Guest post by Pink Prosecco
Stephen Hawking, explaining his decision to boycott the Shimon Peres Presidential Conference in Israel, describes what he had planned to say:
“Had I attended, I would have stated my opinion that the policy of the present Israeli government is likely to lead to disaster.”
That is a strong statement, but it’s not an eccentric or hateful view – and you certainly don’t have to be an enemy of Israel to share it. Yet although I can understand why some (particularly Palestinians) have urged Hawking to boycott this event, I very much regret his final decision. There are many countries which would not have allowed him to strike his planned dissenting note – and where requests for solidarity from those considering themselves oppressed could not even have been articulated. Here is Omar Barghouti’s response:
But Palestinians welcomed Hawking’s decision. “Palestinians deeply appreciate Stephen Hawking’s support for an academic boycott of Israel,” said Omar Barghouti, a founding member of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement. “We think this will rekindle the kind of interest among international academics in academic boycotts that was present in the struggle against apartheid in South Africa.”
I believe Barghouti is still registered as a PhD student at Tel Aviv University. That doesn’t mean that he can’t speak out against the injustices of occupation, checkpoints, detention or any other topic, or indeed call for boycott. Clearly he can. And that fact in itself might make one wonder, not whether Israel should be protected from robust criticism over its policies, but whether it is really the one country in the world which deserves to be the focus of such a very concerted boycott campaign.
It is now universally accepted by competent health professionals that the MMR triple vaccination jab is the safest protection presently possible against measles, mumps and rubella. The present outbreak of measles in South Wales is entirely attributable to the discredited (and probably fraudulent) ”research” of Andrew Wakefield in 1998, falsely linking the MMR jab with autism. Wakefield’s dodgy ”research” was widely promoted by the Daily Mail and other media (including the South Wales Evening Post) from the moment it first appeared until well into the 2000′s, even after Wakefield’s “research” was officially discredited and the man himself struck off. As a direct result teenagers who did not receive the two MMR jabs that are required, as infants, are now the main group suffering from infection.
But still opportunist quacks are (literally) cashing in on the fears of gullible parents: The Children’s Immunisation Centre (see below) ran a clinic last weekend in Swansea supplying the less effective single measles vaccination privately for £110 for each jab plus a £50 registration fee. MMR is available on the NHS free of charge.
The Children’s Immunisation Centre website gives telephone numbers for private clinics offering single measles jabs in England and in Swansea and also links to old newspaper articles suggesting an autism link to the MMR vaccine.
It also claimed that the single vaccines are “the only safe option” to immunise against measles – but that demonstrably false claim has now been removed from their website.
Why has no government minister spoken out against these quacks? In particular, why has health minister Jeremy Hunt had nothing to say? It surely can’t be because the government rather approves of both “parental choice” and private medicine for profit – or that Hunt himself is on record as being sympathetic towards quackery?
H/t: BBC Wales
The profiteers’ fraudulent publicity, below:
The Children’s Immunisation Centre Ltd operates The Immunisation and Medical Centres. Our centres operate Nationally London, Manchester, Kent, Dartford, Birmingham, Southampton, (Leeds-Harrogate, Nottingham-Sheffield Coming Soon), has been specialising for ten years on all types of vaccinations but particularly in single vaccinations against Measles, Mumps, Rubella: MMR single vaccinations; baby jabs and other childhood and new vaccinations to protect adults and children in the UK, and for all your travel vaccinations such as Yellow Fever ,Typhoid rabies and Cholera to name but a few.
We are particularly proud of our 100 per cent safety record and have over 18,000 registered patients and we are one of the UKs largest and friendliest injectables company.
Our group was established in 2002, and for the last 10 years has brought PEACE OF MIND to thousands of patients for affordable private single baby jabs of single Measles, Mumps, Rubella (MMR single jab vaccinations) -currently no mumps vaccine available in the UK.
All our thousands of patients are healthy, with no autism, no hospitalizations or fits (anaphylaxis shock) no febrile convulsions. We have a 100% Safety Record and have given over 70,000 vaccinations.(over 18,000 patients)
Our Measles, Mumps, Rubella single jab (MMR single jabs) immunisation clinic was the first private health clinic to obtain its Care Quality Commission. We have been independently audited and checked by Care Quality Commission Assessors;
FOR YOUR PEACE OF MIND.
