If scientists wrote horoscopes, this is what yours would say

Martha Gill's Irrational Animals column.

A new year, a new set of horoscopes, a renewed chorus from naysayers who fail to see the link between when they were born and what will happen to them next Tuesday. But science says they’re just not looking hard enough. Tiny seasonal variations at your time of birth can affect both your health and your character. Finally - here’s a horoscope based on real medical evidence.

Aries: 21 March – 19 April
You’ve never been that bright, Aries, and medics at Indiana University put this down to a heightened use of pesticides around the time of your birth. You also sometimes feel that you’re sleepwalking through life. Give in to the feeling - it’s just narcolepsy (more likely in those born in March or April).

Taurus: 20 April – 20 May
Oh, Taurus, sometimes you’re on top of the world, other times you just can’t get out of bed. Your friends are confused: what’s going on? Tell them that babies born in May are happier – they first experienced the world in summer. They are also more likely to suffer from seasonal affective disorder; depression hits in the darker months.

Gemini: 21 May – 21 June
Children born at this time are often better behaved and less likely to play truant. Maybe it’s time to let loose a bit, Gemini.

Cancer: 22 June – 22 July
Cancerians, you usually think yourselves lucky – due to low rates of postnatal depression in mothers of summer babies. Your instincts are off, however: you’re at a slightly higher risk of Hodgkin’s lymphoma, according to Danish research from 2003.

Leo: 23 July – 22 August
Your friends tell you you’re just not the maternal type. They’re right: Austrian research finds that those born now grow up to have the fewest children.

Virgo: 23 August – 22 September
You keep telling people you’re big-boned but they don’t believe you. It’s true, though – your mother got more sunlight as her pregnancy progressed and the Vitamin D gave you thick, strong bones. See?

Libra: 23 September – 22 October
Librans, you have the best chance of becoming a professional footballer. You’ll be one of the biggest children in the school year and get picked for the best team early on. Things will progress from there. Hurray for Jupiter in the ascendant or whatever.

Scorpio: 23 October – 21 November
This year is as good a time as any to take up yoga, because you’ll be feeling flexible and energetic, partly because of your low risk of arthritis and multiple sclerosis (as your mother got plenty of sunlight late in her pregnancy).

Sagittarius: 22 November – 21 December
Sagittarians like to live life at the sharp end – December babies are the most likely to become dentists. But take off those plastic gloves and have a rest in the chair: cold temperatures at birth increased your risk of eczema and heart disease.

Capricorn: 22 December – 19 January
Capricornians, you are clever, tall and successful – your mother was pregnant in the summer and ate lots of fruit and vegetables. If you have one flaw, it’s that irritating tendency to have epilepsy, caused by prenatal winter infections.

Aquarius: 20 January – 18 February
This year, you’ll be as clearsighted as ever; low levels of daylight at birth gave you better long-distance vision. Older Aquarians may be feeling under the weather, though – an early lack of Vitamin D has been linked to depression later in life.

Pisces: 19 February – 20 March
Assertive, successful, bossy: there are more CEOs born now than at any other time of the year. Male Pisceans beware: you’re at a marginally higher risk of autism.

The science of horoscopes. Photograph: Getty Images

Martha Gill writes the weekly Irrational Animals column. You can follow her on Twitter here: @Martha_Gill.

This article first appeared in the 14 January 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Dinosaurs vs modernisers

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North Yorkshire has approved the UK’s first fracking tests in five years. What does this mean?

Is fracking the answer to the UK's energy future? Or a serious risk to the environment?

Shale gas operation has been approved in North Yorkshire, the first since a ban introduced after two minor earthquakes in 2011 were shown to be caused by fracking in the area. On Tuesday night, after two days of heated debate, North Yorkshire councillors finally granted an application to frack in the North York Moors National Park.

The vote by the Tory-dominated council was passed by seven votes to four, and sets an important precedent for the scores of other applications still awaiting decision across the country. It also gives a much-needed boost to David Cameron’s 2014 promise to “go all out for shale”. But with regional authorities pitted against local communities, and national government in dispute with global NGOs, what is the wider verdict on the industry?

What is fracking?

Fracking, or “hydraulic fracturing”, is the extraction of shale gas from deep underground. A mixture of water, sand and chemicals is pumped into the earth at such high pressure that it literally fractures the rocks and releases the gas trapped inside.

Opponents claim that the side effects include earthquakes, polluted ground water, and noise and traffic pollution. The image the industry would least like you to associate with the process is this clip of a man setting fire to a running tap, from the 2010 US documentary Gasland

Advocates dispute the above criticisms, and instead argue that shale gas extraction will create jobs, help the UK transition to a carbon-neutral world, reduce reliance on imports and boost tax revenues.

