BBC BLOGS - Today: Tom Feilden

Archives for October 2010

The planet in a pebble

Tom Feilden | 09:55 UK time, Friday, 22 October 2010

A pebble

"It is just an ordinary pebble."

As first sentences go the opening salvo of The Planet in a Pebble has to be amongst the most banal and unassuming ever written.

Of course that's the whole point. Pebbles are dull - solid, implacable, mundane.

Until, that is, you look a little closer, and begin to unpack the stories frozen in their structure. And here Jan Zalasiewicz's account comes dramatically to life, launching us on a journey into the deep history of the universe.

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It's a tale of the birth - and explosive death - of stars and galaxies, of the upheaval of planetary formation, and the violent convulsions of the earth's geological history.

The pebble at the heart of Jan Zalasiewicz's story is a piece of welsh slate, picked up near Aberystwyth, and shot through with veins of white quartz.

It has a history, he says, that can be traced back through more than a billion years of the earth's geological evolution, but there will be atoms within it that are even older, atoms forged in the white heat of exploding supernovae billions of light years across space.

"Every pebble really does have a story. We're surrounded by history, enormous, deep and varied history, and it really is readable from material as simple as pebbles".

And of course the story is not finished. Those dull, unassuming pebbles on the beach today may one day form part of a new ocean floor or mountain range.

Sadly the story unfolds so slowly that none of us will be around to see it.

Cyber war or science fiction?

Tom Feilden | 09:19 UK time, Tuesday, 5 October 2010

An Iranian security man stands next to journalists outside the reactor building at the Russian-built Bushehr nuclear power plant in southern Iran

The announcement, from Iran's intelligence minister Heidar Moslehi, that the authorities in Tehran have arrested a number of "nuclear spies" and defeated attempts to sabotage the country's civil nuclear programme, has thrust Stuxnet - a mysterious computer virus - into the media spotlight. Could this be the first salvo in a new form of warfare - cyber war?

The programme, which targets industrial control systems in big infrastructure projects, first appeared last year.

It's caused problems in India, Indonesia and the US, but the country worst affected seems to be Iran, where 60% of all reported incidents have occurred and where the virus has been found on laptops belonging to staff at the Bushehr nuclear power plant, due to come online later this year.

Who created Stuxnet, and exactly what it does or how it works, remains shrouded in mystery. But the size and complexity of its coding has surprised computer experts, fuelling speculation that this is an orchestrated, hostile act designed to bring an enemy to its knees without a shot being fired. Inevitably suspicion has focused on the Unites States and Israel.

The idea of cyber war - disrupting the electricity grid or water supply system, or interfering in computer operated programmes like the air traffic control systems of an enemy - has long been a staple of science fiction.

But while there have been one or two examples of entire computer networks suspiciously crashing (in Estonia for instance in 2007, when banks, government departments and national media outlets found their websites swamped by massive amounts of spam), there's been no clear evidence of deliberate sabotage.

Stuxnet seems to fit the bill for the first act in a new form of cyber warfare because it specifically targets these infrastructure control systems.

As one analyst involved in trying to reverse engineer the virus put it. "This is what a nation state would do if the only other option was to go to war."

Despite the fact that no-one is even sure if there is such a thing as cyber war a number of countries, including the US, have invested heavily in combating the threat of attack.

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Speaking on the programme this morning the man who coined the term cyberspace, William Gibson, said what surprised him most was how long it had taken to happen.

"This isn't defence in cyberspace anymore, it's just defence. Twenty years ago this was another world, but today its our world. It's where the bank keeps your money."

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