Category Archives for "Science"
In the space of two days, two large asteroids will have passed by Earth.
On Sunday a piece of space rock the size of Blackpool Tower shot past our planet, moving at a speed of eight miles per second.
At that speed the asteroid could’ve travelled from London to New York in just over seven minutes!
Although the asteroid known as 2010 FR was at a distance of 4.6 million miles away – that is still close(ish) in space terms.
Nasa has classified the rock as a Near-Earth Object (NEO) and says the asteroid is “potentially hazardous”, meaning one day in the future its orbit could see it move closer to a collision course with the Earth.
That might sound scary, but there are lots of asteroids that Nasa constantly monitors which are classed as hazardous. However, the chances of them hitting Earth are still very small.
And Nasa also has a plan to knock any pieces of space rock that could hit the planet, off course.
Asteroid 2010 FR isn’t Earth’s only close encounter with a chunk of space rock this month.
On 8 September, an asteroid known as 2020 PT4 will move past the Earth and the Moon, in what Nasa is also describing as a “near-Earth” approach.
This asteroid is much smaller than 2010 FR but is travelling even faster, at a speed of seven miles per second.
This space rock will also pass much closer to the planet, about 4.9 times the distance between the Earth and the Moon, which is just over one million miles away.
The asteroid is about the length of two lorries, and although that seems big, if it collided with Earth at any point in the future, it would probably explode in the atmosphere causing minimal damage.
Meanwhile just last month, Nasa missed a car-sized asteroid that flew past the planet – it was the closest near miss with a space rock ever recorded.
Although some asteroids get a little too close for comfort, Nasa says it’s a perfect time to study parts of the solar system that have remained relatively unchanged for billions of years.
“NEOs (Near-Earth Objects) are comets and asteroids that have been nudged by the gravitational attraction of nearby planets into orbits that allow them to enter the Earth’s neighbourhood,” Nasa says.
“The scientific interest in comets and asteroids is due largely to their status as the relatively unchanged remnant debris from the solar system formation process some 4.6 billion years ago.”
Explaining the formation of planets such as Earth and Mars, Nasa says “today’s asteroids are the bits and pieces left over”.
US health officials have rowed back on controversial advice issued last month that said people without Covid-19 symptoms should not get tested.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) now says anyone in close contact with a known infected person should take a test.
Friday’s “clarification” returns the CDC’s stance on testing to its previous guidance, before the August alteration.
Reports said the controversial advice had not been given by scientists.
Sources quoted by the New York Times said it had been posted on the CDC website despite experts’ objections.
Most US states had then rejected the guidance, Reuters reported, in a stinging rebuke to the nation’s top disease prevention agency.
Some observers suggested the controversial move could have reflected a desire by President Donald Trump to reduce the growing tally of Covid-19 cases.
At a rally in June, Mr Trump told supporters he had urged officials to “slow the testing down, please”. A White House official dismissed the remark as a joke.
However, administration officials denied any political motive, telling Reuters that the change reflected “current evidence and best public health practices”.
Experts welcomed the change of tack on Friday.
“The return to a science-based approach to testing guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is good news for public health and for our united fight against this pandemic,” said Thomas File, president of the Infectious Diseases Society of America.
In its “overview of testing” for healthcare workers the CDC now says: “Due to the significance of asymptomatic and pre-symptomatic transmission, this guidance further reinforces the need to test asymptomatic persons, including close contacts of a person with documented SARS-CoV-2 infection.”
It advises people to take a test “if you have been in close contact, such as within 6ft of a person with documented SARS-CoV-2 infection for at least 15 minutes and do not have symptoms”.
The US has recorded nearly seven million cases of coronavirus, more than a fifth of the world’s total. It has the world’s highest death toll, with nearly 200,000 fatalities.
Japan’s governing party has elected Yoshihide Suga as its new leader to succeed Shinzo Abe, meaning he is almost certain to become the country’s next prime minister.
Last month Mr Abe announced his resignation for reasons of ill health.
Mr Suga, 71, serves as chief cabinet secretary in the current administration and was widely expected to win.
He is considered a close ally of Mr Abe and likely to continue his predecessor’s policies.
Mr Suga won the vote for the presidency of the conservative Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) by a large margin, taking 377 of a total of 534 votes from lawmakers and regional representatives.
He saw off two other contenders – Fumio Kishida, a former foreign minister, and Shigeru Ishiba, a former LDP secretary-general and one time defence minister.
Now that the party has chosen its new leader, there will be another vote on Wednesday in parliament, where Mr Suga is almost certain to be made prime minister because of the LDP’s majority.
Taking over mid-term, Mr Suga is expected to stay in post until elections due in September 2021.
Born the son of strawberry farmers, Mr Suga is a veteran politician.
Given his central role of chief cabinet secretary in the administration, he is expected to provide continuity heading an interim government until the 2021 election.
“Shinzo Abe and the other party bosses picked and joined the bandwagon for Mr Suga precisely because he was the best ‘continuity’ candidate, someone who they think could continue Abe government without Abe,” Koichi Nakano, dean and political science professor at Tokyo’s Sophia University, told the BBC.
While not considered the most energetic or passionate politician, Mr Suga has a reputation of being very efficient and practical.
One of his most prominent appearances recently was during the transition from Emperor Akihito, who abdicated, to his son Naruhito in 2019. It fell to Mr Suga to unveil the name of the new Reiwa era to the Japanese and global public.
