Wenlock Edge: This fern in a crack between evolutionary forms, in the ruins of a quarry wall, in a grey wood under a lowering sky, is the kind of hybrid which subverts our fixed view of nature
This is a very funky fern and I almost walk past without noticing it, as I have done for years. A day of fine weather and clear skies is enough to quicken the pulse and bring a smile to faces set against rain all winter. But that was yesterday; today there's a turn to grey again.
Although I've learned to appreciate the grim beauty of murkiness, the washrag skies and mud so jealous it clings to every step, this emerald vision in the monochrome gloom is startling. At first I think the plant might be a holly fern or a rigid buckler fern because of its stiff bearing out of mossy limestone rocks. As I get close it becomes a polypody, and I think perhaps the western polypody – an intermediate form between the common polypody, which grows on trees and walls, and the southern polypody, which is longer and softer. What is very interesting is that some of the simple comb-tooth-shaped pinnae of the fronds have very un-polypody-like jagged edges.
This would have got the Victorians in a tizz. In their search for novelty and aberrancy, Victorian fern collectors dug up as many weird forms for their gardens as they could find. I admit to similar urges which turn inquisitiveness into acquisitiveness, but can't think of a better place for this fern. How long it's been here I have no idea, and I must have walked past it for years. Only today, in this damp gloom, did it burst into my consciousness like a green firework. Strange how things suddenly become significant. Stranger, how much we miss. A swerve of Sunday cyclists pass a mangled badger corpse on the lane. Shoppers in the street ignore ravens calling and tumbling above the church tower. The bus queue is oblivious to a gull skirmish overhead about spilled chips on the kerb.
The western polypody, if that's what it is, is morphing into something else. As ferns have done for over 300 million years, this one in a crack between evolutionary forms, in the ruins of a limestone quarry wall, in a grey wood under a lowering sky, is the kind of hybrid which subverts our fixed view of nature; strange and beautiful.Paul Evans
Scientists describe as 'extremely interesting' new analysis that makes case for gamma rays tracing back to Wimp particles
Original story reprinted with permission from Quanta Magazine, an editorially independent division of SimonsFoundation.org whose mission is to enhance public understanding of science by covering research developments and trends in mathematics and the physical and life sciences.
Not long after the Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope took to the sky in 2008, astrophysicists noticed that it was picking up a steady rain of gamma rays pouring outward from the center of the Milky Way galaxy.
This high-energy radiation was consistent with the detritus of annihilating dark matter, the unidentified particles that constitute 84% of the matter in the universe and that fizzle upon contact with each other, spewing other particles as they go. If the gamma rays did in fact come from dark matter, they would reveal its identity, resolving one of the biggest mysteries in physics. But some argued that the gamma rays could have originated from another source.
Now a new analysis of the signal claims to rule out all other plausible explanations and makes the case that the gamma rays trace back to a type of particle that has long been considered the leading dark matter candidate – a weakly interacting massive particle, or Wimp. Meanwhile, a more tentative X-ray signal reported in two other new studies suggests the existence of yet another kind of dark matter particle called a sterile neutrino.
In the new gamma-ray analysis, which appeared February 27 on the scientific preprint site arXiv.org, Dan Hooper and his collaborators used more than five years' worth of the cleanest Fermi data to generate a high-resolution map of the gamma-ray excess extending from the center of the galaxy outward at least 10 angular degrees, or 5,000 light-years, in all directions.
"The results are extremely interesting," said Kevork Abazajian, an associate professor of physics and astronomy at the University of California, Irvine. "The most remarkable part of the analysis is that the signal follows the shape of the dark matter profile out to 10 degrees," he said, explaining that it would be "very difficult to impossible" for other sources to mimic this predicted dark matter distribution over such a broad range.
The findings do not constitute a discovery of dark matter, the scientists said, but they prepare the way for an upcoming test described by many researchers as a "smoking gun": If the gamma-ray excess comes from annihilating Wimps, and not conventional astrophysical objects, then the signal will also be seen emanating from dwarf galaxies that orbit the Milky Way – diffuse objects that are rich in dark matter but not in other high-energy photon sources such as pulsars, rotating neutron stars that have been floated as alternative explanations for the excess.
