Stevenage: for readers outside of the UK it may not ring much of a bell, and indeed, with no disrespect to Stevenagians, for most UK readers it is not one of our most famous and glamorous metropolitan areas. Located around 50 km north of London, Stevenage has Roman and Saxon roots and has been a market town for more than a millennium. Its name may originate from the Old English for ‘place of the strong oak’, but exactly why its coat of arms depicts a sword thrust through the heart of the oak remains something of a mystery to me.
But Stevenage has one claim to fame that originated close to a century ago and continues today: what is sometimes referred to as a military-industrial complex. The English Electric Company established a facility for making aircraft parts and engines there in 1918, and continued to do through the Second World War. Furthermore, according to the Royal Aeronautical Society, “it is also thought that… there was a secret explosive weapons establishment which designed and created sabotage devices.” In the 1950s and 60s Britain’s very own intercontinental ballistic missile, Blue Streak, was assembled at Stevenage and shipped to Australian desert where the requirements for its testing (along with nuclear devices) emptied the land of its native inhabitants and changed the outback forever. The remains of the first missile launched from Woomera on June 5th, 1964, were discovered not far from Giles Meteorological Station in Western Australia in 1980 and are on display there (after a hardly intercontinental journey of perhaps a thousand kilometers):
For more of the story of the British militarisation of the Australian desert, I recommend my next book, but enough advertising and back to Stevenage. The aerospace facilities there continue to thrive and are now the location for Airbus Defence and Space and Paradigm Secure Communications, housing “Airbus Defence and Space’s spacecraft design and build facility and the headquarters of Paradigm Secure Communications.” They are also now the location for the very large sand pit that is affectionately referred to as ‘Mars Yard’. As the European Space Agency reported recently:
A state-of-the-art ‘Mars yard’ is now ready to put the ExoMars rover through its paces before the vehicle is launched to the Red Planet in 2018.
ESA, the UK Space Agency and Airbus Defence and Space opened the renovated test area in Stevenage, UK, today.
ExoMars is a joint endeavour between ESA and Russia’s Roscosmos space agency. Comprising two missions for launch to Mars in 2016 and 2018, ExoMars will address the outstanding scientific question of whether life has ever existed on the planet, by investigating the atmosphere and drilling into the surface to collect and analyse samples.
Extended Mars Yard opening
The programme will also demonstrate key technologies for entry, descent, landing, drilling and roving.
Filled with 300 tonnes of sand, the 30 x 13 m Mars yard at the Stevenage site of Airbus Defence and Space mimics the appearance of the martian [sic] landscape. Its walls, doors and all interior surfaces are painted a reddish-brown colour to ensure the rover’s navigation cameras are confronted by as realistic a scenario as possible. … The yard will also be available after the rover has landed on Mars in 2019, to help overcome any challenging situations that might be encountered on the Red Planet.
The sand pit was honoured by a visit by a leading politician, the Secretary of State for Business – how often does a political photo-op feature suits in the sand?
And, of course, the stirring declaration that
The ExoMars rover represents the best of British high-value manufacturing… The technologies developed as part of the programme, such as autonomous navigation systems, new welding materials and techniques, will also have real impacts on other sectors, helping them stay on the cutting edge.
Not only is it hugely exciting that Europe’s next mission to Mars will be British-built, but it is incredibly rewarding to see the benefits of our investment in the European Space Agency creating jobs here in the UK.
Being still in the throes of editing and correcting the proofs for the new book (with the exception of compiling the index, the least enjoyable part of the whole process), I am particularly paranoid about fact-checking. I have one important (and, I'm sure, obvious) piece of advice: never believe anything you read or see in the press or on the web, without at least a triple-fact-check.
I intend, in tandem with the new book, to evolve this blog naturally into looking at topics arid as well as arenaceous, and, as I have been doing for the last few years, I keep an eye on the news. I just came across a wonderful illustration of the fact that there remains an awful lot new under the sun still to be discovered – on every scale. As I emphasise in the book, while our awareness of the complexity, diversity and value of the ecosystems of arid lands is a long way behind that of temperate and tropical environments, we are, nevertheless, redressing that imbalance on a daily basis. Take, for example, the just-announced discovery of a new species of desert mammal, the weird and wonderful Macroscelides micus:
Scientists from the California Academy of Sciences have discovered a new species of round-eared sengi, or elephant-shrew, in the remote deserts of southwestern Africa. This is the third new species of sengi to be discovered in the wild in the past decade. It is also the smallest known member of the 19 sengis in the order Macroscelidea. The team’s discovery and description of the Etendeka round-eared sengi (Macroscelides micus) is published this week in the Journal of Mammalogy.
