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Isaac Newton’s List of the 57 Sins he Committed by the Age of 19

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Sir Isaac Newton was a mathematician and physicist during the late 17th and early 18th centuries.  He developed the principles of modern physics, especially about motion and gravity, and was considered instrumental in the Scientific Revolution of the 17th century, according to Biography.

Newton is a very multifaceted figure.  He was undeniably a brilliant scientific mind, and a very pious man.  He was also prone to fits of rage, insecurity, and social withdrawal, where he would do no work and isolate himself from everyone.

He had a longtime interest in the study of alchemy, and was searching for the recipe to create the Philosopher’s Stone, which was reputed to turn base metals into gold, and have the power to confer eternal life.

Unlike with his interests in math and physics, his alchemical research was a very private pursuit, and was not driven by money so much as it was inspired by a desire for power over nature, according to Nova.

All of these things taken together build a picture of a man who struggled with mental illness, probably bipolar disorder, according to Futurism.

When he was around 19 or 20, Newton maintained a diary in which he cataloged a list of his sins.  Examining his list, it’s clear that he had problems with anger from a young age.

He identifies, among his sins, “peevishness” with his mother, his sister, and at “Master Clarks, for a piece of bread and butter”.  He lists “falling out with the servants”, as well.

You could say that bad temper and grouchiness are par for the course for a boy of his years, and that would certainly be true, but he also specifies, as number 13, “threatening my father and mother Smith to burn them, and the house over them”.

He also cites multiple examples of physical aggression, punching his sister, beating people, and putting a pin in someone’s hat, so that it will scratch them. He comes across as anxious, egotistical, and dominating.

Newton was not a people person.  He didn’t make friends.  In his personal life, he only had close emotional relation relationships with two people, his niece Catherine Barton, who became his housekeeper in London, and a mathematician named Fatio de Duillier, who was only 25 when he and Newton met.

Their relationship was very emotionally intense, and neither man ever married, which makes some of Newton’s biographers speculate that the men were romantically involved, although there is no proof.

In his professional life, he was very touchy and insecure about his work, and would fly into fits of rage over its criticism, resulting in his withdrawing and refusing to continue his work.  These episodes of withdrawal could last for months.  He shied away from fame, and requested that his papers be published anonymously.

He had sincere religious beliefs, and was a nominal Anglican, but seemed to have a Puritan view of morality and religious observance, as can be seen from his list of sins.

Multiple items reflect his notions of what he owed to God, and his remorse at not always living up to that standard. He had a keen interest in mysticism that was tied firmly to his study of alchemy.

He believed that he had been chosen by God.  In fact, the pseudonym he took to communicate with fellow alchemists was Jehovah Sanctus Unus, which translates to “Holy God”, according to the New York Post.

Despite all of these issues, Sir Isaac Newton was brilliant, and prolific in his work.  His intellectual curiosity was not hampered by what was clearly a difficult personality, and despite his struggles and mood swings he still made a large and incredibly significant contribution to the world of science.

 Ian Harvey

Chasing the Sun: The woman forgotten by science

Annie MaunderImage copyright RAS/DORRIE GILES
Image caption Annie Maunder: A pioneer of solar astronomy

On the far side of the Moon lies the Maunder crater, named after two British astronomers – Annie and Walter Maunder.

Annie worked alongside her husband at the end of the 19th Century, recording the dark spots that pepper the Sun.

The name Maunder is still known in scientific circles, yet Annie has somehow slipped from history.

“I think the name Maunder is there and we have all rather forgotten that that’s two people,” says Dr Sue Bowler, editor of the Royal Astronomical Society magazine, Astronomy and Geophysics.

“She was acknowledged on papers, she published in her own name as well as with her husband, she wrote books, she was clearly doing a lot of work but she also clearly kept to the conventions of the day, I think.”

The ‘lady computers’

Annie Scott Dill Russell was born in 1868 in Strabane, the daughter of a Reverend.

Clearly of fierce intelligence, she won a scholarship to Girton College, Cambridge, and became one of the first female scientists to work at the Royal Observatory, Greenwich.

