Climate Change, humanity and a tomato

Three months ago, I was short-listed in the New Philosopher magazine for my article about luck but I didn't win. The new issue is out of the magazine but unfortunately I didn't make the short-list this time with my offering on the subject of 'Nature'. To be honest, as far as I can tell, the odds are stacked against you if you're not Australian, as they seem to dominate the short-list every time. Never mind, it's all good practice. Rather than let the article disappear into the ether, here it is:

The word ‘nature’ has multiple meanings. For example, it can mean as the entire natural world, earth’s ecosystem. Alternatively, it can refer to a person’s fundamental way of behaving, their nature. As a result, when someone thinks of ‘nature’, they could be thinking of our planet’s environment or human behaviour in general. What’s more, they might even be thinking of something quite mundane, something that possesses the magical property of life, like a humble tomato, a physical manifestation of the wondrous process known as ‘nature’. Read More...

Why do we move forward in time?

This week, the New Scientist magazine gave me a big compliment by making my latest letter to them their Editor’s letter of the week. Here it is:

Your article 'Why do we move forward in time?" (Issue 3037, 5th Sept 2015, pg34) makes it clear that physics has no clear answer as to why time passes. The article reminded me of an ancient Zen Koan. Two monks were watching a flag flapping in the wind. One said to the other, "The flag is moving." The other replied, "The wind is moving." A Zen master, walking nearby, overheard them. He said, "It is not the flag nor the wind that is moving but your minds." The idea that our minds experience the four-dimensional 'landscape' of physical reality in a chosen time direction would explain the phenomenon of time passing without violating any physics. Perhaps the Zen master was right philosophically and scientifically?

The article concerned was one of a series of articles in the New Scientist that week (issue 3037) about aspects of physics that non one had yet solved. The tricky nature of time is definitely one of these big conundrums. We all experience time flowing; we do things, one after the other, day after day. Around us clocks tick and cars drive and birds fly etc. We can't seem to stop or alter this flow of time. We can't make time stand still. It can certainly sometimes seem as if time is flowing more slowly than at other times. For example, waiting to go into an exam can seem to last forever, but while you're doing the exam, time can seem to scream by. I remember once starting a strategy board game, then becoming completely engrossed and then looking up and finding out that two hours had gone by, as if in a flash. Read More...

Fever: a magical cancer cure

This week, I've been reading 'Farmer Buckley's Exploding Trousers and other odd events on the way to scientific discovery'. It's a popular science book from the people at New Scientist magazine and is a series of short stories (each a few pages long) about weird and wonderful and often very important scientific and technological inventions and discoveries. I'm enjoying the book, although reading a long string of disconnected stories can feel a bit laborious sometimes, but there some absolute gems amongst the collection.

One story really jumped out. On page 21 of the book, the author describes the fascinating story of Dr William Coley, an American doctor living and working in New York in the 1870's. During his work, Dr Coley stumbled upon a fascinating pattern. He treated many patients with tumours. The standard medical treatment for these tumours was to cut them out, but they invariably grew back. Coley found that patients who had tumours, but then suffered an infection that sent them into a high fever, very often were entirely cured of their tumours. For example:

The man's medical records were quite clear. His case was hopeless. In the space of three years, he had had five operations to remove a tumour from his neck. The last was a failure: it was impossible to remove the whole tumour. He would die soon. As if that wasn't bad enough, the poor man then suffered two attacks of erysipelas, a skin infection that produced a lurid red rash and a high fever. But when the fever broke and the man recovered, his tumour had vanished. Seven years later, he was still alive and well. There could be only one explanation: whatever had caused the fever had also destroyed the cancer.


Science Fiction Future at the BFI in London


At the end of this month (Sunday May 30th), Simon Ings from the New Scientist magazine is hosting an afternoon of talks and short films on the subject of our ‘science fiction future’ and ‘why stories, games and falsehoods may be our best guide to tomorrow'. This event is part of the 'Sci-Fi-London' festival. The highly successful science fiction writer Alastair Reynolds will be giving the keynote talk and that’ll be followed by short films and panel discussions. The event is taking place on the South Bank in London at the British Film Institute.

