Archive April 2010

All passengers: please remember your space insurance aimee whitcroft Apr 29

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Excellent stuff, this, and a fitting way of both apologising for my recent absence, and attempting to be sufficiently interesting to lure my readers (who have no doubt wandered) back to the fold.

virgin galactic

Aah, look at them playing so nicely together! Although this can't possible be safe...

The topic of today’s post?  Why space tourism and insurance, of course!

Perhaps it’s just me, but space insurance wasn’t something to which I’d ever given any thought.  Upon finding out that other people have, and serious thought at that, I thought I’d share.

To begin, then: why was this paper written at all?  Well, it says (fairly, I think) that space travel and tourism are both quite risky for humans and tech alike, particularly at these early stages.  And risk = insurance.  Of course, no one’s really looked into the issue of space insurance per se, (silly us, we’ve been getting stuck up in the tech and politics of it), and hence said paper.  Indeed, the opening line reads:

‘Amateurs talk propellant, professionals talk insurance’. These were the words of Pete Bahn, Founder of TGV rockets at the Space Access ‘07 Conference in Phoenix.

Further, it explains that 2009 and 2010 are, apparently, being seen as bridge years towards the upcoming commercial space flights, with Virgin Galactic‘s* first flight scheduled for sometime in the next year or so.  As a result, this is of course the perfect time for anyone interested in making huge amounts of moolah (while of course providing a valuable service) to get involved and to start figuring out how best to do so.  The author maintains that:

The creation of a viable and affordable insurance  regime for future space tourists would be a critical element in the development of the overall space tourism market.

So, what’s the next step?  To identify the risks, of course, some of which are summarised below.

Risk identification

Spaceflight is risky.  Calls to Houston regarding problems are made.  Craft explode.  People expire.  This will likely continue to happen.

The death rate of spaceflight is, according to NASA, some 4%.  A 1 in 25 chance.  That’s actually quite alarmingly high, considering heart disease kills 1 in 6 or so**, and strokes 1 in 28.  Of course, I’d like to suggest that to extrapolate this figure would be absurd – the sample size is tiny, and we haven’t exactly done a lot of it yet.  Nonetheless, entry/re-entry, radiation, tiny bits of hurtlingly-fast rock etc DO make it a bit more dangerous than, say, your average pastoral landscape (except for the rabid sheep, of course).

So, it’s going to be necessary to find insurance methods both for damaged craft, and for damaged people.  Damaged craft first:

One of the first things to work out is the official definition of space, in terms of defining where is atmosphere, and where is space.  I had assumed there would be consensus on this.  There is not.  The most generally used definition, though, is that space begins at the Karman line, some 100km or so above the earth’s surface.

virgin galactic 2

The VG spaceplanes. Like business jets, except not.

Then there are the craft themselves.  Currently built to look quite a lot like business jets, a lot of thought and design needs to go into how to design them so as to survive multiple entry/re-entry events, the various other vagaries of space, NOT explode due to their sitting on large amounts of extremely explosive fuel, and how best to certify and license them.  The author suggests a rigid certification scheme would likely be more appropriate.  I agree.

And then, damaged people.  There’s the effect of space flight on people themselves.  Psychological.  Emotional.  Physiological. Etc.  And what if someone does actually get hurt?  Currently, the only people who can afford this sort of fun own some of the most valuable arses on earth, so (while the paper doesn’t mention it) I imagine the insurance premiums would be astronomical.***  There would be the potential human capital loss as well…

We’ve identified the risks, what now?

What do they suggest be done?  Due to the very new, and complicated nature of space insurance, the author suggests that each case be evaluated separately, rather than using the aviation insurance industry as a model.  Of course, once things become a little more routine in terms of craft reliability and design, flight frequency etc, then perhaps an overarching framework could be considered.  He reckons some 5 – 15 accident-free flights would be necessary for underwriters to begin working out the crafts’ reliability and coming up with pricing models.

