I, science Issue 2 Summer 2005
A science magazine for Imperial College
3/6/05 10:52:40 am
I, science REGULARS
4 The I, Science Report
Catch up with all the latest news from Imperial
5 Other news
Research from around the globe with a light-hearted twist
6-7 Events James Watson on the future Neuroscience and belief Events calendar
22-24 Opinion Military science and nanotech Should we be concerned about what scientists are working on?
The nuclear debate
Contrasting views on either side of the nuclear energy debate
A World Without Time
Gödel, Einstein and the nature of time
A Quark for Mister Mark
101 science poems to feed your mind
Simon Singh tells the story of how it all began
HEALTH & MEDICINE
9 Alcohol lifestyle
The Aventis Prize winning book
2 I, science Cover-Contents-BackPage-BackCover.indd 2
How a mathematical problem can help describe the shape of the universe
20 Richard Thomas
Prize-winning Imperial mathematician on string theory
8 Test-drive Twike
I, Science goes for a ride in the world’s most eﬃcient motorised vehicle
10 Bjørn Lomborg 31 Honey possum
New research at Imperial into gut bacteria may revolutionise the pharmaceuticals industry
14 Magdi Yacoub
19 The Poincaré Conjecture
12 Personalised diets
28-30 Reviews The critics trashed it, but who are they to talk?
The Large Hadron Collider opens in 2007. Will it detect the Higgs boson?
The sceptical environmentalist talks to I, Science about how he plans to make the world a better place
What the Bleep do we Know!?
17 The God particle
The health eﬀects of drinking alcohol and a call for sensible drinking
13 Basant K Puri
Science and business: a clash of cultures?
Using dietary supplements to treat depression The man who has performed more transplants than any other surgeon in the world talks to I, Science.
Reporting on the ﬁnal push to eradicate a terrible disease
Research at Imperial into a tiny marsupial with remarkable eyesight
ARTS & EDUCATION
A course entirely involving problembased learning
25 Russell Foster
How to teach children about genetics using music
26 Science and theatre The new initiative to encourage playwrights to engage with science
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Issue 2, Summer 2005
ELCOME TO the second issue of I, Science, Imperial College’s ﬁrst ever science magazine. Written by students, it’s a magazine which ﬁnds itself on the boundary between Imperial and the outside world, reﬂecting the interdisciplinary nature of much of today’s research and the multifaceted nature of modern culture. In other words, science in its social context. In this term’s issue, we feature amongst other articles an interview with a surgeon who has performed more transplants than any other surgeon in the world. We also meet the most controversial environmentalist on the planet, look at ground-breaking research at Imperial that could revolutionise the pharmaceuticals industry, and join physicists in Geneva in their search for the elusive God particle. Engineers will also, particularly, be pleased to read an article about I, Sci test-driving the world’s most eﬃcient motorised vehicle. Perhaps two of the most interesting characters featured in this issue are James Watson, the Godfather of the DNA double-helix, and Bjørn Lomborg, the controversial sceptical environmentalist. Both these experts have views that you will ﬁnd yourself having to either agree or disagree with – there is very little middle ground. A more current matter is Britain’s impending energy crisis. With the UK’s sixteen nuclear power plants scheduled to close in the next 20 years, and in view of carbon emissions targets, the government is having to decide whether we should be building replacement plants. This, of course, is an opportunity for both sides: the anti-nuclear lobby will see it as a chance to rid Britain of nuclear plants for good; and the pro-lobby will be seeking to convince the government that climate change is the best argument for building new nuclear power stations. You can read more on both sides of the argument in the I, Science opinion section. In any case, thanks to everyone who has been involved with the making of this issue. The hard work and commitment shown by our contributors and editors, who had to ﬁt the magazine into their already busy schedules, has been magniﬁcent. Thanks also to Felix for their continuing support. Finally, all the comments we received about Issue 1 were much appreciated – without them a second issue would not have been possible. Darius Nikbin
Your comments, letters and suggestions: firstname.lastname@example.org FRONT COVER PICTURE Edgar Martins Image: Detail from Untitled from the series Black Holes & Other Inconsistencies. © Edgar Martins Courtesy of SciCult, London
Editor-in-chief Darius Nikbin Managing Editors Dave Edwards Tom Simonite Design and Layout Alexander Antonov Darius Nikbin Section Editors Imperial Features David Osumi-Sutherland Science Features Rosie Taylor Kate Wighton Interviews Iain Taylor News and Events Zoë Corbyn Tom Simonite Opinion Emma-Lynn Donadieu Books Nora Mulligan Brian Owens Graphics Cato Hoeben
Felix I, Science is produced and published in association with Felix, the student newspaper of Imperial College
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NEWS & EVENTS
I, sci Imperial report
Robodoc on patrol in St Mary’s Hospital
Robodoc: looking out for stairs
ST MARY’S NHS Trust and Imperial College have taken inspiration from a 1987 ﬁlm to develop a robot that allows experts to examine and communicate with hospital patients remotely. The robot can also be used for surgical teaching, but while Robocop was built around the body of a terminally wounded police oﬃcer, this robot is purely mechanical. Two of the robots have been built, already nicknamed Sister
Tanaka Business School: new hope for losers
Imperial engineers grab obscure hat-trick
THE CLUMSILY titled 2005 Tanaka Business School Business Plan Competition has been won by ‘Doh! Lost & Found’, a team who use ID tags to reunite lost laptops and personal electronics with forgetful owners. In the last six months, losers left 63,000 mobile phones, 5,800 pocket PCs and 5,000 laptops in London taxi cabs alone. Thousands are lost for good, as there is often no way to identify the owner, or the ﬁnder lacks incentive to return the item. The scheme uses ID tags that tell the ﬁnder how to return an item easily in return for a reward. This service is not new to the world; forgetful people are already supported by similar services in the United States and Australia. In the US some 80% of losers have their tagged goods returned. A website encourages ﬁnders not to become keepers. The ‘Doh! Lost & Found’ team will go on to represent Imperial at the European MBA Business Plan competition in Stockholm next week.
Gary Tanaka is innocent
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Imperial’s winning engineers IMPERIAL’S DEPARTMENT of Materials swept the board at the prestigious, if not famous, Institute of Materials, Minerals and Mining Awards, winning more than any other institution. Prof John Kilner, head of the department, won the Verulam Medal and Prize; lecturer Dr David Dye won the Grunﬁeld Medal and Prize; and Ceres Power, a spin-out from the department, won the Gold Medal. Prof Kilner’s oddly titled Verulam Medal recognises his 20 years of research contributing to ceramic materials. Despite having a name phonetically suited to professional wrestling, Dr Dye specialises in the welding and deformation of nickel and titanium alloys. He said: “I am delighted to have won. As a young researcher only recently returned from North America, it is very encouraging to have this recognition of our
Mary and Dr Robbie. Each is driven remotely by a doctor who can see the patient, ask them questions and read their records, X-rays and test results. The patient can see the doctor’s image on a screen that is the robot’s ‘face’. Although the robot does not physically examine the patient, it allows face-to-face contact between patients and specialists from anywhere in the world. Although the dalek-like robots cannot climb stairs, con-
work by the UK community.” Ceres Power was spun out from Imperial in 2001 and is developing hydrogen fuel cell technology for sustainable and low polluting energy generation. Commenting on the department’s strong performance, Dr Julia King, principal of the Faculty of Engineering, said: “It is fantastic that we have picked up so many of this year’s awards and we oﬀer our warmest congratulations to the winners. Our Department of Materials has excellent ratings for the quality of its teaching and research, and we are very pleased individuals from the department have received this extra recognition.” King also received the I,Science ‘soundbite of excellence award’ for verbal communication.
Ain’t no surf on early earth ANCIENT SEAS were almost tideless, so say researchers from Imperial’s department of Earth Sciences and Engineering. A new model simulates how tides in North West Europe would have behaved 300 million years ago, in an era before dinosaurs, long-boards or wetsuits. At the time, Europe was greatly diﬀerent to how it is today with
The Beach Boys, not heading for the paleaozoic
cern has been expressed that they are simply a cost-cutting measure. Parv Sains, project leader and Research Fellow, said: “Our robots certainly would never replace all doctors on ward rounds, but they are a communication tool which allows a doctor to have direct contact with their patient if they are unable to get to them.” He didn’t comment on whether future models of the robot will be able to traverse uneven ﬂooring.
many areas that are now land covered by vast, shallow seas. The model reveals a picture of a Palaeozoic ocean more like a giant salty lake – in which life would have found survival a struggle. Without tides, water is not mixed properly, preventing much-needed oxygen from circulating. The news is likely to come as a blow to the now fossilised Beach Boys, who have had to postpone a planned trip to entertain the ancient creatures of the era.
Imperial gets two new jolly good fellows, now has 59 TWO IMPERIAL scientists are among the 44 new fellows the Royal Society has just welcomed to its ranks. Jim Barber, Professor of Biochemistry, and Luca Cardelli, a Visiting Professor in the Department of Computing, are now permitted to add the prestigious letters FRS after their names. Imperial now boasts a total of 59 researchers with the honour. Prof Jim Barber, 65, heads photosynthesis research in the Faculty of Biology, and gushed: “I feel very honoured to be elected to a Fellowship of the Royal Society. It is a reﬂection of the many excellent colleagues and students who have worked with me during my 37 years at Imperial and to whom I am deeply indebted.” Prof Luca Cardelli, 44, is recognised for his pioneering work on programming languages and is assistant director of Microsoft Research, Cambridge.
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NEWS & EVENTS
...and in other news NASA’s horoscope takes turn for the worst A RUSSIAN astrologer is starting court proceedings against NASA because she fears the Deep Impact mission to bombard the comet Tempel 1 would “disrupt the natural balance of the universe”. Mystic Marina Bai is suing for £165 million in damages because of the comet’s “sentimental value”. Her grandparents ﬁrst met when her grandfather pointed out Tempel 1 to his future wife. On July a NASA probe will smash into the Tempel 1 while another unit (the size of a washing machine) observes the cloud of debris produced to look at the comet’s composition. Bai’s lawyer released a statement saying: “My client believes that the NASA project infringes upon her spiritual and life values as well as the natural life of the cosmos and would disrupt the natural bal-
ance of forces in the universe.” Although a lower court initially threw out the case, the scientiﬁc basis of Bai’s argument has never been questioned. Instead it was thought that the Russian legal system had no jurisdiction over NASA, but Bai’s lawyer successfully argued in a higher court that the agency’s
Moscow oﬃce did fall under Russia’s jurisdiction. Despite being experts on the stars, it appears that NASA (a libra) did not read the possibility of legal action in the heavens. I, Science was unable to conﬁrm rumours that Daily Mail astrology Russell Grant is being head-hunted by the agency.
Scientists map sarcasm brain region: yeah right IN A BREAKTHROUGH that will assuredly change human life as we know it forever, Israeli scientists have mapped the ‘anatomy of sarcasm’. Astoundingly, it is a highly complicated business – the ability to comprehend sarcasm depends upon a carefully orchestrated sequence of complex activities in diﬀerent parts of the brain. The researchers discovered the brain region by testing people with brain injuries against control subjects. The method involved reading them stories that were either sarcastic or literal, such as: “Joe came to work and instead of beginning to work, he sat down to rest. His boss noticed and said, ‘Joe, don’t work too hard!’” To save I,Science readers from spending hours deciphering this complex literary construction, this is an example of a story subtly
How to gauge a security guard WORK AT Peter Freundlich’s eponymous research institute in New York City has provided a quick way to assess the likelihood of security guards “getting in your face” and questioning your activity. Freundlich gauges “gluteal hardness” (GH) – or the ability of guards to cause you grief – by looking at a number of “parameters of interest”. These include extent of uniform; visibility of scalp; width of belt; and belt accoutrements. A guard in full uniform or with less hair has a high GH rating and is more inclined to make trouble. Similarly, a wider than average belt (more than about an inch) is a sign of extreme GH – regardless of how the individual in question scores in any of the other areas. Belts three to four inches wide suggest past careers in the armed forces or professional wrestling. The number of items hanging from the belt is also directly proportional to
Go ahead punk, make his day the inclination to enforce rules. Comfort and walk are aﬀected by accoutrements; so the more uncomfortable the guard, the more likely you are to be made to suﬀer. The research is published in the May/June security special issue of Annals of Improbable Research (AIR). Freundlich is hopeful that the straightforward guidelines will provide a useful mechanism for people to quickly assess whether a particular uniformed private security guard is strolling over to say hello, or whether you are about to be crushed like rice cakes.
Lie down, get smart
A jellyﬁsh, yesterday imbued with sarcasm. The psychologists found that participants with damage to particular areas of the brain were unable to identify sarcastic stories. Thanks to this great leap forward, neuroscience has now pretty much wrapped up remaining questions about the human brain. Hopefully all research can be decommissioned within the next ﬁve years and neuroscientists will be retrained as something more useful, like cosmologists.
I, SCIENCE IS calling for students to be allowed to take exams from their beds after new research has shown people are smarter on their backs than on their feet. Research at the Australian National University has found that people solve anagrams more quickly lying down than standing up. Twenty subjects were asked to solve a series of ﬁve letter anagrams such as “osien” (noise) and “nodru” (round). The average time for solving the anagram lying down was 26.3 seconds, while standing the average was nearly 30 seconds. Anagrams are often solved in a moment of sudden awareness producing “A-ha!” or Eureka experiences similar to large-scale creative breakthroughs. The researchers say it could mean we have our most creative thoughts while ﬂat on our backs. The ﬁndings apparently relate to diﬀerences in brain chemistry. There may be less of the neurotransmitter, noradrenaline, released in the brain when
Welcome to the exam hall lying down. The researcher, Dr Lipnick, tried to downplay his results, saying the study was preliminary research and it would premature for “companies to rush out and buy beds for their conference rooms”. However, years of informal research by students clear up any ambiguity. It has been proven many times that staying ﬂat in bed is often a better academic option than attending lectures, where you are forced to sit upright. Reclining seats are surely a vital addition to the exam room, although the risk of falling asleep remains to be addressed.
I, science 5 3/6/05 6:01:02 am
NEWS & EVENTS
Watson’s controversial future
The Godfather of DNA, James Watson, was at the Dana Centre to propose a scientiﬁc approach to humanity. Kathryn Lougheed noted down the pros and cons.
OME OF the science that could improve people’s lives is proving controversial, raising serious ethical questions. But Nobel laureate James Watson doesn’t have much time for them. He believes science should be used to improve lives in any way possible. First up was genetically modiﬁed food and when questioned, Watson was unable to comprehend how anyone could object. Farmers have been genetically engineering crops for centuries by selecting and crossing those variants with desirable qualities. But when scientists delve into the DNA of plants to add characteristics not naturally present,
many people get worried. Greenpeace calls it “genetic pollution by commercial interests turning the world into a giant genetic experiment”. Much of the debate revolves around the possibility that genes from GM crops will recombine with existing bacteria or viruses to produce strains that threaten human health. In western countries where food is plentiful this is an easy position to take. But the billions of people starving in the world cannot aﬀord this choice. Watson used the example of ‘golden rice’, modiﬁed to produce vitamin A, to highlight the beneﬁts of GM foods. For the two billion for whom rice is the staple diet, GM rice may provide a considerable improvement to their lives. Many of Watson’s views seem to stem from an altruistic desire to make the world a better place. He believes that one way to do this is to genetically screen unborn foetuses for serious mental illnesses, preventing the birth of those with undesirable and unhealthy genes. There is no doubt that Watson’s passion for this topic is partly fuelled by the fact that his son suﬀers from a serious
mental disability. “Evolution is cruel in its consequences to the individual, many individuals. Many live diminished lives”, said Watson, asking why we would choose to accept the current misery when science has the potential to help.
Watson believes genetic modiﬁcation could make the human race better.
