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Child poverty: Boris Johnson's claims fact-checked

Words: - BBC News - 00:09 29-06-2020

The Prime Minister has made several claims about what has been happening to poverty.

Boris Johnson has said it has been falling under the Conservatives - he's also spoken about child poverty.

So, does the evidence support his claims?

Before we assess the claims, it's important to understand what we mean by poverty.

In the UK, it normally refers to people who live below a certain income relative to everyone else's.

And child poverty refers to a person (under the age of 18) who lives in a poor household.

There are two main ways:

Relative poverty : This is calculated by taking the median or middle income in the country - that is the level at which half the people earn less and half more.

It was £514 a week in 2018-19, or £447 after housing costs. You then take 60% of this amount and anyone whose income is less than this is considered to be living in relative poverty.

This "poverty line" moves when the median income changes. During the recession, for example, when lots of people's wages went down, relative poverty rates improved but it is unlikely that those at the bottom felt wealthier.

Absolute poverty : This uses the same 60% calculation as above, but it applies it to the median income of a fixed year - 2010-11.

This measure, which is adjusted for inflation (or rising prices), gives a longer term view of what is happening to people on low incomes and avoids the issues that arise during an economic downturn.

But it also doesn't reflect how, if standards are increasing year-on-year for better off people in society, the poorest are being left behind. This is because it is comparing salaries to the median income from a decade ago.

The number of people in relative poverty in the UK has actually increased from 13.6m in 2009-10 (just before the Conservatives came into power in coalition with the Liberal Democrats) to 14.5m in 2018-19.

However, absolute poverty has declined by 100,000 in the same period to 12.9m.

Note that Boris Johnson referred to a decline "under this government".

He became leader in July 2019 but since the poverty figures for last year have not been published there is no way of judging what has happened to them under "this government".

On this measurement, the number of children in absolute poverty in the UK has reduced - falling from 3.8m in 2009-10 to 3.7m in 2018-19.

How many children are in absolute poverty? Number of children (in millions) in absolute low income households after housing costs

This means 100,000 fewer children are in absolute poverty than before.

When it comes to relative poverty, 30% of people aged under 18 in the UK were living in households in relative poverty in 2009-10.

Today, the proportion is still 30%, which represents about 4.1 million.

However, because the population has increased since 2010, it means 300,000 more children are living in relative poverty now.

The number of children in deprivation has decreased, but by less than he claims.

Low income and material deprivation is yet another way to measure poverty. This metric is different from the others because it is based on a survey.

It asks what items or services parents can't afford either for themselves or for their children. This includes the ability to go on a school trip once a term, to eat fresh fruit and vegetables every day or to keep the house warm.

Anyone who scores above a certain point from the 21 questions is deemed to be in material deprivation.

In 2010-11, new questions were introduced to the survey, meaning we are not able to compare before then.

How many children are in material deprivation? Estimated number of children in million, UK

There has been a decrease between 2010-11 and 2018-19 of 200,000 children in material deprivation.

This is less than half of what the prime minister said.

Downing Street says the Prime Minister's figure came from comparing numbers under the old set of questions and those under the new ones.

This has been a recurring claim by the prime minister, especially during last year's election.

We have not found any evidence that it is true or where the number has actually come from.

The Office of the Children's Commissioner for England did some analysis on different combinations of households which could be defined as families.

Their analysis did not show a 400,000 drop. It showed that, similar to above, relative poverty had increased while absolute poverty had declined.

We asked Downing Street for the source of this figure but they did not supply one.

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'I've threatened to break the rules and kiss her': Claire Foy and Matt Smith on acting in lockdown

Words: Arifa Akbar - The Guardian - 14:00 29-06-2020

C laire Foy and Matt Smith are describing the odd experience of rehearsing a play while a stage manager holds a two-metre stick between them. The pair are preparing for a second run of Lungs, an intimate two-hander about the travails of modern coupledom that was first staged last year at the Old Vic in London. Their characters fought, made up and slept together on stage. This time, however, they won’t even be able to get within hand-holding distance of each other.

The stick is there to ensure that physical distance remains at all times in accordance with lockdown rules, Foy explains, adding that the stage manager, Maria Gibbons, beats them apart with it. Smith reminds her that the guidance for distancing has “just been reduced to one metre, so snap her stick in half!”

The two actors have a Tigger-ish enthusiasm in their conversational to-and-fro, even on a Zoom call at the end of a day of rehearsals. They first met six years ago on the set of Netflix hit The Crown. Foy had already got the part of young Elizabeth II and was in the room when Smith came in for his screen test. “She was very generous,” he says, “and there was something that worked about it.” They proved to have a remarkable chemistry and it is clear from their exuberant banter now that they spark just as well off-camera. They joke, tease and even finish each other’s sentences.

“We’re friends,” says Foy, “and after The Crown we said, ‘Wouldn’t it be fun if we did something together again?’ I didn’t know if anyone would let us and then we independently read this play and went, ‘Shall we just do it?’”

Lungs centres on a well-meaning, if smug, middle-class couple who talk about saving the planet and debate whether to have a baby or not. This production, performed in the theatre’s empty auditorium and filmed on Zoom, is live-streaming to audiences, to raise money for the Old Vic, which has been dark for over three-months and is in a precarious financial situation. This is the first in a new series of shows from the theatre, made to earn some income in lockdown. Matthew Warchus, the theatre’s artistic director and this show’s director, is also a seasoned film-maker, Foy points out, so he is doing some “very, very clever things into camera”.

Though both actors enthuse about the innovations of this production, they miss the physicality of the stage. “I knew that in this play we depended entirely on our connection and the other actor’s performance, but I didn’t realise how much I relied on being in each other’s physical space – being able to touch one another and engage in that way,” says Foy. “It’s making me a bit blue because you lose an element of what being an actor is. There is something vital missing. But I don’t think that it’s going to be any less because of that, but it can’t be like this for ever!”

Like all good plays, they think, this one works in various different contexts: its messages around climate disaster and environmental damage may well resonate differently in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic. “Essentially,” says Foy, “this couple is asking, ‘Is love enough? Is our good intention enough?’ It’s a conversation about how we live our life. In lockdown, I’ve heard people saying the idea of no planes in the sky and less pollution feels like a real opportunity to start again. At the same time, everyone is desperate to get Heathrow back up and running and go on holiday.”

Smith thinks lockdown has offered a quietly significant pause for thought. At the beginning, the playwright Simon Stephens suggested Smith “embrace the stillness of it”. It was hard to do at first, he says, but it felt important to succumb. “With all the different movements going on now, politically, socially and ideologically, if you don’t reframe the way you think, then you’re living on another planet!”

Is he referring to the Black Lives Matter protests in the aftermath of George Floyd’s killing in Minnesota? “Yes, of course. If your filter hasn’t shifted, or at least improved slightly, then what does it take?”

There is also their growing concern about the future of the creative industries. Earlier this month, UK culture secretary Oliver Dowden said he was convening medical and arts experts to help get live performance back on its feet. How do they feel about that?