"These gamma rays match the predictions of a pretty prototypical Wimp, the kind of thing we were all writing down 10 or 15 years ago," said Hooper, a theoretical astrophysicist at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory and the University of Chicago, and the person who co-discovered the gamma-ray excess with then graduate student Lisa Goodenough in 2009. "That's where my money is."
"It's definitely exciting," said Neal Weiner, a dark matter specialist at New York University. "I think we'd like to see it somewhere else, like a dwarf galaxy, before getting really excited."
Preliminary results from the Fermi Collaboration – scientists who process, analyze and release the telescope data – offer hints that there may indeed be a surplus of gamma rays coming from the dwarf galaxies. Although there is currently too little data to determine whether an excess exists, "we are starting to get closer to the range," said Jennifer Siegal-Gaskins, a physicist at the California Institute of Technology and a member of the Fermi Collaboration. "I would say the next couple of years of data could really be important for testing this excess."
"If that small excess from the dwarf galaxies turns to a big one, that would convince the whole community," Hooper said. "That would be game over."
While most experts agree, some question whether indirect glimpses of dark matter can ever truly constitute a discovery.
Dark matter consists of elementary particles that do not emit or absorb light, because they do not experience the electromagnetic force. These particles are also unaffected by the strong nuclear force, which ensnares many of the known particles into atoms. Cosmologists infer the existence of dark matter, and can model its distribution throughout the cosmos, because it does participate in the force of gravity and therefore plays a leading role in shaping galaxies. If dark matter particles also experience the fourth and final force of nature, called the weak nuclear force, then they are of a type known as a Wimp.
In many theories, pairs of Wimps can annihilate each other on contact, emitting other particles as they go. If the glimmer of gamma rays from the inner galaxy is the afterglow from such annihilations, then their detected energy levels indicate that they most likely originate from Wimps with a mass of 35 giga-electron-volts (GeV) annihilating into quarks, or 10-GeV Wimps annihilating into tau particles.
The 35-GeV WIMP model "fits the data best," said Tracy Slatyer, an assistant professor of physics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a co-author of the new paper. The fit has greatly improved, she said, since the group's last analysis of the gamma-ray excess. If the signal wasn't from dark matter, "it's not at all clear that going to a better data sample would make the results look better," she said, "but when I saw the new results, I was amazed."
WIMPs have not yet shown up in direct detection experiments, which look for spurts of energy coming from their weak interactions with atomic nuclei, usually in detectors placed in mine shafts deep underground to lower the background noise. But this does not mean 35-GeV Wimps don't exist, scientists said, because no one knows how frequently they interact. The authors of the new study "could be perfectly right, and we just need detectors two orders of magnitude more sensitive to see the particles," said Juan Collar, an associate professor of physics at the University of Chicago who helps develop direct detection experiments.
Most of the researchers interviewed for this article said the presence of a gamma-ray excess from the dwarf galaxies would be sufficient proof of Wimps, but a few said that it might take a direct detection to convince them. "The problem is the universe is a messy place," said Kathryn Zurek, an associate professor of physics at the University of Michigan. Try as they might to rule out "astrophysics" – shorthand among dark matter researchers for all the conventional stuff in the sky, from pulsars to supernovae to the sun – it is always possible that they have missed something.
The study authors, however, are confident that dark matter is the only plausible source of the gamma rays. "We threw everything including the kitchen sink at the problem," Hooper said. "My views are on the record."
Meanwhile, just as Hooper's group was putting the finishing touches on the new manuscript, two other teams of scientists independently reported the discovery of a different anomaly in the sky: a dash of X-rays emanating from distant galaxies that is consistent with the decay of 7-kilo-electron-volt (keV) sterile neutrinos — heavier and less active cousins of the familiar neutrinos that are also dark matter candidates.
Esra Bulbul, a postdoctoral fellow at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, and her colleagues spotted the X-rays in data from the Chandra and XMM-Newton space telescopes and published their results Feb. 10. A week later, a group led by Alexey Boyarsky of the University of Leiden in the Netherlands reported the same X-ray excess in telescope observations of the Andromeda galaxy.
"I think we have a very big fish here," Bulbul said.
