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  • Greenland ice sheet on brink of major tipping point, says study
    by Damian Carrington Environment editor on May 17, 2021 at 7:00 pm

    Scientists say ice equivalent to 1-2 metres of sea level rise is probably already doomed to meltA significant part of the Greenland ice sheet is on the brink of a tipping point, after which accelerated melting would become inevitable even if global heating was halted, according to new research.Rising temperatures caused by the climate crisis have already seen trillions of tonnes of Greenland’s ice pour into the ocean. Melting its ice sheet completely would eventually raise global sea level by 7 metres. Continue reading…

  • No 10 says vaccine hesitancy is low in UK, amid Bolton concerns
    by Jessica Elgot, Nazia Parveen, Niamh McIntyre and Pamela Duncan on May 17, 2021 at 4:54 pm

    Government says it has deployed thousands more vaccine doses to areas with rising cases due to India variantsCoronavirus – latest updatesSee all our coronavirus coverageVaccine hesitancy remains extremely low in the UK, despite concerns over hospitalised patients in some areas who have not taken the Covid-19 jab, No 10 has said.No 10 said it had deployed thousands of additional vaccine doses to areas that had reported a sharp increase in the number of cases due to new variants originally detected in India, saying action would be taken to tackle rising cases. Continue reading…

  • Caroline Thomas obituary
    by Godfrey Thomas on May 17, 2021 at 4:45 pm

    My wife, Caroline Thomas, who has died aged 89 of cancer, was an applied psychologist who worked on safety and accident prevention, championing the role of consumers in the development of standards.Known professionally as Caroline Warne, she played a pivotal role in consumer safety and accident prevention over six decades, beginning with research into industrial and household accidents, and culminating in her chairing the consumer policy committee of the International Standards Organization (ISO). She was appointed OBE in 2005. Continue reading…

  • Did you solve it? Are you smart enough to opt out of cookies?
    by Alex Bellos on May 17, 2021 at 4:00 pm

    The solutions to today’s puzzlesEarlier today I set three puzzles from Terms & Conditions Apply, a free online game about website deviousness (that I made with Jonathan Plackett.) The puzzles in the game exaggerate the tricks websites use to extract our data. 1. Naughty negatives Continue reading…

  • If we loosen restrictions too early, there is a real risk of a third wave in the UK | Devi Sridhar
    by Devi Sridhar on May 17, 2021 at 3:41 pm

    Not enough people are vaccinated against Covid as a new variant spreads, requiring us to remain vigilant for a little longerJust when it felt like we could begin to relax again, Covid-19 has thrown us yet another curveball. While we’ve been debating in the UK where to go for a holiday and booking long-overdue nights out with friends, the virus has been causing havoc across the world.The Kent variant, B.1.1.7, found its way into countries such as Taiwan and Singapore; P.1 is causing another wave in Brazil; and most devastatingly, the highly transmissible variant B.1.617 (which has three subtypes) is causing a public health crisis in India. The country has seen cases surging with estimated deaths to be several times greater than that being reported by the government, which continues to downplay the epidemic. Continue reading…

  • Covid has led to record levels of antidepressant use – but withdrawal can be difficult | David Taylor
    by David Taylor on May 17, 2021 at 3:21 pm

    I know from personal experience that coming off these medications can be horrible. I also researched ways to make it easierProf David Taylor is director of pharmacy and pathology at the south London and Maudsley NHS foundation trustOne of the impacts of the Covid lockdowns since March 2020 has been a widespread worsening of mental health, with anxiety and depression the most common symptoms reported. Running parallel to this, the prescription of antidepressants in England has climbed to record levels, according to the NHS Business Services Authority. In the final three months of 2020, there was a reported 6% increase in prescription rates. According to the government, 17% of the population were taking an antidepressant in 2017-18, the last year for which figures are available.This rise probably reflects both the increase in diagnosis of depression and anxiety because of the pandemic, and the restricted availability of talking therapies during lockdowns. While antidepressants play an important role in treating depression and anxiety, it’s essential at this time of increasing usage rates to address how people will ultimately stop treatment. Continue reading…