Yet, while he was the favourite to clinch the LDP leadership after Mr Abe’s resignation, it is much less clear whether he will lead the party in next year’s general election.
Observers suggest that by then, the party dynamic could shift to put a more vibrant man at the helm who can reach a wider general electorate.
Mr Suga has promised to continue with “Abenomics”, Mr Abe’s signature economic policy that was designed to stimulate the world’s third biggest economy through monetary easing, fiscal spending and structural reforms.
But like his predecessor he will first need to tackle the pressing demands of the coronavirus pandemic.
Ahead of his election Mr Suga had pledged to expand Covid-19 testing and source vaccines for Japan by the first half of 2021.
He also said he would raise the minimum wage, promote agricultural reforms and boost tourism.
On foreign policy, too, he is expected to follow in Mr Abe’s footsteps, prioritising Japan’s long-running alliance with the US while also maintaining stable relations with China.
The leadership transition comes at a difficult time for the country. Japan is still struggling with the coronavirus pandemic which has caused its biggest economic slump on record.
Mr Abe’s long-standing project of kickstarting the economy, dubbed Abenomics was, even before the pandemic hit, still a work in progress and the country has seen several years of stagnation, recession or only very slow growth.
There’s also unfinished business in the government’s plans to reform the post-war pacifist constitution. Mr Abe wanted to change a section in the constitution to formally recognise Japan’s military, which is currently called the Self Defence Force and is essentially barred from participating in any international military mandates.
For all those projects, a new administration under Mr Suga could provide stability.
But during his time as chief cabinet secretary, he was “remarkably lacking in vision”, Prof Nakano cautions.
“The only slogan he came up with is “Self help, mutual help, and public help” – emphasising neoliberal self-help and self-responsibility at the time of [a] pandemic that is exposing a whole lot of people to economic vulnerability.”
New general elections for the Diet, the lower house, are scheduled for September 2021 and by then, there will likely be another leadership contest within the LDP.
That contest will be more about who can win over the general electorate – rather than merely promise continuity, observers say.
Mr Abe said he did not want his illness to get in the way of decision making, and apologised to the Japanese people for failing to complete his term in office.
The 65-year-old has suffered for many years from ulcerative colitis, an inflammatory bowel disease, but he said his condition had worsened recently.
Last year, he became Japan’s longest serving prime minister. His current period in office began in 2012.
He abruptly resigned from a previous term as prime minister in 2007 also because of his chronic condition.
Throughout this article Quinn is referred to as ‘they/their’ rather than ‘she/her’ to respect their wishes around use of pronouns. Quinn has also dispensed with what they call their “dead” former first name.
“When I was figuring out who I was, it was really scary and I didn’t really understand if I had a future in football, if I had a future in life.”
Quinn doesn’t like living in the spotlight. Yet as a professional athlete, it often comes with the territory.
But little provides a greater platform than sport, and despite being a self-proclaimed introvert, Quinn recognised the power of using that platform and of “being visible”.
And so, earlier this month, Quinn, a defender for Canada’s women’s football team, publicly came out as transgender.
“It’s really difficult when you don’t see people like yourself in the media or even around you or in your profession. I was operating in the space of being a professional footballer and I wasn’t seeing people like me,” Quinn tells BBC Sport.
Quinn, who has five goals and 59 caps for Canada, won Olympic bronze at Rio 2016 and played at the 2019 World Cup.
The 25-year-old remains eligible to compete in women’s sport despite identifying as transgender because gender identity differs from a person’s sex – their physical biology.
Most people, unless they’re non-binary, have a gender identity of male or female.
Quinn was assigned female at birth but after many years of questioning themselves, realised their own gender identity did not match their sex.
In an exclusive interview, Quinn tells BBC Sport how there are still “spaces of ignorance” in women’s football, their Olympic ambitions, and their concern as sporting governing bodies start to weigh up transgender policies.
On coming out as transgender in an Instagram post earlier this month, it marked the end of Quinn living “essentially two different lives”.
“I really didn’t like feeling like I had a disconnect between different parts of my life, being a public figure, and so I wanted to live authentically,” they say.
“I think being visible is huge and it’s something that helped me when I was trying to figure out my identity.
“I wanted to pass that along and then hopefully other people will come out as well if they feel safe to do so and I can create a safer space for them.”
Quinn had their first interactions with transgender people at college and it was at that point, they say, that they “really understood that was who I was”.
“I couldn’t verbalise what I was feeling before and I didn’t have the right language to articulate how I was feeling before that.
“We live in a world that is so binary and I have been receiving messages ever since I was a young child about how I should act, how I should portray myself and how I should be and anything that deviated from that was essentially wrong.
“I wanted to live my authentic self, dress the way I wanted to, present the way I wanted to, and that wasn’t always seen as positive, so that was really hard to digest.”
Those in Quinn’s personal circle have known their identity for some time, and the reaction from Canada team-mates, who they told in an email, was “overwhelmingly positive”.
For “the most part”, women’s football is a supportive space, adds Quinn – who is currently on loan at Swedish club Vittsjo GIK from the American National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) side OL Reign – but there are still “spaces of ignorance”.
“It’s been a really long ride with [Canada team-mates] and they are people who I consider some of my best friends,” Quinn says. “A lot of those players have been my concrete supports going through this process.