Bulbul and colleagues report a statistical significance of between 4 and 5 sigma, meaning the X-ray signal is strong enough that the odds that it is a random fluke are only one in 100,000. However, putative dark matter signals often hover at the 4-sigma brink of statistical significance only to fade into the background when more data is collected. Seasoned veterans of this boom-and-bust cycle are skeptical about the new anomaly, but some have expressed cautious optimism.
"It's definitely intriguing," said John Beacom, a theoretical astrophysicist at Ohio State University. "They certainly have tried very hard to eliminate or examine the possibility of an atomic transition being the cause. They've also gone to great lengths to eliminate instrumental effects."
The X-ray bump appeared in all subsets of the data, no matter how Bulbul and colleagues sliced it — a sign that the bump did not come from a bias somewhere in the telescope instrumentation. It was this same omnipresence that convinced particle physicists at the Large Hadron Collider that they had cornered the Higgs boson in 2012 before their signal reached the 5-sigma strength formally needed for a discovery. Further support for the significance of the X-ray excess comes from the Dutch group's discovery of the same bump at 4.4-sigma strength in a different data set.
If the X-rays come from sterile neutrinos, the existence of these particles would very likely solve a long-standing puzzle about galaxy formation known as the "too big to fail" problem, which asks why objects called dark matter subhalos don't collapse and form dwarf galaxies. "That's one of the reasons I'm actually more excited about this result than I would be otherwise," Abazajian said. The particles also play a role in the seesaw mechanism, the most widely supported explanation for the minuscule mass of regular neutrinos. Decays of sterile neutrinos shortly after the Big Bang could even explain the mysterious dominance of matter over antimatter in the universe today. "Sterile neutrinos get invoked for twenty different reasons," Beacom said.
Like the gamma-ray signal, the X-ray excess will face a clear-cut test in the near future. The Astro-H telescope, set for launch in 2015, will be sensitive enough to detect the smear of the signal. If the width of the bump is consistent with the expected speed of decaying dark matter particles, "that would be a detection," Abazajian said.
Both signals are tough to dismiss, raising a strange prospect. "It's possible they are both dark matter," Abazajian said. "It would be crazy, but it's certainly possible."
The sterile neutrinos associated with the X-rays could account for anywhere from 1 to 100 percent of dark matter, depending on how often they decay. And the WIMPs tied to the gamma rays are almost as flexible. The two could coexist. As Collar put it, "If the matter we know about is so rich in families of particles, what tells you this dark sector we know nothing about is not as rich or richer?"
A theoretical model called "exciting dark matter," proposed in 2007 by Weiner and Douglas Finkbeiner of Harvard, a co-author of the new gamma-ray paper, even predicts the existence of both a keV-scale dark matter particle and a GeV-scale particle working in tandem. "So, at the moment, I'm quite excited!" Weiner said in an email.
But at least for the next couple of years, another nagging possibility remains.
"It's like the Monty Python sketch – nobody ever expects the Spanish Inquisition," Beacom said. "Sometimes in this field nobody expects astrophysics, but it's almost always astrophysics. All of these groups have tried to be very careful, but it is difficult, and nature may surprise us with astrophysics yet again."
Culture minister holds emergency meeting with archaeologists after heavy rains cause walls to crumble in ancient city
Citing "utmost urgency," Italy has approved work to repair walls in ancient Pompeii that collapsed after heavy rains, and authorised spending €2m (£1.6m) on routine maintenance.
The decisions were made on Tuesday in Rome after a hastily convened meeting of the culture minister with archaeological experts.
On Sunday, stones from an arch and a stretch of wall collapsed in the popular tourist site. Then, on Monday, a wall of an ancient shop collapsed.
Similar collapses in recent years have prompted an infusion of funds, but only a fraction of the €105m earmarked for the "Great Pompeii" rehabilitation project has been spent. Bureaucracy is blamed in part.
Italy's culture ministry said on Tuesday that priority would also be given to work to reduce flood risk in unexcavated areas.
Royal Society event involved volunteers expanding and creating articles about women in science and engineering
Faced with a paucity of female editors on Wikipedia, one of Britain's oldest institutions is stepping in to help fill the gap.
The Royal Society, founded in 1660 to promote excellence in science, hosted a Wikipedia "edit-a-thon" on Tuesday in conjunction with the Royal Society of Engineers in an attempt to right the imbalance. The online encyclopedia has a readership with a largely even gender balance, but it is thought that only around one in 10 of its editors are female.