Sengis are otherwise known as elephant-shrews because they have a snout that resembles an elephant’s trunk, but they are not shrews – indeed, remarkably, they are more closely related to elephants. But the fact is that they are in a class of their own. Again from the California Academy of Sciences:
Few mammals have had a more colorful history of misunderstood ancestry than the elephant-shrews, or sengis. Most species were first described by Western scientists in the mid to late 19th century, when they were considered closely related to true shrews, hedgehogs, and moles in the order Insectivora. Since then, there has been an increasing realization that they are not closely related to any other group of living mammals, resulting in biologists mistakenly associating them with ungulates, primates, and rabbits. The recent use of molecular techniques to study evolutionary relationships, in addition to the more traditional morphological methods, has confirmed that elephant-shrews represent an ancient monophyletic African radiation. Most biologists currently include the elephant-shrews in a new supercohort, the Afrotheria, which encompasses several other distinctive African groups or clades. These include elephants, sea cows, and hyraxes (the Paenungulata); the aardvark and elephant-shrews, and the golden-moles and tenrecs.
The newly-discovered round-eared sengi is a charming little critter (image by John P. Dumbacher, the lead author of the paper):
Macroscelides micus is a true xerocole, an animal cleverly adapted to living – indeed, thriving – in arid conditions. This sengi lives on and around the Etendeka Plateau, a large area of volcanic rocks formed 130 million years ago as the South Atlantic was beginning to form – they were originally connected to the vast landscapes of the Paraná volcanics of Brazil.
This image from the California Academy of Sciences paper shows this stark and remote terrain (together with an example of the bizarre and unique xerophyte, welwitschia – but that’s another story):
Which brings me back to the beginning of this post and a slight rant about fact-checking. Like, I am sure, most of us, when a topic like this comes up, one of the first questions is where exactly is the Etendeka Plateau? Look at the two maps at the head of this post. On the left is the map reproduced in an article on the discovery in one of our illustrious British newspapers (and yes, given the recent news, I’m being sarcastic). Accompanied by the words “Mapped: Found in a remote area of Namibia, on the inland edge of the Namib Desert (mapped) at the base of the Etendeka Plateau”, it places the poor sengis right in the midst of the dunes of the Namib sand sea. Xerocoles they may be, but that’s pushing things a bit too far. The correct location – some 500 kms north – is shown on the right-hand map and is clearly illustrated in detail in the original paper if anyone had cared to check.
I find this time and time again. Google maps can’t even get my home location in London right, so why believe a map of an obscure and remote location reproduced in a newspaper? The answer is simply for no reason at all. It’s a sobering thought – if, on so many occasions, a simple fact-check on something you are particularly interested in reveals sloppiness and error, what about all the other stuff we don’t bother to fact-check?
More than fifty years ago, my parents particularly enjoyed the production that opened the newly constructed Mermaid Theatre in London (now sadly, and controversially, converted to a ‘Conference and Events Centre’). The play was a musical, based on an 18th century comedy by Henry Fielding, and included the satirical song It must be true. I remember, for years after, my father periodically singing to himself the opening line: “It must be true, for I read it in the papers, didn’t you?”
Serendipity is a wonderful thing, and I was surprised and delighted to find, completely by accident while looking for something else, this document, published back in March:
In the acknowledgment section, the following appears:
The idea for this publication came from the film documentary “Le Sable: enquête sur une disparition,” directed by Denis Delestrac and broadcast on Arte channel on May 28, 2013.
Wow! Perhaps, just perhaps, the documentaryis raising awareness, might just, somehow, somewhere, be making a bit of a difference…
The complete document is available on the UNEP website. It’s an excellent resource, with a number of very useful references - well-worth a read. I will simply reproduce the conclusions here:
Sand and gravel represent the highest volume of raw material used on earth after water. Their use greatly exceeds natural renewal rates. Moreover, the amount being mined is increasing exponentially, mainly as a result of rapid economic growth in Asia (UNEP and CSIRO, 2011). Negative effects on the environment are unequivocal and are occurring around the world. The problem is now so serious that the existence of river ecosystems is threatened in a number of locations. Damage is more severe in small river catchments. The same applies to threats to benthic ecosystems from marine extraction. A large discrepancy exists between the magnitude of the problem and public awareness of it. The absence of global monitoring of aggregates extraction undoubtedly contributes to the gap in knowledge, which translates into a lack of action. As this issue is truly a major emerging one, there is a need for in-depth research. The implementation of a monitoring mechanism regarding global aggregate extractions and trade would shed light on the magnitude of this issue and bridge the current data and knowledge gap. This would also raise this issue on the political agenda and perhaps lead to an international framework to improve extraction governance, as the current level of political concern clearly does not match the urgency of the situation.