5 Real Life Deus Ex MacGyvers

You all know the scene Hollywood loves to create; The world as we know it is doomed unless one kooky scientist can save the day. I’m looking at you, Independance Day, and you, War of the Worlds, and you, Jurassic Park and you… you get the picture. It’s all so convenient, that would never happen IRL right?

Wrong, here’s my 5 favourite inventions MacGyvered up just in time to (probably) save humanity:

5. Germ Theory

It’s 1918, the world is at war and people are dying at an alarming rate, in part due to the fighting but more so because of the Spanish Influenza outbreak. ‘La Grippe’ was truly a global disaster, and killed somewhere between 20 and 40 million people. The new sciences of immunology and epidemiology were struggling to come up with a vaccine or therapies quick enough to combat the disease. Mankind looked doomed.

That is until scientists began building on the work of Koch and Lister and began injecting blood plasma of people that had survived the infection into the most severly affected military patients. This reduced the mortality rates by as much as 50%, and a better understanding of the outbreak was gained.

4. The Automobile.

Before the introduction of the automobile, horses were relied upon in the large urban areas responsible for the rise of the modern era. Places like London, Paris and New York would be swamped with horses, and at the turn of the twentieth century there were some 200, 000 horses in New York, the equivalent of 1 for every 17 people.

Horses clogged the transport network of the cities, were responsible for the deaths of hundreds of residents in traffic accidents, A New Yorker would have been almost twice as likely to die from a horse accident than a car accident today, and would produce veritable mountains of dung. The steps leading to doors in many urban areas, whilst looking good today, would have been necessary to rise above the tide of horseshit that would flow after any heavy rains.

The first international urban planning conference was held in 1898 to try to tackle the increasing threat that horses posed to mankind but was cut short since the experts were stumped by the crisis.

Enter the automobile to save us from this equine menace, a much cleaner and more efficient answer to the transport problems of the day!

3. Birdseye Fish-Fingers

Yup, you read it right. Captain Birdseye (probably) saved the world. In the early twenties population growth was reaching extremely high levels, and many leading experts of the time, such as Keynes and Beveridge, were debating the pitfalls of an ever expanding population. Many feared the food supplies would run out.

Luckily for humanity Clarence Birdseye was putting the finishing touches to his technique for flash freezing vegetables, seafood and meats using high pressures, brine, ice and wax cardboard boxes. Birds Eye Frosted Foods went on sale in 1930 and humanity was promised fresh foods all year round and the humble fish finger butty was born.

2. The Convair B-36

Four years after World War II ended with the nuclear bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the Soviet Republic developed their own nuclear weaponry. The world was on the path to annihilation, however neither nation had the ability to quickly respond to a detected launch, a potentially deadly situation for life as we know it. Perverse as it may sound the world needed the Nash Equilibrium of mutually assured destruction to save us from nuclear war.

With the introduction of the Convair B-36, or the Peacekeeper, into service as an intercontinental range bomber it was now much easier to deliver a nuclear weapon into the interior of a country. Mutually assured destruction was now guaranteed and a nuclear peace achieved. You’re welcome world.

1. Sharp Stones

Of course none of this could have come about if humanity never got off the ground in the first place. There were myriad deadly events daily in palelithic man’s life. Man would be an easy target for the predators by day, and easier prey still by night. Most individuals would meet an early death, starvation and predation were very real threats. Technology would save the day in many ways.

Many nuts and seeds were too tough for our ancestors to open with just their teeth, and accordingly, the ingenuity of early man would have led to the observation that any nut could be opened if placed upon one stone and hit with another. Given the propensity we have for hurting ourselves, it’s entirely plausible to imagine, after laughing at other members of  his tribe cutting himself open on sharp stones, a genius of his time observing that it is possible to hurt those other creatures that come and eat us with these sharp stones, and so weaponry was born. Since these early axe heads are found in almost every pre-historic culture in the world, it’s fair to say they were put to good use, and humanity got started/saved.

Eugenics if you want to…?

