As the search for missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 continues in the southern Indian Ocean, some key questions remain unanswered.
Here are 10 questions about what happened to the Boeing 777 that disappeared after leaving Kuala Lumpur bound for Beijing on 8 March, with 239 people on board.
1. Why did the plane make a sharp left turn?
Military radar logs show flight MH370 turned unexpectedly west when it diverted from its planned flight path, by which time the plane's transponder had already been switched off, and its last ACARS datalink transmission sent.
Sudden turns like this are "extremely rare", according to Dr Guy Gratton of Brunel University's Flight Safety Lab. He says the only real reason pilots are likely to make such a manoeuvre is if there's a serious problem on the plane which makes them decide to divert to a different destination, to get the aircraft on the ground.
That could be a fire or sudden decompression, according to David Barry, an expert on flight data monitoring at Cranfield University.
Malicious intent - by a pilot or intruder - is another possibility.
So far, no evidence has been released from searches of the homes of Captain Zaharie Ahmad Shah and his co-pilot Fariq Abdul Hamid that back up any similar explanation for MH370. There has been speculation that Shah may have been upset after breaking up with his wife, but there is so far no reliable source for his state of mind. It's been reported police are still examining a flight simulator found in the captain's home.
Barry says the apparent turning off of certain systems might give weight to the theory, but "pilot suicide is a theory like any other". Gratton agrees. "There simply isn't any evidence to prove or disprove it," he says.
3. Is a hijack scenario even possible?
Airliners have been fitted with strengthened flight deck doors - intended to prevent intruders from taking control - since 9/11. David Learmount, safety editor at Flight International magazine, says they are "bulletproof" and "couldn't be penetrated with an axe".
Sylvia Wrigley, light aircraft pilot and author of Why Planes Crash, agrees it's unlikely anyone would be able to force their way in. "Even if the door was being broken down, they wouldn't be able to get in before there'd been a mayday call, unless the pilots were incapacitated," she says.
However, one former pilot, who did not wish to be named, has suggested there is theoretically a way to disable the lock and get into the flight deck.
But in any case, however secure the door, there are times when the door is open - when a member of the crew either visits the toilet or has to check on something in the cabin. It's always been pointed out that it would be possible to rush the cockpit when this is the case. Some airlines, including Israel's El Al, have double doors to guard against this scenario. Gratton says there's a procedure which requires a member of the cabin crew to guard the door when it's opened.
But even in the event of hijackers rushing the cockpit, it would be easy for either crew member to send a distress signal.
There's also the possibility that a pilot invited a passenger in. Photographs have emerged of the co-pilot of MH370 entertaining teenage tourists in an aircraft cockpit during a previous flight.
Boeing said it would be inappropriate to comment on an ongoing investigation.
4. Is there an accidental scenario that stands up to scrutiny?
So far most theories have been based on the assumption that the communications systems and the plane's transponder were deliberately disabled, a view endorsed by Malaysian officials.
However, Wrigley believes it's possible a sequence of events may have taken the plane so far off course by accident. "Something could have gone wrong in stages. A fire could have taken out part of the plane, or led to some systems failing, but left the plane intact. Then there could have been decompression - not an explosive decompression, but a gradual one," she says.
Wrigley cites the Helios Airways flight 522 which crashed into a mountain in Greece in 2005 after a loss of cabin pressure and lack of oxygen incapacitated the crew, but left the plane flying on autopilot, as an example. "I'm not saying it's a likely scenario, but it's not impossible," she says.
Pilots have pointed out that one of the very first actions in many emergency drills is to send a message to air traffic control or some other form of signal. For a purely accidental scenario to make sense, whatever initial event took place must have simultaneously knocked out all regular means to communicate with the ground.
5. Why was no action taken when the plane's transponder signal went off?
MH370's transponder - which communicates with ground radar - was shut down as the aircraft crossed from Malaysian air traffic control into Vietnamese airspace over the South China Sea.
If a plane disappeared in Europe, Barry says someone in air traffic control would have noticed and raised the alarm pretty quickly. Gratton agrees. "In Europe handover is extremely slick.
"At the very least I'd expect air traffic controllers to try and contact a nearby aircraft to try and establish direct contact. Pilots frequently use TCAS [traffic collision avoidance system], which detects transponders of other aircraft to ensure they aren't too close to each other," he adds.
Air traffic control
However Steve Buzdygan, a former BA 777 pilot, says that from memory, there's a gap or "dead spot" of about 10 minutes in the VHF transmission before the plane would have crossed into Vietnamese airspace.
