Indian mango ban comes into force


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The EU’s ban on Indian mangoes is causing concern for both importers and exporters, as Simon Atkinson reports

An EU-wide ban on mangoes from India has come into force, halting imports into the UK potentially until December 2015.

The ban also includes aubergines, two types of squash, and a type of leaf used in Indian cooking.

Shipments of mangoes were suspended into Europe after consignments were found to be infested with fruit flies.

The UK imports around £6.3m worth of Indian mangoes per year out of a UK mango market worth £68m in total.

Non-European food pests were found in 207 shipments of fruit and vegetables in 2013.

Indian mango exporters said they have put checks in place and have approached the authorities in Brussels to try to get the ban lifted.

“Since we got to know about the issue in March, we’ve put in place an elaborate examination and certification procedure that addresses the issue raised by the EU,” said Ajay Sahai, director general of the Federation of Indian Export Organisations (FIEO), a body affiliated with the Indian Department of Commerce.

Local prices for mangoes fell around 15% in the few days before the ban came into force, Mr Sahai said.

The UK imports a total of 56,205 tonnes of mangoes per year, of which 4,816 tonnes, or 8.5%, come from India.

Premium Alphonso mangoes, which are popular in the UK, are in season as the ban comes into force.

UK mango importer Monica Bhandari said that it was a “knee-jerk reaction” for the European Commission to put the ban in place, and that mangoes could be treated with water to get rid of insects.

“We ourselves have only imported treated mangoes this year, and we have had zero instances of pests found in our products,” she told the BBC.

She added that the European Commission did not seem to have consulted importers before moving to a ban.

Mangoes are imported into the UK from a number of countries, including Brazil, Peru, Kenya, Uganda, Pakistan, and Bangladesh.

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), which voted to put the ban in place, is working with Indian authorities and the European Commission to try to get the ban lifted.

The ban includes imports of Momordica and Snake Gourd squashes, and Patra leaves, which are used in a dish called Patra.

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Museum to take ‘exploding’ whales


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Photo of beached whale carcass in Trout River

Canada’s Royal Ontario Museum will take two blue whale carcasses that washed up on the coast of western Newfoundland.

Whales on the beaches of Rocky Harbour and Trout River were among several believed to have died in heavy ice.

The towns did not have the resources to move the decomposing whales, which experts fear could bloat and explode.

“The chance to preserve, study and examine up to two skeletons is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” the museum said in a statement.

The museum estimates there are fewer than 250 of the creatures in the Northwest Atlantic.

The move comes after a joint agreement between the museum and Canada’s Fisheries and Oceans department. It is unclear how long it will take museum scientists to remove the whale entirely from either beach.

Canadian officials earlier said it was each town’s responsibility to handle the dead whales.

Trout River Town Clerk Emily Butler says the 25m (81ft) whale near the town’s boardwalk is bloated with methane gas.

She fears as temperatures rise, the whale corpse would start to reek or potentially explode from the build up of gas.

Photo of beached whale carcass in Trout River

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UK’s oldest settlement confirmed


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StonehengeAmesbury – including Stonehenge – is the UK’s longest continually-occupied settlement

A Wiltshire town has been confirmed as the longest continuous settlement in the United Kingdom.

Amesbury, including Stonehenge, has been continually occupied since BC8820, experts have found.

The news was confirmed following an archaeological dig which also unearthed evidence of frogs’ legs being eaten in Britain 8,000 years before France.

Amesbury’s place in history has also now been recognised by the Guinness Book of Records.

David Jacques, from the University of Buckingham, said: “The site blows the lid off the Neolithic Revolution in a number of ways.

“It provides evidence for people staying put, clearing land, building, and presumably worshipping, monuments.

“The area was clearly a hub point for people to come to from many miles away, and in many ways was a forerunner for what later went on at Stonehenge itself.

“The first monuments at Stonehenge were built by these people. For years people have been asking why is Stonehenge where it is, now at last, we have found the answers.”

Mr Jacques said the River Avon, which runs through the area, would have been like an A road with people travelling along it.

“They may have had the equivalent of local guides and there would have been feasting,” he added.

