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24th November 2019

Science Is climate change to blame for Australia’s bushfires?

Science Is climate change to blame for Australia’s bushfires?


science Massive flames and smoke clouds from a major bushfire hang over a suburban street in Harrington, New South WalesImage copyright

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The scale and intensity of the bushfires is unprecedented

Australia is enduring a bushfire crisis that has left three people dead, razed more than 150 homes, and prompted warnings of “catastrophic” danger.

Bushfires are a regular feature in the Australian calendar, but the blazes in New South Wales and Queensland have not previously occurred on such a scale and so early in the fire season, officials say.

This has led many Australians to ask how closely the fires can be linked to climate change.

The science around climate change is complex – it’s not the cause of bushfires but scientists have long warned that a hotter, drier climate would contribute to Australia’s fires becoming more frequent and more intense.

But the nation’s political leaders are facing a backlash for batting away questions on the subject.

Science What have Australia’s leaders said (or not said)?

On Sunday, Prime Minister Scott Morrison refused to answer a question about climate change, saying: “My only thoughts today are with those who have lost their lives and their families.”

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Media caption“Unprecedented” bushfires turn skies orange

When asked the same question, New South Wales Premier Gladys Berejiklian told reporters: “Honestly, not today.”

Some Australians agreed, but others were furious the question was being ignored.

Mr Morrison later tweeted to offer “thoughts and prayers” to those affected, but critics compared that to rhetoric used by US lawmakers who have opposed gun reforms after mass shootings.

Deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack stoked the most anger, when on Monday he dismissed climate change as the concerns of “raving inner-city lefties” who were ignoring the needs of rural Australians.

“We’ve had fires in Australia since time began,” he said.

Science What is Australia’s climate change commitment?

The nation’s target under the Paris Agreement – the global deal to tackle rising global temperatures – is a 26-28% reduction in emissions by 2030. Some have criticised that as inadequate for a G20 country.

Last year, the UN reported that Australia – the world’s largest coal exporter – was not on track to meet its commitment.

Mr Morrison told the UN last year that Australia was doing its bit to address climate change, and “balancing our global responsibilities with sensible and practical policies to secure our environmental and our economic future”.

Science So are these bushfires due to climate change?

“We find it very difficult in general to attribute climate change impacts to a specific event, particularly while the event is running,” said Dr Richard Thornton, chief executive of the Bushfires & Natural Hazards Co-operative Research Centre.

“But what we do know is that the average temperature in Australia now is running about 1C above the long-term average.” He added fire seasons were starting earlier and “the cumulative fire danger” in many areas was growing.

Prof Glenda Wardle, an ecologist from the University of Sydney, agreed: “It’s not every weather event that is the direct result of climate change. But when you see trends… it becomes undeniably linked to global climate change.”

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Massive bushfires in November have destroyed hundreds of homes

She said there was a “collective shift” in the timing and intensity of weather events.

Australian National University climate scientist Dr Imran Ahmed called it a direct link: “Because what climate change does is exacerbate the conditions in which the bushfires happen.”

Science Will Australia’s bushfires get worse?

“We will start to see the extreme end of the fire behaviour scale occur more frequently because of the increase of temperatures”, said Dr Thornton.

“Everything we normally see as variability between a good fire season and a bad season is sitting on top of that extra 1C – and that means that the severe events will occur more frequently.”

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Media captionWhy Australia bushfires are now “hotter and more intense”

Science Do scientists believe Australia is doing enough?

But Prof Wardle said the government was “passing the buck” on climate change and not doing enough to help stem the rise in global temperatures.

“It hasn’t just been fires, there’s been flood, there’s the drought,” she said. “Every time [the government] has had the chance to take on the big issue of climate change and do something, they choose not to and blame other things like land management.”

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Dr Ahmed said the leaders’ responses this week were a “very unfortunate” reaction to peer-reviewed warnings by leading scientists.

“With that sort of evidence on the ground, it’s hard to see that you still have the politics around doubting climate change,” he said.

Science Was Australia warned about the risk?

The Bureau of Meteorology’s State of the Climate 2018 report said climate change had led to an increase in extreme heat events and increased the severity of other natural disasters, such as drought.

In April, 23 former fire chiefs and emergency leaders issued a letter, warning the government about “increasingly catastrophic extreme weather events”. It requested a meeting which was declined by the government.

24th November 2019

Science Spanish election: Five face off in race to run Spain

Science Spanish election: Five face off in race to run Spain


science (L-R): Pablo Casado, Pedro Sánchez, Santiago Abascal, Pablo Iglesias and Albert RiveraImage copyright

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(L-R): Pablo Casado, Pedro Sánchez, Santiago Abascal, Pablo Iglesias and Albert Rivera

Spain has held another inconclusive general election – its second since April and fourth in four years.

Acting Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez, whose Socialists have gained the most seats, announced the vote in September after failing to secure enough parliamentary support to form a government.

After months of fractious negotiations and political turmoil, Spaniards had hoped to break the political gridlock.

Here we look at the leaders of the main national political parties and what they represent.


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We are going to add a new felony to the criminal code that forbids, once and for all, the celebration of illegal referendums in Catalonia.

Pedro Sánchez, 47, is arguably at an advantage in his current position as caretaker prime minister, even though he has never yet won a parliamentary majority.