Much of the objection to screening embryos comes from those who believe that destroying those with genetic defects is equivalent to murder. Responding to critics who argue this kind of screening could deprive the world of many great people, including bipolar disorder suﬀerer Ernest Hemingway, Watson replied that he “would rather have no Hemingway than bipolar disorder”. This is perhaps a slightly oversimpliﬁed way of looking at it. One problem arises when screening for defective genes without a guaranteed ef-
fect. For example, those with the gene for Huntington’s disease will certainly develop the disease, while some genes predispose an individual to cancer but do not make all carriers ill. Where to draw the line, and who is responsible for this decision, are questions that require much thought. Watson does not want to stop at just treating disease but believes genetic modiﬁcation could be used to make the human race better, joking that “everyone knows that the Irish need improvement”. No stranger to controversy, Watson has in the past suggested stupidity is an inherited disease that should be cured, and that selection of female embryos with genes for attractiveness would be no bad thing. For many, this is dangerously close to the eugenic policies of the Nazis in their attempt to wipe out inferior races and improve mankind. While Watson may envisage science being used to help people, many would claim that this is a naïve view and that we cannot always trust scientists to make decisions in the best interest of humanity. ■
Is belief brain chemistry?
Robin Wilkinson went to the Royal Institution on 9 May to hear Susan Greenﬁeld and others mull over this delicate topic.
HERE ARE two positions when it comes to thinking about the mind, and they are diametrically opposed. Science states there cannot be a constant soul when our personalities are altered by changes in our brain from accident or disease. Religion states that science will never be able to fully deﬁne the mind – our immortal soul transcends squelchy grey matter. For Henry Marsh, a neurosurgeon, the idea of a soul is meaningless when confronted by the phenomenon of brain damage: something he is exposed to on a daily basis. If our morals and behaviour towards one another depend on the physical integrity of our brains, then our “moral core” dies with us. Even if the religious are shown to have diﬀerent brain
6 I, science News_and_Events.indd 4
scans from atheists, it will not tell us anything new or interesting: “The state of religious faith corresponds to a physical state in the believer’s brain… all thought is a dynamic electro-chemical process in the nerve cells”. In other words, if all thought is produced by our nerves’ chemical signalling, then religious thought is no more remarkable than any other; it is produced by exactly the same processes. But while, for Marsh, no form of religious faith is compatible with brain science, he does think the possibility that religious faith can beneﬁt health needs further exploration. Fragmentary evidence certainly exists. Just as economic status confers longevity, Marsh suggests religion may do the same, or perhaps lessen suﬀering. The problem is, how
to test this empirically – how do you quantify a belief? Philosopher John Cornwell provided an alternative view: “scientiﬁc enquiry, description and explanation face certain diﬃculties in encapsulating the realms of the imagination and consciousness”. Far from objecting to science scrutinising religion, he warns that scientiﬁc description cannot make sense of subjective states. For instance, someone may be an expert on the neurophysiology of colour perception, but if they are also colour-blind they can never fully experience the redness of a London bus. The ﬁnal speaker of the evening was high-proﬁle neuroscientist Susan Greenﬁeld. Not interested in whether science can prove or disprove the existence of an im-
mortal soul, she prefers to focus on the potential applications of the neuroscience of belief. “Beliefs have the power to make you feel churned up or excited or worried,” and they can even cause physiological reactions. Could comprehensive study of the neuroscience let us one day manipulate belief or treat pain using a particular belief? To investigate this questions and more, Greenﬁeld has welcomed new collaborators for her latest research at Oxford University. In the next year theologians and philosophers will also contribute to her experiments. Perhaps we will experience belief therapy within our lifetimes. ■
3/6/05 6:01:04 am
NEWS & EVENTS
Here at I, Science we take it upon ourselves to trawl the events calendars so you don’t have to. We’ve selected the brightest and best for the next few months. Enjoy! JUNE RI headline debate With a panel of leading scientists, journalists and politicians including Robin McKie (Observer Science Editor). 15 June, 7pm; Royal Institution; £8/£5 concessions; www.rigb.org
Astro black morphologies Join the creators of this multimedia exhibit, currently showing at the Dana Centre, to discuss astronomy and art. 16 June, 7 – 8.30pm; Dana
23 June, 7pm; Dana Centre; FREE, but book in advance; www.danacentre.org.uk
expert help). Visit the Dana Centre and get creative with your own brain art.
The right climate for business
30 June, 6.30 – 9pm; Dana Centre; FREE, but must be booked in advance; www.danacentre.org.uk
Ahead of the G8 Summit in July, hear the outgoing chairman of Shell discuss what plagues the business community when it comes to climate change action.
Centre; FREE, but must be booked in advance; www.danacentre.org.uk
29 June, 6.30pm; The Royal Society; FREE; www.royalsoc.ac.uk
The science of the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy
Multimedia fusion of live and recorded images and music. Part of the South Kensington Fête de la Musique. 21 June, 12.30 – 2pm; Dana Centre; FREE, no booking required
Neuroethics: the ethics of brain research Take part in a discussion with those at the leading edge of brain research.
Discover the hidden pearls of scientiﬁc fact in the much loved tale of talking mattresses, the Volgons and Ol’ Janx Spirit. 30 June, 7pm; Royal Institution; £8/£5 concessions; www.rigb.org
Art of the brain workshop Paints, clay and materials are provided (along with a little
JULY Summer Science Exhibition 2005 The best of the UK’s science and technology research is on show. Talk to the researchers who are behind the work. 4 – 7 July, various times; The Royal Society; FREE; www.royalsoc.ac.uk
The ballad of Lonesome George Hear how the giant tortoise from the Galapagos Islands illuminates the complex problem of how to save our endangered species. 12 July, 7pm; Royal Institution; £8/£5 concessions; www.rigb.org
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I, science 7 3/6/05 6:01:05 am
Twike around the block Zoë Corbyn takes a test-drive in a Twike, the world’s most eﬃcient motorised vehicle, and discovers why a pair of mechanical engineering students are hybridising it. “The Twike isn’t actually a car,” Imperial College mechanical engineering lecturer Michael Lamperth says, “it’s a tricycle”. And it is. Perhaps. We agree that ‘egg on motorcycle wheels’ would probably make a better description, as we adopt a reclining position in the capsule, secure the perspex window above us, fasten our seat belts and swing out into heavy London traﬃc... In September last year, Lamperth became the proud owner of only the second Twike to reach UK shores, though there is apparently now a third. Swiss made, the unusual thing about the Twike is that it is electric powered, though it can also come supplemented with pedals. While conventional cars need petrol, the Twike need only have its battery recharged, which means no fumes to clog our capital’s air. “I just plug it into the mains and I know that the energy mix is not really green in this country. If I was to charge it in Switzerland it is diﬀerent because there is lots of renewable energy there already. But nothing would stop you from having a solar charging station at home” says Lamperth, of the Twike’s green energy possibilities. Taxi drivers and tourists gawk as we drive through leafy Hyde Park. We will be photographed, Lamperth assures me as he operates the joystick steering control. We take a look at at the monitoring panel over the noise… hmmm…all looks good. Our battery voltage is 360 volts, we’re running at an optimal battery temperature of 36 ° C, cruising at about 40 km per hour and we’ve got about 68 km until we need to recharge... Of course, electric cars aren’t new. Commercial hybrid cars, like the Toyota Prius, have been on the market for some time.
Twikes themselves have been in production since 1996 and there are now about 1000 spread across the globe. There is even a ‘Twike Club’ for enthusiasts. New prototypes are currently in design, and the company has just moved to Germany. But the diﬀerent thing about a Twike is in its eﬃciency, ten times that of a conventional car. The Twike gets the equivalent of 142 km per litre compared to the 7 – 16 km that can be squeezed out of an ordinary car, or the 23 km that a Toyota Prius can manage. It is the most efﬁcient motorised vehicle around.
But the diﬀerent thing about the Twike is its eﬃciency, ten times that of a conventional car.
“A normal car has about 25% eﬃciency – so by ﬁlling your tank up you are actually throwing away three-quarters of the energy you have got in your petrol” Lamperth explains. “An electric vehicle hasn’t got this problem”. The eﬃciency of the Twike is enhanced by its futuristic regenerative braking system: because it is electric, the motor can be used as a generator and energy recouped while braking. About 30% of the energy that goes into the vehicle to accelerate can be put back into the batteries. There is also a conventional braking system, just in case. The Marble Arch roundabout looms. Three lanes of solid bus: and crikey we’re close to the ground. Now is not the time, but I blurt it
out: “So, have there been any accidents?” I’m not sure I like the answer. There was a fatal accident: a Twike squashed between two lorries. It had no chance. I hold my breath and let Lamperth navigate in peace. He eases us deftly into Park Lane. I ask whether Sports Utility Vehicles (SUVs) are any better at spotting Twikes than lorries. “Sports vehicles are a problem, because they are quite high up and quite heavy. Drivers are much more concerned about their safety than the safety of others. I’d agree with Ken’s verdict,” replies Lamperth. Mayor Ken Livingston last year famously dismissed SUV drivers as idiotic and considered levying them with their own congestion charge. It is a charge electric vehicles like Twikes are already exempt from and they also get free parking... But while Lamperth may have some fun occasionally driving his Twike to Imperial from his home in Woking, it has also turned out to be a useful teaching aide and project for a pair of third year mechanical engineering students. “I thought it was a great chance to bring it here for students to work with, to get a feel for the technology available, what could be done and to have a chance to hybridise it, which will improve the range. This is one of the problems with electric vehicles – that you have a limited range. You can’t travel too far before they need recharging.” So, under Lamperth’s guidance, students James Skelton and Giles Smith are hybridising the Twike: putting in another power source to enable the batteries to be triple charged. Rather than around 65 km per charge, the new range will be closer to 200 km. “For our project we selected an internal combustion engine and we’re connecting that to a generator and will use the power from that to charge the batteries” says Skelton. Smith is working on the electronic control system: “The output from the generator is AC current and the battery is DC current so we need to rectify this so it is all DC current and then amplify it so it is the right voltage” he explains. Of course, says Lamperth, you could argue that you don’t need to hybridise the Twike at all because the best use of it is for short trips – shopping and school runs. But he doesn’t buy it – he thinks it is good to have the option to go a bit further. And then soon we are back at Imperial, the mini Twike adventure over. Though not before being photographed outside Harvey Nichols: clearly too fashionable to be ignored. “I’ve never been photographed so much as driving the Twike through town and then people come and talk to you and you can explain to them about the eﬃciency,” says Lamperth. “It is a way of showing what is actually possible and not just talking about it, it is a forerunner of what is to come.” You can occasionally see the Twike parked near the Queen’s Tower. Look out for a pair of busy mechanical engineering students too. ■
Twike’s vital statistics
Lecturer Michael Lamperth with Giles Smith (left), James Skelton (right) in the Twike
8 I, science Features.indd 10
• Weight: 100kg (excluding batteries) • Weight of batteries: 200kg (nickelcadmium) • Maximum speed: 95 km per hour • Distance per charge: 65 km • Cost: £12,000 - £13,000 (largely the batteries) • Material: aluminium frame with a plastic hull
3/6/05 5:49:58 am
Drinking to your health Nino Mancino looks at the beneﬁts and disadvantages of many students’ favourite pastime.
HERE’S BEEN an awful lot debated about the British drinking culture recently. The discussion provokes ﬁerce, often hysterical rhetoric on all sides. But as a scientist and drinker I want to get to the heart of the matter; is alcohol intrinsically bad, or does it provide any kind of health beneﬁt? The truth is we use an impressive mechanism for processing alcohol. When not overworked our bodies cope perfectly well and ethanol, the main alcoholic component, is removed successfully with no bad side-eﬀects. In fact, research suggests alcoholic drinks used in moderation can do us a surprising amount of good. Beer for example is full of important B-vitamins and minerals necessary for a healthy diet. It also contains a range of biologically active substances called ‘phytochemicals’, including phyto-oestrogen, which is closely related to the female hormone oestrogen. In combination these chemicals increase the metabolism of LDL-cholesterol and fats in general, resulting in reduced risk of heart and circulatory diseases. It is also a fortunate quirk of nature that
the antioxidant molecule quercitin resides in the skin of red grapes. Luckily for us all that means that drinking a glass of red wine a day reduces the threat of heart disease. In fact diabetics, who are at a high risk of coronary problems, are being increasingly advised to include sensible alcohol intake as part of a healthy diet. The big caveat is that we only derive the health beneﬁts when we don’t over do it. Excess alcohol causes a range of nasty short and long-term ill-eﬀects. Perhaps the most infamous of these is liver cirrhosis. High alcohol-blood levels take a huge toll on the liver, weakening the organ as liver cells become swollen with fat and water. This disease is particularly damaging because the liver is one of our most vital organs. To make matters worse liver cirrhosis often adversely aﬀects other nearby organs and blood ﬂow. The condition is irreversible and often the only cure is a liver transplant. On a less severe note, the most obvious short-term eﬀect of alcohol abuse is the dreaded hangover. Excess ethanol stops the production of a diuretic hormone called vasopressin, causing the kidneys to send water to the bladder, rather than retaining
Does anyone fancy a pint? it. The body compensates by taking water from wherever it can, including the brain. That awful morning-after feeling is due to your shrunken brain rattling around inside your skull. Ouch. On balance, alcohol is just another substance, like food, that when abused causes us harm. Perhaps, we should take a leaf out of the Continentals book, who get less hung-up over alcohol than we do, and they generally live longer. So those preaching tea-totalism should loosen up; having a pint on a balmy summer’s night will make you feel better. At the same time, best not to drink like a ﬁsh: or else you’ll end up at ﬁfty with a ruined liver (assuming you get to ﬁfty). In the meantime, I’m oﬀ to Southside bar while I still can. Cheers. ■
Introducing new ‘alco-laws’ From November 2005 the Licensing Act 2003 will allow pubs and bars to extend serving hours.
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I, science 9 3/6/05 5:50:00 am
FEATURES tal fears are largely a myth. The story that the environment is in poor shape and doomsday is nigh has been over-hyped. In reality, our woes are not all that bad: we over-worry about some issues and have been paralysed by green groups and the media from sensibly prioritising the real problems. Since the book, Lomborg, 40, has been on a roll. In December 2003, a highly publicised run-in with the Danish Committee on
The Lomborgian guide to doing good in the world Controversial and outspoken Danish statistician Bjørn Lomborg is an environmentalist’s worst nightmare. Zoë Corbyn and Darius Nikbin joined him as he prepared for a debate with climate change campaigner Mark Lynas to ﬁnd out about his latest project and what life on planet Lomborg is really like.
E’RE BACKSTAGE at the Dana Centre in South Kensington. A bowl of lurid looking pesto pasta arrives and Bjørn Lomborg tucks in. He is fuelling up for the imminent debate with environmentalist Mark Lynas. Lomborg’s point, as he devours green mouthfuls of spaghetti, sounds simple enough: we have got to prioritise our global problems and climate change is not our top priority. When Lomborg’s book, The Skeptical Environmentalist, was published in 2001 it was like a red rag to the green movement’s bull. Lomborg, once a passionate shade of rainforest green, sought solstice on the other side of the argument. But while cries of “charlatan” and “parasite” rang out from environmentalists, the book also canonised him as a darling of the American right. He became intellectual muscle for the United States’ ﬂat rejection of the Kyoto Protocol on greenhouse emissions. The assertion that has won Lomborg both fan and hate mail is seductive in its simplicity. He claims the world’s worst environmen-
10 I, science Features.indd 2
He claims the world’s worst environmental fears are largely a myth.
