Archive for the ‘Science & Technology’ Category

The National Trust has a target of producing 50% of its energy from renewable sources on its land by 2020. It’s a challenging target. The new biomass boiler which was installed at Ickworth Park near Bury St Edmunds in Suffolk and which was switched on in July 2015, is one of five pilot renewable energy projects that will address that goal. This is the story of how trees on the 1,800 acres estate are being turned into fuel.

ickworth park, national trust, ickworth rotunda, nikolaus pevsner, gervase jackson-stops

Completed in 1829, the Rotunda was later described by architectural historian Nikolaus Pevsner as ‘a crazy idea … it makes for a lumpy appearance outside and creates very unsatisfactory shapes for rooms inside’. More recently architectural commentator Gervase Jackson-Stops said the Rotunda was like a ‘huge bulk, newly arrived from another planet’ and an ‘overgrown folly’.

The 199kw boiler is fuelled by wood chip produced from timber taken from the 600 acres of woodland on the estate and it will supply 100% of the fuel for heating the Rotunda and the West Wing. These are the main buildings in the centre of the park, and were the idea of the 4th Earl of Bristol, Frederick Augustus Hervey, who intended to use them as a place to display the treasures he gathered during his 30 years of travel in Europe. The Earl was seen more in Italy than in Suffolk.

Incidentally the Hervey family became more eccentric and more notorious right up to the 20th century; read more here. But ever since Ickworth was passed to the Trust in lieu of death duties following the death in 1951 of the 4th Marquess (and 8th Earl) , the buildings have been a nightmare to heat and the bills for the heating oil have been enormous.

Around 156 tonnes of wood chip fuel would be needed each year in addition to the 40 tonnes that was currently being supplied to the boiler at the Regional Office of the Trust at Westley Bottom a mile away. An independent assessment concluded that extracting this amount from the estate on rotation would be sustainable.

Removal of timber from the estate first started in autumn 2014 when ‘harvesting’ machines extracted non-native softwood trees like Western Red Cedar, Norway Spruce and Larch, from a small area of Lownde Wood in the south of the estate. The logs had to be stacked nearby as the wood chip store still had to be built. This was to be located next to the existing wood store in the north of the estate. In September last year, harvesting of softwood resumed in Lady Katherine’s Wood on the east side of the estate (photos 1 & 2). The harvester cuts the tree at its base, and as the trunk is lifted up, it is fed through rollers. Knives strip the branches off the trunk, and a chain saw cuts the trunk into 12′ lengths. This all seems to happen in just a few seconds and it is fascinating to watch.

ickworth park, national trust, biomass boiler, lady katherines wood, tree harvester

These plantations of softwood were likely planted forty or fifty years ago but they had not been managed for a long time. Not all of the softwood is cleared, no more than 30% of the canopy in fact (photo 3). This is to keep some cover for wildlife until the wood is replanted with native broadleaf species that will improve biodiversity. It also serves to protect the wood from strong winds which could blow down thinly spread trees. Standing and fallen deadwood is left, again for the benefit of wildlife.

The land for the wood chip store had by this time been cleared so all the timber, including that from Lownde Wood, was taken up to wood store in the north of the estate (photos 4) where it was piled into five long stacks (photo 5), enough timber to last Ickworth’s needs for an estimated three and a half years. Ideally the timber needs to be stacked for 18 months to 2 years to dry out before it is chipped.

ickworth park, national trust, biomass boiler, lownde wood, timber stacks


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fen-dwellers, reed cutting, lotting fen, the fens, fenland

The livelihoods of many medieval fen-dwellers depended on reed cutting. The rights to cut reed were carefully controlled by manorial courts. Willow and reeds were used in building and thatching houses. In this photo from the early 1900s, Mr Mason of Lotting Fen is still stacking cut reeds in the traditional way.

Around the coast of the Wash in Eastern England lies The Fens or Fenland. Until the early 1600s, it was a vast natural area of marshes and swamps much lower that the chalk and limestone uplands that surround them. Wildlife thrived in the reed marshland and wet woodland, plants and insects flourished on the peat soils, and in the open water fish and birds were abundant. Local people relied on fishing, wildfowling, and the harvesting of reeds for their livelihoods though unpredictable flooding caused many deaths.