A financial bailout would be the best kind of help, says Smith, given that the arts sector contributes billions to Britain’s economy. “A significant amount of money would be a start. It’s what they’ve done in Germany, and we could do a lot to look to the Germans, particularly in the way they have supported the arts.”

“It’s important to remind people what’s special about theatre,” adds Foy. “We learn about ourselves by watching plays, we learn about our society. You watch something and it changes you. You walk out and you think about it for days, weeks, years.” She is worried for all those freelancers who fall through the furlough net, and about losing a new generation of talent. “I went to drama school,” says Foy, a graduate of Oxford School of Drama. “That was training I could only have got in this country because our grants were so incredible.”

Foy had just got back from a Unicef trip to Lesotho and Smith had returned from filming in Morocco when the entertainment industry came to a standstill in March. He had been working on The Forgiven, John Michael McDonagh’s film adaptation of Lawrence Osborne’s acclaimed novel, also starring Ralph Fiennes and Jessica Chastain. “All my bits were finished, but they needed another couple of weeks to get the whole film done, which is a shame. Getting all the actors together in Morocco again is going to be tough.”

How have their lockdowns been? “Good and bad,” says Smith. “Obviously there’s things you miss. I’m looking forward to the pubs opening this week, and the cinemas. But I try to keep my head in creative avenues and explore other things, whether that be reading or learning things outside the box.”

To that end, he has been memorising poetry and going over old Alan Partridge episodes to keep his spirits up. Foy has watched the BBC’s Pride and Prejudice again and turned her hand to life drawing, though she admits this latter fact only after Smith has let the cat out of the bag: “She’s like a north London Frida Kahlo,” he says.

Foy laughs nervously: “It’s weird because I’ve seen so little other human life but I’m doing life drawing.”

“Well, I’m looking at stuff on a tiny iPad. It’s just not the same. But there’s also been lots of eating crisps and pizza and drinking beer and essentially becoming a giant pig.”

She speaks of her immense gratitude at not having to face the stress that so many others are contending with right now, but there’s a vague sense of fomo: “There’s so much opportunity in life that I always feel I should be climbing a rock face or learning French.”

What about being a mother at this time and keeping her five-year-old daughter, Ivy Rose, entertained? “She’s back at school. The most important thing for kids at this point is to have contact with other children. I find myself thinking, ‘Is my child going to grow up in a world where everyone is wearing a face mask?’ I’ve tried to be very calm about it because I don’t want her to think the world is scary.”

Lockdown interrupted the plan to take Lungs to New York. “We were sending each other messages making plans,” says Smith. “But in true Claire Foy fashion, she said about two months before lockdownthat, ‘It’s not going to happen. This virus is going to take over.’”

“I’m a massive disaster-scenario person,” Foy explains.

Do they think, post-lockdown, that the film industry will emerge slightly more intact than theatre? “Organising a film is a logistical nightmare,” says Foy. “It’s like organising the Queen’s coronation every single day. But I don’t doubt they will be able to figure it out – they are amazing. There’s going to be a lag and a time when new things are not coming out. But we all need more stuff to watch. I know I do!”

Until then, there is socially distanced theatre and two-metre sticks but also the delicious prospect of some romantic rule-breaking, suggests Smith. “I’ve threatened Claire that I might break all lockdown rules during the play and kiss her anyway.”

• Lungs is streaming on the Old Vic’s website until 4 July. Read our review of Lungs here.

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Orwell prize nominee Aditya Chakrabortty: 'Don't do what everyone else is doing'

Words: Aditya Chakrabortty, as told to Sophie Zeldin-O'Neill - The Guardian - 12:00 29-06-2020

I look for this in my reporting and writing. It’s very intentional. I remember spending a day in Stockport where some people were doing a citizen’s economic course – they weren’t economists, but they were interested. When you see the world through someone else’s eyes, it’s a genuinely enriching experience. I often think of the people I met years ago – I’m still in touch with a lot of them – and imagine what their take on something might be.

I have an economics background so I have been trained to know that it is not a daunting subject, and people can understand more than they think. It is not an area that is closed off to them and it is so much more than the numerical. But putting a face to the story is important. When people think about austerity it’s hard to imagine just one or two people struggling – they think about society as a huge, overwhelming mass. Or with the production of iPhones, people don’t think about the Chinese workers putting them together. I consciously try to show that these are people like you or me – and they could well be you or me if there had been a couple of different rolls of the dice.

In 2014 I was lucky enough to be shortlisted for the Orwell social evils award. I looked at Jeremy Corbyn and why he wouldn’t get elected, Apple and coerced labour, gentrification in London – a fairly wide expanse of subjects. In 2017 I was shortlisted but didn’t win. Every time I’ve looked at the Orwell shortlist, I’ve always thought the list of names is particularly formidable. It remains incredibly touching to be recognised in this way. In my teens I read all of George Orwell’s work and that has always loomed large for me, so to have that name waft over your name, like incense, is quite magical.

At 16 or 17, I chanced across EP Thompson and the British Marxist historians and that decided me: I was going to study history. Decades later, they still influence how I approach economics. That’s often the subject of aggregates and means and all-else-being-equal, and what used to be called History From Below reinforces how those living in the same society can be affected entirely differently by the same events and harbour opposed belief systems and move at a completely differently chronological pace. When I was reporting on the Brexit referendum, those lessons kept coming home.

And history and economics together – the study of slow processes and structures – form a very useful corrective to the breathlessness of news, its focus on personalities and its amnesiac insistence that what just happened is always of earth-shattering importance.

Around 2013, I went to a housing estate in Barnet in north London. I wrote about it, as did Holly Watt when she was at the Guardian. There was old Ministry of Defence housing bought up by a guy who ran a private equity firm. It had great economic potential – it’s a lovely suburban area. One of the houses had been occupied by a group of anarchists, but with people from the estate coming back and spending time in the house. There were about 30 people there in total. They could talk about housing for hours and knew so much about how London was changing. These were not the sort of people who you’d see on the news, but I was pinned to the floor by the force of their opinions. They had been given short shrift by the housing association and moved into temporary accommodation where there was damp and insects crawling around on the floor. But you simply couldn’t pay for the knowledge and insight they offered. It’s a whole different register for talking about politics and we should be listening. After an Alternatives event we held in Preston, Lancashire, I went to a Sainsbury’s afterwards and I saw some people from the event having the debates all over again. It was remarkable and just highlighted how vital it is that we as journalists keep talking to our readers.

I joined the Guardian in 2007 as economics leader writer. I had been at the BBC – a fantastic news-gathering operation, but one that has to be fairly rigid about what is being broadcast each evening, because of the level of forward-planning required. The decisions that are made in a room in Shepherd’s Bush are the stories being discussed from Edinburgh to St Ives. What I love about the Guardian is that editors will send you off to investigate a story and they will trust you enough to tell them what you think is interesting and worth writing about.