Scientiﬁc Dishonesty was resolved ﬁrmly in his favour. In April 2004, he was awarded a Time Magazine accolade as one of the world’s ‘100 most inﬂuential people’. Come November 2004, he was named Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum. And now Lomborg has completed his prioritisation project. He is about to spill the beans on just why Kyoto is a bad way to help the world (although it must be emphasised he does not deny global warming is occurring). Prioritising the world’s problems The Copenhagen Consensus 2004 project is his masterplan: four easy steps to solve the world’s problems. Start by assembling a collection of the world’s top economists (throwing in a few Nobel Laureates for good measure). Provide them with ten ‘great global challenges’ and their proposed solutions. Have them do a cost-beneﬁt analysis to work out which solutions provide the most good for the lowest cost. Rank the results and implement accordingly. “The amazing thing about the world is that we can do almost anything – only we can’t do it all. So it is really a question of saying we need to have a focus, put up the priorities,” he enthuses. And the outcome? As Lomborg explains, the panel’s top four priorities (the “very good projects”) were: preventing HIV/AIDS, preventing hunger and malnutrition, trade liberalization to boost economic growth, and action on malaria – ranked in that order. Climate change was relegated to the bottom of the table, ﬁfth division. It is a “bad project” because the solution on oﬀer, the Kyoto Protocol, achieves only a little good at a high cost – it uses resources ineﬃciently and would make very little diﬀerence. Other problems such as biodiversity collapse and global pollution didn’t even rate a mention. “My point on climate change is that the money we spend on it will do good. But we could do so much more good with the money if we spent it elsewhere. We have a moral obligation to make sure we do a lot of good with the money rather than a little good. If we can’t do everything then we really have to ask the question: ‘what should we do ﬁrst?’” And this is the key for the ‘sceptical environmentalist’: it is not just a question of economics, but of morality. He sees Kyoto not only as economically ineﬃcient, but as a moral choice that means ‘good projects’ get neglected. So this is his mission: formulating
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FEATURES The experts’ world priority list But have they got it right? TOP 5: ‘VERY GOOD’ PROJECTS 1 Diseases: Controlling HIV/AIDS 2 Malnutrition: Providing micronutrients 3 Subsidies and trade barriers: Trade liberalisation 4 Diseases: Control of malaria 5 Malnutrition: Developing new agricultural technologies to feed the world Further down the list... ‘BAD’ PROJECTS 15 Climate: Optimal carbon tax 16 Climate: The Kyoto Protocol 17 Climate: Value at risk carbon tax Taken from www.copenhagenconcensus.com
The $150 billion dollar question being posed by Bjørn Lomborg. policies that address real world priorities. Lomborg has his own take on the costs. He sees sticking to Kyoto as costing upwards of $150 billion a year, every year throughout the 21st century; but resulting in a slow-down in global warming by 2100 of only about six years. He contrasts this with a one-oﬀ investment of $27 billion which would prevent 28 million people from dying of HIV/AIDS over the next ten years, or the UN ﬁgure of $75 billion per year to provide basic poverty relief for the whole of the third world. “So I am simply asking – should we do a little good for $150 billion or should we do an amazing amount of good for half that amount. It is not to say that we shouldn’t do all of it – but we don’t have the money or at least we don’t seem politically willing to spend it all on all good things. Global climate change is just simply not our ﬁrst priority.” It is a powerful thesis, but can we really afford to glibly relegate global warming in this way? How much is the polar bear worth? Enter Mark Lynas: a journalist and commentator carving a niche for himself in the heady world of climate change crisis literature, and one of Lomborg’s strongest critics. If the Skeptical Environmentalist is the Koran for those who want Kyoto binned, to the likes of Lynas, Lomborg’s writings are more like the Satanic Verses. The way things are going it’s only a matter of time before James Lovelock passes a fatwa on Lomborg. “It is almost as if we are living on diﬀerent planets,” says Lynas, of a world-view he acknowledges is completely irreconcilable with Lomborg’s. “On Bjørn’s planet the single remaining religion is that of economics and it is a faith-based belief system which holds that all of the planetary resources are interchangeable and are divisible by the currency.” For Lynas, humans are part of a complex web of life, all of which is interacting and is interdependent. The Earth, or Gaia as he calls it, is a self-regulating biosphere and human activity has disrupted its equilibrium. In particular, Lynas points to the ecosystem services that the environment provides. “To get food on the table, crops have to be pollinated in the ﬁeld by insects. To get clean
water it has to be drained and ﬁltered through wetlands… the whole system is extremely complex and impossible to moneterise”. Lomborg-style cost-beneﬁt analyses, work-
...to the likes of Lynas, Lomborg’s writings are more like the Satanic Verses.
ing out the value to humanity of whether a species is worth saving, simply can’t be done in a system so full of uncertainties. “How much can you quantify? How much is a polar bear species worth? Say the polar bear is to go extinct by 2030 because the polar ice cap melts, how much money is that worth?”, asks Lynas as he argues climate change extinction is serious both in itself and because ultimately it will aﬀect humans in all
sorts of ways we don’t fully understand. But Lynas’ climate change concerns are not limited to polar bears (which incidentally are not about to be extinguished), and he too speaks of priorities. For Lynas, a stable climate is one of the prerequisites for solving global poverty problems “I also want to avoid seeing 100 million refugees from the Bangladesh plains due to sea-level rise and an increase in ﬂooding, so global warming is the ﬁrst of their problems.” He also questions why, in the Lomborgian guide to doing ‘good’, global warming relief is traded oﬀ against poverty reduction when there are other pots of money like military spending which could be tapped. It is only slightly harder to imagine drawing from these than it is to imagine dedicated climate change funds going to HIV/AIDS. Back on planet Lomborg, doing ‘good’ seems to mean sacriﬁcing polar bears, butterﬂies and any other species that may die out as a result of global warming. The problems are looking as tangled as a bowl of green spaghetti. ■
Best of enemies: sceptical environmentalist Lomborg (left) and Gaia theorist Lynas debate climate change.
I, science 11 3/6/05 5:46:19 am
Bugs in the gut The pharmaceuticals industry has been ignoring a vital aspect of human health, that of our relationship with symbiotic bacteria in our bodies. Rosie Taylor looks at how friendly microbes in the gut are.
OST OF our drugs don’t work in most patients,” Allen Roses, a senior executive from GlaxoSmithKline, announces unashamedly at a London conference. This could be a quick way to a self-induced sacking, except this is not the revelation of a close-held industry secret, but common knowledge among drug developers and doctors. Current thinking suggests this eﬀect is due to the genetic diﬀerences between patients, meaning an identical dose of the same medicine might be perfectly eﬀective in some people, but ineﬀective or even toxic in others. This has led drug companies to investigate “personalised medicine” tailored to groups of people with a similar genetic makeup. However, work at Imperial College, headed by Professor Jeremy Nicholson, challenges this thinking, potentially throwing pharmaceutical giants into a spin with ﬁndings that could alter the current model of drug development, provide a new role for the food industry, and lead to a redesign of animal testing. “We found a stack of evidence that gut micro-organisms change drug metabolism fundamentally,” says Nicholson. Each one of us has up to 2kg of symbiotic bacteria in our gut. We have more bacterial cells in the gut than human cells in the rest of the body. “People have diﬀerent genetics, but they’ve also got diﬀerent gut microbes,” explains Nicholson, “and there’s a complex interaction between them that determines whether or not a drug works.” In Nicholson’s view, this means drugs companies looking at pharma-
12 I, science Features.indd 4
cogenetics, genetically-tailored drugs, have only half the story, “because what’s important is the interaction of your particular genetic variation with the sorts of bugs you’ve got.” Personalised medicine means the business model of the pharmaceutical industry will have to change. The pharmaceutical industry is built on the system of creating a small number of drugs which earn them billions of dollars a year. But personalised medicine means a drug can’t be used on the whole population, and the inﬂuence of gut microbes adds further complexity to the situation. That means pharmaceutical companies will have smaller sales of each drug. But will they be able to aﬀord the investment required for the research and development of new products if they don’t have billion dollar drugs at the end of it?
What’s important is the interaction of your particular genetic variation with the sorts of bugs you’ve got.
Nicholson believes his work has implications that could actually make drug development cheaper, a suggestion that has already attracted the interest of drug companies such as Astra Zenica & Pﬁzer. Diﬀerent animal species have diﬀerent gut microbes. This could explain why test results on drugs sometimes vary between laboratories and between species. “If drug metabolism is inﬂuenced by gut microbes, then you don’t know whether it’s really a diﬀerence between species or between their bugs,” explains Nicholson. In order for a drug to be cleared for human trials, there must be homogenous results on toxicology and metabolism between species. But if diﬀerences in results occur due to diﬀerences in animals’ gut microbes, then these diﬀerences are irrelevant to what happens in man. In the future it may be possible for drug tests to use only animals that share the same gut ﬂora as humans. Tests would then use far fewer animals, and the results would be
much more predictive of what would happen in humans. This would shorten the drug development process, meaning that drug companies could aﬀord to develop personalised drugs to be used in a minority of patients. But it’s not only drug development where gut bugs are important. Nicholson also believes the rise of many widespread modern diseases, such as diabetes and obesity, are inﬂuenced by our gut ﬂora. “We’ve done lots of things over the last 50 years that have really messed up the symbiotic relationship we have with our gut bacteria, for example our antibiotic use.” Of course, antibiotics not only kill the nasty bacteria for which they’re prescribed, but also kill friendly gut bacteria. As Nicholson puts it: “We have done an experiment on the human population that we didn’t know we were doing…we can’t go back to the bugs we had 50 years ago.” Although no conclusive link has been shown so far, Nicholson notes that these diseases, and others such as autism, schizophrenia and motor neurone disease, are all modern diseases which are associated with countries that have high antibiotic use. There is also evidence that colon cancer associated with the presence of carcinogen producing microbes in the gut. It is not just antibiotics that inﬂuence gut micro ﬂora, diet is also important. Diﬀerent microbes are selected according to the available energy source, so what we eat determines which of them thrive. Since both nutrition and drugs act on the microbes, future scenarios might involve assessment of a patient’s gut bacteria, and use of a “primer” food to change its composition to ensure the drug prescribed will work. If the bugs in your gut could be retrained or redesigned, some of the problems of variation could be overcome. “This is a very ambitious and speculative scenario, and one that would aﬀect not just the pharmaceutical industry, but huge areas of the food industry too,” says Nicholson. Whichever path is eventually taken, whether food companies develop functional foods that can genuinely reselect certain bacteria, or whether drug companies change their methods to allow for more personalised drugs, the paradigm of prescribing drugs for the majority, knowing they’ll only work in a minority may be set to shift. ■
3/6/05 11:35:29 am
Basant K Puri
Naturally treating depression Iain Taylor talks to the Imperial researcher about using dietary supplements to beat depression. Depression is considered a Western illness: 19 million Americans suffer from depression each year. Does it occur in developing countries? Very much so. There are countries in subSaharan Africa where the rate of HIV infection is approaching 25% of the population, and I can assure you one of the symptoms is depression. It’s much higher in these countries than it is in Britain. But the rate that depression occurs does seem to vary. An American researcher, Joseph Hibbeln, looked for a relationship between the prevalence of major depression and the apparent intake of oily ﬁsh in these countries. He found a clear negative correlation between the two: the higher the amount of oily ﬁsh eaten, the lower the rate of depression. Does this suggest there isn’t a genetic component to depression? It doesn’t rule it out. I think there is a genetic component, but we must factor in the environment far more than it has been hitherto. When people migrate and change their diets you see diﬀerences. One of your books is titled A Natural Way to Beat Depression. What’s wrong with antidepressant drugs? You should look up the side-eﬀects in the British National Formulary. The ﬁrst antidepressants discovered were the monoamine oxidase inhibitors, which are so dangerous you can’t allow people on them to eat cheese; if they do, their blood pressure goes through the roof and they can die. The newest anti-depressants are the selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitors, and include Prozac. These drugs have a range of side eﬀects, and seem to predispose people to become more depressed when you change the dose upwards or downwards. I would use any drug that worked, but only if it was clean and without side-eﬀects. I give my patients pure EPA combined with virgin primrose oil. What is EPA and how does it work? EPA is an Omega-3 fatty acid. It’s found in algae, ﬁsh and certain milk. It’s a pivotal fatty acid and a precursor to a couple of Omega-6 fatty acids, which in turn make up precursors to other important compounds. They have absolutely vital functions in
maintaining health. I have access to MRI spectroscopy techniques here, and when we’ve done work on depression and treated people with pure EPAs, not only do the patients get better clinically, but we see the brain changing in structure.
The higher the amount of oily ﬁsh eaten, the lower the rate of depression.
Physically? Physically, it’s amazing. As an undergraduate I was taught that after synaptic pruning at infancy that’s it, there’s only one direction the brain cells go and that’s downwards. We’ve discovered that by giving people pure EPAs, the opposite process occurs and there’s re-growth of grey and white matter in the brain. We have a sophisticated way of
looking for subtle changes in brain structure over time, and it shows that the eﬀect starts soon after taking these supplements. Are fish oils very high in these EPAs? I think ﬁsh oil should be avoided. Sadly, while being rich in EPA, it can also be rich in pollutants – in particular heavy metals
like mercury. Because ﬁsh are high up in the food pyramid, they contain a 1000-fold concentration of these pollutants compared to the sea. Fish oils tend to be derived from the liver, as in cod liver oil, or it comes from holding the ﬁsh up and collecting the gunge that comes out the back passage…It will contain some of the garbage the ﬁsh is trying to get rid of. Also, oily ﬁsh in particular are rich in DHA – another omega-3 fatty acid. There’s evidence that by taking DHA in supplement form, you can overdose on it. Excess DHA can readily turn into free radicals that can damage DNA. And there’s the vitamin A problem: to get therapeutic doses of EPA, it would take so much ﬁsh oil that there’s a risk of becoming toxic from too much vitamin A. Are you concerned that herbalist treatments are not regulated properly? Not just the products, but perhaps more importantly the people peddling them. I’m particularly worried about so-called “nutritionists” who use mega-doses of vitamin A because I regularly get patients suﬀering from the stigmata of liver disease caused by overdoses of it. There’s a famous British nutritionist who regularly appears on television and routinely prescribes patients products that contain DHA despite its potential carcinogenic side-eﬀects, and mega-doses of vitamin A. I looked up his qualiﬁcations and it turns out he has a diploma from a nutritional institute that he founded himself, having done no human nutrition, biochemistry or medicine at degree level. The public are uninformed. They go with the latest hype, and the companies don’t tell them the risks. We should be careful with these substances: just because something’s natural doesn’t mean it is good for you. Deadly nightshade is natural. Have you had any personal experience of depression or the other illnesses you study? No, I use myself as the gold standard! Although a colleague here laughs that our schizophrenia imaging results don’t agree with those of other groups. She wonders whether it’s because we’re using my brain as the control. I’m in two minds about whether that’s a joke on her part.
13 3/6/05 5:53:07 am
Sir Magdi Yacoub
At the cutting edge of surgery
Professor Sir Magdi Yacoub is a pioneer in the ﬁeld of heart and lung transplantation. He has performed more transplants than anybody else in the world. Jenny Jopson talked to him about his career, charity work and views on the future of surgery. What inspired you to pursue a medical career? My father was a surgeon and as a little boy, I watched him and thought what he did was wonderful. Then his younger sister died aged 22 because of a cardiac valve problem, and that really broke his heart. I found out that her condition was avoidable, that there was heart surgery being developed that could have widened the valve and saved her life. This made me decide to be a heart surgeon, so I could help prevent this type of disaster. My father thought this was ridiculous, partly because the surgical procedures involved were very diﬃcult, and partly because he thought I was not equipped to do it. He considered me a bit disorganised and not determined enough, but I was only ﬁve or six at the time! I stuck with my decision, and the rest is history. My father travelled around, having to move every few years because of his job. It was hard for me because I had to leave friends every time we moved to another little town. But it proved to be a great advantage; I learnt that travelling and meeting new people was a great thing, and it has probably helped me in my career.