The title and strap-line for the event has got me thinking; what is our science-fiction future? More broadly, since a lot of people think science-fiction is about the future, with special emphasis on techie stuff, the question really becomes: What is our future? (note: remember to talk about techie stuff).


Population blind spot

The kind folks at New Scientist magazine published another of my letters this week. This one's all about global population and is a response to an article in the magazine discussing whether we, as a species, could have avoided wrecking our environment by advancing technologically without fossil fuels:

Examining the possibility of a world without fossil fuels, Michael Le Page comes to the conclusion that global warming may be an inevitable result of any industrialised civilisation, as fossil fuels are an unavoidable phase of that development (18th October pg34). He also reports that this might explain the apparent absence of extraterrestrial civilisations despite the high probability that they exist, as each planet offers once chance at transitioning from reliance on finite fossil fuels to renewable energy sources.Perhaps it would be useful to consider a sentient race that could control its population? If our global population had stabilised at a healthy 7 million, rather than 7 billion or more, it's perfectly feasible that we could have passed right through our fossil fuel phase without wrecking our planet's environment.

The editor writes: We will never know for sure. But it is likely that a critical mass of people as well as energy is needed to reach something we would recognise as an industrialised civilisation.

It's an interesting response from the New Scientist editor. How many people
would be needed on this planet for us to continue to develop successfully as a technological species? From a genetic perspective, a species' minimum viable population (or MVP) is in the thousands, so a human population of a million or more is definitely genetically healthy. Genetics aside, what population is needed for technological development? What global population would be required to keep us advancing technologically to the point where we did developed a purely renewable technology society?

how about the entire Roman Empire?


The map above (courtesy of the Wikipedia page) shows the extent of the Roman Empire in around 100 AD. It was big. Surely if our global population was the same as the population of the entire Roman Empire, we'd be able to keep going technologically? Around the time of Christ, daily life in Roman Empire wasn't significantly different from today. They had water supplies, sewage systems, household heating, international trade, docks, cranes, pottery and metalwork and a quality road network. They had developed mathematics, researched complex astronomy and created steam-power prototypes. If the Roman Empire was the only civilisation in the world and its population had stabilised at that point and it had been given enough time, surely it would have been capable of advancing past us? It is true that a lot of technological development in Europe was thanks to developments outside Europe, particularly from the Arab world but the Arab world gained many of their technological developments from Egypt and Greece, which were both part the Roman Empire. For a scientist trying to decide on a critical mass of people required to develop into a modern industrial civilisation, the population of the Roman Empire would seem an adequate amount.

Here's the rub. The population of the Roman Empire, east and west together, in 400 AD, was
70 million people. The entire population of the world at the time of Christ was about 170 million people. Our current global population is a hundred times larger than the population of the entire Roman Empire.

It's very strange that the subject of population is very rarely mentioned when people talk about climate change. It's almost a blind spot and yet population is the elephant in the room. For example, for every extra person in Britain, we need to spend £140,000
more on infrastructure; roads, houses, hospitals etc. Extra people are a big burden. For anyone interested in learning more about the effects of population increase, I recommend visiting the population matters website. Population Matters is a charity that works to educate and inform people about the effect of population on our planet and ourselves. The '£140,000' fact comes from a recent study they conducted into the effects of population growth.

There's a dark final point to the matter of a sustainable global population. It would seem that 70 million people (or 1% of our current population) is a believable global population for survival and development. We've grown fifty times larger in the last two-thousand years and we're still growing, but all the evidence points to climate change putting us back
down to that figure in the next five hundred years if we don't do it ourselves. That reduction will be brutal and ugly if we don't find a way to do it ourselves humanely. The choice is ours.

Dolphins and self-delusion

The kind people at the New Scientist magazine have published another one of my letters. Here it is:

"In her article exploring whether dolphins live up to their reputation for intelligence, Caroline Williams tells of being forcefully rebuffed by a dolphin after attempting to connect with it (27th September, p46). In this era of climate change, the possibility that dolphins don't want to be friends with humans makes them seem more intelligent and emotionally developed than ever."

