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January 30, 2015

Scientists find ancient solar system in Milky Way galaxy

Scientists find ancient solar system in Milky Way galaxy

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Astronomers reported on Tuesday in The Astrophysical Journal they have found an ancient solar system with several Earth-like planets.

Artist’s concept of a rocky exoplanet (Kepler-37b). From file.

Image: NASA

They said the system dates roughly to the formation of the Milky Way galaxy. They found the planets orbiting around Kepler-444, about 117 light years from Earth. Researchers investigated Kepler-444 with NASA’s Kepler telescope using a method called astroseismology.

Scientists explain they studied the star and noticed planets passing in front of it because it created a dimming effect in which the star seems less bright for a short period of time, when there are actually planets passing between the observer and the star.

Because these planets are older than Earth, this suggests life might have existed in the early universe, the researchers say.

According to Daniel Huber, part of the research team at the University of Sydney, it takes under ten days for these five planets to orbit the star and all of them are too close to it to sustain life. These planets are smaller than Earth, with the largest compared to Venus.

This month, the number of exoplanets found using the Kepler telescope passed 1,000.


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September 23, 2013

Wikinews interviews specialists on China, Iran, Russia support for al-Assad

Wikinews interviews specialists on China, Iran, Russia support for al-Assad

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Monday, September 23, 2013

Over the past week, diplomatic actions have averted — or, at least delayed — military strikes on Syria by the United States. Wikinews sought input from a range of international experts on the situation; and, the tensions caused by Russia’s support for the al-Assad regime despite its apparent use of chemical weapons.

File:Ghouta chemical attack map.svg

Map of areas affected by chemical weapons in Ghouta, Syria.
Image: FutureTrillionaire.
(Image missing from commons: image; log)

Tensions in the country increased dramatically, late August when it was reported between 100 and 1,300 people were killed in an alleged chemical attack. Many of those killed appeared to be children, with some of the pictures and video coming out of the country showing — according to witnesses — those who died from apparent suffocation; some foaming at the mouth, others having convulsions.

Amongst Syria’s few remaining allies, Iran, China, and Russia continue to oppose calls for military intervention. In an effort to provide a better-understanding of the reasoning behind their ongoing support, the following people were posed a range of questions.

Interviewees

  • Stephen Blank, Senior Fellow at the American Foreign Policy Council in Washington, D.C.
  • Kerry Brown, Professor of Chinese Politics from the University of Sydney, Australia
  • Farideh Farhi, an Affiliate with the Graduate Faculty of Political Science, and lecturer, at the ̣̣University of Hawai’i, Honolulu
  • Mehran Kamrava, Professor and Director of the Center for International and Regional Studies at Georgetown University in Washington D.C.
  • William Martel, Professor of International Security Studies at Tufts University near Boston, Massachusetts
  • Rana Mitter, Professor of the History and Politics of Modern China at the University of Oxford, England
  • Walter Posch, an Iran expert at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP) in Berlin, Germany; and,
  • Sam Roggeveen, a fellow of the Lowy Institute for International Policy in Sydney, Australia

Wikinews Q&A

Iran, China, and Russia have remained as allies to the al-Assad government despite the alleged use of chemical weapons in Ghouta on August 21, 2013. Wikinews queried the listed subject-matter experts regarding the diplomatic relations between these nations, and the reasoning behind such.

China

File photo of United Nations Security Council Chamber in New York.
Image: Patrick Gruban.

Wikinews waves Left.pngWikinewsWikinews waves Right.png There are suggestions China wants to maintain its financial ties with Syria as its third largest importer in 2010. Would you agree with this?

  • Brown: I don’t think that is China’s key priority. China has a massive economy, and Syria is a very minor player in this. It has some, but not much, energy from Syria. Its real concerns in the current conflict are for stability, and geopolitical.
  • Farhi: China’s conduct in Syria has been similar to its conduct elsewhere. It has given support to Russia in international forum such as the UNSC [United Nations Security Council] and has acted opportunistically wherever its economic interest could be pursued. But, Syria is really not an area of interest for China. Its actions and support for the Russian position is derived from its general concerns regarding American imperialism and unilateralism.
  • Mitter: China will want, in general, to maintain financial ties with Syria as it does with many countries. China’s general position is that internal politics of countries should not interfere with economic ties.

Wikinews waves Left.pngWNWikinews waves Right.png Do you think China is talking from experience when it says that foreign countries shouldn’t get involved with Syria’s internal affairs?

File photo of interviewee Sam Roggeveen.
Image: Sam Roggeveen.

  • Roggeveen: That stance reflects China’s history as a weak, developing country with a host of territorial disputes with its neighbours. Beijing does not want to set international precedents that will allow third parties to interfere with, for example, the Taiwan issue, Tibet, the East China Sea or the South China Sea.
But increasingly, China’s stance will conflict with its growing strength and growing responsibilities on the world stage. China is already the world’s second biggest economy and a major strategic power in the Asia Pacific [region]; and, it will increasingly be expected to take up responsibilities that come with such power. Also, as we saw in the case of Libya — where China sent a fleet of ships and aircraft to evacuate its nationals — China has interests and citizens all over the world, both of which need to be protected.
  • Brown: It [China] has always stood by non interference of other counties in the internal affairs of sovereign states; though, this position has changed over time since it was formulated on the back of China’s experience of colonisation in the early part of the twentieth-century. Its main priority now is to not see the escalation of issues, as was seen in Iraq and Afghanistan; where it runs the risk of being sucked into lengthy conflicts with no real gameplan, and no clear outcome that is relevant to it. It does not see the Syria[n] conflict [as] one where there is a an easy, viable, alternative option waiting to govern the country. And, it is very sceptical about US and others’ claims that they can control this problem.
  • Farhi: Yes, rejection of interference in the internal affairs of other countries — particularly of a military kind — is a principled Chinese position in areas where China doesn’t have an over-riding interest.
  • Mitter: China has been a hardline advocate of strong territorial sovereignty for decades. This is, in part, a product of its own history of being invaded and occupied by other countries.

