Shining Curtains

When the Vikings swept across Europe in the 7th and 8th centuries, they brought with them many stories; stories of their Gods, of the birth of the world, of Asgard, of Valhalla, of Jormundur the world-serpent, of Loki the trickster, Odin the father and of Ragnarok- the end of this world and the beginning of the next. However, the reason I mention the Vikings today is in reference to one particular set of stories they brought with them; of shining curtains of brilliant, heavenly fire, dancing across the northern sky as the Gods fought with one another. Such lights were not common in Europe, but they were certainly known, and throughout history have provoked terror at the anger of the various Gods that was clearly being displayed across the heavens. Now, we know these shining curtains as the aurora borealis (Aurora was the Roman goddess of the dawn, whilst boreas was the Greek name for the north wind (because the aurora was only observed in the far north- a similar feature known as the aurora australis is seen near the south pole). The name was acquired in 1621).

Nowadays, we know that the auroras are an electromagnetic effect, which was demonstrated quite spectacularly in 1859. On the 28th of August and 2nd of September that year, spectacular auroras erupted across much of the northern hemisphere, reaching their peak at one o’clock in the morning EST, and as far south as Boston the light was enough to read by. However, the feature I am interested here concerns the American Telegraph Line, stretching almost due north between Boston, Massachusetts, and Portland, Maine. Because of the great length and orientation of this line, the electromagnetic field generated by the aurora was sufficient to induce a current in the telegraph, to the extent that operators at both ends of the line communicated to decide to switch off their batteries (which were only interfering) and operate solely on aurora-power for around two hours. Aside from a gentle fluctuation of current, no problems were reported with this system.

We now know that the ultimate cause of the aurorae is our sun, and that two loads of exceptional solar activity were responsible for the 1859 aurora. We all know the sun emits a great deal of energy from the nuclear fusion going on in its core, but it also emits a whole lot of other stuff; including a lot of ionised (charged) gas, or plasma. This outflow of charged particles forms what is known as the solar wind, flowing out into space in all directions; it is this solar wind that generates the tail on comets, and is why such a tail always points directly away from the sun. However, things get interesting when the solar wind hits a planet such as Earth, which has a magnetic field surrounding it. Earth’s magnetic field looks remarkably similar to that of a large, three-dimensional bar magnet (this picture demonstrates it’s shape well), and when a large amount of charged particles passes through this magnetic field it is subject to something known as the motor effect. As every GCSE physics student knows, it is this effect that allows us to generate motion from electricity, and the same thing happens here; the large mass of moving charge acts as a current, and this cuts across the earth’s magnetic field. This generates a force (this is basically what the motor effect does), and this force points sideways, pushing the solar wind sideways. However, as it moves, so does the direction of the ‘current’, and thus the direction of the force changes too; this process ends up causing the charge to spin around the magnetic field lines of the earth, causing it to spiral as this mass of charged particles moves along them. Following these field lines, the charge will end up spiralling towards the poles of the earth, at which point the field lines bend and start going into the earth itself. As the plasma follows these lines therefore, it will come into contact with the Earth’s atmosphere, and one section of it in particular; the magnetosphere.

The magnetosphere is a region of our atmosphere that covers the upper level of our ionosphere which has a strong magnetic field. Here, the magnetic fields of both the charged plasma and the magnetosphere itself combine in a rather complicated process known as magnetic reconnection, the importance of which will be discussed later. Now, let us consider the contents of the plasma, all these charged particles and in particular high energy electrons that are now bumping into atoms of air in the ionosphere. This bumping into atoms gives them energy, which an atom deals with by having electrons within the atoms jump up energy levels and enter an excited state. After a short while, the atoms ‘cool down’ by having electrons drop down energy levels again, releasing packets of electromagnetic energy as they do so. We observe this release of EM radiation as visible light, and hey presto! we can see the aurorae. What colour the aurora ends up being depends on what atoms we are interacting with; oxygen is more common higher up and generates green and red aurorae depending on height, so these are the most common colours. If the solar wind is able to get further down in the atmosphere, it can interact with nitrogen and produce blue and purple aurorae.

