Garbage flying around the Earth

Space junk, gaming disorders, plastics ban and more: our picks of the week’s tech news

Image credit: European Space Agency

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.

Jack Loughran, news reporter

Space junk radar in development at JAXA that can detect dangerous micro-debris

Typical humans creating litter and rubbish everywhere, destroying the planet, and now we’ve turned our destructive urges towards Space. Over the years we’ve irresponsibly dumped so much crap up there that the likelihood that it will smash into satellites and other spacecraft we send up is growing exponentially.

In addition, the more space junk that orbits the Earth, the more it collides with itself, smashing into thousands of smaller pieces. You would think that smaller pieces would actually be a good thing, how much damage can a tiny piece of old rocket actually do? Well it turns out that the ISS got hit by a paint fleck which almost took out one of its windows.

You see these tiny pieces of space debris are travelling at such speeds that they’re equivalent to a barrage of bullets constantly circling the Earth. They are also much harder to capture and remove from orbit. Eventually we might end up hemming ourselves in so that we are unable to launch anything into space without it getting smashed into smithereens. Just in case you were worried that we weren’t causing enough environmental damage on Earth, you can now rest assured that we treat Space just as badly.

Josh Loeb, associate editor

Should gaming disorder become a psychiatric diagnosis?

There’s some classic ivory tower bickering going on between the lines of this report from E&T reporter Hilary Lamb. The questions at its heart are twofold. Could playing lots of video games be a sign of a psychiatric disease? Can gaming become an addiction? Yes, says the World Health Organisation. No, say dozens of experts.

I’m naturally sceptical about the rush to medicalise, but then what do I know? I’m lucky never to have suffered from any mental health problem (as far as I know), but I like to think I wouldn’t be ashamed to admit it if I had been diagnosed with one. These are medical problems like any other. They can be every bit as bad as, and sometimes much worse than, physical diseases.

I certainly don’t think I’m immune, and I don’t mean to sound dismissive of anyone. My issue is simply with the sheer number of recognised mental health disorders, with one often seemingly indistinguishable from the next.

The NHS lists scores of different forms of psychiatric disease. There are subcategories too. They include panic disorder, anxiety, stress, depression, hoarding disorder, antisocial personality disorder, social anxiety disorder and agoraphobia. Maybe it helps for patients to be able to put a name to a problem, but I for one am unsure as to exactly when anxiety becomes stress and at what point antisocial personality disorder morphs into social anxiety disorder.

I’m not sure adding new names to an already lengthy list to describe conditions that are only very subtly different from those already classified actually helps anyone.

The health service loves a good syndrome, though. A particular favourite, outside of the arena of mental health, is ‘shaken baby syndrome’. This odd phrase is now used to describe what happens to the brain and head of an infant that has been violently shaken by its abusive parent or carer and possibly hit against a wall. It’s not a discrete medical ‘syndrome’, for goodness sake, it’s brain damage caused by a violent assault on a child!

Anyway, back to gaming addiction. I am unqualified to opine as to whether this should be included in the WHO’s manual alongside the likes of alcoholism and heroin addiction. Maybe we should add social media addiction too. And online news addiction. And selfie-at-a-tourist-hotspot addiction.

But this much I am sure of: if we are going to keep on making this list of syndromes and diseases longer and longer, let’s at least agree on how to identify, differentiate and, hopefully, treat any new entries. Otherwise in a few decades’ time the list will be so long that everyone will just ignore it.

Dickon Ross, editor in chief

UK ban on microbeads in production comes into force

‘Avoidable’ plastic waste to be eliminated by 2042, vows Prime Minister

As the ban on microbeads came into force this week, the government announced a 25 year plan to eliminate avoidable plastic waste. The plan came under fire for it's 2042 target 25 years away. in plastics, plenty changed from the 1850s to the 1970s. Think think how much has changed technologically in the last 25 years, let alone how that will accelerate in the next 25. There's a new fund for 'plastics innovation' research but the government audit committee that recommended the microbeads ban were also disappointed the new plan did not include its other recommendations, such as a levy on disposable coffee cups 

Dominic Lenton, managing editor

Intel demonstrates coordinated 250-drone lightshow as a fireworks alternative

I’ve always been impervious to the appeal of firework displays, whether it’s the ear-splitting whizzes and bangs that seem to last for at least a fortnight around 5 November every year or the recent trend for seeing in the new year by letting off a few rockets in your back garden. That’s not to say I’d put a stop to them altogether; plenty of people seem to enjoy standing in the freezing November night, craning their neck to watch the bright lights and noisy explosions. What I can see the appeal of though, having witnessed it for the first time while on holiday last summer, is an aerobatic display by a team like the RAF’s Red Arrows. Maybe it’s the fact there’s a high level of skill involved, and potentially an element of danger.

The way forward looks like it might combine the best of both worlds. One of the highlights of this week’s CES consumer technology show in Las Vegas was a performance by pre-programmed, illuminated mini drones. In theory, the 250 craft involved could just be the start – as the technology develops it should be possible to have many more buzzing around in a co-ordinated routine as the crown ooh and aah below. That I’d be interested in going outside to see whatever the weather. And unlike fireworks they could be used over and over again.

Vitali Vitaliev, features editor

Injecting antibiotics with skin patches could help fight antibiotic resistance


A very welcome piece of news for someone like myself, whose life was saved at least twice by antibiotics. The first time was many years ago, in rural Ukraine, where I was laid up with severe pneumonia and pleuritic fever. I was coughing up blood, my body temperature reached 42 degrees, and I would almost certainly have died had a village nurse not found some penicillin in her medicine cupboard. The second was last April, when hospitalised at Lister Hospital in Stevenage with a severe and at that point unidentifiable chest infection while recovering after open-heart surgery. For five days almost non-stop, my veins were pumped with strong antibiotic solutions from two drips that I monikered Dee and Doris. It was only on day six, when everyone, myself included, was ready to give up,  that the antibiotics started working, for, like with most of us,  because of using that type of drugs much too frequently throughout the years - to treat flus, colds and toothaches - my body’s resistance to them had increased considerably. In recent years the media has been spreading fears of the situation when our bodies will stop reacting to antibiotics completely – a truly apocalyptic scenario for humankind.  If administering these drugs through patches does  help reduce our resistance to them, then this is a breakthrough worthy of the Nobel Prize in Medicine, for it can potentially save millions and millions of human lives.


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