His tenure began with the fall of the conservative Popular Party in a June 2018 no-confidence vote. Since then the Socialist (PSOE) leader has implemented a series of eye-catching measures that appealed to his base, such as raising the minimum wage and appointing a female-dominated cabinet.

He wants more ambitious, structural reforms; he has talked about plans to overhaul the education system, legalise euthanasia, change labour regulations and shake up national broadcaster RTVE.

He has also sought to lower tensions with Catalonia, Spain’s semi-autonomous north-eastern region whose failed bid for independence in 2017 sparked the country’s biggest political crisis for 40 years.

Mr Sánchez is opposed to another independence referendum, but has previously recognised Catalonia and the Basque Country to be nations within Spain, not just regions.


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I want to lead a government that protects the elderly… and encourages youngsters to achieve their dreams.

Elected leader of the Popular Party (PP) in July last year, Pablo Casado‘s appointment was seen as a shift to the right for Spain’s main opposition.

The 38-year-old, who wants to lower income and corporation taxes for Spaniards in an effort to boost productivity, has called for revisions in the European Union’s freedom of movement and border policies.

Mr Casado, who previously served as the PP’s communications chief, took control of the party after it was implicated in a corruption scandal that led to the ousting of former Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy.

He has consistently taken a hardline stance on Catalan separatists and has previously labelled Mr Sánchez “the biggest villain in Spain’s democratic history” for holding talks with Catalan President Quim Torra.


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We would suspend the autonomy in Catalonia and take control of the region’s media, police and education.

A former PP member, Santiago Abascal now leads Vox, a party that has seen its support rapidly grow.

Vox’s success was seen as a turning point for the far right, who had not won seats in parliament since the death of Spanish dictator Francisco Franco in 1975 and the restoration of democracy (with the sole exception of a single seat in the first parliament of 1979-1982).

While Mr Abascal rejects the far-right label, the party’s views on immigration and Islam place it in line with far-right and populist parties elsewhere in Europe.

Vox has a plan to deport migrants legally entitled to be in Spain if they have committed an offence, and wants to prevent any migrant who comes in illegally from staying.

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Media captionWho are Spain’s far-right party?

The party also wants to repeal laws against gender violence, and opposes abortion and same-sex marriage. Critics see it as a nationalist throwback to the Franco era.


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We should not be intimidated by the ignorant and violent right wing that says there is no such a thing as a plurinational country.

Pablo Iglesias, 41, leads the left-wing Podemos (We Can) party, whose anti-austerity policies focus on investing in public services such as education and health and protecting social rights.

He formed Podemos in January 2014 with a group of fellow left-wing university lecturers.

Mr Iglesias was a member of Spain’s Communist Youth Union and was part of the anti-globalisation movement in the 1990s. He survived a Podemos confidence vote last May after controversially spending €600,000 (£527,000; $700,000) on a luxury home.

Some rank-and-file Podemos members said purchasing the property, which included a swimming pool and guest quarters, undermined the party’s grassroots credibility.

Ahead of Sunday’s election, Mr Iglesias said that he would work with Mr Sánchez to form a government that would focus on progressive policies if no single party secured a majority.

Along with leading his party, Mr Iglesias presents talk shows on Spanish television and is a lecturer in political science.


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I am the only candidate that has vowed to negotiate reforms and agreements with the parties that support the constitution in order to get Spain on track.

Albert Rivera, who turns 40 next week, launched his Ciudadanos (or Citizens) party in 2006 handing out campaign posters in which he appeared naked.

Selling itself as socially liberal, Ciudadanos is committed to free market economics. Although it veered to the right before the April elections it pitched for the centre ground in the November vote and saw its support plummet, coming sixth with fewer seats than Catalonia’s pro-independence ERC party.

Ciudadanos had risen to prominence in Catalonia with a campaign against independence.

More recently, Mr Rivera has said he would have dealt with the Catalan crisis by permanently suspending the region’s autonomy and removing Mr Torra from office.

He has said he will play his part to help break the deadlock.

In the run-up to the election, Mr Rivera urged younger Spaniards to vote with “enthusiasm”. His social media feed featured videos and messages apparently endorsed by his “secret weapon” – a dog named Lucas. In this post he welcomes the dog as “already part of the Citizens family”.

Science Seats won in April 2019

24th November 2019

Science Pakistan pollution: Teens court fight to save Lahore from toxic air

Science Pakistan pollution: Teens court fight to save Lahore from toxic air


science Nariman Qureshi and her daughter Anya in their gardenImage copyright
Courtesy: Nariman Qureshi

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Nariman Qureshi’s daughter Anya is one of the victims of Lahore’s pollution problem

When Nariman Qureshi returned to her home in Lahore after a week-long work trip in early November, she discovered her five-year-old daughter Anya had spent two nights in intensive care.

The reason was her asthma, which had flared up severely. For Qureshi, it was the cost she had to pay for living in a city whose air quality is among the worst in the world, and which has spent last week either on top, or among the top five worst cities in the world to breathe in.

“I can’t say for sure that we found out about Anya’s asthmatic condition due to the worsening air pollution, or that the smog itself caused it, but what I do know is that since the 2017 smog season, she’s been on asthma medication. I wonder if we were elsewhere, maybe that wouldn’t have been the case,” Qureshi says.

