An Energy Breakthrough Could Store Solar Power for Decades

An Energy Breakthrough Could Store Solar Power for Decades

Researchers in Sweden have created a molecule that offers a way to trap heat from the sun.
relates to An Energy Breakthrough Could Store Solar Power for Decades
Illustration: Khylin Woodrow for Bloomberg Businessweek

For decades, scientists have sought an affordable and effective way of capturing, storing, and releasing solar energy. Researchers in Sweden say they have a solution that would allow the power of the sun’s rays to be used across a range of consumer applications—heating everything from homes to vehicles.


Scientists at Chalmers University of Technology in Gothenburg have figured out how to harness the energy and keep it in reserve so it can be released on demand in the form of heat—even decades after it was captured. The innovations include an energy-trapping molecule, a storage system that promises to outperform traditional batteries, at least when it comes to heating, and an energy-storing laminate coating that can be applied to windows and textiles. The breakthroughs, from a team led by researcher Kasper Moth-Poulsen, have garnered praise within the scientific community. Now comes the real test: whether Moth-Poulsen can get investors to back his technology and take it to market.


The system starts with a liquid molecule made up of carbon, hydrogen, and nitrogen. When hit by sunlight, the molecule draws in the sun’s energy and holds it until a catalyst triggers its release as heat. The researchers spent almost a decade and $2.5 million to create a specialized storage unit, which Moth-Poulsen, a 40-year-old professor in the department of chemistry and chemical engineering, says has the stability to outlast the 5-to 10-year life span of typical lithium-ion batteries on the market today.

relates to An Energy Breakthrough Could Store Solar Power for Decades
Moth-Poulsen with a small sample of his molecular solar thermal liquid.
Photographer: Oscar Mattsson/Chalmers University of Technology

The most advanced potential commercial use the team developed is a transparent coating that can be applied to home windows, a moving vehicle, or even clothing. The coating collects solar energy and releases heat, reducing electricity required for heating spaces and curbing carbon emissions. Moth-Poulsen is coating an entire building on campus to showcase the technology. The ideal use in the early going, he says, is in relatively small spaces. “This could be heating of electrical vehicles or in houses.”


A big unknown is whether the system can produce electricity. While Moth-Poulsen believes the potential exists, his team is focused for now on heating. His research group is one of about 15 trying to tackle climate change with molecular thermal solar systems. Part of what motivates them is the Paris Agreement, which commits signatories to pursue efforts to limit global warming to 1.5C (2.7F).

Moth-Poulsen plans to spin off a company that would advance the technology and says he’s in talks with venture capital investors. The storage unit could be commercially available in as little as six years and the coating in three, pending the $5 million of additional funding he estimates will be needed to bring the coating to market. In May he won the Arnbergska Prize from the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences for his solar energy projects.

The professor doesn’t have precise cost estimates for the technology but is aware that it will need to be affordable. One cost advantage is that the system doesn’t need any rare or expensive elements. Jeffrey Grossman, a professor in the department of materials science and engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who’s also developing energy storage molecules, calls the Chalmers University team’s work “crucial if we want to see this energy conversion storage approach commercialized.”



Peter Schossig, who runs the Fraunhofer Institute for Solar Energy Systems in Freiburg, Germany, says he wants to help turn the Swedish team’s research into a product. But, he says, “There’s still a ways to go.”

Interstellar space even weirder than expected


An illustration shows the position of NASA’s Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 probes outside of the heliosphere, a protective bubble created by the sun that extends well past the orbit of Pluto.

Interstellar space even weirder than expected, NASA probe reveals

The spacecraft is just the second ever to venture beyond the boundary that separates us from the rest of the galaxy.


IN THE BLACKNESS of space billions of miles from home, NASA’s Voyager 2 marked a milestone of exploration, becoming just the second spacecraft ever to enter interstellar space in November 2018. Now, a day before the anniversary of that celestial exit, scientists have revealed what Voyager 2 saw as it crossed the threshold—and it’s giving humans new insight into some of the big mysteries of our solar system.

The findings, spread across five studies published today in Nature Astronomy, mark the first time that a spacecraft has directly sampled the electrically charged hazes, or plasmas, that fill both interstellar space and the solar system’s farthest outskirts. It’s another first for the spacecraft, which was launched in 1977 and performed the first—and only—flybys of the ice giant planets Uranus and Neptune. (Find out more about the Voyager probes’ “grand tour”—and why it almost didn’t happen.)

Voyager 2’s charge into interstellar space follows that of sibling Voyager 1, which accomplished the same feat in 2012. The two spacecrafts’ data have many features in common, such as the overall density of the particles they’ve encountered in interstellar space. But intriguingly, the twin craft also saw some key differences on their way out—raising new questions about our sun’s movement through the galaxy.

“This has really been a wonderful journey,” Voyager project scientist Ed Stone, a physicist at Caltech, said in a press briefing last week.

“It’s just really exciting that humankind is interstellar,” adds physicist Jamie Rankin, a postdoctoral researcher at Princeton University who wasn’t involved with the studies. “We have been interstellar travelers since Voyager 1 crossed, but now, Voyager 2’s cross is even more exciting, because we can now compare two very different locations … in the interstellar medium.”


Launch: September 5, 1977



Launch: August 20, 1977


March 5, 1979

July 9, 1979


Current distance

from the sun

Billions of miles

August 2012

Voyager 1 leaves

heliosphere, enters

interstellar space


August 25, 1989





January 24, 1986

Voyagers 1 and 2 were launched 40 years ago on a mission to explore the outer solar system. After encountering Saturn, Voyager 1 angled upward. Voyager 2 went on to visit Uranus and Neptune before angling downward.


November 12, 1980

August 25, 1981

Mercury, Venus, and Mars

omitted for clarity


Inside the bubble

To make sense of Voyager 2’s latest findings, it helps to know that the sun isn’t a quietly burning ball of light. Our star is a raging nuclear furnace hurtling through the galaxy at about 450,000 miles an hour as it orbits the galactic center.

The sun is also rent through with twisted, braided magnetic fields and, as a result, its surface constantly throws off a breeze of electrically charged particles called the solar wind. This gust rushes out in all directions, carrying the sun’s magnetic field with it. Eventually, the solar wind smashes into the interstellar medium, the debris from ancient stellar explosions that lurks in the spaces between stars.

Like oil and water, the solar wind and the interstellar medium don’t perfectly mix, so the solar wind forms a bubble within the interstellar medium called the heliosphere. Based on Voyager data, this bubble extends about 11 billion miles from the sun at its leading edge, surrounding the sun, all eight planets, and much of the outer objects orbiting our star. Good thing, too: The protective heliosphere shields everything inside it, including our fragile DNA, from most of the galaxy’s highest-energy radiation.

The heliosphere’s outermost edge, called the heliopause, marks the start of interstellar space. Understanding this threshold has implications for our picture of the sun’s journey through the galaxy, which in turn can tell us more about the situations of other stars scattered across the cosmos.

“We are trying to understand the nature of that boundary, where these two winds collide and mix,” Stone said during the briefing. “How do they mix, and how much spillage is there from inside to outside the bubble, and from outside the bubble to inside?”

Scientists got their first good look at the heliopause on August 25, 2012, when Voyager 1 first entered interstellar space. What they began to see left them scratching their heads. For instance, researchers now know that the interstellar magnetic field is about two to three times stronger than expected, which means, in turn, that interstellar particles exert up to ten times as much pressure on our heliosphere than previously thought.

“It is our first platform to actually experience the interstellar medium, so it is quite literally a pathfinder for us,” says heliophysicist Patrick Koehn, a program scientist at NASA headquarters.

Leaky boundary

But for all that Voyager 1 upended expectations, its revelations were incomplete. Back in 1980, its instrument that measured the temperature of plasmas stopped working. Voyager 2’s plasma instrument is still working just fine, though, so when it crossed the heliopause on November 5, 2018, scientists could get a much better look at this border.

For the first time, researchers could see that as an object gets within 140 million miles of the heliopause, the plasma surrounding it slows, heats up, and gets more dense. And on the other side of the boundary, the interstellar medium is at least 54,000 degrees Fahrenheit, which is hotter than expected. However, this plasma is so thin and diffuse, the average temperature around the Voyager probes remains extremely cold.


Play Video


WATCH: The two Voyager spacecraft explored the giant planets of our solar system and are now heading for the stars.



In addition, Voyager 2 confirmed that the heliopause is one leaky border—and the leaks go both ways. Before Voyager 1 passed through the heliopause, it zoomed through tendrils of interstellar particles that had punched into the heliopause like tree roots through rock. Voyager 2, however, saw a trickle of low-energy particles that extended more than a hundred million miles beyond the heliopause.

Another mystery appeared as Voyager 1 came within 800 million miles of the heliopause, where it entered a limbo-like area in which the outbound solar wind slowed to a crawl. Before it crossed the heliopause, Voyager 2 saw the solar wind form an altogether different kind of layer that, oddly, was nearly the same width as the stagnant one seen by Voyager 1.

“That is very, very weird,” Koehn says. “It really shows us that we need more data.”

Interstellar sequel?

Solving these puzzles will require a better view of the heliosphere as a whole. Voyager 1 exited near the heliosphere’s leading edge, where it collides with the interstellar medium, and Voyager 2 exited along its left flank. We have no data on the heliosphere’s wake, so its overall shape remains a mystery. The interstellar medium’s pressure might keep the heliosphere roughly spherical, but it’s also possible that it has a tail like a comet—or that it is shaped like a croissant.

But while other spacecraft are currently outward bound, they won’t be able to return data from the heliopause. NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft is zooming out of the solar system at more than 31,000 miles an hour, and when it runs out of power in the 2030s, it’ll fall silent more than a billion miles short of the heliosphere’s outer edge. That’s why Voyager scientists and others are calling for a follow-up interstellar probe. The goal: a 50-year, multi-generation mission that explores the outer solar system on its way into unexplored regions beyond the solar wind.

“Here’s an entire bubble, [and] we only crossed it with two points,” study coauthor Stamatios Krimigis, the emeritus head of the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory’s space department, said at the briefing. “Two examples are not enough.”

A new generation of scientists is eager to run with the baton—including Rankin, who did her Ph.D. at Caltech with Voyager 1’s interstellar data with Stone as her adviser.

“It was amazing to work on this cutting-edge data from spacecraft that were launched before I was born and still doing amazing science,” she says. “I’m just really thankful for all the people who have spent so much time on Voyager.”

U.S. Could Go the Way of U.S.S.R. Within 20 Years

U.S. Military Could Collapse Within 20 Years Due to Climate Change, Report Commissioned By Pentagon Says

The report says a combination of global starvation, war, disease, drought, and a fragile power grid could have cascading, devastating effects.

By Nafeez Ahmed
Oct 24 2019, 6:30pm



According to a new U.S. Army report, Americans could face a horrifically grim future from climate change involving blackouts, disease, thirst, starvation and war. The study found that the US military itself might also collapse. This could all happen over the next two decades, the report notes.

The senior US government officials who wrote the report are from several key agencies including the Army, Defense Intelligence Agency, and NASA. The study called on the Pentagon to urgently prepare for the possibility that domestic power, water, and food systems might collapse due to the impacts of climate change as we near mid-century.


The report was commissioned by General Mark Milley, Trump’s new chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, making him the highest-ranking military officer in the country (the report also puts him at odds with Trump, who does not take climate change seriously.)

The report, titled Implications of Climate Change for the U.S. Army, was launched by the U.S. Army War College in partnership with NASA in May at the Wilson Center in Washington DC. The report was commissioned by Gen. Milley during his previous role as the Army’s Chief of Staff. It was made publicly available in August via the Center for Climate and Security, but didn’t get a lot of attention at the time.

The two most prominent scenarios in the report focus on the risk of a collapse of the power grid within “the next 20 years,” and the danger of disease epidemics. Both could be triggered by climate change in the near-term, it notes.

“Increased energy requirements” triggered by new weather patterns like extended periods of heat, drought, and cold could eventually overwhelm “an already fragile system.”

