RTD info logoMagazine on European Research

N 40 - February 2004

Discovering your ecological footprint…

Imagine you are Robinson Crusoe. How big must your island be for your sustainable survival – to meet all your needs in terms of food, energy, building materials, clean air, drinking water and waste disposal? The answer involves your ecological footprint. If your lifestyle places too much pressure on the area available (for example, by lighting large camp fires every night to help ease your loneliness), your longer-term survival could be threatened.

The ecological footprint is a measure, expressed in hectares, that promotes awareness of man's exploitation of nature's resources, whether individually or collectively. By filling in a questionnaire on the Internet, an individual can determine his or her own footprint on the basis of their consumption and the resources needed to meet it. The result is then displayed and set against the national average. This personal measurement helps you to appreciate how small, daily gestures can avoid placing what is ultimately an unsustainable burden on the environment. Switching off lights, turning down the heating a couple of degrees, opting for public transport or a bicycle, not producing excessive quantities of food that are then thrown away… it all helps!

The Americans – who top the consumption league – currently need ten hectares per person, the Italians four, and the Indians less than one. Today, nature is able to offer approximately 1.9 hectares of bioproductive space per inhabitant. By 2050, when the global population looks set to reach 9 billion, the figure will have fallen to 1.2.

According to the WWF (World Wide Fund for Nature) report Living Planet 2002, in 1999 the global footprint was already 20% above the earth's biological capacity, following an 80% increase between 1961 and 1999. Over approximately the same period (1970-2000), biodiversity shrank considerably: populations fell by 15% for land species, 35% for marine species, and 54% for freshwater species. If the needs of industrial countries continue to grow at current rates, we will soon require at least two extra planets able to provide the same wealth of resources as the Earth.

The Ecological Footprint Network coordinates the efforts of teams and groups all over the world who are interested in the ecological footprint, but who do not always use the same methods of calculation. In particular, the network is endeavouring to achieve harmonised accounts of natural assets and to define standards for assessing ecological viability.

+ Plus: beauty and pleasure of the maths

Boring? Maths? How wrong you are… exclaim the experts who launched the virtual magazine +Plus. Their hope is to encourage those who found maths a 'turn-off' to turn back on again and give this aesthetically appealing, fun and creative subject a second go. Published five times a year, their magazine fully exploits the many creative and educational possibilities offered by the Internet. Clear, well presented, easy to use, interesting and entertaining, +Plus seeks to demonstrate to a wide public (from beginners to devotees) that 'maths is not what you think it is'.

For example, the researcher Marcus du Sautoy analyses the number 23 displayed on the shirt of the Real Madrid player (British footballer David Beckham) in a discussion on chance and numbers, while Chris Budd, lecturer at Bath University, presents the chaos theory by taking such mundane examples as the relationships between urban population growth and management of living space.

+ Plus is a participant in the Millennium Mathematics Project, a British initiative launched by Cambridge University. However, the vocation is international, and one of the contributors is Konrad Polthier from Berlin's Technical University. This expert on imaging explains mathematical phenomena, with the aid of computer images which lend the magazine an undeniably aesthetic appeal. In its latest issue, readers can 'see' how the strange Klein Bottle and Möbius Band are such intriguing shapes which fold in on themselves. All in all, + Plus provides a fascinating and painless way of understanding abstract notions, following the work of researchers, and setting out to track down everyday applications.

What kind of climate are we creating?

Climax, Cité des sciences et de l'Industrie, Paris (FR) – 31.08.04

At this 'exhibition-simulation' on climate change the visitor can 'experience' possible climates of the future on Earth by forecasting different scenarios. For example, possible limits on greenhouse gas emissions into the atmosphere are presented to visitors by using a series of images projected through 360°. This is followed by the 'Forum of opinions' where you can listen in to interviews with leading experts from Europe and the US. The final port of call is a simulated game where the visitor is invited to take the controls of a virtual earth management machine and can see the results displayed on giant screens. Everyone can choose their own scenario – a tripling of the number of cars on the road in China, reforestation of Northern Europe, development of sustainable energy in the USA, etc. When you enter the data the game calculates in real time the CO2 concentration and its consequences for the climate 50, 100 or 200 years into the future.

The exhibition is translated into English and Spanish and the Cité site is opening a special 'Managing the planet' portal presenting a wealth of information on the climate and sustainable development.

Bullet To find out more

The age of aviation

Die Gebruder Wright und der Beginn des Motorflugs, Deutsches Museum, Munich (DE) – 14.11.04

Photographs, early flying machines, and contemporary accounts are combined this exhibition – of particular fascination for children – relating the era of the Wright brothers, Wilbur and Orville, designers of the first motor-propelled aircraft, Flyer-I, which took off from a beach in North Carolina on 17 December 1903. This biplane had two wooden propellers but no wheels, simply sliding over the ground. Chains provided the transmission system for the propellers and the pilot lay on his front beneath the wing, alongside the engine. After four years of determined effort, the Flyer-1 finally made its maiden flight, but not before the Wright brothers had built the first wind tunnel in the United States where they tested more than 200 wing profiles. An era that began with an initial 12-second flight culminated in some impressive performances at the beginning of the century. In 1905, Flyer-II was able to remain airborne for over half an hour, flying at a speed of over 60 km/hr – a lesson in resourcefulness and tenacity.

Bullet To find out more

What use are flies?

CreepyCrawly, Experimentarium Science Centre, Copenhagen (DK) – 12.09.04

This family exhibition that even the organisers describe as 'an experience' immerses the visitor in the invisible and sometimes ghoulish world of the insects that live all around us. They are discovered in a fun way by means of the 'Reduction Machine'. Young visitors can, for example, see themselves reduced to the size of an insect and print out a genuine postcard depicting them on this Lilliputian scale. There are also answers to those very logical questions children love so much, such as 'How much waste do mites have to absorb in one year?' and 'What use are flies?'

The brain and its mysteries 

With a volume roughly equivalent to that of a milk carton, the brain contains 100 billion neurones, each of which can make up to 10 000 connections. This impressive construction holds the key to the very essence of our being – and destroys it when it goes wrong. Parkinson's disease, migraine, epilepsy, schizophrenia, anxiety, depression, Alzheimer's disease and multiple sclerosis are all the result of diseases of the nervous system. But research is making headway.

Medical imaging is making it possible to pinpoint exactly where the brain is affected, molecular biology is helping us to understand how some of the nerve cells operate, genetics has identified the hereditary component of various neurological diseases, and new treatments are now being made available.

The European Dana Alliance for the Brain  (EDAB), a group of researchers and specialists currently comprising 120 participants from 24 countries, has set up an Internet site to keep the general public informed on progress concerning our knowledge of the brain and research in neuroscience. Visitors can consult a range of documents, all easy to understand, on the 'major questions' posed by this (still) mysterious organ – What are the characteristics of nerve cells? How is information channelled through our body? How to 'find your way' around the topology of the brain, and how does the brain develop? The association's journal Eurobrain features articles on more 'common' problems such as depression, dependency, memory, and sleep disturbance.

This multilingual site (English, French, German, Italian) also includes a number of links – in particular to patient associations and the families of sufferers.