Delhi may have been hitting the headlines this week, but by the evening of 6 November, Lahore had taken the title of the world’s most unbreathable city – with an Air Quality Index (AQI) of 551, forcing the provincial government to announce closure of all schools in the province on Thursday.

In fact, it was the third time in seven days it had topped the table with numbers which, according to America’s Environment Protection Agency classification, fall into the “hazardous” category, and defined as “emergency conditions” likely to affect everyone in the area.

However despite Pakistan being ranked second worst for air quality in the world back in 2018, attempts by campaigners to force the government’s hand and take some much-needed action have not met with much success.

But things could take a turn for the better for Qureshi, her daughter and rest of the nearly 12 million people living in Pakistan’s second largest city if three teenagers achieve what they have set out to do.

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In January, the early morning fog mixed with pollution to create a toxic smog over Lahore

On 4 November, Laiba Siddiqi, Leila Alam and Misahel Hayat filed a petition in Lahore High Court (LHC), requesting the court to declare government’s smog policy and action plan “null and void” for being “illegal and unreasonable” and come up with a new plan.

The Chief Justice of the LHC heard the case himself and ordered provincial authorities to appear before the court next Tuesday for a response.

Ms Hayat, 17, a professional swimmer who represented Pakistan in the 2016 South Asian Games, told the BBC that as an athlete who trains outdoors the smog affects her particularly badly and she often finds it difficult to breathe properly.

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Courtesy: Mishael Hayat

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Misahel Hayat is one of three teens taking on the politicians through the courts

“For swimmers, your lung capacity and ability to hold your breath is even more important than most other athletes, so knowing that 50% of those exposed to smog of these levels experience reduced lung capacity or that it is equivalent to smoking a pack of cigarettes a day is not encouraging,” she says.

“Every day I and a group of other swimmers, most of them children, exercise outdoors and not all of them wear masks. I fear that if this situation continues in future years, the long-term effects will be much worse than even what we see today.”

For 18-year old Ms Siddiqi, another petitioner, the experience of breathing in Lahori air is just beginning. Speaking to the BBC, she expressed her concern that she might not have seen the worst of it.

“I only moved to Lahore in September to pursue my studies and I am afraid that I haven’t really fully experienced the worst of the smog yet. But I do see the alarm that permeates Lahori society when it comes to the smog season and the widespread investment in air purifiers and face masks.”

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Laiba Siddiqi hopes the petition will spark a conversation and build on the momentum of the city’s climate march

The petition challenges the AQI measurement system adopted by the provincial body and accuses it of “underreporting the severity of air pollution”.

This misreporting, says 13-year-old Leila Alam, the third petitioner, means she doesn’t know “when to wear a mask and when it is all right to go out without it”.

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Media captionWatch how children in India’s capital Delhi are affected by air pollution

Air pollution in Punjab, and Lahore in particular, has long been a menace to citizens and the government has don little in response.

When the Punjab’s Chief Minister Usman Buzdar announced this week’s school closures, Amnesty International’s Omar Waraich took him to task, reminding the minister that his government has had more than a year to deal with the crisis.

But some at the top seem unwilling to take any responsibility – including Climate Change Minister Zartaj Gul Wazir.

Science World’s most polluted countries

Sorted by estimated average PM2.5

She and Federal Minister for Science and Technology Fawad Chaudhry both blamed India on Twitter for Lahore’s pollution.

Ms Gul Wazir went further – she questioned the AQI data and insisted Lahore’s air was “nowhere as bad as being asserted by vested elements”.

Sara Hayat, a lawyer with expertise in climate change law and policy and no relation of petitioner Mishael Hayat, says such buck-passing is pointless.

“There should be no contention on whether the smog situation is or isn’t a public emergency. The government needn’t waste any time disputing this,” she says.

She says air pollution is a political issue and the authorities must act.

“The government should stop shifting the blame for smog on India and accept that Pakistan’s transportation, poor fuel quality, industrial emissions and agriculture have placed us in a state of smog emergency,” she adds.

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Courtesy: Aysha Raja

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Leila Alam – at just 13 – is the youngest petitioner

Ms Siddiqi, who helped organise a march against climate change in the city earlier this year, feels the High Court petition has made the right amount of noise.

“It has definitely helped to start a conversation. I feel our objective of maintaining momentum after the climate march is being achieved,” she says.

Ms Hayat, the swimmer, hopes that the petition will force the government to do something.

“Unless we speak up about issues that affect us there can be no change, and this can only be sustained if the public is involved – especially young people,” she says.

24th November 2019

Science Want to run faster? Improve your algorithm

Science Want to run faster? Improve your algorithm


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Could good data help Eliud Kipchoge run even faster?

Runner Guillaume Adam wants to go faster, further and for longer.

Like many modern runners, the former French national team member uses technology as a key element in helping him hit a new personal best.

Gadgets are as essential a part of a runner’s kit as the shoes on their feet. Few head out these days without a step counter, GPS watch, smartphone or smartwatch.

The wearables keep an eye on the distance covered, pace, heart rate and cadence – helping to ensure they get as much out of the session as possible.

“I’m a scientist as well as a runner so when I want data I want to get reliable data,” said Mr Adam.

Unfortunately, he said, many wearables do not gather data accurately.

