Thursday, May 31, 2007

Coping with death on the web

Coping with death on the web
By Patrick Jackson
BBC News

It increasingly acts as an outlet for mourning in developed societies but how far can the internet intrude on a very private experience?

Tribute website for victims of Virginia Tech massacre (BBC News website reader Brandon Merkl)
This Virginia Tech memorial site was set up by a Tennessee programmer

Some may regard the idea of messaging condolences to someone electronically as inappropriate but to those growing up on Facebook and MySpace it is becoming second nature.

When sudden, violent death visits a college or school as it did at Virginia Tech on 16 April, it can turn social networking sites into channels of breaking news, and transform personal pages into makeshift memorials.

Facebook criticised journalists for violating the privacy of its users' profiles and memorial sites to glean information about the massacre.

Responses to the fatal stabbing of a 13-year-old schoolboy in Vancouver, Canada, this month prompted different concerns.

Among the Facebook memorials was a forum which named and discussed the chief suspect, a juvenile, just as police were withholding details for legal reasons.

Just how private are the personal spaces of the social networking sites when tragedy strikes?

Privacy through obscurity

"This idea that if you set up a memorial site within Facebook it will be private is a bit of a misconception," says Alfred Hermida, journalism professor at the School of Journalism of the University of British Columbia in Vancouver.

A computer browser opened at the MySpace website
They will go online and will say things there as if they are chatting in the playground with friends
Alfred Hermida
journalism professor, University of British Columbia

"A lot of social networking sites like Facebook and MySpace are almost seen by their members as 'their space' but they are actually very public forums," he told the BBC News website.

When Facebook launched three years ago, it was a site only college students could join but it is "now essentially open to anybody with an e-mail account", he notes.

It and other social networking sites are private spaces only as long as their users are not making the news themselves - on the principle of "privacy through obscurity".

"But when something like Virginia Tech happens, you will have information professionals going in to forage and they will find you and you will be propelled into the foreground," Prof Hermida says.

For adolescents, he adds, social networking websites have become "almost like the new playground" but they often fail to appreciate the legal issues involved in an event like the Vancouver stabbing.

"Instead of going to the shopping mall or the gaming arcade they will go online and will say things there as if they are chatting in the playground with friends," he says.

"But once you have written down something online, that actually has legal repercussions beyond just you and your friends on that forum."

Mourning online

Since its launch in March, the website has provided a platform for relatives or loved ones of US soldiers killed in Iraq to talk to camera about their bereavement. website (screenshot)
The website was launched on 16 March

They appear as one-minute talking heads, and their intimate recollections of people killed in action or driven to suicide by their experiences make for both a poignant online memorial and a powerful anti-war message.

In the aftermath of tragedy, going online to leave a tribute, swap messages or blog about your feelings is a positive emotional factor, according to Prof Douglas Davies, director of the death and life studies centre at Durham University.

"In a crisis situation, action is one of the very few things people have as a coping mechanism and in one sense it almost does not matter what the activity is," he told the BBC News website.

But he believes that online messages provide weak triggers for emotional response compared with physical interaction.

"That element which we often see at funerals and memorial services would, I suspect, be absent in the privacy of someone's face-to-face relationship with their monitor," he says.

'Death-style' choices

As author of A Brief History of Death, Prof Davies has noted the progress of mortality though the internet.

Coffin (generic)
There is a sense that the coffin is becoming less visible
Prof Douglas Davies
director of the death and life studies centre at Durham University

Death, he says, has literally gone online in the form of web cameras installed in crematoria or funeral videos shared with distant relatives in some cultures.

In China, there have been moves to encourage people to remember their dead through internet sites rather than actual grave visits.

Asked if he sees a time when funerals are wholly conducted over the internet, Prof Davies points to the "very clear marginalisation of the dead and of death" in the US, a "society committed to life and living".

"In some parts of America, they have memorial services rather than actual funerals for the majority of people so there is a sense that the coffin is becoming less visible," he says.

However, he does not expect immediate family, at least, to stop attending funerals and cremations simply because "people need people at times of crisis".

"Emotion is as much a product of the social context as it is of the interior, private thoughts of a person, and you need the group to trigger that," he says.

Meanwhile the internet will continue to act as a valuable tool for communicating grief, the professor says, adding:

"In a world where many people's lifestyles are related to the internet it would be natural to expect elements of their death-style to be tied up with the web - otherwise life would be so very fragmented for them."

Norway rated most peaceful nation

Norway rated most peaceful nation
The aftermath of a car bomb blast in Baghdad, Iraq
The index placed Iraq at the bottom of the list
A study has ranked Norway as the most peaceful country and Iraq as the least in a survey of 121 countries.

The Global Peace Index, compiled by the Economist Intelligence Unit, looked at 24 factors to determine how peaceful each country was.

It places the US at 96th on the list and the UK at 49th, while New Zealand ranks second and Japan fifth.

The authors say it is the first attempt to produce such a wide-ranging league table of how peaceful countries are.

Factors examined by the authors include levels of violence and organised crime within the country and military expenditure.

The survey has been backed by the Dalai Lama, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, former US President Jimmy Carter and US economist Joseph Stiglitz, who are all Nobel prize laureates.

It is also supported by Queen Noor of Jordan.

'Wake-up call'

Scandinavian and other European countries generally performed well in the survey.

1 Norway
2 New Zealand
3 Denmark
4 Ireland
5 Japan

But Britain's ranking comes partly from its involvement in Iraq and other conflicts.

The United States is 96th - between Yemen and Iran - again because of such things as its military spending, its involvement in Iraq, violent crime at home, and a high prison population.

The survey also places Russia and Israel at the wrong end of the scale - 118th and 119th respectively.

The brainchild of Steve Killelea, an Australian entrepreneur, the survey is meant to inform governments, international organisations, and campaign groups.

Mr Killelea said: "This is a wake-up call for leaders around the globe. Countries need to become more peaceful to solve the major challenges that the world faces - from climate change to decreasing biodiversity.

117 Nigeria
118 Russia
119 Israel
120 Sudan
121 Iraq

"There is also a strong case for the world becoming more peaceful and it is now crucial for world leaders and business to take a lead," he said.

He added that the high positions of Germany, which ranked 12th, and Japan revealed that "there can be light at the end of what may seem at the moment like a very dark tunnel."

The study is published just before the G8 summit of leading countries next week.

The authors say they are trying to supplant what they call some "woolly" definitions of peace with a scientific approach, that includes levels of violent crime, political instability, and a country's relations with its neighbours.

But questions have been raised over the way some of these factors are brought together.

The authors themselves acknowledge that there is a lack of data in many countries.

What impact the new survey will have is unclear. The authors also argue that some countries - like Japan - may benefit from sheltering under the US military umbrella.

