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Korean border, gene-edited crops, vaginal mesh and more: best of the week’s news

E&T staff pick the news from the past week that caught their eye and reflect on what these latest developments in engineering and technology mean to them. For the full story, just click on the headline.

Josh Loeb, asssociate editor

North-South Korea border: zone of fear and hope

Not far from the IET’s London office in Savoy Place stands a modest memorial to British soldiers who fought in the Korean War. The UK’s role in that brutal conflict has now been largely forgotten, so it’s sobering to recall that 1,106 British soldiers were killed during it. Thousands more were wounded or suffered as prisoners of war. In all, 81,084 British troops fought in that distant land. That’s more than the total number of soldiers currently making up the UK’s entire fighting force.

The start of the Korean War came just five years after the end of the Second World War. That means some British soldiers killed in Korea would probably have been D-Day veterans who had helped liberate Europe from Nazi tyranny just a few years earlier. It’s hard nowadays to conceive of the debt we owe to these heroes and the scale of their sacrifices, which themselves represent merely a tiny part of the total suffering on the Korean Peninsula between 1950 and 1953.

This is no place to rehearse in detail the complexities of the Korean War and Britain’s involvement in it, but suffice to say this was no Iraq. It was, to begin with at least, a relatively morally unambiguous conflict, the trigger for which was obvious: namely, Communist North Korea’s invasion of the sovereign state of South Korea. The UK pledged troops to help enforce a UN resolution. Clement Attlee – arguably the UK’s greatest ever Prime Minister and Labour’s best ever leader – recognised the importance of strengthening the UN, the threat posed by the Soviet Union and the urgent need for solidarity with a far-away victim of Communist aggression. He was right to take Britain into that war.

However, as it progressed the conflict turned very ugly and has, in fact, never truly ended. More than six decades on, the two Koreas are still at it. In spite of the Winter Olympics thaw, the Korean War is still being fought to this very day – officially, at least. In some ways, it predated, outlasted and has eclipsed the Cold War. One day it must surely end, but no one knows when or how.

E&T’s intrepid wanderer Vitali Vitaliev visited the fault line and has brought back glimpses of a magical place. I refer not to the nightmare that is North Korea but to the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), the so-called ‘Mother of All Borders’, which has become a kind of unintended nature reserve as an indirect by-product of the bloodshed. War created this no man’s land, and nature filled it – which is as optimistic a theme as you’re going to get in this story of carnage.

Borderlands are inherently interesting, but Vitali, who grew up in Eastern Europe and experienced Communism at first-hand, probably has a particularly personal reason for wanting to see a place so completely bound up with the Cold War and the 20th Century. Inside the DMZ, he was able to step across the invisible Demarcation Line separating the two Koreas. He thus found himself “de facto back in a totalitarian state” for the first time since his defection from the USSR in 1990. He felt, he writes, a “ticklish” sensation.

Tim Fryer, technology editor

Gene-edited crops could overcome lower yields caused by climate change

Something that has cropped (no pun intended) up a few times in my recent research has been not the success of technology, but the failure of it. The reason for this is that in our new series on science-fiction movies, technology generally turns bad. Robots rise, society collapses, poverty, hunger, world climate meltdown... I think I’ve probably watched and read most dystopian outcomes of late.

They generally concern sinister technology flourishing, while the technology for good – energy provision, for example – seems to have stagnated or even reversed. And while genetic engineering of crops is clearly intended for the good, there is something about unnatural nature that sparks immediate distrust from a vocal minority (or is it majority? I’m not sure).

Anything to do with tampering with nature is bound to have consequences, but they don’t have to be either significant or bad. I appreciate that there is a concern that such a change may appear to be good and turn out to be bad, by which time it is irreversible; for example if cross-pollination between natural and genetically modified crops results in a hybrid that becomes the standard, which in turn has carcinogenic properties or some such.