In the courtyard of the observatory, looking over the park, curator Dr Louise Devoy, tells me what little they know about her work.

The Royal Observatory, GreenwichImage copyright NATIONAL MARITIME MUSEUM, LONDON
Image caption The Royal Observatory, Greenwich, in 1933

“She was one of what we now call the ‘lady computers’ employed in the early 1890s by the then Astronomer Royal, William Christie,” she explains.

“I believe she came from Northern Ireland and she worked here for several years on very low pay just like many of the computers here, both male and female.

“In terms of what she actually did here, we have very little concrete record or photographs.'”

‘Grit and devotion’

Female scientists were hindered because of their gender until the 1920s and 30s, despite superb skills and experience, says Dr Devoy.

At Greenwich, employing women with a university education in mathematics was an audacious experiment.

Women were only considered because the Astronomer Royal needed skilled assistants but could afford only lowly computers – historically, schoolboys on a wage of £4 per month.

Annie Maunder on an eclipse expedition in Labrador, NewfoundlandImage copyright ALFRED JOHNSON/ANNIE MAUNDER’S FAMILY
Image caption Annie Maunder on an eclipse expedition in Labrador, Newfoundland
Walter MaunderImage copyright MAUNDER FAMILY
Image caption Walter Maunder met Annie after the death of his first wife and collaborated with her until his death

Maunder was offered a post as a lady computer, which meant a huge drop in pay for someone who had been working, briefly, as a school teacher.

Letters show that she appealed for more money but was turned down.

The lady computers would carry out routine calculations to turn raw observations into usable data. They were also trained to use telescopes.

At times, this meant walking through Greenwich Park at night without a chaperone, an activity that was frowned on at the time.

“In an age when many middle-class women were still chaperoned, the grit and devotion of these young women astronomers, clad in their clumsy long gowns as they worked at their telescopes or in the laboratories, were surely remarkable,” wrote the science historian and astronomer Mary T Brück.

In 1892, the names of Annie Russell and fellow Greenwich astronomer Alice Everett were put forward to become fellows of the Royal Astronomical Society.

However, they failed to gain enough of the popular vote in a secret ballot and were rejected.

The RAS had long argued that since the pronoun “he” was used in the charter, women could not be admitted alongside men.

Instead, Annie Russell and Alice Everett, who had studied together at Cambridge, joined the amateur British Astronomical Association (BAA).

Alice Everett grew tired of the low pay and left Greenwich, eventually developing an interest in the new field of television. Annie Russell stayed on.

“She was clearly very tough and wanted to follow her science,” says Dr Bowler.

“She sat the [difficult] mathematical Tripos at a time when women couldn’t actually be awarded a degree and there were even protests at Cambridge against the whole idea of giving women degrees.

“So she was clearly tough enough to do that and to do it well and to succeed then in getting employment as a scientist, which was fairly rare anyway – astronomy was still very much a gentleman’s pursuit.”

Studying the Sun

Annie Russell married her colleague Edward Walter Maunder in 1895.

Under civil service rules, as a married woman, she was forced to give up her paid position, bringing the age of lady computers to an end.

“She did come back as a volunteer during the First World War and then she was taken on as a paid employee later in the 1920s,” says Dr Devoy.

On board ship: Annie and Walter Maunder can be seen sitting togetherImage copyright MAUNDER FAMILY
Image caption On board ship: Annie and Walter Maunder can be seen sitting together
Family photos show preparations for observing an eclipseImage copyright MAUNDER FAMILY
Image caption Family photos show preparations for observing an eclipse

Annie worked alongside Walter taking photographs of the Sun, laying the groundwork for a modern understanding of solar activity.

“They would take photographs of the Sun every clear day just to note where the sunspots were and to sketch where they were,” says Dr Bowler. “But she also, as a trained mathematician, put quite a bit of effort into analysis. She wasn’t just writing things down; she wasn’t just Walter’s assistant.”

