Thursday, April 30, 2020

High microplastic concentration found on ocean floor
By Jonathan Amos

BBC Science Correspondent
APRIL 30, 2020

What happens to microplastics in the ocean?


Scientists have identified the highest levels of microplastics ever recorded on the seafloor.

The contamination was found in sediments pulled from the bottom of the Mediterranean, near Italy.

The analysis, led by the University of Manchester, found up to 1.9 million plastic pieces per square metre.

These items likely included fibres from clothing and other synthetic textiles, and tiny fragments from larger objects that had broken down over time.

The researchers' investigations lead them to believe that microplastics (smaller than 1mm) are being concentrated in specific locations on the ocean floor by powerful bottom currents.

"These currents build what are called drift deposits; think of underwater sand dunes," explained Dr Ian Kane, who fronted the international team.

"They can be tens of kilometres long and hundreds of metres high. They are among the largest sediment accumulations on Earth. They're made predominantly of very fine silt, so it's intuitive to expect microplastics will be found within them," he told BBC News.


It's been calculated that something in the order of four to 12 million tonnes of plastic waste enter the oceans every year, mostly through rivers.

Media headlines have focussed on the great aggregations of debris that float in gyres or wash up with the tides on coastlines.

But this visible trash is thought to represent just 1% of the marine plastic budget. The exact whereabouts of the other 99% is unknown.

Some of it has almost certainly been consumed by sea creatures, but perhaps the much larger proportion has fragmented and simply sunk.
A lot of the fibres will come from clothing and other textiles

Dr Kane's team has already shown that deep-sea trenches and ocean canyons can have high concentrations of microplastics in their sediments.

Indeed, water tank simulations run by the group have demonstrated just how efficiently flows of mud, sand and silt of the type occurring in canyons will entrain and move fibres to even greater depths.

"A single one of these underwater avalanches ('turbidity currents') can transport tremendous volumes of sediment for 100s of kilometres across the ocean floor," said Dr Florian Pohl from Durham University.

"We're just starting to understand from recent laboratory experiments how these flows transport and bury microplastics."

Tank experiments show how underwater avalanches could transport plastic particles into the deep

There is nothing atypical about the study area in the Tyrrhenian basin between Italy, Corsica and Sardinia.

Many other parts of the globe have strong deep-water currents that are driven by temperature and salinity contrasts. The issue of concern will be that these currents also supply oxygen and nutrients to deep-sea creatures. And so by following the same route, the microplastics could be settling into biodiversity hotspots, increasing the chance of ingestion by marine life. 
Beach plastic may be a very small fraction of the waste out there

Prof Elda Miramontes from the University of Bremen, Germany, is a co-author on the Science journal paper describing the Mediterranean discovery.

She says the same effort shown in the battle against coronavirus must now take on the scourge of ocean plastic pollution.

"We're all making an effort to improve our safety and we are all staying at home and changing our lives - changing our work life, or even stopping work," she told BBC News. "We're doing all this so that people are not affected by this sickness. We have to think in the same way when we protect our oceans."

Roland Geyer is professor of industrial ecology at the Bren School of Environmental Science and Management, University of California at Santa Barbara.

He has been at the forefront of investigating and describing the waste streams through which plastic gets into the oceans.

He commented: "We still have a very poor understanding of how much total plastic has accumulated in the oceans. There seems to be one emerging scientific consensus, which is that most of that plastic is not floating on the ocean surface.

"Many scientists now think that most of the plastic is likely to be on the ocean floor, but the water column and the beaches are also likely to contain major quantities.

"We really should all be completely focused on stopping plastic from entering the oceans in the first place." 
The sediments were brought up as part of work on a seafloor pipeline
JAPAN 2020

Uncovering the mystery of Japan's 'Stonehenge'

By Justyna Feicht BBC 27th April 2020

The Solar Investigators 


The ancient Kanayama Megaliths are extraordinary in their complexity. Across three sites, the solar observatories accurately measure not only solstices and equinoxes but also leap years.

But they would have been left hidden in the forest if it weren't for two people who stumbled upon some strange etchings in the stones.

Without any scientific background, Yoshiki Kobayashi and Shiho Tokuda set out to understand how three of the the world's most sophisticated solar observatories worked.

