stake

In Eish!, Science on October 28, 2011 at 6:54 am

"Do you want fries with that?"

We know that science has an uncanny knack of rocking the establishment. It has done so for centuries. But its traditional rival has always been established religion. Whether it be having the temerity to suggest that the Sun does not go round the Earth; that the Earth is just a tad older than 6 000 years old; or that, horror of horrors, humans share a common ancestor with chimpanzees; science has always butted heads with central anchor tenets in religious doctrine.

But as religions have been drawn kicking and screaming in to the 21st Century and forced to adapt their beliefs in the face of contradictory scientific evidence (“no the story of Noah and the flood is more of an analogy“) science has attracted the ire of a far more dangerous adversary: the state-corporate coalition.  They have the means and the finances to subvert scientific enquiry and demonise science.

This is especially evident in the ongoing debate around climate change. The Independent is running with an unnerving story today about two scientists who are in the cross-hairs of the state-corporate coalition. Their crime? They have spoken out about polar bears.

The chilling phrase ‘witch-hunt’ comes to mind.

What do you do when the sky falls on your head?

In Eish!, Science on October 27, 2011 at 11:24 am

"Damned Rosatix!"

I followed with passing interest the last few days of a dying satellite. ROSAT (named in honour of the famous German physicist Wilhelm Röntgen) managed to enter the Earth’s atmosphere after hanging in space doing nothing for almost 12 years, except possibly getting in the way of the occasional visiting alien spacecraft looking to jam probes up the rectal orifices of paranoid Americans.

Why I found it interesting is that it’s been treated by various space agencies as if it’s a stray Labrador. “Look, we’ve lost this little dog, we don’t know where he is, but if you see him, please let us know. By the way, there’s a chance he might bite you, but the chances are very slim”.

I don’t know about anyone else, but I can handle a bite from a dog. Having several tonnes of spacecraft land on my head is another issue. Luckily the offending piece of space debris seems to have landed somewhere over the Bay of Bengal, which when I last looked was a vast expanse of water, with only few people bobbing on it.

There are hundreds of other satellites up there, all in various stages of decay. Next time we may not be so lucky.

Oh, by the way, the image is the front cover of the 2005 Asterix comic Asterix and the Falling Sky. I just thought it was a cool analogy – it also features aliens (which is why it didn’t go down well with serious Asterix fans).

7 Billion? Does it matter?

In Eish!, Science on October 26, 2011 at 12:57 pm

"Oh God, not another one"

Today, the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) launched its report The State of World Population 2011Professor Sir John Sulston, Chair of the Royal Society working group on Population, comments:

“We now live in a global community of seven billion people.  It’s marvellous that the human family has come so far so fast, and we have the potential to develop in ways we cannot begin to imagine.  However, our community is currently putting an unsustainable load on the Earth, creating problems that we cannot ignore.  We should ponder how the Earth can support so many individuals, but not lose sight of the fact that over-consumption of resources leads to many of the challenges we now face.”

Powerful words, Professor; but whereas those who work with numbers understand the significance of this, the figure seven billion has no bearing on the average person. It’s a figure that’s very hard to make any sense of.

Until people walk into their local Sainsbury’s and can’t find their favoutite aubergine ratatouille with parmesan shavings because there just isn’t any of the ingredients available anywhere, the average British consumer won’t think about it.

Science takes the iPhone to the next level

In Science on October 25, 2011 at 7:20 am

An iPhone 4 with that now famous logo - the big G

Outside of being a passionate media ambassador for Apple when I was still in breakfast radio, I don’t make a point of endorsing products…but this is different.

Guru – the world’s first digital crowd-sourced digital science lifestyle magazine has just launched an online boutique – typical funky Guru-speak for a range of merchandise. Guru has, deservedly, grown exponentially since it’s launch in August; and as their Sceptic Guru columnist, and aware the project is completely self-funded, I heartily encourage you to ‘deck yourself with Guru’. They have iPad and iPhone covers, mugs and clothing and more at their Cafepress Store.

And if you haven’t yet downloaded the latest edition (for free) onto your Mac, PC, tablet or smartphone, then do so now. I’ll be testing you on it later!

The withering charms of poetry

In Eish! on October 24, 2011 at 6:37 am

Lord Byron - apparently people are no longer buying his albums

A retort I often fire at any man lunging at me with a broken bottle is that I am a writer, not a fighter. I usually underscore the defence by holding up my hands to show evidence of their softness, and wiggling my fingers to illustrate their dexterity. Admittedly it’s not a particularly manly thing to do, but women love it. Or do they?

I never really knew my father, but he did manage to pass onto me three things that defined me: his love of science, his appreciation for artistic verse, and his gangly, uncoordinated, completely unathletic frame – three things that would ensure I’d be bullied at school.

Yes, I was the skinny kid who always came last in physical education exercises; who hated wearing shorts; and who crumpled at the thought of standing on the edge of a diving board in a Speedo. I was useless at most sports because I was cursed with all the co-ordination of a newly born wildebeest. Contact sports filled me with dread. I tried to get out of playing rugby by claiming I was prone to nose bleeds. In a school where playing rugby was compulsory…read more

Fodder for stupid people?

