The US company SpaceX launches a commercial satellite into orbit on Tuesday from a launch site in Cape Canaveral
Hundreds of millions of miles away and 10 years after launch, a European spaceship could be on the brink of discovering how life appeared on Earth
At precisely 10am GMT on 20 January next year, a tiny electronic chip inside Europe's Rosetta spacecraft will flicker into life. The robot probe will then be several hundred million miles from Earth, an orbit that will be bringing it closer and closer to Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, a massive ball of ice, dust and organic materials that orbits the Sun every six and a half years.
Rosetta's electronic wakeup call will trigger circuits, heaters and instruments and bring the probe, which has been in hibernation for two and a half years, slowly back to life in preparation for its landing on the comet, one of the most spectacular feats of space exploration ever planned.
Comets are made of rubble left over from the solar system's birth 4.6 billion years ago, and by studying one up close and personal scientists hope they will be able to reconstruct the history of our own neighbourhood in space. For good measure, many astronomers believe that most of the water that makes up our oceans was provided by comets crashing into Earth during its remote past. Others argue that complex organic materials – including amino acids – were also brought to our planet by these spectacular celestial visitors and may have played an important role in the first appearance of life here.
As European Space Agency scientist Detlef Koschny puts it: "Understanding the composition of comets will teach us about how Earth came into being and about the ingredients that allowed the formation of life."
The problem is that comets are tricky objects for spacecraft to get near. Most swoop into the inner solar system on unpredictable orbits, burn brightly but briefly as they pass near the Sun and then head off again into the darkness of deep space. Past missions have either had to fly past comets at speed or crash into them in the hope that the material spewed out would reveal clues about their interiors.
Rosetta, built and launched by the space agency at a cost of €1bn, is in a different league, however. It has been designed not to intercept but to stalk a comet, in particular one with a known, stable orbit round the Sun – 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. Launched on 2 March 2004, the probe has been put through a complex set of manoeuvres by the space agency's operations team. These have included three close flybys of Earth and one of Mars, which have turned Rosetta's roughly circular path round the Sun into a long elongated orbit that has taken it in behind the comet so that the probe is now following its quarry as it heads into the inner solar system. "It's a bit like cosmic billiards," says Mark McCaughrean, the agency's senior scientific adviser.
After nine years, Europe's comet chaser is now closing in and gradually throttling down as it approaches its target. "When we catch up with Churyumov-Gerasimenko, Rosetta will be moving more or less at walking speed with relation to the comet," says Matt Taylor, project scientist.
In May, Rosetta, named after the stone that helped archaeologists to decode Egyptian hieroglyphs, will make its last major course correction, allowing it to catch up by August, circle its target, map its surface and in November finally place a lander, called Philae, on it (Philae is an island in the Nile and home of an obelisk that was used in conjunction with the Rosetta stone).
Then, as the comet – which is about 2.5 miles wide – makes its closest approach to the Sun in August 2015, Rosetta will analyse the plumes of water vapour and gas and the geysers of organic material that will erupt into space as 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko heats up and sends out a great glowing tail of gas and filaments behind it.
"Rosetta is going to be the first spacecraft to track the life of a comet as it arcs towards the Sun," says Paolo Ferri, head of solar and planetary operations for the space agency. The resulting data and images promise to be dramatic, to say the least.
But first, that wakeup call on 20 January has to work. "If the alarm fails and Rosetta does not rouse itself, we will be in trouble," McCaughrean admits. "On the day, we will all be waiting in the control room, anxious to hear a signal from Rosetta. However, it will take several hours for the craft to complete its wakeup procedures before it transmits a message to Earth to let us know it is alive and well. It will be a nerve-wracking day."
Given that Rosetta travelled through space in a fully operational mode for the first seven years of its flight to 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, it might seem strange that space engineers switched it off in 2011 just as it was entering the last phase of its journey. Why put it into hibernation? The answer lies with the probe's complex orbit. For most of its flight, Rosetta orbited relatively close to the Sun so that its solar panels could provide the craft with power. But in 2011, it had to swing out into deep space to make its rendezvous with 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko.
"Rosetta's enormous distance from the Sun, and the weakness of the sunlight falling on its solar panels, meant that it could not produce enough electricity to run its sub-systems, so we had to shut down all but a few essentials," says Taylor. All the space agency can do now is hope the probe's alarm clock works and wakes it from its deep-space slumber next month.
Not that scientists' headaches will disappear once Rosetta phones home. The makeup of its quarry also presents problems. Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko was selected to be Rosetta's target because its path round the Sun is a regular, frequent one. "That means we have a very good idea what its path is, so we can track it and follow it," says McCaughrean.
But there is a downside to picking a comet that spends much of its orbit within the inner solar system. Its precious volatile constituents are boiled off its surface as it makes repeated close approaches to the Sun. "Ultimately this can change a comet's icy surface until it looks more like a blob of asphalt," says McCaughrean. "That's not ideal."
Fortunately, observations indicate that 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko only moved into its current orbit relatively recently after a close encounter with Jupiter pulled it in to the inner solar system from further out in the solar system. Its surface should be relatively pristine as a result.
Then there is the issue of gravity. 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko is so small that its minute gravitational field is barely strong enough to hold Philae on its surface. The little lander will have to anchor itself to the comet with a harpoon to stop being flung off into space. Similarly, its mothership Rosetta will have to use its thrusters to circle the comet because the latter's gravity field is too weak to keep the probe in orbit round it at a distance of more than 30km.