Sunday, May 20, 2007

Charles C. Krulak and Joseph P. Hoar: What fear has wrought: an unseemly policy of cruelty

Charles C. Krulak and Joseph P. Hoar: What fear has wrought: an unseemly policy of cruelty

Any flexibility about use of torture will come back to haunt the United States.

Charles C. Krulak and Joseph P. Hoar

Published: May 20, 2007

Fear can be a strong motivator. It led Franklin Roosevelt to intern tens of thousands of innocent U.S. citizens during World War II; it led to Joseph McCarthy's witch hunt, which ruined the lives of hundreds of Americans. And it led the nation to adopt a policy at the highest levels that condoned and even authorized torture of prisoners in our custody.

Fear is the justification offered for this policy by former CIA director George Tenet as he promotes his new book. Tenet oversaw the secret CIA interrogation program in which torture techniques euphemistically called "waterboarding,"sensory deprivation,"sleep deprivation" and "stress positions" -- conduct we used to call war crimes -- were used. In defending these abuses, Tenet revealed: "Everybody forgets one central context of what we lived through: the palpable fear that we felt on the basis of the fact that there was so much we did not know."

We have served in combat; we understand the reality of fear and the havoc it can wreak if left unchecked or fostered. Fear breeds panic, and it can lead people and nations to act in ways inconsistent with their character.

The American people are understandably fearful about another attack like that of Sept. 11, 2001. But it is the duty of the commander in chief to lead the country away from the grip of fear, not into its grasp. Regrettably, at Tuesday's presidential debate in South Carolina, several GOP candidates revealed a stunning failure to understand this most basic obligation. Among the candidates, only John McCain showed that he understands the close connection between our security and our values as a nation.

Tenet insists that the CIA program disrupted terrorist plots and saved lives. This claim is hard to refute -- not because it is self-evidently true, but because any evidence that might support it is classified.

These assertions that "torture works" may reassure a fearful public, but it is a false security. We don't know what's been gained through this fear-driven program. But we do know the consequences.

As has happened with every other nation that has tried to engage in a little bit of torture -- only for the toughest cases, only when nothing else works -- the abuse spread like wildfire, and every captured prisoner became the key to defusing a potential ticking time bomb. Any degree of "flexibility" about torture at the top drops down the chain of command like a stone -- the rare exception fast becoming the rule.

To understand the impact this has had on the ground, look at the military's mental health assessment report released earlier this month. The study shows a disturbing level of tolerance for abuse of prisoners in some situations. This underscores what we know as military professionals: Complex situational ethics cannot be applied during the stress of combat. The rules must be firm and absolute; if torture is broached as a possibility, it will become a reality.

This has had disastrous consequences. Revelations of abuse feed what the Army's new counterinsurgency manual, which was drafted under the command of Gen. David Petraeus, calls the "recuperative power" of the terrorist enemy.

Former defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld once wondered aloud whether we were creating more terrorists than we were killing. In counterinsurgency doctrine, that is precisely the right question. Victory in this kind of war comes when the enemy loses legitimacy in the society from which it seeks recruits and thus loses its "recuperative power."

The torture methods that Tenet defends have nurtured the recuperative power of the enemy. This war will be won or lost not on the battlefield but in the minds of potential supporters who have not yet thrown in their lot with the enemy. If we forfeit our values by signaling that they are negotiable in situations of grave or imminent danger, we drive those undecideds into the arms of the enemy. This way lies defeat, and we are well down the road to it.

Right now, White House lawyers are working up new rules that will govern what CIA interrogators can do to prisoners in secret. Those rules will set the standard not only for the CIA but also for what kind of treatment captured American soldiers can expect from their captors, now and in future wars. Before the president once again approves a policy of official cruelty, he should reflect on that.

It is time for us to remember who we are and approach this enemy with energy, judgment and confidence that we will prevail. That is the path to security, and back to ourselves.

Charles C. Krulak was Marine Corps commandant from 1995 to 1999. Joseph P. Hoar was commander in chief of U.S. Central Command from 1991 to 1994. They wrote this for the Washington Post.



Published: May 17, 2007

Iowa City

THE owner of Napoleon’s penis died last Thursday in Englewood, N.J. John K. Lattimer, who’d been a Columbia University professor and a collector of military (and some macabre) relics, also possessed Lincoln’s blood-stained collar and Hermann Göring’s cyanide ampoule. But the penis, which supposedly had been severed by a priest who administered last rites to Napoleon and overstepped clerical boundaries, stood out (sorry) from the professor’s collection of medieval armor, Civil War rifles and Hitler drawings.

The chances that Napoleon’s penis would be excised so that it could become a souvenir were improved by his having lived and died at a moment when the physical remains of celebrities held a strong attraction. Shakespeare didn’t become Shakespeare until the dawn of the romantic period, when his biography was written, his plays annotated and his belongings sought out and preserved. Trees that stood outside the bard’s former homes were felled to provide Shakespearean lumber for tea chests and tobacco stoppers.

After Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo, his possessions toured England. His carriage, filled with enticing contents like a gold tongue scraper, a flesh brush, “Cashimeer small-clothes” and a chocolate pot, drew crowds and inspired the poet Byron to covet a replica. When Napoleon died, the trees that lined his grave site at St. Helena were slivered into souvenirs.

The belief that objects are imbued with a lasting essence of their owners, taken to its logical extreme, led to the mind-set that caused Mary Shelley to keep her husband’s heart, dried to a powder, in her desk drawer. Of course, relic collecting long predates the romantic period; medieval pilgrims sought out fragments of the True Cross. In the aftermath of the Reformation, religious relics that had been ejected from monasteries joined secular collections that freely intermingled belemnites with saints’ finger bones. When Keats died, his hair took on the numinous appeal of a religious artifact.

Napoleon’s penis was not the only Napoleonic body part that became grist for the relic mill. Two pieces of Napoleon’s intestine, acquired by the Museum of the Royal College of Surgeons of England in 1841, provoked a long-simmering debate beginning in 1883. That year, Sir James Paget called the specimens’ authenticity into question, contrasting their seemingly cancerous protrusions to the sound tissue Napoleon’s doctor had earlier described. In 1960, the dispute continued in The Annals of the Royal College of Surgeons of England, long after the intestine pieces had been destroyed during a World War II air raid.

Dr. Lattimer, a urologist, could claim a professional interest in Napoleon’s genitalia. Not so its previous owner, the Philadelphia bookseller and collector A. S. W. Rosenbach, who took a “Rabelaisian delight” in the relic, according to his biographer, Edwin Wolf. When Rosenbach put the penis on display at the Museum of French Art in New York, visitors peered into a vitrine to see something that looked like a maltreated shoelace, or a shriveled eel.

Whether the object prized by Dr. Lattimer was actually once attached to Napoleon may never be resolved. Some historians doubt that the priest could have managed the organ heist when so many people were passing in and out of the emperor’s death chamber. Others suggest he may have removed only a partial sample. If enough people believe in a possibly spurious penis, does it become real?

