Tuesday, December 31, 2013

A science news preview of 2014

As the new year begins, the BBC's science and environment journalists look ahead to what we can expect to see in the headlines in 2014.

David Shukman, science editor

With the fastest supercomputer in the world and a rover exploring the Moon, Chinese science is enjoying an unstoppable rise. And it's backed by spending on a scale that would turn most Western scientists green with envy.

One leading British scientist likens China to the United States in the late 20th Century with a large population, huge resources and boundless energy - and 'look what America produced in terms of science'. So watch out for advances in everything from cloning to robotics to spaceflight.

The scramble for energy, exacerbated by Chinese growth, is bound to throw up further controversy in the coming year. Russia's arrest of Greenpeace activists and Ed Miliband's pledge to freeze energy prices are both reflections of mounting tension over the future of fuel.

The Arctic is only one of several frontlines: Africa is emerging as a major new source of oil and gas as well. And, as prices rise for the most-needed resources, expect the launch of a new gold rush in a realm many would regard as too precious to touch: the ocean floor.

Jonathan Amos, science correspondent

There is little doubt in my mind where the excitement is going to come from in 2014 in the realm of space exploration. It is Europe's Rosetta mission to Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. It is 10 years since the Esa probe was dispatched to rendezvous with the 4km-wide hunk of ice, but the long engagement is very nearly over and the marriage ceremony is about to begin.

Rosetta will be woken from hibernation on 20 January. And after a period of instrument check-out and some rendezvous manoeuvres, the spacecraft should find itself in the vicinity of 67P in August. Mapping and remote-sensing will then be followed by an audacious attempt to put a lander, called Philae, on the comet's surface in November.

This will occur some 450 million km from the Sun. Assuming Philae gets down successfully, it will try to ride 67P on its sweep into the inner Solar System.

How long Philae can withstand any outgassing as the ices heat up on approach to our star is anyone's guess. But the little lander will try to hang on for as long as possible with the aid of ice screws and harpoons. This is one space rodeo you won't want to miss.

Rebecca Morelle, science correspondent, BBC World Service

2014 could be the year when scientists shed a spotlight on dark matter. Mysterious particles of this dark 'stuff' are thought to make up about a quarter of the Universe. But clear-cut evidence has proven elusive.

Early next year, the Large Underground Xenon detector (LUX), which is located at the bottom of a gold mine in South Dakota, will be switched on again. The results from its first phase have confirmed that it's the most powerful experiment of its kind - and during its next 300-day run it is set to probe deeper than ever before in the hunt for this enigmatic substance.

The prime candidates for dark matter are Weakly Interacting Massive Particles - or WIMPs. Most of the time, these are thought to stream through the Universe without interacting with anything. But scientists think that on very rare occasions these ghost-like WIMPs do bump into regular matter - and it's these collisions that LUX will aim to detect.

The Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer (AMS), a $2bn experiment that is positioned on the International Space Station, is also searching - in a distinct way. The first results, announced in April 2013, were encouraging. AMS detected promising numbers of electrons and their anti-matter counterparts known as positrons that are thought to shower deep space as dark matter particles annihilate each other - but the evidence was not conclusive.

James Morgan, science reporter

Every Christmas, children dream of the new hyper-promoted toy or gadget, and science reporters are no different. 3D printing - last year's stocking filler - has become this year's brussel sprouts. In 2014, it's all about 4D printing - objects that 'make themselves' by changing shape after they've been printed.

The coming year is also the 60th anniversary of Cern. The world's biggest physics lab will be celebrating six decades of pan-European endeavour with several special events, beginning in July in Paris at Unesco. But in terms of actual physics, there are unlikely to be any blockbuster results popping out of the sexagenarian institute. That's because the LHC remains offline until 2015 - undergoing a refit that will double its power. Supersymmetry and dark matter will likely remain mysterious for a little longer, though there could be a surprise or two sprung at the ICHEP conference in Valencia in July.

2014 is also the International Year of Crystallography - a new campaign to raise awareness of the wonderful technique that has revealed the secrets of DNA and drug discovery. It will also promote collaboration among scientists in Africa and Asia. And finally, this wouldn't be a 'preview of the next big thing' without graphene. The 'wonder-material' (a one-atom-thick sheet of carbon) has been championed for use in condoms and microscopes. And for its next trick... graphene will allow bendable touchscreens on smartphones, according to Physics World.

Mark Kinver, environment reporter

Since 1996, there has been a growing appetite for the concept of food security. Over the years, researchers have sought to gain a clearer insight into the social, environmental and economic drivers that shape our access to one of the most fundamental ingredients of life. Now, their efforts are bearing fruit. This year saw the first international food security science conference being held in the Netherlands, and one of the title themes of the 2015 Expo in Milan is Feeding the Planet.

On 23 September 2014, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon will convene a high-level UN Climate Summit and is inviting world leaders to bring 'big ideas'. Expect to see food security among them. When it comes to delivering future food security, there is a consensus among experts that the world needs a wide range of technologies and techniques to feed the changing tastes of a growing population.

But mention GM crops, and that consensus soon breaks down. While the rest of the world grows more and more genetically modified food crops, the EU remains a fallow landscape for the technology. But this politically unappetising issue can no longer be pushed to the side of the EU's policy plate and it will be on the menu again during 2014.

Roger Harrabin, Environment analyst

In theory this should be a big year for climate change, with three more reports from the UN Panel, amplified by Ban Ki-moon's heads of governments meeting, all as a precursor to the annual climate conference in Peru.

It will be the last conference before the big 2015 Paris meeting at which nations have promised at last to stop arguing and solve the climate problem; really... no really.

It's hard to imagine, though, that the mismatch between science and policy will magically shrink over the year, however many reports there may be. The pause in warming remains a puzzle and as the UN Panel's documents become more rigorously cautious, opponents of climate action will seize on uncertainties as a reason for doing nothing. So don't hold your breath on CO2.

One aspect of that troublesome gas is likely to feature more prominently in 2014 - the UN will also highlight ocean acidification, caused by the absorption of CO2 emissions by the seas.

The oceans generally are likely to receive a much higher profile. The Economist magazine will hold a 'summit' on the seas and so will John Kerry, the US Secretary of State. There will be focus on over-fishing, warming, dead zones, plastics and pollution of all sorts in the UN meta-review of ocean science, probably at the end of the year.

The Arctic will loom large too after Russian prosecutors arguably did Greenpeace a publicity favour by jailing its campaigners. Shell hopes to re-start drilling off Alaska in the summer and should expect more coverage than during their last venture.

'Morale high' on stranded Antarctica ship

Morale among the scientists and research volunteers - or tourists - of the Australasian Antarctic Expedition 2013 is surprisingly high.

A new year is fast approaching and although that will not be accompanied by a new view for us from the ice-beset decks, preparations are underway for when midnight strikes off Cape De La Motte in east Antarctica.

A special song and dance routine is being written, choreographed and rehearsed for the dawn of 2014.

Meanwhile, expedition scientists have been deploying their instruments from the rear of the Shokalskiy, to measure water temperatures and salinity all the way from 10 metres below the ice to the sea bed.

At our briefing this morning, we discovered that we would be going nowhere for at least another 24 hours.

The Australian icebreaker, the Aurora Australis, is holding its position in clear water beyond the mass of pack ice trapping us. Its two attempts to reach us yesterday failed.

Plans to evacuate us by air are also on hold. Low cloud has made it too risky for the helicopter from the Chinese icebreaker, the Xue Long, to fly out and land next to us on the pack.

The winds are also up too now - blowing between 15 and 25 knots.

When the cloud lifts, helicopter evacuation is now the most likely method by which the expedition will leave the ice.

A hefty Chinese helicopter will land next to us and ferry us in groups of 15 to the ice edge close to the Aurora. We will then be transferred across clear water to Australian icebreaker.

That at least is the most likely scenario, when the skies and visibility improve.

As for the Russian crew, most of them will stay on board the Shokalskiy for what could be weeks, until the ice has weakened enough for an icebreaker to break through.

A huge US icebreaker, the Polar Star, should be in the area in a week to 10 days. We are told that the Polar Star can slice through sea ice six metres thick.

The mood of the Russian crew has also been affected by reports of the bombings in their home country.

Viewpoint: Human evolution, from tree to braid

If one human evolution paper published in 2013 sticks in my mind above all others, it has to be the wonderful report in the 18 October issue of the journal Science.

The article in question described the beautiful fifth skull from Dmanisi in Georgia. Most commentators and colleagues were full of praise, but controversy soon reared its ugly head.

What was, in my view, a logical conclusion reached by the authors was too much for some researchers to take.

The conclusion of the Dmanisi study was that the variation in skull shape and morphology observed in this small sample, derived from a single population of Homo erectus, matched the entire variation observed among African fossils ascribed to three species - H. erectus, H. habilis and H. rudolfensis.

The five highly variable Dmanisi fossils belonged to a single population of H. erectus, so how could we argue any longer that similar variation among spatially and temporally widely distributed fossils in Africa reflected differences between species? They all had to be the same species.