I remember our now-editor-in-chief Katharine Viner telling me to go to Athens, when Greece was in dire straits, head to Syntagma Square, and just see what was happening. At that time, Greece was considered a lazy, corrupt country that had been living high on the hog for a long time, whose moment of reckoning was upon them, and this was being reinforced by the media. Because I had been allowed to go off and do my own thing, I wrote a piece that was completely different to anything else in the press at that moment. I met teachers who had top degrees but were working part-time in a phone shop because that was the best job they could get. I ended up going to a housing estate in Piraeus – a major shipbuilding town – and I met a former dockworker who told me about how his life had been since the crash. I asked him what kind of tensions it had caused in his life. He paused for a long time, and then he said that his mother-in-law lived in the flat below his family and she left her door open at night so they could go in and steal food from her fridge. Neither party ever mentioned it, but it was understood. “And for a long time, I haven’t been able to be intimate with my wife.” It was staggering to hear this candid story from a proud family man like him, and I wrote it into the piece. That night when I went back to the square, I saw students who had printed the story from the Guardian website soon after publication, translated it into Greek and shared it on their own makeshift websites. These people fought so hard, but lost the battle anyway.

Leader writers are often imagined to be comprised of what Larry Elliott calls “sherry corner”, and when I joined the Guardian was pushing for some younger voices among its ranks. The banking crisis was unravelling in my first few months at the newspaper. There were so many changes happening around us. Later that year I went from Wall Street to Pittsburgh to LA to talk to people about Barack Obama and the state of the US economy, and getting the feeling even then that the craziness was not going to stop with the first black president. I went to a town called Stockton in California that had gone bankrupt and the mayor was working in a shop that sold balloons – I thought it was ironic for a place that been in a now-burst bubble.

Then later, in 2015 and 2017, watching people who had never engaged with politics before getting excited about Corbyn and Labour. And then seeing so much of the spark that had powered the 2017 campaign and helped Labour hold Theresa May to a minority government – and how so much of the air had gone out of it by 2019. They had so many great ideas but these couldn’t stack up for people who were part of the so-called “red wall”.

In 2019 I went to a former mining community in Derbyshire and found that the jobs were no longer in industry or mining, but rather in poorly paid social care or distribution, and they now had a Conservative MP. I knocked on one woman’s door and she initially thought we were canvassing for Labour. We got told to sling our hook, but we could hear shouting from inside the house and she invited us in to talk to her husband. They wanted to be listened to, and revealed how lonely they had become. I thought: “Here is a couple that has disappeared from the view of society, and the party that has always represented them for generations is no longer even talking about them.” I realised that in London, just a few hours away, there are young activists who are so removed from these communities outside the capital. It taught me that parties can change their leaders and their manifestos, but if you break trust and lose voters, you won’t get them back easily.

I think it is marrying up the political with the personal. It has been really difficult to report during the pandemic. My natural instinct is to go out, meet people, talk to them, and hopefully arrive at a familiarity with them. When this knowledge is reported and fed back to the politicians, really powerful things can happen. By bringing in new types of information, you can change the discourse and break the feedback loops between Whitehall and Fleet Street. Over the course of the past decade, the Guardian has done this again and again.

I read some histories of the Spanish flu, which was the last great global pandemic. I realised that is seen, really, as a coda to the first world war, rather than being a hugely significant event in itself. When it got to Paris, it hit the wealthiest boulevards but it disproportionately affected lives below stairs rather than above – we have seen a similar thing with Covid-19 exposing “class” strata in society. We’ve also seen so many inspiring actions being taken by communities to protect lives and provide support for the most vulnerable. I guess the question we all have to ask ourselves is whether we want to go back to how life was before, or can we do better? I think the Guardian has a big role to play in that conversation. It is our responsibility to illuminate alternative solutions to what the government is offering.

I think we will soon be at a point where we need to reflect on the way the government said it was protecting key workers and the most vulnerable – the manifest failures, on the one hand. And also the opportunities that might arise from this crisis. We will emerge from this fog at some point and we need to consider how we should live differently, and what we owe those who have given so much – including their own lives.

Don’t do what everyone else is doing. I’ve been a mentor to would-be journalists on the Guardian’s Positive Access Scheme pretty much ever since I joined the newspaper and Joseph Harker press-ganged me into it, and the biggest trend I have noticed is 21-year-olds wanting to write comment pieces about Venezuela or Corbyn. Don’t do that. There’s already a giant slagheap of surplus comment, especially first-person comment. Where our media – and our democracy – suffers a deficit is reporting. I try and use my column to find stuff out and expose it, on housing scandals or corporate abuses. I would far rather read your fact finding on the asylum system in this pandemic or how temp agencies work than your collected tweets on Donald Trump.

We are lucky to have a newsroom that is so much more diverse than the ones I trained in – and still so much more so than a lot of our competitors. We’ve got a long way to go, but it feels so wonderfully different to write alongside people who might not have had a chance at another paper.

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Linux-Fu: Parallel Universe

Words: Al Williams - Hackaday - 17:00 29-06-2020

At some point, you simply run out of processing power. Admittedly, that point keeps getting further and further away, but you can still get there. If you run out of CPU time, the answer might be to add more CPUs. However, sometimes there are other bottlenecks like memory or disk space. However, it is also likely that you have access to multiple computers. Who doesn’t have a few Raspberry Pis sitting around their network? Or maybe a server in the basement? Or even some remote servers “in the cloud.” GNU Parallel is a tool that lets you spread work across multiple tasks either locally to remote machines. In some ways, it is simple, since it looks sort of like xargs but with parallel execution. On the other hand, it has myriad options and configurations that can make it a little daunting to use.

In case you don’t use xargs, it is a very simple program that among other things lets you do something with a list of files. For example, suppose we want to search all C source files for the string “hackaday” using grep. You could write:

find . -name ‘*.[ch]’ | xargs grep -i hackaday

Here, xargs grabs an input line, calls grep and after grep completes, it repeats the process until it runs out of input lines. (Note: handling files with spaces is a bit tricky. Using -d ‘\n’ might help, although not all versions of xarg support it.)

In the simplest case, Parallel does the same thing, but it can execute grep — or whatever you are using — multiple times at once. On a local machine, this allows you to use multiple CPUs to improve timing. However, you can also spread the work among different machines that have passwordless ssh logins.

The author of GNU Parallel has a multipart video demonstration of the system. You can see the first part, below. The tutorial is also very good, and clears up a number of details that might not be obvious from the man page.

Just for my own amusement, I took a directory with some large mp4 files in it and used both xargs and parallel to gzip each file. I know, I know. The files are already compressed, so gzip isn’t going to do much. But I just wanted some large task to time. Here are the results:

[:~/Videos/movies] $ time find *.mp4 | xargs -d '\n' gzipreal 6m10.796suser 2m52.828ssys 0m9.718s[:~/Videos/movies] $ time find *.mp4 | parallel --jobs 8 -d '\n' gzipreal 5m25.050suser 2m56.676ssys 0m7.732s

Admittedly, this wasn’t very scientific, and saving about 45 seconds isn’t a tremendous gain, but still. I picked eight jobs because I have an eight-core processor. You might vary that setting depending on what else you’re doing at the time.