Annie Maunder went on many scientific expeditions to observe eclipses around the turn of the century, often as the only woman. She travelled to Lapland, India, Algiers, Mauritius and Labrador.

She even designed her own camera to take spectacular pictures of the Sun, including the first photograph ever of streamers from the Sun’s outer layer, or corona.

“She particularly caught an extremely long ray – a streak of the corona – coming out from the Sun, while it was eclipsed, that nobody had ever seen before – a feature of the corona that people just didn’t know about,” says Dr Bowler.

“I’ve seen photos of her adjusting the instruments. She’s taking her photographs. She’s not at all a passenger.

“It may have been only socially acceptable for her to go because she’s travelling with her husband but she was on official scientific expeditions and her photographs were acknowledged as among the best.”

The Heavens and Their Story

The conventions of the time meant that Annie’s photographs were published under her husband’s name and she could not speak at scientific meetings.

However, she was eventually made a fellow of the Royal Society in 1916, 24 years after first being proposed.

Annie Maunder medal Image copyright RAS
Image caption The RAS has set up the Annie Maunder medal

She was involved with promoting astronomy to a general audience as vice president of the BAA and edited the in-house journal.

In 1908, the Maunders published the book, The Heavens and Their Story, which was aimed at popular science.

The book was released under both their names, but her husband acknowledged in the preface that it was almost all her work.

The Maunders are also well known for the butterfly diagram, which shows how the number of sunspots varies with time, and the Maunder Minimum, a period in the 17th Century when sunspots all but disappeared.

Much of their work still holds true today.

Annie’s legacy

This year, Annie’s name is being remembered through the inaugural Annie Maunder Medal, to recognise public engagement in science.

“She is an ideal person for that medal to be named after,” says Dr Bowler. “That’s largely what she was doing, certainly later in her career.”

Annie Maunder died in 1947, long after her husband.

On a leafy street near Clapham Common I find the Victorian terraced house where she spent her final years.

From the outside there is nothing to speak of the pioneering scientist.

Yet, despite perhaps not getting the recognition she deserved in her lifetime, she clearly left her mark on science.

“From her letters which are in the Royal Astronomical Society archives she was a very strong-minded, very decided personality,” says Sue Bowler.

“She didn’t mince her words. She’s really quite amusingly rude in some of her letters and very precise.

“I really admire her – she’s one of the people I would definitely have at my dream dinner party – I think she would be extraordinarily interesting.

“And her thoughts, her opinions about the paper based on her observations are very modern and form the basis for solar physics through a lot of the years following.”

UK’s forgotten woman astronomer honoured

TelescopeImage copyright TOM KERSS, BRENDAN OWENS
Image caption Professional astronomers through to school children will get to use the new telescope set-up

The Royal Observatory Greenwich (ROG) is to start studying the sky again after a break of 60 years.

British astronomy’s historic home has installed new telescopes in its Grade II listed Altazimuth Pavilion, which has also undergone a restoration.

The new facility is to be named after Annie Maunder, one of the first female scientists to work at the ROG and who made key discoveries about the Sun.

Professionals, amateurs and school children will use the instruments.

MoonImage copyright  NATIONAL MARITIME MUSEUM, LONDON
Image caption  Today’s technology, combined with new processing techniques, can achieve great results

Why is this important?

The new telescope is named after a forgotten giant of UK astronomy, Annie Maunder, who had to battle the prejudice and conventions of her time (the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th Century). The move should help highlight her contributions for a new generation.

In addition, our cleaner air and better tech is making astronomy possible again in our cities.

As urban centres have expanded, the artificial glow of buildings and street-lights – along with smog – has drowned out the faint objects in the night sky that astronomers want to study.

So, in the last few decades, stargazing has moved out of town where you can get darker skies. But a combination of new technology and cleaner air means that astronomers will be able to use the Royal Observatory Greenwich again.


SunImage copyright NATIONAL MARITIME MUSEUM, LONDON
Image caption  The new set-up will look at the Sun – just as Annie Maunder did in her day

Charles II founded the Greenwich site in 1675. Its purpose was to map the stars and compile tables that could then be used for navigation at sea.

