Andrew George, professor of Babylonian at the School of Oriental and African Studies, London, answers six-year-old Hester's question
The simple answer is that no one knows. People used to think God wrote the Bible, and because the first part of the Bible is in Hebrew, that must have been the first language. Few people think that now.
Our knowledge of language only goes back to the first writing. At the moment, archaeologists think the earliest writing systems were developed more or less at the same time, about 5,000 years ago, by people in the countries that are now Iraq and Egypt. The languages of this oldest writing were Sumerian (probably) and ancient Egyptian.
But humans developed language maybe 100,000 years before anything was written down. Because many languages have changed in regular and predictable ways, some scientists try to learn about prehistoric languages by working backwards. It's more than guesswork, but without finding a caveman, their results are hard to prove.
• If you're 10 or under, and have a question that needs answering, email email@example.com, and we'll find an expert to look into it for you.Guardian readers
Recent extreme weather in the UK, US and Asia is consistent with climate change, says the chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate ChangeJohn VidalPhil MaynardLeah Green
Siberian tiger, cheetah cubs and the first magnolia and wild flowers of the spring are among the pick of this week’s images from the natural world
Female scientists are high on political and industrial agendas, but it is worrying how this representation is being framed
Earlier this week, the Royal Society ran another of its women in science Wikipedia edit-a-thons. As a result, we now have new or improved entries on New Zealand immunologist Barbara Farnsworth Heslop, 18th-century German astronomer Marie Meurdrac, the doctor, lawyer and suffragette Letitia Fairfield and Conservative politician and aeronautical engineer Baroness Platt.
Key figures such as Uta Frith, Susan Solomon, Nancy Rothwell, Lorna Casselton, Gertrude B Elion, Heather Ann Cubie, Bridget Ogilvie and Elizabeth Fulhame are still on a list of entries to be expanded, but simply highlighting this is an important step. You might not recognise these names, but that's the point: part of the knotty problem of women in science is simply that we don't hear about them.
2014 looks, potentially, to be a good year for women in science, engineering and medicine. The new presidents of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, the Royal Academy of Engineering and Imperial College are all female. We may have to wait for a female Doctor Who, but the chief scientific adviser to the European commission is a woman, as is the Met Office's chief scientist, the director of the Science Media Centre and England's chief medical officer.
Globally, however, Unesco data shows that women's representation in science remains low. It varies by country, sector and field (Myanmar's figure is particularly interesting) but wherever you look it is easy to spot examples of what is often dubbed the "leaky pipe": women who started off in science but who drop out. The various demands of the job – including travel, short-term contracts and long hours as well as the under-discussed issue of sexual harassment and more everyday forms of sexism – all contribute to women leaving the profession. It is getting easier to be a women in science, but it is still not easy.
Women's participation in science is currently flying high on the political and industrial agendas. Last month, the science and technology select committee published a report on women in scientific careers, concluding that universities must do more to help fix that leaky pipe. The Stem acronym – science, technology, engineering and mathematics – has even given birth to the word Stemism, though its use seems largely confined to graduate recruitment events. BAE Systems are one of many engineering companies taking public action on a lack of diversity in their workforce.
It is, though, worth asking questions about the way such activity is currently being framed. When the chairman of Shell tells the Daily Telegraph, "If you want more engineers, then not accessing half the population feels like a really bad idea", it seems like women are simply another resource to be tapped. When BP use its sponsorship of International Women's Day to invite us to consider their "feminine side" through profiles of female scientists and engineers, I worry it's simply a branding exercise designed to balance images of an oil company as environmentally reckless, uncaring or anti-science. It feels more about using women than listening to them.
Further, as Aditya Chakrabortty highlighted this week, universities are becoming increasingly unequal places. With this in mind, it is worth raising a voice of caution to those participating in edit-a-thons and other work celebrating women: supplementing lists of scientific heroes with a few heroines is not enough; we must remember the contribution of the broader fabric of research workers. As a workshop at Kingston University next month highlights, women's participation in science comes in many guises, frequently relegated to junior and support roles, often going unnoticed as a result. Researchers hope to use oral history to lift previously unnoticed women in science out of the archives. Perhaps it will help to unearth material for future Wikipedia edits.