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At what point did you decide to come to Britain? Before ﬁnishing medical school in Cairo, I used to travel to England because of the great heart surgery happening there – I used to visit a lot to try to learn. I graduated and worked as a house oﬃcer in Egypt, then came to England with a view to specialising in heart surgery. I went to the USA for a short period, then came back to Britain where I have been ever since. What might a typical day involve? I wake up around 4.30am or 5am in the morning. I have an indoor swimming pool at my home in Ealing, and there I read the surgical journals, as well as Nature and Science. By eight o’clock, I head to the Hareﬁeld science centre, which is part of Imperial College. I spend the day talking to researchers, taking lectures and seminars, writing papers and planning trips. I still perform surgery, mostly privately, although I sometimes help colleagues in the NHS when there is an operation I have done many times or a technique that I helped to develop. I give undergraduate lectures at Imperial, but not as often as I would like. I enjoy it tremendously, I ﬁnd that the young students are very sharp and I love interacting with them.
My father thought I was disorganised and not determined enough, but I was only ﬁve or six.
What’s your advice for someone pursuing a medical career? It would be to enjoy what you are doing, and to do what you enjoy most. To be doing medicine is such a fantastic privilege, and you should recognise that. It is important to listen to advice, but also to do what you think is right. One of my mentors, Lord Brock, used to say that advice is very cheap, so listen to it all, but ulti-
3/6/05 5:52:21 am
INTERVIEW mately you have to make up your own mind. Many times people have told me that something was impossible, but after listening to them – because they certainly knew more than I did at the time – and much thought, I still decided to go ahead and prove that it was the right thing for me.
am just doing my job, and I try to tell them that repeatedly. They still think what I do is extraordinary, but it isn’t, because as it happens, I was privileged and many other people had to suﬀer for me to learn and get where I am. Now I am just paying it back. So why should I be special?
You founded the Chain of Hope charity, which flies specialists to Egypt to treat children with heart disease who would otherwise be unable to get medical help. What inspired you to set it up? I grew up in a developing country and saw a lot of suﬀering. As a house oﬃcer in Egypt, I used to see children dying of heart failure due to valve disease and other correctible disorders. Later in my career I realised that medicine has learnt many things, and I felt it was important to pay that back to people who are suﬀering. Medicine today is not regional, it is global. Yes, we have a responsibility to people living immediately around us, but we have a wider responsibility globally, and we can do it together. I used to go out on my own as a young consultant, but then I found that forming a team organisation including nurses and technicians is much more eﬀective. If you go somewhere and perform operations alone, the children survive, but you may hear that after you left they all died through lack of aftercare. So now we have a commitment, and go as a team and provide a continuous service. We can perform 15 to 20 operations a week, and following this, the nurses and intensives will not leave until the last child has recovered and left hospital. Everyone who takes part in the Chain of Hope missions works as an unpaid volunteer. It is a fantastic sensation, one of the best things you can experience in life.
...many other people had to suﬀer for me to get where I am, and now I’m just paying it back.
Why is the need for the charity so great? There are doctors and institutions in Egypt, but they are concentrated mostly in Cairo. Many people in remote areas, upper Egypt for example, cannot access them. The government tries, but it is overstretched. There is a type of national health service, but it just can’t cope. I understand Chain of Hope also flies children to Britain to receive surgery. We bring two to four patients a month to Britain from Egypt, Mozambique, Ethiopia, everywhere. We have interests not only in the Chain of Hope, but also in our two evolving sister charities. One is in Mozambique researching neglected diseases like endomyocardial ﬁbrosis, a type of heart failure that aﬀects up to 15% of the local kids. We also provide support for scientists there to come to Imperial to do their PhDs. So there’s an exchange of ideas as well as an outreach mission: it ensures that the latest research is distributed. You’re regarded as almost a deity by the children you treat and their parents. How do you feel about your celebrity status? They are very kind, loving people. I appreciate their warmth of feeling, and try to reciprocate it as much as possible. One of the biggest threats is that you start to think you are great, but nobody is great. I
It must be difficult deciding who receives a transplant organ. Is this dilemma something that you come across in your work? Absolutely, it’s one of the most diﬃcult things. A transplant organ will usually ﬁt more than one person, but what do you do? Do you give it to a young person, or a 40something father of four? It becomes really diﬃcult, and we try hard to use medical rather than emotional criteria, generally based on the age of the patient.
Sir Magdi key dates 1935 Magdi Habib Yacoub born in Cairo 1957 Qualified as a doctor at Cairo University 1969 Takes up post in Britain as a consultant surgeon in Harefield hospital 1992 Knighted by Queen Elizabeth II 2002 Selected as Special Envoy to the NHS by MP Alan Milburn to spearhead a goverment recruitment drive for overseas doctors
What do you anticipate will be the most significant advance in heart surgery in the future? I should think the use of basic science – that is why we have this research institute. I’m really proud to be a member of Imperial, and proud that we can apply this translation of research to heart surgery, to prevention, to improving results. People entering medicine today will have an exciting time applying all this knowledge to patient care. Do you think developments in stem cell technology will revolutionise heart surgery? Absolutely. However, I’m mindful of the massive amount of hype raising expectations beyond what is currently possible. I have lots of patients who ask me why they must have a transplant because they’ve heard that this can be done with stem cells. That’s the kind of thing that can be really dangerous, because transplantation has been a wonderful method and should continue. Stem cell research should be complementary. It might take over completely in the long term, but not yet – it’s still very early days. Do you miss Egypt? Yes, but I go back and visit with the Chain of Hope missions maybe ﬁve or six times a year. I don’t really think of Egypt as home nowadays. It is my place of birth, but all around the world, I feel I belong to all the places I have visited. More information about Chain of Hope can be found at www. chainofhope.org
3/6/05 5:52:22 am
Fighting polio The battle to eradicate this paralysing disease is not yet won. Alison Conboy reports on the campaign.
T’S NOT OFTEN that the philanthropists of the Rotary Club ﬁnd themselves aligned with Columbian guerrillas. But so committed is the World Health Organisation (WHO) to rid the world of polio, that it has enlisted help from all quarters. Armed with over three billion US dollars from Rotary International and other donors, leaders of the Global Polio Eradication Initiative have realised it takes more than money to drive a disease from the planet. From manipulating local sources of power (enter the guerrillas) to pausing ﬁghting in war zones, health workers have played a complex game to reach and vaccinate every possible child. Now, as the British government pledges ﬁve million pounds more to the eﬀort, experts say that if we don’t eliminate the disease this year, we never will. Banished from the UK in the 1970s, the paralysing virus, which spreads in contaminated water, takes hold in areas where sanitation is poorest. In 1988 the WHO’s World Health Assembly decided to wipe it out forever. Only once before has such a feat been acheived, when smallpox was banished in 1979. But polio is a good target. In the ﬁfties, Alfred Sabin developed an oral vaccine from a weakened strain. It is cheap to produce and easily administered as a drop on a child’s tongue. In a series of large scale national immunisation days, the WHO attempted to swamp all infected countries with so much vaccine that the virus has nowhere to hide. If the tactics sound simple, implementing them is anything but. “It’s a logistical nightmare” says Dr Phil Minor, who leads the polio team at the National Institute for Biological Standards and Control. “You have to get the vaccine supplied and tested. You then have to ship it to the country, distribute it to the point of use and get people to give it.” 2005 will see the strongest eﬀort to date. If the campaign fails this year, the WHO accepts its target may never be achieved. “It’s ﬁnancial,” says Minor. When campaigners raise money, they ask donors to ﬁnance one last push. But the previous ‘last push’ didn’t deliver, and people are losing faith. The WHO is struggling to persuade countries, where the virus has been eliminated, to keep vaccinating to ensure people aren’t re-infected. If the campaign fails now, it would not
16 I, science Features.indd 14
be the ﬁrst time. When the initiative was launched, the target date for completion was 2000 - aiming to give children ‘the gift of a new millennium free of polio’. As 1999 progressed, it became clear that this would not happen. Though over 99% of the disease had been eliminated, around 3000 cases remained. Minor recalls a WHO conference in Geneva that year, where dour-faced delegates sat in the shadow of the impossible target date projected in gigantic numerals onto the wall: “It was so sad. It was up on the screen: ‘the end of polio, one hundred and ninety nine days to go’. And the next day: ‘one hundred and ninety eight days’. They were all sitting around looking glum and ignoring the achievements they had made so far.”
...they persuaded ﬁghting troops to rest while volunteers administered the vaccine.
And these achievements are remarkable. Today polio is common in only six countries, compared to over a hundred when the initiative began. So persistent are the initiative co-ordinators that in war-torn Afghanistan and Sudan, they persuaded ﬁghting troops to take a day’s rest while volunteers swooped in and administered the vaccine. Ironically, the campaigners’ persistence may have worked against them. In 2003 in northern Nigeria, an area plagued by HIV, malaria and TB, Muslim oﬃcials became suspicious that aid workers were prioritising polio. Rumours began to circulate that the US government had impregnated the vaccine with sterilising hormones to reduce Africa’s population. Three Nigerian states cancelled inoculation campaigns and the incidence of the disease rocketed. The epidemic spread into nine countries that had allowed vaccination to lapse after being declared polio free. A year later, the campaign was back on track, mainly due to quick action from WHO polio co-ordinator David Heymann. He worked with oﬃcials from the three states to ﬁnd an acceptable alternative, an Indone-
sian source of the vaccine endorsed by the Organisation of the Islamic Conference. The incident showed that vaccination campaigns must be ﬂexible to work in diﬀerent cultures. It is in the interest of the Western donors to make sure this happens; more than just well intentioned charity, eradication it is the most cost eﬀective form of disease control. While the virus persists in some parts of the world, European and American governments continue to vaccinate their own citizens to protect against imported cases. If the campaign succeeds, they can stop this, saving up to a million pounds a year. So will they manage it? The truth is, noone knows. With the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation backing a new form of the oral vaccine, the WHO is hopeful. Others are less so, most notably D. A. Henderson, the man responsible for eradicating smallpox. Researchers have realised that the endgame is more complex than Sabin envisaged when he developed the vaccine. In a few cases, the weakened form of virus in the inoculation has mutated into a dangerous strain, causing outbreaks of vaccine-derived poliovirus. In Britain, this prompted the NHS to reject Sabin’s oral vaccine in favour of that of his rival Jonas Salk, which contains no live virus. Salk’s vaccine is given by injection by a health professional, so many experts doubt it will work on a worldwide scale. As a result, the WHO plan is sticking with the oral vaccine. When all children in an area are vaccinated, the isolated cases of vaccine-derived polio cannot spread. It becomes a problem when vaccinated children pass the virus to unvaccinated friends and siblings. This is most likely where governments of polio free countries have let vaccination dwindle, and is a real threat as more countries are declared polio free. To prevent this, once the world is declared polio free, three years after the last case is documented, the WHO plans to halt vaccination, to minimise the extent to which vaccinated and non-vaccinated children mix. The campaigners will recall any circulating vaccine, dismantle and clean the factories where it is made, and step up surveillance for possible recurrences. The WHO has plans in place to cope with a polio-free world. Whether or not they’ll be needed remains to be seen. ■
3/6/05 5:50:42 am
BDERA, a leading Greek city on the northern coast of the Aegean Sea, 400BC: a young philosopher, Democritus, becomes the ﬁrst to propose that all matter in the universe consists of tiny, indivisible particles. Over 2000 years later, we are wedded to a not dissimilar idea, but now we can actually observe and characterise the behaviour of the particles we believe make up matter. Physicists have generated a highly successful model that describes all of the indivisible particles that make up the universe. This is the Standard Model, and we are on the brink of testing it, perhaps to destruction. In 2007 a worldwide team of 2000 scientists from institutions in 37 countries are set to begin a series of experiments in Geneva that could complete the task of ﬁnding and characterising all of the particles predicted by the Standard Model. As successful as it has been, not all of its predictions have been veriﬁed; the fundamental particle responsible for giving all other particles mass, known as the ‘Higgs boson’, has yet to be detected. It has never been possible before, but some people are beginning to ask, what happens if we don’t ﬁnd it? And what if other important predictions of the model are not veriﬁed?
In search of the God particle The theories at the heart of modern physics will soon be tested in a huge circular tunnel under Geneva. Anushri Patel ﬁnds out what happens if the Higgs boson, known also as the God particle, is not found, and how Imperial College is contributing to the search.
Enter Imperial If the Standard Model turns out to be wrong, new models would be needed to ﬁll the void. According to Professor Virdee of the High Energy Physics (HEP) group at Imperial, this could “completely change our perception of how nature operates at the fundamental level.” Virdee’s group, comprising about 25 people, is speciﬁcally involved with two – CMS and LHCb – of the ﬁve major experiments looking for particles predicted by the Standard Model, including the Higgs boson.
The standard model describes the universe. We are on the brink of testing it, perhaps to destruction.
Based at CERN, the European Organisation for Nuclear Research, these experiments will take place in the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) currently being built in a huge circular tunnel, 100 metres below the Earth’s surface. The vital statistics of the LHC project are impressive. According to the head of the project, Lyn Evans, it will be the “biggest scientiﬁc project ever undertaken in Europe.” Costing an astronomical £1 billion, the LHC will be the world’s largest particle accelerator, generating a whopping 50 terabytes of data per second, as much as the entire European telecommunications network. Continuing their tradition of innovation in computer networking (they invented the world wide web), CERN are now developing a specially designed computer network for sharing computer power and data storage – the Grid. Scientists all over the world
will use it to analyse the experimental data but the Grid will go well beyond simple communication between two computers. Its ultimate aim is to turn the global network of computers into one vast computational resource. All computers linked to the Grid will work together on the huge datasets the LHC provides. Size and computing power aside, the LHC will be breaking many more records. Keeping the super-fast particle beams on target will require stronger magnetic ﬁelds than have ever been produced before. These can only be made possible using superconductivity. Superconductivity is the ability of certain materials to conduct electricity without resistance or energy loss, usually at very low temperatures. The LHC will operate at a slightly nippy 300°C below room temperature – colder than outer space.
The LHC will also boast the most energetic beams of any accelerator in the world. With two particle beams pointed directly towards one another, over 800 million collisions will take place every second. An experiment called ATLAS will take advantage of these intense beams by colliding high-energy protons to produce new particles. Crucial to ATLAS is the Compact Muon Solenoid (CMS), with which Imperial’s HEP group are heavily involved. The CMS is a general purpose detector optimised to search for the Higgs boson and other more exotic particles in the products of all those collisions. If the Standard Model predictions are correct, the Higgs boson has been hard to ﬁnd because extremely high energies are needed to produce it. The LHC will be the ﬁrst particle accelerator powerful enough to reach u these energies.
I, science 17 3/6/05 5:47:56 am
The coming decade will see revolutionary advances in our knowledge of the universe and the fundamental laws that govern it.
The Compact Muon Solenoid (CMS) is 21 metres long, 16 metres in diameter and weighs about 12,500 tonnes. Still, it’s compact and may detect the Higgs boson. If the Higgs boson and other so far elusive particles are not found at these energies, physicists will have to start reformulating their theories about nature. Supersymmetry is a popular rival waiting in the wings. It predicts that all particles in the Standard Model have ‘superpartners’ – exotic new particles found only at very high energies. Like the Higgs boson they are as yet theoretical, and they glory in somewhat whimsical names. Quarks will be partnered with ‘squarks’, electrons with ‘selectrons’, gluons (force carrying particles) with ‘gluinos’. By detecting the particles produced in collisions such as those in ATLAS, the CMS will be paramount in helping physicists decide whether or not the Standard Model needs more work. It looks like it probably will.
Cracks in the model? Cracks have already been appearing in the Standard Model. Experiments from the Brookhaven National Laboratory in the US have shown that particles known as ‘muons’ behave in ways that defy the Standard Model. When the most recent results were announced last year, spokesperson Lee Roberts of Boston University claimed, “the fact that our measurement continues to deviate from theory may be an indication that we are seeing new physics beyond the Standard Model”. The CMS will explore muons further, providing information that can be used to see if Roberts is correct. It may be necessary to modify the Standard Model, or scrap it altogether.