One study by consumer group Which? suggested many fitness trackers underestimated the distance runners cover – with the least accurate adding unnecessary miles to a long run.

“You can get data with a GPS watch but you do not know how the algorithm is made or its accuracy,” he said. “If you want to analyse the data, it needs to be available to you.”

In a bid to manage his workouts better, Mr Adam is now trialling a wearable that has emerged from medical research.

Called GaitUp, the sensor has been developed by Dr Benoit Mariani, based on his work on spotting the early signs of degenerative diseases such as Parkinson’s.

Science ‘Our sixth vital sign’

These physical signs, says Dr Mariani, make themselves felt in very subtle ways long before standard tests can catch them.

“If you have a muscle weakness or neurological disorder it will be reflected in your gait first,” he said.

“Those signs have been under the radar because there’s been no easy tool to measure them.”

Changes in the way people walk can be as revealing as those seen in other recognised markers of bodily health – heart rate, blood pressure, body temperature, respiration rate and oxygen saturation.

“Gait is our sixth vital sign,” he said.

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Regular runners monitor their workouts with a variety of wearable sensors

The sensor developed by Dr Mariani’s engineering team does more than just measure steps. It can capture rear and forefoot strike angles, as well as the amount of time each foot is in contact with the ground.

“We’re interested in the quality of the gait,” he said.

He is not the only one. Researchers are keen to get better data about the way elite athletes run, says sports scientist Dr Yannis Pitsiladis from the University of Brighton.

He is part of the long-term Sub2Hrs research project that aims to develop the training methods, techniques and technology that will help a runner set a recognised world record for running the marathon in under two hours.

On 12 October this year, Kenyan running great Eliud Kipchoge broke that barrier but the help he got, from a phalanx of pace-setters and an electric vehicle, meant it was not recognised as a world record.

Science ‘Asymmetries and quirks’

“To break the sub-two hour barrier, you need to get everything right,” Dr Pitsiladis told the BBC.

“You need to identify the right athlete, right weather conditions, right track and also you need bio-energetics,” he said.

Making sure the minimal amount of energy is expended at each step of the marathon will be key, he said.

“The more economical you are, the more you can maintain that pace until the end of the race.

“Anything you do to make you more economical, whether it is the shoe, or the data, or the terrain you are running on being 1% or 2% or 3% better will have a huge impact on your performance,” he said.

It took an improvement of less than 0.5% for Kipchoge to shift his fastest marathon time below the two-hour mark. Improving by 1% or more would mean smashing the barrier.

“With these kinds of athletes, I would argue that we have not got the best out of them yet,” said Dr Pitsiladis. “There’s not a lot of science in their training and a lot of these athletes train themselves.”

There was ample room for improvement, such as refining their stride pattern or pacing, he said. Sensors are now so small that they can be worn during a race without becoming a burden.

Until now, most analysis of pace and performance has happened on a treadmill or after an event but this does not really capture what an athlete undergoes while racing, said Dr Pitsiladis.

For instance, treadmills can exaggerate the way a foot rolls during each step and give a false sense of how a runner moves.

After-the-event analysis of the way a runner moves during a race or training run is useful, he said, but it would be better to do it as they are running and adjust as they go.

Mr Adam used GaitUp to prepare for the New York City marathon and it helped him become the fastest French finisher in that race, hitting a time of 2h 26m.

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Runners such as Paula Radcliffe excelled despite not running “perfect” races

Running coach Sam Murphy questioned whether the information provided by sensors such as GaitUp was too comprehensive.

“What are you actually going to do about the information that tells you your left foot externally rotates more than your right?” she asked. “Or that your take-off angle is too flat?”

Many elite athletes such as Haile Gebrselassie and Paula Radcliffe had “asymmetries” and “quirks”, she said, suggesting the body can work around the disadvantages physiology or upbringing may have imposed on them.

Also, she added, given that runners typically take about 10,000 strides per hour, altering each foot strike to make it perfect could be difficult.

But she conceded that having “greater awareness” of how people run and what they do when they run was undoubtedly useful.

Steady improvement was all about acting on feedback, said Ms Murphy.

“Sometimes getting that data or feedback internally may be more impactful than from an external source such as these devices,” she said. “We aren’t machines, we’re way, way smarter than that.”

24th November 2019

Science Eliud Kipchoge: The man, the methods & controversies behind ‘moon-landing moment’

Science Eliud Kipchoge: The man, the methods & controversies behind ‘moon-landing moment’


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science Eliud Kipchoge completes marathon in 01:59:40

Kipchoge had attemped to break the two-hour mark once before, in 2017

A week before the big day, in the middle of the night, Eliud Kipchoge was fast asleep at his training base in the hills of Kenya.

The greatest male distance runner of all time would soon be launching his second attempt at making history – at becoming the first person to run a marathon in under two hours. All his preparations had gone to plan.

But 3,500 miles away in Austria, American scientist Robby Ketchell was woken by a nightmare at 3am. He was so unsettled that he jumped out of bed and hotfooted it 3km across Vienna.

Ketchell was desperate to check nobody was trespassing on a small roundabout that had been his second home for the past two weeks. For the next four hours until sunrise, he kept a one-man watch over this hump in the road – a pivotal piece in the complicated jigsaw of Kipchoge’s 1:59 Challenge.

