The seabed's rainbows survive by making intimate relationships; if they fail, coral bleaching will be devastating
A coral reef is a busy neighbourhood. In warm, shallow, tropical waters, clownfish mill among sea anemones; sponges and seaweeds jostle against each other; crabs and snapping shrimps lurk defensively amid the knobbly branches.It's a cornucopia of life. "About a third of all marine diversity sits in coral reefs," says Professor Jörg Wiedenmann, head of the Coral Reef Laboratory at the University of Southampton.
At the heart of the reef's ecosystem are coral polyps – soft-bodied animals related to sea anemones. As larvae, they attach themselves to robust underwater structures such as rocks or even sunken wrecks, cementing themselves to the surface by secreting calcium carbonate. Their principle: divide and rule. After securing a spot, polyps bud to create large colonies of genetically identical individuals, connected by soft tissue, that together form the corals of the reef. When they spawn, they generally do it in sync.
But the reef is a cut-throat environment, rife with predators and prey. To survive, some species have developed partnerships, born of necessity.
Cutting one of the most crucial deals is the coral itself. Within their transparent tissues, the polyps house colourful unicellular algae called zooxanthellae. These rely on waste products from the coral to manufacture nutrients by means of photosynthesis, which they share with their hosts, supplementing the coral's diet of passing zooplankton. "This is a very intimate relationship," says Wiedenmann. "If this breaks down, most of the coralseventually die."
Known as coral bleaching, it's a dramatic separation that leaves a ghost-town of devastation. And it's triggered by stress. "Bleaching is basically the cry for help of the corals," says Wiedenmann. Changes in the water's temperature, salinity and nutrient levels can all affect the zooxanthellae, interfering with their ability to photosynthesise. To prevent damage from rising levels of toxic chemicals, the polyps lose the algae, leaving a bleak, white, wasteland. But without zooxanthellae, the coral cannot survive, and eventually the reef crumbles apart. "The whole structure will turn to rubble and this three-dimensional framework that is so important for the coral reefs will be lost," says Wiedenmann.
Coral bleaching is only one of the threats to these vast, beautiful, structures – overfishing, coastal development and water pollution also cause devastating harm. Balancing the reefs' role as a food source with sustainability is vital to their survival, as is improving water quality and tackling global warming to combat rising ocean temperatures and acidification. Only then will the future for these incredible ecosystems begin to brighten. "There is certainly hope," says Wiedenmann, "but we need to do something for it."Nicola Davis
Christine Montross helps to demystify madness with her perceptive, case-based account of the ethics of psychiatry
It's apt that the opening chapter of Christine Montross's second book is titled Bedlam, since an account such as this could easily, in less compassionate hands, become a modern-day version of London's old Bethlem hospital, where the mentally disordered were exposed to the public gaze as curiosities. Montross is an assistant professor of psychiatry at Brown University and a practising clinical psychiatrist, and her book reflects both strands of her work; it is rich with historical background and searching questions about the ethics of psychiatric treatment. But it is the vividly drawn case studies she shares – the human faces of her hospital's most terrifying disorders – that make the book so compelling.
Each chapter considers a particular aspect of psychiatric medicine through the lens of an individual's condition. Through Colin, who arrives dressed as Jesus in the grip of an apparently benign mania, she firmly debunks the romanticisation of madness and reflects on the point at which heightened spiritual experience can tip into illness. She recounts her frustrations with Lauren, a young woman repeatedly rushed to the emergency room because her response to distress is to swallow steak knives and broken glass. Here, as so often in mental health care, the moral questions are inseparable from the practical issue of resources. State-funded healthcare will not pay for Lauren to have the kind of ongoing therapy that might address the problems underlying her deliberate self-harming, yet her constant admissions and surgery end up costing the hospital thousands of dollars more per year than psychiatric treatment would.
Elsewhere, Montross describes a condition called body integrity identity disorder, where patients believe one or more of their limbs does not belong to them and will often attempt amputation with chainsaws or shotguns; she asks if it could it ever be ethical to perform elective surgery on a healthy body to treat a disordered mind. "How do we, as doctors, define 'help'? How do we define 'harm?'"
There are no straightforward answers in this book, and no neat happy endings. Montross readily acknowledges that psychiatry is an imprecise science (and that some clinicians doubt whether it is a science at all), and it is this willingness to embrace the uncertainties and ambiguities of her profession that lifts Falling into the Fire above the level of medical literature. The strange, sometimes comical, more often heartbreaking mutations of the human mind lead her to philosophical reflection on our relation to the world around us. Each chapter includes passages of memoir, anecdotes from her family life, often placed in stark contrast to the distress of her patients to remind us of the precarious nature of our grip on reality. "By what alignment of neurochemistry and circumstance have I been granted that solid balance?"
Falling into the Fire is a fine addition to a body of writing – including the work of Paul Broks, Kay Redfield Jamison and Oliver Sacks – that makes the strange and frightening territory of madness accessible to a lay readership. Most readers will find moments when they want to flinch and look away from the disturbing details Montross presents. It is easier to distance ourselves when the symptoms are extraordinary; few of us can imagine wanting to cut off our own legs. But the book's great achievement is to make us understand that these people on their locked wards are not freaks or monstrosities, to be gawped at like the inmates of the Bedlam.
One of the saddest stories in the book is that of Elizabeth, whose "normal" life was shattered when her son was killed by a drunk driver and her husband lost his job. "Standing on the edge with my patients… means that I must harbour a true awareness that I, too, could lose my child through the play of circumstance over which I have no control. I could lose my home, my financial security, my safety. I could lose my mind. Any of us could."Stephanie Merritt
Stone box contains earliest examples of wood-turning and metal-working, along with Baltic amber and what may be bear skin
Some 4,000 years ago a young woman's cremated bones – charred scraps of her shroud and the wood from her funeral pyre still clinging to them – was carefully wrapped in a fur along with her most valuable possessions, packed into a basket, and carried up to one of the highest and most exposed spots on Dartmoor, where they were buried in a small stone box covered by a mound of peat.
The discovery of her remains is rewriting the history of the bronze age moor. The bundle contained a treasury of unique objects: a tin bead and 34 tin studs, which are the earliest evidence of metal-working in the south-west; textiles, including a unique nettle fibre belt with a leather fringe; jewellery, including amber from the Baltic and shale from Whitby; and wooden ear studs, which are the earliest examples of wood turning ever found in Britain.
The site chosen for her grave was no accident. At 600 metres above sea level, White Horse hill is so remote that getting there even today is a 45-minute walk across heather and bog, after a half-hour drive up a military track from the nearest road. The closest known prehistoric habitation site is far down in the valley below, near the grave of the former poet laureate Ted Hughes.
Analysing and interpreting one of the most intriguing burials ever found in Britain is now occupying scientists across several continents. A BBC documentary, Mystery of the Moor, was first intended only for local broadcast, but as the scale of the find became clear, it will now be shown nationally on BBC2 on 9 March.
Scientists in Britain, Denmark and the Smithsonian in the US have been working on the fur. It is not dog, wolf, deer, horse or sheep, but may be a bear skin, from a species that became extinct in Britain at least 1,000 years ago.
"I am consumed with excitement about this find. I never expected to see anything like it in my lifetime," Jane Marchand, chief archaeologist at the Dartmoor National Park Authority said. "The last Dartmoor burial with grave goods was back in the days of the Victorian gentleman antiquarians. This is the first scientifically excavated burial on the moor, and the most significant ever."
It has not yet been possible definitively to identify the sex of the fragmented charred bones, though they suggest a slight individual aged between 15 and 25 years.
"I shouldn't really say her – but given the nature of the objects, and the fact that there is no dagger or other weapon of any kind, such as we know were found in other burials from the period, I personally have no doubt that this was a young woman," Marchand said. "Any one of the artefacts would make the find remarkable."
Although Dartmoor is speckled with prehistoric monuments, including standing stones, stone rows, and hundreds of circular hut sites, very few prehistoric burials of any kind have been found. What gives the White Horse hill international importance is the survival of so much organic material, which usually disintegrates without trace in the acid soil.
Apart from the basket, this burial had the belt; the ear studs – identical to those on sale in many goth shops – made from spindle wood, a hard fine-grained wood often used for knitting needles, from trees which still grow on the lower slopes of Dartmoor; and the unique arm band, plaited from cowhair and originally studded with 34 tin beads that would have shone like silver. There were even charred scraps of textile that may be the remains of a shroud, and fragments of charcoal from the funeral pyre.
Although tin – essential for making bronze – from Cornwall and Devon became famous across the ancient world, there was no previous evidence of smelting from such an early date. The necklace, which included amber from the Baltic, had a large tin bead made from part of an ingot beaten flat and then rolled. Although research continues, the archaeologists are convinced it was made locally.
The cist, a stone box, was first spotted more than a decade ago by a walker on Duchy of Cornwall land, when an end slab collapsed as the peat mound that had sheltered it for 4,000 years was gradually washed away. However, it was only excavated three years ago when archaeologists realised the site was eroding so fast any possible contents would inevitably soon be lost. It was only when they lifted the top slab that the scale of the discovery became apparent. The fur and the basket were a wet blackened sludgy mess, but through it they could see beads and other objects. "As we carefully lifted the bundle a bead fell out – and I knew immediately we had something extraordinary," Marchand said. "Previously we had eight beads from Dartmoor; now we have 200."