Antarctic meteorites yield global bombardment rate

By Jonathan Amos BBC Science Correspondent

30 April 2020

Media caption Dr Geoff Evatt: "The vast, vast majority of objects to hit the Earth are really small"

A team of UK scientists has provided a new estimate for the amount of space rock falling to Earth each year.

It's in excess of 16,000kg. This is for meteorite material above 50g in mass.

It doesn't take account of the dust that's continuously settling on the planet, and of course just occasionally we'll be hit by a real whopper of an asteroid that will skew the numbers.

But the estimate is said to give a good sense of the general quantity of rocky debris raining down from space.

"The vast, vast majority of objects to hit the Earth are really small," explained Dr Geoff Evatt.

"We're talking about objects for which, when they strike the ground, the fragments sum together to over 50g. So, typically, 50g-10kg in total. Objects bigger than this are very, very infrequent," the University of Manchester mathematician told BBC News.

Black on white: Manchester scientist Romain Tartèse views a meteorite in Antarctica

One of the other outcomes of the study - produced in conjunction with colleagues from Cambridge University, Imperial College London, and the British Antarctic Survey - is that it enables a risk assessment to be made for the entire planet.

This reveals that the number of falls at the poles is about 60% of what you would expect at the equator.

It explains why you would absolutely want to put any long-term contingency facilities at higher latitudes.

The Global Seed Vault, for example, which aims to retain copies of Earth's plants in case of crisis, is sited at 78 degrees North on the Svalbard archipelago.

The new estimate, published in the journal Geology, grew out of the project to undertake the first UK-dedicated meteorite hunt in the Antarctic.
The contents of the global seed vault might be needed in the aftermath of a serious impact

Researchers involved in that effort wanted to be sure they would visit the most productive areas to perform such a quest.

The White Continent is the place on Earth where most meteorites have been recovered - with good reason: the "black on white" contrast of fallen space rocks on snow and ice makes searching a lot easier.

And hunters will typically go to places where the movement of the ice sheet concentrates the meteoritic material - so called stranding zones.

Dr Evatt and colleagues worked out how many objects ought to be in their chosen area - a place called the Outer Recovery Ice Fields, close to the Shackleton range of mountains in East Antarctica.

And they were virtually bang on with their expectation, finding close to 120 meteorites in two systematic searches over 2019 and 2020.

But having worked out a reliable flux for the number of falls at their chosen terrain, the scientists realised they could then use this knowledge to anchor a global assessment.

This incorporated orbital mechanics - how Earth's gravity will pull in nearby passing material - to work out how rates might vary by latitude. The model outputs a grand total of about 17,000 falls a year.

And this can be tested by looking at the data from fireball events. Satellites in orbit tracking the lightning in storms will also catch the blazing trail of a space rock plunging into the atmosphere.

"Satellites monitor these explosions in the sky, working out the energy of the events and also the longitude and latitude of where they happen. And from this you can see how they vary across the globe with latitude, and very nicely the curve you get from these fireballs fits with what we independently modelled using purely an applied mathematical approach," said Dr Evatt.

Prof Sara Russell leads the planetary materials group at the Natural History Museum in London. She wasn't involved in the research, but commented: "I think this is an amazing study, and this estimate sounds like it is in the right sort of ballpark.

"We think a total of about 40,000 tonnes (so 40,000,000 kg) of extra-terrestrial material falls to Earth each year, but the vast majority of this is in the form of tiny dust grains.

"This is a very difficult measurement to make with any accuracy and only about half a dozen meteorites are actually seen to fall each year, but of course almost all meteorite falls are not observed because they fall in the sea, in unpopulated areas or just no-one is looking!" she told BBC News.
Fireballs reported by US Government sensors (Apr 1988 to Mar 2020)
Total impact energy is indicated by a circle's relative size and by a colour. 
The redder the colour, the higher the energy; the bluer the colour, the lower the energy and follow me on Twitter: @BBCAmos

Coronavirus: Gulshan Ewing's death adds to care home tragedy

By Geeta Pandey BBC News, Delhi
1 May 2020
Related Topics
Coronavirus pandemic
Gulshan Ewing's daughter says Gregory Peck was her favourite Hollywood actor

A pioneering Indian journalist who mingled with some of the world's most famous celebrities has died with Covid-19 at a home for the elderly in London.

