What are the symptoms of infection with the coronavirus, how contagious is it, and where has it come from?How many cases of the new coronavirus have been reported?
More than 30 people are thought to have been infected and, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO), it has been the likely cause of death for at least 18 people in the Middle East and Europe. The virus can be passed between humans, but only after prolonged contact.
Professor Ian Jones, a virologist at the University of Reading, says: "The WHO data do indicate probable human-to-human transmission. However, the circumstances are unusual – close contact in a hospital, and other patients co-housed with the index case did not become infected. This does not amount to human-to-human transmission 'on the street' so the risk remains very low. The most important goal remains to locate the source of infection so that measures to minimise contact can be taken."When did the new coronavirus emerge?
The first patient, confirmed last year, was a 60 year-old who died in Saudi Arabia. The second patient, a 49-year-old Qatari, first showed symptoms in September and the infection was confirmed by the Health Protection Agency's laboratories in Colindale, north London.
It has been suggested that the new virus should be called Middle East respiratory syndrome coronavirus (MERS-CoV).
Dr Siouxsie Wiles, a microbiologist and infectious disease specialist at the University of Auckland, says that an interesting feature of MERS-CoV was that "the majority of infections have occurred within health care facilities, such as hospitals, as has just been reported in France. Those people were in hospital for a reason though, suggesting that some underlying disease may be required to make people more vulnerable to infection with [MERS-CoV]."What are coronaviruses?
They were first identified in the 1960s, and were named after the crown-like projections on the surface of the virus. They cause respiratory infections in both humans and animals.What are the main symptoms?
There is very limited information on its impact, transmission and severity at this stage. In confirmed cases, patients had a fever, cough, shortness of breath and breathing difficulties. It is not known whether these symptoms are typical or whether the virus may be circulating more widely but causing milder illness.What is the treatment?
Experts do not have enough information on the virus to make specific treatment recommendations, and can only provide acute respiratory support to those in hospital, the Health Protection Agency says.How do you catch the infection?
Such viruses typically spread in a similar manner to the flu virus. The new coronavirus is therefore likely to be passed from person to person when an infected person coughs or sneezes.What have we yet to learn about the virus?
According to a statement released on Monday by the World Health Organisation, a lot. "For example, how are people getting infected? Is it from animals? Is it from contaminated surfaces? Is it from other people? Finally, we don't know how widespread is this virus, both in [Middle East] region and in other countries."How contagious is it?
Transmission appears to be "very limited", says the Health Protection Agency: if it were very contagious, there would have been more cases in more countries, as well as in those caring for the two cases, the first of which happened more than three months ago. The incubation period is currently thought likely to be seven days.
However, the agency says it is best to err on the side of caution. The patient in the London hospital is being treated in strict isolation, and staff are wearing appropriate protective equipment and clothing, including respirators, goggles, gowns and gloves.
Coronaviruses are fairly fragile, surviving outside the body for only about 24 hours. They are easily destroyed by detergents and cleaning agents. The risk of UK residents contracting infection in the UK is very low.Where has this virus come from?
No one knows. It may be a mutation of an existing virus. Some new infections come from viruses that have been circulating in animals or birds. These are known as zoonoses. These may sometimes cause mild infection in some species and more serious ones in others. There is no evidence at the moment that this is a zoonosis.Is there a vaccine?
No.Is there a laboratory test?
Yes but it is complex, using a system know as PCR, which involves amplifying small pieces of DNA and then sequencing the genetic material.What should I do if I am planning travel to the Middle East?
Continue with your plans. The authorities are keeping travel advice under review, however.If I visited the Middle East and have signs of a cold or fever, should I be worried?
If the symptoms are mild, you almost certainly have an infection caused by a common respiratory virus. However, if the symptoms worsen considerably and you become very breathless, contact your GP or NHS Direct, mentioning where in the Middle East you have travelled. Even in cases of severe respiratory illness, another, more common pathogen is a more likely diagnosis.Is this similar to Sars?
Sars (a particularly severe form of pneumonia) was also caused by a coronavirus, but these viruses can cause a range of symptoms, from mild to serious. The confirmed cases have experienced a serious respiratory illness, which makes it similar to Sars in this respect.
• Source: Health Protection Agency, World Health OrganisationJames MeikleAlok Jha
During his five months in space onboard the International Space Station, Commander Chris Hadfield has gained more than 790,000 followers on Twitter thanks to his regular posts
What really winds up Israel is that this rejection comes from a famous scientist, and it is science that drives its economy, prestige and military strength
Stephen Hawking's decision to boycott the Israeli president's conference has gone viral. Over 100,000 Facebook shares of the Guardian report at last count. Whatever the subsequent fuss, Hawking's letter is unequivocal. His refusal was made because of requests from Palestinian academics.
Witness the speed with which the pro-Israel lobby seized on Cambridge University's initial false claim that he had withdrawn on health grounds to denounce the boycott movement, and their embarrassment when within a few hours the university shamefacedly corrected itself. Hawking also made it clear that if he had gone he would have used the occasion to criticise Israel's policies towards the Palestinians.
