Sunday, 13 December 2009

International Year of Astronomy round-up at the RAS

At Burlington House last Friday, the Royal Astronomical Society got together for two specialist discussion meetings: "Solar Wind-Magnetosphere-Ionosphere Interactions within the Solar System" and "The International Year of Astronomy". I had an absolutely terrific time at the latter. It was a round-up of various things that have been going on during an exceptionally busy year, which I'm now very sorry is so nearly over. But never mind, because the overriding message amounted to: "Don't Stop Now!"

There were, not counting introductions and summaries, 14 short talks by various people involved. I heard for the first time about several cornerstone projects, such as UNAWE which aims to bring astronomy to very young children in underprivileged environments, and the Galileo Teacher Training Programme, to encourage science teachers to become ambassadors and encourage each other to include astronomy in their lessons. Great projects have been put together, such as careers advice for teenagers run by the Guildford Astronomical Society, including female speakers to encourage girls; telescopes set up on the pavements (called "public astronomy events" here in the UK, not "sidewalk astronomy"!), and huge and beautiful space pictures touring the country. Media interest in the International Year of Astronomy was excellent; success in schools was varied; collaboration between science communicators and other organisations has got a massive boost; interesting new facts such as that there is a star called Whasat and that Thomas Harriot actually beat Galileo to using a telescope to observe the skies have been dug up; and many members of the public are, hopefully, more familiar with astronomy than they were before!

MoonWatch in Schools was not a great success. School staff were too hampered by health and safety problems, CRB checks, and so on - it may be that the problem was working out of hours, and that it would be easier to do in the school day. Privately I suspected also that the teachers were simply too stressed and tired to do anything beyond the obligatory minimum demanded by the government. I also got a good snigger by thinking "So much for the promise that all schools would be open until 8pm by autumn 2008" - which seriously was the plan in autumn 2007. The speaker, Steve Owen, went on to tell us that over 200 schools were invited to the Royal Observatory in Greenwich - and not a single one replied, even just to say "no thanks"! I was reminded of a science teachers' meeting at one of the schools I trained at in Cornwall: they had a spare £1600 and wondered what to do with it. They rejected the ideas of new books, science equipment, or a trip anywhere, in favour of a TV to put in the (extremely crowded) corridor to show the pupils science lessons! I suggested getting involved in the Faulkes Telescope Project and got laughed into silence - they clearly hadn't even heard of it, but thought ignorance of anything not demanded by the National Curriculum was tough or clever or something. It was shortly after this that I decided this seriously was not a profession I'd survive in long enough to do any good . . .

On the other hand, about a quarter of secondary schools now have their own telescope! The Society for Popular Astronomy and Dr Helen Walker especially did a great job, Robin Scagell told us, of organising this. Before 2009, very few schools had a telescope, and this made practical astronomy work nigh on impossible. Secondary schools were a priority because primary school children are already enthusiastic and easy to inspire - while secondary school pupils receive far less attention, and are also at the age of making career choices. Secondary school teachers also seldom have much astronomy background, so a free DVD and education pack was provided for them. There was a DVD aimed at inspiring the children, including an interview with Helen and Sir Patrick. Amateurs and professionals were gathered who could act as outside help contacts for teachers.

An ex-headmaster helped with the distribution; SPA had a budget of £15,000 which did not cover enough, but very fortunately the STFC was able to provide another £50,000. The children of the schools were now very proud of their school owning a telescope, and about a third of these set up their own astronomy club. Teachers were asked what they would do with their telescope, and they asked the children for suggestions. (Can you imagine how relieved I felt that interest and enthusiasm is not wiped out of schools everywhere!) Solar observations were not recommended because this is simply too risky. The true value, however, will not become clear for many years: we will know for sure when the children affected by the scheme go to university.

The Royal Observatory of Greenwich appears to have had a great year. In 2008 they had 1.3 million visitors; they predict 2 million by the end of 2009! This includes 17,000 schoolchildren. Most people, the speaker Marek Kekula told us, come to stand with one foot on either side of the meridian - but there is a lot to see while you are there, so one can spring plenty of astronomy on you unexpectedly. The RGO's staff includes professional astronomers, who quickly pick up information: within 12 hours of the discovery of Saturn's new ring, it was incorporated into their planetarium show.

Marek was particularly adamant that astronomy now has a higher profile in the public, that astronomers have developed better communication skills, and we must not lose our momentum. This was a common theme that day. Another was the thrill adults felt from what they were learning - they were often much more excited than their children, who were used to new things every day and who already knew a lot! And yet another was how successful double-events can be: one astronomy, one something else. For instance, live music or sci-fi meetings combined with an astronomy night, or astronomy parades hijacking St Patrick's Day in Ireland. (Apparently it had to be "real" astronomy - little green men, including alien leprechauns, were forbidden . . .)

Then Helen - who I'd finally got to meet after a few months of working for, and who is ever so friendly - got up to talk about She is an Astronomer. We heard some statistics, such as that 13.36% of astronomers in the IAU are women - the figure is only 11.2% in the UK, and 24% in France. It is quite high in Italy, apparently - because science is a low-status job. The thing I found most interesting about her talk was the advice that female astronomers would give to younger ones. It included: find a supportive partner; "train him" (that got a laugh); break your job down into small manageable chunks; get a life; get a mentor. They advised young women not to try to multitask and be good at lots of things, but to find what you are especially good at and stick to it; to be prepared, if your partner is also an astronomer, for the "two-body problem" - the frequent lack of two posts to be near each other, so one of you will often be out of work. They also said to keep your family, especially your children, educated and inspired about what you are doing - children, she reported, are often very supportive of your long absences if they know you are working on something terribly exciting.

Getting a mentor, she said, is often very important. I could well imagine that, for as I blundered unqualified and inexperienced into the world of astronomy it made all the difference in the galaxy that Chris Lintott believed I could do it and, when he had time, would answer my many questions. So Helen aims to set up e-mentoring. I am hoping that the forum can be an informal place to help start that off: indeed, I am pushing for some of the smart questions on that forum, such as getting the IAU resolution working, to be made more public and get more people to post their thoughts and hopefully make friends!

Our next speaker was not an astronomer at all, but Keith Muir, head of tourism, recreation and environment at Galloway Forest Park! This has just won the Dark Sky Park award: the first in the UK, and the fourth in Europe, and it has attracted a great deal of attention and tourism as a result. (Apparently the phrase "Dark Skies" is very popular with journalists.) They cannot enforce dark skies, but had to ask the residents if they minded - these residents were very positive. It was emphasised that this was not about switching lights off, but about obtaining the right sort, and using them the right way. For this reason they are trying to get a good deal with manufacturers on such lights. Chris asked a question after this talk: so many astronomy societies were after him, asking how they could get similar recognition for places in which they used their own telescopes; how did one get such an award and support? One way to get such an award, we were told, was including a lot of public outreach. But far from being an extra burden, it has been a success all round.

We had a great story of how Newbury Astronomy Society took over the world with Twitter, and the making of two terrific videos - these items, I think, deserve a blog post of their own. Chris's talk, he warned us, was "a soapbox waiting to happen". It was a comparison between "old media", such as books and TV, and "new media", i.e. the Internet. (This is my favourite explanation for how differently they work.) For Chris, the International Year of Astronomy has been finding astronomy in unexpected places. Some interesting new projects are planned, for example "Buried Data" will be a website where scientists feeling guilty about the piles of unread data on their desks can upload it for the public to deal with, presumably Galaxy Zoo style! (One of my favourite moments during the day was when someone uploaded some citizen science projects, and mentioned the zoo without even defining it - it's a familiar thing now.) The risk of new media, however, is not reaching anyone new. Unexpected things can appear on the telly, but people choose where they look on the Internet. On the other hand, anything that appears in old media has to bypass journalists anyway . . . As Newbury Astronomical Society proved, Twitter can be a great help to say the least. More about that in another post, I think.