Gulshan Ewing was 92 when she died in residential care in Richmond, her daughter Anjali Ewing told the BBC.

"I was right by her side when she stopped breathing." Despite her age, her mother had no pre-existing conditions, she says.

Ewing, who edited two of India's most popular publications - women's magazine Eve's Weekly and film magazine Star & Style - from 1966 to 1989 was a celebrated editor, and a celebrity in her own right.

In his book India: A million mutinies now, Nobel laureate VS Naipaul describes her as "India's most famous female editor".

She also holds the record for the longest-ever interview that Indira Gandhi, India's first and only female prime minister, gave to any journalist.Image captionGulshan Ewing interviewed prime minister Indira Gandhi for her magazine

As the editor of Eve's Weekly, she mentored young female journalists and, as the feminist movement began to grow in India in the 1970s and 80s, led the magazine through changing times.

As the editor of Star and Style, she rubbed shoulders with the best of Hollywood and Bollywood, interviewing some of the biggest stars, writing about them and even partying with them.

In the past week, news websites have published her photographs interviewing Hollywood legends Gregory Peck, Cary Grant and Roger Moore; she's seen dining with Alfred Hitchcock, chatting with Prince Charles, posing for photographs with Ava Gardner and teaching Danny Kay how to drape a sari.

In Bollywood, says her daughter, her friendships ran deep - she dropped in on the sets of superstar Rajesh Khanna, partied with legends like Dilip Kumar, Shammi Kapoor, Dev Anand, Sunil Dutt and Nargis, and even danced with "biggest showman" Raj Kapoor.Image captionShe used to love mimicking Cary Grant's accent and would speak a few sentences in his style

Born to Parsi parents in Mumbai (then Bombay) in 1928, Ewing was among the first of a few women to join journalism in independent India. She worked for a number of publications before she was appointed editor of the two magazines. In 1990, she moved to London with her husband Guy Ewing, a British journalist she married in 1955, daughter Anjali and son Roy.

Her death comes amid growing concerns over how Britain is handling Covid-19 infections in care homes. The virus has killed thousands of elderly and vulnerable people.

Ewing had been ill for a week and died peacefully on 18 April. Her test result, confirming the coronavirus infection, came a day later.

"I spent several hours sitting with her. I held her hand, I chatted, I spoke about the family, I told her how much I loved her," Anjali says.

"She was semi-conscious, she didn't speak. I played her favourite music, a couple of old Bollywood songs and Blue Danube."Image captionEwing, seen here with Rajesh Khanna and Shammi Kapoor, was close friends with many starsImage captionShe met Bollywood superstar Amitabh Bachchan many times

As news of her death came in, some of India's best-known female journalists who had worked with her 35 or 40 years ago, began fondly remembering an editor who gave them their first break, held their hands in their first jobs, was always kind and never condescending.

"She was my editor on my very first job, hiring me after a brief interview in her office in the 1980s," Charu Shahane, who's now a BBC World Service colleague in London, told me recently.

"In those days, I was very shy and tongue-tied. She was a known figure so when I got called for an interview, I was very nervous. But she immediately put me at ease."

She remembers Ewing as "an amazing, larger than life" editor, "a gorgeous and elegant figure, always impeccably dressed, with a touch of glamour, in chiffon saris and chunky pearl necklaces, with a cigarette dangling between her fingers".Image captionDanny Kay was very curious about how she tied her sari so she showed him how to drape itImage captionGulshan Ewing with Alfred Hitchcock

Ammu Joseph, who was an assistant editor in Eve's Weekly for four years, says Gulshan Ewing didn't walk into the office, she used to "swish into the office".

"We had a crammed space, it was a tiny office and she had a small cabin, but it looked spectacular because of who she was and her manner of speaking. She was elegant, soft-spoken, so sophisticated."

When Ms Joseph joined the magazine in 1977, the women's movement was just beginning to pick up in India and the campaign against dowry deaths - young brides being killed for bringing in insufficient dowry - was building up.Image captionGulshan Ewing was very close with actor couple Sunil Dutt and Nargis (right)

"I was 24 and I was all fired up with feminist ideas," she says. Most of her colleagues were of a similar age and disposition.