“We have found remains of big game animals, such as aurochs and red deer, and an enormous amount of burnt flint from their feasting fires.”

Site of the Amesbury digThe dig unearthed the largest haul of worked flints from the Mesolithic period

Previously, Thatcham in Berkshire, 40 miles from Amesbury, held the record for the longest continuous settlement in the country.

The dig in Amesbury also uncovered 31,000 worked flints in 40 days as well as animal bones such as frogs’ legs.

Mr Jacques said our ancestors were eating a “Heston Blumenthal-style menu”.

The find was based on a report by fossil mammal specialist Simon Parfitt, of the Natural History Museum.

Andy Rhind-Tutt, the founder of Amesbury Museum and Heritage Trust, said there was “something unique and rather special about the area” to keep people there from the end of the Ice Age, to when Stonehenge was created and until today.

“The fact that the feasting of large animals and the discovery of a relatively constant temperature spring sitting alongside the River Avon, may well be it,” he said.

The dig was filmed and made into a documentary by the BBC, Smithsonian, CBC and others to be screened later in the summer.

The project was led by the University of Buckingham.

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AstraZeneca rejects new Pfizer offer


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UK drugs firm AstraZeneca has rejected the new takeover offer from Pfizer

The US company had earlier raised the price it was offering for AstraZeneca to the equivalent of £50 a share, valuing the firm at £63bn.

But Astra said the new terms offered were, “inadequate, substantially undervalue AstraZeneca and are not a basis on which to engage with Pfizer”.

If the deal were to go through it would be the biggest takeover of a UK company by a foreign firm.

AstraZeneca employs more than 51,000 staff worldwide, with 6,700 in the UK. Pfizer – whose drugs include Viagra – has a global workforce of more than 70,000, with 2,500 in the UK.

graphic about company size
Job pledge

Announcing Pfizer’s new offer, Pfizer chairman and chief executive Ian Read said the firm believed “that there is a highly compelling strategic, business and financial rationale for combining our businesses, with significant benefits for shareholders and stakeholders of both companies”.

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When it was revealed on Monday that Pfizer was looking to bid for AstraZeneca, a major shareholder I spoke to said a £50 a share offer might just seal the deal by Friday. Well, he was half right. There was a £50 offer. But it didn’t seal it.

AstraZeneca is betting that Pfizer has a little more in the tank, both in terms of the overall offer and the cash element. Shareholders would like more money up front and less of the offer paid out in Pfizer shares.

The American business is a willing buyer for three reasons. It has a large amount of cash to deploy that it doesn’t want to repatriate to the US where there would be a hefty tax bill. Britain is highly attractive because of its low corporation tax levels and the tax incentives for scientific research. AstraZeneca has a potentially lucrative pipeline of cancer drugs.

There are always many acts to a deal of this size. I am sure this latest rejection is just one of them.

Finally, is the government interested in increasing its powers over foreign takeovers, as Lord Heseltine suggested this morning? According to Whitehall sources I have spoken to, I wouldn’t hold your breath.

“We believe our proposal is responsive to the views of AstraZeneca shareholders and provides a sound basis upon which to arrive at recommendable terms for the combination of our two companies.”

Pfizer also sent a letter to Prime Minister David Cameron to try to address concerns over the bid.

On Wednesday, four scientific bodies raised concerns about possible UK lab closures following a Pfizer deal, and a committee of MPs is considering an inquiry into the issue.

Pfizer told Mr Cameron it would go ahead with Astra’s planned research and development (RD) base in Cambridge, and retain its Macclesfield manufacturing facilities.

Pfizer also pledged that if the deal went ahead, 20% of the combined company’s RD workforce would be based in the UK.

The US firm said its commitments would be valid for five years, unless circumstances changed significantly.

Business Secretary Vince Cable told the BBC: “We’ve now received some assurances from the company that they will strengthen the British science base, they will protect British manufacturing.

“We need to look at that in detail, we need to look at the small print, we need to establish that it is binding, but as far as it goes, on the basis of what we’ve seen so far, it is welcome and encouraging.”

On Friday, Conservative peer Lord Heseltine called for greater powers for the UK government to intervene in foreign takeovers if crucial UK interests were at risk.


