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Of lightning probes and inexplicable bird deaths

Faranaaz Parker

The M&G's Faranaaz Parker rounds up five odd things you may have missed this week.

The M&G‘s Faranaaz Parker rounds up five odd things you may have missed this week.

Provincial minister calls for lightning probe
In a flash of seeming ignorance, KwaZulu-Natal’s minister for cooperative governance and traditional affairs, Nomsa Dube, has called on the national department of science and technology to investigate the causes of lightning after seven people died in lightning strikes in Eshowe on the weekend.

According to the South African Press Association, Dube said: “We will do an investigation and talk to the department of science and technology on what is the cause of the lightning,” adding that “scientists from the department could perhaps help us and come up with instruments that could help community members protect themselves against lightning”.

Rather than holding an inquest, we could perhaps save valuable tax money by handing Dube a note bearing the words “Benjamin Franklin” and “lightning rod”.

Avastin, Lucentis, Nice and Roche
Big pharma isn’t winning itself any brownie points this week. British health authorities have made moves to license Avastin, a cheap drug that could prevent wet age-related macular degeneration (AMD), the leading cause of blindness.

Wet AMD can be treated and prevented with regular doses of the bowel cancer drug Avastin, but it’s not licensed for use in treating wet AMD so the state won’t pay for its costs. Now Britain’s National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (Nice) is to conduct an official appraisal of the drug for use in ophthalmology.

But Roche, the Swiss drug company that markets the drug, says it will not apply for a licence to use Avastin to treat wet AMD “due to corporate considerations”, so Nice will have to undertake the task without the support of the drug’s manufacturer.

Money clearly seems to be the incentive for Roche standing in the way of attempts to license Avastin for use by ophthalmologists. The company markets a similar and much more expensive drug, called Lucentis, which is used in treating wet AMD, but is 15 times more expensive than Avastin.

Birds fall from the sky
The blogosphere was rife with speculation concerning the cause of a real-life horror story that unfolded on New Year’s Eve in the small Arkansas town of Beebe. Over 3 000 red-winged blackbirds fell from the sky, peppering the landscape. Most died and those that survived staggered around as if drunk.

Some believe the strange incident was a result of fireworks that had stunned the birds while others say violent thunderstorms may have disoriented them. Another theory is that the birds may have been struck by lightning. Local authorities plan to test the birds for toxins and disease. The exact cause of the incident remains unclear.

Curiously, in the nearby town of Ozark, up to 100 000 dead fish washed up along the Arkansas River. The authorities believe this incident was caused by disease. There is no indication that the two events are linked but the coincidence makes for an eerie New Year story.

Facebook’s $500-million investment
Social media fundis were all a-twitter this week with reports that Goldman Sachs and Russian firm Digital Sky Technologies (Naspers) had invested $500-million in Facebook, meaning the company is worth more than $50-billion.

But the deal has raised heads in financial circles and now, according to the Wall Street Journal, the US Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) is to review disclosure rules that require private firms with 500 or more shareholders in a given type of stock to reveal certain financial information.

Officially, Facebook has fewer than 500 shareholders. The new deal will involve creating a special purpose vehicle that will allow clients of Goldman Sachs and Digital Sky Technologies to buy as much as $1,5-billion of equity in Facebook, without breaking the 500 shareholder rule.

If the SEC finds that the investment vehicle was created as a way to circumvent its rules, it could decide to update its rules. And if this happens, there’s a chance the SEC could force Facebook to publicly list, something founder Mark Zuckerberg isn’t keen on.

Nasa scorns 2012
The Guardian reports that Nasa has named Roland Emmerich’s 2012 the most scientifically flawed film ever. Donald Yeomans, of Nasa’s Near Earth Asteroid Rendezvous mission, called the film an “exceptional and extraordinary” example of Hollywood bad science.

The film draws on superstitions concerning the Mayan long-count calendar and mashes it together with pseudo-science concerning solar flares and neutrinos, which somehow lead to the end of the world as we know it. Anyone with a remote interest in science would find the entire film preposterous and yet it not only raked in $800-million but also led concerned viewers to flood the space agency with queries on whether the end was indeed nigh.

In response, Nasa set up an FAQ site, answering some of the most commonly raised issues and debunking the 2012 myths that have spawned. The next time someone asks you whether you’ve prepared for 2012, you know where to send them.

  • Faranaaz’s interests span science, technology and development. Read her weekly wrap every weekend on the M&G and follow her on Twitter here

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