To make the land more productive so as to feed a rapidly growing population, the Fens were drained over many centuries. This transformed Fenland from a natural wilderness into miles of intensive farmland with most of the land lying below sea level. It has been described by Ian Rotherham in his book The Lost Fens (2013), as the ‘greatest single ecological catastrophe that ever occurred in England’. Today only four pockets of the original fens survive. The final irony is that the drainage of the Fens has made the land much more susceptible to flooding as a result of the rise in sea levels caused by climate change.

A Potted Natural History

Fenland reaches into four historic counties: Lincolnshire, Cambridgeshire, Huntingdonshire, Norfolk, and a small part of Suffolk, an area of nearly 3,900 sq km (1,500 sq mi). The fens formed about 5,000 years ago as sea-levels rose after the last Ice Age. A fen was the local name for areas of nutrient-rich shallow fresh or salt water in which dead plants did not fully decay. Peat forms from this partially decayed vegetation, and a rich flora of plants grows in this saturated peat. Beavers, otters, water vole and other wildlife thrived in the reed marshland and wet woodland, plants and insects flourished on the peat soils, with abundant fish and birds in the open water.

Nearer the sea were washes, salt marsh and tidal creeks, and in higher areas where the peat grew above the reach of land water, were moors. There were also shallow lakes or meres: Brick, Ramsey, Trundle, Ugg, and Whittlesey Mere. The largest was Whittlesey, which was in Huntingdonshire. It measured 3.5 miles by 2.5 miles, it covered  3,000 acres (1,214 ha) in winter, and it was the largest lake in southern England. There were also isolated areas of higher ground, called ‘islands’, which remained dry when the low-lying fens around them flooded. The largest of the fen-islands is the Isle of Ely, on which the cathedral city of Ely was built, which is 39m above sea level at its highest point.

Early Inhabitants

medieval map of the fens, fen meres, fen islands, the wash, artificial river channels

This partly imagined map of the central part of the Fens in 1070 shows vast area of marsh south of the Wash with eight or so meres, and a variety of ‘islands’. The Ouse and Nene rivers join south of Wisbech, although as can be seen from the map below, they now follow separate artificial channels to the sea.

The fens were densely settled in the Neolithic and Bronze Ages. Timber trackways were used in some places to move around the flooded landscape. Helped by a fall in sea levels, the Romans built a road, the Fen Causeway, from Denver near Downham in Norfolk to Peterborough. Gravel was used to raise the road above the marshland to link what later became East Anglia and central England. The Romans also dug the Car Dyke, an 85-mile (137 km) long ditch which runs along the western edge of the Fens, which is believed to have been used as a canal. But other than this, the Fens were generally left unsettled by the Romans.

After the end of Roman Britain, it is thought that peoples from the Iceni tribe of British Celts may have moved west into the easily defended Fens to avoid the invading Anglo-Saxons who were settling in what would become East Anglia. In Christian Anglo-Saxon England, hermitages on the islands in the Fens became centres of communities, and in the 10th century monastic revival under the Saxon king Edgar, these became monasteries and abbeys such as at Chatteris, Crowland, Ely, Peterborough, Ramsey, and Thorney. Ramsey Abbey, which was founded in 969, became a major centre of religious learning. The abbey’s illuminated manuscript Book of Benefactors, described the island of Ramsey.

The island stretches for some two miles in length … and is garlanded roundabout with alder thickets and reed beds, [and there was] flowering ash for building the church. [The island was] encircled by eel filled marshes … fish and swimming birds.

By the time of the Norman invasion, Ramsey was the fourth richest monastery in the country. Of interest, some of the family and servants of the Danish King Canute (or Cnut) were caught in a storm on Whittlesey Mere in 1020 and nearly drowned. And it is believed that Hereward the Wake, the 11th-century leader of local resistance to the Norman Conquest, sought refuge in the Fens after his escape from the seige by the Normans of the Isle of Ely in 1071.


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large hadron collider, cms detector, cern

This is the CMS (Compact Muon Solenoid) detector which analysed the data for the Higgs boson discovery in 2012. It is one of four separate detectors on the LHC ring. At 12,500 tonnes, it is the heaviest, containing twice as much metal as the Eiffel Tower.

