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Mental health, brain imaging, real Ghostbusters and more: best of the week’s news

Image credit: Dreamstime

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.

Hilary Lamb, technology reporter

Excessive Internet use health problems targeted by international research network

‘Unprecedented’ carbon reduction necessary to prevent catastrophe, IPCC warns

Happy World Mental Health Day (for earlier this week). According to a major study published this week in The Lancet, every single country is failing to sufficiently respond to a ‘global crisis’ in mental health. Mental illness costs us more than 10 million lives a year and rising, while a World Health Organisation study estimated that depression and anxiety alone cost $1 trillion in lost productivity every year. To give you an idea of how much that is, there isn’t even $100 trillion in the entire world.

So why does nobody care?

This week, another very large group of scientists delivered a stark warning about global crisis, when the IPCC reported that unless we take “unprecedented” action to cut our carbon emissions and limit global warming to 1.5°C within 12 years, the Earth will be on its way to uninhabitability.

Climate change threatens the future of known life while mental illness ‘just’ makes the world bleaker, poorer and unhealthier, but there are similarities between the two. They’re both insidious, usually invisible and disproportionately affect the most disadvantaged people in the world. You don’t see the consequences of your sheer, stupid negligence until the next species goes extinct or an island nation does an Atlantis.

Facing up to crises like these requires selfless people and governments willing to work together to take serious action and – in the worlds of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton – plant seeds in a garden they will never get to see.

When it comes to climate change, this means proposing and backing extremely unpopular policies to cut our carbon emissions by at least half in a matter of years. What could that take? Immediately closing oil, gas and coal plants? Banning all diesel and petrol cars? Putting an end to meat farming? Limiting the number of children we can have? It’s not for me to decide, but the longer we leave it, the more it’ll hurt.

Tackling the mental health crisis will likely take fewer painful, politically challenging decisions of this magnitude. However, it will require serious funding for researchers and healthcare providers and we’re not quite at the point of taking mental illness that seriously; not anywhere in the world. In the UK we are at that platitudinous phase where most public figures nod while agreeing that mental health is important, albeit mostly in a wishy-washy-wellness way that involves more yoga and mindfulness apps and less cold, hard (sufficient) cash to pay for mental health nurses, eating-disorder clinics and long-term psychological therapies for those incapacitated by their conditions.

A small bit of joy in a miserable week is the news that an EU-funded project is being launched to study the problems associated with ‘problem’ Internet use. Researchers will begin by preparing detailed, evidence-based research proposals in time for the upcoming €100bn Horizon Europe research funding programme. This network will pull together data and expertise from across the continent to better understand unhealthy Internet-related behaviours such as compulsive online gaming/gambling/streaming/fapping.

I suspect that few cases of mental illness can be fully attributed to Internet use – for instance, it was estimated that approximately 90 per cent of people seeking treatment for video-game addiction at Europe’s first clinic to offer treatment were not actually addicted to the point of a disorder (defined as a condition causing significant distress and impairment of personal functioning). However, excessive Internet use undoubtedly aggravates existing mental illness and makes a vast number of other people feel unhappy, anxious, lonely, angry, envious and panicked. Problem Internet use is just one aspect of the wider war against mental illness, but an increasingly significant one and worth paying attention to now.

This new European research network will work to understand the problems associated with Internet use and how to treat them, but it will take money and action from governments to take that knowledge and save lives with it. Given that climate scientists have been warning governments of the apocalyptic consequences of carbon emissions for decades, I am concerned that – once again – science will not be met with sincerity.

Rebecca Northfield, assistant features editor

Explaining the unexplained: 10 famous mysteries solved

I’m writing about my own feature, don’t judge me! The only reason being that I can include a couple of explained mysteries that didn’t make it to print.