While journalists named him "the poster boy of the academic boycott" and supporters of the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement celebrated, Ha'aretz, the most progressive of the Israeli press, drew attention to the inflammatory language used by the conference organisers, who described themselves as "outraged" rather than that they "regretted" Hawking's decision.
That the world's most famous scientist had recognised the justice of the Palestinian cause is potentially a turning point for the BDS campaign. And that his stand was approved by a majority of two to one in the Guardian poll that followed his announcement shows just how far public opinion has turned against Israel's relentless land-grabbing and oppression.
Hawking's public refusal follows that of prominent singers, artists and writers, from Brian Eno to Mike Leigh, Alice Walker and Adrienne Rich, all of whom have publicly rejected invitations to perform in Israel. But what winds Israel up is the fact that this rejection is by a famous scientist and that science and technology drive its economy. Hawking's decision threatens to open a floodgate with more and more scientists coming to regard Israel as a pariah state. Its research ties with European and American scientists must be protected.
That Israel, a Middle East country, has managed to secure membership of the European Research Area and the many collaborative links with European labs underlines the importance of these links. When European parliamentarians challenged its membership on the grounds of Israel's numerous breaches of UN resolutions and of the European Human Rights conventions, the European Commission responded to the effect that research trumped human rights.
Israel's science and technology are not just a source of prestige and technological innovation, but underpin its military strength. It was an Israeli engineer who developed the drones that the US now employs in quantity. Israeli home-produced chemical weapons minimally match those of Syria, and Israeli universities amply supply the Israel Defence Forces with the sociological, psychological and technological methods it employs to suppress Palestinian protests against the occupation.
The complicity of Israeli academia in Israeli state policy is incontrovertible. However, this is the first time that a scientist of Hawking's status has taken so public a stand – and the hyperventilating response of the Jerusalem conference organisers (it is worth noting that the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, where the conference Hawking refused to attend was to be held, is built on illegally annexed Palestinian land) has only added to its public impact.
Lastly it has been the very public debates over the rights and wrongs of an academic boycott that have drawn attention to the subservience of the Israeli universities to the state. Until the boycott began internal critics were few and far between, and some of the sharpest such as Ilan Pappé were forced out. However, this subservience is beginning to yield. When in 2012 the education minister attempted to close the politics department at Ben Gurion on "academic grounds", it was immediately recognised as a political attack on one of the very few departments where academics were willing to name Israel as an apartheid state. Prof Gilad Haran from the Weizmann Institute launched a petition stating "We sense that academic freedom in Israel's higher education system is in severe danger." The department remains open – one small victory.
Hilary Rose is a feminist sociologist of science and emerita professor at Bradford University. Steven Rose is emeritus professor of neuroscience at the Open University. They recently co-authored Genes, Cells and Brains: the Promethean promises of the new biology, and were among the co-founders of BRICUP, the British Committee for the Universities of Palestine
We are combining the comment threads of this article and another on the same subject, published earlier on Monday. Please leave any comments thereAlice BellSteven RoseHilary Rose
I respect Hawking for his brilliance and personal courage in overcoming tremendous obstacles, but his decision to support the boycott of Israel is contrary to the nature of academia
I followed the news of Professor Stephen Hawking's decision to decline an invitation as an honored speaker at the conference hosted by Israeli president Shimon Peres with great disappointment.
Let me first note that Prof Hawking is a personal hero of mine, someone who has overcome unbelievable obstacles. His perseverance and courage in rising to scientific feats is awe-inspiring. Indeed, my 11-year-old son recently chose Prof Hawking as a topic for a speech about "someone who has overcome obstacles" – and having won the school contest, found that a child from another school had chosen the same topic at the district championship. Prof Hawking ranked highly on the list with Helen Keller and others who have overcome great odds in the course of their lives.
My respect for Hawking as a scientist and person of enormous courage has made my dismay at his recent decision all the greater. In these very virtual pages I have previously opined on the folly of imposing an academic boycott on Israel. The UK, which sports many of the supporters of this policy – dubiously known as the Boycott Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) – also appears to be particularly fertile ground for anti-Semitism. To what degree British anti-Semitism, the anti-Israel BDS lobby and legitimate criticism of Israel's policies are related is an inordinately complex question, but it is clear that anti-Semitism plays a role among some BDS supporters.
The decision by Hawking to join the boycotters of Israel and Israeli academics is particularly ironic in light of the fact that the conference is being hosted in honor of the 90th birthday of Israel's president, Shimon Peres. More than any other Israeli leader, Peres has been committed to negotiations and comprehensive peace with the Palestinians, and he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts. At 90, despite his figurehead position, Peres remains steadfastly optimistic in his relentless goal of a fair two-state solution for Israel and the Palestinians.