“I think when looking at the larger realm of women’s football there still are spaces of ignorance and there is a little bit of push back, so those are definitely opinions that I want to see change over a period of time and to create a completely safe space for me, because quite honestly I don’t think sport is there yet and women’s football is there yet.”
Despite their team-mates’ acceptance and support, Quinn admits there is “still a lot of learning to be done”.
“I’m really open for my team-mates wanting to talk to me,” Quinn says. “I wasn’t taught throughout the course of my life what it meant to be trans, all the language around it. I think that’s something that’s new for a lot of people.
“Once I started living more authentically in my life, whether that’s just how I present myself or coming out to them as trans, I think they’ve all said to me it’s really incredible to see me just live my authentic self and how I’ve exuded a different level of confidence, and how it just fits with who I am as a person.”
Quinn hopes to take their visibility as a transgender athlete to sport’s greatest level by playing at next year’s rearranged Olympics in Tokyo, something which would make them “incredibly proud”.
“That was one of the reasons why I came out publicly, it’s because I want to be visible and I think the Olympics is a massive platform to have that visibility,” Quinn adds.
“It’s my hope that I might be the first and that’s really exciting, but it’s also my hope that there are other people following in my footsteps and so I hope that it opens the door to other trans athletes being represented at the Olympics.”
Since 2004, transgender athletes have been allowed to compete at the Olympics.
Those who have transitioned from female to male are allowed to do so without restriction. However, current International Olympic Committee guidelines, issued in November 2015, state that transgender women (those who have transitioned from male to female) must suppress testosterone levels for at least 12 months before competition.
Explicit IOC guidelines do not currently exist for non-binary athletes – those whose gender identity falls outside the categories of man or woman.
The IOC says it is trying to strike the right balance of fair and equal competition, while not excluding trans athletes from the opportunity to participate.
These rules will be in place for Tokyo 2020 but a consultation process is ongoing.
Quinn’s announcement comes at a time when various governing bodies are weighing up their own policies towards transgender athlete participation, with World Rugby proposing to ban trans women from contact rugby.
“I think it is really concerning,” Quinn says.
“We created this rigidity that anyone who goes against the white colonial depiction of what it is to be a woman is getting excluded from our sports realms and I don’t think that’s fair, I think that’s taking away opportunity and joy from a variety of people.
“I think that we need to focus on why we’re in sports in the first place and the celebration of the excellence of our bodies.”
However, critics say it is unfair to have a trans woman competing in female sport with a biologically male body.
Last year, former Olympic swimmer Sharron Davies said Olympic chiefs should not use women’s sport as a “live experiment” on the issue of transgender athletes.
The 1980 silver medallist believes people born biologically male who transition after puberty will retain a physical advantage over their competitors, and that their participation should be limited until the science is clear on the issue.
Davies, along with Dame Kelly Holmes, double gold medal winner at the 2004 Olympics, and former marathon world record holder Paula Radcliffe, with the support of 60 other top-class athletes, wrote to IOC president Thomas Bach in March 2019 urging him to further investigate the issue.
Quinn says: “I don’t think that trans women should be excluded. I think that’s a really concerning conversation that we’re having right now. I think that we need to create those inclusive spaces for everybody.
“We have such biases as people and we are taught such rigid things in terms of the gender binary growing up that I would just like people to take a step back for a second.
“Think about the biases that they’re putting on people and the assumptions that they’re putting on people because that’s not beneficial to the world as a whole.
“I’m just another person doing the thing that I love to do and I get the privilege do that every day on the pitch.”
The BBC’s anti-disinformation team has been looking into misleading and false claims about coronavirus tests, a death in police custody and the origins of the pandemic.
Social media posts shared more than 2,500 times have claimed incorrectly that recent legislation would allow the UK government to take DNA samples from people having a Covid-19 test.
This is a covert plan for the “harvesting and retention of DNA”, they say.
But the legislation cited does not relate to samples taken for coronavirus testing.
It had nothing to do with testing, the Home Office told the BBC.
Its purpose was to extend the time DNA and fingerprint records could be kept under anti-terrorism laws, because staff with security clearance had had only limited access to their IT systems during the pandemic.
“Owing to the ongoing impact of coronavirus, the government has further extended the retention deadlines for biometrics data being retained by counter-terrorism policing for national security,” an official added.
The claims emerged last week and spread across Facebook, Reddit and Twitter, with coronavirus sceptics, supporters of the anti-vaccination movement and anti-5G and QAnon conspiracy theories all questioning the legislation.
At the weekend, thousands of people gathered at an anti-lockdown protest in London. According to the Metropolitan Police 32 arrests were made.
Someone who has gained a following on social media after falsely linking 5G networks to coronavirus posted on Facebook “the Met Police murdered an innocent man” on Saturday afternoon.
As the false story spread on social media and messenger apps, the Metropolitan Police issued a denial on their Twitter account.
The man became unwell while being arrested, was taken to hospital and subsequently released into police custody, they said.
When we contacted the police on Monday, we were told that he remains in custody, having been arrested on suspicion of assault on police and possession of Class A drugs.
The BBC science team has looked at claims that coronavirus was released from a lab and found no credible scientific evidence.
But now a Chinese virologist has claimed on British and American television the coronavirus is “not from nature” and was created in a Chinese lab.
Former University of Hong Kong research fellow Dr Li-Meng Yan, made these claims on ITV’s Loose Women programme and then repeated them on Fox News.