The report also warns that the US military should prepare for new foreign interventions in Syria-style conflicts, triggered due to climate-related impacts. Bangladesh in particular is highlighted as the most vulnerable country to climate collapse in the world.

“The permanent displacement of a large portion of the population of Bangladesh would be a regional catastrophe with the potential to increase global instability,” the report warns. “This is a potential result of climate change complications in just one country. Globally, over 600 million people live at sea level.”


Sea level rise, which could go higher than 2 meters by 2100 according to one recent study, “will displace tens (if not hundreds) of millions of people, creating massive, enduring instability,” the report adds.

The US should therefore be ready to act not only in Bangladesh, but in many other regions, like the rapidly melting Arctic—where the report recommends the US military should take advantage of its hydrocarbon resources and new transit routes to repel Russian encroachment.

But without urgent reforms, the report warns that the US military itself could end up effectively collapsing as it tries to respond to climate collapse. It could lose capacity to contain threats in the US and could wilt into “mission failure” abroad due to inadequate water supplies.

Total collapse of the power grid

The report paints a frightening portrait of a country falling apart over the next 20 years due to the impacts of climate change on “natural systems such as oceans, lakes, rivers, ground water, reefs, and forests.”

Current infrastructure in the US, the report says, is woefully underprepared: “Most of the critical infrastructures identified by the Department of Homeland Security are not built to withstand these altered conditions.”

Some 80 percent of US agricultural exports and 78 percent of imports are water-borne. This means that episodes of flooding due to climate change could leave lasting damage to shipping infrastructure, posing “a major threat to US lives and communities, the US economy and global food security,” the report notes.


At particular risk is the US national power grid, which could shut down due to “the stressors of a changing climate,” especially changing rainfall levels:

“The power grid that serves the United States is aging and continues to operate without a coordinated and significant infrastructure investment. Vulnerabilities exist to electricity-generating power plants, electric transmission infrastructure and distribution system components,” it states.

As a result, the “increased energy requirements” triggered by new weather patterns like extended periods of heat, drought, and cold could eventually overwhelm “an already fragile system.”



The report’s grim prediction has already started playing out, with utility PG&E cutting power to more than a million people across California to avoid power lines sparking another catastrophic wildfire. While climate change is intensifying the dry season and increasing fire risks, PG&E has come under fire for failing to fix the state’s ailing power grid.

The US Army report shows that California’s power outage could be a taste of things to come, laying out a truly dystopian scenario of what would happen if the national power grid was brought down by climate change. One particularly harrowing paragraph lists off the consequences bluntly:

“If the power grid infrastructure were to collapse, the United States would experience significant:

  • Loss of perishable foods and medications
  • Loss of water and wastewater distribution systems
  • Loss of heating/air conditioning and electrical lighting systems
  • Loss of computer, telephone, and communications systems (including airline flights, satellite networks and GPS services)
  • Loss of public transportation systems
  • Loss of fuel distribution systems and fuel pipelines
  • Loss of all electrical systems that do not have back-up power”

Although the report does not dwell on the implications, it acknowledges that a national power grid failure would lead to a perfect storm requiring emergency military responses that might eventually weaken the ability of the US Army to continue functioning at all: “Relief efforts aggravated by seasonal climatological effects would potentially accelerate the criticality of the developing situation. The cascading effects of power loss… would rapidly challenge the military’s ability to continue operations.”


Also at “high risk of temporary or permanent closure due to climate threats” are US nuclear power facilities.

There are currently 99 nuclear reactors operating in the US, supplying nearly 20 percent of the country’s utility-scale energy. But the majority of these, some 60 percent, are located in vulnerable regions which face “major risks” including sea level rise, severe storms, and water shortages.


The report’s authors believe that domestic military operations will be necessary to contain future disease outbreaks. There is no clear timeline for this, except the notion of being prepared for imminent surprises: “Climate change is introducing an increased risk of infectious disease to the US population. It is increasingly not a matter of ‘if’ but of when there will be a large outbreak.”

Areas in the south of the US will see an increase in precipitation of between .5 and .8 mm a day, along with an increase in average annual temperatures of 1 to 3 degrees Celsius (C) by 2050.

Along with warmer winters, these new conditions will drive the proliferation of mosquitos and ticks. This in turn will spur the spread of diseases “which may be previously unseen in the US”, and accelerate the reach of diseases currently found in very small numbers such as Zika, West Nile Virus, Lyme disease, and many others:

“The US Army will be called upon to assist in much the same way it was called upon in other disasters. Detailed coordination with local, state and federal agencies in the most high risk regions will hasten response time and minimize risk to mission.”


A new era of endless war

The new report is especially significant given the Trump administration’s climate science denial. Commissioned by General Mark Milley, now the highest ranking military officer in the United States, the report not only concludes that climate change is real, but that it is on track to create an unprecedented catastrophe that could lead to the total collapse of US society without serious investments in new technology and infrastructure. However, while focusing on projected climate impacts, the report does not discuss the causes of climate change in human fossil fuel emissions.

The report was written by an interdisciplinary team active across several US government agencies, including the White House’s Office of American Innovation, the Secretary of Defense’s Protecting Critical Technology Task Force, NASA’s Harvest Consortium, the US Air Force Headquarters’ Directorate of Weather, the US Army’s National Guard, and the US State Department. The US Army War College did not respond to a request for comment.

Their report not only describes the need for massive permanent military infrastructure on US soil to stave off climate collapse, but portends new foreign interventions due to climate change.

The authors argue that the Syrian civil war could be a taste of future international conflicts triggered by climate-induced unrest. There is “no question that the conflict erupted coincident with a major drought in the region which forced rural people into Syrian cities as large numbers of Iraqi refugees arrived,” they say.


The resulting conflict “reignited civil war in Iraq,” and heightened military tensions between the US and Russia.

“The Syrian population has declined by about 10 percent since the start of the war, with millions of refugees fleeing the nation, increasing instability in Europe, and stoking violent extremism,” the report concludes.

The most urgent case for a potential US intervention, however, is the South Asian country of Bangladesh.

With half its 160 million-strong population currently living at sea level, some 80 million Bangladeshis are set to be displaced as huge areas of the country become “uninhabitable” due to climate impacts: “How will this large scale displacement affect global security in a region with nearly 40 percent of the world’s population and several antagonistic nuclear powers?”

With a population eight times that of Syria’s, the report explains, “permanent displacement of a large portion of the population of Bangladesh would be a regional catastrophe with the potential to increase global instability.”

The authors recommend the US Army work with the State Department and USAID to “strengthen the resilience of [Bangladeshi] government agencies and provide training for the Bangladeshi military.”

Water scarcity will destabilize nations—and the U.S. Army

While sea level rise offers one specific type of risk, another comes from water scarcity due to climate change, population increase, and poor water management. The report describes water scarcity as a near-term risk driving civil unrest and political instability.


By 2040, global demand for fresh water will exceed availability, and by 2030 one-third of the world population will inhabit the “water-stressed regions” of North Africa, Southern Africa, the Middle East, China, and the United States, the report notes.

The decline in water availability over the next two decades will lead to an increase in “social disruption” in poor, vulnerable regions.

Water scarcity is also a driver of possible global food system failure, which could trigger new “outbreaks of civil conflict and social unrest.”

The report depicts a global food system increasingly disrupted by “rapid freeze-thaw cycles in spring and fall, soil degradation, depletion of fossil water aquifers, intensified spread of agricultural pests and diseases, and damage to shipping infrastructure as a consequence of flooding.”

Such food system instability will result in “significant increases in mortality in vulnerable locations, which are those where DoD-supported humanitarian intervention is most likely.”

But foreign military interventions, particularly in water scarce regions of the Middle East and North Africa, might not be viable unless the US Army invents or acquires radical new technologies to distribute adequate levels of water to soldiers.

The problem is so bad and so expensive, the report says, that the Army “is precipitously close to mission failure concerning hydration of the force in a contested arid environment.”


Water is currently 30-40 percent of the costs required to sustain a US military force operating abroad, according to the new Army report. A huge infrastructure is needed to transport bottled water for Army units. So the report recommends major new investments in technology to collect water from the atmosphere locally, without which US military operations abroad could become impossible. The biggest obstacle is that this is currently way outside the Pentagon’s current funding priorities.

Rampaging for Arctic oil

And yet the report’s biggest blind-spot is its agnosticism on the necessity for a rapid whole society transition away from fossil fuels.

Bizarrely for a report styling itself around the promotion of environmental stewardship in the Army, the report identifies the Arctic as a critical strategic location for future US military involvement: to maximize fossil fuel consumption.

Noting that the Arctic is believed to hold about a quarter of the world’s undiscovered hydrocarbon reserves, the authors estimate that some 20 percent of these reserves could be within US territory, noting a “greater potential for conflict” over these resources, particularly with Russia.

The melting of Arctic sea ice is depicted as a foregone conclusion over the next few decades, implying that major new economic opportunities will open up to exploit the region’s oil and gas resources as well as to establish new shipping routes: “The US military must immediately begin expanding its capability to operate in the Artic to defend economic interests and to partner with allies across the region.”


Senior US defense officials in Washington clearly anticipate a prolonged role for the US military, both abroad and in the homeland, as climate change wreaks havoc on critical food, water and power systems. Apart from causing fundamental damage to our already strained democratic systems, the bigger problem is that the US military is by far a foremost driver of climate change by being the world’s single biggest institutional consumer of fossil fuels.

The prospect of an ever expanding permanent role for the Army on US soil to address growing climate change impacts is a surprisingly extreme scenario which goes against the grain of the traditional separation of the US military from domestic affairs.

In putting this forward, the report inadvertently illustrates what happens when climate is seen through a narrow ‘national security’ lens. Instead of encouraging governments to address root causes through “unprecedented changes in all aspects of society” (in the words of the UN’s IPCC report this time last year), the Army report demands more money and power for military agencies while allowing the causes of climate crisis to accelerate. It’s perhaps no surprise that such dire scenarios are predicted, when the solutions that might avert those scenarios aren’t seriously explored.

Rather than waiting for the US military to step in after climate collapse—at which point the military itself could be at risk of collapsing—we would be better off dealing with the root cause of the issue skirted over by this report: America’s chronic dependence on the oil and gas driving the destabilization of the planet’s ecosystems.

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The UN’s Devastating Climate Change Report Was Too Optimistic

The IPCC has been criticized for being “too alarmist. If anything, it is the opposite. With their latest report, they have been overly conservative.”

By Nafeez Ahmed
Oct 15 2018, 7:56pm




A decade ago, the “father of global warming”—the first scientist to sound the alarm on climate change in the 1980s to the US Congress—announced that we were too late: the planet had already hit the danger zone.

In a landmark paper, James Hansen, then head of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, along with seven other leading climate scientists, described how a global average temperature above 1°Celsius (C)—involving a level of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere of around 450 parts per million (ppm)—would lead to “practically irreversible ice sheet and species loss.” But, they added, new data showed that even 1°C was too hot.


At the time the paper was issued in 2008, atmospheric concentrations of CO2 were around 385 ppm. This is “already in the dangerous zone,” explained Hansen and his colleagues, noting that most climate models excluded self-reinforcing amplifying feedbacks which would be triggered at this level—things like “ice sheet disintegration, vegetation migration, and GHG [greenhouse gas] release from soils, tundra, or ocean sediments.”

Such feedbacks constitute tipping points which, once triggered, can lead to irreversible or even runaway climate change processes.

According to Hansen and his co-authors, these feedbacks “may begin to come into play on time scales as short as centuries or less.” The only viable solution to guarantee a safe climate, they wrote, is to reduce the level of greenhouse gases to around 350 ppm, if not lower.

Today, we are well in breach of the 1°C upper limit. And we have breached this limit at a much lower level of atmospheric CO2 than Hansen thought would be necessary to warm this much—as of May 2018, the monthly average atmospheric CO2 had reached 410ppm (the August measurement puts it at 409ppm.) This is the highest level of CO2 the earth has seen in 800,000 years.

