Modern life is rubbish

How your leftovers and not-so-compostable coffee cups are destroying the planet, and some ways we might be able to put it back together again.

Over the last few months I’ve been a bit busier than usual, working a lot but also growing a tiny human. So, before I go on maternity leave, here’s a highlights reel of some stories you might have missed:

Modern life is (literal) rubbish

That compostable coffee cup you picked up on the way to work? For The Observer, I discovered that, in all likelihood, it’s going to landfill where it won’t ever become compost. The problem is that while most of these plant-based plastics can be composted in the right kind of industrial facility, they almost never get there. 

But there is some good news. For BBC Future I wrote about how, if we can figure out how to get them to the right place, compostable plastics could be part of the answer to our food waste problem

On the topic of food waste, I also added up how much those leftovers you threw out yesterday contributed to climate change before they even reached your plate. The headline figure is that, if we stopped wasting food altogether, we’d cut our carbon emissions as a planet by 8%. But the exciting thing is that this is one area where households can make a big difference individually: about half of food waste in Europe is our fault. 

Luckily, my special skill is coming up with meals made out of whatever needs using up from the fridge. If you reply to this email with what you have, I will send you an idea for what you should make for dinner.

And finally… anyone who has aquired a taste for oat and other plant-based milks will be pleased to know that probably all of them – even notorious water-hogger almond milk – are better for the environment than dairy.

When causality breaks

My first New Scientist cover story came out in January and is about the mind-melting idea that, in the quantum realm, cause doesn’t necessarily come before effect

The further into the reporting I got on this, the more it started to seem like the kind of idea someone should have had already. After all, nothing else in the quantum world appears to works the same way it does elsewhere, so why would causality? There’s still some experimental confirmation needed, but the idea that cause and effect could be in a superposition just like other properties is a tantalising prospect that could have implications for quantum gravity and beyond.

Also, I am totally framing this one to point to if anyone ever mentions the phrase “baby brain” around me. 

How to feed a planet

Over the last few months I’ve been spending some time at BBC Future, among other things commissioning and editing a series on the future of food and farming. 

Some of the stories already out include how farming in forests could help sustain the planet and save trees from the axe, how we’re destroying the nomad bees that pollinate our crops (including all those almonds that go into your almond milk), and how food’s plastic problem goes beyond the supermarket shelf to farms themselves.

Plus…

Ethiopia’s strange volcanic landscapes are irresistible to scientists (and tourists) (Atlas Obscura)

How long space voyages could mess with our minds (BBC Future)

Amazon Prime Video is full of dodgy documentaries pushing dangerous cancer 'cures' (Wired UK)

The power of music: Vicky McClure's dementia choir (BBC Stories)

Why people’s misperceptions about climate change, vaccinations are so hard to shake (Horizon)

Haider Warraich: ‘We do everything in our modern lifestyle to hurt the heart’ (The Observer)

I’m going to be taking six months or so off starting soon, so this newsletter won’t be back in your inbox until later in the year (or maybe next year given my track record).

Until then, you can say hi at @kahoakes, or if you truly want to read EVERYTHING I’ve written in the past year, you can find that list at kellyoak.es.

– Kelly

The comparison trap

Social media and body image, extracting water out of thin air, and what hit Uranus?

At the risk of turning this newsletter into a diary of my own Instagram habits, here’s a story I wrote for BBC Future about the complicated relationship between social media and body image.

Most of the studies so far are quite small and correlational (which obviously does not = causation). But we’re starting to get hints of what exactly about social media makes us feed bad about our bodies, and what could be good.

What’s emerging is that comparisons seem to be key to those bad feelings. In particular, it’s not comparing ourselves to celebrities that seems to do the most damage, but comparing ourselves to acquaintances. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that acquaintances, or ‘distant peers’ as they’re referred to in the research, are the people who exist mostly as highlight reels on social media, and that we rarely see IRL.