Which isn't to suggest the high-ranking female scientists and engineers should be dismissed. As women gain power in such spaces it is important we pay attention to them, just as we should the males of the species. Imperial's new president is on the board of Chevron, for example; a point in any Wikipedia entry about her that supporters of the college's burgeoning Fossil Free campaign might be especially interested by.Alice Bell
IPCC chair warns that events such as the winter's storms in Britain are increasing in intensity and frequency
The heaviest rainfall in 200 years, floods and gales experienced in Britain this winter are a foretaste of what is certain to occur in a warming world, the head of the UN's climate science panel has told the Guardian.
"Each of the last three decades has been warmer than the last. Extreme events are on the increase. Even if what we have just had [this winter] was not caused by anthropogenic climate change, events of this nature are increasing both in intensity and frequency," said Rajendra Pachauri, chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
"Two types of extreme events are going to occur more frequently – extreme precipitation and heatwaves. It is important for societies to deal with climate change if we want to avoid the impacts."
Pachauri was speaking ahead of the publication next month of a major global assessment of the impact of climate change on the world's food supplies, human health, cities and rural areas. Leaked copies seen by the Guardian warn of crop yields falling 2% a decade even as the demand from rapidly growing population increases by 14% per decade. It also warns of extreme heat stress in cities, increased precipitation and widespread flooding.
"Due to sea level rise throughout the century and beyond, coastal and low-lying areas will increasingly experience adverse impacts such as coastal erosion and flooding. Without adaptation, hundreds of millions of people will be affected by coastal flooding and will be displaced due to land loss," says the draft copy of the report, which has been prepared by the IPCC with the input of several thousand scientists.
Negotiators from 193 countries resume the UN's long-running climate talks in Bonn on Monday. UN climate chief Christiana Figueres, told the Guardian this week that the "very strange" weather experienced across the world recently was a sign that we are already experiencing climate change.
"If you take them individually you can say maybe it's a fluke. The problem is it's not a fluke and you can't take them individually," she said. "What it's doing is giving us a pattern of abnormality that's becoming the norm. These very strange extreme weather events are going to continue in their frequency and their severity … It's not that climate change is going to be here in the future, we are experiencing climate change."
"Climate change is now built into the system," said Pachauri. "We can say that there will be serious impacts on food production in every region of the world with climate change. The Mediterranean will have severe problems with water scarcity which will impact on food. Some parts of Africa could have declines of 50% [in crop yields] as soon as 2020. We must keep in mind the fact that population is going up very rapidly."
He added that the world did not have much time. "There is a very short window of opportunity to cut emissions enough to hold temperatures to an increase of 2C. Six years ago we said that emissions would have to peak by 2015 if we wanted to hold them to 2C. The cost rises the later you do it. Countries have to decide what would be the implications of inaction."
Pachauri's warnings came as a new paper in the journal Science suggests that even a 1C rise in temperatures could lead to an extra three million malaria cases in children under 15 years of age per year. The disease, which infects more than 200 million people per year and kills around 600,000, is spread by mosquitoes and will start to affect higher elevations as temperatures rise.John Vidal
Images released by Nasa show an asteroid of around 600m in diameter breaking into pieces over a period of several months
Quarrels over science and policy are undermining the fight against climate change
Efforts to tackle climate change must urgently focus on implementing low carbon technologies such as wind and solar power rather than discussions of the science and quarrels over policy, the former United Nations climate chief has said.
Yvo de Boer headed the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change from 2006 to 2010, and was the chief mover behind the Copenhagen climate summit in 2009. Since then, he has acted as global chairman for climate change and sustainability services at the consultancy KPMG, but he is now leaving to take up a new post as director-general of the Global Green Growth Institute.
De Boer told the Guardian: "It's about implementation now. We need to focus on helping countries to formulate programmes they can take to the bank, working with countries to tap into finance mechanisms that are out there [for their low-carbon projects]."
