Tuesday, March 25, 2008

On hobbits and Merlin
[This is my latest Lab Report column for Prospect.]

In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. But the rest of this story is not fit for children, mired in accusations of grave-robbing and incompetence. The ‘hobbits’ in question, some just three feet tall, have been allegedly found in caves on islands of the Palauan archipelago in Micronesia. Or rather, their bones have, dating to around 1400 years ago. The discoverers, Lee Berger of the University of Witwatersrand in South Africa and his colleagues, think they shed new light on the diminutive Homo floresiensis remains discovered in Indonesia in 2003, which are widely believed to be a new species that lived until 13,000 years ago. If relatively recent humans can be this small, that belief could be undermined. Berger thinks that the smallness of H. floresiensis might be dwarfism caused by a restricted diet and lack of predators on a small island.

But others say Berger’s team are misrepresenting their find. Some claim the bones could be those of individuals no smaller than ‘pygmy’ groups still living in the Philippines, or even of children, and so are nothing to get excited about. And the new species status of H. floresiensis does not rest on size alone, but on detailed anatomical analysis.

On top of these criticisms, Berger’s team faces accusations of cultural insensitivity for prodding around in caves that locals regard as sacred burial places. To make matters worse, Berger’s work was partly funded by the National Geographic Society, which made a film about the study that was released shortly before Berger’s paper appeared in the online journal PLoS One (where peer review focuses on methodology, not conclusions). To other scientists, this seems suspiciously like grandstanding that undermines normal academic channels, although Berger insists he knew nothing of the film’s timing. “This looks like a classic example of what can go wrong when science and the review process are driven by popular media”, palaeoanthropologist Tim White told Nature.


As well as sabre-rattling, the Bush administration has a softer strategy for dealing with nuclear ‘rogue states’. It has set up a club for suitably vetted nations called the Global Nuclear Energy Partnership (GNEP), in which trustworthy members with “secure, advanced nuclear capabilities” provide nuclear fuel to, and deal with the waste from, other nations who agree to peaceful uses of nuclear power only. In effect, it’s a kind of ‘nuclear aid’ scheme with string attached: we give you the fuel, and we clean up for you, if you use it the way we tell you to. So members share information on reactor design but not on reprocessing of spent fuel, which can be used to extract military-grade fissile material. Everyone’s waste will be shipped to a select band of reprocessing states, including China, Russia, France, Japan, Australia and the US itself.

For all its obvious hierarchy, the GNEP is not without merit. The claim is that it will promote non-proliferation of nuclear arms, and it makes sense for the burden of generating energy without fossil fuels to be shared internationally. But one might worry about the prospect of large amounts of nuclear waste being shipped around the planet. Even more troublingly, many nuclear advocates think the current technology is not up to the task. John Deutsch of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, a specialist in nuclear energy and security, calls GNEP “hugely expensive, hugely misdirected and hugely out of sync with the needs of the industry and the nation.” The US Department of Energy’s plans to build a massive reprocessing facility, without initial pilot projects, has been called “a recipe for disaster” by the Federation of American Scientists, which adds that “GNEP has the potential to become the greatest technological debacle in US history.” It accuses the DoE of selling the idea as a green-sounding ‘recycling’ scheme. Nonetheless, in February the UK signed up as the GNEP’s 21st member, while contemplating the estimated £30 bn bill for cleaning up its own reprocessing facility at Sellafield.


Having come to expect all news to be bad, British astronomers saw a ray of hope in late February when the decision of the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) to withdraw from the Gemini project was reversed. Gemini’s two telescopes in Chile and Hawaii offer peerless views of the entire sky at visible and infrared wavelengths, and the previous decision of the STFC was seen as devastating. But now it’s business as usual, as the STFC has announced that the e-MERLIN project is threatened with closure even before it is up and running. This is an upgrade of MERLIN, a system that sends the signals of six radio telescopes around Britain by radio link-up to Jodrell Bank, near Manchester. In e-MERLIN the radio links are being replaced with optical cables, making the process faster and able to handle more data. It will boost the sensitivity of the observations by a factor of 30, revealing things that just can’t be seen at present – for example, how disks of dust around stars evolve into planetary systems.

e-MERLIN is now nearly completed, but the STFC is considering whether to pull its funding in 2009. That would surely axe jobs at Jodrell Bank and the astronomy department at Manchester, second only in size to Cambridge, but would also harm Britain’s impressive international standing in radio astronomy. With more than ten other projects on the STFC’s endangered list, everyone is now asking where the next blow will fall. There are no obvious duds on the list, yet something has to give if the STFC is to make up its £80 million deficit. But it is the opaque and high-handed way the decisions are being taken that is creating such fury and low morale.


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