I, science Issue 5 Summer 2006
The Imperial College Science Magazine
Genius or Madness?
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From the Editor
Issue 5 Summer 2006 Editor-in-chief Mun Keat Looi Section Editors
Crazy Kary Mullis
Imperial Features Letitia Hughes Helen Thomson
Three years ago, after yet another Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) had failed and science seemed a never-ending series of repetitive frustrations, a friend lent me a book, Dancing Naked in the Mind Field, by Kary Mullis, inventor of PCR.
External Features Katherine Nightingale Amber Bauer Stella Papadopoulou
Mullis, as it turns out, is one of those controversial figures of science. A distinguished biochemist and Nobel Prize winner, he likes his women and his surf, living the OC life down in Newport Beach, California. Undoubtedly a bit of a genius, some would say he is also a bit of a madman. But it’s that duality that makes him such a compelling figure.
Interviews Lilian Anekwe News and Events David Brill Opinion Duncan McMillan Daniela de Angel Reviews Helen Morant Web Editor Laura Goodall Graphics and Layout Amber Bauer Alex Antonov Liv Hov-Clayton Elizabeth Connor Laura Goodall Meera Senthilingam Advertising Manager Viviane Li Image Editors Gloria Jaconelli Tony Wu Illustrations and Cover Art Katherine Antoniw I, Science is produced and published in association with Felix, the student newspaper of Imperial College Felix Newspaper Beit Quad Prince Consort Road London SW7 2BB Tel: 020 7594 8072 Email: email@example.com Registered newspaper ISSN 1040-0711 Copyright © Felix 2006 Printed by St Ives Roche Ltd., Victoria Business Park, Roche, St. Austell, Cornwall PL26 8LX
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Kary Banks Mullis was born in Lenoir, North Carolina in December 1944. Every November he and his brothers would pick out a Christmas gift from a pile of their mother’s catalogues. One year young Kary’s eyes were drawn to a Gilbert Chemistry set. In his words: “Something about tubes filled with things with exotic names intrigued me. My objective with that set was to figure out what things I might put together to cause an explosion.” So it is that great thinkers begin. Mullis went on to study chemistry at Georgia and Biochemistry at Berkeley, where he later lectured. In 1979 he stumbled upon the idea for PCR. As he tells it, he conceived the idea cruising along the Pacific Coast Highway 128 in his Honda Civic late one night. His wife fast asleep in the passenger seat, he was mulling over new ways to analyse DNA mutations when he realised he had invented a way to amplify any DNA sequence. Pulling over in the cold night, he scribbled the idea on scrap paper from the glove compartment. Fourteen years later, Mullis received both the Nobel Prize for Chemistry and the Japan Prize for his work on PCR. The technique has revolutionised molecular biology. By allowing any DNA sequence to be copied and multiplied, easily and without needing a living organism, the many applications of the genomics era have become possible. Yet Mullis is as much known for his achievements as his outspoken views on non-biochemical topics. He doesn’t believe that global warming is caused by humans and decries the link between CFCs and the decay of the ozone layer. He is also said to be sceptical about the evidence linking HIV to AIDS. He could have been a witness in defence of OJ Simpson, but his experience with forensic DNA analysis was not called upon in the end. And one night, at a cabin in the remote Californian woods, a ‘glowing racoon’ appeared before him, greeting him, “Good Evening, Doctor.” The next thing he knew, several hours had passed. “I wouldn't try to publish a scientific paper about [the racoon], because I can't do any experiments,” he says in his autobiography, Dancing Naked in the Mind Field. “I can't make glowing raccoons appear. I can't buy them from a scientific supply house to study. I can't cause myself to be lost again for several hours. But I don't deny what happened. It's what science calls anecdotal, because it only happened in a way that you can't reproduce. But it happened.” Say what you will about Mullis’s views and eclectic experiences, but there is no doubting the impact of PCR or his commitment to science. His first thoughts after trying LSD were, “How could 1000 micrograms - one thousandth of a gram - of some chemical cause my entire fucking sensorium to undergo such incredible changes?” He says, “Science, like nothing else among the institutions of mankind, grows like a weed every year...We are the recipients of scientific method. We not only can luxuriate in its weed-like growth, but we can each of us be a creative and active part of it if we so desire. And we will. There is no stopping it, nor can there be any end to it.” ■ From such weird minds can everyday methods arise. Every so often you need a reminder that it’s not all boring lab work and textbooks. That’s what we’ve tried to do in I,science. Thanks to everyone who has contributed and assisted in the trenches this year. We’ve thoroughly enjoyed putting it together and we hope you’ve enjoyed reading it. ‘Til next year. Mun Keat Looi
1/6/06 11:14:53 am
Issue 5 Summer 2006
Features 8 What makes a Genius?
18 21st Century Ingineering
11 Pass me the scalpel, Mummy
20 L'Enfant Terrible of Biology
12 Beautiful Ramifications
23 Aubrey de Great: Defeating Death
The ambitious tree of life project. Why don't you make like a tree and leaf?
He says we will soon live to 1000. And he has a tremendous beard.
14 Coffee-Break Logic
24 Scientists with Stars in their Eyes
Why are humans so addicted to puzzle-solving? And why the hell can't I do Sudoku?
Imperial has its own Famelab finalist. Now if we can just get someone in the Big Brother house....
16 The New GM
25 Who Cares about Science in the Media?
There's a fine line between genius and madness, apparantly. Not sure which side the I,sci staff is on... Medical students do act like children sometimes. Akrit Jaswal, however, is actually 12 years old.
Restaurants using science to make food more interesting? Makes a change from beans on toast.
Chris Wise talks structural engineering.
Social Evolution, Jamaican women, mental illness and the Black Panthers. All in a life's work for Robert Trivers.
Ben Goldacre does, that's for sure. I,science receives his ire.
Regulars 4-7 News and Events
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I, science 1/6/06 11:16:34 am
NEWS & EVENTS OPINIONS INTERVIEWS
News from Imperial.... Out of this world MAY: Astrophysicists from Imperial College have found that a day on Saturn lasts approximately 10 hours and 47 minutes – eight minutes longer than the time detected by NASA's Voyager in 1980. Saturn’s rotation time was previously
estimated using the planet’s radio signals. But Saturn is a gas giant and its rotation is notoriously difficult to track. Its gaseous surface is constantly moving and this interferes with the radio signals. The team, an international collaboration involving UCLA and NASA, used a magnetometer on the Cassini spacecraft to detect Saturn’s magnetic field instead. The field is unaffected by surface fluctuations, since it is generated deep inside the liquid The editor models his new invisibility cloak. core. The magnetometer detected periodic magnetic signals for the first time and the researchers could calculate Saturn’s rotation time more accurately. Until now, it was thought that the Earth’s MAY: Harry Potter’s invisibility cloak may large tilt – the angle between the magnetic not be so far-fetched after all. dipole axis (the force detected by compasses) Two leading mathematicians have claimed and the rotational axis – was needed to that we may one day be able to make solid constantly generate its magnetic field. objects invisible to the naked eye. The theory “Saturn only has a tiny tilt, so the real relies on developing a cloaking material using question is how can the internal field of superlenses, invented at Imperial College. Saturn continue to be generated?” explains The team, led by Professor Graeme Milton Professor Michele Dougherty. “We’re hoping at Utah University, calculated that when that the rotation rate of the field will help us objects are placed near a superlens, the light get a better idea of what’s going on inside.” reflecting off them could be cancelled out by LG light from the lens. “Effectively, they are making a piece of Imperial, lead researcher on the team. space seem to disappear, at least as far as “These results show that cannabinoids are light is concerned,” explained Professor effective, and may lead to the development Sir John Pendry of Imperial, pioneer of the of a wider range of drugs to manage superlens. postoperative pain.” At this early stage the paper, published in The drug, Cannador, was tested on 65 post- the Proceedings of the Royal Society, refers operative patients. As the dosage increased, only to cloaking specks of dust, although the pain intensity reportedly decreased. There authors do argue that larger objects could were however some side effects, such as one day be possible. The effect only works nausea, increased heart rate and an insatiable at certain wavelengths of light however, and craving for Cheesy Wotsits. some objects could become just partially invisible. Professor Pendry commented on the potential uses for the technology: “The secret be highly effective… potentially saving many is having the cloak itself be invisible and if lives,” said Professor Neil Ferguson. you can do that cheaply and efficiently… it School closures alone would have little would be extremely valuable for stealth. Even impact, but could halve the number of if you could cloak a single frequency, it would illnesses if combined with a wide antiviral be very useful. The military is extremely drug program. Restricting travel would also interested in this.” have a beneficial effect. “We will do everything in our powers to The model, published in Nature, suggests prevent this technology from falling into that vaccines should be made available within muggle hands,” said a spokesperson from the two months of the start of the pandemic to Ministry of Magic. effectively reduce infection rates.
Now you see it...
Pot-ential pain relief MAY: An extract from the cannabis plant provides effective pain relief after surgery, according to new research published in Anesthesiology. “Pain after surgery continues to be a problem because many of the commonly used drugs are either ineffective or have too many side effects,” said Dr Anita Holdcroft of
Flu good to be true APRIL: A flu pandemic in the UK would peak in two or three months but be over in four, according to researchers at Imperial. The team modelled how the disease would spread, considering preventive measures such as treatment, school closures and travel restrictions. “The modelling shows there is no single magic bullet which can control a flu pandemic, but that a combination of interventions could
Model of flu spread in the UK. Red indicates infection, green indicates recovery.
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1/6/06 11:19:36 am
NEWS & EVENTS
...and beyond Sexy women - bad choice
Oi, Flipper! MAY: Dolphins seem to have specific names for each other, according to new research carried out in Florida. The discovery gives a new insight into the animals’ intelligence and social interactions. “Bottlenose dolphins are the only animals other than humans to have been shown to transmit identity information independent of the caller’s voices,” said researcher Dr. Vincent Janik, of the University of St. Andrews. The group of dolphins has been closely studied for more than 30 years. Researchers had previously managed to isolate the signature whistles believed to be their names. They caught the animals in nets when they came near the shore, and played synthesized recordings of these sounds underwater. They found that the dolphins generally ignored the ‘names’ of unknown animals, but responded strongly to those of family and associates. “It is a very exciting discovery because it means that these animals have evolved the
APRIL: The damaging effects of women on hearts, cars and credit cards are well documented. But it seems that men’s ability to make important decisions may also be under threat. A new study suggests that the mere sight of a pretty lady could be enough to wreak havoc on a man’s judgement. Men with high levels of testosterone appear particularly susceptible. “We all think we are rational beings, but our research suggests ... that people with high testosterone levels are very vulnerable to sexual cues. If they see sexual images they become impulsive,” said Dr. Siegfried De Witte, one of the researchers at the University of Leuven, Belgium. The paper appeared in Proceedings of the Royal Society B. 176 heterosexual males were split into groups to play a game that involved making financial decisions. The groups were shown different images before playing the game. Volunteers shown pictures of beautiful women, or asked to rate a new range of lingerie, fared poorly at the game, being more likely to accept low offers and unfair play. Testosterone levels were also measured. Those with the highest levels performed worst on the test, suggesting that men’s vulnerability to women may extend beyond
Gone with the wind APRIL: Venezuelan scientists appear to have created flatulence-free beans. The research, published in the Journal of the Science of Food and Agriculture, utilises a new fermentation technique. Beans produced in this way were also found to be more nutritious. “The implementation of processes which allow for nutritious and non-flatulence-producing beans to be obtained would be interesting,” said Marisela Granito, head of the team at the Simon Bolivar University. Certain compounds, such as soluble fibre and raffinose, are not digested until the large
their conscious control. Conversely, it is not yet known whether the sight of attractive men can affect a woman’s judgement. Rumours of a repeat study, where women must take critical decisions to match shoes with dresses and handbags, have not been confirmed.
intestine, where the action of specialised bacteria gives rise to wind. But the researchers found that adding Lactobacillus casei bacteria to the fermentation process reduces the amount of these compounds. The new beans also had higher levels of insoluble fibre, thought to aid the digestive system in removing toxins. It could be some time before the beans are commercially available. Students concerned about excessive gas in the meantime should not worry. “Despite the obvious social concerns, there is no physiological harm from the flatulence caused by eating beans,” explains Dr. Frankie Phillips, a spokeswoman for the British Dietetic Association.
Truth not out there MAY: Four years, £100,000, 10,000 interviews and 500 pages later, the Ministry of Defence has concluded that UFOs do not exist. The top-secret study, code-named Project Condign, was commissioned to investigate sightings of alien spacecraft. It was completed in 2000 but has only just been released under the Freedom of Information Act. “Evidence suggests that meteors… and possibly some other less-known effects, are responsible for some unidentified aerial phenomena,” concludes the report. “No evidence exists to suggest that the phenomena seen are hostile or under any type of control, other than that of natural physical forces.” The large number of UFO sightings has
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also been explained: “The close proximity of plasma related fields can adversely affect a vehicle or person,” states the report. “Local fields of this type have been medically proven to cause responses in the temporal lobes of the human brain. These result in the observer sustaining (and later describing and retaining) his or her own vivid, but mainly incorrect, description of what is experienced.” Many believers will remain skeptical at the report’s conclusions. “The evidence that the earth is being visited by at least one extraterrestrial civilization is extensive,” claims Dr. Steven Greer, director of the Center for the Study of Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence in the USA.