There’s an awful lot more in the paper itself, in which detail-oriented people can frolick.  But to end off, I’m going to quote the author:

It is a matter of when,not if!

Also, I think the author deserves either a smack, or a thumbs-up, for the use of the phrase “The final underwriting frontier’ as a subheading.

The jury’s still out on commercial spaceflight – is it a silly waste of money for the very bored and wealthy, or does it herald the beginning of humanity’s move off earth?  Time will tell.  And apparently, so will insurance.


Bensoussan, D. (2010). Space tourism risks: A space insurance perspective Acta Astronautica, 66 (11-12), 1633-1638 DOI: 10.1016/j.actaastro.2010.01.009


*For anyone who may have spent time in a cave the last few years, yes, commercial space tourism is here.  And you too could be a part of it!  Simply gather together 200,000 of your favourite US dollars, give them to VG, and see the earth as only, well, many of us have seen it, except in real life.  Note: at this point, all flights are suborbital.

** If you’re interested in comparing, this is fun.  It’s a death calculator!  It only uses publicly available data from Europe and the US, of course, but still.  Fun!  Although they could definitely work on the presentation of the site/data a bit…

*** Yes, you read that right.  And it was intentional.

Introducing a new blog: The Science of Architecture aimee whitcroft Apr 22

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Interested in architecture?  Like sciencey things?  Well, we have the blog for you!

Science of Architecture Banner

Ken Collins, one of the directors of lab-works, will be penning a blog, The Science of Architecture, all about architecture from, you guessed it, a science perspective.  Topics he’ll be covering range from which wood treatments are best, to how to design a really good lab (and I have no doubt there are going to be some great horror stories there), and of course, energy efficiency.  And heaps others, of course.

For those of you not familiar with lab-works, a brief spiel: they’re an architecture firm specialising in the design of scientific spaces such as laboratories, and some of our CRIs actually boast their work!

The subject also comes with brilliant schematics, and we’re hoping that Ken will share some of these, and his stories* with all of us.

So welcome, Ken, to the fold!

*I have a particularly funny one he related about a fume hood in mind..

Introducing a new blog: The Bright Ideas Challenge aimee whitcroft Apr 20

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Remember last year’s What’s Your Problem New Zealand competition, won by Resene?

Well, Grow Wellington, the regional economic development agency which has been tasked with making greater Wellington internationally competitive, has come up with rather a fun idea.

bright ideas challenge

Entitled the Bright Ideas Challenge, the idea is to get Wellingtonians – any and all of them – with an idea which they think could become a successful business, to submit said idea to the Challenge.  The ideas will be taken through a couple of elimination rounds to winnow out the best of them, and there’s the opportunity to win 25 grand in seed capital, a place on the Bright Ideas Kickstart programme (also worth decent moolah), and of course the opportunity to connect with some seriously impressive people.

So, how do you get involved?  Well, the first step is to take your idea – anything from the most fleeting and fledgeling of suggestions to an existing business which could use some help expanding – and submit it, in no more than 100 words (hurrah) to the website.  Before 25 June.  Easy as that.

At the launch event last night, people were also warned to bring lots of energy as well :)  Lots.  Both by Nigel Kirkpatrick, Grow Wellington’s CEO, and by the three highly successful Wellington-based entrepreneurs who spoke of their highly successful businesses: Magritek, phil&ted’s and womama.

I’ve mentioned that we’re introducing a new blog.  And we are!  For the duration of the Challenge, it’s going to have a guest blog on Sciblogs.  Our first post this week is an introductory one from Nigel Kirkpatrick.  From then, you can expect a weekly post from a mix of scientists, business people, ideas people and other movers and shakers looking at what Bright Idea had a big impact on their lives.

