Archive for the ‘Science & Technology’ Category

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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Payment card numbers such as those on debit cards, credit cards, or store cards, used to be typed-in and quoted. This led to mistakes, though these days it happens only occasionally. To minimize this and avoid the complications that would follow if money was paid to the wrong account or ended up lost in the system, 16-digit card numbers are far from being the random numbers they appear to be. The numbers have a pattern and that pattern is verified using a single check digit.

We know we should never reveal our bank account details over the phone or in emails. Every once in a while though someone will fall for a phishing email and send off their card number. Software can be used to scan email traffic to identify bank account numbers in emails and thus reduce the chances of fraud. Also fictitious card numbers used to be generated by crooks unaware that the numbers are not random, and the software could identify these numbers.

algorithm, graphic

An example, in graphic form, of a simple algorithm

What is the pattern in bank account numbers and how are errors spotted? The software makes use of an algorithm, which is a set of mathematical instructions performed in a prescribed sequence to achieve a goal, in this case a mistake in the pattern of numbers. Here’s how it works.

Take out a bank card and write down the long number on the front on a piece of paper and follow these steps (you don’t really have to do this of course).

1  Starting from the right, double the value of each alternate digit beginning with the second digit from the right (not the first digit)

2  Add the individual digits of the numbers obtained in step 1 together. If the number has two digits treat them as separate numbers and add them together ie. the number 14 becomes 5

3  Add together each of the unaffected digits in the original number

4  Add together these two totals together (the totals in 2 and 3)

If the final total is a number ending in zero (30, 40, 50, 60, 70 etc) then the card number is validated.

Here is an example using the card number 4556 7375 8689 9855

Card Number 4 5 5 6 7 3 7 5 8 6 8 9 9 8 5 5  
Double every other number 8   10   14   14   16   16   18   10    
Sum of digits 8 5 1 6 5 3 5 5 7 6 7 9 9 8 1 5 90

The sum of all the digits is 90 which is divisible by 10, and therefore the card number is validated. If say the first two numbers had been switched around by mistake, the sum of the digits in the first two columns of the 3rd row would have been 1 and 4, instead of 8 and 5, and the total sum would have been 82. This is not divisible by 10, and the card number would not have been validated.

hans peter luhn, algorithm, ibm, lunometer

Hans Peter Luhn, creator of the Luhn algorithm, joined IBM in 1941 as a research engineer. He was awarded over 80 patents, including one for a thread counting gauge, the Lunometer, which is still used in the textile industry today.

This algorithm, know as the Luhn algorithm after the IBM scientist Hans Peter Luhn who created it in 1954, is also known as the ‘modulus 10’ or ‘mod 10’ algorithm. It doesn’t have any significant security function, criminals are much more sophisticated, but the algorithm is in the public domain and is still in wide use today serving its original purpose of spotting accidental errors. (more…)

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In a corridor adjacent to the foyer of the Clarendon Laboratory at the University of Oxford in England, is an electric bell that has been ringing almost continuously since it was first displayed in 1840.

OxfordElectricBell1The Oxford Electric Bell, also called the Clarendon Dry Pile, was an experimental electric bell when it was first set up. It consists of two brass half-spheres or bells, each positioned beneath a dry pile battery, with a metal sphere, about 4mm in diameter, suspended between the piles, acting as a ‘clapper’. The sphere moves the very short distance between the bells by electrostatic force. As the sphere touches one bell, it is charged by the pile, is electrostatically repelled, and is attracted to the other bell. On touching the other bell, the process repeats itself.

Whilst a high voltage is required to create the motion, only a miniscule amount of charge is carried from one bell to the other, which is why the piles have been able to last since the apparatus was set up. 

OxfordElectricBell2It is not known for sure what the piles are made of – they may be Zamboni piles which are made of alternate layers of metal foil and paper coated with manganese dioxide – but they were coated with molten sulphur to insulate them and to reduce the effects of atmospheric moisture.

clarendon laboratory, oxford university, physics

The original Clarendon Laboratory in Oxford (photo taken in 1894) was the first purpose-built physics laboratory in the country. The building, much enlarged, is now incorporated into the Department of Earth Sciences.