Our clinics are in Birmingham, London Harley Street, Manchester, Kent-Dartford, Southampton, (Leeds-Harrogate, Nottingham-Sheffield Coming Soon). All our clinics are open on Saturdays so that parents can conveniently bring their children for their single MMR jabs (single immunisations). It is essential children and adults keep up with all their immunisations and check booster requirements.
Apart from MMR single jabs, we also protect against the following diseases, especially for travelling children. No NHS referral necessary.
As a general rule, it’s the political right who object to attempts to explain crime by reference to the social, economic or political context in which it occurs. This is, they say, to make excuses and to let evil people off the hook. Individuals must be accountable for their actions and distractions like poverty and unemployment should not enter into the equation.
Above: EDF’s attempt to look lovable…
Our daughter Claire was one of 21 activists who spent a week up a chimney at West Burton power station to protest against the use of gas-fired power stations.
It was a peaceful protest to draw attention to the environmental consequences of burning fossil fuels for power. No one was hurt but now EDF Energy are suing our daughter and her fellow activists for £5 million.
We believe this is totally unfair and unprecedented. That’s why we have started a petition to call on EDF to drop the suit against our daughter and her friends, the West Burton activists. Click here to sign our petition.
Our daughter and her friends protested peacefully. They knew they would be arrested but were brave enough to accept this possibility. Peaceful protest has never before been followed by an injunction for costs like this. If EDF are successful in this suit it will set a dangerous precedent for the right to peaceful protest in this country.
We are proud of what Claire and her friends are trying to do. It’s heartbreaking to think that they are being punished for putting themselves at risk for the good of humanity. If EDF pursue this suit they will put my daughter and her friends in debt — possibly for the rest of their lives. For EDF it is a mere drop in the ocean, but for them it is a lifetime’s income.
EDF might think it can silence 21 activists but it has to listen to consumers. If enough consumers show they are outraged by EDF’s actions, the impact to the company’s brand will be worth more than £5 million and the suit will be dropped.
Russ and Barbara Fauset
NB: ‘Will EDF become the Barbra Streisand of climate protest?’ – George Monbiot in the Guardian
From the Daily Telegraph:
Rita Levi-Montalcini, who has died aged 103, overcame racial and sexual prejudice to become a leading neurobiologist and one of the handful of women scientists to win a Nobel Prize.
Her triumph came in 1986, when she shared the Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine with her student, the biochemist Stanley Cohen, for their contributions to the understanding of growth factors in human development.
By the 1950s, the pattern of cell growth and differentiation had long been established, and scientists knew that the addition of blood or organ extracts to cells in culture resulted in their successful growth. They did not know, however, the identity of the active substances, just as cancer researchers understood little of the unregulated growth of tumour cells.
In 1952, Rita Levi-Montalcini found that when tumours from mice were transplanted to chick embryos, they induced potent growth of the chick embryo nervous system . She concluded that the tumour released a nerve growth-promoting factor (NGF) which had a selective action on certain types of nerve cells.
Following this discovery, she began to measure the effect of NGF on cells in culture, and discovered that a sensory or sympathetic nerve cell reacted within 30 seconds of the addition of minute quantities of NGF. Just one billionth part of a gram of NGF per millilitre of culture medium exerted a potent growth-promoting effect.
In 1953 the biochemist Stanley Cohen joined her research group at Washington University, St Louis, and together they purified a nerve growth-promoting extract. Rita Levi-Montalcini’s discovery improved scientific understanding of the processes involved in certain physical malformations and diseases. It has led to improved therapeutic agents and could be central to eventual treatments for diseases such as multiple sclerosis or Alzheimer’s as well as psychiatric disorders such as depression or anorexia.
Rita Levi-Montalcini was born, with her twin sister Paola, in Turin on April 22 1909, the youngest of four children. Her father, Adamo Levi, was an electrical engineer and mathematician, and her mother, Adele Montalcini, a talented painter. Their elder brother, Gino, would become a prominent Italian architect and professor at the University of Turin.