Learmount says it's also perfectly feasible that nobody on the ground noticed the plane's disappearance. "Malaysian air traffic control had probably handed it over to the Vietnamese and forgotten about it. There could have been a five-minute delay before anyone noticed the plane hadn't arrived - a gap in which nobody pressed the alarm button," he says.
Even if air traffic control did notice the plane was amiss, they wouldn't necessarily have made it public, he adds.
The Civil Aviation Authority of Vietnam says the plane failed to check in as scheduled at 0121 with air traffic control in Ho Chi Minh City. However, an unnamed pilot flying a 777 heading for Japan says he briefly established contact with MH370 minutes after he was asked to do so by Vietnamese air traffic control.
6. Why isn't it easier to track missing planes by military satellite?
The search effort on seas some 2,500km (1,500 miles) to the south-west of the Australian city of Perth has relied on images provided by commercial satellite companies.
Dan Schnurr, chief technology officer at Geospatial Insight, says there are 20 known satellites that have a resolution capable of obtaining these images in the "vast tracts of the ocean passing over the poles". Of those, probably about 10 of them capture images on a daily basis.
The images are beamed down from the satellites in very near real time, and are probably on the ground within two or three hours of image capture, he says. The delay in detecting valuable images is down to the time it takes to analyse the large volume of imagery.
There are also satellite sources owned by the military and government, but these have not been prominent in the search. This has led to some speculation that the fate of the plane was known about earlier in the search, but not revealed.
Laurence Gonzales, author of flight 232: A Story of Disaster and Survival, says some nations are bound to have more sophisticated surveillance systems than they are letting on. "A very small, fast ballistic missile can be picked up easily, so how can they lose a big, slow-moving object like a jumbo jet? It tells me somewhere in the angles of power in the world someone knows where the plane is but doesn't want to talk about it, probably for reasons of national security because they don't want to reveal the sophistication of the material they have... that their satellite technology is so good it can read a label on a golf ball," he says.
But Gratton says military satellites looking for ballistic missiles probably wouldn't have thrown up much useful data because they wouldn't have been calibrated to pick up aircraft of this size.
"This aircraft was seven miles up and travelled at three-quarters of the speed of sound. Ballistic missiles go up to four or five times the speed of sound, and 30 to 50 miles up - they have very different profiles," he says.
7. Did the plane glide into the sea or plunge after running out of fuel?
The MH370's final moments seem to depend on whether the plane was still being flown by a pilot.
"If it was under control, the plane was capable of being glided. The Airbus that went into the New York's Hudson River lost both engines - which is an identical outcome to running out of fuel - and the pilot managed to land on the water," Gratton says.
Barry agrees there could have been a gentle descent. "Aircraft of this size will normally fly or glide over 50 miles before they hit the sea if they run out of fuel," he says. However, if no-one was at the controls, he says the descent could have been "pretty severe".
8. Would the passengers have known something was wrong?
If a major malfunction had not occurred, it is unclear whether passengers would have known anything was awry, especially if there were no obvious signs of a struggle onboard. Joe Pappalardo, senior editor at Popular Mechanics magazine, says in most scenarios where a plane flies off course for hours, passengers can remain oblivious. At 01:00, many would probably have been asleep. In the morning, the astute might have worked out the Sun was in the wrong position.
Boeing 777s can fly higher than 40,000ft
Malaysian authorities have said the plane rose to 45,000ft, before falling to 23,000ft, after it changed course. If that's the case, passengers might have felt the loss of altitude, according to Pappalardo.
However one theory is that the plane's apparent climb could have been designed to induce hypoxia - oxygen deprivation - which could have knocked people unconscious and even killed them.
Wrigley thinks it could have played out in one of two ways. "In the horror story version passengers would have realised something was wrong as the plane climbed - and a decompression event would have led to oxygen masks coming down, and an awareness that oxygen was limited. A better scenario is they didn't know anything had happened until impact," she says.
9. Why didn't passengers use their mobile phones?
One commonly asked question is why, if it had been obvious something was wrong, passengers wouldn't have used mobile phones to call relatives and raise the alarm. This seems especially puzzling in light of the example of United flight 93, where passengers communicated with people on the ground after the plane was hijacked during 9/11.
Waiting for news of MH370 in Beijing
It's been stated that it's extremely unlikely that anyone could get mobile signal on an airliner at 30,000ft. Barry agrees the chances of a mobile phone working on the plane were "virtually impossible". "It can be hard to get a signal on a remote road, let alone seven miles up, away from mobile phone masts, travelling at 500mph," he says.