So, get reading!  And thinking!  And submitting.  I’ve got one or two things that make me want to rub my hands together and say ‘muahahahahahaha’…

2001: A sciblogs odyssey aimee whitcroft Apr 16

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Just a brief note to our bloggers and readers: we’ve just hit 2001 posts!  (This will make it 2002, of course)


I was hoping to announce it at the round number, as it were, but Peter’s latest (sneaky) infographics post blew that out of the water.

Anyway – congratulations to our bloggers: we’re really proud of the work you guys are putting in and to our readers – we thank you for your time and attention.


And a reminder – if you, or anyone you know, is sciencey and has something to write about, pop us a shout!  Also, make sure all your friends are reading us :)

Why science denial is so very dangerous aimee whitcroft Apr 14


I heart TED – something to which I’m sure I’ve confessed in past.


This morning, I got a fantastic email with some of the latest talks to be posted on TED.

michael specterWhile they’re all (of course) brilliant, I’ll make special mention of a talk, entitled ‘The danger of science denial‘, by New Yorker writer Michael Specter.  Not himself someone with a science background, he talks about how researching stories led him to be at first bemused, and then appalled, at the growing tide of anti-science feeling both in the US and beyond its borders.

He speaks movingly about the herbal, anti-vaccine and the anti-GM movements, amongst other things, and opines (I believe correctly) that believing in ‘magic’ – including unproven herbal remedies – rather than evidence can lead people down a path they don’t want to go.  The perfect example of this path is, perhaps, the behaviour shown by South Africa’s previous president Thabo Mbeki.

[Our dearly beloved president at the time decided to fly in the face of all evidence (sound familiar, anyone), and denied that HIV was the cause of AIDS.  Brilliant move.  He then, (in conjunction with the country's health minister) refused to promote the use of antiretrovirals, instead promoting the benefits of garlic, beetroot, and one or two other veggies.  I'm sure you can imagine the horror of my lecturer  at the time Ed Rybicki* and fellow students at this behaviour - it's estimated to have led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of South Africans.]

Another example?  Not using GM to improve crops which the third world could use to feed itself.

Michael’s very much of the opinion that, if we’re not careful, not only could science denialism lead to problems such as a resurgence of diseases such as measles** and, terrifyingly, polio, but it could also prevent humanity carrying out some of the science we’ll need to in the future.  And, given the future we’re currently facing, I’m very much of the opinion that the more useful science we can do, the better.

I see hope for us, as does he, but it’s conditional hope…

Other brilliant talks out this week on TED:

Pollen grains are fascinating – many of us have seen extreme close-up photos of pollen grains, but Jonathan Drori expands on the topic, showing just how diverse they are under the lens of a microscope.

Robots are doing it for themselves – Dennis Hong tells us about seven very different all-terrain robots, all of whom however are unified by being award-winning.

Photographs which shaped history – photographs do more than just document history, as Jonathan Klein shows in a presentation demonstrating the effect a truly powerful image can have.

And, for the more artily-inclined – Natalie Merchant combines ‘near-forgotten 19th century poetry’ with, well, an almost old-fashioned voice, to do something quite melodic, and definitely worth listening to.


* Ed’s a well-known expert on HIV, and blogs at ViroBlogy and Retroid Raving.

** The anti-vaccine movement in New Zealand is already having an effect, with measles – a disease which is seldom fatal but can cause disfigurement and even blindness – on the rise.

A soupcon of shameless self-sales aimee whitcroft Apr 13


Wondering whether to feel ashamed or not, I suddenly thought ‘but wait – isn’t this part of the whole point?’. So onwards…

cafe scientifique

Anyway, for anyone who’s in the Tauranga (26th April) or Hamilton (27th April) areas later this month, I’m going to be talking at Cafe Scientifique about science and the media.  Something that, we’re hoping, I can give some insight into, giving it comprises my day job an’ all.

Cafe Scientifique’s pretty cool, actually.    It’s now a worldwide initiative, and started with a very simple premise – for the price of a cup of coffee, anyone who’s interested can go and get a good dose of science/tech discussion.  Topics range widely, from swine flu to the LHC.