He said key sources of finance were still largely untapped, including pension funds, which he said had a clear interest in long-term investments that would help to head off the worst dangers of climate change. The UN-sponsored Green Climate Fund would also provide a strong source of finance, de Boer predicted, though the slow progress on setting up the fund and disbursing cash has frustrated many international green campaigners.
But de Boer said that "non-state actors" from the private sector would also play a key role in the future, by cutting their own greenhouse gas emissions and helping others to do the same. "Private sector organisations have a lot of knowledge in this area, and they are focused on delivery," he said.
Based in Seoul and partly funded by the South Korean government, the Global Green Growth Institute has operations in 32 countries, conducting macro-economic assessments of how countries can move to a greener economy, and fianncing projects that forward these aims. De Boer will serve a four-year term starting on April 15.
The UN negotiations, which de Boer led as executive secretary of the UNFCCC, are now approaching a critical phase. Next Monday, work will begin among all the world's governments on drafting a text for a potential new agreement on the climate, to take effect from 2020. The new treaty or legally binding pact – the exact form has yet to be decided – and which is being championed by de Boer's successor, Christiana Figueres, would be the first to bind both developed and developing countries to a long-term low-carbon future. But there is still little agreement on how the accord should take shape, and countries must come up with plans for drastic emissions cuts before a crunch meeting in Paris late next year.
De Boer said that the talks were vital but that there should also be an emphasis on making a difference through practical projects to reduce emissions. "At a time when so much of the international focus seems to be on the negotiations, I look forward to working with countries on delivering [a low-carbon future] that is not just in national interests but in the global interest."
The GGGI has about 100 staff, with offices in Copenhagen, London and Dubai as well as Seoul.
De Boer said: "The GGGI's work can add value to creating prosperity at a time when humans are experiencing challenges such as climate change, energy, water, population growth, and an increase in urbanisation. Multiple challenges faced by humanity can only be effectively addressed through the shift toward economic growth in a more sustainable manner."
Henry Nicholls: We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves is a wonderful novel. I want to tell you about it. But I can’tHenry Nicholls
It's an ugly word for an ugly state of affairs. Surely English can do better. How about 'descalate'?
Barack Obama, when asked about the situation in Ukraine this week, said: "We may be able to de-escalate it." A number of news organisations reporting the president's statement, among them USA Today and the Washington Examiner, chose to put quotation marks around de-escalate. But Obama didn't, as far as I'm aware, make a bunny-ears sign when he said it. Why the squeamishness?
The word, after all, celebrates its 50th anniversary this year, and has also crossed the lips of John Kerry and Ban Ki-Moon. It's been co-opted by the medical world, so that researchers now talk of "the de-escalation of nosocomial infections". It's fairly clear what it's getting at: situations, tensions and crises have a tendency to escalate; de-escalation simply describes the reverse process. And yet it still hasn't gained widespread acceptance.
To understand why, let's take a look at the word's short but colourful history. At the Exposition Universelle in Paris in 1900, the winner of the first prize was a wooden moving staircase designed by the American inventor Charles Seeberger. Seeberger called his brainchild an "Escalator", combining, he explained, the Latin word for steps or ladder (scala) with the word elevator. (The capital letter was, at first, a legal requirement: Seeberger trademarked the word. However, in 1950 the US Patent Office ruled that it had become a common descriptive term for moving stairways and no longer required a big E.)
These mechanical marvels (as refined and mass-produced by the lift manufacturing company Otis) were a hit with the public, and by 1922 the word escalate, meaning "to climb or reach by means of an escalator", had entered the language.
It wasn't long before the word took on a secondary, figurative use. The first use in print of escalate in the sense of "to increase or develop in stages" – specifically, "to develop from conventional warfare into nuclear warfare" – occurred in the (then Manchester) Guardian in 1959. It was only another five years before de-escalate, in the sense in which Obama used it, was born. The neologism was not without precedent: other de- words coined in the 20th century include decertify (1918), decaffeinate (1927), de-emphasise (1938), debrief (1942) and deregulate (1964). Most of these have been happily adopted throughout the English-speaking world. Why not de-escalate?