Though the family was cultured, Rita’s father took a traditional view of a woman’s place and decided that his three daughters should not go to university. But Rita was convinced she could not be content with a merely domestic role and, at the age of 20, begged her father to be allowed to try for university. Eventually he relented and within eight months she had rectified her deficiencies in Latin, Greek and Mathematics, graduated from high school, and enrolled at the medical school in Turin, where she studied under the histologist Giuseppe Levi.
In 1936 she graduated with a summa cum laude degree in Medicine and Surgery, and began postgraduate work in neurology and psychiatry. But that year, Mussolini issued the Manifesto per la Difesa della Razza, signed by 10 Italian scientists, which called for laws barring academic and professional careers to non-Aryan citizens. She therefore left Italy for Belgium, where she worked as a guest of a neurological institute in Brussels. In 1940, on the eve of the German invasion of Belgium, she returned to the relative safety of Turin.
Realising it would not be possible to pursue her scientific interests openly, Rita Levi-Montalcini built a small research unit in her bedroom. By this time, inspired by a 1934 article by Viktor Hamburger reporting on the effects of limb amputation in chick embryos, she had become interested in the mechanisms controlling the development of the vertebrate nervous system. She had barely begun work when her former teacher, Giuseppe Levi, who had also escaped from Belgium, returned to Turin and joined her in her work.
Forced to leave Turin by the heavy Allied bombing of the city in 1941, she moved her laboratory to a cottage in Piemonte. But the invasion of Italy by the German Army in 1943 forced her to move again and she remained in hiding in Florence until the Allies liberated the city in August 1944. She was then taken on by the Allied armies as a volunteer physician and assigned to a refugee camp, where she had to treat cases of typhoid and other infectious diseases.
When the war ended she returned with her family to Turin and resumed her academic career at the University. In 1947 she received an invitation from Viktor Hamburger to join him at Washington University, St Louis, where he was a professor. She planned to remain in America for a year but, as a result of the success of her research, decided to postpone her return.
She continued her research on NGF for some 30 years. In 1956 she was appointed Associate Professor and in 1958 full Professor of Neurobiology at Washington University, a position she held until her retirement in 1977. In 1962 she established a research unit in Rome, and from then on, she divided her time between Italy and America. From 1969 to 1978 she was Director of the Institute of Cell Biology of the Italian National Council of Research.
After her retirement in 1979 she became an emeritus professor at the Institute, and from 1989 to 1995, by now well into her eighties, she worked at the Italian National Council of Research Institute of Neurobiology, testing new hypotheses on the action of NGF.
From 1993 to 1998 she was President of the Institute of the Italian Encyclopaedia. She was the author of numerous scientific publications, four bestsellers, and a short autobiography, In Praise of Imperfection. In 1992 she created, together with her twin sister, the Levi-Montalcini Foundation, in memory of their father, to assist young people in the difficult choices regarding their fields of study.
Rita Levi-Montalcini was a member of many scientific academies, including the Accademia Nazionale dei Lincei, the Pontifical Academy, the Accademia delle Scienze, the American National Academy of Sciences, and the Royal Society.
She was unmarried.
Rita Levi-Montalcini, born April 22 1909, died December 30 2012
Jeremy Hunt, the new health secretary allegedly objected (as culture secretary) to the scenes in Danny Boyle’s Olympic opening pageant that celebrated the NHS. The allegation has been made by Labour’s Andy Burnham and I have no way of verifying it. What is a matter of record is that Hunt is listed as one of the co-authors” of the book Direct Democracy: An Agenda for a New Model Party, which contained the follolwing passage:
“Our ambition should be to break down the barriers between private and public provision, in effect denationalising the provision of healthcare in Britain, so extending to all the choices currently available only to the minority who opt for private care.”
Also on the record is the fact that in 2007 Hunt signed an early day motion supporting homeopathy. This is pretty close to believing in magic, as Sir John Krebs told the Guardian: “There is overwhelming evidence that homeopathetic medicine is not effective. It would be a real blow for those who want mewdicine to be science-based if the secretary of state were to promote homeopathy because of his personal beliefs.”