After this the day finished - and things looked highly promising: people now have the confidence to see just how much can be achieved; other people have got interested and are willing to work with us astronomers and science communicators; we must not lose the momentum.

Then it was time for the free open meeting. Some of the topics of the day were discussed in more detail - other talks were new, such the RAS Keith Runcorn thesis prizewinner. This was Dr David Jess, who has been studying the paradox of the ridiculously (at least, unexpectedly) hot corona, around 2000 km above the Sun's surface. Two mechanisms have been suggested which heat it. One is that microflares and nanoflares, undetectable from Earth, may play a major role in transferring energy; another is wave heating, the convection of energy up to great heights which then dissipates as heat. The theories may not be as different as they look - and "in" theories about the Sun change periodically! Sadly, this was about as much as I understood. But there was a tense and interesting moment when a member of the audience asked Ian Robson, an evening speaker, about the STFC. We had just heard that there is "evidence that astronomy is a force in the UK for science motivation and the astronomical community for science education" - the audience member stated that the STFC are capable of doing great damage, including undoing all the good the International Year of Astronomy has done. Ian Robson turned to another audience member and said, "Are you listening?" As it happened, an STFC member got up to respond! He said that times were extremely difficult and that a great many STFC members knew of, and absolutely loathed, "the damage we're doing".

Never a dull moment, eh?

Monday, 30 November 2009

The Periodic Table in the stars

The Periodic Table is a wonderful thing. It took many, many years for scientists to put it together properly, and work out why it looks like it does. First they had to sort out which materials were elements, and which not; then, not knowing what made them different, they had to find a way to classify them all. The story goes that Mendeleev found the pattern of atomic weight and properties almost by accident, writing a table for a chemistry textbook - just goes to show that writing down the basics is often very revealing! To be picky, he was not the first to do so; but he was the first to predict the properties of those elements that were missing.

If you're not familiar with the Periodic Table, take a good look at this picture (click here to massively enlarge). From studyhallnotes.

It's in the shape of a large, squashed U. The F-block, at the bottom, should actually be slotted into the D-block and make it expand out at the bottom again, the way the D-block expands out the one above it between Ca (20) and Ga (31). What you have got here is actually something like a set of Russian dolls.

Imagine you're painting a series of dots around a Russian doll, each dot the same size and the same distance apart - like a beaded belt. It follows that you're going to be able to paint more dots around the bigger dolls than the smaller ones. Or if you decided to start painting on silly belts, going up and down and around, you'll be able to get more patterns on the larger dolls . . .

The smallest Russian doll can only fit two beads on its belt. Or to be more precise than that, it has space for two, so it can have either one or two. The next-smallest can have eight: again, to be more precise, it has four two-bead belts, each of which fits a different part of it, but until A level chemistry we say eight, for the sake of simplicity.

Why two, and why eight? What are these numbers? They're due to the electrons surrounding the atom. Electrons all have a negative charge, and when they flow freely between atoms they are electricity. Nobody really knows what negative charge is, other than a property of a particle, which is attracted to positive charge and repelled by like negative charge. Anyway, electrons are stand-offish little beasts who don't like sharing their space with other electrons. They'll put up with one partner if it's got something called the opposite "spin" - and that's why you'll find them in groups of two in an atom.

It's the outside of atoms that shape the Periodic Table. I was bored by the Periodic Table at school until I realised how it was put together - at which I was beside myself with joy! But there's a lot going on on the inside of atoms too. For every electron, there's a proton. Protons, of course, have positive charge and repel each other as well - but adding some neutrons to the mix can settle their arguments. That and the strong nuclear force (scroll down to the next box in the link), which sticks them together. So, for all elements except hydrogen, for every electron and proton there's at least one neutron - often more. Some elements have a lot of neutrons; others stick to a minimum.

All atoms in the Universe were created: either inside stars, or in the Big Bang at the beginning of time. That's not as simple as it sounds. Because the strong nuclear force only operates over very short distances, it's not easy to slam enough protons and neutrons together to build up these complex, stable groups out of such sensitive materials. Neutrons, too, only last about ten or fifteen minutes on their own; usually a proton transforms into a neutron, emitting a positron as it does so. And there are only so many stable arrangements of protons and neutrons . . .

They're wonderfully variable. I'm going to tell you stories about three of them: lithium, carbon, and oxygen - how they are formed, and some very odd places in which they've ended up.

Let's start with lithium. You probably remember it from school: lithium, sodium and potassium all react violently with water, like this:

(From webshots.)

They're also on the far left of the Periodic Table: the "alkali metals". They each have one electron in their outermost "shell", which is a cumbersome arrangement and they're just delighted to get rid of it. But what's strange about lithium is that there is no logical way for stars to synthesise the lithium nucleus. Yup, you heard that correctly: to the best of our knowledge, stars shouldn't be able to make it.

I'll come back to why in a minute, and get on with the story.

Lithium in stars has been bothering scientists for many years. As Wiki says, "Though the amount of lithium in the known universe can be easily calculated, there is a "cosmological lithium discrepancy" in the universe: older stars seem to have less lithium than they should, and younger stars can have far more." Lithium was one of the elements - along with (a lot more) hydrogen and helium - created in the Big Bang. The heat from nuclear fusion reactions in stars destroys lithium - as Invader Xan told us at the zoo, and I'm sure he's right, brown dwarfs retain their lithium because their nuclear fusion never gets going, while a red dwarf and anything hotter "burns" it.

Recently another lithium pattern was discovered: not age, but whether or not a star has planets! Stars with planets have less. Not just a bit less, but if I read these figures correctly, stars without planets have only one thousandth that of stars with planets: the original paper (Irsaelian et al) states that "planet-bearing stars have less than 1% of the primordial Li abundance, while about 50% of the solar analogues without detected planets have on average 10 times more Li".

Why? was my first, stupid reaction. Do the planets eat it all or something?

"The presence of planets may increase the amount of mixing and deepen the convective zone to such an extent that the Li can be burned," says the paper. Planets, tiny as they are in comparison to stars, do still affect their Sun - planets are often detected by their host's "wobble" caused by the gravity of the planet. And stars aren't great convectors. Their currents are so slow that, as Marcus Chown memorably describes it, it takes a human lifetime for a current to cross the face of a wristwatch. Without a disruptive influence, lithium can sit around forever without being affected by the furnace at the core.

"Using our unique, large sample, we can also prove that the reason for this lithium reduction is not related to any other property of the star, such as its age," says Nuno Santos, one of the authors of the paper, in the Science Daily article which covers this story. The BBC article emphasises not the stars, but the protoplanetary disk of material which spins with the star during their early days. The general effect, of course, will be the same.

While lithium was created in the Big Bang, in tiny amounts, due to chance reactions, carbon was not. Carbon has six protons and six neutrons. These are in the form of three alpha particles: the helium nucleus, two protons and two neutrons, the result of hydrogen fusion in the Sun, and so stable that it retains its own identity in a larger nucleus (we can tell this because alpha decay, one of the three forms of radioactivity - the sort that killed poor Litvinenko - is always in the form of alpha particles, rather than single protons or neutrons, or larger clumps of matter). To be picky, carbon has two isotopes - Carbon-13 and Carbon-14 - which have seven and eight neutrons respectively.