Fully fuelled, Rosetta weighed a total of three tonnes at launch. More than half of that payload – about 1,670 kilos – consisted of propellant for the craft's thrusters that have guided it to its goal and will be needed to keep it close to the comet as it swings through the inner solar system.
This latter task will become especially difficult as the comet gets nearer to the sun. At perihelion, its closest approach, plumes of vapour and gas pouring off 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko's surface will hit the probe's 14-metre-long solar panels like winds billowing out a sail. "We are going to have to be very careful how we approach the comet as we move round it," says Taylor.
Neither is the business of navigating Rosetta helped by the spaceship's distance from Earth. "The craft will be several hundred million miles from Earth when it starts to approach the comet," says Taylor. "Signals will take tens of minutes to reach it from Earth so its flight has to be controlled semi-autonomously by onboard computers."
On the other hand, the probe has already shown that its instruments are in good condition. On its route into deep space, Rosetta passed close to asteroid Steins in 2008 and asteroid Lutetia in 2010. The former was revealed to be a loosely bound, diamond-shaped pile of rubble, while the latter was shown to be a 60-mile diameter space rock pitted with craters. These images have only whetted scientists' appetites for the data and powerful photographs that Rosetta and Philae will provide when they have reached 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko.
"We simply don't know what we are going to find," says professor Ian Wright of the Open University, who is the principal investigator for Ptolemy, one of Philae's key instrument packages. "This is the first time that a space probe has landed on a comet, after all."
Philae is fitted with a drill that will carry samples from under the surface into the lander where these tiny pieces of comet will be tested by different devices. Wright's instrument, a gas chromatograph mass spectrometer, will analyse the ratios of the different forms, or isotopes, of carbon, nitrogen, oxygen and other elements found on 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. For example, it will determine the ratio of atoms of hydrogen to atoms of deuterium (an isotope of hydrogen) in the comet's ice. "If that is very similar to the ratio we find in water on Earth, that will be another piece of evidence to suggest comets provide Earth with its oceans," says Wright.
Other instruments on Philae will include an alpha proton x-ray spectrometer that will study the chemical composition of sub-surface samples by irradiating them with x-rays and alpha particles (helium nuclei) while the Rosetta lander's magnetometer and plasma monitor will study the comet's magnetic field.
At the same time instruments on Rosetta will study the plasma, dust and ions being thrown off the comet as it travels close to the Sun. Given that Rosetta's instruments are scheduled to operate for more than a year as the comet swings past the Sun, the information they will provide will transform our knowledge about comets.
Rosetta was originally approved as a followup probe to Europe's previous comet mission, Giotto, which flew close to Halley's comet in 1986. It was finally approved in 1993 and built over the following decade. "That means it has been constructed using late-1990s technology," says Wright. "Its cameras are probably not as good as the one in your mobile phone today, for example. Nevertheless, it is a very ingenious, sophisticated spacecraft."
Like the other scientists in charge of instruments on Rosetta, Wright is also aware of the risks involved in attempting to rendezvous with a comet and land on it.
"This is a mission that is pushing space technology to its very limits – which means there are risks involved," he says. "I have worked on the project for 20 years, yet it could all go wrong at the last minute. That wakeup call in January could go wrong, for example. Thinking about it can affect your nerves. In the end, you have to learn to live with it."Robin McKie
Dean Burnett: Despite criticism of the recent high-profile study, some differences between male and female brains can't be deniedDean Burnett
Pieces of launcher from moon rover takeoff fall through roofs in Hunan province, sparking calls for compensation
Two houses in China were damaged by falling pieces of a rocket launched on Monday, prompting calls for an insurance scheme to cover future damage from the country's space programme, the China Daily newspaper has reported.
No casualties were reported after the successful launch of China's first moon rover, Chang'e-3, from the Xichang Satellite Launch Centre in the southwestern province of Sichuan, but debris from the launch hurtled into a village in neighbouring Hunan province.
A photograph in the newspaper showed a farmer standing by a desk-sized metal cone below a hole in his wooden roof.
"Suppose the rocket wreckage hit a person; what would the authorities do?" the paper quoted Ren Zili, a professor of insurance laws at Beihang University, as saying.
One person whose home was damaged received 10,800 yuan ($1,800) as compensation and the other received 5,200 yuan, it said.
Ren called for a programme to handle compensation in such cases, rather than dealing with each on an individual basis.
More than 180,000 residents of Sichuan and Hunan were relocated before the launch of the Chang'e-3 lunar probe, the paper said.
The number of launches has climbed to as many as 20 each year, Zhang Jianheng, deputy general manager with the China Aerospace Science and Technology Cooperation, told the official Xinhua news agency.
China is also studying ways to build recoverable rockets that leave no wreckage, to solve the problem once and for all.
China successfully completed its latest manned space mission in June, when three astronauts spent 15 days in orbit and docked with an experimental space laboratory critical in Beijing's quest to build a working space station by 2020.
Submissions warn against cuts in science, social security and public services, instead highlighting areas to raise revenueOliver Milman
Daytime maximums were 2.07C above average in 2013, with temperature rises recorded across virtually entire country
The spring of 2013 has been Australia's warmest on record. Mean temperatures for the season were 1.57C above the 1961-1990 average, surpassing the previous record of 1.43C (set in 2006) by 0.14C. Daytime maximum temperatures were also the highest on record, coming in 2.07C above average and 0.24C above the previous record (also set in 2006), while overnight minimum temperatures were the fourth-warmest on record.
The warmth was most dramatic in September, which saw a mean temperature anomaly of +2.75C, setting a new monthly record by more than a degree. October was also a very warm month, 1.43C above average. Temperatures during November were closer to normal, 0.52C above average, but were still warm enough to complete a record spring.