The mention of climate change led me to think about its connection with another recent topic,
Milgram's Experiment. For a long time, many psychologists have been deeply unhappy that Milgram's Experiment seems to show that most people would willingly cause pain and death to an unfortunate target if they were gradually coaxed into it by authority figures. Humanity isn't like that, they say, people aren't that bad!

But a form of Milgram's Experiment is going on as we speak. It started a while ago when some people were coaxed into hurting a living target in return for personal reward. The level of harm they inflicted was slowly ramped up. They willingly continued to harm the target, even though they could see how it was suffering. Now, the experiment has reached the stage where the people involved are inflicting lethal levels of harm on the living target. Yet, they are still continuing
even though they profess to be concerned about the target's welfare. The experiment I'm talking about is climate change. The living target suffering is the Earth's biosphere and the people concerned are, well, nearly every affluent individual on the planet.

Perceptive creatures, dolphins.

Milgram's experiment just won't die

Just a quick note to say that another of my letters has appeared in New Scientist magazine.

This letter was in response to a recent feature article in which several psychologists put forward the idea that Milgram's famous experiment (which, among other things, is the subject of a track in Peter Gabriel's excellent, classic, bewitching album 'So') isn't quite as bleak as people have made out. For those who haven't heard of Milgram's famous psychology experiment, I've described it in this earlier post.

In the New Scientist article, the psychologists argued that the members of the public that participated in Milgram's experiment - the ones that applied the electric shocks - weren't as bad as everyone has made them out. One reason the psychologists gave was that the subjects in the experiment were told that the experiment had scientific benefit. That, argued the psychologists, was partly why the subjects applied what they thought were lethal level shocks. Also, the psychologists argued, Milgram did the experiment many times, with different parameters (including one where the subjects carrying out the shocks had to physically put the victim's hands on the shock plates) and in some of those versions, a greater percentage of people refused to carry out the shocks to lethal levels. All this, the psychologists emphasised, showed that people
aren't as willing to inflict pain and eventual death on a victim - if instructed to by an authority figure - as Milgram's experiments make out.

Being a right picky, curmudgeonly so-and-so, I felt I had to respond with this letter:

"In re-evaluating Stanley Milgram's infamous experiments, Alexander Haslam and Stephen Reicher argue against the popular view that most people will willingly shock someone to death if an authority figure asks them to (13th Sept, pg28). These psychologists might change their mind if they watch the 2010 French/Swiss televisions documentary 'Le Jeu de la Mort', in which participants in a fake game show were asked to shock a contestant who answered trivia questions incorrectly. The participants knew there was no scientific benefit. Yet only a fifth of them stopped before inflicting what they thought were lethal level shocks."

I was very pleased that New Scientist published the letter. The version they printed wasn't actually the version I sent them, but theirs is better. Nuts, I still haven't cracked this clear and efficient prose malarkey. For those who'd like more info on how the devious but illuminating French-speaking fake-game-show people reinforced Milgram's infamous findings, here's the
BBC report.

Science fiction ideas

I'm a big fan of New Scientist magazine; I think I've read almost every issue of the weekly magazine from cover to cover for at least the last five years. I love its combination of factual accuracy, readable and accessible style and topicality. It's also been a very useful tool for me to generate new ideas. I'd read about a fact, theory or invention in the magazine and 'flip' it; imagining that item being used in a very different way.

For an example of this 'flipping', here's a letter I wrote to New Scientist recently which has now been published in their letters page:

In your recent article 'artificial tendons help you walk' (issue 2953, pg21), Yong-Lae Park and colleagues of Carnegia Mellon University made 'a robotic device with artificial muscles that could help people with cerebral palsy strengthen their foot and ankle muscles'. There may be another potential use for such robotic devices; helping ordinary people develop their muscles (get ripped) without having to actually move their limbs themselves. In the future, someone may simply climb inside a full-body version of the device and develop a bodybuilder physique without (literally!) lifting a finger.