The contents were taken to the Wiltshire conservation laboratory, where the basket alone took a year's work to clean, freeze dry, and have its contents removed. The empty cist was reconstructed on the site. However, this winter's storms have done so much damage the archaeologists are now debating whether they will have to move the stones or leave them to inevitable disintegration.
The jewellery and other conserved artefacts will feature in an exhibition later this year at Plymouth city museum, but although work continues on her bones, it is unlikely to answer the mystery of who she was, how she died, and why at such a young age she merited a burial fit for a queen.Maev Kennedy
Pressure, temperature, volume and the number of particles of a gas can help predict how it will behave
Think of a cake. When you put it in the oven, it starts off at a particular volume and then, an hour later, it has risen to perhaps double its size. It is obvious what has happened – the air bubbles that you have carefully folded into the mixture during the preparation and the little bubbles of carbon dioxide created by the baking powder have expanded as they are heated in the oven, taking the rest of the cake with it. All this time, the pressure of the air inside those bubbles has stayed the same (you know that because cakes don't usually explode when you slice them after cooking).
It is an intuitive idea that bubbles of air will expand if you heat them, as long as the pressure remains constant. It is also a fundamental component of the ideal gas laws, first written down in the early 19th century by the French natural philosopher Joseph Louis Gay-Lussac. He was working on the relationship between the volume and temperature of a gas, building on work carried out several decades earlier by the inventor and mathematician Jacques Charles who had shown that volume and temperature were proportional – heat a gas and its volume will increase and vice versa, as long as the pressure remains constant.
The first piece of the ideal gas puzzle came in the 17th century. Robert Boyle had been carrying out experiments with air, which he proposed was full of particles connected by tiny invisible springs. He found that the pressure of a gas had an inverse relationship to its volume. If the volume doubled, its pressure halved and vice versa, when the temperature is held constant.
As well as the volume/temperature relationship, Gay-Lussac extended the work and experiments, from a century earlier, of the inventor Guillaume Amontons to show that, in a fixed volume of gas, pressure was directly proportional to absolute temperature.
With the three relationships between pressure, volume and temperature measured and written down, French engineer Benoît Paul Émile Clapeyron, one of the founding fathers of thermodynamics, combined the work of Boyle, Charles and Gay‑Lussac into the combined ideal gas equation above, in 1834.
In short, the ideal gas law shows the relationship between the four properties of a gas that you need to know in order to predict how it will behave: pressure, temperature, volume and the number of particles of gas (ie atoms or molecules) present. It is "ideal" because the law is a model that assumes the particles are infinitely small points and do not interact with each other. All collisions between ideal gas particles are elastic, which means they do not lose any energy when they rebound off each other.
In practice, real gas particles do have measurable sizes and sometimes attract or repel each other. Nevertheless, the ideal gas equation is a highly successful way to understand how gases shift and change depending on their surroundings.
The law states that the product of the pressure (P) and volume (V) of a gas is directly proportional to its absolute temperature (T, measured in kelvin). On the right-hand side of the equation is the number of moles of gas present (n) in the system, where a mole is equal to 6.02214129×1023 particles, a number known as the Avogadro constant. Also on the right is the universal gas constant (R), equal to 8.3145 joules per mole kelvin.
The ideal gas equations can be used to work out how much air inside a cake will expand (though it's unlikely to be used for that) but it also applies to plenty of other situations. Ever noticed a bicycle pump get hot when you fill a tyre with air? That's because you're quickly putting energy into the air inside the pump by pushing the piston and reducing the volume at the same time, which causes the molecules to bounce around faster in a smaller volume and the gas heats up.
Refrigeration works in the opposite way to the bicycle pump. If you release a gas very quickly from high pressure (inside a storage tank, say) to a region of lower pressure (outside air at atmospheric pressure), then the gas will expand. The energy required to do this will come from the molecules of gas themselves and so the overall temperature of the gas will drop. You can see this in action when pressurised carbon dioxide inside a fire extinguisher turns instantly into a frost when it is released through the nozzle and on to a fire. More prosaically, the same mechanism keeps your food cold in a refrigerator.
The relationships between these so-called "state properties" of a gas make sense intuitively. But the ideal gas law can also be derived mathematically, from first principles, by imagining particles bouncing around a box. About two decades after Clapeyron wrote it down, August Krönig and Rudolf Clausius independently looked at the statistical distribution of speeds (and hence energy) among the particles to work out how pressure, volume and temperature related to each other in a gas – an approach known as statistical mechanics. In essence, this meant looking at the properties of huge numbers of tiny components or particles inside a system in order to calculate the macroscopic results. In other words, a box containing a gas will have trillions of particles flying around inside it in random directions, bouncing off each other and off the walls.
In this model, the kinetic energy of the particles is proportional to the temperature of the gas. Particles hitting the sides of the box translate in to the pressure of the gas.
In this "kinetic" version of the ideal gas law, the right-hand side is written slightly differently. Instead of "nR" are terms for the number of molecules in the gas and the Boltzmann constant (k) equal to 1.38065×10-23 joules per kelvin.
The two versions of the equation describe identical things. Whether it is cakes, bicycle pumps, refrigerators or even when modelling the behaviour of stars (which are, in essence, just clouds of hydrogen gas), you can use these simple relations work out how what the gases are doing.Alok Jha
Tim Peake talks of life on International Space Station, 3D printing in space, stargazing and his weakness for watches
You're being called "the first Brit in space". That's quite a thing to have on your business card.
Yes, I'll board the International Space Station in November 2015. Helen Sharman was the first Brit in space back in '91, but they're calling me the first official Brit in space because I'm the first UK government astronaut, if you like. Helen's was a kind of private, commercial-sponsored flight. But yeah, it's a big deal!
Is the space station full of 90s tech?
Sort of. It's very weird [laughs]. I used to be a military test pilot so I'm trained to be extremely critical of cockpits and ergonomics. We strive for a very high level of performance in our military aircraft. I thought the space industry would be along the same lines, but the ISS first launched in 1998. Even then, the Russians used the same blueprints as for the Mir space station, so some of it goes back even further, to the late 70s. Then a Soviet space station is attached to an American one, with European and Japanese labs attached to that … Well, it's never going to be seamless. There's a lot of workarounds and old technology. On the Soyuz craft, the Russians have an "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" philosophy, so there are huge oxygen valves that haven't been changed since the 60s.
Sounds a bit Doctor Who or slightly steampunk?
Yes! It's a funny, fascinating blend of old and new. And it'll stay that way because the ISS will be up there until 2024. New technology's constantly going on board. We've got highly advanced equipment like the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer, which looks for dark matter outside the space station, but an antiquated environment in other respects. There's iPads and Google Glasses, mixed with clunky, shoebox-sized units. But it all works and that's the beauty of it. We've managed to bring nations and technologies together.
Are you a gadget fiend back on earth?
My main passion is anything involving engines or speed – flying, motorbikes, scuba-diving, skiing – but I do love gadgets as well. Unfortunately with my two little boys, aged five and two, there's limited amount of hi-tech gadgetry I can afford to have in the house!
Are you an Apple addict?
Yes, my family's gone Apple crazy. Two years ago, we didn't have a single Apple device. Now we've got Macs, iPads and smart TVs. My iPhone is absolutely vital day to day. All our schedules are on there and if someone in Russia changes my timetable, it pops up on my phone.
What's your favourite app?
A great one called The Night Sky. You point your device at the sky and it'll show you what's out there at that time: planets, stars, it even tracks space stations and satellites.
What's your favourite gadget?
Watches are my weakness. My favourite – and most expensive – is a Space Discovery Watch. My European astronaut colleague Christer Fuglesang, who's Swedish, designed it for his mission on the Discovery Space Shuttle. It's beautifully engineered with two modules: one classic timepiece, then you pop that out and pop in a lightweight electronic module with G-force sensors, linear accelerators, countdown timers and everything you could possibly want for spaceflight. It's a pretty special watch. They only made 128.
Are you into 3D printers?
We're flying one to the ISS in August, so we can print out components, like plastic ducting for air ventilation pipes. We're starting out with fairly lo-tech materials but eventually we'll work up to tools and equipment. We try to prevent too much stuff having to be flown up there, so the flexibility of what you can produce with just one printer is incredible. Now companies like SpaceX are using 3D printing with titanium alloys to actually manufacture rocket parts.
What's your favourite computer game?
Tomahawk Apache on the Amstrad 64. That shows my age! I'd play it relentlessly when I was in 16, which was funny as I ended up spending 10 years of my life flying the real Apache and absolutely loving it.
Are mobiles banned at the dinner table?
It's an individual thing: technology is there for us to use as we see fit. Personally, when I'm with people, the mobile stays in the pocket with vibrate mode on. Live in the moment, that's my philosophy. But having said that, I spend a lot of my time isolated, away from friends and family, and that's why I love connectivity. When you're on a mission, the space agency set up a video conferencing suite in your home. I spent 12 days living under the ocean and was able to Facetime my family every day, which was incredible.
Your phone bill must be massive.
[Laughs] I've got no idea who pays the bill. But what I do know is that most astronauts try to call as many people as they can while they're in space, because it's just so cool to do it.
Do you use social media?