The bell was apparently made by Watkin and Hill, instrument makers, of London, and purchased by the Rev Robert Walker, Reader in Experimental Philosophy (the name by which physics was known at Oxford) at the university from 1839 to 1860, and Professor of Physics from 1860 to 1865. It bears a label in his handwriting ‘Set up in 1840’.

The Oxford Electric Bell does not demonstrate perpetual motion as the bell will eventually stop when the dry piles are depleted of charge, if the clapper does not wear out first. It has now been ringing almost continuously for 175 years apart from occasional short interruptions caused by high humidity. A double-thick glass bell jar muffles the ringing sound, so the bell is inaudible. There is a video of the bell here.

The bell has rung about 10 billion times and is considered to be the longest running experiment ever. The Guinness Book of Records lists it as the ‘world’s most durable battery’.

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cow parsley, plant diversity, wild flowers

Cow parsley (Anthriscus sylvestris), also known as Queen Anne’s lace and wild chervil, engulfs the verges of many of Britain’s roads and lanes.

If you went for a walk along a path in a wood or beside a stream or canal, or drove down a country lane last weekend, everywhere you look you would have seen a lush growth of plants. Unfortunately a small number of plants will be dominating all others. Engulfing many verges will be cow parsley, with its tiny white blooms on umbrella-like stems, the soft leaves of the common nettle on erect wiry green stems, and thick tangled prickly brambles. And at roundabouts, you will see thousands of lovely ox-eye daisies and buttercups, but not much else.

Going back many decades I can remember a good mix of flowers alongside hedgerows and on the edges of woods, and beside paths on commons and in parks, though not being an expert on plants, I don’t know most of their names. And there were so many more butterflies: brimstones, orange tips, hairstreaks, blues, specked woods, fritillaries and many more. Cow parsley may appear to be very decorative of our roadside verges, but where are all the other plants.

The Centre for Ecology & Hydrology, which is part of the Natural Environment Research Council, carries out surveys of the countryside every ten years, and their survey in 2007 found that between 1978 and 2007, the extent of cow parsley in Britain had increased by almost 60% in the plots surveyed. That’s more than half as much again of the stuff as there was 30 years or so ago. But why is it happening?

There seem to be three reasons: how roadside verges are managed nowadays, the increased fertility of soil due to intensive farming, and the aerial deposition onto the land of compounds from car exhausts.

wildflower meadow, plant diversity, winterfield park, dunbar

A beautiful wildflower meadow close to the coast at Winterfield Park, Dunbar in East Lothian, Scotland. © Richard West/Creative Commons Licence

In the past, verges were often grazed by farm animals or were cut for hay, and the grass and other plants, once mown, were taken off. Now verges as well as hedges are mown by local councils, and the mowings are left in place, which add nutrients to the soil and makes it more fertile. The fertility of soil along hedgerows and on the margins of fields and woods is increased by the large amount of nitrogenous fertilisers used by farmers on their crops. That’s the reason why the chalk grassland of Salisbury Plain supports such a diversity of plants: it’s never been sprayed with agricultural chemicals because it is an army training ground. Significant areas of grassland have been ‘ploughed in’ since the Second World War which led to an increase of nitrogen compounds in the soil. And across the entire landscape, the air and rain is more fertile because of the nutrient effect of nitrogen oxide gases emitted by motor vehicles.

(more…)

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sandstone, jack hills, western australia, zircon, bruce watson, mark harrison, oldest

These are the sandstone rocks in Jack Hills in Western Australia, in which zircon crystals found by geochemists Bruce Watson and Mark Harrison in 2005, were later dated as being 4.4 billion years old, the oldest material so far found on Earth.

There was a news item on the BBC website a few days ago that tiny crystals of zircon, a blue semi-precious stone, that had been found in a much younger sandstone in the Jack Hills in the Murchison river basin in Western Australia, were the oldest fragments of the earth’s crust. The age of the crystal, which was dated using the decay of trace uranium atoms within it, is 4.4 billion years, only 200 million years after the formation of the earth itself. This is in the very earliest part of the Pre-Cambrian era that makes up seven-eighths of geologic time. The significance of this discovery is not so much how old the rock was, but that it is evidence of the earth having had a solid crust much earlier than had been thought and consequently of having been able to host life very early in its history.

