All posts by Nick Waszkowycz

Nick studied Chemistry at university but decided that the pen was mightier than the conical flask. He decided to set off in search of a way to make his fortune from writing. He is still looking. But like all young men, Nick enjoys football, theatre and debunking conspiracy theorists. He shares his adventure in Berlin at theberlinfiasco.com and writes nonsense about football at tikitakatargetman.com. Follow him on twitter at @nwaszkowycz.

Poisoned Planet – a word with the author

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As a former Chemistry student, I retain a certain academic scepticism of any tabloid science story that brashly declares “Shoes Cause Cancer!” or “Are Your Teeth Killing You From Within?” So as I picked up a copy of Julian Cribb’s Poisoned Planet, a book marketed with provocative statements about the arsenic content of coffee and the presence of carcinogens in shampoo, I was slightly concerned that I could be embarking on 200 pages of depressing anti-science. However, after finishing the book and speaking with its author, nothing could be further from the truth.

Poisoned Planet opens with the haunting image of a Japanese child, born deaf, blind and crippled. These disabilities are a result of methylmercury poisoning following contamination of the local water supply by waste from the Minamata chemical plant. Cribb’s message is clear from the outset – unless we change our ways, our planet will too become the victim of man-made disaster. From this evocative opening, we are taken on a journey into the frightening world of the chemical contamination of our planet, a journey through dozens of case studies and academic articles, experiences amassed by the author over the best part of a decade.

“I’ve been working with a group of contamination experts for about ten years,” explains Julian Cribb, an Australian science writer and journalist who has published eight books. “Gradually I accumulated more and more awareness of what cutting edge science in the field was saying. After a while it became like any piece of journalism – it was assembling pieces of the jigsaw puzzle and, when you had collected enough pieces, making a picture.”

The first impression you get from reading Poisoned Planet is the broad range of pieces Cribb has managed to fit together into the same puzzle; The scope of the book is simultaneously impressive, given its reasonably short length, and depressing, as there is evidently no lack of source material. Seemingly nothing and nowhere on Earth is safe from the impact of our globalised industrial society.The first impression you get from reading Poisoned Planet is the broad range of pieces Cribb has managed to fit together into the same puzzle; The scope of the book is simultaneously impressive, given its reasonably short length, and depressing, as there is evidently no lack of source material. Seemingly nothing and nowhere on Earth is safe from the impact of our globalised industrial society.

“We’re making a bad mess. If you cast your mind back to medieval cities where people just used to empty the chamber pot out of the window, they were pretty smelly, unhygienic and indeed deadly places to live. That’s what we’re doing to the planet now, and it’s becoming smelly, unhygienic and indeed deadly. You only have to look on the internet for pictures of Beijing and you can see – it’s just disgusting.”

We learn about the flame retardants that have crept into the bodies of polar bears and deep sea squid, the chemical contaminants that build up, unnoticed, within our own bodies, and the alarming extents to which industries will go to spin, hide or deny the reality of their environmental impacts.

In fact, such is the number of case studies included that the chapters threaten to become lists of academic findings, often containing long lists of medical conditions and scary-sounding chemical culprits (Look out for furans! Help, mutagenic dyes! Please, no more polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons!). However, the slip into dull repetitiveness is prevented by the vivid imagery that sets each chapter in motion. A particularly poignant example is the description of e-waste “chemical hells”: infernos of toxic smoke and fire from the burning carcasses of last year’s gadgetry. Third World workers risk serious medical consequences to strip valuable, and often hazardous, materials from the West’s waste.

The ‘witches brew’ we are drinking every day

Cribb argues that we are exposed to a “witches’ brew” of chemical contamination each and every day:

“You’re not just exposed to one chemical – you’re exposed to hundreds or thousands of chemicals, coming out of the furnishings around you, the food you eat, the water you drink,” says the author.

“It was the scale of the exposure to this combination of chemicals that troubled me most. Many eminent authorities are united on this point – it’s not necessarily the individual chemicals – most of the chemicals we are exposed to each day are well below the threshold of concern. But there are two things. Firstly, these individual toxins are mixed up with thousands of other chemicals, and secondly dissimilar chemicals can have similar effects. For instance, there could be many hundreds of chemicals attacking your brain, or attacking your endocrine system – the individual effects may be subtle, but in combination they can add up to a toxic dose.”

