Monday, March 15, 2010

What went on in February

Here’s my little round-up for the April issue of Prospect, before it is edited to probably a third of this size. I don’t want to sound churlish, in the last item, about what is clearly a useful trial – but it did seem a good example of the kind of thing Colin Macilwain at Nature nailed recently in an excellent article about science and the media.
     I’ve also reviewed Ian McEwan’s new book Solar in this forthcoming issue of Prospect – will post that review shortly. In short: it’s fun.

As the global warming debate intensifies, expect to hear more about methane, carbon dioxide’s partner in crime as a greenhouse gas. Since it doesn’t come belching from our cars and power stations, methane bulks small in our conscience, but agriculture, gas production, landfills and biomass burning have doubled methane levels in the atmosphere since pre-industrial times and it is a more potent greenhouse gas than CO2. There are immense natural resources of methane, and one doomsday scenario has some of these releasing the gas as a result of warming. A frozen form of methane and water, called methane hydrate, sits at the seafloor in many locations worldwide, but the methane could bubble out if sea temperatures rise. A team has now discovered  this happening on the Arctic continental shelf off northeastern Siberia, where the sea water has vastly more dissolved methane than expected. Some think a massive methane burp from hydrate melting 250 million years ago caused environmental changes that wiped out 70-96% of all species on the planet. There’s no reason to panic yet, but I’m just letting you know.

A few scientists and an army of bloggers still insist that global warming has nothing to do with any of this stuff, but is caused by changes in the activity of the sun. If you like that idea (or indeed if you hate it), don’t expect much enlightenment from NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO), launched in February to study the inner workings of the sun. We already know enough about variations in the sun to make the solar-warming hypotheses look flaky. But we don’t really understand what causes them. The 11-year sunspot cycle is thought to be the result of changes in the churning patterns of this volatile ball of hot plasma. It causes small periodic rise and fall of the sun’s energy output, along with the recurrent appearance of sunspots at the height of the cycle, and increases in solar flares that spew streams of charged particles across millions of miles of space, disrupting telecommunications and power grids on Earth and supplying a very practical reason for needing to know more about how our star works. SDO, launched by NASA at a cost of $856 million, will take images of the sun and detect convective flows of material beneath the surface, over the coming solar cycle that is due to peak around 2013.

A new study from researchers in Newcastle and Ulm of why our cells age does not, as some reports suggest, reveal the ‘secrets of ageing’, but rather debunks the notion of a ‘secret’ at all. Ageing, like embryo growth or cancer, is not a biochemical process but the net result of a complex network of processes. The new study shows how cells can become locked into a steady decline once they accumulate too much damage to their DNA, so that they don’t go on dividing with an inherent risk of initiating cancer. Although this process is triggered by the gradual erosion of the protective ‘caps’ at the ends of our chromosomes, called telomeres, it suggests that the story is far more complex than the simplistic picture in which we age because our chromosomes go bald. And it makes a magic bullet for reversing ageing seem even more of a pipe dream.

A cure for peanut allergy could be only three years away, recent headlines said. It’s a cheering prospect for this nasty condition, a source of anxiety for many parents and on very rare occasions a genuinely life-threatening problem. The reports were based on a presentation given by Andrew Clark of Addenbrooke’s Hospital in Cambridge at the meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, an annual jamboree of science news. Clark and his colleagues are about to begin a major clinical trial, following earlier success in desensitizing children to the allergy by ‘training’ the immune system to tolerate initially tiny but steadily increasing doses of peanut. The news is welcome, but also an indication of the rather formulaic nature of much science and health reporting, where everyone seizes on the same story irrespective of whether it is really news. This is, after all, just the announcement of a forthcoming trial, not of its results. And besides, the desensitizing strategy is well established in principle: similar successes were reported recently by two groups at a meeting of the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology in New Orleans. 


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JimmyGiro said...

Enlighten us, why didn't the ice age remain frozen?

Michelle said...

I'm waiting on the peanut allergy solution -- it's not my kids, it's me! I've survived this long, but it would be nice to be nice to not break out in hives when someone shells peanuts in my vicinity...

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Philip Ball said...

The short answer is that I don't believe we know. The timing of the present interglacial is consistent, to the extent that this is meaningful at all, with the current dominance of the 100,000-yr Milankovich cycle, and the prevailing view is still that these orbital-parameter cycles govern ice ages in the long term. But why the switches happen when they do is still one of the big unknowns of climate science. We don't even know whether changes in greenhouse gases lead or lag temperature changes, though there's some sign that they lag. The fact that the glacial-interglacial switches happen relatively abruptly suggests that there are feedbacks involved in the process, some possibly due to albedo. But as far as I'm aware, the big question is still open.

JimmyGiro said...

I wish I paid more attention to maths, but Carr's combination of tedium and petulance was driving me to distraction.

I do however recall the nuance of one of the BAYS lectures on Catastrophe Theory.

I wonder if it can be applied to scientific credibility in the public perception: predicting which email broke the camel's back of the school of global warming.

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