It is interesting to point out that Peres, a cautious and world-renowned statesman, noted several years ago that "Britain has a Jewish problem", and that anti-Semitism is in part responsible for anti-Israel attitudes in Britain. In his interview with historian Benny Morris in the magazine Tablet, Peres said, "There is in England a saying that an anti-Semite is someone who hates the Jews more than is necessary."
There are many reasons why the boycott movement is hypocritical in nature. Legal experts often claim that the best way to convincingly lie is to put forth statements that are partly true; it is easier to lie by omission. This appears to be an essential part of the BDS propaganda strategy: taking real suffering and problems, and twisting the facts so that there is only a single party responsible – in this case, Israel. One such example is the series of one-sided condemnations of Israel that surface whenever Israel responds to missile attacks on civilian populations that are launched from the Gaza strip. Quite often, only the Israeli response to these is noted, with no mention of the rocket barrages raining down on Israeli towns – towns that are not in disputed territories. Unless, of course, one considers the existence of the entire country to be under dispute.
Pinning the blame on one side with a propaganda machine and a sleeve full of slogans is easy to do, but there is nothing simple or straightforward about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. From the very birth of the State of Israel in 1948, the mode by which the Palestinian refugee problem was created has been debated intensely by historians. There is little question that a combination of intimidation by Israelis and acquiescence of the refugees to calls by Palestinian and Arab leaders to flee (and return with the victorious Arab armies) were the major causes of Palestinian uprooting.
To what degree was each side responsible? The Palestinians and Arab countries initiated the war in 1948, vetoing by force the United Nations Partition Plan to divide the country between Israelis and Palestinians – in an attempt to prevent any Jewish state from arising. And at the time, Israelis doubtlessly showed little concern at the growing numbers of Palestinians who fled or were forced from their homes. And later, after the Six-Day War in 1967, the Israelis displayed poor judgment (that unfortunately continues to this day) in allowing her citizens to build settlements in these conquered territories.
Both sides have suffered from poor leadership over the years. Tragically, when Israel was led in the early 1990s by visionary leadership (Rabin and Peres), the Palestinians did not sport a leader who was capable of ending the conflict. Now, perhaps when there are/were more moderate and capable Palestinian leaders, they are met with a degree of intransigence from the Israeli side. But at the very least, this is a two-way street and the boycott of Israeli academics would almost be laughable if it weren't taken so seriously by a growing number of British academics.
Israel is a democratic country that supports equality, freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of religion and is committed to the rights of its minority citizens. But in any case, Israeli academics and scientists are neither government mouthpieces nor puppets. There have frequently been serious disagreements between the government and the universities in Israel, highlighting the independence of Israel's academic institutions. One such example is the Israeli government's decision last year to upgrade the status of a college built in Ariel – a town inside the West Bank – to that of a university. This was vehemently opposed by Israel's institutions of higher learning (and by perhaps 50% of the general population).
A second example is the unsuccessful attempt by the Israeli government to shut down Ben-Gurion University's Department of Politics and Government – which was attacked for its leftist views. The rallying opposition and petition by Israeli academics across the country who warned of the danger to academic freedom helped prevent the department's closure.
Academic boycotts are contrary to everything that academia stands for. Academic globalisation, with all of its potential pitfalls, is breaking down the borders. Scientists of different nationalities and religions work together, and become part of a continuum – a global community.
In order to generate conditions conducive to negotiations, people must speak and different views must be heard. For many years, those who wanted to avoid negotiations would refuse to talk to the other side – and this is true in all parts of the globe (including western Europe), not just the Middle East. The first impediment to peace and a fair solution to the Israeli-Palestinian dispute and refugee problem is the lack of a real dialogue.