First is the Solway Spaceman. In 1964, Jim Templeton, a fireman from Carlisle, took an innocent photo of his cute daughter on a sunny day. However, when it was developed, the image made world news. The picture showed a mysterious figure. It seemed to be wearing a white suit, a helmet and a dark visor. There was only one explanation: spaceman!

Mr Templeton recalled not seeing anyone else that day in Cumbria, England. He took it to the police; they saw nothing wrong with it. Kodak even got involved, offering a reward to anyone who could prove it was faked. Crazy media ensued. Extraordinarily, two ‘Men in Black’ – who named themselves Number Nine and Number Eleven – were said to have visited the Templeton family, asking to be taken to where the picture of the astronaut was captured.

However, like many photographs of that time, overexposure was a problem. Also, sightings of UFOs and other otherworldly occurrences exploded in number in the 1950s and 1960s. It was later revealed that Mr Templeton’s wife was with him when he took the picture of his daughter. It is believed that she walked unnoticed into the shot and overexposure caused the blue dress she was wearing to look white.

Another tale that didn’t make the cut is the Antikythera Mechanism, a computing device handcrafted by the Greeks that was lost in a 60BCE shipwreck and discovered in 1900. It baffled researchers regarding its purpose and just how complex a machine it was for the time it was created. The two-sided mechanism – which used 30 bronze gears to operate three clock-like dials – was over 2,000 years old, but appeared to be 1,000 years ahead of its time.

It turns out the device could calculate relative positions of the moon, sun and the first six planets for any date. The Mechanism even included irregular and elliptical orbits and also predicted solar and lunar eclipses. Fancy.

Siobhan Doyle, assistant technology editor

Brain power: new imaging raises hopes of mental healthcare revolution

In light of World Mental Health Day earlier this week, I find this rather fitting, not to mention it relates to a subject matter that should be talked about more, now and forevermore. This feature, written by E&T’s own Hilary Lamb, explores the advances in neuroimaging, with potential for observing detailed brain activity in real time, and how it can help in diagnosing and treating mental illness.

I can imagine it’s difficult for a doctor to properly diagnose a patient merely through the human eye, looking at the physiological symptoms – carrying out blood tests or X-rays for confirmation – attributed to all kinds of mental illnesses. However, physiological investigations, despite being a contributing factor in diagnosis, for mental complaints are rare, as highlighted in the article. Which is why techniques such as neuroimaging could potentially revolutionise the world of mental-health diagnosis, with doctors and psychiatrists alike gaining greater knowledge in how the brain functions.

The article also discusses a collaborative project between the University of Nottingham and University College London aimed at replacing MEG machines - an expensive and stressful procedure used to identify different brain functions that involves hefty supercooled machines, with adjustable helmets lined with sensors. These developments and advances in technology will be the stepping stone in creating never-ending ways of diagnosing illnesses that I personally hold close to my heart. Seriously, though: read it. The research is fascinating and rather uplifting for those who can personally relate to the subject matter, knowing there are opportunities for further treatment, or those who want to have a greater understanding of the soon-to-be endless possibilities of mental health diagnosis.

Dickon Ross, editor in chief

Ghostbusters gear: hunting the ghosts for real

Explaining the unexplained: 10 famous mysteries solved

Phantasmagoria’s future: how to build a ghost

I took ghosts, ghouls and things that go bump in the night pretty seriously as a kid. I would never have referred to them as ‘things that go bump in the night’ for a start. That’s not to say that I was in some way a creepy kid, but I was a little earnest and I took a solid scientific approach to the subject. I despised fictional horror and sought out real-life testimonies. I was confident that science would eventually explain it all rationally.

There are still those that think that way and Kate Parker meets them in her feature on the real-life ghostbusters. Admittedly, they aren’t really out to neutralise any ghost – just to investigate the subject with an open mind and perhaps bust a myth.

