Crazy dream: the former Delhi IT worker in the race to land on the moon

TeamIndus is one of four teams competing to win Googles Lunar XPrize for the first ever private moon landing, worth $20m

To this day, Rahul Narayan doesnt know why he said yes, except that it was the very last day to sign up, and if he didnt agree to it, then there would be no Indian teams in the running. He threw together a proposal and clicked submit.

Perhaps it was the dullness of his day job in IT services, or a last-ditch effort to recapture some adolescent Star Trek-themed fantasy; but once the idea got into his head, it stuck.

And so it was decided Rahul Narayan would send a spacecraft to the moon.

Sitting in his office now, three years since his moon mission started, Narayan talks through the complexities of lunar expeditions. Sometimes, people ask him why he, a software engineer from Delhi, and a complete outsider to the space industry would attempt a lunar landing, a feat that only three countries have successfully achieved so far.

The real answer to that, Narayan says, is that if you were an insider youd never attempt something like this.

If he succeeds, Narayan and his company TeamIndus will be the first private company ever to land on the moon.

But competition is stiff. Three other teams are competing to win Googles Lunar XPrize for the first ever private moon landing, worth $20m. When Narayan signed up, at the end of 2011, there were 30 teams in the running. The competitions elimination rounds have whittled it down to four.

TeamIndus is now racing against MoonExpress, led by Indian-American dot-com billionaire Naveen Jain; SpaceIL, set up by three Israeli engineers, and an international team called Synergy Moon, all planning to launch their spacecrafts in December this year. A fifth team, Japan-based Hakuto will send a rover on TeamIndus spacecraft which will be launched on a government-owned rocket in Chennai, and reach a top speed of 10.3km a second.

After landing at Mare Imbrium, the Sea of Showers, a four-wheeled, solar-powered, aluminium rover, one of the lightest ever to roam the moons surface will beam HD images back to earth as it makes a 500m journey.

If it completes all this successfully and before the other teams, TeamIndus will have done enough to win the Xprize. Money however, is tight. The project has raised only $16m of the $70m it will need. Private investment from friends, family members and Indian entrepreneurs make up part of the pot, selling payload on the spacecraft, corporate sponsorship and crowdfunding, the company hopes, will make up the rest of it.

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A model of the moon lander to be used by Indian company TeamIndus.

Narayan started working on the moon mission in 2012, mostly in the evenings and on weekends in Delhi. After a year of juggling between his IT company and his new obsession with the moon, he decided it had to be one or the other, and so left the company, and moved his family to Bangalore, Indias tech capital, and the headquarters of Indias space industry. His wife didnt object. She knows what Im like, he says.

TeamIndus is the only company from a developing country to attempt the moon landing. If we could pick this as a problem statement and solve it, I think we could solve any complex engineering problem, says Narayan.

The company has vague plans to start a satellite programme or develop solar powered drones after the moon mission. But the real ambition, says Narayan was to prove the impossible can be done. I dont think anybody starts something to inspire people, but because what were doing is exceptionally difficult, I think the impact is very clearly cultural and social, he says.

The new space race

Narayans mission appears a long way from the heady days of the 60s and 70s when the US and then USSR spared no expense to explore space. The last few decades have seen some of those dreams die amid severe cuts.

But now, with the rise of China and India in the past two decades a new race for technological ascendancy began. The 37-year hiatus in lunar landings was broken by the China National Space Administration in 2013, when the Change 3 sent back soil samples to earth after successfully performing the first soft landing on the moon in decades.

The Indian Space Research Organisation (Isro) plans its own first lunar landing with the launch of Chandarayaan II planned in the next few years. The Indian companys landing however, if successful, could beat its own government to the punch, and make India the fourth nation ever to land on the moon.

Vishesh Vatsal, an aerospace engineering graduate joined TeamIndus when the company only had a handful of employees. He was hired as an intern by Narayan, despite failing technical interviews, and is now responsible for the team working on the spacecrafts lunar descent system, one of the trickiest parts of the entire journey.