I, science 5 1/6/06 11:20:25 am
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8/3/06 7:43:00 pm
NEWS & EVENTS
The Body Never Lies Lilian Anekwe
12 APRIL– 31 JULY: Earl’s court exhibition centre is currently running Bodies: The exhibition. Too few bodies were donated to the causes of anatomy to actually fill the grand hall, but there are still plenty to see and many thoughts to be provoked. After all, isn’t this science communication at its simplest and best? Get a load of bodies, preserve them, stick them on a plinth and charge people to gawk at them. From that description ‘Bodies’ ought to be an exhibition grounded firmly in poor taste, but reassuringly there is more to it than that. Visitors may already be familiar with the science of plastination from Gunther von Hagen’s BodyWorlds exhibition (not affiliated with Bodies). To preserve the specimens, first the water and fat are removed and replaced with acetone. Next, the specimen is placed in a lowpressure vacuum where the acetone evaporates and is replaced with silicone. The result is a body preserved intact, which does not smell or decay, and still has many of its original features. Eyebrows, hair and nails for
van Gogh: A Cut Above the Rest | “Was van Gogh a genius because of, or despite his madness?” This and other questions were explored as Vincent van Gogh - his paintings, life and mental history –were put up for discussion at the Dana Centre on May 17th. Professor Anthony Slinn reincarnated the artist in a series of vivid enactments of van Gogh’s life. His stormy artistic relationship with Paul Gaugin, which drove him to cut off his earlobe, and his (probably unintentional) suicide two years later, provided plenty of fruit for the subsequent discussion led
example. The exhibits at Bodies still have many things that are associated with living people. Dead people have no need for nipples, surely. So why cut the rest of the skin off and leave them attached? The effect is oddly disquieting; you know you are looking at what used to be a living, breathing person, except now they’re dead, skinned and arranged to look like they’re playing rugby. There is much more to the exhibition than gruesomeness and the macabre. The event is designed as an ‘up close and personal’ look at the wonders of the human body and to encourage us not to take it for granted. There are exhibits on the damage caused by lung and skin cancer and the effect of excessive drinking on the liver. Visitors also have the chance to look at the impact conditions like Alzheimer’s disease, strokes and heart disease have on the brain and the heart. The embryos are the most controversial exhibit. This is a rare chance to see a baby’s development, from conception to birth. Those who prefer not to see this particular exhibit can follow a different route through the hall and avoid it. Anatomy has been described as a dying science; the days of public autopsies and surgeries are long gone. Bodies offers a unique chance to look at ourselves from a different perspective and ponder just how amazing we all are.
by Chris Kennard, Imperial Professor of neuroscience and psychological medicine. Without the advantage of having the patient to hand, Dr Michael Maier, senior lecturer at the Imperial College division for neurosciences and mental health, ventured to diagnose van Gogh, suggesting a whole host of possible ailments. He may have suffered from one or more conditions, including epilepsy, schizophrenia, psychosis and possibly even syphilis. Similarly, it is hard to come to any conclusions as to whether his madness drove
his creativity or not. It was pointed out that mental illness can be completely debilitating: Silvia Plath apparently was unable to write at all during her low periods. Yet van Gogh’s creativity appeared undiminished during his less stable periods. He completed more than one painting and several drawings a day in the two months prior to his suicide. Of course, we can only speculate. If the artist was alive and not well today, we might have gained a more comprehensive insight into his brilliant artistic mind.
I, science 7 1/6/06 11:23:11 am
NEWS & EVENTS OPINIONS INTERVIEWS
What Make s We might have all wanted to be one at some point, but what exactly is a genius? And what makes them that way? Elizabeth Connor delves into brains and spirituality to find out.
enius: geek, mythical figure, magician, lunatic, socially challenged intellectual, or a mere social construct? What is this thing we call genius? Where does it come from? Is it a gift or a choice? Can it be cultivated? During the last two years we’ve had a double-whammy of genius anniversaries. Last year it was 100 years since Einstein’s wonder year, when he wrote three of the most influential papers in the history of physics, including the revelation of E=mc2 . This year it is 350 years since Mozart was born, giving us a great opportunity to explore the enigmatic phenomena that is genius. One thing to make clear from the beginning is that genius is not the same as intelligence. Several studies have shown that it requires a certain level of IQ, but past that point there is no correlation. Genius involves a certain x-factor; it requires creativity, hard work, fearless determination and an ability to come up with unique ways of looking at things. A recent talk at the Science Museum’s Dana Centre, ‘Creating Brains: The science of genius’, gathered a group of scientists, writers and artists to address some of the questions regarding genius: Where does creativity come from? Can anybody be creative? Tim Radford, former science editor for The Guardian, chaired the discussion. The panel was made up of Nancy Andreasen, a distinguished neuroscientist and professor at the University of Iowa who has just written a book on the science of genius; David Barrie, the director of the National Art Collection Fund; Dr. Daniel Glaser, a neuroscientist at University College London; and Ken Arnold, head of public programmes at the Wellcome Trust. Unsurprisingly, they didn’t arrive at any concrete answers. Like in any good discussion, the questions only multiplied and genius emerged as a many-faced beast. Both David Barrie and Daniel Glaser are of the opinion that genius is a sort of social construct. “Genius is an unhelpful, historically, socially, and culturally specific designation,” Glaser said. They suggested that a society selects its geniuses according to subjective standards – a suspicious, even sinister process. “Obviously there are some very great figures like Shakespeare and Dante …who rise above the surface,” Barrie said, “But there’s something quite odd going on there too. With Shakespeare, for example, he’s gotten into a position where he’s literally unassailable. The system, the whole weight of authority that has built up over the last two to three hundreds years has made it impossible for anyone ever to rival him.” As soon as a
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person is named a genius then a myth starts to form around them until, pretty soon, the real person is entirely concealed. Both Einstein and Mozart have become more myths than men. The stories we tell of them are loaded with almost biblical paradox. We hear of Einstein’s failures at school and his lowly profession as a patent clerk, and yet we marvel at the unrivalled brilliance of his insights as if they were immaculate conceptions. With Mozart, as in Milos Forman’s popular movie Amadeus, we see a flitty, insubstantial man incapable of taking anything seriously, who happened to compose some inexplicably divine music. ‘Genius’ can become a convenient way of describing what people do, which avoids looking at how they got to where they are.
“One thing to make clear from the beginning is that genius is not the same as intelligence.” The irony of it is that myths about geniuses get woven into the very fabric of orderly society they once pulled apart. When Darwin first presented his theory of evolution it challenged the established way of thinking, whereas now it is almost taboo to challenge it. What is doubly ironic is that it is exactly these constraints that seem to fire creative genius into action. According to Ken Arnold, “Creativity is measuring itself against rules and external constraints. The prompt to creativity is frustration.” Nothing encourages creativity more than being told you can’t do something. But none of this discussion has illuminated the internal workings of a genius. Where do these extraordinary thoughts come from? Tim Radford thought that “it must have started somewhere in the brain” and looked to the neuroscientists for answers in the hope that we could “go home and get ourselves fitted with the necessary genetic material.” Unfortunately they didn’t oblige, but they did throw up some interesting ideas. According to Daniel Glaser, we’ve been trying for years to analyse the brain in isolation from the world and we are only just beginning to look at it in context. “It’s a hugely complicated problem and haunted by subjectivity. It’s impossible to separate the observer from the experiment.” Glaser suggested that “once we understand how the brain works, the kinds of questions we asked
1/6/06 11:33:16 am
NEWS & EVENTS
e s a Genius? about the brain will come to seem foolish.” Less conventional sources have offered their own explanations of creativity. In the film What the bleep do we know!?, Joe Dispenza, author, chiropractor and member of ‘Ramtha’s School of Enlightenment’, says, “The brain is made of tiny nerve cells called neurons. These neurons have tiny branches that reach out and connect to other neurons to form a neuro-net.”
“Creativity is measuring itself against rules and external constraints. The prompt to creativity is frustration.” During a thought, electric impulses spark between the branches and the neuron receptor sites, like thunderbolts. Ideas and feelings are all constructed and interconnected in this neuro-net. Now although we rewire and re-integrate our neuro-nets on a daily basis, the way we do it becomes enormously habitual. As Dispenza says, “Nerve cells that fire together wire together.” Ideas and associations become so ingrained that we don’t even realize they are there. He suggests that by intense observation and conscious, consistent choice it is possible to interrupt and alter this habitual re-wiring process. “The brain,” he says, “Processes 400 billion bits of information per second but we’re only aware of 2000 of these.” So once the brain breaks free of its habitual patterns of thinking, once we begin to question basic assumptions, there is a whole new world to experience - our creative potential is unleashed. Nancy Andreasen also talked about neuroconnections in the brain but she relates creativity to the unconscious rather than the conscious mind. Even when we think we’re not thinking, she says, our subconscious brains are chugging away. In the state of tranquillity or rest, which she calls Random Episodic Silent Thought, “the association quartises, which are there in our brains to link together ideas from various domains, are the most active. This can be understood in terms of chaos theory – the brain becomes disorganised and then spontaneously reorganises.” A lot of the creative people she has spoken to during her research confirm that ideas arise in moments of tranquillity. Is genius all about play? This is what Ken Arnold thinks. He quotes the book Homo Ludens, saying that “all of science, art and the rest of creativity could be squirreled back to this initial notion of playfulness.” This opens up the idea that there’s a great richness in error. As Thomas Henry Huxley said, “The secret of genius is to carry the spirit of childhood into maturity.” It does seem to be a common trait of geniuses that they’re not afraid of failing. They follow their own
intuition with fearless abandon. But what are the dangers of courting genius? It is a common idea that genius is linked with mental illness. Are all creative people slightly insane? Nancy Andreasen’s research has shown that creative people are far more likely to suffer from depression and their families are more prone to mental illness. Yet Ken Arnold was not satisfied with all the brain talk. He feels that looking for a logical explanation of creativity is a trap, and perhaps there is a spiritual way of thinking about it. Mozart himself seemed conscious of a spiritual aspect to his talent. In a letter to his father, he said, “God is ever before my eyes. If it is according to His will, so let it be according to mine.” His view of genius was that “neither a lofty degree of intelligence, nor imagination, nor both together to the making of genius. Love, love, love, that is the soul of genius.” This spiritual theme is continued in this quote from a school friend of Mozart’s: “When his violin began to sing, the walls of the room seemed to recede – for the first time, Mozart in all his purity appeared before me, bathed in Hellenic beauty with its pure lines, roguishly playful, mightily sublime.” Einstein said Mozart’s music was “so pure that it seemed to have been ever-present in the universe, waiting to be discovered by the master.” He sought this same ‘pre-established harmony’ in his physics.
“Once we begin to question basic assumptions, there is a whole new world to experience - our creative potential is unleashed.” These more spiritual descriptions of genius seem to point towards an existing order and harmony in the universe – simple and beautiful – that is revealed to the genius mind and preferences this harmony above the genius. Simone Weil, a 20th century philosopher, described genius as humility of thought. She felt that only when the mind stops thinking it knows, is it open to learning something new. Instead of piling up more and more information, all the hard work goes into clearing away the false ideas. What is left is a receptive instrument ready to tune into the harmony in nature. So does genius lie in being open to the ideas that mere mortals refuse to entertain? Neither of these explanations – the biological or the spiritual – fully answers the question of genius. The Dana Centre evening ended with questions still prickling through the air; genius remains a mystery. Perhaps the only way to really find out what it is, is to become one. Now there’s a challenge for you. ■
I, science 9 1/6/06 11:33:57 am
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8/3/06 8:27:49 pm
NEWS & EVENTS
Pass me the scalpel Mummy History is littered with tales of child prodigies. In 2005, Imperial College welcomed 12-year-old Akrit Jaswal. Meera Senthilingam
© Matt Groening
E ALL have special memories of our childhood - falling off our bike, fighting siblings, collecting tadpoles… But a minority of the world’s children have very different childhood memories. They involve playing orchestral concerts, working effortlessly through calculus, or reading Shakespeare while their peers are learning the alphabet. These are the lives of child prodigies. Last year Professor Mustafa Djamgoz and his team here at Imperial College were able to meet such a child: 12-year old Akrit Jaswal, India’s youngest university student. Akrit hit the media spotlight when he was seven years old for performing surgery on a village girl whose fingers had been fused to her hands at a young age. He sped through schooling and is currently studying for a BSc at the age of 12 at Chandigarh University, India. But what is at the core of such a prodigious child? Mr Anup Patel, consultant Urological surgeon at St Mary’s Hospital, London describes how, “Akrit sees and reads things that immediately register in the pathways whilst many of us have to do this several times before it sticks.” He explains how children like Akrit are “often thrust into a much older peer group because that’s where they are intellectually, although physically and emotionally they might not be there yet.” When asked what he did in his spare time; Akrit replied that he mostly reads, because his university peers were usually out with their girlfriends. We all see stereotypes of these children in fictional tales. We see characters such as Lisa Simpson and Matilda, heroic through their knowledge but often socially excluded. Dr David Feldman of Tufts University, Massachusetts stresses, “films about prodigies often reflect myths and fantasies rather than reality.” But, if a child has an IQ above 145, friends do not usually share their interests in a particular field. As intelligence increases the number of peers on their level falls, making comp anionship difficult, often leading to withdrawal. On the other hand, if these children are not moved up through school they could lose all interest
in the institution. The IQ test is the standard procedure used to identify prodigies and geniuses, but critics argue that IQ only measures some aspects of intelligence. Akrit was tested on his visit to England, and whilst his scores placed him well above average for general knowledge, he was below average in his interpretive thinking. Although this highlighted the need for Akrit to obtain manual dexterity skills Mr Patel agrees, “IQ testing is more geared towards conventional testing for mass groups rather than individuals with particular gifts.” Critics also state such testing is culturally biased. The systems in place in different cultures mean the course of acknowledgement and development of child prodigies can vary. Akrit came to light in the public eye because of his surgery - an act that would have never been allowed over here. Through this fame he was able to meet Indian officials and visit top Indian research centres. But on his visit to the UK he was not allowed to observe surgery in operating theatres because of his age, regardless of the fact he had performed such acts himself. There are still many prodigies that surface here in the UK but Mr Patel states how, “the system here is less conducive to accelerating people of that nature…[as] a basic foundation needs to be developed first.”