One problem may be inconsistency. Escalate, in its figurative sense, is most often used intransitively, ie without an object: "The situation in Gaza is escalating." De-escalate, meanwhile, is generally a transitive verb: "The United States of America would prefer to see this de-escalated." It's true that escalate is sometimes used transitively (like the widely detested business use of grow, as in "how to grow your customer base"), and de-escalate sometimes intransitively, but as a rule, the agents are different: situations escalate, people de-escalate situations.
Similarly, while escalate has overtones of incrementality – note: "to increase or develop in stages" - de-escalation has no such limitations. Frankly, the quicker something de-escalates, the better. The words aren't true opposites.
Secondly, there's a feeling that there must be a better word out there. When you try to bring an object to a halt, are you de-accelerating it? If someone bullies you, are you, as a consequence, de-happified? The fact that de-escalate is for the most part used only by politicians and academics, who are rarely feted for the transparency of their language, suggests the majority of us still don't trust it. Throw in that hideous hyphen, and you have one of the clunkiest coinages of the modern era, giving staycation, webinar and even vlog a run for their money.
Personally, I think the rich and mighty English language – a language that has produced such succulent offerings as lullaby, truculent, slugabed, spatchcock and blatherskite – can do better than a word that sounds like a mop sliding listlessly across a bathroom floor into a bucket.
But as one must in matters linguistic, I yield to mob rule. What do you think? Is de-escalate a perfectly upstanding English word? Is there another existing word that we should use instead (calm down, reduce, defuse, normalise)? Or do you have any suggestions for an entirely new word to take its place? A "re-" word, rather than a "de-" word, perhaps, because it's about returning to a habitual state of affairs? Would "descalate", modelled on decelerate, be more acceptable? Or what about ... "to kerrymander"? Or "to blair"?
Andy Bodle is a journalist and scriptwriter who blogs at www.womanology.co.uk.Andy Bodle
For many, the side-effects of antipsychotics are worse than the symptoms they're meant to treat. No wonder some people with schizophrenia refuse to take them
Imagine that, after feeling unwell for a while, you visit your GP. "Ah," says the doctor decisively, "what you need is medication X. It's often pretty effective, though there can be side-effects. You may gain weight. Or feel drowsy. And you may develop tremors reminiscent of Parkinson's disease." Warily, you glance at the prescription on the doctor's desk, but she hasn't finished. "Some patients find that sex becomes a problem. Diabetes and heart problems are a risk. And in the long term the drug may actually shrink your brain … "
This scenario may sound far-fetched, but it is precisely what faces people diagnosed with schizophrenia. Since the 1950s, the illness has generally been treated using antipsychotic drugs – which, as with so many medications, were discovered by chance. A French surgeon investigating treatments for surgical shock found that one of the drugs he tried – the antihistamine chlorpromazine – produced powerful psychological effects. This prompted the psychiatrist Pierre Deniker to give the drug to some of his most troubled patients. Their symptoms improved dramatically, and a major breakthrough in the treatment of psychosis seemed to have arrived.
Many other antipsychotic drugs have followed in chlorpromazine's wake and today these medications comprise 10% of total NHS psychiatric prescriptions. They are costly items: the NHS spends more on these medications than it does for any other psychiatric drug, including antidepressants. Globally, around $14.5bn is estimated to be spent on antipsychotics each year.
Since the 1950s the strategy of all too many NHS mental health teams has been a simple one. Assuming that psychosis is primarily a biological brain problem, clinicians prescribe an antipsychotic medication and everyone does their level best to get the patient to take it, often for long periods. There can be little doubt that these drugs make a positive difference, reducing delusions and hallucinations and making relapse less likely – provided, that is, the patient takes their medication.
Unfortunately, dropout rates are high. This is partly because individuals sometimes don't accept that they are ill. But a major reason is the side-effects. These vary from drug to drug, but they're common and for many people are worse than the symptoms they are designed to treat.
In addition, antipsychotics don't work for everyone. It is estimated that six months after first being prescribed them, as many as 50% of patients are either taking the drugs haphazardly or not at all.