The warmth was extensive, with virtually the entire country experiencing above-average mean temperatures for the spring. It was the warmest spring on record over an area covering most of western Queensland (sufficient to give Queensland its warmest spring on record), and extending into the eastern interior of the Northern Territory.
Records were also set on the west coast around Perth, on the east coast around Sydney, and on parts of the Nullarbor. The spring ranked in the 10 warmest on record over 83% of the country.
Strong westerly winds were a feature of the prevailing weather over southern parts of the continent during September and October. This brought unusually wet weather to western Tasmania, southwest Victoria, and southwest Western Australia — regions that are exposed to maritime westerlies.
Conversely, the same general westerly airflow brought persistently dry and hot weather to inland regions across the southeast. These conditions, combined with a record warm winter and little rainfall since July, saw significant early season fire activity in central eastern NSW in September and October.
The low soil moisture in some parts of the southeast also contributed to unusually large daily temperature ranges during October. Maximum temperatures were well above average but minimum temperatures were below average. An early start to the growing season combined with late frosts caused major crop losses in southern New South Wales and northern Victoria on 18 October.
October was also notable for heat in the northern tropics.Fitzroy Crossing in northern Western Australia reached 40C on each of the first 29 days of the month, an unprecedented sequence at any Australian station this early in the year.
The pattern of westerlies broke down around the end of October, and most of November was dominated by easterly flow. This brought moist conditions (and frequent severe thunderstorms) to the east coast. Easterly flow off the continent brought consistently hot conditions to western parts of Western Australia, where many locations had their hottest November on record.
It was a rather cool November in the southeast, particularly in Tasmania and southern Victoria, but was not far enough below average to offset the very warm September, except in a few parts of Tasmania. In central Sydney average maximum temperatures for November were cooler than those for September, something which has only happened once before, in 1998.
Another feature of the spring was unusually heavy early-season rain in the northern tropics. In a normal year, November sees scattered thunderstorms across regions such as the Kimberley and the Top End. Widespread heavy rain, however, does not normally develop until the monsoon becomes established in December or January. In 2013, general rains developed during the second half of November (including with unusually early landfalling tropical cyclone, Alessia). Spring rainfall was above average through most of the far north and approached record levels in a few places.
The record warm spring leaves Australia on track to have its warmest calendar year on record. Mean temperatures for Australia for the 11 months ending in November were 1.23C above average and 0.18C above the previous record year, 2005.
The three-month climate outlook for December 2013 to February 2014 favours wetter-than-average conditions across much of Western Australia, western Victoria and Tasmania, and dry and warm conditions along much of the east coast of Australia.
• Blair Trewin is a climatologist at the National Climate Centre at the Australian Bureau of Meteorology. This piece was originally published in The Conversation.
Global warming limit agreed is too late and dangerous as a 1C rise in temperature will trigger catastrophic events, study says
The limit of 2C of global warming agreed by the world's governments is a "dangerous target", "foolhardy" and will not avoid the most disastrous consequences of climate change, new research from a panel of eminent climate scientists warned on Tuesday.
In a new paper, the climate scientist Professor James Hansen and a team of international experts found the most dangerous effects of a warming climate – sea level rise, Arctic ice melt, extreme weather – would begin kicking in with a global temperature rise of 1C.
Allowing warming to reach 2C would be simply too late, Hansen said. "The case we make is that 2C itself is a very dangerous target to be aiming for," he told the Guardian. "Society should reassess what are dangers levels, given the impacts that we have already seen."
The research, published in the peer-reviewed journal PLoS One, represents Hansen's most public intervention so far into the world of climate policy, following his retirement earlier in 2013 from Nasa's Goddard Institute of Space Studies.
Hansen, who left Nasa to be more free to act as a climate advocate, set up a new climate policy programme at the Earth Institute in September. In a separate action, he intervened in November in support of a law suit demanding the federal government act to cut the greenhouse gas emissions that cause climate change.
The new study, however, was aimed at marshalling the expertise of 17 other climate and policy experts from the UK, Australia, France, Sweden and Switzerland as well as the US, to outline the dangerous consequences of sticking to the 2C warming target endorsed by the United Nations and world leaders.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warned in its major in October that the world had only about 30 years left before it exhausted the rest of the 1,000 gigaton carbon emission budget estimated to lead to 2C warming. But Hansen and his colleagues warned that the UN target would not avoid dangerous consequences, even if it kept within that carbon budget.
"Fossil fuel emissions of 1,000 gigaton, sometimes associated with a 2C global warming target, would be expected to cause large climate change with disastrous consequences. The eventual warming from one gigaton fossil fuel emissions likely would reach well over 2C, for several reasons. With such emissions and temperature tendency, other trace greenhouse gases including methane and nitrous oxide would be expected to increase, adding to the effect of CO2," the researchers said.
The paper draws on multiple strands of evidence to make its case, including the rapid decline of Arctic sea ice, mountain glaciers, and the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets, the expansion of hot, dry subtropical zones, the increase in drought and wildfires, and the loss of coral reefs because of ocean acidification.
"The main point is that the 2C target – which is almost out of reach now, or quickly becoming out of reach – is itself a dangerous target because it leads to a world that is greatly destabilised by rising sea levels and massive changes of climate patterns in different parts of the world," said Professor Jeff Sachs, director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University, one of the PLoS paper's authors.
An even bigger problem however was that the international community was far from even reaching that inadequate target, Sachs said. "Right now we are completely off track globally," he said. "We are certainly not even in the same world as a 1C world. We are not even in a 2C world."