Disturbingly, this concept of a combined onslaught from separate attackers appears to be rarely acknowledged by modern toxicology. Equally worrying is a general lack of any thorough testing whatsoever on many widely-used chemical compounds.

“You wouldn’t fly in an aeroplane that had never been safety tested, but most of the chemicals in out environment have never been tested, and particularly they’ve never been tested with respect to their effects on the development of children. Adults are intelligent beings; they can take their own chances. They choose to smoke, choose to drink, they may get a cancer. But children are coming into the world with carcinogens already in their blood. That is an absolute disgrace.”

This is a troubling concept indeed. In fact, much of the book itself is very scary: revealing the deadly global consequences of our irresponsible and often short-sighted industrial activity. However, it sometimes feels as if Cribb strays from evocatively revealing a frightening reality and towards the realm of hyperbole.

For instance, when discussing potential carcinogens in cosmetics, Cribb remarks, “breast cancer seems a high price to pay for great hair.” A closer look at the studies on which this comment is based suggest that although parabens, the cosmetic chemicals in question, were indeed found in the bodies of women with breast cancer, there is yet to be any firm evidence whatsoever suggesting the parabens actually caused the tumours. Making the direct assertion that “shampoo causes cancer” is therefore something of an overstatement. Likewise, the discussion and context of “chemicals” tends to be a little simplistic – it often feels as if the reader is to assume that anything man-made is automatically harmful and anything natural automatically not so. In reality chemistry is not so black and white.

How you can help save the planet from chemical apocalypse
Nevertheless, Cribb insists the aim of the book is not to scare its reader: “I’m not trying to scare people, I am trying to make them aware that there is nothing you do in your life as an act of consumption that does not have chemical consequences. People need to be aware that they are having a huge impact. I think so far we’ve not wanted to know. We’ve avoided the truth. Air pollution is visible. The stuff that’s in water and food and in your clothing and your motor car is not – that’s the trouble. You can’t see it, so you’re not worried about it.”

Put simply, the depressing message at the core of Poisoned Planet is this – that ‘out of sight is out of mind’ regarding the environment is simply not good enough. Nevertheless, the book manages to remain optimistic. In its closing chapters, Cribb sets out a case for how we, as a species, can repair the damage of the past and move towards a more ‘chemically responsible future’ – and the concept of raising awareness is crucial to the source of the optimism:

“We are not yet past the point of no return, but we do need to get to the point of awareness very quickly, and that’s why I wrote the book – not to scare people, but to make them aware. First of all – it’s their fault. It’s all of our fault. We’re the ones that want things to be cheap and efficient, but we are ignoring the knock-on effects of these desires.

“None of the problems discussed in the book are beyond our power to solve, but there are a lot of people who don’t want them solved. Similarly, there are those who simply don’t care about the impact they have on the planet, and those who don’t care about the harm they are doing to our children. However, we the consumers have the power to discipline them, by not buying their products, by opposing industries that are harmful, and by patronising those companies and industries that make it a point of pride to operate and produce in a safe, clean and healthy way.

“My advice to the concerned reader would be to become an informed consumer. There is a tremendous amount of information on good consumer websites, they’ll tell you how to choose the products and the foods and the way of life that is safe and responsible. Buy something made from timber instead of plastic. Buy foods that are or organic or that you know come from a responsible farmer. Be more thoughtful in the way you consume because your choices have terrific knock-on effects for the planet that you may not be aware of.

“But most of all, my message is don’t panic – we the human race can solve this one. We just have to develop the awareness of how to solve it, and we have to join hands to solve it.”

Poisoned Planet may not have persuaded me to renounce my chemistry background or to regard every man-made product around me with suspicion, but it vividly shows the alarming and often-ignored extent to which our commercial lifestyles impact the planet. If, as Cribb says, we the people truly hold the power to alter the way our society and industries operate then surely raising awareness is a crucial first step in enacting real positive change. In that respect, this is a very important book indeed.