I have been advocating that the morphological differences observed within fossils typically ascribed to Homo sapiens (the so-called modern humans) and the Neanderthals fall within the variation observable in a single species.

It was not surprising to find that Neanderthals and modern humans interbred, a clear expectation of the biological species concept.

But most people were surprised with that particular discovery, as indeed they were with the fifth skull and many other recent discoveries, for example the 'Hobbit' from the Indonesian island of Flores.

It seems that almost every other discovery in palaeoanthropology is reported as a surprise. I wonder when the penny will drop: when we have five pieces of a 5,000-piece jigsaw puzzle, every new bit that we add is likely to change the picture.

Did we really think that having just a minuscule residue of our long and diverse past was enough for us to tell humanity's story?

If the fossils of 1.8 or so million years ago and those of the more recent Neanderthal-modern human era were all part of a single, morphologically diverse, species with a wide geographical range, what is there to suggest that it would have been any different in the intervening periods?

Probably not so different if we take the latest finds from the Altai Mountains in Siberia into account. Denisova Cave has produced yet another surprise, revealing that, not only was there gene flow between Neanderthals, Denisovans and modern humans, but that a fourth player was also involved in the gene-exchange game.

The identity of the fourth player remains unknown but it was an ancient lineage that had been separate for probably over a million years. H. erectus seems a likely candidate. Whatever the name we choose to give this mystery lineage, what these results show is that gene flow was possible not just among contemporaries but also between ancient and more modern lineages.

Just to show how little we really know of the human story, another genetic surprise has confounded palaeoanthropologists. Scientists succeeded in extracting the most ancient mitochondrial DNA so far, from the Sima de los Huesos site in Atapuerca, Spain.

The morphology of these well-known Middle Pleistocene (approximately 400,000 years old) fossils have long been thought to represent a lineage leading to the Neanderthals.

When the results came in they were actually closer to the 40,000 year-old Denisovans from Siberia. We can speculate on the result but others have offered enough alternatives for me to not to have to add to them.

The conclusion that I derive takes me back to Dmanisi: We have built a picture of our evolution based on the morphology of fossils and it was wrong.

We just cannot place so much taxonomic weight on a handful of skulls when we know how plastic - or easily changeable - skull shape is in humans. And our paradigms must also change.

Some time ago we replaced a linear view of our evolution by one represented by a branching tree. It is now time to replace it with that of an interwoven plexus of genetic lineages that branch out and fuse once again with the passage of time.

This means, of course, that we must abandon, once and for all, views of modern human superiority over archaic (ancient) humans. The terms 'archaic' and 'modern' lose all meaning as do concepts of modern human replacement of all other lineages.

It also releases us from the deep-rooted shackles that have sought to link human evolution with stone tool-making technological stages - the Stone Ages - even when we have known that these have overlapped with each other for half-a-million years in some instances.

The world of our biological and cultural evolution was far too fluid for us to constrain it into a few stages linked by transitions.

The challenge must now be to try and learn as much as we can of the detail. We have to flesh out the genetic information and this is where archaeology comes into the picture. We may never know how the Denisovans earned a living, after all we have mere fragments of their anatomy at our disposal, let alone other populations that we may not even be aware of.

What we can do is try to understand the spectrum of potential responses of human populations to different environmental conditions and how culture has intervened in these relationships. The Neanderthals will be central to our understanding of the possibilities because they have been so well studied.

A recent paper, for example, supports the view that Neanderthals at La Chapelle-aux-Saints in France intentionally buried their dead which contrasts with reports of cannibalistic behaviour not far away at El Sidron in northern Spain.

Here we have two very different behavioural patterns within Neanderthals. Similarly, modern humans in south-western Europe painted in cave walls for a limited period but many contemporaries did not. Some Neanderthals did it in a completely different way it seems, by selecting raptor feathers of particular colours. Rather than focus on differences between modern humans and Neanderthals, what the examples show is the range of possibilities open to humans (Neanderthals included) in different circumstances.

The future of human origins research will need to focus along three axes:

  • further genetic research to clarify the relationship of lineages and the history of humans;

  • research using new technology on old archaeological sites, as at La Chapelle; and

  • research at sites that currently retain huge potential for new discoveries.

Sites in the latter category are few and far between. In Europe at least, many were excavated during the last century but there are some outstanding examples remaining. Gorham's and Vanguard Caves in Gibraltar, where I work, are among those because they span over 100,000 years of occupation and are veritable repositories of data.

There is another dimension to this story. It seems that the global community is coming round to recognising the value of key sites that document human evolution.

In 2012, the caves on Mount Carmel were inscribed on the Unesco World Heritage List and the UK Government will be putting Gorham's and associated caves on the Rock of Gibraltar forward for similar status in January 2015. It is recognition of the value of these caves as archives of the way of life and the environments of people long gone but who are very much a part of our story.

Prof Clive Finlayson is director of the Gibraltar Museum and author of the book The Improbable Primate.

Yutu rover pictured from orbit

An American satellite has pictured the Chinese Yutu rover on the surface of the Moon.

The 150cm-wide wheeled-vehicle appears as a single pixel in the images from the US space agency's (Nasa) Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO).

The lander that placed Yutu on the surface of Mare Imbrium (Sea of Rains) on 14 December is also visible nearby.

Both pieces of Chinese hardware are distinctively bright against the dark lunar 'soil' and cast long shadows.

This made them easy to identify in before-and-after images of the landing location, which can now be given very precise map coordinates.

Nasa says its LRO satellite was not in the right position to capture the landing earlier this month. It was not until 25 December that the spacecraft's orbit brought it directly overhead.

The published images were taken from an altitude of 150km.

Yutu ('Jade Rabbit') is China's first landed mission at the Moon. After running down a ramp on to the lunar surface, Yutu trundled in an arc around its delivery lander.

Scientists were able to check the vehicles systems before putting the robot into hibernation for the long lunar night, which lasts two Earth weeks.

When revived, Yutu will explore its landing zone, studying the dusty terrain and its geology.

Antarctic rescue bid under threat

A rescue mission for a ship stuck in ice in Antarctica is under threat as reports have emerged that one of the assisting vessels may itself be stuck.

Fifty-two passengers and four crew members were due to be evacuated by helicopter from China's Xue Long ship as soon as conditions allowed.

However, the Xue Long has barely moved in a day and may be stuck in the ice.

The research vessel Akademik Shokalskiy has been trapped for nearly a week with 74 scientists, tourists and crew.

The ship is stocked with food and is in no danger, the team on board says.

Monday, December 30, 2013

Honour for Met Office head scientist

The UK Met Office's chief scientist, Julia Slingo, has become a Dame in the New Year Honours List.

Prof Slingo was recognised for her services to weather and climate science.

Prof Greg Whyte, the sports scientist who has coached celebrities such as David Walliams and Eddie Izzard for Sport Relief, has become an OBE.

Other science awards include a knighthood for Adrian Bird, a geneticist at Edinburgh University.

Before becoming Met Office chief scientist in 2009, Prof Slingo was the director of climate research at the National Centre for Atmospheric Science based at the University of Reading, where she is still a visiting professor of meteorology.

Notable landmarks in her career of more than 30 years include becoming the UK's first female professor of meteorology and the first female president of the Royal Meteorological Society.

Prof Slingo said she was honoured, adding that it was also recognition of the 'excellence of Met Office research and those we partner around the world'.

She said: 'The UK has been at the forefront of great advances in this field and, with continued investment, we can continue to lead the way.'

The Met Office's chief executive, John Hirst, has also been recognised in the New Year Honours List and has been made a CBE.

Celebrity coach

Recognised as one of the country's leading sport scientists, Greg Whyte becomes an OBE.

Before embarking on his research career, Prof Whyte competed as a modern pentathlete at two Olympic Games.

Previous roles included being the director of research at the English Institute of Sport and for the British Olympic Association.

He became well known for coaching celebrities undertaking challenges for Sport or Comic Relief, including David Walliams swimming of the English Channel and Eddie Izzard running 43 marathons in 51 days.

Among the other scientists recognised in the New Year Honours is Adrian Bird, a professor of genetics at the University of Edinburgh, who has been knighted.

Prof Bird is group leader of the Bird Lab in the Wellcome Trust Centre for Cell Biology, which has led research into the 'biological mechanism' behind a rare type of autism known as Rett's syndrome.

Air rescue plan for ice-bound ship

Passengers and some crew on a ship stuck in thick ice in Antarctica are to be taken off by helicopter once the weather permits, Russian officials say.

News of the decision came after an Australian icebreaker making a fresh rescue attempt had to turn back.

The Russian-flagged research vessel Akademik Shokalskiy has been stuck in ice for nearly a week. It is carrying 74 scientists, tourists and crew.

The ship is stocked with food and is in no danger, the team on board says.

The third attempt to rescue the vessel - by Australian icebreaker Aurora Australis - failed on Monday because of fierce winds and poor visibility.