10. Why can't planes be set up to give full real-time data to a satellite?
Arguably the most baffling thing to a layperson about the disappearance of MH370 is how it is even possible for a plane of this size to disappear so easily. In an era when people are used to being able to track a stolen smartphone, it's perplexing that switching off a couple of systems can apparently allow an airliner to vanish.
Barry says the technology exists to allow planes to give off full real-time data. The problem is planes are "snapshots in time from when they are designed".
"We're doing research into devices that will allow aircraft to start transmitting information by satellite when something unusual like a fire or decompression happens, but it's hard to fit things into a plane retrospectively.
"The 777 went into service in the early 90s... the technology is of that era," he says.
However, Gratton says ACARS would have done the job if it hadn't been turned off. A more complex satellite system would also be open to that risk, he argues, unless the industry wanted to go with a system that couldn't be manually switched off, and that would come with other risks.
"It's not a particularly easy question. Is the bigger risk an aircraft going missing, or electronics overheating? Both situations can't be met," he says.
The writer hosts a show on Express TV and works as a consulting editor at The Friday Times
Finally, I countenanced what I had been dreading for quite some time. Journalists and media houses being under threat is a well-known story in conflict-ridden Pakistan. I had also heard about my name being on a few hit-lists but I thought these were tactics to scare dissenters and independent voices. But this was obviously an incorrect assessment of the situation.
On Friday night, when I had planned to visit Data Darbar after my television show, my car was attacked by “unknown” (a euphemism for lethal terror outfits) assailants. The minute I heard the first bullet, the Darwinian instinct made me duck under and I chose to lie on the back of the car.
This near death experience with bullets flying over me and shattered window glass falling over me reminded me of the way my own country was turning into a laboratory of violence. Worse, that when I saved myself, it was not without a price. A young man, who had been working as my driver for sometime, was almost dead. I stood on a busy road asking for help and not a single car stopped.
A crowd had gathered and I was seeking their assistance almost like someone in a hysterical sub-continental film. The nearest hospital was a private enterprise, which initially refused to treat all three of us. I had to protest, after begging on the street and then seeking emergency medical aid. Suddenly, all that afflicts Pakistan became clear: the violence, the impunity for murderers, the failing values of a society and privatisation of essential public services.
Within minutes, my driver was declared dead, my wounds were cleaned and a third victim of barbarity struggled with a fast receding blood count. Thankfully, officers from the Punjab Police were helpful and enabled me to sort out things. This was harrowing and I became an object of all that I have condemned in recent years.
I am now at a safe location, unable to move out and have been told that my case is exceptional with six men — most armed — had attempted to eliminate me and they failed. And that the security agencies can only protect me if I remain locked up in a “safe” location.
So what is my fault, I have been wondering? I am a relatively small fry in the media and opinion industry. I am a recent entrant in the mass (electronic) media, but my views, I am told, are dangerous and invite trouble. So, I wish to ask my well-wishers the following questions: is raising the issue of minority rights unacceptable? Is demanding the inclusion of Jinnah’s August 11 speech in our Constitution and state behaviour unacceptable?
I have written a book on the shared history of India and Pakistan and this irked some. I have argued for rational engagement with the West and the outside world and that is not kosher. I reject conspiracy theories as I prefer reason over totem and this does not fit in a mindscape that considers the outside, external enemies.
Pakistan’s journalists face the oddest of challenges. They are being coerced into silence or singing praises of extremists and advocating legitimacy for their operations. Pakistan’s politicians have almost given up, as their private and public statements are at variance and they have accepted that this “new Pakistan” of fear, threats and unpunished violence is what they have to deal with.
I also know that I am not alone. There are dozens of other voices that have to be silenced by some quarters. These voices are a threat as they stand by civilian victims of terror and shun attacks on our security forces. These are voices, which also refuse to make martyrs out of terrorists. And they also hold that the greatest blasphemy is undermining humanity and using faith for spreading hatred.
The choice for me is stark. I am not willing to accept death as an option. Nor am I going to accept forced silence. I am grateful to all those who have shown support for my plight.
But it would be far more important if our collective outrage turns into public pressure to change the direction of the state and stop it from committing hara-kiri at the altar of a fabricated ideology or regional ambitions. There are no good or bad extremists. And there can be no justification for any form of violence by private actors. Who else would know, if not me?