“Akrit designed numerous molecular structures for his cancer cure.” Along with cultural factors are those of the environment the child is brought up in. There is debate about how much of a prodigy’s talent is innate and how much is nurture. Are they born with superior skills or do they develop with the intense practice that follows? According to Dr Feldman, “we know less about prodigies than about learning disabilities, autism and many other topics.” Studies by American psychologists Michael O’Boyle and Harnam Singh on mathematical prodigies showed increased metabolic activity in the right side of their brains - an area crucial for pattern recognition and special awareness. Students also found it easier to combine information from both sides of the brain. However the studies do not reveal causal connections for such intelligence, only correlations, and so research is still minimal. Feldman explains how in the cases he has encountered “at least one parent is totally devoted to…fulfilling a child’s promise and responding to their needs.” Feldman proposes that children are able to compete at adult levels in highly structured fields such as music. Open-
ended areas such as scientific research are more difficult as they require experience and abstract thinking. Akrit designed numerous molecular structures for his cancer cure but he lacked the interpretive thinking to make them testable. But, unlike more mature intellectuals, Patel describes Akrit as “having confidence and infallibility along with unhindered enthusiasm.” His excitement at the prospects of testing an idea is something often weakened in older scientists. So what happens as these children enter adulthood? They are soon in competition with people not much older and their field can become increasingly difficult. Prodigies are under constant pressure and, as Mr Patel explains, “most of us have peaks and troughs but the expectation…[of these children] is to maintain a high level of performance all the time.” Removal from other children at a young age means prodigies like Akrit “cannot enjoy the imaginary side of childhood,” affecting them both socially and in the development of their work. There are examples such as fourteen-year old Sufiah Yusof who ran away in her second year at St Hilda’s college, Oxford blaming her parents for ruining her childhood with constant training and endless pressure. Patel describes how these children are “diluted by the age factor as they grow up…once the novelty factor disappears ideas need to stand up on their own.” For this reason Mr Patel stresses the importance for children like Akrit to have “a foundation based on a BSc, an MSc and a PhD, then only can they really begin.” ■
A Child Prodigy is... ...Someone who, by the age of roughly 11, displays expert proficiency or a profound grasp of the fundamentals in a field usually only undertaken by adults.
I, science 11 1/6/06 4:44:56 pm
NEWS & EVENTS OPINIONS INTERVIEWS
Beautiful Ramifications “As buds give rise by growth to fresh buds, and these if vigorous, branch out and overtop on all sides many a feebler branch, so by generation, I believe it has been with the great Tree of Life, which fills with its dead and broken branches the crust of the earth, and covers the surface with its ever branching and beautiful ramifications” Charles Darwin, The Origin of Species, 1859
ifty-five million dollars seems expensive for a tree. Yet if the tree could help scientists focus biological research, track the origin and spread of disease, develop new medicines and agrochemical products, conserve species, and restore ecosystems, it doesn’t seem like such a bad deal. The $55 million tree will be the intended result of an ambitious, multidisciplinary program launched by the US National Science Foundation (NSF) in 2002. The project, termed Assembling the Tree of Life (AToL), is part of a massive effort to pull together a family tree for all 1.75 million known living species. In doing so, it is hoped some understanding of the tree of life and what our place is in nature will be achieved. With a 15 to 20 year timeline, the project encompasses interdisciplinary research across fields as diverse as genomics, computer science, engineering, mathematics and
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Stella Papadopoulou informatics, earth sciences, and developmental and environmental biology. The NSF refers to the project as ‘megascience’, an initiative whose implications could surpass those of the Human Genome Project or a mission to Mars. It promises to be a substantial international research program involving thousands of biologists. One of modern science’s most profound concepts is that all of life, from the smallest microorganism to the largest mammal, is genetically connected in a vast evolutionary genealogy which includes all living and extinct species. In biology, ‘phylogenies’ are used to show the genealogic relationships between living things. Charles Darwin discussed evolutionary relationships among species in his Origin of Species. The only illustration in the book was of a phylogeny depicted as a tree. The concept of phylogenetics and Darwin’s tree imagery was taken up with enthusiasm by subsequent biologists, highlighted by Ernst Haeckel’s famous publication of ‘trees’ in 1866. The Tree of Life remains a strong metaphor for heredity both in scientific and public spheres.
At present, we know relatively little about the phylogenetic relationships between all the species on Earth. Although 1.75 million have been described, only 60 to 70 thousand of them have been closely studied and it is estimated that ten million remain undiscovered. This lack of knowledge places resolving the Tree of Life as among the most complex scientific problems facing biology and presents challenges much greater than those faced in the task of sequencing the Human Genome. Obviously, the size and complexity of this endeavour will require sufficient human resources and international collaboration. Building a phylogenetic tree relies on using mathematical methods to infer relationships between species from ‘homologous characters’ - features that two or more species share due to common ancestry. Contemporary species are compared with each other and to those in the fossil record. In doing so, it offers a window into the evolutionary history of life on our planet. “In essence, the Tree of Life is a large, evergrowing database of various data that can be ‘viewed’ in the shape of a tree”, states Alfried
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FEATURES REVIEWS Vogler, a researcher at the Natural History Museum in London. Until the 1970s, which brought the dawn of molecular techniques for sequencing proteins and DNA, phylogenetic reconstruction was based on comparative analysis of homologous features of different species. For example, morphological features or features of species’
organs can be compared. The limited number of reliable features from which the degree of phylogenetic relationships could be inferred have hampered this approach. In the 1970s the introduction of molecular data, gained from sequencing, into phylogenetic analysis led to a revolution. By the late 1980s, access to DNA sequences had increased the number of homologous characters that could be compared from less than 100 to 1000, greatly improving the reliability with which relationships could be inferred. Since then, we have mapped entire genomes, including our very own 3.5-billionnucleotide-long genetic blueprint, in which each nucleotide makes a distinct homologous character to use for comparison. We have now reached a turning point. The convergence of advances in phylogenetic analysis, comparative genomics, bioinformatics and information
processing have made possible for the first time the construction of a robust Tree of Life using supercomputer clusters to depict the genealogical relationship of all known species, living as well as extinct. Assembling an accurate universal tree depicting the relationships of all life on Earth, from microbes to man, would potentially improve human health, push the frontiers of comparative developmental biology, meet threats to agriculture and forestry from invasive species and pests and improve management of our natural resources. “It would be the foundation for all biological sciences” explains Vogler “because you always in some way make some comparison to something else.” Applying comparisons means that scientists would be able to make predictions about a certain species based on how it is related to other species on the Tree. In Australia, for instance, phylogenetic trees are being used to develop effective antivenins, antidotes to snake venom (venin) used to treat serious snakebites. There are more poisonous snakes in Australia than any other continent and many die from snakebites every year. Luckily, venin properties correlate strongly with phylogenetic relationships and as a result, bites caused by closely related snakes can effectively be treated with the same antivenin. “It [the Tree of Life] would have a huge impact on the understanding of any biological and biomedical discipline. Like the Human Genome project, once you have it, you use it,” Vogler noted. Despite the Tree’s enormous potential and value for science and society, the European
“The Tree of Life remains a strong metaphor for heredity both in scientific and public spheres.”
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AToL counterpart was terminated when it failed to attract sufficient funding. Vogler thinks this is due to a failure to understand its potential, or perhaps more cynically because of a lack of funding for science which isn’t in vogue. “It seems that a lot of people don’t understand the idea, which is really surprising. For instance we name all the craters on Mars or all the stars in the sky which I really don’t see an immediate benefit from.”
“The Tree of Life would have a huge impact on the understanding of any biological and biomedical discipline. Like the Human Genome project, once you have it, you use it.” “In the case of building the Tree, this is our planet, our environment and we should know more about it because that knowledge can be used in so many ways. It’s beyond me why we don’t have it going at this stage,” he says. European funding or not, the American project is making progress. It is hoped that the applications of the project will be recognised and the Tree of Life can branch across both disciplines and countries, surely a fitting legacy to Darwin’s vision. ■
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NEWS & EVENTS OPINIONS INTERVIEWS
Are you a Sudoku addict? Kerri Smith puzzles over our obsession with problem-solving.
ou may not know your ‘swordfish’ from your ‘pointing pairs’, but chances are you’ve made use of strategies like these to solve a Sudoku lately. It’s not a tricky concept – fill in each of the squares on a 9 x 9 grid, using the numbers 1-9, so that each digit features once in each column, once in each row and once in each small 3 x 3 square. Since its launch in The Times in November 2004, the little square grid puzzle has become a ubiquitous sight on commuter trains and in coffee shops, from Dover to Dunfermline. It seems that we still can’t get enough of those Samurais, Killers and Shoguns – as this year’s Pure Logic Sudoku Championship, held in Covent Garden, London, goes to show. Solving these compulsive puzzles is something that comes quite naturally to the winner of the championship, David McCrea, a maths graduate from Beckenham. What an unfair advantage, you might think (maths, not Beckenham). But you don’t need to be a number whiz to get good at knowing where your digits go. All it takes is a particular propensity for logic – something for which, as it turns out, the human brain has rather a penchant. We use the kind of thinking that goes into successful Sudoku solving every day of our lives. Although they might seem like nobrainer tasks, remembering the social ties that connect you to the people you meet, prioritising your to-do list for the day or even following that simple old lasagne recipe, let alone helping with algebra homework or solving a cryptic crossword (as if!) are pretty demanding activities in terms of logic. So it makes sense that there are some parts of the brain that handle this kind of
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thing. Speaking as someone who was once accused of having had a logic bypass, I’m not convinced my own are really up to scratch. I’ve rarely solved any but the easiest of Sudokus. That said, I get an enormous sense of satisfaction if anything I do that involves numbers comes up trumps. Some small and squeaky cogs must be turning somewhere. And they’re most likely to be rotating, slowly but surely, in my frontal cortex, explains Dr Matthew Rushworth, a neuroscientist at Oxford University. “When people have looked at brain activation patterns that occur when people are trying to solve problems, they’ve found networks of activation in frontal and parietal areas of the brain.”
“It is human nature to put ideas and thoughts into boxes in order to make sense of the world more easily.” These same areas are also good at finding relationships between series of different patterns, or predicting what element will appear next in a series, according to an experiment by John Duncan and colleagues, from the MRC Brain Sciences Unit in Cambridge. The team used PET scanning to explore which brain areas were active when people were asked to pick the ‘odd one out’ from a group of elements, again finding that frontal and parietal areas reacted most strongly.
