Reasons to be careful

Asteroids strikes, radiation and Rio+20.

So, yet another thing to worry about. It might not sound like news, but something big hit earth back in the 770s. Researchers looking at the radioactive carbon traces in tree rings from that period have discovered evidence of a burst of intense radiation between 774 and 775AD. It might seem churlish to worry about something that happened 1,200 years ago, given the problems that the Rio+20 summit this month clearly was not even going to begin to address. Yet warning us of potential danger is part of the scientist’s job description. What we do with that information is up to us.

The source of that 1,200-year-old radiation burst – potentially the harbinger of a much bigger catastrophe than climate change – is a mystery to scientists. A burst of radiation of this sort would normally come from a spectacular solar flare or a supernova. Taking the second option first, the exploding star in question would have been bright enough to be visible in daylight – a second sun that would have been recorded by contemporary historians. It should also have been spotted by today’s astronomers: the explosion would have created what looked like a new star. Stellar explosions recorded in 1006 and 1054 weren’t big enough to cause a spike in radiation but we have spotted the remnants in the sky.

The solar flare explanation has been ruled out, too. A flare occurs when the sun spits out a gob of plasma, a roiling gas of charged subatomic particles. If that is composed largely of protons and fired towards earth, its interaction with particles in Planet Earth’s atmosphere creates a burst of intense radiation. But it also creates the Northern and Southern Lights and, again, a radiation spike of this intensity would have produced a show spectacular enough to be recorded by historians.

On the downside, it would also have wiped out much of the ozone layer, causing biological chaos. The extra radiation and intense ultraviolet light usually absorbed by ozone would have mutated genomes and led to significant extinctions. There is no evidence that this occurred.

Why does it matter? Until we understand the source, we face a significant unknown. If it is somehow a threat from the sun, the threat is far bigger than we have known. Such a spike in radiation could be associated with the kind of solar activity that could melt many of the world’s power grids, sending civilisations howling back to the Stone Age.

We already know that things from space could hurt us badly. There’s about a one-in-five chance that, in the next 100,000 years, an asteroid strike will do as much damage as the one that wiped out the dinosaurs. There is no reason for complacency: it’s highly likely that, in the same time frame, a chunk of space rock roughly 400 metres in diameter will hit earth. The impact will be significant enough to devastate an area the size of France.

Too much in the sun

The tree-ring work, published in the journal Nature this month, suggests that scientists don’t yet have a handle on all the threats to humanity. But it will almost certainly be dismissed as another curiosity, not worth following up.

Maybe that is the right response. The conclusions were a result of interpreting the amounts of radioactive carbon – created by collisions between particles in the upper atmosphere – trapped in the tree rings.

Anyone with responsibility to act over threats to his or her citizens can choose to find weaknesses and uncertainties in the data, the extrapolations and the conclusions and thus justify a non-response. Just as our political leaders (or, rather, their delegations) will do in Rio. l

Michael Brooks’s “The Secret Anarchy of Science” is out now in paperback (Profile Books, £8.99)

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 25 June 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Europe’s most dangerous leader

How Jim Murphy's mistake cost Labour - and helped make Ruth Davidson

Scottish Labour's former leader's great mistake was to run away from Labour's Scottish referendum, not on it.

The strange revival of Conservative Scotland? Another poll from north of the border, this time from the Times and YouGov, shows the Tories experiencing a revival in Scotland, up to 28 per cent of the vote, enough to net seven extra seats from the SNP.

Adding to the Nationalists’ misery, according to the same poll, they would lose East Dunbartonshire to the Liberal Democrats, reducing their strength in the Commons to a still-formidable 47 seats.

It could be worse than the polls suggest, however. In the elections to the Scottish Parliament last year, parties which backed a No vote in the referendum did better in the first-past-the-post seats than the polls would have suggested – thanks to tactical voting by No voters, who backed whichever party had the best chance of beating the SNP.

The strategic insight of Ruth Davidson, the Conservative leader in Scotland, was to to recast her party as the loudest defender of the Union between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom. She has absorbed large chunks of that vote from the Liberal Democrats and Labour, but, paradoxically, at the Holyrood elections at least, the “Unionist coalition” she assembled helped those parties even though it cost the vote share.

The big thing to watch is not just where the parties of the Union make gains, but where they successfully form strong second-places against whoever the strongest pro-Union party is.

Davidson’s popularity and eye for a good photo opportunity – which came first is an interesting question – mean that the natural benefactor in most places will likely be the Tories.

But it could have been very different. The first politician to hit successfully upon the “last defender of the Union” routine was Ian Murray, the last Labour MP in Scotland, who squeezed both the  Liberal Democrat and Conservative vote in his seat of Edinburgh South.

His then-leader in Scotland, Jim Murphy, had a different idea. He fought the election in 2015 to the SNP’s left, with the slogan of “Whether you’re Yes, or No, the Tories have got to go”.  There were a couple of problems with that approach, as one  former staffer put it: “Firstly, the SNP weren’t going to put the Tories in, and everyone knew it. Secondly, no-one but us wanted to move on [from the referendum]”.

Then again under different leadership, this time under Kezia Dugdale, Scottish Labour once again fought a campaign explicitly to the left of the SNP, promising to increase taxation to blunt cuts devolved from Westminster, and an agnostic position on the referendum. Dugdale said she’d be open to voting to leave the United Kingdom if Britain left the European Union. Senior Scottish Labour figures flirted with the idea that the party might be neutral in a forthcoming election. Once again, the party tried to move on – but no-one else wanted to move on.

How different things might be if instead of running away from their referendum campaign, Jim Murphy had run towards it in 2015. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

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