Science Matters

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A weekly round-up of science news


The National Farmers Union is worried that small farms may vanish. Due to cheap food prices and subsidies, small specialists just cannot compete. I have recently been trying to find English apples and cannot and yet we are the best country for growing apples, yet somehow it's cheaper to get them in from New Zealand now.

HIV Viruses

Two new viruses have been discovered in people who hunt non-human primates. They come from the same family as the HIV virus, which are known as retroviruses. One of them is very similar to a primate virus and it is believed that they transferred from the primates to the hunters. Whether they can transfer to another human is not yet known.

Water Vole

Despite conservation measures the water vole numbers are still decreasing. This is due to many factors, land drainage, concrete river banks and the American mink. Mink farms in the UK have many escapees, which can cause a lot of damage on the vole. There was a spate of animal rights campaigners who let the mink escape much to the detriment of the indigenous wildlife in the UK, the water voles suffered the most from that misguided 'animal rights' attempt.

Conservationists are hopeful, though. They have been developing methods to allow the vole to flourish despite the presence of mink so, hopefully, the numbers will start to increase again soon.

Kyoto Protocol

Papua New Guinea has requested that Forest carbon credits be taken into account as they want to be responsible for the carbon released from the destruction of their forests. As a country they should inspire us all; their attitude is what will be needed to take responsibility and try to mend the damage we have made. A quarter of greenhouse gas emissions can be attributed to the destruction of rainforest. This new attitude may even help some countries protect their rainforests as, if they allow them to be cut down, they will have to pay.

The European Parliament has said that countries which failed to sign the Kyoto Protocol should be taxed on products they export to Europe, thus negating commercial advantages enjoyed by those who do not join in the fight.

Discussions are also going ahead about the successor to Kyoto. There are two main ideas. The first is 'equal rights for all' meaning that all people would have an equal right to emit carbon so that countries would be given emission targets based on population size. The second idea is to base the amount of carbon emissions allowed on the GDP of the country.


The issue of protecting forests is even more important in light of the news that the destruction of the Amazonian rainforest is accelerating. A fifth of the area has now been destroyed to make room for new crops. Soya is the main crop grown in the area. Another crop is the palm which produces palm oil for use in food products such as margarine.

Polio Update

I have been following the issue of polio and vaccinations in this column. It is a great problem when people refuse vaccination because they do not trust the people it is coming from. It is a greater problem, though, when a disease such as polio starts to travel around the world again because of that.

In Mali a judge has jailed 5 leaders of a Muslim sect who prevented children from being vaccinated. They also threatened the lives of the health workers trying to stop the disease. Polio has now re-infected 16 countries yet the World Health Organisation still hopes to eradicate the virus by the end of this year.

On a similar note Bill Gates (yes, I hate Windows too) has promised a further $250 million to combat diseases which are a problem for the poor. His donations have spear-headed malaria research. You may not like his products, but he has helped more than any country to help the poor fight disease.


We live in a world where polio is returning and yet research on Smallpox has just been approved by the World Health Organisation. Smallpox was eradicated over 20 years ago and the last stockpiles were meant to be destroyed 10 years ago. Now they believe that researching it will aid better and more efficient vaccines. The fear of new versions has prompted this new research; labs will only get genes not the whole virus, although the gene sequence for smallpox is already well-known.


This is the bird flu which has many virologists worried; they believe that if any virus is going to migrate to humans it could be this one. Geese in a nature reserve have been found dead from H5N1 showing that it is surviving in the wild and continuing to circulate. So far 518 birds have died in the area and mass vaccinations are now taking place. It is hoped that the monitoring will be taken very seriously unlike previous problems with rinderpest in African cattle.

Pesticides and Parkinsons

Studies have taken place of 3,000 people and a link was found between regular pesticide use and Parkinsons disease. Low exposure users such as amateur gardeners were 9% more likely to develop it whilst high exposure users such as farmers were 43% more likely.


At present many people aged 70 and over are encouraged to take aspirin to help them fight heart disease. However as many die from intestinal bleeding as are saved from heart disease, so perhaps it's time to realise that not everyone reacts in exactly the same way to medicines.

Timely advice which research I previously mentioned here agrees with. It has been shown that aspirin helps men beat heart disease and women beat strokes. So further proof that we all react differently to medicines.

Oral Contraceptives

Women often experience a lack of libido whilst taking the pill. They were always told it would wear off when they stopped taking it but now it seems that this is not the case.


The ice is thickening at the centre of the continent due to increased snowfall. This is caused by warming temperatures as there is more evaporation and precipitation of rain and snow. It is hoped that this will help compensate for the raising amount of ice melting and the subsequent rise in sea levels. It will only work for a limited time, though, perhaps enough time for us to help reverse the situation.


Australia is stepping up diplomatic pressure on Japan to stop whaling. I mentioned here about Japans' new plans to kill over 800 hundred whales to aid ecosystem studies. It must be obvious to more countries that ecosystems are not studied through killing its occupants so hopefully there will be more international pressure on Japan at the upcoming International Whaling Commission's meeting.

Kakapo Parrot

Back in March I mentioned this rare bird. There were only 86 of them and that is still the case. The parrot was mentioned in Douglas Adams book Last Chance to See in 1989 when there were less than 50 of the birds. The numbers are slowly increasing but only 4 chicks survived from last year. It has been found that the females are more likely to succeed in fertilisation if they have mated twice so artificially inseminating them if they have not already mated twice is being considered. They need a hand as they are also flightless. Many hope to see this bird survive and thrive and it is good to see that imaginative measures are being considered.

Alpine Cricket

The male of this species can mate every 18 seconds - leaving the females damaged in the process - and it is also known for not being that concerned what sex or species its jumps on! Crickets normally mate after singing which makes sure that they are of the same species. The Alpine cricket has none of those niceties and I wonder whether any hybrids have been produced because of that behaviour.

Lake Vostok

Russia is to resume drilling into the underground lake in the Antarctic, despite fears of contaminating the lake ecosystem. The Russians stopped drilling some years ago because of the contamination fear. They have developed new methods to prevent it, yet will be using the same hole to drill through, which is a risk.

Nuclear Waste

The UK government's Nuclear Decommissioning Authority is considering burning waste graphite rods from power stations. The rods are contaminated and burning them would release radioactive carbon into the atmosphere. It is believed that doing this would result in global radiation 20 times greater than that from the nuclear accident at Windscale and that caused 260 cases of thyroid cancer. We will have to wait and hope common sense prevails.

Gifts for Females

I covered a story here about the Great Grey Shrike bringing larger food gifts to its 'mistress' than to its partner. It was assumed in the story that this is how you get a mistress - by impressing them. However a recent letter in New Scientist had a different idea for this behaviour. Perhaps if a female knows the male will be around to bring up the young, she doesn't need so much initial bribing to mate. If, however, the female knows the male will not be hanging around she may require a larger bribe to help give her the energy for bringing up her young on her own.

Space Snippets

Voyager 1

It is now definite that Voyager 1 has passed the termination shock border where the solar sun speed drops abruptly from supersonic to subsonic. Voyager 1 is the spacecraft furthest from Earth. It was thought it had passed the termination shock a year or two ago but this would have seen an increase in the suns magnetic field. It increases as it meets the galactic cosmic rays coming in from space, so the magnetic field actually collects and gets stronger for a while until the heliopause boundary is reached, which the solar magnetic field cannot enter.

If you have any questions about science then why not try The Science Explained Forum – where the resident science experts aim to explain everything in a friendly manner.


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