'Start Quote

It's Antarctica, we are just taking it one day at a time'

End Quote Chris Turney Professor of climate change, University of New South Wales

Earlier attempts by Chinese and French icebreakers to reach the ship were also foiled by the thick ice.

The Shokalskiy was trapped on Christmas Eve by thick sheets of ice, driven by strong winds, about 1,500 nautical miles south of Hobart - the capital of the Australian state of Tasmania.

'Snow showers'

'A decision has been reached to evacuate 52 passengers and four crew members by helicopter from China's Xue Long ship, should the weather allow,' a Russian foreign ministry statement said on Monday.

Earlier the Australian Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA) said: 'The area where the MV Akademik Shokalskiy is beset by ice is currently experiencing winds of up to 30 knots and snow showers.'

'These weather conditions have resulted in poor visibility and made it difficult and unsafe for the Aurora Australis to continue today's [Monday's] attempt to assist the MV Akademik Shokalskiy.'

The BBC's Andrew Luck-Baker, who is on the Shokalskiy, said scientists on board thought the ice was much thicker than usual for this time of year.

The Chinese vessel, the Snow Dragon, came within seven nautical miles (11 km) of the Russian ship before stalling and being forced to return to the open sea.

The Akademik Shokalskiy is being used by the Australasian Antarctic Expedition to follow the route explorer Douglas Mawson travelled a century ago.

Despite being trapped, the scientists have continued their experiments, measuring temperature and salinity through cracks in the surrounding ice.

Those on board include 22 Russian crew. Passengers are of various nationalities, many of them Australian.

One of the leaders of the scientific expedition said via Skype that those on board were in good spirits and wanted their families and friends to know they were safe and well, AFP reported.

'It's Antarctica, we are just taking it one day at a time,' said Chris Turney, professor of climate change at the University of New South Wales.

'The conditions are so extreme in Antarctica, you just never know. We are always hopeful.'

Weather halts Antarctic ship rescue

A third attempt to rescue a ship stranded in East Antarctica since Tuesday has failed because of fierce winds and poor visibility.

An Australian icebreaker trying to reach the Russian scientific mission ship was forced to turn back.

Earlier attempts by Chinese and French icebreakers to reach the Russian ship Academician Shokalskiy were also foiled by the thick ice.

The Shokalskiy is stocked with food and is in no danger, its team says.

Seventy-four scientists, tourists and crew are on the ship.

'Snow showers'

The vessel is being used by the Australasian Antarctic Expedition to follow the route explorer Douglas Mawson travelled a century ago.

The BBC's Andrew Luck-Baker, on the Shokalskiy, said scientists on board thought the ice was much thicker than usual for this time of year.

The Aurora Australis icebreaker had been forced to turn back to clear water and was repositioning to try to find another route towards the Shokalskiy, he said.

'[The icebreaker] was slowly, slowly, trying to carve a path to us,' he said. 'It stopped for some time, and [now] has actually gone back the way it came. And it's now in clear water.'

In a statement, the Australian Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA) said: 'The area where the MV Akademik Shokalskiy is beset by ice is currently experiencing winds of up to 30 knots and snow showers.'

'These weather conditions have resulted in poor visibility and made it difficult and unsafe for the Aurora Australis to continue today's attempt to assist the MV Akademik Shokalskiy.'

Earlier, it was thought that passengers could be winched to safety by a helicopter on board the Chinese icebreaker, which had to abort its rescue mission on Saturday.

However, AMSA spokeswoman Lisa Martin told Reuters news agency: 'We can't fly a helicopter in these conditions either. There is essentially nothing we can do at this point of time.'

The Aurora Australis would have to wait for the weather to improve before making a second rescue attempt, she added.

The Chinese vessel, the Snow Dragon, came within seven nautical miles (11 km) of the Russian ship before stalling and being forced to return to the open sea.

Despite being trapped, the scientists have continued their experiments, measuring temperature and salinity through cracks in the surrounding ice.

The Shokalskiy was trapped on Christmas Day by thick sheets of ice, driven by strong winds, about 1,500 nautical miles south of Hobart - the capital of the Australian state of Tasmania.

El Salvador volcano begins eruption

Thousands of people in eastern El Salvador are leaving their homes after a volcano erupted on Sunday morning.

Residents in the coffee-producing region said they had heard a powerful explosion before the Chaparrastique volcano began spewing hot ash and smoke into the air.

No one has been hurt, say the authorities. Anyone living in a 3km (2 mile) radius will be evacuated.

Temporary shelters are being set up in the area.

Civil protection authorities say that some 5,000 people live in the area, in San Miguel province.

The eruption began at 10:30 local time (16:30 GMT).

The Salvadoran government says it had been monitoring the situation since 13 December, when they detected increased activity inside the volcano.

There are more than 20 volcanoes in the small Central American nation.

At 2,129 metres (7,000 ft) above sea level, Chaparrastique is the third highest volcano in the country.

It spewed lava in 1976 and caused a strong tremor in the area in 2010.

Saturday, December 28, 2013

Friday, December 27, 2013

Nobel prizes are for 'best of best'

The President of the Royal Society says the system of selecting Nobel Prize winners should not be changed, amid pressure from some who want reform.

Sir Paul Nurse said the prize should continue to reward select individuals, not teams or organisations.

His comments come at a time when some say that Cern should have been included in this year's physics prize.

Thousands of researchers at the Large Hadron Collider had been involved in the discovery of the Higgs in 2012.

'There are often big teams involved, but recognising individuals does have an impact that I'm afraid recognising groups or individuals does not,' he told BBC News.

'Start Quote

There are often big teams involved but recognising individuals does have an impact that recognising groups or individuals does not'

End Quote Prof Sir Paul Nurse President, Royal Society

Earlier this month, Profs Peter Higgs and Francois Englert received their Nobel Prizes from the King of Sweden at a ceremony full of pomp and ceremony. Yet there were four others who contributed significantly toward a theory to explain how elementary particles came to have mass. The theory has come to be known as the Higgs mechanism.

In April 2013, one of them, Prof Carl Hagen, told BBC News that, when the discovery was announced at Cern, Peter Higgs had been ' treated like a rock star' by fellow scientists 'while the rest of us were barely recognised'.

Prof Hagen commented well before the winners of this year's Nobel Prize for physics were announced that he did not mind if he did not win the award.

'But by awarding it to some sub-set you detract from the fact that we all contributed in some very important way to this discovery,' he said.

Some have argued that the system of awarding Nobel Prizes should be changed, even though it is a condition of Alfred Nobel's bequest that the prize should be given to no more than three individuals.

The prize cannot be given to an organisation either. Some had argued that this too should be reconsidered in the light of the fact that thousands of scientists at the Large Hadron Collider, which is operated by Cern in Geneva, had helped to discover the Higgs particle, which was the trigger for the physics prize being awarded to Peter Higgs and Francois Englert.

US science blogger Dr Ash Jogalekar argues that Cern should also have been acknowledged by the Nobel prize committee.

'Start Quote

It is time they changed the model, Science has radically changed. It is a team effort done by large interdisciplinary teams'

End Quote Ash Jogalekar Science Blogger

'I think it is time they changed the model,' he told BBC News.

'When the Nobel Prize was set up by Alfred Nobel 113 years ago, science was done very differently. It was done mostly by individuals, there was very little international collaboration and it was done very cheaply.

'But it has radically changed. A lot of cutting edge science, a lot of work on the most important problems in science is a team effort. It is done by large interdisciplinary teams.'

Prof Sir Paul Nurse, a Nobel Prize winner himself, agrees that Dr Jogalekar's argument 'makes sense'.

But there is a 'but'.

'When you are on the platform and you are shaking hands with the King of Sweden and the cameras are all on you, you would not be able to recognise Cern. If there were 20 of you, it would lose the kudos of the one, two or three people that are actually there,' according to Prof Nurse.

Rewarding creativity

Prof Sir John Walker won his Nobel Prize in 1997 agrees. He says it is individual creativity that drives scientific discovery and inspires others.

'I was surrounded by Nobel Laureates in Cambridge. One in particular influenced me and that was Frederick Sanger. I went and discussed (my ideas) with Sanger and he said why didn't you get on with it and so I did and it set the course of my life for the next 35 years,' he explained.

The largest concentration of Nobel prizes in the UK is at Cambridge - with more than 50 winners of the three science prizes. It is for this reason that many high technology companies base themselves in the area, according to Laurent Jespers of the multinational drug company GSK.

'Start Quote

Astra Zeneca has decided to maintain our R&D base in the UK because we see great value in the early research and this great tradition of Nobel prize winning work'

End Quote Jane Osbourn Astra Zeneca

'There are about 1,400 technology companies in Cambridge,' he says.

'If you put that into context, approximately 50 years ago, there were only 39 tech companies. So it is a massive expansion in tech companies that have attracted large pharma and large computer companies, as well as small companies.'

That is a view echoed by Dr Jane Osbourn, director of another multinational, Astra Zeneca, which has decided to base its research efforts in Cambridge.