The paper goes on to urge immediate cuts in global emissions of 6% a year as well as ambitious reforestation efforts to try to keep temperatures in check. The paper acknowledges such actions would be "exceedingly difficult" to achieve, but says it is urgent to begin reductions now, rather than wait until future decades.
It warns that the targets will remain far out of reach so long with continued exploitation of fossil fuels, such as coal burning for electricity and continued exploitation of unconventional oil and gas.
The paper also offers prescriptions, urging the adoption of a direct carbon tax at point of production and entry. "Our policy implication is that we have to have a carbon fee and some of the major countries need to agree on that and if that were done it would be possible to actually get global emissions to begin to come down rapidly I think," Hansen said.
The study also calls for an expansion of nuclear power – which will be controversial for environmental groups. Hansen has long been an advocate for nuclear power as a solution to climate change, and he has been critical of environmental groups for not coming on board.
"Surely a few decades ago it made sense to be very cautious about any further expansion of nuclear power but a lot has happened over last few decades," Hansen said. "Climate change is going to be uncontrollable if we can't get carbon-free electricity ... Environmental groups need to look at the real world."
Postdoctoral student allegedly accessed sensitive data at a nanotechnology laboratory in MelbourneHelen Davidson
Once a research-rich economy the UK has fallen behind in innovation with UK firms allegedly either incapable or unwilling to exploit inventions
To see what's really at stake in this week's autumn statement from George Osborne, do yourself a favour: duck out of the Westminster argy-bargy, hit the M1 and don't stop until you've reached Manchester. Then button-hole a physicist into showing you the wonder stuff discovered by two University colleagues just a few years ago.
It's called graphene and it's the thinnest material on earth – almost a million times slimmer than a strand of hair. I saw it lying on a wafer of silicon and it resembled nothing so much as breath on a windowpane.
Almost everything about graphene begs to be inscribed in legend. There's its discovery: a couple of Russian émigrés at Manchester engage in a "Friday night experiment" by peeling away at a pencil lead with sticky tape, until they isolate the one-atom-thick substance dreamt of by researchers for more than half a century.
The speed and scale of the reaction: from publishing results in 2004 to Nobel prizes six years later (poor old Einstein had to wait 16 years). The material's exceptional properties: tougher than diamond, stretchier than rubber, and better able to conduct electricity than anything else. Its myriad of possible uses: bendy touchscreens for mobiles, super-light batteries, artificial retinas, more effective drug delivery … and that's just for starters. Graphene could become as much a part of our daily lives as plastic.
Any one of these elements would have been remarkable; put them together and even sceptical fellow-physicists accept some kind of revolution has begun just off the city's Oxford Road. The question is how much of it will benefit Britain.
"Tomorrow's world is being shaped here in Manchester," declared Osborne at the Conservative party conference in 2011. The chancellor had met "the two brilliant scientists" that morning; now he was chipping in £50m to take their discovery "from the British laboratory to the British factory floor".
"Let's stop thinking that the only growth that can happen in Britain takes place in one industry in one corner of our country," he went on. "We're going to get Britain making things again."
At last! Proof the UK could manufacture something other than banking scandals and property bubbles. Embodied in the magic material was the hope that new industries and decent private-sector jobs might once again be created north of Watford Gap.
Which brings us back to Thursday's pre-budget report. You already know much of the chancellor's script: an energy-bill cut here, a fuel duty freeze there and the first upgrade to growth forecasts since he took office. This will be brandished as proof that Labour was wrong – and austerity is working.
Except that this recovery – built on house prices and mountainous personal debt and all the old vices – isn't the one Osborne and David Cameron wanted. When the pair moved into Downing Street, they swore that austerity would 'rebalance'' the economy towards manufacturing and business investment and exports. In other words, this was meant to be a recovery made of graphene. And the way to get it was to stop a bloated state "crowding out'' businesses.
"Ministers thought the problem was the government spending too much," says Duncan Weldon, senior economist with the TUC. "And that if they simply lowered corporation tax and cut the cost of capital, companies would invest more."
On that score, Osbornomics has been an undeniable failure. According to official forecasts from June 2010, business investment should have risen 35% by now; it's only increased 1%. Nor has the promised export boom turned up, despite the pound's plunge making our goods much cheaper abroad.
Those figures will probably improve over the next couple of years, but not by enough to change the basic picture: Britain is stuck with the same busted economic model that tipped it into the crash. That's exposed by how, just a few months into our first growth spurt in three years, economists and politicians are already fretting about a bubble.
Our record with graphene has been similarly dismal. Consultants calculate that China has taken out more than 2,200 patents on the material; the US more than 1,700; South Korea is closing in on 1,200. And the country that discovered it? Just over 50.
True, patents don't equal profits, and some Americans can't arrange their alphabet spaghetti in a novel fashion without demanding copyright – but this wasn't the way it was meant to be.
On the one hand, Britain can't spearhead the work on a revolutionary material that was discovered at one of its universities. On the other, the UK can't break its pathological focus on property and credit – despite five years of post-Lehman handwringing by politicians of all stripes.
The two failures are more than linked; the disappointment over graphene helps explain the bigger problem of why the economy remains stuck in its deep rut. Which is why I've come to Manchester: if the political class won't tackle the broader debate, we should see what the scientists have to say.
The first thing you notice about graphene in the city of its birth is how dependent it is on public money. The majority of the Osborne cash is going towards a new graphene institute at Manchester University, to be opened in 2015. But while £50m (now upped to £60m) of public cash on graphene research sounds a lot, Manchester academics believe South Korea's Samsung is spending about five times that on one application – in mobile phones – alone.