Her research was posted on a website and has since been viewed more than 500,000 times.
Links to it have also been shared across multiple platforms, including Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.
It claims specific characteristics of the virus show it was artificially manipulated.
But the scientific basis for this has been dismissed by other scientists.
“While to a non-virologist this may seem legitimate,” Columbia University virologist Dr Angela Rasmussen said, “the primary claims made in the paper are demonstrably untrue and easily debunked.”
She said the characteristics of the virus that the paper claims are unusual arise naturally in other viruses, and there is no indication they have been engineered.
University of Southampton senior research fellow in global health Dr Michael Head pointed to a peer-reviewed study from March that found no evidence for the claim.
The new study had not been formally peer-reviewed, he said, and “does not obviously offer any data that overrides previous research”.
Dr Andrew Preston, an expert in microbial pathogenesis, at the University of Bath, said the claims were “unsubstantiated.”
Dr Li-Meng Yan has not responded to a BBC request for comment.
Posts claiming wearing a mask can cause pleurisy – an inflammation of the tissue around the lungs, sometimes caused by an infection – have been circulating on social media.
One post shared more than 1,200 times on Facebook shows a stained mask with the words: “Your child is going to get very sick very soon and it won’t be with corona. It will be pleurisy. “
Another – shared more than 2,000 times on Facebook alone by users promoting an anti-vaccination agenda and opposing local lockdowns in the UK, Ireland, Romania and the US – describes testimony from a “friend” whose daughter is said to have become ill with pleurisy and blames wearing a mask.
But medical experts say there is no evidence masks can cause pleurisy.
The World Health Organization recommends:
Additional reporting by Alistair Coleman and Marianna Spring
A great migration is under way. Children have returned to school and students are beginning to leave for university. Will the UK be able to avoid the outbreaks experienced at some US universities, asks Dr John Wright of Bradford Royal Infirmary.
In the hospital we continue to see small numbers of patients with Covid-19. We walk a tightrope of preparing for the autumn surge while trying to get all our normal clinical care waiting lists back to pre-pandemic levels. The lull in acute cases provides a tense truce. In the empty visitors’ car parks discarded facemasks are the new tumbleweed.
Meanwhile in the city the fever is rising. Every day the coronavirus needle flickers upwards; it’s tempting to tap the dial in the hope that is just a malfunction. By Friday the incidence rate has crept up towards 80 per 100,000 and the case positivity rate towards 8%, from less than 50 per 100,000 and 5% just two weeks ago.
And this is happening in the middle of the largest population movement seen since the start of the pandemic in March. Last week eight million children and young people returned cautiously to school – it will be a couple of weeks before we have an accurate picture of how many outbreaks are occurring in the classroom.
Universities will be next over the trenches. Next week about two million students will start back at university – young people with some of the highest rates of Covid-19, and they will come from all over the country to congregate in large numbers in university cities and campuses. They will both give and take SARS-CoV-2.
In the US, where students went back after their summer vacation last month, this has caused serious problems. The New York Times has counted tens of thousands of new cases at colleges and universities in the last few weeks.
So how has the University of Bradford been preparing for the start of term?
Vice Chancellor Prof Shirley Congdon tells me about 60% or 70% of the curriculum will be taught online, the rest will be face-to-face. Where students need to assemble, for laboratory work for example, an attempt will be made to keep them in small bubbles – though as the vice chancellor points out, different students choose different modules, so bubbles will inevitably overlap.
Freshers’ week is going to look very different this year, and not just because of the masks, thermometers and guidance pamphlets that each new student will receive in a welcome pack.
“The Students’ Union is working with us to do activities where we can have groups where 20 or 30 students maximum experience a campus activity. And then that will be repeated again at a different time of the day or week,” Shirley Congdon says.
But when it comes to socialising, she accepts that students are going to do their own thing.
“We don’t want to enforce a police state, nor could we,” she says. “So what we’re trying to do with students and our staff is really create a big community that understands the importance of following social distancing, making sure that we all understand the risks.”
The university is ready for test and trace, following guidance from Public Health England. It would be great if the university could carry out tests itself, Shirley Congdon says, “but that’s not been offered to us yet”.
Prof John Wright, a doctor and epidemiologist, is head of the Bradford Institute for Health Research, and a veteran of cholera, HIV and Ebola epidemics in sub-Saharan Africa. He is writing this diary for BBC News and recording from the hospital wards for BBC Radio.
As many of the positive cases now being detected are among young people with mild or no symptoms, the eyes of the nation are glaring down at them as they revel in the joy and freedom of youth.
It seems unfair to blame them, though, when we are giving out such mixed messages. Go to the pub, eat out to help out, go to university. But keep your distance, don’t mingle, stay home when you can.
Mark Mon-Williams, a professor of psychology at the University of Leeds and the Bradford Institute of Health Research, makes the point that it’s unrealistic to expect young people not to socialise, and that this is a time when it’s important for their personal development to meet new people.
“So I think we really should think seriously about how we can support young people to have those social interactions, while maintaining the overall safety of the population,” he says.
In his view, viral transmission on campus, under the new teaching regimes that have been introduced at British universities, is likely to be less of a problem than in student accommodation. In the US, according to an editorial in the British Medical Journal, asymptomatic students infected one another “at lightning speed” in halls of residence and off-campus housing. A fellow psychologist at Indiana University in the US tells Prof Mon-Williams that all teaching has now gone online, the campus is deserted and that some fraternities and sororities (male and female societies with their own residential buildings) have infection rates of 80%.