Article by Nick Waszkowycz

October 23, 2015

Nick studied Chemistry at university but decided that the pen was mightier than the conical flask. He decided to set off in search of a way to make his fortune from writing. He is still looking. But like all young men, Nick enjoys football, theatre and debunking conspiracy theorists. He shares his adventure in Berlin at theberlinfiasco.com and writes nonsense about football at tikitakatargetman.com. Follow him on twitter at @nwaszkowycz.


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Farm Of The Future: The ECF Containerfarm

AerialFarm
Old McDonald is on the farm of the future. He tends his fields of genetically engineered super-crops from the comfort of his farmhouse via remote controlled drone. Zooming over to his livestock in his hovertractor, he happily sees that they are all still oink-oinking, baa-baaing and moo-mooing just as loudly as ever. He goes on to check in on his cyborg scarecrow before visiting his most advanced farming technology of all… a greenhouse on top of a storage container – his beloved ‘Containerfarm’.

While this image of a futuristic farm may be a long way off, Nicolas Leschke and Christian Echternacht, co-founders of the ECF Farmsystems in Berlin, Germany, believe that they have created something that will be part of agriculture for generations to come. They have helped to build the world’s first Containerfarm, which they say offer an all-organic, minimal-emission, fully self-sustainable alternative to current farming practices.

I decided to pay a visit to ECF Farmsystems to check out whether their farm-of-the-future was bearing fruit or was wilting into a rotten failure. Hidden in the leafy Schöneberg suburb of Berlin and on the site of a former brewery, first impressions of the Containerfarm were disheartening. Expecting something science-fiction, it looked like a greenhouse on top of a shipping container (which is what it is). The co-founders didn’t look like futuristic farmers either – they were a casually dressed, trendy duo who look like they wouldn’t know a laser plough from a robotic rotavator. Appearances can be deceptive, however, it is what’s inside this outwardly innocuous set-up that the seeds of a farming revolution are being planted…

What is the Containerfarm?

In 2012, ECF founders Nicolas Leschke and Christian Echternacht set out to find an alternative to current industrial agriculture. Today, farming practices are very costly, consuming billions of litres of fresh water, countless tonnes of pesticides and fertilizer, and resulting in huge greenhouse gas emissions. The duo began working with Prof. Werner Kloas, a researcher from the Leibniz Institute of Freshwater Ecology and Inland Fisheries (IGB). Kloas and his team had been investigating the field of aquaponics – a combination of aquaculture (the farming of aquatic creatures) and hydroponics (growing plants without soil by supplying them with nutrient-rich water).

They developed a farming technology that they believed would offer an infinitely more efficient farming system than today’s farms. Compact, and suitable for an urban environment, they built their first prototype to showcase their ideas – the Containerfarm.

Stepping inside the container, I was disappointed to see no whirring gizmos or flashing lights, just a medium-sized fish tank, a pair of large cylindrical vats with a collection of pipes snaking up through the ceiling – all painted in a dignified green.

Inside the tank were a hundred freshwater fish, swimming around, eating, peeing and pooping – living out their lives oblivious to the fact that they were forming a key piece in the self-sustainable farming puzzle. Their waste, rich in ammonia, is a great source of nitrogen and is used to fuel the growth of vegetables growing in the greenhouse upstairs.

Out of one of the green tubes, the dirty fish tank water is pumped into one of the cylindrical vats, where the ammonia-rich waste is extracted and then pumped into the second vat. In the second vat are a seething mass of bacteria that work day-and-night to convert the ammonia waste into the nitrates – substances that plants living upstairs love to feast on.

Climbing onto the roof of the container I entered the greenhouse. It was obvious that this was no ordinary gardener’s greenhouse: there was not a pot of soil to be seen. Rather, nitrogen-rich water was emerging from pipes and being used as a fertilizer for hydroponically-grown plants (plants growing in water rather than soil). Other pipes then drained the used plant water to be pumped back downstairs for the fish. The water can go through the cycle many times, vastly reducing the amount of fresh water input required, comparison to traditional farming. The extraction of ammonia-rich waste stops nitrogen levels getting too high for the fish, while producing completely natural plant fertiliser for the vegetables. Everybody wins.