'Astra Zeneca has given a lot of thought about where they place their investment in research and development and we have taken a very active decision to maintain our R&D base in the UK because we see great value in the early research and understanding of biology that comes out of our UK universities and hospitals,' she said.

'We have chosen Cambridge, in particular, because of the interdisciplinary expertise in a close, packed environment... and this great tradition of Nobel prize winning work.'

The Nobel Prizes in research are of tremendous economic benefit. But, according to Prof Nurse, it brings much more to a nation.

'It gets the kudos of a country that is good at science. Secondly, we are making additions to the world's culture. Would you ask what the value of Shakespeare was? It is part of our island's story,' he says.

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Ocean currents may solve eel mystery

A new analysis of wind-driven Atlantic currents may help scientists solve a mysterious decline in eel numbers.

These secretive creatures are born in the Sargasso sea but migrate to Europe where they spend most of their lives.

But unexplained fluctuations in the numbers of those traversing the ocean have thwarted efforts to save the species.

Now researchers believe they have built a computer model that will accurately predict the level of migration.

The research is published in the journal, Current Biology.

'Start Quote

If the weather changes then there is a clear risk for the eel population'

End Quote Dr Christophe Eizaguirre Queen Mary, University of London

Smoke, fried or boiled, eels remain a popular dish in many parts of Europe, particularly at Christmas.

Newspaper reports in the UK have indicated an upsurge in their consumption due to the recession as the fish are cheap and nutritious.

But numbers of European eels have declined rapidly in recent decades and scientists have struggled to explain the reasons behind the drop.

Transparent elvers

Complicating matters is the creature's complex life cycle. They are born in the Sargasso sea, in the middle of the Atlantic ocean.

The young, called elvers, are sometimes known as glass eels, as you can literally see through them.

Carried by the Gulf stream, they end up in European rivers where they can spend 20 years before embarking on the return voyage to spawn.

A team of scientists has now managed to simulate these journeys on a mass scale, using a computer model that followed 8 million tiny drifting particles that represented the eel larvae. This model simulation covered the years between 1960 and 2005.

The researchers found that small scale, wind-driven ocean currents strongly determined fluctuations in eel populations in Europe.

The numbers were big when favourable currents made for a short trip. But when the currents changed and the journeys were much longer, fewer elvers survived.

'There is a clear link,' Dr Christophe Eizaguirre from Queen Mary, University of London told BBC News.

'If the weather changes then there is a clear risk for the eel population.'

The destruction of river habitats and infections with a parasite have also impacted the eel numbers. But researchers believe that, if they can't figure out the scale of returning young, they won't be able to save this endangered species.

'Between the moment the eels are born and when they arrive on the European coast takes two years,' said Dr Eizaguirre.

'So we can look at the currents and predict the number successfully arriving on the European coast so we have time to adjust management programmes.'

This would mean that, if numbers were low, eel fishing quotas could be lowered until stocks recovered.

Homeward bound

By combining their modelling with genetic analysis, the researchers now believe that each eel returns to the spot where it was born - similar to turtles and salmon.

'This is a new finding,' said Dr Miguel Baltazar-Soares, from the GEOMAR Helmholtz Centre for Ocean Research and the lead author of the study.

'So far it was assumed that the mating in the Atlantic takes place completely independently of the area of origin. Future scientific expeditions will have to verify this result in situ.'

The scientists say that the first draft of the eel's genome, which will be available in the coming months, might shed new light on just how these slippery creatures manage to navigate the ocean so accurately.

'Is is the earth's geomagnetic field as some believe?' posed Dr Eizaguirre.

'Or do they have large numbers of olfactory genes like turtles, and somehow find the smell of home?'

'It is the one million dollar question,' he said.

Follow Matt on Twitter @mattmcgrathbbc.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Trapped Antarctic ship to get help

A Chinese icebreaker is expected to reach a scientific mission ship trapped in dense pack ice off East Antarctica since Christmas Day.

The Snow Dragon icebreaker will try to cut a path through the ice so the research vessel Academic Shokalskiy can reach open waters.

The Russian vessel is being used by the Australasian Antarctic Expedition. There are 74 people on board.

They are following the route explorer Douglas Mawson travelled a century ago.

The Chinese icebreaker may ask for assistance from two other boats - French vessel L'Astrolabe and Australia's Aurora Australis - which are also heading into the icy waters of the Southern Ocean.

The research ship is trapped by thick sheets of ice that were driven by strong winds about 1,500 nautical miles south of Hobart - the capital of the Australian state of Tasmania.

However, there are fears that blizzards could hamper the rescue effort.

The Shokalskiy is well stocked with food and is in no danger, according to the the science team led by Chris Turney and Chris Fogwill.

Although trapped for the moment, the scientists are continuing their experiments. They have been measuring temperature and salinity through cracks in the surrounding ice.

Science volunteer Sean Borkovic told the BBC: 'I'll always remember this, that's for sure. It's brilliant. We've got some lovely light and the weather's pretty mild considering. The ship looks solid. I think we'll be good.'

A visit from Secret Santa and a sumptuous Christmas dinner cranked up the celebratory mood.

The goal of the modern day Australasian Antarctic Expedition is to repeat many of the original measurements and studies of the Mawson expedition to see how facets of the environment have changed over the past century.

Wildlife 'thrived' after hot summer

The hot summer in the UK provided a much-needed boost for wildlife with butterflies, moths and grasshoppers all thriving, the National Trust says.

The warm weather also led to an explosion of berries, nuts and seeds.

The trust's Matthew Oates said 2013 was 'one of the most remarkable wildlife years in living memory'.

But it said a cold, late spring meant badgers and hedgehogs did not have their usual quantity of worms, and some seabirds died from starvation.

'Real cracker'

Bees and crickets were among other winners.

The distinctive tree bumblebee - which only began to colonise in the UK 12 years ago - was seen north of Hadrian's Wall for the first time.

Many insects had been scarce last year because of poor weather.

The cool spring also provided a long flowering season for snowdrops, primrose and bluebells.

And in some places, there was an explosion of orchids.

Mr Oates said: 'We were more than overdue a good summer and eventually we got a real cracker, although it kicked in after the slowest of possible starts.

'The way our butterflies and other sun-loving insects bounced back in July was utterly amazing, showing nature's powers of recovery at their best.'

Many birds and mammals had also recovered well from the cold spring, he said.

'Collect memories'

'Importantly, we have seen more winners than losers in our wildlife year, which is a tremendous result considering where we were last year.'

He added; 'For most specialist naturalists, such as birders and butterfliers, it became deeply memorable because naturalists, like many other people, collect memories.'

But the extended cold period was a difficult time for breeding frogs and many mammals coming out of hibernation.

It was a poor year for garden aphids, as well as the seven-spot ladybirds and birds - including tits - which feed on them.

The number of slugs was also dramatically reduced - something many gardeners are unlikely to regret.

Christmas in Antarctica's pack ice

Science reporter Andrew Luck-Baker is on board the Russian research vessel Shokalskiy, covering the Australasian Antarctic Expedition 2013 for the BBC World Service programme Discovery. He recounts how the expedition spent Christmas Day trapped in sea ice.

Scientists currently stuck in dense pack ice off East Antarctica are making the most of their expected four days locked in the frozen sea.

The research programme of the Australasian Antarctic Expedition (AAE) 2013 is continuing from the deck of the beset Academik Shokalskiy - although not quite as originally intended.

The science team, led by Chris Turney and Chris Fogwill, both geologists from the University of New South Wales, has decided to use the trapped vessel as a static platform for investigations beneath the pack.

On 24 December, the AAE's ice-strengthened vessel was just departing the Commonwealth Bay area in remote East Antarctica when fierce winds began tearing off the polar plateau.

The blizzard set in motion an armada of rafts of pack ice and the Shokalskiy became surrounded and trapped.

Barely a pool of water now shows in the chaotic icescape of floes and piles of shattered, brilliant white blocks. This vista extends as far as we can see in almost all directions.

Tantalisingly, a low band of grey sky to the Northeast suggests clear water lies not so many kilometres away. The grey colour is light reflected from open water. The early Antarctic explorers named this colour phenomenon 'water sky' and used it to navigate their route through the treacherous pack ice.

Douglas Mawson also used this lore of the polar seas to guide his expedition in these same waters, more than a century ago. Mawson led the original Australasian Antarctic Expedition which discovered and explored this region of the White Continent for more than two years.

The first AAE studied or measured every aspect of the natural environment in and around Commonwealth Bay - such as the ice, the weather, the geology, and the animals, from penguins to leopard seals (the local top predator).

The goal of the modern day Australasian Antarctic Expedition is to repeat many of the original measurements and studies, to see how facets of the environment have changed over the past century. This passage of time coincides with warming and climate change in Antarctica.

During the morning on Christmas Day (New Zealand time), the Russian Captain Igor Kiselev decided to send out a distress call to the Marine Rescue Coordination Centre. The pack ice was (and remains) thick; and at the time of his decision, there were two large icebergs moving in parallel to the trapped vessel on the prevailing east to west current. Those bergs were not on collision course and they have since stopped moving any closer.