Not a Sudoku cortex as such. But this does go some way to explaining why the pesky puzzles inspire such obsession. We’re programmed to be good at just this sort of ‘everything in its right place’ thinking. Francis Bacon, the seventeenth century legend behind the modern scientific method of gathering data first and drawing conclusions later, beat neuroscientists to this suggestion by several hundred years, saying that it is human nature to put ideas and thoughts into boxes in order to make sense of the world more easily. But why do we love doing it so much? In evolutionary terms it might have been a handy skill. Being able to spot patterns and fill in any missing bits along the way helps us out in all sorts of situations. We can recognise people we know just by their voice, or the clothes they wear. We can generalise past patterns (fingers in toaster = burnt and painful) to new situations (come across toaster = careful where you put your hands), using them to learn from our experiences. And we can even extend this to using arbitrary patterns – written words, for example – to communicate with each other, safe in the knowledge that the pattern formed by the letters TOASTER is something we all know to put bread in, and not fingers. But this pattern-solving capability of ours isn’t exactly low-maintenance. It needs a massive support network in many different regions of the brain in order to run smoothly. Luckily, lots of the integral aspects of it are already being used for other skills. Dr Neil Stewart, a psychologist at Warwick University, puts working memory at the top of his list. Working memory allows us to hold information at the front of our minds whilst using it to complete a particular task. “In a Sudoku puzzle, one needs to hold some digits in mind whilst examining the possibilities for filling in squares,” he says. “This ability to hold information in mind, whilst working on a problem, is a prime piece of the mental toolbox that makes us clever. Rather unsurprisingly, if you’re good at Sudoku, you’re probably a clever person.” But why is it that entering the last number in a tricky Sudoku grid feels so satisfying? This goes back to the ‘everything in its right place’ compulsion that humans have. One distinctly human characteristic, language, uses categorisation as a fundamental prop. It could be because of all our tongue-wagging that we’re always putting things in boxes in our heads. To understand language, our brains must have enough processing power to recognise and categorise a large number of letters, words and eventually sentences, along with the all-important rules of grammar. And because we’re good at that,
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FEATURES REVIEWS we’re also good at the sorts of puzzles that draw on the same resources. And it seems the satisfaction we derive from solving problems is almost an addiction. There’s evidence from studies of people playing computer games that dopamine, a neurotransmitter involved in feelings of reward, is released when players do well. “When people win points there’s an increase in activation in the dopamine system,” agrees Rushworth. So far, so logical. Puzzles, categories, patterns – it all seems to come rather naturally to us. But we all lose the touch sometimes, and do some remarkably illogical things too. So when, and why, do the rules for perfect puzzle solving lose their grip? Stewart speculates that although we’re talented with problem solving, we’re not infallible. “[Sudoku] stays difficult even after extensive practise,” he says. “This suggests that there is some fundamental limit in our performance that can’t be improved, so people will always find it challenging.” Perhaps the same limits are involved when we do illogical things – not saving enough pension money for the future, perhaps, or carefully choosing to buy Tesco value products one day and splurging cash on drinks-out the next. But Rushworth insists that although we might arrive at illogical conclusions, we get there using our logical talents. “When we say illogical, we are often talking about people making erroneous judgements about what is the best course of action,” he says. But he points out that these often lead to short term gains, advantageous in evolution terms where day-to-day survival is far more important than worrying about the future. But, he adds, humans are much better than their primate contemporaries at making decisions about longer-term outcomes, which shows up when you find people with brain damage who are no good at problemsolving. “We do have quite a propensity for it,” he says, “and this can be compromised in people with damage to the frontal cortex.” Although our precious problem-solving and decision-making abilities can sometimes go awry, there are some benefits we can pick
up when they are functioning as they should. ‘Use it or lose it’ seems to be a truism when it comes to brain power, and is no less true when applied to puzzle-solving. Keeping your grey matter active can stem the ravages of time and keep diseases such as dementia and Alzheimer’s at bay. Rushworth sees no reason why this shouldn’t apply as much to Sudoku solving as it does to other brainboosting activities like reading. And because
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working memory is so heavily implicated, it’s unlikely that filling in a Sudoku now and then will do your ability to remember much harm. The message? Next time you need a coffee break, the perfect excuse lies in the little square grid tucked away in your copy of the latest rag. Not only will you enjoy it, but it might also boost your intelligence and memory. Now where did I put that paper? ■
Can you puzzle this one out? 1
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NEWS & EVENTS OPINIONS INTERVIEWS
Hello Moto Laura Goodall
The new GM: Gen iu
t’s not often we get to hear of gastronomic gurus being passionate scientists at heart. Moto is a restaurant in Chicago that is famous for serving up futuristic dishes - a reputation that probably stems from its extraordinary employees, who are both chefs and engineers. The executive chef, 29-year-old Homaro Cantu, uses his self-taught engineering skills and inventiveness to create striking dishes. Perhaps his greatest innovation for Moto is a modified Canon i560 inkjet printer (which Cantu calls the “food replicator” in homage to Star Trek) that prints flavoured images onto edible paper. The print cartridges are filled with foodbased “inks”, including juiced carrots, tomatoes and purple potatoes, and the paper tray contains sheets of soybean and potato starch. The printouts are flavoured by dipping them in a powder of dehydrated soy sauce, squash, sugar, vegetables or sour cream, and then freezing, baking or frying them. The most common printed dish in Moto is the menu (pictured, below). This can be torn up and thrown into a bowl of soup once it’s been read – eco-friendly as well as tasty. Another unique selling point is the restaurant’s two-dimensional take on sushi,
In case the helium trick doesn’t work, Cantu’s got a backup plan for levitating food, using superconductors and handheld ion particle guns. So far, he’s managed to levitate salt and sugar but he eventually wants to make entire dishes fly around the restaurant. Cantu works on all his inventive prototypes with Deep Labs, a product development consultancy. He relies on weekly design meetings with their aerospace and mechanical engineers to brainstorm the latest off-the-wall ideas. These ideas are not limited to just the food techniques, but also include Moto’s restaurant décor. Not content with just spiral-handled cutlery, stuffed with aromatic herbs to bring out the flavours in his dishes (above), Cantu has come up with an all-in-one invention consisting of a single utensil with knife, fork and spoon. But will the new contraption look quite as artistically intriguing as Moto’s current corkscrewforks? Probably. Cantu’s culinary creativity stretches to every aspect of his work, so there is little doubt that all of his future inventions will push the boundaries of what we know as food. Food is not just nutrition in Moto, but a futuristic and delectable art form that impacts every one of the five senses. ■
Images courtesy of Stephen Orlick and Homaro Cantu
The polymer fishbox: cooks your fish while you watch.
where photos of maki rolls are printed and sprinkled on the back with soy and seaweed flavouring (below right). And Cantu is not afraid to infuse his work with a sense of humour - an image of a cow grazing might taste exactly like filet mignon. Imagine flicking through a magazine and eating an advert for a pizza delivery company. This science-fictional concept is not as far off as you’d expect – Cantu has already started to get his food ideas into the media, and advertisers are interested in a future with Moto’s technology. The fun doesn’t just stop there. A laser normally used in surgery or welding has been exploited by Cantu to create “insideout” food. Steaks are seared in the centre but become less well-done towards the edges. Laser-cooked bread rolls can be served alongside the edible menu, with crusts in the middle and soft dough outside. The epicurean experimenter has been playing with ice as well as fire, creating several dishes that involve freezing by liquid nitrogen. One of Moto’s desserts is created by filling a sphere with fruit juice and spinning it while applying liquid nitrogen to form a thin, frozen shell. Cantu is hoping that one day he will be able to inject helium into this shell and float it like a balloon in front of diners.
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en ius-modified food
What’s up Duck? David Brill
O FOOD is intrinsically disgusting.” This simple statement has driven chef Heston Blumenthal from kitchen to lab and back to kitchen, in a quest to discover what makes some foods taste good while others taste bad. The results of his experimentation are on display at The Fat Duck in Bray, voted ‘Best Restaurant in the World 2005’ by Restaurant Magazine. With such a reputation, entering through a little nondescript door to discover that the restaurant looks completely normal in every respect is somewhat disappointing. The true experience begins with opening the menu. Imagine sitting down to the news that you are about to face a 16-course dinner, featuring salmon poached in liquorice with asparagus and pink grapefruit. That, of course, is after the mustard ice cream with red cabbage gazpacho. You can only hope desperately that the critics got it right, because it’s going to be a long, torturous evening if they didn’t. Blumenthal’s laboratory-based approach to cooking has been described as ‘gastronomic alchemy’. Flavours are extracted and concentrated into small cubes of jelly, cooking times and temperatures are comprehensively tested to discover the perfect dish, while the psychological impact of colours and textures are never left unconsidered. He has lectured at Oxford University’s Science Week and the Cheltenham Science Festival, while head chef Ashley Watts appeared on last year’s Royal Institution Christmas Lectures. And it doesn’t take long to feel the science. The opening course is the Nitro-Green Tea and Lime Mousse, excitingly prepared at the tableside. Plum-sized blobs are squeezed from a canister of green paste and dropped into a bowl of liquid nitrogen, creating what must be the w o rl d’s coldest meringue. It dissolves instantly in the mouth, leaving only its flavour behind. Many courses would raise a smile from all but the most humourless of diners. Two anonymous-looking squares of jelly are placed in front of you: one deep purple, the other a pale yellow. “Beetroot and orange jelly,” announces the waiter. “We recommend you start with the orange.” Colour or flavour? Surely an irrelevant question when both must signify the same square. But not when you realise that the purple jelly is made from blood orange, and the yellow from pale beetroot - a course best enjoyed watching other people for their bemused reactions.
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Green tea and lime mousse, frozen in liquid nitrogen. Snail porridge with Joselito ham and shaved fennel (pictured), sardine on toast sorbet, quail jelly with langoustine cream and parfait of foie gras - where else in the world do these dishes even exist? All this from a man who left school with one A-level and became a photocopier salesman. Yet the truly remarkable thing is that his cookery is self-taught, limited only by his imagination. Much of Blumenthal’s experimentation has involved capturing flavours and experiences from his childhood. This is particularly evident in the desserts, one of which is simply a sherbet fountain; another a chocolate cake made with popping candy in the base (again, time well spent observing other diners). And of course the grand finale: the world-famous bacon and eggs ice cream. Few would question the creativity, flair and dedication that has gone into making the food at The Fat Duck. But do these bizarre dishes actually taste good? The answer can be given with a simple reflection on the experience as a whole. It shouldn’t work, and you almost want it not to. But it does, and it’s an incredible experience. I never thought that mustard ice cream would rank amongst my all-time
nicest foods, or that pea puree and foie gras would be such a great combination. Never has a meal been so thoroughly entertaining from start to finish, particularly when it takes some three or four hours to complete. Don’t be fooled by the modest interior. The Fat Duck is a special place. The critics got it right after all. ■
Oysters with passion fruit jelly, horseradish cream and lavender.
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REVIEWS FEATURES Stockton-on-Tees footbridge and Halley VI photos and sketches courtesy of Expedition Engineering.
NEWS & EVENTS OPINIONS INTERVIEWS
Viviane Li and Liv Hov-Clayton
ivil engineering students grappling with inverted matrices and elastic strain fields may look to Chris Wise, structural engineer and Director of Expedition Engineering, for inspiration. He believes that good engineers are not defined by their abilities to do hard sums, but by their imagination and experience. Chris has worked around the world on landmark projects throughout his career. It took him less than 20 years to advance from graduate to board director at Arup, a global firm of engineers, designers, planners and consultants. He has received honorary distinctions in the fields of engineering, architecture, and design – all before his 50th birthday this year. The Millennium Bridge is one of his favourite projects, together with the Barcelona Tower built for the 1992 Olympics, “we had a fantastic client... and it was one of those wild projects. As soon as people saw it at the beginning, they said, ‘over our dead bodies! We’re never going to let you do that!’ and we managed to persuade them”. Designing the American Air Museum in Duxford, “we were trying to make a fantastic space where the architecture and engineering would be the backdrop to the exhibits. So we went for a really simple, classical vault and updated it. We used a lot of principles from gothic cathedrals. Just like the triforium of a cathedral, bringing in light from the top, we cut a big slot all the way around the outside which brought light into the middle, so we didn’t need to use artificial light most of the time. It uses the mass of the concrete to stabilise the day and night time temperatures, and has no heating or cooling. It was a massive thing 90 metres across, built out of two layers of 100mm thick concrete.” A project that started with a client “who was an enthusiastic amateur, and turning it into something that in the end won the Stirling Prize of architecture, out of his little pipe dream... that was fantastic.”
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Outspoken by nature, Chris wants to explode the myth of engineering as a dreary profession, and raise its reputation beyond a mere service industry to architecture. “All the projects I have mentioned were engineeringdriven. The key ideas come from engineering, and yet because there’s an architect, people assume that they must be responsible.” However, he believes that engineers are partly to blame for the profession’s image problem, “I think engineers are their own worst enemies. If they don’t want to take risks and responsibilities, stand up in public and speak for what they believe in, then in a way they shouldn’t be allowed to be put in that privileged position. But some engineers are prepared to do that, and there should be more. That’s what we’re trying to do here at Expedition Engineering; train people to have courage with their convictions, and think of engineering as something that includes architecture. It’s not the other way around.” Expedition’s ‘walking building’, conceived for the British Antarctic Survey’s competition to design the next Halley research station on the South Pole, demonstrates his point. Short-listed to the final stage of three designs,
“Science makes your ideas fit the world, and engineering makes the world fit your ideas.” the outcome had an unexpected twist. “We won it, but couldn’t get the money out of the Treasury to pay for our scheme. It would have been the world’s first walking building, a brilliant project if only – it’s sort of like seeing a girlfriend disappearing into the horizon after she’s chucked you, and you can’t quite understand why.” The scheme that cost the least amount was eventually announced as the winner, “but in the end, they didn’t even have enough money for that.”
Despite his success, Chris didn’t feel that his degree in civil engineering at Southampton prepared him for his career, “to be honest, with the exception of the third year project, I didn’t find it very useful.” Recalling the initial years of his career at Arup, he confesses to having “no understanding from university training of what civil engineers actually did. In fact I didn’t do civil engineering when I went there, I did structures, but I didn’t even realise that I was doing something different.” Nevertheless, his third year project on the Salisbury Cathedral proved to be one of three formative experiences in his early career. He was mentored by the cathedral’s engineer, Peter Taylor, which was “one of the best things to have happened. I got to understand the medieval building... the feel of a space, its relationship to daylight, the link between structure and architecture, the use of materials, durability.” Sport also played a part, “I learned an awful lot about how to work in engineering through playing rugby and cricket. You recognise that it’s never over till the end. You can’t do it all on your own, it’s always a group activity. The more you talk to each other, the more useful it is.” Even under adverse conditions, the team “never lost a game, which gives an enormous amount of confidence.” Finally, “going travelling for a year and a half was the next most useful formative thing.” When it comes to educating 21st century engineers, Chris believes in imagination over calculation. In 1997 he became the first Professor of Creative Design at Imperial College’s Civil Engineering Department. Together with his colleague Ed McCann he developed a workshop based course. The class would be asked to find solutions to specific engineering problems – typical tasks were developing a concept design for a sports hall, or designing a building based on a oneword brief. Once, having built a catapult, their attempt to fire a muffin towards the library on the Queen’s Lawn caused worried
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Stockton-on-Tees footbridge and Halley VI photos and sketches courtesy of Expedition Engineering.