Ten years on from Hansen’s warning, the UN’s new climate report—presenting the consensus of the world’s leading climate scientists—informs us that if we continue at this rate, the planet will warm to around 1.5°C in just 12 years, triggering a sequence of increasingly catastrophic impacts.


According to a Met Office briefing evaluating the implications of the UN report, once we go past 1.5°C, we dramatically increase the risks of floods, droughts, and extreme weather that would impact hundreds of millions of people.

The IPCC says that this would just be the beginning: we are currently on track to hit 3-4°C by end of century, which would lead to a largely unlivable planet.


But there are fault-lines in the IPCC report. Among them is that its dire warning of coming catastrophe, though devastating, could well be conservative. A number of scientists point out that the report fails to fully acknowledge the role of amplifying feedbacks as highlighted by Hansen.

“Even with its description of the increasing impacts that lie ahead, the IPCC understates a key risk: that self-reinforcing feedback loops could push the climate system into chaos before we have time to tame our energy system, and the other sources of climate pollution,” Mario Molina, who shared the Nobel prize in chemistry in 1995 for his work on depletion of the ozone layer, told The Guardian.

In an essay for the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Molina along with Veerabhadran Ramanathan, a professor of climate sciences at the University of California, San Diego, and Durwood J. Zaelke, president of the Institute for Governance & Sustainable Development in Washington DC, explain that climate change is not worsening in a simple, linear fashion, but rather by compounding and accelerating: “Adding 50 percent more warming to reach 1.5 degrees won’t simply increase impacts by the same percentage—bad as that would be. Instead, it risks setting up feedbacks that could fall like dangerous dominos, fundamentally destabilizing the planet.”


The IPCC “fails to adequately warn leaders” about six climate tipping points that work in this way. One of the more well-known such tipping points is Arctic sea ice, which could disappear in the summer in just 15 years, according to the Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Programme’s Snow, Water, Ice and Permafrost in the Arctic report. The ice acts as a reflector of heat back into the atmosphere, so the more it melts, the more the Arctic waters absorb heat.

This self-reinforcing feedback loop could lead to an ‘Arctic death spiral,’ where the loss of the sea ice accelerates the melting of permafrost, which some scientists believe could release large quantities of methane—a greenhouse gas 30 times more potent in driving warming than CO2—into the atmosphere.

Computer simulations of the Arctic’s thermokarst lakes—a certain type of Arctic lake that forms as permafrost thaws—are not incorporated into current global climate models.

The simulations suggest that toward mid or late century, “the permafrost-carbon feedback should be about equivalent to the second strongest anthropogenic source of greenhouse gases, which is land use change”, Katey Walter Anthony, an associate professor at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks, said in a press release announcing a NASA-funded study that found the “abrupt thawing” of permafrost could release large amounts of CO2 and methane via soil microbes “within a few decades.”


No wonder Professor Michael Mann, director of the Earth System Science Center at Penn State University and a former IPCC lead author, criticized deniers claiming the latest IPCC report is “too alarmist: If anything it is the opposite. Once again, with their latest report, they have been overly conservative (i.e. erring on the side of understating/underestimating the problem).”

The conservative nature of the IPCC is an inevitable result of thousands of scientists trying to generate a document that they all agree with. As a result, it tends to exclude scientific research around the uncertainties of when and how self-reinforcing feedbacks might cross tipping points leading to runaway effects.

One such paper published in August by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science concludes that “even if the Paris Accord target of a 1.5°C to 2.0°C rise in temperature is met, we cannot exclude the risk that a cascade of feedbacks could push the Earth System irreversibly onto a ‘Hothouse Earth’ pathway.”

These shocking findings vindicate the early warnings of James Hansen and others, that a 1.5°C world would not just terraform the Earth beyond recognition, but might also trigger irreversible processes leading to a self-reinforcing cycle of warming that could ultimately culminate in an uninhabitable planet.

That worst-case outcome is not inevitable—but certain catastrophic outcomes are already locked in. According to a study in Climatic Change in 2016, parts of the Middle East and North Africa will become uninhabitable by 2050 due to intense summer heatwaves, even if we stay within 1.5°C.


The unliveable temperatures will likely spark mass migrations, which could exacerbate the danger of conflict. But as noted by Bob Ward, policy director at the the London School of Economics’ ESRC Centre for Climate Change Economics and Policy, the IPCC’s ‘summary for policymakers’ document (which condenses the full IPCC report for government officials) makes no mention of this.


Despite its blind spots, the IPCC throws down the gauntlet to global policymakers, demanding “rapid and far-reaching” transitions in land, energy, industry, buildings, transport, and cities to slash carbon emissions and begin drawing down carbon from the atmosphere.

By 2030, global CO2 emissions will need to drop 45 percent below 2010 levels—equivalent to over 60 percent below 2015 levels—reaching net zero by 2050. This will be a colossal undertaking. The UN report says it will require “unprecedented changes in all aspects of society.”

This will need to include a radical decrease in energy consumption, a rapid shift from fossil fuels to renewables, and fundamental transformations in lifestyles to bring down CO2 emissions. “Energy demand lower than present day, together with strong growth in economic output until the end of the century, is found in scenarios with shifts to more sustainable energy, material, and food consumption patterns,” the report says.

The radical transformation set out by the UN report is not a backward step, but a new pathway to a different kind of prosperity involving fundamental changes in core industries.


Construction needs to shift to greater resource efficiency, more use of insulation and the use of low carbon materials; transport should include more electric vehicles, a preference for walking or cycling for short distances, and government investment in sustainable mass transit options; energy requires more energy-efficient appliances, as well as widespread rooftop solar, solar water heaters, and more business and government support for renewables; food should involve reducing dairy and meat consumption, buying local and seasonal products as much as possible, and putting an end to food waste.


But other studies imply there is one glaring weakness in the IPCC report: its unbridled enthusiasm for geoengineering techniques to drawdown carbon from the atmosphere.

These play a major role in the report’s transition scenario pathways, and include ‘negative emissions’ technologies designed to drawdown carbon emissions from the atmosphere. The main technology being proposed is called ‘BECCS,’ which stands for ‘bioenergy with carbon capture and storage’. This basically proposes burning biomass for energy, and capturing the carbon emissions to be stored underground.

While the technology has been tested and proven at small-scales, commercial scale operations have yet to be built—and the key obstacle appears to be the massive costs associated with the technology.

“The goal of keeping warming under 1.5°C will require the virtual dissolution of the military-industrial complex”


A recent paper in the Royal Society of Chemistry’s Environment, Energy and Science journal examines BECCS from a ‘net energy’ standpoint to measure how much energy it would require, compared to what it produces. The paper found that under current technologies, “more energy is used to operate BECCS than what is returned to society”, a serious problem which could result in greater use of fossil fuels to keep BECCS alive, and “an increase in CO2 emissions, with a potential offset of the carbon dioxide removal service provided by BECCS.”

The study identifies ways BECCS might be made more efficient, cheaper, and less energy intensive, but admits that the practical feasibility of those mechanisms is unclear and “the scope for unintended consequences is vast.”

The last word on the subject came in last month via a comprehensive study published in Nature Communications, evaluating a whole gamut of negative emissions technologies. While acknowledging that “several techniques may eventually have the physical potential to contribute to limiting climate change,” the study concludes that “all are in early stages of development, involve substantial uncertainties and risks, and raise ethical and governance dilemmas.”

Reviewing a range of ‘climate dioxide removal’ and’ radiative forcing geoengineering’ technologies, the study finds that there is no certainty that any of them could ever scale: “Based on present knowledge, climate geoengineering techniques cannot be relied on to significantly contribute to meeting the Paris Agreement temperature goals.”


Even if they were actively pursued and worked on a global scale as hoped, “they would very unlikely be implementable prior to the second half of the century.” This would be far too late to avoid the IPCC’s safe upper limit of 1.5°C, and probably even 2°C.

The study’s conclusion is stark. We literally don’t have time to wait for geoengineering machines to do their magic: “Thus at present, the only reliable way to attain a high probability of achieving the Paris Agreement goals requires considerably increasing mitigation efforts beyond the current plans, including starting extensive emissions reductions much sooner than in the current NDCs [nationally determined contributions—emissions reduction pledges committed to by governments].”

In other words, relying on largely imaginary technologies to help us stave off the threat of extinction is astonishingly stupid. A more rational approach to ensuring that our children, and their children, have a viable future on planet Earth has to involve cutting emissions at source. And that requires a radically different economy.


The UN report does not go deep into detail on how the transition will require different economic priorities to what we’re accustomed to right now. But it does say that the transition “requires an evolution of global and national financial systems,” including “a potential redirection of 5 percent to 10 percent of the annual capital revenues.”


As meteorologist Eric Holthaus points out, this implies “the profit margin of basically every company.”

How can this be achieved? The report hints at the need for fundamental economic restructuring to change the way people and businesses are incentivized on a “day-to-day” basis.

The idea is to redirect capital investment away from short-term speculative ventures which are high-risk, high-debt and if profitable only of value to a tiny class of investors, into “long-term productive low-emission assets and services” of benefit to the wider public, as well as generating longer-term returns.

The financial and banking system will also need new regulation to mainstream this approach, along with new forms of “public-private partnerships” to support “new business models for small-scale enterprises and help households with limited access to capital.”

Without saying it aloud, these sorts of measures entail a fundamental shift in how capitalism as we know it operates, converting the economy from a structure dominated by narrow special interests which accumulate wealth for themselves, to one that serves communities.

Elsewhere, the report emphasizes a change in focus toward ways of improving quality of life for communities: “Community-led and bottom-up approaches offer potentials for climate-resilient development pathways at scale. At the level of individuals, communities, and groups, emphasis on well-being, social inclusion, equity, and human rights helps to overcome limitations in capacity.”


As Richard Heinberg, a senior fellow at the Post Carbon Institute, explains: “These sentences could easily have been written by an ecological economist or other post-growth theorist. Emphasis on well-being (instead of consumption) and equity (instead of growth) are mainstays of the eco-econ literature.”

But here, too, there are blind-spots.

The UN report demands radical change, but all encapsulated within a seemingly unquestionable assumption: that economic growth will and must continue. The report authors, says Heinberg, “don’t explicitly mention the possibility of ditching growth as a primary policy objective, presumably because government leaders might then be moved simply to dismiss the whole raft of recommendations.”


Of course, the idea that we can continue endlessly growing our economies while reducing our energy consumption, known as ‘decoupling’ in the technical literature, is attractive.

But it has been increasingly rejected in a number of recent studies, including one published earlier this year in Science of the Total Environment, in which economists find that the dependence of global economic growth on natural resources has not decreased, but increased by over 60 percent over the last century.

These grim findings fit with a study commissioned by the UN Secretary General’s Independent Scientific Group, who are drafting the UN’s Global Sustainable Development Report to be released next year.


That study, reported on by Motherboard in late August, warned that the global shift toward “energy sources that are less energy efficient” would undermine the basis of capitalist economies as they are currently structured. The study drew on the emerging field of ‘biophysical economics,’ which focuses on how economic activity depends on inputs of energy and materials.

Essentially, capitalism as we know it faces a triple whammy according to the study. Our fossil fuel addiction has led us into an increasing exploitation of dirtier, inefficient resources like unconventional oil and gas. Though available in abundance, they produce “less energy in generation than conventional oils.”

That increases the underlying costs of economic activity, as well as “sink costs” in the form of the cost of waste that our economic activity is generating. The biggest sink cost, of course, is climate change.

And finally, as we attempt to move away from fossil fuels towards renewables, we find that they still produce less energy than cheap conventional oil.

In short, “the era of cheap energy is coming to an end,” the paper concludes. This means that exponentially increasing economic growth is simply not going to be possible if it requires increasing energy and material inputs. As we shift to a low energy future, capitalism as we know it will need to fundamentally adapt.

These findings are not an outlier, but are widely corroborated by other studies. One recent study funded by the European Union’s Horizon 2020 program, published in February in the Elsevier Renewable Energy journal, calculated the available “net energy” that can be extracted from fossil fuels out to 2040.