If you want to use remote computers to process data, you need to have passwordless ssh remote access to the other computer (or computers). Of course, chances are the remote computer won’t have the same files and resources, so it makes sense that — by default — your commands only run on the remote server. You can provide a comma-separated list of servers, and if you use the server name of “:” (just a colon), you’ll include your local machine in handling jobs.

This might be very useful if you have a mildly underpowered computer that needs help doing something. For example, we could imagine a Raspberry Pi-based 3D printer asking a remote host to slice a bunch of models in parallel. Even if you think you don’t have any computational heavy lifting, Parallel can do things like process files from a tar archive as they are unpacked without waiting for the rest of the files. It can distribute grep‘s work across your CPUs or cores.

Honestly, it would take a lot to explain each feature in detail, but I hope this has encouraged you to read more about GNU Parallel. Between the videos and the tutorial, you should get a good idea of some of the things you could do with this powerful tool.

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Liam Plunkett: 'Overcoming anxiety has improved me 100% as a cricketer'

Words: Donald McRae - The Guardian - 12:00 29-06-2020

“I t was a gift for me when I got anxiety,” Liam Plunkett says calmly as if he is talking about a birthday present rather than the moment when he began to confront the stress and uncertainty which once plagued him.

“If I didn’t get anxiety I probably wouldn’t have played in the World Cup. Many of us define anxiety as a really bad thing – and for lots of people it is – but when I deal with anxiety it helps me massively in other areas of life.”

On Tuesday it will be a year since Plunkett was recalled to England’s World Cup side after they endured a third defeat in the group stages. England had won the four group matches when Plunkett had played and lost all three when he was excluded. He returned to face India and took three of the five opposition wickets to fall, including that of the great Virat Kohli, and helped England secure the decisive victory that led to the semi-finals and winning a final that needed a super over to decide the outcome.

Plunkett took 11 wickets in the tournament, including three in the final. His dismissal of Kane Williamson continued his habit of removing the opposition’s best batsman. Quinton de Kock and Chris Gayle had also fallen to Plunkett in the group stages. All that success did not prevent him from being jettisoned when England picked their first post-World Cup one-day squad. After 124 internationals, across three formats, Plunkett was hurt not to have received a call to tell him the news.

Plunkett is 35 and, bolstered by his intention to play first-class cricket as long as possible, he is philosophical and interested in examining how he turned his past anxiety into a constructive process. “I was fortunate my anxiety didn’t happen on the cricket pitch in front of 50,000 people. It was always when I was facing a one-to-one situation. I know it affects different people in different ways but, for me, it really became a gift.”

At the time his panic attacks were distressing. “The first one happened when I was on a flight from Newcastle to Heathrow and then on to the US to see my wife. I had to get off the flight just before they closed the door. All of a sudden you’re sat in the plane and sweating. I really wanted to be with my wife but I couldn’t get over this massive hurdle of staying on that flight.”

A few years later Plunkett’s anxiety reached a debilitating pitch. “I’d had a few panic attacks but I was in a good place after joining Yorkshire from Durham [in 2013]. I was the fittest I’d ever been. In the winter I got a chance to fly to Adelaide where I’d played 10 years before – club cricket at Adelaide University. I took the first flight fine. I landed in Singapore or Hong Kong and had to get a connection. It felt like I couldn’t take a step into the boarding area.

“It’s like an invisible wall. Everything is foggy and I couldn’t get through this wall. It was only that I’d handed my passport in and didn’t have the correct visa which distracted my mind. I managed to get the visa and made the flight. But when I landed at Adelaide I didn’t have the courage to get in a car, or take a taxi to training.”

His anxiety escalated and he did not leave his room for eight days. “I wasn’t resting. I would eat at night, and during the day I’d keep myself locked up. It was pretty frightening because I’d not been through that before. I spoke to Tres [Marcus Trescothick, the former England batsmen who had spoken bravely about depression] and he put me in contact with the PCA [Professional Cricketers’ Association].

“I spoke to someone in Adelaide for a couple of sessions. He helped me. I tried to eat healthy and train smart. I was treating my body with respect and it helped clear my mind. But it’s frightening the first time. I know people who can go spiralling down and it can be fatal for some. But I always know there is a way out. There’re always strategies and people to talk to.”

Plunkett has learned to control his anxiety. “I’m pretty good now. I know what triggers it and I don’t want to put myself out there within a few days of the trigger. I need time to recover.”

The fact Plunkett can talk openly about mental health is a positive sign of how far cricket has come since Trescothick revealed the stress‑related condition that forced him to leave an Ashes tour in 2006. “As a young cricketer I thought there must be something wrong back home with Tres. You’re like: ‘Oh, that will never happen to me.’ But I learned anxiety is a tool you should use. I feel overcoming the anxiety has improved me 100% as a cricketer and as a person. It’s like practising in the nets. Why would you not do that for your mind?”

Plunkett’s resilience has its roots in the strength of his parents. His mother has had cancer three times and his father had both a kidney and a liver transplant. “I appreciate that, mate,” he says when I ask about their health in the current crises. “They’re good and I get my grit from my mum. She goes out for a 14-mile walk and so she’s the fittest she’s been in a long time. Recently I’ve been able to see my mum at a distance and I’m now doing personal training with her. It gives me practice [as a personal trainer].

“They’re incredible people. My old man had cysts that affected his organs. So he had both transplants. But they’re real strong and just cracked on with life. I’ve been a bit like Mum and Dad when I’ve hit roadblocks. I’ve always found a positive.

“When I struggled in cricket [with Plunkett’s international career being punctuated by spells in the wilderness] someone said: ‘This doesn’t define you.’ I was thinking if I don’t perform that makes me a crappy person and they said: ‘You can still be a good husband or brother or son.’ I thought: ‘I’d rather be a good one of them than a good cricketer.’”

In 2007 he offered his dad one of his kidneys as a potential donor. “He didn’t want none of it,” Plunkett says. “I was playing in the World Cup in the Caribbean and I offered it because he was struggling. But he’s in a decent place now.”

Plunkett’s desire to help others is evident in his commitment to the Player Resettlement Programme he has just launched with Chris Peel of The Training Room – a company that educates people through health and fitness. The PRP offers courses in personal training, IT, education and events management to professional sports people so they can forge alternative careers in retirement.

“I jumped at the chance,” Plunkett says, “because people in professional sport have such transferable skills. We want to help them think about using those skills to find new career paths. That question of ‘What next?’ can be a tough one but it can also be exciting. Cricket’s been a massive part of my life the last 16 years. While I’m still performing, and helping win games, I want to play as long as possible. But just because cricket stops one day doesn’t mean you can’t be passionate about another role – like the PRP.”

Plunkett and his World Cup‑winning teammates enjoyed an all-day session on Zoom while last year’s thrilling final was screened again on television. “It was very cool. I’d recorded my bowling and watched that thousands of times but I’d not watched the full thing. People were coming in and out of the Zoom session all day and we had a couple of beers and a good chat. It was fun to relive that memory together – as a band of brothers who won the World Cup. Not many groups do that.”

