16 September 2020

Aliens, Penguins and Bacteria-Hunting Balloons

Chris Lintott

There’s a long history of astronomers looking for signs of life on Venus. Throughout the 19th century and into the 20th, reports circulated of a mysterious glow, known as the Ashen Light, which sporadically appeared on the planet’s night side. Could it be a product of civilisation, perhaps the glow of vast ritual bonfires breaking through the thick clouds that were known to blanket the planet? Later writers speculated about vast underground cities, or intelligent creatures who made the most of the thick atmosphere for aerial acrobatics. When spacecraft finally visited our neighbouring planet, in the 1960s, dreams of life on Venus receded. A runaway version of the greenhouse effect has changed what may once have been a pleasant world to a decent approximation of hell; the surface temperature is hot enough to melt lead, the pressure on the ground high enough to crush a visiting astronaut, and those thick clouds are mostly sulphuric acid. A few dreamers still wrote of floating cities in Venusian clouds, but attention turned to Mars as the best bet for searching for past or present life. Until this week, that is.

4 December 2017

Rise of the Microbes

Sophie Cousins

On receiving the 1945 Nobel Prize in Medicine for discovering penicillin, Alexander Fleming finished his lecture with a warning: ‘There is the danger,’ he said, ‘that the ignorant man may easily underdose himself and by exposing his microbes to non-lethal quantities of the drug make them resistant.’ Antibiotic resistance is now one of the biggest threats to global health, food security and development. It could kill as many as 10 million people a year by 2050.

2 November 2016

Little fleas have lesser fleas

Hugh Pennington

The announcement on 26 October that the Wellcome Trust, the Gates Foundation and the UK, US and Brazilian governments will spend $21.7 million over the next two years releasing Aedes aegypti mosquitoes infected with Wolbachia in Rio de Janeiro and Medellín is excellent news. Wolbachia, a bacterium that lives in the reproductive systems of insects and worms, is one of the commonest parasites in the world. In some of its invertebrate hosts it either kills males or feminises them. For others, infection with it is essential for fertility. Discovered in 1923 in the ovaries and testes of mosquitoes from Boston and Minneapolis, it remained an entomological curiosity for half a century before its importance began to be realised. Now it has its own website, and the Anti-Wolbachia Consortium, A-WOL, is funded by the Gates Foundation.

25 May 2016

Rise of the Superbugs

Hugh Pennington

In 2014 the prime minister commissioned Jim O’Neill to conduct a review and make recommendations to ‘defeat the rising threat of superbugs’. O’Neill’s final report, published on 19 May, predicted that superbugs could kill 10 million people a year by 2050, the equivalent of one person every three seconds, more than cancer, with a cumulative cost of around $100 trillion.

31 March 2016

Cultures and Imperialism

Hugh Pennington

In its last week in print, the Independent carried a piece under the headline: ‘One more thing imperialism has to answer for: dysentery.’ It’s a striking statement, but is it true?