Carbon's two states and molecular arrangements, from good old Wiki.

Conditions in the Big Bang, violent as they were, could not have formed such a complex nucleus. The reason for this is that two alpha particles don't easily stick together. If they do, they form beryllium-8 - which is so unstable that it falls apart after only a 1/100 000 000 000th of a second! (Stable beryllium has five neutrons - it's number 4 on the Periodic Table.) Nor do spare protons or neutrons stick to alpha particles.

But the insides of stars are a special place - especially towards the end of their lives. The pressure is drastic: in a full-blown red giant, half the star's mass is squeezed into a billionth of its volume. Such density will cause collisions between helium ash (alpha particles) at a great rate, and with enough energy for abnormal things to happen. In fact, the tiny time beryllium-8 holds together is long enough for a very small amount to survive all the time in the star - and therefore, enough time for another alpha particle to come along and turn it into carbon.

(The whole story is a lot more complicated than that, but when I get around to reviewing Marcus Chown's wonderful "The Magic Furnace", I might tell you more - though my stronger recommendation is read it! Back to this story . . .)

It follows that we'll find carbon in the nebulae and dust drifting through space, the ashes of burnt-out stars. Surprisingly enough, it's also recently been detected as the atmosphere of the faint neutron star known as Cassiopeia A, or Cas A.

The supernova remnant of Cas A, from Chandra. It's expanding at 10 million miles per hour, and is about 50 million degrees Farenheit (anyone care to work that out in Kelvin?).

It's a relatively young supernova, about 330 years old, possibly spotted by Flamsteed. There is definitely a neutron star in there, but it doesn't pulse with the usual radio or X-ray waves. Now, Craig Heinke from Alberta University and Wynn Ho from Southampton University have published a letter in Nature stating that this is because these waves are being absorbed by a 10cm thick atmosphere with a hardness of diamond.

Below that is a layer of iron, and below that neutronium - pure neutrons, squashed down by gravity, so heavy that a teaspoonful of them would weigh millions of tons. (I'd love to see some of that of that stuff.) The atmosphere is stratified, meaning the lightest elements appear on top. Usually for neutron stars, this is hydrogen and helium. For this very young one, it is carbon. Why?

It is thought that the intense heat of the neutron star actually caused the hydrogen and helium to fuse into carbon - which seems pretty paradoxical to me. Same as stars, you should find more carbon in older stars, not younger ones. My best guess is simply that we don't know yet. The abstract of the letter says: "If there is accretion after neutron-star formation, the atmosphere could be composed of light elements (H or He); if no accretion takes place or if thermonuclear reactions occur after accretion, heavy elements (for example, Fe) are expected. Despite detailed searches, observations have been unable to confirm the atmospheric composition of isolated neutron stars." In other words, we need to study more neutron star atmospheres; they say good old Chandra's the only telescope that can do this.

Please let me know your thoughts; and if you're interested in any further reading, you can try Universe Today, Discover Magazine, the Telegraph, and PhysOrg! My mum, meanwhile, has completely stumped me with one question: why is the carbon atmosphere called an atmosphere rather than a surface?

Ready for one more? It's all right, this will be the shortest story. One alpha particle step up from carbon is oxygen. (Two more protons, two more neutrons - except, as usual, in the case of isotopes). The process of making carbon is called the triple-alpha process; after carbon, it is simply called the alpha process, and requires ever more extreme conditions in the cores of stars. Look at the Periodic Table again: it goes carbon, oxygen, neon, magnesium . . . you skip alternate elements, going across from left to right, and the same again in the next row, and so on.

The heavier the elements get, the more extreme the conditions required to make them - in other words, the deeper inside the core of a star. From Wiki again, here is a typical (fairly heavy) star's core at the end of its life:

You can expect a star, then, at the end of its life, to contain some oxygen. Now imagine you find a star with a great deal more oxygen than it ought to have. What might be going on there?

There's a theoretical model. Not all supermassive stars go supernova or become black holes. Stars 7 to 10 times the mass of the Sun might go supernova, or they might form massive white dwarves. At this size, such dwarves should be rich in oxygen and neon - and this seems to be what has happened with two white dwarves in our beloved SDSS.

A paper by G et al reports: "the detection of two white dwarfs with large photospheric oxygen abundances, implying that they are bare oxygen-neon cores and that they may have descended from the most massive progenitors that avoid core-collapse." On the forum (a net through which very little astronomy news slips undetected), there was some discussion about how to find these stars; Els and Dave both contributed possibles. This is the one they agreed on:

SDSS 587742013276094467.

So it seems that stars of a certain mass might puff off enough of their outer layers to avoid gravitational collapse (as occurs with neutron stars and black holes), or a particularly violent death - and lay bare cores of materials that are generally locked deep inside a white dwarf. Their nuclear fusion, though, is over - their fate is to very slowly shine themselves to dimness. (A white dwarf cools exceptionally slowly: a star can only really cool by expanding, which of course white dwarves cannot do. Therefore, they have no easy way to get rid of their heat. To the best of our knowledge, the Universe contains no black dwarves yet - a black dwarf is a white dwarf which has cooled down enough no longer to shine.)

You can read more about the high oxygen white dwarves at PhysOrg and SpaceFellowship.

I love chemistry. I'm afraid I just got carried away.

Monday, 9 November 2009

Was that the right month for an argument?

I'm just beginning to get myself together after a majorly impressive cold (It might be gammon flu. Perhaps I had swine flu, but a lot of tea cured me . . .), and am wondering: is it just me or was October a month full of the most spectacular arguments?

We haven't got a working TV in my house at the moment, since we practically never turn the wretched thing on and haven't yet got round to going digital. So I missed Nick Griffin on Question Time. Nevertheless, I was following the tweets and talking to friends on Instant Messenger as soon as they'd switched the TV off. The first thing to say is that, a few months ago, I didn't think it was worth giving that bunch of lunatics any publicity. Put anyone's face and quotations up in the papers and it gives them legitimacy as well as the attention and ears Griffin must have been craving. But I now think I was wrong. Sorrow that I must say it, but it seems this is something Britain needs to get together and talk about.

Some commentators said that most of the UK was united that night. It wasn't long before a same-sex kissing flashmob outside the BNP headquarters was set for a few days later (how did that go, folks?). A very straight friend was so angry after watching Question Time that he told me he wanted to go just to make the point! Several splendid remarks were made on Twitter, pointing out Griffin's poor defences against accusations of racism, hatred, etc., and it was all very heartening - until I started reading some of the comments on newspaper reports in the following days, and the sheer number of people who wrote supportive comments for the BNP were alarming.

(As an aside, don't worry too much about these "numbers" - I doubt these people are a majority in society. A professor of Energy Resources at university told us once that 50% of all the anti-wind farm letters published in the four main broadsheets over several years were all from the same 25 individuals.)

One chap bemoaned how he "didn't feel like he was in Britain any more, it made him want to cry" to see foreigners everywhere. Someone below him sensibly wrote something along the lines of: "Just talk to them! You might meet your girlfriend, your best friend, people to go to the pub with, people to watch football with". I wonder if people who think like this self-pitier have ever asked themselves why people emigrate to Britain? What they might be leaving behind? The BNP's idea of bribing people to "go home" is to reduce these people to litter: to be put in the bin and hurried off somewhere else; it doesn't matter where, so long as it's out of sight. There was also, I seem to remember, the false idea that Britain was the only country full of immigrants. Get serious. I could say more, but had better leave this topic before I actually start spitting incoherently. Oh, hang on, I'll just add that the "whitest" area I've ever lived in is Cornwall, and that was the most miserable place I've ever been, and the most excluding.

