I,SCIENCE THE Science magazine of imperial college
DECEPTION Spring 2016
I,SCIENCE THE SCIENCE MAGAZINE OF IMPERIAL COLLEGE
Editors-in-Chief Greta Phyllis Keenan Harry Pettit Magazine Editor Alexandra Cauvi Web Editor Zoe öhman Deputy Web Editor Neil Stoker Pictures Editor Eva Spielvogel Business Manager Olivia Philipps Marketing and social Media Marianne Guenot Radio Editor Àngels Codina News Manager Sarah Cowen-Rivers Online Features Manager Sophie Walsh Events Manager Abigail Skinner TV Editor James Bowers Deputy TV Editor Natasha Khaleeq Interview ManageR Sam Lickiss Sub-Editors Erin Frick Hilary Lamb Katie Miles Daniel R Silva Cathy Wong Cover Illustrator Jay Kural I, Science, c/o Liam Watson, Level 3, Sherfield Building, Imperial College London, London SW7 2AZ Email: email@example.com Printed by:Leaflet Frog, 38 Britannia Way, Bolton BL2 2HH
hether we choose to admit it or not, we are all natural born deceivers. From casual ‘white lies’ to major deceptions, lying is a huge part of daily life. With research suggesting that children as young as two are capable of spontaneous lying, it appears that we hone this skill very early on in our development. Page six of our latest issue sees Naomi Stewart explore why we may have evolved to tell porkies. Has being deceptive actually given us an evolutionary advantage? We live in a culture where almost half of married people get divorced. Many of these marriages, some figures suggest as many as one third, end because of infidelity. On page 22, Daniel R Silva discusses the science behind this form of deception – why do people cheat on their partners? Deception doesn’t just occur within relationships though; some lies occur on a vast scale and have far reaching societal implications. From the MMR vaccine scandal to fabricated stem cell research in Korea, Anita Chandran walks
us through some of the biggest deceptions that have occurred within the scientific community on page 20. Sometimes the most profound lies are the one that we tell ourselves. Erin Frick and Katie Haylor delve into the science behind self-deception across pages 26 and 27, discussing the benefits and (potentially life-threatening) costs of believing our own lies. Pages 10 and 11 focus on the placebo effect, and how this form of deception could help prevent widespread antibiotic resistance. Deception goes far beyond the human world. Every day, animals rely on trickery to survive, whether utilising camouflage to hide from predators, or finding innovative ways to capture prey. From patterned butterflies (page five) to ‘kidnapping’ sea otters and cheeky Drongo Birds (pages eight-nine), this issue explores the weird and wonderful ways in which animals deceive one another to survive. Until the next issue,
Harry and Greta I, Science is a publication of the Science Communication Unit, Centre for Languages, Culture and Communication, Imperial College London. However, it is a student publication, and as such the views expressed in I, Science do not reflect the views of the Unit, Centre or College.
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Contents News | 4 Sarah Cowen-Rivers covers the latest news from mosquito eradication to cutting-edge ageing research.
Lies Lies Lies | 6 Naomi Stewart explains why telling fibs may give us an evolutionary edge.
5 | Nature's smartest decEIvers Rosemary Cafferkey investigates one of natureâ€™s most beautiful tricksters, the humble butterfly.
8 | TOP SIX Cheyenne McCray introduces some of the greatest deceivers in the animal kingdom.
The Placebo Effect | 10 12 | Forge Me Not Sarah Cowen-Rivers and Sophie Hull explore the famed phenomenon that has mystified scientists since its discovery over 200 years ago.
Alexandra Cauvi explores how science and art work together to discern masterpieces from masterful forgeries.
Science Behind the Photo | 14 16 | Shkrewing Over Sick People Photographic hoax: Angels Codina tells the story of two famous Catalan artists.
Jamie Brown questions the ethics of the pharmaceutical industry, and of a business model built around profiting from the sick.
Unnatural History | 17 18 | Now you see it... From mermaids to ape-men, natural history is cluttered with hoaxes. Shane Morris takes a look.
We usually trust what we can see, but it turns out the eyes are easily fooled. Samuel Lickiss investigates the science behind optical illusions.
History of Scientific Scams | 20 22 | Let's talk about monogamy Despite their reputation for veracity, scientists have proved responsible for some elaborate hoaxes. Anita Chandran examines where it all went wrong.
Monogamy: a key ingredient to a successful relationship, or an unnatural expectation? Daniel R Silva explores.
'Breaker! Breaker!' | 23 24 | Speedy Science Hilary Lamb dives into the complex world of cryptography. How do we use technology to disguise our most secret messages?
Olivia Philipps takes a look at the various ways our senses deceive us.
Self-Deception: Friend or Foe? | 26 28 | Catch me if you Can! Erin Frick illustrates the benefits of self-deception, whilst Katie Haylor examines just how dangerous our delusions can be.
Marianne Guenot and Cian Duggan explore how microbes fool the immune systems of humans and plants â€“ only the strongest will survive...
Renovating Cold War Science | 30 31 | Reviews Samuel Lickiss interviews Dr Colin Connolly on how deceptive war technology gave birth to his life-saving invention.
Our latest book and event reviews
News GooDBYE Mosquitos...?
osquitos have plagued humanity for years, infecting us with dengue fever, malaria, and a multitude of other killer diseases. In light of the declaration of the mosquito-transmitted Zika virus as a global emergency by the World Health Organisation, serious questions have been raised as to whether mosquitos should be wiped out for good. The pesky insects have not been shown to have any large significance in the food chain – outside of their roles as pollinators and the occasional meal for birds – and some researchers have theorised that if we were to eradicate them, another insect would likely take their place in the food chain. However, some scientists warn that a potentially more dangerous blood-sucker may take its place, which could cause even bigger problems for human health – so don’t throw away your repellents just yet!
Illustration: Javier Devilman
Reigning In GMO’s With Amino Acids
ne of the arguments against genetically modified organisms (GMOs) is that scientists cannot guarantee that the genes of the modified organisms won’t spread to different species, with potentially harmful
Sarah Cowen-Rivers covers the latest news. Sarah Cowen-Rivers is studying for an MSc in Science Communication.
consequences. To tackle the issue, scientists at the University of Texas have created bacteria which can only survive if they have access to an amino acid that is not found naturally. To do this, they altered the genes of the bacteria which were associated with antibiotic resistance so that only an unnatural amino acid would ‘fit’ into a newly modified protein, necessary for the bacteria to gain resistance. This could prevent genetically modified bacteria and potentially other organisms from ‘running wild’, as they won’t be able to survive without access to unnatural amino acids.
The Future of Language According to Twitter
cience really does leave no stone unturned, even when it comes to analysing the rise of the phrase ‘on fleek’ – which means being perfect or ‘on point’, in case you aren’t down with the kids. Researchers at Lancaster University have developed a software which scans websites for new phrases and language in a bid to predict how the internet is changing the way we communicate with one another. To carry out this analysis, the team created algorithms which chart popular words using the research of lexicographers and then used it to analyse 22 million words on Twitter and Reddit. Just as a heads up, they predict that words such as bootyful will be cyw (‘coming your way’) – another popular word picked up by the team.
the Netherlands have predicted a 60% global decrease in electricity production from power plants between the years 2040-2069. This is due to a reduction in water availability, as well as an increase in water temperatures, which will have devastating consequences on hydro and thermoelectric power generation. The researchers suggest that before the year 2040 comes around, we must move away from coal to more efficient gas-fired power plants, leaving us less vulnerable to the projected effects of global warming.
First ‘Counting’ Plant
f it wasn’t weird enough that the Venus Flytrap plant eats insects, researchers have now discovered that it uses a counting mechanism to do so accurately. The team at the University of Würzburg, Germany, found that the plant uses its inner hair-like structures to pick up on electrical pulses caused by the touch of an insect. However, it will only close its jawlike trap if it detects two electrical signals in the space of 20 seconds. The researchers also found that the more hairs that are stimulated once the plant has captured its prey, the more digestive enzymes the plant releases – a cunning tactic used to judge how much digestive fluid is needed based on insect size. This suggests that the plant records how many signals have been triggered and then forgets it after a set time, essentially re-tuning the counting mechanism. Tough luck, flies!
Climate Change Puts Electricity at Risk
ust what we needed – another negative effect of global warming rearing its ugly head. This time, it concerns electricity. Researchers at Wageningen University in
utterflies might appear to be simple, ethereal insects, but don’t be fooled – they are secretly masters of disguise. From eyespots to mimicry, the markings on butterfly wings serve important functions that range from warning of their toxicity to attracting mates. Although butterfly markings vary vastly, the way they forge these markings is always the same. Every pattern is a technicoloured mosaic of microscopic scales. These scales are coloured by fractured pigments, which alter the wavelength of reflected light to produce a rainbow of iridescence. Birds, spiders, wasps, mice, slugs and many other animals eat butterflies, so deceiving these predators is particularly important for their survival.