On Monday it emerged that Pfizer had originally made a takeover approach for AstraZeneca in January, worth £46.61 a share, which was rejected.

Vince Cable

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Business Secretary Vince Cable said talks with the company were encouraging.

The latest offer from Pfizer is a mixture of cash and shares equivalent to £50 per AstraZeneca share. If the deal goes through, Pfizer also wants to establish its corporate and tax residence in the UK, as well as its European headquarters.

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Last Updated at 02 May 2014, 11:30 ET

*Chart shows local time

AstraZeneca intraday chart

AstraZeneca’s board said the offer was too low, and that it believed a major driver for Pfizer’s takeover was the move to establish a tax residence in the UK by changing its company structure.

“The large proportion of the consideration payable in Pfizer shares and the tax-driven inversion structure remain unchanged. Accordingly, the board has rejected the proposal,” AstraZeneca said.

Leif Johansson, chairman of AstraZeneca, added that the company’s product “pipeline” of new drugs was “rapidly progressing”.

“Pfizer’s proposal would dramatically dilute AstraZeneca shareholders’ exposure to our unique pipeline and would create risks around its delivery,” Mr Johansson said.

Heather Self, a tax expert at Pinsent Masons, told the BBC: “Pfizer want[s] to put a UK company on top of the whole group which is taking the whole company outside the US tax system.”

US federal corporation tax is 35%, while the UK’s rate is 21% and is due to be cut to 20% in 2015.

But Ms Self added that a significant tax gain for the UK would be unlikely.

“All it will mean is moving a few senior people here and having a few board meetings here. It doesn’t mean anything for the UK tax industry,” she said.

Labour shadow business secretary Chuka Umunna expressed concerns over job security for AstraZeneca staff.

“Pfizer has a very poor record on previous acquisitions. Do we really want a jewel in the crown of British industry, our second biggest pharmaceutical firm, to basically be seen as an instrument of tax planning?” he said.

Union worries

The GMB union, which represents workers at AstraZeneca’s Macclesfield plant, called for the proposed deal to be investigated on competition grounds and queried Pfizer’s promises over UK jobs.

“Pfizer are said to have given undertakings to the UK Government as they increase the money they are offering the AstraZeneca shareholders,” said Allan Black, GMB national officer for the chemicals industry.

“Similar undertakings were given by US multinationals before which have proved to be worthless.”

The GMB also questioned how committed Pfizer was to manufacturing and RD in the UK. In 2011, Pfizer laid off 1,500 staff from its research facility at Sandwich in Kent.

“Pfizer walked away from a purpose built manufacturing plant in an economic bleak spot in Kent with the loss of many jobs,” Mr Black said.

The Institute of Directors (IoD) said that the government should not be involved, as the matter is for directors and shareholders to decide.

“The IoD does not support any extension of any national interest test for takeovers,” said IoD director of corporate governance Roger Barker.

“Takeovers are primarily a matter for boards and shareholders to determine, not government.”

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How to win at rock-paper-scissors


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Rock paper scissorsEasy as one-two-three… but winning is more complicated

What are your odds of winning rock-paper-scissors? Simple – one in three. At least, that’s what chance predicts.

But people do not play randomly – they follow hidden patterns that you can predict to win more games than you should, a study has revealed.

Winners tend to stick with their winning action, while losers tend to switch to the next action in the sequence “rock-paper-scissors”.

Anticipating these moves could give you a winning edge, say scientists.

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This new strategy may offer higher pay-offs to individual players”

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Zhijian Wang
Zhejiang University, China

Their strategy was revealed in a massive rock-paper-scissors tournament at Zhejiang University in China, documented on the Arxiv server.

Scientists recruited 360 students and divided them into groups of six. Each competitor played 300 rounds of rock-paper-scissors against other members of their group.

As an incentive, the winners were paid – in proportion to their number of victories.

To play smart, classical game theory suggests players should completely randomise their choices – to remain unpredictable and not be anticipated by opponents.

This pattern – where both players select rock, paper or scissors with equal probability in each round – is known as the Nash equilibrium.