The Large Hadron Collider under the France-Swiss border captures the headlines every so often. The big story this spring was that the LHC had been successfully re-started with protons circling the 27km long accelerator ring for the first time in more than two years. A month later proton beams collided at 99.9% of the speed of light at the ‘record-breaking energy of 13 TEVs’, and the machine began to deliver the much sought-after physics data.

But one news headline caught my attention. ‘What would happen if you got zapped by the LHC?’ One might guess it wouldn’t be very nice.

The LHC is the largest particle collider in the world and the largest single machine ever built. Although one TEV (or tera-electron volt) is roughly equivalent to the energy of motion of a flying mosquito, the energy within the LHC is squeezed into an extremely small space, about a million, million times smaller than a mosquito, and it is this intensity which causes the protons to be smashed apart. I’m not sure the mosquito analogy works. I know that energy like this can’t be quoted in terms of so many London buses or Olympic size swimming pools, though I did read somewhere that each beam contains the energy of a Eurostar train travelling at full speed. That’s more like it.

large hadron collider, accelerator ring, beam pipe, cern

The ring encloses two vacuumed ‘beam-pipes’ along which the protons travel in opposite directions at a speed of 11,000 revolutions of the ring per second before being made to intersect at four locations, at each of which there is a massive particle detector.

Back to the zapping. You’ve managed to get through security, down one of the eight shafts (which are up to 175 metres deep), and you’ve found a quiet spot in the 3.8 metre concrete tunnel close to a hypothetical inspection hatch into the accelerator ring. Though the collider should shut off if anyone starts tampering with the ring whilst it’s running, make believe that you’ve by-passed the safety systems and managed to stick your head inside the ring and into the proton beams. What happens next?

It depends on how many protons collide with nuclei in the tissues in your head, and how many zip through undisturbed. If the beam was of single protons, there would be little chance of impact, but there are 320 trillion protons spinning around each pipe of the LHC, and the beam would almost certainly burn a hole through your head. And as protons fling off secondary particles when they hit something, which incite another round of collisions, the beam would create a space that spreads out laterally. Rather than boring a hole a few microns wide in your head, a beam might carve out a large cone of tissue. You would be toast!

anatoli bugorski, proton beam, large hadron collider, u-70 synchrotron

The beam burnt a hole from the back of Bugorski’s head, through his skull and brain, and exited just beside his left nostril. And the Russian machine had only one hundredth the power of the LHC

Is this all conjecture? Well not entirely. In 1978, Anatoli Petrovich Bugorski, a 36-year-old physicist at the Institute for High Energy Physics in Protvino, Russia, was checking a malfunctioning piece of equipment in a particle accelerator, the U-70 synchrotron. The machine was switched on inadvertently, and unfortunately the safety mechanisms failed to work. Bugorski’s head was in the path of the 76 GeV proton beam. Reportedly, he saw a flash ‘brighter than a thousand suns’ but did not feel any pain.

Over the next few days, the left half of Bugorski’s face swelled up and his skin started peeling around the spots where the beam had entered and exited his head. Believing that he had received far in excess of a fatal dose of radiation, Bugorski was taken to a clinic in Moscow for observation as the doctors fully expected him to die within a few days. Bugorski survived however, though he lost the hearing in his left ear, the left half of his face was paralysed due to nerve damage, and he was to suffer from occasional seizures. However, there was virtually no damage to his intellectual capacity. (more…)

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horsell common, sandpits, h g wells, the war of the worlds

Map of Horsell Common. The common also has three Bronze Age barrows which are scheduled ancient monuments protected by law, as well as a Muslim Burial Ground which dates back to the First World War. In the 1890s, Horsell, in the lower left, was a small village of no more than 50 houses.

To the north of the modern town of Woking in Surrey, England, is the village of Horsell, and to the north of Horsell is Horsell Common. The common, which is mainly heathland with many areas of woodland, 355 hectares (880 acres) in area, is a Site of Special Scientific Interest. The Horsell Common Preservation Society has owned the common since 1966 and it is one of only a handful of privately owned areas of common land in England with public access.