File photo of interviewee Rana Mitter.
Image: Rana Mitter.


Wikinews waves Left.pngWNWikinews waves Right.png China abstained from a UN Security Council resolution on Libya — do you think they are trying to reprise what happened in Libya in terms of regime change?

  • Roggeveen: China and Russia suspect the ‘responsibility to protect’ doctrine, which was used by Western powers to justify the Libya intervention, was a smokescreen for regime change. So, they are wary of seeing something similar happen in Syria. China also prefers not to be on its own in the Security Council; so, if the Russians come down against a Libya-like resolution, [the] chances are that China will join them.
  • Brown: They felt there was clear mission-creep with Libya. What, however, has most emboldened them in opposing action in Syria is the position of Russia; which they have been able to stand behind. Diplomatically they dislike isolation, so this has proved the issue they have taken cover from.
  • Farhi: Libya has set a bad precedent for many countries who supported, or did not object to, NATO action. So, yes, the Libya example is a precedent; but, in any case, the Syrian dynamics are much more complex than Libya and both Russia and China — as well as Iran — genuinely see the attempt to resolve the imbroglio in Syria through military means as truly dangerous. In other words, they see the conduct of Western powers in the past two years as spawning policies that are tactically geared to weaken the Assad regime without a clear sense or strategy regarding what the end game should be. Particularly since at least part of the opposition to Assad has also elicited support from Islamic radicals.
  • Mitter: In general China is reluctant to take decisive action in international society, and [at] the UN. It prefers its partners, such as Russia, to take on confrontational roles while it tries to remain more neutral and passive.

Wikinews waves Left.pngWNWikinews waves Right.png Do you think a political solution is the only realistic means to resolve the Syrian issue?

File photo of interviewee Kerry Brown.
Image: Kerry Brown.

  • Roggeveen: At the moment, both sides [in Syria] evidently feel they can still obtain their objectives through force. Perhaps one of them will be proved right; or, perhaps there will be a long-term stalemate with Syria split between regime and opposition forces.
One important change is the chemical weapons agreement; which now makes it much more difficult for the US or Israel to intervene militarily. The deal also gives the regime some degree of status as a legal authority with which outside powers must negotiate. That weakens the hand of the opposition; but, it could open a door for an international diplomatic intervention to achieve — firstly — a cease fire. and perhaps then something more substantive.
  • Brown: There is no appetite for the kinds of expensive and very hard interventions [undertaken] in Iraq and Afghanistan. And, in any case, the US and its allies don’t have the money to fund this, and their publics evidently feel no case has been made yet for getting involved. People are weary of the endless arguments in the Middle-East, and feel that they should now be left to deal with their own issues. China, in particular, has tried to maintain as strong a […] network of benign support in the region as possible, while avoiding getting sucked into problems. There is no viable opposition in Syria that would make it easier to justify intervention; and, no easy way of seeing how this tragic civil war is going to be easily ended.
  • Farhi: Syria has become the arena for a proxy war among regional and extra-regional players and yes its civil war will not end until all key players and their external supporters develop a political will to end the conflict. For the conflict to end, the bankers feeding the conflict should agree to stop funding it.
  • Mitter: Yes. But, it will depend on Russia, China, and the US, being able to come up with a compromise solution. That looks [to be] a long way off.

Iran

Free Syrian Army soldiers involved in the civil war.
Image: Voice of America.

Wikinews waves Left.pngWikinewsWikinews waves Right.png For many years, Syria has been considered Iran’s “closest ally”. What vested interest does the Iranian government have in keeping Bashar al-Assad in power?

  • Kamrava: These interests are primarily strategic, with both countries sharing common interests in relation to Lebanon — particularly the Hezbollah group — and [as] deterrence against Israel[i intervention].
  • Martel: Iran’s interests align very closely with that of Russia in supporting Syria and opposing the United States. Further, during this last week, President Putin offered to help Iran build a second nuclear reactor. The policies of Russia, Iran, and Syria align quite closely; thus leading some — such as myself — to argue that we are seeing the rise of an “authoritarian axis” of states, whose policies are coordinated.
  • Posch: First, Syria was Iran’s only ally against Saddam Hussein and [an] indispensable partner in Lebanon since the early 1980s.

Kurdish supporters of Syria’s Democratic Union Party in Afrin.
Image: Scott Bobb.

Even before the fall of Saddam in 2003, Iran reinterpreted the basically pragmatic cooperation in the field of intelligence and security. Ever since Syria was part of a so called “axis of resistance” consisting of Iran, Syria, Hezbollah, Hamas and Islamic Jihad, the sole common strategic denominator of these different actors is hostility against Israel, which is always depicted as an aggressor against whom the Muslims should resist — hence, the [designation as an] “axis of resistance”. Of course, forming an alliance ‘officially against Israel’ serves another purpose too: to take a stand against Saudi Arabia without naming it. Much of the current crisis in Syria has to do with this scheme.
  • Farhi: Syria supported Iran during the Iran–Iraq war; and, that dynamic forged a long-standing relationship between the two countries that includes economic, political, and military cooperation. In more recent years, Iran, Syria and Hezbollah have self-identified as [an] axis of resistance against Israeli–American involvement in the region. Despite this, Iran initially mostly followed the Russian lead in the Syria. However as other regional players — such as Israel and Saudi Arabia, as well as extra-regional players such as the United States — began to see, and articulate the weakening of, the Assad regime as a first step to the weakening of Iran, this enhanced Iran’s threat perception, and gave it [an] incentive for further involvement in support of Assad.

Wikinews waves Left.pngWikinewsWikinews waves Right.png Do you think Iranian support for the Syrian government is a way of standing up against UN sanctions imposed on them, and opposing American imperialism?