I am haunted by the fact that a precious life has been lost while some people wanted to target me. More than that, I am worried that there may be many more lives at risk. I am not too hopeful if the current set of federal and provincial governments would deliver on security and public safety.
There is little or no will to tackle the camel that has entered the Pakistani tent and is displacing reason and humanity. Yet, there is no other recourse. So I appeal to the government to provide me security and not let me remain a victim of an ideology asserted with bullets and bombers.
Published in The Express Tribune, March 30th, 2014.
Do you remember the “hygiene hypothesis” of the late 1990s? It theorized that humans had so over-sanitized their environment with disinfectants and hand cleansers, our immune systems were no longer doing their jobs. So many consumer products like toothpaste, hand and dish soap, laundry detergents and even clothes now include antibiotics, said the theory, we seldom encounter the “bad” germs our immune systems are supposed to recognize and fight.
Since the hygiene hypothesis surfaced, there is growing evidence of its truth. In fact the theory that certain medical conditions, especially autoimmune ones, may be caused by a changing or declining bacterial environment in the human gut is gaining momentum and now called the “disappearing microbiota hypothesis.”
The bacteria in our gut, collectively called our microbiome, is a huge, ever-changing universe of billions of microbes. Each person’s intestinal ecosystem is so individualized and such a reflection of his unique inner and outer environments, “gut microbiota may even be considered as another vital human organ,” says one scientific paper. The microbiome has also been called a second genome and even a second brain.
Most people know that taking antibiotics can change their microbiome by killing off the “good” bacteria with the bad. That’s why antibiotics can cause diarrhea and many clinicians recommend taking probiotics with them. But what scientists are just beginning to learn is microbiomes are also affected by their outside environment including influences like house dust and even aerosolized matter when a toilet is flushed. They are also learning that gut bacteria is highly adaptive and one person’s gut bacteria will take root and flourish in another’s intestines. This explains the growing popularity of “fecal transplants” (yes, you read that right) between people who have been depleted of “good” bacteria and donors with healthy populations of microbes in their intestines.
Still, the most astounding research that is developing around the microbiome is the ability of our gut bacteria to affect our brain and “influence our mood and temperament,” says food expertMichael Pollan. “If you transplant the gut microbiota of relaxed and adventurous mice into the guts of timid and anxious mice they become less stressed and more adventurous.”
Here are some conditions which could be linked to the state of your gut bacteria.
One of the most detested microbes in the Western world is H. pylori which causes both acute and chronic gastritis and peptic ulcers and is highly correlated with gastrointestinal-related cancers. But even as antibiotic treatment has reduced and almost eliminated H. pylori in the gut of many humans in Western countries, there is a downside to H. pylori eradication. In the same time frame that “H. pylori infection rates have dropped from > 50% at the beginning of the 20th century to < 10% at its end…the incidence of many immune disorders has increased at an alarming rate,” says a 2012 paper in the journal Gut Microbes. “Among these are allergic diseases such as hay fever, eczema, and asthma, but also auto-immune diseases (multiple sclerosis, type I diabetes) and chronic inflammatory conditions such as inflammatory bowel disease.” Asthma is especially on the increase, say epidemiologists, growing by 28 percent in all US adults in the last decade and 50 percent in African-American children. Now researchers are asking whether H. pylori had provided asthma protection such as suppression of allergic airway disease and other immunomodulatory properties and whether the microbe could be harnessed for asthma prevention and treatment.
There is only one affliction that seems to be growing as fast in the US population as asthma, and that’s obesity. The waning influence of H. pylori may also be a factor. In some countries less than 10 percent of school children now carry H. pylori anymore, say researchers, and “at the same time, the incidence of obesity among the same population group has been observed.” H. pylori influences the hormones leptin and ghrelin, both of which affect weight and body mass. The increase in obesity also correlates with the indiscriminate use of antibiotics on factory farms, says a paper in Frontiers of Public Health and cannot be fully explained by “excess food energy intake, changes in diet and eating behavior” and increasing sedentary lifestyles. Antibiotics likely increase weight in livestock by strengthening microbes that absorb nutrients, so why would they not increase human weight in the same way? Both obese mice and humans have lost weight when the intestinal microbes of lean mice and humans were insertedinto their systems. And there is another environmental source of antibiotics. Triclosan, found in products like Colgate’s Totaland Ajax and Dawn dish detergent is an antibiotic that also acts as an endocrine-disruptingpesticide. Traces of it have been found in earthworms from agricultural fields andAtlantic dolphins. Endocrine disrupters like Triclosan are also suspected of causing early pubertyby impairing hormonal regulation.