The strategy is named after game theory pioneer John Forbes Nash Jr, subject of the 2001 Hollywood film A Beautiful Mind.

John Forbes Nash Jr and Russell CroweGame theory pioneer John Forbes Nash Jr was played by Russell Crowe in the film A Beautiful Mind

And indeed – in the Chinese tournament players in all groups chose each action about a third of the time, exactly as expected if their choices were random.

However, on closer inspection, the organisers noticed a surprising pattern of behaviour.

When players won a round, they tended to repeat their winning rock, paper or scissors more often than would be expected at random (one in three).

Hidden psychology

Losers, on the other hand, tended to switch to a different action. And they did so in order of the name of the game – moving from rock, to paper, to scissors.

After losing with a rock, for example, a player was more likely to play paper in the next round than the “one in three” rule would predict.

Rock paper scissors

This “win-stay lose-shift” strategy is known in game theory as a conditional response – and it may be hard-wired into the human brain, the researchers say.

Anticipating this pattern – and thereby trumping your opponent – “may offer higher pay-offs to individual players” they write.

“The game of rock-paper-scissors exhibits collective cyclic motions which cannot be understood by the Nash equilibrium concept.

“Whether conditional response is a basic decision-making mechanism of the human brain or just a consequence of more fundamental neural mechanisms is a challenging question for future studies.”

Though it is only a simple game, rock-paper-scissors is seen as a useful model for studying competitive behaviour in humans – in financial trading for example.

A previous experiment found that players unconsciously mimic the actions of their opponents – a surprising result because advantage is usually gained by acting differently.

The Chinese scientists now plan to investigate the underlying psychology behind the seemingly irrational choices players make when competing.

In the meantime, anyone curious to test if their “winning strategy” really works need look no further than the UK championship.

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Concerns grow over deadly pig virus


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pigThe virus has proved to be particularly deadly for young pigs

France is expected to suspend pig-related imports from a number of countries as worries grow over the spread of a deadly swine virus.

Porcine Epidemic Diarrhoea Virus (PEDv) has killed some seven million piglets in the US in the past year.

The disease has also been found in Canada, Mexico and Japan.

While the virus isn’t harmful to humans or food, France is concerned over the potential economic impact and is set to suspend imports of live pigs and sperm.

PEDv is spread in faecal matter and attacks the guts of pigs, preventing them from absorbing liquids and nutrients.

Older animals can survive but fatality rates among piglets run between 80% and 100%.

So virulent is the agent that one expert estimated that a spoonful of infected manure would be enough to sicken the entire US herd.

The disease is believed to have its origins in China, according to the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE).

“According to the information from genetic analyses, there is some similarity with a strain from Asia,” director-general Dr Bernard Vallat told BBC News.

“But the evidence of the crossing from Asia to the US is not yet established. For the moment it is not possible to make a final conclusion on the formal link, it is a suspicion.”

In North America, the disease has moved rapidly, with around 4,000 outbreaks in 30 US states, in four Canadian provinces and in parts of Mexico.

Virus on the move

Experts in the field believe that lax biosecurity is an important factor.

In June last year, a US study found that 17% of trucks going into a slaughterhouse were positive for the infection.

“They also discovered that 11% of the trucks that had been negative when they went into the slaughterhouse were subsequently positive when they left,” said Dr Zoe Davies from the UK’s National Pig Association (NPA).

“It’s how many animals you are moving around, that’s how its being spread.”

Another factor that is making the disease more difficult to stop is the use of dried pig blood in feedstuffs that are given to weaned piglets.

pigsChina has seen a number of outbreaks of deadly pig diseases in recent years and it is believed that PEDv originated there

“The feed is suspected,” said Dr Bernard Vallat from OIE.

“Blood from slaughterhouses with insufficient heat treatment is suspected to be the origin. We don’t have a scientific publication on that but it is highly suspected,” he said.

The French move to suspend the importing of live pigs, some by-products and pig sperm is being seen as a reaction to the lack of action at EU level.

In the UK, the NPA says it has already secured support from all major importers to restrict pigs from infected countries. It says that more than 92% of pigs reared in the UK are not fed on blood products.

However the use of these feeds is more widely used in other EU countries, where movement of animals is also widespread.

