Five amazing things: astronomy

The best of the web, brought to you.

The best of the web, brought to you.

The internet is full of astonishing videos, pictures and articles but the noise-to-signal ratio can be boringly high. So, from now on, I'll be regularly collecting five of the best texts, movies and images, old and new, on a variety of subjects.

This time: astronomy. Next time: dancing.

1. Scale by Brad Goodspeed

How big would the other planets look if they orbited the earth at the same distance -- 380,000km -- that the moon does? Brad Goodspeed's visualisation will show you. Watch out for Jupiter, which is intimidatingly vast.

2. Bill O'Reilly doesn't understand the moon

While we're talking about the moon, it turns out that Bill O'Reilly doesn't know how it works -- which is why he believes in God. "How did the moon get there?" he asks. "How come we have that, and Mars doesn't?" As I think Jon Stewart pointed out recently, O'Reilly seems to believe that if he doesn't understand a given concept, no one does. (By the way, Bill, National Geographic has the answer here.)

3. Eclipsing the sun

File this under "Eek". The French photographer Thierry Legault took a photo of the International Space Station passing in front of the sun. A humbling reminder that even our most cutting-edge technology is pretty small beer on the cosmic scale.

Oh, and if you want to see what the astronauts on the ISS are looking at right now, you can do that at the Nasa website here.

4. Nasa's astronomy picture of the day

Always beautiful, often mind-boggling, these photos have recently included the cracked surface of Jupiter's moon Europa, the deep-space contortions of the Seagull Nebula and gorgeous skies over Libya and Stockholm. Look out, too, for the amazing video of the Peerskill meteor of 1992, which, despite being only the size of a bowling ball, was brighter than a full moon as it screamed towards earth.

5. "Pale Blue Dot" by Carl Sagan

My final pick is a personal one: Carl Sagan's "Pale Blue Dot". We had this as a reading at our wedding, because its both humbling and hopeful. Starting with a photo of earth taken in 1990 by Voyager 1 from the edge of the solar system -- 3,781,782,502 miles away -- the great science educator reflects on our responsibility to care for that "mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam . . . the only home we've ever known". If you don't feel a little prickle in your tearducts by the end, you have no soul.

An image from NASA''s Hubble Space Telescope of a vast, sculpted landscape of gas and dust where thousands of stars are being born. Credit: Getty Images

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

Davide Restivo at Wikimedia Commons
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Scientists have finally said it: alcohol causes cancer

Enough of "linked" and "attributable": a new paper concludes that alcohol directly causes seven types of cancer.

I don't blame you if you switch off completely at the words "causes cancer". If you pay attention to certain publications, everything from sunbeds, to fish, to not getting enough sun, can all cause cancer. But this time, it's worth listening.

The journal Addiction has published a paper that makes a simple, yet startling, claim: 

"Evidence can support the judgement that alcohol causes cancer of the oropharynx [part of the throat], larynx, oesophagus, liver, colon, rectum and [female] breast"

So what's especially significant about this? 

First, scientists, unlike journalists, are very wary of the word "causes". It's hard to ever prove that one action directly led to another, rather than that both happened to occur within the same scenario. And yet Jennie Connor, author of the paper and professor in the Preventive and Social Medicine department at the University of Otago, New Zealand, has taken the leap.

Second, alcohol not only causes cancer of one kind – the evidence supports the claim that it causes cancer at seven different sites in our bodies. There was weaker evidence that it may also cause skin, prostate and pancreatic cancer, while the link between mouth cancers and alcohol consumption was the strongest. 

What did we know about alcohol and cancer before?

Many, many studies have "linked" cancer to alcohol, or argued that some cases may be "attributable" to alcohol consumption. 

This paper loooks back over a decade's worth of research into alcohol and cancer, and Connor concludes that all this evidence, taken together, proves that alcohol "increases the incidence of [cancer] in the population".

However, as Connor notes in her paper, "alcohol’s causal role is perceived to be more complex than tobacco's", partly because we still don't know exactly how alcohol causes cancer at these sites. Yet she argues that the evidence alone is enough to prove the cause, even if we don't know exactly how the "biologial mechanisms" work. 

Does this mean that drinking = cancer, then?

No. A causal link doesn't mean one thing always leads to the other. Also, cancer in these seven sites was shown to have what's called a "dose-response" relationship, which means the more you drink, the more you increase your chances of cancer.

On the bright side, scientists have also found that if you stop drinking altogether, you can reduce your chances back down again.

Are moderate drinkers off the hook?

Nope. Rather devastatingly, Connor notes that moderate drinkers bear a "considerable" portion of the cancer risk, and that targeting only heavy drinkers with alcohol risk reduction campaigns would have "limited" impact. 

What does this mean for public health? 

This is the tricky bit. In the paper, Connor points out that, given what we know about lung cancer and tobacco, the general advice is simply not to smoke. Now, a strong link proven over years of research may suggest the same about drinking, an activity society views as a bit risky but generally harmless.

Yet in 2012, it's estimated that alcohol-attributable cancers killed half a million people, which made up 5.8 per cent of cancer deaths worldwide. As we better understand the links between the two, it's possible that this proportion may turn out to be a lot higher. 

As she was doing the research, Connor commented:

"We've grown up with thinking cancer is very mysterious, we don't know what causes it and it's frightening, so to think that something as ordinary as drinking is associated with cancer I think is quite difficult."

What do we do now?

Drink less. The one semi-silver lining in the study is that the quantity of alcohol you consume has a real bearing on your risk of developing these cancers. 

On a wider scale, it looks like we need to recalibrate society's perspective on drinking. Drug campaigners have long pointed out that alcohol, while legal, is one of the most toxic and harmful drugs available  an argument that this study will bolster.

In January, England's chief medical officer Sally Davies introduced some of the strictest guidelines on alcohol consumption in the world, and later shocked a parliamentary hearing by saying that drinking could cause breast cancer.

"I would like people to take their choice knowing the issues," she told the hearing, "And do as I do when I reach for my glass of wine and think... do I want to raise my risk of breast cancer?"

Now, it's beginning to look like she was ahead of the curve. 

Barbara Speed is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman and a staff writer at CityMetric.