Were not the most elite group of Indian engineers that have come together. A lot of people used to laugh at us, he says, recalling one of his first weeks on the job, when Narayan pushed him in front of some executives during a company review. I gave the silliest answers possible. We got ridiculed in subtle ways, he says.

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A diagram of the moon lander to be used by Indian company TeamIndus Photograph: TeamIndus

The criticism didnt deter them. In January 2015, TeamIndus became the last of four teams to qualify for the XPrize award.

After that, Indias space scientists started taking them seriously. A number of veteran Isro engineers signed up to help the moon landing. Some like 72-year old PS Nair had even worked on Isros first satellite launch in 1975, and shaped the national space mission from its infancy.

[The] goal is not going to the moon, he says. The goal is to empower industry and the country to do what big, giant organisations have done earlier, and thats the goal of the XPrize too, to popularise hi-tech activity and take it out of the control of big organisations like Nasa or Isro. Thats the real motivation for many of us.

Indias space programme is hugely controversial, especially in the west, with some campaigners arguing millions of pounds of British aid money was being misspent in India.For many, the space mission is a symbol of neglect towards Indias most impoverished citizens, while its delusional elites reach for superpower status.

Sheelika Ravishankar, head of marketing and outreach, argues the countrys ventures are a huge source of national pride. Different parts of India care about what were doing in different ways, she says, recalling an auto rickshaw driver who donated a part of his salary to TeamIndus after one of the companys employees told him about the moon mission on his way to work, or a man who left a board meeting to donate 2m rupees (23,800) when the cash-strapped company urgently needed to test its spacecraft.

Folks are coming forward to say this is architecting a new India, which is technologically advanced, which is bright, which is not the last stop of IT services where you backend to the cheapest country. This is the front of technology.

As the launch deadline draws closer, teams are working faster than ever to test and enhance their models. A misplaced particle of dust or a simple electronic malfunction could derail the whole mission.

Many see TeamIndus as underdogs in the moon race, up against teams with vast resources.

But Ravishankarsays being in the race, and in it to win, puts India on the map.

This proves that you can get state of the art technology coming out of India. It is proof, that you dont have you be a huge team of rocket scientists with the deepest pockets to do research. Its also for the rest of the world to see that anybody can put together a crazy dream. I mean, how much crazier can you be than to look at the moon and say, hey, Im going there?

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/mar/20/lunar-xprize-moon-landing-former-delhi-it-worker-crazy-dream

Footballers could be at risk of dementia from blows to the head, study suggests

Findings show potential link between repeated sub-concussive head impacts and degenerative disease, although no clear link to football established

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/sport/2017/feb/15/footballers-could-be-at-risk-of-dementia-from-blows-to-the-head-study-suggests

Puppies’ response to speech could shed light on baby-talk, suggests study

Baby-talk and pet-talk might have a common purpose in attempting to engage with a non-speaking listener, say researchers

Puppies prick up their ears to human cooing but adult dogs are unmoved by it, according to a new study.

Scientists have found that humans use a sing-song cadence, similar to that used towards babies, when talking to dogs regardless of the age of the animal. But the tone only draws the attention of puppies: older dogs showed no preference over normal human speech.

The use of pet-directed speech is extremely widespread, but its functional value has barely been studied, said Nicolas Mathevon, lead author of the research from the University of Lyon at Saint-Etienne.

The research, he adds, could also shed light on human use of baby-talk: both might have a common purpose in attempting to engage with a listener that cannot speak.

In the first stage of the research, 30 women were each presented with images of a puppy, an adult dog and an elderly canine and recorded uttering a sentence involving phrases such as hello cutie!, whos a good boy? and come here sweetie pie!. They were also asked to repeat the phrase in their normal tone to a researcher.

The researchers found that when talking to dogs, humans typically use higher-pitched, slower tempo speech with a greater degree of variation in pitch than when talking to each other. The effect was most pronounced when chatting to puppies, with participants increasing their pitch by 21% on average compared to normal speech.

Mathevon says the results, published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B by researchers from the UK, US and France, provide clues as to why humans address their pets in a similar way to babies. The fact that human speakers employ dog-directed speech to communicate with dogs of all ages is interesting because it could mean that we use this kind of speech pattern when we want to facilitate interaction with a non-speaking listener, and not only a juvenile listener, said Mathevon.

