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. 


Unknown said...

Blogs are so informative where we get lots of information on any topic. Nice job keep it up!!

Media Dissertation

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...

Anonymous said...

adult成人情色激情成人聊天網情色影片色情俱樂部性愛影片情趣淫水影音情色限制級照片live show女生自慰影片超屌成人情色留言板淫亂女自慰免費視訊辣妹巨乳鹹濕色情影音聊天自拍走光照片免費情色av圖片亞洲情色論壇淫慾免費裸女圖片裙底風光台灣色情論壇一夜正妹淫娃網情色下載a圖片全裸淫蕩女人情色影音聊天高潮自慰色情圖片成人自拍女生自慰亞洲成人色情dvd舔乳頭女生自慰影片台灣色情網站台灣性樂園sex story情色影音激情聊天室嘿咻情色自拍

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.

Unknown said...

I love your blog so much, and there are just some differences with others'. Hope there will be more wonderful things in your blog. Happy every day!
Dissertation Help | Custom Dissertation


The blogger is Huge network for blogging i get lots of interesting information from here, hope blogger will modify and increase attributes to make it simpler.

Dissertation Writing Help | Dissertation Topics

Dissertation Writing service said...

This kind of information is very limited on internet. Nice to find the post related to my searching criteria. Your updated and informative post will be appreciated by blog loving people.

Dissertation Conclusion

Dissertation Writing Help said...

Your blog is really helps for my search and i really like it.. Thanks a lot..:)

Media Dissertation

Unknown said...

Nice article, thanks for the information. It's very complete information. I will bookmark for next reference
jaring futsal | jaring golf | jaring pengaman proyek |
jaring pengaman bangunan | jaring pengaman gedung

Berita hari ini di Indonesia said...

This page is very nice and very suitable to expand. I really like this page.
don't forget to visit my site :) Thankss..
games poker369
Poker bri 24j am
ceme 24 jam
Omaha 24j am
Dominoqq 24 jam
Super10 24j am