Monthly Archives: October 2015

Meat and tobacco: the difference between risk and strength of evidence

Comparing smoking to bacon in terms of risk of cancer is
extremely misleading, despite the strength of evidence being similar.

Vegetarians are probably breathing a sigh of relief today as
headlines are warning us that processed and cured meats cause cancer. But the
way this message has been framed in the media is extremely misleading.

Comparing meat to tobacco, as most news organisations who’ve
chosen to report this have done, makes it seem like a bacon sandwich might be
just as harmful as a cigarette. This is absolutely not the case.

A bacon sandwich

The headlines are referring to the news that the World
Health Organisation has classified cured and processed meats (bacon, salami,
sausages, ham) as group 1 carcinogens, because there is a causal link between
consuming these meats and bowel cancer. This group also includes tobacco,
alcohol, arsenic and asbestos, all known to cause certain cancers.

But just because all these things cause cancer, doesn’t mean
they’re all as risky as each other. A substance can increase your risk of
cancer a small amount, or, like tobacco, a huge amount. Comparing them like for
like is just really confusing to anyone trying to work out how to lead a
healthy life.

The risk of lung cancer from smoking is extremely high. Of
all cases of lung cancer (44,488 new cases in the UK in 2012), evidence
suggests that 86% of these are caused by tobacco. And lung cancer isn’t the
only type of cancer caused by smoking. CRUK estimate that 19% of all cancers
are caused by smoking. Another way of looking at this is that if smoking was
completely eliminated, there would be 64,500 fewer cases of cancer in the UK
per year.

In contrast, the recent evidence that suggests a causal link
between processed meat and bowel cancer estimates that 21% of bowel cancers
(which occurs at slightly lower rates than lung cancer – 41,600 new cases in
2011) were caused by eating processed and red meat. If all such meat was
eliminated entirely from our diet, they estimate that 8,800 cases of cancer
would be prevented in the UK per year.

All this simplistic reporting ignores a variety of other
factors – the amount you consume, for example, is likely to affect your risk a
great deal. And that’s not to mention addiction – however much you crave a
bacon sandwich at times, it doesn’t contain nicotine.

The WHO have deemed the strength of evidence that processed
meats cause cancer to be equivalent to that showing that smoking causes cancer.
This means that if you eat a lot of red or processed meats you are increasing
your risk of cancer. But to compare it to something as lethal as smoking is
confusing and dangerous.

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Europe and Russia mission to assess Moon settlement

The European and Russian space agencies are
to send a lander to an unexplored area at the Moon’s south pole.

It will be one of a series of missions that
prepares for the return of humans to the surface and a possible permanent
settlement.

The spacecraft will assess whether there is
water, and raw materials to make fuel and oxygen.

BBC News has obtained exclusive details of
the mission, called Luna 27, which is set for launch in five years’ time.

The mission is one of a series led by the
Russian federal space agency, Roscosmos, to go back to the Moon.

These ventures will continue where the
exploration programme that was halted by the Soviet Union in the mid 1970s left
off, according to Prof Igor Mitrofanov, of the Space Research Institute in
Moscow, who is one of the lead scientists.

“We have to go to the Moon. The 21st
Century will be the century when it will be the permanent outpost of human
civilisation, and our country has to participate in this process,” he told
BBC News.

But unlike efforts in the 1960s and 70s,
when the Soviet Union was working in competition with the US and other nations,
he added, “we have to work together with our international
colleagues”.

Full moon: Gregory H. Revera
Bérengère Houdou, who is the head of the lunar
exploration group of at Esa’s European Space Research and Technology Centre
(Estec), just outside Amsterdam, has a similar strategy.

“We have an ambition to have European
astronauts on the Moon. There are currently discussions at international level
going on for broad cooperation on how to go back to the Moon.”

One of the first acts of the new head of
the European Space Agency, Johann-Dietrich Wörner, was to state that he wants
international partners to build a base on the Moon’s far side.