It was a working observatory until 1957, after which serious science retreated to the countryside to get away from urban smog and light pollution. But with cleaner air and new technologies, it is now possible for telescopes to take very decent pictures again from the capital, says ROG astronomer Brendan Owens.

“We can use what are called narrow-band filters to get around the light pollution, and then there are the new processing techniques. We can take very fast frame-rate snapshots and use only the steadiest shots to build the final result. It’s known as ‘lucky dip imaging’,” he told BBC News.

The Annie Maunder Astrographic Telescope (AMAT) is actually a four-in-one instrument.

It comprises three smaller refractors around a top-end, 14-inch (35.5cm) aperture Schmidt-Cassegrain telescope.

Users will be able to study the Sun and the planets in our Solar System, but also look beyond to more distant stars and planetary nebulae (great clouds of gas and dust).

For the system to be used to look at the Sun is particularly apt in the context of Annie Maunder.

ScreenImage copyright TOM KERSS, BRENDAN OWENS
Image caption The ROG plans to start slowly but over time will ramp up activities

Who was Annie Maunder?

One of the “forgotten giants” of British astronomy, she got a job at Greenwich in 1891 working as a “lady computer”, doing supporting calculations for male scientists. But she became an adept observer in her own right, and with her husband, Walter, broke new ground in our understanding of how the Sun goes through its cycles of activity.

Given the times, all the credit went to Walter. That has changed in recent years with reappraisals finally – and properly – recognising her enormous contributions.

“She remained on staff here in Greenwich until 1895 when she had to resign because, as per civil service rules back then, she couldn’t be married,” explained Dr Louise Devoy, the Curator of ROG. “But she remained very active, particularly with the British Astronomical Association, and indeed she came back to Greenwich in WW1 as a volunteer because of the shortage of staff when all the men joined up.

“The new telescope set-up will have a huge capability to image the Sun, with a special hydrogen alpha filter so you can really see activity such as flares (big outbursts).”

Annie Maunder on an eclipse expedition in Labrador, NewfoundlandImage copyright ALFRED JOHNSON/ANNIE MAUNDER’S FAMILY
Image caption Annie Maunder pictured on an eclipse expedition in Labrador, Newfoundland

The new installation comes thanks to a successful appeal for funds.

ROG museum members, private donors and the public gave £150,000 towards the project.

The money has finally enabled proper restoration work to be completed on the Altazimuth Pavilion, which was in urgent need of repair.

“It’s a beautiful Victorian building that suffered major bomb damage. Half the building was obliterated during WWII,” said Brendan Owens.

“It was reconstructed by the time the ROG became a museum, but it was never perfect and over time, brick work crumbled and damp had crept in. When we decided on the restoration, we could have included just museum space but we saw a wonderful opportunity to make it a multi-purpose, 21st-Century observatory.”

Mr Owens said it would take a while to get the new facility running at top speed. Conversations are being held now with universities to see who would like to make use of Greenwich in their studies.

As ever, the ROG wants the public involved as much as possible. Images taken by the AMAT will be streamed online, and content shared with schools through the Peter Harrison Planetarium. There will be workshops at the observatory as well.

The ground floor of the pavilion will have an exhibition space, with a section dedicated to telling the story of Annie Maunder.

Altazimuth PavilionImage copyright GETTY IMAGES
Image caption Altazimuth Pavilion: An exhibition on the ground floor will tell the story of Annie Maunder

The $5bn tech boss who grew up without electricity

Stewart Butterfield is worth an estimated $650m

The BBC’s weekly The Boss series profiles a different business leader from around the world. This week we spoke to Stewart Butterfield, the founder of technology companies Flickr and Slack.

It is not the sort of upbringing you’d associate with one of Silicon Valley’s heavyweights.

But Stewart Butterfield spent the first five years of his life living on a commune in remote Canada after his father fled the US to avoid serving in the Vietnam War.

The young Mr Butterfield and his parents lived in a log cabin in a forest in British Columbia, and for three years they had no running water or electricity.