In 1895, the writer H G Wells, Herbert George Wells, moved with his wife to nearby Maybury Road in Woking, and there he wrote his classic science fiction novel The Wars of the Worlds. With his brother Frank, Wells had explored the lanes and paths of the surrounding countryside either walking or on their bicycles. The original idea for The War of the Worlds came from his brother during one of their outings, who pondered on what it might be like if alien beings were suddenly to descend on the scene and start attacking its inhabitants. The Wars of the Worlds was first serialised in 1897 and then published in book form in 1898. The novel tells of the landing of spacecraft from Mars and the wholesale destruction of London, and much of the countryside to the south, by Martians in heat-ray emitting tripod machines. The unnamed narrator, a middle class writer of philosophical papers, lives in Maybury, and a sandpit on Horsell Common is used as the landing site for the Martian space craft.

horsell common, sandpits, h g wells, the war of the worlds

Horsell Common. Sand and gravel were extracted from the woodland areas of Horsell Common for many centuries, much of it used in the construction of local houses. Sand extraction ended in the 1960’s and the remains of old sandpits, roughly in the centre of the common, can be seen today.

Chapter 1, The Eve of the War, starts:

No one would have believed in the last years of the nineteenth century that this world was being watched keenly and closely by intelligences greater than man’s and yet as mortal as his own; that as men busied themselves about their various concerns they were scrutinised and studied, perhaps almost as narrowly as a man with a microscope might scrutinise the transient creatures that swarm and multiply in a drop of water. …

At most terrestrial men fancied there might be other men upon Mars, perhaps inferior to themselves and ready to welcome a missionary enterprise. Yet across the gulf of space, minds that are to our minds as ours are to those of the beasts that perish, intellects vast and cool and unsympathetic, regarded this earth with envious eyes, and slowly and surely drew their plans against us.

horsell common, h g wells, the war of the worlds, henrique alvim corrêa

This illustration of the first Martian to emerge from the cylinder that had landed on Horsell Common, was one of 30 drawn by Henrique Alvim Corrêa and which appeared in the 1906 French translation of The War of the Worlds.

In Chapter Two, The Falling Star, the Martians land:

But the very early in the morning poor Ogilvy [a well-known astronomer], who had seen the shooting-star and who was persuaded that a meteorite lay somewhere on the common between Horsell, Ottershaw [a village to the north of the common], and Woking, rose early with the idea of finding it. Find it he did, soon after dawn, and not far from the sand-pits. An enormous hole had been made by the impact of the projectile, and the sand and gravel had been flung violently in every direction over the heath, forming heaps visible a mile and a half away. The heather was on fire eastward, and a thin blue smoke rose against the dawn.

Today science fiction fans visit the sandpits on Horsell Common where H G Wells’ Martian spacecraft landed. In nearby Woking, a 23-foot tall Martian tripod, designed by Michael Condron, was erected in 1998 to mark the centenary of the publication of The War of the Worlds.

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greater spotted woodpecker, drumming noise, woodland

The loud call or distinctive ‘drumming’ display of the Greater Spotted Woodpecker, particularly in Spring, ensures that woodlands are not free of noise.

If you were asked where the quietest place in Britain was, what would be your answer? You might say it all depends. Where there is least noise? Where there are no sounds of human activity? Are caves or disused mines included? But what about the weather; it can be noisy anywhere. The wind, the rain, and storms. And the sea is not silent, with the slamming of the waves against the cliffs. Neither is wildlife quiet, especially the screeching and chirping of birds. If you allow for the sounds of nature and look for places far away from human activity, then there must be hundreds of places in the highlands of Scotland that would qualify, and the same goes for a lesser number of places in mid-Wales, RAF training flights allowing. No, the quietest place must be all about remoteness from the racket made by us humans, and that must include flight paths of civil aircraft. If the highlands of Scotland and much of mid-Wales are excepted, then finding the quietest spot in crowded England might be more of a challenge.

anechoic chamber, salford university, quietest room

The anechoic chamber at the University of Salford, a room within a room built on rubber springs, is lined from floor to ceiling with soft foam wedges which absorb any vibrations in the air.

The quietest place ought also to be somewhere that can be visited, that isn’t private or unduly dangerous. So the further reaches of the many cave systems or abandoned mines in Britain should be discounted. And deadly silent man-made places such as the University of Salford’s ‘anechoic’ chamber (meaning non-reflective of sound), which is so quiet that you can hear the sound of your blood circulating in your head, or the quiet room at the British Standard Institute laboratories in Hemel Hempstead, where apparently fire alarms are tested; these places surely don’t qualify.