For these reasons, if I were to have the honor to meet the great Professor Hawking, I would ask him to reconsider his position – to go to Israel, to meet Israelis and Palestinians, to speak his mind, to listen, be heard, convince and be convinced. After all, that is the essence of academia.Steve Caplan
Chris Hadfield marked his handover of command of the International Space Station with a remarkable performance of David Bowie's Space Oddity. Paul Owen runs through the tweeting astronaut's greatest hitsPaul Owen
If you're still reeling from the horsemeat scandal, hold on to your hats – there may well be arsenic in your beer and rat hair in your chocolate
Since the horsemeat scandal, more of us than ever before are holding a microscope up to what we eat. But no matter how many labels you read, you could still be consuming things you'd rather put on your "do not eat" list. From human hair in our bread to fish bladder in our beer, there are a lot of additives and food processing techniques that employ ingredients and chemicals few would classify as "appetising". It's a reminder, frankly, that non-processed foods are your best bet.Arsenic
Traces of arsenic in food are nothing new. The potent human carcinogen arsenic has been known to turn up in everything from rice to cereal to juice, and most recently German researchers found traces of it in beer, noting some levels found were more than twice than what is allowed in drinking water. Traces of arsenic can actually be found in both beers and wine that are clearer in colour. That's because they will have been filtered to get rid of plant matter and leftover yeast; most people don't want to drink a cloudy pinot grigio after all. To filter, beer and winemakers use diatomaceous earth, a natural product that contains iron and metals; hence the arsenic. Want less arsenic in your drink? Opt for drinks that are unfiltered.Human hair
Amino acids are your body's building blocks, and while they can be good for your health, not all amino acids are created equal. L-Cysteine – an amino acid used to prolong shelf-life in products such as commercial bread – can be found in duck and chicken feathers and cow horns, but most that's used in food comes from human hair. It has been reported that most of the hair used to make L-Cysteine comes from China, where it's gathered from barbershops and hair salons. You can avoid L-Cysteine by buying fresh bread from a local baker, as it is not an additive in flour. Steer clear of fast food places such as McDonald's, Dunkin' Donuts and Burger King too, who all use L-Cysteine as an additive.Antifreeze
You're not drinking straight antifreeze when you down a soft drink, but if your drink of choice has propylene glycol in it you're consuming a compound that's used for everything from antifreeze to cosmetics to pharmaceuticals to electronic cigarettes. Its properties are many, so it's no surprise that chemical companies such as DOW get excited about its potential in the corporate food world. It's also a minor ingredient in Corexit, the oil dispersant that was used after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. Fortunately, if you live in the European Union, propylene glycol is not cleared as a general-purpose food grade product or direct food additive.Beaver anal glands
If you're eating vanilla, strawberry or raspberry ice-cream, you may just be eating beaver's anal and urine secretions. Castoreum, which comes from the castor sacs of male and female beavers, is an FDA-approved food additive popular in ice-creams, and allowed to be called "natural flavouring", meaning you probably don't know that you are eating it.Fish bladder
A round of beers may sound like the perfect way to celebrate with vegetarian and vegan friends alike, but watch what beer you're drinking. Isinglass is a gelatin-like substance produced from the swim bladder of a fish. It's added to cask beers and Guinness, to help remove any "haziness" from the final product - removing any residue yeast or solid particles in the beer – which means you could end up with a trace of fish bladder in your pint glass.Coal tar
Many processed foods are known for including a long list of dyes, and many of those dyes are derived from coal tar. Yellow #5, also known as tartrazine, was linked to childhood hyperactivity in 2007 and since then any product in the EU that contains it must also come with a warning label. In the US, however, there is no such regulation. Concern over the food colouring recently prompted bloggers to petition Kraft to remove the dyes from their popular macaroni cheese product.Silicone breast implant filler
Chicken McNuggets from McDonald's aren't known for being the healthiest thing on the planet, but they're not really known for being "chicken" either. The nuggets are actually only about 50% actual chicken; the rest comprises synthetic ingredients, including dimethylpolysiloxane, a chemical used in silicone that can be found in Silly Putty as well as breast implant filler.Boiled beetle shells
Natural Red #4 may sound harmless, but the food colouring – also known as carmine – is made by boiling female cochineal insect shells in ammonia or a sodium carbonate solution. It takes about 70,000 of the bugs to produce one pound of dye. Coffee giant Starbucks got slammed in 2012 for using the additive in their frappuccinos and eventually binned it, but it's a commonly employed ingredient in many foods. The European Food Standards Authority recently included it as an additive to research more. But while some may feel queasy at the thought of consuming bugs, the synthetic alternatives to this natural dye, such as Red #2 and Red #40, are made from petroleum products. Pick your poison.Rodent hair
Producing food products in an industrial facility is nothing like cooking at home, and certainly a big warehouse space is sure to be home to a few rodents here and there. Maybe that's why the US FDA allows for certain amounts of rodent hair in various products, something they call an "unavoidable defects": one rodent hair for every 100g chocolate, 22 rodent hairs for every 100g cinnamon and five rodent hairs for every 18oz jar of peanut butter. Yum.Borax
Banned in the US and Canada as a food additive but allowed in the EU, borax is also known for making its way into fire-retardant, anti-fungal compounds and enamel. E285, as it's known in the food world, is used to control acidity in products as well as assist in preservation. You'll find it in some caviars – including those imported to the US – as well as various Asian noodle and rice dishes as it adds a firm, rubbery texture to foods.
So. Any more for any more?
A testy tweet from Mark Ravenhill is the latest manifestation of the British tendency to see Americanisms where there are none
The playwright Mark Ravenhill recently tweeted irritably: "Dear Guardian sub please don't allow 'passing'. Here in Europe we 'die'. Keep the horrible euphemism over the Atlantic."
Perhaps a vigorous distaste for euphemisms for dying stems from the hope of expressing a gimlet-eyed courage in the face of mortality. Though no one seems to mind too much about the jocular "pop one's clogs" (either from the sense of "pop" meaning "pawn", or an elaboration of "to pop off", also meaning to croak), or "kick the bucket" (the "bucket" being the wooden frame on which a pig to be slaughtered was hung). Arguably, euphemisms for snuffing it are only really offensive when they are used by the people whose fault the fatality is: for instance, "collateral damage".