The researchers also found that while puppies showed no difference in response between puppy-talk over speech directed at adult dogs, they did show a greater response to puppy-talk over human-directed speech. Adult dogs, on the other hand, showed no difference in their response to the recordings.

That is unexpected, the authors say, and could be down to dogs showing less interest in the voices of strangers as they age. Alternatively, the use of dog-directed speech might tap into an innate receptiveness to high-pitched sounds in puppies a trait that disappears as they age.

Evan MacLean, evolutionary anthropologist at the University of Arizona, said that the research was another piece of evidence of the overlap between human-dog and parent-child relationships. As a result of selection for juvenile traits, dogs emit a lot of signals that scream baby to humans, which can facilitate special kinds of interactions with dogs, normally reserved for children, he said. The question we dont have a great answer to is whether there are long term functional consequences of interacting with dogs in this way (e.g. effects on word learning), or if this is just a byproduct of the baby-like cues that dogs inundate us with.

But Catherine Laing, a researcher in neuroscience at Duke University in North Carolina who was not involved in the study, disagreed with the suggestion that similarities in the pitch of baby-talk and pet-talk indicates a link to non-speaking listeners. She points out that the two forms of speech have many differences not only in the type of words used and how they are articulated, but also in the interactions between listener and adult.

Baby-talk [or infant-directed speech] is complex and aimed at supporting language learning, and we cant say the same about the observations made in this paper, she said.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/science/2017/jan/11/puppies-response-to-speech-could-shed-light-on-baby-talk-suggests-study

Moon may have formed from flurry of impacts on the ancient Earth

New computer simulations counter widely-held belief that moon was formed from a single massive collision

The moon may have formed after an ancient rocky bombardment that pummelled the Earth and sent trillions of tonnes of debris into orbit, scientists say.

Computer simulations show that a flurry of impacts over 100m years could have kicked up enough material to form orbiting moonlets, which gradually merged to make the moon.

A pelting from 20 rocky bodies, some moon-sized themselves, and some as large as Mars, would have been sufficient to do the job, according to researchers at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel.

The proposal contradicts the widely-held view that the moon was born from a single whopping collision in which a Mars-sized object landed a glancing blow on the fledgling Earth and blasted 70 billion billion tonnes of rock into space.

While popular, the idea that the moon was created in a one-off collision raises questions of its own. If the colliding body had a different chemical makeup to Earth, then traces of it should be seen in moon rock. But so far, tests have failed to find any sign of foreign material in the moon.

One possibility is that the body that crashed into the ancient Earth was made of exactly the same stuff as our planet. But Raluca Rufu, an author on the latest study, said that seems unlikely: in contrast to the Earth and moon, meteorites and other material in the solar system vary substantially in their chemical signatures.

Rufu ran a series of computer simulations to see whether a prolonged pelting from objects in the early solar system could have dislodged enough material from Earth to build the moon. In the computer models, some impacts were head-on and flung huge amounts of Earth rock into space, while others struck at shallower angles and lent the Earth its spin.

We see that multiple impacts will have a high probability of building a moon with similar composition to the Earth, Rufu said. With 20 impactors, it would take about 100m years to build the moon. Details of the study are published in Nature Geoscience.

The simulations showed that high energy impacts often sent plumes of debris filled with Earth rock up into space, where they formed discs around the planet. The material in each disc then clumped together into a moonlet which slowly spiralled outwards to coalesce with other moonlets and form a single, larger moon. The moon is still receding from Earth today, its orbit increasing by 4cm a year.

Rufus proposal that the moon could be made from 20 impacts relies on all of the collisions forming moonlets that gradually coalesce into one larger body. In reality, the making of a moon is unlikely to be so straightforward. Her focus now is to model moonlet mergers to see how efficient the process might have been. As a scientist you always have to ask is it true or not? If you have too much confidence in your theory something is wrong, she said.