The shape of the aurorae can be put down to the whole business of spiralling around field lines; this causes, as the field lines bend in towards the earth’s poles, them to describe roughly circular paths around the north and south poles. However, plasma does not conduct electricity very well between magnetic field lines, as this pattern is, so we would not expect the aurora to be very bright under normal circumstances. The reason this is not the case, and that aurorae are as visible and beautiful as they are, can be put down to the process of magnetic reconnection, which makes the plasma more conductive and allows these charged particles to flow more easily around in a circular path. This circular path around the poles causes the aurora to follow approximately east-west lines into the far distance, and thus we get the effect of ‘curtains’ of light following (roughly) this east-west pattern. The flickery, wavy nature of these aurora is, I presume, due to fluctuations in the solar wind and/or actual winds in the upper atmosphere. The end result? Possibly the most beautiful show Earth has to offer us. I love science.

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The Offensive Warfare Problem

If life has shown itself to be particularly proficient at anything, it is fighting. There is hardly a creature alive today that does not employ physical violence in some form to get what it wants (or defend what it has) and, despite a vast array of moral arguments to the contrary of that being a good idea (I must do a post on the prisoner’s dilemma some time…), humankind is, of course, no exception. Unfortunately, our innate inventiveness and imagination as a race means that we have been able to let our brains take our fighting to the next level, with consequences that have got ever-more destructive as  time has gone  by. With the construction of the first atomic bombs, humankind had finally got to where it had threatened to for so long- the ability to literally wipe out planet earth.

This insane level of offensive firepower is not just restricted to large-scale big-guns (the kind that have been used fir political genital comparison since Napoleon revolutionised the use of artillery in warfare)- perhaps the most interesting and terrifying advancement in modern warfare and conflict has been the increased prevalence and distribution of powerful small arms, giving ‘the common man’ of the battlefield a level of destructive power that would be considered hideously overwrought in any other situation (or, indeed, the battlefield of 100 years ago). The epitomy of this effect is, of course, the Kalashnikov AK-47, whose cheapness and insane durability has rendered it invaluable to rebel groups or other hastily thrown together armies, giving them an ability to kill stuff that makes them very, very dangerous to the population of wherever they’re fighting.

And this distribution of such awesomely dangerous firepower has began to change warfare, and to explain how I need to go on a rather dramatic detour. The goal of warfare has always, basically, centred around the control of land and/or population, and as James Herbert makes so eminently clear in Dune, whoever has the power to destroy something controls it, at least in a military context. In his book Ender’s Shadow (I feel I should apologise for all these sci-fi references), Orson Scott Card makes the entirely separate point that defensive warfare in the context of space warfare makes no practical sense. For a ship & its weapons to work in space warfare, he rather convincingly argues, the level of destruction it must be able to deliver would have to be so large that, were it to ever get within striking distance of earth it would be able to wipe out literally billions- and, given the distance over which any space war must be conducted, mutually assured destruction simply wouldn’t work as a defensive strategy as it would take far too long for any counterstrike attempt to happen. Therefore, any attempt to base one’s warfare effort around defence, in a space warfare context, is simply too risky, since one ship (or even a couple of stray missiles) slipping through in any of the infinite possible approach directions to a planet would be able to cause uncountable levels of damage, leaving the enemy with a demonstrable ability to destroy one’s home planet and, thus, control over it and the tactical initiative. Thus, it doesn’t make sense to focus on a strategy of defensive warfare and any long-distance space war becomes a question of getting there first (plus a bit of luck).