But Ravenhill's other complaint about "passing" is that it is an Americanism, one that should be kept "over the Atlantic" by the verbal equivalent of a ballistic-missile shield, so as to preserve the saintly purity of our island tongue. The trouble with this is that it's not actually an Americanism. In Chaucer's Squire's Tale, the falcon says to the princess: "Myn harm I wol confessen er I pace", meaning before it dies. In Shakespeare's Henry VI Part 2, Salisbury says of the dying Cardinal: "Disturbe him not, let him passe peaceably." In other words, the origin of this use of "passing" is firmly on this side of the Atlantic. It's as English as the word "soccer" – at first spelled "socca'" or "socker", as an abbreviation of association football.
A lot of other supposed Americanisms aren't Americanisms either. It's sometimes thought that "transportation" instead of the good old "transport" is an example of that annoying US habit of bolting on needless extra syllables to perfectly good words, but "transportation" is used in British English from 1540. "Gotten" as the past tense of "got"? English from 1380. "Oftentimes"? It's in the King James Bible.
It seems odd that Brits affect to despise Americanisms while so many of us happily binge-watch Mad Men and other fine transatlantic media imports, and even if they're not actually Americanisms in the first place. Perhaps it's a grumpy vestige of cultural imperialism, though the glory of English is that it is an omnivorous absorber of words from other tongues – the linguistic equivalent of the Borg in Star Trek. Even so, I'm obscurely disappointed to have found out while writing this that one of my own pet hates, "obligate" for "oblige", isn't an Americanism either. It dates from 1533. And so another linguistic prejudice passes.Steven Poole
Plant and animal species could see dramatic losses as habitats become unsuitable and ecosystems collapse
One-third of common land animals could see dramatic losses this century because of climate change, scientists predict.
More than half of plants could be hit the same way as habitats become unsuitable for numerous species.
The collapse of ecosystems would have major economic impacts on agriculture, air quality, clean water access, and tourism.
Global temperatures are set to rise 4C above preindustrial levels by 2100 if nothing is done to stem greenhouse gas emissions.
This could have a hugely destructive effect on thousands of common as well as rare and endangered species around the world, according to the researchers.
An estimated 57% of plants and 34% of animals were likely to lose half or more of their habitat range.
But the damage would be greatly reduced if emissions were scaled down in time, the study shows. Losses are reduced by 60% if global warming is cut to 2% above preindustrial levels, with emissions peaking in 2016 and then being reduced by 5% a year. If emissions peak in 2030, losses are reduced by 40%.
Lead scientist Dr Rachel Warren, from the University of East Anglia's school of environmental science, said: "While there has been much research on the effect of climate change on rare and endangered species, little has been known about how an increase in global temperature will affect more common species.
"This broader issue of potential range loss in widespread species is a serious concern as even small declines in these species can significantly disrupt ecosystems.
"Our research predicts that climate change will greatly reduce the diversity of even very common species found in most parts of the world. This loss of global-scale biodiversity would significantly impoverish the biosphere and the ecosystem services it provides."
The findings, published in the journal Nature Climate Change, are based on information from a biodiversity database listing 48,786 animal and plant species and computer-run climate simulations.
Reptiles and amphibians were especially sensitive to changes in the environments where they lived, the study showed.
The largest numbers of plants and animals were likely to be lost from sub-Saharan Africa, Central America, Amazonia and Australia. Major losses of plant species were also predicted for North Africa, Central Asia and south-eastern Europe.
A small proportion of species – 4% of animals and no plants – were expected to benefit from climate change by increasing their habitat ranges by more than 50%.
Human populations depend on natural ecosystems in a number of ways, explained Warren. For instance, wetland vegetation helped to filter and clean fresh water.
Air quality was also affected by chemicals released and extracted by living systems, while tree and plant cover prevented soil erosion and limited flood damage.
"It's important because the erosion of species richness among widespread and common species means that the functions ecosystems provide for humans across the whole global land surface will be very significantly reduced," said Warren. "These are important services such as air and water purification, soil stabilisation and nutrient recycling that we take for granted."
Commander Chris Hadfield performs a reworking of the David Bowie classic Space Oddity on his last day in charge of the International Space Station
Extracting a rare dinosaur from a cliff in a working mine is no easy task, but Dr Donald Henderson explains why the effort has been worth it
Time for another guest post on the Lost Worlds, this time from curator of dinosaurs at the Royal Tyrrell Museum, Donald Henderson. The fossil described below is a spectacular find and I have been able to persuade Don to write a little about its discover, excavation and preparation.
On Monday, March 21, 2011 the Royal Tyrrell Museum of Palaeontology in Drumheller, Alberta received word that the remains of either a plesiosaur or an ichthyosaur had been discovered in the Milllennium Mine operated by the petroleum company Suncor Inc. This mine is located about 30 km north of the town of Fort McMurray (population ~50,000) in northeastern Alberta (about 800km north of Drumheller), and is one of the places where bitumen rich sand is mined and refined into various petroleum products.
