A woman in Greenland tends a potato crop. The country has seen a dramatic shrinkage in ice recently. (Photo: Getty)
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Who’s afraid of the big, bad virus? Perils from beneath the Arctic ice

The melting of Arctic permafrost is reawakening millennia-buried pathogens. But it’s the release of methane we should be more worried about.

This month, we learned that the melting of permafrost in Arctic regions is giving a new lease of life to hitherto unknown viruses. These have been buried in the ice for thousands of years but rising global temperatures are now thawing some of them out. As the melting continues, who knows what dangerous pathogens might be released?

The response from virologists was generally along the lines of: “Don’t panic.” That’s not quite the right reaction. There is something to worry about here.

The big discovery was the pithovirus, now confirmed as the world’s largest virus. It was last active 30,000 years ago and the French team that reactivated it managed to get the virus to infect amoebae. The researchers claim to have ruled out the possibility of human beings becoming infected with pithovirus but there are reasons to be sceptical.

A few years ago, the same French biologists said they were confident that a previous virus discovery, the mimivirus, could not infect people. But it also infected amoebae – and blood samples taken from one of their lab technicians, who had come down with mild pneumonia, were found to contain mimivirus antibodies. In other words, it seems they were wrong. Just because the researchers haven’t managed to infect human cells with the new virus, that doesn’t mean it couldn’t happen.

However, that’s not what we should be worried about. Neither should we be too concerned that the receding permafrost could bring us into contact with other potentially dangerous viruses. It is possible that the tundra contains deep-frozen organisms that could be harmful to people; plans to drill for oil and gas in those regions could create new threats. Yet you could say the same of exploring the oceans. Every litre of seawater contains roughly ten billion microbes and 100 billion viruses. Most are not in our catalogues.

It is even possible that this is a good thing. We are learning how to harness the peculiar abilities of viruses to deliver gene therapy and even fight cancer. Something called a reovirus, for instance, is being tested against tumours; it attacks cancerous cells but leaves normal cells untouched.

Other viruses are proving effective at smuggling healthy human DNA into diseased organs, enabling us to cure some cases of partial blindness, for example. Having a new set of viruses to play with might prove useful.

What we should be concerned about is far more straightforward. The threat from a newly released virus is nothing compared to the threat from newly released molecules of methane. Atmospheric methane accelerates warming about 25 times faster than carbon dioxide. There is roughly 400 billion tonnes of methane trapped in permafrost. As global temperatures rise, the ground melts and the gas is released.

There have been very few studies into the risks posed by melting permafrost (pdf). Last summer, however, a team of economists and polar science researchers warned that it is an “economic time bomb”. If there is a sudden release of methane – and no one knows if it will be a slow leak or an enormous belch – the effects will include flooding, extreme weather events and, consequently, a huge downturn in agricultural production. Researchers estimate that the economic impact of the tundra melting could be as much as $60trn.

Resurrected monster viruses make great headlines but the creep of unmitigated climate change is far more likely to do the serious damage.

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 12 March 2014 issue of the New Statesman, 4 years of austerity

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“A cursed project”: a short history of the Facebook “like” button

Mark Zuckerberg didn't like it, it used to be called the “awesome button”, and FriendFeed got there first. 

The "like" button is perhaps the simplest of the website's features, but it's also come to define it. Companies vie for your thumbs up. Articles online contain little blue portals which send your likes back to Facebook. The action of "liking" something is seen to have such power that in 2010, a class action lawsuit was filed against Facebook claiming teenagers should not be able to "like" ads without parental consent. 

And today, Facebook begins trials of six new emoji reaction buttons which join the like button at the bottom of posts, multiplying its potential meanings by seven: 

All this makes it a little surprising that Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg spent a good portion of the noughties giving the like button a thumbs down. According to Andrew Bosworth, Vice President of Advertising and Pages at Facebook (and known simply as "Boz") it took nearly two years to get the concept of an approval button for posts off the ground.

In a fascinating Quora thread, Boz explains that the idea of a star, plus sign or thumbs up for posts first came up in July 2007, three years after "TheFacebook" launched in 2004. Throughout these initial discussions, the proposed bursts of positivity was referred to as an "awesome button". A few months later someone floated the word "like" as a replacement, but, according to Boz, it received a "lukewarm" reception. 

The team who ran the site's News Feed feature were keen, as it would help rank posts based on popularity. The ad team, meanwhile, thought "likes" could improve clickthrough rates on advertisements. But in November 2007, the engineering team presented the new feature to Mark Zuckerberg, and, according to Boz, the final review "[didn't] go well". The CEO was concerned about overshadowing the Facebook "share" and comment features - perhaps people would just "awesome" something, rather than re-posting the content or writing a message. He also wanted more clarification on whether others would see your feedback or not. After this meeting, Boz writes, "Feature development as originally envisioned basically stops". 

The teams who wanted the button forged ahead with slightly different features. If you were an early user, you might remember that News Feed items and ads collected positive or negative feedback from you, but this wasn't then displayed to other users. This feature was "ineffective", Boz writes, and was eventually shut down. 

So when Jonathan Piles, Jaren Morgenstern and designer Soleio took on the like button again in December 2008, many were skeptical: this was a "cursed project", and would never make it past a sceptical Zuckerberg. Their secret weapon, however was data scientist Itamar Rosenn, who provided data to show that a like button wouldn't reduce the number of comments on a post. - that, in fact, it increased the number of comments, as likes would boost a popular post up through the News Feed. Zuckerberg's fears that a lower-impact feedback style would discourage higher value interactions like reposting or commenting were shown to be unfounded. 

A bigger problem was that FriendFeed, a social aggregator site which shut down in April 2015, launched a "like" feature in October 2007, a fact which yielded some uncomfortable media coverage when Facebook's "like" finally launched. Yet Boz claims that no one at Facebook clocked onto FriendFeed's new feature: "As far as I can tell from my email archives, nobody at FB noticed. =/". 

Finally, on 9 February 2009, "like" launched with a blogpost, "I like this", from project manager Leah Pearlman who was there for the first "awesome button" discussions back in 2007. Her description of the button's purpose is a little curious, because it frames the feature as a kind of review: 

This is similar to how you might rate a restaurant on a reviews site. If you go to the restaurant and have a great time, you may want to rate it 5 stars. But if you had a particularly delicious dish there and want to rave about it, you can write a review detailing what you liked about the restaurant. We think of the new "Like" feature to be the stars, and the comments to be the review.

Yet as we all know, there's no room for negative reviews on Facebook - there is no dislike button, and there likely never will be. Even in the preliminary announcements about the new emoji reactions feature, Zuckerberg has repeatedly made clear that "dislike" is not a Facebook-worthy emotion: "We didn’t want to just build a Dislike button because we don’t want to turn Facebook into a forum where people are voting up or down on people’s posts. That doesn’t seem like the kind of community we want to create."

Thanks to the new buttons, you can be angry, excited, or in love with other people's content, but the one thing you can't do is disapprove of its existence. Championing positivity is all well and good, but Zuckerberg's love of the "like" has more to do with his users' psychology than it does a desire to make the world a happier place. Negative feedback drives users away, and thumbs-down discourages posting. A "dislike" button could slow the never-ending stream of News Feed content down to a trickle - and that, after all, is Facebook's worst nightmare. 

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