The authors, a team of scientists from the Spanish National Research Council (the third largest public research institution in Europe), concluded that in a best-case scenario, global net energy from fossil fuels (the total amount of energy that can be extracted, minus the energy used to extract it) would peak around 2020-25, before gradually declining. This scenario sees global net energy in 2040 as being around the same value as it was three years ago—by this date global population is projected to grow from its current level of 7.3 billion people to about 9 billion.

The study acknowledges that ‘gross energy’—the total amount of energy being produced—will continue to rise out to 2040. But ‘net energy’—the energy available to society for different uses than simply producing more energy—will stagnate in coming decades. The worse case scenarios, considered more likely by the authors, see global net energy as having already peaked in 2015: “We see in this analysis that even in the most optimistic model… there is a reduction with respect to forecast in terms of the total World production of liquid hydrocarbon net energy, placing the projected growth of global total gross energy supply under serious stress.”

Unfortunately, even if the renewable energy transition kicks in to compensate for this, according to a paper in Nature Energy published in April, current transition scenarios see a 24–31 percent decline in available net energy by 2050. There is a way to make up for this, but it would require solar and wind power sources to “grow two to three times faster than in other proposals.”



Some argue that rather than attempting to stay on the economic growth treadmill, we need to accept the reality of running economies after growth.

Heinberg points out that if growth “currently comes from burning ever-growing quantities of fossil fuels in order to do economic work,” shifting to renewables inevitably requires an economic redesign that will impact economic activity.

As renewables are intermittent and produce electricity directly, to completely replace fossil fuels requires “a nearly complete transformation in how we use energy, and an extensive redesign of systems for generating, storing, and distributing energy.” Trying to maintain endless economic growth at the same time as replacing the very energy sources enabling that growth is like “redesigning and reconfiguring an airplane while it’s in flight.”

So Heinberg suggests that if we’re serious about avoiding climate catastrophe, we need to look at shrinking overall economic activity, de-emphasizing GDP in favour of “quality of life indicators”, and reigning in population growth while instituting a guaranteed jobs program or a universal basic income.

“We’re headed for a crash sooner or later,” he observes. “Wouldn’t it be better to make the post-growth transition on our terms, rather than in crisis mode? Why not use the inevitability of the end of growth to our advantage by planning to reduce both mindless consumerism and carbon emissions, while increasing equity and quality of life?”


Others are not convinced that a low energy future is inevitable. A new book published in August, The Earth is Not for Sale, by David and Peter Schwartzman, a father-son environmental science duo (the former a professor emeritus at the Department of Biology, Howard University; the latter teaching environmental studies at Knox College), argues the opposite.

An increase in net energy from renewable energy sources is entirely feasible if done right, they conclude—and could sustain high levels of prosperity worldwide with a fundamentally egalitarian economic system.

The main prerequisite for this pathway, though, is the elimination of carbon emissions from the US military—widely considered to be the biggest institutional consumer of crude oil in the world.

“If the goal of keeping warming under 1.5°C is achieved, which will require the virtual dissolution of the military-industrial complex, then a rapid transition to wind and solar power in a high, not low [net energy] future, is possible,” David Schwartzman told me. This could lead to “higher, not lower global energy use, especially for the global South, wiping out energy poverty and generating the capacity for climate adaptation and mitigation.”

Wherever we stand on the prospects for economic growth, the upshot is that economics for a future after fossil fuels has to be less concerned with exponentially increasing how much we materially produce and consume, as opposed to how well we actually deliver quality of life.


This is the sort of ground-breaking economic program touted by the UK’s Green New Deal Group, a network of British economic thinkers, energy experts and politicians established after the 2008 financial crash.

Last month, the Group—which includes economist Ann Pettifor, a government advisor and director of Policy Research in Macroeconomics; The Guardian’s economics editor Larry Elliott; Green Party MP Caroline Lucas, also Vice Chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Peak Oil and Gas; and Jeremy Leggett, chairman of British solar energy firm Solarcentury—issued a new policy brief warning of the risk of another financial crash due to a rising debt-bubble.

Instead of bailing out banks with trillions of dollars of taxpayers’ money, as happened in the last crisis, the Group recommend productive investment in a grand infrastructure revival that would decrease energy use, institutionalize ‘circular economy’ recycling principles across industries, build the next generation of renewable energy infrastructure, establish a new clean public transport system, and create millions of jobs.

“The Green New Deal is deliverable,” concludes the brief. “What is required is the political will to deliver it.”

The UN report offers a wake-up call on the urgency of taking action. At stake is the prosperity—and survival—of generations to come. And there’s no time to lose. So if politicians aren’t paying attention, it’s up to citizens to make their voices heard louder than ever.

Researchers have developed “prime editing,” a true search-and-replace function for DNA


Conceptual illustration of two cans, one regular Crispr, one Prime


Biotechnology / CRISPR

The newest gene editor radically improves on CRISPR

Researchers have developed “prime editing,” a true search-and-replace function for DNA.

Oct 21, 2019

For all its well-earned fame, the gene-editing tool CRISPR is, in reality, pretty hard on the genome. It’s a pair of DNA scissors that cuts the double helix, and what’s called “editing” is actually a cell’s hasty attempt to patch things back together. That introduces errors: critics have even called these unpredictable changes a form of “genome vandalism.”

So researchers are searching for ways to make CRISPR live up to its reputation as a real search-and-replace function for genes. In the words of David Liu, a Harvard University biologist, the ultimate aspiration of genome engineers is “the ability to make virtually any targeted change in the genome of any living cell or organism.”

Today, in the latest—and possibly most important—of recent improvements to CRISPR technology, Liu is introducing “prime editing,” a molecular gadget he says can rewrite any type of genetic error without actually severing the DNA strand, as CRISPR does.

The new technology uses an engineered protein that, according to a report by Liu and 10 others today in the journal Nature, can transform any single DNA letter into any other, as well as add or delete longer stretches. In fact, Liu claims it’s capable of repairing nearly any of the 75,000 known mutations that cause inherited disease in humans.

CRISPR 1.0 is harnessed most often to disable genes—making it useful for research and possibly in treating a subset of diseases where a DNA delete button is what’s called for. More extensive gene replacements are also possible with this tool but aren’t easy to control.  

The new technology, which delivers a wider menu of edits with more finesse, is already worth untold sums of money. Even before the paper was published, a syndicate of venture capitalists, including Newpath, Google’s venture arm, and F-Prime, had formed a company, Prime Medicine, and bought rights to it from the Broad Institute, where Liu has a lab.

The company is very new—no location yet, no employees—so we’ll have to wait to learn if it’s going to be the latest to try to develop CRISPR drugs or will do something else. Robert Nelsen, a partner at Arch Venture Partners, a fund also involved in the deal, emailed to say he couldn’t offer more detail. “Amazing time in the scientific world,” he wrote. “We are not saying anything at this time.”

How does prime editing work?

It is a type of CRISPR because it employs the same bacterial miracle protein, Cas9, which can zero in on a predetermined location in a plant or animal genome, finding its way among billions of letters. But unlike CRISPR classic, prime editing doesn’t break the DNA helix.

Liu and his group kept the part of Cas9 that serves as a homing mechanism but removed the scissors part—a component called a nuclease. In its place they spliced another enzyme, reverse transcriptase, well known in biology textbooks because it’s what chugs along your chromosomes when your cells divide, spooling out a new copy.

A document editor really is the right image if you want to picture how Liu’s new engineered molecule works. First, researchers add a bit of genetic text they want to put into a genome (think of that as the “copy” command). Cas9 then acts like the cursor, finding the right position in the DNA. Last, reverse transcriptase acts like a “paste” command, copying in the genetic text prepared by the scientists.

Liu’s team, including postdoc Andrew Anzalone, tried prime editing on cells in their lab. They say they fixed the error that causes sickle-cell disease (one wrong letter), the one that leads to Tay-Sachs disease (four extra letters), and a mutation that’s a common cause of cystic fibrosis (three missing letters).

The original CRISPR can be made to do some of these tricks too, but with low odds of accurate results, which is why for the last several years Liu’s lab had been trying to extend the technology’s abilities.  An earlier invention, base editing, allowed them to transmute certain individual DNA letters into others. Yet not every type of change was possible. Prime editing, they say, could conceivably repair most inherited DNA errors found in the human species that causes genetic disease.

The big sums involved in the scramble to commercialize editing super-tools is evident in the IPO plans of Beam Therapeutics, a separate company Liu founded to work on base editing, which has helped advance prime editing too. The Harvard researcher’s financial stake in that gene-editing startup, which is aiming to treat blood diseases like sickle-cell, is expected to be worth more than $50 million when Beam goes public.

The promise to potentially resolve the entire spectrum of inherited human ailments is huge, but in practice it’s still distant. Editing tools are not like aspirin, a small molecule that slips easily into cells. The prime editor is, in molecular terms, gigantic—so getting it into people’s cells is going to require something like gene therapy. 

The research was paid for by the government and philanthropists and carried out at Harvard and the nonprofit Broad Institute. The system will be made available for just a few dollars through a clearinghouse, AddGene, to anyone who wants to use it for basic science.

Since CRISPR 1.0, base editing, and prime editing each have some pros and cons, Liu expects all to remain in use. With prime editing, not every cell takes up the wanted change—meaning that it’s not yet as efficient as researchers would like.

“This is the beginning rather than the end,” Liu told journalists in a conference call arranged by Nature. “If CRISPR is like scissors, base editors are like a pencil.  Then you can think of prime editors like a word processor, capable of precise search and replace … All will have roles.”

As genome editing becomes more potent, controversies around certain potential uses—say, to make designer babies, genetic pesticides, or even bioterror weapons—are likely to be sharpened.

Liu didn’t reply to questions about whether the powerful new tool has any downsides or how financial incentives are shaping the choice to create, and widely share, these means of changing the molecule all life is based on.

Xinjiang schools used to separate children from families

China Muslims: Xinjiang schools used to separate children from families

Media captionThe BBC’s John Sudworth meets Uighur parents in Turkey who say their children are missing in China

China is deliberately separating Muslim children from their families, faith and language in its far western region of Xinjiang, according to new research.

At the same time as hundreds of thousands of adults are being detained in giant camps, a rapid, large-scale campaign to build boarding schools is under way.

Based on publicly available documents, and backed up by dozens of interviews with family members overseas, the BBC has gathered some of the most comprehensive evidence to date about what is happening to children in the region.

Records show that in one township alone more than 400 children have lost not just one but both parents to some form of internment, either in the camps or in prison.

Formal assessments are carried out to determine whether the children are in need of “centralised care”.

Alongside the efforts to transform the identity of Xinjiang’s adults, the evidence points to a parallel campaign to systematically remove children from their roots.

Hotan Kindness Kindergarten
Image captionThe Hotan Kindness Kindergarten, like many others, is a high security facility

China’s tight surveillance and control in Xinjiang, where foreign journalists are followed 24 hours a day, make it impossible to gather testimony there. But it can be found in Turkey.

In a large hall in Istanbul, dozens of people queue to tell their stories, many of them clutching photographs of children, all now missing back home in Xinjiang.

“I don’t know who is looking after them,” one mother says, pointing to a picture of her three young daughters, “there is no contact at all.”

Another mother, holding a photo of three sons and a daughter, wipes away her tears. “I heard that they’ve been taken to an orphanage,” she says.

In 60 separate interviews, in wave after wave of anxious, grief-ridden testimony, parents and other relatives give details of the disappearance in Xinjiang of more than 100 children.

Missing in China; some of the family portraits handed to us in Turkey by Uighur parents looking for information about their children back home in Xinjiang

They are all Uighurs – members of Xinjiang’s largest, predominantly Muslim ethnic group that has long had ties of language and faith to Turkey. Thousands have come to study or to do business, to visit family, or to escape China’s birth control limits and the increasing religious repression.

But over the past three years, they have found themselves trapped after China began detaining hundreds of thousands of Uighurs and other minorities in giant camps.

The Chinese authorities say the Uighurs are being educated in “vocational training centres” in order to combat violent religious extremism. But evidence shows that many are being detained for simply expressing their faith – praying or wearing a veil – or for having overseas connections to places like Turkey.