The fish perform one more crucial job: they breathe in oxygen and breathe out CO2. Plant photosynthesis works the opposite way – they need CO2 and produce oxygen. In a closed system, this makes the entire Containerfarm nearly emission-free.

Aquaponics: It’s not rocket science

Earlier attempts at aquaponic systems faced a problem – plants prefer their water to be a little acidic (pH<6), while the fish and the ammonia-eating bacteria prefer things to be a little less so (pH>6). This mismatch has provided a stumbling block in previous aquaponic systems – resulting in either unhappy fish or unhappy plants.

In 2009 the IGB researcher developed a system called ASTAF-PRO (short for the innovative aquaponic system for (nearly) emission free tomato and fish production) that lets everyone enjoy the water acidity they prefer. Employing both a sophisticated valve system, the set-up uses ‘recondensation’ technology that collects and recycles the water plants lose through their leaves. This makes the farm even more water-efficient, bringing water loss down to less than 3% of the total per day, as opposed to roughly 25% in other aquaponic farms.

Remarkably, the only input the Containerfarm needs is a small amount of water to replace this loss, organic food for the fish, and a little electricity to power the water pumps and water heaters in colder periods.

What next for the Containerfarm?
The concept of a self-sustaining, minimal emission system that produces fresh organic produce in urban environments is enticing. However, I can’t escape the feeling that the Containerfarm has some way to go before Old MacDonald builds one. In its current format, the Containerfarm doesn’t produce masses of food and it’s not a solution that is going to feed the world.

However, the team at ECF is not naïve about the limitations of their current project. Financial viability is one of the biggest hurdles they face at the moment, with prices of up to €35,000 (£28,000; $48,000) per Containerfarm. At the moment it is primarily an educational and marketing tool to raise awareness and demonstrate the potential of this method of sustainable farming.

As with any business, the key to making this aquaponic project financially viable is scale. Make more Containerfarms, the prices drop, and more crops can be affordably produced. The ECF founders tell me that a bigger Containerfarm is already in the pipeline: in March 2014 they received seven figure funding to build a 1800sqm facility in Berlin. The ECF Farm Berlin will be Europe’s largest urban aquaponic farm, producing up to 25 tons of fish and 35 tons of vegetables each year (yes, you also get to eat the fish). This is still some way short of providing a viable large-scale alternative to conventional farming, but it is sowing the seeds of change.

Ultimately, whether or not cyborg scarecrows or android agriculturalists tend to the ECF Farm Berlin in the future, this greenhouse-topped shipping container represents a promising step towards a more sustainable farming future.

Article by Nick Waszkowycz

October 19, 2015

Nick studied Chemistry at university but decided that the pen was mightier than the conical flask. He decided to set off in search of a way to make his fortune from writing. He is still looking. But like all young men, Nick enjoys football, theatre and debunking conspiracy theorists. He shares his adventure in Berlin at theberlinfiasco.com and writes nonsense about football at tikitakatargetman.com. Follow him on twitter at @nwaszkowycz.


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How many generations ago was a modern dog a wolf?

Image: patchattack via flickr
Image: patchattack via flickr

When you look at a pristinely pampered poodle or a yapping Chihuahua peeking out of a fashionista’s handbag, it is hard to imagine that they once descended from bloodthirsty wolves. However, it is true that the domesticated dogs of today are actually very close cousins to the wolves of long ago.

The domestication of those fearsome pack hunters into the stick fetching, postman-chasing pets we know today is one of the most closely studied of all evolutionary changes. Putting a date on the exact moment a dog-like wolf first became a wolf-like dog is obviously challenging, but DNA evidence points to southern China roughly 16,000 years ago as being the ‘birthplace’ of the modern dog.

Fossil evidence gives us a broader range of 10,000-7,000 years ago for our canine companions to become widespread across Europe, Asia and America. Dogs tend to reach sexual maturity at about a year old, so it’s a good bet to use the same number for an estimate of the number of generations from wolf to today’s pooch. Making that assumption means that it was your pet’s great great great (insert roughly 10,000 more ‘great’s) grandfather that was out howling at the full moon*.