The overwhelming, unanswerable case aginst homeopathy is most effectively (and entertainingly) explained to the layperson by Ben Goldacre in his Bad Science blog here and also in his excellent 2008 book of the same name. here’s just a small part of the book’s chapter on homeopathy, dealing with ‘The dilution problem’:
“Most people know that homeopathic remedies are diluted to such an extent that there will be no molecules of it left in the dose you get. What you might not know is just how far these remedies are diluted. The typical homeopathic dilution is 30C: this means that the original substance has been diluted by one drop in a hundred, thirty times over. In the ‘What is homeopathy?’ section on the Society of Homeopath’s website, the single largest organisation for homeopaths in the UK wil tell you that ’30C contains less than one part per million of the original substance.’
“‘Less than one part in a million’ is, I would say, something of an understatement: a 30C homeopathic preperation is a dilution of one in 1 in 100^30, or rather 1 in 10^60, which means a 1 followed by sixty zeroes, or – let’s be absolutely clear – a dilution of 1 in 1,000,000,000,000,000,000, 000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000, 000,000,000,000,000, or to phrase it in the Society of Homeopaths’ terms, ‘one part per million million million million million million million million million million’. This is definitely ‘less than one part per million of the original substance’.
“For perspective, there are only around 100,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 molecules of water in an Olympic-sized swimming pool. Imagine a sphere of water with a diameter of 150 million kilometers (the distance from the earth to the sun). It takes light eight minutes to travel. Picture a sphere of water that size, with one molecule of a substance in it: that’s a 30C dilution.”
Is a man who believes in such patent nonsense a fit and proper person to be in charge of the nation’s health?
All the more reason to support this…
“How do you wrestle with your conscience when the injustice you have perpetuated has destroyed the lives of children and left thousands of thalidomide victims still enduring pain and suffering, without adequate compensation?” – Sir Harold Evans, former Sunday Times editor, in today’s Observer.
After fifty years, Grünenthal, the company responsible for Thalidomide and the deformity and ruined lives of an estimated 10,000-to-20,000 children, has finally issued an apology. Of sorts.
The company has unveiled a statue and released a statement saying that it “regrets” the deformities and agony caused to babies born to mothers who took Thalidomide as a supposed treatment for morning sickness and other prgnancy-related difficulties, in the late 1950′s and early ’60′s.
But the company has not increased the meagre compensation it reluctantly provided to victims in 1968, nor admitted to the scandalous extent of its profit-driven criminal negligence when it released the drug in the ’50′s, without proper testing and with fraudulent claims about its safety. Exactly how much Grünenthal knew about the risks at the time of the drug’s launch is not clear: but for sure, they ignored early evidence of the terrible side-effects (including the wife of one of its own employees, who used Thalidomide and gave birth to a baby without ears before the drug was put on the market).
In Britain, the Distillers Company (now part of Diageo) distributed the drug with the approval of the Ministry of Health (then on very good terms with Distillers) until, eventually, the scandal was exposed by the Sunday Times. It was a dark chapter in the history of medicine but a fine example of courageous, campaigning journalism. The Sunday Times had to take on not just Distillers, but the legal establishment and the Tory government of the day. The attorney-general, backed by the House of Lords obtained an injunction preventing publication of the paper’s devastating findings, and the paper had to spend millions of pounds fighting for the right to publish. Eventually, thanks to the tenacity of then-editor Harold Evans and the paper’s proprietors, the truth came out, the drug was withdrawn and a compensation settlement of £28m was reached with the UK victims.
But the compensation in the UK and world-wide, remains thoroughly inadequate and the battle for justice for all the victims, continues. As Evans notes in his Observer piece:
“[D]ecency requires me to identify some heroes in the struggle for justice – the thalidomide victims, now in middle age, who continue to fight for others: Freddie Astbury, president of Thalidomide UK, who describes the CG apology without compensation as a disgrace; the Lords Jack Ashley and Alf Morris, who fought so hard for the victims in their lifetimes, and Labour’s minister of health, Mike O’Brien.”