I really enjoy Twitter. It's a great medium for reaching out to people and useful to keep track of what's going on. For me, it's really important to share this whole experience. I'm in a privileged position, so see it as my responsibility to encourage people to get involved.Michael Hogan
That's not a silvery mirror in the night sky, and there's a reason why the sea isn't even saltier. Plus, can soaking in a hot bath affect male fertility, and how spinning electrons cook your dinner
Q How does the moon shine; what causes the reflection and how? asks Manish Kunwar
A As Professor Manuel Grande from Aberystwyth University explains, the moon isn't simply a silvery mirror. "It's very hard to get a surface which is either completely white or completely black," he says. "Actually the moon is pretty black. In visible light it reflects about 12%. But there's an awful lot of sunlight falling on it, so it looks quite bright."
And the reflections can cause difficulties. "When we built our X-ray spectrometer for SMART-1, the first European moon mission, we actually had a lot of trouble keeping this reflected sunlight out of the instrument." In fact, he says: "In low moon orbit, the amount of light is not so different to what you see from a plane on Earth if you're flying over a desert."
But what is the moon actually made of? "Most of the surface is made of either anorthosite (a type of feldspar) – the light, silver-coloured material you see towards the edges of the disk – or else basalt [which forms] the dark areas: seas or maria. The ilmenite (titanium-rich) areas are particularly black," he says.
Q Why did the salt content of the oceans remain nearly constant over millions of years despite the fact that rivers carry huge amounts of salt into the sea? asks Thoralf Schubert
A Levels of rainfall, evaporation and melting sea ice all affect the salinity of seawater by adding or removing water, but the total amount of salt in the ocean remains pretty much constant. When rain (which is slightly acidic) falls, it washes over land, weathering and eroding rocks and carrying off salts, chiefly calcium carbonate and silicates, into streams which wend their way to the seas. Chloride ions are not a major component of river water; it is thought that they ended up in the oceans as a result of volcanic processes which occurred in the early history of the planet.
At first glance, it seems like a one-way street. However, the salt content of the oceans is not continuously increasing. Instead, a "steady-state condition" exists, meaning that the input of salts into the oceans pretty much balances the output.
These depend on the type of salt. Calcium and carbonate ions, for example, are used by marine creatures such as crustaceans to make their shells. After they die, the shells form sediments on the ocean floor and eventually result in the formation of limestone.
Salts can also be locked up in clays at the bottom of the ocean, while regions around hydrothermal vents on the ocean floor can both spew salts into the water and remove them.
Although calcium and carbonate ions are part of a relatively rapid cycle, sodium and chloride ions hang about in the oceans for millions of years, but can form solid deposits (usually in enclosed seas) if enough water is evaporated.
Furthermore, when seawater crashes over coasts (which has happened a lot this year), some of it settles on the land, leaving salt residues.
Q Does taking a hot bath affect male fertility? asks Chris Davies
A Taking a long soak in a hot bath might seem heavenly, but as Dr Allan Pacey from the University of Sheffield points out, the body is carefully designed to keep certain areas cool. "The sperm production process requires testicles to be a few degrees cooler than body temperature. This is why they hang outside the body," he says. "So theoretically, anything that increases the temperature of the testicles for any length of time might hinder sperm production and therefore reduce male fertility."
But it isn't only the hot tub that has been suspected of causing problems: "Previous reports have suggested that spending too long in a bath or saunas or using a working laptop on your lap might raise testicular temperature sufficiently to do this. However, undertaking definitive studies is difficult because men often undertake a range of activities that might affect their testicles."
One such factor is a chap's choice of trousers. "In a recent multicentre study, researchers at the universities of Sheffield and Manchester found that wearing loose pants was linked with better sperm quality," says Pacey. "Therefore, it might be concluded that wearing restrictive underwear or spending too long in a hot bath might harm sperm production. But that exact study has never been done."
Q How does a microwave oven work? And is it safe to stand near it? asks mathsdude
A A microwave oven uses electromagnetic radiation (essentially high frequency radio waves) to heat up food. These microwaves are produced by a nifty device called a magnetron, which contains a metal filament that heats up and emits electrons. The electrons are spun around by a magnet and in the process cause the radiation of microwaves, which are then directed towards the cooking chamber. When the oven is turned on, the food inside heats up.
But, you'll notice, only the food gets hot – the dish it sits on remains cold. This is because the microwaves energise only water molecules and your food is packed with water. Why water? Well, a water molecule is polar; it has a positively charged region and a negatively charged region, meaning that it can interact with an electric field.
To understand how this works, first think of a person holding the end of a rope that is attached to a wall and waggling it up and down. You'd see that the rope flips between peaks and troughs at specific locations while other points in the rope don't appear to move at all. This is called a "standing wave".
Inside the microwave oven, the metal walls reflect the electromagnetic radiation and, like the rope-wagglers, create standing waves. Within the cooking chamber, the peaks and troughs of the electric and magnetic fields are flipping more than two billion times a second. The polar water molecules interact with the electric field and, as it flips, they rotate to change their orientation. This generates friction and hence heat and it is this heat that cooks the food.
A turntable is needed to make sure that the food is heated evenly, otherwise the standing waves would result in hot spots at the peaks and troughs of the electric field and cold spots at the points midway between. One bonus of using a microwave oven is that microwaves penetrate into the food, meaning your meal is rapidly heated right the way through. Contrast this to heating your dinner up on the hob; there, heat is transferred through a laborious game of pass-the-parcel from the outside to the centre.
And there is no need to fear a microwave oven. The door is made of glass with a mesh that reflects the microwaves back into the chamber and prevents the radiation escaping.
Keep the questions coming by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org. Please include your full name and where you liveNicola Davis
The British Museum showcases the poetry, boats and bling of the marauding 11th-century Norsemen who, above all else, understood curves…
Anyone who has even dipped a toe in the briny sagas of the Viking kings will know that the stag outing the itinerant Norsemen prized above all others always began something like this: "On Saturday the fleet-lord throws off the long tarpaulin, and splendid widows from the town gaze on the planking of the dragon ship. The young ruler steers the brand new warship west out of the Nio, and the oars of the warriors fall into the sea… " Those lines come from the 11th-century court poet Þjóðólfr Arnórsson, and they describe the characteristic actions of the fleet of Harald Hardradra (Harold the Hard Ruler), the last great Viking king, who fought unsuccessfully to extend his Norwegian monarchy to Denmark and then Britain. He died at the Battle of Stamford Bridge in 1066 along with his poet.
For nearly three centuries prior to that, the collective skill of creating "brand new warships" in a society seemingly geared to the singular thrill of that moment of setting forth on the ocean, west or east, powered a culture that came to explore, colonise, terrify (and enslave) large parts of northern Europe and Asia, and which extended its trading reach to Constantinople, Newfoundland and beyond. The word "viking" was originally shorthand for the experience of throwing back that sealskin tarpaulin and setting oars to water, deriving from "vik", which was the name for the mouth of a river or fjord. Later, in particular in the Icelandic sagas, it became something like the catch-all term we now understand: to "fara í viking", "go on a viking" came to mean not only to set out on a voyage but to take part in anything that might follow – trade, commerce, raiding, piracy or worse.
One thing this quite austere British Museum exhibition seeks to establish is that the lines of the saga poets were secondary to the lines of the ships themselves. The legends of the exhibition's title are told very much through its objects rather than its famous verses (though the soundtrack is a looped, guttural telling of some of those legends in a language you seem to half understand from box sets of The Bridge). Empires have been built by many means, but the implication here is clear, the Vikings built their roving power on a single collective facility: they understood curves. This knowledge enabled them to build large, fast sea-going ships with shallow enough drafts to navigate far inland on rivers, and light enough to be dragged up on to beaches (Viking raiders got as far into England as Lichfield in the landlocked Midlands, and they raided and colonised far into Russian lands along the tributaries of the Volga).
For a quarter of a millennium no other culture in their sphere had much of an answer to that curvilinear knowledge. Like the splendid 11th-century widows marvelling at the unsheathed warship, you confront those curves immediately in the new hangar-like exhibition space of the British Museum, which is also launched with this show. The great dragon ship Roskilde 6 is reconstructed in the new hall with a good deal of its original planking laid on a steel skeleton. The ship seems likely to have been part of the fleet of Canute (or Cnut, as he is here, to which the epithet "total" remains silent); it was, like most Viking vessels, essentially a troop carrier, 36 metres long, and is the largest longship ever found. Having probably crisscrossed the North Sea 1,000 years ago before being scuttled to protect the harbour entrance to Roskilde, the ancient capital of Denmark, it was discovered and excavated in 1996, and has made the journey across the greyest of oceans once again. About a quarter of its timbers survive, but even in its hollowed and reimagined state, its aerodynamic heft, the sheer prowess of its ribs and stays, retain a good deal of the original 11th-century shock and awe.
That ship so dominates this show that you begin, probably justifiably, to see its curves almost everywhere in the exhibits that surround it. The dominant Viking forms are obvious in the representations of the curious longhouses, often windowless and built like upturned boats, and in the shape of the graves that took notable Viking warriors on their last voyages of discovery – accompanied by valkyries in the myth, perhaps to the great hall of Valhalla to drink with the god Odin, and imagine how their stories might echo down the ages to be recast in CGI and given Hollywood endings.
Odin, who takes his place here only as a tiny silver figurine, a tactile charm, was associated with "feminine magic", and appears to be depicted in women's clothes. There is precious little else that might be described as feminine in the Viking aesthetic, beyond some of the delicate skill in carving. The investment in ships afforded chiefs and kings great wealth, traded or looted and defended with double-edged swords, of which there are many lethal looking examples.