  • Animals are our overlooked allies in the fight against Covid | Melanie Challenger
    by Melanie Challenger on May 17, 2021 at 8:00 am

    It’s important to recognise the vital role they’ve played in development of vaccines and treatments A few weeks ago, I received my first shot of a vaccine against Covid-19. As the newly vaccinated exited the clinic, there was a mix of relief and elation on people’s faces. We exchanged little smiles of solidarity. If we could have burst into spontaneous applause, I’m sure we would have done. Recently, the lead scientist for the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine, Prof Sarah Gilbert, was honoured with the RSA Albert Medal. There are rumours that Gilbert’s team, along with the pioneers of the mRNA vaccines, are up for a Nobel prize. It is quite right that gratitude should follow their gamechanging achievement. But the success of the vaccines offers an opportunity to acknowledge a different constituency. If we think back to clap for carers, the ritual of recognition that marked those grim weeks of Britain’s first lockdown, its value was in shining a light on the keyworkers who are kept from view by circumstances and sometimes snobbery. For 10 weeks of the pandemic, we reflected on those otherwise invisible individuals on whom society depends. Yet in every stage of our journey to create vaccines, we’ve had a large number of assistants we’ve neither appreciated nor applauded. Millions of animals have been a part of our rigorous process of drug safety and efficacy testing. The main reason we don’t honour them is that they possess an uncertain moral status in our eyes. That may be uncomfortable, but does that mean that the role of animals should be ignored? To take a few examples: Limulus amebocyte lysate tests, the standard for screening vaccines for dangerous bacteria, are manufactured using the neon-blue blood of horseshoe crabs. Pretty much any vaccine you’ve had will have been safety-tested using this because it’s chock-full of immune cells that are super-sensitive to bacteria. Acquiring this blood is not a pretty business. The crabs are harvested, often by fishers, and then strapped in rows and bled. And these spectacular creatures are already under threat due to fisheries and habitat loss. In the US, manufacturers are careful to try to secure the wellbeing and release of the crabs. Only about 15% die. But in China, where the regional species is endangered, nearly all will be killed in the process. There are synthetic versions of the test, but they haven’t been taken up by many pharmaceutical companies at present and the US is yet to give regulatory approval. When it comes to preclinical trials of vaccine candidates (trials that aren’t ethically permitted on humans), mice are the most popular animal. Early in the pandemic, scientists discovered that wild lab mice are largely unaffected by this coronavirus. So transgenic mice have been bred, genetically engineered to simulate our immune response. And ferrets, which do show a similar progression of disease to ours, have also been used in early trials. Some of these animals will play a role in the development of the antiviral treatments the UK government hopes patients may be taking by this autumn. In Britain, the bar for using primates in biomedical research is very high. But scientists working on Covid-19 vaccines have used both rhesus and crab-eating macaques, along with common marmosets, especially for efficacy testing. Animal testing is largely justified by the idea of some hard moral border between us and other species. Using animals within our own order unsettles us: scientists choose primates precisely because they’re genetically similar to us, but that closeness is disquieting. Primates have rich and complex social lives. They also experience their pain and captivity, and their inability to consent creates rather than resolves the ethical problems. Yet we are rarely given the chance to reflect on all this. The trouble is we often hide animal testing from public view. That is broadly true of the infrastructure that enables us to eat and wear animals, too. Many labs that run animal experiments are highly secretive because of the considerable threats they face from activists. And scientists and companies are also sensitive to the fact that public opinion is on the move. Before the pandemic, public acceptance of animal testing in biomedical research had been consistently trending downwards for decades. For now, the UK’s Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act of 1986 is the strictest law governing research animals anywhere in the world. That is something to be proud of. Most research is conducted using the “three Rs”. These principles of “reduction”, “refinement” and “replacement” were initiated in 1959 by two British scientists, William Russell and Rex Burch. They have become the standard for minimising the use of animals and any associated suffering.Still, animal research is actually growing rather than declining. New gene-editing technologies allow us to modify an animal’s immune system so that it is more like ours, making it a better research model than it would be naturally. That has undermined the move towards replacement. And this pandemic has also intensified demand.There are some new initiatives, such as the Center for Contemporary Sciences, spearheaded by scientists Aysha Akhtar and Jarrod Bailey, set up to explore cutting-edge human-based methods: the “human-on-a-chip” model, for example. In essence, a human organ is used to produce a micro-version of itself on which tests can be conducted. This is exciting technology, but we’re not yet at the point of substitution.This moment in history has prompted a reassessment of our relationship to the rest of nature, not least because the origins of this pandemic, in one way or another, lie in our invasive use of other animals and their habitats. At the same time, throughout the past century, the use of animals in biomedical tests has hugely reduced deaths from disease outbreaks. Forty years’ worth of research using monkeys, rats and mice led to the polio vaccine in the 1950s, which saved millions of lives. Then there was the TB vaccine. The flu vaccine. To put it bluntly, countless animals have given their lives to save ours.On 12 May, the UK government launched its action plan to “reinforce its position as a global champion of animal rights”. Key to this is the recognition by law of the sentience of other animals. It’s a positive move. But the current plan is uneven in its rationale and silent on a number of fronts, including animal testing. Acknowledging the animals that have had a role in life-saving vaccines and treatments for Covid-19 is not to take a position for or against their continued use in research. It is instead to accept that there is something wrong in obscuring or forgetting their part and the price they pay. Supporters just as much as opponents of animal testing should recognise the magnitude of their role. It would be the mark of a conscientious – and grateful – society. Continue reading…