Hiding in plain sight
Eyespots like those of the Peacock Butterfly serve multiple functions. In contrast, the aptly named Zebra Mosaic Butterfly’s geometric black They can trick smaller predators like mice into thinking they are owls. and white swirls may seem like a terrible idea for an animal trying to They also act as decoys, encouraging birds to attack only the tips of their disguise itself. Like the black and white ‘dazzle camouflage’ used by wings and not their more vital body parts. naval fleets during the Second World War, these markings break up Birds generally attack the head first to ensure that their prey the shape of the wing, making the size and direction of travel doesn’t escape. Under low light conditions, the contrast on a difficult for predators to determine. Studies have shown butterfly’s wing markings is greater than that of even a simple pale band of colour on darker their eyes, so birds will attack these spots wings creates the illusion of false boundaries. instead. Butterflies have no feeling This strategy is known as ‘disruptive or circulation in their wings, which camouflage’. can still fly perfectly well even The imitation when damaged. Eyespots game become particularly effective in the early It’s not just adult morning, when butterflies that birds are most are experts in actively foraging and concealment. butterflies’ bodies Caterpillars of the are still too Swallowtail cool for flight, family mimic leaving them bird droppings, vulnerable to whilst their chrysalises attack. also disguise themselves Rosemary Cafferkey investigates as leaves. one of nature’s most beautiful tricksters, The most callous butterfly Camouflage the humble butterfly. Instead of decoy markings, trickster is the caterpillar of the many butterflies use camouflage Large Blue, which imitates the to blend in with their surroundings. noise made by a queen ant as For example, the Indian Leaf Wing well as the chemical scent of ant Butterfly looks just like a dead leaf, complete larvae. Upon finding a caterpillar, the with spots of mould and worm holes. However, a gullible ants take it back to their nest and feed it, flutter of its wings reveals an exuberantly coloured where the sly caterpillar scoffs ant larvae until it is blue and orange butterfly. This contrast is an interesting example of a ready to pupate… and you thought cuckoos were bad! compromise in the evolutionary trade-off between natural selection The selective pressure of predation at every stage of a butterfly’s (avoiding being eaten) and sexual selection (finding a mate). Famous development has rendered disguise an absolute necessity. Their naturalist Alfred Russell Wallace used this example to support the deceptive mechanisms have evolved over 45 million years, and are part theory of evolution. of the reason over 20,000 species of butterflies exist across the world Camouflage as a leaf might seem like the ultimate act of today. concealment, but the Glass Wing Butterfly has a better Unfortunately for the wonderful butterfly, human activities are disguise. The ‘invisible man’ of the butterfly world, this changing the niche environments to which these adaptations are so diminutive insect has no scales on its finely tuned. At the current rate, it won’t be long until they’re rendered wings, making it completely translucent effectively useless. – even in captivity they are almost impossible to spot. Rosemary Cafferkey is studying for an MSc in Science Communication.
Nature's Smartest DecEIvers
PhotoS: DIDIER DESCOUENS
LIES LIES LIES...
did not have sexual relations with that woman,” then-President Bill Clinton proclaimed on live television. Each drawling word was punctuated with a pause for effect, his index finger wagging in perfect unison.
reality be beneficial?
as we know them are found.
Lying is just one of the many behaviours of deception which are common throughout the natural world. Four levels of increasingly complex deceptions include:
Of course we all know now that he had had sexual relations with that woman. Even as one of the world’s most prominent figures at the time, Bill Clinton told a lie. Lies can be considered as the intention to deceive others for a perceived benefit, and in fact, all humans lie to varying degrees and intensities.
Programmed false appearance: Camouflage or false markings. For example, some moths and butterflies have wings that look like owls eyes when they open.
The intensity of a lie can range from ‘white lies’ which are of minimal impact – and can even be beneficial to others – to extensive, complex manipulation like embezzlement or war crimes. Their expression can range from spoken lies or obfuscated truths to lies of omission, and can also include body behaviour.
Eighteenth century German philosopher Immanuel Kant was famously opposed to lying in any scenario: “By a lie a man throws away and, as it were, annihilates his dignity as a man.” Many others have postulated that lies are entirely detrimental to the liar, the lied-to, and society at large, especially as it removes the ability for consent and to make fully informed decisions. Still, the perception of lying as qualitatively good or bad has no firm moral answer, and despite its taboo social nature, it exists in all cultures throughout human history – from the Trojan Horse of the Greeks to the modern-day student cheating in an exam. Lying, it appears, is part of human nature. At the core of it, we all know why we lie – to conceal the truth and present an alternate scenario that we believe is somehow better. Some surveys reveal that most people lie by omission very frequently, and tell up to two ‘big’ lies daily. If you think about it honestly, you will realise you have probably already done it today. “I ran five kilometres this morning!” (we both know it was only three and a half). But how and why has this belief evolved? Why would a periodic yet pervasive misrepresentation of
Programmed false behaviour: Involuntary deception requiring external triggers. For example, some birds feign injury to attract attention when a predator is near their young. This tricks the predator into moving away from the vulnerable chicks towards the healthy adult, that can fly away when the predator gets too close. Learned false behaviour: Behaving a certain way having learned that it elicits certain responses. For example, some dogs fake injury because they have learned that it invokes a sympathetic human response. This behaviour is reinforced by positive stimuli, typically food rewards. Learned planned deception: Conscious attempts to manipulate others’ beliefs and actions. Chimpanzees and baboons do this at a simple level whilst humans carry out learned planned deceptions at more highly functioning and complex levels. The last two levels both involve what some psychologists refer to as ‘Machiavellian’ skill or intelligence – the capacity to think about others’ responses when deciding how to act, and factor those responses into your decision. However, it is only in the fourth level where ‘lies’
Research into the evolution of lying in humans has largely been around the spectrum and causes of deliberately planned deception. Much research has also focussed on the circumstances surrounding when and why people lie, and to what extent; it is a heterogeneous and fascinating field of causality. The propensity to lie is tied to factors like gender, culture, age, and genetics, which vary widely among the population. For example, women are less likely to lie than men if the lie comes at a great cost to someone else, and are more likely to lie altruistically. They are also less likely to lie than men for smaller economic gains, but lie just as much when it comes to ‘big wins’. However, regardless of gender, the closer someone feels to another person the less likely they are to lie overall, even for large economic gains. The act of lying itself requires fairly complex cognitive functions that so far only humans and certain primates possess. Biologically speaking, this makes sense; increased abilities to understand and manipulate the world require increased neural processing (to create the ‘story’ of the lie and have cognitive space to store the memory of the lie), and are therefore only found in organisms with the capacity for such. Indeed, recent data show that the frequency of deception is directly related to the size of the neocortex – a section of the mammalian brain that evolved relatively recently and
Naomi Stewart explains why telling fibs may give us an evolutionary edge. which processes, amongst other things, conscious thought, language, and reasoning. It has been estimated that half of the lies humans tell are to secure a greater amount of resources. By pretending to be more friendly or in need than they actually are, people can acquire resources, for example, pretending to have an emergency to scam vulnerable elderly people into handing over money. People could also feign flirtation or flattery, seducing potential partners – if they play their cards right, this behaviour increases their chances of reproduction and thus biological fitness. Evolutionary biologist Robert Trivers argued that selection pressures actually favour ‘subtle cheaters’ over those who are cheated on, indicating that the behaviour of lying is an inherited evolutionary trait, not just a learned behaviour. In a later study on identical twins, he also found that genetic models were actually better predictors for lying behaviour than environmental ones. Despite this, it has not been determined precisely when Machivellian intelligence arose in the evolution of higher primates. Some researchers have argued that denial and selfdeception evolved necessarily for us to knowingly process and navigate the complexity of the world. Researchers at New York State University suggest that this sense of unity as a coping strategy is really a deception or illusion, in that it imposes perceived order. Thus, the biology of deception has been “an important development leading to man as a cognitive creative being.” Therefore, though we can see and experience the negative effects of lying, and certainly dislike when it happens to us or when we are discovered in the act (Bill Clinton ended
up being charged with a crime and impeached for his infamous lie!), it is a double-edged sword in which there are and have been many practical evolutionary benefits. At the biological level, if lying allows you to acquire more resources for yourself and increase your biological fitness, you are more likely to survive and pass on your genes - which is essential for life on earth. Being able to manipulate your environment and the responses and actions of others around you through lying does seem to favour increased abilities to prosper in and navigate our world, even if it comes at the price of being caught or exposed. Moral quandaries aside, lying is not going away any time soon. Besides, did it serve any purpose to know what Bill was up to? Do we always want to know what people are thinking? Could we even imagine an oversimplified, algorithmic world in which there is no option but to always tell the truth? It seems that perhaps the best way forward is to understand and find practical uses for this naturally evolved and periodically advantageous behaviour, both as individuals and societies. What that involves, however, may very well continue to be up to our own cost-benefit analyses and decisions about what is optimally beneficial in the end. So, maybe run all five kilometres, but leave the concealment of infidelity to the political elite.
Naomi Stewart is studying for an MSc in Science Communication
Illustration: James Marno
Top SIX Male Sea Otters Off the coast of Southern California, male sea otters prey on the maternal instincts of females to attain food – by ‘kidnapping’. While female otters are out scavenging for food, leaving their young nearby, the male approaches, takes the baby and holds it hostage. Hearing her baby’s cries, the female otter returns, food in mouth, but the male does not let the baby go until he is given the food, at times going as far as nearly drowning the pup. All for a morsel of food!
Praying mantises that have evolved to look like flowers in the wild invoke a behaviour known as ‘aggressive mimicry’ – a type of camouflage that allows predators to appear harmless to their prey. Found in the warm climates of South Asia and Africa, a flower mantis perches motionlessly on twigs or tall plant stems until an insect gets close enough for capture. It also uses this as a defence mechanism when its own predators approach.
SQUiRRELS Grey squirrels use decoys to drive competitors away from their food supplies. As squirrels are natural ‘scatter hoarders’ – storing food in various hiding spots throughout an area rather than just one central source – they tend to bury their food in the ground. However, if a squirrel notices another squirrel watching it, it will only pretend to bury its nuts in that area. Even so, it goes through the entire digging process and fills the hole with random debris. The squirrel then departs, nuts safely in mouth, leaving the other squirrel wasting time digging in the wrong area. Grey squirrels mostly live in the United States of America and more recently in the United Kingdom. IllustrationS: WENDY LING-HSUAN WANG
Cheyenne McCray introduces some of the greatest deceivers in the animal kingdom.
Monkeys in the popular tourist areas of Indonesia have developed a mechanism of deception that is not of another animal, but of humans. In heavily populated streets filled with food stalls, these monkeys have grasped the concept of bartering in lieu of stealing food. Watching tourists carefully, the animal quickly approaches them, taking their phones, or sunglasses. Not running very far out of reach, it perches on a nearby ledge with the item in hand, waiting for the owner to approach. It only drops the item when presented with desired ransom – usually high-protein food.
Burrowing OWls Found in the Americas, Burrowing Owls live underground in deep burrows instead of in trees. In order to feed their young, female Burrowing Owls collect mammal dung and drop it near their nests. Insects, spiders and other small creatures are attracted to the smell of dung and migrate towards the burrows. One by one, the owl pecks them up, feeding them to her young. She spends most of her day collecting these vermin for her offspring.
