Author: Sam

Re-evaluating present human rights for the future

Since the mid-20th century many have grown used to the idea of having human rights and how these can be used when those people feel they are being threatened. In particular, despite having a heritage stemming back further, contemporary understanding of these rights was largely formed in 1948. That’s when the Universal Declaration of Human Rights(UDHR) was created. This milestone document sought to facilitate a new world order following the devastation of World War II. It declared all humans to be born free and equal. It committed states to protect rights such as those to life, to be free from torture, to work, and to an adequate standard of living. These promises have since been cemented in international treaties, including the 1966 International Covenants on Civil and Political Rights and Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, and in regional instruments like the 1950 European Convention on Human Rights(ECHR). More recently, however, states have started to think again. In the US, the first months of Donald Trump’s presidency have involved openly flouting international human rights commitments, most …

North Korea is not the biggest nuclear threat to the world

North Korea is not the biggest nuclear threat to the world

The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) and its dictator, Kim Jong-un, seem determined to demonstrate to the world, and particularly the United States, its nuclear weapons capabilities. With a possible hydrogen bomb test and two missile launches that have passed over Japan this month, tensions have been raised, with U.S. President Donald Trump implementing further sanctions and threatening to rain down “fire and fury” on the country. But does North Korea pose such a threat with its ongoing testing? Why is the U.S. not considered a threat in similar terms? For one thing, it’s the only country to have actually dropped a nuclear bomb on a civilian population, two in fact, on Japan to supposedly to avoid a land invasion, save lives and bring about a “swift end” to the Second World War. Yet this official narrative, pushed for decades, is being questioned by modern historians and no longer appears to hold up as it once did, especially as high-ranking U.S. officials themselves have questioned their use. President Dwight D. Eisenhower, who was a …

Perils of North Koreans fleeing to China

Perils of North Koreans fleeing to China

China shares a border with North Korea, it has become the first destination for desperate North Koreans who risk their lives to escape. An unofficial figure estimates that there are between 50,000 and 200,000 North Koreans living in China. The Chinese government denies most of them refugee status, instead treating them as economic migrants who have illegally crossed the border to seek work. Most have no formal identification or legal status. In addition, Beijing works together with Pyongyang to capture defectors and send them back, making their lives as escapees completely untenable. In the interviews many North Koreans now settled in the UK. Many of them said they had been caught by the Chinese police and repatriated to the north a number of times, but managed to escape again and again. The combination of desperation, the denial of legal status and the terror of the Chinese police operation exposes these people to gross exploitation – especially women. Among those who successfully leave North Korea, women make up the majority. In their search for freedom, many …

Steady State Theory

Steady State Theory was a theory proposed in twentieth-century cosmology to explain evidence that the universe was expanding, but still retain the core idea that the universe always looks the same, and is therefore unchanging in practice (and has no beginning and no end). This idea has largely been discredited due to astronomical evidence that suggests the universe is, in fact, changing over time. STEADY STATE THEORY BACKGROUND AND DEVELOPMENT When Einstein created his theory of general relativity, early analysis showed that it created a universe that was unstable — expanding or contracting — rather than the static universe that had always been assumed. Einstein also held this assumption about a static universe, so he introduced a term into his general relativity field equations called the cosmological constant, which served the purpose of holding the universe in a static state. However, when Edwin Hubble discovered evidence that distant galaxies were, in fact, expanding away from the Earth in all directions, scientists (including Einstein) realized that the universe didn’t seem to be static and the term …

What is ‘dark DNA’ ?

DNA sequencing technology is helping scientists unravel questions that humans have been asking about animals for centuries. By mapping out animal genomes, we now have a better idea of how the giraffe got its huge neck and why snakes are so long. Genome sequencing allows us to compare and contrast the DNA of different animals and work out how they evolved in their own unique ways. But in some cases we’re faced with a mystery. Some animal genomes seem to be missing certain genes, ones that appear in other similar species and must be present to keep the animals alive. These apparently missing genes have been dubbed “dark DNA”. And its existence could change the way we think about evolution. My colleagues and I first encountered this phenomenon when sequencing the genome of the sand rat (Psammomys obesus), a species of gerbil that lives in deserts. In particular we wanted to study the gerbil’s genes related to the production of insulin, to understand why this animal is particularly susceptible to type 2 diabetes. But when …

