Thursday, October 14, 2010

Revealed. The Guardian website read by Tea Party

Not for the first time I'm aghast at the tenor of comments posted on The Guardian website.

Almost all comments on the scientists letter saying cut military R&D instead of science funding, read as if they belong on Fox News.  In fact I wonder if they do.  Does the Tea Party tell its supporters to log on to the Guardian website and clutter it up with right-wing rants?   

Military research should bear brunt of science cuts, say leading scientists

36 UK professors say science cuts should focus on military research projects, including finding a replacement for Trident.  This is in an open letter to David Cameron.   Generally, scientists are aghast at the cuts proposed for scientific research. They are keenly aware how it contributes to the fabric of society, so they jump to defend it. Just as librarians will shortly become aghast at the cuts proposed for libraries, being keenly aware how libraries contribute to the fabric of society.  And care workers. And so on. All are right to stand up to Cameron’s dismantling of the state. Don’t believe his this will hurt me more than it hurts you stuff. This is his agenda.  He relishes it. 

The scientists are concerned that while the government is threatening to cut public funding for research and development as a whole, it appears to be committed to maintaining high levels of military-related R&D. World-class research into health and global environmental problems is under threat, they say, yet the government continues to fund the vast research programme at the Atomic Weapons Establishment at Aldermaston.

They note that the current defence ministry research budget is more than 20 times public funding for
research on renewable energy.

However, they say there are some areas of security-related
research that should be expanded. Such as monitoring of arms control agreements, non-violent conflict resolution, and tackling the roots of conflict and insecurity.

Full text of letter  It’s been co-ordinated by Scientists for Global Responsibility, an organisation I belong to as an associate member.

Chile miners rescue

The capsule : will become object of veneration
29 miners rescued now.  4 more of the original 33 to come up, plus several rescuers.  Been watching BBC News on and off throughout the day.

You can be sure that capsule will be erected in a museum and will become an object of national veneration. It’s striking how the operation has been the focus of huge national pride, flags and chanting “Chi – le”.  Some scenes have brought a tear to the eye.  Great dignity of the miners. The occupation of miner, toiling in the bowels of the earth to enrich the already rich, has forever been a powerful icon of capitalism.

The president of Chile has just been interviewed and said “I hope that from now, when people hear the word Chile, they will remember not the coup or the dictatorship but this rescue”. 

From The Guardian website “several commentators – including international trade unions – have pointed to Chile's failure to ratify International Labour Organisation (ILO) conventions on safety and health in mines, and drawn attention to the consequences of inadequate workplace safety standards across the country.”

The behaviour of the mining company San Esteban seems to have been disgraceful. Partly explained perhaps by the fact that they look like being forced into well deserved bankruptcy. After the August 5 cave-in that trapped the workers, the company sacked more than 200 other miners, refusing to pay their wages and entitlements.  The miners union in Chile, is still, even now, pursuing demands that the government pay the workers’ wages if the company won’t.  The Chilean president in the interview I've just seen deflected a question put to him on this.

A comment on the website of the US trade union federation AFL-CIO draws a disparaging contrast with how the Bush administration handled the New Orleans hurricane: “The entire country turned out for the miners. There are celebrations throughout Chile. The President is at a 24 hour watch at the site, greeting the miners as they come out. The operation cost 9 million dollars and the mine owner is being fined 10 million. The miners will get constant medical attention for 6 months. Then there was Katrina ...”

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

An Earthlike planet?

Gliese & Gliese 581g
Gave my extra terrestrial life lecture again in Cork on the 11th.  I became aware of two developments after the Galway lecture, but in time to include them in Cork.  I can't hazard an estimate of their importance because I haven't yet come across any commentary in Nature or New Scientist, which is where I normally take my cue for what's significant in the world of science.

One was the announcement of a planet that was in the news on 29th September.  That was Gliese 581g.  Gliese 581 is the name of a star, and several planets have been detected called a, b, c etc. The illustration is an artist’s impression showing the star in the background. The planet in the foreground, has, apparently, been named “Zarmina's World”.  It’s worth stressing that any illustration you see of extrasolar planets will always be an artist’s impression. Their existence and their properties turn up as data on a computer, not as photographs.  Notice how in this illustration the artist has added seas. So far there is no warrant for those seas.      

The Guardian reported the story like this: “Astronomers have discovered a potentially habitable planet of similar size to Earth in orbit around a nearby star. A team of planet hunters spotted the alien world circling a red dwarf star called Gliese 581, 20 light years away. The planet is in the ‘Goldilocks zone’ of space around a star where surface temperatures are neither too hot nor too cold for liquid water to form.” 

Early indications seem to be that this is the most Earthlike extrasolar planet discovered so far. This however will need to be confirmed. I don’t know how long the confirmation process will take.  Dr Lewis Dartnell of UCL is quoted in The Daily Telegraph as saying it’s undeniably very exciting, but we don’t know if there's any water there.

The other story broke in the Irish Times last Friday, October 8. It was a report of work done at NUI Maynooth by a Dr James McInerney.

Simply put, there are two types of cell. Cells with a nucleus and cells without a nucleus.  All complex life – animals, plants - consists of cells that do have a nucleus.  But the first cells didn’t have one, and the question is, how did the first cell with a nucleus come about?  There is a view that unlocking this puzzle will answer the question of how life on Earth became complex and eventually intelligent.

The work at Maynooth seems to provide such an explanation.  Justifying the relevance of this in a lecture about extra terrestrial life,  I said that we’re hunting for freakish, chance events in the story of life.  But we’re hunting for them in the same way that you may hunt at home for unpaid bills.  We’re hunting for them and hoping not to find them. Because if there are no freakish, chance events in the story of life, then our hopes rise that life will have emerged elsewhere, given the right environment.

I'll say more when I’ve seen what Nature and New Scientist think.

Subsequent info here