  • Kamrava: No. Iranian–Syrian relations are rooted in common strategic interests rather than in assumptions about US imperialism, or the role of the UN sanctions.
  • Martel: Both Iran and Syria share a strategic interest in undermining the influence of the US and the West.
  • Posch: Definitely not. The sanctions track is a different one, checking American “imperialism” — as you call it — is, of course. one aim.
  • Farhi: As has become evident in the past few weeks, the primary interactive dynamic regarding the Syrian imbroglio is being played out mostly in terms of US–Russian rivalry; and, Iran is following the Russian lead.

Wikinews waves Left.pngWikinewsWikinews waves Right.png The UN has “overwhelmingly” confirmed use of chemical weapons in Syria. Do you think both sides have used chemical weapons?

File photo of interviewee Mehran Kamrava.
Image: Mehran Kamrava.

  • Kamrava: It is undeniable that chemical weapons were used in Syria. But, I have not yet seen conclusive evidence for the responsibility of the use of chemical gas by one side or another. Until valid evidence is made available — proving who used chemical weapons — affixing blame to either the government forces, or to one of the fractious rebel groups, is only a matter of speculation.
  • Martel: I remain skeptical that anyone other than the Syrian government used chemical weapons. It is widely accepted that the Syrian government was behind the use of chemical weapons.
  • Posch: I think the Report is quite clear on that.
  • Farhi: I —as an academic, with no access to on the ground information — am in no position to know whether both sides have used chemical weapons.

Wikinews waves Left.pngWikinewsWikinews waves Right.png Would you agree that part of Iran’s vested interest in Syria remaining under al-Assad is bound to two factors: religion and strategy?

Former President of Iran Mahmoud Ahmedinejad who stepped down earlier this year.
Image: Russian Presidential Press and Information Office.

  • Kamrava: No, I do not agree. Iran’s “vested interest in Syria remaining under al-Assad” is [a] product only of Iran’s strategic calculations.
While foreign policies anywhere may be expressed — and justified — through slogans and ideological rhetoric, they are based on strategic considerations and calculations. Despite common, journalistic misconceptions, religion has not played a role in Iranian foreign policy; whether in relation to Syria or anywhere else.
  • Martel: Iran’s vested interest in Syria is entirely geo-strategic. Iran’s support [for] Syria is designed to undermine US power and influence. For Iran, no policy objective is more important than to possess nuclear weapons. When the U.S. declared a “redline” if Syria “used or moved” chemical weapons, and then backed away from that redline, it is likely that Iran’s leadership drew one principal conclusion:
the US redline on Iran’s nuclear program is in doubt, the US commitment to preventing Iran from possessing nuclear weapons is in doubt,
and that Iran likely will test US resolve.
In strategic terms, doubts about the credibility of the US redline on Iran dwarfs any concerns about Syria’s chemical weapons.
The belief in Iran — that the US may not be willing to prevent Iran from possessing nuclear weapons — could lead to a nuclear arms race in the Middle East. It is difficult to exaggerate just how dangerous a nuclear-armed Iran is for regional and global security.
  • Posch: No, it is strategy, and perhaps ideology. Religion doesn’t play too much [of] a role, even though the conflict has been thoroughly “sectarianised”. This happened a few years back when the Saudis baptised (if that term is appropriate) the “axis of resistance” to “shiite crescent”. The domination of the Syrian Baath Party by members of one sect plays no role in Iran’s security equation. Attempts to convert Syrian Alevites to Mainstream Shiites are initiatives of some individual Ayatollahs. I have already mentioned the strategic aspect, [an] axis of resistance against Israel and Saudi Arabia simultaneously; to this I would add Iranian concern over the Kurdish issue.
  • Farhi: The Assad government is a secular government, and Iran’s relationship with it has nothing to do with religion or religious affinities. The relationship is a complex one — and, as mentioned before — forged as a strategic bond during the Iran–Iraq War, when Saddam’s regime was deemed aggressively expansionist by both regimes.

Wikinews waves Left.pngWikinewsWikinews waves Right.png Iran is home to the world’s most populous Shiite Muslim nation. The Syrian rebels are Sunni. Could this be a Sunni vs. Shiite alignment in the Middle East?

File photo of interviewee Farideh Farhi.
Image: Farideh Farhi.

  • Kamrava: No. While sectarianism may be the lens through which some of the Syrian rebels see their fight against the government, ultimately the contest is over state power and capitalizing on opportunities created by the Arab uprisings in general; and, the Syrian civil war in particular. Sunni–Shia ‘alignments’ have nothing to do with it.
  • Posch: Usually, the Sunni–Shia divide is something Iranians and Saudis play up in order to put pressure on one another; usually, they were also able to deescalate. Syria, however, is the game-changer — for the simple reason that nobody believes the Saudis would control the post Al-Qaeda Networks in Syria. What Iran fears is an increase of the most-radical Sunni anti-shiism, the so called takfiris, spilling over onto Iranian territory.
  • Farhi: The Sunni governments in the region are working hard to use sectarian tensions as an instrument to fan popular resentments, in the region, towards Shi’ite Iran. But, the rivalry is actually political; and, has to do with the fears rivals have of what they consider — I think wrongly — to be Iran’s hegemonic aspirations in the region.
Sectarianism is an instrument for shaping regional rivalries, and not the source of problems, in the region.

Russia

Former Russian president Dmitry Medvedev, meeting Syrianan president Bashar al-Assad, on a visit to Syria in 2010.
Image: Russian Presidential Press and Information Office.

Wikinews waves Left.pngWikinewsWikinews waves Right.png Russia is one of Syria’s biggest arms suppliers. Do you think this means Russia’s interest lies in economic benefit, as opposed to the humanitarian crisis?

  • Blank: Although Russia sells Syria weapons, Russia’s main interest has nothing to do with humanitarianism or economics.
Rather, its main interests are to force the US to accept Russia as an equal — so that Moscow has an effective veto power over any further American actions of a strategic nature there and elsewhere — and second, to restore Russia’s standing as an indispensable great power in the Middle East without whom nothing strategic can be resolved.
It should be noted that in neither case is Russia actively interested in finding solutions to existing problems. Rather, it seeks to create a bloc of pro-Russian, anti-American states and maintain simmering conflicts at their present level while weakening US power.