There are concerns that if the virus was to gain a foothold in Europe it could lead to huge economic losses especially for breeders in Denmark, the Netherlands and Germany.

While the issue has been discussed by the EU Commission, there has been no agreement yet to restrict imports.

According to agency reports, French government officials say their suspension has been made while “waiting for a European decision”.

PEDv was first diagnosed in the UK in 1971 but that strain was a milder form and pigs quickly adapted to it and became immune.

However the fact that European pigs have a history of exposure to a related virus may give some hope of protection, according to Dr Vallat.

“It circulated before in Europe but it was a different strain. If there is some remaining circulating virus there is a possibility that animals would be protected – but it is not sure.”

This perspective though is challenged by Dr Zoe Davies who says that Europe is now highly vulnerable to the infection.

“Everyone seems to think that because we’ve had versions of PEDv in the past we will have some immunity to this new strain and we know categorically that this is not the case.”

“We’ve tested our own herds and we think around 10% of the animals have antibodies to the older strains, we are effectively a naive herd, which is why we are worried.”

In the US, pig prices have risen considerably as a result of the losses to the virus while demand for pork shows no sign of abating. According to pig producers in the US, the industry is in for a strong financial year.

“One of the consequences of the problem, the restriction of the products in the market, mean perhaps prices could grow,” said Dr Vallat.

“For the non-infected herds it is good news.”

Follow Matt on Twitter @mattmcgrathbbc.

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Swarm ‘delivers on magnetic promise’


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A graphic describing the quality of Swarm's main (core) field solution based on just four months of dataThe lack of any colour in this graphic indicates Swarm’s model of the global field is already very good

Europe’s Swarm mission to measure the Earth’s magnetic field in unprecedented detail is achieving impressive levels of performance, scientists say.

Even though the trio of satellites were only launched in November, they are already sensing the global field to a precision that took previous ventures years of data-gathering.

Engineers recently finished all their main commissioning tasks.

They have now put the Swarm constellation in full science mode.

The hope is that the satellites can now operate together for perhaps 10 years.

Certainly, their fuel situation is extremely positive thanks to a very accurate orbit insertion by the launch rocket.

“We are on our way; we have very good measurements and we are ready to start accumulating all the data that will provide excellent models for the way the magnetic field is generated by our planet,” said Dr Rune Floberghagen.

Data of magnetism in Earth's rocks (GFZ)The global field is made up of several components, including the magnetism retained in crustal rocks

The European Space Agency mission manager was giving an update on the mission here in Vienna at the European Geosciences Union General Assembly.

Earth’s magnetic field is worthy of study because it is the vital shield that protects the planet from all the charged particles streaming off the Sun.

Without it, those particles would strip away the atmosphere, just as they have done at Mars.

Investigating the magnetic field also has direct practical benefits, such as improving the reliability of satellite navigation systems which can be affected by magnetic and electrical conditions high in the atmosphere.

Swarm’s three identical satellites are equipped with a variety of instruments – the key ones being state-of-the-art magnetometers that measure the strength and the direction of the field.

Two of the spacecraft, known as Alpha and Charlie, are currently flying in tandem at an altitude of 462km, and will descend over time.

The third platform, Bravo, has been raised to 510km. A drift has also been initiated that will separate B’s orbital plane from that of A and C during the course of the next few years.

This geometry will enable Swarm to see the field in three dimensions, and to better gauge its variations in time and space.

It will mean the different components in the field can also be teased apart – from the dominant contribution coming from the iron dynamo in the planet’s outer core to the very subtle magnetism generated by the movement of our salt-water oceans.

Artist's impression of the Swarm satellites

Describing these features in detail will take a while, but as an early benchmark the science team has assembled a model of the global field. It is based on just a few months of magnetometer data gathered in the post-launch commissioning phase.

And it shows that Swarm is providing more or less the same signal as a decade of data from the German predecessor mission known as Champ.

This is illustrated in the image at the top of this page.

“It shows the difference between the Swarm model and the Champ model. And what you see is the model error. Ideally, it should be white all over,” explained Prof Nils Olsen from the Technical University of Denmark.