There was, it seems, a formidable culture of bling, great rope-like chains of silver and gold; almost comically outsized buckles and brooches that became status symbols from Stockholm to Shetland. In some instances amulets and bracelets doubled as currency; the silver of some examples is scored in regular increments for the purposes of trade; cattle or silk would be purchased by chiselling off a couple of segments.
Almost universally, jewellery and armour, as well as the many whalebone artefacts, are decorated with bold riverine and wave designs, reminders of where the money came from. When Christianity began to supersede Norse mythology – and crucifixes replaced valkyries – it is easy to see how the Vikings might have taken to a god who walked on water.
The trade that underpinned a good deal of that wealth was in slaves, or "thralls". The neck chains and manacles of Irish slaves, literally enthralled and sent off to Iceland, are grimly emblematic of what the sight of longships on the horizon might have represented to native populations. A preserved warrior's skull in which the front teeth have been filed flat for aggressive effect also makes a chilling point (though his helmet was never adorned with horns; those were a Victorian addition to the myth).
Though dues are paid here to the profound depths of Norse mythology, and to the Vikings' civilisation-changing technological expertise and sporadic efforts at diplomacy, you are unlikely to leave this exhibition with the feeling that longships were often welcome visitors on foreign beaches. In part of an excavated mass grave from Weymouth, in which the exclusively male DNA is sourced to 10th-century Scandinavian origins, each skeleton has been brutally beheaded (with in some cases protective hands sliced clean through as well). This is thought to be evidence of the manner in which the crew of a single Viking longship were repelled. For many decades, such a violent reverse was obviously an exception to the rule.Tim Adams
The comedian and actor on Breaking Bad, Jez Butterworth's Jerusalem and the magic of Cape Town
Ruby Wax is an actor, comedian and writer. She grew up in Evanston, Illinois and graduated in psychology from the University of California at Berkeley. Arriving in Britain in the 70s she studied at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama, then became part of the alternative comedy scene alongside Ben Elton, Rik Mayall and Jennifer Saunders. In the 90s she made a series of programmes for the BBC, culminating with Ruby Wax Meets in which she interviewed public figures including Imelda Marcos, Pamela Anderson and the Duchess of York. She also served as a script editor and often appeared in Jennifer Saunders's hugely successful sitcom Absolutely Fabulous. It was around this time that she was diagnosed with bipolar disorder which was the subject of her 2010 standup show Losing It. She is about to embark on a new tour inspired by her book Sane New World, out now in paperback.Television: Breaking Bad
There is nothing I don't like about it. I can't even explain how strongly I feel about it. It just keeps coming. I have never seen writing like that. And for such an extraordinary tale, it is utterly believable. I think we can relate to Walter White [the drama's school teacher turned drug kingpin antihero] because we have all met someone a little like him. We have, at least initially, real empathy with him. Everything that happens to him and the way he reacts would be the way I would react. It's easy, at least to begin with, to stand in his shoes. If I was dying of cancer and needed money to pay my medical bills and support my family I would hold up a bank, no question. I would do what Walter does.Book: The Brain That Changes Itself by Norman Doidge
I am obsessed with science books, which I've been reading for a very long time. Daniel J Siegel, who is a professor at UCLA, made the point that there have been many neuroscientists who study the brain but not one psychologist who studies the mind. He is the reason I went to Oxford [Wax graduated from Kellogg College, Oxford last year], he is the reason I went in this whole direction. This is one of the books I love, and which talks about neuroplasticity, meaning the ability to change who you are by essentially rewiring your own brain. Doidge's book should give everyone who reads it huge hope, because his thesis is that we are not tied to genetics. Like him I believe we are the result of certain genes, expressed and unexpressed; our neuro-wiring; chemicals and hormones; who our parents are; what our culture is and our experiences. This is now where science is at, which is a long way from saying "I'm an Aries".Theatre: Jerusalem by Jez Butterworth
This for me is the Breaking Bad of theatre. I know it's good 'cos my children queued up all night around the block to get the last tickets. And it went to New York. And in its first run back in 2009 it starred Mark Rylance (left), who is the God of all actors. It concerns a wild man, just wild. But you adore him. He's one of those guys who is a thorough reprobate and spends his time with other reprobates but has huge charisma. Kids just worship him because his stories, his anecdotes are out of this world. But he's a criminal, a pied piper. In part it's inspired by William Blake's poem, but it's funny and dangerous and delightful. This for me is as good as it gets, and even though it lasts more than three hours you beg for it to keep going. I cannot urge you enough to go see it. Wherever its showing, go see it.Festival: Burning Man, Nevada
Some people go to Burning Man for the people. I would not go for the people. I went for the installations. They have about 200 of them and they are thoroughly mind-blowing. Nudes the size of skyscrapers, burning spaceships, full-sized pirate ships are driving you around. There are cars that look like sharks. The whole thing is Fellini on acid. And in the middle of the desert. I had heard about, been told about it, read about it, Google-imaged it. But the reality is far better and more mind-blowing than anyone could ever lead you to believe. It is the No 1 wonder of the world. Anything you can imagine and plenty that you can't is there. You really don't need drugs to appreciate this – in fact drugs would get in the way of seeing how strange and beautiful it is.Interactive theatre: Punchdrunk
They are a British theatre company who pioneered this form of interactive, immersive theatre back in 2000. Their plays take place in these huge warehouses, with 75 rooms or more. I went to see their production of Goethe's Faust, but anything they do is fascinating. You arrive and you are immediately separated from your friends and given a mask to wear. You then walk from room to room. In each room a part of the play is taking place. Sometimes the actors start interacting with you. I got taken off to have drinks with one of the characters and wash another who was covered in mud. Sometimes you're taken to a room and asked to make a deal with the devil. Most of the time, though, the performers behave as if you were invisible. No two people will experience the play in quite the same way. You are taken from room to room, installation to installation, but have no physical sense of the direction you're going in. It's a fascinating and extremely disorienting way of experiencing art.City: Cape Town, South Africa
I love Cape Town, I have a home there and spend as much time as I can there. It recently won Best City in the World. It has that magical light, the light you get in LA, but the people are lovely and interesting and engaging whereas in LA they may as well be furniture. In Cape Town they are lively, funny and politically sharp and engaged. I live on the ocean, and the Twelve Apostles are behind me, so wherever I look I have the most amazing views. The places I go to are very racially mixed and very culturally innovative. I just did a play there for a short run and they are attracting actors from all over the world. It has a very vibrant gay scene, beautiful food and fantastic architecture. For me at least Cape Town is a little piece of paradise.Ben Marshall
The American environmental journalist on how humanity is wiping out our fellow creatures… and one species she'd choose to bring back
Elizabeth Kolbert is the author of The Sixth Extinction, which argues that a catastrophe that may be as significant as the one that wiped out the dinosaurs is under way around us. But whereas the previous five mass extinctions were caused by natural phenomena, Kolbert shows us that this one is manmade. One third of all reef-building corals, a third of all freshwater molluscs, a third of sharks and rays, a quarter of all mammals, a fifth of all reptiles, and a sixth of all birds, says Kolbert, "are heading towards oblivion".
When did you first hear the phrase the Sixth Extinction, and how did it become the subject of your book?
Not that long ago. I read a paper in the National Academy of Sciences that set me down this whole road. That came out in 2008 and it was called Are We In the Midst of The Sixth Extinction? That was sort of the beginning of this whole project. Then I wrote a piece for the New Yorker called "The Sixth Extinction?" , and it involved amphibian-hunting in Panama. I knew I hadn't scratched the surface, that there was a book there.
Your previous writing on climate change met with scepticism. Do you think this broader approach might have a more engaged reception?
Climate change, especially in the US, has been extraordinarily politicised, and that is a real barrier to getting people to even think about the issue. The other issues in the book, which are all contributing to this mass extinction – invasive species and ocean acidification – have not been politicised. But acidification is completely the same phenomenon as global warming. It's all about carbon emissions. Unfortunately the public discourse has really taken leave of the science and just exists in its own realm.
The irony of the previous catastrophes is that we wouldn't be here without them…
Yes, there's a consensus that the dinosaurs were doing just fine 66m years ago and presumably could have done fine for another 66m years, had their way of life not been up-ended by an asteroid impact. Life on this planet is contingent. There's no grand plan for it. We are also contingent. Yet although we are absolutely part of this long history, we turn out to be extremely unusual. And what we're doing is quite possibly unprecedented.
Reading your book, one wonders if it might not be good for the rest of the planet if we died out?
A few species would be worse off if we weren't here but probably most would be better off. That's sounds like a radical or misanthropic thing to say but I think it's evidently true.
It seems that from the moment we arrived we've been busy wiping out species.
There is incontrovertible evidence that when people reached Australia, 50,000 years ago, they precipitated the extinction of many species. Giant marsupials, giant tortoises, a huge bird – all were gone within a couple of thousand years of people arriving.
Your book is very much a reporter's book. Was that important to you to have that sense of a journalistic quest?
Yes, because I am a reporter,not a scientist. I'm not drawing on my own expertise. I'm drawing on the expertise of the people I went out with. You could summarise this whole sad story in one or two chapters, but part of trying to get people to really think things through, and follow you on this quest, is to be out there and tell some good stories along the way.
Your background was in political reporting. Why did you switch to science?
Because I was interested in climate change, and politics led me to it. It was in 2000-2001 when the US, under George W Bush, was withdrawing from the Kyoto protocol. The question was whether climate change was really a huge problem or, as Bush and others were saying, not a problem. It took me a long time to find a way to tell that as a story, and then it ended up being a three-part story in the New Yorker, and it mushroomed from there.
