The American Association for the Advancement of Science conference has kicked off in Vancouver, Canada, under the theme of flattening the world – not Hulk like destruction, more about sharing knowledge evenly across the globe. There’s going to be plenty of talk on how electronic communications can help spread information around the world that can help people address the myriad challenges they face in feeding themselves, providing clean water and sustainable development. But for now Thursday was a low key start, building to a very busy next three days.

Flattening the world in Vancouver

So what’s out and about? Well we have another theory on what Stonehenge is all about. Steven Waller studies archaeoacoustics – looking at the role sound may have played in ancient cultures. He thinks Stonehenge and other similar circles – sometimes called piper rings or the giant’s dance – are laid out according to patterns of acoustic interference. It’s an odd one I’ll admit and I only mention it as everyone’s heard all the different theories about the site being some kind of cosmic calendar, or an ancient hospital or a landing site for UFOs.

He dreamed up this idea after noticing that interference patterns can create regular deadening of sound. He found that blindfolded volunteers who were walked around two flutes playing a continuous note in the middle of a field described ‘obstructions’ in the sounds they heard – just like something was in the way. This deadening is down to destructive interference between the sound waves, but ancient cultures would have had no knowledge of this. He theorises that they spotted these patterns, but they appeared ‘magical’ to them, as if there was something hiding in plain sight. He thinks that they went on to design their circles on these patterns. You can listen to him here.

Meanwhile, researchers from the energy institute at the University of Texas, Austin, have been looking into hydraulic fracturing, better known as fracking to try to help policy makers separate fact from fiction. In a report, they conclude that fracking is no worse than any other oil or gas extraction process. The problem isn’t so much in forcing apart the shale to release the gas, it’s nearer the surface where faulty well casings and poor cement seals allow contaminated water to taint groundwater – much like other hydrocarbon extraction processes.

The day finished with the incoming AAAS president Nina Fedoroff giving a packed auditorium her inspirational life story. Growing up in a Russian family in the US she said she was given little encouragement to be the best she could be. But she persevered always going that extra mile and pushing for opportunities, until she joined Nobel laureate Barbara McClintock’s group. There she made a name for herself in genetics research, cloning and sequencing one of the first plant genes when others said that there was something about plant genes that made them inimical to being cloned. She shared with the delegates her fears for the future, with a rapidly growing world population, pressures on food, water and other resources. And she made the case that science holds the solution to tackling many of these problems, particularly genetic engineering of plants – an area she has some experience in herself. She decried the slow regulatory process for genetically modified organisms and said that it is a scandal that vitamin A enhanced rice – that could help ward off disease in millions – is still not on the market a decade after it was developed. A good start to the conference and there’s some interesting topics ahead – I’m looking forward to it.

Patrick Walter

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