Why? As a data scientist Ketchell has helped Team Ineos (formerly Team Sky) win three Tours de France. He is a man well schooled in sport’s one percent advantages – the so-called marginal gains.

The roundabout was a three percenter. The presence of a historic building in its centre meant that the road had been designed with a -2% camber. Good for taking rainwater away from a tourist attraction, terrible for a marathon runner trying to make an about turn while travelling at 13mph.

Ketchell’s solution was to dig up the roundabout and start again, turning the -2% camber into a +1% one. His design took two weeks for local workers to complete – “they thought I was nuts” – before it was undone and returned to normal 12 days later.

On the face of it, running is one of the purest and simplest sports on the planet. Kipchoge’s sub two-hour marathon was anything but.

For Sir Dave Brailsford, the story began during the first week of May’s Giro d’Italia.

By day Team Ineos’ cycling boss was making sure the first Grand Tour since a switch from Sky’s backing went smoothly. By night he was studying into the small hours, learning as much as he could about marathon running.

“It was a real deep dive,” he says. “This sounds a bit geekish but I read quite a lot about how you can educate yourself quickly and learn fast.”

A month earlier Brailsford had been asked by his new boss, Ineos chief executive and Britain’s richest person Jim Ratcliffe, whether he would take on a role as CEO of Kipchoge’s attempt.

Taking on such a massive project (between 300-400 people worked on it) during a hectic summer of professional cycling would have been a lot for anyone. But Brailsford also had another issue to contend with far closer to home.

“I found out that I’d got cancer around March, which I wasn’t expecting,” he says. “When Jim asked me it was kind of ‘take a deep breath’ because this is going to be a lot of time and commitment. What was exciting about it was that I’m normally involved in trying to win races or winning Olympic medals. But this felt like a fairly unique opportunity. First of all it was in a different sport, which was really appealing, and it was a landmark in making history rather than just winning a race.”

And so, with the help of a self-help journal he penned along the way, Brailsford agreed to take on a workload that he now acknowledges was absurd.

“I worked really, really hard on it from April time onwards. Through June, through the Tour de France,” he says. “I look back now and think I was ridiculous, I really do. I behaved in a ridiculous way – it’s quite embarrassing really looking back. I got myself a book to write in about the experience [of cancer].”

Brailsford, Kipchoge and Ratcliffe pictured together at a party celebrating the Kenyan’s remarkable achievement

Back in Kenya, Kipchoge was beginning a journal of his own – a training log for the biggest challenge of his life. In it was absolutely nothing new.

The 34-year-old’s methods are notoriously simple – and humble. Despite his multi-millionaire status, for nearly 300 days a year he lives and trains away from his wife and three children at a training centre in Kaptagat, a tiny village in the Kenyan highlands.

He is known as the “boss man” by his running partners but that doesn’t stop him cleaning the toilets or doing his share of the daily chores. He lives by the mantra: “Living simply sets you free.”

As Kipchoge told me in April: “You run, eat, sleep, walk around – that’s how life is. You don’t get complicated. The moment you get complicated it distracts your mind.”

For the 1:59 Challenge team, the biggest question was: Which athlete could produce a modern-day Roger Bannister moment?

The answer was a total no-brainer. Only one: Eliud Kipchoge. The undisputed GOAT of marathon running. The world record holder, Olympic champion and winner of 11 of his 12 marathon races. And, more crucially, the man with experience of the incredible individual pressure that comes with running a specially organised marathon whose sole focus is to go where no-one has gone before.

In May 2017, the Nike-organised Breaking2 event saw Kipchoge take on the two-hour mark for the first time. Back then, to run under two hours he was looking at taking over three minutes off his personal best. A stratospheric leap. He ran 2:00:25.

Kipchoge is also a fan of the phrase ‘no human is limited’. But in the build-up to Breaking2 – held at Monza’s historic race track in Italy – he now admits he was struggling to practise what he preached.

“Eliud was training physically but he also had to spend seven months convincing his mind that it was possible,” long-time manager Valentijn Trouw says. “Before Vienna he didn’t need to do that. That mental change was the biggest win from two years ago.”

Kipchoge agrees: “Monza opened many doors. It gave me the confidence to run a world record.”

The real question for Brailsford, Ketchell and many others was: How could they help? First of all, they set out to find the perfect venue.

It had to be within three time zones of Kenya (to limit the effects of jetlag on Kipchoge) and atmospheric conditions had to be ideal. Temperature: between 7C and 14C. Humidity: below 80%. Wind: less than 2m/s. Precipitation: none.

With a date in mid-October non-negotiable, Ketchell – as he casually throws into conversation now – “wrote a quick computer script” to find the best location. London was briefly considered before the weather was judged too unpredictable. A return to a racing circuit was also toyed with, but Germany’s Lausitzring was quickly ruled out after a car crash of a recce.

“When we got there, they made us put a sticker over the cameras on our phone which obviously didn’t help,” Ketchell says. “But more of an issue was how wide it was. You were so far away from the stands it didn’t feel natural to run there. Because there was nothing around you it didn’t feel like you were running fast even when you were.”

One of Kipchoge’s biggest complaints about the Breaking2 attempt was the lack of crowds. The search continued, and in early June the planning team arrived in Vienna – specifically a tree-lined road called the Hauptallee that runs through Prater Park. It was love at first sight.