  • England ban on indoor gatherings may need to be reimposed, warns expert
    by Matthew Weaver on May 17, 2021 at 7:56 am

    Sage member suggests latest Covid lockdown easing may be reversed if hospital admissions riseCoronavirus – latest updatesSee all our coronavirus coverageA leading scientific adviser to the UK government has warned that Monday’s lockdown easing in England may have to be reversed and also cautioned against meeting indoors.Speaking on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, Sir Jeremy Farrar, director of the Wellcome Trust and a member of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) suggested the ban on indoor gatherings should have remained in place and might need to be reimposed. Continue reading…

  • Can you solve it? Are you smart enough to opt out of cookies?
    by Alex Bellos on May 17, 2021 at 6:00 am

    Puzzles about internet deviousnessUPDATE: Solutions can be read here.It’s a depressing fact of online life that websites are often shameless in using shady practices, like misdirection and obfuscation, to get us to sign up to, or to agree to, something we do not want.Today’s puzzles exaggerate the cunning tricks websites use to extract our personal data – but only just! Continue reading…

  • Sharks use Earth’s magnetic field as ‘GPS’ guidance system, study says
    by Richard Luscombe in Miami on May 17, 2021 at 6:00 am

    Florida scientists use juvenile bonnetheads for researchAuthors say findings applicable to other ocean-going sharksScientists in Florida have concluded that sharks possess an internal navigation system similar to GPS that allows them to use Earth’s magnetic forces to travel long distances with accuracy. Related: Below the surface: reports of rising shark attacks don’t tell the whole story Continue reading…

  • Starwatch: Corvus, Crater and Hydra tangled in ancient tale of figs and lies
    by Stuart Clark on May 17, 2021 at 5:00 am

    Faint constellations representing crow, cup and serpent feature in classical Greek and Roman mythThis week offers us the opportunity to locate three of the fainter constellations that are linked by myth: Corvus, the crow; Crater, the cup; and Hydra, the serpent. Corvus is one of the oldest recognised constellations, dating back to Babylonian star charts from at least 1100BC. Hydra was also recognised by the Babylonians, although Crater is a slightly later invention. Continue reading…

  • US health officials defend controversial Covid mask guidance change
    by Richard Luscombe on May 16, 2021 at 3:47 pm

