Explosive news of life on Jupiter’s erupting moon, and in Indonesia

While volcanic eruptions disrupt life in Indonesia, elsewhere in our solar system they might be making it interesting.

This column won’t be of much comfort to the thousands displaced by volcanic eruptions in Indonesia. Lava flows are reaching as far as five kilometres from Mount Sinabung, which has been erupting since September, and the Indonesian government has said that any settlements within three kilometres of the mountainside will be relocated permanently. But even if there is no human habitation in the area, we know that there will be much new life emerging in the shadow of the volcano.

This is what happened on the Japanese island of Nishinoshima. Created by a volcanic eruption 40 years ago, it is now home to four species of plant and plenty of insects.

Volcanoes are a great boon to biology. According to a paper published in this month’s edition of the journal Geology, volcanic eruptions and other side effects of the earth having a hot, molten interior are responsible for the vast range of life on our planet.

The evidence comes from zircons, crystals that are formed only in volcanic eruptions. Geologists have found a glut of zircons in rocks that formed just before the period biologists call the Cambrian Explosion. The Cambrian Explosion occurred 540 million years ago, when a huge number of new animals suddenly appeared. Most of the body forms of today were formed in this ten-million-year evolutionary spurt – after the zircons appeared. The conclusion? Volcanic eruptions are one of the earth’s vital signs: an indication that life is about to get interesting.

That is largely because eruptions throw huge amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. The warming effect this produces affects the climate and provides a change in conditions that favours the emergence of diversity. Put simply, the organisms that were suited to the old earth fall by the wayside, creating space for new life experiments.

That is especially fascinating given observations of one of Jupiter’s moons. The ice-world Europa has long been seen as a good potential home for extraterrestrial life. That candidacy just got much stronger: it was reported last month that astronomers using the Hubble Space Telescope to keep an eye on Europa have spotted evidence of volcanic activity.

Europa’s ice crust, which is thought to be a few kilometres thick, covers a watery ocean over 100 kilometres deep. Nobody knows whether life exists in that ocean, but if it does it would require a source of energy. As so little sunlight penetrates the ice crust, that would have to come from within. That is why the signs of intermittent plumes of vapour erupting from the ice have so excited hunters of extraterrestrial life: it suggests that some kind of life-giving volcanic energy is at work inside the icy moon.

We won’t find life on Europa any time soon. Though the plumes rise high enough that passing spacecraft could sample the vapour spurting from the ocean – and perhaps detect life within it – the next scheduled flyby of Europa will take place in 2031.

It is sobering to think that, if the astronomers’ conclusion is right, Europa is only the fourth body in the solar system to exhibit volcanism. The other three are its neighbouring moon Io, Saturn’s moon Enceladus and, of course, Planet Earth. These are very special places: volcanoes bring misery and death but they also usher in the possibility of complex biology. While volcanic eruptions disrupt life in Indonesia, elsewhere in our solar system they might be making it interesting.
 

More than 25,000 people have fled their homes following a series of eruptions and lava flows from Sinabung volcano in North Sumatra. Photo: AFP/Sutanta Aditya/Getty Images.

Michael Brooks holds a PhD in quantum physics. He writes a weekly science column for the New Statesman, and his most recent book is At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise.

This article first appeared in the 21 January 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The radicalism of fools

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Brexit is an opportunity to rethink our economic model

Our industrial strategy must lift communities out of low-wage stagnation, writes the chair of the Prime Minister's policy board. 

With the long term fallout of the great crash of 2008 becoming clearer the issue of "inclusive growth" has never been more urgent.

Eight years after the Great Crash, it is becoming clear that the long term impacts of the crisis profoundly challenges the model of economy - and politics - we have become used to. Asset inflation and technological revolutions are entrenching untold wealth for a small global elite.

This sits alongside falling relative disposable incomes for the many, and increasing difference in the disposable income of different generations. Meanwhile, a cohort of "just-about-managing" citizens are working harder than ever simply to get by, despite falling rates of savings. All of this – along with a persistent structural deficit in pensions, welfare and health budgets - combines to create an urgent need for new economic thinking about a model of growth and 21st century economic citizenship that works better for all people and places in our country.

The main political parties have set out to tackle these challenges and develop policy programmes for them. Theresa May has set out a bold new Conservative agenda of reforms to help those of our fellow citizens who are working hard but struggling to get by: to build an economy that works for everyone, and for the people and places left behind.

But this challenge is also generational, and will need thinkers from all parties - and none - to talk and think together about fresh approaches. This is why this cross-party initiative on inclusive growth is a welcome contribution to the policy debate.

The Prime Minister leads a government committed not just to deliver Brexit, but also to the fresh thinking and fresh solutions to the scale of the domestic challenges we face, which clearly contributed to the scale of the Leave vote last June. As she has said, it's clear that as well as rejecting the EU, voters were rejecting a model of growth that wasn’t working for them.

