Science

New Scientist: Why cracking nuclear fusion will depend on artificial intelligence

THE big joke about sustainable nuclear fusion is that it has always been 30 years away. Like any joke, it contains a kernel of truth. The dream of harnessing the reaction that powers the sun was big news in the 1950s, just around the corner in the 1980s, and the hottest bet of the past decade.

But time is running out. Our demand for energy is burning up the planet, depleting its resources and risking damaging Earth beyond repair. Wind, solar and tidal energy provide some relief, but they are limited and unpredictable. Nuclear fission comes with the dangers of reactor meltdowns and radioactive waste, while hydropower can be ecologically disruptive. Fusion, on the other hand, could provide almost limitless energy without releasing carbon dioxide or producing radioactive waste. It is the dream power source. The perennial question is: can we make it a reality?

Perhaps now, finally, we can. That isn’t just because of the myriad fusion start-ups increasingly sensing a lucrative market opportunity just around the corner and challenging the primacy of the traditional big-beast projects. Or just because of innovative approaches, materials and technologies that are fuelling an optimism that we can at last master fusion’s fiendish complexities. It is also because of the entrance of a new player, one that could change the rules of the game: artificial intelligence. In the right hands, it might make the next 30 years fly by.

Sky News: Health minister Helen Whately blames scientists for care home deaths – then quickly rows back

A minister said the government could pin the blame on scientific advisers for ministers’ handling of the coronavirus in care homes, before quickly rowing back.

Health minister Helen Whately was challenged over the effect of COVID-19 in adult social care during an interview with Sky News.

She told Kay Burley@Breakfast that there was guidance for care homes “very early” in the coronavirus pandemic.

“At all points in this we follow the scientific guidance as to what is the right thing to do,” Ms Whately added.

When it was put to the minister that “you can’t stick this on the scientists”, she replied: “Well, I can.”

CNBC: WHO walks back comments on asymptomatic coronavirus spread, says much is still unknown

The World Health Organization walked back comments made Monday when one of its top scientists said transmission of the coronavirus by people who never developed symptoms is “very rare,” which drew skepticism from physicians and others across social media. 

That admission sent shock waves throughout the world, much of which has been locked down for months for fear of spreading the virus by people who show no signs of illness. 

Dr. Maria Van Kerkhove, head of the WHO’s emerging diseases and zoonosis unit, said Tuesday that asymptomatic spread is a “really complex question” and much is still unknown. “We don’t actually have that answer yet,” she said.

“I was responding to a question at the press conference. I wasn’t stating a policy of WHO or anything like that. I was just trying to articulate what we know,” she said on a live Q&A streamed across multiple social media platforms. “And in that, I used the phrase ‘very rare,’ and I think that that’s misunderstanding to state that asymptomatic transmission globally is very rare. I was referring to a small subset of studies.”

New Scientist: Is it safe for coronavirus ‘shielders’ in the UK to go outside now?

THE easing of lockdown restrictions in the UK has prompted growing concern from those taking extra precautions because they are particularly vulnerable to the coronavirus. On 31 May, the UK government announced that so-called shielders in England and Wales could now leave their homes. But what is the evidence behind the idea of shielding vulnerable people, and is it really safe for this to now stop?

Many countries have told those thought to be at higher risk from coronavirus due to illness or age to take extra safety precautions. But because this virus is so new, advice has largely been based on people’s best judgements, rather than scientific evidence, and the details of the advice has varied between countries.

The UK has been unusual in distinguishing between two groups of people at higher risk. In March, letters were sent to about 2 million people thought to be “clinically extremely vulnerable”, including some people with cancer, lung conditions such as severe asthma, and those who had had an organ transplant or have weak immune systems. Recipients were told they should stay home at all times. If they had no friends or family who could fetch essentials, they could get food parcels sent.

New Scientist: How the coronavirus pandemic is fuelling online trolls and scams

AS GOVERNMENTS battle to contain the transmission of covid‑19, they have also struggled to stymie the spread of related online misinformation and vitriol.

The pandemic has resulted in the rapid propagation of conspiracy theories that pose a risk to public health, a surge in online anti-Asian hate speech and a proliferation of covid-19 scams.

Much of the misinformation shared online about coronavirus is being disseminated by sites that have peddled conspiracy theories about other topics, such as vaccines and the 9/11 attacks, says John Gregory at NewsGuard, a …

New Scientist: Longest known comet tail stretched for over a billion kilometres Read more:

Findings from NASA’s Cassini spacecraft have revealed a record-breaking comet, with an ion tail that stretched more than seven times the distance between Earth and the sun.

Geraint Jones at University College London and his colleagues looked through past data from the mission in 2002, when Cassini was on its way from Jupiter to Saturn. The spacecraft used its plasma instrument from 2001 to 2003 to study charged particles from the sun called the solar wind.

Jones and his team found a notable increase in protons detected …

The Verge: SOMETHING IN THE AIR

Naveed Qureshi always knew his job was important, but as a telecoms engineer working in East London, it didn’t always feel that way. He spent each week patrolling his patch of the city, riding out in his van to maintain the miles upon miles of copper wire and fiber optic cable that kept the capital online. Schools, hospitals, and businesses all relied on this invisible network, and with the pandemic forcing people to work from home, there was more strain on the system than ever before. His job felt undeniably essential. He just wished it wasn’t dangerous, too.