Most of the BNP's supporters, however, seemed to have their heads completely in the clouds about its actual policies. They didn't see any difference between the BNP and UKIP: they swore Griffin was not racist, for example, and that the other panelists on Question Time were just bullies. To them, the BNP's appeal was that it hadn't yet done all the things that Labour and the Tories have: it hadn't sucked the NHS dry, made paperwork and gobbledygook targets the workplace's highest priority, charged the taxpayer to clean its moat, or "sold our sovereignity to Brussels". This is very thin ice they're treading on, and a poor analysis. One party's being a spectacular disappointment is no credit to another. Are people so poorly educated that they cannot distinguish between a right, and a mere lack of wrong? A worrying letter published in a newspaper remarked that Griffin is the only politician "talking about what actually matters to the British public" (i.e. what matters to himself and his mates, I suspect). Bringing in the sorely needed wisdom of Sattareh Farman Farmaian again, she reflects in her book that the reason the Islamic Revolution took place in 1979, rather than a return to democracy, was because the mullahs were the only strong alternative power: the Shah had silenced the moderates, and it seemed to be a choice of either him or religion as an effective leader.

That was just one massive row among many others - Trafigura and Carter-Ruck being another! Everywhere I look, the death count is different. Trafigura, of course, deny that any deaths resulted from their poison dumping, or indeed any injuries. The Minton Report is cautious in this respect: it points out that the media and "mass hysteria" can both exaggerate effects. (This is a principle of science, my A level Biology teacher explained when we started on statistics and the null hypothesis. It is better to claim no effect, or no link, if you are not sure, than to claim a false positive. In the same way, he said, it is better to let a guilty man go free than put an innocent man in jail. Er, Brown, did you hear that last bit?) But it also says that death is a possible consequence of exposure to the chemicals in the waste, and acknowledges that, since the waste has been dumped and it does not have any samples, it is extremely hard to tell.

Carter-Ruck have made brilliant asses of themselves, akin to someone sitting on a drawing pin. They seem to be suing left and right, including the international media, who I am pleased to report are not cowed. But the libel chill does spread overseas; Newsnight is being sued over this; and meanwhile we don't know how many more super-injunctions are in place - since, by their very nature, the press may not tell anyone that there is such an injunction. The Guardian and us bloggers and Twitterers circumvented them this time; but how many times have we been unable to do so?

The Guardian has at least got hold of a copy of the injunction, well worth a read. Apparently Carter-Ruck sent every single MP a letter claiming that they should not be debating the super-injunction, because that would stop it being a super-injunction - or something along those lines! That was when I wrote to my MP, who sent me a reply stating that while he couldn't comment on individual cases but was a pretty cool e-mail anyway. Not often I can say I'm proud of our politicians, but they went ahead, and considered further action - more on the Guardian's blog. To say Carter-Ruck caused a stir is underestimating things - I quote Denis McShane:
In past years people who sought to gag Parliament or who were held to behave inappropriately were brought before the bar of the House and in some cases sent to prison. Do we not need to see the partners of Carter-Ruck bought before the bar of the House to apologise publicly for this attempt to subborn parliamentary democracy?
This, of course, led to a row over whether politicians should have the cheek to stick their noses into law, and that it was a judge's decision to let them go ahead, and so on so forth. And then a row over whether this was press freedom or individual freedom being defended. And then, after Richard Wilson and others demonstrated outside Carter-Ruck's offices, there was another row between him and Jack of Kent over whether Carter-Ruck were being scapegoated. Jack said that the people who should have been protesting were Trafigura, having been given legal advice which wasn't beneficial to them, and that it was the law which was to blame, not lawyers. I agree entirely that everyone is entitled to legal advice no matter what their crime, and that the law should be changed; but I agree with Richard Wilson that Trafigura should also have said, "We can do this, but it will be counterproductive" (or even "morally wrong" if such vocabulary is allowed to be used seriously!). Anyway, go and read Jack's post as linked above and the comments; their knowledge and wisdom far outstrips mine, especially at the moment. My only two pence's worth is to pick at Jack's analogy of the "incomplete adverse report". The Minton Report acknowledges its own completeness, but is it really that adverse? I don't think so. And if a report will prejudice a trial, should not this be addressed during a trial rather than hushed up?

Perhaps I've been too busy concentrating on coughs and aching muscles to look at the news this month, but suddenly things seem to have gone very quiet by comparison indeed. What is clear is the threats, from one source or another, to the democracy that so many have died for, and that we still have - but only if we keep fighting. A certain amount of fighting amongst ourselves is a good thing: it keeps us critical and open, not easily led astray by false promises. Just so long as we do, in the end, compromise and unite enough to make our common purposes happen.

Tuesday, 27 October 2009

Notes in a Bottle

This blog post will probably be completely useless, but I feel like writing it just in case, the way the Voyagers have messages from the human race written just in case . . .

First of all, most of my traffic recently has been Google Images to the page about Johan Knapen's lecture (Googling his name is also a frequent way people get here!) - is there something anybody is looking for in particular? Please drop me a line as we are doing quite a lot on galaxy bars these days!

NGC 5850, a barred spiral as shown in SDSS.

Secondly, they say we're all connected through the internet, so perhaps I know someone who knows someone who knows someone (etc) who might pass on a little message to the lovely girls I met late at night on the train to London Paddington, and who were stranded in their attempt to get to Salisbury. I think I mishmashed my old mobile number with my new when I wrote it down: I believe I wrote a 60 near the beginning when I should have written 35. Yeah, typical Alice thing to do, but I was distracted and, I found out later, desperately dehydrated (excuses, excuses!). Anyway, I do hope you got to Salisbury all right. For those of you curious, there were a few funny goings-on on the trains on Friday night. The girls got on the wrong train, and the conductor who stamped their tickets didn't seem to notice. Then there was a completely random person sitting behind the help desk who appeared to be there to tell jokes, and, it transpired, didn't even work there. I wonder what was going on? Ah, the randomness of London's transport system! Anyway, I got them onto the right train in the end. And then managed to get onto the wrong train myself - the right destination, time, and platform, but the wrong route. Quite an interesting night all round! If you see this blog post, let me know if you got home!

Monday, 26 October 2009

Congratulations Rick and Stellar for Astronomy Picture of the Day!

Are you, like me, addicted to a daily checking of Astronomy Picture of the Day? It's always well worth a look, but today is extra special for the Zoo. A few days ago we were all rather intrigued that this nearly two-year-old topic consistently had about 70 visitors for well over 24 hours: back in January 2008, Kevin had invited us to nominate Galaxy Zoo pictures for APOD. In the end, we selected this picture, which has since been called "Rick's Mergers".

Rick, who's an expert on the peas and who swung me our Bristol lecture, had spent several days making it (here's his thorough description and credits). It's a composite of merging galaxies - the beautiful shapes formed when two or more galaxies come close enough to gravitationally disrupt each other and potentially collide. Third from the right at the bottom is called "The Mice" because of their long tails; the one above that has long been popularly known on the forum as "The Heron" or "The Crane". Kevin sent it off, but we didn't hear any more until the Voorwerp made APOD over the summer.

Anyway, after we'd made a few confused faces on the forum and asked each other if anyone knew why the topic was suddenly receiving so much attention, "RJN" - who I now realise must be Robert J. Nemiroff - told us he was thinking of using another of our pictures. The problem was that SDSS pictures do not have a high resolution, so lack the quality of (for example) Hubble. But we knew we could rise to that challenge, by creating a beautiful composite or imaginative picture, for example. Kevin wrote a blog post and created a thread for our submissions. I, like many others, leapt to the challenge, especially the "rollover image" he'd requested. Stellar, meanwhile, created this simple beauty:

RJN asked if Stellar's planetary nebula and its interior caption as a logo could be set in the bottom right of Rick's mergers, and here was the result:

And up it went today!