As I grew up and came to understand the media, I began to realise the ‘unexplained’ was more a sort of entertainment and there wasn’t anything wrong with that. In other words, the evidence wasn’t as strong as I had thought, but people enjoyed buying into the illusion. That’s perhaps why, when science does solve a mystery, it never really goes away. We look at ten such not-so-mysterious mysteries.

I also came to love classic horror movies and their brilliant soundtracks that do half the work in keeping us on the edge of our seats. I’ve always preferred ingenious direction over special effects, but the two are related and older than you might think. Hilary Lamb pulls back the stage curtain to find Pepper’s ghost is one spooky effect with a history that predates film and is now being reinvented for live audiences more used to the latest in special effects.

I’d dismissed Halloween as a cheesy US import involving blackmail (trick or treat, anyone?). As my own children grew, I realised I’d been wrong. It has a complex, fascinating history in the British Isles going back to paganism or, rather, its eclipse by Christianity. American movies were just the medium to bring it back to England. The kids loved the dressing up and for one night a year at least families in our busy London neighbourhood dare to knock on each other’s doors, meet each other and exchange sweetmeats. That’s got to be a good thing.

Tim Fryer, technology editor

Robots, harpoons and nets: how we’ll clear our orbital rubbish

I’ll be honest and admit that I had not heard of the Kessler syndrome until I read this article, but that was just ignorance of the name, not the problem. The damage to Sentinal-1A was also news to me and highlights the precarious nature of technology in space. £280m is a lot of satellite to risk in a sea of potentially damaging debris. This sea of debris should not really be that thick at the moment. Of the 8,000 satellites launched to date, about half have been returned to earth and half of the remainder are still operational. This leaves about 2,000 that have disintegrated into satellite soup circling the earth. Considering the size of space that shouldn’t be too many bits, but the smaller these bits get the more of them there are and the more likely a collision is, which is the theory behind the Kessler syndrome.

The alarming thing is what happens now as satellites are launched in swarms and nets – the UK alone hopes to launch 2,000 satellites by 2030 and as yet we don’t even have a launch pad (I know at least one is coming). On top of that are asteroids and the potentially valuable minerals they contain. As far as I know there are no rules concerning other-worldly mining practices but seeing as they will be very commercial ventures I can’t see being neat and tidy as a priority. All that drilling, blasting, crushing and screening is bound to make some mess and waste. While international legislation must surely be forthcoming on the minerals issue, equally our rapid exploitation of space can surely not continue unless we clean up after ourselves. Not for environmental reasons, although that should be justification in itself, just to protect all the new kit we are throwing up there. Who pays for it, I don’t know.

Jonathan Wilson, online managing editor

Explaining the unexplained: 10 famous mysteries solved

10 golden bullets for shooting down pub bores, crackpots and conspiracy theorists. You’re welcome.

Google+ killed off following revelation of undisclosed security bug

When Google+ first launched in 2011, there were discussions at E&T Towers as to whether we should jump in, start chatting, set up our own channels, host ‘hangouts’ and generally dedicate even more of our dwindling precious free time to yet another social media enterprise. On balance, we decided we were busy enough with the social channels we already had, so adding another to that list seemed largely unnecessary. Fast forward seven years and it turns out most of the world was in agreement with us. Not enough people joined Google+ and those that did faded away soon enough. It’s a hard lesson that any start-up would do well to heed and commit to memory: it’s no good simply reinventing a certain type of wheel just because you can and because you want to, if someone else has already beaten you to it.

Robots, harpoons and nets: how we’ll clear our orbital rubbish

You wouldn’t have thought that the standout technological solution for cleaning up the thousands of space-based industrial cast-offs littering the cosmos just outside Earth’s atmosphere would be based on a millennia-old concept: the harpoon. First, the walrus. Now, space trash. I suppose mankind prospered as a hunter-gatherer society, so it’s merely time to put our deep-seated, intrinsic skills to new uses.