“My parents were definitely hippies,” says Mr Butterfield, whose mother and father had named him Dharma. “They wanted to live off the land, but it turns out there was a lot of work involved, so we moved back to the city.”

After the family relocated to Victoria, the capital of British Columbia, Mr Butterfield saw his first computer when he was seven, and taught himself to programme from that very young age.

An Apple II computerImage copyright GETTY IMAGES
Image caption A young Mr Butterfield learned to programme on an early generation Apple computer

Fast-forward to today and 46-year-old Stewart Butterfield – who founded both photo-sharing website Flickr, and business messaging service Slack – has an estimated personal fortune of $650m (£500m).

But perhaps in part due to his unusual upbringing he says he tries to live frugally.

“In truth I feel guilty spending too much money,” he says. “As a Canadian that world seems very strange and alien to me.”

Mr Butterfield also puts much of his success down to luck.

Mr Butterfield says that his seven-year-old self was fascinated by the first wave of personal computers.

“I was around seven in 1980, it must have been an Apple II or IIE that my parents bought,” he says. “I taught myself to code using computer magazines.”

Mr Butterfield – who changed his first name to Stewart when he was 12 – learned to make basic computer games.

However, he lost interest in computers while at high school, and ended up going on to study philosophy at the University of Victoria. From there he did a masters in the subject at Cambridge University in the UK.

In 1997 he was about to try to become a professor of philosophy when the internet “really started to take off”.

Flickr's home screenImage copyright FLICKR
Image caption Mr Butterfield sold Flickr for just $25m

“People who knew how to make websites were moving to San Francisco, and I had a bunch of friends who were making twice as much, or three times as much, as what professors were making,” he says. “It was new and exciting.”

So Mr Stewart decided to give up academia and rekindle his love of computers.

After working as a web designer for several years he launched an online game in 2002 with future Flickr co-founder Caterina Fake, Mr Butterfield’s then-wife.

The game – called Game Neverending – failed to take off, and the pair were running out of cash. Frantically looking for a plan B they hit upon the idea of Flickr, going on to build the photo-sharing platform in just three months.

“The first camera phones were also coming out, and more and more households were getting internet connectivity, and then stuff happened so fast,” says Mr Butterfield.

Launched in 2004, Flickr was the one of the first websites to allow people to upload, share, tag and comment on photos.

Just a year later the founders sold the firm to internet giant Yahoo for $25m – although Mr Butterfield has since said this was the “wrong decision” as waiting longer could have meant a much bigger deal.

Nevertheless he moved on to bigger things with Slack.

A screengrab from a Slack chatImage copyrightSLACK
Image captionSlack allows colleagues to easily communicate as a group

It was 2009 and he and some partners had set up another online game, and again it failed. It did, however, spark a brainwave.

“As we were working on the game we developed a system for internal communication that we really loved,” says Mr Butterfield. “We didn’t think about it, it was very much in the background. But after a few years we thought maybe other people would like it too.”

It formed the basis for Slack, a service that today boasts eight million daily users, three million of whom pay for the more advanced features, and more than 70,000 corporate clients.

Slack enables employees to communicate and collaborate with each other in groups at work, and it has grown rapidly. IBM, Samsung, 21st Century Fox and Marks & Spencer are just a few big names to have signed up. Following a number of investment rounds Slack is now valued at $5.1bn.

Chris Green, a technology analyst at consultancy Bright Bee, says it is rare for an entrepreneur to create something successful out of the ashes of a failed project, and “almost unheard of to do it twice”.

“But if you look at Stewart’s career, it’s not just luck, he’s always been innovating in the background and looking for ways to bring order to chaos,” says Mr Green.

“That’s what Flickr and Slack have both done in their own ways.”

Slack's headquartersImage copyright SCOTT SCHILLER
Image caption Mr Butterfield says he would be happy for Slack to pay more in taxation

Slack does have competitors, though. Microsoft now offers a rival service for free with its Office 365 package, and start-up Zoom boasts a more expansive offering for about the same price.