Mapping Tranquility

In March 2005, the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE) published a report Mapping Tranquility that sought to define and identify not the quietest places, which as discussed above, are not what they seem, but the places which were the most tranquil. England was divided into 500m by 500m squares and each square was given a tranquillity score, based on 44 different factors which add to or detract from people’s feelings of tranquillity. It was hoped that this ambitious project would help safeguard the English countryside from future development. The top ten factors that people said represented tranquillity were:

1. Seeing a natural landscape
2. Hearing birdsong
3. Hearing peace and quiet
4. Seeing natural looking woodland
5. Seeing the stars at night
6. Seeing streams
7. Seeing the sea
8. Hearing natural sounds
9. Hearing wildlife
10. Hearing running water

As a result of the survey, the CPRE in 2006 created a national tranquillity map based on the 500m by 500m squares, and they said that the most tranquil place in England was in the Kielder Forest in Northumberland. But the exact spot was kept secret, to keep it tranquil.

You can download the tranquillity map here, and see what else the CPRE has to say about tranquil places here.

The Most Tranquil Place

kielder mires, quietest place in england, kielder forest, northumberland

This is a map of the approximate location of the Kielder Mires National Nature Reserve, in which, somewhere, lies the ‘quietest place in England’. © Ordnance Survey

However since then, Trevor Cox, Professor of Acoustics Engineering from the same Salford University, and a presenter of many popular science documentaries on television and radio, has gone to England’s most tranquil spot. The CPRE told Professor Cox which 500m by 500m square in the Kielder Forest had been identified as the spot, and he went there, trekking along forester’s tracks and wading through a mile and a half of peat bog.

In January 2014, the most tranquil place in England was described as a hillock in the Kielder Mires, two hours walking distance from the nearest human settlement, a Victorian grouse shooting lodge, and ten miles from the village of Gisland. As well as its distance from human habitation, the distance of the place from flight paths, was a key factor in making it the most tranquil spot.

The Kielder Mires 

bellcrag flow, border mires, peatland, most tranquil place in england, kielder forest, northumberland

This is Bellcrag Flow, one of the border mires in the southern part of Kielder Forest, typical of what you might see in the ‘most tranquil place in England’. Border Mires are areas of peatland up to 10 metres deep which have developed on the site of shallow lakes since the end of the Ice Age 12,000 years ago. © Les Hull / Creative Commons Licence

The Kielder Mires are formed of two deep peat mires known as Grain Heads Moss and Coom Rigg Moss. The mires are part of a collection of more than 50 recognised peat bodies known as the Border Mires which are mostly located within the boundaries of Kielder Forest. These blanket mires are rare globally, as they have been largely destroyed by plantations, drainage and grazing. The mires in Kielder are acidic, low-nutrient environments fed entirely by rain and provide refuge for rare species such as tall bog sedge, lichens and sphagnum mosses. Less is known about the natural fauna, although the area is rich in invertebrates and merlins, Britain’s smallest birds of prey, breed on the edge of the plantations. For these reasons the Kielder Mires been designated as a National Nature Reserves (NNR), a Special Areas of Conservation (SAC), and a Ramsar site, that is wetlands of international importance under the Ramsar Convention, an international treaty signed in 1971.

So Professor Cox became the first person to knowingly visit this most peaceful spot, though humans must have struggled through the mires unknowingly many times over the last 10,000 or more years. Later, Cox wrote in his book Sonic Wonderland – A Scientific Odyssey of Sound, that ‘I had previously thought of asking the CPRE if I could publish the location of the quietest place, but I realised this would be a bad idea’.

But in the 1950s, something was going on less than six miles away that had the potential to shatter the peace of the Kielder Mires.


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paul crutzen, nobel prize, ozone layer

Paul Crutzen won the Nobel prize in Chemistry in 1995 for his work on the chemical compounds that were causing the hole in the ozone layer.

In 2000 Paul Crutzen, the Dutch atmospheric chemist and Nobel prize-winner, and American ecologist Eugene F Stoermer, proposed using the term ‘anthropocene’ for the current geological epoch to emphasize the central role of mankind in geology and ecology.

Fifteen years on, several of the papers that were presented at the four-day World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, last week referred to the advent of the Anthropocene era, though it is doubtful if many of the 2,500 attendees paid much attention.

Geological Epochs

So what is a geological epoch, when did the Anthropocene epoch start, and how is the Anthropocene relevant to us?

