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1st October 2020

Science Biodiversity: Why the nature crisis matters, in five graphics

Science Biodiversity: Why the nature crisis matters, in five graphics


science Butterfly exhibition, LondonImage copyright
Getty Images

Human activities are destroying the natural world, leading to the extinction of animal and plant species at an alarming rate. Now, world leaders are promising action to tackle the problem. But will it be enough?

Science What is biodiversity and why does it matter?

Biodiversity is the variety of all living things on Earth, and how they fit together in the web of life, bringing oxygen, water, food and countless other benefits.

Recent reports and studies have produced alarming news about the state of nature.

Last year, an intergovernmental panel of scientists said one million animal and plant species were now threatened with extinction.

And this month, a report found global populations of mammals, birds, fish, amphibians and reptiles plunged by 68%, on average, between 1970 and 2016.

Science Are we living in an age of extinction?

Scientists have warned that we are entering the sixth mass extinction, with whatever we do now likely to define the future of humanity. The other five mass extinctions include the asteroid strike that killed off the dinosaurs and many species in the sea.

“We have no time to wait. Biodiversity loss, nature loss, it is at an unprecedented level in the history of mankind,” says Elizabeth Mrema, the executive secretary of the Convention on Biological Diversity.

“We’re the most dangerous species in global history.”

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Getty Images

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The destruction of forests is altering ecosystems

Humans are pushing other species to extinction through hunting, over-fishing and cutting down forests and grasslands.

We are almost entirely responsible for extinctions of mammals in past decades, according to one recent study.

And predictions suggest a further 550 mammal species will be lost this century, if we continue along our current path.

One of the biggest problems for the species we share the planet with, is the rate at which we’re transforming the natural landscape, through building roads and cities, and taking up more land to grow food.

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Getty Images

Off land, we are putting plastic into the oceans and depleting fish stocks.

Assessments suggest 75% of land and 66% of the oceans has been degraded by human activity.

Science How do we get off the path to destruction?

Moving off our current devastating trajectory will require some big changes.

At the United Nations Summit on Biodiversity in New York on 30 September, world leaders are expected to declare their countries’ commitments to nature, and possibly a new way of doing things.

“They are not going to say: ‘We will continue a path of destruction.’ They are going to say: ‘We will get on a path of sustainability’,” says Inger Andersen, the head of the UN Environment Programme (UNEP).

Science What is the plan for the future?

Countries are being urged to put their names to an agreement which would be to biodiversity what the Paris climate accord is to climate change.

This comes under the remit of the Convention on Biological Diversity, an international treaty agreed to at the UN Earth Summit in Brazil in 1992.

The convention has three goals: the conservation of biological diversity; the sustainable use of nature; and the sharing of benefits arising from genetic science.

Countries had until this year to reach the targets set a decade ago, which range from stopping extinction to cutting pollution and preserving forests. Despite some progress, none of the targets were achieved.

World leaders are now being asked to sign up to a pledge to protect 30% of the world by 2030 through a ten-point plan that puts wildlife and the climate at the heart of recovery plans from the pandemic.

They have to promise to address the likes of climate change, deforestation, ecosystem degradation and pollution

Scientists say a huge amount is at stake; but it is still possible to reverse the decline in nature, if words and promises are acted upon.

Follow Helen on Twitter.

1st October 2020

Science Coronavirus: Test rules set for Covid-19 African herbal remedies

Science Coronavirus: Test rules set for Covid-19 African herbal remedies



image copyrightAFP

image captionCovid-Organics was launched in Madagascar in April after being tested on fewer than 20 people over three weeks

The World Health Organization (WHO) has agreed rules for the testing of African herbal remedies to fight Covid-19.

Sound science would be the sole basis for safe and effective traditional therapies to be adopted, it said.

Any traditional remedies that are judged effective could be fast-tracked for large-scale manufacturing.

Madagascar’s leader has been promoting an untested product he says can cure the disease despite the WHO warning against using untested remedies.

The WHO said the new rules were aimed at helping and empowering scientists in Africa to conduct proper clinical trials.

The move comes as the number of confirmed cases of coronavirus worldwide passes 30 million, with reported global deaths standing at more than 957,000. In Africa there have been more than 1.3 million cases and than 33,000 reported deaths.

Around 140 potential vaccines for Covid-19 are being developed around the world, with dozens already being tested on people in clinical trials.

Science ‘Accelerating research’

Alongside these efforts, the green light has now been given for phrase three clinical trials using African traditional medicines.

A panel of experts, set up by the WHO, the Africa Centre for Disease Control and Prevention and the African Union Commission for Social Affairs, has agreed on the protocols.

Phase three trials usually test the safety and efficacy of a drug on larger groups of participants.

“The adoption of the technical documents will ensure that universally acceptable clinical evidence of the efficacy of herbal medicines for the treatment of Covid-19 is generated without compromising the safety of participants,” said Prof Motlalepula Gilbert Matsabisa, the panel’s chairman.

Science You may also be interested in:

media captionThe coronavirus diagnostics kit made in South Africa

“The onset of Covid-19, like the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, has highlighted the need for strengthened health systems and accelerated research and development programmes, including on traditional medicines,” the WHO’s Dr Prosper Tumusiime said in the statement.

In April, Madagascar’s President Andry Rajoelina launched Covid-Organics to great fanfare, saying it was a prevention and remedy. It had been tested on 20 people over a period of three weeks.

Mr Rajoelina stands by the herbal concoction, despite the Indian Ocean island having had 15,925 coronavirus infections and 216 Covid-19 deaths.