According to Prof Turney: 'The situation has stabilised and all on board are well. We are now trying to make the best scientific use of our time while waiting for the arrival of an icebreaker to release us in the next 24 hours. For anyone concerned at home, please check 'The Spirit of Mawson' website for regular updates.'

In addition to the Russian crew of 22, the expedition team consists of 18 professional scientists from Australia and New Zealand, and 22 volunteer science assistants. They are members of the public, ranging in age from their 20s to their 70s. They paid to join the scientific adventure.

For scientists and punters alike, it was a Christmas Day like no other. There was some anxiety early on Christmas Day when our predicament was explained at a morning briefing by the expedition co-leaders, which in addition to Turney and Fogwill counts the veteran polar explorer Greg Mortimer.

But the otherworldly white vista from the decks and the realisation that we were not in acute peril created a communal excitement and realisation that we were going to have a most unique Christmas.

'It's fantastic - I love it when the ice wins and we don't,' said expedition marine ecologist Tracy Rogers. 'It reminds you that as humans, we don't control everything and that the natural world - it's the winner here. We've got several penguins watching us, thinking 'what the hell are you doing stuck in our ice?'. The sky is a beautiful grey - it looks like it wants to have a bit of a snow. It's the perfect Christmas, really.'

Science volunteer Sean Borkovic also seemed to be enjoying the experience: 'I'll always remember this, that's for sure. It's brilliant. We've got some lovely light and the weather's pretty mild considering. The ship looks solid. I think we'll be good.'

A visit from Secret Santa and a sumptuous Christmas dinner cranked up the celebratory mood.

In response to the distress call, a large Chinese icebreaker is now on its way to free the Shokalskiy. The Xue Long (Snow Dragon) is expected to reach us at about 1300 GMT on 27 December. It is massive enough to cut a path through the ice so the Australasian Antarctic Expedition can make a break for the open waters not so very far away.

In the days before the AAE 2013 became trapped, the scientists made several significant discoveries. For instance, the expedition's ornithologist, Kerry-Jayne Wilson, discovered that the colony of Adelie penguins in Commonwealth Bay, close to Mawson's old base, now contains the smallest number of breeding pairs ever recorded there.

Findings by the AAE's oceanographer Erik van Sebille, of the University of New South Wales, are also significant. He discovered that the water beneath the extensive sea ice covering Commonwealth Bay at this time of year is much fresher, less salty than in Mawson's times.

This finding is of global interest. Commonwealth Bay is one of the metaphorical cylinders of the great heat engine of the global ocean system.

The winds and cold temperatures here normally generate great volumes of very cold and very salty water. This dense water plunges to abyssal ocean depths and helps to drive the circulation of water from pole to equator, redistributing heat around the planet.

Van Sebille's discovery of such freshwater at depths of 50m suggests the oceanic engine here has stalled. The planetary consequences of that are as yet unclear.

Although trapped for the moment, Erik van Sebille and others plan to continue their studies from the Shokalskiy. He is currently deploying instruments to measure temperature and salinity through cracks in the surrounding ice. His findings may add to the picture of freshening water which he first saw a few days ago further to the west.

Prof Rogers also plans to continue her studies of the local leopard seals.

She will be lowering a loudspeaker into the chilly waters and then playing the submarine song of a male leopard seal that she recorded elsewhere in Antarctica. With an underwater microphone, Rogers will then record the response to the singing of this apparent interloper by the resident leopard seals.

Her theory is that male leopard seals sing to define the boundaries of their territory. She's expecting to hear the locals singing louder and closer in reaction to the false stranger she's planting through the pack ice.

The fact that the Shokalskiy's engines will be quiet for at least another day is of some advantage to her experiments.

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Met Office to forecast space weather

The Met Office is to begin offering daily forecasts about the weather in space.

The 24 hour service will aim to help businesses and government departments by providing early warnings of solar storms that can disrupt satellites, radio communications and power grids.

The first forecast is expected to be available next spring.

The Department for Business will support the scheme with £4.6m of funding over the next three years.

The Met Office will aim to develop better ways of predicting space weather in collaboration with the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

UK partners involved in the project include the British Geological Survey, Bath University and RAL Space.

Space weather is driven by energetic particles from the Sun.

Solar flares and eruptions in the Sun's atmosphere - known as coronal mass ejections - are powerful sources of potentially destructive solar storms.

'Start Quote

Space weather is a relatively immature science but understanding is growing rapidly'

They have the potential to damage sensitive satellite components and induce current surges strong enough to knock out power grids on Earth.

A massive blackout in Quebec in 1989 has been attributed to a solar storm.

The Sun's activity peaks about every 11 years, when solar emissions become more intense. It is currently in a 'solar maximum' phase.

Mark Gibbs, head of space weather at the Met Office, said: 'Space weather is a relatively immature science but understanding is growing rapidly.'

He said the Met Office collaboration aimed to 'accelerate the development of improved space weather models and prediction systems to make more effective use of space weather data'.

Mr Gibbs added: 'This investment will enable the Met Office to complete the space weather forecasting capability that it has been developing over the past two years and begin delivering forecasts, warnings and alerts to key sectors to minimise the impact to the technology-based services we all rely on.'

Andrew Richards, a risk analyst for the National Grid, said: 'A round-the-clock UK forecasting service for space weather is essential as part of National Grid's procedures for running the electricity transmission network securely and safely.'

Diabetes risk 'from Neanderthals'

A gene variant that seems to increase the risk of diabetes in Latin Americans appears to have been inherited from Neanderthals, a study suggests.

We now know that modern humans interbred with a population of Neanderthals shortly after leaving Africa 60,000-70,000 years ago.

This means that Neanderthal genes are now scattered across the genomes of all non-Africans living today.

Details of the study appear in the journal Nature.

The gene variant was detected in a large genome-wide association study (GWAS) of more than 8,000 Mexicans and other Latin Americans. The GWAS approach looks at many genes in different individuals, to see whether they are linked with a particular trait.

People who carry the higher risk version of the gene are 25% more likely to have diabetes than those who do not, and people who inherited copies from both parents are 50% more likely to have diabetes.

The higher risk form of the gene - named SLC16A11 - has been found in up to half of people with recent Native American ancestry, including Latin Americans.

The variant is found in about 20% of East Asians and is rare in populations from Europe and Africa.

'Start Quote

This could illuminate new pathways to target with drugs and a deeper understanding of the disease'

End Quote Prof Jose Florez Harvard Medical School

The elevated frequency of this variant in Latin Americans could account for as much as 20% of these populations' increased prevalence of type 2 diabetes - the origins of which are complex and poorly understood.

'To date, genetic studies have largely used samples from people of European or Asian ancestry, which makes it possible to miss culprit genes that are altered at different frequencies in other populations,' said co-author Jose Florez, associate professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School in Massachusetts.

'By expanding our search to include samples from Mexico and Latin America, we've found one of the strongest genetic risk factors discovered to date, which could illuminate new pathways to target with drugs and a deeper understanding of the disease.'

The team that discovered the variant carried out additional analyses, in collaboration with Svante Paabo of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology.

They discovered that the SLC16A11 sequence associated with risk of type 2 diabetes is found in a newly sequenced Neanderthal genome from Denisova Cave in Siberia.

Analyses indicate that the higher risk version of SLC16A11 was introduced into modern humans through interbreeding between early modern humans and Neanderthals.

It is not unusual to find Neanderthal genes. About 2% of the genomes of present-day non-Africans were inherited from this distinctive human group, which lived across Europe and western Asia from about 400,000-300,000 years ago until 30,000 years ago.

But scientists are only just beginning to understand the functional implications of this Neanderthal inheritance.

'One of the most exciting aspects of this work is that we've uncovered a new clue about the biology of diabetes,' said co-author David Altshuler, who is based at the Broad Institute in Massachusetts.

SLC16A11 is part of a family of genes that code for proteins that transport metabolites - molecules involved in the body's various chemical reactions.

Altering the levels of the SLC16A11 protein can change the amount of a type of fat that has been implicated in the risk of diabetes. These findings suggest that SLC16A11 could be involved in the transport of an unknown metabolite that affects fat levels in cells and thereby increases risk of type 2 diabetes.

New genetic clues for arthritis

An international team of researchers has found more than 40 new areas in DNA that increase the risk of rheumatoid arthritis.

The work is the largest genetic study ever carried out, involving nearly 30,000 patients.

The investigators believe new drugs could be developed to target these areas that could one day provide a cure for the disease.

The findings are published in the Journal Nature.

'Start Quote

What this offers in the future is an opportunity to use genetics to discover new medicines for complex diseases like rheumatoid arthritis and to treat or even cure the disease'

End Quote Prof Robert Plenge Harvard Medical School

The research team compared the DNA of arthritis patients with those without the disease and found 42 'faulty' areas that were linked with the disease. The hope is that drugs can be developed to compensate for these faults.