Vitali Vitaliev, features editor

Book review: ‘Power Button’ by Rachel Plotnick

This lively book review reminded me of one of the most revealing impressions of my recent trip to Israel. For several days, we stayed with friends who live in a high-rise apartment block in the Israeli town of Ramla (not to be confused with the Palestinian city of Ramallah), not far from Tel Aviv. As we were entering the building for the first time, we were warned not to use the lift on the right, but only stick to the one on the left. “Why so?” I asked. “Is the lift on the right out of order?” “Not at all,” my friend replied. “It is just a so-called ‘Shabbat Lift’, or ‘Shabbat Elevator’, specially designed for observant Jews who are not supposed to do any work on Saturdays. “But pressing a button doesn’t seem like work to me,” I insisted. “Well, it may appear like that to you, but the Jewish law expressly forbids operating electrical switches, and that includes buttons, on Shabbat.”

I have to confess that I did have a ride in the ‘Shabbat Elevator’ the following day, which was Saturday, just out of curiosity. Its modus operandi turned out to be quite simple. As you approach the lift, its doors automatically slide open. It then starts going up or down slowly while stopping and opening its doors at every floor, whether there are any additional passengers waiting for it or not. If nobody comes in our out within five seconds or so, the doors close and the lift moves on. You can ride it up or down with your hands in your pockets!

Fascinated by that unsophisticated contraption, I did some research and discovered that the ‘Shabbat elevator’ was a fairly recent invention resulting from a special Elevator Law, passed by the Knesset, the Israeli parliament, in 2001. The law stipulated that all residential buildings with more than one lift were supposed to make provisions for a special Shabbat control mechanism in one of them.

I wondered about office lifts, before remembering that almost all offices in Israel are shut on Saturdays, anyway.

It has to be said that some ultra-Orthodox Jews try to avoid using even the automatic lift on Shabbat, considering the simple process of riding an elevator, even without pressing the buttons, a kind of ‘work’. Another source of criticism stems from some environmentalists who lament the waste of energy due to the lift’s continuous operation.

Despite those small controversies, ‘Shabbat lifts’ keep being widely used inside Israel as well as in some residential buildings in Manhattan, New York. I regard them as fascinating examples of how technology and ingenuity can help resolve certain age-long and seemingly unresolvable social controversies.

Lorna Sharpe, sub-editor

Better home insulation is key to lowering UK carbon emissions, report finds

When I saw this story I wasn’t sure whether it was common sense or pie in the sky, but I rather suspect it’s a bit of each. Certainly, it’s true that a major element of cutting carbon emissions has to be reducing energy demand, so insulating homes to reduce the need for heating makes sense - especially if the work includes putting in a proper control system that’s easy to understand and use. Otherwise people will just accept that it’s normal to be sitting around in a T-shirt in midwinter. What’s also required is some consideration of unintended consequences, such as overheating in summer, which just drives up demand for fans and domestic air-conditioning units, using more electricity and producing more heat in the process. Not a great idea. This 32-page report uses the words ‘cooling’ and ‘ventilation’ only once each - perhaps that’s an area to be addressed if there’s a second edition.

Another significant point was made to me by someone who lives in a Victorian terraced house with solid brick walls. For him, insulation would either have to be applied externally and rendered (with ongoing maintenance), along with new window sills, or it would go on inside walls - with implications for electrical and cable services, let alone refitting and replumbing the kitchen and bathroom. External rendering of individual private houses in a terrace would also raise aesthetic and possibly planning issues - and none of this is going to make economic sense for private landlords or their tenants, or for owners who expect to move on in a few years. The grants would have to be pretty large. What’s more, experience says many householders put a high premium on avoiding disruption.

The report suggests that Local Authority and Housing Association homes would be a good starting point for systematic deep retrofitting and I wouldn’t argue with that if the money’s there - which is a big ‘if’. Beyond that though, public policy needs to consider personal as well as public benefits. Asking hard-pressed householders to endure and pay for substantial works out of pure altruism will be a non-starter.

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