Photos from left to right: ‘Engineering man’ Chris Wise at the office of Expedition Engineering; Stockton-on-Tees footbridge; Halley VI walking building design. Side panel: Halley VI design sketches.
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Halley VI – a walking building Expedition Engineering led the project to design a new research station in Antarctica. They put together a multidisciplinary team of specialist engineers and architects. Their proposal included the following:
Chris Wise has engineered many iconic structures of our time. As Imperial College’s professor of creative design he conceived the award winning ‘Constructionarium’, before resigning over the curriculum. security guards to consider evacuating half of the Sherfield Building. Recognising that many students had no idea how structures were actually built, he conceived the idea of the ‘Constructionarium’. In partnership with College staff and the construction industry it has been developed into an award-winning education programme. At ‘Constructionarium’ students get their hands dirty for a week at a special construction site in Norfolk. They operate as a company to build reduced scale versions of real world projects, like the Canary Wharf underground station, or the double bow footbridge in Stockton-on-Tees. The programme has received industry and government funding to develop the site. Other universities, including Oxford and Cambridge, are joining the programme. As a testimonial to its success Prince Philip has requested a visit this year. “He’s coming down in a helicopter. It’ll be wild! We’re contemplating building him a wooden hut in case he needs to go to the loo.” After several years of teaching, he came to believe that there is a large gap between what civil engineering students learn at university
Losing Halley VI was “like seeing a girlfriend disappearing into the horizon... and you can’t quite understand why.” and what is expected when they start their professional life. “Engineering is not about the hard sums. In our company, we would employ people who are good at design, not theory, because we have very little need for that type of engineers. You can buy an analytical computer package that does the same work for £500.” To address this, Chris and Ed initiated their own curriculum review and asked, “What
should a place like Imperial be giving to its new graduates?” They looked at the existing curriculum, and consulted institutions, staff and students. Their recommendations included separate pathway options for third and fourth year students, to address the different needs of those going into ‘engineering science’ or ‘engineering art and practice’. Chris sees a fundamental distinction, “I wouldn’t call [‘engineering science’] engineering at all. That’s analysis. I’d say that’s a service industry to engineering. It’s an essential part of engineering but it’s not engineering. Engineering involves working from the fundamental design need, conceiving it, testing it.” He believes that within education, “lots of people are very good at being specialists, but very few understand engineering.” In the end, Chris and Ed did not feel that their proposals were taken on board, and eventually resigned. “One of the beauties of going into academia is that you have a chance to reflect. But the reflection is absolutely useless if you can’t do anything with it. I couldn’t there, so I had to leave, which is a shame. The purpose of going to Imperial was to teach design. After a few years, it became obvious that you couldn’t do design in a curriculum that didn’t recognise that it was necessary. That recognition eventually triggered the crisis that forced us to leave. However, we left on the best of terms and we are still working with Imperial on the ‘Constructionarium’, which is gonna be fantastic this year.” Chris believes that people confuse engineering with science. “Philosophically they’re completely different. Science makes your ideas fit the world, and engineering makes the world fit your ideas. Science is a tool that engineering uses.” He likes to think of engineering as an art, “the word ingenuity is the root of engineer. Unfortunately, it got lost because the ‘i’ got changed to an ‘e’, which is really bad.” ■
Movement • The icy ground Halley VI will be built on moves towards the sea at 100m/ year. Expedition looked at different animal movements and proposed a walking building solution. The legs step up and slide forward using a hydraulic mechanism, with an estimated top speed of 14m/hr, and a power usage equivalent to operating two kettles.
Environmental factors • The building exterior is cushioned by a ‘puffer jacket’ made from ETFE (ethylene tetrafluoroethylene). The jacket provides insulation and reduces heating requirements. It also creates an aerodynamic shape to minimise snow management. • The current research station is powered by aviation fuel specially shipped to the Antarctic. Instead, Expedition proposed a sustainable method of converting available ice into water. Hydrogen is extracted from water by electrolysis and used in fuel cells to powers the entire station. Water would be the only waste product produced. Live/Work space • The architects carried out a space planning exercise and developed the interior into a living space. They also proposed that the space inside the ETFE jacket could be used as an exercise running track. Logistics of construction • Making the construction simple was a survival requirement. If not completed within a set timeframe, “all the construction crew would die, because they couldn’t get back on the boat and they have nowhere to stay down there”. The building needed to be prefabricated into sections elsewhere, with furnishing and services installed prior to shipping. Upon arrival on site, a simple ‘plug and play’ configuration completes the construction.
I, science 19 1/6/06 11:50:10 am
NEWS & EVENTS OPINIONS INTERVIEWS
obert Trivers, Professor of Anthropology and Biological Sciences at Rutgers University in New Jersey, has been called one of the greatest thinkers in the history of science. He revolutionised the field of animal behaviour by providing a scientific explanation for the evolution of altruistic, or unselfish, behaviour. His work has influenced further studies on evolution, behaviour and psychology. Remarkably, he wrote his famous papers while still a graduate student in the early seventies. He enrolled on a doctoral programme in biology at Harvard, without any previous background in the discipline. Before that, he had studied mathematics, after teaching himself calculus at a young age, and studied American history with the intention of becoming a lawyer. However, he became bored and disinterested with each subject. His true calling was evolutionary biology: “then, I knew I had found my home”. Ironically, the man behind the theory of altruism was aggressive and difficult in his youth. He suffered from bipolar disorder and experienced nervous breakdowns. He spent his nights reading Wittgenstein and thinking about his theories over and over again on a loop. His work and academic status suffered greatly from the controversy his papers raised among academics. He attributed the fact that Harvard would not give him a Professorship to a bad relationship with Richard Lewontin, leader in the fields of molecular evolution and population genetics.
L’Enfant Terri bl
‘You scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours.’ Lo ve, ch driven by selfishness in Robert Trivers’ wor ld. H object of study for himself as well as others. Irene
individual will increase the probability of the helper being assisted in return in the future. This is ‘reciprocal altruism’, and it can be summarised by the phrase ‘You scratch my back, I'll scratch yours’. Morality and social rules have evolved to punish social cheats who do not reciprocate this behaviour. Trivers’ belief is that morality was self-interested from the beginning, and that social rules did not emerge to benefit ‘the whole’. After finishing his book Social Evolution in 1985, Robert Trivers cast around for “something useful to do”, as he felt he had done everything he could on social theory. The genetics of ‘selfish genes’ was “by logic, intrinsically important”. The topic was
too vast to tackle alone, and he was “very fortunate” in forming a friendship with Austin Burt, an Imperial College researcher. Dr. Burt joined the project in 1992 and had within months had more down on paper than Trivers had managed in a couple of years. “He has taken the lead ever since”, says Trivers, who, together with Burt, co-wrote the book, Genes in Conflict (2005).
“We are so far from reaching truth that there is no point in imagining its absoluteness.”
“George W. Bush shows a complex and abundant mixture of deceit and selfdeception.” Because of this, he decided that a change in atmosphere would be in order. In 1979, he moved to the University of California in Santa Cruz, notorious for being a “hippie university”. For Trivers, it was “one of the worst places in the world”. He seemed almost to disappear from the academic map, but he made his return in the field of genetics. In the ‘80s, Trivers famously became friends with Huey Newton, the founder of the Black Panther Party (a black organisation that aimed to correct the injustices of racism by promoting self-defence on a political and personal level). Trivers’ papers have caused uproar and divided the academic world. How many of the emotions that govern our relationships are based on ‘genetic selfishness’ and the ultimate aim of reproducing? What about the rules that hold our societies together? Opponents of his theories claim that it is pointless to even consider the scientific basis of morality and ‘selfless’ feelings such as love and friendship. However, Trivers did just that: He explained that altruism and love between relatives arose due to mutual genetic interests, as they share a percentage of each others’ genetic material. Cooperation will benefit relatives, as common genes will be passed on to the next generation. Helping a stranger can often seem selfless, but not if we expect something in return. Cooperation between non-relatives can persist in a population if helping an
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NEWS & EVENTS
rri ble of Biology
rs.’ Lo ve, charity, cooperation and trust are s’ wor ld. His own, rich life proves a worthy others. Irene Lahde and John Druce find out. The turn of the century saw Trivers’ return to the field of social theory. He had been thinking about the evolution of deceit and self-deception for decades, and he and Huey Newton planned to write a book on the topic. Lying to people can make us gain something, or avoid punishment. Trivers’ theory explains that the best liars are those that are best at lying to themselves. In many situations, we misrepresent reality to the conscious mind while keeping in the unconscious an accurate view. We hide things in our unconscious being: we deceive ourselves so that we can be happier and “trick” other people into thinking the same way as us. Trivers has previously stated that he would
rather “have a leader who was minimally selfdeceived and not very quick with his brain, than someone who was quicker, but selfdeceived”. It is very difficult to detect the degree to which a person is lying through his or her teeth and in a modern world this can be dangerous. According to Trivers, George W. Bush shows a complex and abundant mixture of deceit and self-deception, a deadly combination at the national and international level. Despite having provided evolutionary explanations for moral behaviour, Trivers is not an avid defender of scientific ‘truth’ or an enemy of religion à la Richard Dawkins. In fact, he believes religion is a “much deeper
topic than Dickie can handle”, and that evolutionary thinking does not necessarily clash with faith. He has, however, nothing against atheistic assertions. A world with and without God are equally implausible to him. “We are so far from reaching truth that there is no point in imagining its absoluteness”, says Trivers, regretting that his home country should be the home of a unique brand of religious fundamentalism and anti-evolutionary thinking. Trivers has a passion for Jamaica (where he lived and was twice married), and admits that it was “the beauty of the women” that drove him there. His most recent work has been on the behavioural effects of body symmetry in Jamaican children. Symmetry is correlated with dancing ability and elegance of movement, which are linked with sexual attractiveness. One of the most novel conclusions of this study has been that dancing ability and body symmetry are positively linked in both sexes but more strongly in young men than young women. Women place greater value on symmetry in their choice of partners than men and more asymmetrical men are more likely to prefer the dances of asymmetrical women.
“I have lived a rich life and not merely studied life in others.” He doesn’t like going on about the details of his life, and simply states: “I have lived a rich life and not merely studied life in others”. He has always done things “his way”, and claims that he does not have any personal heroes, although he respects Charles Darwin and W. D. Hamilton (evolutionary biologist, noted for his theory of kin selection and his work on the evolution of sex). An autobiography is out of the question. Few things strike him as more boring than telling one’s life’s story; and besides, he says it is “not very plausible for someone with a rapidly failing memory”. A biography is, nevertheless, being worked on, but it is doubtful that a few hundred pages will suffice to tell this great scientist’s life story. ■ The Dance of Life. Edvard Munch, 1900.
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21 1/6/06 11:52:20 am
NEWS & EVENTS OPINIONS INTERVIEWS
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1/6/06 12:20:20 pm
NEWS & EVENTS
Aubrey the Great: Defeating Death Aubrey de Grey thinks we’re all in denial about ageing. If he has his way, we’ll have a thousand years to come to terms with it. Helen Thomson
t’s hard to take a tall, slightly dishevelled man with a two foot ginger beard seriously. But ‘seriously’ is a word that Dr Aubrey de Grey must certainly encounter frequently. It is the normal reaction to his prophecy that “the first person to live to 1000 years old is about 60 now.” And although his prediction seems as eccentric as his appearance, spend a few minutes with him and behind the beard, a thoughtful and sincere, even brilliant man appears. He devoted himself to this cause “because nobody else seemed to be doing anything about it, so I thought I’d give it a try.” Working in the genetics department at Cambridge University, de Grey has gained respect and support from some of the world’s leading scientists. But as with many novel thinkers, others have written him off as ‘more beard than brain’ after all, he is adamant that growing old is not an inevitable consequence of the human condition, but something that we can prevent - and prevent soon.
“The first person to live to 1,000 is about 60 now.” “I’ve known all my life that ageing was undesirable and also something that in principle we could fix because clearly it’s a maintenance issue – an engineering problem.” de Grey is quick to clarify his position on the subject of aging. “I don’t think it’s enhancement, any more than keeping a VW bug or a Morris Minor going for 50 years is a form of enhancement. I think its preservation and that’s not enhancement at all.” De Grey is not just a thinker, he has set up the SENS (Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence) project that actively works to prevent and cure ageing. “It is not just an idea: it's a very detailed plan to repair all the types of molecular and cellular damage that happen to us over time. And each method to do this is either already working in a preliminary form in clinical trials, or is based on technologies that already exist and just need to be combined.” As with most developments in science, the public has a big influence on its progression. “I think that it remains to be seen how popular ageing technology will be in society. In the same way that we don’t have flying cars now and we haven’t flown men to Mars yet, it’s not because we couldn’t, but because
we couldn’t be bothered. Whereas when there is serious public interest and public motivation for improving technologies, then progress does occur.”