Since the UK entered lockdown in March, engineers like Qureshi had unwillingly found themselves on the front line of a strange global crusade. Conspiracy theorists had linked the spread of the novel coronavirus to the installation of new 5G mobile networks, with some claiming the cellular network weakened the immune system and allowed the virus to thrive, while others said 5G masts were broadcasting the virus through the ether (all “crackpot” claims, to quote the UK government). The thing these theories have in common is that they give people someone to blame. And though some of that paranoia comes from a reasonable mistrust of large corporations and institutions, the end target was always workers like Qureshi, out on the street in high-visibility vests, just trying to do their job.

New Scientist: Why have there been so many coronavirus deaths in the UK?

THE UK has been a leader in its coronavirus response, but not in a way any government would aspire to. The country now has the highest absolute excess deaths in Europe, 59,537 more than usual since the week ending 20 March, and the second highest per million people, behind only Spain for countries with comparable data, according to a Financial Times analysis. The total number of confirmed covid-19 deaths at the time of writing was second only to the US, and was still rising by more than 100 a day.

“Not knowing they were infected, many people were carrying on as normal and infecting others”

“I think it’s nothing short of a disgrace, and a dereliction of duty,” says former UK chief scientific adviser David King about the figures, which are coupled with more than a quarter of a million lab-confirmed cases.

The Guardian: Surgisphere: governments and WHO changed Covid-19 policy based on suspect data from tiny US company

The World Health Organization and a number of national governments have changed their Covid-19 policies and treatments on the basis of flawed data from a little-known US healthcare analytics company, also calling into question the integrity of key studies published in some of the world’s most prestigious medical journals.

A Guardian investigation can reveal the US-based company Surgisphere, whose handful of employees appear to include a science fiction writer and an adult-content model, has provided data for multiple studies on Covid-19 co-authored by its chief executive, but has so far failed to adequately explain its data or methodology.

Data it claims to have legitimately obtained from more than a thousand hospitals worldwide formed the basis of scientific articles that have led to changes in Covid-19 treatment policies in Latin American countries. It was also behind a decision by the WHO and research institutes around the world to halt trials of the controversial drug hydroxychloroquine. On Wednesday, the WHO announced those trials would now resume.

Two of the world’s leading medical journals – the Lancet and the New England Journal of Medicine – published studies based on Surgisphere data. The studies were co-authored by the firm’s chief executive, Sapan Desai.

Late on Tuesday, after being approached by the Guardian, the Lancet released an “expression of concern” about its published study. The New England Journal of Medicine has also issued a similar notice.

An independent audit of the provenance and validity of the data has now been commissioned by the authors not affiliated with Surgisphere because of “concerns that have been raised about the reliability of the database”.

The Guardian: UK hospitals to trial five new drugs in search for coronavirus treatment

Five new drugs are to be trialled in 30 hospitals across the country in the race to find a treatment for Covid-19, it has emerged.

Just days after World Health Organization trials of hydroxychloroquine, the drug promoted by Donald Trump as a cure, were halted, British scientists are looking to sign up hundreds of patients for trials of medicines they hope will prevent people becoming ill enough to need intensive care or ventilators.

They range from drugs such as Heparin, which is used for blood thinning, to therapies still in clinical trial for conditions such as muscular, lung and blood disorders,which have evidence of potent anti-viral or anti-inflammatory properties.

Vox: Revenge of the experts: Will COVID-19 renew or diminish trust in science?

It is argued that COVID-19 will reverse the ongoing trend of challenging the value of science and the integrity of scientists. This column shows that exposure to epidemics in one’s country of residence during the ‘impressionable years’ of ages 18 to 25 has no impact on confidence in science as an enterprise, but negatively affects views of the honesty and public-spiritedness of scientists.

COVID-19 will change everything. (For overviews of the implications, see Benassy-Quere et al. 2020 and Benassy-Quere and Weder di Mauro 2020.) One effect, it has been argued, will be to reverse the secular trend of challenging the value of scientific expertise.  “The coronavirus crisis has put a spotlight on the importance of science in supporting our nation’s well being” (Shepherd 2020). At the same time, the pandemic has put on display certain leaders’ “longstanding practice of undermining scientific expertise for political purposes” (Friedman and Plumer 2020), conceivably with negative implications for how the public views science and scientists. All of which points to the question posed by Grove (2020): “Will the coronavirus renew public trust in science?” 

New Statesman: The silence of the chief scientists is worrying and deeply political

The chief medical officer, Chris Whitty, and chief scientific adviser, Patrick Vallance, did not speak out when asked about the Dominic Cummings affair, compromising urgent public health messaging. This makes their positions untenable.

In the astonishing UK government update on the pandemic on the evening of Thursday 28 May, we watched the relationship between government and science collapse before our eyes. Much of the media coverage has focused on Boris Johnson’s muzzling of his chief medical officer (CMO) Chris Whitty and chief scientific adviser (CSA) Patrick Vallance, as he intervened to prevent them from answering questions about the public health repercussions of Dominic Cummings breaking the lockdown rules. But that much was business as usual: we should by now be used to this increasingly isolated prime minister shutting down inconvenient debate.