Such is the litigious nature of the world we live in, there is little doubt that scientists undertaking this sort of work are aware of the consequences and do the due diligence on their processes and technology to make sure they are aware of how it will behave in the real world. So I do wish that sometimes people would give technology a chance. Undoubtedly the sci-fi worlds with which I’ve been entertaining myself are unduly pessimistic – that’s what makes them excitingly sinister – but they do tend to make the assumption that we haven’t developed the technology needed to deal with our changing environment. Growing population and climate change are undeniable and if new technologies are needed to accommodate that then we as a society should get over the knee-jerk reaction that genetic modification has to be bad. We don’t want to get to the stage when the world is starving and look back at the missed opportunities we have had to remedy that.

What will rub salt into the wound is if we have a robotic Prime Minister who doesn’t care for the humanoids, or perhaps one whose main goal is to build a wall to fortify the nation... it’s scary stuff.

Hilary Lamb, news reporter

New material could offer alternative to controversial vaginal mesh

What would the world be like if men could get pregnant too? Maybe new parents would be offered enough free childcare such that not only the richest mothers could afford to continue unimpeded in their careers. Perhaps it would be illegal to harass and intimidate those who take the difficult decision to terminate their pregnancies outside the clinic. Perhaps there would be a form of contraception that didn’t come with side effects like depression, weight gain and nausea. And maybe we could grow foetuses entirely in the lab.

Before you start thinking the latter sounds a bit too dystopian, take a moment to appreciate the nightmare that bearing children is in reality. It is, according to Genesis, one of the eternal punishments delivered by God as a reminder of the sin brought into the world by Eve eating an apple when he very clearly told her not to do that. There’s an entire industry dedicated to helping women prepare for the pain of childbirth with breathing classes, stinky oils and whatever else you can throw your wallet at. We believe all this is fine, because it’s natural and every one of our female ancestors has done it.

The pain of childbirth is one of those things we’re expected to put up with, like being harassed on public transport and shoes that deform our feet. Well, I don’t want to put up with any of those, and if admitting that makes me appear weaker than other women, so be it.

Aside from childbirth itself, having a child often causes permanent damage to a woman’s body. Pelvic organ prolapses and urinary stress incontinence are among the most common complications, and millions of women around the world who are struggling with these problems choose to have vaginal mesh implanted inside their bodies. This is a bit of plastic mesh, which tissue grows into to provide a permanent supportive wall, despite mounting evidence that this mesh is of limited use and causes severe pain.

Women who have undergone this procedure have started to speak up about being left unable to walk, work or have sex. In the UK, 800 women are taking legal action against the NHS and mesh manufacturers, and the mesh is already banned in Australia.

A new material, formed of tissue-like layers of polyurethane, could fix some of the problems associated with vaginal mesh. For instance, it’s stronger and more elastic than current polypropylene mesh (so may stand a better chance of doing its job) and it releases oestrogen, to assist with healing after the surgery.

I am encouraged by the development of this material. Switching to this – given that it continues to hold up well in clinical trials – seems like a step in the right direction. It is a small step, however, and I’m still hoping in vain that if the time comes, I can grow my foetus in a lab.

Lorna Sharpe, sub-editor

10 years of mine clearance brings hope in Herat

I’ll admit that this isn’t a story about some new breakthrough in technology, but engineering certainly makes a contribution to the onerous task of clearing up after warfare, so I’m not apologising for publishing it and highlighting it here. Landmines are a scourge. They wreak havoc on ordinary people trying to lead their lives years and decades after the end of the conflicts that provided the ‘justification’ for laying them, so all credit to anyone who has a hand in getting rid of them.

Diesel trains should be taken out of service by 2040, rail minister says

Jo Johnson has only been a transport minister for a month, so it’s hard to know how much of his speech in London a few days ago represents his own views and how much is the existing position of the Department for Transport.

However, the space constraints of headlines mean they can’t tell the whole story. He actually said “I would like to see us take all diesel-only trains off the track by 2040”. Clearly that’s an ambition, not a policy, and “diesel-only” leaves room for bi-modes that can run on electricity when it’s available, just as the comparable automotive policy will ban ‘conventional’ diesel and petrol cars, leaving a fair amount of wriggle room when it comes down to the detail.