Of course, comparisons on social media don’t just make us feel bad about our bodies – they can make us feel inadequate in many, many ways. As a freelancer working on my own a lot, it’s especially easy to fall into the comparison trap. Instead of chatting to real life colleagues with multifaceted lives, I can spend whole days only getting glimpses into other people’s lives online. I spend far too long scrolling through Twitter instead of either doing something more productive, or just giving my brain a break.

Which is why I’ve deleted Twitter from my phone, and moved Instagram to the far reaches of the fourth screen – to break the habit of turning to social media during downtime, and hopefully to live more in my own brain and care less about what everyone else is doing.

I’ve also read six books this month, which I don’t think is a coincidence. (Shout out to Bad Blood, by John Carreyrou, and The Psychology of Time Travel, by Kate Mascarenhas, for both being mind-bending page turners, albeit for very different reasons.)

The rest:

What hit Uranus? (All About Space)

Uranus is weird. The ice giant is tilted, with its north and south poles where you would expect the planet’s equator to be. Its magnetic field is off-centre. And though you’d expect an ice giant to be cold, Uranus is even colder than scientists think it should be. Now researchers is starting to unravel how it came to be this way.

(This is in print only, so you’ll have to buy it to find out)

Getting water out of thin air (Technologist)

Fog catchers have been providing water to people in dry, mountainous regions for decades. As more regions get drier thanks to climate change, could recovering water from air solve some of our problems?

How we can save hydropower (Technologist)

The way we’ve historically generated energy from water is not good for the environment. Here’s how that’s changing.

Nearly half of global childhood cancers go undiagnosed (Nature News)

Tens of thousands of cancers are missed each year, particularly in countries where children have poor access to health care.

“No vaccine, no school”: the stark reality of low vaccination rates (Prospect)

Unvaccinated children aren't only at risk themselves—if too few people receive their vaccinations, the protection of "herd immunity" can be threatened.

Until next time: say hi at @kahoakes, or lurk at kellyoak.es.

– Kelly

In defence of Instagram and space elevators

Digital hoarding, getting to space without a rocket, and everything you never wanted to know about fatbergs.

Here’s a bumper edition of stuff I’ve written over the last couple of months. Read to the end if you want a very expensive way to prove Elon Musk wrong (and, I guess, help humanity become a properly spacefaring species).

Marie Kondo-ing your digital life

Towards the end of last year I spent some time thinking about my own digital possessions, while researching a feature about the emerging research on digital hoarding for BBC Future.

I came to what some people would probably think is a weird conclusion for someone writing about why it pays to declutter your digital life: my New Year’s resolution would be to post on Instagram more.

For the feature I had spoken to Jo Ann Oravec, a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, who told me that her aunt, who recently died aged 100, had kept six carefully-curated photo albums that spanned her whole life. In her old age, she would look back over the photos and feel a sense of satisfaction at a life well lived. Even when her health deteriorated and she could no longer remember every event in the album, it still made her happy to look over those photos.

While speaking to Oravec I realised that my own photo collection was a total mess. All I have to show from a two week holiday to California in September is an amorphous blob of blue and green on my camera roll – a few gems, mixed in with endless duplicates and an embarrassingly large number of photos of my forearm as I tried to get the hang of a selfie stick.

So on New Year's Day I made myself actually sit down and look through my photos from the year, and post something. And it felt good! I realise that Instagram isn’t the whole solution to this (for one, it probably won’t last as long as those photo albums did, at least not in its current form) but it will at least make me sit down and review my photos, so it’s a start.

How to get to space if you hate rockets

One thing I would post on Instagram with zero hesitation is the view from an elevator ride up to space. A space elevator is exactly what it sounds like. You build a giant structure with one end on Earth and one end in space – technically in geostationary orbit – and run some elevator cars between them.

It’s one of those ideas that people get excited about every now and again but that most write off as too fantastical to work. So I went into researching this New Scientist feature on whether we’ll ever build one quite sceptical, but emerged a little less so.