For these Uighurs, going back means almost certain detention. Phone contact has been severed – even speaking to relatives overseas is now too dangerous for those in Xinjiang.

With his wife detained back home, one father tells me he fears some of his eight children may now be in the care of the Chinese state.

“I think they’ve been taken to child education camps,” he says.


New research commissioned by the BBC sheds light on what is really happening to these children and many thousands of others.

Dr Adrian Zenz is a German researcher widely credited with exposing the full extent of China’s mass detentions of adult Muslims in Xinjiang. Based on publicly available official documents, his report paints a picture of an unprecedented school expansion drive in Xinjiang.

Campuses have been enlarged, new dormitories built and capacity increased on a massive scale. Significantly, the state has been growing its ability to care full-time for large numbers of children at precisely the same time as it has been building the detention camps.

And it appears to be targeted at precisely the same ethnic groups.


In just one year, 2017, the total number of children enrolled in kindergartens in Xinjiang increased by more than half a million. And Uighur and other Muslim minority children, government figures show, made up more than 90% of that increase.

As a result, Xinjiang’s pre-school enrolment level has gone from below the national average to the highest in China by far.

In the south of Xinjiang alone, an area with the highest concentration of Uighur populations, the authorities have spent an eye watering $1.2bn on the building and upgrading of kindergartens.

Mr Zenz’s analysis suggests that this construction boom has included the addition of large amounts of dormitory space.

Xinhe County Youyi Kindergarten
Image captionXinhe County Youyi Kindergarten has space for 700 children, 80% of whom are from Xinjiang’s minority groups

Xinjiang’s education expansion is driven, it appears, by the same ethos as underlies the mass incarceration of adults. And it is clearly affecting almost all Uighur and other minority children, whether their parents are in the camps or not.

In 2018 work began on a site for two new boarding schools in Xinjiang’s southern city of Yecheng (known as Kargilik in Uighur).

INTERACTIVEUse the slider button to see how the school has developed

May 2019

Yechung County Number 11 and Number 10 Middle School

April 2018

Yechung County Number 11 and Number 10 Middle School


Yecheng County Middle Schools 10 and 11

Dragging the slider reveals the pace of construction – the two middle schools, separated by a shared sports field, are each three times larger than the national average and were built in little more than a year.

In April last year, the county authorities relocated 2,000 children from the surrounding villages into yet another giant boarding middle school, Yecheng County Number 4.

Government propaganda extols the virtues of boarding schools as helping to “maintain social stability and peace” with the “school taking the place of the parents.” And Mr Zenz suggests there is a deeper purpose.

“Boarding schools provide the ideal context for a sustained cultural re-engineering of minority societies,” he argues.

Just as with the camps, his research shows that there is now a concerted drive to all but eliminate the use of Uighur and other local languages from school premises. Individual school regulations outline strict, points-based punishments for both students and teachers if they speak anything other than Chinese while in school.

And this aligns with other official statements claiming that Xinjiang has already achieved full Chinese language teaching in all of its schools.

Media captionThe BBC visits the camps where China’s Muslims have their “thoughts transformed”

Speaking to the BBC, Xu Guixiang, a senior official with Xinjiang’s Propaganda Department, denies that the state is having to care for large numbers of children left parentless as a result.

“If all family members have been sent to vocational training then that family must have a severe problem,” he says, laughing. “I’ve never seen such a case.”

But perhaps the most significant part of Mr Zenz’s work is his evidence that shows that the children of detainees are indeed being channelled into the boarding school system in large numbers.

There are the detailed forms used by local authorities to log the situations of children with parents in vocational training or in prison, and to determine whether they need centralised care.

Mr Zenz found one government document that details various subsidies available to “needy groups”, including those families where “both a husband and a wife are in vocational training”. And a directive issued to education bureaus by the city of Kashgar that mandates them to look after the needs of students with parents in the camps as a matter of urgency.

Schools should “strengthen psychological counselling”, the directive says, and “strengthen students’ thought education” – a phrase that finds echoes in the camps holding their parents.

It is clear that the effect of the mass internments on children is now viewed as a significant societal issue, and that some effort is going into dealing with it, although it is not something the authorities are keen to publicise.

Media captionThe BBC has found new evidence of the increasing control and suppression of Islam in China

Some of the relevant government documents appear to have been deliberately hidden from search engines by using obscure symbols in place of the term “vocational training”. That said, in some instances the adult detention camps have kindergartens built close by, and, when visiting, Chinese state media reporters have extolled their virtues.

These boarding schools, they say, allow minority children to learn “better life habits” and better personal hygiene than they would at home. Some children have begun referring to their teachers as “mummy”.

We telephoned a number of local Education Bureaus in Xinjiang to try to find out about the official policy in such cases. Most refused to speak to us, but some gave brief insights into the system.

We asked one official what happens to the children of those parents who have been taken to the camps.

“They’re in boarding schools,” she replied. “We provide accommodation, food and clothes… and we’ve been told by the senior level that we must look after them well.”

Hotan Sunshine Kindergarten
Image captionHotan Sunshine Kindergarten, seen through a wire fence

In the hall in Istanbul, as the stories of broken families come tumbling out, there is raw despair and deep resentment too.

“Thousands of innocent children are being separated from their parents and we are giving our testimonies constantly,” one mother tells me. “Why does the world keep silent when knowing these facts?”

Back in Xinjiang, the research shows that all children now find themselves in schools that are secured with “hard isolation closed management measures.” Many of the schools bristle with full-coverage surveillance systems, perimeter alarms and 10,000 Volt electric fences, with some school security spending surpassing that of the camps.

The policy was issued in early 2017, at a time when the detentions began to be dramatically stepped up. Was the state, Mr Zenz wonders, seeking to pre-empt any possibility on the part of Uighur parents to forcibly recover their children?

“I think the evidence for systematically keeping parents and children apart is a clear indication that Xinjiang’s government is attempting to raise a new generation cut off from original roots, religious beliefs and their own language,” he tells me.

“I believe the evidence points to what we must call cultural genocide.”


Muslims are vanishing in China

Tashpolat Tiyip: The Uighur leading geographer who vanished in China

Tashpolat TiyipImage copyrightEPHE

Until 2017, Tashpolat Tiyip was a model academic, head of Xinjiang University, globally connected, and with an honorary degree from a prestigious Paris university.

But that year, without warning, he disappeared, with no word from officials. His friends believe that after a secret trial, Prof Tiyip was convicted of separatism and sentenced to death.

Prof Tiyip is a Muslim Uighur, and rights groups say he was caught up in a wider persecution of Uighur intellectuals as China tackles what it says is a separatist, terrorist threat.

“There are hundreds of Uighur academics and professionals swept up into this mass internment campaign,” Michael Caster, a researcher and author of The People’s Republic of the Disappeared, told the BBC.

“This is targeting community, cultural, and intellectual leaders; it is tantamount to cultural genocide.”

Fellow academics fear that if he is still alive and detained, Prof Tayip faces imminent execution.

Who is Tashpolat Tiyip?

Until his disappearance, Tashpolat Tiyip was an esteemed professor of geography at Xinjiang University, which like all Chinese universities is an official state institution.

A member of the local Uighur community in Xinjiang, he had studied geography in his home province, and after a stint in Japan, returned home to his alma mater to teach.

Presentational white space

He’d been active in international academic circles – receiving a title from France’s Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes – and was part of a tight-knit international network of scholars in his field.

He was also a member of the Chinese Communist Party and in 2010, he became president of Xinjiang University, a position he held until his disappearance.

How did he disappear?

The proceedings against Prof Tiyip were shrouded in secrecy and there’s no official record of what happened to him.

Tashpolat Tiyip, Arslan Abdulla, Rahile DawutImage copyrightHANDOUT
Image captionMr Tiyip (left) with fellow academics Arslan Abdulla and Rahile Dawut who have also disappeared

Friends say that in 2017, he was on his way to Europe for a conference and to launch a co-operation with a German university. But at Beijing airport he was stopped and told he had to return to Xinjiang’s capital Urumqi. That’s where the trail ends, a former colleague of the professor told the BBC from the US.

He never returned home and his friends and relatives were soon questioned over corruption allegations around him.

Eventually, the family heard news he had been convicted of separatism and had received the death penalty, the former colleague explains – but China has never confirmed anything about his case.

Working as a researcher in the US, she is herself a Uighur originally from Xinjiang and asked to remain anonymous so as not to endanger her own friends and family back home.

Presentational grey line

China’s hidden camps

Presentational grey line

She says the crackdown has created an atmosphere of horror where “everyone feel like they’re being watched all the time”.

“There is a huge sense of fear – people tell me they sleep in their clothes because no-one knows whether at night they might be taken away.

“A friend has described it to me as China waging a war of fear. And that friend has also disappeared since then.”

Where is Tashpolat Tiyip now?

UN experts and rights groups say China is holding about one million Uighurs and other Muslims and minorities in detention camps.

Media captionThe BBC meets Uighurs in Turkey who say their children are missing in China

China doesn’t deny the massive operation, but says it is preventing terrorism and separatism by providing education to those detained, helping them to better integrate into mainstream Chinese society.

Prof Tiyip’s friends say contacting loved ones in Xinjiang is difficult and only possible with code words to avoid alerting the authorities, who monitor communications. There are reports of people being detained for even having WhatsApp on their phone.

“When we talk to them, we can’t use his name,” the former colleague explains. “For instance we have to ask how the patient is, whether the doctors already gave a diagnosis, or whether he’s been released from hospital.”

“That’s the only way that relatives can tell us anything.”

Mr Tiyip’s family believe he is still alive. They have also heard that he and other academics convicted of alleged separatism are used as scare examples in propaganda videos shown in detention centres.

Media captionThe BBC visits the camps where China’s Muslims have their “thoughts transformed”

Mr Caster says the pattern of vanishing into a secret justice system is typical.

“The Chinese State does not want people to know about him and his ongoing incommunicado detention fits the textbook definition of an enforced disappearance.”

What’s been the reaction?

Since the disappearance of Mr Tiyip, supporters have again and again tried to draw attention to his case.

They believe he was given a two-year suspended death sentence – if so that period would now be ending and amid the uncertainty there are new efforts to rally support.

Tashpolat TiyipImage copyrightEPHE
Image captionIn 2008, Professor Tiyip received international accolades at France’s EPHE university

Earlier this month, the American Association of Geographers (AAG) called for his release in a letter signed by more than 1,300 academics from around the world.

“Tashpolat Tiyip’s arrest, detention and death sentence is a devastating threat to intellectual and scientific freedom in China and around the globe,” according to Dr Gary Langham of the AAG.

The French university that had awarded the honorary degree also EPHE also urged for the release of Mr Tiyip, warning that it was part of a “wave of Chinese repression that few people in Europe know about”.

Rights group Amnesty International in September described the trial as “secret and grossly unfair” and has called for urgent action to urge China to release them.

Scholars at Risk has also released a statement, urging China to “immediately intervene” to halt the execution and “secure his unconditional release”.

The group warns that “in addition to the harm to Dr Tiyip and his family, such incidents have a chilling effect on academic freedom and suggest an attempt to undermine academic communities and limit free expression”.

Last year, Pen America condemned the detention of the academic along with several other Uighur writers as “an outrageous abdication of the rule of law, and a clear demonstration of the government’s broad-scale attack on Uyghur intellectual life under the guise of preventing ‘separatism'”.

“The fact that several prominent Uyghur intellectuals have disappeared only to re-emerge months later, sentenced to death or to life imprisonment, tells you all you need to know about the state of free expression in Xinjiang today,” Summer Lopez, senior director of Free Expression Programs at Pen America, said.

Is Prof Tiyip the only one?

A wave of academics have vanished in China’s Xinjiang province. Among the first high profile arrests was economist Ilham Tohti who was convicted of separatism and sentenced to life in prison in 2014.

Ilham TohtiImage copyrightAFP
Image captionIlham Tohti was awarded the Vaclaw Havel Prize while in prison in China

Mr Tohti had been a moderate critic of Beijing’s policies towards Uighurs, questioning the government’s role in persistent violent confrontations between Uighurs and the dominant Han Chinese.

