Category Archives: Science

Science stories for 2017

The New Scientist has predicted the 10 biggest and most important science stories for 2017 (pay-walled) in their bumper three weeks in one Christmas and New Year special issue. Here are some of them.

1. DeepMind’s AI wants to beat us at video game StarCraft next

In March last year Google-owned firm DeepMind developed the AlphaGo system which defeated one of the world’s best Go players, Lee Sedol. Continue reading Science stories for 2017

Climate clippings 176

1. Battery storage to grow four times quicker than market thinks

The latest Morgan Stanley report is bullish about the growth of battery storage in the Australian market. They think we’ll have 6.6GWh of battery storage in Australia by 2020, which is what the Australian Energy Market Operator last week predicted for 2035. Continue reading Climate clippings 176

Saturday salon 13/2

1. Garbage out, garbage in

Stuart Robert had to go. Ben Eltham goes through the detail and finds his defence “is somewhere between threadbare and farcical.” So Malcolm told him to resign, and he did.

So with Mal Brough and Jamie Briggs in the naughty corner, plus Warren Truss and Andrew Robb giving the game away, we now have five vacancies. Continue reading Saturday salon 13/2

Goodbye Holocene, hello Anthropocene?

It hasn’t happened yet, not officially. The final decision rests with an august scientific body called the International Commission on Stratigraphy, which has a 36-person Working Group on the Anthropocene. Now 24 scientists, including some from the Working Group, have produced a paper advocating for the Anthropocene to be recognised as having begun in the mid-20th century. Continue reading Goodbye Holocene, hello Anthropocene?

Innovation and economic complexity

Goran Roos, Adjunct professor at University of Technology Sydney, explains why advanced manufacturing is an essential feature of ‘economic complexity’ and that “a nation’s potential to create prosperity is a direct function of its economic complexity.”

Australia’s economic complexity has declined over the last 25 years, to the point where it ranked 53 among all countries in 2012. The top three were Japan, Switzerland and Sweden. Losing the car industry is likely to lower Australia’s economic complexity by a further 5-15%. The share of manufacturing in Australia’s economy is likely to be below 5%, compared to Switzerland’s 20%. Continue reading Innovation and economic complexity

Dark energy: it all ends with a bang, not a whimper

We know that what we think of as ‘stuff’ in the universe is only a small part of it, right? The standard spiel is that ordinary stuff is 5% of the everything in the universe, dark matter about 25% and the rest – about 70% – is something called dark energy. Thereabouts. That’s on a “mass–energy equivalence basis” whatever that is.

Stuff, at least we can see it, although it goes very weird at the micro quantum physics level, where particles can be in two places at once, or in two different states at once, but if two particles are bonded, then change one and the other changes automatically and instantaneously even though kilometres apart in what Einstein called “spooky action at a distance”. Continue reading Dark energy: it all ends with a bang, not a whimper

Science battles for recognition in Canberra

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Generally speaking the Abbott government lacks recognition of science, to the point where its stance can be characterised as anti-science. That is certainly the case in climate science, but can be seen in many other ways, not least in the use of science infrastructure funding as a pawn in the political wars over how university teaching should be funded. Certainly too, the Abbott government lacks an appreciation of the contribution science and mathematics can make to transitioning out of our dependence on mining and other product exports in the economy.

In this context the Chief Scientist and the Australian Academy of Science commissioned a report The Importance of Advanced Physical and Mathematical Sciences to the Australian Economy. The report was produced by the Centre for International Economics (CIE).

The aim has been to produce an economic framework that can use the available statistics and economic modelling techniques to provide a timely reminder of how much of our national economic activity depends on the advanced physical and mathematical sciences (the APM sciences). The APM sciences comprise physics, chemistry, the earth sciences and the mathematical sciences, where ‘advanced’ means science undertaken and applied in the past 20 years. Biology and the life sciences were not covered in the report.

The direct contribution of the APM sciences is estimated to be 11% (or about $145 billion per year of the Australian economy). The contribution in additional and flow-on benefits equals another 11%, bringing the total benefits to 22% or around $292 billion per year.