    Walensky and Fauci defend surprise public health moveRobert Reich: Republican Covid lies follow foreign strongmenThis week’s surprise reversal of mask-wearing guidance for those vaccinated against Covid-19 was a “foundational first step” towards returning the US to normal, the head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) insisted on Sunday, as the agency continued to draw criticism for the sudden and confusing advice. Related: Relief, reluctance and confusion: New Yorkers react to mask-free guidance Continue reading…

  • Which animals should be considered sentient in the eyes of the law? | Jonathan Birch
    by Jonathan Birch on May 16, 2021 at 12:13 pm

    UK government proposals to recognise vertebrates as sentient beings are welcome, but this should be just the startLook a dog in the eye and a conscious being looks back. A being that feels hunger, thirst, warmth, cold, fear, comfort, pleasure, pain, joy. No one can seriously doubt this. The same is true of any mammal. You cannot watch rats playing hide and seek and doubt that they have feelings – that they are sentient creatures. But as animals become more distant from us in evolutionary terms, some doubt begins to creep in.Consider a bee sneaking past the guards of a rival colony to steal honey. Or the Brazilian ants that, in order to hide their nest at the end of each day, seal off the entrance from the outside. Left out in the cold at night, these ants will never see the morning, but their sacrifice increases the chance that their sisters will. The urge to attribute feelings to insects can be surprisingly strong. Continue reading…

  • Tiny traces of DNA found in cave dust may unlock secret life of Neanderthals
    by Robin McKie Science editor on May 16, 2021 at 8:45 am

    Advanced technique used to recover genetic material may help solve the mystery of early humansScientists have pinpointed major changes in Europe’s Neanderthal populations – from traces of blood and excrement they left behind in a Spanish cave 100,000 years ago.The discovery is the first important demonstration of a powerful new technique that allows researchers to study DNA recovered from cave sediments. No fossils or stone tools are needed for such studies. Instead, minuscule traces of genetic material that have accumulated in the dust of a cavern floor are employed to reveal ancient secrets. Continue reading…

  • The secret of how Amundsen beat Scott in race to south pole? A diet of raw penguin
    by Donna Ferguson on May 16, 2021 at 8:15 am

    Starving and trapped by ice, the Norwegian’s crew had discovered how to beat scurvy on an earlier voyage. The benefits proved crucialThirteen years before he became the first person ever to reach the south pole in 1911, the Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen experienced his first merciless taste of winter in the Antarctic. Stuck onboard the Belgian expedition ship Belgica, which was grounded in pack ice, he and the rest of the crew contracted scurvy and faced certain death.That is when, according to a new book published later this month, Amundsen started eating raw penguin meat – and discovered a secret that would later give him a huge advantage over Captain Robert Falcon Scott in the race to the south pole. Continue reading…

  • Do people believe Covid myths?
    by David Spiegelhalter and Anthony Masters on May 16, 2021 at 7:00 am

    Misinformation could be causing real harm in the communityLike viruses, false information spreads through networks. In March 2020, more than a quarter of the top Covid-19 related videos on YouTube contained misleading claims and those had more than 60m views worldwide. The World Health Organization’s Covid “myth-busters” page counters ideas such as the notion that eating garlic protects you against infection. But how many people believe such claims?University of Cambridge researchers found in an online survey that about 15% of UK respondents thought it was more reliable than not that “the coronavirus is part of a global effort to enforce mandatory vaccination”, while 9% supported “the new 5G network may be making us more susceptible to the virus”. They found the most important factor linked to resilience to misinformation was numeracy. While we are fully aware that correlation is not causation, it encourages the idea that greater “data literacy” in the population could help bring some critical awareness of the dubious claims circulating on social media. In the meantime, research has shown that an effective strategy is to vigorously “pre-bunk” misinformation – essentially inoculating people against fake news by getting in the warnings first. Continue reading…

  • Mixed messages: is research into human-monkey embryos ethical?
    by Philip Ball on May 15, 2021 at 3:00 pm