“Ageing is undesirable and also something that in principle we could fix.” De Grey does not regard himself as a professional ethicist but mainly as a scientist, “I am interested in the ethical questions of course, and I feel I have a duty to scientists to lay the ground work, but really I don’t pretend to be able to answer these questions authoritatively.” Amidst the debates over the right to end our lives, should we also question whether we give people the right to increase them? “I think this is the same as the way we treat the right to life during the first 70 years. We think that killing people is quite bad; there are not many developed countries that still retain the death penalty for people who have taken other people’s lives. I think the most succinct way of putting it is… there is no difference between extending lives and saving l i v e s . Either w a y y o u a r e
postponing death.” De Grey is not religious but takes an enlightened and somewhat jovial view on the religious aspects of ageing. “I certainly know that I would be trying to save lives whatever religion I adhered to if I did. Ultimately it’s the thing to do and since God seems to approve of it as well, that suits me fine.” It is rare that we hear of people dying of ‘old age’. Cancer, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s are often more common causes of death in the elderly. The question of age-related disease
is very important to de Grey, but he assures that “age-related diseases are simply the later stages of ageing. They don’t look like ageing any more, we give them different names and that’s a big political problem, because people think they’ve died of some particular disease when in fact they’ve died of the later stage of ageing - if we fix ageing we fix all those things.” Prophesising is one thing, but de Grey has a strict plan which he believes we will begin to see the results of soon. “We will get proof of concept from the labs from mice, and this will happen I hope within as little as 10 years. After this happens we still have a long way to go before we can get human therapies. I would say that its likely to be 15 years.” de Grey does not see this as a problem, in fact he believes it to be a useful period where a public who “are in denial about ageing” can come to terms with the fact that we are developing technologies to prevent it. “Vast amounts of money will then be spent, because once people start thinking maturely about the question of whether ageing is a good thing, they will realise rather quickly that all the reasons they were coming up with in the past to defend ageing, were just psychological games that they were playing with themselves, to try to put ageing out of their minds and get on with their miserably short lives.”
“We think that killing people is quite bad.”
But not all immortality is physical. We still feel the presence of Van Gogh and Mozart and of our own individual ancestors, through their lives’ work and their creativity – what will become of this? de Grey gives his usual succinctness. “Yeah that’s bollocks,” he smiles. “It’s a comfort blanket. It’s just a way of trying to pretend that it’s ok that we die.” Aubrey de Grey is one hell of a character, but behind the beard he is also a man who speaks with a lot of intellect. Even his critics, such as Jay Olshansky, a University of Illinois scientist, admit that “he challenges us and makes us expand our way of thinking”. de Grey believes that soon there will be more scientists on the ageing case. “Soon there may be enough people out there who are simply better than me and I will become less important.” Less prolific maybe, less attention perhaps, but surely nobody will have greater charisma than him. And I’m even beginning to like the beard... ■ For more information, visit www.sens.org
I, science 23 1/6/06 11:53:35 am
NEWS & EVENTS OPINIONS INTERVIEWS
Scientists with Stars in their Eyes Letitia Hughes
here are definitely some people who would say that the likes of Pop Idol and Pop Stars have helped to establish serious talent - Will Young, Gareth Gates and Girls Aloud to name but a few. Therefore, it is hardly surprising that this format is now being used in a nationwide quest to find future popularisers of science; to fill the shoes of Robert Winston, David Attenborough and Susan Greenfield. Pop Idol has been reborn as FameLab, a competition to find the UK’s best new talent in science communication, with each entrant eager to convince the judges that they have the charisma to make it as a celebrity. Now in its second year, FameLab is a collaboration between the Cheltenham Science Festival and the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts (NESTA), supported by Pfizer, The Daily Telegraph, Research Councils UK, The British Council and Channel 4.
“Scientists need to go out there and tell the world about our science – because if we don’t, somebody else will, and goodness knows what they’ll say about us.”
incomprehensible jargon.” Indeed, he feels that his assumption of a public interest in science is one reason for his success, as it meant he did not shy away from tackling complex ideas. “Some of the other entrants were criticised for not dealing properly with the science, because the judges felt they were patronizing the audience. I think science
“It’s important to realise that without engaging the public, we risk alienating ourselves.”
needs to be presented in a way that is not just entertaining but also engages and informs." He is quick to point out that the “primary job of scientists is to create science - don't get me wrong. But science is no longer conducted in a vacuum. It’s important to realise that without engaging the public, we risk alienating ourselves.” One of his own science communicator idols is Stephen Jay Gould as he explains “difficult material with sophistication.”
He will now compete against nine other finalists on June 10th at the Cheltenham Science Festival. Part of the prize includes the opportunity to work with TV producers to pitch programme ideas to Channel 4 (so it may be a good idea to get David’s autograph now!) There is also a cash prize of £2000 and the chance to attend a masterclass in science communication. David admits that he is a “little nervous” about the final, and he is still not too sure what he is going to talk about. A clue might be something about the chemistry on our nose, skin and eyelids. Regardless of the outcome of the competition, David was keen to stress that he would like to continue with both science communication and research, explaining that “science communication, in a way, helps make more relevant the stuff I do on a dayto-day basis in the lab.” He appreciates that there may come a time when he needs to choose between them, but at the moment, he feels that “scientists need to go out there and tell the world about our science – because if we don't, somebody else will, and goodness knows what they'll say about us.” ■
During each regional heat, budding science communicators try to impress the judges. Entrants have three minutes to make an impression in front of a lively and discerning audience. Chemistry Post-doc, David Loong, based here at Imperial, won the London heat with his description of ‘everyday science’. Entertaining crowds at the Dana Centre, he explained how the chemical structure of jelly makes it wobble - jelly sets because it's made up of long strings of collagen protein that trap water molecules. He also talked about how fake tan works - simple sugars in the fake tan react with the amino acids on your skin to form coloured compounds with the same shade as melanin. It is not a dye because an actual chemical reaction occurs on your skin. David thinks scientists should make clear the significance of their work, “not only for you and your discipline, but also for society.” He thinks the media is “definitely important as a means to disseminate information, but it is important for scientists to realise that we must take an active role in this too.” David said the judges were interested in hearing “how good we are at communicating complicated ideas without resorting to
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NEWS & EVENTS
Who cares about science in the media? Ben Goldacre does, that’s for sure. The Guardian columnist and enemy of ‘Bad Science’ turns his critical eye to I,Science. Lilian Anekwe
hose of us familiar with science in the media might have heard of Dr Ben Goldacre. Each week he pokes fun at, criticises and debunks science stories in the press in ‘Bad Science’, his Guardian column. ‘Bad Science’ has an avid readership interested to know which fake doctor, pseudo-scientist or bit of misinterpreted scientific data will be held up and placed in the stocks for public ridicule. Recent examples of bad science that have made the column include: ‘Dr’ Gillian McKeith (she of Channel 4’s ‘You are what you eat’ fame), Chris Malyszewicz, a self-proclaimed microbial ‘expert’ on MRSA and that Andrew Wakefield paper on a possible link between the MMR vaccine, gastrointestinal disease and spectrum autism. What qualifies Goldacre to point the finger of accusation at bad scientists? According to his website, getting a first in medicine from Oxford, working as a medical researcher at the University of Milan, doing a masters in philosophy at King’s College London and working full time as a doctor at the Hammersmith Hospital makes him “a serious, f***-off academic ninja”. The battle that this particular ninja has chosen to fight is a noble one: the misrepresentation of science in the media. The problem being that “science news misrepresents the way in which scientific enquiry moves forward. It also creates the impression that everything in science is new and everyone in science disagrees about it”.
As a self-confessed ‘shameless geek’ Goldacre has a passion for science that he thinks is essential when reporting science in the media. He blames a lot of the bad science reporting he encounters on journalists without a science degree: “People who write about science generally don’t have a broad and deep knowledge of the subject, so they can’t nuance their pieces”. He argues that though the majority of science coverage in the media is perfectly adequate, the media still have a responsibility to report science stories factually and in an evidence based way – which is all too often overlooked.
“Science news misrepresents the way in which scientific enquiry moves forward”
Thousands of people would agree with Goldacre; a fact that he knows only too well. “I think I’m basically right. [The article] ‘Don’t dumb me down’, which was my opus saying that science reporting is shit systemically rather than because of the individuals involved, was one of the top three most accessed pages on the Guardian that week… about a hundred people must have blogged about it that week. So I think it strikes a chord with people. Nothing that I have to say is particularly imaginative or insightful or unusual. It’s all stuff that your average science geek has been whinging about for a very long time”.
“Science reporting is shit, systemically”
Science in the media: have humanities graduates created a monster?
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As far as Goldacre is concerned, the most heinous crimes against science journalism are being committed daily by humanities graduates. “If somebody doesn’t understand a subject and they write about it, then all you get it is recycled prejudice and misunderstanding. Whereas if somebody does understand the subject then that is less likely. In general what I say about humanities graduates is obviously true; the record shows that they f*** up. You often find that people are writing about [science], when they’ve never seen for themselves the connection between experiment, result and theory… someone who’s never done that is seriously intellectually hampered, by virtue of not having done that. They don’t draw connections between that, partly because there has been a discontinuity in
their intellectual development, where all of that kind of stuff was ignored for eight years before they grandiosely nominated themselves as somebody who was going to somehow understand the work that scientists do, and communicate it to the masses”. According to Goldacre, the media spends too much time telling you that you’re going to die of bird flu, and not enough time reporting things which are important but are not as ‘newsworthy’. He sights the current developments in intellectual property rights over technological innovations as an issue which is just beginning, but is never reported. “It is my very strong belief that there are things happening now around intellectual property, patenting, copyright, privacy and data protection that have human rights and commercial applications beyond anything you could possibly dream of. And the fact that these issues are too complicated for people to get their heads around intuitively means that all of those incredibly serious negotiations are happening in the dark. So paradoxically… we have become ignorant, and collectively we are going to be absolutely f***ed over because people are not nerdy enough to see and think what’s on the
“Most things in the newspapers are probably wrong”
immediate horizon. This isn’t abstract, weird ‘what’s on the horizon’… this is just very basic, and it’s all happening around you”. So does his column tell it like it is? Can his readers trust him for scientific truth, the whole truth and nothing but? Goldacre’s advice is not to take his column too seriously: “I’m not sure that people come to the column thinking ‘Oh, what’s been lies this week?’ I think people read my column for a bit of a laugh. I’m not a public service, I’m not paid for out of your taxes, and I’m not employed to tell you what was right and wrong in the newspapers this week. I’m just employed to make everyone feel a bit nervous about the fact that most things in the newspapers are probably wrong”. Goldacre admits his viewpoint is controversial and concedes that it ‘might sound a bit puritanical and socialist’, but he insists “I’m not a political activist. I’m just interested in what’s interesting.” Be prepared for more of Goldacre’s doctrines; a Bad Science book and BBC3 TV show are in the pipeline for 2006, where you can go direct to source for your science – the Goldacre way. ■
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NEWS & EVENTS OPINIONS INTERVIEWS
The Dark Lady of DNA | Melisa Martinez Alvarez
This has left open the question of whether she would have shared the Nobel Prize in 1962 with Watson, Crick, and Wilkins, although I somehow doubt it. Franklin has never received recognition for her key role in unravelling the structure of DNA. Even in the Nobel Prize ceremony Wilkins could only spare her a brief mention. Anyhow, many questions remain unanswered. Why did Watson and Crick not acknowledge Franklin’s contribution clearly and appropriately? Why did Wilkins show her X-ray diffraction picture? Where would Watson and Crick be without Franklin’s experiments? Why, even today, do we fail to recognise her work? Sadly, in science it seems that personal interests play a more important role than pure investigation and the expansion of our knowledge. ■
Is Physics a Feminist Issue? | Emma Turner Being at Imperial College, the chances are that you aim for a career in science, or at least have wondered whether research is for you. Research requires dedication, motivation, intellect and most importantly hard work, which may put some people off. But what happens when you have all it takes, you use it effectively, and still your work is not recognised or accepted? What if being a woman means your work, no matter how good it is, will never be valued as much as that of your male peers? There have been many injustices in science. Some have even lead to suicide. This was the case of Ludwig Boltzmann the great physicist who hanged himself depressed at the fact that his lifetime’s work was not being accepted. Soon after his death his work was recognised and his eponymous constant engraved on his tombstone. This may seem too little too late, but it is still a lot more than the recognition Rosalind Franklin has received.
Physics and Feminism in the same sentence. Now there’s a singularity for you. The two are not normally associated. It isn’t like you’d have to search high and low for a woman in the physics department, but pick a random occupant and it’s statistically likely they’ll have a Y chromosome. So, why do so few of the fairer sex grace the corridors of Blackett? And is this something we should worry about?
“There have been many injustices in science. Some have even lead to suicide.” Franklin was a Cambridge graduate who worked in King’s College London (KCL) in Sir John Randall’s lab working on the crystallization of DNA. She was an expert in X-ray crystallography and was hired as a research associate. However, her peer Maurice Wilkins never recognised her role and simply saw her as an assistant. In fact, her role was never clearly stated, nor accepted - women in those years were not greatly valued in science. In the early 1950s there was great excitement around the basis of heredity and there was a race to unravel the structure of DNA. When we think about the discoverers of the double helix, it is the names Watson and Crick that come to mind, maybe also Wilkins, with whom they shared the Nobel Prize. But what about Franklin? During her short stay at KCL she took photographs of DNA that were described by scientist J. D. Bernal as “among the most beautiful X-ray photographs of any substance ever taken.” Wilkins, who did not get on with Franklin due to her strong and sometimes stubborn personality, showed her famous ‘Picture Number 51’ to Watson without her permission. The latter, together with Crick, interpreted it using information on Franklin’s published and unpublished work to create the first model of the structure of DNA. They quickly published their findings in Nature in 1952 and were known from then on as the discoverers of DNA, without giving proper recognition to Franklin, whose work was then seen as supporting evidence of Watson and Crick’s findings. Moreover, Watson has described her as “frumpy, hostile and unimaginative” in his book The Double Helix.