I will leave to one side, for now, why it is that Evans is writing in the Observer rather than the paper he edited at the time of the scandal and which played such an honourable role back then, the Sunday Times…
From The Economist:
THE kids these days play their music too loud and it all sounds the same. Old fogies familiar with such sentiments will be happy to hear that maths bears them out. An analysis published in Scientific Reports by Joan Serrà of the Artificial Intelligence Research Institute in Barcelona and his colleagues has found that music has indeed become both more homogeneous and louder over the decades.
Dr Serrà began with the basic premise that music, like language, can evolve over time, often pulled in different directions by opposing forces. Popular music especially has always prized a degree of conformity—witness the enduring popularity of cover songs and remixes—while at the same time being obsessed with the new. To untangle these factors, Dr Serrà’s team sifted through the Million Song Dataset, run jointly by Columbia University, in New York, and the Echo Nest, an American company, which contains beat-by-beat data on a million Western songs from a variety of popular genres. The researchers focussed on the primary musical qualities of pitch, timbre and loudness, which were available for nearly 0.5m songs released from 1955 to 2010.
They found that music today relies on the same chords as music from the 1950s. Nearly all melodies are composed of ten most popular chords. They follow a similar pattern to written texts, where the most common word occurs roughly twice as often as the second most common, three times as often as the third most common, and so on, a linguistic regularity known as Zipf’s law. What has changed is how the chords are spliced into melodies. In the 1950s many of the less common chords would chime close to one another in the melodic progression. More recently, they have tended to be separated by the more pedestrian chords, leading to a loss of some of the more unusual transitions. Timbre, lent by instrument types and recording techniques, similarly shows signs of narrowing, after peaking in the mid-60s, a phenomenon Dr Serrà attributes to experimentation with electric-guitar sounds by Jimi Hendrix and the like.
What music lost in variety, it has gained in volume. Songs today are on average 9 decibels louder than half a century ago, confirming what industry types have long suspected: that record labels engage in a “loudness race” in order to catch radio listeners’ attention. Since digital audio formats max out at a certain decibel level, as the average loudness inches towards that ceiling, songs will lose dynamic range, becoming ever more uniform.
This homogeneity is not just jarring to melomaniacs. It might confuse the popular algorithms for identifying and recommending tracks, like those used by Spotify and other music services. Many of these rely on timbre measurements to sort songs into genres, for instance. Some musicians are bound to respond by confounding expectations with new sounds. Whether audiences wish to be confounded remains moot.
Now click on the jukebox below and choose a year:
The Higgs boson particle seems to have been discovered! But what is the Higgs and why was it predicted?
For every field, a boson
The current explanation of matter and space, the Standard Model, developed in the 1960s, is one of the most successful theories of all time (and space!).
It explains all the approximately 200 elementary particles that exist and how they interact with each other. Some of these particles, the Z and W vector bosons, were predicted by the model and subsequently produced in CERN in the 1980s. Their masses were predicted with 99.99% accuracy using the modification developed by Peter Higgs and others in 1964.
A major failing of the early Standard Model was that it could not predict the observed masses of these particles. Indeed, it seemed to predict that they would be massless, as if you and I were as solid as we in fact are but as light as ghosts. It also can’t explain dark energy and dark matter, which seem to make up about 90% of the universe. Their gravitational effect is evident but they can’t be observed.
The Higgs mechanism explained the masses of particles. In the 1960s, Higgs and others proposed that space is permeated by a field, the Higgs field, that clings to particles, giving them the property that we call mass.
Now, it is a truism in physics that for every field there is a particle called a boson, so it was predicted that there would be a Higgs boson. Bosons transmit the field, carrying some of its energy from one place to another. The prime example of this is the photon, and the discovery of its nature shows why physicists are so keen to discover other field bosons.
In the mid 19th century, building on the discoveries of Michael Faraday, James Clerk Maxwell showed that a changing magnetic field could induce an electric field and vice versa. And, crazily, when he multiplied the two constants associated with the electric and magnetic fields*, he got the speed of light!