The drink, which has also been sent to dozens of African countries, is produced by the Malagasy Institute of Applied Research from the artemisia plant – the source of an ingredient used in a malaria treatment – and other Malagasy plants.

Dr Tumusiime said that via the WHO’s African Vaccine Regulatory Forum, there was now a way for clinical trials of medicines in the region to be assessed and approved in fewer than 60 days.

1st October 2020

Science Venus: Will private firms win the race to the fiery planet?

Science Venus: Will private firms win the race to the fiery planet?


science Image of Earth taken from PhotonImage copyright
Rocket Lab

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A picture of Earth taken from a Rocket Lab Photon. The craft will go to Venus in 2023

With astronomers detecting a potential signature of life in the clouds of Venus, there’s obviously going to be a big push to get some new space missions to the planet.

We don’t know if the phosphine gas recently observed by telescopes is coming from floating microbes or has a simple non-biological origin. Right now, nothing is conclusive. But the only way we’re likely to find out for sure is by taking some scientific instruments there.

The Japanese space agency’s Akatsuki orbiter is the one mission at the planet at present, and it was built long before the phosphine question came up – so it’s not really best-suited to study the issue.

What’s needed are some dedicated investigations. And the first opportunity we’ll probably get to perform these will be with the private Rocket Lab company.

This start-up has been making waves with its small Electron rocket, which launches from the Mahia Peninsula in New Zealand’s North Island.

The company’s CEO, Peter Beck, is fascinated by Venus and has already announced his intention to send a mission there in 2023. He’s funding and constructing it in-house.

Rocket Lab will do it with the Photon “kick-stage” that goes on the top of an Electron.

In Earth orbit, this stage does the final placement of small satellites in the part of the sky they want to operate. But the Photon is extremely capable and could shepherd a probe to another planet, and even carry some sensors of its own.

Beck’s plan is to drop off an atmospheric entry probe at Venus. As this falls through the “air”, it would radio back its observations of Venusian clouds to the Photon, which in turn would relay that data back to Earth.

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Peter Beck says Venus deserves a little more love from space missions

The entrepreneur’s team is working on a payload mass of 37kg.

“That might not sound a lot, but 37kg can get you an awful lot of instrumentation, especially if you’re now very targeted in what you’re looking for and what you’re trying to measure,” Beck told BBC News.

“Venus hasn’t had a lot of love recently, and I think 2023 is the opportunity to put that right. It’s very hard for governments to move quickly but a private mission can. We can go there for a small amount of money, and we can go there many times and have many goes at it, and iterate the learning.”

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Rocket Lab

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Rocket Lab’s Photon: It will drop off an entry probe to fall through the Venusian atmosphere

It’s true, the big space agencies operate by a different philosophy. They aim for super, high-fidelity science and engineering – but this means their top-notch missions fly infrequently and at high cost. It’s a question of trade-offs.

A Rocket Lab entry probe when it falls through the atmosphere at Venus is not going to spend long in the key zone where phosphine has been detected – between 50km and 60km in altitude. The measurements will be brief.

Ideally, what you need is some sort of long-lived platform, dwelling in the clouds of Venus for weeks or months at a time. Like a balloon. That’s the kind of thing big space agencies do.

“This would allow detailed measurement of cloud,” explains Dr Colin Wilson from Oxford University, UK, who worked on the European Space Agency’s Venus Express probe (2006-2014)

“We proposed such a mission – the European Venus Explorer – to Esa in 2010, unsuccessfully. This year, in a Nasa-run Venus Flagship Mission study, we proposed including a balloon that would explore the cloud layer for two months, with specific instruments designed to detect biological material if present.”

It’s a fantastic idea and follows in the pioneering footsteps of the Soviet Vega balloons at Venus in the 1980s, although they only worked for a couple of days.

Image copyright
Tibor Balint

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A Nasa concept study earlier this year proposed a long-lived balloon

The problem is that, even if approved for development, we wouldn’t see a Nasa Venus flagship mission – and its balloon – fly until the 2030s at the earliest. And the more modest mission concepts now before Nasa and Esa for consideration are looking at launch slots no sooner than the back end of this decade. Which brings us back to the Rocket Lab type of approach if we want quicker results.

Prof Jane Greaves from Cardiff University led the team that detected phosphine in the atmosphere at Venus. She hopes scientists can find inventive ways of getting new probes to the planet.

“I think in the fairly near-term, we’d like to send even just a really small probe that maybe some other mission could drop off on the way – you know, something going to the Sun. Perhaps it could drop a tiny ‘lab on a chip’ package through the atmosphere so we can get some new data back.”

Peter Beck’s message is “give me a call. If anybody wants to join the team, come join us. But, you know, the bus is leaving; we’re going!” and follow me on Twitter: @BBCAmos

1st October 2020

Science Caster Semenya: ‘Once I though she was cheat. Now I’m sure she belongs in women’s athletics’

Science Caster Semenya: ‘Once I though she was cheat. Now I’m sure she belongs in women’s athletics’


science Madeleine Papae taking part in a race in Australian in 2009
Madeleine Pape ran against Semenya in 2009

Madeleine Pape weaved her way patiently through a crowded room in Botswana’s Gaborone Conference Centre.

She was determined to catch up with Caster Semenya, the celebrated – and controversial – South African athlete who had once been Pape’s rival.

The Australian wanted to make amends with the women’s 800m triple world champion and double Olympic gold winner, who was the star of an international conference in the African country in May 2018.

“I finally was able to approach her,” Pape tells the BBC.

“I told Semenya how much I respected her and enjoyed seeing her compete.”