Like most other northern universities, the University of Bradford stands proudly at the heart of the city, surrounded by inner city wards. It is in these wards that we are seeing by far the highest levels of positive SARS-CoV-2 test results, and in these wards where most of the student accommodation lies waiting – bare walls waiting to be decorated with student posters, silent corridors waiting to be filled with laughter and late-night conversations that will put the world to rights.
Ethan Chapman, 19, who is returning to Bradford from his home in Lancaster for the second year of a course in Paramedic Science, says it’s difficult to predict how the pandemic will affect his course and his social life.
“In relation to parties, the school leavers will miss an opportunity,” he thinks. “It’s hard to know if people will still party, especially with Bradford being such a hotspot.”
He expects students will be urged to stay within the bubbles that they find themselves in, through sharing kitchens and bathrooms in halls, or shared houses. But some people won’t enjoy having their social life curtailed in this way, he predicts, and will want to socialise with a wider group.
Though he was pulled off a placement working with qualified paramedics at the start of the pandemic, he is expecting to be equipped with a fitted mask and other PPE, and for placements this year to go ahead.
An added challenge in Bradford is that many students – about half of the total – live at home, with the consequent risk that they will carry the virus to older and more vulnerable family members.
In Britain, in the academic year 2017-18, just over 80% of full-time students left home to study – roughly half living in purpose-built halls and the rest in private rented accommodation
In 2015/6 the University of Bradford was one of 10 British universities where more than 50% of students lived at home
On average in Europe, 36% of students live in their parental home
There are also students such as Marium Zumeer, whom I wrote about in May after her recovery from Covid-19, who has a place at Leeds Beckett university, and will continue living at home in Bradford if she decides to accept it. Her sister, Hana. is already at the same university.
Marium knows only too well how serious this illness can be, having been very ill herself, and having lost her grandfather, Mohammed, in the pandemic.
She wears a mask, she carries hand sanitiser, and whenever she returns home she changes her clothes.
“University is about meeting new people, socialising and making friends and joining groups, though when meeting new people you don’t know if they’ve got the virus. It will worry me a bit,” she says.
“I chose a university that’s close to home because I prefer staying at home, that’s just a personal choice, but for those who are living at home they have to be more mature about staying safe.”
For many students, their years at university are as much about lectures and libraries as house parties, sports teams and the student union bar.
But for the thousands returning to colleges and universities over the next few weeks, their educational and social experience is likely to be very different.
Measures to minimise the spread of coronavirus mean many will be be swapping lecture theatres for online classes and virtual events on socially-distanced campuses.
BBC Scotland has spoken to students and university leaders preparing for the new term.
Gordon Edwards is volunteering with a support team helping newly-arrived students at Glasgow Caledonian University.
Freshers week will be online and when terms starts properly there will be few face-to-face classes.
“There are a few people thinking: ‘This isn’t what I expected when I went to university’,” said the 21-year-old who is starting a degree in social work this term.
Originally from the north of England, Gordon will be moving into student accommodation next week.
Government guidance for accommodation and campus makes the reality clear: “This will not feel like a normal start to a student’s university or college life.”
“We’re not even allowed to have anyone to help move stuff in,” said Gordon. “Our families can’t go into our rooms.”
He added: “I think people are very disappointed with how the halls experience is going to be this year – we can go out to pubs but there won’t be any house parties.”
And they are worried that online lessons will affect their studies and their ability to make new friends, he said.
In many institutions, face-to-face teaching will be prioritised for subjects that need it most, like medicine and veterinary science.
Students who live together can form households but it is likely that most interactions with classmates will be by video call.
“As it stands, there’s a very limited student experience,” said Jordan Hunter, a politics and central eastern studies student at Glasgow University.
As editor of the student-run Glasgow Guardian newspaper, he has heard how anxious many of his colleagues are.
“The student nightclub Hive is shut. Societies can’t meet up in person,” he said.
“So what really is the student experience other than going to a restaurant or bar or staying in flats?”
The opportunity to meet colleagues and socialise is likely to be most difficult for students who live at home with their families.
President of the National Union of Students in Scotland, Matt Crilly, said some students were “at risk of experiencing increased isolation.”
He added: “As the new term starts, it is critical that students staying at home have digital access to support, along with the financial and emotional support which reflects the unique challenges that lie ahead this year.”
Some international students will also find they have to quarantine for two weeks when they arrive in Scotland.
Among them is Sanjana Ramaswamy, a third year student at St Andrews, who is isolating after returning to Scotland from New York for the first time since March.
“At first it was a bit daunting, having to stay in for two weeks, not being able to leave,” she said. “I do think it’s going to be a slightly odd year but I’m very excited.”
However some students have decided not to travel to their universities as they know they will not be in classes.
It means there will be fewer people spending money in campus cafés or in the local community.
Senior vice-principal of St Andrews University, Brad McKay, explained: “We have had quite a number of students, about 1,000 if you include both new entrants and also returning students, who have opted for a period of time – some for a whole semester, some just for a period of weeks – to begin their studies remotely.”
Classrooms, cafés and student accommodation have also had to be changed to allow social distancing and other measures to limit the spread of coronavirus.
Dan Marshal, president of St Andrews University Student Association, said: “The building isn’t going to be as teeming with life as it usually is.”