The initial missions will be robotic. Luna
27 will land on the edge of the South Pole Aitken (SPA) basin. The south polar
region has areas which are always dark. These are some of the coldest places in
the Solar System. As such, they are icy prisons for water and other chemicals
that have been shielded from heating by the Sun.

According to Dr James Carpenter, Esa’s lead
scientist on the project, one of the main aims is to investigate the potential
use of this water as a resource for the future, and to find out what it can
tell us about the origins of life in the inner Solar System.

“The south pole of the Moon is unlike
anywhere we have been before,” he said.

“The environment is completely
different, and due to the extreme cold there you could find large amounts of
water-ice and other chemistry which is on the surface, and which we could
access and use as rocket fuel or in life-support systems to support future
human missions we think will go to these locations.”

Back in the heady days of the Apollo
missions, it seemed almost inevitable that those astounding but brief trips to
the Moon would be followed by something more permanent. But the notion of
colonies soon proved to be science fantasy. After the last of 12 astronauts
left their boot prints in the lunar dust in 1972, the US government and
taxpayers collectively declared, “been there, done that”. America had
scored a dazzling point over the Soviet Union but at eye-watering cost, so the
final three planned Apollo missions were cancelled.

For a while, our nearest neighbour in space
seemed rather unappealing. But then, over recent years, came a series of
discoveries about the lunar dust itself, suggesting that the Moon holds water
and minerals that could conceivably help support a settlement, if anyone has
the appetite to pay for it. So a new batch of missions is under way. China
seems to be particularly eager, launching increasingly capable robotic craft
that could pave the way for human flights, sometime in the 2030s.

In all probability, the next boots on the
Moon will be Chinese. One of China’s leading space scientists told me how he
even envisages opening lunar mines to extract valuable resources such as
Helium-3. Throughout history, humanity has gazed at the Moon through different
eyes. In the 1960s, it was the scene for Cold War rivalry. Now it is seen as a
potential staging-post for longer journeys and as a rock waiting to be dug up
and exploited.

Prof Mitrofanov says that there are
scientific and commercial benefits to be had by building a permanent human
presence on the lunar surface.

“It will be for astronomical
observation, for the utilisation of minerals and other lunar resources and to
create an outpost that can be visited by cosmonauts working together as a test
bed for their future flight to Mars.”

Esa and its industrial collaborators are
developing a new type of landing system able to target areas far more precisely
than the missions in the 1960s and 70s. 

The so-called “Pilot” system
uses on-board cameras to navigate and a laser guidance system which is able to sense
the terrain while approaching the surface and be able to decide for itself
whether the landing site is safe or not, and if necessary to re-target to a
better location.

Europe is also providing the drill which is
designed to go down to 2m and collect what might be hard, icy samples.
According to Richard Fisackerly, the project’s lead engineer, these samples
might be harder than reinforced concrete and so the drill will need to be
extremely strong.

“We are currently looking at the
technologies we would need to penetrate that type of material and are looking
at having both rotation and hammering functions. The final architecture has yet
to be decided – but this combination of rotation, hammering and depth is a step
beyond what we have already flown or is in development today,” he told BBC
News.

Esa will also provide the onboard
miniaturised laboratory, called ProSPA. It will be similar to the instrument on
the Philae lander, which touched down on the surface of Comet 67P last year.
But ProSPA will be tuned to searching for the key ingredients with which to
make water, oxygen, fuel and other materials that can be exploited by future
astronauts.

The instrument will help scientists
discover out how much of these critical resources are under the surface, and, crucially,
whether they can be extracted easily.

Europe’s participation in the mission is
due to receive final approval at a meeting of ministers in late 2016. It has
the strong support of Esa and Roscosmos hierarchy, and the scientists involved
in Luna 27 are confident that it is not a question of if but when humans go
back to the lunar surface.

“This whole series of missions feels
like the beginning of the return to the Moon but it is also starting something
new in terms of overall exploration of the Solar System,” says Mr
Fisackerly.

