How YouTube can save the world

Janet Jackson's accidental breast exposure has led indirectly to earth avoiding deadly asteroids.

Will YouTube help to save humanity in the event of an asteroid impact?
Image: Getty

When Hollywood rewrites this story, it will become known as the day that Janet Jackson saved planet earth. According to company legend, YouTube was created after one of its inventors had trouble accessing a video of Jackson’s moment of “wardrobe malfunction” breast exposure during the 2004 Super Bowl. The video-sharing website’s latest achievement is to become the source of scientific data that might help us evade the next big asteroid threat.

You might remember the last big one: it exploded in the air 27 kilometres above Chelyabinsk in the Russian Urals on 15 February this year. The explosion was equivalent to the detonation of 500,000 tonnes of TNT – enough to damage buildings and injure several hundred people. Perhaps not enough to get itself a Hollywood re-enactment, though.

Fortunately, the asteroid’s passage through earth’s atmosphere made it glow far brighter than the early-morning sun, causing locals to whip out their phones and record its flight. The high incidence of insurance fraud in Russia also helped – many cars are equipped with dashboard cameras, which recorded the event.

On 6 November, a group of scientists published an analysis of these videos. They had discovered that our risk of being hit by similar asteroids is ten times higher than we thought. The researchers were able to deduce the asteroid’s mass from its flight path. It was twice as heavy as scientists’ initial estimates. We need to pay attention to the threat from orbiting objects much smaller than those we have been keeping an eye on.

Things were much easier when we only needed to worry about the larger rocks orbiting the sun. The cut-off used to be about one kilometre in diameter; we had concluded that anything smaller would most likely burn up in our atmosphere and inflict near-negligible damage. We know the orbits of all these big rocks; we don’t, however, have a clue where the millions of smaller rocks are, or whether they might hit earth at any point. The YouTube-derived data suggests that we should start to find out and is certain to inform the activities of the Nasa asteroid-tracking telescope due to come online in 2015.

Atlas (Asteroid Terrestrial-Impact Last Alert System) will need broad shoulders: for the foreseeable future, it will be the only means by which we can reliably detect an imminent impact with these newly threatening smaller asteroids. Existing early-warning systems watch only certain patches of the sky and aren’t great at picking out objects that are smaller than one kilometre.

Nasa has plans to put an asteroid-hunting camera called NeoCam into orbit (no launch date yet) and a group of concerned citizens is raising money to build Sentinel, a similar eye in the sky. Until either of those are deployed, it’ll be down to Atlas.

Atlas will give us a week’s warning of any asteroid likely to collide with earth with an impact equivalent to the detonation of several megatonnes of TNT. If the asteroid is bigger, we should know about it three weeks in advance.

If you think that will give us time to send swarthy heroes up to attach a nuclear bomb to the asteroid and deflect it away from its collision course, think again. There is no agency on earth with the mandate to do this – and certainly no one with the necessary equipment or expertise. So all you can expect is plenty of time to charge your phone’s battery and ensure you are the first to get the video of its arrival on to YouTube. Then you have to hope there’ll still be some scientists around to appreciate your efforts.

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 13 November 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The New Exodus

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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.