The fact that the models are in such good agreement so soon was enormously encouraging, he told BBC News.

Engineers are still working a few niggles, which is not unexpected at this stage of a new mission.

For example, a back-up magnetometer on the Charlie platform has failed, perhaps damaged by the intense shaking experienced during launch.

Fully working primary instrumentation means this should not present a problem. But as a precaution, Charlie will now fly in the lower tandem pairing rather than as the lone high satellite, which was originally going to be its role.

Engineers also have some unexpected noise in their data. It is a very small signal but the team told the EGU meeting that they intended to get on top of the issue.

The interference in the magnetic data seems to come and go as the satellites move in and out of sunlight. It is possible that a component inside the spacecraft is evolving its own inherent field as temperatures change.

“It is not so much heating as differential heating that we think may be the problem,” said Prof Olsen.

“It seems on occasions that the Sun is producing some shadows because of features on the spacecraft, and this produces a thermal gradient.

“That’s our current working hypothesis, but I am confident we’ll solve this issue.”

Swarm satellite construction (EADS Astrium)Magnetic “noise” from the satellites’ own components has to be understood and follow me on Twitter: @BBCAmos

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Astronaut launches space meal contest


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Ti PeakeTim Peake looks pensive as he chooses astronaut food in a lab. He’s asking school children to cook up something tastier

British Astronaut Tim Peake has asked schoolchildren to create a meal for him to eat in space.

Major Peake has launched a competition to design a tasty meal for his mission to the International Space Station (ISS) next year.

The winning contestants will develop their ideas further with celebrity chef Heston Blumenthal.

The Judges will be looking for fun and healthy menus that have an element of “Britishness”.

Major Peake tactfully told BBC News that some of the food on the ISS was not as “nice as it could be”.

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Space food is not as nice as it could be”

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Tim Peake
UK astronaut

“It is nutritious but some of it is mushy, it lacks taste and texture,” he eventually confided.

He wants school children to come up with something better, which he proposes to eat during his six month mission.

“You don’t want a mushy paste. You want something with texture and a crunch to recreate some of the memories of eating food on planet Earth”.

Much of the food sent up to the ISS is dehydrated and contained in vacuum packs to save space and weight. The crew then add water and often eat the food straight from the pack or suck gloopy mixtures through straws.

Astronauts often lose their sense of smell, which diminishes the sense of taste. This is because blood flows to their heads owing to the lack of gravity, and this causes their faces to swell and blocks their noses.

Food eaten in space

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Libby Jackson from the UK Space Agency explains the type of food astronauts currently eat in space.

Spicy foods are therefore popular on the ISS, with the Russian crews in particular requesting ample supplies of hot sauce.


Use of salt is kept to a minimum because it inhibits bone formation in space and anything crumbly is strictly prohibited. Small particles can float out through the space station and get into the eyes of astronauts and into the machinery.

Continue reading the main story

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We want Tim to say to his international crew mates ‘here is some British food’ and they’ll say ‘we’ve heard all about British food!’”

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Jeremey Curtis
UK Space Agency

The competition is being organised by Jeremy Curtis of the UK Space Agency. He hopes that school-children will be able to reinvent the image of British cuisine through some stunning entries.

“We want Tim to be happy. We also want him to say to his international crew mates: ‘Here is some British food’ – and they’ll say ‘We’ve heard all about British food!’ But we want to come up with something so good that they’ll say – ‘We like British Food. This is really good!’”.

According to Mr Curtis, winning entries will be tasty, nutritious and have a British twist. But what does a “British twist” mean? He says that that is a question he would like to stimulate discussion in schools.

“They would work out what we meant by British food. It might be fish and chips but you could argue that those both come from France and the Netherlands. Curry, on the other hand, what could be more British than curry!?”

The winners will work with celebrity chef Heston Blumenthal, who will help them develop the overall eating experience, so that it is as close as possible to an enjoyable meal on Earth.

Floating FoodIn space, food has a life of its own

Special occasion

Major Peake told BBC News that Mr Blumenthal would bring a “wealth of experience” to the competition.

