a lot of news these days comes from, or is about, twitter. entertainment magazines and shows seem to be entirely dependant on celebrity tweets, like those fish that feed on the random things that fall out of a sharks mouth.

it’s not all random utterances and spats though. time magazine recently ran an article about the most intelligent celebrities on twitter. and those of us in the science field are regularly encouraged to tweet about our research.

but what if these two approaches were combined? what if famous scientists were on twitter, at the time of their greatest discoveries? obviously the vast majority of celebrated scientific discoveries occurred before twitter even existed. but this is the internet, where nothing is impossible!

frank: lenny abrahamson, 2014.

frank: lenny abrahamson, 2014.

don’t leave me this way: before the tiger lillies there were communards.

A less threatening solar storm on the Sun
a less threatening solar storm on the Sun. photograph: nasa/ ap

the date of 23 July 2012 could have been the day the lights went out, along with suddenly not-so-smart phones, computers, satellite transmissions, gps navigation systems, televisions, radio broadcasts, hospital equipment, electric pumps and water supplies.

on that day an “extreme solar storm” did its best to end life on Earth as we know it. the sun forced out one of the biggest plasma clouds ever detected at a speed of 3,000km per second, more than four times faster than a typical solar eruption. fortunately it missed.

"if it had hit, we would still be picking up the pieces," said daniel baker, of the laboratory for atmospheric and space physics at the university of Colorado. “i have come away from our recent studies more convinced than ever that Earth and its inhabitants were incredibly fortunate that the 2012 eruption happened when it did. if the eruption had occurred only one week earlier, Earth would have been in the line of fire.”

with colleagues from nasa and other universities, baker has been studying the disaster that wasn’t. if the coronal mass ejection (cme) had hit the Earth, it would have disabled “everything that plugs into a wall socket”.

there would have been major disruption to all satellite communications and electrical fluctuations that could have blown out transformers in power grids. most people wouldn’t have been able to turn on a tap or flush a toilet because urban water supplies largely rely on electricity.

nasa has calculated that the cost would have been 20 times the devastation caused by hurricane katrina, at $2tn.

the storm would have begun with a solar flare, which itself can cause radio blackouts and gps navigation failures. if the Earth had been in its path, this would have been followed minutes to hours later by the electrons and protons accelerated by the blast, followed by the cme, a billion-ton cloud of magnetized plasma.

there is a lavish amount of data on the storm for baker and the other scientists to study because, although the plasma cloud missed the Earth, it hit a spacecraft loaded with monitoring equipment.

the solar storm was described as a “carrington event” after the solar storm witnessed by the English astronomer richard carrington in 1859. he saw the instigating flare, and in the following days a series of cmes hit the Earth. given it was the time of steam engines and horse-drawn traffic, this was less crippling than a similar strike would be now, but it did cause telegraph lines across the globe to spark enough to set fire to some telegraph offices. there were spectacular displays of the northern lights, seen as far south as Cuba and so bright in places that people could read newspapers outside in the middle of the night.

"in my view the july 2012 storm was in all respects at least as strong as the 1859 carrington event," baker said. "the only difference is, it missed."

in fact 2012 was a near miss year for the world: nasa also put out a reassuring press release on 22 december 2012, beginning “if you’re reading this story, it means the world didn’t end on 21 december”. it came complete with a video explaining “why the world didn’t end yesterday”.

the flare was a much more plausible reason for panicking than the december stories, which were based on a misunderstanding of the ancient Mayan calendars, said to have come to an end on 21 december 2012. this was widely interpreted as meaning that the Mayan astronomers had a bad feeling about the events of that day. it now appears they didn’t, and the world staggered on.

frank: lenny abrahamson, 2014.

frank: lenny abrahamson, 2014.


thank you. forty-six years ago on april 3, 1967, i became the film critic for the Chicago sun-times. some of you have read my reviews and columns and even written to me since that time. others were introduced to my film criticism through the television show, my books, the website, the film festival, or the ebert club and newsletter.  however you came to know me, i’m glad you did and thank you for being the best readers any film critic could ask for.

typically, i write over 200 reviews a year for the sun-times that are carried by universal press syndicate in some 200 newspapers. last year, i wrote the most of my career, including 306 movie reviews, a blog post or two a week, and assorted other articles. i must slow down now, which is why i’m taking what i like to call “a leave of presence.”

what in the world is a leave of presence? it means i am not going away. my intent is to continue to write selected reviews but to leave the rest to a talented team of writers handpicked and greatly admired by me. what’s more, I’ll be able at last to do what I’ve always fantasized about doing: reviewing only the movies i want to review.

at the same time, i am re-launching the new and improved and taking ownership of the site under a separate entity, ebert digital, run by me, my beloved wife, chaz, and our brilliant friend, josh golden of table xi. stepping away from the day-to-day grind will enable me to continue as a film critic for the Chicago sun-times, and roll out other projects under the ebert brand in the coming year.