Gareth Collins, a planetary scientist at Imperial College, London, said that building the moon from a flurry of impacts was an appealing way to explain why the moon seems to have the same chemical signature to Earth. Its quite difficult, in one go, to get a lot of the Earth into orbit to form the moon. It can be done, but it requires very specific conditions which are rare, and you end up spinning the whole system a lot, he said. Whats nice about building the moon in stages is that some of the impacts can get stuff off the Earth and into orbit, and another set can set the Earth spinning.

But Collins is not convinced. Instead of the moon forming in stages, he thinks that whatever hit Earth all those millions of years ago may have had the same chemical makeup after all.

The best shot at an answer may come from the Chinese space programme. Later this year, the nations space agency aims to send the Change 5 to the moon to collect and return the first moon rocks since the Apollo missions. If we had more lunar samples, that would be very helpful, Rufu said. One giant impact should produce a more homogenous rock, but under our scenario, Id expect the composition to vary between different regions.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/science/2017/jan/09/moon-may-have-formed-from-flurry-of-impacts-on-earth-100m-years-ago

Marilyn’s dress to Britney’s gum: the science of sky-high memorabilia prices

Celebrity items tend to be relatively common artefacts yet attract phenomenal sums of money. Why?

In November last year, the dress that Marilyn Monroe wore to sing Happy Birthday to President John F Kennedy sold for $4.81 million. In 2004, several pieces of Britney Spears used chewing gum sold for up to 100 a piece. There is even a market for the belongings of despised individuals: A bracelet Charles Manson made in prison is currently selling for $4,500.

Some of these, like Marilyn Monroes dress, reflect a moment in history. But the attraction of others, such as Britney Spears chewing gum, are harder to explain. Celebrity items tend to be relatively common artefacts such as clothing or furniture. Their previous ownership rarely adds any functional value and they are often indistinguishable from other, seemingly identical items in the marketplace.

Nevertheless, some people are willing to pay huge amounts of money to own these objects and museums regularly hold exhibitions of celebrity collections. Why?

Try it at home

The degree to which a person values celebrity memorabilia will fall along a continuum. Some people value celebrity belongings enormously, while other people care very little. The following thought experiment is adapted from a paper by George Newman and colleagues at Yale University.

Write down the name of your favourite living celebrity or public figure. This could be a movie star, a musician, a professional athlete, a politician, etc. This should be someone whom you like very much and would be excited to meet personally.

Now imagine that you have the opportunity to bid on a sweater that belonged to that individual. On a scale from one (much less likely to purchase) to nine (much more likely to purchase), how willing would you be to purchase the sweater compared to an identical used sweater (in the same condition) that was not owned by your favourite living celebrity?

On a scale of one (extremely unpleasant) to nine (extremely pleasant), how pleasant would you find the experience of wearing the sweater?

Now consider the following:

There is very little demand for items owned by your favourite living celebrity, so even if you wanted to, it is highly unlikely that you could resell the sweater to someone else. How willing would you be to purchase the sweater knowing this, and how pleasant would you find wearing it?

And now consider the following information:

This sweater was given to your favourite living celebrity as a gift but he/she never actually wore it or even opened the box that it came in. How willing would you be to purchase the sweater knowing this, and how pleasant would you find wearing it?

If you have time, repeat this set of ratings but this time imagine that the sweater belongs to a living celebrity or public figure who you despise.

How it works

In a series of studies involving nine hundred and forty American respondents, George Newman and colleagues found that, on average, respondents willingness to purchase their favourite celebritys sweater was not much affected by the information that they could not re-sell it.

However, willingness plummeted when respondents learned that the sweater had never been touched by the celebrity. This was especially the case for respondents who were also very sensitive to physical contagion (for instance, saying that they would never eat novelty chocolate shaped like dog-doo).

The authors argue that this pattern of findings show that mere associations and market forces have limited influence on the cult of celebrity memorabilia. Instead, they suggest that magical contagion beliefs are what is driving much of the market for celebrity memorabilia in the West.