3. Mood Disorders
Could the microbes in your gut—or lacking in your gut—actually affect your mood? Yes, say several studies in medical journals, which link gut microbes to depression, anxiety, stress, mood disorders, and even eating and sleep disorders! Cross-reacting chemicals may provide a link between your brain and your gut and “Alteration of this link may contribute to several neuropsychiatric disorders, emphasizing the key role of nutrition among other factors influencing gut content and intestinal permeability,” says an article in the journal Current Opinion in Clinical Nutrition & Metabolic Care. Gut bacteria influence the behavior of serotonin, dopamine and GABA—three substances many psychiatric drugs target. Many recentstudies in scientific journals are exploring the link between your brain and gut, now referred to as the “microbiota-gut-brain axis.” “The expression ‘thinking with your gut’ may contain a larger kernel of truth than we thought,” writes Michael Pollan. Depression may also be caused by another action in the gut, inflammatory responses says another paper in the scientific literature which postulates that is why it is so “common in the context of autoimmune and inflammatory diseases.”
Remember the old explanation for acne—that it was caused by chocolate, fried foods or pizza? Increasingly, scientists are linking acne to what’s going on in the gut, so maybe the original theories had a kernel of truth. While acne has traditionally been treated with antibiotics to kill the “bad” bacteria, the idea of adding “good” bacteria in the form of probiotics is now gaining favor. It is a “gentler and more effective way to ease problem skin,” says Huiying Li of the David Geffen School of Medicine at the University of California, Los Angeles. Researchers know now that not all bacteria linked to acne are bad. Some may cause problem skin, but other appear to protect the skin and keep it healthy and the latter may have genes that may even fight the former, researchers now suspect. A 2013 study in Journal of Cutaneous Medicine and Surgery suggests that probiotics “may be considered a therapeutic option or adjunct for acne vulgaris” and an article in Gut Pathogens agrees that gut bacteria “have important implications in acne.” The research is so promising, a project at the Genome Institute at Washington University is now underway “to investigate the relationship between acne and the microbiome, or community of microbes, residing underneath the surface of the human skin.”
5. Childhood Disorders
Research is still preliminary, but gut bacteria may also play a role in childhood problems. James Greenblatt, a psychiatrist and clinical faculty member at Tufts Medical School, successfully treated a teenager with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder by boosting her “good” bacteria with high-powered probiotics reported ABC news. Symptoms begin to subside after six months and after a year, they had disappeared and the patient had recovered. Studies have also found a byproduct of one gut bacterium elevated inautistic children. “Researchers need to complete additional studies to confirm the existence of abnormalities in autistic individuals intestines,” said an article in Alternative Therapies In Health And Medicine. The gut bacteria of a mother may even affect her baby. Researchers now suspect the reason babies born by C-section are more likely to be overweight or obese by the time they are adults is because they are deprived of important bacteria from the mother during the birth process. “Members of the mother’s gut microbiota are transferred to the child during vaginal delivery,” say researchers and “caesarian section leads to an altered colonization pattern of the infant’s lower intestine.”
Lovelorn singles, that ache in your heart will subside once you get married. Sort of.
A study of 3.5 million American adults has found that married people have lower odds of cardiovascular disease than those who are single, divorced or widowed.
"Our survey results clearly show that when it comes to cardiovascular disease,marital status really does matter," Carlos Alviar, M.D., who led the study at New York University's Lagone Medical Center, told the Associated Press. He called it the largest study to ever look at the link between marriage and heart health.
"A spouse can help keep doctor's appointments and provide transportation, making for easier access to health care services," Jeffrey Berger, M.D., another senior member of the project, says in an infographic laying out the study's findings.
The study found that married people had a five percent lower risk of any cardiovascular disease compared to single people, that widowed people had a three percent greater risk, and divorced people a five percent greater risk. Those numbers improved significantly for younger married couples, as those under age 50 had a 12 percent lower chance of heart disease than other young single people.
The study also found that smoking, a major cause of heart disease, was highest among divorced people and lowest in widowed ones. Obesity was most common in those single and divorced, and widowed people suffered from the highest rates of diabetes, high blood pressure, and inadequate exercise.
The study was conducted from 2003 through 2008 at more than 20,000 screening sites in all 50 states. The average age was 64 years, and 63 percent of the participants were women. Almost 90 percent were white.
The findings were presented March 29 in Washington, D.C., at the annual scientific sessions of the American College of Cardiology.