But Eve's Weekly was a traditional women's magazine with the "usual ingredients" like recipes, fashion and beauty tips, and knitting patterns. The cover always featured images of aspiring models and glamorous actresses.

"But to her credit, Mrs Ewing was open to the idea of making it more contemporary, more feminist. She enabled it."

So, the young journalists wrote about domestic violence and child abuse, the magazine had a special issue on rape, including marital and custodial rape, and a provocative article on misogyny in Hindu religion - all pretty revolutionary stuff considering the stigma that still surrounds these subjects in India.

"We pushed for change. We were in our 20s, she was in her 50s. She didn't have to listen to us, but she did."Image captionShe met Prince Charles during a visit to Mumbai

Pamela Philipose, who also worked as an assistant editor at Eve's Weekly in the 1980s, says Ewing "was almost intuitively able to grasp that the changing times required a feminist sensibility".

But, Ewing herself, she says, never wrote on topics like gender equality and violence against women "and enjoyed socialising with the beautiful people".

She did socialise with the beautiful people, but it was not something she made a big deal of.

In a tribute to Gulshan Ewing, her former colleague Sherna Gandhy says the photographs published in the past few days of her with Hollywood stars and British royalty "have come as a surprise to many of us who worked with her since she never boasted of her celebrity status".

Anjali, her daughter, who is also a journalist, says she knew she had "a famous mother, but for me she was mum; she was devoted to her family and paid a lot of attention to her husband and children".Image captionBollywood legend Raj Kapoor, a personal friend, dancing with her at an event

While growing up, she remembers her mother always brought home lots of work.

"For over 20 years, she was planning and commissioning for two magazines and it was a lot of work.

"She had film stars call her at 2am to complain about something that was written about them in the magazine and she would be on the phone for an hour, trying to placate them."

After she retired to London in 1990, Ewing took a complete break from writing and journalism.

Anjali says she suggested that she write a book, but she didn't seem too keen on it.

"That was her life then, and this was her life now. She divided work as hers, and family as ours.

"I think mum was a very lucky woman, she had an amazing career, and she was loved and adored by her husband. It sounds funny to say it, but she had it all.

Are Hong Kong’s pink dolphins about to disappear?

by Martin Yip

It wasn’t until the 1990s that anyone actually counted the number of pink dolphins living off the coast of Hong Kong. Construction of the city’s new international airport, Chek Lap Kok, was almost complete but in the process important dolphin habitat had been reclaimed for runways and terminal buildings. Hong Kong officials decided to check how the dolphin population was doing. They counted 250 individuals.

Today only 32 remain

Hong Kong’s pink dolphins are actually Indo-Pacific Humpback Dolphins, or Chinese White Dolphins. And their skin isn’t pink; the animals live in murky waters with little sun penetration so it simply lacks pigmentation. It is warm blood pumping through vessels close to the skin’s surface that gives the dolphins their bubblegum pink appearance.

The first recorded mention of these unusual creatures was by a British man called Peter Mundy in 1637. Mundy, a merchant who helped introduce tea to the UK, described the dolphins as "sword fish", not realising they were mammals. He wrote in his journal: “The porpoises here are as white as milk, some of them ruddy withal.”

Hong Kong’s fishermen have known about the creatures for centuries. They call the dolphins Hak Kei (the Black Taboo) or Pak Kei (the White Taboo). "Once they are here, all the fishes will be gone!" says Uncle Wai, a fisherman in Tai O, a major fishing village in the western edge of the territory.

“Fishing boats don't usually follow where they go. We fishermen mostly hate them.”

Catching a glimpse is not easy but dolphin-watching tours have become popular with tourists. When people see the dolphins for the first time, their joy is obvious.

“I’ve had some striking moments,” says Janet Walker, a senior guide with the DolphinWatch tour. "You know, amazing aerial displays and things… or like the dolphins that come and swim under your feet! Or, you know, look you in the eye.”

But Janet is worried. She’s noticed the dolphins are disappearing. "You know we are still seeing a few calves, but not that many, and the number’s still plummeting."

