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Slug miners, car-free Oxford Street, nuclear clean-up and more: best of the week's news

E&T staff pick their favourite news stories from the past week and reflect on what these latest developments in engineering and technology mean to them.

Jade Taylor-Salazar, supplements editor

Genetically engineered slugs to chew through landfill and mine precious metals

Not only does this idea sound far-fetched, it sounds terrifying, gross, and hugely unethical. If it’s been a while since you’ve seen a piece of news that makes you shudder, panic and generally doubt everything about the world then good news – we could one day welcome the presence of designer slugs (or other organisms I should say) that have been genetically engineered to scour landfill sites and collect precious metals. Using this horrifying scenario as a hypothetical, Dr John Collins from the UK research centre SynbiCITE has suggested that cell-editing technology Crispr-Cas9 could one day be used to create synthetic biological systems or ‘biocatalysts’ to digest waste and convert it into useful products. I don’t want to paint myself as someone entirely opposed to the idea of synthetic biology – I do understand that a lot of what goes on in these labs, which is entirely over my head, is being done to solve real world problems, but I don’t like this idea at all. The one small piece of comfort I take from this is the fact that it’s not happening yet, and that even the synthetic biologists seem to think the idea is a little out there. I don’t have an issue with the idea of using synthetic organisms to help clear up waste products and convert unrecyclable material into useful substances (another idea proposed by the researchers at SynbiCITE) – after all, we need to do something to get ourselves out of our current waste-filled pickle – but I do have an issue with this being a living, breathing creature like a slug. Perhaps I’m wrong, but the idea of genetically engineered creatures being set loose to clean up waste disposal sites before being killed and ‘harvested’ for the precious metals contained within their tiny bellies seems completely and utterly horrific to me.

Josh Loeb, associate editor

After All: A dead electric bulb in a peaked Soviet-style thinking cap

In his most recent ‘After All’ column, Vitali Vitaliev reflects again on the general parsimoniousness that characterised his years living in the USSR, informing readers that it is “very difficult, if not impossible, for a normal ‘Western’ person to imagine the sheer dearth of goods in our Soviet existence”. He describes the Bolsheviks’ 1917 seizure of power as a “coup d’etat” and celebrates the eventual downfall of the Soviet system.

Reminders of the misery caused to ordinary people by the actions of the self-styled ‘vanguard of the proletariat’ are important, now more than ever. The centenary of the start of the Bolsheviks’ grim reign was marked this week with muted commemorations in Russia. In the UK, countless documentaries have reflected on the meaning and effects of Lenin’s putsch. Many featured the usual hard left headbangers who can be relied upon to put a rose-tinted gloss on Leninism. These ideologues typically portray the supposed moral purity of the Bolshevik coup as having been besmirched later on by Stalin, but in fact Lenin’s actions constituted the original sin. His coup had plenty of effects, but the truth is it had very little meaning. Lenin wanted power, pure and simple. He forced his will onto the people without their consent by overthrowing the Provisional Government that had been established after an earlier, democratic uprising that had toppled the Tsar. Lenin seized power because he had a messiah complex, a terrifying total certainty that he alone was right. In his warped mind this justified doing anything to obtain and hold onto power. He loathed democracy and pluralism. His dangerous mentality was a recipe for brute totalitarianism.

Shortly after the fall of communism, a Marxist history teacher at the London comprehensive school I attended in the early 1990s made it clear to me and my fellow classmates that Lenin was his hero. He identified politically with many of the leading Bolsheviks, whom he regarded as warriors for social justice. I remember thinking at the time that he must be right. So many adults poured scorn on communism, but was capitalism really any better? I had seen plenty of homeless people in London. America seemed vulgar and nihilistic. How bad could communism be?

I now regard that teacher as having been a deluded and arrogant fool. From his comfortable existence in the UK he had keenly proselytised for a moribund system despised by so many who had actually lived under it. These days I prefer to listen to the testimonies of people like Vitali who actually experienced first-hand the hardships of real, existing communism. Instinctively, whenever I hear anyone praising the supposed superiority of some rival political system being put into action in an exciting land overseas, I want to march up to them and shout “Well if it’s so wonderful there, go and live there then!” but I am, sadly, far too polite, and so I keep schtum.

Lorna Sharpe, sub-editor

Ben Nevis getting new weather station for the first time since 1904

It’s hard to believe that volunteers took hourly weather readings at the top of the UK’s highest mountain for nearly 20 years at the end of the 19th century but no one has made comparable recordings since. Even now, the new automated weather station being placed at the summit of Ben Nevis will only operate for a few weeks, but it’s intended to provide valuable comparisons to all that Victorian data – which modern-day volunteers are now busy transcribing to digital format to make it more widely accessible to scientists.

View from Washington: Time to put a ‘sell-by’ date on consumer electronics

One of the many reasons why I prefer paper books to the e-reader version is that they can’t suddenly disappear on an electronic whim, but who knew that your physical electronic gadgets could suddenly stop working because the manufacturer decides to operate a kill switch?

Jack Loughran, news reporter

Oxford Street pedestrianisation plan on track for 2018

This proposal has been going back and forth for over a decade now. Former Mayor of London Ken Livingstone first suggested pedestrianising Oxford Street way back in 2006, a few years after doing the same for part of Trafalgar Square. The plan would probably have come to fruition were it not for the election in 2008 of blond-haired buffoon Boris Johnson, who scrapped it entirely because it wasn’t “cost effective”. Despite temporary pedestrianisation of the area in 2012, which proved highly popular and saw retail outlets boost sales by £17m, the famous street was to remain shrouded in smog for years to come.