This was not how Pape felt the only other time the two women met, in 2009. Back then, she had thought that Semenya did not even belong on the same track as her.

The Berlin controversy

In August 2009, the Australian was one of the runners who lined up alongside Caster Semenya in an 800m heat at the the World Athletics Championships in Berlin.

It was one of the first times Semenya had ever raced outside Africa, but she was already under intense scrutiny.

science Caster Semenya stretches before training
Caster Semenya is at the centre of one of the most controversial debates in sport

At 18, the South African had won a junior tournament earlier that year with a time that was only marginally slower than that of more established 800m competitors, such as the 2004 Olympic Champion Kelly Holmes.

Semenya had also managed to shave seconds off her 800m personal best in the space of only nine months.

But those criticising the runner were not accusing her of using banned substances.

Instead, she was “guilty” of being too fast for a woman. Her gender was being questioned.

In the words of Michael Seme, Semenya’s coach at the time, she “looked like a man”.

Many in the world of athletics had reservations about her participation in the World Championships. Madeleine Pape was among them.

“At that time I did think it was unfair for her to compete against the rest of us,” she recalls.

science Madeleine Pape dressed in formal clothes
Madeleine Pape studied sociology after retiring from the track

Even the governing body for athletics (IAAF, now rebranded as World Athletics) had expressed doubts about Semenya’s biological sex during the World Championships – news that it had requested a gender verification test leaked to the world’s media just a few hours before the 800m final.

“It was by far the easier option for me to join the chorus of voices condemning her performance,” Pape adds.

“It was just convenient to go along with what most of my colleagues and coaches were saying.”

Once against the idea of Semenya even stepping on a running track, the Australian is nowadays a vocal supporter of the South African’s fight to compete.

What made her change her mind?

Different tracks

Madeleine Pape didn’t have a good run at all at the World Championships.

She finished next to last among seven runners and failed to qualify for the next round.

Semenya, on the other hand, won the heat and never looked back, winning the gold medal in Berlin by crossing the finish line more than two seconds clear of the other runners in the final race.

science Snapshot from the 2009 World Championships 800m showing Madeleine Pape on the left and Caster Semenya
Madeleine Pape (left) raced Caster Semenya in the 2009 World Championships. In the picture, the South African runner is between Ukraine’s Petyuk and Kenya’s Jepkosgei

It was such an impressive margin of victory that one of the competitors in the final, Italy’s Elisa Cusma, accused Semenya of “being a man”.

Pape’s career would end with an injury in 2010. She then pursued an academic career, with a PhD in Sociology and studies on gender issues in sport.

It is as an academic, rather than as a former athlete, that the 36-year-old Australian mostly comes up in internet searches.

In the classroom, Pape saw what she had never recognised on the track.

Difference of sex development

Semenya, now 29, has hyperandrogenism – a genetic condition that makes her body produce higher levels of testosterone.

Testosterone is a hormone that most women have in much smaller amounts than men, and is associated with stronger performance in sports.

In its artificial form, testosterone is part of the World Anti-Doping Agency’s list of banned substances.

science Picture showing Caster Semenya will ahead of the pack in the women's 800m finals at the 2009 World Athletic Championships
Semenya has faced sever questioning of her gender since breaking through in 2009

Semenya’s condition results from what is known as difference of sex development (DSD).

People with a DSD do not develop along typical gender lines.

Their hormones, genes, and reproductive organs may share a mix of male and female characteristics.

Many in athletics argue that hyperandrogenism offers Semenya an unfair advantage on the track.

Pape used to be among them.

“My views changed when I went to university and had access not only to different perspectives but also to the science behind the arguments that were used against Semenya,” says the Australian.

Run on the track, fight off it

The results of Semenya’s gender verification tests have never been made public and she continued to compete in international events such as the Olympics.

However, World Athletics last year issued a new ruling that forces Semenya and other athletes with hyperandrogenism to take testosterone-reducing drugs in order to be eligible to compete in women’s events between 400m and a mile (1,609m).

science Gates outside the Court of Arbitration for Sport in Switzerland
The runner’s challenge to the rules demanding she take testosterone-reducing drugs was rejected by the Court of Arbitration for Sports

The South African challenged the ruling but has lost an appeal in the Court for Arbitration of Sport.

A further legal challenge in the Swiss Federal Supreme Court was dismissed on 8 September this year.

Semenya refuses to take the drugs, arguing that it could endanger her health and that the ruling denies her and other DSD athletes the right to rely on their natural abilities.

As things stand, the South African will not be allowed to defend her 800m title in the Tokyo Olympics next year unless she accepts the drugs, whose effects will almost certainly slow her down.

The fairness argument

For Pape, the stance of World Athletics is harmful to the sport.

“Their agenda so far has been to look for ways to exclude some women,” she says.

“They are missing the ability to listen to these women and to relate to what they are going through.”

science The women's 800m medal winners at Rio 2016 pose for a picture
Burundi’s Francine Niyonsaba and Kenya’s Margaret Wambui, who won silver and bronze in Rio 2016, also have hyperandrogenism

Semenya is not the only high-profile case of DSD in athletics.

In the 2016 Rio Olympics, the 800m silver and bronze medal winners were Burundi’s Francine Niyonsaba and Kenya’s Margaret Wambui, who also have hyperandrogenism.

In a statement issued on 8 September, World Athletics stood by the argument that it was pursuing fairness.

“For the last five years, World Athletics has fought for and defended equal rights and opportunities for all women and girls in our sport today and in the future,” the statement read.

“We therefore welcome today’s decision by the Swiss Federal Tribunal to uphold our DSD regulations as a legitimate and proportionate means of protecting the right of all female athletes to participate in our sport on fair and meaningful terms.”