“I think we are very privileged to see them. Because with the amount of development that is going on around Hong Kong, especially reclamation of the sea, they are going to be gone sooner or later, I think”Chris, British tourist on the pink dolphin spotting tour

Outside of the tourism and fishing industries, pink dolphins aren’t a part of daily life for the 7.4 million people that live in the dense and bustling port of Hong Kong.

"To be frank, like many Hong Kongers, I knew little about the dolphins until I picked up this job,” says Taison Chang, chairman of the Hong Kong Dolphin Conservation Society.

"And that's the problem. Many of us were aware of them, but all we knew was the superficial stuff. We need to know about the problems they are facing before we can conserve them.”

In 2017, the population looked like it was low but stabilising. When the latest figure of 32 dolphins was released last summer, a 32% drop on the 2017-2018 period, it was a shock to conservationists like Mr Chang.

“We knew the figure would keep going down but we never thought that it would drop to just 32”Taison Chang

Chinese White Dolphins can be found off the west coast of Taiwan, as well as Vietnam, Thailand, and as far as Java in Indonesia in the South, and Tamil Nadu in India in the West, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). While this explains why the species as a whole is not yet classified as endangered, what is clear is that their habitat along the Chinese coast has been rapidly shrinking as huge infrastructure projects reclaim marine habitat and the surrounding water becomes busy and polluted. Populations like the one in Hong Kong could disappear within a generation.
Covid-19: What we can learn from wartime efforts

By Adrienne Bernhard       30th April 2020

Language more normally suited to wartime is commonly invoked around the Covid-19 pandemic, but can we learn anything from past conflicts in our battle against coronavirus?

In January 1941, Winston Churchill gave a sombre address to the House of Commons, the UK’s parliament. “Our Empire and indeed the whole English-speaking world are passing through a dark and deadly valley,” he remarked in one of World War Two’s bleakest periods. “But I should be failing in my duty if, on the other wise, I were not to convey the true impression, that a great nation is getting into its war stride.”

Comparisons between World War Two and the current coronavirus pandemic are prolific. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, who has been compared to a wartime president, has peppered his daily briefings with combative language, describing the apex of the disease’s curve as “the next battle at the top of the mountain”, and proclaiming “ventilators are to this war what bombs were to World War Two”.

European leaders, meanwhile, talk of an inevitable “D-Day” when the outbreak will overwhelm the hospital system, and allude to war with an invisible enemy. Healthcare workers are on the frontlines, scientists are the new generals, economists draw up battle plans, politicians call for mobilisation. Just a few weeks ago, Queen Elizabeth II urged Britons to adopt the same discipline and resolve that the people had showed during WWII. “It reminds me of the very first broadcast I made in 1940, helped by my sister,” the monarch recalled during a rare televised address.

The coronavirus pandemic, though different from the war in many crucial respects, seems to demand some of the same measures used during that global emergency. From boosted production to rapid redeployment of resources, increased governmental oversight and stimulus plans to potential rationing, 2020’s battle against a virus might force great nations to once again adopt their war strides.

Are there lessons we can learn from the collective anxiety, the contingency measures, the calls for national cohesion and the dramatic changes to society that defined WWII? Is there is a fallacy in the modern conception of the immediate “united front” – a fallacy that will continue to play out against the backdrop of the pandemic? What does shared sacrifice look like, and how will it shape our future this time around?

The spirit of Britain's wartime leader Winston Churchill is often invoked by those urging the adoption of measures against coronavirus (Credit: Getty Images)

The extent to which wartime psychology is relevant to our understanding of the coronavirus pandemic is, like the trajectory of the disease itself, unclear and rapidly evolving. When politicians (or journalists) reach for convenient parallels between the pandemic and those wartime battles, they may make dangerous assumptions. Comparisons that rely on militarisation, organised violence or the threat of civilian control aren’t useful, and can even be harmful, especially as new information becomes available and data changes by the hour.

“If we mount a war on coronavirus, that doesn’t solve fundamental problems in the healthcare system or in global trade, for example,” says Mark R Wilson, professor of history at the University of North Carolina. “We constrain our imagination by thinking about a short-run war mobilisation.” Insidious global problems such as equipment shortages, health care disparities, lack of emergency protocols, confusion between federal and local policies, poverty and societal inequity can’t be neatly addressed by a rapid offensive against Covid-19, even if that battle is metaphoric. “There is no automatic formula for what happens during and after a crisis,” Wilson adds. “But right now, people can and should still take an interest in the past.”