The pathos of Napoleon’s penis — bandied about over the decades, barely recognizable as a human body part — conjures up the seamier side of the collecting impulse. If, as Freud suggested, the collector is a sexually maladjusted misanthrope, then the emperor’s phallus is a collector’s object nonpareil, the epitome of male potency and dominance. The ranks of Napoleon enthusiasts, it should be noted, include many alpha males: Bill Gates, Newt Gingrich, Stanley Kubrick, Winston Churchill, Augusto Pinochet. Nevertheless, the Freudian paradigm has never accounted for women collectors, nor does it explain the appeal of collections for artists like Lisa Milroy, whose paintings of cabinet handles or shoes, arrayed in series, animate these common objects.

It’s time to let Napoleon’s penis rest in peace. Museums are quietly de-accessioning the human remains of indigenous peoples so that body parts can be given proper burial rites. Napoleon’s penis, too, should be allowed to go home and rejoin the rest of his captivating body.

Judith Pascoe, a professor of English at the University of Iowa, is the author of “The Hummingbird Cabinet: A Rare and Curious History of Romantic Collectors.”

Correction: May 18, 2007

An Op-Ed article yesterday, about collecting relics, misstated Napoleon’s fate at Waterloo. He formally surrendered a month after the battle; he was not captured there.

Is there a place for God in public morals debate?

Pub Date: 18/05/2007 Pub: ST Page: 33
Day: Friday
Edition: FIRST
Headline: Is there a place for God in public morals debate?
Page Heading: INSIGHT
Source: SPH

GOD often enters the picture when there is debate on issues of morality and
When it comes to gay issues, for example, some Christians may say that
homosexuality is a “sin” – not just any old sin but a particularly grievous one
that harms individuals and children and families and indeed puts the entire
bedrock of society at risk – and should thus be criminalised.
Back in 2003, when the Government liberalised its hiring policy and said being
homosexual was no longer a bar to holding a sensitive government position, the
gay issue erupted into the national consciousness.
Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew’s recent remarks have caused the issue to be
raised again. He said that if homosexuality is genetically determined, “why
should we criminalise it?” But he also said Singapore is a conservative
society, and the Government did not wish to upset citizens’ sense of propriety.

So the situation in Singapore remains: homosexual sex acts remain a crime, but
the state won’t act like a moral police and go around barging into bedrooms.
Once again, the battle lines are drawn clearly, with the notion of homosexual
sex acts as a “sin” cropping up.
But “sin” is a theological concept, defined by some religions as an offence
against God. Should it have a place in a public discussion on morals?
Or to frame the question in another way, should religion have a place in public
discussions on morality? To what extent? And are there ground rules for such
debate, so people of different or no faiths can engage in meaningful dialogue?
One solution is to give up and say that people of different beliefs can never
engage since they start off with different a priori positions.
Nominated MP and lawyer Siew Kum Hong noted: “How do you convince, through
argument, a Christian who is convinced that homosexuality is evil and immoral,
a sin that needs to be outlawed? I don’t think you can.”
I am more sanguine. I not only believe Singapore can evolve ground rules for
discussing moral issues among people of diverse or no faiths, but I also
believe it is essential that we do so, given the increasing sway of religious
teachings, and the rise in values-related issues Singapore will confront.
The gay issue is just one example. Others include recent debates on casinos and
stem-cell research, and sexuality education (abstention or contraception?), and
one day, perhaps, euthanasia.
With moral debate a certainty in public discourse, it behoves Singaporeans to
develop an understanding of how to engage in such discussions fruitfully.
Some people may respond by saying that religion and private morals have no
place in public debate.
The thinking here is that Singapore is a secular state made up of people of
many or no faiths, so God should be kept out of policy discussions.
But this position ignores the psychological reality that people’s values are
shaped by their religion, so religion will slip into the picture anyway.
As the 1989 White Paper on the Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act states: “It
is neither possible nor desirable to compartmentalise completely the minds of
voters into secular and religious halves, and to ensure that only the secular
mind influences voting behaviour.”
In Singapore, 85 per cent of the population profess a faith, such as Buddhism,
Taoism, Islam, Christianity or Hinduism and others, with diverse teachings on
It may be more realistic to acknowledge that religion affects an individual’s
private morality, and hence shapes his view on public issues.
Should the line then be drawn here, to let citizens practise their private
morality, but curtail their ability to use religiously motivated views to
influence the public agenda?
In 2004, I wrote a commentary arguing this point of view, saying that religious
groups should limit their influence to their own flock, and not try to organise
to get others round to their point of view.
I have since come to see the limits of such a position, which curtails
individuals’ and organisations’ right to influence the policy process.
So, should people of faith be allowed to use religious justifications for their
views and influence others accordingly? For example, can the argument to keep
homosexual acts a crime be based on religion?
Prescribing this would be foolish in a multi-faith society with people who
adhere to different religious teachings.
Those who want to advance public discussion must make use of public reason, and
put up public justifications for what they believe in.
In other words, religion may influence your view on an issue. But when arguing
your case in the political arena, you need to present arguments understandable
and acceptable to those of different faiths.
Influential moral thinker John Rawls’ The Law Of Peoples is devoted to the
issue of whether religious doctrine is compatible with democracy.
He sets out to distinguish a person’s value system or “comprehensive doctrine,
religious or non-religious” as one which “we do not expect others to share”.
In political discussions on an issue, however, “each of us shows how, from our
own doctrines, we can and do endorse a reasonable public political conception
of justice...The aim of doing this is to declare to others who affirm different
comprehensive doctrines that we also each endorse a reasonable political
For example, Christians may cite the Good Samaritan story to say that Jesus
taught that we should care for our neighbours.
But to convince non-Christians, they have to “go on to give a public
justification for this parable’s conclusions in terms of political values”,
notes Rawls.
How can they do so? Well, they may argue that we owe a duty of care even to
strangers, using the principles of proximity and reciprocity: You were there,
and can help, so you should, because you would want others to do so if you were
in such a situation.
Such use of “public reason” is accessible to all regardless of religious faith.

This way, individuals may hold fundamentalist religious views that are
non-negotiable, yet are able to take part meaningfully in discussions on
morality using “public reason”, appealing to common values held by those of
different faiths.
But this requires mutual respect, a spirit of civil tolerance and a willingness
to bracket one’s own religious beliefs to hear others out.
Most important of all, it requires a willingness to consider that one’s private
morality, based on one’s own religious beliefs, need not be the basis of public

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Out for the count

Out for the count
Danny Robbins
New laws removing anonymity from sperm donors have led to a shortfall in recent years - there are just 208 in the UK. But, for many, it's hard to address the subject without raising a snigger - which is why comedian Danny Robins was asked to see if would-be donors might be persuaded.