You will know about the Jurassic period when dinosaurs roamed the earth*. But do you know some of the other periods of geological time: the Cambrian, the Devonian, the Carboniferous, the Triassic, the Cretaceous? The Cambrian period started about 540 million years ago, and the Cretaceous period ended 66 million years ago. This enormous length of time is only 10% of the age of the Earth, which is 4.6 million years old.

(*The dinosaurs actually first appeared in the Triassic period, 231.4 million years ago, and were the dominant terrestrial vertebrates for 135 million years, from the beginning of the Jurassic period until the end of the Cretaceous, 66 million years ago.)

The last 66 million years is also made up of geologic periods: the Paleogene, the Neogene and the Quaternary, and to make it more complicated, the Quaternary period is made up of two epochs, the Pleistocene (2.6 million years ago to 11,700 years ago) and the Holocene (11,700 years ago to the present day). Even though human beings first appeared between 400,000 and 250,000 years ago, the Holocene, the start of which is marked by the end of the last major ice age, encompasses the rise of modern humans, all human written history, the development of major civilizations, and the relatively recent transition toward urban living. The word Holocene means ‘entirely recent’ and comes from the Greek holos, meaning ‘whole’ or ‘entire’, and –cene meaning ‘new’.

geologic time, cambrian, pre-cambrian

In this geological time chart, the time before the Cambrian period, the Pre-Cambrian, which extends for most of the top level, covers seven-eighths of the age of the earth, with the remaining one-eighth expanded into levels below.

The Anthropocene Epoch

But for some time, geologists, climate scientists and ecologists have been debating whether the profound effect that the human species is having on the Earth means that we are moving from the Holocene to a new epoch, the Anthropocene (pronounced an-thropo-scene). The first use of a similar term however goes back to 1873 when the Italian geologist Antonio Stoppani  acknowledged the increasing power and effect of humanity on the Earth’s systems and referred to an ‘anthropozoic era’. Incidentally Eugene Stoermer originally coined the term in the 1980s, but never formalised it until Paul Crutzen, who had started using the term, contacted him. The name Anthropocene is a combination of the Greek roots anthropo- meaning ‘human’ and -cene meaning ‘new’.

Geologic epochs primarily refers to geologic time based on boundaries between different rock strata differentiated by fossils, which is the science of stratigraphy, and any decision on recognising the Anthropocene epoch, which is still an informal term, lies with the International Commission on Stratigraphy (ISC). The ISC set up an international Anthropocene Working Group of scientists which was ‘tasked with developing a proposal for the formal ratification of the Anthropocene as an official unit amending the Geological Time Scale’. The working group, which first met in Berlin last year, has given itself until 2016 to come up with the proposal to submit to the ISC, but this month they put forward their initial view.

The Beginning of the Athropocene

The working group has proposed that if there were to be a single date to mark its beginning of the Anthropocene epoch, it would be 16 July 1945, the date that the first atomic-bomb test took place at the US Army testing range at Alamogordo in New Mexico, as the subsequent nuclear tests left an indelible mark around the Earth due to the release of radioactive isotopes or ‘fallout’ which settled in the soil and land around the world. This event also coincided with a worldwide ‘great acceleration’ of other human activities that ushered in a new geological epoch.

However a significant minority of the working group supported alternative dates, and the group plans to bring forward a formal, evidence based, proposal in 2016. Scientists have argued for a number of different dates that mark the start of this new human epoch. One date is the start of the industrial revolution in England in the 18th century when coal became the main source of fuel, production by hand changed to production by machine, new processes to produce iron were introduced, and the use of steam power increased dramatically. Earlier dates include the invention of agriculture and the clearing of forests about 10,000 years ago, and even further back to 14,000 to 15,000 years ago based on lithospheric evidence, the exposed top layers of the earth. These latter dates would be closely synchronous with the current epoch, the Holocene.


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Cancer has been in the news a lot recently. In the last few days, there have been separate reports in the newspapers about the high cost of some cancer drugs, and the prediction by a national charity that there will be a crisis of unmanageable proportions in the NHS due to the record number of people with cancer. But there were two reports that appeared over the Christmas period that caught my eye.

The First Report

bmj, british medical association, medical journal

BMJ, the weekly journal of the British Medical Association, was first published in 1840 and is one of the world’s oldest general medical journals.

