Science: Learning more/ Early life/ Mine clearance

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This is the start of National Science Week. It's the fifth year of the event, which aims to raise public awareness of scientific issues. It seems to be working: a survey last year found that, in its lifetime the percentage of people who knew what DNA was had almost doubled. The proportion who knew that antibiotics kill bacteria, rather than viruses, went up from 29 per cent to 45 per cent. However, there's a worrying one- third of people who still believe that the Sun goes round the Earth. Your task for this week: find out who they are and educate them. Or else attend the week's events, which are going on up and down the country.

Early humans enjoyed boating about 800,000 years ago, according to new studies by a team at the University of New England in New South Wales.

On the island of Flores, 500km east of Bali, they found stone tools apparently left by homo erectus which indicate that early humans must have made sea crossings to get there. "Homo erectus was not just a glorified chimp," said one of the researchers, commenting on the work reported in the latest Nature.

Scientists at the Defence Evaluation Research Agency (DERA) have developed a firework-like blowtorch that burns landmines' detonators and explosives without setting them off. Called FireAnt, it's like a very, very hot version of a Roman candle, producing a tightly-aimed fire beam at a temperature of 1,500C. That's hot enough to burn through at least a millimetre of steel and plenty of plastic.

According to a report in New Scientist magazine, bigger anti-tank mines would be dealt with by multiple FireAnts. Each unit could cost as little as pounds 10 each in mass production. With an estimated 110 million landmines still uncleared worldwide, it could be a big earner.

Soya beans and their plant oestrogens: maybe they're not so bad after all. A study by a team at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles has found that genistein, a plant oestrogen produced by soya beans, actually suppresses the growth of cancer cells because it prevents them signalling effectively for new blood vessels to grow towards them.

The effect: the would-be tumour starves. This, suggest the researchers, is why people in Asia, whose diets are soya-rich, have notably low risk of breast, colon and prostate cancers.

- Charles Arthur, Science Editor

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