Magical contagion was first proposed by anthropologists in the late nineteenth century when they observed cultural practices focused on the transfer of a persons identity (or soul) into inanimate objects. This is thought to be the basis for rituals such as Haitian voodoo ceremonies and Tibetan processes to determine the next Dalai Lama. There is a growing wealth of research to show that magical contagion beliefs are also widespread in scientifically literate, Western adults across a variety of contexts.

And these biases arise early. In a study I helped run with Bruce Hood (Bristol University) and Paul Bloom (Yale University) we found that children from four years of age believed that an object that had once belonged to the Queen was worth significantly more than an identical copy. And further research we have conducted with George Newman is showing that there are consistent cultural differences in peoples motivation for buying celebrity memorabilia.

How did you get on? Do you value your favourite celebritys sweater a lot, a little or not at all? And what effect did the knowledge that the celebrity had never touched it have on your willingness to purchase it? Are you a magical thinker too?

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/science/head-quarters/2017/jan/09/why-do-people-pay-thousands-for-celebrity-memorabilia

Vera Rubin obituary

Astronomer who found evidence of the existence of dark matter and became an inspiration for women in science

Vera Rubin once tweeted: Dont let anyone tell you that you arent good enough. My science teacher once told me I wasnt good enough for science and look at me now. In the 1970s and early 80s Rubin, who has died aged 88, established that the stars in the outer regions of galaxies move at similar speeds to those in the middle, a result that led to the hypothesis that most of the universe is invisible, the cosmos filled with dark matter, mysterious stuff whose nature is still unknown. During recent years she became a popular favourite for a Nobel prize, but never received the accolade. Having battled sex discrimination throughout her career, she became an inspiration for women in science.

In the outer regions of the solar system, far away from the sun where the force of its gravity is more feeble than hereabouts, planets move more slowly than the Earth. Were Uranus to move as fast as us, it would escape from the solar system entirely, its centrifugal thrust too large for the weakened inwards gravitational pull from the sun. This has been understood since Isaac Newton in the 17th century, and is a cornerstone of Einsteins general relativity: bodies orbiting a central mass will have speeds that fall in proportion to the square root of their distance from the centre.

Many galaxies of stars form spirals, where relatively few stars in the outer arms orbit around a dense mass of stars at the centre. Here too, the laws of gravity imply that the outer stars should move relatively slowly compared to those nearer the central mass. But when Rubin mapped the motion of stars in spiral galaxies, she discovered that, far from slowing with distance from the centre, they moved at similar speeds, or even travelled faster the further out they were.

Rubins results implied that the galaxies are rotating so fast that they should fly apart. Either Newtons law of gravitational attraction, and by implication Einsteins general relativity, form an incomplete description on cosmic scales, which would be truly revolutionary, or there are vast volumes of unseen matter that provide additional gravitational grip on the stars. This unseen stuff has become known as dark matter dark in that it does not shine in the electromagnetic spectrum at any wavelength.

The concept of dark matter has become one of the most exciting insights into our place in the universe. Where Copernicus removed the earth from the centre of the universe in the 16th century, and the discovery of galaxies in the 20th century showed our sun and Milky Way to be mere bit players in the cosmos, Rubins discovery seemingly implies that matter, as we know it, consisting of atomic electrons, protons and neutrons, is but flotsam on a vast sea of dark matter. Current estimates are that dark matter outweighs our stuff by a factor of 10 to 20. So, following Rubins breakthrough, we now believe that we are not even made of the same stuff as most of creation.

Vera was born in Philadelphia, younger daughter of Philip Cooper, an electrical engineer, and Rose Applebaum, who worked for the Bell Telephone Company. The family moved to Washington DC when Vera was 10, and it was there that she developed an interest in astronomy. She was attracted to Vassar College as an undergraduate because Maria Mitchell, the first American to discover a comet, had worked there. After gaining a BA in astronomy in 1948, her first choice for graduate school was Princeton, but she never received the graduate prospectus, as women were not admitted to the graduate programme until 1975. Instead she joined Cornell University.

