Schott’s Almanac 2007–2008 · Extracts

A Few Words of the Year

Smeatonator: John Smeaton – hero baggage handler who ‘assisted’ police in the Glasgow airport attack. | Surge: George W. Bush’s deployment of 21,500 extra troops to Iraq. | Chatty Packaging: Faux-friendly marketing blurb that aspires to a personal tone. | NEET: Those Not in Education, Employment, or Training. | Feral Beast: Blair’s term for the modern media which ‘just tears people and reputations to bits’. | Glamping: Glamorous camping. | Rexy: ‘Sexy anorexia’. | Locavores: those who eat (only) locally grown food. | 9818783: Paris Hilton’s inmate number during her incarceration. | Subsidariat: Daily Mail editor Paul Dacre’s term for loss-making media organisations subsidised by profitable parent companies (Times, Guardian), or by the tax payer (BBC). | 5 S’s: Graduated escalation of force, said to be part of the US military’s Iraq rules of engagement: Shout; Show weapon; Shove; Shoot to warn; Shoot to kill. | Stunt Eating: Eating for media attention: [1] by celebrities, to disprove allegations of anorexia; [2] by officials, to reassure consumers about the safety of a food (e.g. poultry, post-avian flu); [3] by authors, to promote special diets. | Glamping: Glamorous camping. | Ghost Flights: Empty aircraft flown only to keep key airport ‘runway slots’. | Newpeat· A TV episode edited to include previously unseen material. | The Mother of All Targets: Prince Harry, who was said to have been targeted by insurgents as he planned to join his regiment in Iraq.

 Schott’s Annual Astrometer

Schematic of Notable World Events

Person of the Year

Much of the recent posturing between Putin and the West has been decidedly reminiscent of the Cold War, not least: Moscow’s objections to the US defence shield, and its threat to target missiles at Europe; the ‘gas supply wars’ with Ukraine and Belarus; withdrawal from the Conventional Forces in Europe Treaty; oil-related territorial shenanigans under the North Pole; Russia’s resumption of long-range bomber patrols; disruption to Russian language BBC World Service broadcasts; and the Litvinenko affair.

In July 2007, the Economist noted that ‘Russia is no longer exporting a rival ideology … nor fighting proxy wars with America around the globe’.

However, Russia remains armed with the world’s largest known gas reserves, strong political and economic influence over an archipelago of marginalised states, an Armageddonic nuclear arsenal, and a permanent seat (and veto) on the UN Security Council. Thus, whether the issue is terrorism, climate change, energy security, nuclear proliferation, Palestine, Iraq, Iran, Kosovo, or Darfur – Putin’s Russia cannot be ignored.

Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin was born in 1952 to working-class parents. He studied law at Leningrad University, where he was recruited by the KGB in 1975. After two years as a low-level spook, Putin was sent to Moscow for elite training. In 1985, he was assigned to the KGB office in Dresden, where he reportedly worked with the Stasi to gather Western technology secrets. In 1990, after the fall of the Berlin Wall, Putin was recalled to assist the rector of Leningrad University – a thinly veiled KGB cover.

Over the next few years, Putin climbed the political ladder in (the renamed) St Petersburg, before he was summoned to Moscow in 1996. In a vertiginous rise, Putin became Boris Yeltsin’s deputy Chief of Staff in 1997, and head of the Federal Security Service in 1998. In 1999, Putin was appointed Secretary of the Security Council (March), PM (August), and Acting President (December). In March 2000, Putin was elected President – despite being as unknown to most Russians as he was to the rest of the world.

The West welcomed Putin’s early advocacy of democratic and economic reforms as much as his stylistic differences from the haphazard Yeltsin. Yet, by 2003, this optimism was overshadowed by Putin’s quasi-Soviet clampdown on media freedoms and opposition protests, and his pursuit of foreign investors and Russia’s newly minted oligarchs. Although he opposed the Iraq invasion, Putin used Bush’s ‘war on terror’ to justify his Chechnya policy, and cited Guantánamo Bay to rebuff criticisms of his record on human rights.

Putin has exploited Russia’s petro-dollars (and US unpopularity) to renegotiate what he sees as the parlous deals Russia made as the Soviet Union collapsed. As he told al-Jazeera, ‘Russia knows its worth. We will work towards creating a multipolar world … but Russia does have enough potential to influence the formation of the new world order’.

Since Russia’s constitution forbids 3 consecutive presidential terms, Putin must step down in 2008. Despite hinting he would like to stay on (and an approval rating of c.80%), few believe Putin will actually rewrite the law to do so. That said, aged just 55, it is implausible that he will simply fade into the background.


Object of the Year

After 127 years in the spotlight, incandescent light bulbs may soon fade into history, as a host of initiatives seek to turn lighting eco-friendly.