“A lot of our spaces are normally filled with society events but most of those will be happening online this year.”
Andy McGoff, director of finance and operations at Edinburgh Napier University, said they were trying to give students the best possible experience in the safest way.
“Our campus capacity has been reduced considerably – we’re down to 30% of normal capacity. It has been an expensive exercise,” he said.
Paul Epworth is behind some of the biggest pop records of the last 20 years, from Adele’s Rolling in the Deep to Florence and the Machine’s Rabbit Heart (Raise It Up).
Along the way he’s worked with Rihanna, Stormzy, Sir Paul McCartney, Coldplay and U2 – and he won an Oscar for co-writing the Bond theme Skyfall.
But now, after years behind the scenes, the producer is releasing his first solo album. Voyager, a journey into deep space, fuses influences from classic sci-fi movies with his love of musical explorers like David Bowie, George Clinton, Wendy Carlos and Jean-Michel Jarre.
“It’s a sort of ’70s space concept album, which is a bit of a cliché as a producer – to make something that ostentatious and overblown,” he told BBC News.
“But I’ve tried to frame it in a modern way, so I’ve got some great singers and rappers on it.”
The record sees guest vocals from the likes of Jay Electronica, Ty Dolla $ign, Vince Staples, Lianne La Havas and Kool Keith. But, more importantly, it allowed Epworth to indulge his passion for space travel and astrophysics – as well as a habit for collecting ancient, analogue synths at his studio in London’s Crouch End.
He traces his interest in science back to his father’s work in developing optical fibres. Yet he remains endlessly curious about life, the universe and everything.
To celebrate the record’s release, Epworth hooked up with Professor Brian Cox – the prominent physicist and former keyboard player for ’90s dance act D:Ream – to ask some of the questions that occurred to him while making the album.
Paul Epworth: When I began working on a record about space, little did I think I would be sitting here with you. Obviously you started in music as well, so what prompted you to make that shift into this love of the cosmos and astrophysics?
Brian Cox: To be honest, my first interest was astronomy. As far back as I can remember. I just liked looking at the stars.
I’ve thought about it a lot – what was it that made a seven-year-old become interested in stars? And I suppose it goes all the way back to looking forward to Christmas when you’re six years old… and I think I began to associate it with the constellations. My dad once said to me ‘There’s Orion, it’s the easiest constellation to see.’ And I noticed that it was in the autumn and the winter when I’d start seeing Orion over our back garden.
But I also remember really vividly Star Wars and Star Trek in general. So I also liked science fiction for some reason and I conflated it all together. Space became this idea, which was part escapism, part Star Wars [and] part astronomy. Music was almost a distraction!
What is the connection for you between music and the cosmos? Is there a piece of music that brings the two together?
Vangelis’s theme for Carl Sagan’s Cosmos. To this day, when that music starts, it’s a shiver. It takes me right back to being 11 years old and looking at the sky. It is really powerful.
I’ve actually been involved in the last few years with some attempts to match classical music to the ideas that are raised in astronomy and cosmology. We live in a potentially infinite universe which, to me, raises questions about our mortality about our fragility.
What does it mean to live these small, finite and in some sense insignificant lives in this potentially eternal and potentially infinite universe? Those are emotional questions, they’re deeply human questions, and they’re questions that have motivated a great deal of art and music.
I was reading a book recently by a guy called Itzhak Bentov called Stalking the Wild Pendulum, which is about the mechanics of consciousness. He talks about all matter vibrating – and of course vibration is the way every musical instrument generates noise. It got me thinking about how all these things fit together…
There’s an interesting point there, which is that music is a product of consciousness and intelligence. And if you think about what we are – how it can be that some atoms that have been around since the Big Bang… essentially be able to start thinking and create music?
That’s a remarkable thing. I think it was Richard Feynman who said “Human beings are atoms, that can contemplate atom.” And part of those atoms’ response to this remarkable phenomenon is to make music as part of the exploration of what that means. I find that remarkable.
There’s a theory that the universe is actually shaped like a doughnut. What are your thoughts on that?
The point is we don’t know. All we can observe about the universe is the bit we can see, which is undoubtedly a small patch of what exists. At the moment it’s just over 90 billion light years across, so it’s a big bit, [and] that bit is flat, as far as we can tell.
But that’s probably like saying “I’ve explored the region around my house and it’s flat.” And it’s flat, even if you live on a big hill, because the curvature of the world is much bigger than the region around your house. That’s probably what the universe is like.
It’s almost incomprehensible, the scale of some of this stuff.
The distances… I mean, even the closest big galaxy to us is Andromeda which we can see with the naked eye, if there’s no moon and it’s very dark. And the light that enters your eye took two million years to journey to Earth. It’s a remarkable feeling when you know that. Just to think, when those photons set off on their journey, there were no humans on the earth. We hadn’t evolved.
This is why music and art is helpful because I can say these sentences and trot out these words, but how a person reacts to that is… It’s a complex, personal thing. How do you feel about the idea that we were in a sea of [stars] and we can see two trillion galaxies? How does that make you feel? I don’t know how that makes me feel actually.
That’s why it’s so inspiring because there’s infinite angles to it. As you’ve understood more about the cosmos, how has your relationship with music changed?