    Biologists recently created a chimera with both human and monkey cells. But not all scientists are happy to blur species boundariesWhen King Minos of Crete was given a magnificent bull by the sea god Poseidon for a sacrifice, he could not bring himself to kill it. In anger, Poseidon enchanted Minos’s wife Pasiphaë to be filled with lust for the creature. The result of their trans-species mating was the bull-headed monster the Minotaur.Hybrids of humans and animals throng within myth and legend: centaurs, mermaids, goat-footed Pan. We’re both fascinated and uneasy about the boundary that separates us from other animals – and whether it is leaky. Continue reading…

  • England will ‘flex’ Covid vaccinations to tackle India variant, minister says
    by Alexandra Topping on May 14, 2021 at 8:51 am

    Deployment of jabs could be speeded up for multi-generational households in areas virus is spreading quicklyCoronavirus – latest updatesSee all our coronavirus coverageMinisters will “flex” England’s vaccination programme in response to concerns over the spread of the India variant, a government minister has confirmed.Areas where the B.1.617.2 variant, first identified in India, is spreading quickly could receive accelerated vaccinations for multi-generational households, with anyone over 18 offered the jab. Continue reading…

  • Delay in giving second jabs of Pfizer vaccine improves immunity
    by Ian Sample Science editor on May 13, 2021 at 11:05 pm

    Study finds antibodies against Sars-CoV-2 three-and-a-half times higher in people vaccinated again after 12 weeks rather than threeCoronavirus – latest updatesSee all our coronavirus coverageThe UK’s decision to delay second doses of coronavirus vaccines has received fresh support from research on the over-80s which found that giving the Pfizer/BioNTech booster after 12 weeks rather than three produced a much stronger antibody response.A study led by the University of Birmingham in collaboration with Public Health England found that antibodies against the virus were three-and-a-half times higher in those who had the second shot after 12 weeks compared with those who had it after a three-week interval. Continue reading…

  • Covid-19: what do we know about the variants first detected in India? – podcast
    by Presented and produced by Anand Jagatia with Nicola Davis on May 13, 2021 at 2:30 pm

    With restrictions in England due to be further relaxed on 17 May, new coronavirus variants first detected in India are spreading across the UK. Public Health England designated one, known as B.1.617.2, as a ‘variant of concern’ last week. It is now the second most common variant in the country. Anand Jagatia speaks to the Guardian science correspondent Nicola Davis and Prof Ravi Gupta about what we know and how concerned we should be Continue reading…

  • Melting away: understanding the impact of disappearing glaciers – podcast
    by Presented and produced by Shivani Dave on May 11, 2021 at 12:56 pm

    Prompted by an illness that took her to the brink of death and back, Jemma Wadham recalls 25 years of expeditions around the globe. Speaking to the professor about her new book, Ice Rivers, Shivani Dave uncovers the importance of glaciers – and what they should mean to us Continue reading…

  • To infinity and beyond: the spectacular sensory overload of Ryoji Ikeda’s art
    by Cleo Roberts-Komireddi on May 9, 2021 at 2:00 pm

    Incandescent light, the thud of Tokyo nightclubs, particle physics … it all goes into Ryoji Ikeda’s extraordinary sensory symphonies. He talks about his upcoming show at 180 The StrandRyoji Ikeda has delivered some dazzling rushes on the senses over his 25-year career: a beach in Rio de Janeiro bathed in his unique palette of light; New York’s Times Square given over to his black and white flickering patterns. But for his next show, the Japanese artist and composer is taking things underground. Ikeda’s biggest exhibition in Europe to date concerns the exposed underbelly of 180 The Strand in London, which he has reimagined as staves, notes and bar lines – with himself as the conductor, “orchestrat[ing] everything into a symphony”.Beginning with a single light beam piercing the rafters, the exhibition carries the viewer through an incandescent corridor of white light and into a room filled with a ring of immense, super-directional speakers reverberating at concert pitch. To Ikeda, this is “opera” with light and sound. “There’s the intro, the welcome piece, then the crescendo [and] climax. It’s a long journey.” Continue reading…

  • How has our thinking on the climate crisis changed? – podcast
    by Presented by Phoebe Weston and produced by Anand Jagatia on May 6, 2021 at 2:32 pm