ebertfest, my annual film festival, celebrating its 15th year, will continue at the university of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign, my alma mater and home town, april 17-21. in response to your repeated requests to bring back the tv show “at the movies,” i am launching a fundraising campaign via kickstarter in the next couple of weeks. and gamers beware, i am even thinking about a movie version of a video game or mobile app. once completed, you can engage me in debate on whether you think it is art.

and i continue to cooperate with the talented filmmaker steve james on the bio-documentary he, steve zaillian and martin scorsese are making about my life. i am humbled that anyone would even think to do it, but i am also grateful.

of course, there will be some changes. the immediate reason for my “leave of presence” is my health. the “painful fracture” that made it difficult for me to walk has recently been revealed to be a cancer. it is being treated with radiation, which has made it impossible for me to attend as many movies as i used to. i have been watching more of them on screener copies that the studios have been kind enough to send to me. my friend and colleague richard roeper and other critics have stepped up and kept the newspaper and website current with reviews of all the major releases. so we have and will continue to go on. at this point in my life, in addition to writing about movies, i may write about what it’s like to cope with health challenges and the limitations they can force upon you. it really stinks that the cancer has returned and that i have spent too many days in the hospital. so on bad days i may write about the vulnerability that accompanies illness. on good days, i may wax ecstatic about a movie so good it transports me beyond illness.

i’ll also be able to review classics for my “great movies” collection, which has produced three books and could justify a fourth.

for now, i am throwing myself into ebert digital and the redesigned, highly interactive and searchable you’ll learn more about its exciting new features on april 9 when the site is launched. in addition to housing an archive of more than 10,000 of my reviews dating back to 1967 we will also feature reviews written by other critics. you may disagree with them like you have with me, but will nonetheless appreciate what they bring to the party. some i recruited from the ranks of my far flung correspondents, an inspiration i had four years ago when i noticed how many of the comments on my blog came from foreign lands and how knowledgeable they were about cinema.

we’ll be recruiting more critics and it is my hope that some of the writers i have admired over the years will be among them. we’ll offer many more reviews of indie, foreign, documentary and restored classic revivals. as the space between broadcast television, cable and the internet morph into a hybrid of content, we will continue to spotlight the musings of pulitzer prize-winning tv critic tom shales, as well as the blog “scanners" by jim emerson, who i first met at microsoft when he edited cinemania. the ebert club newsletter, under editor marie haws of Vancouver, will be expanded to give its thousands of subscribers even bigger and better benefits.


for years i devoutly took every one of my tear sheets, folded them and added them to a pile on my desk. the photo above shows the height of that pile in 1985 as it appeared on the cover of my first book about the movies published by my old friends john mcmeel and donna martin of andrews & mcmeel. today, because of technology, the opportunities to become bigger, better and reach more people are piling up too. the fact that we’re re-launching the site now, in the midst of other challenges, should give you an idea how important and ebert digital are to chaz and me. i hope you’ll stop by, and look for me. i’ll be there.

so on this day of reflection i say again, thank you for going on this journey with me. i’ll see you at the movies.

a new study suggests that the production of beef is around 10 times more damaging to the environment than any other form of livestock.

scientists measured the environment inputs required to produce the main US sources of protein.

beef cattle need 28 times more land and 11 times more irrigation water than pork, poultry, eggs or dairy.

the research has been published in the proceedings of the national academy of sciences.

while it has long been known that beef has a greater environmental impact than other meats, the authors of this paper say theirs is is the first to quantify the scale in a comparative way.

the researchers developed a uniform methodology that they were able to apply to all five livestock categories and to four measures of environmental performance.

"we have a sharp view of the comparative impact that beef, pork, poultry, dairy and eggs have in terms of land and water use, reactive nitrogen discharge, and greenhouse gas emissions," lead author prof gidon eshel, from bard college in New York, told bbc news.

"the uniformity and expansive scope is novel, unique, and important," he said.

the scientists used data from from 2000-2010 from the US department of agriculture to calculate the amount of resources required for all the feed consumed by edible livestock.

they then worked out the amount of hay, silage and concentrates such as soybeans required by the different species to put on a kilo of weight.

they also include greenhouse gas emissions not just from the production of feed for animals but from their digestion and manure.

as ruminants, cattle can survive on a wide variety of plants but they have a very low energy conversion efficiency from what they eat.

as a result, beef comes out clearly as the food animal with the biggest environmental impact.


as well as the effects on land and water, cattle release five times more greenhouse gas and consume six times more nitrogen than eggs or poultry.

cutting down on beef can have a big environmental impact they say. but the same is not true for all livestock.