It is the third such event held at the prestigious institution, following similar events in 2012 and 2013 on Ada Lovelace day, which celebrates the Victorian scientist known regarded by many as the godmother of computer programming, and the group are already seeing dividends.
"We've actually run out of female fellows of the Royal Society that don't have articles," says John Byrne, the Society's "Wikimedian in Residence". Byrne was seconded to the society from Wikimedia, the US charity behind Wikipedia, with the express intention of improving access to information about scientists from underrepresented groups. "So we're widening what we're looking at this time."
The number of editors on the English-language version of Wikipedia peaked in summer 2007 at 51,000, and has been in steady decline ever since. What's more, there have only ever been a small fraction of those editors who are female; estimates range between 8 and 13%.
"We are short of editors, we're declining slowly," Byrne said.
"And particularly editors with expertise, and also female editors. The idea is to get new editors, and to expose people to editing even if they're not going to continue, which some of them – most of them – won't."
Throughout the day, around 40 volunteers used the society's resources to expand and create articles about women in science and engineering. To do so involved battling a second bias: that of the society itself, which only admitted women as fellows in 1945.
What you see as you walk through the society "are a lot of portraits of bewigged gentlemen, often 200 years old," said Athene Donald, a fellow of the society and the chair of their education committee.
"It is trying to do a complete rethink about its imagery across the board … but it's unfortunate that the few women we have aren't more prominently displayed."
With the success of the earlier edit-a-thons, attention in the third iteration focused on earlier women, who frequently laboured behind the scenes while men took the credit.
Keith Moore, the society's librarian, points to examples like Sarah Stone and Maria Sibylla Meriam, two 18th century illustrators whose work adorned the pages of biology books even as the artists behind it remained anonymous.Alex Hern
News that anger makes you five time more likely to have a heart attack may be a worry, but without it we lose our political instinct
In the misanthropic fug of early morning, I woke to the radio reporting news that getting angry makes people five times more likely to have a heart attack in the following two hours.
Great. Just what I needed to hear. Not only am I subject to endless media provocation to be angry about immigration, corruption, dredging, etc, but that this very anger is putting my life at risk.
Of course, this dovetails with a persistent contemporary narrative in which one fears to open a Sunday newspaper magazine without someone banging on about mindfulness and its panacea status. In a country beset by road rage, idiots drunk on their own bile on Twitter, a tabloid media addicted to an outrage-cycle news agenda, and where many of us can't bear to watch Question Time for fear of our own anger (it can't just be me) – surely we need all the calm we can get.
Not only the contemporary advocates of mindfulness, but also the meditative traditions of Buddhism are right in that anger is not as involuntary as it can feel: we can take steps that over time chip away at the mental conditions that lead to the arising of anger within our consciousness.
If you've got so much rage that it's killing you, and it's futile, impotent fury where you just scream at the television/cat/wall, then some mindfulness might not be that bad an idea. It seems that today's evidence adds to the notion, which we might all share, that there is an awful lot of "being angry" going on, and a fair portion of it is bad for us medically as well as socially.
However, we need to be wary here. Anger is in danger of being demonised, and that's troubling. Outrage seems an entirely appropriate response to injustice and the needless infliction of pain and suffering on sentient beings.
As the middle-aged among us descend into a yearning for tranquillity, followed by a sit-down with a nice cup of tea and a biscuit, we need younger generations to emerge angry and shocked at the world we've left them. In a context where young people could sit in endless refresh-cycles on social media, we need them to be shocked into action.
And for those of us resisting a connection between ageing and lack of interest, anger can be the fire that keeps us alight. If we see hard-won rights or social progress under threat, our indignation is what keeps us engaged, active and concerned: it is what keeps us political.
Our wariness also needs to extend to just how keen on pacification (I mean "calming") of the masses the corporate world is. Concerns about McMindfulness (and meditation's wrenching from its ethical context) have animated many with a serious interest in meditation.