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Unexpected information about Earth’s climate history from Yellow River sediment

By meticulously examining sediments in China’s Yellow River,
a Swedish-Chinese research group are showing that the history of tectonic and
climate evolution on Earth may need to be rewritten. 

Their findings are
published today in the highly reputed journal Nature Communications.

To reconstruct how the global climate and topography of the
Earth’s surface have developed over millions of years, deposits of eroded land
sediment transported by rivers to ocean depths are often used. This process is
assumed to have been rapid and, by the same token, not to have resulted in any
major storages of this sediment as large deposits along the way.

However, knowledge gaps and contradictory data in research
to date are impeding an understanding of climate and landscape history. In an
attempt to fill the gaps and reconcile the contradictions, the researchers have
been investigating present-day and ancient sediment deposits in the world’s
most sediment-rich river: the Yellow River in China.

The researchers, from Uppsala University (led by Dr. Thomas
Stevens) and Lanzhou University (led by Dr. Junsheng Nie), China, analysed
Yellow River sediment from source to sink and determined its mineral
composition. They also determined the age of mineral grains of zircon, a very
hard silicate mineral that is highly resistant to weathering.

Zircon ages serve as a unique fingerprint that yields
information about the sources of these sediment residues from mountain chains,
according to Thomas Stevens of Uppsala University’s Department of Earth
Sciences, one of the principal authors of the study.

The Yellow River is believed to gain most of its sediment
from wind-blown mineral dust deposits called loess, concentrated on the Chinese
Loess Plateau. This plateau is the largest and one of the most important past
climate archives on land, and also records past atmospheric dust activity: a
major driver of climate change.

The scientists found that the composition of sediment from
the Yellow River underwent radical change after passing the Chinese Loess
Plateau. Contrary to their expectations, however, the windborne loess was not
the main source of the sediment. Instead, they found that the Loess Plateau
acts as a sink for Yellow River material eroded from the uplifting Tibetan
plateau.

This finding completely changes our understanding of the
origin of the Chinese Loess Plateau. It also demonstrates large scale sediment
storage on land, which explains the previously contradictory findings in this
area.

‘Our results suggest that a major change in the monsoon
around 3.6 million years ago caused the onset of Yellow River drainage,
accelerated erosion of the Tibetan plateau and drove loess deposition,’ Thomas
Stevens writes.

Weathering of this eroded material also constitutes a
further mechanism that may explain the reduced levels of atmospheric carbon
dioxide at the beginning of the Ice Age. The researchers’ next step will be to
compare terrestrial and marine records of erosion to gauge how far sediment
storage on land has impacted the marine record.

‘Only then will we be able to assess the true rates of erosion
and its effect on atmospheric CO2 and thus the climate in geologic time,’ says
Stevens.

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On this day in history – the first patent for carbon paper was secured

In 1806, Englishman Ralph Wedgwood secured the first patent
for carbon paper, which he described as an “apparatus for producing duplicates
of writings.” In his process, thin paper was saturated with printer’s ink, then
dried between sheets of blotting paper.

His idea for the carbon paper was a byproduct of his
invention of a machine to help blind people write, and the “black paper” was
really just a substitute for ink. In its original form, Wedgwood’s
“Stylographic Writer” employed a metal stylus instead of a quill for writing,
with the carbon paper placed between two sheets of paper in order to transfer a
copy onto the bottom sheet.

A sheet of carbon paper, with the coating side down. 

The manufacture of carbon paper was formerly the largest
consumer of montan wax. In 1954 the Columbia Ribbon & Carbon Manufacturing
Company filed a patent for what became known in the trade as solvent carbon
paper: the coating was changed from wax-based to polymer-based.

The manufacturing process changed from a hot-melt method to
a solvent-applied coating or set of coatings. It was then possible to use
polyester or other plastic film as a substrate, instead of paper, although the
name remained carbon paper.

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