For anyone keen to find new ways to come up with creative ideas for stories, I definitely recommend they try this 'flipping' approach. It has a Zen Buddhism element to it in the sense that you need to break out of the predictable way of thinking about a story, invention or place. Jokes and humour also follow this approach, flipping an idea around in such a way that it is interesting, but totally unexpected. It's also great fun!

Producing ideas this way can actually influence the future. The lateral-thinking ideas of science-fiction writers have inspired engineers to make the very items they conjured up in their stories. Arthur C. Clarke famously predicted the usefulness of orbitting satellites and Douglas Adams pointed out how Digital Audio Compact Discs might be rather useful for computer data storage. Perhaps someone will read my letter and in five-years' time, start a company that makes robotic suits that turn their owners from couch potatoes into muscle-bound Adonis's? I've no idea, but it's an interesting idea. :-)

Diet changes, gut flora and bowel cancer


A few months ago, I wrote a blog article about the excellent Forks over Knives documentary. The documentary made a fascinating and convincing case for the connection between major illnesses and a diet high in animal proteins. As a follow-on from that entry, I thought I’d mention a new article in this week’s New Scientist magazine. It reports on some very interesting new research. To quote:

Switching to a diet based exclusively on animals or plants triggers rapid changes to the microbes that rule your gut. This knowledge could help fine-tune diets to improve health, as well as reduce the risk of illnesses like inflammatory bowel disease.


The man who believed he was dead


Today’s article comes from New Scientist. In it, a man named Graham attempted suicide but his bid failed. Afterwards, he told everyone around him that he regarded himself as dead. He no longer gained any joy from life, from normally pleasurable activities, and saw no point in continuing to exist. The mental problem that Graham was suffering from is known as Cotard’s Syndrome.

What is fascinating about this particular patient was that the researchers took the step of analysing Graham’s brain using the latest scanning techniques. They found that portions of his brain that should have been active, since he was clearly alive, showed virtually no activity at all. He had the brain activity of someone who was unconscious or in a coma, and yet he was walking around conscious and living like anyone else. Only his depression and his view of the world was different.


Kit will save us!

Back in the 1960’s, when skirts were short and architecture was Lego-like, Freeman Dyson, a physicist and engineer, came up with the idea of a Dyson Sphere. The idea was straightforward; a sun gives out lots of energy but planets only get a fraction of it. What if you built a sphere entirely around the sun and made the inside surface of that sphere like a planet? That way, you’d have an enormous area of land to use which would all be getting sunshine. You could house a squidgillion number of people that way. Sorted! The idea was intriguing, memorable and cropped up in a slightly altered way in Larry Niven’s very successful science fiction novel ‘Ringworld’.

The idea also cropped up more recently in a
New Scientist magazine article. The article’s author reported attempts underway by scientists to find Dyson Spheres out there in the Milky Way. The logic of the article was as follows: By the laws of probability, there should be many advanced civilisations out there in our galaxy. If there are, some of them should have built Dyson Spheres (or similar enormous engineering constructions) in order to house their expanding populations and help their expansion through the Galaxy. There should therefore be Dyson Spheres out there, encasing stars; it’s just a case of spotting their heat signature, shape, E/M emissions etc. Read More...

New Scientist caption competition - robbed!

The winner's been announced for the second caption competition in the New Scientist. I've popped the picture alongside. My entry was 'Dan Brown novels: 4, Shakespeare plays: 0'.

The winner was Patrick Kavanagh with his line: 'No, we haven't had any Shakespeare yet. It's mostly just been Dan Brown...' Read More...

New Scientist caption competition

Being an ardent fan of the New Scientist magazine, I couldn't resist entering its caption competition. The picture is as follows:

My entries were:

'Are you sure this'll be okay, Dr Jekyll?'


'And with that final drop, they had created the world's strongest espresso'

New Scientist are running one every week for four weeks, no purchase necessary!