Compared to other animals, the Drongo Bird – common to areas of South Africa – runs more of a long-con game of deception. It does not simply deceive other animals upon first meeting, but gains their trust beforehand. Throughout most of the year, the Drongo acts as a ‘watch bird’ for meerkats and other species of birds. When it sees a potential threat, it chirps a call and the animals retreat to safety, forming a symbiotic relationship. However, during the colder months in South Africa, when food is harder to come by, the Drongo chirps the danger call when there is no potential threat, only to swoop down seconds later and eat the food left on the ground. The meerkats can only be fooled so many times by this false call though, so the Drongo can also imitate the danger-call of another meerkat to make them flee. Cheyenne McCray is studying for an MSc in Science Communication
The Placebo Effect: Sarah Cowen-Rivers and Sophie Hull explore the famed phenomenon that has mystified scientists since its discovery over 200 years ago.
What is the Placebo Effect?
here is a treatment that has the ability to relieve pain, treat depression and even Parkinson’s disease, among countless other ailments. This treatment has been around for hundreds of years, and has proved to be consistently effective. Any idea what it is? Nothing. The placebo has been used since the 18th century as a way of measuring how effective a new treatment is. A pivotal aspect of clinical trials, it allows researchers to rule out the positive effect that taking a drug has on your mind, no matter how chemically effective that drug is. This has been dubbed ‘the placebo effect,’ and has continued to baffle scientists since it was first discovered. A prominent placebo researcher, Dr. Fabrizio Benedetti, was able to show just how peculiar the placebo effect really is. After inducing pain in participants for seven days whilst treating them with morphine, Benedetti secretly switched the pain medication to salt water. Luckily for him, the participants’ reports of pain went unchanged. Then things got weirder. Benedetti didn’t want to stop there, so he gave the participants a morphine blocker and, bizarrely, the participants found that their pain returned, suggesting a form of biochemical reaction to the salt water placebo. This story is merely one of many extraordinary instances in which the power of the placebo effect has been exposed. Other cases include
sham surgical treatments, where patients are treated as if they are about to undergo major surgery up to the first incision being made, which is as far as the surgery goes. This has been shown to be as effective as having a full surgical procedure for knee problems, as well as back and heart pains. Though this all may sound promising, with the placebo effect comes the ‘nocebo effect’, where things can really get ugly. The nocebo effect flips this already strange phenomenon in reverse: negative symptoms that arise if the brain expects them. One of the more extreme cases involved a group of Hmong men dying in their sleep after reports of nightmares, which is thought to be due to their cultural belief in night spirits. The nocebo effect could also explain the increasing numbers of people who have diagnosed themselves as gluten intolerant, or even the outbreaks of mass fainting which occur all over the world. So how does the brain manage to deceive the body? So far, researchers have identified a series of steps that culminate in the placebo effect. It starts before the placebo has even been given, as the prospect of having a treatment alone reduces anxiety, which has a positive effect on our ability to heal. Secondly, the neurotransmitter dopamine – associated with rewarding experiences such as eating and drinking – is released when we are in a hospital setting or have faith in our doctor, bringing with it a host of benefits to the body. Thirdly, humans have been conditioned to respond positively to medical treatments throughout our lives, the effect of which is so strong that even ingesting a pill or simply going to the doctors can have the same effect as taking
medication. This includes the negative side effects that can come with medication – hence the existence of the nocebo effect. With the power of the placebo effect strengthening as modern pharmaceuticals advance further and further, the need to understand more about this natural phenomenon is widely acknowledged amongst the scientific community. Although, perhaps it is our naivety which is the very thing keeping it powerful.
Sarah Cowen-Rivers is studying for an MSc in Science Communication..
The Mind’s Ultimate Deception Placebos: the Answer to the SuperBug? Could placebos calm the average hypochondriac and reduce antibiotic resistance?
ne of the most urgent concerns within modern medicine is that of antibiotic resistance. Although well publicised, many fail to fully appreciate the severity of such an
imminent threat — the consequences would be devastating. Illnesses that we today consider trivial are likely to become increasingly difficult to cure. With this in mind, the number of deaths currently caused by antibiotic resistant bacteria exceeds 700,000 worldwide – a figure that is only expected to rise as resistance increases globally. A principal contributor to antibiotic resistance has been the improper and repeated administration of antibiotic drugs, providing bacteria with ample exposure to develop resistance. To decrease antibiotic resistant bacteria from emerging further, the use of antibiotics must be drastically limited. However, in limiting the use of antibiotics, many GPs have lost the favour and trust of their patients, receiving low satisfaction ratings as a result. An estimated 10 million antibiotics are prescribed unnecessarily in England alone, with a recent survey finding that 90% of GPs felt undue pressure to prescribe them, and that 44% had prescribed them simply to ensure that an unreasonable patient left their surgery. This raises the question: might it be more beneficial to prescribe placebo treatments to patients who relentlessly demand antibiotics for common, minor infections?
Placebos and their known effects on patients could take on a radically new role within public healthcare systems. Research into placebos and their effects has consistently indicated that patients who unknowingly receive a placebo have a reasonable expectation that what they have been prescribed will have a positive effect. Therefore in theory, GPs could
prescribe placebos instead of antibiotics and patient symptoms would improve. In the case of viral infections, which are untreatable by antibiotics, the infection will ordinarily clear by the time the course of placebo ends, only increasing the successful ‘effect’ of the placebo. The use of placebos in these contexts could improve patient satisfaction, since many patients would presume that they were still receiving an active drug. Importantly, however, such a limit to antibiotic exposure might help with the growing problem of antibiotic resistance. Whilst it is fair to presume that prescribing placebos may be beneficial for those patients who unnecessarily demand antibiotics, negative connotations surround their wholesale introduction into healthcare systems. The use of placebos could be considered unethical in countries where healthcare is not free, notably the United States. It is an ethical dilemma to prescribe to those who pay for private health care an inert substance that may not actually relieve symptoms or improve health at all. In terms of legality, placebos and their effects are considered a grey area – a patient might consider that a doctor has caused them harm or injustice in the administration of a placebo, albeit that this is a difficult area for lawyers to ‘prove’. The discovery of placebo use might also potentially impair patient-doctor trust. It is clear that methods to tackle antibiotic resistance need to be urgently developed. Although the introduction of placebo antibiotics may give desired outcomes, ethically and legally their use will come with scathing criticism.
Sophie Hull is studying for an MSc in Science Communication
Forge Me not
xperts estimate that at least half of all works of art in commercial circulation are fake. To avoid spending millions on frauds, museums and private collectors call on experts to appraise their potential purchases and make sure they are truly what they claim to be. One particularly talented forger, known as Henricus Antonius Van Meegeren, has become a folk hero in the Netherlands. Arrested on 29 May 1945 on charges of treason and collaboration with the Nazi party, his trial proved full of surprises for the art world as he saved his skin by proving he had earned millions by selling forgeries.
TALE OF A LEGENDARY FORGER Born 10 October 1889, Han Van Meegeren was 24 when he chose to rebel against his father’s wishes and pursue his passion for art. He quit his architectural studies in 1913 to focus on drawing and painting, becoming an assistant professor and painter soon thereafter, where he made legitimate copies of masters’ works bearing his own signature. Van Meegeren despised modern painting, but admired the 17th century masters from the Dutch Golden Age, whose style he could imitate perfectly. Critics dismissed and belittled Van Meegeren as a gifted technician whose talent was limited solely to duplicates. Angry and determined to prove them wrong, Van Meegeren embarked on a journey of revenge. For years, he studied the masters and designed an elaborate technique to create 17th century paintings. In 1937, he used predictions made by Bredius, an important art critic at the time, to produce what would pass as the missing link in Vermeer’s paintings – not just a copy, but a new painting from the master – The Christ and the Disciples at Emmaeus.
The impressive work was bought for the equivalent of three and a half million pounds by the Rembrandt Society. Bredius commented: “It is a wonderful moment in the life of a lover of art when he finds himself suddenly confronted with a hitherto unknown painting by a great master, untouched, on the original canvas, and without any restoration, just as it left the painter’s studio! And what a picture! ...we have here – I am inclined to say – the masterpiece of Johannes Vermeer of Delft.”
AN ELABORATE TECHNIQUE To craft what would pass as a genuine Vermeer, Van Meegeren had considered every tool that investigators had at their disposal. He studied the Baroque style as well as the life of Vermeer, his painting tools and palette. His perfect style fooled art historians and passed various tests:
BRUSHES • Experts use their eyes (and now microscopes) to examine brushstrokes and compare with
Van Meegeren had succeeded. The next phase of his plan was to reveal the forgery and ridicule the critics. However, realising how lucrative this business was, he decided to postpone his revenge and continue forging Vermeers, earning over 65 million pounds in the process. Van Meegeren shouldn’t have been caught, but he made the mistake of conning Nazi Reichsmarschall Hermann Goering. He sold him a ‘Vermeer’, The Adultress, allegedly in exchange for 400 Dutch paintings taken by the Germans during the war. When the Allies seized the Nazi leader’s art collection, it looked to the world as though Van Meegeren had sold the enemy a piece of priceless cultural heritage. Accused of collaboration and treason, Van Meegeren avoided the death penalty by revealing that the painting was fake. The consequence was a surreal trial in 1947 where, since critics were not inclined to admit that they had been conned, Van Meegeren had to prove he was a forger. He demonstrated his technique before a panel of witnesses, creating Jesus Among the Doctors. Found guilty of forgery, Van Meegeren died of a heart attack in 1947 before serving his two-year sentence.
Alexandra Cauvi explores how scientists, curators and art historians can work together to discern masterpieces from masterful forgeries.
the master’s. Van Meegeren abandoned modern brittle brushes and made his own similar to Vermeer’s using badger hair.
century after Hal’s death – hence the easy identification of the fake. • Van Meegeren mixed his pigments using 17th century techniques, thus rendering chemical analysis of the pigments useless.