Last month, he was awarded the Council of Europe’s Vaclaw Havel Prize for human rights.

Another example is anthropologist Rahile Dawut, also of Xinjiang University.

Like Mr Tiyip, she’d long been praised by Chinese authorities as a model academic, applauded for their integration within the Chinese and global academic context.

Ms Dawut disappeared in late 2017 and has not been heard of since. Efforts to understand what happened to her or what she might have been charged with, have been futile.


UAE astronaut Hazzaa Ali Almansoori spent 8 days in space.

First Emirati Astronaut Returns to Earth with Russian-US Space Station Crew

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The first Emirati astronaut has returned to Earth after an eight day mission to the International Space Station, landing with Russian and American crewmates were were in orbit for seven months.

Hazzaa AlMansoori of the United Arab Emirates’ (UAE) Mohammed bin Rashid Space Centre (MBRSC) touched down with Aleksey Ovchinin of Roscosmos and Nick Hague of NASA aboard Russia’s Soyuz MS-12 spacecraft. Descending under a parachute and slowed by braking thrusters, the capsule landed on the steppe of Kazakhstan, near the town of Dzhezkazgan, at 6:59 a.m. EDT (1059 GMT or 4:59 p.m. local time) on Thursday (Oct. 3).

Met by Russian recovery forces and members of their respective space agencies, Ovchinin, Hague and AlMansoori were helped out of their spacecraft and given brief medical exams as they began adjusting to being back on Earth. The three appeared to be in good health, smiling and talking to family members by phone.

Related: Hazzaa Almansoori: The 1st UAE Astronaut’s Space Mission in Photos




The Russian Soyuz MS-12 spacecraft carrying astronauts Nick Hague of NASA, Aleksey Ovchinn of Roscosmos and Hazzaa Ali AlMansoori of UAE approaches a landing from the International Space Station on the steppe of Kazakhstan on Oct. 3, 2019. 

(Image credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls)

The landing brought to a close Ovchinin and Hague’s 203-day mission, during which they served on the space station’s 59th and 60th expedition crews. The two arrived at the orbiting lab on March 14, 2019, five months after they survived an inflight abort on their first attempt at reaching the station.

AlMansoori, as a spaceflight participant flying under a contract between Russia and the UAE, lifted off with his landing crewmates’ replacements, Oleg Skripochka of Roscosmos and Jessica Meir of NASA, on Soyuz MS-15 on Sept. 25. For eight days, he, Skripochka, Meir, Ovchinin and Hague worked together with Expedition 60 crew members Alexander Skvortsov of Roscosmos, Andrew Morgan of NASA and Luca Parmitano of the European Space Agency (ESA).

On Tuesday (Oct. 2), Ovchinin handed over command of the station to Parmitano, a first for an astronaut from Italy.

“This has been a long and interesting flight,” said Ovchinin during a brief televised change of command ceremony. “It has been exciting, it has been a thrill and ride.”

Space Station Crew Tended To at Soyuz Landing Site
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Ovchinin, Hague and AlMansoori’s departure from the station marked the official end of Expedition 60 and start of Expedition 61. Soyuz MS-12 undocked from the Rassvet module at 3:37 a.m. EDT (0737 GMT).

Three and a half hours later, after a de-orbit burn at 6:06 a.m. EDT (1006 GMT), the Soyuz and its crew were safely on the ground.

AlMansoori logged 7 days, 21 hours and 1 minute circling Earth 128 times on his first spaceflight. A 35-year-old former military pilot, he was selected for the UAE astronaut program from a pool of more than 4,000 applicants. In addition to representing his country, AlMansoori was also the third Arab to fly in space after Prince Sultan bin Salman al-Saud of Saudi Arabia and Muhammed Faris of Syria.

In Photos: The Spacewalking Astronauts of Expedition 60




From left: Astronauts Hazzaa AlMansoori (UAE), Aleksey Ovchinin (Roscosmos) and Nick Hague (NASA)are seen shortly after landing on board Soyuz MS-12. 

(Image credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls)

Hague, 44, has now completed his second spaceflight after reaching the fringes of space on the Soyuz MS-10 abort. A member of NASA’s 2013 astronaut class (nicknamed the “8 Balls”), Hague conducted three extravehicular activities (EVAs, or spacewalks) totaling 19 hours and 56 minutes outside the space station.

Ovchinin, 48, completed his third mission to the station (including the MS-10 abort). In 2016, he served as an Expedition 47/48 flight engineer. With more than 374 days in space — including one EVA lasting 6 hours and 1 minute — he now ranks 31st out of the 572 people who have flown in space by total time spent off Earth.

Departing their landing site, Ovchinin, Hague and AlMansoori will be flown by helicopter to the Kazakh town of Karaganda for a welcome ceremony before Ovchinin and AlMansoori leave for Star City, near Moscow, and Hague boards a NASA jet for the Johnson Space Center in Houston.

Soyuz MS-12 was the 58th Soyuz to launch for the International Space Station. It traveled 80.8 million miles (130 million km) completing 3,248 orbits of Earth.

Follow on Facebook and on Twitter at @collectSPACE. Copyright 2019 All rights reserved.

Follow Doris Elin Urrutia on Twitter @salazar_elin. Follow us on Twitter

India Is Planning a Huge China-Style Facial Recognition Program


    Government plan has raised privacy, data security concerns
    Bids for facial recognition tender to be opened on Oct. 10

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Face It, You’re Being Watched
Face It, You’re Being Watched

India is planning to set up one of the world’s largest facial recognition systems, potentially a lucrative opportunity for surveillance companies and a nightmare for privacy advocates who fear it will lead to a Chinese-style Orwellian state.


Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government will open bids next month to build a system to centralize facial recognition data captured through surveillance cameras across India. It would link up with databases containing records for everything from passports to fingerprints to help India’s depleted police force identify criminals, missing persons and dead bodies.

Ramadan Spending Ahead OF CPI Figures

A police officer stands outside the Jama Masjid in New Delhi.

Photographer: Sanjit Das/Bloomberg

The government says the move is designed to help one of the world’s most understaffed police forces, which has one officer for every 724 citizens — well below global norms. It also could be a boon for companies: TechSci Research estimates India’s facial recognition market will grow sixfold by 2024 to $4.3 billion, nearly on par with China.


But the project is also ringing alarm bells in a nation with no data privacy laws and a government that just shut down the internet for the last seven weeks in the key state of Kashmir to prevent unrest. While India is still far from implementing a system that matches China’s ability to use technology to control the population, the lack of proper safeguards opens the door for abuses.


“We’re the only functional democracy which will set up such as system without any data protection or privacy laws,” said Apar Gupta, a Delhi-based lawyer and executive director of the Internet Freedom Foundation, a non-profit group whose members successfully lobbied the government in 2015 to ensure net neutrality and reject platforms like Facebook Inc.’s Free Basics. “It’s like a gold rush for companies seeking large unprotected databases.”

Black Market

A draft data protection bill presented to the government last year still hasn’t been approved by the cabinet or introduced into parliament. The country has already had problems implementing Aadhaar, one of the world’s biggest biometric databases linking everything from bank accounts to income tax filings, which been plagued by reports of data leaks and the growth of a black market for personal information.

General shot of  CCTV cameras installed in the back drop of Indin parliament in New Delhi, India

Pedestrians walk past a surveillance camera near Parliament House in New Delhi.

Photographer: Anindito Mukherjee/Bloomberg

So far, not much is known about which companies might bid on the facial-recognition system. Minutes of a meeting with potential bidders, obtained by the Internet Freedom Foundation through a right to information request, showed unidentified companies sought clarifications on integrating facial recognition data with state databases and whether it should be able to identify people with plastic surgery.


Vasudha Gupta, a spokeswoman for the Home Ministry, didn’t respond to an email seeking comments about the system.

For some in the police force, the system will be an essential tool to fight crime if implemented properly. India has seen more than 100 terrorist attacks in the last three decades, including one on luxury hotels and a train station in Mumbai that killed 166 people in 2008.

‘Powerful Tool’

Nilabh Kishore, who headed a unit fighting organized crime in the state of Punjab until last year, had success against gangsters after he set up a system linking data from police stations across the state.

“A system that can identify criminals is invaluable — facial recognition is a powerful tool,” said Kishore, who is now deputy inspector general of the Indo-Tibetan Border Police. “But human intentions are also very important. You can make the best of technology, but if human intentions are wrong it can be a tool for misuse.”

A CCTV camera installed for facial recognition is pictured in the office of  Staqu's at its headquarters  in Gurugram, Haryana, on the outskirts of New Delhi, India

A surveillance camera with facial recognition technology at Staqu headquarters.

Photographer: Anindito Mukherjee/Bloomberg

That’s particularly a worry for vulnerable minority groups that have long faced discrimination in India. Lower castes and tribals account for about a quarter of the population but constitute 34% of India’s prisoners, according to the National Dalit Movement for Justice.

In January, the Delhi High Court said it was “unacceptable“ that facial recognition had not helped trace any of the 5,000 children missing from the city in three years. Earlier this month, photos and phone numbers from a Madurai city police facial recognition database in the southern state of Tamil Nadu were leaked online.

Surveillance Threat

The threat of foreign spying is also persistent. Last month a federal government think tank criticized the local administration in Delhi for hiring the Indian arm of Chinese firm Hikvision to set up 150,000 CCTVs, saying the move could spur illegal hacking and data leaks to the Chinese government.

Foreign surveillance companies operating in India include CP Plus, DahuaPanasonic Corp., Bosch Security SystemsHoneywell International Inc., and D-Link India Ltd. Many Indian companies won’t be able to bid on the facial-recognition system because the current tender requires them to meet standards established by the U.S. National Institute of Science and Technology, according to Atul Rai, chief executive officer of Staqu Technologies, an Indian startup.

Employees displays a facial recognition identity system installed / acquired by various security agencies of India developed by the  security system solution developer Staqu's at its headquarters  in Gurugram, Haryana, on the outskirts of New Delhi, India

Faces of Staqu employees are displayed on a facial recognition system.

Photographer: Anindito Mukherjee/Bloomberg

Rai, whose company has developed facial recognition for eight local police forces, said India doesn’t have the same quality cameras as China — making it harder to meet the goal of being able to identify any person with an integrated system. He also said it would be more difficult to implement a national network in India because state governments are responsible for law and order under its constitution.


“But if this one happens in line with the government’s plan, it should be a China-like system,” Rai said. “Any powerful country wants to be like China when it comes to using technology to monitor people — even western countries.”

— With assistance by Santosh Kumar

IAS Officer Quits, Disturbed Over Anti-democraticRestrictions In J&K

IAS Officer Quits, Says “Disturbed” Over Restrictions In J&K

Kannan Gopinathan, a secretary of key departments in Dadra and Nagar Haveli, was instrumental in transforming a loss-making government electricity distribution firm into a profit-making one


Kannan Gopinathan said he has put in his papers to quit the IAS



  1. Kannan Gopinathan is an IAS officer in Dadra and Nagar Haveli
  2. Fundamental rights of lakhs of people suspended for 20 days, he told NDTV
  3. The 33-year-old officer has received memos on several occasions

A 33-year-old Indian Administrative Service officer said he has filed his papers to quit the coveted government job. While stating his reasons, IAS officer Kannan Gopinathan said one of them was denial of “fundamental rights” to lakhs of people in Jammu and Kashmir for weeks after special status was scrapped from the state earlier this month.

“…Not that my resignation will cause anything even worth a flutter. But one has one’s own conscience to answer to, I guess,” Mr Gopinathan told NDTV.

Mr Gopinathan, a secretary of key departments in Dadra and Nagar Haveli, was instrumental in transforming a loss-making government electricity distribution firm into a profit-making one.

“In (Jammu and) Kashmir, fundamental rights of lakhs of people have been suspended for 20 days. And many in India seem to be okay with it. This is happening in India in 2019. Article 370 or its abrogation is not the issue, but denying citizens their right to respond to it, is the main issue. They could welcome the move or protest it, that’s their right,” Mr Gopinathan told NDTV, adding this issue “disturbed” him enough to resign.