The Wisdom 2.0 conference recently in San Francisco saw protesters interrupt the Google talk on corporate mindfulness. But these are exceptions. The genuine health concerns need to be balanced with an avoidance of coming to see anger, upset and overt concern as psychological failings. The postmodern, corporate-friendly suspicion of grand political narratives is already keen enough to paint the campaigner, the activist full of passion, as an oddball.
Perhaps what we need here is some subtlety. We need to avoid the blunt and clumsy condemnation of outrage, recognising its value as a seed of social change, while seeing the futility of pointless shouting at pedestrians from our cars. Perhaps, taking a slight lead from the complex psychological typologies of many forms of Buddhist thought, we don't need to prevent our rage but improve the quality of our outrage. Not less anger: better anger.David Webster
Officials face backlash after decision to move inventor's remains from Tesla museum in Belgrade and rebury them in church
A furious dispute has erupted between Serbian scientists and the Orthodox church after it was announced that the remains of the inventor Nikola Tesla will be reburied in a church.
A pioneer in fields such as electricity, radio and x-rays, Tesla had 300 patents under his name by the time he died in 1943 and is revered by some as one of the most important scientific brains of the late 19th and early 20th century.
Tesla died in the US where he had spent much of his life, but in 1957 his ashes were moved to the Nikola Tesla museum in Belgrade, now the Serbian capital.
Under pressure from the Serbian Orthodox church, government officials announced last week that they are planning to move Tesla's remains from the museum to the city's St Sava church – the largest Orthodox church in the world – where it is to be reburied alongside national heroes including the 14th-century Prince Lazar, who led a Christian army against the invading Ottomans.
Scientists in Serbia have criticised the move, due to be carried out this July, arguing that Tesla was not religious and should be upheld as a "figurehead for science" rather than religion. The Tesla museum has also called for the remains to stay put, highlighting that it is the wish of his descendants, who asked for the urn to be transported to the then Yugoslavian capital in the 50s.
"We stay firm with the opinion it is much better to have the urn in the museum," said the museum's director, Vladimir Jelenkovic. "This is the right place to keep it, knowing the open-minded soul Tesla had. After all it was the wish of his successors to keep the urn in the museum. We are obliged to accept their wishes."
A Facebook campaign, Leave Tesla Alone, started almost immediately after the announcement was made and has already gathered more than 30,000 supporters on social media who want to see Tesla's ashes stay where they are.
Church leaders, however, say that the museum is not an appropriate resting place for Tesla. Patriarch Irinej of the Serbian Orthodox church told local media: "It is natural that such the name of Serbian history rests in peace at holiest place of Serbian history."
Tesla is best known for his work on alternating current and his ideas were used in the development of radio communications, the electric motor and radar.
Born in Smiljan – which is now in Croatia – in 1856, he went to university in Graz, Austria, and began working for the inventor Thomas Edison in 1884. The pair fell out, however, and each battled for years to convince the world that his way of generating electricity was better and more efficient than the other's.
After the film Gravity picked up a handful of Oscars, including for best cinematography and best visual effects, Nasa releases images of the real thing
Thin pancakes filled a hot sweet, syrupy filling are a decadent alternative for Shrove Tuesday
"Pani Pol has always been a favourite of mine," says Peter Kuruvita, author of Serendip: My Sri Lankan Kitchen. "My aunties used to make it as a treat for all of us, but I was particularly fond of it."
The term "pani pol" refers specifically to the filling (which is also served with "imbul kiri" milk rice, and "lawariya" string hoppers). Traditional Sri Lankan pani pol recipes use a palm treacle base, but Kuruvita insists that golden syrup is a great substitute, and that the alarmingly large quantity still applies: "It may seem like a lot, but it's a very dense liquid."
The result is a decadent pancake that has the syrupy sweetness associated with gulab jamun, jangiri and other Indian sweets. Perfect for an overcast Shrove Tuesday. Close your eyes, enjoy the exotic flavours and be whisked away to warmer climes.Sri Lankan pani pol by Peter Kuruvita, author of Serendip: My Sri Lankan Kitchen
65g plain flour
3tbsp vegetable oil
A pinch of turmeric to colour the mix
For the filling:
300g golden syrup
2 cardamom pods
½ stick cinnamon
100g freshly grated coconut
1 stick of vanilla, split with the seeds scraped out
50g grated palm sugar (now available at Ocado as well as specialist shops)
Mix together all the ingredients for the pancake, making sure that there are no lumps. The mixture should be thick enough to coat the back of a spoon. If there are lumps, then strain the mixture.