The UK’s vote to leave the European Union was one of the most dramatic and significant political events in decades – for this country and potentially for Europe. It changes everything: our economic model, our long term economic prospects, the assumptions and mechanisms through which we run most of our government and the diplomatic and economic status of the UK internationally.

Delivering a successful Brexit – one which strengthens our global security, our united kingdom, our economy and popular trust in parliamentary democracy, and a model of political economy that works to these ends, will dominate this political generation.

This is a challenge. But it is also an unprecedented opportunity to reform our model of political economy to tackle the causes of deepening domestic political disillusionment and put our country on the path to long-term recovery. 

Brexit provides us with a unique chance to address two of the most important public policy challenges facing our country.

First, the need to enable and enhance the conditions for creating and developing greater enterprise and innovation across our economy, in order to increase competitiveness and productivity. Second, the need to tackle the growing alienation of so many people and places from the opportunities of globalisation, which has in turn entrenched attitudes towards welfarism. I believe these two challenges are fundamentally linked. 

Without social mobility, and the removal of the barriers holding back national and regional participation enterprise, we will never be able to tackle the structural challenges of productivity, public service modernisation, competitiveness and innovation. 

It's becoming clearer to more and more people that a 21st century "innovation economy" both requires and drives an "opportunity society". You can't have an enterprising economy with low rates of social mobility. And the entrepreneurial spirit of economic aspiration is the fuel that powers the engine of social mobility.

For too long, we have run an economic model based on generating growing tax revenues from an ever smaller global elite, in order to pay for the welfare costs of a workforce increasingly dependent on handouts.

Whitehall has tended to treat social policy quite separately from economic policy. This siloed thinking – the Treasury and the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy for "growth" and the Department for Work and Pensions, Department of Health and Department for Education for "public services" - compounds a lack of the kind of integrated policymaking needed to tackle the socio-economic causes of low productivity. The challenges holding back the people and places we need to help do not fall neatly into Whitehall silos. 

Since 1997, successive governments have pursued a model of growth based on a booming service sector, high levels of low-cost migrant labour and housing and asset inflation. At the same time, policymakers tried to put in place framework to support long term industrial renaissance and rebalancing. The EU referendum demonstrated that this model of growth was not working for enough people. 

Our industrial strategy must be as much about lifting communities out of low-skill and low-wage stagnation as it is about driving pockets of new activity. We need Cambridge to continue to grow, but we also need to ensure that communities from Cromer to Carlisle and Caithness, which do not enjoy the benefits of being a global technology cluster, can participate too. That means new measures to spread opportunities more widely. 

The Great Crash and its aftermath - including Brexit - represents a chance for a new generation to think these problems through and tackle them. We all have a part to play. Six years ago, I set up the 2020 Conservatives Group in Parliament, as a forum for a new generation of progressive Conservative MPs, regardless of increasingly old-fashioned labels of "left" or "right", or where they stood on the Europe debate. This is a forum to discuss new ways to tackle the current problems facing our country, beyond the conventional silos of Whitehall. Drawing on previous career experiences outside of Parliament, the group also looks ahead strategically at the potential longer-term social and economic challenges that may confront us in the future.

I believe that technology, and a new zeitgeist for public sector (as well as private sector) enterprise hold the key to resolving the barriers that are currently holding back the development of new opportunities. With new approaches, better infrastructure and skills connecting opportunities with the people and places left behind, better incentives for our great innovators, and new models of mutualised public/private partnerships and ventures, we can build an economy that genuinely works for everyone.

The government has already set about making this happen. Through the industrial strategy, the £23bn package of investment in new infrastructure and innovation announced by the Chancellor, Philip Hammond, we can now be much bolder in developing a 21st century knowledge economy infrastructure that will be the foundation for economic success. 

The success of inclusive growth rests on a number of core foundations - that our economy grows, that social inequality is redressed; that people are given the skills they need to pursue a career in the new economy and that we better spread the opportunities of the global economy hitherto enjoyed by a segment of our workforce to the many. 

This can only be achieved if we recognise the way in which enterprise and opportunity are interdependent. Together, politicians from all parties have a chance to set out a new path for a Global Britain: making our country the world capital of innovation and opportunity. Not trickle-down economics, but "innovation economics" where the private and public sector commit to a programme of supporting each other for mutual benefit.

An economy that works for everyone is an economy in which the country unites around the twin pillars of opportunity and security, which are open to all. A country in which "shared values" are as important as "shareholder value". And in which both are better shared by all. A country once again with that precious alignment of economic and social purpose which is the hallmark of all great civilisations. It's a great prize.

This is an edited version of George Freeman's article for All-Party Parliamentary Group on Inclusive Growth's new "State of the Debate" report, available to download here.The APPG on Inclusive Growth's "State of the Debate" event with the OECD, World Economic Forum, RSA and IPPR is on Tuesday 21st February at 6.30pm at Parliament. See www.inclusivegrowth.co.uk for full details. 

George Freeman is the MP for Mid-Norfolk and the chair of the Prime Minister's Policy Board.