I'm so proud of both these creative people who I can call my friends: both very dedicated zooites, both of whom steered our community into special projects started by ourselves; without either of whom the forum would not be the same. Very many congratulations to both of you, and thanks to everyone else who contributed a possible picture. I hope that there will be many more - we have plenty of ideas, ranging from Alexandre's artwork to messages written in the Galactic Alphabet. Watch this space! And welcome aboard to those who've joined us as a result of this work.

Update, Tuesday 27th: Chris has just told us all that yesterday was the third most active day since the launch of Zoo 2. Whoopee!
Update II, Wednesday 28th: ± 1000 new people joined us on Monday - there was a huge backlog of classifications too. Zoonometer now reaches 44 million . . .

Tuesday, 20 October 2009

Write to your MP about the libel laws!

What with Trafigura and Simon, last week was a great one for free speech, but we still have a long way to go. Good old Simon (the other one) just reminded us to write to our MPs. He has written a form letter and directs us to You can copy and paste his, though be careful as it says it will block copy and pasted letters - better change one or two words!

I would not recommend copying and pasting mine: I wrote my own, and some of the information is very specific to Pembrokeshire, as Stephen Crabb and I have exchanged e-mails about ID cards and Withybush Hospital before. It's very much a "me" letter. But it's good to send unique messages if you have time.

This is what I wrote:

Dear Mr Crabb,

I gather that tomorrow there is a debate in Parliament regarding the English Libel Laws and I am writing to you to ask you to support their reform.

At present, England's libel laws are infamous for being by far the most costly in the world, and for the burden of proof being shifted to the defendant. This gives particularly wealthy individuals and corporations a hugely unfair advantage, and means that individuals fear to speak openly about large-scale problems to avoid bankruptcy. This is the kind of mentality which was last week taken advantage of by Trafigura and their law firm Carter-Ruck in their attempt to prevent the media from reporting a question by N Paul Farrelly of Newcastle-under-Lyme.

In the case of science and health science especially, silence is extremely dangerous. Science can only progress through open criticism. The efficacy of a medicine, for instance, cannot be determined by court action, but only through fair trials and also fair presentation to the public. Using libel laws to repress such individuals as Simon Singh and Ben Goldacre creates an environment in which evidence matters less than money and fear.

If scientists had not spoken out, for instance, the drug Thalidomide would not have been removed from the market. It was also, I believe, the ability of individuals to speak out which has so far saved Withybush Hospital from being closed via the back door.

The campaign Sense About Science has raised interest in individuals from all three major political parties. Please support a change in the libel laws of this country.

Many thanks for your time in reading this.

Yours sincerely,

Alice Sheppard

Thanks for that about the Thalidomide, Simon, I'd forgotten! About the scientists speaking out, that is. Come to think of it there was a recent article about how difficult it is for Thalidomide people to live today: one lady has a yearly grant which about 90% of went towards a specialist wheelchair.

Prevention of ghastly situations like that is better than having to manage them - since cure is not an option. Whether it's a question of drugs on the market, or whether it's some other industry keener on making money than on evaluating their own treatment's effectiveness and safety, scientists need to speak out. Go on, write to them now.

Sunday, 18 October 2009

The Back Knight's First Practical

Continuing the very bogus story co-authored by Crispian Jago . . .

Scene 3

The Back Knight has finished his apprenticeship and is now setting out to seek patients for his clinic, which Sir Simon (as I am told is now his nickname!) is destined to mess up a little later. He enters a hospital laboratory . . .

BACK KNIGHT: Old woman!


BACK KNIGHT: Old man, sorry. What doctor works in that office over there?

DENNIS: I'm 37.


: I'm 37, that's not old.

: Well, I can't just call you "Man" -

: You could say "Dennis".

BACK KNIGHT: I didn't know you were called Dennis!

DENNIS: Well, you didn't bother to find out, did you?

BACK KNIGHT: I did say sorry about the old woman, but from behind, you looked -

DENNIS (pushing aside his trolley of petri dishes): What I object to is you automatically treat me like an inferior.

BACK KNIGHT: Well I am Supreme Healer . . .

DENNIS: Oh, Supreme Healer, eh, very nice. And how'd you get that, eh? By exploiting the patients! By 'anging onto unproven unscientific dogma which perpetuates the health-related and educational differences in our society! If there's ever going to be any progress -

WOMAN: Oooh, at any rate there's some lovely samples 'ere. (Sees BACK KNIGHT.) Oooh. 'Ow d'you do?

BACK KNIGHT: How do you do, good lady. I am Palmer, Knight of the Spinal Patients. Whose office is that?

WOMAN: Knight of the 'oos?

BACK KNIGHT: The Spinal Patients.

WOMAN: 'Oo 're the Spinal Patients?

BACK KNIGHT: Well - we all are. We're all Spinal Patients. And I am your Supreme Healer.

WOMAN: Didn't know we 'ad a Supreme Healer. I thought we were a medicine-based hospital.

DENNIS: You're fooling yourself. We're living in a chill of libel-fear. A suing-happy market force in which the uneducated patients -

: Oh there you go, bringing education into it again.

DENNIS: Well, that's what it's all about! If only people would listen -

BACK KNIGHT: Please! Please, good people, I am in haste. Who works in that office?

WOMAN: No one works there.

BACK KNIGHT: Then who is your chiropractor?

WOMAN: We don't have a chiropractor.


DENNIS: I told you. We're a scientific teaching hospital. We take it in turns to act as a sort of lecturing professor for the week.


DENNIS: But all assignments by that professor have to be ratified at a special biweekly meeting.


DENNIS: By a simple majority in the case of purely routine medical practices -

BACK KNIGHT: Be quiet!

DENNIS: But by a two-thirds majority in the case of more complex -

: Be quiet. I order you to be quiet!

WOMAN (laughing): Order, eh, 'oo's 'e think 'e is?

BACK KNIGHT: I am your Supreme Healer!

WOMAN: Well, I didn't accredit you.

BACK KNIGHT: You don't accredit Supreme Healers!

WOMAN: Well, 'ow did you become Supreme Healer then?

: The Magic of the Spine. (Singing voices) The nerves clad in the purest shimmering Innate Intelligence, held aloft the revelation from the bosom of the body signifying by Divine Providence that I, Palmer, was to realign your vertebrae. (Singing stops.) That is why I am your Supreme Healer!

DENNIS: Listen. Strange vertebrae lying in spines distributing innate intelligence has no scientific basis in medicine. Supreme bodily health derives from a killing of the invasive microorganisms, not from some farcical subluxatic ceremony.


DENNIS: Well you can't expect to wield supreme medical reputation just because some wonky spine blew a pop at you!


DENNIS: I mean, if I went round saying I was a magician, just because some vaccine-denying twit had lobbed a farce at me, they'd put me away!

: Shut up, will you? SHUT UP!

DENNIS: Oooh, now we see the suing inherent in the system.


DENNIS: Come and see the suing inherent in the system! Help! Help! I'm being supressed!

BACK KNIGHT: Bloody skeptic!

DENNIS: Oooh, what a giveaway. Did you hear that, did you hear that, eh? That's what I'm on about - you saw him supressing me! You saw it, didn't you?

For Crispian's Monty BCA works, see here and here. These were my inspiration . . .