An IAS officer for seven years, Mr Gopinathan gave his resignation on August 21.

“Even when a former IAS officer was detained from the airport, there was a complete lack of response from civil society. It seems like most in this country are okay with this,” said Mr Gopinathan, referring to how IAS officer-turned-activist Shah Faesal was sent back to Srinagar from Delhi airport while he was about to take a flight abroad.

In Mizoram, the IAS officer encouraged badminton player Pullela Gopichand to open 30 grassroots centres for training children in badminton and a high-altitude centre of excellence for sports while Mr Gopinathan was a collector.


Mr Gopinathan said he has received memos over reasons like not applying for the Prime Minister’s excellence awards, which he said he did after getting directions to do so. Another memo asked for a summary of what he did when he had volunteered for flood relief work in Kerala in 2018. Relief workers were surprised to discover that the IAS officer had been volunteering at camps without anyone knowing his official identity.

“These memos were so frivolous and flimsy, they disturbed me. But it’s nothing out of the ordinary in service life. I have been serving in some crucial roles even at a time when I gave my resignation. And I felt there are larger issues that need to be raised,” Mr Gopinathan told NDTV.

In this year’s Lok Sabha election, when Mr Gopinathan was the returning officer, the Chief Electoral Officer had ordered the administrator of Dadra and Nagar Haveli, a Union Territory, to withdraw a controversial notice which he had issued to Mr Gopinathan and sought an explanation from the officer.

Mr Gopinathan, who is also an engineer, is active on social media; he uses the medium to engage, ideate and seek alternate solutions in real-time. Before qualifying for the IAS, he volunteered at a non-profit and gave classes to children in slums. It was during this time that he met his future wife, who he said inspired him to prepare for the civil services.


On what his plans are, Mr Gopinathan said, “I have no idea about what will I do as of now.”

The Kashmir Lockdown.

If India is in crisis, it is because good guys like ex-IAS Kannan Gopinathan rather quit

To arrest India’s decline, it is important that the government attract, retain and empower the good guys. Kannan’s leaving is a loss to the government.

 Updated: 27 August, 2019 8:59 am IST
Kannan Gopinathan | File photo | Facebook
Kannan Gopinathan | File photo | Facebook
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Given how difficult it is to enter the Indian Administrative Service, Kannan Gopinathan’s resignation would have captured public attention even if it had not been in protest against the Narendra Modi-Amit Shah government’s clampdown in Jammu & Kashmir, even if he had not previously distinguished himself by anonymously slogging it out doing disaster relief work Kerala in 2018.

To an ordinary person, the act of walking away from something that millions aspire for and only a few hundred get might appear irrational or worse, insane. To cynics who expect public officials to be bent or pliant, Kannan is a naive misfit who would have failed psychometric testing for the job had there been one. To the liberals at the fringes of public discourse, he’s a hero who chose liberty over complicity.

Also read: ‘Disillusioned’ after J&K crisis, IAS officer quits service. Gets trolled as anti-national

A moral dilemma

Kannan brings to sharp focus the moral dilemma of a conscientious public official: What do you do when the government’s policy diverges from your personal convictions on the right thing to do?

In ordinary circumstances, there is the option of recording your dissent, but implementing a lawful decision that you disagree with, to the best of your abilities. Civil servants frequently go through such episodes, and after a while, many choose not to even bother expressing a difference of opinion on file, lest it ruffle powerful feathers.

The dilemma assumes an altogether different level of seriousness when the circumstances are extraordinary. What do you do when you perceive government policy being illegal, unconstitutional or even immoral? The moral dilemma becomes one of trying to change things for the better from the inside, or quitting to fight from the outside.

At a time when the world is looking for simple moral certitudes, it is tempting to declare one or the other position as the right one, and either celebrate IAS officer Kannan as a hero for quitting or denigrate him for being “anti-national” for having the temerity to publicly disagree with the government. Yet, to do so would be a mistake: for while Kannan has made the right choice, it is not necessarily the only right choice. A different person in his shoes could well choose to stay on, and in doing so, wouldn’t necessarily be making a less ethical decision.

Also read: Modi govt clamps down on IAS, its association goes conspicuously silent

An ethical calculus

Giving his reasons for resigning Kannan said that he felt as a civil servant he could no longer pursue his ideals. Referring to the Modi government’s clampdown in Jammu and Kashmir, he told Manorama that “it is the worst social and political situation after the Emergency. The fundamental rights of over 80 lakh people are suspended without even officially declaring an Emergency…I cannot fathom the guilt and regret of not acting on time, when I think about such violation of rights our society is going through.” He is not against the government’s prerogative to abrogate Article 370. Rather, he objects to the de facto suspension of fundamental rights of Indian citizens in Jammu and Kashmir. He does not want history to count him as complicit in an act he considers wrong.

So, he rightly quit. In his ethical calculus, the benefit of fighting from the inside was lower than the costs of suppressing the voice of his conscience.

Yet, a different person in his shoes could have done the right thing by staying in service. Consider.

Every big organisation has good people, bad people and the ones in between. The good do good things, the bad do bad things and the ones in between sometimes do good things and at other times, do bad things. The final outcome is the sum of the resultants of the consequences of the actions of these three types of people. If our cities are safe, our villages livable, our law enforcement trustworthy, and our judiciary dependable, it is to the extent that the actions of the good outweigh the actions of the rest. If we see things are going downhill in the country, it is to a great extent due to the scales tipping against the good people.

Also read: These IAS officers are scripting stories of change across India & making lives better

What a good republic needs

To arrest India’s decline, it is important that the government attract, retain and empower the good guys. Kannan’s leaving, by all accounts, is a loss to the government. Given his track record in Mizoram and Dadra & Nagar Haveli and his volunteering in Kerala, India lost a good administrator. His stated reasons for joining the IAS, his standing up to a political appointee and articulation of his reasons for leaving mark him out as an officer the government of India ought to have fought to retain. It sent him petty show cause notices instead.

India is desperately short of public officials with constitutional morality – people in government who uphold the dignity of their office. Judges stray beyond their mandate and make policy. Legislators stray beyond their mandate and take over administration. Civil servants do the bidding of their political masters, even when the demands are unconstitutional. If the Indian republic is in a crisis today, it is fundamentally because overstepping constitutional dharma is par for the course. Especially at such times, it is in the national interest that conscientious civil servants stay on. They are frontline soldiers in the battle to restore the constitutional health of the republic.

Kannan Gopinathan is right. Others like him who did not resign are also right. There is no universally correct choice. The lesson from Kannan Gopinathan’s resignation is not that everyone should do the same, but that each individual must consciously arrive at their own right answer.

The author is the director of the Takshashila Institution, an independent centre for research and education in public policy. Views are personal. 

Shouldn’t Kashmir Affect You?


“Shouldn’t Kashmir Affect You?”: Kannan Gopinathan On Why He Quit IAS

The former bureaucrat had quit the administrative service on August 21 to protest what he claimed was the denial of fundamental rights to lakhs of people in Jammu and Kashmir.


Kannan Gopinathan said life has no meaning without liberty, as is the case in Kashmir.



  1. Ongoing J&K clampdown is meant to prevent deaths, rejects Ex-IAS officer
  2. Life has no meaning to humans without right to liberty: Ex-IAS officer
  3. The 33-year-old bureaucrat had quit administrative service on August 21

Former Indian Administrative Service (IAS) officer Kannan Gopinathan on Tuesday rejected the centre’s claim that the ongoing clampdown on Kashmir is meant to prevent deaths due to violent reprisals, saying that life holds no meaning to a human being without the right to liberty.

“Life and liberty go together, and that’s the beauty of a constitutional democracy. If they say that they will put you in jail to save your life, would that be acceptable to you? You can argue something like that for a certain period, yes, but this has been going on for three weeks now,” he told NDTV in an exclusive interview.

The 33-year-old bureaucrat had quit the administrative service on August 21 to protest what he claimed was the denial of fundamental rights to lakhs of people in Jammu and Kashmir. “It’s not like my resignation will cause even a flutter, but one has one’s own conscience to answer to,” he had said then.

Jammu and Kashmir was placed under lockdown as a “precautionary measure” earlier this month, when the centre took the surprise step of scrapping the state’s special status under Article 370 of the Constitution and bifurcating it into two distinct union territories. It also placed many of its political leaders, including another former IAS officer Shah Faesal, under arrest.

Mr Gopinathan said he empathised with the people of Jammu and Kashmir even though he was not personally affected by the government’s clampdown. “Should something affect you personally for you to take a decision?” he asked. “My other question is: when freedom is being curtailed in your own country, when people aren’t being allowed to express themselves freely, shouldn’t it affect you?”


The former IAS officer said that while taking a decision like revoking Jammu and Kashmir’s statehood was the government’s legitimate right, people should also have the right to react in a democracy. “The government takes a decision and then shuts down the reaction to that decision, saying that it could be violent… it’s an argument that can be used anywhere,” he added.

Mr Gopinath said journalists should have played a more proactive role in denouncing the Kashmir shutdown. “The media, which is supposed to advocate liberty and freedom of speech, should have said that they must be allowed to speak freely. Whether the government listens to the media is a different matter altogether,” he added.


He, however, did not elaborate on whether he would follow Shah Faesal’s example and join politics. “Now that I have quit the service, I would like to earn a livelihood by connecting with the public in whichever small way. If I can do that by working at the grassroots level, it would be good. I have not thought beyond that,” Mr Gopinath said.


Why do different cultures see the constellations similarly?

Almost every person throughout the existence of humankind has looked up at the night sky and seen more than just a random scattering of light. Constellations of stars have helped us shape our own ongoing narratives and cultures – creating meaning in the sky above that guides us in our life on the ground below.

Of course, we don’t all see exactly the same night sky – there are subtle differences depending on where we are on the planet, what season it is, and the time of night, all of which are imbued into the meaning we construct about the stars.

But around the world and throughout history, we find remarkably similar constellations defined by disparate cultures, as well as strikingly similar narratives describing the relationships between them.

Read more: Kindred skies: ancient Greeks and Aboriginal Australians saw constellations in common

For example, the constellation Orion is described by the Ancient Greeks as a man pursuing the seven sisters of the Pleiades star cluster.

This same constellation is Baiame in Wiradjuri traditions: a man pursuing the Mulayndynang (Pleiades star cluster).

In the traditions of the Great Victoria Desert, Orion is Nyeeruna, a man chasing the seven Yugarilya sisters.


Cultures thoughout the world have perceived Orion (top right) as a man pursuing a group of women – even though in the southern hemisphere he appears the other way up. Erkki Makkonen/Shutterstock

These and other common patterns, as well as the remarkably complex narratives describing them, link the cultures of early Aboriginal Australians and the ancient Greeks, despite them being separated by thousands of years and miles.

Similarly, many cultures in the southern hemisphere identify constellations that are actually made of the dark spaces between the stars, highlighting absence rather than presence. These feature predominantly in the dark dust lanes of the Milky Way.

Across cultures, these again show remarkable consistency. The celestial emu, which is found in Aboriginal traditions across Australia, shares nearly identical views and traditions with the Tupi people of Brazil and Bolivia, who see it as a celestial rhea, another large flightless bird.

Significant differences too

There are also significant differences seen between cultures, although the fundamental roots remain.

The Big Dipper is identified across many northern hemisphere traditions, but for the Alaskan Gwich’in this is merely the tail of the whole-sky constellation Yahdii (The Tailed Man), who “walks” from east to west overnight.

Although we share a fascination with the stars, we have little documented knowledge of how particular constellations were identified by certain cultures. Why and how do we see the same patterns?

Our upcoming research explores the genesis of these different names and different groupings, and the idea that many came about mainly as a result of cultural variations in the perception of natural scenes. Thus an individual’s view of a phenomenon can become the generalised view of a group or culture.

These differences may have endured due to the necessity of communicating these groupings across generations through complex oral traditions.

