Nanotechnology: Armed resistance

Investigative feature published in Nature on 5 September, 2012.

This piece was short-listed for the 2013 Association of British Science Writers award for Best Feature. The Nature podcast for 30 August also interviewed me about the topic (at the 13:50 mark), and I authored that week’s editorial on the same subject.

The shoe-box-sized package was addressed to Armando Herrera Corral. It stated that he was the recipient of an award and it was covered in official-looking stamps. Herrera, a computer scientist at the Monterrey Institute of Technology and Higher Education in Mexico City, shook the box a number of times, and something solid jiggled inside. What could it be? He was excited and a little nervous — so much so, that he walked down the hall to the office of a colleague, robotics researcher Alejandro Aceves López, and asked Aceves to open it for him.

Aceves sat down at his desk to tear the box open. So when the 20-centimetre-long pipe bomb inside exploded, on 8 August 2011, Aceves took the full force in his chest. Metal pierced one of his lungs. “He was in intensive care. He was really bad,” says Herrera’s brother Gerardo, a theoretical physicist at the nearby Centre for Research and Advanced Studies of the National Polytechnic Institute (Cinvestav). Armando Herrera Corral, who was standing nearby when the bomb went off, escaped with a burst eardrum and burns to his legs.

The next day, an eco-anarchist group calling itself Individuals Tending Towards Savagery (ITS) claimed responsibility for the bombing in a 5,500-word diatribe against nanotechnology that it published online. Police found a charred copy of a similar text in the detritus of the explosion. The bombers said that Herrera had been targeted for his role as director of the technology-transfer centre at the Monterrey Institute of Technology and Higher Education (commonly known as Monterrey Tec), “one of the major universities that has staked everything on the development of nanotechnology”. The text talked of the potential for the field to cause environmental “nanocontamination”, and concluded that technology and civilization as a whole should be held responsible for any environmental catastrophe. Chillingly, the bombers listed another five researchers at Monterrey Tec as presumptive targets, as well as a further six universities. Continue reading →

Massive shrinkage in African great ape habitat since 1990s

News article appeared on the Nature News Blog on 28 September, 2012.

Great-ape habitat in Africa has shrunk precipitously in the past two decades, according to the first continent-wide survey of the state of environmental conditions suitable for the animals.

Gorilla habitat has been hit particularly hard, researchers have concluded. Since 1995, Cross River gorillas have lost 59% of their habitat; eastern gorillas have lost 52%; and western gorillas have faced a 31% loss. Continue reading →

Put Whitey Back on the Moon

Opinion piece first appeared in Jacobin on 24 September, 2012. 

The death of the first man on the moon, Neil Armstrong, has unleashed wistful, “Where is my jetpack?” lamentation in some parts of the press, shocked into a realization that it’s been over 40 years since one of the greatest achievements of mankind – a bold feat of engineering in the service of irrepressible human curiosity and wanderlust. There’s been little advance out into the solar system since.

Martin Robbins in the Guardian issued a brilliant polemic attacking our abandonment of space, reminding us: “Nobody born since 1935 has stepped on another world,” and, sadder still: “The first man on the Moon will never meet the first man on Mars.”

Similar regret can found in the words of the second man on the moon, Buzz Aldrin, on the passing of his friend: “I had truly hoped that on July 20th, 2019, Neil, Mike and I would be standing together to commemorate the 50th Anniversary of our moon landing, as we also anticipated the continued expansion of humanity into space, that our small mission helped make possible. Regrettably, this is not to be.” Continue reading →

Austerity for the people, welfare for the banks

I co-authored this article with Andrew Bowman, a research fellow with the University of Manchester’s Centre for Research on Socio-cultural Change (CRESC) and Financial Times blogger, originally published in Red Pepper in August 2012. 

While the eurozone teeters on the brink, construction work is underway in Frankfurt’s financial district on new headquarters for the European Central Bank (ECB). Due for completion in 2014, the 185 metre tall, futuristically designed skyscraper will have double the office space of the ECB’s current residence, the Eurotower. It embodies the expectations for the future of the single currency from the one institution that has no future without it.

As the drama of the financial crisis has unfolded over the past five years, press coverage and political debate has tended to focus predominantly on the actions of national political leaders. At many points, however, the back-stage central bank officials have been the most influential actors.

Nowhere is this truer than with the ECB. With EU decision-making processes incapable of reconciling national and pan-European interests, and in the absence of a fiscal policy for the eurozone, the ECB has filled the gap.  Continue reading →

Dawkins’ support for private schools lets Loch Ness Monster into biology class

Article originally published in Red Pepper on 11 July, 2012.

The news that thousands of Louisiana school-children will be taught that the Loch Ness Monster is real in order to show that the theory of evolution is false pinged around the atheist Twittersphere this week. Oh how the enlightened creatures on the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science discussion board chortled at yet another wacky tale of the American Taliban, sure to be shelved alongside efforts by North Carolina Senators this month to legislate away non-linear extrapolation of sea-level rise and the same state’s constitutional amendment in May restricting marriage to one man and one woman.

Largely missed in much of the coverage that focussed on the sheer nuttiness of those crazy happy-clappy Yanks, was that this sorry development is the predictable outcome of the broadest assault on public education yet by a US state, an agenda of radical privatisation that some of the most prominent New Atheists such as Dawkins, cosmologist Lawrence Krauss and philosopher AC Grayling appear to be more than comfortable with.

As part of Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal’s overhaul of the state’s education system passed in May, pupils are to receive publicly funded vouchers to attend privately-run Christian schools teaching the Accelerated Christian Education (ACE) programme, which attempts to disprove evolution. Continue reading →

South Korea aims to be second nation to engage in ‘scientific’ whaling

News article published on Nature News Blog on 5 July, 2012.

South Korea has announced that it hopes to launch a programme of ‘scientific’ whaling, a development that would make it the second such country to engage in the practice alongside Japan.

The South Korean delegation to the 64th conference of the International Whaling Commission (IWC), now meeting in Panama, said on Wednesday that the move is necessary to assess the size of the populations of minke whales off the Korean coast.

“Since 2001, the Korean government has been conducting a non-lethal sighting survey of the whale population to assess the status of the stock in Korean waters,” Joon-Suk Kang, the head of the delegation told the meeting in a prepared address. “But it has turned out that this survey alone cannot identify the different whale stocks and has delayed the proper assessment of the resources.” Continue reading →

UK fracking safe but US operations marred by ‘poor practices’

News article published on 29 June, 2012 on the Nature News Blog.

Hydraulic fracturing — or ‘fracking’, as it is popularly known — presents a “very low risk” of contaminating drinking water or triggering forceful earthquakes in the United Kingdom, and can safely be performed as long as companies engage in different practices from those that have produced concern in the United States.

This was the conclusion of an independent review of the controversial practice — in which a mixture of water, sand and proprietary chemicals are injected under high pressure into wells — published by the Royal Society and the Royal Academy of Engineering today. The method fractures shale, creating fissures that allow previously inaccessible natural gas to flow more easily out of the well. Continue reading →