British scientists are used to doing more with less: compare the millions spent on Beagle 2 against the billions ploughed into Nasa's Curiosity budget. Even so, the Samsung money puts into perspective the classic Whitehall dilettantism of chucking some spare change at a new idea and hope it does some good.
Nevertheless, the university has more than 100 researchers beavering away at it and appointed a press officer to the material. Plastered across the marketing is the boast: "Potentially the most important discovery of the century".
Thankfully, the academics are more blasé. The lab of the famed discovery is used to store mountain bikes. One of the Nobel award-winning pair, Sir Kostya Novoselov, lumbers out of his room. It's smaller than a BBC middle-manager's office, and the desk is dominated by a fluoro-pink bottle of Vanish. Dumbbells are scattered on the floor. Next door is senior partner Sir Andre Geim. Life as a Nobel laureate has brought one major benefit.
"When the vice-chancellor asked what I wanted, I didn't talk about money: I mentioned parking." Hang on: you'd just scooped the biggest prize in physics and all you asked for was better parking? "Yes, it was a 15-minute round trip to my car. But it changed that afternoon!"
The man colleagues liken to a modern Leonardo da Vinci beams at the memory. Not that Geim underestimates the value of what he and his colleagues are doing. Without innovations such as graphene, he says, societies don't progress. "The consequences of a lack of new knowledge is decades of stagnation: the next generation will be poorer than this one."
"Curiosity-driven research" is how Geim describes his work – which perhaps explains why he once used magnets to levitate a frog. Since discovering graphene he's cut back on the playful stuff to work more closely with business – and the experience has been disillusioning. "The big multinationals come here to spend a couple of hours learning about graphene – once or twice. Their impression is: 'Aha! It's not close enough to market.'"
And they're right. But such applied research would previously have been done by giant British companies (think ICI or GEC) at their own labs. Now either those names have died, or their appetite for innovation has.
The decline is tackled head on in a recent Sheffield university paper by Professor Richard Jones, another physicist and pro-vice-chancellor of research there. He writes: "In 1979 the UK was one of the most research-intensive economies in the world. Now, amongst the advanced industrial economies, it is one of the least."
Competitors such as the USA, Japan, France and Germany have all maintained or increased their spending on research; South Korea and China have begun to spend a lot more. In Britain, however, there has been a fall in the proportion – led by the private sector.
What Jones and Geim are talking about is a deep corporate myopia – and you can see what it looks like less than half an hour's drive from the University. Out at Blackley, on the city's outskirts, ICI used to maintain one of the biggest industrial research centres in the world. From here, they developed colour-fast dyes, the anti-malarial drug Paludrine and the first modern mass spectrometer, without which much contemporary lab analysis would be unthinkable. They also gave mankind polyester.
Blackley would be exactly the kind of place that would once have taken graphene to supermarket shelves. With its famously deep pockets, ICI was able to swallow the cost of riskier development work. But the conglomerate is long gone, broken apart by would-be corporate raiders and investment bankers and big-money lawyers. ICI's premises at Blackley used to snake along the River Irk and it would take employees well over half an hour to walk around it. The old corporate tower is still there, used as a business park for high-tech tiddler firms. But where there once sprawled all that research and manufacturing capacity is now rows of new housing.
Which leaves the academics trying to fill in for the old corporate labs. Geim tells me of dinner a couple of years ago with senior staff from one of the corporate children of ICI, pharmaceutical giant AstraZeneca. "They were complaining … about how their stock price never went up. So I told them, 'Shut your lab at Alderley.'"
He was being caustic: the hub at Alderley Park in Cheshire has been doing cutting-edge drug research for more than 40 years. "They laughed: 'It will never happen.' Then this summer Alderley's closure was announced. And I looked up their share price and it had rocketed."
Here is one of the world's great scientists, pointing out that British businesses are either incapable or unwilling to use his inventions. The effect is rather like James Watt complaining that he can't find any takers for his new steam engine.
"I've talked with James Dyson for over a year, but we couldn't make it work," Geim says. "It breaks my heart to say this, but the nearest company that would take what we could offer was in the Far East."
Originally a Taiwanese company, Bluestone announced a £5m deal this autumn to open a production plant in Manchester. That too is part of a new trend: 2011 was the first year ever that more money was spent on research by foreign-owned firms in Britain than by British-owned businesses.
Without an industrial base, Britain will not be able to turn cutting-edge research into commercial opportunity and jobs, believes Sheffield's Jones. He spent part of last decade advising the government on how to build up Britain's nanotech sector. "It was meant to be a $100tn industry," he says. And it's already changed everything from car bumpers to sunscreen, but over here "it's ended up as "three men, a dog, and a cabinet full of patents".
"The IP [intellectual property] by itself isn't enough. You need knowhow – the knowhow to work out which products your new technology should actually go in, the knowhow to make it in a factory, and to do the marketing".
In which industries does Britain have this knowhow? "Aerospace. Some areas of electronics. We've got the hang of making cars again, even if we don't own the actual car firms. Pharmaceuticals."
A long pause. So, quite a short list? "Yeah." Which leaves the public sector again trying to fill the gap. Dr Branson Belle used to research with Geim, but now heads a tiny firm called 2-DTech on the edge of the university campus. Such outfits are normally called spin-outs; yet where they were once seen as a nifty way for universities to make a bit of institutional pocket money, Belle's company is essentially a stand-in for the private sector. And as he and his business brain Mark Shepherd freely admit, it's tough going.
