Moving image: filmmaker Anthony Powell has yet to find cold-beating tech solutions on his feet. Image: Anthony Powell for his film "Antarctica: A Year on Ice"
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What happens when your dishwasher breaks down in Antarctica?

When you're living at the bottom of the world, you can’t just pop out to a hardware shop when something breaks, so your appliances are like part of the family.

Can you connect to the internet at the South Pole? It might not be the most obvious question to ask when planning a trip to one of the coldest, windiest and driest places on earth, but it has an unexpected answer: yes. We often assume that Antarctica is a lot like the moon or Mars – dangerous, uninhabited and with no wifi. In the past decade the situation has changed.

Felicity Aston, who in 2012 became the first woman to ski solo across Antarctica, explains: “There’s a gizmo which turns your satellite phone into a wifi hotspot, through which you can then connect a smartphone.” Mundane as it sounds, it’s transformative. Gone are the days of lugging heavy radio transmitters across the ice; and it isn’t just a piece of kit, it’s peace of mind. As Aston explains: “I’ve been able to tweet, I’ve been able to make podcasts, and it’s also my lifeline. It’s the way I can get help if something goes wrong.” The bandwidth isn’t sufficient to upload photos or video yet, but Aston predicts it won’t be long: “I think that’s more a case of them bunging up a new satellite in space than creating new technology.”

Out there on the ice, hundreds of miles from any other human beings, her phone enables her to call anyone on earth. But that’s a mixed blessing, as the tantalising prospect of a chat with your mum when you are utterly alone can play tricks with your mind: “It was too difficult to have those loved ones effectively in the tent with me one minute, and then press the disconnect button and send them back thousands and thousands of kilometres.” The potential link it represented was psychologically important, though. “The whole time I was in my tent, I would have my satellite phone in my lap, even if I wasn’t using it . . . It became a symbol of the connection to the outside world, and I was literally clinging hold of it.”

Yet technology isn’t just a guarantee of safety or a means of alleviating loneliness. For Anthony Powell, a film-maker who has worked on the BBC’s Frozen Planet, keeping his equipment going in viciously cold temperatures is vital to being able to do his job. “Cameras tend to start failing at about -60°C with mechanical and electrical problems,” he explains. There is also the problem of power – normal lithium batteries fail after about ten minutes in the cold, so he has to wire up his cameras to car batteries. Video cameras work in Antarctica only with difficulty, so he has designed his own timers and motion-capture techniques in order to get the magnificent time-lapse sequences in his films.

Powell has been working in Antarctica since 1998 (he and his wife, Christine, even got married there). His most recent film, Antarctica: a Year on Ice, chronicles life from the point of view of the mechanics, technicians, cargo handlers, carpenters, electricians, cleaners and cooks who keep the research stations running. Technical problems are on a different level there. As Powell puts it: “You can’t pop out to the local hardware store to pick something up.”

On the Antarctic Sun website in 2012, Beth Jennings of McMurdo Station (the largest community on the continent) mourned the passing of their dishwasher, named Bertha. “She may not have been flesh and bone, but Bertha was indeed part of the family – love her or hate her,” Jennings wrote, reminiscing fondly about Bertha’s ability to “unexpectedly spew slime” over kitchen workers. Next to the report was a photograph of black-clad people standing around a dishwasher with heads bowed. The report recorded, only half-mockingly, that a “dance was performed in her honour”. At the bottom of the world, you have to take care of the technology that takes care of you.

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 10 April 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Tech Issue

Davide Restivo at Wikimedia Commons
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Scientists have finally said it: alcohol causes cancer

Enough of "linked" and "attributable": a new paper concludes that alcohol directly causes seven types of cancer.

I don't blame you if you switch off completely at the words "causes cancer". If you pay attention to certain publications, everything from sunbeds, to fish, to not getting enough sun, can all cause cancer. But this time, it's worth listening.

The journal Addiction has published a paper that makes a simple, yet startling, claim: 

"Evidence can support the judgement that alcohol causes cancer of the oropharynx [part of the throat], larynx, oesophagus, liver, colon, rectum and [female] breast"

So what's especially significant about this? 

First, scientists, unlike journalists, are very wary of the word "causes". It's hard to ever prove that one action directly led to another, rather than that both happened to occur within the same scenario. And yet Jennie Connor, author of the paper and professor in the Preventive and Social Medicine department at the University of Otago, New Zealand, has taken the leap.

Second, alcohol not only causes cancer of one kind – the evidence supports the claim that it causes cancer at seven different sites in our bodies. There was weaker evidence that it may also cause skin, prostate and pancreatic cancer, while the link between mouth cancers and alcohol consumption was the strongest. 

What did we know about alcohol and cancer before?

Many, many studies have "linked" cancer to alcohol, or argued that some cases may be "attributable" to alcohol consumption. 

This paper loooks back over a decade's worth of research into alcohol and cancer, and Connor concludes that all this evidence, taken together, proves that alcohol "increases the incidence of [cancer] in the population".

However, as Connor notes in her paper, "alcohol’s causal role is perceived to be more complex than tobacco's", partly because we still don't know exactly how alcohol causes cancer at these sites. Yet she argues that the evidence alone is enough to prove the cause, even if we don't know exactly how the "biologial mechanisms" work. 

Does this mean that drinking = cancer, then?

No. A causal link doesn't mean one thing always leads to the other. Also, cancer in these seven sites was shown to have what's called a "dose-response" relationship, which means the more you drink, the more you increase your chances of cancer.

On the bright side, scientists have also found that if you stop drinking altogether, you can reduce your chances back down again.

Are moderate drinkers off the hook?

Nope. Rather devastatingly, Connor notes that moderate drinkers bear a "considerable" portion of the cancer risk, and that targeting only heavy drinkers with alcohol risk reduction campaigns would have "limited" impact. 

What does this mean for public health? 

This is the tricky bit. In the paper, Connor points out that, given what we know about lung cancer and tobacco, the general advice is simply not to smoke. Now, a strong link proven over years of research may suggest the same about drinking, an activity society views as a bit risky but generally harmless.

Yet in 2012, it's estimated that alcohol-attributable cancers killed half a million people, which made up 5.8 per cent of cancer deaths worldwide. As we better understand the links between the two, it's possible that this proportion may turn out to be a lot higher. 

As she was doing the research, Connor commented:

"We've grown up with thinking cancer is very mysterious, we don't know what causes it and it's frightening, so to think that something as ordinary as drinking is associated with cancer I think is quite difficult."

What do we do now?

Drink less. The one semi-silver lining in the study is that the quantity of alcohol you consume has a real bearing on your risk of developing these cancers. 

On a wider scale, it looks like we need to recalibrate society's perspective on drinking. Drug campaigners have long pointed out that alcohol, while legal, is one of the most toxic and harmful drugs available  an argument that this study will bolster.

In January, England's chief medical officer Sally Davies introduced some of the strictest guidelines on alcohol consumption in the world, and later shocked a parliamentary hearing by saying that drinking could cause breast cancer.

"I would like people to take their choice knowing the issues," she told the hearing, "And do as I do when I reach for my glass of wine and think... do I want to raise my risk of breast cancer?"

Now, it's beginning to look like she was ahead of the curve. 

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