Should a parent be allowed to choose the characteristics of a child? It seems like this question has been asked for an age and has divided opinion for just as long.

My initial reaction to this question is “No” and quite a forceful, unequivocal no at that, but when I begin to think about why not, the waters become significantly less clear.

So; what about embryonic selection, to avoid disability? I guess I can see the virtue in that, it increases quality of life and avoids having to compensate/adjust for any disability that a child might have.

What about genetic manipulation, to avoid disease? Well that seems ok, we do other things to cure disease and we all know that prevention is better than cure, so surely it follows that this should be fine.

Frame these questions differently and a different conclusion is drawn immediately; what if a couple have a child in mortal need of a transplant and the only way to guarantee this is by having a child and choosing a suitable embryo from a fertilised group? Ick, that’s a really tough call, especially as there’s a living being, a child no-less, involved. You’re also then looking at the “When does life begin?” question, is it immediately at an egg’s fertilisation?

What about embryonic selection to allow a family with 5 male children to choose to have a female? Hmmm, I think not. It’s getting too close to that blurry line now.

What about genetic manipulation, to give parents the ability to choose their child’s eye or hair colour? Why certainly not!! I said good day, sir!!

My reaction to these more frivolous uses of cutting-edge biotechnology is, first and foremost, caused by what I would consider a waste of resources. Why should we use what time and money we have on choosing the exterior facets of our offspring, when those same assets could be put to use preventing another’s disease. This seems to me an ironclad argument that can only be objected to by the most fervent capitalist, who I suppose would postulate “Those who can afford it can choose, those who can’t don’t deserve to”. I am certainly more leftist than such an imaginary advocate.

Some day, some day very soon, though we will have to answer these questions and the answer “Well it depends…” just isn’t going to cut it. We’re going to need a line thou shall not cross, not a blurry area that people debate and can manoeuvre within.

Why does the media love homeopathy?

Ok, so I’m sure many of you share my vitriol at homeopathy. I’m not going to go into all that again, many people have done it much more eloquently than I. Besides, it wouldn’t do much anyway, after all the BBC* seem to be undoing all my hard work anyways.

Homeopathy was in the news again today, as the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee published their report on the use of NHS funding for homeopathy, concluding that: “Homeopathy should not be funded on the NHS and the MHRA should stop licensing homeopathic products.” Not that you’d know from watching said news.

Now I’m all for balanced journalism and there’s certainly enough of a story to warrant opinions from both sides of the camp, however this didn’t seem to happen. Sure the homeopaths were given their chance to bring up studies that cherry pick their data, avoid controls and have, at best, dubious methodologies, but why was there no scientist allowed to chip in on this issue?

Radio 4 seemed to have an MP in rationalities corner, however all the other reports I have watched or read seem to leave it at the homeopaths explanations, making it seem that there is a substantial evidence base for homeopathy. Let me just remind you all of the facts:

Homeopathy has never been reliably shown to out perform placebo” and “ should not be funded on the NHS

If you want to buy sugar pills fine, just don’t use my taxes to pay for them.

Interestingly the Chief Scientist at the Department of Health, Professer David Harper, seems to think that there could be something in the memory theories associated with homeopathy. It’s ok though, he gets the closest thing to a bitch slap that the committee could muster:

“63. We would challenge Professor Harper’s comment that research funding should be directed towards exploring theories that are not scientifically plausible. Research funding is limited and highly competitive. The Government should continue its policy of funding the highest quality applications for important scientific research determined on the basis of peer review.
64. The Government Chief Scientific Adviser, Professor John Beddington, has told us in unequivocal terms that he is of the view that there is no evidence base for homeopathy. We recommend that the Government Chief Scientific Adviser and Professor Harper, Chief Scientist at the DH, get together to see if they can reach an agreed position on the question of whether there is any merit in research funding being directed towards the claimed modes of action of homeopathy.”

