Garlic risk?

▪️ Garlic risk? ▪️ The stuff of physics ▪️ At home and school ▪️ Of chickens and a chick

I always thought that the worst by-product of garlic is the strong smell it leaves in a consumer’s mouth.  But now it is being claimed that it could also represent a national security risk – at least in the USA.

Republican Senator Rick Scott has invoked a law which allows investigations into the impact of specific imports on the security of the US, to request that the Department of Commerce take action against Chinese garlic, citing unsafe and unsanitary production methods.

China is the world’s biggest exporter of fresh and chilled garlic and the US is a major consumer. But the US has accused China of “dumping” garlic on to the market at below-cost price. Since the mid-1990s it has levied heavy tariffs or taxes on Chinese imports in order to prevent US producers from being priced out of the market.
In his request, Senator Scott refers to practices which, he says, have been “well documented” in online videos, cooking blogs and documentaries, including growing garlic in sewage. He argues: “Food safety and security is an existential emergency that poses grave threats to our national security, public health, and economic prosperity.” The Office for Science and Society at McGill University in Quebec, which attempts to popularise and explain scientific issues, says there is “no evidence” that sewage is used as a fertiliser for growing garlic in China.

Malta too imports garlic from China; the latest estimate I could find was €14,000 worth of it, though the figure is a few years old. Now, to import mobiles from China is one thing, but to import garlic is quite another.  I wouldn’t dream of calling such imports a national security risk, but local garlic grows readily, tastes fine, and costs very little. Sourcing it 5,000 miles away says a lot about unsustainable choices that carry huge human costs.    

The stuff of physics

Physics doesn’t just happen in a fancy lab — it happens when you push a piece of buttered toast off the table or drop a couple of raisins in a fizzy drink or watch a coffee spill dry.  It’s the laws of physics, not luck, that determine which side faces down when your toast reaches the ground; or why the spilt coffee forms a ‘coffee ring’ where the liquid evaporates faster at the edges; or why the raisins rise and sink in the drink under the influence of carbon dioxide.

Ever wondered why your touchscreen doesn’t work with your gloves on? You are able to slide your fingers across your smartphone screen only because of the principles of physics.  The electrons on your fingertips repel the like-charged particles of the phone screen, causing the phone sensors to work according to the software programme.  Even simple cell phones are based on the principles of electricity and electromagnetism.

Physics is a fascinating subject, though I have to admit that it wasn’t my forte at school.  But this does not prevent me from trying to follow what is going on in the world of physics.  I am always intrigued when somebody comes along and challenges the accepted scientific rules.

One such occasion was new research just reported by University College London (UCL) physicists.  They may have just cracked the code to unite Einstein’s gravity theory with the peculiar rules of quantum mechanics. If their theory holds up, it might untangle a mystery that has puzzled scientists for decades, shedding light on how the universe works and what matter is made of.

Modern physics leans on two key ideas: quantum theory, dealing with the tiniest building blocks of the cosmos, and Einstein’s general relativity, explaining gravity by picturing the bending of spacetime.  Quantum mechanics gives an apparently flawless description of the forces that dominate at the atomic scale. Albert Einstein’s theory of general relativity has never been proven wrong in its predictions of how gravity shapes cosmic events.

However, these theories have been at odds for more than a hundred years, and no one has managed to reconcile them yet. The UCL team, led by Prof. Jonathan Oppenheim, might have just changed that. They have proposed a framework that they say could unify these two pillars of physics, through a radical rethink of the nature of spacetime. Instead of time ticking away predictably, under the “postquantum theory of classical gravity”, the rate at which time flows would wobble randomly, like the ebb and flow of a stream.

Until now, the prevailing assumption has been that Einstein’s theory of gravity must be modified, or “quantised”, in order to fit within quantum theory. This is the approach of string theory, which advances the view that spacetime comprises 10, 11 or possibly 26 dimensions. Another leading candidate, advanced by Prof. Carlo Rovelli and others, is loop quantum gravity, in which spacetime is composed of finite loops woven into an extremely fine fabric.

The controversy is so hot that the theoretical physicist and author Rovelli has signed a 5,000:1 odds bet with Oppenheim against the theory being proven correct. If Oppenheim’s hunch is correct and space-time isn’t quantised, he stands to win bucketloads of potato chips, colourful plastic bazinga balls, or shots of olive oil, according to his fancy — as long as each item costs at most 20 English pence.