It’s broadened, I think. When I first started getting into music I got Enola Gay by OMD and Hazel O’Connor’s Eighth Day and I got into Kraftwerk. But over the last 10 to 15 years I’ve really got introduced to some of the great classical music from the turn of the 20th Century, and you find that increased harmonic complexity and richness.
I did a concert actually with the BBC, about Holst’s The Planets, which everybody listens to at school. It’s almost become a pop classic now, but actually at the time it was shocking harmonically and in the way that it’s orchestrated. And if you strip away that familiarity, you realise that it’s a tremendous achievement. So I like searching out that complexity.
It’s interesting you say that, because it’s something I [discovered] while making this record. Maybe it’s humans trying to recreate the complexity of the night sky somehow within a musical form.
It’s a good analogy actually, because Western music has got quite a limited scale. There’s just the [notes on a] piano keyboard and that’s it. But from those very simple rules, the complexity is almost limitless. And that’s an analogy for, I think, the way that we see the the Universe.
So if you look at it now, 13.8 billion years after the Big Bang, it’s tremendously complex – but the laws of nature that that underpin that appear, as we look deeper and deeper, to be simple.
I read this amazing Neil deGrasse Tyson quote about how the particles in our bodies move at the speed of light, and obviously as you get closer to the speed of light time slows down. So are the particles in our bodies occupying the same place and time as they were in the Big Bang?
Yeah, that’s true. If you take the path of a photon that was released shortly after the Big Bang, and has travelled across the universe at the speed of light for 13.8 billion years or so, from our perspective – and say you’d carried a clock with you – how much time would you have experienced as a photon? Then you’re right, the answer is zero.
That’s one of the radical things about physics and cosmology – it forces us into these seemingly extremely counterintuitive positions.
Do you think new developments like quantum computing are going to make it easier for us to crack some of these puzzles?
Yes! Quantum computing has been a thing for a long time – that just in principle we could build these computers that are far more powerful than anything that we can build out of silicon. And harnessing that power is something that we’re just about able to do now. We are building the first quantum computers and they’re really primitive – they’re like an abacus almost. But it didn’t take as long to go from the first computers in the ’40s to an iPhone or a Samsung.
And there’s a suggestion that these machines will be able to simulate nature, much more precisely than we can at the moment, because all nature behaves in a quantum mechanical way. So we’ll be able to explore places we can’t go and [find out things like] what happens beyond the event horizon of a black hole?
Do you identify with space as a spiritual construct?
I never know what that word means – but it’s certainly true [space] generates profound emotions. You’ve got to be in awe about the existence of the universe as a whole, and our existence within it. You’re really missing the point if you’re not astonished by that.
So, to come back to the music side of it: Life on Mars [by David Bowie] or Moon Safari [by Air]?
I have to say Life on Mars, because Hunky Dory is my favourite album. I love Rick Wakeman’s piano playing on Life on Mars. If you’re a musician and you try to play Life on Mars you realise that, while some of it’s quite a standard chord sequence – I think it’s actually the same as My Way – some of it is incredibly unusual and just shows you what instinctive genius Bowie was. What a writer. I love the whole album – although I love Air too.
Which do think you’ll do first, go to Mars or have a safari on the moon?
I think the average person will get the chance to have a safari on the moon before they get to go to Mars. But I think someone might go to Mars before we can all have a moon safari.
Would you go?
I get asked that a lot. I think you have to have the right stuff – and I’m not sure I have the right stuff.
People are gathering in Bradford in ways that violate the local lockdown, for example by holding weddings in gardens and restaurants. Last month some even appear to have been held courtesy of the Eat Out to Help Out scheme. And the task of enforcing the lockdown just got tougher, argues Dr John Wright of Bradford Royal Infirmary.
The lifting of restrictions on social gatherings in some areas of Bradford but not others has led to relief for some residents and resentment from others.
The restrictions forbid people from different households from meeting in homes or gardens, or socialising together in pubs or restaurants, but it doesn’t take much shoe-leather detective work on a sunny weekend to realise how little notice people are paying. Gardens blossom with boisterous gatherings, pubs and restaurants ooze chatter and cheer. Everywhere young people mingle with careless abandon.
The hospital has transformed from the busiest place in the city during the peak of the pandemic to become the quietest.
It was always going to be difficult to enforce these local restrictions, but the lifting of restrictions in nine of the 30 wards in Bradford on Wednesday makes the job much harder. How can you maintain adherence when on one side of the street you can have wild parties (no more than 30 people, of course) while on the opposite side of the street residents are told to live in isolated lockdown?
We have created a disparity that will sow confusion and scepticism and undermine our efforts to build a united front against Covid-19.
23 March The city goes into lockdown with the rest of the UK
1 June Non-essential shops reopen and some children return to school
4 July Cinemas, pubs and hairdressers reopen, and groups of up to 30 people are legally allowed to meet, as in rest of England
31 July New restrictions introduced – people from different households may not visit each other’s homes or socialise in pubs or restaurants
2 September The new restrictions are lifted in nine of Bradford’s 30 wards
Weddings are just one of many forms of gathering that have been taking place. They’ve been planned for months if not years, everything’s been paid for, and the young couple may be impatient. But any event that brings two or more households together – as weddings inevitably do – is a violation of the rules in the areas where the local lockdown remains in force.
When Nadeem’s son married on 7 August, the bride’s family arranged for a marquee to be erected in their garden. The original plan had been for a huge wedding in a costly venue – the deposit alone had cost £1,000 – but the guest list had to be scaled down to 30 or 40 family members. It had already been delayed once, then the second lockdown came, and a further delay was a bitter pill to swallow. “It’s hard for the youngsters, they just want to get on with their lives,” Nadeem says.