Johnson went on to sing the praises of hydrogen trains, citing the Alstom iLint that is undergoing tests ahead of its introduction on one line in Germany. He says hydrogen offers an affordable and potentially much cleaner alternative to diesel. Well, maybe. A lot depends on how the hydrogen is produced, and there are concerns about its fire safety in tunnels – there aren’t any on that German line. And adapting a continental train with rooftop tanks to fit the smaller British loading gauge may not seem worthwhile unless there’s the prospect of a significant market.

As for affordability, we all know that the cost of fossil fuels in the UK is largely determined by tax. If there’s a wholesale switch to alternatives, the Treasury is likely to look for ways to protect its revenue stream.

So – interesting idea, but don’t place any bets on that 2040 date.

Vitali Vitaliev, features editor

Brexit and the EU borders: can technology help solve the problem?

Speaking of existing European borders, I can’t help mentioning the most peculiar of them all – the highly irregular stretch of Belgian-Dutch frontier line that cuts through the mixed Dutch/Belgian town of Baarle Nassau/Baarle Hertog and, in doing so, forms 22 Belgian and eight Dutch enclaves, all within one and the same town.

I had a chance to study this geopolitical curio while researching one of my travel books – ‘Passport to Enclavia’. The border inside the town can be safely described as insane. It resembles an ECG of a patient on the brink of a heart attack. Like a hank of wool thread chased by a playful kitten, it effortlessly leaps across streets and squares, houses and offices, shops and pubs. The confusion is such that every single building in town has to be marked not just with a number, but also with a tiny Dutch or Belgian flag underneath it. Out of three consecutive houses on the same side of the same street, one can be in Belgium, the next in Holland, and the third one split between the two, with the border running through the kitchen or through the bedroom. In fact, a female dweller of one such house in all seriousness (and with the characteristic local practicality – one has to be practical living in Baarle) was explaining to me the advantage of giving birth on the Belgian side of the bedroom (many women in Baarle still prefer giving birth at home, with the help of a midwife), because – wait for it – child benefits in Belgium are slightly higher than in Holland!

An interesting example of the overall confusion is the local rubbish dump, bisected by the border. Certain substances, like asbestos and cement, say, which are banned from being dumped in Holland, can be safely disposed of on the Belgian side of the ‘waste park’ several metres away.

A small piece of advice. If you ever visit Baarle, try to park your car with its front in Belgium and its boot in Holland, or vice versa (this is not too hard, for the border runs through a couple of car parks in the town centre). Then let the Dutch and Belgian parking attendants working for their respective town councils (there are both in Baarle) decide which of them should receive your ‘penalty payment’ in case you get issued with a parking ticket. In the most likely scenario, they will fail to come to an agreement (and I wouldn’t blame them for that) and you will be spared the fine, as it happened to me once. But this is strictly between us, OK?

Dickon Ross, editor in chief

White House plans to privatise ISS, internal document suggests

Space continues to take a high profile in the news after our special issue on the subject last month, in which we explored how the industry is driven increasingly by private companies rather than public bodies and that theme is developing. Following Elon Musks successful SpaceX flight last week, leaks suggest President Trump is planning to privatise part of the International Space Station. As expected, Nasa will be stopping various studies on climate change and pulling out of work to encourage young people into science and engineering careers. But the funding focus will also shift to manned exploration after decades of avoiding unmanned, robotic missions.

Jack Loughran, news reporter

Diesel trains should be taken out of service by 2040, rail minister says

This is a classic example of politicians jumping on the environmentalist bandwagon without actually putting their money where their mouth is. Rail minister Jo Johnson (brother of Boris) has called for diesel trains to be taken out of service by 2040, a proposal that somehow manages to be desperately lacking in ambition and yet still flies in the face of recent Tory policy. Namely transport secretary Chris Grayling’s decision to halt railway electrification plans last year, a project that had already been delayed repeatedly before the government finally decided to abandon even the pretence of any interest in modernising or funding Britain’s railways. With Grayling at the helm, the UK’s railways are frankly doomed. His sheer inability to do anything about the appalling service provided by Southern is a case in point.

Still at least our railways can’t get any worse; in 2015 they were actually rated as the most expensive in Europe while simultaneously experiencing the most delays. So by that measure, as long as trains are still technically running, the UK will maintain its position in the European league tables.

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