How much of a challenge has it been to get scientifically up to pace?
A huge challenge. I don't have much of a science background. I'm a literature major. But I really think that covering politics and covering science are not that dissimilar because they both involve people in their own worlds speaking in their own jargon, and you have to find ways to write stories that seem relevant to your readers.
International travel has hastened many extinctions. Should we stop it?
I don't end the book with my grand plan to solve this problem. There are steps we could take to minimise our impact, but when you look at the totality of what we're doing, you realise it's so much a part of how we live, and have done actually for a long time. We've been dragging beasts across the oceans for hundreds of years. It seem very unlikely we're going to stop crossing the ocean.
How important are zoos nowadays?
I wrote a piece about zoos for National Geographic and I came away impressed by what zoos are doing. They are on the front lines of realising how much is disappearing. A lot of zoos said to me that what we do is manage small populations of animals. And increasingly that's what everyone is going to be doing in national parks and elsewhere, so that the whole world becomes a kind of zoo, which is a sobering thought.
Will this Sixth Extinction have an impact on humanity's survival?
I'm often asked: what about us? I pretty pointedly don't think it's the most relevant concern. We are very good at assuming the habitats of other creatures and consuming their resources. So far it's been an extremely successful strategy. There are now 7.2 billion people on the planet and there are many other species down to their last hundred individuals. There's a lot of unconsumed biomass out there to still be consumed. It seems to me we could do a tremendous amount of damage to other species and the natural world before we'd feel it.
Is there one creature you'd like to bring back from extinction?
I wrote about the great auk, which became extinct 150 years ago. I visited a stuffed one in Iceland. They're really beautiful birds, and apparently they were really rather comical in the way that flightless birds can be. I guess if I had to choose one, that would be it.Andrew Anthony
Documentary examines rise in injuries in rugby union and other sports that can cause brain damage in later life
Barry O'Driscoll, the former medical adviser to the International Rugby Board, is under no illusion about the defining moment of Ireland's 13-13 draw with France in March last year. The decision to allow his nephew, the multi-capped centre Brian O'Driscoll, to return to the pitch after suffering concussion was an outrage, he said.
"If that had been allowed in the United States, during an American football match, then the officials involved would have been sacked," he said.
O'Driscoll – who resigned from the IRB's medical advisory board in 2012 in protest at its handling of the issues of concussion and brain injury – was speaking in the documentary, Head Games: The Global Concussion Crisis, which premiered in London last week. The American-made film focuses on what it describes as "a silent, global epidemic" of head injuries and traumas triggered by sports that are becoming increasingly robust and are leaving more and more former players suffering from dementia and the effects of brain damage in their middle years. These sports include American football, ice hockey – and rugby.
In the case of rugby union, the sport has become hardened and sharpened in the wake of it turning professional in the 1990s. Players today are bigger, stronger, faster and more able to hurt each other than in the past. Concussion was once treated as a joke – as is revealed by amateur video included in Head Games – but today has become an extremely worrying problem. Too many injuries to the head and a player is put at risk of succumbing to chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) in later life.
CTE was once known as dementia pugilistica or being punch drunk, a condition that affected boxers in their later years. But now doctors and neurologists are finding that it affects former players of many other sports where there are intense levels of contact and head injury. Five years ago the wider dangers of CTE were first revealed in the US where it was discovered that it was affecting former top-level American football players. At first the National Football League (NFL) rejected a link between head injuries suffered during games and the later onset of depression, dizzy spells and suicide attempts among former players. "It was a bit like the tobacco industry attempting to deny the link between smoking and cancer," says Christopher Newinski, a former NFL player who is the author of the book Head Games on which the film is based.
However, a scientific paper published in 2009 revealed that former NFL players were 19 times more likely to suffer from early onset Alzheimer's disease than the general public. Further studies have backed these conclusions and since then there has been far greater care taken about players who suffer head injuries during matches. In particular, they are not allowed back on pitch and are prevented from playing again for periods of up to several weeks.
But other sports – on both sides of the Atlantic – have been slower to catch up on the newly revealed dangers posed by head traumas, as the producers of Head Games reveal by focusing on ice hockey, Australian rules football, and rugby union. Former players describe bouts of concussion, disrupted sleep, changes in personality and loss of memory since ending their days as professional players. These stories are interspersed with clips of incidents of eye-watering violence as players are battered and pounded on the head – but then expected to continue playing after treatment.
As neurologist Professor Laura Balcer, of New York University, states on the film, it is clear from evidence that a person should not be allowed to suffer continued injuries to the head. "If you suffer concussion on three occasions, you should think of retiring," she says.
The problem, which the film acknowledges, is that these sports all provide amateur players with a great deal of pleasure. The trick is to find a way of allowing people to continue enjoying a sport without risk of succumbing to dementia in later years. As former Canadian ice hockey star Keith Primeau admits: "It is a problem that young players simply do not want to know about."Robin McKie
NHS staff should ditch 'ageing suits' and faux empathy for older patients and show some compassion instead
Following the success of the 40-stone obesity simulator, apparently a total eye-opener for many of the NHS staff who have tried this empathy aid, a Yorkshire hospital trust is investing in a state-of-the-art ageing suit, the better to walk in the shoes of the elderly. What a piece of luck for my parents, who live in Yorkshire and might therefore one day benefit from practitioner skills that have been scientifically sensitised by experience within the ageing outfit, due to be tried by everyone from porters to consultants at Mid Yorkshire Hospitals NHS Trust.
"What the suit actually does is make you empathise with them and understand what it feels like for someone of old age," explained the deputy associate director of nursing at Dewsbury and District, Helen Green, who urged her hospital to buy an ageing suit for its staff. "It definitely helps them relate to their patients more." Which must be as reassuring for elderly patients in the Dewsbury and District area as it is faintly worrying to patients in regions still unfamiliar with the ageing suit, which replicates with an elaborate combination of pads, weights, goggles and ear-defenders a wide range of age-related afflictions including hearing loss, weakness, poor vision, stiffened joints, impaired co-ordination, reduced sensitivity, shuffling and the kind of hand tremors that make it difficult to hold a cup of tea.
To get the full benefit, of course, the faux-nan should ideally be subjected, at the same time, to a young health worker bellowing some approximation of her first name, and entertainment from a hilarious Radio 4 comedy riff on geriatric incontinence. Unless, in the light of the new Age UK report, it would be yet more realistic to leave the experimenters entirely alone in the suit for six weeks, with only fraudulent calls from card cloners for company?
But all in good time. If the lessons of the suit are already as rhapsodically advertised, there surely must be a parallel risk in less fortunate NHS trusts that some clinicians continue to mistrust the evidence of their own eyes, or even imagine, without the benefit of a suit, that old people are prone, to use the jargon, to "having a laugh", and can actually walk, stand, hear etc just like young people. Presumably the suit exists to cultivate attitudes whose absence, at its most extreme, left some elderly patients in Mid Staffordshire wards to look after themselves or, failing that, to die.
According to the German makers of the "Gerontologic Test suit", which supplies the NHS, a test on students has proved – from the student perspective – "that the empathy for elderly people is promoted by using age simulation". Although there is no evidence on the longevity of suit-induced fellow-feeling and its resistance to compassion fatigue, students wearing the age costume report instructive difficulties in climbing stairs and standing on one leg. I appreciate that such training might have benefited the GP's receptionist who wanted my elderly relation to visit, or effectively, hop, into a distant surgery on an icy day last year. Then again, the fact that we were reporting complications 10 days after a hip replacement might have offered a hint.
Supposing ageing suit-wearing is emphatically transformative, as reported by practitioners as well as manufacturers, it should clearly be rolled out pronto, not just to health workers but to the coalition politicians who now preside over what Age UK calls, in its Care in Crisis report, "an even more dramatic deterioration in the funding and services" for the elderly than it predicted when spending cuts began. "Many of those who need help and support do not get high quality services," it says, "while an increasing number of people who are in significant need are being left to fend for themselves." But if certified members of the caring professions can struggle to empathise, age-wise, without out an authentic old-person session, perhaps we have been asking too much of Jeremy Hunt?
It would be wrong, of course, when there are so many other deserving conditions, to restrict learning by simulation to exercises in age and obesity. In fact, if medical schools are not already inviting students to try the much simpler empathy-promoting techniques of tying up an arm or a leg, or taping down their breasts (with the relevant scars done in eye-pencil), so as to comprehend the reality of amputation, one would like to know the reason why. Unless it is simply that amputees naturally inspire a level of compassion denied to the fat and old?
It could be argued that many conditions and disorders – one thinks immediately of addiction and depression, anorexia and bulimia – evidently challenge some professionals at the same time that they defy literal simulation by suit-wearing. Wouldn't you need to get inside these patients' heads? But with compassion at a national premium following the Francis report, this objection to the principle of empathy via simulation merely calls, with the possible exception of dying, for greater ingenuity. When an Anglican vicar is recruiting for a National Day of Fasting ("Fasting can point the way to a greater compassion"), and fund-raisers have been walking 10,000 steps a day like girl water-carriers ("experience just part of what they endure on a daily basis"), the NHS could surely come up with something equally instructive: hot-suits for the pretend-menopausal; patent blindfolds to nurture empathy for the vision-impaired.