They needed some hard meetings during the tournament when England were on the brink of elimination. “There was a big one at Edgbaston. Everyone got to vent. I wasn’t in the team at that point and I said: ‘I’m pissed off I’m not playing, but that doesn’t mean I don’t want people to do well.’ I was dropped after performing well but there were lots of games and I accepted it. I said: ‘I’m not going to sit like a moody little kid in the corner. That’s poison for the dressing room.’ It cleared the air and helped us go in the right direction.”

The night before the final Plunkett felt “fairly laid-back”. He says: “You do have nerves but I’d had a lot of bumps in my international career and even lost the [2016] T20 World Cup final. I wanted to enjoy this one. I knew it could be the last chance to play in a World Cup, the last chance to play for England.

“On the day, when I started bowling down the hill as first change, I was a bit nervous and struggled to get my length. But after a few overs I came back from the other end and bowled nicely [taking three for 42]. Even during the super over I wanted the ball to come my way. You could take a blinding catch to win the World Cup.”

His teammates shared that positivity and, with some good fortune, England became world champions amid excruciating tension. “I was so proud to win with that bunch of boys. Everything was buzzing afterwards in the dressing room. I sat down to take my boots off and that wave of emotion hit me. I started to sob tears of joy.”

Different emotions, pinned down by disappointment, were felt a few months later when Plunkett discovered on social media he had been dropped. “I think that’s what it is,” he says of the hurt caused by the inexplicable decision not to tell him personally.

“I appreciate it’s sport, at the highest level, and new people are always coming in but do I still think I’m good enough to play for England? Of course. But that ship has sailed and I’m not a person to hold grudges. I’m trying to get on with the next thing at Surrey.”

Plunkett has floated the idea of playing for USA in a World Cup, as he and his American wife may settle in the States, but he sounds philosophical. “I want to play for as long as I can for Surrey. Hopefully that’s another three years. Then it’s three years to qualify for the US. I might not even get into their team and I think I’d prefer to develop as a coach.”

All the ghosts of the anxious past seem a long way away. The future looks a lighter place as Plunkett laughs. “But who knows?” he says wryly. “I might still be flying in at 42.”

For more information on the Player Resettlement Programme email prpinfo@thetrainingroom.com

In the UK, Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123 or email jo@samaritans.org . You can contact the mental health charity Mind on 0300 123 3393 or at mind.org.uk

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Cox's Bazar refugee camps: where social distancing is impossible

Words: Rebecca Ratcliffe, Liz Ford, Lydia McMullan, Pablo Gutiérrez and Garry Blight - The Guardian - 11:30 29-06-2020

Social distancing simply isn’t possible for the 1 million Rohingya refugees who live in Cox’s Bazar refugee camp, in southeastern Bangladesh. Families live in close quarters inside flimsy bamboo shacks, using communal toilets and water facilities. Sometimes the most basic items, such as soap, are lacking.

Most of the Rohingya refugees living in the camp fled there in 2017, following a brutal crackdown by the Myanmar military, which the UN has since said was carried out with “genocidal intent”. On top of psychological trauma, many have underlying health conditions that leave them especially vulnerable to Covid-19.

The UN, and other agencies, have raced to open new facilities in Cox’s Bazar, but equipment is still extremely limited, and it is feared medical centres could be quickly overwhelmed. As of 28 June, 49 cases and five deaths have been recorded.

Here we take a look at the conditions in two of the camps and the experiences of the people living there.

Camp 1E

Kutupalong RC

Camp area is

0.39 sq km

1km

Camp 2W

Camp 2E

Camp 6

Camp 1E

Camp 1E

Kutupalong RC

Camp area is

0.39 sq km

1km

Camp 2W

Camp 2E

Camp 6

Camp 1E

Camp 1E

Kutupalong RC

1km

Camp area is

0.39 sq km

Camp 2W

Camp 2E

Camp 6

Camp 1E

Camp 1E

Kutupalong RC

1km

Camp area is

0.39 sq km

Camp 2W

Camp 2E

Camp 6

Camp 1E

Slide 1.1 heading

There are 34 refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar. This satellite view shows a handful of them.

Slide 1.2 heading

Camp 2E has more than 25,000 residents. That means there is approximately one tennis court-sized area for every 13 people.

Slide 1.3 heading

Families live in huts made from tarpaulin and bamboo. In some cases, up to 10 family members share just one room.

Slide 1.4 heading

There are about 1 million Rohingya people living in similar conditions in these adjacent camps and across the rest of the settlement.

‘It is extremely difficult to live in this crowded place’

Abu Kalam, Camp 2E

Abu Kalam lives with 11 other family members in a home built from bamboo and tarpaulin with mud walls. It’s extremely cramped, he says, but everyone is staying at home.

Outside, life in the camp has ground to a halt. The children are no longer able to go to school; his two older sons, who used to work on a tea stall and pulling a rickshaw, have lost their income.

It’s the start of monsoon season, and some nearby homes have already been flooded, adding to the misery of lockdown. Fortunately Kalam, who lives on a hill, has not been affected.

His home is divided into four small rooms, but disease spreads easily. Two weeks ago, his wife began to suffer from fever and flu-like symptoms. Now, his three-year-old son and his three daughters are sick. “I’m worried but I don’t tell them,” says Kalam. “I’m the head of the family and I don’t want to frighten them.”

He reassured them that it is just the usual flu – it is flu season in the camps – and told them not to worry about Covid-19.

The overcrowded conditions across the camps increase the risk of transmitting the virus

Going to the clinic, he adds, isn’t an option. He fears that doctors would assume they had coronavirus and immediately quarantine the family. He doesn’t know where they’d be sent.

Sometimes, messages about how to stay safe from the virus are relayed on loudspeakers outside, but for updates on the pandemic, he relies on people who are able to pick up an internet connection on the outskirts of the camp. Reading news updates or online advice about staying safe isn’t possible, due to an internet blackout across the camps, which the Bangladesh government says is necessary for security concerns.

The family have enough soap for handwashing, but he worries about the conditions in communal facilities. The toilets, he says, are hard to maintain when they are used by so many people. They have some masks, but not enough for everyone. “It is not fit for a human to live here, it is not hygienic,” he says.

It is not clear if there are confirmed coronavirus infections in camp 2E, but Kalam fears that if testing is increased then hidden cases will emerge. “It is extremely difficult to live in this crowded place in this situation,” he adds. “But we have nowhere to go.”

