27 May 2006

Another ITERation towards controlled fusion?

The CORDIS: News service is just one of many reports of the signing of a pointless piece of paper in the saga to achieve controlled nuclear fusion. The next machine, ITER, comes after an increasingly large, and increasingly expensive, series of magnetic confinement machines.

Another title for this could have been "Bunch of old men in suits sign pointless pieces of paper".

The only reason for mentioning this non-event here is that my short lived career, all of three years, as a research physicist was in nuclear fusion. Way back then, the world was a younger place, nuclear power had yet to blot its copy book, and climate change was something that happened in science fiction (read the excellent Hothouse by Brian Aldiss).

The timetable for nuclear fusion back then in the mid 1960s was that it would take 25 years to get to a commercial power station – 40 years on and the timetable is more like 40 years before commercial electricity flows from fusion. Makes you wonder where we will be 40 years hence.

The whole fusion programme has a fascinating history. The first revelation that there was a peaceful fusion effort came with claims that an early machine, Zeta, had produced thermonuclear neutrons. That is, neutrons produced by banging together isotopes of hydrogen and creating atoms of helium. Zeta had done no such thing. The neutrons happened because particles had smashed into the walls of the machine and knocked off the neutrons. (Did someone mention 'cold fusion'?)

Maybe there'll be time to go into some more of this history later. At the moment we can only marvel at the acres of coverage that the media gives to this event, very little of which shows any understanding of the history of fusion power. Maybe someone will find time to go into the subject in enough detail to explain just why it has taken so long. Then again, that would require some fairly detailed description of things like magnetic instability, H modes and stuff.

26 May 2006

Eat British lamb

A sign of the times. Spotted last weekend in the car park of the Half Moon, Warninglid.

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17 May 2006

Book worms need feeding

If you can afford to spend £250,000 a year for a bit of publicity, you might like to support the Science Book Awards run by the Royal Society. The RS has put out a press release explaining that the Aventis Foundation is pulling out after 16 or so with its hand on the wallet in one guise or another.

First sponsored by the Science Museum, corporate sponsorship started with Rhone Poulenc and moved to Aventis after one of those name changes that companies like to go through every now and then. In recent years, the Aventis Foundation has picked up the tab. The foundation is a charitable operation "established in 1996 as the Hoechst Foundation with an endowment of €50 million".

We have a spot spot for the prizes because the Science Museum set them up when we made a throwaway remark at the end of a meeting of the Committee on the Public Understanding of Science. But they have always been a bit of a disappointment, constantly returning to the same tired old subjects – life, the universe and everything – for winners. There was also a tendency to overlook science writers in favour of academics slumming it.

This year they manage to break one of these traditions by choosing what is, if memory serves us, the first prizewinner with a technological theme. We have to rely on memory because someone seems to have forgotten to pay the fee to renew the web site for the prizes.

At a rather nice dinner at the Royal Society on Tuesday, David Bodanis picked up the £10,000 prize for his book "Electric Universe - How Electricity Switched on the Modern World". On the day after the event The Guardian reported that Bodanis will give the cash to the family of the late government scientist David Kelly, quoting Bodanis as saying that he hoped his gesture would, "tell some people in England something about the importance of truth."

With luck this will not deter potential sponsors. One thing they could do would be to spend a bit less on employing expensive events organisers to lay on the bash. At least one staffer at the RS muttered about duplicating all of their kit resulting in a larger than necessary bill for the sponsor. But we would not want anyone to cut back on the dinner bill. The food and wine were rather nice for a mass event.

15 May 2006

How big is a quantum?

Defending the meaning of "quantum leap" is now a lost cause. But that's no reason not to point the finger at the twits who make the mistake of thinking that a quantum leap is something big. It isn't.

Quantum mechanics deals with stuff around the size of atoms. And you probably don't need me to tell you that atoms are small. This does not stop the EU's energy commissioner, Andris Piebalgs, from talking about "a quantum leap in the production of renewable and low carbon energy".

Quantum leaps are discrete leaps. Discrete and tiny. That means they are like rungs on a ladder. You stand on one run or the next one up. You can't hover in the middle.

The commissioner probably meant an order of magnitude leap. But given the status of many renewable energy technologies, maybe he was right after all. Adding another solar powered battery to the world's energy output would bring about a tiny and imperceptible increase in energy production. A bit like an electron jumping from one quantum state to another.

Insider dealing as a science writer

There is an interesting "disclaimer" within the latest ACS weekly press package. There is also a reference to a useful tool for science writers. The slot billed as Journalists' Helper of the Week mentions something called Patent Watch. This points to a useful RSS feed.

The intriguing bit is the observation at the end of the whole package, although it isn't clear if it is about Patent Watch or everything in the mailing.

The health warning reads: "This information in this press package is intended for your personal use in news gathering and reporting and should not be distributed to others. Anyone using advance ACS News Service Weekly Press Package information for stocks or securities dealing may be guilty of insider trading under the federal Securities Exchange Act of 1934."

Whether this applies outside the USA is one question. The point is that this is the first sighting that I can remember of advice to science writers suggesting that they too could get done for insider dealing.

I've warned about this for years. After all, medical journals carry details of clinical trials that can move the price of drugs companies in a big way. That is why there has been some talk of theindustryy manipulating the journals in devious ways.

12 May 2006

Clash of the headlines

Headlines are important. They also cause more anguish than any other part of a publication, partly because they rarely come from the pen of the person whose byline appears on an article. As a connoisseur of these things, I delight when headlines clash.