I have to confess that until recently I knew nothing about sperm donation. Like many others, I suspect, I had no idea there was a crisis in donor numbers and, I guess, if I thought about sperm donation at all, it was as something a little bit seedy and embarrassing.

But then I met people like Siaran West, from Cardiff, who had been devastated when her husband's multiple sclerosis prevented them from having a child. Thanks to a sperm donor, they now have a lovely little girl.

I asked Siaran what she would say to anyone who was thinking of donating and she said, "I'd have to point at my daughter and say I'm just so incredibly grateful to whoever donated their sperm to help me have a child... when it can make that much difference, you just think that's got to be a fantastic thing to do."

Sperm donation literally gives the gift of life and as donor numbers have dried up, fewer and fewer people are receiving that gift.

So what has gone wrong? Well, the crisis seems to stem from the government's decision in 2005 to abolish the right of all sperm donors to remain anonymous. All men who registered as a donor after 1 April that year could have their identity revealed to the children created from their sperm when they turned 18.

Helping out

The cliched image of the sperm donor has always been the medical student who filled a few pots in exchange for beer money. But what seemed like an easy way to help childless couples and earn some extra cash suddenly became less enticing at the prospect of up to 50 children (your sperm can be used by a maximum of 10 families) tracking you down and knocking on your door in the year 2023.

I was shocked by the confusion and lack of knowledge about donation and the law

Unsurprisingly, a lot of men have been put off.

Clearly, something had to be done. So I undertook a mission to try to end the sperm crisis by not only raising awareness around the country, but actually asking men to come forward and donate as a pledge of support.

I decided to start with Labour MPs. After all, it was the government's change in the law that had led to this apparently disastrous shortage.

I made a list of MPs who fulfilled the donor criteria - male (that was crucial) and aged between 18 and 45. Armed with this, I headed to the Houses of Parliament in my mobile donation centre (a converted polling booth).

But, to my disappointment, the people who had stripped men of their right to anonymity were very keen to keep their own. I stood outside Parliament for hours trying to grab MPs to talk to, but no-one was willing to discuss sperm with me.

Undaunted, I booked a van and set off on a national sperm tour that would take in London, Oxford, Cardiff, Manchester, Newcastle, Carlisle, Edinburgh and Belfast. It was Belfast that shocked me most. The crisis is most acute here since, in the whole of Northern Ireland, there wasn't a single donor - not one.

Mechanics of donating

I went wherever men could be found - football matches, pubs, gay bars, fire stations, even a coalmine and a male voice choir. Everywhere I travelled, I was shocked by the confusion and lack of knowledge about donation and the law.

Sperm donation centre
Danny shows off his mobile sperm donation centre
Some men thought that if they donated they would become financially responsible for the kids. One said: "So, what if they turn up aged 18 and make me buy them a Porsche?"

Others were worried about the mechanics of donation - one even thought he'd have to have sex with a woman who wasn't his wife - leading to understandable concerns.

Almost all the men were unaware of the need for donors.

But one thing is clear - it's not their fault that there is a crisis. A large number of those I spoke to were prepared to donate and genuinely wanted to help. One guy in Northern Ireland was so moved he decided to help - by becoming the first Northern Irish donor in decades.

"I put myself in their shoes," he said. "I thought what if I was that guy, what would I do? I don't want to be the one saying yeah, I'd love to have a sperm donor to help my wife have kids, but I'm not willing to give my sperm. It would be like if I needed blood but never thought about giving blood."

Other men were equally eager to give. The trouble was most of them wanted to do it anonymously.

The law was introduced to protect the rights of the unborn child and is supported by organisations such as Barnardos and the Children's Society.

Lack of funding

But with the drop in donor numbers I was keen to put some questions to the government: why, for example, they weren't organising a clear and focussed campaign to educate men about sperm donation.

265 registered donors
Two-thirds of clinics getting 'no sperm' or having 'great difficulties'
Donor numbers peaked at 459 in the 1990s
The minister responsible, Caroline Flint, politely declined our requests for an interview, and her department issued us with a short statement:

"Where UK clinics have focused on modernising their services to attract donors - for example, realistic clinic opening times, they are recruiting identifiable donors."

But my research found most clinics are simply too under-funded to run a successful campaign to recruit donors, or to extend their opening hours.

The government also claimed a recent rise in donor numbers. Indeed, the latest official figures do show an increase... of 15. Yes, 15 whole donors.

The small increase is thanks to recent media coverage of the issue. But it's what economists refer to as Dead Cat Theory: a slight rise in numbers doesn't necessarily indicate a return to glowing health - even a dead cat will bounce when you drop it.

What these figures don't reveal is that donor numbers dropped massively in the late 1990s. In 1995 there were 418 sperm donors in the UK. Today, it's 265. And only 208 of these donors are based here - more than a fifth of donors currently supplying UK clinics are overseas.

In a country of over 22 million men, only a measly 200 want to donate. Fertility experts estimate that we need 500-600 donors for the current demand to be met.

Now, who made me such an expert on this you might be asking. Well, I admit, I'm not a politician and I'm not a fertility expert - I'm just an ordinary bloke, but it's ordinary blokes like me and the blokes who read this and watch the programme I've made for the BBC who need to be convinced to part with their sperm if we are to solve this crisis. I suppose there's just one final question that I haven't answered: did I donate myself? Well, you'll have to watch the programme to find out.

Mischief: The Great Sperm Crisis is on BBC Three at 2100BST on Thursday 17 May

Uprooting the organic claims

Uprooting the organic claims
By Simon Cox
Presenter, The Investigation

Sales of organic produce are booming on the back of alleged benefits to our health and the environment, as well as claims of higher standards of animal welfare. But are we being seduced by "feel good" claims that don't stand up to scientific scrutiny?

Borough Market in South London is the granddaddy of farmers markets. On a Wednesday lunchtime there is a big queue at the organic salad bar. Next door there's a steady stream of customers at Betty's organic stall stocking up on organic herbs and spices.

For many consumers, there's a belief that eating organic will improve their health. It's one Betty supports.

"Given a choice would you eat something that is covered in artificial chemicals to something that is natural and clean?"

Can we prove that organic is better for our health?

The Soil Association, Britain's largest certifying body for organic produce, claims there "is a growing body of research that shows organic food can be more nutritious for you". And there have been some recent studies to back this up, showing higher levels of vitamins in organic kiwi fruits and tomatoes.

Science doesn't tell us the answers so some of it we have to go on feelings
Lord Peter Melchett
Soil Association
This intrigued Clare Williamson from the British Nutrition Foundation who decided to study all the current research on the comparative health benefits of organic and non-organic food.

The organic lobby's claims failed to convince her. The BNF "feel it would be irresponsible to promote organic food over non organic food as being better for you as there is not enough strong evidence," Ms Williamson says of her findings.