“There is immense competition from some big well-funded companies so Slack will need to keep evolving,” Mr Green says.

Big tech firms have found themselves in the firing line for not paying enough tax – but Mr Butterfield says he would be happy for Slack to pay more taxes.

“I’d also like to see a more equitable tax policy. I have no problem paying tax. I don’t think companies are taxed enough, or critically, in the right way.”

Regarding the future, Mr Butterfield says that, unlike Flickr, he has no intention of leaving Slack.

“So many things had to go right get to this position – amazing luck was involved – and I am not so smart that I can just make it happen again,” he says.

“So if I ever wanted to see how far I could take it, this would definitely be the time to do that.”

Holey Swiss: Man Breaks Record in British Downhill Cheese Race

cheese
The champion cheese chaser, brie-umphant. (ASSOCIATED PRESS)

Some heroes wear capes. Others fling themselves down hills in pursuit of an 8-pound wheel of cheese.

As the BBC reports, a British man has set a record for the most cheeses won in the annual downhill cheese chase that takes place in the English county of Gloucestershire. Chris Anderson has won 22 races in the past 14 years; this year, he won the first and third of the three men’s races.

Anderson said his strategy was to “just run and try and stay on your feet,” according to the Press AssociationFor his efforts, he will get to take home the double Gloucester cheeses that he successfully chased.

Unfortunately, Anderson only likes cheddar.

It is not entirely clear when Gloucestershire’s unusual sporting event, which takes place in the village of Brockworth, first began. According to journalist Fraser McAlpine, the tradition could go back as far as the 15th century, possibly evolving from a “Beltane-style ritual of rolling burning bundles of wood.” In a 2014 article, the BBC reported that the earliest reference to the race was found in an 1826 message to the Gloucester Town Crier, but it seems to have been an established tradition by that point.

The rules of the game are simple: participants must chase a ball of cheese down Cooper’s Hill, which is so steep that it’s practically impossible to run down without tumbling over.

And tumble the contestants do. In 1997, a record 33 participants were injured—some even broke bones. Over his storied athletic career, Anderson has broken his ankle and bruised his kidneys.

cheese
Can you chase a ball of cheese down Cooper’s Hill? (Public Domain)

In 2010, officials cancelled the race due to safety concerns, but rogue fromage fiends have continued to stage the event regardless. The BBC reports that “thousands of spectators” turned out to watch the most recent installment of the games.

This year, the race got dirty—and even weirder than usual. ”[T]he kid next to me was pulling my shirt all the way down,” Anderson told British media. His spotlight was also threatened by an Australian who showed up to the race wearing nothing but a swimsuit stamped with the words “budgie smuggler.”

But ultimately, Anderson prevailed. “I’ve got nothing to prove now,” he said of his record-breaking win, according to the BBC. “I’m happy.”

SMITHSONIAN.COM

Is it really healthier to live in the countryside?

But evidence-based research that can help us identify the healthiest environments to live is surprisingly scant. As scientists begin to tease apart the links between well-being and the environment, they are finding that many nuances contribute to and detract from the benefits offered by a certain environment – whether it be a metropolis of millions or a deserted beach.

“What we’re trying to do as a group of researchers around the world is not to promote these things willy-nilly, but to find pro and con evidence on how natural environments – and our increasing detachment from them – might be affecting health and well-being,” says Mathew White, an environmental psychologist at the University of Exeter Medical School.

White and other researchers are revealing that a seemingly countless number of factors determine how our surroundings influence us. These can include a person’s background and life circumstances, the quality and duration of exposure and the activities performed in it.

Generally speaking, evidence suggests that green spaces are good for those of us who live in urban areas. Those who reside near parks or trees tend to enjoy lower levels of ambient air pollution, reduced manmade noise pollution and more cooling effects (something that will become increasingly useful as the planet warms).

Wellington, New Zealand

The research shows that green spaces are good for urban dwellers, which should be welcome news to residents of Wellington, New Zealand (Credit: Getty Images)

Natural spaces are conducive to physical and social activities – both of which are associated with myriad benefits of their own.