If the Standard Model is complete and correct, it could hail the beginning of its incorporation into other physical theories, bringing us closer to the ever-elusive Grand Unifying Theory. If not, particle physics lectures could be given new life, with students trying desperately to contain their laughter as the lecturer describes the properties of ‘squarks’. For now though, it’s a matter of waiting as construction work continues in Geneva. But most physicists think the LHC is sure to change physics in one way or another. Virdee is among them: “One thing is for sure,” he said, “the coming decade will see revolutionary advances in our knowledge of the universe and of the fundamental laws that govern it.” ■
Ever wondered why you’re not made of antimatter? Imperial College’s High Energy Physics group are also involved with the LHCb (Large Hadron Collider beauty) experiment, which simply asks: Why aren’t we made out of antimatter? In the Big Bang, matter and antimatter were created in equal amounts. But somehow the antimatter disappeared and the known Universe formed from the remaining matter. The LHCb experiment will help physicists explore a strange effect called ‘CP violation’ which may explain why the universe is made of matter, not antimatter. It may not seem obvious, but this is a logical question: Why does matter seem to dominate in the universe, when it could equally be mostly antimatter, or consist of equal quantities?
The Large Hadron Collider uses a 27 kilometre circumference tunnel and is scheduled to start operation in 2007.
18 I, science Features.indd 6
3/6/05 5:48:32 am
The Poincaré Conjecture What is the shape of the space we live in? Alexander Antonov looks for the answer in a 100-year-old unsolved maths problem.
S THE philosopher Giordano Bruno was taken to be burnt at the stake, he cried, in deﬁance of his inquisitors, “but it still revolves”, refusing to accept that the earth was the centre of the universe. At the turn of the 16th century speculations about the shape of the universe were dangerous, and the spectacle of a burning was a popular one. Nowadays, such speculations are policed rather more peacefully by cosmology groups at university colloquia, where the audience, alas, is not as numerous as at the pyres 400 years ago. But it seems that an answer to the question of what the shape of the universe is may be much closer now than it was then, thanks to recent progress made by mathematician Grigori Perelman in solving a 100-year-old maths problem, the Poincaré Conjecture. In the spring of 2003, Perelman, from the Steklov Institute of Mathematics in St Petersburg, toured American universities, giving seminars about the new mathematical methods he had developed and how they could be applied to prove the conjecture. While the mathematical jury is still out verifying the proof, we can take a look at the signiﬁcance such a proof would have for understanding the geometry of the universe. Poincaré’s legacy Henri Poincaré had that elusive ability, deﬁning a great mathematician, to build bridges between apparently diﬀerent areas of mathematics. Poincaré almost single-handedly invented topology (see blue inset) – a study of the properties of shapes that remain the same when the shape is deformed (an example of such a property is the number of holes a shape has). So a stretched or compressed object is considered to be the same object, as long as no cutting or gluing has taken place. For example, a square, a triangle or a circle (all having no holes) can all be squashed down to the same shape and hence are indistinguishable to the topologist. The distance between any two points is irrelevant. They will always be regarded as being close to one another as long as there is no hole seperating them. The objects topologists study are called manifolds, and in two dimensions these are just shapes, such as the surface of a sphere. This surface is two-dimensional because you need two coordinates, latitude and longitude, to specify a point on it. Topologists, like other scientists, are interested in classifying the objects they study. In two dimensions all possible surfaces can be classiﬁed according to their geometry into just three groups. The surface of the sphere takes a particularly important place in this classiﬁcation. Poincaré observed that if you throw a lasso around the sphere, you can tighten the noose to a point without leaving the surface. From this he deduced that any
other 2D surface which you could lasso in the same manner is, topologically speaking, no diﬀerent from the sphere. This was an important discovery because it made classifying simple. For example, you cannot lasso the surface of a doughnut in this way, as your lasso cannot be tightened beyond the inner ring of the doughnut. So we know that the surface of the doughnut is topologically diﬀerent from that of the sphere. Poincaré then considered whether the same principle could be applied to 3-dimensional ‘surfaces’, such as the hypersphere – the surface enclosing the 4D sphere. Poincaré knew the lasso could be closed around the hypersphere. If it could be closed around a 3D surface, would that surface be the same as the hypersphere? This question became known as the Poincaré Conjecture. Hyperspheres Anyone who encounters the hypersphere for the ﬁrst time is bound to view it with suspicion – where can we ﬁnd a four-dimensional sphere? It turns out our universe is one, according to Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity. Gravity is not actually a force but a manifestation of the curved geometry of space. The curvature of space in turn reﬂects the concentration of mass present: the larger the mass, the greater the curvature. We perceive this curvature as the ‘force’ of gravity since it can only be visualised in four dimensions. In other words, space is a curved 3D surface. What is Topology? Topologists are mathematicians who study the properties of shapes that remain the same when the shape is deformed. They do not ask how big it is, but rather whether it has any holes. Is it all connected together, or can it be separated into parts? For example, take the London Underground map. This will not reliably tell you how far it is from Kings Cross to Piccadilly, or even the compass direction from one to the other, but it will tell you how the lines connect up between them. Or, consider a doughnut and a teacup, both made of BluTack. The teacup can be transformed into a doughnut by stretching and squeezing the BluTack. The hole of the teacup handle becomes
But what kind of surface is it exactly? Could we prove it to be the hypersphere? Any such claim would have to assume the Poincaré Conjecture has been proven. Towards geometrisation After all the failed attempts to prove the conjecture over the past century, Perelman’s announcement of a proof was received cautiously. In fact, Perelman’s claim was more ambitious. He claimed to have proven a much more general result, of which the Poincaré Conjecture was only a special case, namely Thurston’s Geometrisation Conjecture. While the Poincaré Conjecture allows us to tell which objects are hyperspheres and which are not, the geometrisation conjecture allows us to classify all 3D surfaces. Thurston’s striking claim is that every 3D surface may be cut into a number of parts, each of which can be classiﬁed into one of eight groups according to its geometry. Such a powerful tool would quickly resolve the classiﬁcation of 3D surfaces. Indeed we could potentially go on to catalogue all the possible shapes in the universe and perhaps even the shape of the universe itself. Could such curiosity about the shape of space be what stirred Perelman to devote himself to proving the conjecture? He would more likely agree with Poincaré that “the mathematician does not study pure mathematics because it is useful; he studies it because he delights in it, and he delights in it because it is beautiful.” ■
the hole in the doughnut, and the remainder of the teacup is squashed into the side of the doughnut. As long as the number of holes isn’t changed, and no bits which were previously separate are stuck together, the topological properties will be preserved. So, topologically speaking, the doughnut and the teacup are the same.
Illustration: Scientific American, © 2004
I, science 19 3/6/05 5:45:49 am
Visualising space I, Science talks to an Imperial mathematician, recipient of the Leverhulme prize, about the interactions between string theory and algebraic geometry.
What attracted you to mathematics? It was just what I was good at. I found some of it easy, and so I could see how beautiful it is; if you found it diﬃcult, or you were taught badly, you never see why it is such an attractive subject. Anyone who understands it is compelled by it. If you like maths, you wouldn’t choose to do some scruﬀy subject like physics. Where did you perceive that beauty as a student? Well, calculus is fantastic: for example, the Fundamental Theorem of Calculus, that the area under the graph of the derivative should be the original function. Unfortunately, that’s taught at school as just being a fact, and it’s not explained why it is true. There are also the linear equations: the heat equation, the wave equation…the fact that you can just solve them even though they look ﬁendishly complicated.
Is it the existence of a solution that’s appealing? There are many things in maths that you can solve that are completely ugly geometrically. Maths should be about visualising diﬀerent spaces – for me, maths is about geometry, not algebra, though algebra is often the language the geometry is expressed in. You should have images in your mind that you update as you work. I work mainly in 6D geometry, which can’t be visualised correctly, but you have an intuition from working in the lower dimensions, and by doing more examples, you build on that intuition and update the pictures in your mind. What was your route through mathematics? Initially I wanted to do physics, but I could never get it to work, there were always problems. Even in A-level physics there are many contradictions: it’s often unclear whether something is an assumption or a result. I also saw that the best physicists tended to use geometry, so I ﬁgured if I went into maths, I wouldn’t lose anything. I never expected to be a mathematician permanently.
suitably interpreted. This is incredibly exciting, as it has linked apparently unrelated areas like algebraic and symplectic geometry. The prediction that most interests me is known as ‘mirror symmetry’, in which as a result of electromagnetic duality, two of the geometries of Calabi-Yau manifolds are switched. This is just amazing – it ought to be impossible to do it. My work gives methods of studying Calabi-Yau geometry that are in some cases inspired by mirror symmetry and in some cases used to check its predictions.
Maths should be about visualising diﬀerent spaces: for me, it is about geometry, not algebra.
What do Calabi-Yau manifolds look like? String theory says that we live in ten dimensions: four for space-time plus six more, which can be thought of as various ﬁelds describing physics. These other six dimensions are curled up into geometric objects, called Calabi-Yau manifolds. They have the property that if you add up their curvature in all directions, you’ll always get zero. Since curvature is related to gravity, and the average of the curvature of these manifolds is zero, this implies that there’s no matter in them – they are a sort of vacuum, and all the matter is in the other four dimensions. They are rather diﬃcult to visualise, and you can only do it bits at a time.
Do you believe in string theory? I do, but I don’t really know much physics. I believe in it because of the predictions it makes in pure maths. It can’t be coincidence because these properties are incredibly sophisticated. So I think they’re probably onto something, maybe it does describe nature. Many physicists dislike string theory, but that’s usually because they work in a different area and don’t want their area to be obsolete. They also don’t like that string theory is done very diﬀerently from previous physics. They hope that because it’s so mathematical, it’s not true. But that’s quite a short-sighted point of view. What motivates you to do that kind of research? I ﬁnd it very interesting. When something works because you’ve been working on it for so long, it’s very satisfying. It’s like solving a big crossword puzzle every day of your life, only it takes six months to solve each clue. You can always prove small cases of the theorem you’re after, so you always make some progress. Sometimes, all you do is understand something that was already known. But when you manage to ﬁnd something new, that’s very exciting. Of course, someone else could have already found it, but they’re probably slower than you or working on a diﬀerent puzzle. So, if only for ten minutes, you’re the only person in the world who knows how to solve that puzzle. Do you agree with the popular science writer Keith Devlin that the biggest obstacle to understanding maths is coping with abstraction? The single biggest problem is bad teaching. If you have a teacher who’s scared of maths, children pick up very quickly on that, and then they think that maths is a list of facts that you have to learn without understanding where they come from.
The Leverhulme Trust The Leverhulme Trust provides some £30 million each year to promote research of originality and significance principally in the university sector across a full span of disciplines.
What is your main area of research? My work is mainly in the areas of algebraic and symplectic geometry, which have important links with theoretical physics, in particular string theory. In fact, some of the most exciting recent developments in geometry are connected to string theory. In order for their physics to work, physicists claim that certain geometric objects fundamental to string theory, Calabi-Yau manifolds, have certain properties. This is the ﬁrst time that predictions about pure maths have come from physics, and they are all correct when
20 I, science Interviews_NEW.indd 4
6/6/05 4:36:47 pm
A new way of learning Leicester University is oﬀering a new degree in Interdisciplinary Science, taught entirely using problem-based learning (PBL). Sophie Hebden found out more about I, Science’s namesake, i-Science, and discussed PBL with Imperial tutors.
’M HAVING more fun than other students,” says Geoﬀrey, with a knowing smile. “Last year I did Chemistry and failed on a re-take. I’m glad I failed because now I’m on the i-Science course and I’m much better oﬀ for it.” Geoﬀrey Harris is one of ﬁve students on the i-Science course at the University of Leicester, the ﬁrst fully integrated science degree taught entirely using problem-based-learning (PBL). Geoﬀrey thinks it’s brilliant. And it seems that the Higher Education Funding Council for England thinks so too. It has awarded the i-Science course director at Leicester £1.25 million to develop PBL for science in other universities. So, will PBL one day breach Imperial College’s ramparts of conservatism? The UK has seen a nationwide fall in students taking science degrees. Whilst the decline has been gentle, the consequences have been catastrophic with a third of Britain’s physics departments closing between 1994 and 2004. The latest casualty is Newcastle, which closed undergraduate applications in December. There are many possible reasons why school leavers don’t opt for chemistry or physics. Derek Raine, i-Science course director at the University of Leicester gave his take on the problem over a cup of coﬀee at the caféteria. He put it down to the way science is taught at degree level. “Lectures have two functions. Firstly, the students get a good set of notes. Secondly, they get a sense of community by sitting in a lecture room together. But they aren’t engaging with the material. They jump straight to the parts they will be assessed on, without getting interested in the subject for the subject’s sake.” Raine’s answer is to pose real-life problems to his physics and astronomy students, and let them work out how to solve them. He provides resources and a bit of help along the way. Students work in teams, learn how to organise themselves, and, most importantly, learn the physics. Sounds good, but do students really come away with a deeper understanding of physics? In a sunny oﬃce in the space physics research group at Leicester I met Professor Stan Cowley who lectures second years in electricity and magnetism. He gave me convincing evidence of PBL’s eﬀectiveness. “The year PBL was introduced, student grades went up by an average of 5%. Eyebrows were raised at the examiners’ meeting. It disquieted people. The exam hadn’t changed but the students had.” One such student is Sally Shaw, whose entire course is taught using PBL modules: “It’s kept me interested for a whole year, which is unusual for me. It’s easy to copy down notes at the back of a lecture theatre, but we have to apply what we learn and understand how to bring things together, and as a result we read more widely.”
“People come alive during projects” according to Imperial Physics’ Prof Peter Knight. Critics of PBL raise concerns about a lack of breadth that the courses can cover in a limited time. Dr Steve Milan, a facilitator and developer of PBL at the University of Leicester raised another note of caution, “You have to ﬁt it into the course structure and be realistic about what it can deliver. It’s a culture shift for students and a lot of them complain when they are not told what to do.” The problem with teaching physics using PBL is that it is inherently paradoxical: what the experts call ‘pure’ PBL is completely open-ended and without bounds. So the projects shouldn’t have narrow ‘learning objectives’ to constrain the projects to physics. But truly unrestricted projects require massive resources. Stan Cowley thinks the projects on the Leicester physics course need to be more open-ended. “I’d make the questions less fussy, with less edging of the problem”. As PBL becomes trendier, other universities are joining the bandwagon. The University of Hertfordshire, the University of Shefﬁeld, the Open University and the University of Reading are also dabbling with PBL for physics degrees. “Some medicine and engineering courses are taught completely using PBL,” says Derek Raine, “but there seems to be a conceptual limit to the extent that you can teach physics via PBL. People don’t think you can teach quantum mechanics or general relativity using PBL. We’re trying to prove them wrong. I want to see the bulk of the ﬁrst two years of a physics degree being taught via PBL.” I asked Education Development Coordinator for Imperial’s physics department, Dr Vivien Moore, whether Imperial might use PBL to teach physics. “PBL has a very ﬂexible deﬁnition. Actually we already have PBLtype projects in the ﬁrst and third year. These
have a fairly open script although some are less lab-based than at Leicester.” The head of the IC physics department, Professor Peter Knight, acknowledges the beneﬁts of PBL. “We have always noticed how people come alive during projects. I’m interested to use PBL as long as we can ensure students still acquire the core skills and broad physics grounding.” Heather Fry from Imperial’s Educational Quality Oﬃce was more circumspect about PBL. “It is already used extensively to teach medicine and a small amount for chemical engineering,” she says. “PBL is a good teaching method if it is well used, but it requires a lot of training for staﬀ and students, and a lot of curriculum adjustment.” It looks like the jury is still out regarding PBL at Imperial. ■
Problem Based Learning An example problem from the i-science module ‘Science of the Invisible’. Can you tackle it? A Hollywood script-writer argues with his special effects director over a scene in a sci-fi movie. In the scene, a vehicle has been shrunk and accidentally inhaled by a person. During its travels, it is ‘attacked by a protein.’ The writer says this should be a dramatic lifeor-death scene; the SFX director claims there is no basis for such an event in nature. They have come to you as an advisor to help them work this scene out scientifically, including proposals for visual models.