We have several in New Zealand – I know that there are CSs in Auckland, Hamilton/Tauranga (University of the Wakitao), Wellington, Lower Hutt, and Palmerston North.  I’m not aware of any in the South Island, though – is this something anyone can a) correct me on or b) rectify?

And I’m certainly not the only sciblogger to have given a talk for CS, either.  Marcus Wilson, of the U of W, gave one late last year on the Large Hadron Collider – you will remember this was during that amusing time when people thought the Higgs boson might be mediating some effect which was destroying the LHC backwards in time.  I was not, unfortunately, able to attend the talk, but colleagues of mine who did said it was great, and you can also listen to it here.

And no: I’m not photogenic.  I’d noticed, I promise.

[Sidenote: I'm also starting a podcast in the very near future.  More details on that another time, though]

For all fans of manga: the power of science aimee whitcroft Apr 09

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I got sent the glorious picture below a brief parcel of time ago, and it made me happy.


And, since it’s a Friday and I’m feeling magnanimous, I thought I’d spread the love to all my science geeks.  In particular, of course, those who enjoy manga/anime.

I’m more than happy to credit it if anyone can tell me whence it originates…

HT: Amber :)

GRA inaugural meeting shows strong will to succeed aimee whitcroft Apr 07

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This week marks the inaugural meeting of the Global Research Alliance (GRA).

For those of you not familiar with it, it’s probably one of the best things to come out of last year’s largely-failed Copenhagen talks.  The idea had first budded in late 2008, but was officially launched Dec last year.  And, proudly, it’s an initiative suggested and spearheaded by New Zealand.  Comprised of some 28 countries (including all the largest emitters) and some observing countries, it’s hardly a piffling enterpise, either!

It’s purpose, essentially, is to bring a raft of countries together to figure out how to increase food production (and soil carbon sequestration) while at the same time decreasing agricultural greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.  A tall order, indeed, but one that is incredibly important, given that it’s been estimated that agriculture contributes ~30% of the world’s GHG emissions.

It’s also particularly challenging, given that some of the strategies being used to decrease emissions in other sectors – for example, increasing the price of something – isn’t really a viable strategy here.

Most of the 4-day meeting is closed, but today’s opening session was open to the press, meaning that I was able to attend.  Managing to pack 4 speakers into an hour and half (and three of those into the first 30 minutes), there was a lot to get my head around.

Of course, the overriding message was the importance of the GRA initiative, and sincere hopes expressed that this, unlike so many other international negotiations, this one wouldn’t be derailed.

Minister of Agriculture David Carter and PM John Key opened the session, introducing the talks, their context, some of the challenges the GRA faces and where New Zealand fits into everything.

M.S. Swaminathan

M.S. Swaminathan

They were followed by the, well, illustrious is only the word, Professor M.S. Swaminathan.  He’s widely regarded as the Father of the Green Revolution in India, and one of TIME magazine’s top 20 most influential Asians of the 20th Century.  Amongst other things.  He spoke, very informally (and by telecast) of the need to find ways both to mitigate climate change, and adapt to it.  Using mangrove’s as an example, he spoke of the vital importance of building up comprehensive gene banks to safeguard biodiversity, and of the role that flora can have in helping us both mitigate and adapt.  As he said:

“Nature provides for everyone’s need, but not everyone’s greed”

An example he used was that of mangroves: not only are they powerful sequesterers of carbon, but they’re also brilliant as  a ‘bioshield’.  He says that they, and plants like them, should be grown all along the coast not only to absorb and store carbon, but to act as a bioshield against high waters, either from tsunamis or from sea level rise.

He spoke of the use of trees as ‘fertiliser’ trees as well, highlighting it as another important initiative – apparently, one of the principal problems with tropical soils is that they’re carbon poor!