The lead researcher Professor Robert Plenge of Harvard Medical School found that one of these areas produced a weakness that was treated by an existing drug that was developed by trial and error, rather than specifically made to correct the genetic problem.

This finding, he says, shows such discoveries could be used to design new drugs.

'What this offers in the future is an opportunity to use genetics to discover new medicines for complex diseases like rheumatoid arthritis to treat or even cure the disease,' he said.

Complex diseases

Some have argued identifying genetic weak areas for complex diseases - known as single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs) - is not useful. There is little or no evidence, they argue, that 'silencing the SNPs' with drugs will relieve any symptoms.

But Dr Plenge says the fact that he has found an established drug that treats the symptoms that arise from a particular SNP for rheumatoid arthritis validates this genetic approach.

'Start Quote

There are already therapies that have been designed in the cancer field that might open up new opportunities for retargeting drugs'

End Quote Prof Jane Worthington Director, Centre for Genetics

'It offers tremendous potential. This approach could be used to identify drug targets for complex diseases, nut just rheumatoid arthritis, but diabetes, Alzheimer's and coronary heart disease'

The study also found SNPs in the rheumatoid arthritis patients that also occur in patients with types of blood cancer.

According to Prof Jane Worthington, director of the centre for genetics in Manchester, this observation suggests that drugs that are being used to treat the cancer could be effective against rheumatoid arthritis and so should be fast tracked into clinical trials.

'There are already therapies that have been designed in the cancer field that might open up new opportunities for retargeting drugs,' she told BBC News.

'It might allow us a straightforward way to add therapies we have to treat patients with rheumatoid arthritis'.

Follow Pallab on Twitter

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Astronauts repair space station pump

Two US astronauts have successfully repaired a critical cooling system pump at the International Space Station, the US space agency Nasa says.

Rick Mastracchio and Mike Hopkins completed a spacewalk of 7.5 hours to replace the faulty ammonia pump.

The pump broke down two weeks ago, leaving the US side of the station without half its cooling system.

All non-essential equipment had to be switched off and many scientific experiments were halted.

Nasa now says all the systems should be back up and running by the weekend.

'It's the best Christmas ever,' Mission Control radioed the astronauts.

In reply, Mr Hopkins said: 'Merry Christmas to everybody. It took a couple (of) weeks to get her done, but we got it.'

It was the two astronauts' second spacewalk in three days to replace the pump, which is about the size of a refrigerator.

Nasa has said that the station's six-member crew was never in danger.

It was only the second Christmas Eve spacewalk in the history of the space programme. The only previous spacewalk on 24 December was in 1999 during a Hubble Space Telescope repair mission.

Tuesday's repair mission came on the 45th anniversary of the now iconic Earthrise photograph, taken by the crew of Apollo 8 as they orbited the Moon in 1968.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Melt water reservoir lurks under ice

Researchers say they have discovered a large reservoir of melt water that sits under the Greenland ice sheet all year round.

The scientists say the water is stored in the air space between particles of ice, similar to the way that fruit juice stays liquid in a slush drink.

The aquifer, which covers an area the size of Ireland, could yield important clues to sea level rise.

The research is published in the journal, Nature Geoscience.

The melting of the Greenland ice sheet has been a significant contributor to a rise in sea levels over the past 100 years.

'Start Quote

The water is stored in the air space between the ice particles, like the juice in a snow cone'

End Quote Prof Rick Forster University of Utah

According to the latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the ice sheet lost 34 billion tonnes of ice per year between 1992 and 2001 - but this increased to 215 billion tonnes between 2002 and 2011

Scientists still have many unanswered questions about the direction and speed and ultimate destination of this melted water.

Ice free liquid

This new research finds that a significant amount is stored in partially compacted snow called firn.

In the spring of 2011, researchers drilled deep into this slushy layer and to their surprise, found liquid water flowing back to the surface even though air temperatures were -15 degrees C.

As this was well before the onset of the summer melt, the team concluded the water had persisted in a liquid state through the Greenland winter.

'This discovery was a surprise,' said Prof Rick Forster from the University of Utah.

'Instead of the water being stored in the air space between subsurface rock particles, the water is stored in the air space between the ice particles, like the juice in a snow cone.'

The scientists have also come up with a rough estimate for the amount of water that is contained in the aquifer which itself covers an area of 70,000 sq km.

They believe that it holds roughly 140 billion tonnes of water, which is the equivalent to 0.4mm of sea level rise per year - about half of what Greenland contributes to the sea every year.

But crucially the scientists don't know the ultimate destination of the water in the reservoir.

'It depends on whether it is currently connected to a system that is draining into the ocean or if it is a bit isolated and completely acting as a storage source without a current connection,' said Prof Forster.

'We don't know the answer to this right now. It's massive, it's a new system we haven't seen before - we need to understand it more completely if we are to predict sea level rise.'

The scientists say the water is prevented from freezing by the large amounts of snow that fall on the surface of the ice sheet late in the summer.

This insulates the water from the air temperatures which are below freezing, allowing the water to persist as liquid all year long.

Other researchers believe this discovery may help explain disparities between projections of mass loss by climate models and observations from satellites.

'The large mass of liquid water in firn also represents a heat sink that could be playing a role in Greenland's interaction with the climate system,' wrote Dr Joel Harper from the University of Montana, in a comment piece published alongside the study.

'As the intensity of surface melt in Greenland increases and expands upwards to the higher elevations that are covered by firn, liquid water storage may play an expanding role in the ice sheet's future response to climate change.'

Follow Matt on Twitter @mattmcgrathbbc.

Australian plane to monitor whaling

Australia says it will send a surveillance plane to the Southern Ocean to monitor Japanese whaling ships.

The government hopes the aircraft will help prevent conflict between the whalers and environmentalists.

But a campaign group says officials should be sending ships to stop - not monitor - the annual whale catch.

The International Court of Justice is due to rule next year on an Australian claim that Japanese whaling is illegal.

Japanese vessels are already on their way to the seas around the Antarctic for their annual hunt for whales, a period that last between January and March.

The environmental group Sea Shepherd Australia has despatched three vessels to try to prevent the Japanese catching whales.

Scientific research?

To hamper the Japanese, campaigners use tactics such as sailing small boats in between harpoons and the whales they are targeting.

Australian Environment Minister Greg Hunt announced the government would be sending an aircraft, not a boat, to try to stop confrontations.

'The purpose of the customs mission will be to record the incidents on the high seas,' he said.

'It will be to ensure there is a presence to make sure there is no conflict between the parties.'

But the Sea Shepherd group reacted angrily to the news, saying the current administration had gone back on a promise to send ships to stop the whaling.

'They haven't got the guts to go down there and do it,' Jeff Hansen, managing director of Sea Shepherd Australia, told the BBC.

There is a worldwide ban on hunting whales, apart for those used for scientific research. Japanese vessels used this provision last year to catch 103 minke whales in the Southern Ocean.

But the Australian government believes Japan is, in effect, engaged in commercial whaling and has taken its case to the United Nation's International Court of Justice, based in The Hague.

Japan contests that claim and the court is expected to give its ruling in the next few months.

New shellfish nursery laws in force

Dozens of Scottish shellfish nurseries will be protected under new legislation that has come into force.

A total of 84 protected areas have been identified as part of efforts to support Scotland's shellfish sector and help ensure products are safe for human consumption.

Steps will be taken to prevent water quality in these areas from deteriorating.

Ministers said the measures were the first of their kind in the UK.

They were introduced to replace the repealed European Shellfish Waters Directive.

A list of Shellfish Water Protected Areas has been published on the Scottish government website.

In July, all shellfish harvesting sites in Shetland were closed and mussels from the islands withdrawn from sale for a period after unusually high levels of naturally-occurring toxins were detected by the Food Standards Agency.

In the previous month, members of the public were advised not to eat clams and mussels from two areas of Fife, after high levels of toxin were found in shellfish.

'Sustainable future'

Environment and Climate Change Minister Paul Wheelhouse said: 'The aquaculture and freshwater fisheries sectors are significant contributors to Scotland's economy as a whole as well as critical to the economies of many coastal and rural communities.

'We want to ensure both sectors have a successful and sustainable future, and ensuring Scotland's precious marine environment is protected is a key part of that.

'Shellfish production is important for our rural and coastal communities and we recognise the need for clean water in these areas to ensure a high-quality product which is safe for human consumption.

'It's important that we maintain the current high standards of water quality, but also protect against and reduce pollution in shellfish waters.'

He added: 'These new measures not only do that but also significantly expand the area of water protected to enhance support for shellfish life and increase the number of high-class edible shellfish products.'

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Astronauts start urgent pump repair

Astronauts at the International Space Station have begun a spacewalk to carry out urgent repairs.

The two Americans on the crew have gone outside the station to disconnect a pump containing a faulty valve.

It is the first of three spacewalks needed to mend the station's critical cooling system.

Half of the system automatically shut down last week after detecting abnormal temperatures.