PIGMENTS • One frequent giveaway in forgeries is the use of anachronous pigments. For example, in his early years, Van Meegeren made a copy of Frans Hal’s The Laughing Cavalier. He used pigments that can be identified by X-ray including zinc oxide and synthetic ultramarine, which were invented one
CANVAS • Van Meegeren painted on genuine 17th century canvases, since a 20th century canvas would not pass as Vermeer’s. • Today, a forger would have to be careful not to paint over anything anachronous: a good example is that of an Albert Marquet dated 1912 that was proven fake when reflectography showed the presence of another painting underneath, depicting a greatly detailed tractor with a type of tires created in 1930.
DRYING AND CRACKING • An obvious difference between an ancient and a recent painting is the presence of cracks. As it ages, paint dries and a network of cracks (craquelure) appears, giving the painting a ‘fingerprint’. Nowadays, craquelure is revealed by low angle light, photographed, and archived as part of the painting’s analytic data. • Because Van Meegeren did not make copies, the craquelure did not need to replicate that of an original, but it still had to show the wear and tear of three centuries’ aging.
Photograph: Michael GÄBler
• Paint takes centuries to dry and harden. In the 1940s, this was tested by dabbing a painting with a solvent-soaked cotton bulb. If the paint is completely dry, no pigment
comes off. • In order to fake drying and craquelure, Van Meegeren mixed his paint with bakelite, a thermosetting phenol formaldehyde resin. He would cook the paintings for two hours at 110°C. Heat made the resin harden and the paint seemed ‘dry’. He would then roll the painting to form cracks. To imitate the dust that would have settled in the cracks for three centuries, Van Meegeren added India ink to the cracks. This detail was only detected when the forger himself told experts where to look. At present, experts are still on the lookout for Van Meegeren forgeries. While he confessed to making seven, there are currently 21 identified as his work, and more surely exist. His use of Bakelite to fake aging is what modern scientists look for as his signature. It is detectable by GC/MS (Gas Chromatography and Mass Spectrometry), a technology that did not exist during Van Meegeren’s lifetime.
WHAT MAKES ART VALUABLE? Since Van Meegeren is now a famous name, his fakes have a value of their own and are themselves forged. His story and talent, both as an artist and a criminal, make us consider the value of art. One might think that a work’s value would lie in its beauty, technique or the emotional response it produces; fame would come to the artist from that. However, even if the technique and the degree of effort expended on a painting are similar, a perfect copy or pastiche has far less market value than an original work.
Alexandra Cauvi is studying for an MSc in Science Media Production
Science Behind the Photo
n a rainy day in 1980, cooped in the basement of a gloomy bed and breakfast in the Highlands of Scotland, two Catalan artists, Joan Fontcuberta and Pere Formiguera, discovered an unusual archive. It consisted mainly of notebooks filled with German annotations, photographs, X-rays, dissection instruments, taped recordings of animal squeals, and horrifying stuffed specimens. Despite the glorious weather on the two days that followed, Fontcuberta and Formiguera did not see the sun. Fascinated by their discovery, they spent every waking hour analysing their findings and trying to decipher the meaning of the notebook’s cryptic annotations. They concluded that the author – and likely owner of the archive – was Neo-Darwinist Zoologist Peter Ameisenhaufen, born in Munich in 1895. The archive remained in obscurity until the late 1980s, when Fontcuberta and Formiguera organised an exhibition, Fauna, aimed at presenting Ameisenhaufen’s story to the world. This photograph, showing Ameisenhaufen holding the arms of a Centaurus neandertalensis (centaur like creature with the torso of a baboon and the body of a deer), was one of many ‘documents’ displayed in the exhibition. Other animals catalogued include the Ceropithecus icarocornu, which resembles a monkey with a unicorn-like horn on its head, and the Solenglypha polipodida, a snake-like creature with twelve feet. Fake or real? You may well be sceptical of the story, logically-so considering its inclusion in the deception issue. Imagine, though, that this story was published in a newspaper, a magazine, or a science journal, and illustrated with images and facts. Would you have believed it? Angels Codina is studying for an MSc in Science Communication
Centaurus neandertalensis (1987), from the Fauna series, by Joan Fontcuberta and Pere Formiguera www.isciencemag.co.uk
Shkrewing Over Sick People Jamie Brown questions the ethics of the pharmaceutical industry, and of a business model
built around profiting from the sick.
ast September, Martin Shkreli’s smug face became the embodiment of every negative thing you have heard about the pharmaceutical industry. In raising the price of newly acquired Daraprim by 5000% in the US – a oneof-a-kind drug predominantly used by HIV patients – the CEO of Turing Pharmaceuticals gave the world an uncomfortable reminder: for all the good they do, these people are profiting from the sick. It was ‘just business’; conniving and sly, but legal... in the US at least. Thankfully, in Europe, it is absolutely not. Disturbingly, Shkreli appeared to delight in the ensuing outrage after reporters challenged his personal involvement in the decision. So great was his love of the limelight that, by December, he was reportedly preparing to do much the same again – this time at KaloBios, a company his investment group had recently rescued from bankruptcy with a semiancient drug for Chagas disease. Fortunately for the hundreds of thousands of US Chagas patients, Mr Shkreli was arrested days later and removed as CEO from both Turing and KaloBios before his plans could be executed. Among his several charges were counts of security fraud and wiring, but nothing relating directly to his effective extortion of patients and healthcare providers. Shocking though it is, the story is symptomatic of a flawed system ripe for abuse, and is certainly not the first of its kind.
to erode the price of the drug. However, just to be sure, the majority of European countries have laws enforcing significant price cuts once a drug’s patent expires. This enables their healthcare systems to continue providing established treatments whilst putting aside funds to reinvest in new medicines. In short, these regulations stop them getting ‘Shkrewed’. In a way, what Shkreli did was rather shrewd. ‘Shrewd’, like pulling a knife on someone and then politely asking for their wallet. He acquired the rights for a cheap drug that people need, with no direct competitors, in a market where he can name his own price, and then he jacked the price up. Buy low, sell high – it’s a simple principle. The concern for Americans will be that one man has exploited their healthcare policy in such a way that made the entire industry look like a scene from The Wolf of Wall Street. The Food and Drug Administration were already under pressure from Congress to lower treatment costs. Now they have this total embarrassment to deal with.
Jamie Brown is studying for an MSc in Science Media Production
In the US, drug manufacturers are free to set their own price and change it overnight. In practice, a drug’s price will be as much as insurers and patients are prepared to fork out for it. This holds true until the patent expires, at which point competitors flood the market with generic forms of the drug at a fraction of the price. The European system is – broadly speaking – more strictly regulated. The maximum price of a new drug is agreed nationally at launch, negotiated between manufacturer and government on the basis of its value to that country’s population. If the drug is to be provided through public healthcare then, by law, this initial price is the most it will ever cost and the only route for negotiation is down. The prices may be renegotiated only in exceptional circumstances (such as better long-term outcomes than anticipated or unforeseen efficacy in a new indication) if new evidence comes to light. This aside, you cannot just put up prices willy-nilly. As in the US, after patent expiry, generic competition is usually sufficient
IllustrationS: GOOGLE CREATIVE COMMONS ARTIST UNKNOWN
UNNATURAL HISTORY From mermaids to ape-men, natural history is cluttered with hoaxes. Shane Morris takes a look.
eception has occurred in the field of natural history for as long as it has existed. The most infamous cases of deception took place in the 19th and early 20th Century, when natural history was at its most fashionable. These hoaxes were constructed for money, fame or both. The myth of mermaids exists in cultures worldwide, from the Sirens of Greek mythology that were thought to lure sailors to their doom, to ‘Suvannamaccha’, a mermaid princess found in Thai folklore. Since the mid-16th Century, sailors have been drying, carving and varnishing skates or rays to resemble mermaids. These creations were known as ‘Jenny Hanivers’. The origins of the name are uncertain, although one theory suggests that the practice was so lucrative among Belgian sailors at the port of Antwerp, that ‘Jenny Hanivers’ is a corruption of jeune d’Anvers (‘young person of Antwerp’). Jenny Hanivers were not only made to resemble mermaids, but also angels, dragons and demons. The 19th Century circus and sideshow tycoon, P.T Barnum, took advantage of this fascination by displaying what he claimed to be a real life mermaid. It was, in fact, a torso of a monkey sewn to the lower half of a fish. Crafted by a Japanese fisherman for use in religious ceremonies, it passed through many hands before ending up with Barnum, who fabricated a story of its capture off the coast of Fiji. It became known as the Fiji (or Feejee) mermaid, and he made a fortune displaying it to the American public – first at Concert Hall on Broadway and then at Barnum’s American Museum. The Feejee Mermaid was a classic example of Barnum’s ability to take a mildly interesting object and turn it into a must-see ‘event’ almost overnight.
Not all cases of deception in natural history have been the fabrication of mythological creatures – some have been forgeries of scientific specimens. In 1912, Charles Dawson proclaimed he had found the ‘missing link’ between ape and man. Dawson was something of a wunderkind in the worlds of palaeontology and archaeology, with a knack for making spectacular discoveries; from the teeth of unknown mammals to Roman statuettes. This time he claimed to have found skull fragments that had both human and ape features. Dubbed the ‘Piltdown Man’ and proposed as evidence for the theory of evolution, it became a media sensation. Debate over whether these fossils were real raged amongst palaeontologists for over 40 years. In 1953, the Piltdown Man was revealed as a composite of a modern human cranium and an orangutan jaw. The identity of the forger was a mystery for the next half a century. Suspects varied from Dawson himself to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who raised suspicion due to the fact that he lived near Piltdown, belonged to the same archaeological society as Dawson, and in the year of the discovery had written The Lost World; a novel in which dinosaurs and ape-like men survive to the present day. The book also includes the incriminating line “If you
are clever and know your business […] you can fake a bone as easily as you can fake a photograph.” In 2003, it was discovered that at least 38 of Dawson’s marvels were fakes, and it is assumed that he was also responsible for the Piltdown Man. There have been countless other examples of deception in the world of natural history, from ‘Archaeoraptor’ to Beringer’s ‘Lying Stones’ to the ‘Cardiff Giant’ – and that’s only the first three letters of the alphabet! Scientists of the time failed to view the Piltdown Man objectively, largely because they wanted it as evidence for the thencontentious theory of evolution. Perhaps scientists should be more wary of that which seems too good to be true.