“She’s an exceptional athlete”

Pape, however, sees it differently.

science World Athletics President Sebastian Coe speaks at a ceremony in 2019
Sporting authorities like World Athletics President Sebastian Coe argue that the rules are there to guarantee fairness in competition

“The system has stacked the odds against Semenya from the beginning,” Pape says.

If in 2009 the Australian thought her rival had an unfair advantage, her views could not be more different now.

“Semenya is an exceptional athlete. Anyone who has won all those medals has got to have something that sets her apart,” she says.

“I don’t think that it is testosterone.”

Is testosterone really so significant?

The link between testosterone and higher performance is controversial among sport scientists.

Julian Savulescu, a professor in Biomedical Ethics at Oxford University, told the BBC that the science behind World Athletics’ arguments is “inadequate”.

He refers specifically to the 2017 study commissioned by the governing body, which claimed that high testosterone was responsible for as much as 3% improvement in runners’ performances.

“It is a single study, conducted by World Athletics, and the full data have not been released for independent replication,” Savulescu explains.

“Semenya has been singled out above any other athlete. I don’t know why that is.”

Supporters of Semenya have often expressed the view she is the victim of prejudice.

science Caster Semenya celebrates a win with her trademark
Semenya’s camp claims she is being singled out for reasons other than performance levels

The South African athlete is openly gay, and married to another runner, Violet Raseboya.

In July this year, the couple announced the arrival of a baby girl.

Madeleine Pape thinks Semenya’s fans have a strong point.

She argues that other women athletes who dominate the sport in a more emphatic way than Semenya do not get the same scrutiny. She uses the American swimmer Katie Ledecky, owner of a large collection of medals and world records, as an example.

“Semenya is no more exceptional than Ledecky, but Ledecky’s gender has not been openly questioned,” Pape observes.

“But Semenya is a black South African woman who isn’t straight and acts a bit like a tomboy. She doesn’t conform and expresses her identity in her own ways.”

“So, the problem here clearly doesn’t seem to be based on her performances,” she adds.

science Autographed pictures showing Pape running alongside Caster Semenya in 2009
Madeleine Pape’s souvenir of that race in 2009 was later embellished with Caster Semenya’s autograph

Indeed, Semenya has not always crossed the finish line in first place.

The South African failed to win the 800m both in the 2011 World Championships and the 2012 London Olympics – she was only awarded the gold medals retrospectively in 2017, after the original winner, Russia’s Mariya Savinova, was disqualified for doping.

Making peace with the past

In that conference in Botswana, Madeleine Pape was not sure if Semenya would remember the only time they had met.

So, the Australian sociologist carried a picture of them together.

It was a snapshot of that 800m heat in 2009.

In the picture, Pape is running alongside other competitors. Semenya is partially “hidden” behind Ukraine’s Tetiana Petlyuk and Kenya’s Janeth Jepkosgei.

It’s an image that Pape still treasures, but with a much-valued addition: Caster Semenya’s autograph.

29th September 2020

Science Coronavirus: False claims test kits for ‘Covid-19’ were sold in 2017

Science Coronavirus: False claims test kits for ‘Covid-19’ were sold in 2017


science Woman holding a coronavirus test kitImage copyright
Getty Images

Image caption

False claims about Covid-19 test kits and thermometers have been spreading on social media

Six months since the coronavirus outbreak was declared a pandemic, false claims continue to circulate on social media.

Here’s our latest round-up of some of the most widely shared.

Science Claim: Test kits for ‘Covid-19’ were being exported before the outbreak

Verdict: A database of worldwide shipments of chemical supplies created in 2020, but going back to 2015, did refer to their use for “Covid-19 kits”. The World Bank, one of the international organisations responsible for maintaining the list, says this was because these previously existing products are now being used for Covid-19 testing. The website has now been changed and a clarification issued.

The claim on social media – a persistent one among conspiracy theorists – is that this is evidence the pandemic was planned all along, and the World Bank knew about it. This is false and we can settle any doubts about what’s going on.

The screenshot being shared is genuine and includes trade information under the heading “COVID-19 Test kits exports by country in 2017”. Other pages show earlier years with similar data. So you can understand why this might have caused some confusion.

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The classification of these products is now “medical test kits”. Covid-19 test kits were not sold before 2020

According to the World Bank, the page was created in April 2020 to make it easier to find all of the previously existing products that are now being used for Covid-19 testing.

All the chemical products listed on the site have had other uses for many years, but the World Bank says they were re-categorised to ease the tracking of items that are particularly important to tackle the coronavirus.

From 7 September the title of the database was changed to “medical test kits”, and to avoid further misunderstanding includes a disclaimer that says “the data here track previously existing medical devices that are now classified by the World Customs Organization as critical to tackling Covid-19.”

The claims of a conspiracy seem to have emerged on social media late last week and have since spread across multiple platforms and languages.

Although the allegations appeared on Twitter and Facebook almost simultaneously, they only gained traction after a UK-based user on Facebook published a video pointing out the alleged discrepancy in the test kit data on 5 September.

Links and screenshots of the database then spread more widely on Facebook and Twitter, and also appeared on Reddit, Instagram and WhatsApp.

The claims have also crossed over into other languages, including Dutch, Italian, German, Polish, Spanish, Arabic, Portuguese and Hebrew.

Image copyright

Science Claim: Infrared thermometers harm the brain

Verdict: False. These devices are not dangerous.

The sight of someone having their temperature checked using a thermometer pointed at the forehead is fairly common these days.

These thermometers record a person’s temperature by measuring infrared radiation from the surface of the body.