As for the oldest rocks in the world, that is rocks consisting of minerals that have not been subsequently melted or broken down by erosion – unlike the Jack Hills zircon – there are four contenders, depending on the latest research. The rocks are all gneisses (gneiss is pronounced ‘nice’), rocks formed, or metamorphosed, by the action of heat and pressure on earlier rocks. Gneisses are hard, folded, and characterised by darker and lighter coloured bands, and they are widely distributed around the world.

The four locations are in south-western Greenland; the Jack Hills area of Western Australia as above; and in two locations in Canada, the eastern shore of the Hudson Bay and the Canadian shield in the Northwest territory. These rocks have all been dated as being between 3.8 and 4.4 billion years old. The difficulty in assigning the title of oldest to one particular formation of gneiss is that they are all extremely deformed, hence claiming one site to have the oldest rocks may be as much a matter of luck in sampling as by an understanding of the rocks themselves.

geologic time scale, pre-cambrian, age of the earth, jack hills, zircon, chalk, dover, cretaceous

In this geologic time chart, the Pre-Cambrian period, because it covers seven-eighths of the age of the earth occupies most of the lower scale, with the remaining one-eighth expanded into the upper scale. For comparison purposes the Jack Hills zircon were formed in the dark-brown Hadean period at the very beginning of the Pre-cambrian era, and the chalk cliffs of Dover were formed in the light green Cretaceous peiod above, only about 100 million years ago.
Incidentally this is an American chart, and in the UK the two blue periods between the Permian period and the Devonian, are called the Carboniferous period, which is when coal was formed.

But where are the oldest rocks in Britain?

The oldest rocks, the Lewisian gneiss of the Pre-Cambrian era, date from at least 2.7 billion years old – close to two-thirds of the age of the planet – and can be found at the surface in the far north-west of mainland Scotland and on the Hebridean islands. This rock is thought to underlie much of the Britain Isles although boreholes have only penetrated the first few kilometres. The main outcrops of Lewisian gneiss are on the islands of the Outer Hebrides, including Lewis, from which the formation takes its name, but the oldest of these rocks, are on the mainland around Scourie and Laxford Bridge, small villages halfway between Ullapool and Durness.

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PointofViewIs competition always a pre-requisite for efficient and economic delivery, or is it sometimes just a blind dogma?

In the UK we have a mixed economy with both public and private services. Currently, most if not all retail outlets are in private hands as are most industrial and financial services. Alongside these we have a range of public services funded from taxation which are provided to us, arguably designed to enable us to live a decent and productive life, such as the National Health Service, education, highways, waste collection and disposal, plus personal care services.

Since the 1980s this convenient distinction between public and private has become blurred by a process of privatising public services. Today, for example we have the utility services of energy (gas and electricity) and water provided by private companies. In recognition that such services still have a significant economic and social impact, government has created public regulators to oversee the operation of these utility companies. These are essentially there to protect the ‘public interest’.

There has been a growing pressure since these privatisations to diminish the power of the regulators in favour of introducing more competition within the utility markets. The argument has been made that where competition can take root then the inherent trading practices will progressively make those services more efficient and the retail prices would fall as a result. Thus the regulators would not be needed.

Clearly where competition can be seen to flourish such as in food, clothes and cars, the consumer is faced with a huge range of options to consider. They stretch from cheap budget goods and services to luxury brands that spare little in the craftsmanship and quality of the materials used. Retailers also compete on price for the same branded goods in search for a customer. Therefore the consumer is able to exercise a rational choice, not just of the supplier but also on price and more importantly, for example, of the model of car, the colour and cut of a shirt, or the type of cereals to eat for breakfast.

margaret thatcher, privatisation, britain, electricity, edf, big six, shareholder, france, state-owned

Margaret Thatcher spoke of privatisation giving ‘power back to the people’ and freeing British enterprise to lead the world. Now in 2013, small shareholders have no influence, and EDF, one of the ‘big six’ UK energy suppliers, and owner of a large portfolio of our power stations, is a French state-owned company.

