An interview with China’s scientist premier


Wen – on the scene after the Sichuan earthquake struck

In a 2-hour conversation with Science Editor-in-Chief Bruce Alberts at the Zhongnanhai leadership compound in the heart of Beijing on 30 September, Wen, 66, spoke candidly and forcefully, without notes, on everything from social and economic development being the “wellspring” of science and technology to cultivating scientific ethics and reducing China’s reliance on fossil fuels. Here are highlights edited for clarity and brevity; a more complete version is posted on the Science Web site.

Bruce Alberts: You were famous all over the world for going to the site of the earthquake as a professional geologist immediately afterwards and having a great effect on China’s response. Could you tell us more about your response to the earthquake and what you see in the future in the way of earthquake protection for China?

Wen Jiabao: When the Wenchuan earthquake occurred on 12 May, I was sitting in my office. Beijing shook, too. My instinct told me it was an earthquake. I instantly knew this disaster would affect a large area and the devastation would be severe.

I decided to go to the scene immediately. I understood clearly the importance of the [initial] 72 hours and especially the importance of the first day in saving people’s lives. Simply put, the faster the better.

B.A.: I assume that what you did in the earthquake is related to your new campaign to implement something you call “The Scientific Outlook on Development.” I think most of us don’t understand exactly what that is. Could you explain what the plans are and how Chinese scientists are going to contribute?

W.J.: The number-one principle is to put people first. The second is comprehensive development, the integration of economic development with social development, the integration of economic reform with political reform, the integration of an opening-up and inclusive approach with independent innovation, and the integration of advanced civilization with traditional Chinese culture. Thirdly, we need to resolve the disparities–rich-poor disparity, regional disparity, and urban-rural disparity–in our country’s developmental process. Fourthly, sustainable development: That is, to meet the challenges of population, resources, and environmental protection faced by a population of 1.3 billion in its modernization process. We want to achieve sustainable development by adopting a resource-conserving and environment-friendly approach. These four goals cannot be achieved without science and technology or without innovations.

Plenty of depth to the abridged and the original interview. A political and scientific coup for Science magazine.

Good reading, as well. There was a talented translator or two involved somewhere inside the process.

Mexicans overwhelm Canadian refugee system


38,000 Hungarians became Canadians in 1956

A record number of Mexicans are fleeing to Canada, claiming their own country cannot keep them safe as it struggles to contain a grisly narcotics war that is spilling into nightclubs and restaurants.

There are currently 9,070 Mexican refugee claimants waiting to have their cases heard, the largest number yet from one country since the Immigration and Refugee Board was established in 1989…

The brutality is intense: human heads lobbed into discos; bound men found asphyxiated in cars; shootouts in shopping centres in the middle of the day. In September, grenades were lobbed at a public celebration of Independence Day in Morelia, a colonial town about 240 kilometres west of Mexico City, prompting some to call it “narco-terrorism” as the victims were civilians.

In several rulings perused by The Globe and Mail, the IRB believes the claimants’ horrifying tales of violence, but rejects their claims on the grounds they must turn to their own country for protection.

Recently, though, the Federal Court of Canada has overturned a half-dozen decisions, questioning how ordinary Mexicans can seek protection from the state when police officers are corrupt, or under fire themselves…

Mexicans can make claims at the border because they are exempt from the Canada-U.S. Third Country Agreement, which requires all refugees to seek asylum in the first country they reach. As well, they do not need visas to enter Canada.

I guess Canada – under sloppy guidance from a minority government – is stuck between the letter of the law of the UN Convention for Refugees and the wish to have domestic judicial standards applied to foreign crimes.

A bit more of a problem than Canada has ever had to face. Exacerbated by several recent years of the always contradiction-filled relationship with the United States.

Rolls-Royce ready to bring back propeller engines


One of these sits parked about a mile from here. Ready to be updated.

The Guardian has learned that Rolls-Royce recently cleared a major hurdle in testing its new design for a propeller-driven engine, involving a double rotor and new blade shape. Engineers have called Rolls-Royce’s design a “tremendously significant” step forward.

The company claims the design could cut an airline’s fuel bills and greenhouse gas emissions by 30%. “We’re talking about saving $3 million or 10,000 tonnes of CO2 per year per aircraft if you introduce an open-rotor on to a 100-200-seater aircraft,” said Mark Taylor, an engineer at Rolls-Royce who is leading a project to design the next generation of aircraft engines.

Modern propeller-driven engines, also known as advanced open rotors or turboprops, are acknowledged to be more fuel efficient than the turbofan and turbojet engines used by most aircraft today. But, despite much research and testing by all the major engine manufaturers in the early 1980s, they never caught on, partly because they are far noisier. But with the growth in aviation causing major environmental concerns, aeronautical engineers believe that the open-rotor engine could have a new lease of life.

“We believe that, based on our test, we can produce a quiet and efficient open-rotor engine,” said Taylor. The company believes its design would be quieter than any aircraft in operation today

The British-based company is not the only one investigating the open-rotor concept. General Electric, Pratt & Whitney and French company Snecma all have open-rotor prototypes under construction, though commercial secrecy means their progress is unclear.

Rolls-Royce wants to offer an either/or choice – a bit better noise profile or better fuel burn and lower CO2? I’d like to think that engineers and time can start with the former – and improve the species till we get more efficiency and power.

There’s a parallel consideration in that wind generators also benefit from advanced propellor design.

Google CEO Eric Schmidt endorses Barack Obama


Barack Obama and Eric Schmidt

Google CEO Eric Schmidt has made it official: He’s endorsing Barack Obama, and will hit the campaign trail for the Democrat this week, including at a Florida event where he will co-moderate a panel about the economy. Other Silicon Valley execs are expected to follow Schmidt’s lead.