Equally, of course, you might question why, out of all patients, it is only the overweight and old whose conditions are considered so alien that they justify these absurd acts of impersonation. Nobody – except, maybe, for extreme standpoint epistemologists – insists that their midwife should have had a baby, or their heart surgeon, an attack. Leave aside the insult to the complex sections of the patient population whose existence is reduced, with these suits, to a kind of whole-body snafu; the very proposal that empathy could be contingent upon gerontoparody indicates yet another failure of the imagination, rather than any useful answer to the Francis report.
Mid Staffordshire is presented, pretty much, as an aberration. But if fat and ageing suits are required as an empathy-stimulant, how serious is the NHS empathy problem? It can't only be in Dewsbury that NHS staff find it so tough to imagine the difficulties of the older patients abundantly represented on their wards that they need to literally clump around in their shoes, assisted by sensory impediments suggestive of total physical incapacitation. Pity the 85-year-old whose non-existent tremor soon gives her a hospital sippy-cup as standard.
What if it worked? Assuming all this dressing-up were demonstrated (as it is not) to make a long-term difference to clinical empathy levels, you might still want confirmation that for older patients the demand is, above all, for empathy, and not for the more easily monitored fairness and expertise, dignity and respect. If only old age suits could speak.Catherine Bennett
In the US, people are obsessed with work. Your job is your identity. But all that is changing in this economic funk
If you've ever spoken with an American, likely one of the first questions they asked you was "what do you do?"
In the US, we're obsessed with people's jobs. We want to know all about it. We insist that you tell us what "career tribe" you're in – white collar, blue collar or new high-techy collar. What's your exact title? How do you spend your day? Are you someone speaks the language of law, tech, finance, media, marketing, education, military, government, the arts, etc? Basically, we would like everyone to walk around with their business card attached to their forehead, but since that's a bit over-the-top, we try to glean the same information by asking questions – often lots of them – about your work.
Most of us mean well when we ask these questions. We're trying to get to know you, and in our country, your career is a major part of who you are. Until it isn't. How do you define yourself when you don't have a job – or, at least, you don't have the one you want?
The US, like many countries, is still in an economic funk. Friday's unemployment figures reiterated just how gloomy it is for many people. The economic situation is also posing a cultural problem for Americans: how do we adopt to a world where people aren't living for their jobs?
"People in their 20s and 30s are starting to give up on work as a primary way to center or ground their identity. You can't define yourself by work when you don't know if you're going to be employed," says Dr Jennifer Silva, a sociologist and author of Coming Up Short: Working-Class Adulthood in an Age of Uncertainty.
She did in depth interviews with a hundred Millennials to try to understand how they are shaping their lives in this environment. One question she asked as part of her research was the simple: "who are you?" Three-quarters of the young adults she spoke with didn't mention work at all in their response. Instead, they would emphasize what Dr Silva calls "narratives of personal growth" such as feeling they had matured in a relationship with a relative or lover or had some sort of self-discovery.
It's a remarkable shift in America's mentality. The younger generation isn't nearly as fixated on jobs for the obvious reason that they have a much harder time finding stable employment. Instead, they are trying to find a different kind of meaning in their lives.
This phenomenon isn't exclusive to young people. At the same time that they struggle to find jobs, the Baby Boomer generation is starting to retire. This, too, is dramatically re-shaping America's attitudes about work as people who had long careers are deciding enough is enough or being forced out. They also have to come up with a new identity that isn't all about a job.
"A lot of people are asking this question: what is my purpose in life post-retirement? It's no longer about careers, but opportunities," says Rabbi Levi Brackman. He's conducting a study of people who are 55+ to help them figure out their "next stage purpose" (you can still participate in the study here). However, one of the most surprising things he's found so far is just how many people still want some kind of career, even in "retirement". It's ingrained in the Baby Boomer generation to want to work and to think of work as a huge part of defining who you are.
The problem is there aren't nearly enough jobs for people – young or more mature – who want to work. I've been keeping an eye on what's known as the labor force participation rate. It's a measure of how many adult Americans are working. For much of the halcyon days of the 1980s and 1990s, 65 to 67% of us had jobs. Now we can't seem to get that figure higher than 63%.
That might not seem like a large drop, but let me put it another way: if the US had a 67% labor force participation rate today, about 10 million more people would be working. The even scarier part of this is that forecasters don't think things are going to improve much for those who have dropped out of the labor force. The jobs aren't coming back fast enough, and the ones that are back aren't exactly ones that make people excited to talk about what they do.
Hedrick Smith, author of Who Stole the American Dream?, put it this way:
One of the reasons labor force participation was so high in the 1990s was people saw jobs were available and the pay was going up. Now you see exactly the opposite. The median family income is down, and the bottom 90% of Americans have seen their income go down since 2002.
People are beginning to ask: what's the point of work? What's the point of trying to get ahead when even those who are working hard are falling behind? These are questions Americans aren't used to asking.
Few understand these shifts in the American economy and work mentality better than Sara Horowitz, founder of the Freelancers Union. She is an expert in the "gig economy", the notion that people have to piece together a lot of different jobs to get by. She points out that 42 million Americans – about 30% of the workforce – can be classified as "independent", meaning they're freelancers or self-employed. "It's becoming a part of almost everyone's life and career now, whether it's in between jobs or supplementing or freelancing is your career," she says.
Uncertainty abounds about the next pay check, and on a cultural level, fewer people are that "company man" or "union woman" like before. Now you have multiple identities because you're often working on several different gigs each year and trying to pitch for more projects on top of that. As Horowitz explains:
Post World War Two, it was worth sticking in a job that had benefits and paid the mortgage and gave retirement benefits, but those jobs are few and far between. So people are saying, what is the new reality?
The Freelancers Union just launched what they're calling the Quiet Revolution for people who want an entirely different economic model where you are encouraged to use credit unions and food co-ops as a better way to make your money go further, help employ more people and get a new sense of identity.
Americans simply aren't working at the levels they used to, and it's creating economic issues and cultural ones. Instead of asking what do you do, perhaps the question to pose is what keeps you busy? I've found it often makes people think beyond just their job – or lack thereof.
"The owl is truly a messenger, and in an irruption, the messenger comes to us", says wildlife photographer Paul Bannick.
The first time most people hear the word, "irruption", they tend to conflate it with a similar-sounding word and visions of volcanoes and hot lava erupt into their minds.
But the word "irruption" describes a different sort of explosive event: it applies to a sudden, sharp and unpredictable increase in the relative numbers of a population. Irruptions can be triggered by the search for food or other resources, or by weather conditions. Currently, it applies to the situation that birders have been seeing this winter, where hundreds of snowy owls, Bubo scandiacus, have flooded south from the Arctic in search of food.
Snowy owls aren't the only species that irrupt, but they are amongst the most visible due to their large size, distinctive colouring and the fact that they tend to sit in plain view alongside roadways, in open fields and at airports.
When they are not breeding, snowy owls are wanderers by nature. They roam widely around the Arctic in search of their favourite prey, lemmings. So when lemming populations crash in the far north, the owls simply wander farther than they usually do in search of rodents (or sometimes ducks) to prey upon. Since lemming populations increase dramatically before a crash, snowy owl parents can feed and raise more of their young until independence than usual, so the owl population also increases. When lemming populations inevitably crash, there are more snowy owls than usual, and they all are competing for the same resources. The younger and less experienced birds tend to lose out to their more experienced elders, so the younger birds expand their search for food: they move south.
Almost none of these irrupting owls have ever seen a human being, so they tend to be unafraid of us, often allowing people to approach quite close to them. And this can cause problems for the birds.
This lovely video, produced by multi-award-winning videographer Bob Sacha and featuring the work and wisdom of photographer Paul Bannick, explains the issues.
"The owl is truly a messenger, and in an irruption, the messenger comes to us", says wildlife photographer Paul Bannick in the video, below.
"It's our challenge to get that message and do something about it: we are stewards of more than just our back yard."
[Reading on a mobile device? Here's the video link]
Filmed in Ontario, Canada.
.. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. ..GrrlScientist
Former BBC1 Breakfast presenter tells how covering disasters convinced her that reporters need protecting from post-traumatic stress
The experience of covering traumatic news stories has led Sian Williams, the former presenter of BBC1's Breakfast, to switch careers so that she can help other journalists who suffer from stress after working in war zones or disaster areas.
Williams, who resigned from the early morning news programme in 2012 when it transferred from London to Salford, is studying for a master's degree in psychology at the University of Westminster. She is specialising in how reporters can be protected from the effects of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) after witnessing suffering, conflict, death and grief in their daily work.
In her time as a reporter, she covered the Hillsborough stadium disaster, the Paddington train crash, the Asian tsunami and, in 2005, the Pakistan earthquake. After a week of reporting from the epicentre of the earthquake, she recalls returning to a comfortable hotel in Islamabad, "taking off my boots and frantically scrubbing them again and again. When I returned home to the warmth of my family, images of devastation and decay, the cries of distress and the sickly smell of disease and death lingered." Yet life and her career had to go on. "I would come back from Pakistan, sit on the sofa and interview a soap star. That was the job."
Williams said the memory of the disaster suddenly hit her again in 2010. "I don't know what it was … some things in your career have an enormous impact, even if they don't resonate as important at the time."
She links it to her mother's death from cancer that year and the fact that she had two very young children. Always petite, she lost a lot of weight, and Breakfast viewers noticed.
"When talking to people in such an extreme state of shock, I felt enormously guilty. I had people's lives in my hands and I hoped I was dealing with them fairly. It was difficult to square with my conscience," she said.
She remains haunted by a live broadcast she did from the earthquake zone for the 1pm news while, behind her, desperate brothers were pulling their dead mother from the rubble.
