Current Affairs Digest: Science

Catch up on science articles you may have missed from June 2020. This month we look at the issue of structural racism in healthcare, and the development of nuclear fusion.

Racism in Healthcare

This piece in the British Medical Journal addresses the issue of structural racism in healthcare. 

The Covid-19 mortality rate is higher for people from an ethnic minority background. Scrutinising the reasons behind this are “critical to mitigate risk and prevent further death”. The authors state that inquiries must avoid viewing race as a biological concept. It is more accurate to view race as a social construct, which allows for “historical and contextual legacies of power, privilege, discrimination and oppression” to be considered.

Evidence of racism in healthcare includes:

  • unequal access to provision and treatment for certain ethnic groups;
  • healthcare workers from minority ethnic backgrounds facing bullying and harassment at work; and
  • differing levels of attainment at medical schools between students from an ethnic minority background and white students.

The Covid-19 pandemic, the authors claim, is a “stress test” for those concerned about structural racism within the healthcare system. They state that it must not be allowed to pass without significant action.

Read the full article: Christine Douglass, Molly Fyfe and Amali U. Lokugamage, ‘Structural racism in society and the covid-19 “stress test”’, British Medical Journal, 8 June 2020.

Nuclear Fusion – A Pipe Dream or Reality?

Writing for New Scientist, Abigail Beall provides an update on progress towards nuclear fusion. Beall states that a common joke is that nuclear fusion “has always been 30 years away” since scientists started working on it in the 1950s. In this article, she states that advances in artificial intelligence (AI) may lead to significant steps forward.

Nuclear fusion occurs when two or more atomic nuclei come into contact. Under certain circumstances, they will merge to form a larger nucleus. In doing so, a huge amount of energy is released. This process occurs in stars, and provides the power needed to shine for billions of years.

However, it has proved to be extremely challenging to replicate fusion on earth, and scientists have not yet managed to successfully do so. Extremes of temperature are required to heat hydrogen gas to hundreds of millions of degrees until it forms plasma. At the same time, powerful magnets cooled to almost absolute zero are required to control the hot plasma, which is unstable and often volatile. This takes place within fusion reactors known as tokamaks. Beall provides a brief history of the most significant experiments, including the Joint European Torus near Oxford, which set the world record for the amount of energy created in a fusion reaction in 1997.

The favourite current project to succeed in creating fusion is the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER), a collaboration between 31 nations including China, the US and the EU. ITER aims to begin fusion reactions in 2035.

Beall details various innovations that have improved the chances of fusion providing a clean energy source sooner than previously expected. These include the development of superconductors that allow the magnets used in tokamaks to be more compact, and the use of artificial intelligence and machine learning to improve the design of reactors by modelling the impact of changes in environment on the ever-unstable plasma.

Read the full article: Abigail Beall, ‘Why cracking nuclear fusion will depend on artificial intelligence’, New Scientist, 10 June 2020.