The Sun, seen from the International Space Station. Photo: STS-129/Nasa
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The curious case of space plankton

It’s increasingly becoming clear that space is a more hospitable environment than was assumed.

While on earth it may be a difficult time for US-Russia relations, above us the International Space Station (ISS) remains an outpost of collaboration between the two countries. At least, that’s the idea. In practice, communication may be breaking down between the astronauts on board humanity’s most expensive scientific experiment.

Russia’s Itar-Tass news agency reported on 19 August that Roscosmos, the Russian space agency, had found sea plankton living on the outside of the ISS. It quoted the ISS mission chief for Roscomos, Vladimir Solovyov, who said they were found outside the Russian section of the ISS. This is surprising, as none of the astronauts or agencies involved put them there. Indeed, Nasa doesn’t quite believe it. Its spokesperson said that Nasa hadn’t heard any official reports from its Russian colleagues.

Plankton (from the Greek for “drifter”) are micro-organisms such as bacteria and algae that float around in water and are unable to swim against the current. We don’t know yet what kind of plankton Roscosmos claims to have found. Yet the assertion is plausible – if unlikely.

It’s increasingly becoming clear that space is a more hospitable environment than was assumed. It’s a mistake we can be forgiven for making – after all, for human-sized animals, space is a terrible place. Yet, for some organisms, it is no more challenging than some of earth’s more intimidating ecological niches, such as volcanic vents at the bottom of the oceans or Antarctica. The high radiation, lack of pressure and extremes of heat and cold in space are tough but not deadly to creatures that exist on the scale of fractions of a millimetre or less.

We know this because for years the ISS has been running experiments to test micro-organism hardiness. In 2008, bacteria living in rocks found in Devon were put outside the ISS and left there for 533 days. When the rocks were brought back to earth, the bacteria happily began multiplying again. These were ordinary Gloeocapsa cyanobacteria, of a kind found all over the world. Several other experiments – with lichen and with the particularly hard-to-kill tardigrades (eight-legged creatures known as “water bears”) – have also shown how some life forms can hibernate until conditions improve. This is why the panspermia hypothesis – that earth life originally came on an asteroid or comet – has been gaining traction in recent years.

If there are plankton living on the outside of the ISS, they could have come from a contaminated component, or been blasted on to the station by thrusters from a supply ship. Cleaning spacecraft is exceedingly difficult – Nasa is reasonably certain that its landers, including Viking and Curiosity, were probably not completely sterile when they were launched. Perhaps when human beings finally travel to Mars, we won’t be the first earthlings there. Some of our microscopic relatives could be waiting for us. 

Ian Steadman is a staff science and technology writer at the New Statesman. He is on Twitter as @iansteadman.

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The new caliphate

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A quote-by-quote analysis of how little Jeremy Hunt understands technology

Can social media giants really implement the health secretary’s sexting suggestions? 

In today’s “Did we do something wrong? No, it was social media” news, Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt has argued that technology companies need to do more to prevent sexting and cyber-bullying.

Hunt, whose job it is to help reduce the teenage suicide rate, argued that the onus for reducing the teenage suicide rate should fall on social media companies such as Facebook and Twitter.

Giving evidence to the Commons Health Committee on suicide prevention, Hunt said: “I think social media companies need to step up to the plate and show us how they can be the solution to the issue of mental ill health amongst teenagers, and not the cause of the problem.”

Pause for screaming and/or tearing out of hair.

Don’t worry though; Hunt wasn’t simply trying to pass the buck, despite the committee suggesting he direct more resources to suicide prevention, as he offered extremely well-thought out technological solutions that are in no way inferior to providing better sex education for children. Here’s a quote-by-quote analysis of just how technologically savvy Hunt is.

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“I just ask myself the simple question as to why it is that you can’t prevent the texting of sexually explicit images by people under the age of 18…”

Here’s Hunt asking himself a question that he should be asking the actual experts, which is in no way a waste of anybody’s time at all.

“… If that’s a lock that parents choose to put on a mobile phone contract…”

A lock! But of course. But what should we lock, Jeremy? Should teenager’s phones come with a ban on all social media apps, and for good measure, a block on the use of the camera app itself? It’s hard to see how this would lead to the use of dubious applications that have significantly less security than giants such as Facebook and Snapchat. Well done.

“Because there is technology that can identify sexually explicit pictures and prevent it being transmitted.”

Erm, is there? Image recognition technology does exist, but it’s incredibly complex and expensive, and companies often rely on other information (such as URLs, tags, and hashes) to filter out and identify explicit images. In addition, social media sites like Facebook rely on their users to click the button that identifies an image as an abuse of their guidelines, and then have a human team that look through reported images. The technology is simply unable to identify individual and unique images that teenagers take of their own bodies, and the idea of a human team tackling the job is preposterous. 

But suppose the technology did exist that could flawlessly scan a picture for fleshy bits and bobs? As a tool to prevent sexting, this still is extremely flawed. What if two teens were trying to message one another Titian’s Venus for art or history class? In September, Facebook itself was forced to U-turn after removing the historical “napalm girl” photo from the site.

As for the second part of Jezza’s suggestion, if you can’t identify it, you can’t block it. Facebook Messenger already blocks you from sending pornographic links, but this again relies on analysis of the URLs rather than the content within them. Other messaging services, such as Whatsapp, offer end-to-end encryption (EE2E), meaning – most likely to Hunt’s chagrin – the messages sent on them are not stored nor easily accessed by the government.

“I ask myself why we can’t identify cyberbullying when it happens on social media platforms by word pattern recognition, and then prevent it happening.”

Jeremy, Jeremy, Jeremy, Jeremy, can’t you spot your problem yet? You’ve got to stop asking yourself!

There is simply no algorithm yet intelligent enough to identify bullying language. Why? Because we call our best mate “dickhead” and our worst enemy “pal”. Human language and meaning is infinitely complex, and scanning for certain words would almost definitely lead to false positives. As Labour MP Thangam Debbonaire famously learned this year, even humans can’t always identify whether language is offensive, so what chance does an algorithm stand?

(Side note: It is also amusing to imagine that Hunt could even begin to keep up with teenage slang in this scenario.)

Many also argue that because social media sites can remove copyrighted files efficiently, they should get better at removing abusive language. This is a flawed argument because it is easy to search for a specific file (copyright holders will often send social media giants hashed files which they can then search for on their databases) whereas (for the reasons outlined above) it is exceptionally difficult for algorithms to accurately identify the true meaning of language.

“I think there are a lot of things where social media companies could put options in their software that could reduce the risks associated with social media, and I do think that is something which they should actively pursue in a way that hasn’t happened to date.”

Leaving aside the fact that social media companies constantly come up with solutions for these problems, Hunt has left us with the burning question of whether any of this is even desirable at all.

Why should he prevent under-18s from sexting when the age of consent in the UK is 16? Where has this sudden moral panic about pornography come from? Are the government laying the ground for mass censorship? If two consenting teenagers want to send each other these aubergine emoji a couple of times a week, why should we stop them? Is it not up to parents, rather than the government, to survey and supervise their children’s online activities? Would education, with all of this in mind, not be the better option? Won't somebody please think of the children? 

“There is a lot of evidence that the technology industry, if they put their mind to it, can do really smart things.

Alas, if only we could say the same for you Mr Hunt.

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.