File photo of interviewee William Martel.
Image: William Martel.

  • Martel: Russia’s principal interests in Syria are twofold. First, Moscow’s support is geopolitical in design. It is designed precisely to undermine and weaken American influence in the Middle East and globally. The extent to which Russia can undermine American influence directly helps to bolster Russia’s influence. For now, Russia is such a vastly diminished power — both politically, economically, militarily, and technologically — that Russian policymakers are pursuing policies they believe will help to reverse Russia’s strategic decline.
Second, Syria is Russia’s strongest ally in the region, if not the world, while Syria is the home to Russia’s only foreign naval base.
  • Farhi: Syria is Russia’s only solid strategic ally in the Middle East. Syria, in effect, is a Russian client. Russia’s interests lie in maintaining that foothold, and perhaps extending it.
It also has a concern regarding the civil war in Syria spawning what it considers to be extremist Islamist activities, which it has had to contend with within its own borders.

File photo of interviewee Stephen Blank.
Image: Stephen Blank.

Wikinews waves Left.pngWNWikinews waves Right.png Do you believe Russia distrusts US intentions in the region — in the sense of countering the West on regime change?

  • Blank: It is clear that Russia not only does not trust US interests and judgment in the Middle East, it regards Washington as too-ready to use force to unseat regimes it does not like and believes these could lead to wars; more importantly, to the attempt to overthrow the present Russian government. That is critical to understanding Moscow’s staunch support for Assad.
  • Martel: Russia’s policymakers understand that American and Russia interests directly diverge. Russia seeks to undermine US geopolitical influence, and increase its own. It is using its support of the Syrian regime to accomplish that objective. American interests, by contrast, are largely to prevent the spread and use of chemical weapons.
Appallingly, Russia is supporting Syria despite the fact that all evidence points to Syria’s use of chemical weapons.
One would think that American policymakers would be more critical of Russia; which is directly supporting a regime that used poison gas to slaughter its own men, women, and children.
  • Farhi: It is less about trust and more about protection of geopolitical interests and prevention of even more dire consequences if Assad goes. It is true that Russia feels that the United States and NATO went beyond the mandate afforded to them by the UN Security Council in going after regime change in Libya.
However, Russia’s geopolitical, and economic, interests in Syria are much more important; and, the relationship between the two countries [is] much deeper.

Wikinews waves Left.pngWNWikinews waves Right.png The Russian Government accepts that chemical weapons have been used in Syria. How does it come to claim that the rebels are behind the attacks even though it is widely accepted that the al-Assad government has stocks of weapons?

A BM-14 multiple rocket launcher, similar to the type likely to have launched the M-14 munitions found by UN Inspectors on August 26.
Image: Vlad.

  • Blank: It [Russia] simply intends to defend Assad to the hilt; and is hardly unwilling to lie — especially as its intelligence service is notorious for fabricating mendacious and biased threat assessments, and is not under any form of effective democratic control.
  • Martel: Russia’s claims that Syrian rebels were behind the chemical weapon attacks is, frankly, inexplicable. Worse, Russia’s basic credibility is undermined by such statements.
  • Farhi: Russia claims Syria has presented it [with] evidence that the rebels have used chemical weapons; and Russia, in turn, has given the evidence to the UNSC. It has also called the UN report one-sided and biased. The bottom line is — the claim that the opposition to the Assad regime is at least as culpable in the violence being committed in Syria, opens the path for Russia to continue calling for a political solution [which] brings to the table all parties to the conflict in Syria, including Assad and his supporters; something the multi-voiced opposition has so far refused.

Wikinews waves Left.pngWNWikinews waves Right.png Would you agree that Russia’s vested interest in Syria remaining under al-Assad is bound to two factors: economics and ideology?

  • Blank: As I said above, Russia’s interest in Assad is bound to two geopolitical factors: maintaining the security of its regime; and, equally important, weakening America in the Middle-East — if not globally — and ensuring that Russia’s great power status is thereby ensured.
  • Martel: Russia’s vested interest in protecting Syria’s al-Assad is driven by geopolitics.
To support Assad, is to counter US policy and influence; which is precisely what Putin’s government seeks to accomplish. In many senses, Russia’s support for Syria is entirely secondary to Russia’s strategy of reversing its two-decade long decline in every measure of power. With its weak economy, dependence on petroleum for half of its national income, and increasingly authoritarian government, Russia has relatively little to offer the world — other than to oppose the United States as part of its strategy of reversing its decline.
While Russia’s geopolitical influence clearly increased as a result of its support for Syria, its long-term economic prospects remain quite dim.
  • Farhi: It is economic as well as political.
Syria is a customer of Russian arms and goods; hosting a naval supply base in Tartus. But, as mentioned above, Russia has serious concerns regarding what comes after Assad. For Russia, the current regime is better than chaos or control by Islamists.
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March 27, 2012

Australian archer Odette Snazelle in Canberra for nationals

Australian archer Odette Snazelle in Canberra for nationals

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Tuesday, March 27, 2012

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Tuggeranong, Canberra — Australian Shadow Olympic team member Odette Snazelle was in Tuggeranong ahead of Thursday and Friday’s National Archery Championship target recurve event.

Snazelle at the Championships
Image: LauraHale.

She believes she will do well at Nationals when competing in her event, target archery with a recurve bow, but that the top women are all very evenly matched and push each other to continually improve. Snazelle would not guarantee victory.

Earlier this year, Snazelle shot a national record for FITA 70/720 with a score of 652.

Participation in the Nationals is basically a compulsory event for Shadow Olympic Team members, as they have possible Olympic qualification implications for Snazelle as there are more girls on the shadow squad than eligible to compete on the full team at the Olympics, so cuts will be made based on performance at the event. On top of that, selection for the World Cup will be made based on the results of this event.

Snazelle practicing at the Championships
Image: LauraHale.

The seventeen year old from Sydney, who will celebrate her eighteenth in April, was asked about the lack of media coverage for the sport and said it related to the relative lack of popularity of archery in Australia. Movies like Robin Hood raise the visibility of the sport and temporarily bring in more participants.