Oppenheim’s theory, published in the journal Physical Review X,challenges the consensus by suggesting that spacetime may be classical and not governed by quantum theory at all. This means spacetime, however closely you zoomed in on it, would be smooth and continuous rather than “quantised” into discrete units. However, Oppenheim introduces the idea that spacetime is also inherently wobbly, subject to random fluctuations that create an intrinsic breakdown in predictability.

This proposed “wobbliness” would result in a breakdown of predictability, which, Oppenheim says, “many physicists don’t like”.  Retorts Rovellli: “Speculations are welcome, particularly if they can be experimentally tested. But most speculations turn out to be wrong. I think it is good that Oppenheim explores this possibility, even if not very plausible, but big claims about a ‘New theory unites Einstein’s gravity with quantum mechanics’ sounds a bit overblown to me.”

All this might sound highly esoteric and, like me, you would probably find the theory tough, but ultimately, whether the theory is correct or not, is not an aesthetic preference, but a question of whether it is a faithful representation of the reality of space and the universe as we know it.

At home and school

Parents are the first educators of children – they play a crucial role in a child’s early development and learning, whether it is potty training or learning how to read. However, some parents seem to think that sending their kids off to school is the end of parental involvement. Far from it.

The OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) data shows why this is not the case.  Its 2022 report confirms that students who were supported at home had more positive attitudes towards school and learning. Across OECD countries, higher-performing students who reported regularly eating a main meal with their family, whose family members spend time talking to them and asking about their school day, were more likely to have high test scores. They scored 16 to 28 points higher in maths than students who reported that their family do not engage in those activities at least once or twice a week.

According to findings released in early December, some 73% of Maltese students reported that their parents or someone in the family asked them what they did at school at least once or twice a week, compared to 78% in the OECD. Not bad, but still a lot less than Ireland’s 88%.  In the EU we ranked 21st.

The data takes into account students’ and schools’ socio-economic profile and shows that, while family income and social status can have an impact, the level of active support that parents offer their children might have a decisive effect.  Other PISA data back this up. Overall, education systems with positive trends in parental engagement in student learning between 2018 and 2022 showed greater stability or improvement in maths. This was particularly true for disadvantaged students.

Research by Leicester and Leeds Universities in the UK has shown that children with pushy parents are likely to do better at school, and parents’ efforts have a bigger impact on the youngsters’ achievement than the effort the pupil or the school makes. This result came out of a National Child Development Study, which followed a group of individuals born in a particular week in 1958 throughout their lives.

To me, the overall picture is worrying. This is not to mention that our children ranked worse than the OECD average in Maths, Reading, and Science.  Though in science we improved our position by nine points, in Mathematics and Reading we decreased by six points and three points respectively.  In Kafkaesque language the Ministry of Education euphemistically called the latter two results “consistent” with those in 2118 – the reality is they were worse.

Parents must avoid the misconception that their children’s education solely relies on the efforts of teachers. Meanwhile, schools should ensure that teachers consistently engage with parents on a more regular basis. By building stronger family-school partnerships, children will benefit. When parents and teachers work together in harmony, it can foster a more comprehensive and effective learning environment.

Of chickens and a chick

The papers recently reported a man who allegedly punched his partner, tied her hands, dragged her, and locked her inside a chicken coop.  He lost is, he claimed, because his chick was responsible for the loss of some chickens. The chick suffered a nine-hour-long ordeal just three days before Christmas at a farmhouse in the limits of Siġġiewi.

It appears that the man went to check the state of health of his beloved chickens and, upon finding three of them dead, attacked his chick and locked her out on the terrace,

The accused then pushed her onto the terrace, threatening that she would “never again step inside”.  The poor woman, who was not as beloved as the chickens, remained on the terrace for over two hours until she noticed that the kitchen window was ajar.  She slipped inside, but when her partner found her there he allegedly punched her, fastened her hands with a tie clip and dragged her outside, bundling her into the hen house. 

The woman realised she still had her mobile phone on her, so she dialled the 112 emergency number to ask for help. But the accused returned, snatched her phone and left the chicken coop. She recalled hearing him slam the phone on the floor and realised he had left the door unlocked.  That is when she slipped out, got a lift from a woman, and filed a report at the nearest police station.

Photo: cottonbro studio

The chick has two minor children from her 47-year-old partner   ̶   both of which are under a care order.  It seems that they too are not that loved.  This is not a surprise, given that the man apparently finds solace in cannabis, rather than in the company of his children.

Fortunately, on his arraignment, the Magistrate denied him bail, after officers from Appoġġ deemed the case as one of high risk. Having been through some horror stories lately, I think any Court will think twice before affording bail to a violent man.  It is so sad to think that some men consider chickens to be more valuable than human beings.

Main photo: Reuters

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