The Back Knight's Mentor

A completely bogus tale. My representations of historical characters are also entirely bogus and used only for convenience ( for instance, Hahnemann sounds like he had a point that medicine of the time was pretty gruesome and unhelpful).

We apologise for the fault in the history. Those responsible have been sacked.

Mind you, acupuncture bites Can be pretti nasti . . .

Scene 1.

The Back Knight to Be, a young servant of alternative medicine practitioners, rides along behind King Hahnemann through a great deal of fog, until they come upon a large hospital. Hahnemann reins up.

HAHNEMANN: Whoa there!

RECEPTIONIST 1: Halt! Who goes there?

HAHNEMANN: It is I, Hahnemann, healer of ills, from the temples of water. King of the Treatment, defeator of the poisons, sovereign of all healing!

RECEPTIONIST 1: Pull the other one!

HAHNEMANN: I am! And this is my trusty servant Palmer. We have ridden the length and breadth of this land in search of doctors who will join me in my practice at Leipzig. I must speak with your Chief Executive and doctors.

RECEPTIONIST 1: What, treatment with dilutions?


RECEPTIONIST 1: You're using water!


RECEPTIONIST 1: You've got vials of plain water and you're shaking 'em together!

HAHNEMANN: So? We have shaken till the snows of winter are not this pure. Through the principle of like with like, through -

RECEPTIONIST 1: Where'd you get the medicines?

HAHNEMANN: We found them.

RECEPTIONIST 1: Found them? In water? The medicines are insubstantial.

HAHNEMANN: What do you mean?

Well, water's a non-medical drink!

HAHNEMANN: A molecule may move south with the sun, or the hellebore or the cinchona may seek wetter climes in vials. Yet these are not required to be present!

RECEPTIONIST 1: Are you suggesting that molecules migrate?

HAHNEMANN: Not at all. They could be carried.

RECEPTIONIST 1: What! A water vial carrying one molecule?

HAHNEMANN: It could replicate it by the shape.

It's not a question of replication. It's a simple question of dilution ratios. Five hundred vials of water cannot carry one molecule of cinchona.

HAHNEMANN: Well it doesn't matter. Will you go and tell your bosses that Hahnemann from the Practice of Leipzig is here.

RECEPTIONIST 1: Listen, in order to maintain an effective trace of hellebore, a vial needs to contain 43 parts per million. Right?



HAHNEMANN: I'm not interested!

RECEPTIONIST 2: It could be carried by a contaminated vial.

RECEPTIONIST 1: Oh yeah, a contaminated vial maybe, but not a diluted one, that's my point.

RECEPTIONIST 2: Oh yeah, I agree with that . . .

HAHNEMANN: Will you go and ask your bosses if they want to join me in my practice at Leipzig!?

RECEPTIONIST 1: But then of course contaminated vials could contain anything.

RECEPTIONIST 2: Oh, yeah . . .

Hahnemann and Palmer give up and turn to leave.

RECEPTIONIST 2: Wait a minute! Supposing two substances replicated it together?

RECEPTIONIST 1: Naaaah, they'd have to be RNA.

RECEPTIONIST 2: Well, simple! Just use a bit of engineering!

RECEPTIONIST 1: What, held under the leaf of hellebore?

RECEPTIONIST 2: Well, why not?

Scene 2.

Hahnemann and Palmer ride away from the hospital, rather disgruntled. As they do so, they go past the mortuary.

MORTICIAN: Bring out your dead! Bring out your dead! (etc)

. . .

As Hahnemann and Palmer go past.

GUY WITH DEAD RELATIVE: Who's that then?

MORTICIAN: I dunno. Must be in alternative medicine.


MORTICIAN: Hasn't got patient notes all over 'im.

Related posts: The Back Knight.
P.S. Yes, I am perfectly well aware that molecules do move around, or perhaps "migrate" - I challenge you to think up a better line!

Thursday, 15 October 2009

Bloggers of the World, Unite! You have nothing to lose but your ignorance.

Well, Simon Singh won!

That is, he has been granted leave to appeal against Judge Eady's ruling on the meaning of his article. The actual appeal, let alone the libel case itself, have not yet gone through. Nevertheless, Mr Justice Laws couldn't have improved things any more than he already has. For example, he rules that the narrow, twisted interpretation of "bogus" ascribed by Eady - an interpretation Simon would have had to defend, which he did not mean and even the BCA did not hear as such - was a) giving too much weight to reputation and not enough to freedom of speech, and b) as the supercool Edd points out, contravenes Article 10 of the European Convention of Human Rights.

If you haven't already caught up with Simon, you can read Jack and Crispian's reports (sensible and silly respectively, both wonderful in totally different ways!), and Simon's statement.

What with this today, and the success of the Twitterverse yesterday in toppling Carter-Ruck's outrageous injunction, it's been an astonishing week for free speech. A cliche I hope not to get dragged into using too often, but I'd say it's also a historic week for the online community. Many commentators and articles are saying of Twitter and blogs: we did it, we did it! Richard Wilson's banana cake is probably the most famous banana cake ever to have burnt on the surface of the Earth; and the Guardian certainly fulfilled Cantankerous's hilarious predictions of a front page article! (Their total list of relevent articles is rather huge - nevertheless the editorial, and a report on Peter Bottomley reporting Carter-Ruck to the Law Society and asking Gordon Brown to investigate the situation, are probably my favourites.)

Richard Wiseman's Banana Cake, uploaded with kind permission! Good luck with your protest tomorrow, by the way - I wish I could be there, and I wonder if banana cake (hopefully not burnt) will become a national symbol and end up being eaten traditionally on protest days? I hope the bananas are Fairtrade!

As I remarked yesterday, I believe that in both cases the online community was a major catalyst in the sudden clearing of the silence-or-punishment clouds this week. Sure, bloggers can't influence the judges. But we can make others aware of issues which the powerful attempt to hide; we can give heart to the punished and the silenced; we can raise large campaigns, indignation, and petitions such as the Sense About Science one which led to interest from all three main parties. In both cases, laws themselves are being challenged. Laws which are heavier in this country than many: Carter-Ruck and their client Trafigura have attempted to silence Dutch and Norwegian media over Trafigura's activities, and the Norwegian press have simply gone ahead and published anyway!

But here in the murky, law-yoked UK, BBC Newsnight is still being sued, with astonishing claims of "irresponsibility". I was open-mouthed when I read that. If it is irresponsible of BBC Newsnight to announce to the world the harm the dumping of the sludge, then how responsible is it to do this dumping in the first place? Take your pick which is more responsible - look at the first link in this paragraph, and then at this document, which might be the Minton Report and sets out very, very clearly and simply the chemistry, laws, and health effects of these substances. The possible-Minton-report certainly downplays the health effects in comparison to the BBC, who report three deaths, and many miscarriages among women. How can £1,000 each, allegedly for hmmm-might-have-been-linked-thought-we-don't-think-so-diahrroea, etc., possibly compensate for deaths and miscarriages?

So, as you see, this is not just about freedom of speech, but its uses. Once or twice, disgruntled forum users have accused me of having no respect for freedom of speech when I have removed their obscene posts from the Galaxy Zoo Forum. I see a certain similarity with those who pry into the private lives (such as the breakdown of marriages) among the famous - which is what the laws protecting privacy were originally intended to address: a self-interested lack of distinction between what one feels like saying, and what desperately needs saying. Abuse of the former can end up backfiring and harming the latter.

It is a curious irony that huge corporations, which affect so many people's lives, but don't have feelings of their own, are often awarded so much more legal protection than individual people. Personally I would say there is seldom a case for writing reams about somebody's divorce. But when is there ever a case for a huge, powerful corporation being able to do harm in secret?