Boris’s penchant for regressive policies (e.g. cancellation of the congestion charge extension) put paid to any hopes that Ken’s original proposal could be achieved under his tenure. Luckily, Londoners finally saw sense and voted Sadiq Khan in as Mayor last year. Since his appointment he has introduced a series of sensible policies designed to improve the lives of people living in the highly polluted capital (while scrapping some of Boris’s hare-brained schemes (see the ‘garden bridge’).

Currently, cars chug so slowly along the road it’s a surprise anyone bothers to drive down it. Meanwhile the endless stream of black cabs and buses pump nitrous oxide into the lungs of the millions of shoppers who go there every year. Even if we will have to put up with street performers standing in what was once the middle of the road, at least we will be able to breathe relatively easily while panic-buying presents on Christmas Eve.

Vitali Vitaliev, features editor

Nuclear site uses ‘eye in the sky’ for inspections

I visited Dounreay in 2003 when working as a columnist for the Glasgow Herald. It took me nine hours to get by train to the northernmost town of Thurso, in the outskirts of which the former nuclear power station was located. The decommissioning process had started already, and it was clear that it would take many years, possibly decades, to process all nuclear waste on the site and around it, including on beaches and in the sea. The level of background radiation around the long-decommissioned nuclear reactor remained unacceptably and dangerously high. I remember talking to a local villager, who told me that his pet dog, whom he used to walk on the beach every morning, had died of an unexpected and aggressive form of skin cancer the year before. People in the area were telling me about various ailments they ascribed to the increased radiation levels. To me, it was a painful reminder of the Chernobyl disaster, the site of which I visited in 2004 while making a documentary about my native Ukraine for Channel 4. It also brought back memories of my father, a nuclear physicist, who died prematurely as a result of exposure to very high levels of radiation for many years. The fact that part of the ongoing decommissioning job will now be carried out by drones is good news. Hopefully, this will help to save some precious human and animal lives.

Ben Nevis getting new weather station for the first time since 1904

This, somewhat more cheerful, piece of news from Scotland reminded me of an invite I once received while on an assignment in Fort William to greet the New Year on the summit of Ben Nevis with a group of mountain climbers. I was then very tempted to accept the offer, but, having heard the reports about how unpredictable the weather at the top could be, eventually declined. Yes, chickened out, you may say. Reading this news story made me regret that decision for the umpteenth time. Well, who knows, maybe one day…

After All: A dead electric bulb in a peaked Soviet-style thinking cap

Having summed up the results of my impromptu ‘dead Soviet lightbulbs’ mini-quiz in my latest After All column, I still keep receiving belated readers’ responses every day. I now want to use this slot to reply to some of them… One of the readers, Martin Letts, wants to ‘claim my broken non-working ballpoint pen as a prize!’ I would be happy to send you the prize, Martin (have plenty of them piled at the back of a desk drawer), but, unfortunately, the answer you give is not quite right (you probably hadn’t had a chance to see the above column before writing to me), so I will keep my broken ballpoint pen this time round. Unlike Mr Letts, my long-time correspondent Brian Burgess apparently did have time to see the column before writing. “Wow, only five people got the true reason,” he comments on the fact that just five readers out of several hundred could guess the correct answer, and continues: “ I think that must reflect the academic rather than practical bent of your readership.” I cannot agree more. And it’s not just E&T readers that naturally find it hard to assume the peculiar Soviet mentality, even if for a minute or so. Last Tuesday, during a public talk I gave in a large bookshop in the nice English town where I live, I addressed the same question (why could broken lightbulbs be on sale in the 1980s Soviet Union?) to the audience. There was only one lady who answered correctly! As I found out later, she was actually from Ukraine!

Dominic Lenton, managing editor

English Heritage stately homes open their doors to Google Street View

Family membership of English Heritage (or the National Trust) is something that doesn’t come up often enough in recommendations to new parents of value-for-money entertainment. For years, we’ve been getting our subscriptions-worth just by ducking off the motorway on long holiday car journeys and using the nearest castle or stately home as a more relaxing and often educational alternative to service station purgatory without having to worry about coughing up for everyone to get in as a one-off. It came as a bit of a shock a couple of years ago when the eldest offspring reached the age where they weren’t covered by the annual family ticket, and the suggestion they might like individual membership as a Christmas or birthday present didn’t cut much ice. It’s just one of those things that you embrace as a youngster, take a break from, then return to as an adult, I suspect.

One of the ways technology has changed the whole experience of visiting an English Heritage property in recent years is that despite still carrying the latest guidebook in the glovebox, we’re more likely to find out what’s nearby and whether it’s open with the help of a smartphone. That’ll usually give you reliable directions as well, avoiding the conflict of Dad with a map who’s convinced he’s found a cunning shortcut which turns out to be less than accurate.

Now potential visitors can even see what’s in store before they get there, thanks to a partnership with Google which uses Street View to show some of the English Heritage treasures at sites across the country via a gigapixel-scale 360-degree tour. It’s not going to replace the experience of visiting somewhere like Tintagel or my local favourite Wrest Park in Bedfordshire, but if it entices a few more people to make the leap and drop by in person, that can’t be a bad thing.

 

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