A UN for science Don’t give up on a rational world just yet. Science academies around the globe are joining forces to get their voices heard, says Lorna Casselton AS THE disappointment of the Copenhagen climate summit sinks in, you could be forgiven for despairing of science ever being put at the centre of international policy-making. But scientists are not giving up the fight. This week, an important meeting is taking place at the Royal Society in London. The outcome will determine how the world’s finest scientific minds engage collectively with governments worldwide to make sure they have the benefit of the best possible scientific advice. The meeting is of a body you may never have heard of: the InterAcademy Panel on International Issues (IAP), a global coalition of national science academies from Albania to Zimbabwe. Its task this week is to agree a way forward for scientific advice to government – how the world of science, speaking as one,
Chilling stupidity Claims that a cold snap disproves climate change are dangerous nonsense, says Michael Le Page HERE’S the question to put to all those who confidently declare that the recent severe winter conditions prove that global warming is nonsense: “Next time there’s a heatwave in summer or an unusually mild spell in winter, will you publicly accept that the ‘warmists’ were right all along? If not, why not? If a cold snap means 20 | NewScientist | 16 January 2010
the climate is getting colder, surely a spell of hot weather proves it is getting warmer?” The point, of course, is that a bout of extreme weather does not prove anything about climate change. Climate is the average weather over decades. That said, it is perfectly reasonable to ask why, if the world
can reach out to policy-makers to help solve the critical global challenges we now face. The IAP was founded in New Delhi, India, in 1993 in response to growing concerns about world population. It has since grown in size and reputation as more and more academies have joined its ranks and new ones have been founded. From the Royal Society, the oldest academy in continuous existence, to the academies of Mozambique and Nicaragua, both founded a year ago, the IAP now has 103 members. The most recent member is the Academy of Sciences of Afghanistan. It is the United Nations of science. IAP has worked on issues as diverse as population growth, ocean acidification and the teaching of evolution. The organisation’s ambition is to become the most influential voice for the world’s scientists amid the clamour of politicians and lobby groups. IAP is also working hard to promote better science education, support young scientists and improve science communication. This is especially important in the developing world: IAP strives to help the poorest countries build their science, technology
is warming, have so many places may be no colder than in previous in the northern hemisphere been years, it’s just that the heat is experiencing record lows? The distributed differently. Indeed, answer is that for the past few the average surface temperature decades cold Arctic air has mostly of the entire planet during stayed in the Arctic over winter, January may yet turn out to be trapped by strong winds spinning one of the warmest on record. around the pole. This winter the Most atmospheric scientists vortex has weakened and in many regard the recent weather as places cold air is spilling further nothing more than the kind of south than usual. extreme event that happens from The result has been freezing time to time. Others are not so weather for places as far afield sure. Xiangdong Zhang of the as Florida, China and the UK. International Arctic Research However, the Arctic, Greenland, “The surface temperature much of the Mediterranean of the planet in January and southern Asia have been may turn out to be one of warmer than usual. So overall the warmest on record” the northern hemisphere winter
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and advisory capacities and thus champion robust, evidence-based policy-making. There are promising signs that science is increasingly being seen as an integral part of international politics. For example, there is a growing recognition that international science cooperation can be used to improve relations between countries. Scientists often succeed where politicians fail, working together for the greater good while their countries are mired in conflict. The world now faces challenges on an unprecedented level, which we are unequivocally failing to address. The challenges are also far more complex than ever before – there are no simple questions, let alone answers, and irrational opinion often rules over rational facts. Without sound scientific advice, governments have no hope of solving issues from nuclear weapons to food security, disease and energy. This week, the IAP will try to produce a road map for anticipating and solving the challenges ahead. Right now, that could not be more vital. ■ Lorna Casselton is foreign secretary of the Royal Society and emeritus professor of fungal genetics at the University of Oxford
Center in Fairbanks, Alaska, has found that atmospheric circulation patterns in the Arctic are changing drastically as it warms. He says these changes might have contributed to the recent unusual weather. Either way, some areas could have more cold weather in the future. That will not change the big picture: the world warmed over the 20th century and it is going to get warmer still. Anyone who tells you a cold spell proves otherwise is either intellectually challenged or plain dishonest. ■ Michael Le Page is a features editor at New Scientist
One minute with...
Hervé This The creator of “molecular gastronomy” foresees foods made without plant tissue or meat Can an understanding of science improve our cooking? There will never be science in the home. Science takes place in the lab. That produces knowledge, and if you use that knowledge when you cook then it becomes technique and technology. How did you get into the science of cooking? I was making a Roquefort soufflé for friends on Sunday 16 March 1980. The recipe said to make a béchamel sauce then add the egg yolks two by two. I am a rational man, so I added the yolks all together. The soufflé was a failure. The next Sunday I made the soufflé again and added the egg yolks one by one – and it was better. The next day I didn’t go to work but I began my notebook. The first sentence was: “I understand there are old wives’ tales in the kitchen and I will collect them and test them.” Do many more of these odd cooking practices turn out to be scientifically valid? In 1994, in front of 150 guests, I carried out an experiment where I cooked four suckling pigs from the same family in the same way. A 200-year-old recipe said that cutting the pig’s head off after it was cooked would make the crackling crispier. This is an example of a myth that seems wrong but is right. The mechanism is that when you roast the pig, the heat is evaporating from the surface and this makes the skin crisp. But at the same time, a lot of vapour accumulates in the body and this is lost immediately when you cut off the head. If you don’t cut it off, the vapour is forced through the skin and softens it. What was your most surprising scientific invention? Chemical formulations are very useful: I formulated the CDS (complex dispersal system) in 2001, which describes any colloidal system. Most foods are a colloidal system: one substance is dispersed in another to produce a gel or a foam. We are gels – water trapped in a solid network of muscular fibres – and we eat mostly gels.
PROFILE Hervé This edited the French edition of Scientific American before moving to the French Academy of Sciences. He created the concept of molecular gastronomy in 1988. His latest book is The Science of the Oven
What will we eat in the future? No one knows. But I have proposed a new method called note-by-note cooking, which is like playing the piano – assembling dishes note by note, using compounds like sucrose, salt, ethanol, tartaric acid. A chef made the first note-by-note dish in Hong Kong this year without plant tissue or meat, using reverse osmosis and fractionation to create compounds, building the dish in layers to include firmness, hardness, softness, stickiness, pungency and flavour. The political idea behind it is that if we want to get a better environment we have to help the farmers to behave more correctly, and in order to do that they have to get richer by adding value. So instead of growing and selling carrots, they need to create compounds from them. What do you think of Heston Blumenthal? His cooking is fun, and that’s important to keep the guests happy. What you need for cooking is love, art and technique. Technique is easy, art is harder and love is the most important. Interview by Sanjida O’Connell
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