A high temperature is an indication of possible coronavirus infection.

A video posted on YouTube with 2 million views falsely claims this process is dangerous. It is not and there’s a simple explanation why.

The thermometer records the infrared radiation coming off the body – the surfaces of all objects emit this type of radiation – but nothing is fired at the person.

The man presenting the video describes the concerns of an unnamed “Australian nurse”, and refers specifically to the potential harm done to the pineal gland.

This is deep inside the brain and controls a hormone called melatonin. The man calls it the “gateway to the spirit realm”.

But there’s no way the pineal gland would be harmed or could be “targeted” by a thermometer.

“They just pick up your infrared radiation. They’re not shooting anything,” says Stafford Lightman, a professor of medicine at Bristol University.

As for the claim that it’s safer and more effective to measure temperature at the wrist, Prof Lightman says it isn’t.

He explains that your limbs get cold and the blood supply to the wrists – unlike to the face – can be quite variable so it isn’t a good place to take a temperature.

Science Claim: Eating llama meat can help fight coronavirus

Verdict: There is no scientific evidence to support this claim.

Ineffective and unproven Covid-19 treatments have been touted online since the beginning of the pandemic, and in some cases, they’ve even been promoted by leading politicians.

This one however is new to us. One of Peru’s regional governors has suggested that eating llama and alpaca meat could help fight off coronavirus.

Image caption

Consuming llama meat won’t help you fend off coronavirus

According to a Peruvian radio station, the governor cited studies indicating that llamas and alpacas carry antibodies which could potentially be modified to develop a Covid-19 treatment.

The BBC science team reported on this research a while back, but these studies do not conclude that eating the animals’ meat could help a person combat the virus. Scientists instead found that the llama’s antibodies could possibly be adapted to make a therapy for humans.

So far, the only drugs that have been proven to save lives in clinical trials are dexamethasone and hydrocortisone.

Science Claim: A homeopathic medicine, arsenicum album, can help prevent coronavirus

Verdict: There is no scientific evidence to support the use of this homeopathic medicine to protect against Covid-19.

India’s ministry for alternative medicine, Ayush, has promoted the use of a homeopathic medicine, arsenicum album-30, claiming it can help prevent people from contracting coronavirus.

There are however no peer-reviewed scientific studies supporting its use as a preventative treatment for Covid-19.

Recently, the Indian PTI news agency reported that the western state of Gujarat had distributed the medicine to more than half of the state’s population as a preventative treatment.

A top health official in the state said she believed in “some effectiveness” of the medicine against coronavirus, but admitted that “to actually establish this, we need more rigorous analysis”.

There is no evidence that the medicine is effective, either in the prevention or treatment of Covid-19.

Additional reporting by Olga Robinson, Alistair Coleman and Upasana Bhat.

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29th September 2020

Science Alligator on gas snaps up Ig Nobel prize

Science Alligator on gas snaps up Ig Nobel prize


Media playback is unsupported on your device

Media captionAlligator bellows: The first pair of sounds are in ambient air; the second pair are in heliox

Have you heard the one about the alligator that performed the party trick of breathing in helium so it could talk in a funny voice?

It’s not that hilarious but then you’d be careful never to smile at a crocodilian.

Stephan Reber and colleagues performed the experiment to try to understand how alligators might communicate.

It was a serious piece of research but its slightly comedic aspects have just won the team an Ig Nobel Prize.

Ten such awards were handed out on Thursday by the science humour magazine Annals of Improbable Research.

The annual Igs are intended as a bit of a spoof on the more sober Nobel science prizes.

Other 2020 winners included the team that devised a method to identify narcissists by examining their eyebrows; and the group that wanted to see what happened when earthworms were vibrated at high frequency.

All this kind of stuff sounds daft, but when you dig a little deeper you realise much of the research lauded by the Ig Nobels is actually intended to tackle real-world problems and gets published in peer-reviewed, scholarly journals.

Image copyright
Annals of Improbable Research

Image caption

A real Nobel Laureate, Andre Geim (bottom-left), prepares to hand the Ig Nobel Acoustics Prize to Stephan Reber (middle-top) and his team

Dr Reber told BBC News he was honoured to receive the Ig.

His team’s study had attempted to show that crocodilians and other reptiles could advertise their body size through their vocalisations – something that mammals and birds can do when they call out.

“The resonances in your vocal tract sound lower overall if you’re larger because it’s a larger space in which the air can vibrate. We didn’t know if reptiles actually had resonances. Frogs, amphibians, don’t for example. So we needed a proof of concept that crocodilians actually have resonances,” he explained.

This was achieved by putting an alligator in an enclosed tank that could be filled alternately with normal air and a supply of oxygen and helium (heliox). The vibrations of the vocal tissues don’t change but the noise the animals are able to make will, because the speed of sound is different in the different gas mixtures.

The analysis of the frequency spectrum confirmed alligators’ body size does indeed correlate with the resonances they produce. “Although whether the animals can pick up on these cues, I haven’t tested,” the Lund University, Sweden, researcher said.

This is the 30th year the Ig Nobels have been presented.

Their usual home is the Sanders Theatre at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, US; and the event is always a riotous affair that involves lots of paper plane throwing and a small girl who shouts “boring” at anyone who talks for too long.

But the Covid-19 crisis forced this year’s ceremony online.

Even so, some traditions were maintained, like the involvement of real Nobel Laureates. Dr Reber’s team was presented with its Ig by Andre Geim, the UK-based researcher who won the Physics Nobel in 2010 for his work on graphene.

The Prof is something of a superstar having also won an Ig earlier in his career for levitating frogs.