One good thing about Twitter is that it acts as a filter as well as a catalyst. Dross is ignored while good posts and articles are tweeted and retweeted: so much of what I read is what I would never have discovered without Twitter. The public's abilities are proven by citizen science and their contribution to the online world. In my opinion, we have proved that we can not only take a stand, but take a good quality stand too.

Therefore it is our responsibility to keep taking more stands. Carefully, choosily. Not in such a way that would get us all shut down too soon: that could all too easily happen. Not in a way that reduces free speech to "something we should have because we feel like it", though in many cases that is also true. Above all: something people have fought for, died for, endured prison and torture to get: because without talking openly about important things, no problems can be solved and no society can function. Historically it was students who led campaigns. Now us bloggers too are a force to be reckoned with. Let's connect, unite, and use our strength well.

Wednesday, 14 October 2009

But we mustn't forget that tomorrow . . .

. . . it is Simon Singh's oral appeal against Eady's ruling.

The courts will, from the sounds of things, be packed. Jack has asked people not to blog or tweet live in court, as it will be seen as discourteous and won't help Simon. I wish I could be there. Or at least that my penguin galaxy could go along for me instead . . .

I wonder if the last two days' furore over Trafigura will affect the mood of the proceedings? (Three more interesting Guardian articles: "Twitter can't be gagged"; "Trafigura gag unites house in protest", and "A few tweets and freedom of speech is restored".) Carter-Ruck hasn't done a great job of proving the benefits of enforced legal silence. We've just emerged from a battle in which the whistleblowers were the heroes - and I see Simon as a whistleblower, too.

On this neat round-up of the story, one blogger leaves the worrying question in the comments: will this blasting of privacy for the privileged simply mean it'll be even easier for the government to make individual members of the public targets to this sort of thing too? Hmmm, it's a possibility, I suppose. But on the other hand, perhaps privacy versus publicity isn't the only deciding factor, but powerful versus not. Judge Eady invariably seems to rule on the side of the rich or powerful: the Guardian won over Nightjack; the BCA were favoured over Simon Singh. So Nightjack's privacy which was so essential to keeping the public informed about the police was not respected (shame on the Guardian! That spoils my enjoyment of their victory now); while the BCA was ruled to be perfectly at liberty to prevent a journalist from accusing them of not offering their patients the best treatment.

The privacy of an individual person is quite a different thing from the accountability of a large corporation whose activities affect the lives of thousands. A corporation is, I would say, capable of doing vast amounts more damage than an individual human, yet it, itself, has no personal feelings to be wounded as individual humans do. It's ironic how much more gently the corporation is treated.

But I hope it's now clear that corporations and large associations simply have to be written about. That Simon is given credit as one of those who upheld such a principle. And that it's remembered that without people like the twitterers, and like Simon, how much further and how deeply the balance of power would be shifted towards the corporations who may simply make well-meaning mistakes, or may damage, exploit, and even murder, at will.

So I picture it as being into an unexpectedly charged atmosphere that Simon goes into court tomorrow. Maybe I'm wrong and it won't make a blind bit of difference. I expect we'll find out soon. Whatever happens, though, it's only going to be another beginning. He has a long way to go.

So it's not too late to sign this.
free debate

Tuesday, 13 October 2009

It took 16 hours . . .

Last night's post took me until 5 a.m. Being unemployed I slept decidedly late today, and it was all over by the time I logged on. We were right all along that it was Carter-Ruck trying to stifle Britain's democracy to protect their clients - and incredibly, just our tweets and our blogging reached such a furore that the injunction has been dropped! Sixteen hours it took, sixteen hours for victory: shortly before 1pm today, the Guardian learnt that it can go into Parliament to hear the answer to the question after all.

"When is a secret not a secret? When it's on Twitter," screams the BBC. Jack of Kent tweeted this, along with high kudos for @dontgetfooled who was at the bottom of much of the essential fact-finding (certainly the source of the documents I accessed yesterday). Jack also explains the mechanism of yesterday's outrage: not libel, but contempt of court; and suggests that this was precisely what the Guardian intended by their article yesterday. His calm tones belie his suggestion that this is the most important case of our generation. It is. When a corporation's lawyers have more power than a newspaper like the Guardian over what people hear, something is terribly, terribly wrong.

But we won. The Guardian reveals in full the question it was prevented from reporting or hearing. "The case has prompted an unprecedented surge in comment on the company on Twitter, with #trafigura and #carterruck becoming the most popular topics on the social media site," the article announces. And their opinion piece: "If it had stuck, a terrible precedent would have been set whereby the powerful gained a pivotal new power over the people of Great Britain: the power to turn their elected parliament into a shadowy body, as impermeable and hostile to them as the lobbies of corporate buildings.

Twitter went bonkers. Wonderfully so. So wonderfully, in fact, that a human rights lawyer was barely able to conceal his glee when I called him this afternoon."

I don't know about you, but I feel like running around the streets throwing balloons around, plus whatever people did when they heard that World War II was over. I feel like sending congratulations to every blogger, every twitterer out there who joined in. This isn't just about free speech, or rather free hearing, after all. It's about people's responsibilities to each other: the terrible things that happened to the people of the Ivory Coast, simply because Trafigura didn't feel like spending a few euros: things which should never happen, and which we should all be aware of to at least begin the fight. But Richard Wilson, the real name of "Don't Get Fooled Again" or @dontgetfooled, warns us, "They'll be back". In other words, he warns us that as lawyers such as Carter-Ruck catch up with the times, Twitter and other sites may eventually fall under the shadowy hands of the oil-diggers and the government, and be just as easy to repress as the newspapers. We can circumvent them for now, but will that always be the case?

Well, I don't know, but we shall just have to do what we can, and strive, whenever repression and gagging is practised by the powerful, to stay one step ahead. I'm sure there will be many more battles to come.

Update: Hahaha! "Let's all say thank you . . ." Well done LDV, excellent.

For the first time in history . . . and it's to protect liars in oil?

Eighty-odd years ago, when the woman who brought social work and the concept of co-operative problem solving to Iran was a little girl, it was known even to young children that real news would not be heard through the press, but only by gossip and rumours. Henceforth, socialising - though only among your extended family if you were respectable - was the only way to hear what the government was up to. The ultimate reason for this whispering, frightened atmosphere was oil.

Iran's oil, Sattareh Farman Farmaian explains in her book "Daughter of Persia", was being exploited by the British Anglo-Iranian Oil Company, which later became British Petroleum, and very few jobs and very little money from this was allowed to reach any Iranians. To protect their oil, the British had installed Reza Shah to act as military dictator - just as Iran had been painstakingly developing a democracy, because its own aristocracy had been studying the European governments, and were willing to face a brief time of bloodshed and overcome 3,000 years of absolute power from the monarchy to make this change. The invaders threw all that away so they could have the oil. And suddenly I wondered if oil's dark shadow still has a similar effect today.

I had nice plans for this evening: to catch up on a lot of work I should be doing at the zoo, to fill out yet another job application form and to play Roller Coaster Tycoon for hours - which were scuppered by the astonishing news that the Guardian "is prevented – for the first time in memory – from reporting parliament".

"Today's published Commons order papers contain a question to be answered by a minister later this week. The Guardian is prevented from identifying the MP who has asked the question, what the question is, which minister might answer it, or where the question is to be found," this article reports.

The only fact the Guardian can report is that the case involves the London solicitors Carter-Ruck, who specialise in suing the media for clients, who include individuals or global corporations."