This means that the electric and magnetic forces are not different but are aspects of each other. Changes in each are mediated by photons of light or, conversely, light is produced by changes in electromagnetic fields. This led to the discovery of many invisible forms of “light”, such as radio waves, microwaves, and X-rays, with an enormous influence on our lives.
This is an example of the unexpected consequences of much scientific research. Physicists are trying to repeat the triumph of Maxwell in uniting two forces and discovering the particles associated with the force field. This has already been done for the electromagnetic and weak forces, the particles transmitting the electroweak force being the W and Z vector bosons. So far, there has not been any influence on our lives from this unification, and there may not be, but we cannot know where a discovery may take us.
Why use a collider to hunt for the Higgs?
The electromagnetic (EM) force is very strong and infinite in extent: its associated particles, photons, are massless.
They are quite easy to produce and are therefore all around us. The weak force, though responsible for a type of radioactivity, is … weak! It’s about 7,000 times weaker than the EM force and only operates over a very short range — less than the diameter of a nucleus. Its bosons, W and Z, have a lot of mass, about 100 times a hydrogen atom, and they are very rare and short-lived. They can only be produced where there is a lot of energy, such as in a particle accelerator.
They were predicted back in 1968 and produced at CERN in 1983 in the Super Proton Synchrotron. Like the Large Hadron Collider, this smashed protons together at high speeds, converting them into pure energy, which then in a few cases “condensed” into W and Z bosons. These decayed into more stable particles in a characteristic way, enabling scientists to deduce their existence.
It wasn’t just luck that W and Z were discovered at CERN. The Higgs mechanism predicted particular masses for W and Z and it was only with the SPS that sufficient energies would be available to produce particles with these masses. CERN’s 1983 experiments were therefore a test for the Standard Model, which it passed.
The Higgs theory predicted a field and a particle, the Higgs boson. Predicting the mass of the Higgs was not straightforward but eventually most estimates settled on a value about 50% higher than the W and Z masses. Sufficient energy was not available from the SPS or from the Large Electron-Positron collider (LEP) that followed it. This had to wait for the construction of the Large Hadron Collider.
If a Higgs is produced, it is predicted to decay immediately into two Z particles, which will then decay into two muons each. These are easily detected because they behave like electrons, but 200 times heavier.
Both of the Higgs boson-hunting experiments at the LHC see a level of certainty in their data that is apparently worth calling a “discovery”. But they are not yet absolutely certain that what they have seen is a Higgs…
* then took the square root and divided the answer into 1. For those who want to try it themselves, c = 1/(?0?0), where ?0 = 4Ι x 10-7 and ?0 = 8.85 x 10-12. You should get c = 3 x 108 m/s approximately.
*** More: here.
The CERN rap! Explains the LHC in verse.
Thatcher and the Higgs boson
Back in 1993, the Conservative Science Minister, William Waldegrave, challenged physicists to come up with an analogy for the Higgs mechanism.
Professor David Miller of UCL produced the following:
“Imagine a room full of Tory party workers. Mrs Thatcher walks in and the workers near her are attracted and cluster round her, giving her a greater ‘mass’ and making it more difficult to get her moving. The party workers are like the Higgs field.
“Now imagine a rumour passing through the room. The party workers cluster round the source and as the rumour passes the cluster also moves.
“Since the clustering gave Thatcher her ‘mass’, the clusters also have mass: they represent the Higgs boson.”
Guest post by Pink Prosecco
I woke up this morning to an email informing me that there was an outbreak of measles at my child’s school. In my area the problem is not generally too bad, but in Merseyside they are suffering the worst outbreak of the disease since 1988, with over 200 people affected – about 20% of these have needed hospital treatment.
Although I’m not completely sure about making such vaccinations mandatory, or excluding children from school if their parents don’t comply – I’m not completely opposed either. On a recent radio interview the writer Peter Ackroyd, asked in which historical era he’d most like to live in, immediately responded that he felt it would be neither sensible nor desirable to live in any era but our own. And it certainly seems neither sensible nor desirable to allow dodgy (non)science to persuade you not to immunise your children against serious and preventable diseases and – more importantly – to put the lives of children who are unable to be vaccinated in danger.