Swaminathan feels that the ‘megacalamity’ of climate change can be used as an opportunity, but emphasizes the importance of the bringing technology and public policy together, and the need for simple strategies and policies, if anything meaningful is to be achieved.  I really like his closing exhortation:

“Let us decide that in 15 or 20 years, greenhouse gas emissions attributable to the agricultural sector will be almost nil, because we can use all those gases to good advantage in enhancing the productivity and profitability of major farming systems.”

This need for fast, and simple, policies was echoed by the next (and final speaker for the open session), Timothy D Searchinger.

Tom Searchinger

Tim Searchinger

Searchinger hails from Princeton University, and is an expert on analysing how to expand food production without at the same time increasing pastoral GHG emissions. He’s known particularly for his work on biofuels and land use, and made a number of strong points.  One of the most striking – something that seems obvious, but about which I hadn’t thought – was how potential land for agriculture is counted.  A mistake that is commonly made is to double or triple count land use.  So, for example, when thinking about how marginal land could be used, it gets counted for its potential as crop land, AND range land, and maybe for biofuels** as well, and nobody thinks to include the effects of losing whatever function it currently serves.  Apparently this happens particularly with forested land as well.

And, of course, he made clear that what we need is not less agriculture, but better, more, and more efficient agriculture.

Searchinger touched on a number of other subjects, including the importance of soil carbon*, the difference in emissions between crop and range land, the whole nitrogen thing, and was clear on where he is both pessimistic and optimistic about what is happening.  It was  fascinating talk, but I think it was his final image that I liked best:

“I think that what New Zealand is doing bringing you all together is a new beginning and a new hope. And the reason, despite all the pessimistic numbers, I ultimately feel optimistic, is precisely because there’s been so little effort to deal with these problems in the past.  Now, I don’t know how hard it would be to develop vaccines for livestock to reduce their emissions, but I do know that we’ve just started looking at it. And I don’t know how hard it would be to develop supergranules that reduce nitrous oxide emissions, maybe with a nitrification inhibitor to keep the nitrogen in the form of ammonium so it doesn’t form nitrous oxide,  but I know that there are only about a dozen people in the world trying. That leads me to believe that, while this is as important as rocket science, and we need people as smart as rocket scientists, we can solve it just like we build rockets.  I wish you good luck in making agricultural greenhouse gas emissions the equivalent of rocket science so in the future, 30 years from now, we’ll say ‘you don’t have to be an agricultural greenhouse gas scientist to understand this problem’.

In conclusion – there was certainly a lot said, but, as with anything, it remains to be seen what will actually come out of the meeting.  We can only hope that is doesn’t derail, as so many other negotiations like it have.

For the sake of brevity, I’ve of course left a lot out. For anyone who’d like to hear the various speeches (and see Searchinger’s slides), they can be found on the SMC website, here.

UPDATE: Searchinger will also be giving a talk entitled “The True Consequences of Bioenergy for Greenhouse Gas Emissions” at VUW this Friday, 8 April.


* And here’s a scary fact with it – even New Zealand, which has the best pasture management systems in the world (yay!), may  still be losing soil carbon (boo!).

** In more detail, and the words of the man himself:

’I want to mention a little about biofuels, because biofuels are also sometimes put in the cateogry of agricultural sequestration, or agricultural mitigation.  Again, it’s a little bit of an odd place to put them, because they won’t mitigate agricultural emissions, they would if anything mitigate energy emissions. The basic theory behind biofuels – the reason people think biofuels have the potential to reduce greenhouse gas emissions — is of course because of the word ‘bio’.  Bio means they start from plants: growing plants of course takes carbon out of the atmosphere.  So in theory, when you burn the biofuel you just put the carbon back into the atmosphere, unlike fossil fuels, where you take carbon out of the ground and you put it in the atmosphere.