"one can reasonably be an environmentally mindful eater, designing one’s diet with its environmental impact in mind, while not resorting to exclusive reliance on plant food sources," said prof eshel.

"in fact, eliminating beef, and replacing it with relatively efficiency animal-based alternatives such as eggs, can achieve an environmental improvement comparable to switching to plant food source."

other researchers say the conclusions of the new study are applicable in Europe, even though the work is based on US data.

"the overall environmental footprint of beef is particularly large because it combines a low production efficiency with very high volume," said prof mark sutton, from the UK’s centre for ecology and hydrology.

"the result is that the researchers estimate that over 60% of the environmental burden of livestock in the US results from beef. although the exact numbers will be different for Europe (expecting a larger role of dairy), the overall message will be similar: cattle dominate the livestock footprint of both Europe and US."

US death row inmate joseph wood has died after an execution in Arizona took nearly two hours to kill him.

wood, a double murderer, was executed by lethal injection.

his lawyers filed an appeal for an emergency stay of execution, after he had been “gasping and snorting for more than an hour” in the death chamber.

Arizona governor jan brewer says she has ordered a full review of the execution, although she said that wood “died in a lawful manner”.

wood’s lawyers argued the extended execution process violated his right to be executed in the absence of cruel and unusual punishment.

but ms brewer said: “by eyewitness and medical accounts he did not suffer. this is in stark comparison to the gruesome, vicious suffering that he inflicted on his two victims, and the lifetime of suffering he has caused their family.”

the execution should have taken 10 minutes, his lawyers said, but wood, 55, gasped more than 600 times before he died.

it began at 13:52 (20:52 GMT), and wood was pronounced dead at 15:49, one hour and 57 minutes later, according to the Arizona attorney-general’s office.

he was convicted of the 1989 murders of his estranged girlfriend debra dietz and her father eugene dietz.

family members of the victims were unconcerned by the way the execution was carried out.

"what I saw today… is nothing to the day it happened on august 7 1989".

"this man conducted a horrific murder and you guys are going, let’s worry about the drugs,” said richard brown.

"why didn’t they give him a bullet?"

wood’s lawyers had sought to force Arizona to name the manufacturers of the drugs used in the execution, but a last-ditch ruling by the US supreme court cleared the way for the execution to go ahead.

frank (trailer): lenny abrahamson, 2014.

three of the UK’s leading supermarkets have launched emergency investigations into their chicken supplies after a guardian investigation uncovered a catalogue of alleged hygiene failings in the poultry industry.

undercover footage, photographic evidence and information from whistleblowers has revealed how strict industry hygiene standards to prevent the contamination of chicken with the potentially deadly campylobacter bug can be flouted on the factory floor and on farms.

specific incidents identified in the last month include a factory floor flooded with chickens guts in which the bacteria can flourish, carcasses coming into contact with workers’ boots then returned to the production line and other poor practices involving points in the production chain that increase the risk of its spread.

the evidence prompted tesco, sainsbury’s and marks & spencer to launch emergency investigations into their chicken sources over the last week.

the concern centres on the bacteria campylobacter, which at the last count was present in two-thirds of British fresh chicken sold in the UK. although the bug is killed by thorough cooking, around 280,000 people in the UK are currently made ill each year by it and 100 people are thought to die. contamination rates are known to have increased in the past decade.

the food standards agency (fsa), however, decided on wednesday to shelve a promise to name and shame supermarkets and processors for their campylobacter rates. the climbdown comes after “push-back” from industry and interventions from government departments.

one source said they had been told number 10 had raised concerns about the communication of the results, fearing that they could provoke a food scare similar to that triggered when the former conservative minister edwina currie warned that most of British eggs were contaminated with salmonella in 1988.


on tuesday fiveThirtyeight released the results of a poll of Americans’ opinions on the “star wars” universe. not surprisingly, jar jar binks is the most reviled character in the series. as walt hickey notes, the gungan from naboo posted lower favorability numbers than emperor palpatine, “the actual personification of evil in the galaxy.”

on the other hand, with a net favorability of -8, jar jar is considerably more popular than the US congress, which currently enjoys a net favorability rating of -65. in fact, the last time congressional net favorability was above that was february 2005. incidentally this was just before the release date of “star wars episode iii: revenge of the sith,” which marked jar jar’s last appearance on the big screen.

but picking on congress’ unpopularity is a bit like beating a dead tauntaun. after all, the legislative branch has been less popular than lice, brussels sprouts and nickelback for some time now. what if we compared the favorability of 2016 presidential hopefuls and other political leaders with that of “star wars” characters?


hillary clinton currently has the highest net favorability of any 2016 White House contender. but to put her 19 percent favorable rating in context, she’s tied with boba fett, the bounty hunter who froze harrison ford in carbonite.