I, science 21 3/6/05 5:49:32 am
The science of violence Are we in denial about military science funding? Richard Fenning writes.
ID YOU ever see mini-nukes on Tomorrow’s World? Why not? Why isn’t there a dedicated military section in the New Scientist? Was there ever a full and frank explanation of the beneﬁts of depleted uranium tipped shells on Radio Four’s Leading Edge? Come to think of it, why isn’t, say, a third of I, Science given over to military science? Over 30% of government funding for science is spent on military projects. The amount of research and development money that is spent by the government solving military problems is second only to the money spent by corporations on the development of pharmaceuticals, yet it is rarely addressed in popular science. It is the twin brother of progress that we don’t like to bring up at dinner parties. The last decade has seen what has been called a revolution in military aﬀairs – a renaissance in the science of violence. Military funding of research is now rising again for the ﬁrst time since the end of the Cold War and it isn’t just conﬁned to ballistics and aerospace; the whole spectrum of scientiﬁc endeavour is now of interest to the armed forces. Military thinkers in the US talk excitedly about ‘information dominance’: using IT and the latest communication technology to have a complete picture of everything on the battleﬁeld. The next big steps, if you follow the military money, look set to be in nanotechnology and the biological sciences. Science has always had a close relationship with the military. However, we have to ask to what extent we want scientiﬁc endeavour to be martially motivated. According to an associate director of the US Oﬃce of Naval Research, without military funding, the study of physics in the United States would simply not exist. Which surely begs the question: what is physics for? While I believe science doesn’t have to be for anything, I’m sure the decision makers in the armed forces do not see it that way.
Military funding of research is now rising again for the ﬁrst time since the end of the Cold War.
So if science is creeping ever further into the military toolbox, why is this not imprinted in the popular image of science? The military is obviously secretive in nature and there will be some parts closed oﬀ to journalists, but this doesn’t explain everything as there are large portions of the research in the public domain and existing specialist publications. David Dickson, director of scidev.net and former editor of Nature, thinks it is due to scientists understandably playing down the source of their funding and the martial applications of their studies. This was backed up when I spoke to a director of a Defence Technology Centre (a MoD mechanism for funding science in universities). Even he was concerned about increasing military spending of science. Scientists don’t like to be associated with the military. Whatever the reason for the lack of coverage, the result is a picture of science that looks like unmitigated progress. We most often see what will be beneﬁcial to us in the future, or problems that we might have to overcome. We don’t often see the damage being designed in laboratories every day at public expense. We all know in the backs of our minds that science can lead to unexpected and terrible things such as nuclear weapons, but this fear seems only to express itself in worries about GM foods or MMR jabs: mistakes that will be toxic to us or our children. The new technologies for the deliberate destruction of human life are left largely unreported outside specialist magazines. The unseemly twin is left out of the discussion. I can’t imagine it ever happening, but perhaps if we saw the minutiae of the science of violence played out in popular science week by week, a debate about the eﬀect of increasing military funding could begin to take place. And, perhaps one day, it might be bought up at dinner parties. ■
22 I, science Opinion.indd 2
Nanotechnology: bringing a whole new meaning to the phrase ‘pocket rocket’ (Image: Cato Hoeben)
Mano a nano
Yaser Alam on the hazards of emerging nanotechnologies.
ANOTECHNOLOGY IS the science of developing tools, materials and machines at scales measured to a billionth of a metre. It is an extension of the existing trend in miniaturisation. Just as the internet has changed close to every industry to some extent, nanotechnology could do the same. The ‘nano’ preﬁx is thought to derive from the Greek noun for dwarf, although it may come from the verb which means ‘to seek research funding’. Nearly 500 companies, including such behemoths as IBM, Motorola and Mitsubishi, are researching nanotechnology, each ﬁghting for funding from ﬁrms who have placed bets on the industry. In America, nanotechnology is the largest federally funded science initiative since the country decided to put a man on the moon. This year the US is planning to shell out a further $982m. Japan is the next biggest spender, and other countries have also joined the funding race. In addition to the economic importance, governments are investing in nanotechnology as a matter of security. The power of the technology may eventually cause two rival nations to enter a disruptive and unstable arms race. Guns of all sizes would have their bullets self-guided. Planes and missiles could be built with minimal or no metal (becoming radar-invisible), and embedded computers would allow remote activation of any weapon. These ideas barely skim the surface of what’s possible. To appreciate the sense of scale: the North American Featherwinged Beetle Nanosella fungi is the smallest insect in the world, at about 200 microns in size. A nanotech-built weapon capable of seeking and injecting toxin into targets can conceivably be built to be the same size. The human lethal dose of botulism toxin is about 100 nanograms. 60 billion of these toxin-carrying devices (theoretically enough to kill every human on earth) could be packed into a single suitcase. Despite the horror stories, nanotech can prove itself to be a net positive force for humanity. There will someday be a big demand for nanotech in tissue engineering, especially in areas such as cell therapy and organ regeneration. Nanocrystaline silver in antibacterial wound dressings can be found on the market already, as well as optical devices in computers. Although it is likely to prove controversial in many areas of its use, many nations are already spending millions on basic nanotechnology. Within a decade, the full capabilities of advanced nanotech should be within the reach of large corporations. This is probably when we should start feeling perturbed. ■
Nano-nightmare In 2004 headlines such as ’Prince fears grey goo nightmare’ followed concerns attributed to Prince Charles about nanorobots running amok and destroying all the matter on Earth.
3/6/05 10:47:20 am
There is no other choice
The horror of nuclear power
Nuclear energy will deliver us from Zoë Corbyn is not convinced by the environmental decline, says Brian Owens. promises made by nuclear advocates.
LIMATE CHANGE is probably the biggest problem facing civilisation today. Sir David King, the government’s chief scientist, has rightly said that it is a far more serious threat than terrorism. And it is not the vague, future menace that many people assume. It’s happening right now, and faster than we imagine. There have already been examples of the danger; the brutal heat wave that struck Europe two years ago was not a freak occurrence, it was a warning of things to come. So what can we do? We really only have one option if we are going to do something in time, and that is a return to nuclear energy. The Kyoto Treaty is at best a cosmetic solution, and even its limited protocols are not being properly implemented. We cannot continue using energy from fossil fuels, but there is no chance that renewable sources like wind, tide and water power can provide enough energy and in time. If we had 50 years we might make them our main sources, but we do not have 50 years. The earth is already so poisoned by greenhouse gases that even if we stopped burning fossil fuels today, the consequences of what we have already done will last for 1,000 years. Burning gas instead of coal or oil releases only half as much carbon dioxide, but unburnt gas is 25 times as potent a greenhouse agent as carbon dioxide. Even a small leak would negate the advantage of using gas. Now James Lovelock, the father of the environmental movement and creator of the Gaia hypothesis which considers the Earth as a self-regulating organism, believes that we do not have time to experiment with visionary energy sources. Nuclear power is the only source of energy that is immediately available and does not cause global warming. Opposition to nuclear energy is based on irrational, Hollywoodstyle fearmongering. The fact is that since its start in 1952 nuclear power has proved to be the safest of all energy sources. Far more people have been killed or injured working in coal mines and on oil rigs than in nuclear plants. Even taking into account the rare disasters like Chernobyl, the beneﬁts of nuclear, with zero carbon emissions, far outweigh the risks. We must stop worrying about the statistically minute risks of cancer from chemicals and radiation. Nearly one third of us will die of cancer anyway, mainly because we breathe air loaded with the most deadly carcinogen – oxygen. If we continue to ignore the real danger, which is global warming, we may die even sooner, as did more than 20,000 people in the European heat wave. Even if the so-called ‘green’ lobby were right about the dangers of nuclear power, and both Lovelock and I think they are not, its worldwide use as our main energy source would be an insigniﬁcant threat compared to the lethal heat waves and rising sea levels that are on the way. We simply do not have any other option at this point. The future of civilisation depends on nuclear power. ■
STARE AT Juha Tolonen’s chillingly still photographs. They stare unﬂinchingly back. Striking images of the ghost city of Pripyat inside the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone. A decaying basketball court, rusting bumper-cars, a deserted tower block: relics of civil society. It is one of the largest abandoned spaces on the planet. The nuclear reactor meltdown on 26 April 1986 forced over 100,000 people to leave their homes, never to return. Fast forward to the debate mushrooming today. Nuclear power is in fashion again. The nuclear lobby, buoyed by our failure to reduce greenhouse emissions, is back with a vengeance. Nuclear power is being rebranded, repackaged and rereleased as the next hug-theearth, love-our-planet, dolphin-safe alternative. But for those who see the fallacy of nuclear power, unfortunately there is no new nugget of a greenhouse argument to match that of the rejuvenated nuclear lobby. Instead we are lumbered with the same old endlessly rehearsed classics: the risk of accident, the toxic waste problem, the security danger. And we’ve heard them so often that somehow they don’t seem quite as real anymore. They are increasingly reduced to one liners in the newspapers; and the nuclear lobby is trying hard to strike them out. But they are real, very real. The decrepit Thorpe reprocessing plant at Sellaﬁeld burst a pipe last month. We have 10,000 tonnes of high and intermediate level radioactive waste, and will have 500,000 tonnes by the end of the century, that we don’t know how to dispose of. Why would we want to make more?
The nuclear lobby is back with a vengeance.
There are more subtle arguments too. Building nuclear power stations will cost around £1.5 million per megawatt of capacity, compared with £340,000 for a gas-ﬁred station: uneconomic. Furthermore, the risks involved mean the private sector is unlikely to ﬁnance them without huge government subsidies. Taxpayers will underwrite the radioactive risks. And can nuclear power actually prevent climate change? Friends Of The Earth argue that doubling Britain’s nuclear capacity – which ultimately means building about 28 more plants – would only reduce our greenhouse gas emissions by at most 8%. We already know the real long term answer to our future energy needs – making renewables work. Alone they may be too variable, but new research suggests that the right combination could dependably provide the bulk of Britain’s electricity. It requires some ingenuity – mixing sites, mixing technologies, but don’t be fooled into thinking it isn’t possible. Next year will be the 20th anniversary of the Chernobyl disaster, and the year Britain decides how to meet its electricity needs for the next half century. Do we replace our ageing nuclear power stations with new ones, or do we consign ‘the nuclear option’ to the bad projects pile forever? We must ﬁght to ensure that when the nuclear reactors die, so too does nuclear power. Despite assurances from the nuclear lobby that radioactive waste can be stored safely underground; that new designs make nuclear as safe as houses; that it will get cheaper; that it is the answer to global warming: the hazard is still too great. The fate of the city of Pripyat shows the devastation that nuclear power can wreak. Let us not forget it. ■
The nuclear power debate
Nuclear power: the world’s future, or are the hazards too great?
• Most of Britain’s 16 nuclear power plants will close in the next 20 years, having outlived their operational lifetime • The government is currently being advised that they need to build new nuclear power stations to meet carbon emissions targets
I, science 23 3/6/05 10:47:21 am
Spinning out of control Spinout ﬁrms are a waste of time and money. Sonja van Renssen explains why.
PINOUTS are Gordon Brown’s new darlings, eﬃcient little engines that labour away at the roots of the British economy. They are small ﬁrms that transform science into technology into economic growth. Never before has a UK government invested so much in university entrepreneurship. Never before has Britain’s famed inability to capitalise on research been so robustly challenged. Fiscal incentives, seed funding, incubator schemes – you name it, Brown’s done it. But do spinouts work? Not according to the 2003 Lambert Review of business-university collaboration. This emphasised high rates of spinout failure. Lambert argued alternatives such as licensing intellectual property, collaborative research and consultancy are more eﬀective ways of transferring knowledge from academia to business. Instead of academics in a university setting up new companies, universities should ‘sell’ their knowledge to industry, work together with industry on jointly-funded projects, and advise businesses on research. These alternatives are preferable to spinouts because they transfer the risk of development to industry – an attractive option in the current economic climate, and one which also anticipates government stimulation of industrial research and development (R&D). Research has repeatedly pointed to the lack of industrial R&D expenditure as the real culprit hindering British technological development and, by extension, increased prosperity. The downsides of these alternatives are that pursuing patents is costly and time-consuming and that collaborative research runs the risk of tainting a university’s impartiality. But these are less signiﬁcant than the problems dogging spinouts. Spinouts just don’t have much going for them apart from Gordon Brown.
The cultural chasm between science and business is underestimated.
In 2002, securing venture capital funding was quoted as the single biggest impediment to spinouts. They depend on venture capital to move beyond the prototype stage. But investors are increasingly shying away from startup ﬁrms. University spinouts are particularly unappealing – government grants are too small to develop them into attractive propositions. And there often looms the time-consuming prospect of building a management team from scratch. Long lead times are already a turn-oﬀ. Dramatic failures like PPL Therapeutics and British Biotech sweep away any remaining shreds of conﬁdence. In fact, PPL Therapeutics embodies the dire consequences of another spinout aﬄiction: confusing good science with good business. Cloning Dolly the sheep was a magniﬁcent scientiﬁc achievement but was also a business catastrophe for PPL, who are facing bankruptcy. The cultural chasm between science and business is underestimated. The two have diﬀerent cultural values – science is about sharing knowledge, business is about appropriating it; scientists aim to publish, businessmen aim to patent; science work requires freedom, corporate management tends towards hierarchy and control. There are many who point to the US and say, “but they’re doing it”. Britain is not the US. We neither have a history of strong universityindustry links, nor do we have a tradition of venture capitalism. Our attitudes to risk are a long way from the US notion that failure may be worn as a badge of honour by the entrepreneur. Spinouts should not be the focus of technology transfer in Britain. As a source of revenue for universities, they are negligible. Lita Nelson, of MIT, once said, “You don’t run your income based on the hope of winning the lottery”. Imperial College Innovations, despite its relative success with spinouts, has changed its policies in recent years to focus on safer licensing deals. Other universities could do worse than follow its lead. ■
24 I, science Opinion.indd 4
Can business and science really mix? “Devious tactics within this proﬁt-led world appear to be the norm...”
Unhealthy science Emma-Lynn Donadieu is concerned about commercial inﬂuences in research.
HERE MONEY GOES, greed and corruption follow. In science, this commercial phenomenon threatens our health and the environment. Giant pharmaceutical companies are the most obvious malefactors, gracing the headlines regularly, most recently in a controversy over the safety of anti-depressants. Results indicating that selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitors (SSRIs) such as Prozac and Seroxat had the unfortunate side eﬀect of an increased suicide risk weren’t reported. Only after a series of high proﬁle court cases were brought against the companies by victim’s families were various internal cover-ups exposed. Devious tactics within this proﬁt-led world appear to be the norm. Among the accusations levied against the drug ﬁrms is that they use ‘ghost’ writers to ensure good coverage for their drugs in scientiﬁc journals, sponsor conferences and other medical training events and pay large fees to doctors to talk about their products. Not surprisingly, an investigation by the British Medical Journal found that newspapers funded by the pharmaceutical giants focus far more on the beneﬁts of antidepressants and downplay adverse eﬀects. Even the nation’s drug watchdog, the Medicines and Health Regulatory Agency (MHRA), has not escaped the inﬂuence of the pharmaceutical giants. The government criticised the agency in 2002 after it emerged that some of the members were shareholders in the drug companies involved. In response, the world’s major drug companies oﬀered to publish all clinical trial data. But they have not gone so as far as to oﬀer up their raw data. Any data released may be carefully selected and spun. It is not only pharmaceutical companies that are dogged by controversy. Research into the safety of mobile phones and transmitter masts is inconclusive, but the telecommunications companies have an alarming penchant for targeting schools as locations for the masts. About 500 schools in Britain (2% of the total) have transmitter masts and 4901 more are within 50 and 200 metres of school buildings. For schools strapped for cash, the money on oﬀer must be hard to refuse. Without conclusive evidence on safety, it is hard not to question the ethics behind this business initiative. The environment will also suﬀer if left in the hands of industry. In May, a report in New Scientist revealed that wind farm companies are keeping the ﬁndings of studies on their impact on the environment secret for commercial reasons. Research into the eﬀects wind turbines may have on bird populations has been delayed. Combining the commercial incentive to make money with research into product safety has created an unsavoury norm – companies are encouraged to cut corners and cover up research into detrimental eﬀects to ensure proﬁts. Far from the notion of science ‘for the public good’, commercial science today has an inbuilt tendency to be bad for your health. ■
3/6/05 10:47:22 am
Musical biology Cato Hoeben ﬁnds out about using music to teach genetics to young children.