The government and its independent watchdog, the Food Standards Agency are equally adamant there is no proof organic food is better for our health. But science alone cannot prove the point, says Lord Peter Melchett, a director of the Soil Association, who believes consumers must trust their instincts.

"Science doesn't tell us the answers so some of it we have to go on feelings," he says.

One fact that can't be disputed is that organic farming uses far fewer pesticides than conventional agriculture. The Soil Association's booklet Organic Food and Farming: Myth and Reality, is clear what this means: "pesticides have a harmful impact on human health".

Natural pesticides

So organic must be better for your health as it rarely uses pesticides... Currently the amount of pesticide residues on fruit and vegetables isn't high enough to harm us, says the Food Standards Agency.

Crop spraying
We eat thousands of natural pesticides a day, says Anthony Trewevas
And Professor Anthony Trewevas, an expert in plant and molecular biology, believes the argument against pesticides is disingenuous and simplistic since we are already eating huge numbers of natural toxic pesticides which plants use to kill off insects.

"All of us on average consume several thousand a day," says to Professor Trewevas, who estimates this amounts to a quarter of a teaspoon a day. These natural pesticides don't adversely affect us, he says.

"You do not come out in tumours; you do not become sick from nerve toxins."

But buying organic isn't just about health, for many people it's about helping to save the planet. Sheepdrove farm in Berkshire is an idyllic picture of rural life. Sheep and cattle graze on some of the 2,000 acres of rolling hills, while below them chickens roam freely.

Laurence Woodward, director of the nearby Elm Farm Organic Research centre, believes Sheepdrove is a perfect advert for the environmental benefits of organic farming.

"There is no question that organic farming is better for the environment than conventional farming, there is mounting evidence from government studies," he says.

Bad science

But, as with the health claims, can we prove organic really is better for the planet?

Few studies have analysed environmental benefits of organic farming
That's exactly what the government and organisations like the Soil Association have been trying to find out. Earlier this year, Ken Green, professor of environmental management at Manchester University Business School, was commissioned by the government to conduct the first comprehensive study of the environmental impact of food production.

His findings weren't good news for the organic industry. "The studies that exist show there is not a clear cut thing that says let's go organic and that will have a big environmental impact compared to traditional methods of farming," says Mr Green, summarising his findings.

The organic lobby rounded on the study accusing it of bad science because it was only a "literature review" rather one based on original research. But Lord Melchett, readily concedes there are "still some big gaps in our knowledge about this". He is confident future research will prove organic is better for the environment.

But few studies have actually tried to analyse the environmental benefits of organic farming. Mr Woodward believes there's a good reason for this: "It's almost impossible to do a sensible comparison of organic and conventional farming systems. The systems are so different".

Welfare standards

Yet this hasn't stopped bodies like the Soil Association from claiming that "Organic farming is friendlier to the environment".

Free range pigs
How good are conditions for organically-reared livestock abroad?
Who says so? According to the Soil Association's website, the government does. "The UK government has said that it (organic farming) is better for wildlife, causes lower pollution from sprays, produces less carbon dioxide - the main global warming gas."

But challenged on this, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, not surprisingly, says it doesn't favour one form of farming over another.

Not all organic consumption is about saving the earth. It is about rearing and caring for livestock more humanely. We have uncovered evidence of serious concerns from insiders about the way some organic meat is produced.

Laurence Woodward, who led a study to be published later this year, says conditions at some pig farms in Holland were not "organic" since "they are kept indoors, in cramped conditions.

"It's very much conventional, very intensive," he says.

What of the consumers who buy this meat? "There is no other way of saying it - they being conned," says Mr Woodward. The research didn't identify which of the UK's certifying bodies was approving these overseas products.

But when it comes to endorsing organic produce from overseas, the Soil Association, for one, doesn't send its inspectors directly. Rather "what we do is inspect the inspectors and make sure they are going to inspect to our standards," says Lord Melchett.

Being an ethical consumer was never going to be easy. The politics of produce is confusing and getting more complicated each day. The best advice, don't believe simple labels that promise the earth but without the science to back it up.

The Investigation is broadcast on BBC Radio 4 on Thursday 26 April at 2000 BST.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Toddler in Japanese 'baby hatch'

Toddler in Japanese 'baby hatch'
Nurse demonstrates Japan's "baby hatch" on 1 May 2007
The hospital got the idea from a similar 'baby hatch' in Germany
A toddler aged 3-4 years has been left at a Japanese "baby hatch" aimed at mothers wanting to put their newborns up for adoption, reports say.

The child was said to be old enough to tell medics at the hospital in southern Japan that his father had left him.

The drop-off at Jikei Hospital, which opened last week, has been criticised by some, including the government.

The Catholic-run hospital has said it is aimed at helping new mothers who would otherwise resort to abortion.

Abortion rates are relatively high in Japan, while adoptions have traditionally been rare.

'Extremely regrettable'

Police in the city of Kumamoto said the child was left at the "baby hatch" on the same day it opened.

Japanese media said the boy was aged between three and four. He was in good health and able to tell hospital staff his name and the fact that his father had dropped him there.


The hospital would not comment.

The report provoked a strong reaction from Chief Cabinet Secretary Yasuhisa Shiozaki.

"Parents have the obligation to raise their children. We find this extremely regrettable," he said.

Jikei Hospital announced its plans for a "baby hatch" at the end of last year after learning of a similar idea in Germany.

The idea is that a woman can place a newborn in a small window in an outside wall, which opens on to an incubator bed - and sets off an alarm bell to alert staff.

Hospital director Taiji Hasuda said at the time he hoped it would lead to a reduction in abortions.

But the plans were heavily criticised by government officials, including Prime Minister Shinzo Abe who said parents must bring up children themselves.

Saturday, May 12, 2007

Wisdom comes with age? Not true

Wisdom comes with age? Not true

By Stephen S. Hall
May 08, 2007
The Straits Times
IN 1950, the psychoanalyst Erik Erikson, in a famous treatise on the phases of life development, identified wisdom as a likely, but not inevitable, by-product of growing older.

Wisdom arose, he suggested, during the eighth and final stage of psychosocial development, which he described as 'ego integrity versus despair'. If an individual had achieved enough 'ego integrity' over the course of a lifetime, then the imminent approach of infirmity and death would be accompanied by the virtue of wisdom. Unfortunately for researchers who followed, Erikson did not bother to define wisdom.

Wisdom has historically been studied in the realms of philosophy and religion. It is only in the last three decades that wisdom has received attention from social scientists. Erikson's observations left the door open for the formal study of wisdom, and a few brave psychologists rushed in where others feared to tread.

In some respects, they have not moved far beyond the very first question about wisdom: What is it? Thirty years after embarking on the empirical study of wisdom, psychologists still don't agree on an answer. But it is also true that the journey in many ways may be as enlightening as the destination.