The first was a story in The Independent (31 Dec 14) with the headline ‘Cancer is the best death – so don’t waste billions trying to cure it, says leading doctor’. The story originated from Dr Richard Smith, a former editor of BMJ (previously the British Medical Journal), who had argued that cancer allowed people to say goodbye and prepare for death and was therefore preferable to sudden death, death from organ failure, or ‘the long, slow death from dementia’ adding ‘let’s stop wasting billions trying to cure cancer, potentially leaving us to die a much more horrible death’.

My initial reaction was to think that whilst having cancer in later life might to some be preferable to developing dementia, what of people who die of cancer much earlier in life: children and young persons, parents with young children, or just someone who happens not to even reached their 40s? What of people who die quite suddenly of cancer, within months rather than years? Another concern was about the drugs and treatments that alleviate the symptoms of cancer rather than cure it? Is it similarly misguided to incur these costs? With the prospect of us all living longer, the increasing cost of healthcare is a big challenge so perhaps Dr Smith was only joining the debate on how far can we fund these costs.

The Second Report 

BBCCancerBadLuckThe second story, on the BBC News website (2 Jan 15), which had the headline ‘Most cancers types just bad luck’, came from American research, unspecified, saying that ‘new research has suggested that most types of cancer are the result of bad luck, rather than an unhealthy lifestyle or genetic factors’.

My first thoughts was to question who had suggested that a large proportion of cancers were related to lifestyle anyway. Of more concern was the notion of ‘bad luck’ as if there was nothing we could do about it. I didn’t think that scientific research recognised bad luck. There is surely a mechanism, a cause, to everything in the natural world even if the processes are beyond the limits of our current knowledge. But perhaps I don’t know enough about random events. Further, I found myself thinking that if lifestyle wasn’t the cause of two-thirds of cancers, that perhaps lifestyle wasn’t relevant either in the treatment or survival of the disease. This would of course be nonsense. Keeping fit through regular exercise or healthy eating is a vital part of managing ill-health, including cancer. And this is so even if our knowledge of exactly what it is in particular foods that makes it a good food or a bad food is imperfectly understood, given the immense difficulty of scientifically trialling particular foods.

I decided to look into the sources of these stories. How accurate was the reporting? Is the science behind the stories much more complicated than how they are presented? Are readers being misled?

Health in the Headlines

But it was not just these stories about cancer. Every newspaper seemed to run at least one quasi-scientific story each day about how to live longer or eat more healthily, or the latest cures for cancer, dementia, heart disease etc. Here are some of the headlines that I found over the last month or so:

‘Keeping cold could keep you thinner, scientists say’ (The Independent 8 Jan 15)

‘Porridge helps to protect against heart disease’ (Daily Express 8 Jan 15)

‘High blood pressure? Eat like a Viking’ (Daily Telegraph 7 Jan 15)

IndependentPorridge‘Porridge could be key to a healthy life, Harvard research finds’ (The Independent 6 Jan 15)

‘The secret of eternal youth: skin-tight Lycra and a bicycle’ (The Independent 6 Jan 15)

‘Could a pill containing Viagra cure illnesses from Ebola to brain cancer, hepatitis to MRSA? (Daily Mail 5 Jan 15)

‘Chips may cause cancer’ (Daily Mail 4 Jan 15)

‘Junk food may not be dangerous for a quarter of people, says scientists’ (Daily Telegraph 2 Jan 15)

‘Scientists crack why red meat is linked with cancer – and sugar may be to blame’ (Daily Mail 30 Dec 14)

‘Lifestyle changes ‘could protect 80,000 from dementia’ (Daily Telegraph 21 Dec 14)

‘Is ibuprofen the key to anti-ageing? Study finds painkiller extends life of flies and worms by equivalent of 12 human years’ (The Independent 19 Dec 14)

‘Tamoxifen could protect women from cancer for 20 years if taken daily (Daily Telegraph 11 Dec 14)

‘Oranges could fight cancer, new study reveals’ (Daily Express 8 Dec 14)

‘Mediterranean diet ‘slows ageing’ – and could even help you live longer’ (The Independent 3 Dec 14)

‘HIV drug ‘dramatically slows spread of prostate cancer’ (Daily Express 1 Dec 14) (more…)

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