To make the pancakes, use a non-stick pan or cured cast-iron pan, and lightly apply some vegetable oil to the pan with a tissue.
Use a ladle to apply a thin layer of pancake mixture to the pan, try to cook it with no colour - approximately two minutes, and then turn it.
Make all the pancakes and then set aside.
For the pani pol filling, cook the golden syrup, palm sugar and spices until the treacle is boiling, and the sugar dissolves – approximately five minutes. Don't cook for too long, or the syrup will caramelise and set too hard.
Add the vanilla and coconut, and stir until all the coconut is warm, and coated with the syrup mix.
Now place a tablespoon of pani pol into the pancake, and roll it up, folding in the sides. Eat either warm or cold. It's delicious with coconut or vanilla ice-cream.
A new cartoon created by John Cook illustrates the failure of climate contrarians to manage global warming risks
Climate change is fundamentally a risk management problem. Whether or not you agree with the 97 percent expert consensus on human-caused global warming, there is an undeniable risk that the consensus is correct and that we're causing dangerously rapid climate change.
Frequently, climate contrarians argue against taking action to mitigate that risk by claiming the uncertainties are too large. One of the most visible figures to make this argument is climate scientist Judith Curry, who said in 2013,
"I can't say myself that [doing nothing] isn't the best solution."
This argument represents a failure to grasp the principles of basic risk management, as illustrated in the following cartoon.
When it comes to managing risk, uncertainty is not our friend. Uncertainty means it's possible the outcome will be better than we expect, but it's also possible it will be much worse than we expect. In fact, continuing with business-as-usual would only be a reasonable option in the absolute best case scenario.
Doing nothing is betting the farm on a very low probability scenario. It's an incredibly high-risk path that fails to reduce the threats posed by the worst case or even most likely case scenarios. This is a concept Judith Curry understood in 2007, when she wrote,
"The rationale for reducing emissions of carbon dioxide is to reduce the risk of the possibility of catastrophic outcomes. Making the transition to cleaner fuels has the added benefit of reducing the impact on public health and ecosystems and improving energy security ... I have yet to see any option that is worse than ignoring the risk of global warming and doing nothing."
Judith Curry of 2007 got it exactly right. Unfortunately she and her fellow climate contrarians no longer seem to grasp these fundamental principles of risk management.
Failing to mitigate global warming by significantly reducing greenhouse gas emissions is fundamentally equivalent to continuing to smoke cigarettes, driving without a seat belt, or refusing to buy homeowner's insurance. Each situation represents the failure to take action to reduce the risks of a very dangerous outcome.
Even if you personally have doubts about the 97 percent expert consensus on human-caused global warming and the threats it represents, there's a good chance you're wrong. You may also doubt the medical science consensus that smoking causes lung cancer, but acting on that doubt by continuing to smoke is a risky decision. The difference is that in the latter case, you're only risking the health of yourself and those in your proximity. In the case of global warming, you're risking the health of entire ecosystems and future generations.
From a risk management perspective, mitigating the undeniable threat of catastrophic climate change is a no-brainer. So let's stop delaying and denying and get to it.Dana Nuccitelli
The raw ingredients in famous brands are vulnerable to political upheaval, changes in agricultural practices and natural disasters
The perfume industry is facing a major problem: maintaining constant levels of quality is crucial, but it is increasingly difficult to obtain a regular supply of all the necessary natural ingredients. Essential oils such as jasmine, rose, vetiver, ilang-ilang, iris, vanilla, sandalwood or lavender cannot be synthesised in the laboratory. But supplies are dwindling and need to be protected, in some cases by the perfume industry itself.
In 1987, for example, Chanel made an agreement to buy all the jasmine flowers produced by the Mul family, which has been the main source of the flowers in France for five generations. Jacques Polge, Chanel's top "nose" since 1978, made the decision when developers started trying to buy up land around Grasse, where the Muls cultivate three hectares of the precious plant.