In February 2007, Australia announced that stricter energy standards would ban incandescent bulbs by 2010, forcing consumers to buy alternatives, like compact fluorescent light bulbs (CFLs). Australia’s Environment Minister said, ‘if the whole world switched to these bulbs today, we would reduce our consumption of electricity by an amount equal to five times Australia’s annual consumption of electricity’. For a country that refused to sign the Kyoto Protocol, Australia’s nationwide ban was dramatic and bold, but it was not made in isolation.

In November 2006, Wal-Mart announced a campaign to sell 100m cfls by 2008. In January 2007, a Bill was proposed to ban the sale of incandescents in California by 2012. In February 2007, similar legislation was proposed in a number of other US states. In March 2007, Philips announced it would phase out incandescents by 2016. In the same month, the EU discussed a ban on such bulbs by 2010. In April 2007, Canada imposed a federal ban on incandescents from 2012.

Although dozens of people played a part in the invention of the light bulb (including Joseph Swan and Humphrey Davy), history’s laurels rest on the head of Thomas Edison, not least because of his US Patent #223898, filed 27/1/1880. In fundamental design, the modern incandescent – with its finely coiled filament set within an inert-gas-filled glass bulb – differs little from those pioneered in the c19th. And, despite a range of modifications, incandescents still emit only 5% of the energy they consume as light; the rest is wasted as heat.

CFLs are filled with a gas that emits UV light when excited by electricity. In turn, this UV light causes the bulb’s interior coating to emit light visible to the human eye. Compared to incandescents, CFLs are 4× more efficient, last up to 10× longer, consume 50–80% less energy, and produce 75% less heat. And, although CFLs are currently more expensive to buy, the US Dept of Energy claims that >$30 in electricity can be saved over the lifetime of each bulb.

While the cost and energy-saving arguments for CFLs are powerful, public acceptance has been hindered by a sense that the quality of light CFLs emit is insufficiently ‘soothing’ or ‘natural’ – the so-called ‘wife test’. Furthermore, because CFLs contain mercury, the safe disposal of spent or broken bulbs can be more complex and expensive. As the obligation to use CFLs becomes more widespread, it is clear that their price, quality, and ease of safe disposal will all have to improve. Indeed, they are likely to face competition from other forms of eco-lighting, such as light emitting diodes (LEDs).

The demise of incandescents is part of a series of low-level ‘eco-hardships’ which are (more or less) consumer-approved or even consumer-driven. Other ecohardships include removing ‘standby’ modes from appliances; charging for plastic bags (or banning them altogether, as in San Francisco); charging for the collection of (unrecyclable) waste; pricing drivers off congested roads; encouraging people to turn down domestic thermostats; &c.

It remains to be seen, however, whether these individual acts can have an aggregate effect sufficient to counter environmental damage at an industrial and governmental level.

Substance of the Year

Alexander Litvinenko’s alleged murder in London in 2006 gave media exposure to the little-known element Polonium (Po).

Reports quickly surfaced that Litvinenko had died from radioactive poisoning and, within days, traces of the highly toxic isotope Polonium-210 had been found in more than 12 locations in London, Moscow, and Hamburg, and on 4 aircraft. Hundreds of people with elevated levels of Po-210 have since been traced.

Polonium was the first element to be discovered as a consequence of its radioactivity. It was isolated in 1898 by Marie and Pierre Curie, during their analysis of the radioactive ore ‘pitchblende’. Provisionally called Radium F, the element was renamed Polonium to draw attention to the political plight of Marie’s homeland, Poland, which was then under the partitioned rule of Russia, Prussia, and Austria.

Po is an extremely rare and highly toxic metallic element found in uranium ores at a quantity of c.0·1g per ton. Po has 34 isotopes (more than any other element), all of which are radioactive. The most widely used of these isotopes – Po-210 – occurs in nature at very low levels (all humans carry harmless traces). However, in sufficient quantities, Po-210 emits enough gamma particles to produce a blue glow and, according to the CDC, the alpha particles it emits ‘carry high amounts of energy that can damage or destroy genetic material in cells inside the body’. By weight, Po-210 is 250bn times more toxic than cyanide; a dose smaller than a grain of salt is fatal.

In the industrial world, Po-210 is used as a heat source for satellite power supplies, a trigger for nuclear weapons, and as a means of eliminating static. (It is also found in cigarettes; according to a NYT article by Prof. Robert Proctor, ‘pack and a half smokers are dosed to the tune of about 300 chest X-rays’ a year.)

The British Health Protection Agency notes that ‘Po-210 only represents a radiation hazard if it is taken into the body – by breathing it in, by taking it into the mouth, or if it gets into a wound. It is not a radiological hazard as long as it remains outside the body. Most traces of it can be eliminated through handwashing, or washing machine and dishwasher cycles’.

Because of Po-210’s rarity, toxicity, and difficulty of extraction, it became clear that Litvinenko’s death was unlikely to have been accidental. As Prof. Goodhead of the UK’s Medical Research Council told the BBC, ‘to poison someone, much larger amounts are required and this would have to be man-made, perhaps from a particle accelerator or a nuclear reactor’. Inevitably, speculation as to the origin of the Po-210 that killed Litvinenko focused on Russia.