Certain qualities associated with wisdom recur in the academic literature: a clear-

eyed view of human nature and the human predicament, emotional resiliency and the ability to cope in the face of adversity, an openness to other possibilities, forgiveness, humility, and a knack for learning from lifetime experiences.

The formal study of wisdom as a modern academic pursuit can legitimately trace its roots back to the 1950s, when an observant young girl named Vivian Clayton became fascinated by qualities she attributed to her father, a furrier named Simon Clayton, and her maternal grandmother.

There was something that distinguished them from everyone else she knew. Despite limited education, they possessed an uncanny ability to remain calm in the midst of crises, made good decisions and conveyed an almost palpable sense of emotional contentment, often in the face of considerable adversity or uncertainty.

'My father was 41 when I was born,' she said recently. 'By far, he was the oldest pa-

rent among all my friends, almost the age of my friends' grandparents. He had emigrated from England but had lived through World War II there and experienced the Blitz and had to care for his dying mother, who was so sick that she refused to go down into the shelters during air raids in London.

'She lived in the East End, where the docks were, and they were always getting bombed. So he would sit with her while the bombs were falling, and when it was over, she would say, 'Now we can have a cup of tea!'

'He was a very humble man, and very aware of his limitations, but he always seemed to be able to weigh things and then make decisions that were right for the family. He knew what to respond to quickly, and what you had to reflect on.'

Clayton recalled pondering this as a graduate student at the University of Southern California, working with gerontological psychologist James Birren, one of the leaders of an effort to investigate positive aspects of ageing.

Empirical studies

BETWEEN 1976, when she finished her dissertation, and 1982, Clayton published several groundbreaking papers that are now generally acknowledged as the first to suggest that researchers could study wisdom empirically. She identified three general aspects of human activity that were central to wisdom - the acquisition of knowledge (cognitive) and the analysis of that information (reflective) filtered through the emotions (affective). Then she assembled a battery of existing psychological tests to measure it.

Clayton laid several important markers on the field at its inception. She realised that 'neither were the old always wise, nor the young lacking in wisdom'. She also argued that while intelligence represented a non-social domain of knowledge that might diminish in value over the course of a lifetime, wisdom represented a social, interpersonal form of knowledge about human nature that resisted erosion and might increase with age.

One of the people who grasped her work's significance immediately was Paul Baltes, a legendary psychologist then at Pennsylvania State University. Baltes helped pioneer life-span developmental theory, which argues that in order to understand, say, a 60-year-old person, you need to take into account the individual's biology, psychology and sociological context at various stages of life, as well as the cultural and historical era in which he or she lived.

Baltes closely monitored the initial wisdom studies, Clayton recalled, and regularly peppered her with questions about her progress.

The working definition of wisdom next acquired a German accent. The Berlin Wisdom Paradigm, as it came to be called, was built in part on research using hypothetical vignettes to discern wise and unwise responses to life dilemmas.

'A 15-year-old girl wants to get married right away,' one vignette suggested. 'What should one/she consider and do?'

A wise person, according to the Berlin group, would say something like: 'Well, on the surface, this seems like an easy problem. On average, marriage for 15-year-old girls is not a good thing. But there are situations where the average case does not fit. Perhaps in this instance, special life circumstances are involved, such as, the girl has a terminal illness. Or the girl has just lost her parents. And also this girl may live in another culture or historical period. Perhaps she was raised with a value system different from ours. In addition, one has to think about adequate ways of talking with the girl and to consider her emotional state.'

That reply may seem tentative and relativistic, but it reflects many aspects of wisdom as defined by the Berlin Wisdom Project, which began in 1984 under the leadership of Baltes, who, along with Birren, had championed the search for late-life potential. He had established a reputation as a leading quantitative psychologist by the time he returned to Germany in 1980 to become director of the Max Planck Institute for Human Development in Berlin.

Defining wisdom

BOILED down to its essence, the 'Berlin Paradigm' defined wisdom as 'an expert knowledge system concerning the fundamental pragmatics of life'. Heavily influenced by life-span psychology, the Berlin version of wisdom emphasised several complementary qualities: expert know-

ledge of both the 'facts' of human nature and the 'how' of dealing with decisions and dilemmas; an appreciation of one's historical, cultural and biological circumstances during the arc of a lifespan; an understanding of the 'relativism' of values and priorities; and an acknowledgment, at the level of both thought and action, of uncertainty.

The Berlin group focused more on expertise and performance than on personality traits because such an approach lent itself to more rigorous measurement than the typical self-report tests of psychological research. 'Wisdom in action', as the Berlin group put it, might manifest itself as good judgment, shrewd advice, emotional regulation and empathetic understanding; it could be found in familial interactions, in formal writing and in the relationship between a student and mentor or a doctor and patient.

The Germans were among the first to reach what is now a widespread conclusion: There's not a lot of wisdom around. They found no evidence that wisdom necessarily increases with age. Rather, they identified a 'plateau' of wisdom-related performance through much of middle and old age; a separate study by the group has indicated that wisdom begins, on average, to diminish around age 75, probably hand in hand with cognitive decline. Nonetheless, the Baltes group suggested in one paper that there might be an optimal age and that 'the 'world record' in wisdom may be held by someone in his or her 60s'.

No one really knows what wisdom is. Yet many of the emotional and cognitive traits that rank high on current research agendas - resilience, positivity, expert knowledge systems, cognitive processing and especially the regulation of emotion - closely overlap with qualities that have been consistently identified by social scientists as crucial to wisdom.

One of the most interesting areas of neuroscience research involves looking at the way people regulate their emotions and how that regulation can change over the course of a lifetime. Laura Carstensen of Stanford University has produced a substantial body of research over the past two decades showing that the ability to focus on emotional control is tightly linked to a person's sense of time and that older people in general seem to have a better feel for keeping their emotions in balance.

What Carstensen and her colleagues have found is that despite the well-documented cognitive declines associated with advancing age, older people seem to have figured out how to manage their emotions in a profoundly important way. Compared with younger people, they experience negative emotions less frequently, exercise better control over their emotions and rely on a nuanced emotional thermostat that allows them to bounce back quickly from adverse moments. Indeed, they typically strive for emotional balance, which in turn seems to affect the ways their brains process information from their environment.

Carstensen and her colleagues believe that this motivation to focus less on the negative is probably unconscious and shaped by one's sense of time. 'According to our theory, this isn't a quality of ageing per se, but of time horizons,' she said. 'When your time perspective shortens, as it does when you come closer to the ends of things, you tend to focus on emotionally meaningful goals. When the time horizon is long, you focus on knowledge acquisition.'

As time horizons shorten, she added, 'things become much clearer, because people are letting their feelings navigate what they do, who they spend time with, what are the choices they're making in life, and it's about right now'.