Lessons from the 2017 solar eclipse

If you’ve never seen a solar eclipse before, you should make an effort to witness the breathtaking event on August 21. While only people in the US will be able to see the total eclipse – in which the moon completely blocks the light from the sun – those living in parts of South America, Africa and Europe should be able to see at least a partial solar eclipse. Solar eclipses occur when the moon passes between the Earth and the sun so that it blocks part or all of the sunlight as viewed from a particular location on our planet. Earth is the only planet in the solar system where this can happen in this way. This is because of the moon’s size and its relative distance from the sun – when viewed from the Earth, it can identically cover the bright solar disc to reveal the tenuous, wispy outer atmosphere of the star (called the solar corona). An eclipse does not happen every time the moon travels around the Earth. This is because …

Google diversity memo and talk of biology

Everybody seems to have an opinion about Google’s recent sacking of its malware software engineer James Damore for circulating a memo arguing that women and men are suitable for different roles because they are intrinsically different. The debate so far has centred mainly on the pros and cons of diversity programmes, which partly sparked Damore to construct his document, and whether Google was right to fire Damore. While there have been some less vocal comments about the biological differences Damore referred to – ranging from finding them “spot on” to “wrong” – his assertions haven’t been challenged much on the actual neuroscience behind his basic assumptions. Is there any truth to the idea that we are all destined by our biology? To understand this, let’s take a look at the most recent advances in the field. The memo, titled “Google’s Ideological Echo Chamber”, was sent to an internal company network and criticised the company’s diversity initiatives. It quoted psychological studies, Wikipedia entries and media reports to argue its case. It claimed women are underrepresented in …

Debating creationists

The 2001 discovery of the seven million-year-old Sahelanthropus, the first known upright ape-like creatures, was yet more proof of humanity’s place among the great apes. And yet Mike Pence, then a representative and now US vice president, argues for the opposite conclusion. For him, our ideas about our ancestors have changed, proving once more that evolution was a theory, and therefore we should be free to teach other theories alongside evolution in our classrooms. How to respond? The usual answer is that we should teach students the meaning of the word “theory” as used in science – that is, a hypothesis (or idea) that has stood up to repeated testing. Pence’s argument will then be exposed to be what philosophers call an equivocation – an argument that only seems to make sense because the same word is being used in two different senses. Just words Evolution, Pence argues, is a theory, theories are uncertain, therefore evolution is uncertain. But evolution is a theory only in the scientific sense of the word. And in the words …

Why artificial intelligence scarily unpredictable?

The heads of more than 100 of the world’s top artificial intelligence companies are very alarmed about the development of “killer robots”. In an open letter to the UN, these business leaders – including Tesla’s Elon Musk and the founders of Google’s DeepMind AI firm – warned that autonomous weapon technology could be misused by terrorists and despots or hacked to perform in undesirable ways. But the real threat is much bigger – and not just from human misconduct but from the machines themselves. The research into complex systems shows how behaviour can emerge that is much more unpredictable than the sum of individual actions. On one level this means human societies can behave very differently to what you might expect just looking at individual behaviour. But it can also apply to technology. Even ecosystems of relatively simple AI programs – what we call stupid, good bots – can surprise us, and even when the individual bots are behaving well. The individual elements that make up complex systems, such as economic markets or global weather, …

GORBACHEV His Life and Times By William Taubman

GORBACHEV His Life and Times By William Taubman Illustrated. 852 pp. W. W. Norton & Company. $39.95. When my wife and I arrived in Moscow as journalists early in the reign of Vladimir V. Putin, the first person we interviewed was the last leader of the Soviet Union, Mikhail S. Gorbachev. He told us he had recently visited Putin at the Kremlin and asked the question many around the world were asking: Did Putin plan to return Russia to authoritarianism? “His answer,” Gorbachev told us, “was a very definite no.” With the benefit of hindsight, Putin’s answer of course looks disingenuous. To Putin, Gorbachev was an intermediary to the West, sending a reassuring if deceptive message. Westerners like us flocked to see Gorbachev as an oracle of democracy. But what Putin knew was that Gorbachev was no hero to his own people. Russians despised Gorbachev as the destroyer of their empire and supported Putin as its restorer. Gorbachev lived then, as now, in a dual reality — admired and feted in Washington, London and Berlin, …