Here’s a full list of the 2020 Ig Nobel winners. Each winning team was given a cash prize – of a 10 trillion dollar bill from Zimbabwe.

For Acoustics: Stephan Reber, Takeshi Nishimura, Judith Janisch, Mark Robertson, and Tecumseh Fitch, for inducing a female Chinese alligator to bellow in an airtight chamber filled with helium-enriched air.

Psychology: Miranda Giacomin and Nicholas Rule, for devising a method to identify narcissists by examining their eyebrows.

Peace: The governments of India and Pakistan, for having their diplomats surreptitiously ring each other’s doorbells in the middle of the night, and then run away before anyone had a chance to answer the door.

Physics: Ivan Maksymov and Andriy Pototsky, for determining, experimentally, what happens to the shape of a living earthworm when one vibrates the earthworm at high frequency.

Economics: Christopher Watkins, Juan David Leongómez, Jeanne Bovet, Agnieszka Żelaźniewicz, Max Korbmacher, Marco Antônio Corrêa Varella, Ana Maria Fernandez, Danielle Wagstaff, and Samuela Bolgan, for trying to quantify the relationship between different countries’ national income inequality and the average amount of mouth-to-mouth kissing.

Management: Xi Guang-An, Mo Tian-Xiang, Yang Kang-Sheng, Yang Guang-Sheng, and Ling Xian Si – five professional hitmen in Guangxi, China, who subcontracted a murder one to the other with none of them in the end actually carrying out the crime.

Entomology: Richard Vetter, for collecting evidence that many entomologists (scientists who study insects) are afraid of spiders, which are not insects.

Medicine: Nienke Vulink, Damiaan Denys, and Arnoud van Loon, for diagnosing a long-unrecognized medical condition: Misophonia, the distress at hearing other people make chewing sounds.

Medical Education: Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil, Boris Johnson of the United Kingdom, Narendra Modi of India, Andrés Manuel López Obrador of Mexico, Alexander Lukashenko of Belarus, Donald Trump of the USA, Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey, Vladimir Putin of Russia, and Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow of Turkmenistan, for using the Covid-19 viral pandemic to teach the world that politicians can have a more immediate effect on life and death than scientists and doctors can.

Materials Science: Metin Eren, Michelle Bebber, James Norris, Alyssa Perrone, Ashley Rutkoski, Michael Wilson, and Mary Ann Raghanti, for showing that knives manufactured from frozen human faeces do not work well. and follow me on Twitter: @BBCAmos

29th September 2020

Science Could VR help universities teach students?

Science Could VR help universities teach students?


Universities are preparing to reopen but not all teaching will be in-person. The Covid-19 pandemic means that remote learning will also play a pivotal part in education.

BBC Click’s Lara Lewington took a trip to a university science department, currently devoid of students, to see how virtual labs could change science education as we know it.

The virtual reality (VR) labs provide a safe place for experiments that may be difficult to do in the flesh – and offer universities who could not afford the kit, the same opportunities to experiment.

See more at Click’s website and @BBCClick

29th September 2020

Science Hamilton delivers when it counts to put Bottas in shade – all you need to know before Tuscan GP

Science Hamilton delivers when it counts to put Bottas in shade – all you need to know before Tuscan GP


science Valtteri Bottas and Lewis Hamilton
Listen to the Tuscan Grand Prix on the BBC Sport website and mobile app on Sunday from 14:00 BST

Valtteri Bottas must be starting to wonder what he has to do to beat Lewis Hamilton at all this year.

Bottas has not won a race since the opening grand prix of the season. And the last time he started ahead of his Mercedes team-mate in qualifying was at the 70th Anniversary Grand Prix at Silverstone in early August.

The Finn looked to have a great chance on Formula 1’s first visit to Mugello.

From the start of practice on the spectacular, fast and challenging track in the beautiful hills of Tuscany, Bottas had an edge on Hamilton. And yet come the end of qualifying it was Hamilton who took pole position. The 95th of his career. A century, remarkably, is not far away.

It was odd to see Hamilton struggle so through Friday and Saturday morning at Mugello, for one of his greatest strengths has always been his adaptability.

It’s something that is seen to best and most obvious effect in the wet, when he always excels in conditions in which grip levels change from lap to lap.

science Lewis Hamilton
Hamilton beat team-mate Bottas to pole by just 0.059 seconds

But it’s also seen, for example, in the first practice session at Monaco, when most drivers take time to build up to the limits to avoid an embarrassing and damaging trip into the walls. Hamilton does, too; it’s just he tends to be closer sooner than anyone else.

And the same goes for new tracks. And yet here was F1 at a new track, a particularly difficult one, one of which only a handful of drivers had experience, and Hamilton was on the back foot.

He had even spent time in the Mercedes simulator before the race to learn Mugello, but it had made no difference. And he was not sure why.

“I don’t really have a great answer for that,” Hamilton said. “I came here with the same mental approach. I tried to do extra work in the sense of doing the simulator.

“The first couple of laps in first practice looked good and then they just pulled away in terms of how much improvement everyone was making.

“For me, I would say some of it was balance. I was struggling with balance and at the end of the day it is confidence here. You have to really carry a lot of speed into these corners.

“It is a high-speed circuit and not wanting to put a foot wrong. And if you’re uncomfortable with the balance of the rear of the car, you pull back and then you’re just too slow at the apex and exit of a lot of these corners.”

Some of those corners have to be seen to be believed. The run through Turns Six, Seven, Eight and Nine is one of the most spectacular on any track anywhere. All are flat out.