Carstensen called this 'socioemotional selectivity theory' and said that in the shortened time perspective of old age, people are motivated to focus on the positive in a way that registers as a difference in cognitive processing in the brain.

This is all of a piece with life-span development theory (Carstensen got her PhD in a programme founded by Paul Baltes), which has as a central precept the idea that the decisions one makes at each stage of life involve trade-offs. She and her colleague Corinna Loeckenhoff have speculated that there may even be evolutionary reasons for this division between knowledge acquisition and emotional fulfilment. Acquiring knowledge increases the likelihood that young people will survive to reproductive age; emphasising emotional connection and kinship at an older age may increase the survival ability of one's children and grandchildren (and their genes) in the future.

Effects on health

THIS 'positivity' effect may even have long-term health consequences. In 2002, Becca Levy, a psychologist at Yale University, collaborated with researchers for the Ohio Longitudinal Study, who have been following ageing in a cohort of people since 1975, and they made a very surprising finding: Older people with a more positive attitude towards old age lived 71/2 years longer.

Richard Davidson, a neuroscientist at the University of Wisconsin, has been looking at patterns of brain activity associated with emotional regulation in a small group of older people who have participated in the Wisconsin Longitudinal Study. In a paper published last year, the Wisconsin team reported that older adults (the average age was 64) who regulated their emotions well showed a distinctly different pattern of brain activity from those who didn't.

These people apparently used their prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain that exerts 'executive control' over certain brain functions, to tamp down activity in the amygdala, a small region deep in the brain that processes emotional content, especially fear and anxiety. In people who are poor regulators of emotion, activity in the amygdala is higher, and daily measurements of the stress hormone cortisol follow a pattern that has been associated with poor health outcomes.

'Those people who are good at regulating negative emotion, inferred by their ability to voluntarily use cognitive strategies to reappraise a stimulus, show reductions in activation in the amygdala,' said Davidson, who added that such regulation probably results from 'something that has been at least implicitly trained over the years'.

Where does wisdom come from, and how does one acquire it? Surprisingly, a good deal of evidence suggests that the seeds of wisdom are planted earlier than old age, often earlier than middle age and possibly even earlier than young adulthood. And there are strong hints that wisdom is associated with an earlier exposure to adversity or failure. That certainly seems to be the case with emotional regulation and is consistent with Carstensen's ideas about shifting time horizons.

Karen Parker and her colleagues at Stanford have published several striking animal studies showing that a very early exposure to mild adversity seems to 'enhance the development of brain systems that regulate emotional, neuroendocrine and cognitive control' - at least in non-human primates. Some researchers are also exploring the genetic basis of resilience.

This notion that wise people might have been 'vaccinated' earlier in life by adversity reminds me of Vivian Clayton's father, sitting next to his frail mother in London while the German bombs rained down around them, celebrating their survival each time with a cup of tea.

The writer is the author, most recently, of Size Matters: How Height Affects The Health, Happiness And Success of Boys - And The Men They Become.

Copyright: New York Times Syndicate

Friday, May 11, 2007

Feel your breeze

I say, Feel your breeze, Anytime Anywhere in my heart
Feel your breeze Never stop walking now oh~

kesenai kizu o mata fuyashiteku
nanka kaze ga shimiteyuku
hitori idaeteru fuan nara
ima dare ni mo aru hazu...

The number of wounds that won't vanish are increasing
It's like the wind is piercing me
Those little worries you keep to yourself
I'm sure everyone has some now...

kitto yoru wa nagaku
fukaku shizundeta hou ga
asahi noboru toki wa
sou, kirameku hazu sa

Of course the night is long
And you sink down deeply
When the sun rises up in the morning
Yes, it'll be gleaming

itsuka souzou shiteta mirai to ima ga
sukoshi chigatteita tte
yume no tame no namida wa mada kiezu ni hikari tsuzukeru
zutto kokoro wa kimi o miteru
mune ni kizanda kimochi de
towa ni yume o kanjiyou ano natsugumo afureru you ni

Some day the future you dreamed of and now
Will be a little bit different
The tears shed for dreams will keep shining without fading
Your heart will always watch you
With the feelings that tear your heart apart
Feel all of of your dreams eternally overflowing like those summer clouds

I say, Feel your breeze, Anytime Anywhere in my heart
Feel your breeze Never stop walking now oh~

dekinai koto wa nanni mo nai to
sou omotteiru kedo
umaku konasenai nichijou ni
sugu bokura wa tomadou

There's nothing that we can't do
That's what we think but
It's hard to swallow in everyday life
And it quickly confuses us

kitto yume wa tooku
sora ni kasundeku you de
dakedo kaze wa omoi
sotto noseteyuku kara

Of course the dream is far off
And the sky grows hazy
But the wind softly
Carries our feelings

itsuka souzou shiteta mirai ni bokura
chanto chikazukeru you ni
kaze ni itsumo fukarete ima koko kara aruiteikou
zutto kokoro wa kimi o miteru
mune de musunda kimochi de
towa ni kimi o kanjiyou kono kisetsu ga afureru you ni

Some day in the future you dreamed of we will
Become closer like we should
Always blown around by the wind let's walk from here on
Your heart will always watch you
With the feelings that tear your heart apart
Feel all of your dreams eternally overflowing like the seasons

itsuka souzou shiteta mirai to ima ga
sukoshi chigatteita tte
yume no tame no namida wa mada kiezu ni hikari tsuzukeru
zutto kokoro wa kimi o miteru
mune ni kizanda kimochi de
towa ni yume o kanjiyou ano natsugumo afureru you ni

Some day the future you dreamed of and now
Will be a little bit different
The tears shed for dreams will keep shining without fading
Your heart will always watch you
With the feelings that tear your heart apart
Feel all of of your dreams eternally overflowing like those summer clouds

I say, Feel your breeze, Anytime Anywhere in my heart
Feel your breeze Never stop walking now oh~

taken frm

Tuesday, May 08, 2007




Tuesday, May 01, 2007

New 'super-Earth' found in space

New 'super-Earth' found in space
The new planet is not much bigger than the Earth

Astronomers have found the most Earth-like planet outside our Solar System to date, a world which could have water running on its surface.

The planet orbits the faint star Gliese 581, which is 20.5 light-years away in the constellation Libra.

Scientists made the discovery using the Eso 3.6m Telescope in Chile.

They say the benign temperatures on the planet mean any water there could exist in liquid form, and this raises the chances it could also harbour life.

"We have estimated that the mean temperature of this 'super-Earth' lies between 0 and 40 degrees Celsius, and water would thus be liquid," explained Stephane Udry of the Geneva Observatory, lead author of the scientific paper reporting the result.

'Is there life anywhere else?' is a fundamental question we all ask
Alison Boyle
London Science Museum
"Moreover, its radius should be only 1.5 times the Earth's radius, and models predict that the planet should be either rocky - like our Earth - or covered with oceans."