Neurosurgeons, cardiologists, medical students– all have been pulled into emergency rooms and intensive care wards

During World War Two, a dire need to radically accelerate the output of items such as ships, tanks and bombers led to a mobilised wartime economy. The United States and Great Britain, in particular, converted existing factories that once made civilian products into those that could produce military equipment. Car manufacturers built army trucks instead; clock companies and plumbing industrialists designed ammunition cartridges; silk stockings were repurposed for parachutes.

Over the past month we’ve once again seen this phenomenon of conversion, as companies across the globe repurpose production lines in an effort to turn the tide of the outbreak. In just 72 hours, luxury brand Louis Vuitton began manufacturing hand sanitiser with alcohol normally used in its perfume distillery, which it then distributed to hospitals across France. General Motors, the US auto manufacturer that mass-produced tanks in World War Two, has pivoted once again, this time producing thousands of ventilators, while clothing retailers in the UK have turned from fashion to manufacturing in-demand surgical N-95 masks.

The war also spurred massive social changes, such as the development of universal health care in countries including the UK (Credit: Getty Images)

Airlines across the globe have begun chartered flights to repatriate stranded nationals abroad and transport health care workers and medical supplies to deeply impacted regions. Hospital ships such as the USNS Comfort, designed to treat casualties of war, now offer a relief valve for hospitals overwhelmed with Covid-19 patients.

This redeployment calculus applies not just to goods and services but to human capital as well. Neurosurgeons, cardiologists, medical student – all have been pulled into emergency rooms and intensive care wards. Receptionists who normally deal with billing are suddenly tasked with screening coronavirus patients, making up for an acute shortage of personnel. Restaurant workers prepare and deliver meals in bulk to exhausted emergency care nurses, parents have become full-time teachers to their children, hotel managers are being trained in hospital protocol as they open their doors to health care workers.

During World War Two, the measures used to ramp up production took months to implement; today, it would appear that we had not months, but weeks. And our current efforts seem patchwork at best. World War Two’s unprecedented mobilisation effort, by contrast – its dramatic output, profit control and federal regulation – might serve as a blueprint during the next phase of the coronavirus outbreak. As they did during the war, officials could opt to fund brand new factories and equip them with machinery and tools (in this case, ventilators or personal protective gear).

The short-term financial cost of these measures would be enormous, but the payoff could be too

By establishing dedicated Covid-19 facilities rather than converting existing ones, governments would expand capacity and absorb risk. Over the next several months, these factories could implement production lines to speed the creation of antibody tests and a vaccine. And authorities could further regulate the crisis standard of care – allocating treatment to certain patients – and ration medical equipment or even food.

The short-term financial cost of these measures would be enormous, but the payoff could be too. Indeed, rapid government intervention in the months following the coronavirus outbreak has already shown signs of success. In China, for example, thousands of workers built a field hospital on government orders; modular construction and rapid mobilisation meant that thousands more Covid-19 patients could be treated in a matter of days.

Federally mandated social distancing has also worked to compress the timeline – a kind of individual sacrifice reminiscent of wartime strain on the home front. World War Two’s iconic message of “equality of sacrifice,” emphasised by labour leaders and union officials and propagated through steep progressive taxes and government regulations, would be hard to sustain in today’s political and financial landscape. But in recent weeks, people have shown a desire to comply, even to make personal sacrifices for the greater good.

During World War Two, factories which had once made cars were quickly reorganised to make weapons such as these British bombers (Credit: Getty Images)

“People are turning to war as a metaphor because of the mobilising aspects of war,” says Mary L Dudziak, a law professor at Emory University who has published widely on the concept of wartime in US history. “But a pandemic is not a ‘war’. A country responds to war by killing other people: death is the means of war. In a pandemic, the means of responding is not killing other people but instead trying to preserve life.”

The desire to comply, to make personal sacrifices, these are no longer for the purpose of destruction, but for a greater good that is truly good: mutual assistance across nations and the safeguarding of human life

“Moments of crisis can provide opportunities for reform,” says Wilson. World War Two brought national healthcare reforms, gave rise to international organisations like the United Nations and the International Monetary Fund, and in the US led to the introduction of the GI Bill, which detailed important benefits for soldiers returning from war.