“On the ISS you have artificial lights, an artificial atmosphere and so eating a meal is one of those moments where you want that special link back to Earth and make it a special occasion,” he explained.

The competition is open to classes, other groups such as after-school clubs, scouts, guides and individuals. There are two categories, one for primary level children and one for secondary level children, with one winner in each category.

Entries must be submitted by noon on 30 June 2014 to the UK Space Agency. Educational resources for teachers have been developed by the British Nutrition Foundation.

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Can you design a meal for Tim Peake to eat in space? We want your pictures of the meals you would cook up for the astronaut. Email your suggestions and images to with ‘Tim Peake’ in the subject heading.

Or send your suggestion using the form below.

Send your pictures and videos to or text them to 61124 (UK) or +44 7624 800 100 (International). If you have a large file you can upload here.

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Smart umbrellas ‘collect rain data’


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The prototype attached to a child's umbrella

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Rolf Hut from Delft University of Technology explains how his prototype umbrella rain gauge works

How would you fancy being a mobile weather station?

Rolf Hut, from Delft University of Technology in The Netherlands, plans to turn our umbrellas into rain gauges.

His prototype smart brolly has a sensor that detects raindrops falling on its canvas, and uses bluetooth to send this information via a phone to a computer.

Dr Hut envisages thousands of us crowdsourcing data for the researchers who have come to rely on an ever dwindling number of scientific gauges.

“We have radar and satellites, but we’re not measuring rain on the ground as we used to; it’s expensive to maintain the gauges.

“Therefore, agencies are reducing the number, and that’s a problem for people who do operational water management or do research into hydrology because they don’t have the access to the data they used to,” he told BBC News.

Dr Hut was showing off his rough-and-ready prototype here in Vienna at the European Geosciences Union (EGU) General Assembly.

The child’s Winnie The Pooh brolly incorporates all off-the-shelf components.

A piezo sensor stuck under the canvas measures the vibrations caused by falling raindrops.

This is wired into a 20-euro mobile-phone Bluetooth-earpiece, which dumps its information into an app. The smartphone then links all its data over the cell network to a laptop.

Experiments in the lab and in Dr Hut’s back yard during a light shower have delivered some encouraging results. He is getting a reasonable correlation with a proper rain gauge sitting alongside.

It certainly seems worthwhile to persevere with the idea, he says, even if the development road ahead is a long one.

“Eventually every umbrella would come with this technology, or at least premium umbrellas would. And if you wanted to be involved, the moment you opened the umbrella, it would start sending data to your phone which uploads it to the cloud.

“We would then have hundreds of rain gauges moving along a cityscape and that could greatly improve our ability to understand urban hydrology; it would greatly improve our ability to predict urban flooding and take measures when things are going bad.”

SensorOff-the-shelf components: The piezo disc is taped under the canvas and wired into the bluetooth device

This crowdsourcing idea is not unique. Other groups are looking to do something very similar with the smart windscreens on modern cars that automatically set off the wipers when they detect rain, and even adjust the speed of the wipers depending on how heavy the downfall becomes.

The number of scientific rain gauges on Earth is a shockingly low number, says Dr Chris Kidd from the US space agency (Nasa).

He assessed their availability in a presentation at EGU.

Basically, if you were to combine the collecting area of all the instruments capable of providing near real-time data to the world’s meteorological agencies, you would have trouble filling the centre circle of a soccer pitch. It is that bad. There are many thousands of gauges across the world, but getting at their information in a timely fashion is not always easy.

And although some of our radars and satellites have very sophisticated ways to measure rainfall, they need some “ground truth”. The world’s networks of surface gauges are part of that verification process.

Dr Kidd thought crowdsourcing options might play a role if the quality of their data could be assured, but he said there was no substitute for the properly calibrated scientific gauge.

“They are diminishing. And in developing countries particularly, this has a lot to do with cost,” he explained.

“We need to look at ways to improve the networks. In the Sahel, for example, there’s an interesting project where they’re paying farmers for the data, and to make sure the rain gauge keeps operating. These farmers also get paid for the quality of the data. In this way, they are invested in the gauge.” and follow me on Twitter: @BBCAmos

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Met Office volcano study due in June


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SO2 transportThe Met Office is looking at the different scenarios for the transport of gases from a Laki-type eruption

The UK Met Office aims to deliver its report in June on the consequences of a future Laki-style eruption.