Shane Morris is studying for an MRes in Ecology, Evolution and Conservation
Illustration: James Marno
Now You See It...
rom the moment we are born, our senses respond to numerous stimuli every second. Each of us goes from the secure confines of the womb to a vast new environment. Sounds come from a whole variety of different sources: our parents, the television, the dog, the rumble of traffic outside. Where we were previously fed through an umbilical cord, we now experience taste for the first time. We feel the smooth bars of a cradle, a soft blanket, the touch of other humans. Not to mention all those colours and strange shapes that fill our visual field. Babies are plunged into a sensate world. Their initial confusion gives way to cognition as their brains learn to interpret environmental stimuli, and how to react to them. Yet our brains are easily fooled. What we physically see, with our eyes, is not necessarily what we perceive. Our eyes are the light-gathering organs. They take a snapshot of our field of vision, and light-sensitive photoreceptors convert light into electric signals that travel along neurons to the brain. This is where illusion creeps in. Our brain’s job is to make sense of all the information it is receiving. Seemingly simple drawings become so distorted by our brain that we see something that isn’t really there. For our brains, context is everything. Take a look at the three double-ended arrows on this page. Do these lines appear different lengths to you? Most of us will live in a boxshaped building where three lines bisect at the corners of the rooms. As children, playing helped us to develop spatial awareness in our 3D environments. We learnt to gauge distance, proportions and relative locations. When we see three lines bisecting in the corner of a room, we interpret that corner as being furthest away
spread across the internet on social media, prompting furious debate as to whether it was #whiteandgold or #blackandblue. Colour, like space, is a construct of our brains based on the electrical signals it receives from our eyes. The different wavelengths of light that make up the colour spectrum hit the retina of our eye, and our brain then interprets the signals it receives. Our brains not only have to determine the colour, but also how illuminated it is. We can still distinguish colours in bright sunshine and the muted shades of dawn because our brains interpret the colour in the context of all the other light. from our location. Some psychologists have suggested that our brain’s automatic 3D scaling does not always translate to the 2D page. Most of you will probably have perceived the middle arrow as being the longest – perhaps because it appears similar to the bisecting corners of a room, causing our brains to overcompensate the length of the line. But all three lines are in fact the same length. This illusion, called the ‘Müller-Lyer illusion’, has been used to study groups of people around the world. One such group, the Meriam people of Murray Island in Northern Australia, were found to be significantly less susceptible to falling for this illusion than those of us who have our environments ‘straightened’ out. Psychologist W.H.R Rivers suggests that the natural environment of the Meriam, lacking in straight lines, means they don’t contextualise the image in the same way others do. Remember DressGate? Just one week after being posted to Tumblr, images of the dress
In the case of the dress, some people’s brains overcorrected for this illumination, making an extra mental leap it needn’t have made. The overexposed photograph caused many people to perceive the dress – revealed to have in fact been black and blue – as being in shadow; their brains interpreted it as being white. The furore surrounding DressGate was enough to prompt a scientific investigation into colour perception. Those who saw white and gold were found to have extra activity in their front and parietal areas of the brain, the areas responsible for visual perception, mental reasoning and selective attention. The Hermann grid is another example of how what we see isn’t necessarily what we perceive. Most of us will see grey spots appearing at the corners of the boxes, except the one we are looking directly at. Neuroscientists have worked out that this is due to an effect called lateral inhibition. Neurons that become excited are able to reduce the activity of neighbouring neurons. For bright images, this ensures that our eyes do not overexpose the image (as in
We usually trust what we can see, but it turns out the eyes are easily fooled. Samuel Lickiss investigates the science behind optical illusions.
the photograph of the dress). In the Hermann grid, the high contrast between black and white confuses our neurons, causing the grey spots to appear. Our eyes are the harbingers of vision, just one of an arsenal of senses we possess, and we rarely use them in isolation. Would a crisp that fails to crunch yield the same satisfaction? When looking at a plate of food, our expectations of
the taste depend on the foodâ€™s appearance, which, like our perception of space, comes from prior experiences. The sound of the morningafter fry up instantly conjures up a sense of the taste, as does the feeling of handling food as you cook it.
subconsciously. As we continue to grow older, our brains continue to do their best to make sense of this strange world.
Samuel Lickiss is studying for an MSc in Science Communication
This sense synergy sometimes gets confused. Most of the vast quantities of information that flood into our brains every second is processed
A Brief History of Scientific Scams
ver a circuit-board, my lab partner describes an old pub near her family home in Sussex. Its name is ‘The Piltdown Man’, coined after the infamous man-ape hybrid discovered in 1912 by amateur archaeologist Charles Dawson. A so-called ‘missing piece’ in man’s evolution, Dawson found part of a human skull in Piltdown, Sussex, and presented it to the scientific community where it was widely welcomed as a breakthrough finding. Under scrutiny, the remains were found to be no more than the skull of a man combined with the jawbone of an ape, which had been filed down and dyed to appear human. The hoax was not uncovered until the 1950s, and it was not until 2003 that Dawson’s trickery was fully uncovered and condemned. “The point of science is to know more stuff ” my lab partner stresses, expertly twizzling the dial on a current source, “If you lie, you can’t be a scientist.” Throughout its long history, deceit in the scientific world has brought about calamity; destroying research groups and rendering entire fields of science unpalatable. In the case of Haruko Obokata, a research unit leader at the RIKEN Center for Developmental Biology in Kobe, Japan, the publication of a pair of papers in Nature magazine in 2014 brought heartache. The papers detailed a new, more efficient method for creating stem cells. The technique – stimulus-triggered acquisition of pluripotency (STAP) – was backed by a cohort of secondary authors. Her work, though initially promising, came under immediate scrutiny. Members of the scientific community recognised that images used in the papers were doctored, and similar
to those used in a separate experiment conducted during her PhD. Moreover, it became increasingly clear that her results were unrepeatable, and genetic tests run on sample cells proved them to be unreliable. It was not long before RIKEN and many of Obokata’s co-authors withdrew their support and their papers, each calling for the retraction of the studies from Nature. The worst was yet to come. Hounding from the press and unilateral condemnation of the affair as unethical sent the innovative group at RIKEN reeling, and culminated in the tragic suicide of Yoshiki Sasai, a co-author and a supervisor of Obokata’s, who was in charge of editing and quality-checking the work. Every member of the RIKEN development team took a sharp career hit from the incident, facing disciplinary action and left with a feeling of “overwhelming shame.” The scandal drew sinister parallels with a similar case that had occurred ten years previously in 2004. Geneticist Hwang Woo-suk, a Professor and highly funded researcher at Seoul National University, claimed he could create human stem cell lines from cloned embryos. This work – which promised a breakthrough in stem cell research – was later found to be fabricated. After admitting he had falsified data for his studies in 2006, he was also accused of using unethical sources to provide embryos for his research. In 2009, he was convicted on a suspended sentence of embezzlement and the illegal purchase of human eggs for research. This procurement of eggs was shrouded in allegations of coercion, with many women being bribed and not giving fully informed consent. Most damningly, some of the donors were junior members of Hwang’s research team. An enormous number of these egg cells were
used in the research, and similar resources were then used by researchers such as Ryuzo Toori of Shiga University, Japan, in trying to replicate Hwang’s fraudulent work. Needless to say, the scandal unleashed by Hwang’s group was damaging not only for the reputation of South Korean genetic science, but for the entire field of stem cell research. It reignited existing ethical concerns around the usage of human egg cells in research, and provoked further doubt and speculation amongst a public already sceptical of stem cell science. Problematically, when ethical misconducts become public knowledge, they feed into the narrative of scientists as amoral figures who care far more about progress than societal and ethical responsibilities. Particularly in genetic and medical ethics, where there are suspicions that scientists are in the pockets of the government and Big Pharma, or that genetic modification is akin to ‘playing God’, scandals such as this only serve to fuel the fires of doubt, and make the job of scientists and medical researchers even more difficult. It would be wrong to write about the ethics of scientific hoaxes without calling attention to the work of Andrew Wakefield. In The Lancet in 1998, he suggested a link between the MMR vaccine and the development of childhood autism. The claims of his study were shown to be tenuous and were called into further question when it was revealed that he was taking money from a lawyer named Richard Barr, who had approached him with the intention of raising a lawsuit against the manufacturers of the vaccine. Wakefield accepted more than £400,000, giving him a hefty conflict of interest in his research. Further conflicts of interests would later emerge, and Wakefield was struck off and his paper retracted. The damage was done, however, and
Despite their reputation for veracity, scientists have proved responsible for some elaborate and dangerous hoaxes. Anita Chandran examines where it all went wrong.
caused a huge outcry against vaccinations which persists today. Measles itself remains on the rise. As deceitful as the work of Obokata, Hwang and Wakefield might seem, it is important to consider the ‘publish or perish’ culture that researchers are constantly faced with. The persistent drive to add novel contributions to the field causes funding bodies and scientists to invest in dramatically different techniques than those previously considered, so as to increase their chances of producing contemporary, publishable science. After all, repeat studies of already published work are less groundbreaking than entirely new research. In the case of Obokata, the STAP technique showed incredible promise but the experiment was
hurried and produced disappointing results. Perhaps it was an honest mistake which rapidly spiralled out of the control of a young researcher under an immense amount of pressure to publish. Financial incentives inevitably complicate cases such as Wakefield’s, as well as many medical studies into harmful substances such as tobacco, sugar and asbestos. Corporate bodies levying favour with scientists skew research in their favour, with potentially damaging consequences. Even implicitly, having a vested interest in the outcome of your results allows for biased selection, meaning researchers may see a trend in selective data where none truly exists.
We can never know the extent to which the scientists involved in these scandals regretted, or even recognised, the damage their lies had caused. Did they apply the proverbial nail file to the monkey jaw as they penned their papers, or were they blindly corrupted by their convictions from the start? There is no single rationale. Instead there exists a complicated web of what is important to scientists: a conglomeration of the unique pressures academics face. Even so, there is truth in my lab partner’s words – the wilful ignorance of the truth precludes you from the fundamental objectivity of science. To falsify your work is the antithesis of discovery.