Williams doesn't think she ever suffered from PTSD, but after returning from Pakistan she asked to train as a trauma assessment counsellor, becoming part of a BBC team. "It is a struggle to get people to come forward," she said. "News journalists are in and out. They think they can cope."
News is also an industry increasingly employing freelancers who do not enjoy job security and are more open to exploitation. Williams, 49, points out that studies suggest between 6% and 28% of reporters covering distressing events suffer some form of PTSD, with veteran war reporters, at 28%, facing the same levels as combat veterans.
Interviewed at her home in north London, she spoke about her new career path, which meant she ceased to be a BBC staffer last August because of the demands of the course. With a solid second marriage to television producer Paul Woolwich and four children – the youngest being five and seven years old – she is intent on making a difference to the lives of stressed journalists across all news outlets.
She is aware that journalists need protecting from themselves, and need to be prepared before and after they go on assignment. "A conscientious reporter will overwork," she said. "They are the ones typically most susceptible to acute symptoms of PTSD. They want to do everything, but they are not attending to their own health. You can talk to them before they go, get them to talk to some of the people they will be working for, so they have support, so they are explicit about what they can do, not taking constant calls and doing 'two-ways'."
An article by Williams on the issue will appear in this month's Psychologist Magazine.
She still does a little broadcasting and said her studies had been helpful when conducting interviews for a forthcoming ITV series on people who have survived extreme experiences, including the Asian tsunami.
Asked if she would go back to being a full-time broadcaster, Williams said: "I don't know. I am just dipping my toe into this primarily to do something positive. I have been in news so long, I knew it so well. I hope I come out of this with something that will make a difference."Maggie Brown
Caffeine is the drug many of us can't live without – but do you have any idea how much is in your daily hit?
Propped up on my desk before me, there is a vacuum-sealed bag of white powder. Chemists would recognise this substance as a methylated xanthine, composed of tiny crystalline structures. It is a drug, and I have been under its influence nearly every day for the past 25 years. It is caffeine, and in moderation it makes us feel good. But it is a drug whose strength is consistently underestimated. You'd need to down about 50 cups of coffee at once, or 200 cups of tea, to approach a lethal level of caffeination – but if you go straight for the powder, you can get a lot very quickly.
On 9 April 2010, 23-year-old Michael Bedford was at a party near his home in Mansfield. He ate two spoonfuls of caffeine powder he'd bought online, and washed them down with an energy drink. He began slurring his words, then vomited, collapsed and died. It's likely he ingested more than 5g of caffeine. The coroner cited caffeine's "cardiotoxic effects" as the cause of death.
How much caffeine is the average person taking on daily? When someone asks about our caffeine habits, we tend to reply in terms of how many cups of coffee we drink. But this is a wildly inadequate measure. One 40ml cup of coffee – the size often used in studies of caffeine consumption – could have less than 60mg of caffeine, while one 450ml cup could have nearly 10 times as much, but both could be considered one cup of coffee.
In an effort to make this easier, I came up with a measure called a Standard Caffeine Dose, or Scad. A Scad is 75mg. This is roughly equal to a shot of espresso, 150ml of coffee, a 250ml can of Red Bull, two 350ml cans of Coke or Pepsi, or a pint of Diet Coke. I take about four or five Scads daily. On a two-Scad day, I will feel slow; on a seven-Scad day, jittery.
Anyone will tell you that the British have remained allied with tea, not coffee, but that is only partly true. While the British still drink more tea, by volume, than coffee, they now get more of their caffeine from coffee than from tea. Surprisingly, colas and energy drinks now contribute nearly as much caffeine to the British diet as tea: 34mg daily versus 36mg daily.
It is not easy to know how much caffeine is in your daily cup of coffee. Forensic toxicologist Bruce Goldberger used to work in Baltimore, identifying lethal drugs in the blood of overdose victims. But he turned his mind to a question with broader appeal: how much caffeine are we getting in our beverages? He and his colleagues analysed the contents of coffee drinks, publishing the results in 2003. They found huge caffeine differences not only between coffee brands but also between coffees from the same shop. He bought a 480ml cup of coffee from one branch of Starbucks on six consecutive days. Each time, he ordered the Breakfast Blend. The cup with the least caffeine had 260mg. One had twice that amount. Yet another clocked in at a whopping 564mg.
For a study published in 2012, Scottish researcher Thomas Crozier and his colleagues bought 20 espressos in Glasgow cafes. They found that the caffeine concentration varied from 56mg to 196mg per 28ml, with four cafes serving up espressos containing more than 200mg of caffeine.
Crozier and Goldberger's studies help to answer a question that many coffee drinkers have asked: why is it that on some days one cup of coffee puts you in absolute equipoise – brilliant but steady, relaxed but energetic – while other days it is not even enough to prop open your eyelids? And on other occasions, that very same cup, from the same cafe, will send you to the moon, jittery and anxious, your heart skittering? It is because the caffeine levels in coffee vary dramatically, depending on the natural growing conditions, the variety of coffee plant and the brewing strength.
Roland Griffiths is a prolific drug researcher. "I'm a psychopharmacologist, so I'm interested in the mood-altering effects of drugs," he says. "Caffeine to me is maybe the most fascinating compound, because it clearly is psychoactive, yet it is completely culturally accepted worldwide, or almost worldwide." While we talk, he sips caffeine-free Diet Coke from a mug bearing the structural diagram of the caffeine molecule.
Even though caffeine is not considered to be a drug of abuse, it has all the features of one, Griffiths says. "That is, it alters mood, it produces physical dependence and withdrawal upon abstinence, and some proportion of the population becomes dependent on it."
When Griffiths started his experiments on caffeine, he was a heavy user: "I think my consumption was probably 500-600mg a day, maybe higher." That's more than one litre of good coffee. When he decided to study caffeine withdrawal, he did it the hard way, personally going from a daily dose of seven Scads down to zero, and paying close attention to the havoc it wreaked on his body and brain. Did he go cold turkey? "No, no! I'm enough of a psychopharmacologist to know that's not how I would want to do it. I tapered back."
As part of a series of studies, using themselves as guinea pigs, Griffiths and his colleagues went on a steady daily dose of 100mg of caffeine. In one experiment, their caffeine was cut altogether for 12 days. Four of the seven subjects experienced symptoms including headaches, lethargy and an inability to concentrate. In the second phase, the researchers, still on a steady 100mg daily dose, went for single days without caffeine, separated by more than a week. In this case, "each of the seven subjects demonstrated a statistically significant withdrawal effect".
These scientists were not withdrawing from massive doses of caffeine, just the amount in about 150–240ml of coffee, a Scad and a third. That is all it takes to get hooked.
Coca-Cola owes its success to caffeine. Its early formulation had 80mg of caffeine per 250ml serving, and it was marketed as a pick-me-up. That was in 1909, when the US federal government first tried and failed to corral the emerging caffeine economy, leaving a vacuum that persists to this day. The American Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has long practised a dual regulatory role for caffeine, regulating it when it's packaged as an over-the-counter medication and mostly ignoring it when it is blended into drinks or labelled as a dietary supplement. But the new generation of energy products seems to have caught their attention.
When you crack open a can of Monster Energy, you first hear the hiss of the escaping carbonation. Poured into a glass, Monster is about the colour of a pale ale. On the tongue, well, it's an acquired taste: slightly metallic, syrupy sweet, a faint hint of orange and cream. No, it's not a hot cup of Colombian, but you could get used to it. Millions have. With a striking logo of three neon green claw marks and the slogan "Unleash the beast", Monster seems to be everywhere. In 2011, it surpassed Red Bull in US energy drink sales, by volume, according to Beverage Digest.
Monster evolved from a product called Hansen's Energy, introduced by the juice company Hansen's Natural in 1997. Sales took off in 2002 when they came up with the Monster name, its memorable slogan and distinctive logo. (The claw-mark logo is now a popular tattoo, even among high school students.) Hansen's made its Monster cans twice the size of a Red Bull, but charged the same price. They developed a marketing strategy like those of other energy drinks, targeting young males with an energetic blend of heavy metal bands, action sports festivals and bikini models. Within seven years, it was a billion-dollar brand, with sales of nearly $2.4bn in 2012.
In the summer of that year, New York state attorney general Eric Schneiderman started to look at the marketing and advertising practices of companies who make energy drinks. Meanwhile, several US senators were putting pressure on the FDA to better regulate the industry. In August, FDA assistant commissioner for legislation Jeanne Ireland responded to the senators' concerns with a five-page letter outlining the regulatory framework for energy drinks. She also discussed a death that was getting some attention.
Anais Fournier, a 14-year-old from Hagerstown, Maryland, drank a can of Monster on 16 December 2011. The next evening, with her friends at the Valley Mall, she drank another can of Monster Energy, bought from a sweet shop. Each can contained 240mg of caffeine (three Scads). A few hours after leaving the mall, Fournier was at home watching a movie with her family when she went into cardiac arrest and fell unconscious. At the hospital, doctors put her into a medically induced coma. Six days later, she was taken off life support and died. The coroner listed the cause of death as "cardiac arrhythmia due to caffeine toxicity complicating mitral valve regulation in the setting of Ehlers-Danlos syndrome" (a pre-existing medical condition).