At Cornell in 1948 she met Robert Rubin, a fellow graduate student, whom she married. Following a masters at Cornell in 1951, she completed a doctorate at Georgetown University in 1954, where she studied the motion of galaxies. Edwin Hubble had discovered that galaxies are on the average rushing apart from one another, the key to the theory that the observable universe is the result of a big bang some 13.8bn years ago. Rubins thesis in 1954 showed that galaxies are not distributed uniformly throughout the universe, but tend to cluster and rotate around one another.

Rubin became an inspiration for women in science, especially, and further afield. She had four children, and most of her early career as an astronomer was part-time, so that she could be at home by the time the children returned from school. All four of her children later gained doctorates in mathematics or the natural sciences.

In 1964 Rubin became the first woman to use the Palomar Observatory in southern California. Her first discovery there was that it did not have toilet facilities for women. She returned to her office, cut some paper into the shape of a skirt and stuck it on the image of the person on the toilet door.

It was at Palomar, in a series of papers during the 1970s and early 1980s, that she made her most famous discoveries. She became a staff member at the Carnegie Institute of Washington in 1965, and it was with a young Carnegie colleague, Kent Ford, that she determined the distribution of mass in spiral galaxies by measuring their speeds of rotation.

Among many honours, she was a member of the US National Academy of Sciences, won the gold medal of the Royal Astronomical Society the first woman to have done so since Caroline Herschel in 1828 and asteroid 5726 Rubin was named after her. She received several honorary doctorates, including one from Princeton University half a century after having been barred from their graduate programme.

Her husband died in 2008, and her daughter, Judy, in 2014. Rubin is survived by three sons, Allan, David and Karl, five grandchildren and a great-granddaughter.

Vera Florence Rubin, astronomer, born 23 July 1928; died 25 December 2016

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/science/2017/jan/01/vera-rubin-obituary

TB and scarlet fever: why Victorian diseases are making a comeback

Despite 100 years of medical advancement, old-fashioned infections are creeping back into Britain. Should we be worried?

The notice pinned to the door of my sons nursery in Bristol made me start: A child at this nursery has been diagnosed with scarlet fever. Googling the symptoms, I found images of peeling, strawberry-red tongues and blotchy rashes, but it was the name that really gave me the shivers. Charles Darwin lost two of his children to scarlet fever; it just seemed so, well, Victorian.

A few days later, the nursery informed us of a second case. However, this localised outbreak is far from unique: as of 8 April, a total of 10,570 cases of scarlet fever had been reported to Public Health England since the season began in September 2015, up from 9,379 during the same period in 2014-15.

Scarlet fever is not the only Victorian disease making a comeback. Thirty-four cases of gonorrhoea resistant to the antibiotic azithromycin were reported in England between November 2014 and April of this year. Fortunately, the bacterium remains sensitive to the other drug used in first line therapy, ceftriaxone. However, if azithromycin becomes ineffective against gonorrhoea, there is no second lock to prevent or delay the emergence of ceftriaxone resistance, and gonorrhoea may become untreatable, Public Health England warned last month.

Then there are the diseases against which most of us received childhood vaccinations measles, whooping cough and tuberculosis that have had outbreaks in recent years. What is going on? Broadly speaking, there are two reasons why such diseases are making a comeback: because the pathogens that cause them are constantly evolving; and because inadequate numbers of people are being vaccinated.

Take the 2013 outbreak of measles in south-west Wales, which killed one man and hospitalised 88 people. Measles is a very infectious virus, so youre relying on maintaining very high levels of immunisation within the population to stop it circulating, says Dr Matthew Snape, a paediatrician and vaccines expert at Oxford university hospitals NHS trust. In the wake of the MMR vaccine scare, uptake of the vaccine fell to only 67.5% in Swansea, compared with about 94% beforehand.

Although they have become less common, infectious agents such as the virus that causes measles have not gone away. Once immunisation falls below a critical threshold within a population, herd immunity is lost and the virus is able to take hold and spread. The point at which this happens is unpredictable, but the more people who are immunised, the smaller the risk.

Fortunately, in this case, a massive vaccination campaign managed to contain the outbreak. But, in the past four years, there has been a resurgence of whooping cough, another illness for which childhood vaccination is routine. According to figures released on 6 May, 4,190 laboratory-confirmed cases of whooping cough were reported to Public Health England last year, 24% more than in 2014 (although still fewer than the 9,367 cases reported in 2012 that led to the introduction of the whooping cough vaccine for pregnant women).