The conventional treatment for this most severe of psychiatric illnesses, then, is expensive, frequently unpleasant, and not always effective even for those who carry on taking the drugs. But it is what we have relied upon – which helps to explain why the results of a clinical trial, recently published in The Lancet, have generated so much interest and debate.
A team led by Professor Anthony Morrison at the University of Manchester randomly assigned a group of patients, all of whom had opted not to take antipsychotics, to treatment as usual (involving a range of non-pharmaceutical care) or to treatment as usual plus a course of cognitive therapy (CT). Drop-out rates for the cognitive therapy were low, while its efficacy in reducing the symptoms of psychosis was comparable to what medication can achieve.
So what exactly is CT for schizophrenia? At its core is the idea that the patient should be encouraged to talk about their experiences – just as they would for every other psychological condition. Psychosis isn't viewed as a biological illness that one either has or does not have. Instead, just like every other mental disorder, psychotic experiences are seen as the severest instances of thoughts and feelings – notably delusions and hallucinations – that many of us experience from time to time.
Working together, the patient and therapist develop a model of what's causing the experiences, and why they're recurring. These factors will vary from person to person, so what is produced is a bespoke account of the individual's experience, which is then used to guide treatment. For example, a person so worried by paranoid fears that they won't set foot outside might be helped to trace the roots of their anxiety to past experiences; to gradually test out their fearful thoughts; and to learn to manage their anxiety while getting on with the activities they enjoy. An individual troubled by hearing voices will be helped to understand what's triggering these voices, and to develop a more confident, empowering relationship with them.
These are early days. Nevertheless, most of the meta-analyses of CT's efficacy for psychosis, when added to standard treatment, have indicated definite (albeit modest) benefits for patients, with the latest showing that CT is better than other psychological treatments for reducing delusions and hallucinations. The latest guidelines from the UK's National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (Nice) recommend it for those at risk of psychosis and, when combined with medication, for people with an ongoing problem.
But not everyone is convinced, and although the research published in The Lancet is encouraging, it was small scale. CT for psychosis is still evolving, and we think that evolution should prioritise three key areas.
First, we must focus on understanding and treating individual psychotic experiences. As we've reported in a previous post, there is increasing reason to doubt the usefulness of the diagnosis "schizophrenia". The term has been used as a catch-all for an assortment of unusual thoughts and feelings that often have no intrinsic connections, and aren't qualitatively different from those experienced by the general population. Each psychotic experience may therefore require a tailored treatment.
Second, we must build on the recent transformation in understanding the causes of psychotic experiences, taking one factor at a time (insomnia, say, or worry), developing an intervention to change it, and then observing the effects of that intervention on an individual's difficulties.
And finally, we must listen to what patients want from their treatment – for example, by focusing on improving levels of wellbeing, which tend to be very low among people with schizophrenia.
What about costs compared with drug treatment? A course of CBT is typically just over £1,000, but if it leads to a reduction in the amount of time patients spend in hospital and their use of other services, or a return to work, then it easily pays for itself.
The Nice guidance on psychosis and schizophrenia, updated this year, is unequivocal:
"The systematic review of economic evidence showed that provision of CBT to people with schizophrenia in the UK improved clinical outcomes at no additional cost. This finding was supported by economic modelling undertaken for this guideline, which suggested that provision of CBT might result in net cost savings to the NHS, associated with a reduction in future hospitalisation rates."
If the real promise of cognitive therapy can be fulfilled, we may at last have a genuinely effective, relatively cheap, and side-effect-free alternative to antipsychotics for those patients who don't wish to take them. Watch this space.
Daniel and Jason Freeman are the authors of Paranoia: the 21st Century Fear. Daniel is a professor of clinical psychology and a Medical Research Council Senior Clinical Fellow at the University of Oxford, and a Fellow of University College, Oxford. Twitter: @ProfDFreeman. Jason is a psychology writer. Twitter: @JasonFreeman100
• This article was amended on 8 March. The original misspelled Pierre Deniker, the French psychiatrist who introduced the first antipsychotic. This has been corrected.Daniel FreemanJason Freeman