She got into sport threes years ago, after watching her former Australian national championship father participate at a local club. Just sitting there and watching got boring so starting to play while at the club was a good way to pass time.

Snazelle finished her HSCs last year and deferred admissions to the University of Sydney where she will major in engineering and medicine with the goal of becoming a neuroscientist for a year in order to further her Olympic dreams. She had originally planned to apply to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and had looked at continuing competing while in the United States but did not want to lose opportunities for national representation by being available for national competitions.

She is learning to drive but because of her busy archery schedule and because, according to Snazelle, Sydney drivers are crazy, she has yet to get her license. When not competing, she works at DVD rental shop.



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January 31, 2009

Brain chemical Serotonin behind locusts’ swarming instinct

Brain chemical Serotonin behind locusts’ swarming instinct

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Saturday, January 31, 2009

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Desert Locust, (Schistocerca gregaria) Cyrtacanthacridinae, Acrididae
Image: NASA.

The usually inhibited desert locust Schistocerca gregaria, which wiles away the months as a solitary, insignificant grasshopper can shift into horrifying swarms due to a chemical commonly found in people’s brain, a research showed.

The solitary and gregarious phases of locusts are so different that they were considered distinct species until 1921. Scientists have known for several years that touching a solitary desert locust on the hind legs, or allowing it to see or smell other locusts, is enough to transform it into the gregarious phase. This week, Science magazine published strong scientific evidence that the behavioural and physical makeover is effected by serotonin, a carrier of nerve signals in virtually all animals.

Researchers from the University of Sydney, University of Oxford, and University of Cambridge have pinpointed a single neurochemical – serotonin – as the cause of an instinctive behavioural change from the locusts’ solitarious phase to become gregarious and form disastrous swarms of millions.

Serotonin (5-hydroxytryptamine, or 5-HT) is a monoamine neurotransmitter synthesized in serotonergic neurons in the central nervous system (CNS) and enterochromaffin cells in the gastrointestinal tract of animals including humans. Serotonin is also found in many mushrooms and plants, including fruits and vegetables.

In the central nervous system, serotonin plays an important role as a neurotransmitter in the modulation of anger, aggression, body temperature, mood, sleep, human sexuality, appetite, metabolism, as well as stimulating vomiting. Keeping serotonin levels high is the aim of many anti-depressant drugs. “Serotonin profoundly influences how we humans behave and interact,” said co-author Dr Swidbert Ott, from Cambridge University. “So to find that the same chemical is what causes a normally shy, antisocial insect to gang up in huge groups is amazing,” he explained.

Prior to swarming, the locusts undergo a series of physical changes – their body colour darkens and their muscles grow stronger. The ‘Phase change’ is at the heart of the locust pest problem, for locusts are one of the world’s most destructive insect pests, affecting the livelihoods of 1 in 10 people on the planet. “To effectively control locust swarms, we must first understand exactly how it is that a single shy locust becomes a highly social animal that swarms,” said University of Sydney Professor Steve Simpson who led the research for almost 20 years.

The ‘phase change’ was caused by stimulation of sensory hairs on the hind leg of locusts. Professor Simpson’s team began to investigate the neurological and neurochemical basis of this effect. Dr Michael L. Anstey, of the University of Oxford, supervised by Professor Simpson, and Dr Stephen M. Rogers, part of Professor Malcolm Burrows’ team at Cambridge, led the research investigating this novel field. “Here we have a solitary and lonely creature, the desert locust. But just give them a little serotonin, and they go and join a gang,” said Malcolm Burrows.

Locust from the 1915 Locust Plague
Image: G. Eric and Edith Matson Photograph Collection, Library of Congress.

Of 13 neurochemicals in locusts that were gregarious (swarming form) and solitarious (non-swarming), the only neurochemical that showed a relationship with social behaviour was serotonin. “It was clear that as locusts switched from solitarious to gregarious, the amount of serotonin in their central nervous systems also increased,” explained Professor Simpson. “The next step was to determine if this relationship actually meant that serotonin was the cause of gregarious, and thus swarming, behaviour in locusts,” he added.

To do this, the researchers either added serotonin or prevented the production of serotonin in locusts. The results show unequivocally that serotonin is responsible for the behavioural transformation of locusts from solitarious to gregarious. Serotonin was also found to be involved in social behaviour of species across the animal kingdom, including crustaceans, rats, and humans.

The team has found that swarm-mode locusts had approximately three times more serotonin in their thoracic ganglia, part of the central nervous system, than their calm, solitary peers. “The question of how locusts transform their behaviour in this way has puzzled scientists for almost 90 years,” said co-author Dr Michael L. Anstey, from Oxford University. “We knew the [physical] stimuli that cause locusts’ amazing Jekyll and Hyde-style transformation. But nobody had been able to identify the changes in the nervous system that turn antisocial locusts into monstrous swarms. Now we finally have the evidence to provide an answer,” he added.

“The fact that serotonin causes the transition from a shy, antisocial animal into a party animal means that pharmacologically, gregarious locusts are on Ecstasy or Prozac,” said Professor Simpson, who also explained that “(whilst a very good idea, in reality) it would be difficult to create a locust control agent that interferes with serotonin.”

Professor Simpson’s team has significantly discovered that “locusts offer an exemplar of the how to span molecules to ecosystems – one of the greatest challenges in modern science.” He also offered an explanation on the problem of using a locust control agent: “Because social behaviour in so many animals depends on serotonin, if we used unspecific serotonin antagonists in the environment, we run the risk of affecting other processes in locusts, as well as severely impacting animals other than locusts. We would need to be sure that locusts have a unique serotonin receptor that causes phase change, which we haven’t identified yet. Any locust control agent would have to be specific for this serotonin receptor in locusts.”