Anita Chandran is studying for a BSc in Physics
Illustration: Wendy LING-HSUAN WANG
Let's Talk about Monogamy Monogamy: a key ingredient to a successful relationship, or an unnatural expectation?
evolution in Love. Can you tell me what you mean by that? Do you want free love as against bourgeois marriage, or monogamy as against bourgeois promiscuity?”
Wales is either married or cohabiting. However, more than 40% of those cases will end in divorce or separation, with 25% and 18% of married men and women respectively admitting to at least one incidence of adulterous behaviour. While extensive research in psychology, sociology and behavioural economics attributes infidelity to factors such as status, gender and economic dependency, contributions from the field of genetics have become increasingly prevalent within this body of research.
This passage from Milan Kundera’s book Life is Elsewhere highlights the inherent contradictions in our society between the amalgam of state, social and cultural institutions. These institutions are designed to foster a strict definition of monogamy and the prevalence of promiscuity within it. According to a study on infidelity published in the Journal of Marital and Family Therapy, around 57% of men and 54% of women in the US have admitted to cheating on a partner at least once. The numbers are similar in Europe, where 36% of Brits, 43% of French and 45% of Germans admitted to having had sexual encounters outside of their relationships. Considering the burdensome costs that infidelity poses on relationships and society – from psychological harm to the enormous expenses associated with separation and divorce – it’s worth considering whether we need a new perspective on this issue. Recent scientific research concerning monogamy and infidelity may help us to reevaluate. Accounting for over 5000 mammal species on Earth, studies have found that between three to five percent of species – including humans – practice some form of monogamy. However, biologists largely agree that humans are not on the extreme end of the monogamy spectrum, where animals such as the swan and wolf typically stay with the same companion throughout their entire lives.
Most people have more than one sexual partner during their life and, outside the Western World, other societies engage in various forms of polyamorous arrangements. This supports the argument that humans are likely not genetically predisposed to monogamy. In a study published in 2003 in the Journal of Molecular Evolution, researchers found that the diverse worldwide distribution of the Y chromosome suggests that there was a shift from polygamy to monogamy between 5000 and 10,000 years ago. These results coincide with theories proposed by anthropologists, such as Jack Goody, that a cultural transition towards monogamy occurred alongside the increasing complexity of our societies; driven by the appearance of technologies such as ploughing agriculture. Whether monogamy evolved naturally or is the product of cultural forces, today, most people in the Western World practice a variation of it. According to the Office of National Statistics, over 60% of the adult population of England and
A 2014 study led by Dr. Brendan P. Zietsch looked at the genes of 7378 Finnish twins and siblings, finding significant correlation between certain variants of the receptor gene for the hormone vasopressin and infidelity in women. Other studies have found similar results with variants of the receptor genes for oxytocin and dopamine. Although we are far from understanding the effects of these genes and hormones on human infidelity, recent studies suggest that potential genetic factors are certainly worth exploring further. Just a century ago, much of the Western World punished adulterous behaviour as a criminal offence, something that unfortunately still happens in many countries today. Science is now beginning to show that some people may be better off with arrangements outside the bounds of strict monogamy, which for hundreds of years our culture has strictly adhered to. Fortunately, our definitions of what constitutes a relationship are increasingly fluid, and are beginning to embrace the inherent complexity explored in Milan Kundera’s novels.
Daniel R Silva is studying for an Msc in Science Communication
Image: GOOGLE CREATIVE COMMONS ARTIST UNKNOWN
'Breaker, Breaker!' Hilary Lamb dives into the complex world of cryptography. How do we use technology to disguise our most secret messages?
he Kama Sutra instructs women who want to send naughty messages to use ‘Mulavediya’. This is an example of an early monoalphabetic cipher; each letter substituted for another. Aside from Pig Latin, perhaps, these ciphers offer the weakest concealment imaginable. They can be broken with frequency analysis, in which the codebreaker compares the frequency of letters in the message to the frequency of letters in the writer’s language, and matches them up. This takes a pen, paper and a few minutes of patience. Polyalphabetic ciphers, in which each letter is substituted for multiple others, are far more resistant to attack by frequency analysis. The Vigenère cipher used such a technique, surviving three centuries before being broken by Charles Babbage, who identified repeated groups of letters as the chink in its armour. Twentieth Century military communications were encoded with polyalphabetic ciphers and transmitted by radio, making them open to interception. In 1918, French codebreakers unravelled the German ADFGVX cipher, providing enough intelligence to halt the Spring Offensive, and demonstrating the importance of cryptography in warfare. World leaders wasted no time amassing armies of codebreakers at the outbreak of the Second World War. The development of the electromechanical ‘Bombe’ by Polish and British codebreakers to combat the infamous Enigma Code, and the invention of ‘Colossus’ (the first programmable, electronic, digital computer) to defeat the Germans’ Lorentz ciphers proved that codebreakers could deliver technological as well as military triumphs. Computers proved to be invaluable tools for both increasingly complex encryption and as blunt instruments for decryption.
Today, it is no longer just wartime leaders who rely on cryptography; we all need to stay protected against interception online. Until recently, our secure information was encoded using ‘secret key systems’, in which a single key (a set of instructions) is used to encrypt and decrypt data. This key must be delivered securely from sender to recipient. Historical methods for exchanging secret information have varied from tattooing messages on slaves’ scalps to knitting Morse code into jumpers, but public key exchanges today are far more complex, with millions transferring secure information every second. The complexity of secret key delivery, combined with the vulnerability of these systems to brute force attacks, mean that a more refined technique is
necessary for protecting our most sensitive information. ‘Public key systems’ use a pair of keys: one public and one private. If a politician wants to send a suggestive message to his PA, he doubleencrypts it using his private key and the PA’s public key. The PA decrypts it with her private key and the politician’s public key. Public keys can therefore be revealed and reused without compromising security. Public key systems work using one-way functions, which take minimal effort to carry out (e.g: multiplying primes), but a lot of effort to reverse (e.g: factorising); a tough defence against brute force attacks. Quantum computers, which use quantum mechanical principles to perform operations, could render every cryptographic system defunct, due to their
enormous theoretical computational power. The only defence against a quantum brute force attack is similarly speculative: quantum cryptography. Imagine that our politician takes a photograph and encrypts the data as a series of polarised photons, which he delivers to his PA. She attempts to measure the polarisations, and the politician tells her which were correct. They compile the correct measurements into a ‘one-time pad’ (which contains unique data to encode their message). Before sending the photograph, they check that their pads match. If not, somebody has tried to intercept their messages. The mere act of observation changes the state of a photon, so any attempt at eavesdropping is detected.
W h i l e scientists are yet to send quantum-encrypted messages over useful distances, quantum cryptography holds the promise of absolute secrecy, making interception impossible. The history of cryptography is a mathematical and technological arms race between those who want to conceal messages and those who want to read them. Quantum cryptography would signal the final defeat for codebreakers.
Hilary Lamb is studying for an Msc in Science Communication
Illustration: CHEYENNE MCCRAY
Speedy Science: Olivia Philipps takes a look at the various ways our senses deceive us.
Sight Imagine you are given a drink that is orange-coloured. Unsurprisingly, it tastes of orange. Or does it? Research has shown that colour can impact how we perceive taste. In one study, participants reported that an orangecoloured drink tasted of orange despite the fact that it was a dyed cherryflavoured drink. The associations we make between certain colours and flavours reveal a deception that our eyes frequently play on us. Moreover, these associations appear culturally specific. For example, one study found that Taiwanese participants expected a brown-coloured drink to taste of grape, whilst British participants expected a cola flavour. Does orange and lemon Fanta really taste different, or are we merely fooled by their colours?
Touch Top restaurants obsess over their choice of crockery and cutlery. Whilst shape and size are usually their most important criteria, science suggests that they should focus more on weight. Research participants report tastier and more satisfying food when served with heavier plates and cutlery. Our sense of touch also fools our tastebuds when it comes to takeaway drinks. Apparently, the firmness of the cup can affect how we regard the quality of the drink. The firmer the cup feels, the higher its perceived quality. So next time you have a terrible takeaway coffee, think twice – it might be your sense of touch fooling you.
Taste We all love sugary treats yet know full well the consequences of eating too many. Wouldn’t it be great if we could eat them without having to worry? Well, perhaps we can. Indigenous to West Africa, a type of berry called Synsepalum Dulcificum tricks our brains into thinking that sour foods actually taste sweet. These ‘miracle berries’ have an active
The Bitter Taste of Deceit Image: https://www.flickr.com/photos/joaoloureiro
Smell Food is never as flavoursome when you have a cold. This is because our sense of smell, which is impaired by a stuffed-up nose, has a crucial role in our perception of taste. Research has shown that smell can drastically affect how we taste foods – in fact, smell accounts for 90% of flavour. For example, a sweet smell, such as caramel, can trick us into thinking food is sweeter than it really is, whilst dampening our perception of its sourness. A sugary scent means we predict a sugary flavour, fooling us into tasting the food differently. Next time you’re cooking, try lighting some scented candles and let your sense of smell trick you into holding back on the sugar.
ingredient called miraculin, which binds to our sweet taste buds. When sour food is eaten, miraculin activates these taste buds, deceiving our brains so that sour tastes seem sweet for up to 60 minutes. Scientists are currently looking into possible uses for miraculin – could it be the answer to easy weight loss?
Have you ever wondered why aeroplane meals never taste quite right, or why tomato juice is so popular while flying? It all has to do with sound. Scientists have discovered that when there is loud background noise, as on a plane, our perception of sweet and salty tastes decrease. On the other hand, our umami taste, which is activated by tomatoes, is thought to be unaffected. Likewise, the pitch of sound can also impact how we taste food. High pitched noises are thought to heighten our sweet taste, while low pitched noises sharpen our bitter taste. Perhaps restaurants should be giving more thought to their background music.