Take these two:

WTO faults European Union for blocking genetically modified food imports

US did not win transatlantic GM trade dispute

The story is the ruling by the World Trade Organisation on Europe's stand on genetically modified (GM) foods and crops. The USA wants to force feed them to Europeans, who aren't that keen.

No prizes for guessing that the second headline comes from British environmentalists. The first is from an American tech operation, SiliconValley.com.

Unfortunately, the WTO's own web site doesn't seem to have anything that would tell us which of these headlines reflects the actuality. But read both stories and it seems that they have read the same report, but their spin is very different. Which is where the headlines come in.

Who should write press releases?

The Royal Society continues to offer advice to scientists with research to communicate. Its latest stone tablet is the report Science and the public interest: communicating the results of new scientific research to the public.

The 26-page document has a section on "lay summaries media releases". Here we read that "Researchers should seek advice, when needed, about what the appropriate context for their results is and should be alert to how their results may be used by
other individuals and organisations, such as campaigners or policy-makers."

This goes on to urge researchers to tip of "relevant regulatory bodies" if "research results are considered to have implications for the public". We then read the somewhat surprising claim that "Most regulatory bodies have well-established
mechanisms for assessing the implications of research results".

For once, the report does not point the finger solely at the media. Far from it, it tells us that "Misleading media reports have occurred because of inaccurate press releases about the results of new research."

The blame isn't totally down to the scientist, Sometimes, we read, "researchers whose results have been described have not always been consulted about the content and style of the press release. Sometimes too researchers produce inept summaries of their work in an attempt to gain publicity for their work."

The report makes a lot of sense – after all the committee behind it may not have anyone from the "Grub Street" side of the media it does include some experienced journals folks, such as the editor of Nature. However, it also raises a few questions. Won't the whole process of releasing results become even more bureaucratic if even press releases have to go through peer review?

Then there are those of us who feel that only a lazy journalist relies on press releases to set their agenda.

11 May 2006

What does "independent" mean?

When you read the sentence "A new independent report into the UK'’s energy needs has claimed that climate change targets could be achieved without the use of nuclear power" you naturally think that you may have landed on a devastating critique of nuclear power. But that thought swiftly vanishes when you read that the people who commissioned the report were no less than WWF, an organisation that once had something to do with wildlife. The stories becomes even more cloudy when you read the report concerned.

The revelation comes in a story that we first saw in a story at Green Consumer Guide with the title Nuclear not needed - report. No matter how respectable the people who carried out the report, ILEX Energy Consulting, and these are no bunch of lightweight academics masquerading as the Centre for Research by Very Clever People, anyone knows that a survey depends on the questions you ask, so you'd need to know the brief before deciding on the credibility of the report.

From reading the report, it turns out that "WWF has commissioned ILEX to provide a realistic assessment of the potential to achieve significant CO2 emissions reductions in the UK power sector by 2010, 2016, 2020 and 2025 without new nuclear build." Sort of makes nonsense of that first sentence.

Reading the report, albeit quickly, you get the impression that it all but ignores the question, because it was not asked to consider it, what could CO2 emissions be if we built more nuclear power stations?

When a consultant writes a report like this, they usually have some control over the way in which it is presented. Are they really happy, you have to ask, to see this report touted under the headline on WWF's press release "Energy gap is a nuclear myth"? After all, the full title of the document is "The balance of power - Reducing CO2 emissions from the UK power sector". Not qute the same thing as a damning critique of the nuclear industry after all.

10 May 2006

Why inventors are a wind up

There is something about inventors that makes them even worse than engineers when it comes to whining about their lot. At least engineers have a point. But it really is time for Trevor Bayliss to stop banging on about being ignored for years when he wanted to sell a clockwork radio.

Had he been left to get on with the project that is all we would have now. Bayliss gives no credit to the large team that had to cope with his self aggrandisement and get on with building a business.

At one time, James Dyson was also on my hate list. But he has grown up and now acknowledges, positively proclaims even, that his own inspiration alone was not enough. He acknowledges all the design engineers and manufacturers who had to turn his brainwave into reality.

By the way, Bayliss fails to point out that the real reason why his wind up radio works is that electronics is now "energy light". You can run a radio because it needs very little juice. Actually, as one leading engineer once put it to me, who needs wind up when you can use solar power? That too is enabled by modern electronics.

09 May 2006

Does your chewing keep its flavour?

Even when left overnight a bed post, your chewing gum does not have to lose its flavour. This horrible stuff, which threatens to raise the level of city pavements by several inches, makes lots of money for the food industry, so there is fierce competition to innovate. The Financial Times today reports that Cadbury plans to storm the USA with a chewing gum that keeps its flavour.

Where do these ideas come from? Does Cadbury have a pile of scientists on the case? Could be, but we can't help noticing a similarity between this idea and one that comes from Quest Foods and which is reported over on Just-Food. This is a flavour encapsulation technique that controls the release of the ingredients.

Chernobyl fallout continues

I have a slightly amusing anecdote about the accident at the Chernobyl nuclear power station 20 years ago. At the time, New Scientist was working on an article about nuclear power in the Soviet Union. As a result we had most of the pictures available in the UK of "Russian" reactors. When the meltdown started, we decided that we would conveniently "lose" the pictures so that no one could beat us into print with them.

Twenty years on the issue now is of the effect that the accident had on the health of the people in that part of Europe. As you would expect the media piles on the dangers. For a contrary view read this piece by Zbigniew Jaworowski, a Polish expert who just happened to have his Geiger counter handy when the balloon went up. He demolishes the view that people are dropping like flies from thyroid cancer, among the various scares we have seen in recent weeks.