In November 2012, the FDA released a comprehensive list of nearly eight years of what they call "adverse event reports" (consumer complaints) related to Monster, Rockstar and 5-Hour Energy products. It was a list of 93 events, including 13 deaths. There is no way of knowing whether the energy products caused the deaths, but it was enough to scare the public and prompt the FDA to announce an investigation. They advised that people should consult their doctor before consuming energy drinks or shots. This seemed notable – dramatic, even – particularly considering the fact that the agency does not recommend checking with GPs before drinking colas or coffee.
It is hard to unravel the health problems attributed to energy drinks. Any of us who use caffeine eventually take more than we want to and might experience the sensation of a pounding heart. A bit too much caffeine is unlikely to harm your heart. Even among those people with arrhythmias – disorders that cause the heart to beat too fast, too slowly or irregularly – caffeine does little harm. A 2011 literature review published in the American Journal of Medicine found no reason for concern. "It is understandable that most physicians are unsure of the advice they can provide about caffeine intake and arrhythmias," Daniel Pelchovitz and Jeffrey Goldberger wrote. "In most patients with known or suspected arrhythmia, caffeine in moderate doses is well tolerated and there is therefore no reason to restrict ingestion of caffeine." It would be easy to be sceptical of this finding: Goldberger is a consultant for Red Bull, and there is the sense that caffeine can feel hard on the heart. But, despite numerous studies, doctors have been unable to find a link between moderate caffeine use and heart disease or disturbance in most people. However, recent research does suggest an association between coffee and nonfatal heart attacks in people with a genetic predisposition to metabolise caffeine slowly.
It would be safe to assume that if a 240mg dose of caffeine, which Fournier consumed, could kill a person, then Starbucks would have seen at least a few deaths from its coffee, which might contain this amount of caffeine in a 350ml or 500ml cup. A person might drink energy drinks and then have a heart problem, but did the former cause the latter, or are they unrelated? It might be that people who suffer a heart attack after drinking an energy shot or energy drink are more likely to associate the heart trouble with the product than are people who suffer heart attacks after drinking coffee. It would be a simple explanation, and one that could hold some appeal for the energy drink industry. But in Fournier's case there was the coroner's report listing caffeine toxicity as the cause of death (although the coroner also mentioned a pre-existing medical condition).
On 17 October 2012, a team of attorneys filed a civil action with the Riverside County Superior Court of California. It was titled "Wendy Crossland and Richard Fournier; individually and as surviving parents of Anais Fournier v Monster Beverage Corporation." The case contained seven complaints, including negligence and wrongful death. The lawyers sent out a press release, quoting Fournier's mother. "I was shocked to learn the FDA can regulate caffeine in a can of soda, but not these huge energy drinks," Wendy Crossland said. "These drinks are targeting teenagers with no oversight or accountability. [They] are death traps for young, developing girls and boys, like my daughter Anais."
Monster is defending the case. It is questioning the medical evidence and claims Fournier regularly drank energy drinks and Starbucks coffee. It says the autopsy report of caffeine toxicity was based only on Fournier's mother's report of her drinking an energy drink, not on a blood test. It has also detailed her heart conditions.
On 1 May 2013, a gaggle of food industry honchos from Wrigley, Mars and legal and lobbying firm Patton Boggs, which represents the soft drink industry, rushed in to see Michael Taylor, the FDA's deputy commissioner for foods and veterinary medicine. On 29 April, Taylor had announced the agency would be investigating the safety of adding caffeine to food products for the first time since 1980. Surprisingly, the item that finally spurred the FDA into action was not any of the more extreme energy products, but a gum.
In April, Wrigley had introduced Alert Energy Caffeine Gum. But a week after the delegation met with the FDA, on 8 May, Wrigley said it was pulling the product from the market. "After discussions with the FDA, we have a greater appreciation for its concern about the proliferation of caffeine in the nation's food supply," Wrigley announced. "We have paused the production, sales and marketing of Alert."
A month later, I went to Maryland to interview Taylor. He told me that the new energy products have broken out of the typical boundaries around caffeine and are a far cry from coffee, tea and chocolate. And in the process, the food industry is skirting food additive regulations. Taylor drinks coffee and Diet Coke (sometimes caffeine-free), and understands the challenge of regulating caffeine and the limits regulators might face. "I got asked by somebody, 'Are we going to put age limits on coffee, so if you go to Starbucks, would you have to show ID?' I would consider that not realistic," he said. But he made a distinction between the more traditional uses of caffeine and the new breed of energy drinks. Holding a can of Monster, he said, "This is not a historic, cultural aspect of caffeine… What I found disturbing on this front was that in no case did the companies that are making these decisions come to us... and subject themselves to the scrutiny that would come." The entire energy products industry, worth more than $10bn annually, has grown without the FDA's explicit approval.
The UK is moving ahead of the US in caffeine labelling. Starting in December, the Food Standards Agency will require new labels for energy drinks. Any drinks with caffeine concentrations higher than 150mg per litre must carry this label: "High caffeine content. Not recommended for children or pregnant or breastfeeding women." The label must be placed in the same field of vision as the name of the energy drink and show the quantity of caffeine. It will appear on Red Bull, for example, with its concentration of 320mg per litre, but not Coca-Cola, with a lower concentration of 95mg per litre. In November last year, meanwhile, Morrisons became the first UK supermarket chain to ban sales of high-caffeine energy drinks to children.
Walking out of FDA headquarters, I passed a display case of the agency's notable efforts. There were packages of the drug thalidomide. There were a few patent medicines. The only caffeine was in a bottle of Formula One, an ephedra-caffeine blend that has been linked with heart trouble. (Supplements containing ephedra were banned and Formula One was reformulated.) I wondered what the case might hold in 20 years. Maybe some example of caffeinated excess now on the market – or, more likely, one that has yet to be formulated.
Travelling back to Maine that afternoon, I stopped for petrol. The counter next to the cash register was cluttered with energy shots and energy strips. And there, tucked into the front of the display tray, was a single pack of the Wrigley Alert Energy gum. It was the first I'd seen of the product Wrigley had tried to pull off the shelves. Of course, I bought it. Who knows? It might be worth something some day.
A vivid portrait of Howard Carter emerges from this fictionalised story of his quest to uncover the tomb of the boy-king
Every few years, historians take exception to novelists encroaching on their territory, and historical fiction gets a battering in the press. The rise and rise of Hilary Mantel, herself an able defender of the writer's right to write about whatever she damn well pleases, has put a temporary stop to these bad-tempered outbreaks. The truth is that a great deal of fiction is historical; most writers who write more than one novel will, at some point, set a book in the past. Historical fiction remains ever-popular as a genre, and historical fiction readers are among the most engaged of online reading communities. Many writers are attempting to tap into this passionate conversation by producing a stream of historical fiction sequels to once-contemporary novels, such as PD James's take on Pride and Prejudice, the recently televised Death Comes to Pemberley; Sally Beauman herself embarked on this most meta-fictional of readerly responses through her Du Maurier sequel, Rebecca's Tale, set in the 1950s.
And, of course, the past has all the great stories. One of these is Howard Carter and his search for the tomb of King Tutankhamun, which Beauman has tackled in her new book, The Visitors. Set in Egypt in the 1920s and London in the present day, this hugely readable novel tells the story of Carter's long years of toil in the Valley of the Kings through the eyes of a 10-year-old English girl recovering from a bout of typhoid to which she has lost her mother. Her academic father retreats to his Cambridge college and it is left to Lucy's temporary guardian, an American of suitably doughty proportions, to restore her young charge to health on a lengthy excursion to Egypt. At Shepheard's Hotel in Cairo Lucy makes friends with a whole host of archaeologists, their wives, their servants, and, most crucially, their children, a clever mix of real and fictional characters that includes Carter and his patron, Lord Carnarvon. After a fairly lengthy setup, the party decamps to Luxor, where those most glorious of bodies are buried.
The story of Carter and Tut is one with which we are largely familiar; here Beauman explores the intriguing question of whether or not Carter broke into the inner sanctum of the tomb prior to the arrival of the Egyptian authorities. This is the central drama of the story – the moment Carter first laid eyes on the boy-king and all his gold, the gold sarcophagus, the gold chariot, the huge and chaotic piles of gold and jewellery that Carter found. But our narrator, Lucy, is not present at this scene – whether it happened illegally in the middle of the night, or in the full blaze of the desert sun and the world's press days later – and this is part of what doesn't quite work in The Visitors: the sense that the real action is elsewhere. Lucy's new best friend Frances, the daughter of the American archaeologist, Herbert Winlock, who was also engaged in digs in the Valley at the time, spends a great deal of time explaining archaeology and archaeological history in a manner that feels unlikely even for the most precocious child. And Lucy's own family story, including her difficult relationship with the governess in England who persuades Lucy's cold and unappealing father to marry her, also suffers in comparison to that extraordinary moment in the tomb.
What do work very well are the contemporary sections, when Lucy, now almost as old as an Egyptian tomb herself, takes a great deal of cranky old-woman pleasure in thwarting a young documentary-maker who wants to find out what she knows about Carter. Here the writing is at its entertaining best. Beauman's portraits of the unclubbable outsider Carter, obsessed with finding the tomb that he knows in his bones could be inches away from where he is digging, and Lord Carnarvon, ailing and frail, on the verge of withdrawing funds from Carter after many fruitless years of digging, are also vivid and illuminating. Egyptians are scarcely present in the story, though the new and pressing Egyptian nationalism features in the background, including the government's efforts to gain control over archaeological finds. And above it all floats the gold deathmask of King Tut himself, endlessly touring the world's museums.Kate Pullinger