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

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Why the Liberal Democrats by-election surge is not all it seems

The Lib Dems chalked up impressive results in Stoke and Copeland. But just how much of a fight back is it?

By the now conventional post-Brexit logic, Stoke and Copeland ought to have been uniquely inhospitable for the Lib Dems. 

The party lost its deposit in both seats in 2015, and has no representation on either council. So too were the referendum odds stacked against it: in Stoke, the so-called Brexit capital of Britain, 70 per cent of voters backed Leave last June, as did 62 per cent in Copeland. And, as Stephen has written before, the Lib Dems’ mini-revival has so far been most pronounced in affluent, Conservative-leaning areas which swung for remain. 

So what explains the modest – but impressive – surges in their vote share in yesterday’s contests? In Stoke, where they finished fifth in 2015, the party won 9.8 per cent of the vote, up 5.7 percentage points. They also more than doubled their vote share in Copeland, where they beat Ukip for third with 7.3 per cent share of the vote.

The Brexit explanation is a tempting and not entirely invalid one. Each seat’s not insignificant pro-EU minority was more or less ignored by most of the national media, for whom the existence of remainers in what we’re now obliged to call “left-behind Britain” is often a nuance too far. With the Prime Minister Theresa May pushing for a hard Brexit and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn waving it through, Lib Dem leader Tim Farron has made the pro-EU narrative his own. As was the case for Charles Kennedy in the Iraq War years, this confers upon the Lib Dems a status and platform they were denied as the junior partners in coalition. 

While their stance on Europe is slowly but surely helping the Lib Dems rebuild their pre-2015 demographic core - students, graduates and middle-class professionals employed in the public sector – last night’s results, particularly in Stoke, also give them reason for mild disappointment. 

In Stoke, campaign staffers privately predicted they might manage to beat Ukip for second or third place. The party ran a full campaign for the first time in several years, and canvassing returns suggested significant numbers of Labour voters, mainly public sector workers disenchanted with Corbyn’s stance on Europe, were set to vote Lib Dem. Nor were they intimidated by the Brexit factor: recent council by-elections in Sunderland and Rotheram, which both voted decisively to leave, saw the Lib Dems win seats for the first time on massive swings. 

So it could well be argued that their candidate, local cardiologist Zulfiqar Ali, ought to have done better. Staffordshire University’s campus, which Tim Farron visited as part of a voter registration drive, falls within the seat’s boundaries. Ali, unlike his Labour competitor Gareth Snell and Ukip leader Paul Nuttall, didn’t have his campaign derailed or disrupted by negative media attention. Unlike the Tory candidate Jack Brereton, he had the benefit of being older than 25. And, like 15 per cent of the electorate, he is of Kashmiri origin.  

In public and in private, Lib Dems say the fact that Stoke was a two-horse race between Labour and Ukip ultimately worked to their disadvantage. The prospect of Nuttall as their MP may well have been enough to convince a good number of the Labour waverers mentioned earlier to back Snell. 

With his party hovering at around 10 per cent in national polls, last night’s results give Farron cause for optimism – especially after their near-wipeout in 2015. But it’s easy to forget the bigger picture in all of this. The party have chalked up a string of impressive parliamentary by-election results – second in Witney, a spectacular win in Richmond Park, third in Sleaford and Copeland, and a strong fourth in Stoke. 

However, most of these results represent a reversion to, or indeed an underperformance compared to, the party’s pre-2015 norm. With the notable exception of Richmond’s Sarah Olney, who only joined the Lib Dems after the last general election, these candidates haven’t - or the Lib Dem vote - come from nowhere. Zulfiqar Ali previously sat on the council in Stoke and had fought the seat before, and Witney’s Liz Leffman and Sleaford’s Ross Pepper are both popular local councillors. And for all the excited commentary about Richmond, it was, of course, held by the Lib Dems for 13 years before Zac Goldsmith won it for the Tories in 2010. 

The EU referendum may have given the Lib Dems a new lease of life, but, as their #LibDemFightback trope suggests, they’re best understood as a revanchist, and not insurgent, force. Much has been said about Brexit realigning our politics, but, for now at least, the party’s new normal is looking quite a lot like the old one.