Declan Butler, reporter This is the personal blog of Declan Butler, a senior reporter at Nature. All views expressed here are mine, and not those of Nature. Contact me at

December 5, 2007

“Don’t make the mistake of looking for the future in your rear-view mirror.”

Filed under: Energy,Venture capital — admin @ 9:35 pm

I love this quote; it’s the sort of inspirational one that you’re tempted to stick above your computer screen. It’s from Vinod Khosla, a veteran entrepreneur who co-founded Sun Microsystems, was a partner in Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers in Menlo Park, California — the company that nurtured the likes of Amazon, Google and Genentech — and who now heads Khosla Ventures, also in Menlo Park, one of the most prominent clean-energy venture-capital firms

It’s from a two-page article I published tonight in Nature, which details what is probably one of the most significant trends in energy research for over 40 years: the current huge interest of venture capitalists in green energy. As the article makes clear, this is more than a fad, but a potentially world changing development.


Silicon Valley is greening. Investors are flocking to low-carbon (clean) energy technologies, fuelling a boom in the sector, with investments set to overtake those in Internet start-ups. But does this venture-capital explosion herald another dotcom bubble?

Earth monitoring special in Nature

Filed under: GIS,Google Earth,Open data,Semantic web,Web services — admin @ 9:25 pm

Nature has a special issue on Earth monitoring out tonight.


Nearly fifty years ago —things were up and running by March 1958 — Charles Keeling and colleagues began a series of measurements of atmospheric CO2 on Mauna Loa in Hawaii. The results, made graphic in the jagged ‘Keeling curve’ running across this week’s cover, made the world take notice — eventually. The Mauna Loa measurements constitute the longest continuous record of atmospheric CO2 in the world. The steady rise in CO2 that they record now forms the accepted backdrop to today’s climate science and economic and political decision making. As well as being an important resource in itself, the Mauna Loa record highlights the vital importance of Earth monitoring programmes. The fiftieth anniversary of the start of this work is marked in this issue by News Features and other pieces on the Earth monitoring being done today, historical pieces on the Mauna Loa data and more.

I’ve a long futuristic article in the special looking at how close we might be to a totally monitored Earth by 2025: Earth Monitoring: The planetary panopticon

Nature itself has an great editorial — Patching together a world view — which provides a great big picture view, that I’d have struggled to write, so kudos to my colleagues who did such a good job of capturing succintly such a vast topic.

Alex Witze then contrasts my upbeat forecast with the lack of leadership of, and the disarray in, the US’s current Earth monitoring programmes — Earth Observation: Not enough eyes on the prize.

And the journalistic content doesn’t stop there: there are also features on:
Earth Monitoring: Observing the ocean from within

Earth Monitoring: The crucial measurement

And to finish it all off there are two Commentaries by scientists
Earth monitoring: Cinderella science
Earth monitoring: Vigilance is not enough

And an online version of all is here, including a timeline of Earth monitoring.

The Freeing of the Tripoli Six: The inside story of how scientists saved medical workers from the firing squad.

Filed under: HIV,Justice,Libya — admin @ 9:06 pm

I haven’t been blogging for a while; been taking some time out for other projects, and the blog had become almost entirely devoted to original posts on the Libya death penalty case, a hard act to follow. An article in the November issue of Discover magazine, now free online, provides an opportunity to close that chapter, and start blogging on more mundane matters. The long article, by John Bohannon, a journalist colleague who writes for several science publications including Science, tells the story of scientists’ actions in the Libya case. It covers many of the events blogged here as they happened — see summary here — but as a gripping detective story — it makes a good read.


Late in September 2006, Nobel Prize–winning molecular biologist Richard Roberts was thumbing through the journal Nature when he read an article by one of their senior reporters, Declan Butler, about a group of foreign medics on death row in Libya. Butler’s article, along with an anonymous editorial entitled “Libya’s Travesty,” described how the medics’ appeals were nearly exhausted. “I had been aware of the situation through the media,” says Roberts, the chief scientific officer at New England Biolabs in Ipswich, Massachusetts. “But the case seemed so open-and-shut, I’d assumed that diplomacy would sort the situation out.” But as the editorial warned, “Diplomacy has lamentably failed to deliver,” and “scientific leaders need to use all their influence” to persuade their governments to take action.

“It was a call to arms,” says Roberts. So he picked up the phone and contacted Butler, who painted a grim picture of the situation. Ever since the death sentence was handed down in 2004, the absurd case had been bouncing between Libya’s courts as the medics languished in jail; there had been at least one suicide attempt among them. Butler was glad Roberts wanted to help. After watching the Libyan affair from a journalist’s vantage point, says Butler, “I found myself in a position to be useful. What was needed was for someone to work behind the scenes, connecting influential scientists with each other and with diplomats involved with the case.”

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