Now, I’ve been involved in writing a number of papers that others have now built on, and basically there’s one problem with that, which is that plants are growing anyway. If you use land to produce plants for biofuels, you’re not using land to produce plants for other purposes.  So what we need are additional plants — it’s only the additional plants that count. And most of our analyses have counted ALL the plants, as though there were not plants there otherwise, either sequestering carbon or producing food.  Now, pretty much every really large estimate of bioenergy potential that you have probably seen, either directly or indirectly, counts carbon we’ve already counted. So, the IPPC has itself published a couple of anlyses with enormous bioenergy potentially — basically, it could produce ALL of our energy through bioenergy — assuming that we could use all of the potential coprland that we’re not already using.  Now, what is the world’s potential cropland that we’re not already using?  It’s essentially all of the world’s forests and [weather-storing?] land, and most of that land that’s available is in Latin America and Africa: that’s precisely the carbon we need to keep in the forests…The key point is, you can only count land, and land use, once.’

Now starring in movies: human genes aimee whitcroft Apr 06

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I do so love it when people make accessibly, entertaining, highly educational science stuff.


A dividing cell. The image is a composite of several images showing the effects of different gene silencings. The images were grouped according to their effect: green for genes that affect the mitotic spindle, and red for the genes that affect the chromosomes themselves*. Credit: Thomas Walter & Jutta Bulkescher / EMBL

In the latest of such moves, researchers from EMBL and the Mitocheck Consortium (both in Europe) have built up a library of movies showing what happens to a human cell when a particular gene is switched off.  One at a time.

This is a vast undertaking.  There are some 22,000 genes in the human genome, and the researchers silenced or inactivated each of these, one by one, and filmed what happened to the cell over the next 48 hours.  The result?  Almost 200,000 time lapse videos, which they then analysed** via an algorithm (developed by them) looking for what goes wrong, and in what order.

But why were they doing this?

The researchers in question want to study mitosis, and the molecular mechanisms behind it.  One of the most fundamental cellular processes, it’s the name used for when a cell splits in two: the most common way in which cells replicate (no shagging for them, as it were).  In order to study it, however, they needed to figure out which genes are involved in mitosis.

Now, as everyone (hopefully) knows, genes don’t come with handy labels describing their purpose(s).  Instead, we figure out what they do by silencing them, and watching what happens.  To look for genes specifically involved in mitosis, then, necessitated that the researchers look at all genes initially, and whittle it down from there.  Which they did, by having their very clever algorithm looks for genes which, when knocked out, had specific effects such as cells having 2 nuclei instead of the more modest and normal 1.

And, of course, the process they developed allowing them to accurately, and quickly, knock out specific genes is also a very exciting development for the scientific community.

That these genes were actually involved in mitosis was of course then confirmed, but the scientists involved say we’re still a long way from fully understanding the process.  Still, this is an exciting development for anyone interested in gene function, whether mitotically-involved or not.

For those interested, the study used HeLa cells, the subject of an excellent book entitled “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” and widely regarded as one of the best popular science books in recent times (if not ever).

The movies, and more information on the data behind the project, can be found here.


* Mystified by the term ‘spindle’.  Wondering what on earth this strange, globe-like structure means?  For a simple primer on how mitosis works, go here.

**Because, of course, that’s a few too many movies for anything other than an army of people to analyse, and who has the budget for armies of postdocs?


Neumann, B., Walter, T., Hériché, J., Bulkescher, J., Erfle, H., Conrad, C., Rogers, P., Poser, I., Held, M., Liebel, U., Cetin, C., Sieckmann, F., Pau, G., Kabbe, R., Wünsche, A., Satagopam, V., Schmitz, M., Chapuis, C., Gerlich, D., Schneider, R., Eils, R., Huber, W., Peters, J., Hyman, A., Durbin, R., Pepperkok, R., & Ellenberg, J. (2010). Phenotypic profiling of the human genome by time-lapse microscopy reveals cell division genes Nature, 464 (7289), 721-727 DOI: 10.1038/nature08869

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