This exercise was not helped by Age journalist Gareth Hutchens with an article entitled Australia’s scientists forced to rely on pseudo-science to be taken seriously in Canberra starting with:

It’s a shame that scientists have to stoop so low.

Climate scientist Roger Jones defended the report and its progenitors in a blog post.

We can all agree, Hutchens included, that it is a disgrace that such a report should be felt necessary for science to be taken seriously by those govern and plan for our future. There should be no need for a “timely reminder”; our leaders should have science and knowledge-based industries front and centre in their thinking. But to dump on the report in the way Hutchens does is in my view inflammatory, derogatory and misleading in that it gives the impression that the exercise was worthless. What Hutchens calls “guesses” were in fact informed estimates by the most knowledgeable people available.

In large part Hutchens is entering with hob-nailed boots the old argument of how much science there is in economics. I don’t know enough science or economics to usefully contribute, but Hutchens own account of the methodology used suggests a disciplined and rational approach.

Scary berries: trusting the food we eat

As of Wednesday evening 14 cases of hepatitis A have been linked to frozen berries. More are expected. Schools are on the alert as the berries have been used and consumed in cooking classes. At least one preschool used the berries to make smoothies for an afternoon snack.

Agriculture Minister, Barnaby Joyce, said the government was considering a review of testing on imports under Food Standards Australia and New Zealand (FSANZ) as more hepatitis A cases turned up. His department wrote to the Chinese government to ask for assurances on the food testing measures.

As for the government doing anything concrete Abbott has virtually ruled it out, saying that it is the responsibility of businesses ‘not to poison their customers’. A crackdown would just add to the cost of food, he says.

Meanwhile Patties, the company concerned, has cast doubt on the quality of Australian produce, angering growers.

Patties say their:

“policy was to acquire Australian fruit wherever possible,” despite the fact in the past two years it sourced berries from China, New Zealand, Canada, Chile, United States, Greece, Turkey and Serbia.

In this case:

The four recalled products – one-kilogram packs of Nanna’s Raspberries and Frozen Mixed Berries, as well as 300 gram and 500 gram packs of Creative Gourmet Mixed Berries – were largely sourced and packed in China. (Emphasis added)

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The Conversation has an explainer.

Hepatitis A can come from the berries being grown in infected water, washed in infected water, picked or packed by people carrying the virus, getting contaminated by infected animals, such as livestock, rats, mice or bats, at some stage in the production cycle, or mixing with other ingredients contaminated with hepatitis A virus during processing.

The infection can be inside the berry itself.

About 90 per cent of China’s groundwater is polluted, 65 per cent severely so, with contaminates such as pesticides, fertilisers and petrochemicals, a report from the Centre of International Security Studies at Sydney University showed.

The real problem, however, is faeces. Human poo is used in China as fertiliser. I understand that customs don’t test for bacterial or viral pollution. I did hear that the berries were now sent to an overseas lab for testing. Are we a first world country?

A new focus has come on labelling. Consumers want it, there have been endless inquiries, and exactly nothing happens. Choice tells us we are stuck with statements like ‘Packed in Australia using imported fruit’ or ‘Made in Australia using local and imported ingredients’ which offer very little information about a product’s origin and are largely meaningless to consumers.

It looks as though Joyce wants to do something about labelling, but I think it lies in the health portfolio. At least eight governments have to agree. Without the support of the PM who seems to have made up in his mind in the negative, nothing will happen

Ironically the Chinese would rather eat our fruit than their own if they can afford it, but there is no provision to export our produce directly to China. It has to go through third countries. We are currently working on a trade deal with China. Andrew Robb, please note!

Meat eaters’ alert: the planetary and the personal

Farming is now worse for climate than deforestation writes John Upton at Climate Central.

And the finger points at red meat.

A new study reported on by Upton says that burning fuel produces about four times more climate pollution every year than land use. Nevertheless land use remains an important consideration. Within land use, climate pollution from deforestation has declined over the last decade or two, while agriculture is increasing:

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Greenhouse gases released by farming, such as methane from livestock and rice paddies, and nitrous oxides from fertilizers and other soil treatments rose 13 percent after 1990, the study concluded.