Well that’s not a hard one, variety is the spice of life and if one is to believe the proverbial nursery rhyme - “What are little girls made of?” - then physics is missing out on a lot of spice. In order to prevent extinction of this endangered species a government initiative labelled “A strategy for women in science, engineering and technology” was launched in April 2003 to try to coax women into science. A month later the Institute Of Physics jumped on the bandwagon and launched their own Women in Physics group, whose efforts include a ‘How to Attract Women’ guide for physics departments.
“Where would Watson and Crick be without Franklin’s experiments?”
“To make women learned and foxes tame has the same effect - to make them more cunning.” - King James I
All this made Franklin very angry and she left KCL for Birkbeck College to work on viruses. However, as a condition of her transfer she was forced to promise not to work on DNA experiments again. She was also forced to leave her diffraction photograph at KCL, leaving the work of confirming DNA structure to Wilkins. She died shortly afterwards at the age of 37 of ovarian cancer, which may have been a result of prolonged exposure to X-rays during her experiments.
The Institute’s repertoire of hot tips includes advice to mechanics lecturers: “Make sure that examples given reflect modern society and are gender neutral. e.g. a bicycle is neutral, a car – particularly a racing car – is more male.” And: “Do you have photographs of physicists on the walls? If so, what fraction are women?” Politically correct? Yes. Sheer idiocy? Yes. According to Bob Forsyth, Physics Senior Tutor, the fourth year currently has the highest proportion of girls the physics department
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NEWS & EVENTS
has even seen, at 25%. “But unfortunately it’s been trickling down to just under 20% since then,” he says regretfully. A 1:4 ratio may not seem like much, but even this is a veritable battalion of girls compared to earlier times. It turns out that as you look back in history the ratio of female to male physicists decreases exponentially. You’d be hard pressed to find the female version before the 20th century because they were forbidden access to higher learning and laboratories. In the 16th century King James I rejected the idea of educating his daughter, reasoning that "To make women learned and foxes tame has the same effect - to make them more cunning." It is a relief that this opinion is no longer believed or we would be lacking some vital contributions to physics today. For example, without women in physics we would not have the nuclear shell model. Maria-GoeppertMayer won the Nobel Prize in 1963 for her discovery of ‘magic numbers’ (certain numbers of nucleons in an atom that cause it to be extremely stable) and their explanation in terms of the shell model. Granted, the number of achievements by men far outweighs those by women, and from the evidence it doesn’t look like the stats are going to even out any time soon.
“You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it do a physics degree.” Without any sign of gender bias it doesn’t seem that there is anything for the feminists to get testy about in the Blackett lab. If a girl wants to get with the physics program then Imperial is already an attractive choice, Blackett doesn’t need to dress itself up to attract the ladies. The only thing keeping the balance tipped towards the men is genetics, and this isn’t something any department dating strategy can change. It seems you can lead a horse to water but you can’t make it do a physics degree. It is unlikely we will ever see the day when equality reigns in the Blackett laboratory; besides, being in the gender minority can have its advantages. After all, anything rare is generally considered valuable. ■
“I have a great deal of work, what with the housekeeping, the children, the teaching and the laboratory, and I don’t know how I shall manage it all.” - Dr. Marie Curie, in a letter to her brother, Jozef “That one must do some work seriously and must be independent and not merely amuse oneself in life -- this our mother has told us always, but never that science was the only career worth following.” - Irene Joliet-Curie
The image of the mad scientist is all-pervading. When asked to depict a scientist most children will draw a lab-coated male with glasses, wild hair and a crazed look. Despite the fact that I have worked as a scientist, I still can’t shake the image of the traditional mad scientist from my mind, when in reality most of the scientists I worked with didn’t share any of the perceived attributes. So what is the basis of this image? I would argue that the deeply embedded stereotype is derived from those scientists in the past who have captured our imaginations, through a combination of a strange demeanour and their scientific flair. The 20th century historian of science Thomas Kuhn described science progressing through cycles of so-called ‘normal’ science, followed by remarkable revolutions. During normal science, scientists work within the constraints of the established system, or ‘paradigm’, striving to fit their work into the established system (sound familiar, anyone?). The revolution is clear and a little shocking; the same scientific data becomes interpreted from an entirely new viewpoint. Kuhn never said what brings about such a shift, beyond giving examples such as Newton and Einstein; but there must be something about such revolutionaries that makes them see the cold hard facts
of one paradigm as the seeds of a new one. This must have been seen as a certain kind of madness; their ideas received with smirks and raised eyebrows from their peers. Even Einstein’s work was shunned at first.
“It is these scientists who capture our imaginations and change scientific thought forever.” It’s likely that in order to have these ideas in the first place, such revolutionaries must have possessed a degree of ‘madness’. The creative thought it takes to see things in a new light, or to ‘think outside the box’, is beyond the capability of most of us. The ordinary person - the ‘normal’ scientist, perhaps - often dismisses irrelevant ideas out of hand. Especially creative people are thought to be more amenable to such ideas, holding them in their minds long enough to be able to make connections between seemingly distinct thoughts and stimuli. Particularly creative people have been found to have low latent inhibition, which essentially means having a leaky mental filter. They allow more thoughts, ideas and stimuli into their minds, so they have more diverse raw material at the disposal of their cognitive processes. This low latent inhibition is a feature of a predisposition to psychosis. Indeed, many of the distressing symptoms of conditions such as schizophrenia result from an inability to screen out external stimuli. While being severely mentally ill would be a hindrance to creative thought, it seems that mild mental illness of this kind, combined with a high intelligence, could provide the wherewithal for revolutionary thought. It also fits that in surveys, up to 80% of those in the creative industries, such as writers, poets and artists, have been found to have low latent inhibition, but only about 20% of scientists do. Could this be because in normal science, thinking beyond the usual conceptual boundaries isn’t useful? The mad scientists who go beyond these boundaries may be decades ahead of their time and are often not well received. It is these scientists, the mildly mentally ill, who capture our imaginations and change scientific thought forever. The conclusion? You don’t have to be mad to be a scientist, but sometimes it can help.■
“Everybody’s a mad scientist, and life is their lab. We’re all trying to experiment to find a way to live, to solve problems, to fend off madness and chaos.” - David Cronenberg “Only passions, great passions, can elevate the soul to great things.” - Denis Diderot “Science has not yet taught us if madness is or is not the sublimity of the intelligence.” - Edgar Allen Poe
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NEWS & EVENTS OPINIONS INTERVIEWS
| Katherine Antoniw
I've never been what you could call a sun worshipper. Don't get me wrong, sunshine has its place in my life. Rest assured that I don't shun our nearest star's rays like some dark creature of the underworld; I just don't share the nation's obsession with the scorching of one’s epidermis that reveals itself in all its lobster-shaded glory at this time of year. Up till now this hasn't been a problem. I've managed to fend off the concerned comments of sun-roasted friends and relatives alike by taking a healthy living stance - my family has a history of skin cancer, so why take chances? But not this year. Today it seems there's no excuse for having a pallid complexion, just take a look at the adverts on telly if you don't believe me - this year is the year of self tan.
“Why do my lily whites so trouble society? One answer is that the fake tan is a kind of tribal war paint.”
Having valiantly promoted the idea of 'healthy tanning' for decades, in the face of growing evidence of the damage sun does to skin cells, the advertisers finally threw in the towel around the turn of the century, but this probably had more to do with hefty skin cancer lawsuits than weight of scientific evidence. Deprived of the sun's cancer-causing revenue cosmetics giants have turned to the next best thing, selling the cancer chic of tanning (the tobacco industry only wishes it could be so shrewd). And, what's more, it seems people can't get enough of that healthy chemical glow. It used to be that we mocked the likes of Dale Winton and Julio Iglesias for their dunked-in-varnish style permatans, so why am I now getting heckled on the streets for having the temerity to forgo the chemical dip before donning a skirt? Why do my lily whites so trouble society? One answer is that the fake tan is a kind of tribal war paint. A tan (or something that looks like it) says: “I holiday on the Costa Brava, I look good in white, I share the same values as you.” Anyone lacking the money to burn on cosmetics that turn their clothes funny colours is fair game for the tribe's derision. Another possibility is that it has always been cool to be a daredevil, so the self tan is the hallmark of the blithe spirit - it says: “look at me I laugh in the face of death, I also mock the prospect of saggy, leathery skin, these things are meaningless to the likes of me.” Personally, I think it’s all part of maintaining the delusion that, contrary to the evidence, England in the summer is a balmy tropical paradise where outdoor living is feasible, barbecues are the only way to cook and a sea of blissful sun-kissed faces await your alighting from the tube each day. We need to wake up and smell the April frosts. Our climate is temperate and we live indoors, except during the few good weeks the year affords us, when we should be unafraid to march forth in all our pasty-legged splendour. ■
Malaria ‘Aid’: A Bitter Pill
Evil pharmaceutical companies and heartless money-men are slowly destroying the Third World, while countless innocent people die of preventable diseases - simply because no one in the world cares. I could write 600 or so emotive, self-righteous, bile-soaked words on all this, but I have a confession: I would have no real idea what I'd be talking about. I would be yet another misinformed crusader, pouring petrol on this already well-stoked fire by emptying his spleen on a subject that he doesn't really know about. I haven't even seen or read The Constant Gardener. On the other hand, I do know about disorganised fools. It takes one to know one... Money is pouring into developing countries to combat disease. Unfortunately it seems this money is either insufficient, badly managed, or both. There are people out there who do passionately want to see changes in the way healthcare funding is administrated in the developing world. We're not talking about the stereotypical mix of old rock stars and long-haired, sandal-recycling hippies either (though they care a great deal too, I'm informed). In fairness, most people would probably care if only they knew what was going on. Instead, millions of pounds are spent by drug companies on the newest anti-obesity or erectile-dysfunction drugs. Suffering from a deadly African disease? Oh dear... Suffering from a flaccid penis? No problem!
“Suffering from a deadly African disease? Oh dear... Suffering from a flaccid penis? No problem!” April 25th marked Africa Malaria Day, and although awareness is increasing much more work needs to be done to consign this disease to the history books. Economically crippling, malaria accounts for a $12 billion loss in productivity per year. More importantly, 500 million people are affected annually, causing over a million deaths, nearly all children. It should be encouraging then, to know that large organisations such as The World Bank operate programs attempting to control malaria. However, this particular institution has come under fire from an article in the April issue of The Lancet, with accusations of "false financial and statistical accounts," "data falsification or fabrication," and even "medical malpractice". In 2000, the World Bank pledged to halve malaria deaths by 2010, promising $300-500 million in loans for this purpose. Five years later the money loaned was even less than a third of the promised amount. Even this was only their best guess, as large amounts were unaccounted for. The World Bank argues that these criticisms are a year too late, and now real progress is being made in the fight against the disease. But are these renewed efforts several years too late for those malaria victims?
“If you woke up with a fever, you wouldn’t ring your bank for help.” – Lancet report author Amir Attaran
With the best of intentions it seems that The World Bank lost their way when attempting to roll back malaria. The Lancet article suggests that the money would have been better loaned to an organisation such as the Global Fund to Fight Aids, Tuberculosis and Malaria. The primary author, Amir Attaran, says "if you woke up with a fever, you wouldn't ring your bank for help." Maybe it is time for a real effort to be made on this problem. People need to be aware, people need to care. Most importantly, money should not just be thrown at the problem; it needs to be managed efficiently. Developed countries may have money to waste, but affected countries haven't got time to waste. Every day, and every life, counts. ■
Since it first infected humans 50,000 years ago, the malaria parasite Plasmodium has exerted more selective pressure on the human genome than any other. Source: Wikipedia
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David Brill learns science with Superman. The Physics of Superheroes by James Kakalios
Gerald Duckworth & Co / isbn 0-715-63549-2
don’t need to know about no bleeping balls thrown off no bleeping cliffs.” Thus spoke an anonymous physics student at the University of Minnesota, unwittingly providing the inspiration for James Kakalios, his professor, to write a book. The Physics of Superheroes is the result. It represents a commendable attempt to make physics more interesting – a task that would surely see the Man of Steel himself quaking in his little red pants. “One trick I’ve hit upon in teaching physics involves using examples culled from superhero comic books that correctly illustrate various applications of physical principles,” explains Kakalios, frustrated with the “overly stylised” and “artificial” situations traditionally used by teachers. The book follows a sensible, easy-to-navigate formula. Take a key principle of physics, then use a superhero to explain it. No balls, no cliffs. All the old school classics are represented: forces and motion, Newton’s law of gravity, electromagnetism and thermodynamics. The book is intended to reach undergraduate physics level, and more daunting topics like quantum mechanics are also bravely tackled – in this case with the help of The Flash. “What initial velocity would Superman need, lifting off the sidewalk, so that he would vertically rise 660 feet? Is Spider-Man’s webbing strong enough to support his own weight as he swings in his parabolic trajectory?” You get the idea. Hardened comic book fans may of course crave tenuous explanations for the wondrous feats they have read so much about. Helpfully, there is a brief history of the genre in the introduction for those of us who out spent their childhoods outside. Yet suspension of reality is surely the very point of reading a comic book, and some enthusiasts may not appreciate attempts to justify the laws of the superhero world using those of our own.