Olivia Philipps is studying for an MSc in Science Communication
SELF DECEPTION: Why Do We Deceive Ourselves?
e’ve all been told that honesty is the best policy, yet we’re quick to bend the rule – especially when it comes to deceiving ourselves. Studies in the field of evolutionary psychology suggest that our ability to self-deceive has evolved as a key survival mechanism, one which increases fitness and promotes reproductive success. Consider the bathroom mirror pep talk. Inflating our strengths while downplaying flaws is the go-to mental preparation strategy whenever we’re faced with a challenging or unfamiliar situation. Dr Robert Trivers, Professor of Anthropology and Biological Sciences at Rutgers University, suggests that suppressing our negative traits can lead us to feel more in control of our environment. This heightened sense of security helps us minimise perception of potential threats, reducing stress whilst promoting health. Lowered stress coincides with balanced levels of hormones such as cortisol, which help control the body’s blood sugar levels, nervous system, blood pressure, and immune response. As stress interferes with our processing of higher-level cognitive reasoning, lowered stress can increase intellectual performance. This allows the individual to think clearly, acquire essential resources, and pursue mates more efficiently. The evolution of self-deception also involves familial relationships. Dr Trivers explains that parent-offspring interactions stimulate self-deception in the offspring, guaranteeing
mutual survival. Parents are likely to instil ‘selfserving’ traits in their offspring, who recognise that parental care is essential to their wellbeing. In exchange for this, they are inclined to behave in a way that benefits their parents. Trivers describes a clinical example of this phenomenon. A woman who attended therapy sessions openly revealed that as a child, she was abused by her mother, who was an alcoholic. The woman did not, however, covey any sense of anger or resentment towards her mother. Instead, she insisted that her mother was a good person who was simply troubled. Internalising this rationalisation of her mother’s abuse as a child would lead her to behave in a devoted manner while seeking maternal nurture. Opposing her mother’s abuse would have promoted greater conflict, undoubtedly reducing or eliminating any maternal care, including the provision of basic necessities. Dr Thomas Suddendorf, Professor of Health and Behavioural Sciences at the University of Queensland, suggests that self-deception also allows humans to create a ‘beneficially inaccurate’ worldview. As humans, we have the unique ability to mentally construct impending situations and predict possible outcomes. This trait helps us plan for future events. Predictions are often influenced by ‘foresight bias’, a mechanism of self-deception that leads us to overestimate the negative impact of a ‘bad’ event and underestimate the potential benefits of a ‘good’ event. If we convince ourselves of these pessimistic outcomes, our chances of being ill-prepared are diminished.
sets our intentions in the direction of success, making us more likely to persevere when faced with challenges. The better we are at convincing ourselves that we are strong, intelligent, powerful or confident, the more likely we are to appear that way to others. Keeping a positive state of mind promotes the flow of serotonin, a neurotransmitter associated with social behaviour, and oxytocin, a hormone which facilitates interpersonal bonding. These chemicals induce a state of confidence while encouraging social interaction and cooperation. As we become adept self-deceivers, we improve our ability to detect deception in others. According to Dr Trivers and Dr William von Hippel, Professor of Evolutionary Psychology at the University of Queensland, humans exhibit involuntary cues such as nervousness and unnatural muscle control when lying. When an instance of self-deception involves social interaction, we’re often aware of our own attempts to suppress these ‘cues’. This selfawareness then helps us spot insincere facial expressions, abnormal posture, increased vocal pitch, and halting or simplified speech. When faced with such giveaways, learning to disguise our detection of deception can help us acquire valuable information and resources. More than a superficial ego boost, selfdeception is an adaptation that helps us survive. While they say that no good ever comes of telling a lie, perhaps it’s best that we’re not so honest with ourselves.
Erin Frick is studying for an MSc in Science Communication
We can deceive ourselves into a more positive outlook too. Dr Louisa Egan Brad, Assistant Professor of Psychology at Bryn Mawr College, argues that envisioning positive outcomes
FRIEND OR FOE?
Erin Frick illustrates the benefits of self-deception, whilst Katie Haylor examines just how dangerous our delusions can be.
The Darker Side of Self-Deception
hen it comes to deceiving ourselves, we are all guilty. Whether it’s enriching an online dating profile or boosting a job application, self-deception can affect the way we’re perceived by others, as well as ourselves. But what are the dangers of this behaviour? In the tragic case of Flight 90, self-deception proved lethal. On 13 January 1982, a Boeing 737 was scheduled to take off from Washington National Airport. Conditions were difficult and snowfall had delayed its departure. However, the pilot was unphased. He showed little concern for the ice on the wings, and chose to ignore numerous warnings from his copilot. Once off the ground, he didn’t consider aborting the flight whilst still in the safety zone, despite the inconsistent readings displayed by his instruments. Having barely left the runway, and with insufficient thrust, the plane crashed into a bridge over the nearby Potomac River. Of the 74 passengers and five crew members on board, only five survived.
incaution’ – the pilot’s overconfidence and the copilot’s reluctance to act on his concerns – that facilitated the tragedy. Ultimately, the pilot overestimated his abilities and rejected negative information relating to the safety of the flight. Would things have been different had the copilot been more assertive with his doubts? Research has shown that self-deceivers make for better persuaders. A liar who believes their own lie will communicate it far more convincingly. Professor Aldert Vrij of the University of Portsmouth argues that this is because the lie is no longer a lie in the self-deceiver’s mind. Once internalised, the teller believes the lie to be true, erasing the behavioural cues we are adept at spotting in liars. In the case of Flight 90, the pilot convinced by his own deception may have misled his copilot, causing him to accept more risk than he would have under different circumstances. Flight 90’s crash reveals just how destructive self-deception can be. Dangerous self-deception is something we’re frequently exposed to. For example, a study published in the Proceedings from the National Academy of Sciences in 2011 reveals how researchers measured participants’ expectations compared to reality. In the
experiment, two groups of people took an exam in which one group had prior access to the answers. The group that was exposed to the answers beforehand attributed their resulting scores to being more intelligent than the other group. They also went on to project higher expectations of their own performance in future tests, despite knowing that the first results weren’t a true reflection of their abilities. Researchers concluded that, although in the short term self-deception of this sort can provide a positive ego boost, in the long term having an enhanced perception of your own abilities can lead to false expectations. As seen in Flight 90, having false expectations of yourself or others can lead to serious, or even dangerous, misjudgements. However dangerous it may be, self-deception ultimately provides more evolutionary advantages than pitfalls. After all, we’ve evolved to be good at it for a reason. Studying cases like the crash of Flight 90 can help researchers to further understand how self-deception can have a positive or negative impact on our lives.
Katie Haylor is studying for an MSc in Science Communication
Dr Robert Trivers, along with his late colleague Dr Huey Newton, suggest that self-deception was responsible for the plane crash. Analysing the transcripts of cockpit conversations, they postulate that the pilot dissociated himself from reality during key decision-making moments in pre-flight preparation and early take off. The co-pilot gave in to his superior’s wish to proceed despite his own audible uncertainty at numerous points during their conversation. The pilot’s sense of adventure, and perhaps his previous military experience, had left him and his colleague vulnerable to the ‘casual Illustration: Jay kural
Catch me if you can ! The Body is a Battlefield
eep inside your body, a war of attrition rages...
Microbes are everywhere. They thrive on every surface and in every breath, in every mouthful and every gulp. All around you, myriads of bacteria, parasites, viruses and fungi are fighting for survival. Every so often, a microbe comes into contact with a human body. Warm and full of nutrients, it seems the perfect place to settle down. In reality, it is a toxic environment, rife with stomach acids, killer immune cells, antibody booby traps, and poisonous antimicrobial clouds. In this threatening world only the cunning survive. As a result, some microbes have developed sophisticated strategies to gain the upper hand. Here are a few of their success stories.
1. Defend Yourself Our stomachs host formidable defences. A sea of acid guards the entrance to our intestines, breaking down food and disintegrating intruders. A thick mucus membrane protects our delicate stomach lining from self-digestion. Until 1982, it was assumed that no bacteria could possibly survive in these inhospitable climes; it turns out this isn’t true. Helicobacter pylori
Helicobacter pylori is a spiral-shaped oddity. This bacterium
is capable of neutralising stomach acid by excreting ammonia, rendering the stomach completely harmless and granting the intruder access to the organ’s mucus-layer lining. Whilst these bacteria don’t cause any immediate symptoms, we now know that they can lead to ulcer-inducing inflammation. This was first postulated by Australian Nobel prize winners Drs Marshall and Warren. Faced with general scepticism from the scientific community, Dr Marshall decided to demonstrate the devastating effects of this bacterium by drinking a vial of H. Pylori, proving once and for all that the stomach is not an impregnable fortress.
2. Keep ‘em Guessing The immune system works like a sentinel surveillance system. Immune cells patrol the body, checking every cell for unusual markers which indicate the presence of an infectious agent. Influenza A is the virus responsible for the flu. It infects a cell by hijacking its metabolic machinery and using it to produce more viruses. When infecting a cell, the virus leaves behind two big markers of its presence at the surface of the cell, called antigens. In the case of influenza, these antigens are called haemagglutinin (H) and neuraminidase (N). This is a glaring red flag for the immune system, which will immediately begin to destroy any cell that carries these antigens. To prevent this, the virus has another trick up its sleeve. It changes these antigens just enough so the immune system won’t recognise them, giving rise to new strains of the virus; H1N1 (‘Spanish’ flu) becomes H5N1 (‘bird’ flu), and so on.
3. Trojan Horse The human immunodeficiency virus (HIV)
causes AIDS when it destroys the cells of the immune system, making the body more susceptible to infection. Unlike other infectious agents, HIV does not try to avoid the immune system because it needs the immune cells to live. Like Influenza, HIV invades an immune cell, where it grows and replicates. It can then use the cell as a ‘Trojan Horse’ to infect other immune cells. The more immune cells that are sent to destroy the infection, the more HIV spreads. This is why the disease is so deadly.