Nasa said the situation was potentially serious but not life-threatening.

The six-man crew had to turn off all non-essential equipment because of the malfunction.

Faulty pump

The two astronauts, Rick Mastracchio and Mike Hopkins, began their spacewalk at about 1200 GMT and are expected to be outside the space station for six and a half hours.

Their first task is to disconnect a faulty ammonia pump, which is about the size of a refrigerator.

On their second spacewalk, planned for next Monday, the astronauts will remove the pump so it can be replaced with a spare.

It is possible that a third expedition will be needed, on Christmas Day, to make final installations.

The fault relates to the external cooling loops that circulate ammonia outside the station to keep both internal and external equipment cool.

Nasa said the repairs would take priority over the launch of a supply ship from Virginia, which has now been postponed until January.

Friday, December 20, 2013

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

'Billion star mapper' set for launch

Europe is about to launch the Gaia satellite - one of the most ambitious space missions in history.

The 740m-euro (£620m) observatory is going to map the precise positions and distances to more than a billion stars.

This should give us the first realistic picture of how our Milky Way galaxy is constructed.

Gaia's remarkable sensitivity will lead also to the detection of many thousands of previously unseen objects, including new planets and asteroids.

The European Space Agency (Esa) satellite is being sent up on a Soyuz rocket.

Lift-off from the Sinnamary launch complex in French Guiana is scheduled for 06:12 local time (09:12 GMT).

Gaia will be released from the rocket's upper-stage just over 40 minutes later.

The intention is to put it on path to an observing station some 1.5 million km from the Earth on its nightside - a journey that will take about a month.

Gaia has been in development for more than 20 years.

It will be engaged in what is termed astrometry - the science of mapping the locations and movements of celestial objects.

To do this, it carries two telescopes that throw light on to a huge, one-billion-pixel camera detector connected to a trio of instruments.

Gaia will use this ultra-stable and supersensitive optical equipment to pinpoint its sample of stars with extraordinary confidence.


  • The Gaia mission will make a very precise 3D map of our Milky Way galaxy

  • It is Europe's successor to the Hipparcos satellite which mapped some 100,000 stars

  • The one billion to be catalogued by Gaia is still only 1% of the Milky Way's total

  • But the quality of the new survey promises a raft of discoveries beyond just the stars themselves

  • Gaia will find new asteroids, failed stars, and allow tests of physical constants and theories

  • Its map of the sky will be a reference frame to guide the investigations of future telescopes

By repeatedly viewing its targets over five years, it should get to know the brightest stars' coordinates down to an error of just seven milli-arcseconds.

'This angle is equivalent to the size of a euro coin on the Moon as seen from Earth,' explained Prof Alvaro Gimenez, Esa's director of science.

Gaia will compile profiles on the stars it sees.

As well as working out how far away they are, the satellite will study their motion across the sky.

Their physical properties will also be catalogued - details such as brightness, temperature, and composition. It should even be possible then to determine their ages.

And for about 150 million of these stars, Gaia will measure their velocity either towards or away from us.

This will enable scientists to use them as three-dimensional markers to trace the evolution of the Milky Way, to in essence make a time-lapse movie that can be run forwards to see what happens in the future, or run backwards to reveal how the galaxy was assembled in the past.

And because Gaia will track anything that passes across its camera detector, it is likely also to see a colossal number of objects that have hitherto gone unrecorded - such as comets, asteroids, planets beyond our Solar System, cold dead stars, and even tepid stars that never quite fired into life.

'It will allow us, for the first time ever, to walk through the Milky Way - to say where everything is, to say what everything is. It is truly a transformative mission,' said Prof Gerry Gilmore from Cambridge University, UK.

A key early moment in the endeavour comes just an hour after launch.

It is at this point that Gaia must deploy the sunshield that will protect its optics from any swings in temperature and the disturbance this would introduce to the measurement task.

The unfurling is achieved through the simultaneous firing of 12 pyrotechnic devices. These will split the bolts that were used to lock the shield in a stowed configuration for launch.

It will be a high-anxiety event. A failure to 'flower' would kill the mission.

By the end of the decade, the Gaia archive of processed data is expected to exceed 1 Petabyte (1 million Gigabytes), equivalent to about 200,000 DVDs of information.

This store is so vast that it will keep professional astronomers busy for decades.

It means however that there will be ample scope as well for citizen scientists to mine Gaia's data to make their own discoveries, and a number of crowdsourcing projects to facilitate this activity will get under way next year.

Gaia has been born from an enormous industrial effort. Led by Astrium satellites in Toulouse, France, it has involved more than 70 companies in 16 countries.

'Although contracts weren't signed until 2006, the Gaia idea actually began in 1991. That's astonishing - 1991, and now we're about to launch this remarkable spacecraft. What an adventure!' remarked Astrium's CEO Eric Beranger.

Jonathan.Amos-INTERNET@bbc.co.uk and follow me on Twitter: @BBCAmos

UK bases 'bird-trapping hotspots'

UK sovereign base areas (SBAs) in Cyprus have become illegal bird-trapping 'hotspots', according to research.

The RSPB and BirdLife Cyprus have been monitoring songbird-trapping operations on the island since 2002.

BirdLife Cyprus told BBC News that, in that time, the scale of bird-trapping had increased by 54%.

Although it is widespread, the charity said that some of the largest trapping operations were on UK soil.

A dozen birds can fetch up to 80 euros'

End Quote BirdLife Cyprus

These take place on the two British SBAs in Cyprus, at Akrotiri and Dhekelia, sites covering about 100 sq miles that are British sovereign territory and within which the UK maintains a permanent military presence.

Martin Hellicar from BirdLife Cyprus explained that in Dhekelia - in the south-east of the island - organised criminal gangs created 'labyrinths' of acacia trees, irrigating the plantations and cutting corridors through them in order to set up long mist nets.

These operations often also use loudspeakers with recordings of bird calls in order to lure migrating birds into the almost invisible nets.

The songbirds are killed and sold to restaurants for the illegal but widely available Cypriot delicacy ambelopoulia.

'A dozen birds can fetch up to 80 euros,' a spokesperson from BirdLife Cyprus told BBC News.

Because Cyprus is a key stopover on the migration route of many birds, including blackcaps and warblers, the trapping mainly takes place during the autumn.

Survey data

The researchers estimate that, during the 2013 trapping season, 1.5 million birds were killed across Cyprus.

This latest estimate will be published in early 2014, as part of a report on bird-trapping in the country. It is based on a decade of survey data, where researchers measured the scale of the trapping and estimated how many birds would be caught in those traps.

BirdLife Cyprus said it was calling on the Ministry of Defence (MOD) to do more to tackle illegal bird trapping on its land.

A spokesperson from the MoD said it already took the issue 'extremely seriously'. It added that the SBA police, administered by the MoD, were conducting a continuing operation to combat trappers.

'We have worked closely with BirdLife Cyprus and on numerous occasions have invited them to observe our efforts to tackle this abhorrent illegal activity,' the MoD told BBC News.

'Unfortunately, as long as there is still demand for these dishes then the activity is likely to continue, [but] the SBA authorities will continue to do all they can to try and stop it.'

Andreas Pitsillides, who is chief inspector of the SBA police in Dhekelia, told the BBC that when his team carried out raids on these operations, they would often find between five and 10 20m-long mist nets in one location.

'[The trappers] have become professionals,' Mr Pitsillides told the BBC.

'They have spotters, so when they see our police cars, and even our unmarked cars, they contact each other with mobile phones and leave the area. So it's very difficult to arrest them.'

The charity also hopes that its latest findings will persuade the Cypriot government to 'take action against the restaurants that are selling this illegal dish'.

Mystery early human revealed in DNA

DNA analysis of early human remains from a Siberian cave has revealed the existence of a mystery human species.

A team of researchers speculates that this could have been Homo erectus, which lived in Europe and Asia a million years ago or more.

Meanwhile, the researchers report that they have also obtained the most complete DNA sequence ever from a Neanderthal.

Details of the work appear in Nature journal.

Finds at Denisova cave in Siberia have deepened our understanding of the human groups living in Eurasia before modern humans ( Homo sapiens) arrived on the scene.

'Start Quote

There was lot of interbreeding that we know about and probably other interbreeding we haven't yet discovered'

End Quote Prof Montgomery Slatkin University of California, Berkeley

The Neanderthals were already well known, but DNA analysis of a finger bone and a tooth excavated at the cave revealed evidence of a human type that was distinct both from Neanderthals and modern humans.

When this work was published in 2010, the team behind the discovery dubbed this human species the 'Denisovans' after the Siberian site.

The Neanderthal toe bone was found in the same cave in 2010, though in a deeper layer of sediment that is thought to be about 10,000-20,000 years older. The cave also contains modern human artefacts, meaning that at least three groups of early humans occupied the cave at different times.

A high quality genome sequence was obtained from the small bone using techniques developed by Prof Svante Paabo and colleagues at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, and it reveals some interesting insights about Neanderthals and humans.