When the utility services were privatised, the previous publicly owned national utilities were broken up into a number of independent companies. In both the gas and electricity utilities, retail companies were set up to compete with each other for customers. The government deliberately engineered this arrangement in the belief that competition would work its magic and customers would benefit from cheaper energy and could choose which supplier they wanted largely based on price. (Currently the UK market is dominated by six energy providers). Government has also encouraged the creation of ‘swapping’ websites that make it easier for customers to seek out an apparently better deal and to swap from their existing supplier to a new one.

Most consumers today see this artificially created energy market as dysfunctional and not operating in the public interest. Competition has not worked and most consumers have little faith in the swapping process to help them find a cheaper energy provider. Why is this?

gas, supplier, distribution network, britain, wholesale price, demand and supply

All UK gas suppliers use this same distribution network, and the wholesale price of gas is determined by global supply and demand. And the gas that comes out the pipe, is the same for all.

This is a classic case of the ’emperor has no clothes’, especially if you are an industry insider where your thoughts are ruled by what I would describe as some kind of internal fantasy. Take energy as an example. From the consumer’s point of view the product is exactly the same no matter who the supplier is. As there is only one distribution infrastructure, every supplier has to use it to deliver the energy to your home or business, and most suppliers also use the same energy generators to source their product. Similarly from the provider’s viewpoint, in addition to being dependent on the same infrastructure they also face the same cost pressures. The price of wholesale fuel is fixed by international mechanisms which impact on all domestic generators equally.

(more…)

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furthest point, ruadh stac beag, fisherfield forest, wester ross, scotland

The ‘furthest point’ is in the centre of this map, to the left of Ruadh Stac Beag.
© 2013 Ordnance Survey

What is the furthest point from a tarmaced public road in mainland Britain? There may be other contenders for remoteness, but the Ordnance Survey has determined this point as a peat bog on the western hillside of Ruadh Stac Beag in Wester Ross in Scotland, amongst the burns (‘allt’ in Gaelic) that come from Lochan a Bhraghad. The point is at a height of about 610m (2,000 feet) and the grid reference is NH 0202 7700.

It is 10.43 km (6.48 miles) in a straight line from the nearest road, the A832 near the village of Kinlochewe. But up here in the boggy  mountainous wilderness of the Fisherfield Forest of Wester Ross, that doesn’t mean very much.

furthest point, wester ross, scotland

The ‘furthest point’ is marked by the blue spot in the centre of this map of Wester Ross, Scotland,
© 2013 Ordnance Survey

The shortest distance by a path, where there is one, is from Kinlochewe, the nearest settlement, and it is 24.2 km (15 miles). There are a number of deer-season only hunting lodges and abandoned houses, and an out of season bothy, Shenavall, to the north of the ‘furthest point’ near Loch na Sealga and below An Teallach (1,062m), but that is all. There is a nearer settlement at Letterewe on the side of Loch Maree to the south-east, but that is on a private estate.

There are no photographs of the location as far as I know but the nearest photograph, below right, is of Lochan a’ Bhraghad, a small lochan close by. For what it’s worth, the ‘furthest point’ is about 500m away over the slight hill on the right side of the picture.

lochan a' bhraghad, ruadh stac mor, wester ross, scotland

Lochan a’ Bhraghad north east of Ruadh Stac Mor.
© Stuart Meek/Creative Commons Licence

In 2002, the Daily Telegraph sent one of its reporters, Colin Cottell, to this remote spot. He rang the Ordnance Survey to check before setting out. ‘Less than seven miles? Hardly worth getting out of my sleeping bag for. Or so I imagined’. His report is here.

The Fisherfield Forest, and the Dundonnell Forest to the north, is sometimes nicknamed The Great Wilderness because the area is entirely devoid of permanent settlements. Although termed a forest, the area has very few trees, though it was a pine forest 200 years ago.

fisherfield forest, ruadh stac beag, wester ross, scotland

In the midst of the Fisherfield Forest, this is a view down Gleann na Muice Beag to the north of Ruadh Stac Beag and about 1km from the ‘furthest point’.
© Roger McLachlan/Creative Commons Licence

Three estates cover most of the area which is maintained primarily for deer stalking: Dundonnell Estate covers 134 km² in the northwest part of the forest, the Eilean Darach estate covers 262 km² in the northeast, and majority of the area, including all the southern and central sections, forms the 323 km² Letterewe estate.

Other places of interest in Britain:

Lowest land in Britain

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