How can you use music to teach science? In a number of ways, because variation and selection are at the core of both biology and musical composition. Creating music, you come up with a variety of themes and select those that are the most appropriate for representing what you want to illustrate. I’ve been working on a number of science education projects. One, called the Identity Project in Tower Hamlets, explores identity for primary school children. So what is the Identity Project about? The Identity Project was a new idea I wanted to discuss with Children’s Music Workshop. We talked about DNA and the relationship between genes and phenotype in the way organisms look and behave. But we hadn’t really got across fundamental concepts in evolutionary biology, such as variation and selection. Part of the project was to build a beast by random chance. The children would decide whether the organism would be land-living, air-ﬂying or water-living. Then they’d decide
What’s your role at Imperial? I was a professor of molecular neuroscience, but now I’m a full-time researcher and academic at Imperial. I research how biological time is generated and regulated by light: it is about the body clock that wakes us up, puts us to sleep and essentially times every aspect of our physiology and behaviour.
Why are you interested in science education? Science education is something I squeeze into other activities. I got into this sort of thing through the Children’s Music Workshop ﬁve years ago because I don’t like the barriers between art and science. The projects I’ve worked on bring scientists and musicians together to essentially present information as a continuum.
What was your most recent project? The last major project was Creation, and I developed its ‘Genetic Genesis’ component. Creation was made in conjunction with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment – a great orchestra with a big educational component to it. It involved a big performance of Haydn’s Creation and was associated with a whole bunch of educational packages. I did the biological sciences package. It was one of those big formal projects that turned out to be terriﬁc at a number of levels. We got the kids to extract DNA from kiwi fruit so they could play with it, and on the ﬁnal night we had the sponsors at the Royal Festival Hall extracting DNA. We also conceived a way of representing the cell using the children. I went to the Sir Henry Wood Concert Hall to discuss what a cell is and of course I turned up with overheads and there was no projector or anything – just 200 kids. So we got the children to think of a number between one and ten and everyone with numbers one to ﬁve formed a huge great ring. Of course that became the
We used the repetitive structure of DNA to generate the words and the songs
within that environment what it did, what it fed on, and if it was active during day or night. By throwing dice and assigning heads and noses, eyes and tails, they’d build a beast by random chance. At the end, the class would have a whole variety of diﬀerent forms. They’d sit down and say, “OK, we said the animal had to live in a cave, feed on insects, was active at night and lived in a hot climate.” Then they’d ask, “which of the organisms that we’ve generated would be the best able to survive?” And so you can get across that really important concept of random chance and selection. In the end, the children see what kind of organism can best survive under a certain set of circumstances. But then you make the important point that it is variation and selection under the current set of circumstances. The earth is constantly changing – what if the organisms’ environment changed? If it got colder or wetter or if this particular food dried up, which of these animals would be best able to survive?
plasma membrane and numbers six and seven were the nuclear membrane. There was the cytoplasm rushing between the two and the chromosomes standing in the middle! We used the repetitive structure of DNA – CGAT etc – to actually generate the words and the songs for the kids to compose the music associated with it. That was a sort of musical depiction of DNA, and to get the song right you have to understand the biology. Have the kids enjoyed it and are some courses more successful than others? I think so. When we’ve worked with the kids, they’ve genuinely seemed to enjoy it. For the courses, the critical thing is how engaged the teachers are. They’ve not been so successful where the teachers haven’t seen how what we’re doing ﬁts into the national curriculum. As it turns out, we designed the biological projects as part of the core curriculum. All of the issues that we raise, like evolutionary biology, are part of the national curriculum.
25 3/6/05 5:51:38 am
Science takes centre stage The use of science in theatre has a chequered history, but new initiatives look set to encourage fresh, innovative collaborations between scientists and the performing arts. Jenny Jopson investigates the Pulse fund, set up by the Wellcome Trust to further encourage public engagement with the social issues of science, and meets a playwright taking her ﬁrst steps into unfamiliar territory.
CIENCE AND THEATRE might initially seem to be two contradictory and incompatible areas of intellectual endeavour. But scientiﬁc phenomena can be argued to possess an element of the theatrical, from the spectacle of the Royal Society’s public lectures in the 17th century right up to the gimmicks modern science lecturers might employ to shock their slumbering undergraduates to attention. In fact, playwrights have been exploring the concepts and characters of science for centuries. Science increasingly abounds in 20th century theatre, perhaps most famously in Michael Frayn’s Copenhagen. The play recreates a legendary meeting between the wartime nuclear physicists Werner Heisenberg and Niels Bohr, and explores their involvement in the development of the nuclear bomb. Frayn uses the uncertainty of quantum theory as a metaphor for the subjective and slippery interpretations of historical investigation, and has been praised by scientists for his handling of this complex subject matter. But despite the success of Copenhagen, the area of science in theatre is still relatively underdeveloped given the wealth of material to be explored. Many playwrights from arts
26 I, science Features.indd 12
backgrounds are wary of science, probably because they gave it up at the earliest possible opportunity at school. They feel able to tackle politics, love and philosophy, but science is either relegated to being used as an opaque object or ignored altogether. Marcus du Sautoy – mathematician, author of The Music of the Primes and panellist for Soho Writer’s Festival at the Soho Theatre – thinks this is a damaging state of aﬀairs: “Too often playwrights simply plunder scientiﬁc stories for new, weird ideas, characters and plots. They present science as an esoteric, inaccessible world peopled by eccentric ﬁgures, and just reinforce the hackneyed caricature of the crazy scientist.” But scientists who attempt to use theatre as a medium to communicate science are also in danger of falling foul of the critics. They are often condemned for being overly didactic and lacking the skills to create good art. One scientist inspired by the educational potential he saw in the theatre is Carl Djerassi, Professor of Chemistry at Stanford during the 1950s and pioneer of work on the synthesis of progesterone that formed the basis of the ﬁrst contraceptive pill. He embarked upon a literary career in the 1980s and has produced several novels and plays packed with scientiﬁc facts.
Good theatre is about telling stories, and there are lots of really good stories in science.
Djerassi’s zeal for instructing while entertaining is admirable, but unfortunately it often makes for a deeply unsatisfying theatrical experience. Critics have lampooned his use of characters merely as mouthpieces to expound his views on science, preventing any emotional investment on the part of the audience. And his scripts, peppered with jargonistic terminology, simply ﬂy over the heads of most audience members and fail to achieve anything other than to reinforce preconceptions. The artistic medium of theatre is perhaps inappropriate for the communication of complex scientiﬁc material. Michael Regnier, playwright and Natural Sciences graduate, certainly thinks so. “The audience cannot, as with a textbook or even an educational video, ﬂit back and forth through the information, or dwell on a problem until they have understood it. They must go along with the linear narrative of the play or be left ﬂoundering behind.” Didactic theatre would seem to be a doomed enterprise. “Theatre cannot ever really educate”, Regnier maintains. “But theatre can address the social dimensions of science. It can represent scientists, their lives and their work. It can criticise science, or applaud it.” The Pulse initiative It is this focus on the social issues raised by science that is being encouraged by new funding initiatives. Research conducted in 2002 by the Centre for Applied Theatre Research at the University of Manchester found
6/6/05 4:37:33 pm
FEATURES that while it is unclear how much information can be usefully conveyed by the performing arts, they are undoubtedly an eﬀective way of engaging the public with the issues surrounding science. The result of this research was Pulse, a funding initiative set up by the Wellcome Trust as part of their wider ‘public engagement’ agenda, and which speciﬁcally focuses on engaging young people through the performing arts. Despite the emphasis on targeting young people, the Pulse initiative is emphatically not an extension of the science curriculum. Simon Parry, Project Manager of the Public Engagement Development Group at the Wellcome Trust, says: “The projects are not about transmitting information. Ultimately, good theatre is about telling stories, and there are lots of really good stories in science. Also, narratives are an excellent way of exploring science, particularly its impact on people’s lives.” The Pulse initiative intends to do just that, and Parry stresses that such collaborations are mutually beneﬁcial. “The vivid history, complex contemporary advances and the social, ethical and emotional implications of science oﬀer an inexhaustible supply of inspiration for writers and performers,” he continues. “In turn, the performing arts provide fresh and exciting ways of interacting with these issues and captivating a wide range of audiences.” Past projects include a dance performance inspired by the science of handedness, a radio play dealing with DNA and forensics, a piece of musical theatre about neuronal communication and a play exploring the biology of ageing and society’s obsession with eternal youth. The scheme is currently assessing its second round of project proposals, and will award bursaries of up to £40,000 to the successful applicant in early June. Parry is optimistic for the future: “I hope that the projects made possible by these grants will act to deepen people’s appreciation of science, and allow them to explore the complex and ambiguous nature of many of the associated issues.”
...encourage the development of artists who are no longer initimidated by science.
Helen Upﬁeld, playwright and English graduate, applauds the scheme: “I think it’s a great idea in terms of pushing writers and performers into diﬀerent avenues, and encouraging them to explore things they might not otherwise approach”. After graduating from Cambridge, she won a place on Royal Holloway’s prestigious MA in Theatre Studies, and now writes with London-based theatre company Disensemble. They will present A Slice of Life at Fresh drama festival in late May. “The play explores what goes on under our skin,” explains Upﬁeld. “It is the result of collaboration with our medical advisor and many interesting conversations with both artists and scientists about the internal systems we are often unaware of.” The play is a devised piece, meaning that
Scenes from Michael Frayn’s Copenhagen, based on a real meeting in 1941 between German physicist Heisenberg and his Danish mentor Bohr, has been a success with critics. The Pulse scheme hopes to encourage more playwrights to engage with science. it is a collaborative work developed through improvisation, rather than a ‘story’ with set characters. Upﬁeld believes this can be a powerful approach. “We used responses from friends and family members to explore situations and develop material that is personal in origin but universal in scope. Through taking part in this creative process, the actors have developed a growing awareness of their bodies, and I hope that this will cause the audience to examine their concepts of their own bodies in a similar way.” Will it work? Hopefully, initiatives such as the Pulse fund will encourage the development of artists who are no longer intimidated by the perceived inaccessibility of science, but have the conﬁdence to treat it as a subject as ripe for exploration, criticism and playful satire as any other. Upﬁeld believes that her experience of working on A Slice of Life has changed her attitudes to science. “I’m not the most scientiﬁcally minded of people, and before the production my experience of science amounted to having been taught rather badly up to GCSE level. But working on the
piece has made science much more accessible, and I think myself and everyone involved in the project has developed a much greater respect for it”. Reﬂecting society, whether to criticise it or applaud it, is perhaps what theatre does best. In our ever more technological society, it is surely appropriate that the theatrical spotlight should increasingly fall upon science. It will be interesting to see whether the works of the new playwrights and performers joining the debate prove worthy of a front row seat. ■
Bridging the sci-art divide Pulse is an initiative to engage young people with biomedical science and encourage them to tackle complex, emotive issues. For further information about the pulse scheme visit the Wellcome Trust website at: www.wellcome. ac.uk/en/pulse/home.html
I, science 27 6/6/05 4:37:36 pm
What the bleep... Richard Fenning watched the controversial ﬁlm and asks whether the vitriol aimed at it is a little misplaced. What the Bleep Do We Know!? directed by William Arnzt, Betsy Chasse and Mark Vincente
CERTIFICATE 18 / RUNNING TIME: 90 MINS
N AGEING woman with bad plastic surgery and a penchant for the dramatic asks: “Have you ever seen yourself through the eyes of someone else you are yet to become?” Confused? Welcome to the kingdom of heaven, Bleep style. What the Bleep Do We Know?! is a very silly ﬁlm. Its message is that you create the universe by thinking, so by thinking positive thoughts you can make yourself and the universe fundamentally better. On hand to back this up is a big dollop of science dished out by big-brained scientists. So, neurology and biochemistry say that our body works to reinforce our patterns of thought and behaviour: therefore, ergo, ipso facto the cure to depression and gun crime is positive thinking QED. The use of science in this ﬁlm has irked people like Richard Dawkins and Simon Singh to a gloriously comic eﬀect in the pages of the Guardian: “What drives me to despair is not the dishonesty of the charlatans who peddle such tosh, but the dopey gullibility of the thousands of nice, well-meaning people who ﬂock to the cinema and believe it,” says Dawkins. Singh uses great rant words like “balderdash” and “junk pseudo-science”, and states twice that we should not
Social physics? Mass revealed: Zoë Corbyn ﬁnally nabs the Aventis prize-winning book. Critical Mass by Philip Ball
ARROW BOOKS / ISBN 0-091-79957-0
HERE IS a problem with this book, a big problem. It scooped the Aventis prize for popular science writing, but it’s too popular. Not a single copy of Critical Mass by Philip Ball is obtainable from a bookshop or library in London. I know. I’ve been making calls all morning. Two fateful words: “on order”. The fact it is sold out is ironic, because that is exactly what Ball gets at: “How patterns of behaviour emerge – and patterns undoubtedly do emerge – from the statistical melée of many individuals doing their own idiosyncratic thing”. He busies himself considering “how much we can understand human behaviours when we cease to try to predict and analyse the actions of individuals and look at the impact of hundreds, thousands or millions of individual human decisions”. It is apparently normal for winning books to disappear in the ﬁrst days after a prize is announced, so says by yet another apologetic Waterstone’s employee. Ball all over. Critical Mass oﬀers an insight into the physics of society. It summarises how the study of statistical science, big numbers, is being applied today to explain collective behaviour, and how such
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see this ﬁlm. But what, exactly, are they so vehemently attacking? Somewhere in London there is an old building that was called The Church of Reason. It was built during the Enlightenment as an attempt to substitute science for Christianity. Although the religion died away, we carry with us its primary tenet: progress. This is the belief that through science our species can fundamentally improve itself. Science will give us what God promised but never delivered. It is evident in the polemics against imprecise or incorrect popular science by Dawkins et al that leave you with the impression that the human race will regress to pond slime if the record isn’t set straight. But the story at the heart of Bleep is no diﬀerent. The ﬁlm oﬀers a short cut to the promises the Enlightenment gave us and the dreams we’ve carried with us since. It echoes the idea that in time we, as a species, will be the masters of our destiny, we will conquer the universe and we will shape it in our image. Another cultural artefact is in how it presents the science. In this ﬁlm, it’s as if the scientists have gone to the land of knowledge, mined some truth and bought it back to show to us. There is no point of
...by thinking positive thoughts you can make yourself better.
view. If science was presented less like pearls of wisdom that are revealled to us and more like a discussion, we might show less “dopey gullibility” and be able to spot the bad arguments for ourselves. What the Bleep Do We Know?! may be a cringe-worthy and misleading ﬁlm, but it is not simply the result of science misrepresented. It is the product of a society which believes in the perfectibility of the human race and lords scientists as holders of ‘the truth’: a society that Richard Dawkins and Simon Singh do their best to sustain. ■
What the papers say Released in 2005, the documentary What the Bleep Do We Know!? was labelled both “perky educational film” and “New Age hooey”. You make the call.
an approach can be useful for planning our society. Ball takes 17th century political philosopher Thomas Hobbes as his starting point, deftly explaining how Hobbes developed a new way of thinking about behaviour by looking for the ‘scientiﬁc’ rules of society. Hobbes’ utopia is chilling – people are little more than automata impelled this way and that by mechanical forces. Scientiﬁc reasoning is the arbiter of social justice. Social theory put aside, Ball then charts the development of the mechanical philosophy of matter and explosion of statistical physics – the shift from Netwonian determininism to statistical science being what makes a physics of society possible. The table thus laid, most of the book then is concerned with how social scientists are applying such physical concepts to systems involving large numbers of people: the marvel that is human organisation. Ball discusses traﬃc ebb and ﬂow, pedestrian routes, shapes of cities, stock markets, multi-national alliances, political systems, the internet and our networks of friends and acquaintances. He explains, for example, how researchers are devising models from the physics of liquids and gases which can predict when and where congestion occurs and what form it will take. But Ball’s intriguing read is, thankfully, full of caveats. He asserts that the idea that we could ever construct a scientiﬁc ‘utopia theory’ is doomed to absurdity – we can’t build an ideal world from scientiﬁcally based traﬃc planning, market analysis or network designs. Models drawn from physics may ﬁnd their way into social science, but are not going to provide a comprehensive theory of society. “The physics of society is and can only be a tool, never a moral compass”. Oh… and I hope it is obvious to you, dear reader, that I did ﬁnd a copy of the book in the end. But I’m not revealing my secret for circumventing critical mass. ■
Writing’s on the Ball The Aventis Prize originated in 1988 as ‘The Science Book Prize’ to encourage readership of quality popular science.