How to evolve your own dog in 35 easy steps

Now 10,000 years may seem like a lot to you and I, but when you think that animals emerged from the primordial soup 590 million years ago, mammals developed 220 years ago and Homo sapiens 200,000 years ago, in evolutionary terms 10,000 years is basically yesterday.

In fact, just how quickly savage canines can be turned into cute pets has been the subject of some interesting evolutionary research. In the 1950s, Russian geneticist Dimitri Belyaev tried to find out more about dog domestication while he was in charge of a fox fur farm. Although wild foxes might not be as terrifying as wolves, they are still wild beasts and far more difficult to handle than docile pooches. In the name of science (and an easier life), Belyaev set about finding a way to tame his charges.

He selectively bred the least aggressive pups of each litter, and within just 35 generations, 80% of the pups born were ‘eager to establish human contact, whimpering to attract attention and sniffing and licking experimenters like dogs’. Not only did the selective breeding make the foxes behave in a more friendly way but their appearance also changed remarkably. Their pointy fox ears became soft and floppy, their tails became less brush-like, and their coats became distinctly dog-like. They weren’t just starting to behave like dogs, they were becoming dogs – and all after a mere 35 generations of selective breeding.

So just think, all it takes is 35 generations to turn an aggressive wild animal into a friendly ball of fluff. Ever wanted to snuggle with a grizzly bear or cuddle up to a kangaroo? Just 35 generations…

* Yes, before you email me, I know that wolves don’t really howl at the moon.


References:

Pang, Jun-Feng, et al. “mtDNA data indicate a single origin for dogs south of Yangtze River, less than 16,300 years ago, from numerous wolves.” Molecular biology and evolution 26.12 (2009): 2849-2864. PMCID: PMC2775109

Raisor, Michelle Jeanette. “Determining the antiquity of dog origins: canine domestication as a model for the consilience between molecular genetics and archaeology.” Vol. 1367. British Archaeological Reports Ltd, (2005)

Dawkins, Richard. “The Greatest Show On Earth” (2009)

Answered by Nick Waszkowycz. Question from @bucksci on Twitter.

 

Article by Nick Waszkowycz

July 30, 2014

Nick studied Chemistry at university but decided that the pen was mightier than the conical flask. He decided to set off in search of a way to make his fortune from writing. He is still looking. But like all young men, Nick enjoys football, theatre and debunking conspiracy theorists. He shares his adventure in Berlin at theberlinfiasco.com and writes nonsense about football at tikitakatargetman.com. Follow him on twitter at @nwaszkowycz.


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What are the chances? The 6 most unlikely sporting achievements… ever

Unlikely Sporting VictoriesThe FIFA World Cup in Brazil may be over, but it will live long in the memory for a whole host of unpredictable twists and turns. Minnows Costa Rica dumfounded their critics to sail through to the latter stages, former champions Spain crashed out in dismal fashion after just two games, and Germany amazed the world with their 7-1 destruction of Brazil.

One lucky punter won big after waging £5 on that improbable score line – with odds of 500-1. However, the world of sport is full of equally unlikely sporting triumphs and failures. Join us on a run-down of some of the most spectacular…

6. Great Danes take their chance

Sticking with the round-shaped football, the UEFA European Championships provide us with a rich source of unlikely sporting stories. Underdogs Greece shocked the football world in 2004, winning the tournament almost by accident. With pre-competition odds of 150-1, they scored just 7 goals on their route to cup glory.

But an even more unlikely win happened back in 1992 when Denmark became European champions. It was an amazing feat for a number of reasons – most of all because Denmark had failed to even qualify for the competition! The Danes missed out on a place at the tournament at the hands of Yugoslavia, meaning their chances of victory looked pretty non-existent. However, when civil war erupted in the Balkans the Yugoslav team was expelled from the tournament, and Denmark were invited to take their place. They did so and through diligent defensive play, managed to stumble their way to a most unlikely victory.

5. Goran Ivanisevic wins at last

In 2001, things weren’t looking good for Croatian tennis player Goran Ivanisevic. Even though he had made it to the Wimbledon final three times in the 1990s, by 2001 Ivanisevic had slumped to a low of 125th in the world rankings. He had fallen out of love with tennis, and a few months previously had lost a match against Korean Hyung-Taik Lee in Brighton, UK after being disqualified for destroying all three of his rackets in frustration.