In Eish!, Fools, Scoundrels on October 23, 2011 at 1:56 pm

Really? Last week you said he was an alien.

Following the UK phone-hacking scandal that saw the closure of the News of the World, fingers were pointed at media bosses at News Corp; the media engaged itself in a serious bout of navel-gazing; and calls erupted for stricter laws around privacy.

Yet no-one seemed to shine a light on the other villain in the equation: the unquestioning, gullible, voyeuristic British tabloid consumer.

Here’s a shot of the front page of today’s Sunday Sport, arguably one of Britain’s most ungodly tabloids. But it exists, and thrives because there are idiots that buy it and believe it.

But what really frustrates me is that the people who peddle it call themselves journalists.

Against xenotransplantation? One question for you…

In Eish!, Science on October 22, 2011 at 12:31 pm

Good enough to eat, but not good enough to harvest? Image: iStockphoto

Xenotransplantation raises a lot of eyebrows, especially because most people have no idea what it is. But then when I tell them, they invariable reject the very notion; and there’s a word for that: ironic.

Xenotransplantation is essentially the transplanting of animal tissue into humans, and for many people this is anathematic. They find the concept of having, say, a pig’s windpipe replacing a diseased human windpipe quite revolting. This is interesting because the same people may find the same pig’s flesh delicious for breakfast.

So why are scientists experimenting with animal tissue? I first wrote about this back in 2006 when researching a piece on organ transplant for The Saturday Star; and I found a shocking degree of resistance towards the idea of xenotransplantation. This was generally rooted in ignorance and a fair degree of religious steadfastness.

Given my familiarity with that area where science and religion collide, this is understandable (although more than a little frustrating); but what really upsets me can be exemplified by the reaction of one of my interviewees who displayed outrage at the concept of xenotransplantation. When he asked why scientists were doing this, I asked him if he was a registered organ donor. He said, “No”, and I replied, “well that’s why”.

If those people who are against research into xenotransplantation feel so passionate in their moral objection, perhaps they should do the morally courageous thing to do and register to become an organ donor. And if they don’t want to do that, then they should just shut up.

Thank heavens science isn’t swayed by such moral hypocrites; and research into xenotransplantation continues. The biggest challenge, as it is for any organ transplantation, is rejection; and so the recent announcement that clinical pig-islet xenotransplantation – or transplantation of pig cells – is on the cards comes no doubt as a welcome relief for people suffering from diabetes and other diseases.

Delicious twist for climate change sceptics

In Fools, Science on October 21, 2011 at 7:15 am

"Anyone seen my home?"

Nothing irritates my children more than when I say to them: “I told you so”; because they know I relish disproving their doubts in my wisdom.

Wisdom comes from the judicious assimilation of data collected over many years. More importantly, it’s knowledge that is contextual, not just converged around a single frame of intellectual enquiry.

A single scientist may focus on a specific area of his or her interest, but the cumulative insights from many such scientists, give us a rich picture of their area of research.

As such, science isn’t making up everything we know about climate change. It’s based on the methodical and passionate study of thousands of scientists around the world. Their research is critically evaluated by other scientists who relish the opportunity to find a thread of fault that, if corrected, would contribute to the veracity of knowledge.

Climate change sceptics are part of the discussion around a frightening challenge to the planet’s, and our own, health. But they are being pushed by people with political and economic agendas, and they continually hang onto the words of a diminishing handful of scientists who oppose the bulk of research that proves the reality of climate change.

Washington Post columnist Ezra Klein’s blog is carrying a wonderful story about Richard Miller, a leading physicists and a very vocal climate change sceptic, who, after setting out to challenge the current research into climate change, has discovered something quite revelatory: actually, climate change is real.

My children are shaking their heads. They know what’s coming next…

A cure for Parkinson’s Disease one step further away

In Politics, Science on October 20, 2011 at 6:24 am

Is this where a cure could remain forever?

If there’s one thing medical researchers agree on it’s that a cure for some of the world’s most mystifying diseases lies in the exciting advances in stem cell research. Furthermore such research holds keys for the targeted treatment of such debilitating conditions as blindness and crippling spinal injuries.

Unfortunately, if those stem cells are drawn from human embryos, the research attracts the frothy ire of moral conservatives. The key phrase here is ‘human’, because although an embryo may contain the genetic code that makes it ‘human’ as opposed to, say, amphibian; it is not ‘human’ in that it contains any measure whatsoever of resembling a human being. It is, in essence, nothing more a clump of cells.

However self-appointed moral guardians, with little understanding of the intricacies of science, hold true the words of the comedic Monty Python troupe that “every sperm is sacred”. For them, an embryo in a petri-dish has the same rights as a child in a wheelchair.

The European Court of Justice recently ruled that no researcher in the EU may patent any discovery whatsoever from research using stem cells from human embryos. This will naturally have the effect of stifling stem cell research in Europe. It also means that money being used to fund this critical research will now flow to countries elsewhere, and stem cell researchers in Europe will naturally follow the funding.

If they don’t, their discovery that could cure Parkinson’s Disease may remain in a petri dish on a lab bench.

The Independent online has more on this story.