If you go into the woods… Liv Hov-Clayton takes a look at the man who got a bit too close.
ew nature documentaries can boast of their maker being eaten by the subject, but, unfortunately for Timothy Treadwell, this is the case with Grizzly Man. Treadwell spent thirteen summers watching, cavorting with and declaring his love for the grizzly bears of Alaska, until one of them decided that enough was enough. With a past as a failed actor, followed by drug addiction (losing out to Woody Harrelson auditioning for Cheers could drive anyone to drugs), Treadwell came to view the world with increasing hostility and suspicion. He eventually found his true friends and family among the grizzlies, appointing himself to the role of protector and friend of these dangerous animals. In doing so, he stepped on the toes of the National Park Service, an organisation at which he directs the odd swear word. Director Werner Herzog created this movie almost entirely out of Treadwell’s own footage from his summers in Alaska, inter-
NEWS & EVENTS
The Physics of Superheroes is primarily a book for physics students, and as such it is thoroughly enjoyable. Those long nights poring over a GCSE revision guide would have been infinitely more entertaining had we learnt why Magneto becomes Electro when he runs. Imagine being stuck on a tricky exam question. Why recite your notes over and over in your head when you could just visualise a comic strip to jog your memory? Teachers and lecturers would also do well to purchase this book. Science is perceived by many students as dull, lifeless and alienating, and is often dropped at the first possible opportunity. Physics particularly suffers from the ‘boring’ tag, and Kakalios should be roundly applauded for his imaginative attempt to liven it up. There is of course the potential for such ideas to be overly gimmicky, but the book does an excellent job of keeping the science intact. Traditional physics teachers will most likely scoff, but declining university applications and the closure of departments tell us that the pure sciences are in desperate need of fresh teaching approaches. The aesthetics also make for an easy read. Plenty of examples are illustrated with relevant clippings from the comic strip in question, providing some light relief when the formulae are mounting up. The title fonts are also taken straight from comics and help to soften the educational blow.
“Take a key physical principle and use a superhero to explain it. No balls, no cliffs.” Kakalios attempts to assert his coolness in the opening line of the book: “I was a comic book fan as a kid, but I abandoned the hobby in high school upon discovering girls.” Yet some cringe-worthy moments are inevitable – he is, after all, a comic book loving physicist. Chapter titles such as “Not a dream! Not a hoax! Not an imaginary tale! Quantum mechanics” suggest that his voyage of female discovery may have been short-lived. The closing line: “Face front, true believer!” entirely counteracts the opening one, while the titling of the section “Ask Dr. K!” also made me squirm somewhat. Prospective authors take note: if you’re going to write a book entitled The Physics of Superheroes, do not attempt to salvage any ‘street cred’. Spell your surname in full, drop the exclamation marks and be proud of the geek within. If you were wondering, to jump 660 feet, Superman would need to leave the ground with a velocity of 140 miles per hour. And yes, it is “entirely plausible” that Spider-Man can swing from building to building, stop a runaway train or weave a bullet-proof shield using his webs. Kaliakos has convinced me at least, that physics can actually be pretty cool. ■
spersed with interviews with family, friends and those with whom Timothy Treadwell was not quite so popular. Treadwell himself, in sunglasses and a bandana, ranting at the camera, has more in common with a narcissistic adolescent than a David Attenborough. He does however show us some grand scenery, and there are numerous funny and intimate moments of him in the company of bears and foxes. Through his brilliant editing, Herzog creates a captivating study of Treadwell’s somewhat disturbed nature, expressed through a fanatic love for Alaska’s grizzlies and an alienation from the rest of the world. ■ © Revolver Entertainment
Physics made fun
Grizzly Bears Grizzly Man, directed by Werner Herzog was nominated for the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance Film Festival.
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NEWS & EVENTS OPINIONS INTERVIEWS
The real Newton Emma Turner discovers that Britain’s most famous scientist, for all his genius, certainly had a few flaws. Newton
by Peter Ackroyd
Chatto & Windus / isbn 0-701-16986-9
t will be a comfort to those taking exams this summer to learn that when Newton collected his bachelor’s degree from Trinity College Cambridge, he lost his groats. Groats are coins, left for the examiner, which are forfeited if the student does badly. It turns out Newton had no interest in the course curriculum and didn’t bother to revise; he was far more diverted by problems of his own choosing. So if the father of modern science can barely scrape a pass mark and go on to revolutionise mathematics, maybe there’s hope for us. Newton, the latest in Peter Ackroyd’s Brief Lives series, is an engrossing and unbiased account of the genius, that makes no attempt to hide the fact that Newton was not a nice man. He flew into rages easily and hated to admit he was wrong. He held lifelong grudges, one against Robert Hooke (of the famous spring law), and he never acknowledged those that had assisted him with his work. One conflict was a battle of reputations with the German mathematician Gottfried Liebnitz, who happened to invent calculus at the same as Newton. The case went to court and the devious Newton decided to use his power to choose his own committee. Unsurprisingly, he won. In response to the verdict he is reported to have rejoiced in victory
Duncan McMillan finds that some very clever people don’t have all the answers or even all the questions. What We Believe but Cannot Prove
Edited by John Brockman
Pocket Books/ isbn 1-416-52261-1
ow many scientific commentators does it take to answer the Big Questions? About one hundred, it seems. Since 1998 the editor of Edge magazine, John Brockman, has been canvassing intellectual luminaries on issues from the most important invention of the last two millennia to, more recently, their own “dangerous ideas”. 2005’s question – “What do you believe is true, even though you cannot prove it?” is going to be published in paperback in July. The subject matter is pretty deep, and in the responses a number of themes emerge: the universe (and our place in it), life (and whether it has meaning), evolution, the process of science, reality, laws of nature, and ‘purpose’. It seems scientists can be a whimsical lot when they let their minds run free, but many understand that the question is as much about how and why we can believe certain things as what those beliefs are. Some fascinating particular issues arise – physicists Paul Davies and Martin Rees (now Royal Society President) tackle the existence of extraterrestrial life. Richard Dawkins unsurprisingly says that evolution is the pre-eminent
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with the words, “Second inventors count for nothing!” Unpleasant as he was, there is no denying Sir Isaac Newton was a genius. He devoted his life to unravelling the mysteries of the world, from optics to alchemy. Most biographers choose to skim over the alchemy. A demonstration of his ability is given when Johannes Bernoulli set him the challenge of resolving two very complicated problems concerning the path of heavy bodies – Newton did not rest until four in the morning when he finally solved it. The next day Bernoulli was astounded by Newton’s solution and declared him a lion whilst confessing himself humbled. Newton didn’t like “the presse” and certainly didn’t seek publicity for fear of criticism. “His high self esteem was matched only by his extreme sensitivity to attack.” He refused to write in a way that was accessible to the general public, he wrote his seminal work ‘Principia Mathematica’ in Latin so only the most learned professors could understand it. He needn’t have bothered; the maths involved was hardly user-friendly in any language. One of his undergraduates commented, “There goes the man who writt a book, that neither he nor anyone else understands.” But what about the apple? Newton is credited as being the man who “mathematised nature,” and there is no better symbol of nature than a ripe and juicy apple. Ackroyd reveals how there are four different accounts of the event, all originating from Newton himself. So
“Newton held lifelong grudges and never acknowledged those that assisted him.” it seems that even Sir Isaac wasn’t averse to a bit of spin. He relished conflict with the romantic poets of the age who described him as “the enemy of imagination”. Newton replied by describing poetry as a “kind of ingenious nonsense” and admitting to running away from the opera in the third act. The book is a concise and logical account of the scientist’s life with no difficult equations. With glimpses of the everyday life of the man behind the genius, such as “he ate a breakfast of bread and butter and orange tea”, Peter Ackroyd puts the Isaac into Newton. ■
force and that design comes later. Others argue that there is purpose, that the universe is not accidental. Futurologist Ray Kurzweil teasingly offers the prospect of faster-than-light communication. Consciousness is a popular topic – some say our minds are dominated by unconscious processes, whilst New Scientist’s editor-inchief suggest that consciousness extends even to the humble cockroach, and Alison Gopnik argues that we have underestimated the consciousness of the very young. Ian McEwan fires a shot at the religious with the claim that no part of his consciousness will survive his death, whereas Stephen Kosslyn wonders whether the mind isn’t merely fixed in the brain, but exists partly via the brains of others – ‘social prostheses”. What struck me most about the responses was the optimism and idealism of many of the writers. Stephen Pinker believes that we have only just begun to understand the complexity and richness of the human brain, psychologist David Buss believes in “true love”, and physicist Carlo Rovelli believes in the human instinct to collaborate. The only bum note is sounded by evolutionary biologist Robert Trivers, who describes the negative effects of deception on human achievement.
“What struck me most was the optimism and idealism of the writers.” In spite of some thought-provoking nuggets, many contributors get too wound up in their own big words to be readable. My eyes started to glaze each time Gödel’s name was dropped. Name checking a cool mathematician might be the done thing if you’re writing about ideas of proof and belief in science, but it went straight over my head with a smug ‘whoosh’. It seems there are as many unproven scientific beliefs as there are scientists. It’s all very well knowing what a lot of very clever people think, but if you go looking for hard answers, you’ll probably be disappointed. In a way though, this book isn’t so much about the answers, but the asking, and in that respect it succeeds and provokes. ■
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Wondering what to read while I,Science is on holiday? Helen Morant checks that the print media has got it all covered.
ith I,Science about to take a long summer break, what are you going to read in the meantime? Science magazines come in all shapes and sizes and vary in their coverage and level of complexity. No one would read the hardcore academic journals for leisure, but there are the more general scientific journals, like Nature in the UK and Science in the US, which (while fighting for the big original research papers of the day), cater for the scientific community at large by covering more general scientific issues such as policy, ethics and funding. The lower brow news-stand journals, like New Scientist, Scientific American, and BBC Focus have a different readership, and while New Scientist retains the respect of the scientific community by virtue of its jobs section, the actual content is aimed at a really generalist audience. A nano-engineer is unlikely to want to read some journalist, albeit one with a science degree, rehashing a paper he or she read (or even wrote) in last month’s Journal of Nanotechnology. As for the rest of the press, there’s huge variation. If you’re into volume not truth, you can’t fault the Daily Mail’s health coverage. The Guardian’s science reporters usually write accurate and informative science news stories, but watch out for science written by the other reporters – I took a perverse pleasure in learning from a football report that Wayne Rooney would be sleeping in a hypoxic tent to aid recovery of his foot injury. The weekend Financial Times is well worth a buy, if only for it’s magazine. The reviews section is great and often covers science books. The science columnist, Stephen Pincock, is perceptive, intelligent and often witty and rarely resorts to the all-too-easy trashing of generic science reporting that most other science columnists rely on. The Economist has an excellent science section, with at least two meaty scientific stories each week. Race and medicine, quantum chemistry and scientific method have all been covered recently. In the interests of balance, I took a look at science in the New Statesman. Science is stuck in their Ideas section, along with nebulous catch-all subjects like Philosophy and Reform, and science headlines like “Trident, we’ve been conned again” don’t exactly lend themselves to idea of impartial reporting. There’s plenty of good science writing out there though, and now you know where to look. But you will have to pay for it. ■
Trapped in a room with only a laptop and thirst for scientific knowledge? Katherine Nightingale gets online and all over science on the web. AlphaGalileo (www.alphagalileo.org) Science for the serious. AlphaGalilieo updates regularly on the research goings-on in Europe. It’s a bit grey, but a goldmine of quality scientific information. There’s a useful calendar page where you can find out significant events from the past and a journalist’s access area where budding science journalists can get to expert databases and embargoed releases. They also recommend books and other websites as useful sources.
NEWS & EVENTS
BBC Online Science and Nature (www.bbc.co.uk/sn) Good old Beeb. This website is a well-balanced and informative resource. With the usual emphasis on natural history, there is also information on the hot topics affecting the public about science at the moment. There are some stunning pictures in the picture gallery, as well as fun features such as the ‘What sex is your brain?’ quiz, which led to worryingly ambiguous results for this reviewer. First Science (www.firstscience.com) If you like your science a little more quirky then First Science has articles, news, quizzes, cartoons and crosswords relating to all aspects of science. There’s a preference for space science but other topics are covered too, along with the rather bizarre ‘science poem of the week’. Articles come with recommended sources for extra information and the editor’s weekly ramblings have an informal take on new research. Planet Science (www.planet-science.com) Aimed at children, teachers and parents, Planet Science is an easily accessible resource. The design is – dare I say it – funky and the site is split up logically into broad topic areas. There are easy home-based science experiments and investigations to be done when out and about, all with explanations of the science behind them. Curriculum science is explained to parents, there’s careers advice for any kids looking to work in science and a specific resource for teachers. The LabRat (www.thelabrat.com) A site for real live scientists, the LabRat has careers advice and job opportunities, discussion forums and links to sites for buying reagents and equipment. It’s also possibly the only place where you can buy cow and leopard print lab coats (you know you want one…). There’s a page of links to ‘weird science’ of which there were too many to mention here. Who ever said scientists were geeks? ■
I, science 1 1/6/06 12:10:49 pm
I,science Issue 5 Summer 2006
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