Which isn't to say they're not trying all the levers that politicians love to talk about. Venture capital? The industry's too small, apparently. "Here we'd be lucky to get £2m; in America they'd give you £10m off the bat." What about all those government business funding schemes? "A good idea but you try getting money out of them," says Mark. One by one all those bits of ministerial handwaving about creating enterprise culture get dismissed.
"How much did the government spend on rescuing RBS?" asks Belle. It's a rhetorical question. "That tells you all you need to know about Westminster's priorities."
The tsunami that wrecked the Fukushima Daiichi power plant has led to the toughest nuclear cleanup ever. Radioactive water is still poisoning the sea – and it could take 40 years to fix the mess. Is Japan up to the challenge?
Carefully, gently, one-by-one. The removal of nuclear fuel rod assemblies from a badly damaged building at the Fukushima Daiichi power plant is finally under way. Months in the planning, the job is risky, complex, and crucial. Here begins the first major step in the toughest decommissioning project ever attempted.
Fukushima is home to six nuclear reactors, three of which were running when the giant tsunami swept across the site on 11 March 2011. The defuelling operation centres on the building for reactor four. Though the reactor was shut down for maintenance when the towering wave struck, all its radioactive fuel, and more from earlier runs, was held in a storage pool on an upper floor of the building.
Under normal conditions, the storage pool above the reactor was a safe haven. But four days into the crisis a hydrogen explosion tore through the structure and blew the walls and roof off. Moving the radioactive fuel from the wrecked building to a more secure site became a high priority. Some fuel assemblies have already been moved. Workers use a crane to reach down into the pool, lift an assembly from its rack, then lower it into a waiting cask that sits upright on the pool floor. When a cask is full – each can take 22 fuel assemblies – a second crane hoists it from the pool and places it on a trailer. Filled casks are then transported to a more secure storage facility on the site.
The procedure sounds straightforward enough. But there are 1,533 fuel assemblies in the pool at building four. Each is 4m long, and holds up to 80 individual fuel rods. The team of 36 workers that are responsible for the job will work in six shifts around the clock. The job will take until the end of 2014. And that is with no glitches.
But the work at reactor four is only the start. Once the fuel is removed to a safer place, workers will turn their attention to a further 1,573 fuel rod assemblies held in similar pools in the buildings for reactors one, two and three. All were running when the tsunami struck; all suffered meltdowns. The radiation in these buildings is still intense, and access inside is limited.
Though delicate and painstaking, retrieving the fuel rod assemblies from the pools is not the toughest job the workers face. More challenging by far will be digging out the molten cores in the reactors themselves. Some of the fuel burned through its primary containment and is now mixed with cladding, steel and concrete. The mixture will have to be broken up, sealed in steel containers and moved to a nuclear waste storage site. That work will not start until some time after 2020.
To fully decommission Fukushima Daiichi might take 40 years and no one expects a cakewalk. Independent researchers point to the litany of mishaps that has blighted the cleanup. They doubt the plant's operator Tokyo Electric Power (Tepco) is up to the task, and want a global team of experts to take over. Even high-level advisers signed up by Tepco describe the decommissioning project as an "unprecedented" challenge. At stake is Tepco's reputation, the health and livelihoods of local communities, and the future direction of the industry worldwide.
"With the sheer number of things that are going wrong, they should be more openly bringing in help," says Ken Buesseler, a senior scientist at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute in Massachusetts, who has analysed seawater for radiation directly offshore from Fukushima. "Tepco is a nuclear power producer, not a cleanup operation. There are people with expertise in decommissioning reactors, and they need to be brought in whether they are Japanese, European or American. Every time they have a problem, they come up with a solution that takes a long time to bring in, and then doesn't even solve the problem. "
Tepco does have international advisers. In the wake of criticisms over its handling of the crisis, the company set up an independent Nuclear Reform Monitoring Committee. The committee is led by Dale Klein, former chairman of the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC). His deputy is Lady Barbara Judge, former head of the UK Atomic Energy Authority. They do not underestimate the long job ahead: this is make or break time for Tepco.
Who should the public trust? In nuclear issues it can be hard to know. The engineers with most experience, those best placed to make a dangerous site safe, are industry insiders. Nuclear is their livelihood. But who does not have biases? Are anti-nuclear activists better qualified, more honest? Are academics more independent? University staff who work on nuclear technology are often funded by, or have close links to the industry. Perceived biases can be just as harmful to trust as real ones.
John Large, a UK-based nuclear consultant, says Tepco needs more outside help to decommission the plant. He wants the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to arrange for a team of engineers with hands-on experience to assess the site, and come up with a fresh plan of action. But he concedes there are problems with the idea. Industry engineers will defend the industry, he says. "They need to be told: 'Forget the fact that you design these reactors, right now we need your expertise.'"
Tepco has planned heavily to reduce the danger of another high-profile mishap while it removes fuel from the storage pool at unit four. Engineers have beefed up the cranes that will move the fuel. If a fuel assembly jams in its rack, the crane should stop pulling immediately, to reduce the risk of breakage. A second crane that lifts the cask is designed to hold its load even if power is lost. All these will help. A dropped nuclear fuel assembly will not go critical, but more radiation might escape. That may not be dangerous beyond the site, but it could be the final straw for Tepco's reputation.
"We haven't had a problem of this magnitude before in decommissioning," says Lady Judge. "When you're dealing with decommissioning a reactor where there's been an accident you have to respond to difficulties. When you're dealing with decommissioning a reactor that's reached the end of its productive life, you are being proactive and you can do it in a much more slow and methodical manner."