On Wednesday, March 23, 2011 myself and technician Darren Tanke flew up to Fort McMurray expecting to see a marine reptile of the sort found occasionally in the region over the past 20 years. After a few minutes of puzzling we realized it was something totally unexpected – a perfectly three-dimensionally preserved, uncrushed, armoured dinosaur complete with all the armour in place, original scales perfectly aligned with the armour, all the fingers and toes (very rare), and probable stomach contents. Unfortunately, half the fossil was smashed by the giant excavator bucket into many tens of large pieces, and the other half was embedded 8m up a 12m high cliff. A week later Darren Tanke and I returned to the mine to oversee the collection of the specimen.
The first three days were spent taking mine safety training. The Suncor people are fanatical about worker safety, and no one is allowed on site without having passed safety training. The mine is a dangerous place with some of the biggest lorries and excavating machines in the world roaming around. These metal monsters get priority in all situations. One of the big lorries could trundle over a small car and only notice a bit of a bump. There are also high-tension cables running across the mine carrying 1000s of volts to power the big shovels. The mine also runs 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.
The presence of a rare dinosaur in the mine was an interesting diversion, but in the way of production. However, as part of Suncor's mining permit issued by the province of Alberta, any palaeontological resources encountered have to be protected from any further harm, and the Tyrrell Museum notified. Suncor had received international bad press the previous year when a variety of waterfowl had perished after settling down on some of the Suncor settling ponds. The unexpected discovery of an dinosaur, and one better preserved than anything found previously in the province, was a god-send for the image of the company. Word came from high up in Suncor that no expense was to be spared in assisting the Tyrrell Museum in getting the specimen safely out of the ground. If Tyrrell Museum staff had found this specimen in a remote valley in the mountains they would have maybe collected some of the loose bits at the base of the cliff, but would have decided to leave it in the cliff.
Excavating into a cliff with many metres of rock above in the middle-of-nowhere is dangerous and expensive. There is also the worry that the specimen may not be complete and a lot of work may be for nought. In the mine, however, they think nothing of shifting many tonnes of rock in a few minutes. Additionally, all the mine staff from every level and department were tripping over themselves offering to help get the specimen out. The extraction process took 14 days and involved a variety of equipment ranging from large trackhoes, giant bull-dozers, hydrovac machines, and forklifts to electric jackhammers, pick-axes, shovels and brooms. Many tens of people were involved, and many university students on internships with Suncor were also "volunteered" to assist at various stages. Additionally, there was a constant stream of visitors from all over the mine every day. The work days were long as the mine operates on a 12 hour cycle. We would arrive at the mine at 7am and leave between 7 and 9pm every day with no days off at all as the pressure to get the specimen out of the way was intense.
The other main tar-sand mine, north of Fort McMurray, is operated by Syncrude Canada Ltd. Over the past 20 years their equipment operators have uncovered the remains of several plesiosaurs and ichthyosaurs – all of them new species such as Athabascasaurus bitumineus (an ichthyosaur) or Nichollsaura borealis (a plesiosaur). The rocks producing the fossils were originally deposited as sands and muds on the bottom of a shallow inland sea between 110 and 114 million years ago in a time period formally known as the Early Cretaceous. Based on the known geology and ancient geography of northwestern Canada, the nearest shoreline is estimated to have been about 200km to the west in what is now British Columbia. Until 2011, the Suncor Millennium mine had never produced any fossils of backboned animals of any sort. The discovery of a dinosaur in the mine was totally unexpected as all dinosaurs are strictly land-living animals. The type of dinosaur is one of the plant-eating, armoured dinosaurs known as ankylosaurs. The least likely type of dinosaur to venture into water would have been a squat, heavily built and armoured, slow-moving anklyosaur.
The current thinking is that the Suncor animal was washed out to sea in a flood as a floating carcass and drifted belly-up for several days before losing buoyancy and sinking. There are many dinosaur trackways exposed in the foothills of northeastern British Columbia, and many of them are interpreted to have been made by armoured dinosaurs. There is also ample evidence that large rivers were flowing out of the rising mountains carrying sands and muds eastwards into the inland sea. Viewing the specimen in the cliff face in the mine, it can be seen that the Suncor ankylosaur came to rest on the seabed on its back with its limbs sticking up. One of the reasons for the exceptional preservation is that the carcass came to rest in fine mud and silt that appears to have quickly covered the animal. The "impact crater" formed when carcass hit the seabed could been seen as deflected and warped layers in the sediments immediately below the specimen.