Camp 2E profile

Bangladesh

Bangladesh

Camp 2E

Kutupalong

Myanmar

Myanmar

Dhaka

5km

5 miles

Camp 2E

Area: 0.39 sq km

Average

population

density

London

5,729/sq km

Camp 2E

65,787/sq km

Access to bathing

is limited, with 151

facilities between

more than 25,000 people

100m

500 feet

Camp 2E

Camp 2E

Area: 0.39 sq km

Average population density

Kutupalong

London

5,729/sq km

Camp 2E

65,787/sq km

More than 11 times as densely populated the UK’s most crowded city

Myanmar

Bangladesh

Access to bathing is limited,

with 151 facilities between

more than 25,000 people

Dhaka

100m

5km

5 miles

500 feet

Source: UNHCR 2020, WASH 2020, GLA 2018. See end for full source notes.

Bathing

facilities

Camp 5

Camp 17

Camp 20

Camp 18

500m

Camp 4

extension

Camp 5

Bathing

facilities

Camp 17

Camp 8W

Camp 20

extension

Camp 20

Camp 18

500m

500m

Camp 4

extension

Camp 5

Bathing

facilities

Camp 17

Camp 8W

Camp 20

extension

Camp 20

Camp 18

500m

Camp 4

extension

Camp 5

Bathing

facilities

Camp 17

Camp 20

extension

Camp 8W

Camp 20

Camp 18

Slide 2.1 heading

Access to water and adequate sanitation is limited across the camps, which increases the risk of Covid-19 transmission.

Slide 2.2 heading

In Camp 17 the 16,343 residents rely on communal tube wells as their main source of water. Water is raised using a hand pump.

Slide 2.3 heading

On average, a tube well is shared between 43 people in this camp, according to data from 2019.

Aid agencies say that emergency handwashing stations have been installed across the camps over recent months, but access to water remains a major concern. It is not clear if any of the new water points have been installed in camp 17.

Slide 2.4 heading

For some families, getting water from the tube wells to their shelters involves having to stand in a lengthy queue several times a day.

Slide 2.5 heading

With an average of around one shower cubicle for every 21 people, bathing areas are also extremely limited. Women, many of whom fled sexual violence in Myanmar, often do not feel safe using the cubicles, due to a lack of privacy.

‘I have 13 family members, so it is very tough’

Mohamed Meah, camp 17

Every morning at 6.30am Mohamed Meah’s children queue for up to half an hour at a nearby tube well. After filling their containers, they trudge for 15 minutes back up the hill to their home. They make the same journey at noon, and sometimes in the evening, heaving water back to their bamboo and tarpaulin shelter.

There used to be a water point just minutes away, says Meah, but it has been broken for almost a year. Nowadays, the family of 13 relies on the tube well that has to serve a far greater number of families. His children, who don’t have masks, wait alongside others for their turn. There’s little social distancing.

Even before the outbreak, access to water was one of the biggest problems facing his family, says Meah. Now, the need for clean water, so that families can wash their hands and reduce the risk of virus transmission, is even more urgent.

He adds that thankfully there are no known coronavirus cases in camp 17, but everyone is on high alert and lockdown means the already dire conditions have become even harder.

“I have 13 family members, so it is very tough,” he says. They rely on rations, and barely have enough to eat. Many people in the camps have lost work due to the lockdown, and services provided by NGOs have been cut to reduce the risk of aid workers bringing the virus in with them. Meah is still able to work in a madrasa school, but no one else in the family is earning. They can’t afford to buy extra vegetables or snacks for the children.

“Whenever we see people, we have a talk about Covid-19 and about the situation in the camp. We try to get more information from each other,” he says. An internet ban means there is no way to access reliable news, and instead people rely on word of mouth.

There are many children living in the camps

Meah says that if he developed symptoms he would go to the clinic, about half-an-hour’s walk away, and follow whatever treatment is given. He isn’t sure what to expect, though. Many people are reluctant to go, he adds. Some have had bad experiences in the past, or worry about being sent into isolation.

Social distancing at home, he says, wouldn’t be possible. “We all sleep together. There’s no space.”

Camp 17 profile

Bangladesh

Bangladesh

Camp 17

Kutupalong

Myanmar

Myanmar

Dhaka

5km

5km

5 miles

5 miles

Camp 17

Camp 17

Area: 0.9 sq km

Of the 376 working tube wells in this camp, 131 of them are near a latrine

100m

100m

500 feet

Average population density

3 times as

densely

populated as

the UK’s most

crowded city

London

5,729/sq km

Camp 17

17,196/sq km

Camp 17

Camp 17

Area: 0.9 sq km

Kutupalong

Myanmar

Bangladesh

Of the 376 working tube wells in this camp, 131 of them are near a latrine

100m

500 feet

Average population density

Camp 17

17,196/sq km

London

5,729/sq km

Dhaka

Dhaka

3 times as densely populated as the UK’s most crowded city

5km

5km

5 miles

5 miles

Source: UNHCR 2020, REACH 2019, GLA 2018. See end for full source notes.

Relief efforts

The Rohingya people are playing a huge role in managing the coronavirus outbreak in Cox’s Bazar. Before the first Covid-19 case was recorded in the camps, the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) was already training the existing network of 1,440 volunteer community health workers to spot symptoms and protect against the virus.

The health workers, who volunteer across all the camps, are now going door to door to share information about Covid-19. Short videos are being posted on social media and posters, in Rohingya, Bengali and Burmese, are displayed around the camps, and messages are being broadcast on the radio and via speaker phones.

NGOs, youth groups and women’s groups in the camps are also helping to raise awareness among their communities.

With the rising number of Covid-19 cases among the Rohingya, the UNHCR now wants to train an additional 600 volunteers to work on its home-based care programme. To avoid isolation centres in the camps becoming overwhelmed, people displaying mild symptoms will be encouraged to isolate at home. Volunteers will be responsible for delivering food and water, and checking on anyone in isolation.

Funding remains a concern. This year’s UN appeal is only 29% funded. Agencies have received some funding from the UN global Covid-19 response appeal, but the situation is precarious. Although the area avoided being hit by Cyclone Amphan in May, monsoon rains have begun. “It’s one emergency on top of another,” said UNHCR spokesperson Louise Donovan.

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Crystal Palace v Burnley: Premier League – live!

Words: Rob Smyth - The Guardian - 19:54 29-06-2020

All the latest from the 8pm BST kick-off at Selhurst Park

Football Weekly: Deep dive into Liverpool’s title triumph

Get in touch! Send Rob an email with your thoughts

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Summer of the cannibal rats! Hungry, aggressive, highly fertile – and coming to our homes

Words: Simon Usborne - The Guardian - 05:00 29-06-2020

L ockdown has been hard for rodents whose fortunes are tied to those of humans. When restaurants closed, and city streets and back alleys emptied of people and their waste, rats lost a plentiful supply of food. So they followed us home, foraging and breeding in our gardens, drains and household voids. They became more brazen and aggressive. And, when that wasn’t enough, they began to eat each other.

Cannibal rats are among the grimmest consequences of the upending of urban life. In the US, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have warned of “unusual or aggressive” behaviour in rats, including the eating of rat pups.

This probably shouldn’t come as a surprise, given that cannibalism is common among mammals in extremis. “Mothers will eat their young in the hope of one day being able to reproduce again,” says Steve Belmain, a professor of ecology at the Natural Resources Institute in Kent, and the UK’s leading rat academic. “If there’s not enough food to take care of herself, she won’t kill herself looking after them.”