Good news is hard to find around Fukushima. In the earliest days of the crisis, a plume of radioactive material blew northwest from the site and settled as a teardrop scar reaching more than 30km across the land. From the coastline, through the towns of Okuma, Futaba and Namie, are huge patches of ground where the additional annual dose of radiation is more than 50 millisieverts. Natural background radiation, from cosmic rays and sources in the air and rock, reaches 2 to 3 millisieverts per year.
A preliminary IAEA report in October on efforts to clean up the contaminated land was full of praise for the remediation work so far, and made a handful of gentle suggestions for improvement. Yet the work is far behind schedule in seven of 11 selected towns and villages; the deadline of March 2014 is now unachievable. This month, officials in Japan admitted for the first time that thousands of evacuees from the worst affected areas may never return home. The governing Liberal Democratic party says a more realistic approach is needed: it wants compensation for the 160,000 people displaced by the radioactive leak, so they can rebuild their lives elsewhere.
Up on the cliff overlooking the Fukushima plant is a bleak reminder of an ongoing battle at the site. This strip of land was once filled with trees, a place for workers to go walking. Tepco has cut the trees down now, to make room for 1,000 huge metal storage tanks. They hold more than 360,000 tonnes of radioactive water, enough to fill 140 Olympic swimming pools. The volume rises every day. Over the next three years, Tepco wants to add storage for another 270,000 tonnes of radioactive wastewater. Ultimately, the water must be returned to the Pacific. There is nowhere else for it to go.
The steady accumulation of contaminated water is in part down to geology. The three reactors that were running when the tsunami struck are kept cool by flushing them with 400 tonnes of water each day. The process leaves the cooling water laced with radioactive contamination. But Fukushima sits at the bottom of a hill, on land with a high water table. Hundreds of tonnes of water drain down the hill every day, quietly beneath the surface. When this subterranean flow reaches the power plant, it enters the cracked reactor buildings and mixes with the contaminated cooling water. Much is pumped out and passed through a filter made with zeolite clay, which removes dangerous caesium isotopes. But the other radioactive substances remain. This water, around 300 tonnes a day, is pumped into the storage tanks up on the hill.
Some scientists questioned from the start Tepco's decision to store contaminated water. Another earthquake could rupture the tanks and see another major radioactive release from the site, they feared. So far, Tepco has been spared that particular disaster, but the concerns are still justified. Smaller accidents have been rife. In August, workers discovered that 300 tonnes of radioactive water had leaked from one of the tanks. The radiation emanating from the puddle left on the ground was enough to give a bystander the industry's five-year maximum permissible dose in just one hour. In October, half a tonne of contaminated water spilled on to the ground and may have drained to the sea, when tanks overflowed with rainwater.
"It's clearly something they need to get a handle on," Allison Macfarlane, chair of the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission, told the Guardian. "Water is a big issue for them, but they've also got to keep the reactor cores cool, and they've got to clean it up."
Tepco has taken on a US consultant, Lake Barrett, who led the NRC's cleanup of Three Mile Island, the worst commercial nuclear power accident in the nation's history. "It's certainly confidence-shaking to hear about spills and inadvertent releases from the plant. Even though the radioactivity levels are quite small, the public certainly don't have trust and confidence in Tepco's ability to do the more important things like the defuelling, and that is a problem for them," he says.
In a November report, Tepco said it had set up 15 specialised teams to replace old bolt-fastened tanks with welded ones, install water level gauges, and up the number of patrols that inspect the tanks for leaks. While two thirds of the storage tanks are welded steel vessels, more than 300 are makeshift, added in haste to increase capacity at the site. They are made from steel sheets that are bolted together and sealed with plastic packing.
Water stored in the tanks is contaminated with a host of radioactive substances. One of the most troubling is strontium-90, which mimics calcium when it gets into the body. The substance concentrates in bones, so even low levels in the environment can build up over time and become harmful. When released into the ocean, strontium works its way into fish bones, which can make catches unfit for consumption. The hazard will last a long time: strontium's radioactivity takes 30 years to fall by half.
Tepco is trying to decontaminate the water with an "advanced liquid processing system" (Alps). In principle, the technology can strip all radioactive substances from the water, except tritium, one of the less dangerous radioactive substances, which was spread widely through the environment by nuclear bomb tests in the 1950s and 1960s. Tepco claims the system will ultimately decontaminate more than 500 tonnes of water a day. But that may be optimistic. The equipment has suffered multiple failures. In the latest setback on Sunday, an ALPS unit was shut down when a pipe began to leak acid. Workers wrapped a vinyl bag around the joint to stem the flow while Tepco investigates.
Even at a rate of 500 tonnes a day, cleaning the stored water will take many years. But Tepco must get Alps up and running. The company then needs to arrange disposal of the treated water, and the radioactive material filtered out by the system. The radioactive waste will go into containers and be sent for long-term storage. The tritium-laced water will be released into the Pacific, but Tepco has yet to get public support for the move.
"The problem hasn't gone away," says Macfarlane. "The water is cleaner, but you still end up with tritium in there, so they're going to have some tough decisions about what to do."
Fukushima is the first nuclear accident to release large amounts of radioactive material directly into the ocean. Radiation levels surged in seawater after the tsunami struck, with concentrations of caesium-137 recorded at 60 million becquerels per cubic metre near the plant. The nuclear bomb dropped on Hiroshima released 89 trillion becquerels of caesium-137. The levels in the waters off Fukushima fell sharply though, as the caesium dissolved and dispersed on the ocean's currents.