Here, the increase is likely the result of several factors, says Dr Myron Christodoulides, a reader in molecular bacteriology and microbiology at the University of Southampton. It could be due to reduced vaccine uptake, but the vaccine itself wont provide total protection, so new vaccines are probably needed, he says. In fact, emerging evidence suggests that the acellular whooping cough vaccine being offered in the UK is less effective than the older vaccine, which was phased out because the newer one has a lower rate of side-effects. However, if youre pregnant, the advice is still to get vaccinated, since whooping cough can be fatal to infants. As of November, just 62% of pregnant women received it.

What about scarlet fever? It is caused by a bacterium called Streptococcus pyogenes, which is also responsible for strep throat and the skin infection impetigo, as well as more serious skin infections particularly in elderly people including flesh-eating disease. There has been an increase in streptococcal infections across Europe in the past 20 years, although the precise reason for this is unclear. It may be that these bugs are increasing in virulence or returning to virulence that was common to the organisms that were circulating a century ago, says Christodoulides. Worrying as that may sound, the bacterium does respond to antibiotics and is rarely fatal these days. However, antibiotic-resistant strains are circulating in Hong Kong; it is possible they could make it over here.

All of this is a reminder that our centuries-old battle with these bugs is far from over: they are still out there, and evolving all the time. Take tuberculosis, another major killer in Victorian times. There were 6,520 cases of TB in England during 2014 a quarter of them in UK-born citizens and it, too, is developing antibiotic resistance. In South Africa, we have people living in the community with TB that we cant cure, because there are no drugs left. So, it is back to the Victorian age, really, says Ruth McNerney, a British TB expert at the University of Cape Town. In the UK, better general health and nutrition make it less likely that large numbers of people will succumb, even if multi-drug-resistant TB becomes commonplace. But TB is a silent infection; you can harbour it for many years without knowing it. The more people are exposed, the greater the risk to more vulnerable members of the community.

Of course, all these cases are minor blips when you place them in historical context. In 1901, prior to the introduction of antibiotics and vaccines, 36% of all deaths and 52% of childhood deaths in England and Wales were the result of infectious diseases. Today, it is closer to 12%. When we think about the return of Victorian illnesses, one thing we need to bear in mind is that it is actually a relatively small number of cases that get media attention, because were not used to seeing these diseases any more, says Snape.

But we shouldnt become complacent, warns Christodoulides. It is estimated that, if we dont tackle the increase in antibiotic and antimicrobial resistance, deaths from these bugs by 2050 might be in the region of 10 million a year worldwide more than from cancer.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2016/may/23/fever-pitch-why-old-fashioned-infections-are-making-comeback

Canada approves sale of genetically modified salmon

Agencies: modified fish as safe and nutritious as conventional salmon, with growth hormone genes from two fish allowing it to grow twice as fast

Health authorities in Canada have approved a fast-growing, genetically altered salmon as safe for consumption, paving the way for it to become the first genetically modified animal to be allowed on Canadian dinner plates.

After four years of testing, Health Canada and the Canadian food inspection agency said on Thursday they had found the salmon developed by Massachusetts-based AquaBounty Technologies to be as safe and nutritious as conventional salmon.

The GM fish contains a growth hormone gene from a Chinook salmon and a gene from the eel-like ocean pout, allowing it to grow twice as fast as conventionally farmed Atlantic salmon. Its often ready for market in 16 to 18 months rather than the up to three years needed for conventional salmon.

Canadian officials said the GM salmon would not require any special labelling, as no health and safety concerns were identified during testing.

GM foods are becoming more common every day and are part of the regular diets of Canadians, Health Canada said in a statement. GM foods that have been approved by Health Canada have been consumed in Canada for many years and are safe and nutritious.

The approval process in Canada has been dogged by concerns raised by environmentalists and consumer groups over the safety of the fish, dubbed Frankenfish by its critics, and questions over the risks it could pose to wild salmon populations.

