Archive for January, 2010

UK Swine flu: yes, we probably over-reacted…

January 31, 2010

…when it came to the tamiflu advice, anyway.

Less than 5000 cases in January and the National Pandemic Flu Service (NPFS) in England is to be stood down from 11 February.


Review: The Upside of Down

January 31, 2010

Finally finished reading “The Upside of Down: Catastrophe, Creativity and the Renewal of Civilisation” by Thomas Homer-Dixon. It’s a troubling book.

Mostly troubling in a good way; thought-provoking and full of new and uncomfortable ideas. It’s written clearly, accessibly, and persuasively. It outlines five “tectonic stresses” threatening global society. These are population growth, energy shortages, environmental degradation, climate change, and economic stress from a defective growth-oriented capitalist system. They reinforce each other, and are further influenced by ‘multipliers’ such as the speed of modern communications, and the ease with which small groups of people can cause widespread death and destruction. Homer-Dixon argues that together, these stresses could cause a widespread social breakdown as part of an underlying theory of collapse and renewal.

The theory states that an ecological or social system inevitably becomes more complex and connected as it develops. Beyond a certain point, this connectedness and complexity makes the system less resilient to external shocks (or “tectonic stresses”) and it eventually collapses and reverts to a simpler pattern. As far as I can tell, the “upside” is that the coming apocalypse provides us with the opportunity to set a new pattern which may be better for society and the environment in the long run. And if we can make our systems more resilient, then maybe the process of breakdown won’t be too destructive when it finally happens.

The public health implications of T Pyxidis

January 25, 2010

No, not an unusual pathogen, but a supernova.

This is a belated response to the news that a white dwarf in a binary star system named T Pyxidis is approaching its Chandrasekhar Limit- in other words, it’s close to going ka-boom- and, according to a paper presented at this year’s American Astronomical Society meeting, at 1000 parsecs, it’s closer to us than originally thought.

If we assume that the supernova of a nearby star of would “destroy all life on Earth”, this makes for an attention-grabbing story. Cue headlines like this. The end of the world angle gets talked up, before we get the reassuring news that this is unlikely to happen for 10 million years or so.

Could this really be true? Leaving the unpredictable behaviour and location of T Pyxidis to one side, I spent a few minutes link-and-google sleuthing to try to get to the bottom of the supernova-destroying-life-on-Earth bit. Writing it up will no doubt take longer. My rigorously scientific search strategy led me to the following conclusion: while it’s all very uncertain and (of course) low probability, high impact stuff, it’s perhaps a little more interesting than the headlines suggest.

Resilience and Haiti

January 17, 2010

A couple of weeks ago I was introduced to a new concept: resilience.

Actually, it’s an idea that’s been around since 1973, albeit one that’s grown in prominence in recent (post 9/11?) years. But this was the first time resilience has crossed my radar in anything other than its common-or-garden dictionary definition sense.

The dictionary (Oxford Reference) definition of ‘resilient’, by the way, is ‘springing back to its original form after compression’.

Coal, cancer, silica- and global mass extinction

January 8, 2010

Excellent Wired article, via Highly Allochthonous (which references the far-from excellent Fox News version of the story here).

In a nutshell: a new paper published in December’s Environmental Science and Technology suggests that the high incidence of lung cancer in the women of Xuan Wei county, China, is due to the high silica and volatile content of the coal used in indoor (and unventilated) stoves in the region. This coal is believed to derive its high silica content from the effects of the catclysmic Permian-Triassic extinction event 250 million years ago, when acid rain (a result of the flood basalt eruptions proposed as a cause of the extinction) accelerated the chemical weathering of surface rocks. The resistant silica residue from this weathering accumulated in peat deposits, which were later transmogrified into the region’s coalfields.

The North Sea recession fleet

January 5, 2010

Container ships in the North Sea

Was lucky enough to be taken for a short flight out to the Suffolk coast on New Year’s day. Took this photo- apologies for the quality. The white blob top-left is a snow shower.

Anyway: it turns out the North Sea is full of out-of-work container ships. Manned by skeleton crews and sitting just outside of UK territorial waters, they are apparently causing consternation to the local authorities (environmental concerns regarding fuel transfer and the like).

News to me- and the most visible effect of the global recession I’ve yet come across.

Google says it’s happening elsewhere.

The Lusi Mud Volcano

January 3, 2010

Lusi mud flow, November 2008

The story of the Lusi mud volcano in Indonesia is a fascinating mix of geology, health and human intrigue.