This is all rather theoretical and, since we’re talking about a bunch of spaceships firing missiles at one another, not especially relevant when considering the realities of modern warfare- but it does illustrate a point, namely that as offensive capabilities increase the stakes rise of the prospect of defensive systems failing. This was spectacularly, and horrifyingly, demonstrated during 9/11, during which a handful of fanatics armed with AK’s were able to kill 5,000 people, destroy the world trade centre and irrevocably change the face of the world economy and world in general. And that came from only one mode of attack, and despite all the advances in airport security that have been made since then there is still ample opportunity for an attack of similar magnitude to happen- a terrorist organisation, we must remember, only needs to get lucky once. This means that ‘normal’ defensive methods, especially since they would have to be enforced into all of our everyday lives (given the format that terrorist attacks typically take), cannot be applied to this problem, and we must rely almost solely on intelligence efforts to try and defend ourselves.

This business of defence and offence being in imbalance in some form or another is not a phenomenon solely confined to the modern age. Once, wars were fought solely with clubs and shields, creating a somewhat balanced case of attack and defence;  attack with the club, defend with the shield. If you were good enough at defending, you could survive; simple as that. However, some bright spark then came up with the idea of the bow, and suddenly the world was in imbalance- even if an arrow couldn’t pierce an animal skin stretched over some sticks (which, most of the time, it could), it was fast enough to appear from nowhere before you had a chance to defend yourself. Thus, our defensive capabilities could not match our offensive ones. Fast forward a millennia or two, and we come to a similar situation; now we defended ourselves against arrows and such by hiding in castles behind giant stone walls  and other fortifications that were near-impossible to break down, until some smart alec realised the use of this weird black powder invented in China. The cannons that were subsequently invented could bring down castle walls in a matter of hours or less, and once again they could not be matched from the defensive standpoint- our only option now lay in hiding somewhere the artillery couldn’t get us, or running out of the way of these lumbering beasts. As artillery technology advanced throughout the ensuing centuries, this latter option became less and less feasible as the sheer numbers of high-explosive weaponry trained on opposition armies made them next-to impossible to fight in the field; but they were still difficult to aim accurately at well dug-in soldiers, and from these starting conditions we ended up with the First World War.

However, this is not a direct parallel of the situation we face now; today we deal with the simple and very real truth that a western power attempting to defend its borders (the situation is somewhat different when they are occupying somewhere like Afghanistan, but that can wait until another time) cannot rely on simple defensive methods alone- even if every citizen was an army trained veteran armed with a full complement of sub-machine guns (which they quite obviously aren’t), it wouldn’t be beyond the wit of a terrorist group to sneak a bomb in somewhere destructive. Right now, these methods may only be capable of killing or maiming hundreds or thousands at a time; tragic, but perhaps not capable of restructuring a society- but as our weapon systems get ever more advanced, and our more effective systems get ever cheaper and easier for fanatics to get hold of, the destructive power of lone murderers may increase dramatically, and with deadly consequences.

I’m not sure that counts as a coherent conclusion, or even if this counts as a coherent post, but it’s what y’got.

Big Pharma

The pharmaceutical industry is (some might say amazingly) the second largest on the planet, worth over 600 billion dollars in sales every year and acting as the force behind the cutting edge of science that continues to push the science of medicine onwards as a field- and while we may never develop a cure for everything you can be damn sure that the modern medical world will have given it a good shot. In fact the pharmaceutical industry is in quite an unusual position in this regard, forming the only part of the medicinal public service, and indeed any major public service, that is privatised the world over.

The reason for this is quite simply one of practicality; the sheer amount of startup capital required to develop even one new drug, let alone form a public service of this R&D, would feature in the hundreds of millions of dollars, something that no government would be willing to set aside for a small immediate gain. All modern companies in the ‘big pharma’ demographic were formed many decades ago on the basis of a surprise cheap discovery or suchlike, and are now so big that they are the only people capable of fronting such a big initial investment. There are a few organisations (the National Institute of Health, the Royal Society, universities) who conduct such research away from the private sectors, but they are small in number and are also very old institutions.