4. Wait it Out In threatening environments, microorganisms resort to barricading.
Pseudomonas aeruginosa is one of the bacterium responsible for pneumonia and is the leading cause of death in patients with cystic fibrosis. These bacteria are particularly resistant to antibiotics. In antibiotic-rich environments, they can develop a biofilm – a sugar-based gelatinous substance – which encapsulates them and protects them from both antibiotics and attacks from the immune system.
5. Stay Incognito The best heists are the ones we never hear about. Whilst we diligently study microorganisms which cause symptoms or disease, it is probable that we haven’t even noticed the ones which protect themselves without disturbing the body. As the field of microbiology develops, the future is sure to reveal many more incredible microbial protection mechanisms.
Marianne Guenot is studying for an MSc in Science Communication
Marianne Guenot and Cian Duggan explore how microbes fool the immune systems humans and plants – only the strongest will survive...
No Cell Left Behind When faced with threats, plants depend on intercellular cooperation to survive. Here’s how they defend themselves when there’s nowhere to run, and nowhere to hide. Unlike humans, plants are literal sittingducks for microbial attack. Their cell walls are continuously bombarded by diseasecausing microorganisms, collectively known as pathogens, including bacteria, fungi and viruses. In retaliation, plants have evolved a sophisticated immune system in the 400 million years since they colonised land, around 200 million years before the first mammals evolved. Mammals are equipped with specialised mobile immune cells that patrol the body looking for infections. The plant immune system, however, does not have these adapted immune cells. In fact, plants lack mobile cells altogether. Every plant cell is genetically identical to the rest of the plant, and therefore contains the necessary information and tools to defend itself. However, these are not a group of selfish individuals defending only themselves. Each cell is prepared to sacrifice itself for the good of the plant and help coordinate a sophisticated defence response throughout the organism. When a plant is attacked by a pathogen, blocking entry is the first response. Imagine each cell in the plant as a medieval castle. When the microbial soldiers start attacking, they are detected by sensors in the cell wall. These sensors, known as pattern recognition receptors (PRRs), tell the cell to strengthen its wall and release chemicals which kill the invaders. This defence is often enough to prevent invasion, but some pathogens have evolved to overcome it and manage to breach the wall. Pathogens, parasitic
worms and insects such as aphids can inject microscopic weapons – ‘effector proteins’ – into plant cells. The blueprints for these proteins are stored in the invader’s DNA, but only operate once injected into the plant. The initial infection of just one plant cell often decides the fate of the organism. If the pathogen grows, other cells will inevitably fall. Upon detection of these proteins, the cell will often self-destruct in an attempt to take the invader with it. Of course, if defending against disease was as simple as sacrificing a few cells, plant diseases wouldn’t exist. Effector proteins can attack components of the plant’s immune system to prevent an immune response. For instance, AvrPtoB, a bacterial effector protein, has evolved to mimic a natural plant recycling component, known as an E3 Ubiquitin Ligase. AvrPtoB adds a label, urging ‘eat me’, to multiple components of the plant’s immune system, including PRR sensors, signal relay devices and even a ‘backup’ sensor inside the cell. The plant cell then reads these labels and sends the immune components to a part of the cell designated for waste destruction, limiting immune responses against the invader and therefore aiding spread of the disease. Filamentous pathogens may also infect plants by tricking their immune systems. For instance, the fungi-like oomycete pathogen Phytophthora infestans caused the blight disease responsible for the Irish potato famine of the 1800s. It releases molecules known as EPICs, which inhibit the action of the plant defence enzyme C14, outside of the cell. Meanwhile, an effector protein, AvrBlb2, is sent inside the cell to prevent further release of C14. This ability to
fight on two fronts is one reason potato blight is so devastating. Some pathogens are so successful at deceiving the plant immune system that they can change the physical appearance of the plant. For example, the parasitic rust fungus, Puccinia monoica, reprograms plant cells to form fake flowers from the plant’s leaves. These ‘pseudoflowers’ don’t produce pollen, but produce nectar in order to attract bees which then spread the fungus. With such crafty opposition, when it comes to plant immunity, only the very strongest will survive.
Cian Duggan is studying for an MSc in Applied Biosciences and Biotechnology
Interview: Renovating Cold war Science
Samuel Lickiss interviews Dr Colin Connolly on how deceptive war technology gave birth to his life-saving invention.
’m afraid I can’t answer that question.”
I get that response a lot while interviewing Dr Colin Connolly, former chief scientist at the NHS, and prior to that, a nuclear weapons systems engineer. “I signed the Official Secrets Act,” he says. “Oh, I’m sworn to secrecy for life.” The Cold War ran between 1947 and 1991, and the nuclear arms race between East and West was a defining feature. Each side rapidly amassed an arsenal of sufficient power to annihilate the other. “At Alamogordo,” he says, referring to the location of the first-ever nuclear test in New Mexico, “when we pressed that button, we took away the barrier between time and eternity. We saw the consequences, and we still live with those consequences today.” Deception is a fundamental feature of war. The ability to confuse and out-manoeuvre one’s enemies is essential to gaining the upper hand. In The Art of War, the ancient Chinese general Sun Tzu said “The whole secret lies in confusing the enemy, so that he cannot fathom our real intent.” Historical accounts of war are filled with stories of elaborate deceptions that led to victory. I ask for examples of how the US attempted to deceive the Russians. “Can’t answer that.” “The research was compartmentalised so you didn’t get the whole picture,” he responds when I probe further. “I was happy with that. Give me a problem to solve mathematically and I can probably do it. I was a scientist, not a politician or a general. I’m not a great strategist.”
Dr Connolly joined the British National Health Service after his spell with the Navy. A seemingly jarring transition. “I worked on a project to determine the identity of submarines at a distance of 3000m.” Numerous submarines patrolled the oceans during the Cold War, some with nuclear capabilities. How do you determine if the blip on your sonar is friend or foe? “It’s to do with the cavitation noise, the way bubbles are produced and collapse from a propeller. The sounds produced from a submarine are very definite, but they’re confused by the echoes from the propeller. Each propeller is unique to the submarine. If you can ‘gate’ – effectively cut out – the input pulse, you are left with a small spread of frequencies. This diagnostic reading tells you what submarine you’re looking at on your radar.” Gating is a common technique in sound engineering. A noise gate only lets in a particular range of frequencies; electric guitar players use them to remove an undesirable hiss from their setup.
Techniques used in ultrasound are similar to those utilised by submarine sonar. Highfrequency sound pulses are sent into the body using a probe. As these hit a boundary between different types of tissues, some are reflected and picked up by the machine. The machine then calculates the distance from the probe to the boundary, which, when married with the intensity of the signal, produces a 2D image on a screen. “It was all done with valves in those days. It’s moved on a lot since then.” Many pregnant women undergo ultrasound scans to monitor foetus health. Somewhere out in the frigid depths of the Atlantic, at the height of the Cold War, a submarine primed to launch a nuclear attack provided an unlikely birth to what is now a staple of modern medicine. From the secrecy of the most deceptive of wars, came a life-saving clarity.
A full version of Sam’s interview with Dr Connolly is available on our website. Samuel Lickiss is studying for an MSc in Science Communication
“It came in a flash one night in the lab. Using the gating technique, sonar echoes could come in and we could produce clarity from the confusion. What if I were to apply this technique to humans?” Dr Connolly enrolled on yet another PhD, this time focusing on Biochemistry. “I invented the depth compensation gated amplifier, used in ultrasound, and now a key component in every ultrasound machine sold because it clarifies the picture at depth.”
Sub propeller showing cavitation Photo: Ken reeves
R e v i e w s
Seven Brief Lessons on Physics
The Wellcome Collection’s Friday Late Spectacular: Feeling Emotional
The translation of Carlo Rovelli’s Sette Brevi Lezioni di Fisica, which outsold Fifty Shades of Grey when it was first released in Italy, has quickly become one of the best-selling popular science books of the last year.
The Wellcome Collection open their doors well into the night every first Friday of the month, and every three months they go all out with a themed Friday Late Spectacular. February’s Feeling Emotional provided the latest instalment in the Spectacular series, and, rounding up some (mostly) willing friends, I headed to Euston to explore. We arrived and immediately joined a sizeable queue. After an hour we’d made good progress and continued to feel hopeful, though hunger forced us to dispatch a gallant sub-team for supplies. As the second hour approached, excitement turned to determined perseverance. We bonded with the strangers queuing around us, admiring one another’s resolve and occupying ourselves with childish games. As we neared the entrance, one man’s boredom turned to bravery as he made an audacious dash through an unlocked door; security immediately fastened it, but the daring man remained inside.
The book’s pedagogical title belies its conversational tone, which more than anything feels akin to an old friend enthusing over a new book or piece of music they have discovered. Indeed, Rovelli insists there is no real difference between great works of art like a Beethoven string quartet and the great theories of physics, “to fully appreciate their brilliance may require a long apprenticeship,” but “the reward is sheer beauty and new eyes with which to see the world”. For Rovelli, physics is at its most basic a collection of pictures; its history consists of the pictures we have drawn of our universe and of our place within it. Throughout the book (and as is common in conversations with enthused old friends) the digressions and tangents on which Rovelli embarks are often as interesting as the topic being discussed. Thus we hear of Rovelli’s student days, examine briefly the origin of individual consciousness and finally discuss the nature of genius. Rovelli’s own genius lies in how the economy of his 78page book never seems to restrict its message. Seven Brief Lessons does not aim to give the reader a comprehensive review of modern physics, but rather a glimpse into the mindset of a modern physicist and the beauty that motivates him.
Daan Arroo is studying for a PhD in Magnetic Nanostructures
After more than two hours, we were in. Tickets to talks were long gone but we didn’t let that dampen our spirits. We made a hypnotic gif of our emotions, watched a mesmerizingly dull film about boredom, and met a robot that helped children learn to manage their diabetes. In the end, the event became a victim of its own success on social media: on Facebook over 6000 people clicked ‘going’ and a further 13000 were ‘interested’. The queue made me feel more emotional than the event itself, but the Wellcome Collection will undoubtedly learn from this, and remains one of my favourite destinations for the incurably curious. For those visiting a Friday Late: expect to be enchanted, but for God’s sake bring a book.
Abigail Skinner is studying for an MSc in Science Communication