These oral traditions are often mistakenly compared to the children’s game of Telephone, in which a message is whispered down a line of people, resulting in errors as the information is passed on. In reality, they are far more organised and rigorous, enabling information to be passed on for thousands of years without degradation.

British psychologist Sir Frederic Bartlett realised in the early 20th century that these errors typically reflect a person’s beliefs about missing or uncertain information filtering into the original message. The information passed from one person to another accumulates and ultimately informs an individual’s beliefs about the nature of the world.

In oral cultures – like those of Indigenous Australia – the focus of transmission is on ease of communication and recall.

The outstanding difference is that Aboriginal oral traditions constructed narratives and memory spaces in such a way as to keep the critical information intact through hundreds of generations.

Search for meaning

How this came about and how a thread of meaning endures across individuals, space and time are fascinating questions.

In collaboration with Museums Victoria, our team is exploring how cultural differences in our traditions and stories can come about as a result of very small variations in the nature of perception and understanding in different people, and how this is influenced by both personal belief and geographical location.

Investigating how meaning in the stars is developed and passed on emphasises the fundamental aspects of humanity that we share across cultural bounds, despite differing beliefs, geographical isolation, and location.

Read more: The stories behind Aboriginal star names now recognised by the world’s astronomical body

As part of National Science Week, more than 200 people submitted their own constellation and story in response to a star field projected onto the ceiling of Victoria’s Parliament House; the preliminary data-collection phase in this study.


What do you see? Head to and share your interpretation. Star StoriesAuthor provided

Humanity’s ongoing fascination with the stars has only recently been fuelled by our ability to dream about leaving the planet and visiting them. More fundamentally, they are a reflection and a framework for our life on this planet.

The meaning we find in the night sky seems, ironically, to ground us in the changing world in which we find ourselves. This is as important now as it was 65,000 years ago when people migrated to Australia using the stars.

This article was co-published with Pursuit.

Dark matter may be older than the Big Bang

Dark matter may be older than the Big Bang

August 7, 2019
Johns Hopkins University
Dark matter, which researchers believe make up about 80% of the universe’s mass, is one of the most elusive mysteries in modern physics. What exactly it is and how it came to be is a mystery, but a new study now suggests that dark matter may have existed before the Big Bang.

Big Bang illustration (stock image).
Credit: © Andrea Danti / Adobe Stock

Dark matter, which researchers believe make up about 80% of the universe’s mass, is one of the most elusive mysteries in modern physics. What exactly it is and how it came to be is a mystery, but a new Johns Hopkins University study now suggests that dark matter may have existed before the Big Bang.

The study, published August 7 in Physical Review Letters, presents a new idea of how dark matter was born and how to identify it with astronomical observations.

“The study revealed a new connection between particle physics and astronomy. If dark matter consists of new particles that were born before the Big Bang, they affect the way galaxies are distributed in the sky in a unique way. This connection may be used to reveal their identity and make conclusions about the times before the Big Bang too,” says Tommi Tenkanen, a postdoctoral fellow in Physics and Astronomy at the Johns Hopkins University and the study’s author.

While not much is known about its origins, astronomers have shown that dark matter plays a crucial role in the formation of galaxies and galaxy clusters. Though not directly observable, scientists know dark matter exists by its gravitation effects on how visible matter moves and is distributed in space.

For a long time, researchers believed that dark matter must be a leftover substance from the Big Bang. Researchers have long sought this kind of dark matter, but so far all experimental searches have been unsuccessful.

“If dark matter were truly a remnant of the Big Bang, then in many cases researchers should have seen a direct signal of dark matter in different particle physics experiments already,” says Tenkanen.

Using a new, simple mathematical framework, the study shows that dark matter may have been produced before the Big Bang during an era known as the cosmic inflation when space was expanding very rapidly. The rapid expansion is believed to lead to copious production of certain types of particles called scalars. So far, only one scalar particle has been discovered, the famous Higgs boson.

“We do not know what dark matter is, but if it has anything to do with any scalar particles, it may be older than the Big Bang. With the proposed mathematical scenario, we don’t have to assume new types of interactions between visible and dark matter beyond gravity, which we already know is there,” explains Tenkanen.

While the idea that dark matter existed before the Big Bang is not new, other theorists have not been able to come up with calculations that support the idea. The new study shows that researchers have always overlooked the simplest possible mathematical scenario for dark matter’s origins, he says.

The new study also suggests a way to test the origin of dark matter by observing the signatures dark matter leaves on the distribution of matter in the universe.

“While this type of dark matter is too elusive to be found in particle experiments, it can reveal its presence in astronomical observations. We will soon learn more about the origin of dark matter when the Euclid satellite is launched in 2022. It’s going to be very exciting to see what it will reveal about dark matter and if its findings can be used to peek into the times before the Big Bang.”

Story Source:

Materials provided by Johns Hopkins UniversityNote: Content may be edited for style and length.

Journal Reference:

  1. Tommi Tenkanen. Dark Matter from Scalar Field FluctuationsPhysical Review Letters, 2019 DOI: 10.1103/PhysRevLett.123.061302

Cite This Page:

Johns Hopkins University. “Dark matter may be older than the Big Bang.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 7 August 2019. <>.

A Glass Battery That Keeps Getting Better?

A prototype solid-state battery based on lithium and glass faces criticism over claims that its capacity increases over time

Illustration of a battery
Illustration: iStockphoto

Is there such a thing as a battery whose capacity to store energy increases with age? One respected team of researchers say they have developed just such a technology. Controversy surrounds their claims, however, in part because thermodynamics might seem to demand that a battery only deteriorates over many charge-discharge cycles.

The researchers have a response for that critique and continue to publish peer-reviewed papers about this work. If such claims came from almost any other lab, they might be ignored and shunned by the broader community of battery researchers, the same way physicists turn their noses up at anything that smacks of a perpetual motion machine.

But this lab belongs to one of the most celebrated battery pioneers today—and one of the inventors of the lithium-ion battery itself. John Goodenough, who at 96 continues to research and publish like scientists one-third his age, last year joined with three co-authors in publishing a paper that grabbed headlines. (Spectrum had profiled him and his battery technology the year before, following an initial announcement about his group’s new glass battery.)

Goodenough and collaborators claimed they’d developed a non-flammable lithium battery (whose electrolyte was based on a glass powder) that had twice the energy density of traditional lithium-ion batteries. They also published a graph that showed an increase in capacity over more than 300 charge-discharge cycles. (This increase, however, pales in comparison to the cell’s at least 23,000-cycle lifespan.)

Maria Helena Braga, associate professor and head of the engineering physics department at the University of Porto in Portugal, has been one of Goodenough’s chief collaborators in the spate of recent papers around the glass battery.

“We are complex beings that happen between an entropy increase,” she says about the increased capacity claims—and any alleged violation of thermodynamics. “I don’t know why people make a big thing about this.”

This prototype of a non-flammable lithium-ion battery has an electrolyte based on a glass powder.
Photo: Maria Helena Braga
This prototype of a non-flammable lithium-ion battery has an electrolyte based on a glass powder.

She says their glass electrolyte is a ferroelectric material—a material whose polarization switches back and forth in the presence of an outside field. So charge-discharge cycles are effectively jiggling the electrolyte back and forth and perhaps, over time, finding the ideal configuration of each electromagnetic dipole.

“This is what happens as you are charging and discharging,” Braga says. “You are aligning the ferroelectric dipoles.”

She and collaborators published part of their argument in the journal Materials Theory earlier this year. Another part, she says, is under peer review.

Braga says their group has been working with companies looking to license the battery technology. Because no official announcements have been made, she said she could not reveal who the licensors are or what technology they might be developing with this battery.

She did say that large battery banks that might be spun off from this research stand to not only have higher capacity, but also be substantially lighter than lithium ions. Although, she adds, perhaps the greatest weight savings will come not from comparing one battery cell’s mass with another. “The biggest difference would be that you don’t have to have the same stainless steel bunkers in each of the cells,” she says. 

Sealing off each battery cell from each other—to reduce the risk of runaway fire—would not be necessary with a non-flammable battery. As would any extensive battery management system (BMS) that carefully monitors battery performance in EVs and other technologies that use large banks of batteries.

“The BMS is to control temperatures,” she says. “In our case, we don’t have to have that.” In fact, she adds, up to a point, rising temperatures only increase the electrolyte’s performance.

As for the future of the Goodenough/Braga battery, she projects it will first be used in a commercial product in three years. So circa 2022, if her forecasts are right, you might see an EV-maker or grid battery storage company, or a consumer-electronics manufacturer boast about a new, high-capacity (and non-flammable!) battery.

And if they claim the battery initially even increases its capacity as you charge and discharge it, then you’ll know whether Braga and her collaborators’ argument ultimately won out.

This post was updated on 3 June 2019. 

3D-Printed Semiconductor Cube Could Convert Waste Heat to Electricity

Here’s how these cubeoids could harness waste heat from steel plants

Image of new 3D technique
Photo: SPECIFIC team – Swansea University
New 3D printed technique for thermoelectrics developed by the SPECIFIC research team.

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From his office at Swansea University in the United Kingdom, associate professor Matthew Carnie has a good view of Tata Steel’s furnace stacks. To some, those chimneys rising over Port Talbot are unsightly. To Carnie, they’re an opportunity. They emit a good portion of the plant’s waste heat, which overall has the same power output as some nuclear plants, says Carnie—around 1,300 megawatts, according to his calculations.


With that much potential power waiting to be captured, Carnie and his research team have developed a hybrid, 3D-printed semiconductor material that converts waste heat into electricity. It’s 50 percent more efficient than another inexpensive semiconductor material, lead telluride, that’s screen-printed, and the new material could be assembled cheaply into a device that converts up to 10 percent of heat wherever it’s applied.


“Ideally, they could be deployed in areas where there is high-grade waste heat and be used to generate power to help with energy efficiency,” says Carnie. With one-sixth of all energy used by industry in the United Kingdom pouring into the atmosphere as waste heat, the possibilities are big, he says.


Carnie, who has expertise in printed photovoltaics, lately has been exploring the field of thermoelectrics. Here, materials like semiconductors and electrical conductors produce a voltage when hot electrons flow from one kind of heated material to another, relatively cooler kind. To date, the most efficient semiconductor material available is tin selenide, made from tin and selenium. Although it holds the record for efficiency of waste-heat conversion, it hasn’t been made into a commercial device.


To work with it, Carnie would need the appropriate rigs—ones that could sinter materials with plasma or press them at high pressures and temperatures in excess of several hundred degrees Celsius. Those machines were not in his department’s budget.


Carnie wondered if he could transfer some of what he knew from printing photovoltaic materials to thermoelectrics. He asked team member and postdoctoral researcher, Matthew Burton, if they could turn tin selenide into an ink. No one had done that before, and Burton was skeptical. But he made it happen by mixing tin and selenium powder with organic binders and water.


Burton then poured the ink into tiny cube-shaped molds about 10 millimeters on each side and dried them in an oven at 120 degrees Celsius. Lastly, he baked the cubeoids at more than 800 degrees K to burn off the organic binders.  


Efficiency measurements from the first results were promising, says Carnie. In the field of thermoelectric devices, efficiency is measured by a “figure of merit” number, known as ZT. Anything above 1 ZT is considered very promising. Burton’s first cubes tested at around .5 ZT. After tweaking the amount of binder and the ratios of tin to selenium, Burton was able to achieve 1.7 ZT.


“That is a record for thermoelectric material made in this fashion,” says Carnie.


Far more research is needed, says Carnie. For starters, they’ve made just one of the two different semiconductor materials needed—the type that holds the hot electrons. They still need to make the “cooler” side, where the electrons flow to. But this fall, Tata Steel is sponsoring a PhD student to help develop the second part, and eventually both materials will be sandwiched between slices of ceramic to make a thermoelectric device.


Whether the steel plant eventually adopts such a system will depend on cost, says Carnie. But he’s hopeful. Room-temperature ink is cheap to mix up and if they can move the ink to a nozzle-based system and print it with continuous manufacturing methods, it would be a dramatic improvement, he says.


The research was published in Advanced Energy Materials.

Updated 20 June 2018