Since arriving at the Museum in April of 2011, the specimen has been worked on by one person – Mr. Mark Mitchell. He is probably our best preparator, and the most patient person in the world. He has spent many hundreds of hours over the past two years carefully removing the extremely hard rock that encases the fossil. His job is made doubly difficult because the fossil bone is extremely soft. Mark describes it as "compressed talcum powder". The reason that the specimen is so well preserved with traces of skin and other soft tissues is that minerals began to grow in the sediment surrounding the specimen soon after it hit the seabed. This rapid mineral growth shielded the specimen from further damage by scavengers and bacterial decay, and resisted compaction while being deeply buried for over 100 million years. The downside is that the rapid sealing of the carcass prevented minerals from permeating the bone and making them solid and easy to prepare. We now have a large portion of the left shoulder and back exposed, a very nice section of right hand side of the neck from shoulder area to the back of the skull, and we now have the top of the skull exposed. As preparation has progressed we now see that we have a particular kind of ankylosaur known as a nodosaur. This type of armoured dinosaur is characterized by large spines on the neck and shoulders, but no tail club. They also have a relatively smooth skull with a narrow muzzle. This is in contrast to the more commonly known ankylosaurs that have broad muzzles and spiky heads. The narrow muzzle of the nodosaur suggests a more careful selection of foodstuffs, instead of just inhaling any and all vegetation.
It is significant that no other vertebrate fossils have been found in the Suncor Milllennium mine, while three plesiosaurs have come from the Syncrude mine over the past two years. Everybody at Suncor now knows what to look for, yet nothing has been seen. The Milllennium mine is a large excavation that represents the removal of 1.2 billion cubic metres of rock. The ankylosaur fossil would occupy roughly 1 cubic metre when squished together. This specimen really does represent a one-in-a-billion occurrence.Dr Dave Hone
World Health Organisation expert plays down fears of pandemic, saying prolonged contact is needed to transmit disease
A World Health Organisation (WHO) official has said it seems likely that a new coronavirus that has killed at least 18 people in the Middle East and Europe can be passed between humans, but only after prolonged contact.
A virus from the same family triggered the outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome (Sars) that swept the world after emerging in Asia and killed 775 people in 2003.
French authorities announced on Sunday that a second man had been diagnosed with the disease after sharing a hospital room with France's only other sufferer.
The WHO's assistant director general, Keiji Fukuda, told reporters in Saudi Arabia, the site of the largest cluster of infections, that there was no evidence so far the virus was able to sustain "generalised transmission in communities" – a scenario that would raise the spectre of a pandemic.
But he said the main concern was that the clusters seen in several countries "increasingly support the hypothesis that when there is close contact, this novel coronavirus can transmit from person to person".
Countries need to increase levels of awareness, he said.
A public health expert who declined to be identified said close contact meant being in a small, enclosed space with an infected person for a prolonged period.
The virus emerged in the Gulf last year but cases have also been recorded in Britain and France among people who had recently been in the Middle East. A total of 34 cases worldwide have been confirmed by blood tests so far.
The history of the aquatic ape may tell us more about the fraught relationship between feminism and science than it does about the evolution of humanity. A guest post by Erika Lorraine Milam
I first learned of Elaine Morgan and the aquatic ape theory from a botanist. He had seen a television special on the theory and briefly followed up with a search of the scientific literature, but found very little. He asked me (as I was trained in zoology before becoming a historian of science) whether or not the idea of a watery human past had any merit. I was sceptical. That was the spring of 2007. For several years, I didn't think seriously about aquatic apes. Then, when researching theories of human evolution and male aggression in the 1960s, Morgan's name popped up, albeit in a rather different context.
Morgan's Descent of Woman, published in 1972, was one of the first publications calling attention to the rampant sexism of the so-called "savannah theory" common at the time, and thus continues to occupy a prominent place in the gender and science literature. You know the theory – where humans became human by learning to hunt. Our ancestors walked upright in order to carry weapons, spoke to facilitate cooperation over long distances, lost most of their body hair to help cool down during the hot days of the Pleistocene, and ultimately broke into family units where the women stayed at home gathering roots and protecting the young, while the strapping, competitive men brought back the protein necessary to sustain their new lifestyles. Good times.
Popular science writer Robert Ardrey memorably epitomised the genre with his bestselling volumes African Genesis and Territorial Imperative. Published around the same time, On Aggression, by future Nobel laureate Konrad Lorenz, and The Naked Ape, by fellow ethologist Desmond Morris, added fuel to the fire. All triangulated their theories of humanity from insights derived from animal behaviour and paleoanthropology. Morgan imagined a male reader of these volumes derived "no end of a kick out of thinking that all that power and passion and brutal virility is seething within him, just below the skin, only barely held in leash by the conscious control of his intellect".
Playfully appropriating her title from Charles Darwin's Descent of Man, she skewered these books as "Tarzanist" tales that failed to incorporate the perspective of women. Where, she wondered, were the stories that began, "When the first ancestor of the human race descended from the trees, she had not yet developed the mighty brain that was to distinguish her so sharply from all the other species … "? Against the background of these men, reviewers dubbed Descent of Woman "women's lib prehistory".