Many people, in a slightly different field, have voiced the opinion that people whose primary concern is profit are those we should least be putting in charge of our healthcare and wellbeing (although I’m not about to get into that argument now), and a similar argument has been raised concerning private pharmaceutical companies. However, that is not to say that a profit driven approach is necessarily a bad thing for medicine, for without it many of the ‘minor’ drugs that have greatly improved the overall healthcare environment would not exist. I, for example, suffer from irritable bowel syndrome, a far from life threatening but nonetheless annoying and inconvenient condition that has been greatly helped by a drug called mebeverine hydrochloride. If all medicine focused on the greater good of ‘solving’ life-threatening illnesses, a potentially futile task anyway, this drug would never have been developed and I would be even more hateful to my fragile digestive system. In the western world, motivated-by-profit makes a lot of sense when trying to make life just that bit more comfortable. Oh, and they also make the drugs that, y’know, save your life every time you’re in hospital.

Now, normally at this point in any ‘balanced argument/opinion piece’ thing on this blog, I try to come up with another point to try and keep each side of the argument at an about equal 500 words. However, this time I’m going to break that rule, and jump straight into the reverse argument straight away. Why? Because I can genuinely think of no more good stuff to say about big pharma.

If I may just digress a little; in the UK & USA (I think, anyway) a patent for a drug or medicine lasts for 10 years, on the basis that these little capsules can be very valuable things and it wouldn’t do to let people hang onto the sole rights to make them for ages. This means that just about every really vital lifesaving drug in medicinal use today, given the time it takes for an experimental treatment to become commonplace, now exists outside its patent and is now manufactured by either the lowest bidder or, in a surprisingly high number of cases, the health service itself (the UK, for instance, is currently trying to become self-sufficient in morphine poppies to prevent it from having to import from Afghanistan or whatever), so these costs are kept relatively low by market forces. This therefore means that during their 10-year grace period, drugs companies will do absolutely everything they can to extort cash out of their product; when the antihistamine drug loratadine (another drug I use relatively regularly, it being used to combat colds) was passing through the last two years of its patent, its market price was quadrupled by the company making it; they had been trying to get the market hooked onto using it before jacking up the prices in order to wring out as much cash as possible. This behaviour is not untypical for a huge number of drugs, many of which deal with serious illness rather than being semi-irrelevant cures for the snuffles.

So far, so much normal corporate behaviour. Reaching this point, we must now turn to consider some practices of the big pharma industry that would make Rupert Murdoch think twice. Drugs companies, for example, have a reputation for setting up price fixing networks, many of which have been worth several hundred million dollars. One, featuring what were technically food supplements businesses, subsidiaries of the pharmaceutical industry, later set the world record for the largest fines levied in criminal history- this a record that persists despite the fact that the cost of producing the actual drugs themselves (at least physically) rarely exceeds a couple of pence per capsule, hundreds of times less than their asking price.

“Oh, but they need to make heavy profits because of the cost of R&D to make all their new drugs”. Good point, well made and entirely true, and it would also be valid if the numbers behind it didn’t stack up. In the USA, the National Institute of Health last year had a total budget of $23 billion, whilst all the drug companies in the US collectively spent $32 billion on R&D. This might seem at first glance like the private sector has won this particular moral battle; but remember that the American drug industry generated $289 billion in 2006, and accounting for inflation (and the fact that pharmaceutical profits tend to stay high despite the current economic situation affecting other industries) we can approximate that only around 10% of company turnover is, on average, spent on R&D. Even accounting for manufacturing costs, salaries and such, the vast majority of that turnover goes into profit, making the pharmaceutical industry the most profitable on the planet.

I know that health is an industry, I know money must be made, I know it’s all necessary for innovation. I also know that I promised not to go into my Views here. But a drug is not like an iPhone, or a pair of designer jeans; it’s the health of millions at stake, the lives of billions, and the quality of life of the whole world. It’s not something to be played around with and treated like some generic commodity with no value beyond a number. Profits might need to be made, but nobody said there had to be 12 figures of them.