Current Affairs Digest: Science

Catch up on science articles you may have missed from April and May 2020. Articles this month include a look at the psychology of lockdown, and 200 years of Florence Nightingale.

The Environmental Impact of the Internet

Writing for the Royal Society’s blog, Andrew Rice and Adrian Friday examine the environmental impact of the internet. With millions of people confined to their homes, and many making heavy use of online services to work from home, it is easy to assume that the environmental impact is a wholly positive one. The authors caution that the reality is more complex, and that increased online use has environmental consequences.  

A major contributor to ‘internet emissions’ is the power needed to build, install and run the vast network of cables, fibres, computers, data centres, routers, servers, and even radio masts, needed to keep the world online. Devices are often not used for long enough, or used intensely enough, to justify the energy needed for manufacture in the first place. For example, they highlight the trend of replacing phones every year or so as a concern. They state that the huge data centres that do much of the “computational work” of the internet have a poor track record of treating processors, chips and hard-drives as disposable items with relatively short lifespans. They are also hot environments that require large amounts of energy to cool.  

However, the authors also highlight some positive steps being taken. While data centres have increased in size and capacity in the last decade, the energy required to run them has remained stable. This, the authors claim, is down to new, large scale data centres designed with energy efficiency in mind. Many major technology companies, including Google and Facebook, are increasingly using renewable energy in their data centres.  

Elsewhere, the authors acknowledge the green benefits of consumers switching to streaming services rather than buying physical copies of CDs and DVDs. Increased consumption on mobile devices, rather than televisions, also has obvious benefits in terms of the amount of plastic required to make the device. On the other hand, the authors point to the trend of individuals owning and consuming media on their own device, rather than group viewing of television, as causing a huge increase in mobile phone production. The authors state that this is just one example of the often contradictory nature of ‘internet emissions’.  

Read the full article: Andrew Rice and Adrian Friday, ‘Internet Emissions: What’s the issue?‘, The Royal Society, 1 May 2020.

The Psychologies of Lockdown

Stephen Reicher, John Drury, and Clifford Stott take a look at the psychologies behind the coronavirus outbreak. Writing for the Psychologist, the authors highlight two psychologies relevant to the current crisis.  

The first psychology sees people as “fragile rationalists”, and as a problem to be managed in a crisis. The language around this view is of crisis management and of a paternalistic attitude from the state. The authors use the example of initial government resistance to impose social distancing due to concerns that the public would not abide by it or would tire of it quickly and return to old patterns of behaviour.  

The second psychology views people “in much more constructive” terms. It views the public as individuals able to cope with a crisis. This ability is improved if groups are formed and a sense of togetherness is created in opposition to the outbreak. The authors use the example of voluntary efforts at the local level to deliver food to those in isolation. They conclude by urging government to facilitate the second of these psychologies, acting as “scaffolding” to support people in dealing with the crises themselves and in groups within their local communities.

Read the full article: Stephen Reicher, John Drury and Clifford Stott, ‘The two psychologies and Coronavirus‘, The Psychologist, 1 April 2020.

Florence Nightingale

In this blog for the British Library, Laura Walker marks the bicentenary of the birth of Florence Nightingale. The author reminds readers that the then Secretary of State for War, Sidney Herbert, requested that Florence Nightingale lead a party of 38 nurses to work at a Scutari hospital during the Crimean War. As women were not officially allowed to serve in the army at the time, Nightingale had to report directly to the secretary of state. Her work implementing hygiene and sanitation practices in the hospital is now well known. Walker highlights a letter held in the British Library’s collection in which Florence Nightingale informs Herbert of the falling death rate at the hospital.  

Outside her well-known achievements in nursing, Florence Nightingale was also the first woman to be admitted to the Royal Statistical Society. She was also a pioneer of early data visualisation, with many of her diagrams and illustrations still held in the British Library today.  

Read the full article: Laura Walker, ‘Lady with the Lamp at 200: Florence Nightingale’s Bicentenary‘, British Library, 12 May 2020.