The crop of fragrant white flowers – between 10 and 15 tonnes a year – is almost entirely used in Chanel No 5, the perfume created by Ernest Beaux in 1921 and now the world's biggest-selling fragrance. The smallest bottle (30ml) contains the equivalent of 1,000 buds. They are hand-picked in the morning to retain as much fragrance as possible, from August to October – and processed the same day.
The partnership between Chanel and the Mul family has since been extended to include Provence rose, iris, tuberose and an old variety of geranium. The factory located nearby is both a laboratory and a processing plant.
At Guerlain, a subsidiary of LVMH, the head perfumier Thierry Wasser was also responsible for starting jasmine production again in Calabria, Italy. "I spend about a quarter of my time in the fields, talking to growers," he says. His quest for new fragrances has taken him as far as the mountains near Kashan, Iran, in search of the Damascus rose, still grown there using traditional methods. It features in a new eau de parfum.
His work takes him to Tunisia too, to supervise the harvest of orange blossom, of which Guerlain distils 100 tonnes a year for its own use. Here too he sources bergamot, a favourite ingredient in his preparations.
Wasser has set aside a bottle of rose oil, which he considers the most remarkable of last year's harvest. It is the result of a perfect balance between dew and sunlight. Much as with the best wines, the raw materials of perfume are always changing, affected by the soil, sunlight, rainfall and temperature. Their price varies too, depending on crop yields.
None of the big three – Chanel, Guerlain and L'Oréal – have any immediate plans to invest more extensively in growing. They see raising the trees and flowers on which they depend for essential oils as a separate business.
But François Demachy, the nose at Christian Dior Parfums and head of the perfumes division at LVMH, reckons diversification into primary production as a likely move for the industry to make. He says he is "considering [investing] further upstream" in the long term. He is certainly concerned about "availability problems" for certain ingredients, which has prompted him to increase the range of sources for some flowers and even to seal an agreement with a Sri Lankan producer of sandalwood – a rare species protected by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (Cites).
"What was Jean-Paul [Guerlain] thinking of when he put so much sandalwood in Samsara?" his successor Wasser jokes. The price of the essential oil has rocketed since 1989 when the perfume was launched.
Each bottle of perfume is made from raw materials whose quality and cost are sensitive to changes in agriculture, politics, natural disasters, climate and disease. All of which can be a major headache for perfumers.
"Rural flight has substantially reduced these micromarkets all over the world. Farmers are tempted to switch to cereals or oil-producing plants, which often pay much better than flowers. The growers who work for the perfume industry and their pickers do not earn a great deal," says Jean-Pierre Coutauchaud, head of speciality raw materials purchasing at L'Oréal. In the perfumes produced by L'Oréal (Trésor, Lancôme, Armani), natural materials only account for 20% of ingredients, the rest being artificial.
"In Indonesia, the Chinese who used to farm the patchouli fields have been persecuted, forcing them to give up their crops, which in turn led to an incredible price rise," Wasser explains. For several months after the earthquake that devastated Haiti in January 2010 vetiver exports stopped, he adds. On the other hand, the Arab spring in 2011 did not affect the supply of jasmine, despite it being mainly sourced from Tunisia and Egypt.
Nearer to home, the lavender fields of Provence have been severely damaged in recent years by insect-borne bacteria.
"We now keep reserves of strategic raw materials – such as vetiver, vanilla and lavender – selected on the basis of three criteria: they can't be synthesised, only come from a single geographical source and are needed in large quantities," says a spokesperson at Givaudan, which manufactures perfume for several brands.
Givaudan, based in Vernier, Switzerland, is taking steps to mitigate shortages. It has launched schemes to protect and sustain sources of endangered raw materials. It has helped tonka bean growers in Venezuela, restarted sandalwood production in Australia, and helped to improve the quality of benzoin resin in Laos and ilang-ilang in the Comoros islands.
Haiti produces half the world's supply of vetiver. Its roots yield an essential oil with a mysterious dry fragrance akin to smoked wood, which Haitians call the "essence of tranquillity". In 2012 Givaudan started working with Agri Supply, the main producer of the oil. Its refurbished vetiver distillery is now the largest in the world. Some 160 farmers in three villages in the Cayes district have formed a co-operative and negotiated a guaranteed minimum price. They also receive technical support from the Swiss firm.