    When the Guardian began reporting on the climate crisis 70 years ago, people were worried that warmer temperatures would make it harder to complain about the weather. Today it is the biggest challenge humanity has ever faced. In the second special episode marking 200 years of the Guardian, Phoebe Weston is joined by Jonathan Watts, Prof Naomi Oreskes and Alice Bell to take a look at climate coverage over the years, how our understanding of the science has changed and how our attitudes and politics have shifted Continue reading…

  • Elon Musk’s Starship lands successfully for first time – video
    on May 6, 2021 at 5:46 am

    SpaceX launches and successfully lands its futuristic Starship SN15 for the first time. The previous four test flights for the rocketship had ended in explosions for the vehicle that SpaceX founder Elon Musk hopes will eventually transport humans to Mars. This latest upgraded version of SpaceX’s full-scale, stainless steel, bullet-shaped rocketship reached a maximum altitude of over six miles (10km) before flipping and descending horizontally, and then going vertical again just in time for touchdownSpaceX finally launches and successfully lands its futuristic Starship Continue reading…

  • Did you solve it? A tray of Portuguese delights
    by Alex Bellos on May 3, 2021 at 4:00 pm

    The solutions to today’s puzzlesEarlier today I set you four puzzles by Paulo Ferro, a Portuguese puzzle maker.1. Trapezium or trap-not-so-easy-um? Continue reading…

  • Can you solve it? A tray of Portuguese delights
    by Alex Bellos on May 2, 2021 at 11:00 pm

    Custard tarts for the brainUPDATE: The solutions are now up here.Today, four tasty treats from Paulo Ferro, a puzzlesmith from Porto.1. Trapezium or trap-not-so-easy-um? Continue reading…

  • SpaceX returns astronauts to Earth in rare night-time splashdown – video
    on May 2, 2021 at 10:38 am

    SpaceX safely returned four astronauts from the International Space Station on Sunday, making the first US crew splashdown in darkness since the Apollo 8 moonshot in 1968. The Dragon capsule parachuted into the Gulf of Mexico off the coast of Panama City, Florida, just before 3am, ending the second astronaut flight for Elon Musk’s companySpaceX returns four astronauts to Earth in darkness Continue reading…

  • Unearthing the secret social lives of trees – podcast
    by Presented by Linda Geddes and produced by Madeleine Finlay on April 29, 2021 at 4:00 am

    Over her career, first as a forester and then as a professor of forest ecology, Suzanne Simard has been uncovering the hidden fungal networks that connect trees and allow them to send signals and share resources. Speaking to Suzanne about her new book, Finding the Mother Tree, Linda Geddes discovers how these underground webs allow plants to cooperate and communicate with each other Continue reading…

  • Halfway there … the key numbers that tell the story of the UK’s vaccine drive
    by James Tapper on April 25, 2021 at 8:45 am

    The government has hit both its self-imposed targets so far. How will it go the rest of the way?More than half of the UK population has now received at least a first dose of vaccine against Covid-19. By Friday evening 33,388,637 people had received one of the Pfizer, AstraZeneca or Moderna vaccines. Here’s how it was done, and what is still left to do. Continue reading…

  • One dose of Pfizer or Oxford jab reduces Covid infection rate by 65% – study
    by Ian Sample Science editor on April 22, 2021 at 11:01 pm

    Analysis of test results from more than 350,000 people finds older people just as protected as youngerCoronavirus – latest updatesSee all our coronavirus coverageOne shot of the Oxford/AstraZeneca or Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine reduces coronavirus infections by nearly two-thirds and protects older and more vulnerable people as much as younger, healthy individuals, a study has found.The results from Oxford University and the Office for National Statistics are a welcome boost to the vaccination programme and the first to show the impact on new infections and immune responses in a large group of adults in the general population. Continue reading…

  • Did you solve it? Are you smarter than Britain’s teenage brainiacs?
    by Alex Bellos on April 19, 2021 at 4:00 pm

    The solutions to today’s puzzlesEarlier today I set you the following two puzzles. The first is from the UK’s Mathematical Olympiad for Girls:Painting the houses Continue reading…