Time in nature has been linked to reduced physical markers of stress. When we are out for a stroll or just sitting beneath the trees, our heart rate and blood pressure both tend to go down. We also release more natural ‘killer cells’: lymphocytes that roam throughout the body, hunting down cancerous and virus-infected cells.

Researchers are still trying to determine why this is so, although they do have a number of hypotheses. “One predominate theory is that natural spaces act as a calming backdrop to the busy stimuli of the city,” says Amber Pearson, a health geographer at Michigan State University. “From an evolutionary perspective, we also associate natural things as key resources for survival, so we favour them.”

This does not necessarily mean that urban denizens should all move to the countryside, however.

City residents tend to suffer from more asthma, allergies and depression – but they also tend to be less obese, at a lower suicide risk and are less likely to get killed in an accident

City residents tend to suffer from higher levels of asthmaallergies and depression. But they also tend to be less obese, at a lower risk of suicide and are less likely to get killed in an accident. They lead happier lives as seniors and live longerin general. (Read more aboutfive of the world’s healthiest cities).

City-dwellers live longer than their countryside counterparts and are happier as seniors

City-dwellers live longer than their countryside counterparts and are happier as seniors (Credit: Getty Images)

Although we tend to associate cities with pollution, crime and stress, living in rural locales may entail certain costs as well. Disease-carrying insects and arachnids can detract from the health factor of that otherwise idyllic cabin in Maine, for example.

In other cases, rural pollution poses a major threat. In India, air pollution contributed to the deaths of 1.1 million citizens in 2015 – with rural residents rather than urban ones accounting for 75% of the victims. This is primarily because countryside dwellers are at greater risk of breathing air that is polluted by burning of agricultural fields, wood or cow dung (used for cooking fuel and heat).

Indonesia’s slash and burn-style land clearing likewise causes a blanket of toxic haze that lasts for months and sometimes affects neighbouring countries, including Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand. Meanwhile, smoke pollution from fires lit in South America and southern Africa has been known to make its way around the entire southern hemisphere. (That said, the air in the southern hemisphere is generally cleaner than in the northern hemisphere – simply because there are fewer people living there).

Pollution can kill more people in the countryside than the cities

Because of practices like agricultural clearing, pollution can kill more people in the countryside than even in cities (Credit: Getty Images)

It’s not just developing countries, either: wildfires in the western US are wreaking havoc on air quality, while pollution from fertilizers used on farms are detracting from air quality in Europe, Russia, China and the US.

What about the idea of that pure mountain air? It’s true that black carbon aerosols and particulate matter pollution tends to be lower at higher altitudes. But trying to move above air pollution may cause other issues.

While people who live in in places 2,500m or higher seem to have lower mortality from cardiovascular disease, stroke and some types of cancers, data indicate that they also seem to be at an elevated risk of death from chronic pulmonary disease and from lower respiratory tract infections. This is likely at least in part because cars and other vehicles operate less efficiently at higher altitudes, emitting greater amounts of hydrocarbons and carbon monoxide – which is made even more harmful by the increased solar radiation in such places. Living at a moderate altitude of 1,500 to 2,500 meters, therefore, may be the healthiest choice.

It’s not always true that the higher the altitude, the healthier the place

It’s not always true that the higher the altitude, the healthier the place (Credit: Getty Images)

There is a strong argument to be made for living near the sea – or at least near some body of water

On the other hand, there is a strong argument to be made for living near the sea – or at least near some body of water. Those in the UK who live closer to the ocean, for example, tend to have a better bill of health than those who live inland, taking into account their age and socioeconomic status. This is likely due to a variety of reasons, White says, including the fact that our evolution means we are attracted to the high levels of biodiversity found there (in the past, this would have been a helpful indicator of food sources) and that beaches offer opportunities for daily exercise and vitamin D.

