Wednesday, March 6, 2013

A result! Ships to sail over North Pole by mid-century

The amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere underwent one of its biggest single-year jumps ever in 2012, according to researchers at the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration. Between the end of 2011 and the beginning of 2013, carbon dioxide levels increased by 2.67 parts per million — a rise topped only by the spike in 1998.

Meanwhile NBC News reports that by the middle of this century, thanks to climate change, anyone with a light icebreaker can spend their Septembers going anywhere they want in the Arctic Ocean, including straight over the North Pole.

This is the finding of a new study by University of California, Los Angeles.  Global warming to open 'crazy' shipping routes across Arctic is the headline NBC gave their story, whose angle appears to be that all this is “an upside to global warming”. It seems we are meant to understand it as “crazy” only in the sense that these seas will not be safe or open all year round.

The map is from the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, and shows that the fastest navigation routes for ships seeking to cross the Arctic Ocean by mid-century include the Northwest Passage (on the left) and over the North Pole (center), in addition to the Northern Sea Route (on the right).

If you want to know where I get all this stuff from it's the Climate blog on the Think Progress site. I recommend it.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Tutu: No nation should own nuclear arms, not Iran, and not their critics

No nation should own nuclear arms – not Iran, not North Korea, and not their critics who take the moral high ground, says Desmond Tutu on the Guardian’s comment is free website today.

“We cannot intimidate others into behaving well when we ourselves are misbehaving. Yet that is precisely what nations armed with nuclear weapons hope to do”, says Tutu. 

According to the declared nuclear states, a select few nations can ensure the security of all by having the capacity to destroy all. Until we overcome this double standard, we are unlikely to make meaningful progress in halting the spread of these monstrous devices, let alone banishing them from national arsenals, he says.

Comments on the article dwell on the theme that nuclear weapons once invented can’t be disinvented, and on Israel’s supposed need for nuclear weapons. Israel be it noted is an undeclared nuclear weapons state, not party to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.

Sunday, March 3, 2013

I puzzle over surname extinction

Goodbye, Mr. Chips (1939) movie title
Goodbye, Mr. Chips is the name of a 1934 novel by James Hilton and a 1939 film, which I once saw, about an aged school teacher and former headmaster of a boarding school. 

One thing that puzzled me was the eponymous character’s name.  I've never actually come across anyone with the surname Chips. I imagined it was a made-up name and I wondered why.  But last week I found out that Chips used in fact to be a fairly common surname which has died out.  It's one of tens of thousands to have disappeared in the UK over the past 100 years, research has shown. Others are Hatman, Rummage, Nithercott, Raynott, Temples, Southwark and Woodbead.  Clegg, whilst current now, faces extinction; and is likely to be joined by William, Cohen, Sutcliffe, Kershaw, Butterworth and Greenwood.

The research has been carried out by the Ancestry family history website. They compared surnames from the 1901 census with names from modern records and found that many had disappeared, and others are becoming rare.  William for example was the 374th most common surname in 1901, but has fallen to 12,500th.

Various media have carried this story, often spiced up with witticisms at the expense of deputy prime minster Nick Clegg, or references to the title of the Mr Chips film, in the Guardian for example.

But there's a puzzle here. What drives these trends? A few explanations are offered but strike me as inadequate. Many vanished surnames were later anglicised by their owners, including immigrants who changed their name to avoid complications with foreign spellings. Yes I can understand that one; but of the examples given, this seems applicable, if at all, only to Cohen.  One dreadful explanation offered is that the first world war played a part in wiping out some names when specific battalions suffered mass casualties, with towns or villages losing a whole generation of young men.

But what other factors are at work? What’s driving the extinction of Clegg and Sutcliffe today?  Sutcliffe might be a special case I suppose, being the name of a notorious Yorkshire murderer convicted in 1981. But did large numbers change their surname as a consequence? I doubt it. Things are going on that I don't get. I hunger for further explanation.  Whom to ask?  A genealogist? A mathematician? A geneticist?