The company has said its fish are sterile and currently only raised in land-locked tanks in Canada and Panama. The company has also argued that its GM salmon, originally developed by a group of Canadian scientists at Newfoundlands Memorial University more than 25 years ago, could help curtail the over-fishing of Atlantic salmon and lessen the pressure on stocks of wild salmon.

In November, AquaBountys salmon was approved by the US Food and Drug Administration. Just two months later, however, the FDA issued a ban on the import and sale of GM fish until clear labelling guidelines are established.

The FDA ban will likely be in effect until at least September 2016. Some speculate it could take years to resolve, meaning Canada could become the first country in the world to have genetically modified salmon on its grocery shelves.

The company said on Thursday that they currently do not have any market-size fish for sale. It will be a year or more before we do and in limited quantity, Dave Conley of AquaBounty Technologies told the Guardian. He also noted that the FDA ban could be lifted before the salmon come to market.

Health Canadas approval was met with concern by a broad coalition of environmental groups in Canada, who pointed to the lack of public consultation and dispute the waived labelling requirement.

Canadians could now be faced with the worlds first GM food animal, approved with no public consultation and no labelling, said Lucy Sharratt of the Canadian Biotechnology Action Network.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2016/may/19/gmo-salmon-approved-canada

Oldest known axe discovered in Australia, claim researchers

Small fragment found in cave believed to date from a tool created up to 49,000 years ago

It is about the size of a thumbnail and might look like any old piece of rock, but scientists say it is a fragment of the oldest axe ever discovered, created up to 49,000 years ago.

Found in Australia, it further undermines ideas that Europe was the birthplace of technology, revealing people developed complex tools not long after they set foot in Australia.

The fragment was excavated in the early 1990s from a cave in the Windjana Gorge national park in the Kimberley region of Western Australia, but only examined recently. New analysis and dating suggests it is a fragment of the cutting edge of an axe that would have had a handle, used between 46,000 and 49,000 years ago.

The current estimates of when humans entered Australia range from between 50,000 to 55,000 years ago.

The find pre-dates another axe found in Arnhem Land in Australia dated to 35,000 years ago, and independently invented axes in Japan dated to about 38,000 years ago.

Other simpler sharpened stone tools had been used even by other species of humans millions of years ago, but it was not until this period that complex tools that combined stone and wood appear to have been created.

Professor
Professor Peter Hiscock, University of Sydney. Photograph: University of Sydney

The fact that the discovery is just a fragment does not matter, according to Peter Hiscock from the University of Sydney, who made the recent discovery. The great thing about it is its really distinctive it has both polished surfaces coming together on the chip. While you dont have the axe, you actually have a really good record of what the contact edge looks like.

Although there is no handle, Hiscock says it is not a simple hand axe a sharp tool held directly in the hand because it has been polished and made of a heavy material, which would not help much for a tool intended to be used by a hand.

This is the earliest evidence of hafted axes [axes with a handle] in the world. Nowhere else in the world do you get axes at this date, said Sue OConnor from the the Australian National University, who originally excavated the tool in the 1990s.

In Japan such axes appear about 35,000 years ago. But in most countries in the world they arrive with agriculture 10,000 years ago, she said.

The researchers say the axe was probably invented in Australia, since there is no evidence of similar tools in south-east Asia, from where the migrants came.

Hiscock says the find adds further weight to the idea that humans colonised the world not because they were endowed with some particular skill they could apply everywhere, but because they were creative and could innovate.

Were looking at people who moved through south-east Asia, where they probably used a lot of bamboo, which is sharp and hard and fantastic for tools. But when they get to Australia, theres no bamboo so theyre inventing new tools to help them adapt to the exploitation of this new landscape.

Its a fascinating inversion of what European scholars thought in the 19th century. Their presumption was that all the innovations happened in Europe and far-flung places like Australia were simplistic and had little innovation. And its turned out that theres a long history of discovery of axes of progressively earlier ages. This is the place where that sort of technology was invented and it only reached Europe relatively recently.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/science/2016/may/10/oldest-known-axe-discovered-in-australia-claim-researchers