Jack of Kent remarks that this is really like a crossword puzzle. "After all, the parliamentary website is not that difficult to search if you are familiar with it," he remarks. "And published order papers are in turn not difficult to search."

He declines to reveal his sources: good man, considering what happened to Nightjack. Not knowing much about this kind of thing, I had to rely on Twitter - thank goodness that is not yet a machine of libel paranoia. "OK, this is *seriously* out of hand now," said Ben Goldacre. Then I noticed a lot of re-tweets from @dontgetfooled, who provides some highly interesting links plus this appeal:
Bloggers, pls help beat this attack on free speech. Have published banned Parliamentary Question here:
I do so with pleasure, esteemed fellow blogger. Here is the question:
N Paul Farrelly (Newcastle-under-Lyme): To ask the Secretary of State for Justice, what assessment he has made of the effectiveness of legislation to protect (a) whistleblowers and (b) press freedom following the injunctions obtained in the High Court by (i) Barclays and Freshfields solicitors on 19 March 2009 on the publication of internal Barclays reports documenting alleged tax avoidance schemes and (ii) Trafigura and Carter-Ruck solicitors on 11 September 2009 on the publication of the Minton report on the alleged dumping of toxic waste in the Ivory Coast, commissioned by Trafigura.
Dontgetfooled has two good web links, here and here. Guido Fawkes also suggests that this is the banned question.

As background, the case is about Trafigura, who had some shiploads of oil mixed with sulphurous compounds to purify. Amsterdam offered to do this purifying, but Trafigura declined, and instead mixed a solution of caustic sodium hydroxide in with the oil; this allowed the oil to rise to the top and the sodium hydroxide plus contaminants solution to fall to the bottom of the tank - a horrendous solution which they then dumped in the dead of night on the Ivory Coast, leading to the illness of the entire local population, three deaths, and many miscarriages. Trafigura claim that the substance was "smelly, but not dangerous" - but are being sued because evidence is showing now that they knew all along that the sludge was highly toxic.

A basic knowledge of chemistry alone, of course, will tell you that mercaptans and other sulphurous compounds which were in the oil are so smelly that they can induce vomiting, nausea and other unpleasant symptoms, and that sodium hydroxide solution is very dangerous indeed.

The Guardian and Newsnight both describe the story. There is another much-talked-about source that seemed un-Google-able - the "Minton Report". Good old @dontgetfooled seems to have found a letter signed by a John Minton which basically goes through the chemistry, Trafigura's wrongdoings, and how to deal with such sludge - not as Trafigura dealt with it. Worth a read: the chemistry is not far above school level!

But what has taken me most of the night was this document, assembled by those prosecuting Trafigura now. This is correspondence - e-mails and faxes - among Trafigura employees debating what to do with the toxic waste, including their rejection of Amsterdam's clean-up offer and recommendations. I do not know if the two documents will be available online forever. Trafigura or their lawyers may insist on them being taken down. I don't know. Anyway, download them.

I have read and re-read the e-mail collection and I must admit defeat by the prospect of offering you a comprehensive review. Perhaps someone with the know-how can shed more light.

Nevertheless, a few statements do jump out at me. There are references to the "PMI shit" which the people want to get rid of. They veto getting it disposed of properly at Amsterdam because of the cost; they also rule out leaving their boats at Milford Haven for the same reason (a shiver went through me at this, for Milford Haven is nearly on my own doorstep - and it is very expensive to moor there, no doubt about it) and opt to "spend some of our hard-earned cash" on leaving the boats at Gibraltar. After a little reading around, I realised that the purpose of sitting around at Gibraltar was to do their own little DIY-purification. My God, they might have been doing it at Milford under our noses. Incidentally, Milford has no night fire service, an incredibly wise economy in a rural area with oil refineries and one of Britain's few deep-sea ports. In any case I'm getting off the subject. They don't want to pay to get it treated properly, so this is what they did instead.

On Page 10, someone circulates an odour report, which they "desperately need for the govt guy" - it begins with the fact that odours are causing "distress" to local people and workers (they don't mention health effects); the report briefly describes each ship, and offers solutions. However, the reader of the document asks that the paragraph explaining the likely cause of the problem (di-enes) be removed; the writer does so. No reason is offered or sought. I don't expect they needed to, amongst themselves.

On page 21 someone is asked to outline the exact objection to discharge in Nigeria. The response is as follows:

"Lagos does not have proper de-slopping facilities as was shown by the fact that a barge was supplied and they wanted the Master to pump the slop overboard into an open tank, which he refused to do. The receiver of the slop may also try to sell it in the local market which has potential implications on us.

More importantly from my point of view is that Lagos is notorious for cargo theft with collusion by ship's Masters, and so any kind of ancillary operation such as this should only take place after all cargo on board has been discharged."

The first paragraph makes it clear that they knew the waste was toxic. As for the second, it took me a while to work out exactly what they didn't want stolen. Is there a possibility that they wanted to sell the oil and let the toxic sludge be stolen, or am I misreading things?

On page 23 is the brief fax:

"Dude, please call CD.

I spoke to him yesterday and he said NO to any such operation in Nigeria [i.e. discharging the slops, preferably offshore].

We go to Lome, charter a barge and bring it back to Nigeria for Daddo under a different name."

I don't think there's any misreading the intentions expressed here!

As we know now, they did sell the oil - and they simply dumped the sludge at the bottom. I'm slightly bewildered by the whole thing, though. The cat's out of the bag. Newsnight and the Guardian have made it clear what they've done. Why are they still so keen to stop the public and the press from getting at the Parliament bit?

Perhaps they feel they still have a stake. Perhaps we are so dependent on oil that it does not matter what the press and public say, but it still does matter what we hear from the higher powers. Perhaps their hope is that, without the press present, the answer to the question can amount to "We won't protect whistleblowers, and we'll give Trafigura our secret support, we don't care about people or the environment, it's money that matters." . . . Or perhaps the hidden question is something different altogether?

It is frightening how these giant corporations can influence our government beyond what even their own fears of terrorism and its own citizens' privacy, liberty, and abilities to get things done without endless red tape, can do. That is to say, such injunctions have evidently not even been made while debating terror bills and how to force ID cards on us. Yet the government, or a judge, obeys this order to stay silent even when the powerful business is already in disgrace . . . Is this a step towards blocking the press from parliament? Or is it a step to making corporations, in the end, our true governments?

Dawn is now nearing; I'm alone in this messy blue-walled room with whirring computers, a few infuriating flies, and a racing mind. I'm frustrated by how little I know, though expect several other bloggers to have found out and deduced far more (and would seriously appreciate it if you could leave a comment with all the links you could find). I start to think of how the blogosphere might have to take over from the newspapers in passing around the news that really matters, as we did for Simon Singh. And then how quickly the government will leap to silence us, too. I begin to fantasise about being arrested for publishing this, or for future posts or documents I download and upload; the choice of silence or arrest. While half of me knows this is just a piece of ludicrous red tape imposed by the privileged, the other half wanders on through the small hours, choosing between revealing secrets and avoiding arrest, and thinks: it's times like these that you know who you are. Am I just naive, to prefer arrest to obedient silence? Probably. Do I write this because I don't believe it'll ever happen? Or is there something to my memories of simply shutting out what hurt me at school and work when the bullies came - the way I simply shut down and didn't even feel it when I was crushed by crowds, hit on the head, or shouted at for my best efforts? Will we have to learn to shut out prison the same way?

I don't know. I don't even know enough about this case to speak with any authority. I only know this: that when a newspaper is silenced, but bloggers are not, it is our duty to reveal what we can.