*Other news channels are available…

Homeopathetic; Or how the 10.23 overdose campaign will probably do nothing

Cartoon credit: worldofweirdthings.com

You may have heard about the planned mass ‘overdose’ that was done on Saturday. If not then I guess it failed anyway, but basically a group of homeopathy sceptics from Merseyside all took a massive ‘overdose’ of homeopathic remedies in a bid to “raise awareness about the reality of homeopathy.” In an open letter to Boots they state that they don’t expect to find products on the shelves of a trusted pharmacy brand that don’t work. In fact Boots’ own Professional Standards Director, Paul Bennet, has readily admitted before the Commons Science and Technology Committe that he doesn’t believe homeopathy to be efficacious. Unfortunately the very reason that people believe homeopathy to work will be the reason that Boots continue to sell homeopathic remedies by the idiots-shopping-basket-full. Let me explain…

So What is Homeopathy?

Homeopathy is a type of medicine treatment that works on the principle that like treats like. Burnt your sausage fingers getting your frozen pizza from the oven? Don’t worry, just hold them over the gas rings, that’ll sort it right out… And it gets better, as the whole discipline is further based upon a dilution scheme, whereby the tincture is diluted first one part into one hundred parts of water (1c), then further diluted to 30c. You don’t have to be Avagadro to realise that there is nothing left of the original tincture. That’s ok though, a homeopath is able to create an energetic imprint of the medicinal substance through a process called succussion, or ‘shaking it up a bit’. Presumably that’s how they differentiate the intended energetic imprint from every other substance that has ever been dissolved in water. Homeopath = magician…

That sounds mad, surely science has something to say?

Scientific literature including double blind, randomised, controlled studies have found little evidence in support of homeopathic remedies. An oft-quoted study that appeared to support homeopathic remedies (Inflammation Research, vol 53, p 181) in which Madeleine Ennis studied the effects on basophils, white blood cells involved in inflammation, which were treated with ultra-dilute solutions of histamines was later shown to be unrepeatable and the responses that were seen were blamed on poor experimental design. (Citation needed)

Wait, I’ve heard that Quantum Entanglement explains it all…

Quantum Entanglement is the theory that a connection can exist between two objects at the quantum level that defies classical and relativistic concepts of space and time, and that measuring an observable state in one of the objects, such as spin, will give you information about the other object in the entangled pair, regardless of distance. Many homeopaths use this to postulate that the universe is all connected. Victor Stenger explains it much more eloquently than I could in his book ‘The Unconscious Quantum’ but essentially a pair of entangled photons just have the same observable phenomena, this has nothing to do with healing, and the effects will average out given the number of photons present in your average sugar pill

OK, but where’s the harm?

Ordinarily I go along with the adage about fools and money, but this can be a problem where proven treatments are ignored in favour of the homeopathic remedies. In fact there is a veritable catalogue of potential outcomes to delaying treatments. According to one such catalogue there have been 368,379 people deaths and 306,096 injuries directly attributable to homeopathy. In fact there are many children on that list that have died of treatable illnesses like pneumonia and epilepsy because their parents would rather give them a ‘safe’ alternative to medicine.

Furthermore it is my taxes that are paying for £4M worth of NHS homeopathic treatments. Not cool Brown, Not cool.

So why do people use homeopathic remedies at all?

There are numerous sources of anecdotal evidence ‘proving’ that a homeopathic pill cured Aunt Margaret’s cold, or whatever. Clearly the placebo effect is a powerful one, that still needs a great deal of study before we understand what is going on, but knowingly selling a sugar-pill with only the patients belief as an active ingredient is dishonest and, for, me the 10.23 effort didn’t go far enough. Instead of overdosing (on nothing) the group should have taken Boots to court under ‘Fraud by False Pretences’ as they are selling ‘medicines’ that they (in their own words) ‘don’t believe to be efficacious’.

So why was the campaign doomed to fail?

Big Pharma may have it’s faults, and without going into tin-foil-hat territory I have equal disdain for GlaxoSmithKlein as the homeopathic snake oil dealers, however it was clear to me that no amount of media posturing was going to win over the homeopathic remedy crowd. It is their very belief in these remedies that make them work, and if someone believes that a sugar pill treated with an energy imprint can heal their ailments by exposing them to the same thing that is causing their illness then no amount of logical debate or scientific evidence will change their minds.