The Wimbledon organisers took pity on the tempestuous Croat, handing him a chance to feature one last time on their hallowed courts with a ‘wildcard’ slot. Starting with long odds of 150-1, no-one gave Ivanisevic a second thought as a title contender. However, he suddenly returned to top form and stormed through to the final, eventually sealing an incredible victory against Patrick Rafter. It makes him the only wildcard entrant ever to win a major tennis tournament.

4. Xabi Alonso’s wondergoal

Association Football is a simple game: you just kick a ball into a goal. Some players do it from far out, some do it from right in front of the net. But very rarely do players score from the half way line. Even rarer still does a shrewd (or very lucky) punter call it right. Back in 2006, one Liverpool fan did just that, placing a £200 bet that midfielder Xabi Alsonso would score from his own half after being told in a dream that the unlikely goal would happen. With odds of 125-1 he won £25,000. However, the greatest victory of all is surely for society itself by providing rock solid proof in the existence of psychic powers… if only in the form of clairvoyant betting tips.

3. Rulon Gardner wrestles with fate

Rulon Gardner may not be a household name, but his spectacular life story means that he probably should be.

He impaled himself on an arrow in school during ‘show and tell’, survived a plane crash, a motorcycle crash, and lost a toe to frostbite after being stranded in the snowy wastes of Wyoming following a snowmobile accident. However, his most unlikely victory came in the 2000 Olympic Games.

Gardner is a Greco-Roman wrestler, and did well to even reach the Olympics – having never previously won a medal in either domestic or international competition. He reached the final, where he faced the ‘unstoppable’ Russian Alexander Karolin, who was unbeaten in 13 years. Amazingly, Gardner managed to end this streak, and seized gold for himself.

Unfortunately, Gardner doesn’t have the golden touch and in 2012 he filed for bankruptcy. We would recommend that Gardner sticks with the wrestling and avoids motor vehicles of any variety, and anything sharp and pointy for that matter.

2. Frankie Dettori in seventh heaven

No rundown of unlikely sporting events could be complete without an amazing horseracing victory, or more accurately seven consecutive horseracing victories. In 1996, Italian jockey Frankie Dettori was riding in all seven races at the famous Royal Ascot Races, UK. The chances of winning one race were perhaps reasonable, but the chances of winning them all? Mind-bendingly minute. Nevertheless, a loyal Dettori fan placed a £67 accumulator on seven consecutive victories, and took home a whopping £550,000 when Dettori completed the unthinkable – a clean sweep of every race that day.

1. Mali comeback is student nightmare

Unlikely outcomes don’t always result in satisfied gamblers. In the 2010 Africa Cup of Nations, Angola were cruising to a comfortable 4-0 victory against Mali with just 12 minutes left on the clock. This certain win gave one wily student an idea to make some quick cash. Angola’s overwhelmingly strong position left them with odds of 1-100 to win the game, meaning for every pound wagered a gambler stood to win a single penny. But where could a student find a large enough cash deposit to make any significant return on his bet?

His student loan of course! The keen gambler placed all £4400 of his hard-earned student loan on an Angolan victory, and had all of 12 minutes to smugly think about how he would spend his £44 winnings.

Sadly, whatever pleasant daydream he was enjoying was quickly replaced with a feeling or rapidly accelerating alarm. Mali scored a late consolation goal, then a second, then a third, and deep into added time, the inevitable fourth, completing an Angolan collapse of astronomical proportions and leaving the unfortunate student teary eyed and very empty handed.

A cautionary tale if ever there was one.

Image credit: State Library of South Australia on flickr.

Article by Nick Waszkowycz

July 29, 2014

Nick studied Chemistry at university but decided that the pen was mightier than the conical flask. He decided to set off in search of a way to make his fortune from writing. He is still looking. But like all young men, Nick enjoys football, theatre and debunking conspiracy theorists. He shares his adventure in Berlin at theberlinfiasco.com and writes nonsense about football at tikitakatargetman.com. Follow him on twitter at @nwaszkowycz.


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