The biggest obstacle still in the way is finding a material strong enough to support such a tall structure. Graphene (that all purpose wonder material) is the latest to be touted as a possibility, but is yet to be made in large enough quantities. Only time will tell if it could work in reality – but it will also need people (specifically, people with money to spend on research) to get behind the idea, or we’ll never find out.

If you need any additional motivation, Elon Musk has said before that he doesn’t think the idea “makes sense” right now, so you’d also get to prove him wrong.

The rest:

Flow Neuroscience wants to use electricity to help your depression at home - but does it work? (The Daily Beast)

It’s set to be the first headband you can buy online to treat depression in your own home – without a prescription or the supervision of a doctor.

Here’s what scientists searched for in 2018: AI is up, stress is down (Nature News)

The most-searched keywords in the Scopus database and on Google, revealed.

5 things the ISS has done for us (BBC Focus)

The International Space Station is 20 years old – here are some of the scientific advances that have been made in low Earth orbit.

Bringing tech to the farm (Technologist)

Technology is helping farmers feed the world. It can also make agriculture more environmentally friendly – for conventional and organic farmers alike.

Using data to make cities greener (Technologist)

As politicians stall when it comes to dealing with climate change on a national level, local data-based projects are trying to reduce carbon emissions on their own doorsteps

All you want to know about fatbergs but were too disgusted to ask (New Scientist)

Huge lumps of fat and waste keep appearing in sewers, particularly in the UK – are they really on the rise, or are we just paying more attention?

Until next time: say hi at @kahoakes, or lurk at kellyoak.es.

– Kelly

All the leaves are brown and the sky is grey

Earth and other alien planets, plus women with ADHD, and some happy Nobel prize news for once.

Hello friends,

I just got back from California! Well, a week ago, which is roughly the amount of time it's taken for me to feel human again after a terrible case of jet lag. I miss the warmth and the ridiculous landscapes. I took the photo above in Yosemite National Park – a good place to go if you'd like to feel small and insignificant, which is no bad thing once in a while.

Lessons from early Earth

Almost as eye-opening as Yosemite was the New Scientist feature I wrote that came out right before I went away. It's about how the clues to finding alien life may lie in Earth's deep past, but what really struck me while researching it was just how much Earth has changed over its billions of years, and how little we know about some of its past. If you want to talk about how scientists are searching for alien life, or how it might actually be harder to reconstruct early Earth's atmosphere than it is to measure that of a distant alien planet, hit me up.

More alien planets

Speaking of exoplanets, here's a story I wrote for the Daily Beast on how gravitational waves could help find them. As far as I know this is the first story to combine what are two of the biggest physics breakthroughs of our time. Possibly because right now it's not a technique we can use – we'll need to wait for the next generation of space-based gravitational wave detectors.

How to leave Earth

If those two have whet your appetite for life beyond Earth, how would you like to read about how we'll leave this planet for good? My (cover!) feature in the October issue of BBC Focus, out now, is all about that. Spoiler alert: living in space involves doing a lot of exercise so you don't waste away, and could also screw you up psychologically. So beware of Elon Musks bearing spaceships – we've got a long way to go before setting up home on Mars is going to be as easy as getting there (which is not even an easy task in itself). 

ADHD is a feminist issue

While you're in the newsagents picking up Focus, my Women's Health feature on why ADHD is often misdiagnosed in women was out in August and might still be on shelves if your newsagent is like mine and doesn't appear to remove old stock. It's another print only one, so you'll have to actually leave the house and pay money to read it, or just like, DM me and I'll give you the gist.

A good day for women in physics (or at least one of them)

Finally, I am so happy to be writing this on the day that a woman has been awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics for the first time IN FIFTY FIVE YEARS. Donna Strickland shares half the prize with Gérard Mourou for their work on super short laser pulses, with the other half going to Arthur Ashkin for optical tweezers. And only a week after I wrote about some of my favourite women in science for the i. Here's hoping she doesn't now spend the rest of her career answering the same question over and over again about how it feels to be a female winner. 

Until next time: say hi at @kahoakes, or lurk at kellyoak.es.

– Kelly

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