Science Matters

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A weekly round-up of science news

British Plants

A group of botanists have published the Vascular Plant Red Data List for Great Britain, which assesses the state of British plants. Since the 1960s 30% of British flora has suffered a decline, many of the species declining had not even been noticed to be in trouble before. For instance the Western Juniper has only 11 plants left in Britain and yet was never labelled as endangered. Many factors have contributed to this; the draining of wetlands, farmers cutting down plants to earn more subsidies etc. These are now being improved but there is still a way to go. I regularly fight with my local councils at their lack of knowledge about wildlife; on the same days that news comes out about butterflies and bees being threatened, the local council strips areas of wild plants where I live. All levels of government and administration to be aware and councils need to educate their contractors, only then can we hope to maintain the 'green and pleasant land' that we enjoy living in.

European Farming

The quality of soil is declining in Europe's farms. More than 16% of the farms have declined and more than a third of that is in eastern Europe. The Common Agricultural Policies subsidy system has never had soil quality high up its list. To return soil to its previous quality will be very costly and may involve a change in the present farming system.

Crocodiles in Australia

Numbers of crocodiles have increased in Australia causing the closure of popular tourist spots. Swimming holes have been closed which has affected waterfalls and other popular areas. Some tourist operators believe it is a step too far but wildlife officers and local aboriginals believe the crocodiles are a threat and I would rather believe someone who is motivated by safety rather than profit.

Panda Diplomacy

It seems the panda is being used for bribery and corruption! China has a history of gifting the most important with pandas and now they are hoping to smooth over their problems with Taiwan by gifting them a couple of pandas. China views Taiwan as part of its territory. Taiwan sees itself as independent, though. Luckily this gifting doesn't happen much anymore as conservation becomes more important for pandas.

Fish Fossils

The latest fish fossil find in Africa is 50 million years older than any other fish fossil there. It has neither bones or teeth and is thought to be a link between the earliest fish species.

Virus Eradication

The once-thought eradicated disease polio has made a reappearance in Indonesia. Two cases have been confirmed and doctors fear there maybe more. Polio was thought to have been eradicated except in parts of Nigeria, where continued vaccinations and surveillance would have eradiated it completely. Islam clerics started spreading rumours, though, that the vaccine made Muslims infertile, so giving the virus a chance to spread again.

Exactly the same thing has happened with Rinderpest, a cattle disease which lead to wide-spread starvation in Africa, twice. The Global Rinderpest Eradication Programme (GREP) first started to get the disease under control in 1962; by 1977 there were only 2 small areas in Africa which still had the disease. The last surveillance faltered and gave it a chance to spread again. Many herders committed suicide and many more herders are still squatting in slums, unable to ever get their life back on track again. Now rinderpest is only in Somalia, a country which doesn't have the resources to keep the programme on track. It needs the GREPs help and finances. Experts estimate the programme needs to run another 5 years to be sure of eradication, but the funding body typically funds in one or two year cycles. If they think success is already here then they may stop funding - surveillance will stop and just one infection is all it will take for the disease to spread again. Will funding be offered for a third attempt? It must happen now. Surveillance must always be an importance part of the programme, pressure must never be used to rush a programme. If it needs a further 5 years then it should get a further 5 years. That should be the case for all eradication programmes, including polio.


For years I have been reading recommendations in alternative health publications for taking antioxidants, as they 'mopped-up' free-radicals which can cause cancer, aging and other age-related problems. At the same time these theories were rubbished by the conventional science research. Now, though, research has come out to say that antioxidants help in the fight against free-radicals in mice. It just goes to show that a lot of alternative and complementary health is rubbished only because the research hasn't been done yet by conventional scientists.


Last week I covered a story of estrogens in the environment and how they are starting to effect wildlife. Well, this week, scientists are concerned at how they effect us as well. Mice exposed to chemicals from contraceptives in the womb suffered deformities, but we are told not to be worried as there is no link to us, not yet anyway. One point to remember is that women produce large amounts of estrogen when pregnant whereas mice do not. So yet again it is obvious that direct comparisons are likely to be inaccurate. In fact, the research may not have produced anything pertinent to human experience anyway, being performed on mice.

Toxic Chemicals

A summit in Uruguay is trying to implement the Stockholm Convention which banned the use of 12 persistent organic pollutants. One of the chemicals is DDT which harms wildlife and thins the shells of bird eggs. It will, however, be used in Africa against the mosquito, where it is still the most effective weapon.

Global Dimming Reducing!

In 2001, when the 9/11 disaster meant all planes in the US were grounded, it was noticed by David Travis that the skies seemed brighter. His research lead to the coining of the phrase 'global dimming'. The contrails from planes and other forms of airborne pollution were decreasing the amount of sunlight getting to the earth.

The good news is that it now seems to be reversing. Two recent studies show that sunlight reaching the earth has been increasing for the last 10 years in Europe and the US. Asia is still suffering from smog and therefore a dimming of its light. It is not that global dimming never happened, perhaps it was more of a local phenomenon. We have started clearing up our pollution before Asia and therefore are reaping the rewards sooner.

To learn more about global dimming here is the transcript of the Horizon Programme where I first heard about it and includes interviews with David Travis.


Tests were done on 302 patients who suffered from migraines. They were split into 3 groups; the first were put onto a waiting list for treatment, the second had acupuncture and the third had acupuncture but not in the prescribed points. Both groups who had acupuncture saw their headaches decrease from 5 days affected to 2 days. However the sham acupuncture did not experience a real placebo, as they still received physical treatment. It would be difficult to give acupuncture and be sure that no points which could help were being used. So whilst it seems to indicate that sticking needles anywhere in your body will help migraines, more research is needed under different conditions to be sure of that!

Funnily enough I have just read of a second experiment this week, this time on 14 people who suffered from osteoarthritis and were again split into 3 groups. The first group were treated with blunt needles which did not penetrate the skin and were told that they did not, the second group were treated with needles which retracted into the shaft and they were told that they were being treated. The third group were genuinely treated and all three groups had PET scans to show their brain activity. The first group showed activity in the region which sensed touch and the second showed activity in the endorphin releasing area. In the third group the areas for endorphins and for sensing pain showed up.

Depending on how you look at these two experiments I think they could be said to confirm each others results and conflict with them at the same time. Perhaps another experiment is required?!


In Kansas the school board is having hearings to decide how to teach evolution if at all. Religious conservatives are pressing for Darwin's theory to be played down and science organizations have boycotted the hearings in protest (surely boycotting just means you won't have a say?).

Space Snippets

Saturn's Moons

Saturn has 12 more moons, bring the total to 46. The new moons are from 3 to 7 km in size and take 2 years to orbit Saturn. 11 of them circle Saturn in the opposite direction to the other moons which is a characteristic of captured bodies.

Mars Lander

The orbiting Mars Global Surveyor Spacecraft has taken photos that may show the Mars Polar Lander which went missing as it touched down in 1999. You can see the picture here

Irony of the Week

Bearing in mind Japans' Whaling Programme, covered in this issue, which wants to kill more whales to aid study of the environment, it is heartening to hear of Japans' new visitor, a Grey Whale. It has been seen in Tokyo Bay and visitors are enjoying its presence.


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