On Hamilton’s pole lap, his minimum speed through Six – known as Casanova – was 177.1mph, then 175.8 at Savelli, and 176.5 and 170.9 through the two right-handers known as Arrabbiata, the loss of speed accounted for by tyre scrub.

Around a track of 15 corners, the cars generate lateral forces of more than 5G in seven. The drivers brake only six times. No corner is taken in lower than fourth gear in a Mercedes, and the changes in gradient and gravel traps waiting to catch any error are what saps that confidence if a driver is not happy with his car.

How Hamilton turned it around

Hamilton is not all about natural talent – he works at it, too. And it was there that lay the secret to his pole.

“Normally I tend to think one of my strengths was learning a circuit quite quickly and for this one we went on the simulator, which I never do, and I don’t feel like I benefited particularly,” he said.

“I was struggling to find the limit in certain sectors and Valtteri was miles ahead, really.

“The pressure was higher than ever because if I hadn’t done the work I wouldn’t have got the result we got at the end.

“There is an incredible amount of detail you have to go into, last night dissecting every single corner, basically, and sector and trying to fine-tune that set-up.

“There’s a real fine line between knowing whether you have understeer or oversteer and whether you are on the limit or not in certain places.

“You can be on the limit in one corner but not the rest. You can be on the limit in the first corner but not the second and then the third you are. So understanding whether you have the balance right within yourself and knowing what to request when you do move towards the limit to pre-empt what the car is going to do.

“There is a real science to it. It is not only the ability to drive, but to understand those things and to be engineers at the end of the day. We work with these geniuses who can balance numbers like nobody else but we need to be able to do that on the track.”

Hamilton was 0.53secs off Bottas in first practice, 0.207secs behind in the second session, 0.083secs behind in final practice, and took pole by just 0.059secs.

For Bottas, it was agonising. He felt more was in the car, but did not get the chance to turn things around on his second run after Esteban Ocon’s Renault went off at Turn Three.

Hamilton was ahead of Ocon and did get a second lap in, but did not improve, saying the circuit was slower because the wind had picked up, so it may have been academic anyway.

What chance Bottas in the race? His best hope is the start.

“It is one of the longest runs of this season into Turn One and if the headwind stays the towing [effect] will be quite powerful,” he said.

Red Bull back in business

science Max Verstappen
Verstappen has only qualified on the front row once this season, at the Styrian Grand Prix in July

The race may not be simply an in-house Mercedes battle, for the Red Bull of Max Verstappen tends to be a closer match in the races. And, after a dismal race last weekend at Monza, this was the closest the Dutchman has been to pole all year.

“From our side we did a very good job setting up the car compared to some other weekends where we have been a bit further away and I was not entirely happy with the car,” said Verstappen, who has been close to the Mercedes all weekend, and split them in two of the three practice sessions.

“We more or less maximised what we could do this weekend. We started straight away with a positive balance and the right wing level for our car. And maybe the track characteristics a bit, we seem to be bit better on higher-downforce tracks.”

He, too, had been putting in the homework – although in his case it meant renting a GT race car and coming to Mugello to learn the circuit and its secrets.

“I was here a few weeks ago,” Verstappen said. “It is not an F1 car but it gives you a better idea than driving on the simulator.

“I grew up driving on the simulator but I find it way better driving a real-life car. It gives you more of an idea of what lines you have to take because at the end of the day it doesn’t matter what car you are driving you are riding it more or less the same.

“That helped me a bit to get started. Also to set up the car. When I come here, I am not just cruising around, I am here working on the set-up and trying to make that car fast as well. And it gave me an idea of how to start with wing level and roll stiffness and things like this.

“When we started, the car was already in a very good window and I knew the track from a few weeks ago instead of a few years ago and that always helps.”

Can he do anything about the Mercedes in the race? Verstappen, well aware of the power of Mercedes this year, was not going to say that. But it is on his mind.

“For once we have quite decent top speed. It won’t be easy to pass but the track, the last few corners are wide and long so you can do a few different lines but it depends on if you have the pace to follow and tyre degradation.”

29th September 2020

Science UN report: Covid crisis does little to slow climate change

Science UN report: Covid crisis does little to slow climate change


science wildfireImage copyright
Getty Images

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Wildfires are being linked to climate change in many parts of the world

The global response to Covid-19 has barely made a dent in the causes of climate change, according to a major new report.

While emissions of CO2 plummeted during lockdown, concentrations of the long-lasting gas have continued to rise in the atmosphere.

The period from 2016 to 2020 will likely be the warmest five years on record, the study finds.

The authors say “irreversible” climate change impacts are increasing.

The United in Science report brings together experts from a large number of international organisations, including the UN and the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), to give an updated snapshot of the state of the global climate.

The study shows that global lockdowns had a significant and immediate impact on emissions of greenhouse gases, with daily levels in April 2020 falling by 17% compared with 2019.

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Getty Images

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Traffic reductions across the world during lockdown have proven temporary

But this steep drop hasn’t been maintained. As the world returned to work, emissions rose and by June were within 5% of the previous year.

Over 2020, the expectation is that emissions will fall 4-7%.

While emissions can tell us what is happening on the ground, it is the concentrations of these gases in the atmosphere that makes all the difference for global temperatures.

Because CO2 can last for centuries, adding even a reduced amount to the air increases the warming potential of all the gas that has built up over decades.

This new study shows that is exactly what’s happened at a couple of key monitoring stations around the world.

At the Mauna Loa observatory in Hawaii, the amount of CO2 measured in air samples has increased from 411 parts per million (ppm) in July 2019 to 414ppm in July this year.