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Gödel’s universe Over time, Alexander Antonov attempts to see the legacy of Gödel through the eyes of a philosopher. A World Without Time: The Forgotten Legacy of Gödel and Einstein by Palle Yourgrau
ALLEN LANE / ISBN 0-713-99387-1
ASCISTS WERE sometimes good at science, but that does not mean they should be taken seriously when they try their hand at philosophy. Or so a Harvard philosopher is reported to have said about the signiﬁcance of Kurt Gödel’s contributions to philosophy during a symposium dedicated to the great logician. The verdict was clear: inebriated by his skill at formal thought, Gödel had somehow got the idea that he was also qualiﬁed to contribute to philosophy. Palle Yourgrau sat in the audience and was not amused. In A World Without Time: The Forgotten Legacy of Gödel and Einstein, the Brandeis Professor of Philosophy undertakes to make the case for Gödel as philosopher. The evidence is scarce – just an article perversely entitled The Theory of Relativity and Kant and a handful
Gödel claimed that if general relativity is true, then time must be only an illusion.
of essays. In Yourgrau’s eyes, Gödel extends the lineage of idealistic philosophers from Parmenides and Plato to Leibniz and Kant. “The founders of modern science were not atheists,” Leibniz pointed out. Gödel’s urge to use the machinery of modern logic to recreate Leibniz’s famous argument for the existence of God would be his fatal ﬂaw. But that would come later. It started in the cafes of pre-war Vienna. While logical positivism, the Vienna circle’s ‘antiphilosophical philosophy’, was gathering momentum, Gödel already showed signs of subversiveness. He particularly objected to the positivist belief that language exhausted the scope of philosophical enquiry. Yourgrau sees an overarching ambition spanning Gödel’s work – “to establish by formal means the limits of formal methods in capturing intuitive concepts.” Yourgrau ﬁnds this in Gödel’s much-misunderstood incompleteness theorem, which dashed hopes that mathematics could be automated. A formal system, however comprehensive, could never capture all the intuitive truths of mathematics. Yourgrau devotes a signiﬁcant amount of space to explaining the theorem, yet not necessarily in terms accessible to the layman. He even launches into an outline of the proof since it is everyone’s “birthright” to enjoy it. The ﬁrst objective of the book is to introduce the curious article in which Gödel purported to show that Einstein’s relativity is a conﬁrmation of Kantian philosophy. Gödel claimed that if general relativity is true, then time cannot be real and must be only an illusion, a product of our minds. Kant, too, was sceptical about the reality of time. The second objective is to rediscover the historically neglected friendship between Gödel and Einstein. Yourgrau is ﬁghting on two fronts to convince the reader of the signiﬁcance of the article. On the one hand, he repeatedly asserts the physical validity of Gödel’s solutions to Einstein’s ﬁeld equations. On the other, he tries to make accessible and persuasive the train of thought that led Gödel to conclude time did not exist. However, Yourgrau uses more rhetoric than argument, and most would ﬁnd the logical jump between the possible and the necessary existence of a world without time slightly diﬃcult to swallow. While it is unlikely that Gödel, well-versed in both mathematics and physics, made a technical mistake in his solutions, the so-called Gödel, or rotating, universes that they describe are not necessarily
physically justiﬁed. Even if they are, the argument that since they are “not accidental” and possible, then they must necessarily exist, however much Yourgrau rehearses it, is not convincing. It is the same argument Leibniz used to prove the existence of God, and which Gödel would later attempt to frame in terms of formal logic. Yourgrau ﬁnds both a symmetry and an asymmetry with Gödel’s incompleteness theorem. Here again Gödel sought to undermine the foundations from within but arrived at a diﬀerent conclusion. With his incompleteness theorem he established the limits of formal mathematical systems in capturing mathematical truths. But here, he deduced the impossibility of time from the fact that time as understood in general relativity is not the same as our intuitive nottion of time. This asymmetry is puzzling. If Gödel’s ‘programme’ was to show the limits of formal methods in capturing intuitive concepts, then how does he demonstrate the impossibility of time by proving that relativity (a formal explanation) is inconsistent with our intuitive notion of time? It seems this only shows the limits of relativity in capturing the elusive idea of time, not the absence of time itself. Yourgrau, however, is sure everyone misunderstood Gödel, even his friends. He ﬁnds the neglect received by such a signiﬁcant contribution incomprehensible. Yourgrau’s explanation of this injustice verges on the conspiratorial. The silence that followed Gödel’s article was only to be broken by desperate attempts from physicists to reject the validity of his ﬁndings. The “redoubtable” Stephen Hawking apparently felt endangered enough by these results to postulate an “anti-Gödel amendment” ruling out their possibility. The reception in philosophical circles was even worse. It did not help that “Gödel had slept through not one but two Wittgenstein revolutions”, and that he was unwilling to pay lip-service to WVO Quine, the dominant ﬁgure of American philosophy. To the unrelentingly positivist background, Gödel’s à-la-Leibniz theism must have appeared inconsequential to the point of being oﬀensive. Yourgrau should not then be surprised that the present philosophical establishment still thinks Gödel’s contribution to philosophy amounted to “nothing”. The “covered-up” friendship between Einstein and Gödel motivates Gödel’s decision to take issue with the theory of relativity in the ﬁrst place. The bond between the two formed in their years together at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton. Yourgrau has many colourful anecdotes to recount about everyone involved. Einstein, for example, was “as satisﬁed by a good sausage as by a good theorem,” while Gödel found an inconsistency in the US constitution, which he conscientiously pointed out during his naturalisation ceremony. Yourgrau’s description of the context against which the events unfold is comprehensive yet lively and entertaining, if somewhat melodramatic. Some of his sententious comments are hilarious. “Sartre’s existentialists attempted bravely… to replace conscience with authenticity. The problem, of course, was that Hitler too was authentic”. We also learn that “the busy Lenin” was so perturbed by the idealistic tendencies in the work of the famous physicist Mach that he “took time out from the revolution” to criticise him in writing. This is a book of two halves, and undoubtedly the anecdotal one is more successful. Once Yourgrau gets into the philosophical forest, you may need a hatchet. It is diﬃcult to say that this popular version of Yourgrau’s 1991 book on the same topic has succeeded in its goal to acquaint “normal people” with Gödel’s ideas on relativity. ■
Kurt Gödel: master of his universe
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Poetic chemistry Tom Simonite reﬂects on how cold hard science can be expressed in the metaphors and imagery of poems. A Quark for Mister Mark: 101 Poems about Science
edited by M Riordan and J Turney FABER / ISBN 0-571-20542-9
HE SUBTITLE labels the poems in this collection as ‘about’ science, but the word ‘inspired’ might more accurately describe this excellent anthology and its eclectic contents. Put together by a poet interested in science and a science writer interested in poetry, it covers a surprising range of poetic and scientiﬁc styles, periods and subjects. Some sciences crop up more than others – nuclear physics is well covered as are cosmology and evolution – but those familiar with only the most arcane of disciplines shouldn’t worry. One of the collection’s greatest merits is that most of its content is not so much about science as about the more traditional, human concerns of poetry that speak to everyone. Having said that, a degree of what some dub ‘scientiﬁc literacy’ is sometimes useful to the reader. Everyone can grasp a nice poem about the dubious educational eﬀects of dated fashions in the pictures of chemistry text books. But the tale of a ravishing temptress with unusual topological properties reads best if party to certain background knowledge. “If you rise to the urgings of male intuition, you’ll ﬁnd yourself out every time you go in,” we are warned, but un-
Volatile history Simon Singh took time out to have a chat with I, Science about his new book. What’s Big Bang about? For thousands of years humans have wondered where everything has come from. Now, at last, we are the ﬁrst generation to have a reasonable, reliable, consistent, compelling and veriﬁable theory of the universe, its history, its evolution and origin. It is neither complete nor perfect, but it is basically correct and basically brilliant. I wanted to celebrate the Big Bang, explain what it is, reveal who came up with the idea and describe why cosmologists believe it is true. What inspired you to write the book? I was on a plane chatting to the person next to me and we started talking about life, the universe and everything. It suddenly struck me that this person was smart and curious, and yet he did not really know much about the Big Bang. In fact, he thought it was merely a speculative theory. I found this quite depressing. We are the Big Bang generation, so I wanted to make sure that people knew about this marvellous intellectual achievement.
less you’re familiar with the mÖbius strip – a circular twisted strip with one continuous surface – you’ll probably miss some of the fun. Not all the poems are as light-hearted – an enlightening spectrum of moods and attitudes are captured. The poetical approach is a powerful one, and this anthology demonstrates deﬁnitively that its strength is in no way diminished by proximity to the typically cold empiricism of science.
It should be on the shelves, be they in the lab or living room.
The best material is really eye-opening, bringing an invigoratingly fresh perspective to scientiﬁc material and engendering emotions or thoughts about science that are probably all too rare. A short work by Primo Levi brings black holes strikingly close to human aﬀairs. Lisel Mueller’s poem Monet Refuses the Operation raises questions about the ability of science to tell us with authority what is ‘real’ or ‘best’. “I will not return to a universe of objects that do not know each other, as if islands were not the children of one great continent,” says the impressionist master, declining to have a doctor remove the cataracts that gave him such a unique appreciation of light and form. Like the best science, this anthology is not a collection of writing that can be simply passively absorbed. It can make the readers think diﬀerently and attune them to possibilities that before never existed. At the same time, it manages to be superbly entertaining, whether dipped into occasionally or read in more lengthy sittings. It should certainly be on the shelves, be they in the lab or the living room, of anyone involved in science, and it is a credit to Imperial that the Haldane collection boasts four copies. The next time you’re in the library, why not freshen your perspective on science and check one out? ■
Poetic licence The line “Three quarks for Muster Mark...” appears in the book Finnegan’s Wake by James Joyce. Murray Gell-Mann later took the name ‘quark’ to classify the new particles.
the subject has to be comprehensible, which means I have a fair chance of explaining it to a non-expert. Fourth, the subject has to have a rich history, full of great characters and stories. My books are a mix of science and narrative, so this fourth point is important. Finally, there has to be something new about the subject. There are lots of books about the Big Bang, so you might wonder what is new about the Big Bang? Well, most books focus on the latest, speculative research, whereas I wanted to look back and examine what we already know and how we know it. I don’t think anybody has written an accessible historical overview of the Big Bang, which is why I think I am oﬀering something new. What other authors have influenced your style of writing? My writing style is probably based on my background in TV. For six years I worked at the BBC making programmes like Tomorrow’s World and Horizon, and when I made TV programmes I had to make sure that the content was clear and comprehensible, and I had to maintain a narrative in order to stop viewers changing channels. So when I started writing, I continued to place a strong emphasis on clarity and storytelling.
Singh: an IC product Simon Singh completed a degree in physics at Imperial in 1986. He is now a writer and broadcaster. His other books include Fermat’s Last Theorem and The Code Book.
What makes a scientific subject fascinating? The subjects I pick for my books have to ﬁt the following criteria. First, I have to be incredibly interested, as it will be a subject that will dominate my life for three years. Second, I have to be conﬁdent that the subject will interest the general public. Third,
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The colourful world of the honey possum
The honey possum is a tiny marsupial that lives oﬀ the nectar of ﬂowers. Emma-Lynn Donadieu reports on research at Imperial into its remarkable eyesight.
OOKING UP, he scans the top of the banksia until he ﬁnds what he is looking for: a blurry yellow cone. A quick check for predators, and he dashes nimbly up through the branches of the bushy shrub towards his next meal. Gripping a branch with his tail, he hangs upside-down as he manipulates the cone of ﬂowers with his tiny paws. With his long tongue, he licks up the delicious golden nectar. Honey possums, tiny marsupials found only in Western Australia, have a special relationship with Banksia, acting as one of its prime pollinators. Shrub and marsupial have special adaptations to ensure a successful relationship: banksia produces ﬂowers near the ground to encourage small mammals like the honey possum to feed; honey possums have thin snouts and a long tongue to access the nectar. Recent research by Dr Petroc Sumner, a scientist at Imperial College, suggests that honey possums have even evolved specially adapted colour vision to help them discriminate nectar carrying mature yellow Banksia ﬂowers, from immature green ones. Colour vision depends on the ability to diﬀerentiate between diﬀerent wavelengths of light. This task is carried out by cones – tiny cells in the retina at the back of the eye. Diﬀerent cones carry diﬀerent light sensitive protein pigments called opsins, making them sensitive to diﬀerent wavelengths
of light. The signals they produce enable the brain to identify colour. Humans and most old world primates have three diﬀerent kinds of opsin allowing them to discriminate between greens, blues and reds. Most other mammals have only two kinds, making them red-green colour-blind. Austrailan researcher Catherine Aresse recently discovered that, like us, honey possums and some other marsupials have three diﬀerent kinds of opsin. She speculated that their enhanced colour vision might help them in their search for food by allowing them to locate mature banksia ﬂowers more easily. To test Aresse’s speculatation, Sumner and a colleague measured the light spectrum reﬂected from banksia leaves and ﬂowers in the honey possum’s natural environment: Mount Lesueur National Park in Western Australia. Their equipment for collecting this data, nicknamed the ‘possum-eye-view’, consisted of a camera perched on a tiny tripod at honey possum eye level, linked by an optic cable to a spectrometer and laptop. They then ran models using this data to determine the optimum colour vision honey possums should have to give them the best chance of detecting the diﬀerence between mature and immature banksia ﬂowers. When they looked at the tuning of honey possum opsins, they found that the long wave pigments are tuned to give precisely
the colour discrimination ability needed for this task. In fact, honey possums could have better overall colour discrimination ability if their cones had evolved to be sensitive to even longer wavelengths. However, this would reduce their ability to discriminate mature from immature banksia ﬂowers. Sumner and colleagues suggest this reﬂects a strong selective pressure in favour of this ability. By being able to discriminate mature banksia ﬂowers from the ground, honey possums could save themselves an unnecessary climb through vegetation in full view of predators whilst they search for food. ■
Top honey possum facts • They have the largest testicles relative to their body mass of any mammal: 5% of their 8g body mass. • Honey possums have the largest sperm of any mammal and the smallest young at birth • Their lifespan is one year on average and never more than two
GET YOUR SCIENCE FIX I, science is your student science magazine. To get involved next year you can email email@example.com. We need writers, editors, and anyone else to contribute ideas. Help keep your free thinking science forum open. Summer 2005
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