Ironically, it was while reading The Naked Ape that Morgan first came across the idea of an aquatic phase in human history. She contacted Morris and learned about the theory's architect – Sir Alister Hardy, then the Linacre Professor of Zoology at Oxford University. She wrote to Hardy for permission to develop a popular science book in which she expanded his ideas as an alternative to the savannah theory. Hardy had no objections. At the time, he still planned to publish his own book on the topic and after consulting with his editor believed that a more popular account of the aquatic ape could only help his later sales. (His book never materialised, if you were wondering.)
Morgan's chief point in Descent of Woman was that too often biologists confused the evolution of "man" (the species) with men (as individuals). Beyond that, she hoped to advance Hardy's suggestion that life at the water's edge may have facilitated the origins of humanity. She insisted that the savannah hypothesis failed because it couldn't account for the survival of females. Abandoned by the hunters out tracking game, fending for herself and her children, a female alone on the plains would inevitably become dinner herself. But by retreating to the relative safety of water, Morgan's Eve might instead discover shelter and sustenance. By cracking open shellfish with rocks, she would begin to use tools; by wading into the water for safety (and carrying her child in her arms), she would naturally walk upright; with her body and scent glands covered, she would speak to be understood.
Reviewers of Descent of Woman typically lauded her feminist critique of the Tarzanists but lamented Morgan's advocacy of what became known as the "aquatic ape" theory. Paleoanthropologist Adrienne Zihlman, for example, worried that after reading the book, other scientists might think this was the best feminist anthropology had to offer.
When presented with such mixed reviews, Morgan chose science over politics. In rewriting her material for The Aquatic Ape (1982), she stripped her prose of wit and added diagrams and new data, effectively refashioning the text into a more canonical form of scientific publication. In this new packaging, her marine musings began to receive more attention. Of course, not all attention is good attention. As last week's excitement on Twitter and in these pages demonstrated, the aquatic ape theory is far from acceptable mainstream science. Yet even these debates – framed in terms of the theory's plausibility – are a sign of Morgan's success in transforming the reception of her ideas. But at what cost?
Morgan believed that in order for her theories to receive a scientific hearing, they had to be separated from her lambasting of the savannah theory. Historians are often fascinated by how scientists strive to cleanly differentiate between legitimate scientific inquiry, on the one hand, and "pseudo", "pathological", or just plain "bad" science, on the other. That Morgan felt she had to choose between science and feminism highlights how, in addition to such questions of hard demarcation, her critics used the label "feminist" science as a means of what I have come to call "soft demarcation". By describing her original book as "women's lib prehistory", they evaded the force of her critique and simultaneously used the aquatic ape (by means of guilty association) to question whether feminism could play any valid role in science.
If the idea of a human watery past does have merit, then, it may be in the form of a cautionary tale. By uncoupling her feminism from her science, Morgan gained a wider audience but lost her theory's scholarly heft. Were Morgan first publishing today, I hope she wouldn't have to choose.
Erika Lorraine Milam is an associate professor at the history department of Princeton University. She is the author of Looking for a Few Good Males: Female Choice in Evolutionary Biology and can be found on Twitter @elmilamErika Lorraine Milam
On this edition of the show Alok Jha meets Brian Clegg to discuss his latest book Dice World: Science and Life in a Random Universe. Brian is a celebrated science author and communicator and in his latest book he tackles the conflict between the very human desire to see pattern and design everywhere and the fundamental randomness of the universe.
Also on the podcast, news broke this week of a potentially life-changing breakthrough in the treatment of what is known as modic-related lower back pain and the role of a relatively common bacterial infection. The scientist who battled for more then 12 years to establish the evidence and test a cure, Hanne Albert, talks to Guardian science correspondent Ian Sample about her momentous medical discovery.
Hanne recommends a site where people can cross-check their symptoms to see if they suffer from modic-related back pain.
Ian and Alok also look at some of this week's space-related news including the nature of the water crystals found on the moon and recent Nasa announcements on its Mars exploration strategy.
We're always here when you need us. Listen back through our archive.Ian SampleAlok JhaJason Phipps
Filmed on the International Space Station with an acoustic guitar, Canadian astronaut marks end of stay in space with out of this world finale
He's been delighting space enthusiasts for months with his tweets from the International Space Station, but to make his farewell, Commander Chris Hadfield went a whole giant leap better.
On Sunday night, he posted a cover version of David Bowie's Space Oddity, recorded 230 miles above the earth. The video, complete with him strumming an acoustic guitar on the space station, was his parting act and came after a request on Reddit. He returns to earth on Monday.
In a tweet, Hadfield wrote:
With deference to the genius of David Bowie, here's Space Oddity, recorded on Station. A last glimpse of the World. youtube.com/watch?v=KaOC9d…
— Chris Hadfield (@Cmdr_Hadfield) May 12, 2013
The Canadian astronaut has become a global superstar using his time in space to raise awareness and reignite enthusiasm for space travel, posting many pictures and amassing more than 770,000 followers on Twitter.Jonathan Haynes