Cquote1.svg We knew the [physical] stimuli that cause locusts’ amazing Jekyll and Hyde-style transformation. But nobody had been able to identify the changes in the nervous system that turn antisocial locusts into monstrous swarms. Now we finally have the evidence to provide an answer. Cquote2.svg

—–Dr Michael L. Anstey, Oxford University

This study, which was sponsored by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council of England, England’s Royal Society, the Australian Research Council Federation, and the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada. The scientists that the conclusions of the study will provide a hint as to how to solve the problem of locust infestations, which affect China, Africa, and Australia. Dr. Rogers said the landmark discovery has opened a new area of study into ways of blocking specific serotonin receptors, “something that would allow us to break apart these swarms before they develop.”

Charles Valentine Riley, Norman Criddle, and Sir Boris Petrovich Uvarov were also involved in the understanding and destructive control of the locust. Research at Oxford University has earlier identified that swarming behaviour is a response to overcrowding. Increased tactile stimulation of the hind legs causes an increase in levels of serotonin.

This causes the locust to change color, eat much more, and breed much more easily. Green locusts turn bright yellow and gain large muscles. The transformation of the locust to the swarming variety is induced by several contacts per minute over a four-hour period. It is estimated that the largest swarms have covered hundreds of square miles and consisted of many billions of locusts.

Serotonin (5-hydroxytryptamine, 5-HT), a neurotransmitter that moderates mood
Image: Ben Mills.

“Locust” is the swarming phase of short-horned grasshoppers of the family Acrididae. The origin and apparent extinction of certain species of locust—some of which reached 6 inches (15 cm) in length—are unclear. These are species that can breed rapidly under suitable conditions and subsequently become gregarious and migratory. They form bands as nymphs and swarms as adults — both of which can travel great distances, rapidly stripping fields and greatly damaging crops. Though there are about 8,000 currently known species of grasshoppers, only 12 form locust swarms.

In the history of the insect Desert locust (Schistocerca gregaria) is probably the most important because of its wide distribution (North Africa, Middle East, and Indian subcontinent) and its ability to migrate widely. Adult Desert Locusts grow to between 2-2.5 inches in length, can weigh 0.05-0.07 oz, and are excellent fliers. In religious mythology, the eighth Plague of Egypt in the Bible and Torah, a swarm of locusts ate all the crops of Egypt. “The gregarious phase is a strategy born of desperation and driven by hunger, and swarming is a response to find pastures new,” Steve Rogers from Cambridge University emphasises.

The extinction of the Rocky Mountain locust (Melanoplus spretus) in the late 19th century has been a source of puzzlement. Recent research suggests that the breeding grounds of this insect in the valleys of the Rocky Mountains came under sustained agricultural development during the large influx of gold miners, destroying the underground eggs of the locust. That species of locust had some of the largest recorded swarms.

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In the 1915 locust plague, which lasted from March to October 1915, locusts stripped areas in and around Palestine of almost all vegetation. This invasion of awesome proportions seriously compromised the already-depleted food supply of the region and sharpened the misery of all Jerusalemites. The plague resulted in several increases to the price of food. On April 25, 1915, the New York Times described the price increases: “Flour costs $15 a sack. Potatoes are six times the ordinary price. Sugar and petroleum are unprocurable and money has ceased to circulate.”

In the 2004 locust outbreak, the largest infestation of Desert Locust happened in Western and Northern Africa, affected a number of countries in the fertile northern regions of Africa. These infestations covered hundreds of square miles and involve billions of vegetation-munching insects, which repeatedly devastated agriculture, and cost huge amounts of money to control.

In November, a locusts swarm 3.7 miles (6km) long devastated parts of Australia. Along the process of their active phases, these insects can eat their own bodyweight daily, and can fly swiftly, in swarms of billions covering 60 miles in five to eight hours in search of food. Researchers are now considering the development of sprays that convert swarming locusts back into solitary insects.

“We hope that this greater understanding of the mechanisms causing such a big change in behaviour will help in the control of this pest, and more broadly help in understanding the widespread changes in behavioural traits of animals.” Malcolm Burrows said. However, according to Paul Anthony Stevenson of Germany’s University of Leipzig, the discovery will not likely to a short-term pest control solution.

“To be effective, antiserotonin-like chemicals would need to be applied when the animals are solitary locusts and scarce targets in vast expanses of desert — about three locusts per 100 square meters (1,076 sq ft),” Stevenson explained. “Current serotonergic drugs are not designed for passing through the insect cuticle and sheath encasing the nervous system, nor are they insect-selective, hence their use is ecologically unjustifiable,” he added.

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June 3, 2007

Australian universities target second language \”crisis\”

Australian universities target second language “crisis”

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Sunday, June 3, 2007

Australia
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A group of Australian universities have called for an effort to counter the falling numbers of students learning a second language, calling the current situation a “crisis”.

The group released a proposal on Friday that requires primary students to learn a second language up to the year ten and a 10 per cent bonus on university admission scores for those passing a second language subject in their final year at school.

Group of Eight universities executive director Michael Gallagher says recent figures show year 12 students graduating with a second language have dropped from 40 percent to 13 percent over the past four decades, and as low as 6 percent in some states.

Terming the decline in foreign language education a “crisis”, Gallagher said that it was a problem “we can no longer afford to ignore”.

The Group of Eight – University of Adelaide, Australian National University, University of Melbourne, Monash University, University of New South Wales, University of Queensland, University of Sydney, and the University of Western Australia is a lobby group for the tertiary institutions generally considered to be the most prestigious and research oriented in Australia.

A press release by the group said, “It is Australia’s great unrecognised skills shortage, and the one most directly relevant to our competitiveness and security in an increasingly global environment.”

A study paper released by the group found that the 66 languages offered by universities 10 year ago had dropped to 29 today. “Of the 29 languages still on offer at tertiary level, nine are offered at only one Australian university and only seven are well represented across the sector”, it said.

Education Minister Julie Bishop said the Government supported languages teaching through its $112 million school languages program, delivered through the states to schools. Ms Bishop said while she agreed with the encouragement of teaching a second language in schools, higher standards in literacy is a “national priority”.