For example, the researchers say, the Neanderthal woman was highly inbred and could have been the offspring of half-siblings who shared the same mother.

Other scenarios are possible though, including that her parents were an uncle and niece or aunt and nephew, a grandparent and grandchild, or double first-cousins (the offspring of two siblings who married siblings).

Comparisons of the genetic sequence of multiple human groups - Neanderthals, Denisovans and modern humans - yielded further insights into their evolutionary relationships.

The results shows that Neanderthals and Denisovans were very closely related, and that their common ancestor split off from the ancestors of modern humans about 400,000 years ago. The genome data reveal that Neanderthals and Denisovans diverged about 300,000 years ago.

But it also threw up a surprise result: that the Denisovans interbred with a mysterious fourth group of early humans that were living in Eurasia at the time. Between 2.7 and 5.8% of the Denisovan genome comes from this enigmatic species.

This group split from the others more than a million years ago, and may represent the early human species known as Homo erectus, which fossils show was living in Europe and Asia a million or more years ago.

But Spanish researchers also recognise a species known as Homo antecessor, whose fossils show up at the Atapuerca site about a million years ago near Burgos in Spain, and may be another candidate.

By using her genome, the team was able to compile a list of gene variants that separate our species - Homo sapiens - from the Neanderthals.

Though Denisovans and Neanderthals eventually died out, they left behind bits of their genetic heritage because they occasionally interbred with modern humans. The research team estimates that between 1.5 and 2.1 percent of the genomes of modern non-Africans can be traced to Neanderthals.

Denisovans also left genetic traces in modern humans, though only in some Oceanic and Asian populations.

About 6% of the genomes of Aboriginal Australians, New Guineans and some Pacific Islanders can be traced to Denisovans, studies suggest.

The new analysis finds that the genomes of Han Chinese and other mainland Asian populations, as well as of Native Americans, contain about 0.2% Denisovan genes.

'The paper really shows that the history of humans and hominins during this period was very complicated,' said Montgomery Slatkin, professor of integrative biology at the University of California, Berkeley.

'There was lot of interbreeding that we know about and probably other interbreeding we haven't yet discovered.'

As part of the study, Prof Slatkin's colleague Fernando Racimo was able to identify at least 87 specific genes in modern humans that are significantly different from related genes in Neanderthals and Denisovans.

This, the researchers say, may hold clues to behavioural differences distinguishing us from early human populations that died out.

'There is no gene we can point to and say, 'this accounts for language or some other unique feature of modern humans',' Prof Slatkin explained.

'But from this list of genes, we will learn something about the changes that occurred on the human lineage, though those changes will probably be very subtle.'

According to Prof Paabo, the list of genes 'is a catalogue of genetic features that sets all modern humans apart from all other organisms, living or extinct'.

He added: 'I believe that in it hide some of the things that made the enormous expansion of human populations and human culture and technology in the last 100,000 years possible.'

EU to tackle 'invisible killer'

The European Commission has outlined plans for new air quality laws that it says will save thousands of lives every year.

The new measures aim to reduce the levels of pollutants by around 20% from current levels by 2030.

The Commission says the new measures will prevent 58,000 premature deaths a year and save member states 40bn euros.

But by delaying action until 2030, critics believe the EU is giving in to industry and some reluctant countries.

'Start Quote

Air pollution is still an 'invisible killer' and it prevents many people from living a full active life'

End Quote Janez Potocnik EU Environment Commissioner

Across the EU, more than 400,000 people died prematurely in 2010 from air pollution, according to the Commission. As well as deaths, 100 million work days are lost every year through illnesses like asthma.

Widespread benefits

As well as the impacts on health, the natural environment also suffers through excess nitrogen pollution and acid rain. The direct costs to society from air pollution, including damage to crops and buildings, amounts to 23bn euros a year.

According to EU environment commissioner Janez Potocnik, the new measures being proposed will have significant benefits.

'Air pollution is still an 'invisible killer' and it prevents many people from living a full active life.

'The actions we are proposing will halve the number of premature deaths from air pollution. It's also good news for nature and fragile ecosystems.'

The Commission's draft proposal outlines a new clean air programme for Europe that will put extra pressure on member states to comply with existing laws.

The main pollutants

  • Particulate matter - fine dust emitted by road vehicles, shipping and power generation. Experts are particularly concerned about particles smaller than 2.5 micrometres

  • Sulphur dioxide - emitted by power generation, industry and shipping. Damages health and acidifies land and water

  • Nitrogen oxides - emitted by road vehicles, shipping and power generation. Harms health and contributes to acid rain

  • Ammonia - emitted by livestock and through the use of fertilisers. Damages health and causes acidification

  • Volatile organic compounds - emitted from solvents, vehicles and power generation. They are a key component of ground-level ozone

At present 17 countries are in violation of air pollution regulations and are being taken through the courts by the EU.

'We've taken member states to court before, we will continue to do that,' said Commission spokesman Joe Hennon,

'It is not just a moral thing or a public health thing, it is an economic thing.

'Whatever member states might lose on increased costs, they are going to get back on reduced health budgets.

'More importantly, for citizens, you are going to have a lot fewer people who are dying or suffering all their lives with asthma,' he said.

The new proposals will lower the national emissions ceilings for the six main pollutants and there will be restrictions on pollution from medium-sized combustion installations such as small-scale energy plants.

The Commission says that this measure is necessary, as the increased use of biomass to produce electricity, encouraged by climate legislation, is damaging air quality.

There will also be new emissions ceilings for methane and black carbon, both of which have short-lived impacts on climate change.

Taken together, the EU says that the laws will save 40bn euros a year, more than 12 times the estimated cost of the measures.

But critics, while welcoming many aspects of the plans, are concerned about the pace of the changes.

If they do become law, they are not likely to take effect until 2030.

'There is a real danger that if you only have a binding target by 2030, member states will leave things to last minute and then say it can't be done,' said Alan Andrews, a lawyer with campaigners Client Earth.

'The EU is already lagging behind other OECD countries. If you look at the standard for PM2.5 which is the real killer, the US this year tightened their limit to 12 micrograms, ours is still 25 micrograms, with no indication that it is going to get tightened soon.'

The package of measures will now face review by the European Parliament and other institutions and it could take up to three years before it becomes law.

According to Commission spokesman, Joe Hennon, the EU will need to go much further than the current proposals to meet World Health Organization (WHO) standards.

'We do need to go further, if you look at the WHO reports, those are extremely scary, particularly the last one which shows the air pollution cocktail is carcinogenic, and the standards we have in the EU are quite a bit above what we need to protect the public,' he said.

Follow Matt on Twitter @mattmcgrathbbc.

Scientists 'print' new eye cells

Scientists say they have been able to successfully print new eye cells that could be used to treat sight loss.

The proof-of-principle work in the journal Biofabrication was carried out using animal cells.

The Cambridge University team says it paves the way for grow-your-own therapies for people with damage to the light-sensitive layer of tissue at back of the eye - the retina.

More tests are needed before human trials can begin.

'Start Quote

This is a step in the right direction as the retina is often affected in many of the common eye conditions, causing loss of central vision which stops people watching TV and seeing the faces of loved ones'

End Quote Clara Eaglen of the RNIB

At the moment the results are preliminary and show that an inkjet printer can be used to print two types of cells from the retina of adult rats―ganglion cells and glial cells.

These are the cells that transmit information from the eye to certain parts of the brain, and provide support and protection for neurons.

The printed cells remained healthy and retained their ability to survive and grow in culture.

Retinal repair

Co-authors of the study Prof Keith Martin and Dr Barbara Lorber, from the John van Geest Centre for Brain Repair at the University of Cambridge, said: 'The loss of nerve cells in the retina is a feature of many blinding eye diseases. The retina is an exquisitely organised structure where the precise arrangement of cells in relation to one another is critical for effective visual function.

'Our study has shown, for the first time, that cells derived from the mature central nervous system, the eye, can be printed using a piezoelectric inkjet printer. Although our results are preliminary and much more work is still required, the aim is to develop this technology for use in retinal repair in the future.'

They now plan to attempt to print other types of retinal cells, including the light-sensitive photoreceptors - rods and cones.

Scientists have already been able to reverse blindness in mice using stem cell transplants.

And there is promising work into electronic retina implants implants in patients.

Clara Eaglen, of the RNIB, said: 'Clearly it's still at a very early stage and further research is needed to develop this technology for use in repairing the retina in humans.

'The key to this research, once the technology has moved on, will be how much useful vision is restored.

'Even a small bit of sight can make a real difference, for some people it could be the difference between leaving the house on their own or not.

'It could help boost people's confidence and in turn their independence.'

Prof Jim Bainbridge of London's Moorfields Eye Hospital said: 'The finding that eye cells can survive the printing process suggests the exciting possibility that this technique could be used in the future to create organised tissues for regeneration of the eye and restoration of sight.

'Blindness is commonly caused by degeneration of nerve cells in the eye. In recent years there has been substantial progress towards the development of new treatments involving cell transplantation.'