Vienna offered the right temperature, humidity and rainfall (or lack thereof) in October. That local authorities did not baulk at a complex list of demands was another huge boost. The Hauptallee and its surrounding area would be closed off for two whole weeks, so the attempt could be made on the optimum day to run.

But for Ketchell, the wind was the biggest battleground.

Within days of finalising Vienna as their choice, the team installed sensors along the Hauptallee – a 4.4 km long avenue – to monitor conditions. What they consistently found was incredibly exciting to Ketchell – a wind speed of less than 1m/s. Excellent conditions.

Yet even still, Ketchell was not satisfied. Drawing on his extensive knowledge of aerodynamics from a career in professional cycling, he set about finding a way to limit the wind’s impact even further. He did this by devising a plan to arrange Kipchoge’s 41 rotating pacemakers – a number that included Olympic 1500m champion Matthew Centrowitz and Norwegian wonderkid Jakob Ingebrigtsen.

Ketchell used another computer programme to explore the benefits of more than 100 possible formations in which they could run. Eventually they came up with the optimal shape. Even for the combined cycling brainpower of Brailsford and Ketchell it was something new – an inverted V. Think Mighty Ducks only the other way around.

“It is actually the inverse of how birds fly,” Ketchell says. “From the best of my knowledge it is not used in any other sport, industry or animal world.”

Kipchoge’s position is behind the head of the V, just in front of two other athletes

Still, bringing life to a design dreamt up by a computer programme was not easy. The Ineos-backed project employed a coaching company called Insight purely to help ensure the pacemakers ran in the right shape. It worked. In fact it became clear during the training sessions that it was working too well.

Ketchell’s inverted V ensured the air flow on Kipchoge was just one sixth of what it would have been had he run on his own. It left Ketchell facing a new nightmare scenario – the very real possibility that Kipchoge would overheat.

“I was still presenting ideas the night before the race on how we could manage it,” says Ketchell.

Part of the solution came through the presence of a nutritionist who was able to get a near-live picture of Kipchoge’s hydration levels. The Kenyan was taking a bottle every 5km. When he dropped it, the bottle was taken back to the performance operation centre to immediately analyse how much had been drunk and the impact that would have.

The other way the issue was managed was more intuitive. Kipchoge moved slightly out of formation every time he felt he was starting to overheat. A human touch in sync with meticulous planning and so much technology. A few metres ahead of Kipchoge was a car that could adjust its speed to within 0.1 kmh. It had lasers to let him and the pacers know they were on target.

But arguably more important to Kipchoge was the man alongside him using pedal power to stay by his side throughout the full 26.2 miles. That man was Kipchoge’s manager Trouw.

Trouw hails from the Netherlands. He worked for an insurance company and coached ice skating before joining the sports agency Global Sports Communication. He has been a trusted confidant of Kipchoge ever since he began working with him in 2003.

The pair had breakfast together on the morning of the attempt – “Eliud had oatmeal with banana and honey, it’s his treat on race day, the only time he eats it” – and were inseparable during the marathon itself. Trouw was there, pedalling alongside Kipchoge, a task made more difficult than it sounds by the phalanx of pacemakers around him.

“What running is to the Kenyan people, cycling is to the Dutch,” he says. “It wasn’t a problem.”

As well as handing over water bottles, when you watch the race footage it appears like the Dutchman is delivering high-tech advice from a laptop mounted to his handlebars.

In fact, Trouw’s methods were much more old school. “So many people have asked me what I was doing with the laptop on my handlebars,” he laughs. “But in fact it was just a mount so that I could put a piece of paper on the handlebars with the split times Eliud needed to run on them.

“We had an incredible team of scientists. But I am still very old fashioned. I believe 100% in the human touch. Obviously Eliud could see from the pace car that he was running on pace but I was just able to offer some reassurance.”

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How to run a marathon in less than two hours

Trouw’s human touch means he is also in tune with another of the intangibles that helped propel Kipchoge towards making history on 12 October. The impact of the crowd.

Spending time in the company of Kipchoge is a serene experience. Except when you mention his shoes – more of which later.

It is difficult to imagine him complaining about anything, but the sparse crowds at the Breaking2 project in Monza was a source of frustration. There was no such issue in Vienna – and Trouw is convinced it was a factor in Kipchoge making history.

“New asphalt (on the roundabout) is nice and makes a huge difference of course but the crowd (an estimated 120,000 people lined the route) was also an energy that you can’t measure,” he says.

“Eliud was feeling that energy on the day and in the days building up to it. When he went on his morning run at 7am every day in Vienna there were people waiting for autographs who had travelled from Ecuador, Colombia, all over the world. One person said to him: ‘I really hope the attempt is on Saturday because I can’t afford to stay any longer.’ Those interactions make a difference.”

Human interactions were not all good news as far as the 1:59 Challenge crew were concerned.

“In Kenyan culture people shake hands all the time,” Trouw says. “If we had met an hour ago and see each other again we would shake hands. Obviously that brings an advantage in terms of the social atmosphere within the pacemakers team, for example, but also the big downside of shaking hands with people who could have been touching their eyes, ears, mouth.