The Icelandic volcano caused widespread disruption and death on the island, in Britain, across Europe, and beyond when it let rip in 1783.

Ministers want the UK to be prepared and resilient should an event of similar magnitude ever occur again.

To that end, the Met Office has been asked to model where the gases from such an eruption might travel.

And here in Vienna at the European Geosciences Union General Assembly, the meteorological agency has been giving an update on its progress.

It is working in tandem with the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology.

Laki volcanoNearly 30km of ground opened up to spew huge volumes of lava on to the landscape

Researchers are using various numerical tools to simulate a range of outcomes from a Laki repeat.

The 1783 event was very different from the Eyjafjallajokull eruption of 2010 which grounded Europe’s airliners.

That was an explosive event whose impacts were dominated by the wide dispersal of ash particles.

Laki, on the other hand, was an effusive eruption. It oozed 600 sq km of lava on to Iceland’s surface, but critically also sent waves of gas, particularly sulphur compounds, in the direction of Europe.

These sulphur species reacted with the water in the atmosphere to produce tiny droplets, or aerosols, which then cooled the climate. And when the sulphur washed out of the sky, it fell as acid rain.

The deaths in Britain probably numbered in the thousands – from respiratory complications, from the harsh winter that followed the eruption, and from famine.

A modern UK would hope to be more robust and better prepared, but the Cabinet Office needs to have a good grasp of the challenges.

SO2 transport

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The Met Office modelling the possibilities using much of the same knowledge it deploys to forecast evolving weather systems.

“The big difference between ash and gas is that the ash is heavy, and it falls out of the atmosphere under gravity, under its own weight. This will influence which winds will pick it up and transport it,” explained Dr Claire Witham, who runs the agency’s effusive eruptions modelling project.

“The gases and the fine aerosol particulates, on the other hand, don’t fall in the same regime; they don’t have the same mass component. What this means is that if you get ash and gases, they won’t necessarily move in the same direction.”

The 1783 Laki event went on sporadically for eight months, but to constrain their simulations and make the whole endeavour manageable, the Met Office is assuming a five-week eruption. The model runs incorporate 10 years of weather data.

Laki volcano

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“You can start the five-week period in a January, a February, a March, or an April, etc. The seasonality is important, but so too is the natural variability in the climate,” said Dr Witham.

“Sometimes we have hot summers; sometimes we have washouts. We want to test the Laki scenario for all those different types of weather.”

The plot at the top of this page gives an idea of what is being done. It shows a concentration for sulphur dioxide in the atmosphere.

It is just a one-hour snapshot from a 10-year sequence, illustrating the size and complexity of the computational task.

And it is not just the transport direction that matters; the project is trying to get a grip on the evolving chemistry of the cloud because reactions within it will be changing its composition as it moves.

April eruption (Eyjolfur Magnusson, University of Iceland)For Eyjafjallajokull, ash was the major consideration for modellers

The final report will deliver some “reasonable worst-case scenarios” to the Cabinet Office. For disaster planning purposes, this is what the office needs to work with.

Certainly, conditions in 1783 were bad enough.

Science journalists Alex Witze and Jeff Kanipe have just published an account of the event in their book Island On Fire – The Extraordinary Story Of Laki, The Volcano That Turned 18th Century Europe Dark – and also attended the EGU meeting.

They relate the immediate impacts on Iceland itself – 10,000 deaths, which would have been a fifth of the population, along with the destruction of 50% of the cattle herd and 80% of the sheep.

“But this wasn’t just some little volcano in some remote country; it changed the lives of everyone around it, and everyone across the Northern Hemisphere,” says Alex Witze.

“A toxic haze went all across Europe, from Iceland to Great Britain, Scandinavia, Continental Europe and beyond.

“It poisoned people, it poisoned livestock, it caused climate change around the Northern Hemisphere for more than a year.

“In the end, depending on how you count it, Laki could have killed as many as one million or even as many as six million people.” and follow me on Twitter: @BBCAmos

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