Other universities have endorsed the plan – the University of Tasmania today called for immediate action to prevent Australia becoming a “monolingual nation”.

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May 6, 2007

Global WTO competition for law students won by the University of Melbourne

Global WTO competition for law students won by the University of Melbourne

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Sunday, May 6, 2007

The team of the University of Melbourne has won the fifth annual ELSA Moot Court Competition on WTO Law for law students in Geneva yesterday, after beating the team from the University of Hong Kong.

Organised by the European Law Students’ Association (ELSA), the competition brings together students from around the world each year to contest a case based on the legal system and case law of the World Trade Organization – the global treaty that governs world trade and commerce.

This year, the case for the competition was on the topic of intellectual property rights and access to essential medicines – one of the most contentious issues in world trade in the past decade. Participating teams played out a dispute between two WTO members – one setting aside a pharmaceutical patent (respondent), the other challenging this on behalf of its industry (complainant).

Under World Trade Organization rules, a country can sidestep patents by issuing a “compulsory license” – a legal mechanism that allows a country to manufacture or import generic versions of patented drugs for public health and national emergencies while paying the patent holder only a small royalty.

The global finals last week were the culmination of months of national and regional rounds, with eighteen teams from universities in Europe, North America, Latin America and Asia-Pacific winning a trip to Geneva for the final round. The first semi final was contested by the University of Sydney and the University of Melbourne, while University of Hong Kong and Georgetown University fought out the second semi final.

In the grand final at the WTO Centre William Rappard, the University of Melbourne acted for complainant, the Government of Costo (imaginary developed WTO member), while the University of Hong Kong defended the position of the Government of Factoril (imaginary developing WTO member) – respondent in the matter.

After the two and a half hours of intense debates, the Grand Panel, including Gabrielle Marceau from the WTO Secretariat, Jayashree Watal from the WTO Intellectual Property Division and Werner Zdouc from the WTO Appellate Body Secretariat, decided in favour of complainant. The arguments submitted in favour of protecting the intellectual property rights of the pharmaceutical patent holder were deemed to be better structured and presented which led to the University of Melbourne winning the competition.

“The subject of the TRIPS Agreement and Public Health has raised a wide range of issues in the public debate. I think the ELSA Moot Court gave a timely opportunity to bright, young lawyers involved with WTO law to reflect upon and debate the complex legal and political issues raised by this subject,” said Jatashree Watal, Counsellor, WTO Intellectual Property Division.

The students’ debates during the final round in Geneva coincided with the decision of the Government of Brazil to put patients’ interests before patent holder’s interests and issue compulsory license on important AIDS drug. Some parties believe that the economic interests cannot be compared with saving human lives and protecting the public health while others would prefer a more balanced approach to this matter.

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March 16, 2006

Demonstrators protest Condoleezza Rice\’s trip to Australia

Demonstrators protest Condoleezza Rice’s trip to Australia

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Thursday, March 16, 2006

US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice meets the Australian Prime Minister. March 16 2006

Anti-war demonstrators in Sydney, Australia on Thursday dubbed U.S. Secretary of State Dr Condoleezza Rice a “war criminal” and “murderer.” Two protesters were evicted and five people were arrested during protests against the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq.

Dr Rice, on a three-day trip to Australia, said she understood why people found it hard to be positive about Iraq when all they saw on their television screens was violence.

Soon after Rice began her speech at the University of Sydney’s Conservatorium of Music, two protesters shouted from the rear of the auditorium, “Condoleezza Rice, you are a war criminal,” and “Iraqi blood is on your hands and you cannot wash that blood away.” Standing with their palms towards her, the young man and woman repeated their accusation until security intervened to remove them from the hall.

About 15 minutes into Rice’s address, a third protester appeared at a balcony door, interrupting her speech as she referred to freedom. “What kind of freedom are you talking about? You are a murderer,” said the demonstrator before he was quietly escorted from the hall. “I’m very glad to see that democracy is well and alive here at the university,” she said.

In her speech, Rice sought to justify the U.S. occupation of Iraq, describing Iraqis as now more free. One student asked about abuses committed by U.S. forces at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. She said the abuses had made her “sick to her stomach.” However, she defended Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, where human rights groups say detainees are held in inhumane conditions and in detention flouting international laws.

Before Rice began her speech, about 50 protesters were gathered at the front gates of the Conservatorium. The group were confronted by police on horseback and by police dogs. Police used the horses to charge into the group of activists and push them back, as a police helicopter hovered.

A police spokeswoman said the group was blocking pedestrian access to the building and that police had spent more than 20 minutes warning them to move. The police then moved in and pushed the crowd back 20 metres. Police say five people have been charged with “hindering police in the execution of their duties.”

The “Stop the War Coalition” says Rice is a “war criminal” and is not welcome in Australia. The group’s spokeswoman, Anna Samson, says the protest is one of many planned in the lead-up to the third anniversary of the invasion and occupation of Iraq on March 20.

Paddy Gibson, from the University of Sydney’s Student’s Council, says the protest is in opposition to the Iraq war, and to the use of the University of Sydney’s campus to host Rice, “the most powerful woman in the world,” who they say is a war criminal. “They’re saying, ‘… you’ve got Sydney Uni’s support to stand up and peddle your murderous hate speeches,’ which is what we see it,” he said.

“You’ve got 180,000 people killed, as we said, for no other reason than strategic control of the region’s oil resources. And the anti-Muslim racism that’s been whipped up to justify this war is being felt by Sydney University students,” said Mr Gibson.

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February 14, 2006

Bali Nine ringleaders sentenced to death

Bali Nine ringleaders sentenced to death

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Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Denpasar airport, where the nine were arrested

The ringleaders of the so-called Bali Nine were today sentenced to death by a Denpasar court. Andrew Chan received the news via translators at about 3:45 p.m. AEDT, and Myuran Sukumaran was sentenced at about 4:50 p.m. AEDT. The two were charged with attempting to smuggle 8.3 kg of heroin from Bali to Australia.