Xavier Delfosse, a member of the team from Grenoble University, added: "Liquid water is critical to life as we know it."

He believes the planet may now become a very important target for future space missions dedicated to the search for extra-terrestrial life.

These missions will put telescopes in space that can discern the tell-tale light "signatures" that might be associated with biological processes.

The observatories would seek to identify trace atmospheric gases such as methane, and even markers for chlorophyll, the pigment in Earth plants that plays a critical role in photosynthesis.

'Indirect' detection

The exoplanet - as astronomers call planets around a star other than the Sun - is the smallest yet found, and has been given the designation Gliese 581 c.

It completes a full orbit of its parent star in just 13 days.

Infographic, BBC
Mass: Five times Earth's mass
Orbit: 13 days
Temperature: 0C - 40C
Distance: 20.5 light years
Constellation: Libra

Indeed, it is 14 times closer to its star than the Earth is to our Sun.

However, given that the host star is smaller and colder than the Sun - and thus less luminous - the planet nevertheless lies in the "habitable zone", the region around a star where water could be liquid.

Gliese 581 c was identified at the European Southern Observatory (Eso) facility at La Silla in the Atacama Desert.

To make their discovery, researchers used a very sensitive instrument that can measure tiny changes in the velocity of a star as it experiences the gravitational tug of a nearby planet.

Astronomers are stuck with such indirect methods of detection because current telescope technology struggles to image very distant and faint objects - especially when they orbit close to the glare of a star.

The Gliese 581 system has now yielded three planets: the new super-Earth, a 15 Earth-mass planet (Gliese 581 b) orbiting even closer to the parent star, and an eight Earth-mass planet that lies further out (Gliese 581 d).

Gliese 581 (Digital Sky Survey)
Gliese 581 is much cooler and dimmer than our own Sun
The latest discovery has created tremendous excitement among scientists.

Of the more than 200 exoplanets so far discovered, a great many are Jupiter-like gas giants that experience blazing temperatures because they orbit close in to much hotter stars.

The Gliese 581 super-Earth is in what scientists also sometimes call the "Goldilocks Zone", where temperatures "are just right" for life to have a chance to exist.

Commenting on the discovery, Alison Boyle, the curator of astronomy at London's Science Museum, said: "Of all the planets we've found around other stars, this is the one that looks as though it might have the right ingredients for life.

"It's 20 light-years away and so we won't be going there anytime soon, but with new kinds of propulsion technology that could change in the future. And obviously we'll be training some powerful telescopes on it to see what we can see," she told BBC News.

"'Is there life anywhere else?' is a fundamental question we all ask."

Professor Glenn White at the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory is helping to develop the European Space Agency's Darwin mission, which will scan the nearby Universe, looking for signs of life on Earth-like planets. He said: "This is an important step in the search for true Earth-like exoplanets.

"As the methods become more and more refined, astronomers are narrowing in on the ultimate goal - the detection of a true Earth-like planet elsewhere.

"Obviously this newly discovered planet and its companions in the Gliese 581 system will become prominent targets for missions like Esa's Darwin and Nasa's Terrestrial planet Finder when they fly in about a decade."

The discovery is reported in the journal Astronomy & Astrophysics.

Meet the neighbours

Meet the neighbours
By Joe Campbell
BBC News Magazine

Astronomers think they may have struck gold in their search for a planet beyond ours that could sustain life, but just what kind of neighbours should we expect if they come calling?

Whether they are little green men or the grey, bug-eyed aliens beloved of those who live in hope that we are not alone, the one message all the scientists can agree on is do not hold your breath waiting for their knock at the door.

Life out there may not resemble anything we've seen before
At a distance of more than 20 light years from Earth, Gliese 581c is not exactly on the doorstep.

So far we know it is about three times the diameter of the third rock from our sun and just like our home, it lies in the so called "Goldilocks Zone", that relatively narrow band of space around a star that is neither too hot nor too cold for us to hope that life may have evolved there

Ask the experts what life may be like and that is where the disagreements start to emerge.

"The planet may be habitable, but I wouldn't expect to see any intelligent life forms, " says Martin Griffiths, senior lecturer at the Centre for Astronomy and Science Education at the University of Glamorgan.

"We might see bacteria or something like that. You have to consider that for three billion years of our own evolution, the entire continuum of life here was microbiological, so I'd expect to find something like that."

Down the years most of our images of alien life have come not from the world of science but from the field of entertainment.

Scientific speculation has led to the appearance of everything from airborne jellyfish drifting through alien skies to heavily armoured crab like creatures scuttling across deserts warmed by distant suns, on television and cinema screens.

We're limited by our imaginations in a way life on alien worlds certainly wouldn't be
Professor Jack Cohen, astrobiologist

Hollywood and home-grown depictions of extra-terrestrials maybe be dismissed by the world of science, but Dr Jack Cohen, author of the book, What Does a Martian Look Like?' says fellow academics are probably no closer to the truth.

"We're limited by our imaginations in a way life on alien worlds certainly wouldn't be," he says.

"If you ran the Earth again as an experiment, you wouldn't get humans. What a planet is like doesn't determine what the evolution will be like."

What scientific speculation there has been, he compared to the early fossil hunters who devised entire creatures from a few scraps of a skeleton - often producing creatures that seem almost comic in the eyes of today's dinosaur experts.

'Expect the unexpected'

Dr Cohen says life on other worlds might be so completely different to anything humans have knowledge of, it might not even be recognisable to us as life.

Professor Mark Brake, who helped set up the first course in Britain into the study of astrobiology says we are no closer to finding out what life of other worlds might be like than when the Greek satirist Lucian first speculated on the idea around 100AD.

"My first thought on all this is a line from The Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy that you should expect the unexpected," he says.

Would aliens be hostile?

"Whatever life out there looks like, it's more likely than not it won't be anything like us at all."

Any life forms would have evolved to deal with the planet's gravity which would be around one-and-a-half times that of the Earth's, because of its greater mass.

Does that mean any extra-terrestrial visitors from the newly found planet would be able to leap tall buildings here on earth like Superman, that other product of a high gravity alien world?

"Going to visit them would certainly make us feel heavier and it would take more effort just walking around," says Martin Griffiths.

"It wouldn't have a substantial effect on us in the short-term, but if we stayed we'd probably evolve ourselves into people who were short and squat."

Voyage of discovery

The only way we will ever know for certain whether life exists on this new super-size Earth will be to go there, and with current space exploration technology that won't be happening any time soon.

"I just wish I was alive to see that day," says mathematician and part-time sci-fi writer, Professor Ian Stewart of the University of Warwick.

But like many interested in the relatively new science of astrobiology, he is travelling hopefully on the still Earth-bound voyage of discovery.

"A few years ago we couldn't find planets out there, then the ones we could see were too big to support life and now we've found one that's almost Earth size so at least I've lived to see that."