Bill Lane-Petter, a pre-eminent postwar rodent expert and lab rat specialist, observed in 1968 that malnutrition in rodents can produce a “perversion” in the dam, or mother. “This will lead her, as well as other adult or growing animals in the cage, to devour carcasses, and even to attack and kill the young in order to eat them.”

Even more horrifyingly to human ears, cannibalism, Lane-Petter went on, “may develop as a vice. Whisker-eating in mice is not uncommon; it can go on to ear- or toe-chewing, and, from there to total cannibalism.”

Cannibalism aside, Britain’s pest control firms have reported a surge in demand. Rentokil has noted an almost 80% increase in visits to its website compared with this time last year. The company said the warm winter kept rat populations high, adding to the pressure on the animals. Meanwhile, our homes are offering richer pickings because we are eating in and gardening more.

“We’ve noticed more activity around compost bins, as people in lockdown are composting far more,” says Paul Bates of Cleankill, a Croydon firm whose domestic rat call-outs are up 20% compared with last year. With daily replenishment and no limit on consumption, an unsecured vegetable waste bin is a Pizza Hut salad buffet for a rat.

Bates says rats have become bolder in attempting to enter our homes, competing with the mice that are our more common housemates. Rats crawl up drains and gnaw through plastic piping. They can swim into toilet bowls. Demand is high for “rat flaps” – spiked one-way gates for waste pipes that stop rats coming in while letting, well, stuff flow out.

“Customers have all commented on how much braver and more brazen the rats have become,” says Nick Woodroffe of Peak Pest Control in Derbyshire, where homebound rats are missing the detritus of tourism in Bakewell and Buxton.

Mike Flynn, the boss of Alpha Pest Control in Stoke-on-Trent, remembers a recent call to a house where the father had seen a rat going from the upstairs landing into a toddler’s bedroom. He’d searched the room for the animal’s hiding place without success. “We arrived and did probably the same search, but no one had thought to look in the cot,” Flynn says. “I remember picking up the pillow and being just as horrified as the rat that stared back at me.” A chase ensued – and a decisive blow to the head.

Belmain is receiving dozens of emails from homeowners with rat problems. Some have cats that are catching more rats as the urban food chain shifts. Flynn says cats – often seen as free pest control – don’t always help. Rats love catflaps. And cats that enjoy catching and toying with rats can give them a lift indoors, where those with non-lethal injuries can recover to make a new home. Flynn recommends flaps unlocked by smart cat collars that are also equipped with bells to scare off would-be prey.

The feeding of any animals in gardens, including foxes and birds, is an invitation to rodent intruders. Decking creates a lovely home for garden rats, while chicken coops are rat Disneyland. Flynn, who used to advise the government on infestations in food stockpiles, was once called out to a commercial chicken house containing 16,000 free-range birds. There were more than 3,000 rats living in it, gorging on guano.

Cleankill was recently called out to a garage where a motor home was being stored. Rats were swarming in the engine compartment and eating the fabric that covered the seats in which they had nested. The firm was able to evict the squatters before they moved on to the house.

Hungry rats are more likely to be aggressive. In 2016, a councillor in Cork said an elderly man had told him he had been bitten on the backside by a rat while using his loo after local flooding. “I would advise homeowners to keep their toilet seats down when not in use, and to watch their posteriors,” Noel Collins told the city’s Evening Echo.

Flynn was once called out to a museum on a routine visit, where he learned that the night security guard had taken to feeding rats. “He got them to come closer and closer to his office using bits of his dinner,” Flynn recalls. “He managed to entice one inside. It promptly attacked him and bit him. He needed hospital treatment for his wound.”

Belmain fell into the rat field by accident. He was an insect guy before work in rural areas in developing countries left him fascinated by the scale of rodent infestations, rat behaviour – and the relationship between humans and rats. “You have to be part natural scientist and part anthropologist to understand rats,” he says.

Rat research was much bigger after the second world war, during a quest for an effective poison. Rats have evolved to be wary of unfamiliar food, and had learned to stop eating poisons that made them immediately ill before they received a lethal dose. Scientists then discovered that anticoagulants worked better because they took days to thin the blood, causing internal organs to haemorrhage. Hapless rats would come back for more.

Warfarin-based rat poison, the development of which gave rise to treatment for blood clots and strokes in humans, remains the standard for councils and pest controllers. Part of Belmain’s work, mainly still in developing countries, is now to consider the less desirable effects of poisoning on the food chain, including in birds of prey.

He also researches the bubonic plague and the age-old role of rats as disease carriers. “We’re taught to be fearful of them; it’s ingrained in our culture,” he says. It’s perhaps no surprise that reports of marauding, bottom-biting cannibal rats strike fear into the heart during a global health crisis. The first sign of a pandemic in Albert Camus’ 1947 novel La Peste (The Plague), sales of which have been healthy in lockdown, is a swarming of rats from the sewers.

Yet other rodents can do more damage in the home. Grey squirrels, which are often found in loft space, can chomp through wires and insulation, and contaminate water tanks. And yes, they’ll also eat each other if they need to. “Rats are just squirrels with bald tails,” says Paul Gowland of Cobra North East, a pest control company in Sunderland. “One gets all the nice stuff; the other is vilified.”

Rats can breed at an astonishing rate when times become less lean. They can conceive as soon as they give birth, and then deliver the next litter while still weaning the first. Young rats start to reproduce after two or three months. “The population has declined in the past few months but as soon as the restaurants reopen, I think they’ll find their old habitats again,” Belmain says. “They’ll get back to normal, probably, before we do.”

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Beyond Pluto: the hunt for our solar system's new ninth planet

Words: Stuart Clark - The Guardian - 08:30 28-06-2020

Y ou’d think that if you found the first evidence that a planet larger than the Earth was lurking unseen in the furthest reaches of our solar system, it would be a big moment. It would make you one of only a small handful of people in all of history to have discovered such a thing.

But for astronomer Scott Sheppard of the Carnegie Institution for Science in Washington DC, it was a much quieter affair. “It wasn’t like there was a eureka moment,” he says. “The evidence just built up slowly.”

He’s a master of understatement. Ever since he and his collaborator Chad Trujillo of Northern Arizona University, first published their suspicions about the unseen planet in 2014, the evidence has only continued to grow. Yet when asked how convinced he is that the new world, which he calls Planet X (though many other astronomers call it Planet 9), is really out there, Sheppard will only say: “I think it’s more likely than unlikely to exist.”

As for the rest of the astronomical community, in most quarters there is a palpable excitement about finding this world. Much of this excitement centres on the opening of a giant new survey telescope named after Vera C Rubin, the astronomer who, in the 1970s, discovered some of the first evidence for dark matter.

Scheduled to begin its full survey of the sky in 2022, the Rubin observatory could find the planet outright or provide the clinching circumstantial evidence that it’s there.

Discovery of the planet would be a triumph, but also a disaster for existing theory about how the solar system was created.