“So we introduced the fist bump instead, which they weren’t too sure about at first but we made a joke out of it and soon everybody was doing it. That and a lot of hand sanitisers.”

Such attention to detail appealed to Kipchoge. He spent much of race week relaxing in his room reading a self-help book called First Things First. “It’s about getting your priorities right,” he says, speaking on the phone from his home in Kenya.

In Kenya’s capital Nairobi, a large crowd celebrated Kipchoge’s exploits in Vienna

Kipchoge’s priority in Vienna was to run under two hours – whatever it took. That singular ambition causes him to bristle when I bring up the post-race fall-out over his new Nike trainers.

Kipchoge’s record-breaking run was one part of a marathon masterclass over that October weekend which also featured his compatriot Brigid Kosgei breaking Paula Radcliffe’s women’s marathon world record by 81 seconds in Chicago. The common denominator in both those records? Nike’s Vaporfly Next% shoe.

American Jake Riley also wore the shoes in Chicago and compared the experience to “running on a trampoline”.

“That’s a big lie,” is Kipchoge’s unequivocal response. “The world is moving so you can’t complain.”

The Kenyan is equally combative regarding the juxtaposition between his assertion that “no human is limited” and the matter of Nike’s new trainers costing £240.

“When something is good it needs to be expensive,” he says.

For Kipchoge, the question of how he achieved his “moon-landing moment” boils down to hard work, not the carbon-fibre plate in his shoes.

“If you are not training, you can’t run fast,” he says. “If you are not fit enough, you can’t run fast.”

Brailsford nods knowingly when our conversation turns to footwear. Throughout his cycling successes on the track and the road there has often been sniping over the latest marginal gain. At the London 2012 Olympics the French famously accused Britain – who won seven of the 10 track cycling gold medals on offer – of having “magic wheels”.

When I mention a newspaper article that suggests Kipchoge’s feat “belonged not in the realm of sport but in the related field of science-assisted human performance”, he quickly hits back.

“That’s what all sport is,” Brailsford says. “Show me a world-class team that hasn’t got a sports science department. I don’t know what sport they are watching. Rugby, World Cup football, Formula 1, any kind of human endeavour everyone is using sports science. You wouldn’t win without it.”

And with that, Brailsford hits on the essence of the 1:59 Challenge.

The multi-layered assistance ranging from roundabouts to pacemakers meant Kipchoge’s run could not be counted as a world record. But, as Brailsford’s animated face describes, it was a victory – make no mistake.

“Going into that environment in the performance operation centre was like going into an Olympic final,” he says.

“I really did try and absorb it because when you are told you have got cancer and you don’t know what’s going to happen it does make you change your perspective and you do realise you should live a bit more for the day.

“I am always thinking of the next thing and the next thing and the next thing so I did sit down and think: ‘Wow, I’m so proud to have been involved in that.’ It was just sensational. I’ll never forget it. The way he ran down the last kilometre… we had three or four options for the final depending on how Eliud was feeling and he came in in our best scenario. It was perfect.”

Whether it represented perfection for Kipchoge is a matter of conjecture.

On a personal level it certainly couldn’t have been better. He covered the 26.2 miles (42.2km) in one hour 59 minutes 40 seconds, with his wife and three children watching him in the flesh for the first time.

Kipchoge’s children are 13, eight and six. His 12 previous major marathons – and long list of major titles including 2016 Olympic gold – have all clashed with their school terms. “I wanted them to see a part of history,” he says.

Armchair fans on social media questioned whether his jubilant post-race celebrations suggested he had more in the tank, a feeling shared by Trouw. “In the last kilometre you could see how much he could have done so maybe could have gone a little bit earlier,” the Dutchman says.

What of the man himself? Could he have given more? Could he even repeat the sub-two hour trick in a regular marathon and remove the Austrian asterisk?

Two weeks later, low key celebrations complete – “I am not a fan of big celebrations. I have been concentrating firstly on recovery” – Kipchoge’s assessment is as tantalising as it is brief.

“I was not really tired.”

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Watch ‘history unfold’ as Eliud Kipchoge runs marathon in under two hours

24th November 2019

Science Behind the wheel of a hydrogen-powered car

Science Behind the wheel of a hydrogen-powered car


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Asian car makers lead the hydrogen car market

It’s a question I couldn’t avoid as I drove across central England in a borrowed car powered by a hydrogen fuel cell.

The Hyundai ix35 was fast, eerily quiet – they’ve installed a little electronic jingle so you can tell when you’ve switched it on – and there was a reassuring 230 miles (370 km) left on the clock.

And best of all, I drove with the smug knowledge that when a vehicle is powered by hydrogen, the only exhaust product is water.

Quite a difference from my own 13-year-old, one-litre petrol engine: noisy, slow and undeniably dirty.

So why, I wondered, is this clean, green technology lagging far behind the hybrid and all-electric sectors?

The relatively small hydrogen market is dominated by the Asian giants: Toyota, Honda and Hyundai.

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Toyota’s hydrogen-powered car – the Mirai

In early October in Tokyo amid great razzmatazz, Toyota unveiled its latest fuel cell Mirai saloon, which it hopes to launch in late 2020.

European brands including BMW and Audi are also fine-tuning their own hydrogen vehicles.

But this is a sector in which the upstart start-up can claim a modest place too.