Then there are the psychological benefits. A 2016 study Pearson and her colleagues conducted in Wellington, New Zealand found that residents with ocean views had lower levels of psychological distress. For every 10% increase in how much blue space people could see, the researchers found a one-third point reduction in the population’s average Kessler Psychological Distress Scale (used to predict anxiety and mood disorders), independent of socioeconomic status. Given that finding, Pearson says, “One might expect that a 20 to 30% increase in blue space visibility could shift someone from moderate distress into a lower category.” Pearson found similar results in a follow-up study conducted near the Great Lakes in the US (currently in review), as did White in an upcoming study of Hong Kong residents.

The more ‘blue space’ people saw in their everyday life, the less distress and anxiety

Researchers found that the more ‘blue space’ people saw in their everyday life, the less distress and anxiety they experienced (Credit: Getty Images)

Not everyone can live on the coast, however. So Simon Bell, chair of landscape architecture at the Estonian University of Life Sciences and associate director of the OPENspace Centre at the University of Edinburgh, and his colleagues are testing whether restoring neglected bodies of water throughout Europe can help. They are interviewing residents before and after restoration, including at a rundown beach outside of Tallinn, Estonia and an industrial canal near a Soviet bloc-style apartment complex in Tartu, also Estonia, among other places in Spain, Portugal, Sweden and the UK.

The team’s second analysis of nearly 200 recently redeveloped water sites will allow them to tease out how factors such as climate, weather, pollution levels, smells, seasonality, safety and security, accessibility and more, influence a given water body’s appeal. The ultimate goal, Bell says, is to find “what makes a great blue space.” Once the results are in, he and his colleagues will develop a quality assessment tool for those looking to most effectively restore urban canals, overgrown lakes, former docklands, rivers and other neglected blue spaces to make residents’ lives better.

How much we benefit from even a single visit to the coast depends on a variety of factors

How much we benefit from even a single visit to the coast depends on a variety of factors (Credit: Getty Images)

Still, when it comes to wellbeing, researchers do not know how lakes compare to oceans or how rivers compare to seas. Nor have they compared how beaches in, say, Iceland measure up to those in Florida. What they do know is that complex factors including air and water quality, crowding, temperature and even high and low tides affect how something as seemingly simple as a visit to the beach can influence us.

“There might be a million other important things besides weather and daylight that influence someone in Hawaii versus Finland,” White says.

People who live in less regularly sunny places, like Vermont or Denmark, tend to have higher rates of skin cancer

In terms of health, data also suggest that, counterintuitively, people who live in more intermittently rather than regularly sunny places – Vermont and Minnesota in the US, for example, and Denmark and France – tend to have higher rates of skin cancer, likely because sunscreen is not part of daily routines. (Read more aboutfive countries where people live the longest).

Just as some green and blue spaces may be more beneficial than others, researchers are also coming to realize that the environment’s influence on well-being is not evenly distributed.

People living in lower socioeconomic conditions tend to derive more benefits from natural spaces than wealthy residents, White says. That’s likely because richer people enjoy other health-improving privileges, such as taking holidays and leading generally less stressful lives – a finding with important real-world implications. “Here in the UK, local authorities have a legal obligation to reduce health inequalities. So one way to do that is to improve the park system,” White says. “The poorest will benefit the most.”

A clean, oceanside city like Sydney may be one of the best options

A clean, oceanside city like Sydney may be one of the best options (Credit: Getty Images)

It’s also important to point out that simply moving to a relatively pristine coast or forest will not solve all of our problems. Other life circumstances – losing or gaining a job, marrying or divorcing – have a much greater impact on our health. As White puts it, no matter what environment you’re in, “It’s more important to have a house than to be homeless in a park.”

Bell adds that proximity to nature actually tends to rank low on people’s lists of the most important factors for selecting a place to live, after things like safety, quietness and closeness to key locations like schools and work. But while the benefits of green and blue spaces should not be overplayed on an individual level, they are important for the scale at which they work.

And even so, one takeaway seems obvious: those living in a clean, oceanside city with ready access to nature – think Sydney or Wellington – may have struck the jackpot in terms of the healthiest places to live.

By Rachel Nuwer 1 June 2018

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