The Australian Federal Police have been criticised for allowing the Bali Nine to travel to Indonesia, where it was known they could face the death penalty. Yesterday two other drug mules, Renae Lawrence and Scott Rush, were sentenced to life imprisonment.

Prosecutors asked for the death penalty for both men. Chan was alleged to be the mastermind of the operation, and Myuran was alleged to be an enforcer. Chan, who claimed to have rediscovered his Christian faith, prayed for divine intervention prior to the sentence being handed down. Outside the court Indonesian protesters shouted “Death! Death!”. Chan fell over after jostling with a media scrum, and Sukumaran threw a bottle of water at the media.

Donald Rothwell, a Professor of International Law at the University of Sydney, has said that, unlike countries such as Singapore, it may not be long before the two are executed.

“The Indonesian judicial system is one in which death sentences are often carried out very quickly,” he said.

“So unlike the situation of Van Nguyen in Singapore, where an appeal process and a clemency process played out over quite some time, this may not be the situation in Bali.”

Foreign Affairs Minister Alexander Downer told parliament today that he had made a direct request to the Indonesian government that the death penalty not be imposed. “On the 18th of December last year, I wrote to the Indonesian Attorney-General reminding him that the Australian Government was opposed to the death sentence and we didn’t want to see, in the context of the Bali nine, any of the Australians sentenced to death,” he said.

In Bali the death sentence is carried out by firing squad.

Verdicts

  • Renae Lawrence – Life in prison
  • Scott Rush – Life in prison
  • Michael Czugaj – Life in prison
  • Martin Stephens – Life in prison
  • Andrew Chan – Death
  • Myuran Sukumaran – Death

All verdicts are consistent with the recommendations of the Indonesian prosecutors, except for Renae Lawrence. In her case prosecutors requested 20 years imprisonment.


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January 19, 2006

West Papua refugees sent to Australia\’s Christmas Island Detention Centre

West Papua refugees sent to Australia’s Christmas Island Detention Centre

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Thursday, January 19, 2006

Wikinews Australia has in-depth coverage of this issue: 43 West Papuans seek asylum

A group of 43 West Papuan asylum seekers found on Cape York were herded on to an RAAF Hercules and flown to Australia’s Christmas Island Detention Centre on Thursday. The Immigration Department says the single men in the group will be detained in the remote facility, and the six women and seven children will be accommodated in staff housing.

The group left the Papuan port town of Merauke on Friday in an outrigger canoe and landed on Tuesday at Janey Creek, north of the Mapoon Aboriginal community on western Cape York, without being detected.

Police, immigration and customs officials prevented the group communicating with media in Weipa, where the group were detained in Queensland’s far north. The group was kept under close guard throughout the day, with the media required to remain at least 25m away.

Officials accompanied the asylum seekers on toilet breaks and trips to the Weipa hospital, covering the heads of the new arrivals with blankets or jackets.

Immigrationl officials will interview the group, assessing their claims for asylum, while at the remote island detention facility on Christmas Island, 2,600km north-west of Perth.

The Department says the Papuans are being transferred as part of the long-standing government policy to process unauthorised arrivals offshore, not because mainland detention centres lack capacity. Immigration Minister Amanda Vanstone said the group would be treated the same as any other boat arrivals.

John Wing from the University of Sydney’s Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies says Indonesian military activity has been increasing in Papua which may encourage more people to seek asylum in Australia.

“This may be a trend that we see developing over the coming year or two as the military operations are stepped up in Papua against the local people. As in other parts of the world, the fighting and the human rights situation becomes too grim in one’s homeland, he said, “these people are forced to flee to the place of nearest sanctuary and in this part of the world, for the Papuans, it’s Australia.”

Mr Wing says he believes a prominent student activist is part of the group of asylum seekers. He says the man has already spent time in jail for attending independence meetings and could be persecuted if he is sent back to Papua.

“Many villages have been burned to the ground; houses, clinics, schools, churches have all been destroyed by arson, by the Indonesian armed forces, and some of these refugees are from that area,” he said.

The Indonesian embassy says there is no persecution in Papua.

The 36 adults and seven children are the third boatload of asylum-seekers to land on the Australian mainland in the past four years.

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October 24, 2005

Australian Government to introduce IR reforms next week

Australian Government to introduce IR reforms next week

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Monday, October 24, 2005

Wikinews Australia has in-depth coverage of this issue: Australian industrial relations legislation, 2005

In an industrial relations conference in Melbourne this week, Minister Kevin Andrews has released that the government’s new industrial relations (IR) legislation is likely to be introduced sometime next week in the Australian lower house. The Senate employment committee will hold an inquiry into the legislation. According to Mr Andrews this inquiry will probably run for a week in the non-sitting period of parliament. He said the legislation would then be debated in the Senate in the last sitting weeks of the year.

The new workplace reforms have evoked widespread controversy from both sides of the political spectrum. The Australian Council of Trade Unions launched TV advertisements to counter the government’s new legislation. The 100 million dollar ‘Work Choices’ advertisements by the Australian Government has been criticised as a political use of taxpayers dollars.

Prime Minister John Howard has contended that the new reforms are necessary to keep our economy competitive and update outdated laws. The opposition says a new class of working poor will be created in Australia under the planned IR changes.

One proposed change will deny Centrelink welfare payments to anyone who refuses a job, no matter what the conditions. Mr Andrews has backed up the legislation:

“For an individual the best form of welfare they can have is to have a job”.

However, Labor’s Stephen Smith has rejected such claims

“What we will end up with is people being forced onto inferior wages, inferior conditions and the great risk is that we end up with a working poor just as you find in the United States,”

Michael Raper, spokesperson for the National Welfare Rights Network says it is a severe penalty.

“We’ve been trying to draw attention to the fact that any unemployed person will have to accept whatever conditions they’re offered because if you reject a job offer you will lose Centrelink payments for eight weeks,” he said.

The University of Sydney has released a report card on the changes available. [1]

You can access the government’s ‘Work Choices’ information online at:

www.workchoices.gov.au

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