There will be no “return to normalcy” after the coronavirus pandemic

Of course, not all reforms at the time were sweeping in scope. While the UK’s universal health care system, the National Health Service (NHS), emerged out of World War Two, the US ended up with a far less robust system; many were left uninsured. The coronavirus crisis might bring about similar reforms; for example, targeted compensation packages for health care workers or grocery store staff. Or it might engender an entirely restructured economy, resulting in universal health care or increased job security. At the very least, we can expect to see a new generation of political leaders and thinkers to come out of it.

Consider the scientific experts now on the front lines. Just as generals take the lead in giving daily briefings in wartime, medical experts like Anthony Fauci are at the microphone to explain complex ideas like epidemic curves, social distancing and off-label use of drugs. Healthcare professionals are perhaps the new wartime generals.

After World War Two, much of Europe and Asia lay in ruins. The figures are difficult to grasp – nearly 60 million dead. Indeed, 1945 has often been referred to as Year Zero: a new way to mark time before and after the war’s destruction. People the world over confronted a landscape that had been changed forever, marked by deprivation but also by hope. Government expenditures helped bring about the business recovery that had eluded President Roosevelt’s New Deal .

While the industrial conversion hasn't been as dramatic as turning tractor factories into tank plants, it has been widespread and rapid (Credit: Getty Images)

Throughout the US and Europe, wartime mobilisation and ingenuity secured employment and a fairer distribution of income, while creating entirely new technologies, industries and associated human skills. Old ideological constraints collapsed, but new ideas about capital, entrepreneurship, and social bonds emerged. These extraordinarily ambitious efforts – civilian and federal, at home and abroad – meant that nations could ultimately recover.

To misquote a post-war US presidential candidate, there will be no “return to normalcy” after the coronavirus pandemic. From the comfort of our homes, we may sit and leaf through the pages of history, imagining various after-lesson actions – but we know for certain only that nothing can be certain.

Yet, this crisis has arguably spurred mobilisation on an international scale not seen since the war 80 years ago. The pandemic demands quick crash efforts with high stakes, has united people across the world, and promises to accelerate seismic global changes which could last for years to come.

Then, as now, we might take some courage in the Queen’s wartime vow: “We will be with our friends again. We will be with our families again. We will meet again.”