So do these claims stands up? Let’s take each in turn...

Will it create jobs? Yes, but mostly in the short-term.

Industry experts imply that job creation in the UK could reflect that seen in the US, while the medium-sized production company Cuadrilla claims that shale gas production would create 1,700 jobs in Lancashire alone.

But claims about employment may be exaggerated. A US study overseen by Penn State University showed that only one in seven of the jobs projected in an industry forecast actually materialised. In the UK, a Friends of the Earth report contends that the majority of jobs to be created by fracking in Lancashire would only be short-term – with under 200 surviving the initial construction burst.

Environmentalists, in contrast, point to evidence that green energy creates more jobs than similar-sized fossil fuel investments.  And it’s not just climate campaigners who don’t buy the employment promise. Trade union members also have their doubts. Ian Gallagher, Secretary of Blackburn and District Trade Unions Council, told Friends of the Earth that: “Investment in the areas identified by the Million Climate Jobs Campaign [...] is a far more certain way of addressing both climate change and economic growth than drilling for shale gas.”

Will it deliver cleaner energy? Not as completely as renewables would.

America’s “shale revolution” has been credited with reversing the country’s reliance on dirty coal and helping them lead the world in carbon-emissions reduction. Thanks to the relatively low carbon dioxide content of natural gas (emitting half the amount of coal to generate the same amount of electricity), fracking helped the US reduce its annual emissions of carbon dioxide by 556 million metric tons between 2007 and 2014. Banning it, advocates argue, would “immediately increase the use of coal”.

Yet a new report from the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (previously known for its opposition to wind farm applications), has laid out a number of ways that the UK government can meet its target of 80 per cent emissions reduction by 2050 without necessarily introducing fracking and without harming the natural world. Renewable, home-produced, energy, they argue, could in theory cover the UK’s energy needs three times over. They’ve even included some handy maps:


Map of UK land available for renewable technologies. Source: RSPB’s 2050 Energy Vision.

Will it deliver secure energy? Yes, up to a point.

For energy to be “sustainable” it also has to be secure; it has to be available on demand and not threatened by international upheaval. Gas-fired “peaking” plants can be used to even-out input into the electricity grid when the sun doesn’t shine or the wind is not so blowy. The government thus claims that natural gas is an essential part of the UK’s future “energy mix”, which, if produced domestically through fracking, will also free us from reliance on imports tarnished by volatile Russian politics.

But, time is running out. Recent analysis by Carbon Brief suggests that we only have five years left of current CO2 emission levels before we blow the carbon budget and risk breaching the climate’s crucial 1.5°C tipping point. Whichever energy choices we make now need to starting brining down the carbon over-spend immediately.

Will it help stablise the wider economy? Yes, but not forever.

With so many “Yes, buts...” in the above list, you might wonder why the government is still pressing so hard for fracking’s expansion? Part of the answer may lie in their vested interest in supporting the wider industry.

Tax revenues from UK oil and gas generate a large portion of the government’s income. In 2013-14, the revenue from license fees, petroleum revenue tax, corporation tax and the supplementary charge accounted for nearly £5bn of UK exchequer receipts. The Treasury cannot afford to lose these, as evidenced in the last budget when George Osborne further subsidied North Sea oil operations through increased tax breaks.

The more that the Conservatives support the industry, the more they can tax it. In 2012 DECC said it wanted to “guarantee... every last economic drop of oil and gas is produced for the benefit of the UK”. This sentiment was repeated yesterday by energy minister Andrea Leadsom, when she welcomed the North Yorkshire decision and described fracking as a “fantastic opportunity”.

Dependence on finite domestic fuel reserves, however, is not a long-term economic solution. Not least because they will either run out or force us to exceed international emissions treaties: “Pensions already have enough stranded assets as they are,” says Danielle Pafford from 350.org.

Is it worth it? Most European countries have decided it’s not.

There is currently no commercial shale-gas drilling in Europe. Sustained protests against the industry in Romania, combined with poor exploration results, have already caused energy giant Chevron to pull out of the country. Total has also abandonned explorations in Denmark, Poland is being referred to the European Court of Justice for failing to adequately assess fracking’s impact, and, in Germany, brewers have launched special bottle-caps with the slogan “Nein! Zu Fracking” to warn against the threat to their water supply.

Back in the UK, the government's latest survey of public attitudes to fracking found that 44 per cent neither supported nor opposed the practice, but also that opinion is gradually shifting out of favour. If the government doesn't come up with arguments that hold water soon, it seems likely that the UK's fracking future could still be blasted apart.

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.