“It would change everything we thought we knew about planet formation,” says Sheppard, in another characteristic understatement. In truth, no one has a clue how such a large planet could form that far from the sun.

The distant solar system is a place of darkness and mystery. It encompasses an enormous volume of space that begins at the orbit of Neptune, some 30 times further from the sun than Earth, or 30 astronomical units (AU)the , and extends to about 100,000AU. That’s almost one-third of the distance from the sun to the next nearest star.

It was in the inner regions of this volume that American astronomer Clyde Tombaugh discovered Pluto in 1930. Although Pluto possessed just two-thirds of the diameter of our moon, it was originally classed as a planet.

By the end of the century, however, telescopes were bigger and astronomers were beginning to find more tiny worlds beyond Neptune. They were all even smaller than Pluto until 2005, when Mike Brown from the California Institute of Technology discovered Eris. It was at least the same size as Pluto and probably bigger, so, if Pluto was a planet, so was Eris. Nasa hastily organised a press conference and announced the discovery of Planet 10.

About a year later, the International Astronomical Union ruled that Pluto and Eris were effectively too small to be called planets and renamed them dwarf planets. So the solar system’s roll-call returned to eight: Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune. And a cottage industry of finding distant solar system objects really got going.

The path towards Planet 9 began one night in 2012, when Sheppard and Trujillo were using the Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory’s telescope in Chile. They were finding more and more distant objects, but one in particular stood out. Catalogued as 2012 VP113, they nicknamed it Biden after the US vice-president at the time (because of the letters VP in the catalogue designation). To their amazement, this far-flung world never came closer to the sun than about 80AU. At its furthest, Biden would reach 440AU into deep space, meaning that it followed a highly elliptical orbit. But that wasn’t the most remarkable thing about it.

By some weird coincidence, its orbit appeared to be very similar to that of another distant world known as Sedna. This mini-world had been discovered in 2003 by Brown, Trujillo and David Rabinowitz of Yale University. It immediately stood out because of its highly elliptical orbit, which swings from 76AU to 937AU.

“Objects like Sedna and 2012 VP113 can’t form on these eccentric orbits,” says Sheppard. Instead, computer simulations suggest that they form much closer and are then ejected by gravitational interactions with the larger planets. The truly odd thing, however, was that the two elongated orbits pointed in roughly the same direction.

And the more Sheppard and Trujillo examined the other objects in their catch, the more they saw that those orbits were aligned, too. It was as if something was corralling those tiny worlds, like a sheepdog manoeuvring its flock. And the only thing they could think of that was capable of doing that was a much larger planet.

Curiosity piqued, they did some calculations and discovered that the planet their results were hinting at had to be somewhere between two and 15 times more massive than Earth, on an orbit that lies on average somewhere between 250AU and 1500AU from the sun. Their results were published by the prestigious journal Nature Nature in March 2014 and interest in Planet 9 began to sweep the astronomical world.

The next big leap came in 2015 when Sheppard and Trujillo were among the scientists who discovered 2015 TG387. They nicknamed this one the Goblin. It’s the third most extreme object behind Sedna and Biden and it, too, lines up, reducing still further the idea that this alignment is a random coincidence.

In 2016, Brown and his collaborator Konstantin Batygin, also of Caltech, published their own analysis of the data. Agreeing with Sheppard and Trujillo about the size and distance of the planet, they even suggested an area of sky where they thought it might be found.

But not everyone is convinced.

Pedro H Bernardinelli, a PhD candidate at the University of Pennsylvania, realised that Sheppard’s data wasn’t the only place one could look for distant worldlets. So he turned to some initial data from a cosmological survey that was designed to measure the way in which the universe is expanding by looking at far-away galaxies. He searched the data for the celestial equivalent of a photobomb, looking for distant solar system objects that just happened to get in the way of the camera. He found seven.

At first sight, it looked as if these worldlets were also aligned as expected, but the more rigorously Bernardinelli analysed the data, the weaker he felt the alignment became. “We don’t think we see the signal in our data,” says Bernardinelli, although he admits the he can’t yet definitely rule out the planet and has yet to run the analysis on the full survey data. “Our answer might change the next time we do this,” he says.

These days, Sheppard can regularly be found using Japan’s Subaru telescope on Mauna Kea, Hawaii, patiently scouring the sky for more evidence of Planet 9, maybe even hoping that he sees the planet itself. The scale of the task is enormous. It really is like looking for the proverbial needle in a haystack. The planet – if it is even there – is very faint and the sky is very large. But help is on its way in the form of the Rubin observatory.

Rubin is a monster that will devour the sky. Whereas most telescopes would take months or years to survey the whole sky, Rubin will do it in just three nights. Then do it again and again and again to see what’s changed and so catch the moving objects.

Construction is nearing completion, and the telescope is set to open its giant eye for the first time later this year. Commissioning and tweaking will then take another couple of years.

“That survey is going to change solar system science as we know it,” says Sheppard. And if Planet 9 is out there, Rubin should see it.

“We can detect an Earth-mass planet at around 1000 AU,” says Meg Schwamb, of Queen’s University Belfast, who co-chairs the Rubin observatory’s solar system science collaboration. That puts Sheppard’s world easily within its sights. “If others haven’t seen Planet 9 before our survey starts then, I think, all eyes are on the Rubin observatory,” says Schwamb.

Even if the telescope fails to see the planet directly, it will detect many more distant mini-worlds that can all be use to triangulate the planet’s position more precisely, thus helping to narrow the search area. And if Planet 9 really is out there, then the consequences will be huge.

Astronomers think that the solar system formed in a disc of matter surrounding the sun. That matter condensed into smaller bodies, which then collided to form larger ones. At the end of this process, the planets were born. But the matter in this disc thins out further from the sun, meaning there is not enough raw material to form a large planet in the distant solar system.

To rescue the standard theory, some suggest that Planet 9 was once destined to become a gas giant like Jupiter or Saturn and so was forming alongside them. However, a gravitational interaction stunted its growth by hurling it out into the dark.

But Jakub Scholtz of Durham University is sceptical. “It’s possible,” he says, “but it actually requires quite a lot of coincidences.” That’s because a single gravitational interaction can’t do the job. Instead, a series of interactions is needed to place it in an orbit that never brings it back to where it formed.

Scholtz has a more exotic idea. Together with collaborator James Unwin, of the University of Illinois at Chicago, he has suggested that the object corralling these distant worldlets is not a long-lost planet but a black hole.

If so, not even Rubin will be able to see it, because black holes emit no light whatsoever – they simply swallow light and anything else that happens to cross their path. It is a tantalising possibility because Scholtz’s black hole would have to be part of a long-suspected but never-proved population of black holes that were formed shortly after the formation of the universe.

But for the time being, most other astronomers seem more than content with the idea that there’s a large planet out there in the darkness, just waiting to come into view in the next few years.

And if Planet 9 really is there, then perhaps the first time Sheppard sees it through a telescope, he will finally experience something akin to a eureka moment.

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