My colleague, consultant anaesthetist Fozia Hayat, has witnessed gatherings like this one first hand.
“We had a huge wedding taking place in the houses behind us, with a marquee in the garden and fireworks, music and many, many guests,” she says.
“I’m also getting calls from people who have been to secret weddings, so I know it’s happening. It’s a really difficult area, as weddings and funerals are a really important part of our culture. I understand them wanting to go ahead. These celebrations are a big part of life. But it goes against the regulations, because you have people mixing, and it’s also putting older members of the community at risk.”
Prof John Wright, a doctor and epidemiologist, is head of the Bradford Institute for Health Research, and a veteran of cholera, HIV and Ebola epidemics in sub-Saharan Africa. He is writing this diary for BBC News and recording from the hospital wards for BBC Radio.
Bradford West MP Naz Shah says she has spoken with the city council and the police about ways to prevent these illegal wedding gatherings.
“It’s not just in the gardens, there are restaurants that are being used for weddings. So people are bypassing the regulations and going into the restaurant, but their family are all there – all of them dining in,” she says.
“If anyone came they’d say, ‘We were all here by coincidence, it’s not a planned reception.’ But everyone knows what’s going on. I’ve been to restaurants and seen the upstairs area being used for receptions.”
She fears that there were cases last month when the taxpayer was even subsidising these events.
“We have the government Eat Out To Help Out promotion going on. I’ve heard that some of these wedding receptions are being held in restaurants covered by the scheme, which certainly will be helping out the families but it’s not meant to be happening at all.”
Before the pandemic, hundreds of guests would often be invited to Asian weddings, and the fate of the venues that host these huge occasions also worries Naz Shah, who has written to the Chancellor seeking support to help them survive until the end of the lockdown.
Summer would normally have been peak season for weddings, explains Ameer Hamza of the HQ Banqueting Suite, which typically hosts weddings for 500 to 1,000 guests but hasn’t had one since 8 March.
He’s written to the city council explaining that it would be easy to hold a socially distanced wedding for a large group of people in his banqueting hall, if it was filled only to 30% or 40% of capacity. The closure of such venues, he argues, inevitably results in weddings without social distancing.
“What they’ve done here is – like in America in the 1920s during Prohibition, when no alcohol was allowed – they’ve started a moonshine culture. They’ve started moonshine weddings, because what you’re getting is people who have no other option.”
He points out that in Asian culture, and particularly Muslim culture, cohabitation before marriage is frowned upon; couples cannot start their lives together without weddings, so they will inevitably go ahead, one way or another.
West Yorkshire police say officers have been called out to a number of weddings, as well as to other gatherings that breach the Covid regulations across the social spectrum, including illegal raves, student house parties and football-related gatherings. “People need to avoid unlicensed events and large gatherings to stop the spread of the virus,” a spokesman said.
The number of people with positive tests in Bradford remains stubbornly high, though they are mostly young people with mild or asymptomatic infection. The national NHS Test and Trace is slowly improving and new local systems are providing much needed community insight and coverage. The clear and consistent messages on social distancing, masks and hand washing seem to be working well for the most part, so we will have to keep our faith in the science of these core public health measures and their effectiveness in containing the virus – while striving to limit social gatherings such as weddings and parties, which have the potential to be super-spreading events.
One thing we cannot help is the change of season. Outdoor spaces seem reassuringly safe in preventing transmission of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, but as the autumn weather creeps up on us and our social gatherings move indoors, the risk of spread will rise.
The government’s chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance has said he was rebuked for arguing strongly in favour of imposing Covid lockdown restrictions earlier this year, it has emerged.
In an email uncovered by a BBC Freedom of Information request, Sir Patrick reveals he was given a “telling off” from other senior officials.
Some scientists argue lives could have been saved had a lockdown been introduced earlier. The government insists there was “no delay”.
In a statement, the Department of Health and Social Care said government policy had been “guided by the advice of world-renowned scientists”.
The UK has one of the highest number of coronavirus deaths per capita in the world, though officials insist it’s too early to draw accurate comparisons with other countries. The Department for Health and Social Care insists there was no delay in locking down.
The email obtained by the BBC appears to be a discussion of a Sunday Times article in May criticising the delays in announcing a lockdown in March.
It’s not known when the “telling off” occurred, but speaking to Parliament’s science and technology committee in July, Sir Patrick referred to advice given by the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) on 16 March for “additional social-distancing measures” to be implemented “as soon as possible”.
A full lockdown was not introduced until 23 March. It’s now thought the number of cases rose dramatically in the period just before that.
In the email, Sir Patrick writes that he “argued stronger than anyone for action for lockdown” but received a “telling off” from chief medical officer Professor Chris Whitty and the then Cabinet Secretary Sir Mark Sedwill.
Sir Patrick and Prof Whitty regularly appeared at news conferences together updating the public on measures taken to combat coronavirus, without noticeably disagreeing.
On 16 March, the government issued advice “against all unnecessary social contact with others and unnecessary travel” including warnings to avoid pubs, bars and restaurants. However, premises were not ordered to close until 20 March, whilst on 23 March a full lockdown was introduced whereby people could only leave the home for exercise or grocery shopping.