This article appeared in Guardian Weekly, which incorporates material from Le MondeNicole Vulser
Suppressing a hormone that governs metabolism boosts your chances of living to a grand old age, but there's a downside
Would you be prepared to sacrifice your fertility in order to live longer? It's an almost inconceivable dilemma, but one day we could be offered a choice between having children and enhancing our chances of reaching a grand old age.
The idea that fertility and longevity may be intertwined was first mooted in the 1970s when gerontologist Tom Kirkwood, now at the University of Newcastle, proposed his "disposable soma" hypothesis. Over time, our bodies age as a result of natural degeneration or "wear and tear", and Kirkwood suggested that they have a limited energy budget that can either be used to repair damaged cells and halt this decline, or saved to allow us to reproduce.
Thirty years on and advances in genomic techniques have enabled scientists to pinpoint one of the key molecular pathways involved in the ageing process, controlled by a hormone known as IGF-1 (insulin-like growth factor 1).
The link between this particular hormone and longevity was uncovered almost by chance, while biologists were studying the behaviour of a species of worm known as Caenorhabditis elegans. Worms have a special mechanism that kicks in when they're exposed to severe environmental stress: their levels of IGF-1 drop, putting them into a state of hibernation during which they're unable to procreate. But, crucially, they stay alive.
In all mammals, including humans, IGF-1 is believed to initiate a chain of events that controls the way energy is used. There are genes involved that stimulate proteins to begin vital processes such as the repair of damaged cells, which can have a big impact when it comes to postponing the onset of cancer, for example.
However, the type of processes that are initiated depends on the levels of IGF-1, with low levels sending the body into a self-preservation mode, switching energy allocation away from the reproductive organs and devoting resources to maintenance and DNA repair.
Having low levels of IGF-1 can make a big difference when it comes to avoiding some of the most common degenerative illnesses in later life, and we're now getting some fresh insights into how this might work for Alzheimer's disease. This month, psychiatrists from the VU University of Amsterdam report their investigation into the link between IGF-1 and this form of dementia. They found that high levels of IGF-1 in the blood of middle-aged people was associated with a high genetic risk of getting Alzheimer's – the first time such a link has been found in humans. They believe that reduced activity of the hormone prevents the disease from developing.
"Alzheimer's disease in late life is probably driven strongly by spontaneous low-grade inflammation in the brain," explains longevity researcher Maarten Rozing from Leiden University in the Netherlands, who wasn't involved in the research. "So low IGF-1 activity would mean far more molecular activity being devoted to repairing damaged tissue, which can halt the inflammation and prevent it from spreading."
There is more evidence linking low IGF-1 activity and healthy ageing. A recent study looking at centenarians in the Ashkenazi Jewish population of New England found an intriguing genetic link: they were more likely than the general population to carry mutations that reduced the activity of IGF-1.
However, far from being a matter of genetic fate, it may actually be possible to proactively influence the level of IGF-1 in our bodies, since it is related at least partly to diet. Some researchers believe that low-calorie or even low-protein diets can be beneficial, and calorie restriction experiments with mice, starting from birth, have yielded positive results in terms of survival benefits.
"You see the mice living up to 40% longer and [they] are much healthier," Rozing said. "However, it's a little more difficult to examine this in humans, simply because they live so long! But some experiments have shown that calorie restriction can lead to metabolic benefits – such as low chlolesterol and lower blood pressure."
The downside is that while low IGF-1 appears to improve your chances of health ageing, it may also have a drastic effect on your ability to reproduce, especially for females. Genetic experiments in fruit flies in which IGF-1 production is knocked out altogether result in a big increase in lifespan, but also render the insects infertile.
This could prove to be a defining conundrum for future generations of humans. Our natural instinct is not only to reproduce but also prolong our survival for as long as possible, but can we have both?
Researchers from the Institute of Experimental Genetics in Germany and the National Research Centre for Growth and Development in New Zealand, have been looking at ways of manipulating the cascade of processes controlled by IGF-1 –without the need for extreme calorie restriction. One method involves a substance called resveratrol, which is found in red wine and affects energy metabolism. However, just as was predicted by Tom Kirkwood 40 years ago, the evidence suggests that such tinkering leads to a trade-off between longevity and reproduction, reducing fertility.
If it came to it, which would you choose?David Cox