Similarly, at Cape Grim monitoring station in Tasmania, concentrations were also up from 407 to 410ppm in the year to July.

A full global picture on atmospheric concentrations of warming gases won’t be available until later this year – but experts say the direction of travel is clear.

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Getty Images

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Melting glaciers are seen as an irreversible impact of climate change

“Greenhouse gas concentrations – which are already at their highest levels in three million years – have continued to rise,” said WMO Secretary-General, Prof Petteri Taalas.

“Meanwhile, large swathes of Siberia have seen a prolonged and remarkable heatwave during the first half of 2020, which would have been very unlikely without anthropogenic climate change.

“And now 2016-2020 is set to be the warmest five-year period on record. This report shows that whilst many aspects of our lives have been disrupted in 2020, climate change has continued unabated,” he said.

The report also highlights the growing gap between the action that’s needed to keep under temperature thresholds and the reality of efforts to cut emissions.

To keep the world from going beyond 1.5C of warming (since preindustrial times) this century, greenhouse gas production needs to be slashed, urgently.

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Getty Images

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Fires in Siberia were said to have been made far more likely because of human-influenced climate change

The study says that by 2030, the world would need to cut the combined emissions of the top six carbon-producing countries to have a reasonable chance of staying below the 1.5C “guard rail”.

While not impossible, the report says it would essentially require a pandemic-sized carbon slowdown every year from now until the end of the decade.

All the while, the authors say, the evidence of the impacts of climate change continues to grow.

Global sea levels are rising much faster than previously recorded. Between 2016 and 2020 the rate of increase was 4.8mm per year, an increase over the 4.1mm recorded between 2011 and 2015.

The extent of sea-ice in the Arctic has continued to decline, at a rate of 13% per decade.

Rising temperatures have also seen droughts and heatwaves and have increased the risk of wildfires.

In Siberia, a recent attribution study has shown that the heat that persisted between January and June this year was made at least 600 times more likely by human-driven climate change.

“Never before has it been so clear that we need long-term, inclusive, clean transitions to tackle the climate crisis and achieve sustainable development,” said UN Secretary General, Antonio Guterres, in a foreword to the report.

“We must turn the recovery from the pandemic into a real opportunity to build a better future,” he wrote. “We need science, solidarity and solutions.”

Follow Matt on Twitter @mattmcgrathbbc.

27th September 2020

Science ‘Together we will make a change’ – Hamilton Commission members named

Science ‘Together we will make a change’ – Hamilton Commission members named


science Lewis Hamilton after winning the Tuscan Grand Prix
Lewis Hamilton remains on course for a seventh world title after winning the Tuscan Grand Prix

Lewis Hamilton has vowed to increase the number of black people in motor racing, naming a group to analyse the causes of a lack of diversity.

The British Formula 1 world champion said members of his Hamilton Commission “together will make a change”.

Hamilton will lead the group alongside Dr Hayaatun Sillem, the chief executive of the Royal Academy of Engineering.

The 14 members include former sports minister Tracey Crouch and ex-McLaren Formula 1 boss Martin Whitmarsh.

Mercedes driver Hamilton, 35, has set the commission the target of identifying the “key barriers to the recruitment and progression of black people in UK motorsport” and providing “actionable recommendations to overcome them”.

A statement said the composition of the commission had been chosen to “represent a wide range of expertise spanning critical areas of influence, including motorsport, engineering, schools, colleges and universities, community/youth groups, as well as major UK political parties”.

Other members include Professor Alice Gast, the president of Imperial College London and Chi Onwurah, the Labour MP for Newcastle-upon-Tyne and shadow minister for digital, science and technology.

Hamilton is F1’s first and so far only black driver. The sport’s only other non-white competitor is Red Bull’s Alexander Albon, a Britain-born Thai.

Six-time world champion Hamilton said: “What is more concerning is that there are still very few people of colour across the sport as a whole.

“In F1, our teams are much bigger than the athletes that front them, but representation is insufficient across every skill set – from the garage to the engineers in the factories and design departments.

“Change isn’t coming quickly enough and we need to know why.

“This is why I wanted to set up the commission and I’m proud to be working with the Royal Academy of Engineering and our incredible board of commissioners to identify the barriers facing young black people to take up STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) careers in motorsport.

“We are dedicated to this cause and, together, we will make a change.”

Sillem said: “This is a truly unique opportunity to drive transformational change on this crucial issue and, in the process, to learn more about how we can enrich diversity in other parts of engineering and society.”

Gast said the commission would “not only strengthen Formula 1 and motorsport, but will help bring needed talent into engineering”.

“Inclusion and excellence go hand in hand. Lewis is a role model for future stars of engineering and innovation as much as he is a sporting icon and I’m very pleased to be working with him,” she added.

Hamilton has been at the forefront of F1’s attempts this year to promote an anti-racist and pro-diversity agenda, which includes demonstrations before every grand prix.

His Mercedes team have painted their cars black for this season, instead of their trademark silver, as a signal of their commitment to greater diversity and inclusion.

Hamilton called the move “an important statement we are willing to change and improve as a business”.

The team admitted that “just 3% of our workforce identify as belonging to minority ethnic groups and only 12% of our employees are women”.

Mercedes have pledged to increase those numbers and Hamilton has called on all other teams to match that commitment.

F1 as a sport has launched an equality and diversity taskforce to increase opportunity for minority groups and has pledged to work with the Hamilton Commission.

Hamilton will publish the findings and recommendations of his commission and take it “directly to key stakeholders who can help implement change”.

A statement added: “Commissioners will also support this effort by applying their personal influence to champion the insights and recommendations from the project.”

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