Whisky collection

Whiskey, mosquitos, driverless dread and more: best of the week’s news

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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.

Dominic Lenton, managing editor

Government pushes distilleries to go green with £10m fund

It’s a case of government doubling its money by getting a second burst of PR value from a scheme announced in the budget that’s now actually open for applications, but there are several interesting aspects to the ‘Green Distilleries’ initiative.

I haven’t had the pleasure of visiting a British whisky distillery for many years and that’s not likely to change any time soon with the bulk of sites concentrated in Scotland. I did manage a trip around a gin manufacturing facility recently, though. Including a tasting session, it made an entertaining and informative birthday treat – sadly, the Copper Rivet Distillery in Chatham is closed for tours right now, but is thoroughly recommended if you’re in Kent when it reopens.

It shouldn’t really have come as a surprise that although the process of making gin is still an artisanal one, the environment in which it’s carried out is indistinguishable from most other modern manufacturing. Good reason then to look at how to make the booming UK spirits industry, which grew by 20 per cent in 2019 and comprises a fifth of all the country’s food and drink exports, more sustainable.

In fact the most interesting factoid in this story, in an ‘equivalent in volume to 15 Olympic-size swimming pools’ way, is that the scheme comes with a claim that it will enable annual emissions from the heating associated with the distillation process to be cut by the equivalent of taking 100,000 cars off the road.

OK, so it’s a PR-friendly statistic that might not stand up to much scrutiny, but any initiative that builds on existing success, cuts emissions and takes advantage of the unique qualities of a product like whiskey that’s going to help Britain maintain global trade in a post-Brexit climate has got to be good news.

Tim Fryer, technology editor

750 million GM mosquitos set for release in Florida Keys

“Life finds a way” says Dr Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum) in Jurassic Park and I can’t imagine that I am the only one who thought of this fictional reference when reading this new article. Maybe a super hermaphroditic mozzie will emerge from the genetic soup that both breeds and bites at will! Possibly not, but you wouldn’t rule it out.

It's not quite the same as introducing an invasive species, because unless reinforcements are blown in from the outside the region then inevitably, by removing the option of female mosquitos to be born, the species will die out. For me, mosquitos sit just under wasps at the top of the 'things the world could do without' list, so this would not be a disaster.

Of course, the world does tend to have a purpose for all creatures great and small. Bats, birds and dragonflies have mosquitoes on their menus, while frogs and fish like snacking on the larvae. Unfortunately, I can’t find reference to the importance of mosquitoes in the diet of the above, but given the fine balance of nature then we can’t expect to meddle without consequences.

However, it is perhaps going to be less impactful on the whole ecosystem to target one species rather than use insecticides that wipe out many. Dengue kills over 20,000 people (mostly children) a year, so doing something to prevent this has got to be good, but I do hope that due diligence has been done on the science and the ecological consequences – it seems too extreme to be an experiment.

Siobhan Doyle, assistant technology editor

Driverless cars could be legal on British roads by early 2021

I'm still very sceptical about this whole idea about driverless cars, so the idea of having them on our roads so soon frightens me slightly. The car I own already has both adaptive cruise control and the ‘Automated Lane Keeping System’ (ALKS) and even though I chose this car myself, I’m still uneasy about using both. The government, however, is looking into ALKS to determine whether vehicles with such a system should be legally defined as an automated vehicle. If this law comes into play, does that mean my own car will be classed as an automated vehicle? What does that mean for insurance? Can we blame the technology rather than ourselves if we get into accidents? There are so many questions!

Lorna Sharpe, sub-editor

Engineers who designed Covid-19 technologies receive awards

The Royal Academy of Engineering has named 19 individuals and teams who are to receive President's Special Awards for Pandemic Service for exceptional engineering achievements in tackling Covid-19 throughout the UK. It’s a welcome reminder that in a time of crisis engineers pulled out all the stops to help make things better. We know that the front-line health workers did heroic things and we're rightly grateful, but lots of others also played their part and it’s only fiting that the engineering sector should celebrate its own. You can read the full list of winners online.

Interview: Michel Mayor, Nobel prize-winning astrophysicist

Michel Mayor started as a theoretical physicist before specialising in astrophysics. He discovered, though, that the study of distant stars depends in a very practical way on having suitable instruments to observe them and what he needed didn’t exist - so he and his colleagues designed their own. Since then, his astrophysics studies and his work to improve the instrumentation have gone hand-in-hand. Instrumentation doesn’t sound like a particularly exciting area of study, but it makes things possible. In this case what it made possible was the confirmed discovery of an exoplanet - a planet circling a star other than our own, which was of sufficient importance to merit a Nobel Prize.

Jonathan Wilson, online managing editor

James Bond redux: profile update for the modern spy

James Bond, 007, licence to kill, has been saving the world from one bad guy after another for 25 canonical films now (go ahead, name them all - in sequence), from 1962's Dr. No to the forthcoming No Time To Die, due out later this year after its intended April release suffered a Covid-19 postponement (not even James Bond can fight off a pandemic).

However, as it turns out in this article, the archetype of the urbane, intelligent, quick-witted and even quicker-fisted superspy, whether immacuately clad in a dinner jacket at the casino or emerging from an exploding warehouse in a torn and filthy slim-fit t-shirt, may not entirely be true to life.

Just as Q has changed in the films from being a white-haired 'mad professor' type - all exploding pens and deadly frisbee hats - to a more technologically inclined, bespectacled and introverted millenial geek clutching his beloved laptop, it turns out that today's actual spies, our real-world Jane and James Bonds, are typically less suave, more savant. As one of the interviewees in the piece remarks: “From my experience, they tend to be nerdy, definitely not as cool as in Hollywood. Sometimes they’re just weird.”

In a digital age, where readily accessible technology has become increasingly weaponised, there is inevitably less need for professional maverick types out there punching bad guys and leaping from moving vehicles. I'm sure it does still happen sometimes - and Hollywood needs us all to continue to believe that it still happens, otherwise the 26th Bond film is going to be really boring - but the actual day-to-day job of being a spy might not actually be as glamorous as we've been led to believe. After all, MI6 can hardly afford to give every spy it employs their own Aston Martin as a company car.

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