Outside Llandrindod Wells, a small market town in central Wales, Riversimple aims to lease, not sell, its futuristic hydrogen fuel cell vehicles to a strictly local market.

They have just two cars on the road so far, with Numbers 3 and 4 under construction in Riversimple’s meticulously clean production facility.

“The car’s called the Rasa – as in tabula rasa, or clean slate,” says the company’s founder and chief executive, Hugo Spowers.

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Riversimple’s fuel cell was originally designed for fork-lift trucks

“We’re using fuel cells off the shelf: ours was made for fork-lifts for Walmart warehouses.”

The Rasa will do a tidy 60mph (100km/h) and has a range of around 300 miles (480km) on a single 1.5 kg hydrogen tank.

“In purely calorific terms,” Spowers concludes, “our car is doing the equivalent of 250 miles to the gallon.”

That sounds impressive – so how do hydrogen powered cars work?

At the heart of the car is a fuel cell, where hydrogen and oxygen are combined to generate an electric current, and the only by-product is water. There are no moving parts in the fuel cell, so they are more efficient and reliable than a conventional combustion engine.

While the cars themselves do not generate any gases that contribute to global warming, the process of making hydrogen requires energy – often from fossil fuel sources. So hydrogen’s green credentials are under question.

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Using hydrogen and fuel cells is a very clean tech

And then there is the question of safety. Hydrogen is a notoriously explosive gas.

That’s why manufacturers disclose plenty of reassuring detail on their websites.

The Toyota Mirai, for example, boasts triple-layer hydrogen tanks capable, the company says, of absorbing five times as much crash energy as a steel petrol tank.

The twin hydrogen tanks in the Honda Clarity are similarly robust featuring layers of aluminium and carbon fibre and designed to resist both extreme pressure and extreme heat.

Still, not everyone is convinced.

EuroTunnel does not allow “vehicles powered by any flammable gasses”, including hydrogen, to use the link between the UK and France.

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Riversimple cars have a range of about 300 miles

The Riversimple business model – a three-year fixed price lease aimed at short-distance local drivers – is designed to negate the biggest problem affecting hydrogen cars: range anxiety.

With just 17 pumps across Britain, refuelling is a challenge, so the industry is stuck.

The public won’t commit if they can’t guarantee a refill wherever they need to drive, but hydrogen production companies are reluctant to install expensive pumps unless there’s likely to be a consistent take-up.

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According to Jorgo Chatzimarkakis, secretary-general of the pro-hydrogen group H2Europe, a country like Germany has around 75 hydrogen fuelling stations – but there aren’t enough drivers.

He blames car markers for being slow to produce hydrogen-powered cars. He points out that BMW isn’t launching one until 2022 and Audi in 2025. “This is definitely quite late,” he says.

Mr Chatzimarkakis wants to prioritise a pan-European network of 20 to 30 pumps aligned along a “north-south corridor” to enable hydrogen-powered vehicles – especially larger freight-bearing lorries – to travel freely where business needs dictate.

The Hydrogen4ClimateAction conference in Brussels in mid-October led to investment pledges by European governments of more than €50bn (£43bn; $56bn) in hydrogen research and infrastructure.

“We at H2Europe are match-makers because this is a co-operative job – it cannot be done by industry alone; it cannot be done by politics alone,” Mr Chatzimarkakis says.

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Johnson Matthey

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A lack of fuel stations is holding back hydrogen vehicles

That collaboration is evident in California, which is experiencing the flip-side of the car/pump imbalance: there are queues at filling stations.

If you visit the website of the Alternative Fuels Data Center, part of the US Department of Energy, and click on “fuelling station locations”, you’ll get 42 results – all in California.

“We are laser-focused on building out an infrastructure to refill zero-emission vehicles,” says Patricia Monahan, science and engineering specialist on the California Energy Commission (CEC).

As importantly, California is committed to incentives for both producers and consumers in the fuel cell sector, she says.

Anyone buying a new hydrogen car will get an incentive of $2,500, with similar subsidies from both the CEC and the state’s Air Resources Board aimed at persuading heavy-duty vehicle companies to look into zero-emission alternatives.

“We are really testing out for the world,” Ms Monahan says, “how to develop an infrastructure to refuel these vehicles, and policies to incentivise their production.”

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Chinese firms have been investing heavily in hydrogen-powered cars

In fact, even California may be behind the curve.

According to Andy Walker, technical marketing director at Johnson Matthey Fuel Cell in the UK – itself a sector pioneer since 2003 – several Asian nations are making dramatic commitments to hydrogen.

“The Chinese government has a target of more than a million fuel cell vehicles on Chinese roads by 2020, serviced by over a thousand hydrogen refuelling stations,” he says.

To that end, Beijing has reduced subsidies to the battery sector and, in 2018 alone, invested $12.5bn on fuel cell technology and related subsidies.

While Japan’s commitment is relatively modest – a mere 800,000 new hydrogen vehicles – we can expect to see a big showcase of hydrogen technology at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

And South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in has endorsed a big expansion of the country’s hydrogen refuelling infrastructure to 660 pumps by 2030.

If these ambitions are even half-way realised, the rest of the world will be playing catch-up.

You can listen to Fergus Nicoll’s report on hydrogen-powered cars on World Business Report here.

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