Tepco estimates that around 300 tonnes of contaminated groundwater still flow into the Pacific each day. The levels of radioactivity are small compared with the releases in 2011. Buesseler has measured contamination in water, fish and other organisms from a ship off the coast of Fukushima since the accident unfurled. He is not worried about the immediate health risk, but says fish and other marine life will concentrate radioactive substances, making them unsuitable for consumption for years. "We're not talking about levels that cause direct harm when I'm one kilometre offshore," says Buesseler. "But through the uptake into the seafood and fisheries, you end up having to keep those closed, and that's a billion dollar industry and a cultural loss for Japan."
Buesseler is critical of what he sees as false reassurances from the Japanese government. "They have said some silly things, that it's largely under control. That doesn't really mean anything when you are out on a ship and you are seeing elevated levels of these isotopes. 'Under control' is not a good phrase for the situation right now," he says.
Tepco's latest plan to stem the flow of radioactive groundwater into the ocean is to solidify the soil around the site to form an impermeable "icewall". This should divert groundwater around the site, and stop it mixing with contaminated cooling water. The project will not be cheap. The Japanese government has pledged £300m to help build the barrier, insisting that the danger of leaks and spills make the wall essential. Ice wall technology has been effective in the construction and mining industries, but has never been tried on the scale planned at Fukushima. Lake Barrett, the US consultant brought in by Tepco, is sceptical of the plan. "I don't think it'll make that big a difference. It's several hundred million dollars, and some of that might be better spent on an integrated water plan," he says.
Even if the ice wall works, it could cause fresh problems. Groundwater flowing out to the ocean keeps seawater from seeping inland at Fukushima. Block that flow, or divert it, and saltwater is sure to encroach. Normally, this would not be a problem. But the soil around Fukushima is laden with radioactive caesium. The substance binds to clay in freshwater conditions, but crucially is released again by saltwater.
"If you stop the fresh water flowing out, that would very likely cause the caesium in the ground to be released. You then have a pulse, of what is currently in some way safely buried, going back into the ocean," says Buesseler. "It is certainly something they should think about."
More mishaps are inevitable at Fukushima. The plant is wrecked and decommissioning will take decades of arduous, complex work. In Japan and in other countries, the crisis has already dented public confidence in nuclear power. That has harmed their economies, says Judge.
"Many countries, not just Japan, overreacted to Fukushima and they are suffering. In Germany they are buying gas from Russia, they're buying nuclear energy from France. The Poles are planning, right on the German border, a nuclear power plant to service the German market. They're burning coal, which is really amazing, because their emissions are also going up. So what was a political decision has turned out to be detrimental to the entire economy and particularly to the people," she says.
The media have not helped. "Two years ago there was a huge earthquake and tsunami that killed around 20,000 people. But every day when I read the paper, it said, 'nuclear disaster, nuclear disaster, nuclear disaster'. In actual fact, not one person has died of radiation, nor is anyone likely to.
"The straight story is the Japanese didn't have a nuclear response plan. There were a lot of human errors during what happened at Fukushima. It was old technology, badly maintained, and the regulator was not respected. Those are the facts. They have to be faced and dealt with."Ian Sample
At-home genetic testing kits still for sale on company website while FDA questions claims made by marketing materialAmanda Holpuch
Reducing a scientific study about mental illness to pop psychology suggesting men and women are from different planets does us all a disservice
Men and women. Sometimes we look into each other's eyes and think: "You are more inexplicable to me than one of those creatures that crawl along the ocean floor." In relationships of all kinds men and women often end up exasperated with the perceived irrationality not just of the person they are dealing with, but their entire gender. Men's magazines feature articles written by women giving "the female perspective". Women's magazines feature articles telling their readers "what men really think", as if the final copy had been approved by all the blokes of the world sitting down together over a beer in their basement den. On a darker note, the "battle of the sexes" lies behind female genital mutilation, the casting aside of baby girls by those who want boys or the trafficking of young brides. Too often, the other gender is one to be worked out, understood and then, for some, defeated.
A new study from the University of Pennsylvania looks to have added fuel to the "Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus" fire. It reveals, in the words of Ragini Verma, the associate professor who led the study, "a stark difference – and complementarity – in the architecture of the human brain that helps provide a potential neural basis as to why men excel at certain tasks, and women at others". This has been received in some quarters of the media as confirmation of our inherent alienness to each other. ItIts findings have been – and will be – taken and applied to pop psychology, not to science, which is what its architects intended it for.
When I spoke to Professor Ruben Gur, one of the academics in charge of the research, he told me that it was very important people understood that "we are talking about averages". He went on to explain that the study was focused on mental health problems in children and young adults and that, because men and women are, on average, more susceptible to some forms of mental illness than others – for example, men to psychosis and women to depression – it was important to do some gender-related research. This study, then, is to do with diagnosing and treating various types of mental illness. It's not about saying that geezers like to read maps and birds like to have touchy-feely chats. It's not, as Gur was at pains to point out, about dividing men and women.
Often, people feel the need to back up their prejudices or assumptions with any old science they can find. Women, after all, were seen as too hysterical to be allowed the vote, and scientists would be wheeled out to attest to that. There is a difference, too, between how our brains are wired and how we feel and behave. These things often fall into the territory of psychoanalysis, which is much maligned by those who'd rather lump all of humanity into categories. It's comforting, perhaps, to think that the wide and terrifying range of emotions we all feel can be reduced to whether we piss standing up or sitting down. To do that, though, would be doing a disservice to yourself and to the good people at the University of Pennsylvania.Oscar Rickett