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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The future of policing is still at risk even after George Osborne's U-Turn

The police have avoided the worst, but crime is changing and they cannot stand still. 

We will have to wait for the unofficial briefings and the ministerial memoirs to understand what role the tragic events in Paris had on the Chancellor’s decision to sustain the police budget in cash terms and increase it overall by the end of the parliament.  Higher projected tax revenues gave the Chancellor a surprising degree of fiscal flexibility, but the atrocities in Paris certainly pushed questions of policing and security to the top of the political agenda. For a police service expecting anything from a 20 to a 30 per cent cut in funding, fears reinforced by the apparent hard line the Chancellor took over the weekend, this reprieve is an almighty relief.  

So, what was announced?  The overall police budget will be protected in real terms (£900 million more in cash terms) up to 2019/20 with the following important caveats.  First, central government grant to forces will be reduced in cash terms by 2019/20, but forces will be able to bid into a new transformation fund designed to finance moves such as greater collaboration between forces.  In other words there is a cash frozen budget (given important assumptions about council tax) eaten away by inflation and therefore requiring further efficiencies and service redesign.

Second, the flat cash budget for forces assumes increases in the police element of the council tax. Here, there is an interesting new flexibility for Police and Crime Commissioners.  One interpretation is that instead of precept increases being capped at 2%, they will be capped at £12 million, although we need further detail to be certain.  This may mean that forces which currently raise relatively small cash amounts from their precept will be able to raise considerably more if Police and Crime Commissioners have the courage to put up taxes.  

With those caveats, however, this is clearly a much better deal for policing than most commentators (myself included) predicted.  There will be less pressure to reduce officer numbers. Neighbourhood policing, previously under real threat, is likely to remain an important component of the policing model in England and Wales.  This is good news.

However, the police service should not use this financial reprieve as an excuse to duck important reforms.  The reforms that the police have already planned should continue, with any savings reinvested in an improved and more effective service.

It would be a retrograde step for candidates in the 2016 PCC elections to start pledging (as I am certain many will) to ‘protect officer numbers’.  We still need to rebalance the police workforce.   We need more staff with the kind of digital skills required to tackle cybercrime.  We need more crime analysts to help deploy police resources more effectively.  Blanket commitments to maintain officer numbers will get in the way of important reforms.

The argument for inter-force collaboration and, indeed, force mergers does not go away. The new top sliced transformation fund is designed in part to facilitate collaboration, but the fact remains that a 43 force structure no longer makes sense in operational or financial terms.

The police still have to adapt to a changing world. Falling levels of traditional crime and the explosion in online crime, particularly fraud and hacking, means we need an entirely different kind of police service.  Many of the pressures the police experience from non-crime demand will not go away. Big cuts to local government funding and the wider criminal justice system mean we need to reorganise the public service frontline to deal with problems such as high reoffending rates, child safeguarding and rising levels of mental illness.

Before yesterday I thought policing faced an existential moment and I stand by that. While the service has now secured significant financial breathing space, it still needs to adapt to an increasingly complex world. 

Rick Muir is director of the Police Foundation