Within agriculture, ruminants produce two thirds of the pollution, with cows and buffalo the worst offenders.

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Climate talks have focussed on deforestation. REDD (Reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation) has been a major focus of UN climate negotiations, whereas agriculture has been neglected.

Some countries, particularly India, have been averse to discussing agricultural impacts during U.N. climate negotiations — largely because they fear that the outcomes of such talks could reduce agricultural output and worsen food shortages. “Poor countries are not going to sit idly by and just impose reductions in food production to meet greenhouse gas reduction targets,” Schwartzman said.

Doug Boucher, the director of climate research at the Union of Concerned Scientists, says agriculture’s climate impacts could be reduced without taking food off tables. Reducing the overuse of fertilizers, protecting the organic content of soils by changing farming practices, and keeping rice paddies flooded for fewer weeks every season could all contribute to a climate solution, he said.

The biggest opportunities for reforming agriculture’s climate impacts can sometimes be found miles from where any food is grown. Reducing waste where food is sold, prepared, eaten and, in many cases, partly tossed in the trash as uneaten leftovers or unsellable produce, reduces the amount of land, fertilizer and equipment needed to feed everybody. “Shifting consumption toward less beef and more chicken, and reducing waste of meat in particular, are what seem to have the biggest potential,” Boucher said.

Vegetarianism was not mentioned in the article.

Wikipedia tells us that there are more than 3.5 billion ruminants on the planet, with cattle, sheep, and goats accounting for about 95% of the total population.

Linda Geddes took a look at the merits or otherwise of eating meat in the New Scientist. If paywalled the article is available here.

From the 1970s eating meat was linked with colorectal cancer on a population basis. Countries which ate more meat suffered more.

In 2007 the World Cancer Research Fund pulled together the results of 14 studies, concluding that red and processed meats were “convincing causes of colorectal cancer”. Their report suggested cutting out processed meat altogether and eating no more than 500 grams of red meat per week.

Now this:

Two large studies published in 2012 found that the risk of dying from all causes – including bowel cancer and heart disease – during the study follow-up period was 13 per cent higher for people eating 85 grams of red meat per day, and 20 per cent for those eating 85 grams of processed meat. That would translate to roughly a year off life expectancy for a 40-year-old man who eats a burger a day.

As often in health research, just when all that seemed clear complications set in. Such studies are based on self-reporting as to quantity and frequency and often didn’t discriminate between types of meat or tease out links with other life-style factors. In 2013 a European study:

followed half a million people in 10 European countries over 12 years, and as well as distinguishing between consumption of red meat, white meat and processed meat, it also controlled for factors such as smoking, fitness, body mass index and education levels, all of which might be correlated with high meat consumption.

The study found no association at all between fresh red meat and ill health, but the link with processed meat remained. It found that for every 50 grams of processed meat people consumed each day, their risk of early death from all causes increased by 18 per cent.

An American study of 18,000 people found no association between deaths from cancer or cardiovascular disease and the consumption of meat, even processed kinds, but was criticised for the crudeness of its questionnaire.

Further studies have now linked haem, the component that makes red meat red, with the generation of cancer cells.

Meat, however, remains a handy nutritional package, difficult but not impossible to replace. There is this caution about vegetarianism from the European study:

Perhaps the most surprising finding from the EPIC study was that those who ate no meat at all had a higher risk of early death from any cause than those who ate a small amount of red meat.

Vegetarians don’t always make healthy food choices.

The cautionary position seems to be that small amounts of meat are good – about 70 grams per day. (This does seem very cautious in the light of the European study.) It’s not clear whether it’s best to eat a small portion each day or save your allocation for a splurge. It does matter how you prepare meat and what you eat with it. Avoid chargrilling, eat plenty of fibre and for some reason let the cooked potatoes grow cold! Best to avoid processed meat if possible.

At the production end, there is masses of grazing land in the world that can’t be cropped. The methane, however, remains a problem, which can be mitigated in various ways. That, however, is another story.

Saturday salon 13/12

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An open thread where, at your leisure, you can discuss anything you like, well, within reason and the Comments Policy. Include here news and views, plus any notable personal experiences from the week and the weekend.