Schmidt is a political moderate; for example, he spoke at Britain’s Conservative Party conference in 2006, according to the Wall Street Journal. He’s been an informal adviser to the Obama campaign on technology as well as green energy.

Schmidt has made it clear that it’s his personal endorsement, rather than Google’s. But there’s no doubt where Google employees stand: According to the Wall Street Journal, as of August 31, Google employees had given $487,355 to Obama’s campaign and only $20,600 to McCain’s.

Obama also agrees with Schmidt’s and Google’s official stand that the government should ensure network neutrality. McCain, the Wall Street Journal says, is not in favor of the policy.

I’m not the only geek who expected head geeks to become involved in the presidential race. I admit I’m pleased to see one of the heads of The Google endorse Obama.

And, after all, McCain has Carly Fiorina on his side.

U.S. pilot was ordered to shoot down UFO – then told to shut up


F86D’s over New Mexico

Two U.S. fighter planes were scrambled and ordered to shoot down an unidentified flying object over the English countryside during the Cold War, according to secret files made public. One pilot said he was seconds away from firing 24 rockets at the object, which moved erratically and gave a radar reading like “a flying aircraft carrier…”

In a written account, Milton Torres described how he scrambled his F-86 D Saber jet in calm weather from the Royal Air Force base at Manston, Kent in May 1957…

The order came to fire a salvo of rockets at the UFO. The authentication was valid and I selected 24 rockets…

At the last moment, the object disappeared from the radar screen and the high-speed chase was called off.

He returned to base and was debriefed the next day by an unnamed man who “looked like a well-dressed IBM salesman. He threatened me with a national security breach if I breathed a word about it to anyone,” he said…

The files blame other UFO sightings on weather balloons, clouds or normal aircraft. Torres said he has been waiting 50 years for an explanation.

“I shall never forget it,” he told the Times. “On that night I was ordered to open fire even before I had taken off. That had never happened before.”

Of course, world-class security bureaucrats may have simply filed the paperwork after they ordered Torres to shut up. It’s easier to silence someone than to seek out answers.

Wanted: 500 Beta Testers for an Electric Mini

BMW, Mini’s parent company, is taking the vehicle in a decidedly greener direction with the Mini E — a factory-built, fully electric Mini with an estimated range of 150 miles or more.

After the Mini E’s debut at the upcoming Los Angeles auto show, 500 Mini Es will be distributed to customers in California, New York, and New Jersey early next year as part of a pilot project to road-test the car. Select private and corporate customers will lease the cars for one year with the possibility of an extension, during which the Mini Es will be inspected every 3000 miles or six months.

Extra weight prevents the Mini E from beating the Mini S in terms of performance, but it matches the nonturbocharged model, scooting from 0 to 62 mph in 8.5 seconds according to Mini, though its top speed is electronically limited to 95 mph. While not as quick to 60 as a Mini S, the Mini E will likely feel quick off the line thanks to the electric motor’s instantaneous torque.

Charge times will depend on how much power is available in your wall, but BMW says the wallbox can charge a completely drained Mini E to full power in as little as two-and-a-half hours. A full charge will give the Mini E a range of 150 miles or more while pulling only 28 kW-hrs of electricity from your wall, according to BMW.

BMW plans to have all 500 cars built by the end of 2008 and ready to distribute to testers in the U.S. BMW is also considering testing some vehicles in Europe as well, but has not made a final decision yet. At the end of the test, all the cars will be collected and returned to BMW for extensive review by BMW, after which we’d expect to see the Mini E to eventually find a permanent place in the Mini Cooper lineup.

Wow! I wish I could talk them into one cranky old geek high-altitude tester in northern New Mexico.

University saves thousand$ by removing dorm land lines

The removal of all land-line telephones from the University of Florida in Gainesville’s dormitories saves nearly $600,000 a year, a school official says.

University employee Norbert Dunkel, who oversees the school’s residence halls, said he has received little to no complaints regarding the absence of the phones that were removed last year in a cost-saving venture.

We were spending an inordinate amount of money for nothing,” Dunkel said.

Dunkel has conducted a survey of the university’s students and found 98 percent of those surveyed owned their own cell phone. Further details of the survey were not available.

The Post said other Florida schools, such as Florida State University and Florida Atlantic University, have since followed suit by removing land-line services from their dorms.

We got rid of land lines in our home years ago. I carry a cell phone on my walks and it’s in my pocket most of the time, anyway. All of our outbound calls are routed through Skype.

Door thief, piglet rustler, pudding snatcher: Crime gone wild!

The number of extradition cases being dealt with in the UK courts has reached record levels, fuelled by a number of “trivial” requests from Europe that have exasperated the police and clogged up the system.

Up to 1,000 extradition cases are expected to have been dealt with by the end of the year, more than double the number last year, and four times the number in 2006 according to figures from the City of Westminster magistrates court, which handles all extradition hearings…

40% of all extradition cases dealt with by the Metropolitan police originated in Poland, adding that many of the offences were so minor they would lead to either a caution or no investigation at all in England and Wales.

In one case, according to Flood, a carpenter who fitted wardrobe doors and then removed them when the client refused to pay him, was subject to an extradition request by Poland so that they could try him for theft. In another case, the Polish authorities requested the extradition of a suspect for theft of a dessert. “The European arrest warrant contained a list of the ingredients,” Flood said.

Although Poland is not the only culprit – a Lithuanian was extradited last year on a charge of “piglet-rustling” – it has made the most requests by far.

The EU and their newfound family members in the East have actually found how to invoke a bureaucracratic morass greater than the Brits. I almost think it’s a matter of just desserts – so to speak.