The worldwide race to make solar power more efficient

Image captionBlue skies in the UK in April were a bonanza for solar power
One of the few parts of the UK economy to have a good April was solar power,
The Met Office says it has probably been the sunniest April on record and the solar power industry reported its highest ever production of electricity (9.68GW) in the UK at 12:30 on Monday 20 April.
With 16 solar panels on his roof Brian McCallion, from Northern Ireland, has been one of those benefitting from the good weather.
"We have had them for about five years, and we save about £1,000 per year," says Mr McCallion, who lives in Strabane, just by the border.
"If they were more efficient we could save more," he says, "and maybe invest in batteries to store it."
Brian McCallionImage copyrightBRIAN MCCALLION
Image captionSolar panels even make sense in cloudy Northern Ireland
That efficiency might be coming. There is a worldwide race, from San Francisco to Shenzhen, to make a more efficient solar cell.
Today's average commercial solar panel converts 17-19% of the light energy hitting it to electricity. This is up from 12% just 10 years ago. But what if we could boost this to 30%?
More efficient solar cells mean we could get much more than today's 2.4% of global electricity supply from the sun.
Solar is already the world's fastest growing energy technology. Ten years ago, there were only 20 gigawatts of installed solar capacity globally - one gigawatt being roughly the output of a single large power station. For context, New York City, with 8.4 million people uses about 12 gigawatt-hours of electricity a day.
A view shows photovoltaic solar panels at the power plant in La Colle des Mées, Alpes de Haute Provence, south eastern France, on April 17, 2019.Image copyrightGETTY IMAGES
Image captionThis solar farm covers 200ha (500 acres) in southern France
By the end of last year, the world's installed solar power had jumped to about 600 gigawatts.
Even with the disruption caused by Covid-19, we will probably add 105 gigawatts of solar capacity worldwide this year, forecasts London-based research company, IHS Markit.
Most solar cells are made from wafer-thin slices of silicon crystals, 70% of which are made in China and Taiwan.
Presentational grey line
Presentational grey line
But wafer-based crystalline silicon is bumping pretty close to its theoretical maximum efficiency.
The Shockley-Queisser limit marks the maximum efficiency for a solar cell made from just one material, and for silicon this is about 32%.
However, combining six different materials into what is called a multi-junction cell can push efficiency as high as 47%.
Another way to break through this limit, is to use lenses to magnify the sunlight falling on the solar cell, an approach called concentrated solar.
But this is an expensive way to produce electricity, and is mainly useful on satellites.
"Not anything you would see on anybody's roof in the next decade," laughs Dr Nancy Haegel, director of materials science at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Boulder, Colorado.
Work on solar panelsImage copyrightGETTY IMAGES
Image captionThe technology of the current generation of solar panels is close to its theoretical maximum efficiency
The fastest improving solar technology is called perovskites - named after Count Lev Alekseevich von Perovski, a 19th Century Russian mineralogist.
These have a particular crystal structure that is good for solar absorption. Thin films, around 300 nanometres (much thinner than a human hair) can be made inexpensively from solutions - allowing them to be easily applied as a coating to buildings, cars or even clothing.
Perovskites also work better than silicon at lower lighting intensities, on cloudy days or for indoors.
You can print them using an inkjet printer, says Dr Konrad Wojciechowski, scientific director at Saule Technologies, based in Oxford and Warsaw. "Paint on a substrate, and you have a photovoltaic device," he says.
With such a cheap, flexible, and efficient material, you could apply it to street furniture to power free smartphone charging, public wifi, and air quality sensors, he explains.
He's been working with the Swedish construction firm Skanska to apply perovskite layers in building panels.
Saule Technologies labImage copyrightINSOLIGHT
Image captionSaule Technologies is using perovskites in solar panels
According to Max Hoerantner, co-founder of Swift Solar, a San Francisco start-up, there are only about 10 start-up firms in the world working on perovskite technology.
Oxford PV, a university spin-off, says it reached 28% efficiency with a commercial perovskite-based solar cell in late 2018, and will have an annual 250-megawatt production line running this year.
Both Oxford PV and Swift Solar make tandem solar cells - these are silicon panels which also have a thin perovskite film layer.
Since they're made from two materials, they get to break through the Shockley-Queisser limit.
The silicon absorbs the red band of the visible light spectrum, and the perovskite the blue bit, giving the tandem bigger efficiency than either material alone.
One challenge is when "you work with a material that's only been around since 2012, it's very hard to show it will last for 25 years," says Dr Hoerantner.
Insolight solar panelImage copyrightINSOLIGHT
Image captionInsolight panels use lenses to concentrate light
Insolight, a Swiss startup, has taken a different tack - embedding a grid of hexagonal lenses in a solar panel's protective glass, thus concentrating light 200 times.
To follow the sun's motion, the cell array shifts horizontally by a few millimetres throughout the day. It is a bid to make concentrated solar cheap.
"The architecture of these conventional concentrated photovoltaics is very costly. What we've done is miniaturise the sun tracking mechanism and integrate it within the module," says Insolight's chief business officer David Schuppisser.
"We've done it in a cheaper way [that] you can deploy anywhere you can deploy a conventional solar panel," he says.
The Universidad Politécnica de Madrid's solar energy institute measured Insolight's current model as having an efficiency of 29%. It is now working on a module that is hoped to reach 32% efficiency.
Current silicon technology is not quite dead, though, and there are approaches to make tiny, quick wins in efficiency. One is to add an extra layer to a cell's back to reflect unabsorbed light back through it a second time. This improves efficiency by 1-2%.
Another is to add an outside layer, which lessens losses that occur where silicon touches the metal contacts. It's only a "small tweak", says Xiaojing Sun, a solar analyst Wood Mackenzie research - adding 0.5-1% in efficiency - but she says these changes mean manufacturers only need to make small alterations to their production lines.
From such small gains - to the use of concentrated solar and perovskites - solar tech is in a race to raise efficiency and push down costs.
"Spanning this magical number 30%, this is where the solar cell industry could really make a very big difference," says Swift Solar's Max Hoerantner.