For climate topics please use the most recent Climate clippings.

The gentleman in the image is Voltaire, who for a time graced the court of Frederick II of Prussia, known as Frederick the Great. King Fred loved to talk about the universe and everything at the end of a day’s work. He also used the salons of Berlin to get feedback in the development of public policy.

Fred would only talk in French; he regarded German as barbaric. Here we’ll use English.

The thread will be a stoush-free zone. The Comments Policy says:

The aim [of this site] is to provide a venue for people to contribute and to engage in a civil and respectful manner.

Here are a few bits and pieces that came to my attention last week.

1. CSIRO cuts


From ABC Rural
:

The CSIRO is set to lose one staff member in five over the next two years.

The effect of the Federal Government’s cut of $114 million is now becoming clearer, with at least four regional research sites under threat.

National organiser for the CSIRO Staff Association, part of the CPSU, Paul Girdler, says 878 staff are to be cut over two years, until June 2015.

“It’s over 100 more than originally forecast.

“Over two years, the CSIRO is losing 21.5 per cent of its workforce, or one in five jobs.

“This new analysis demonstrates the cuts are even worse than when they were announced.”

Given the cuts last year, the total tally is 1,400 jobs at the Science Organisation.

CSIRO Chairman Simon McKeon says the organisation has “cut into the bone”.

We should be redoubling if not doubling our science effort.

Julian Cribb, science writer and author of The Coming Famine, says every government since Labor under Bob Hawke has slashed the CSIRO.

I simply can’t understand Industry Minister Ian McFarlane saying year-on-year funding is increasing, unless you cut overall first and then increase the funding each year. In which case he is intentionally misleading.

There’s more on the 7.30 Report.

Stephen Luntz at Crikey explains that many scientists will have unfinished projects, which doesn’t help them establish a reputation to find a job elsewhere.

Those made redundant include Nobel prize contender San Thang.

2. Farewell Stella Young

Stella Young, comedian, journalist and disability advocate, has died aged 32. I gather her death was unexpected. She will be missed.

3. Gillard’s My Story

I finished Gillard’s My story a while ago and have been meaning to report on it. Generally speaking I agree with Natalie Mast’s review but have a query about her final summation:

My Story is a substantial piece of work, yet there are times where policy wonks will be wishing for greater detail on negotiations or even why certain policy decisions were taken. Still in a work this size, limits must be made. For the most part Gillard’s focus is on key issues and those close to her heart.

The lucid presentation of Gillard’s case ultimately provides a cogent defence of the reasons for the challenge to Rudd, the difficulties her government faced, both internal and external, and an insight into Gillard herself.

I thought her detail on individual policies was more than one would expect. As PM she was impressively across a wide range of briefs and her recall is astonishing.

Lucid, yes, also very reflective and self-critical.

The first 130 pages tell the story of how she came to power and governed. In the following 331 pages she takes policy areas one by one, explaining how and why decisions were taken and in some cases an assessment of what still needs to be done, but laced with back stories and relevant anecdotes. The book forms a valuable resource.

Natalie Mast is right in saying she supported Rudd to the hilt and praises him where she thinks he did good work. I too found it surprising that she virtually took over organising his office for him. Also in areas such as health she ended up running the policy internally because Rudd was incapable of doing so.

Surprises include her attitude to gay marriage, which has always been painted as conservative. She says her brand of feminism historically saw marriage in general as an oppressive institution, so it was marriage that she opposed, not the gay bit. She concedes that views have now moved on.

I’ve come the the conclusion that Rudd probably did cause the leaks during the 2010 election campaign. Probably. Gillard reckons it wasn’t to bring her down, Rudd wanted to be foreign minister in her government and she was intending to give him something else. She was told the leaks would continue until she changed her mind. When she conceded his wish the leaks stopped.

One thing is certain, she will never respect Rudd as a person, a view he probably reciprocates.

Finally, I’d love to say more about the misogyny speech. Spoken unscripted with such eloquence and passion, yet she wasn’t personally angry. There is a lesson in there, but it will have to wait for another time.