Why Marie Curie Could Kick your Ass

Marie Curie once famously uttered the following quote…

Nothing in life is to be feared, it is only to be understood. Now is the time to understand more, so that we may fear less.

Although I don’t know when Curie gave this wonderful quote to us it was some time before her untimely death in 1934. I don’t think this quote has ever been more relevant than it is now. Maybe it’s just me getting older, but old fearmongering and block headed obstinateness seem to be reasserting themselves in the public consciousness. Unfounded fear of autism is leaving children unvaccinated against MMR, based on hearsay still repeated now.

Marie Curie was awarded two Nobel prizes (one of them shared with her husband and Heni Becquerel) for her research into the phenomena of radioactivity, and she and Pierre Curie discovered two new elements; polonium and radium. Curie also began work on using radiation to prevent the growth of cancerous cells.

In many ways Marie Curie seems to reflect the attitude of geeks today. Her and her husband were responsible for overturning existing scientific conventions, she was unafraid of working with the unknown and even refused to patent radium to allow fellow scientist to work with the element.

Marie Curie was independent, intelligent, grounded and courageous. She is worthy of your respect.

This post is part of Ada Lovelace Day, a day of blogging celebrating the role of women in technology. I have chosen Marie Curie as she effectively gave her life for science and I admire her a great deal. Whilst I have chosen a historical subject for my post, there are lots of women working today worthy of accolade. Take a look at other posts celebrating these women.

Intrinsic racism and the strength of our subconscious associations

The Collins English Dictionary defines racism as:

1 the belief that races have distinctive cultural characteristics determined by hereditary factors and that this endows some races with an intrinsic superiority over others
2 abusive or aggressive behaviour towards members of another race on the basis of such a belief
In a civilised world most people would like to think that they are not racist, and outwardly act with respect towards people of different races. Would America have elected their first black president if this was not the case? Research at Harvard university is showing that subconsciously there is a different story whether we like it or not.
Science has tended to confirm that race is a cultural construct, and there are no scientific criteria to determine race. Despite our obvious differences we are all extremely similar biologically, and to think of one race as superior to another, such as the argument that white people have intrinsically superior intelligence made by Charles Murray in ‘The Bell Curve‘, is clearly misguided. In fact in many circumstances use of the word race is being replaced with the equally ambiguous term ethnicity, as an indicator of the ancestry of a given individual.
Whether we like it or not our subconscious controls our intrinsic attitudes towards others.  Without conscious influence we make snap decisions, especially about other people, using a combination of learned responses, non-verbal cues and body language. Interviews and speed dating are perfect examples of how we form an impression of people within moments of meeting them.
These behaviours are the subject of a lot of research, and an interesting tool has been developed by Anthony Greenwald, Mahzarin Banajai and Brian Nosek that shows the links our minds make. The Implicit Association Test (IAT) determines the connections and mental associations that we have made between pairs of ideas. The test works by putting two words or ideas together with words synonymous with good or bad, and registering the time taken to place an image or word into one of the two categories. Try it out for yourself here but be prepared for some uncomfortable results.
Full disclosure, I have a moderate automatic preference for Caucasians, which surprised me somewhat. I don’t consider myself to be racist, and although I don’t know many people of different ethnicities, I don’t think of the friends I have of other ethnicities any differently than the white friends I have. Intrinsically, however, this doesn’t seem to be the case. Even as I completed the test I felt a sense of shame at the ‘wrong’ answers I gave.
The prodominantly white media may have to take some of the blame for this, for reinforcing negative stereotypes about different races, with sensationalist stories, however the good news is that with more exposure to positive examples of other races or cultures this bias can be overcome. President Obama has recieved almost unilateral support with a message of hope and change, showing that the potential of any race for good is there, we just need more examples to help break free of these associations.

Evolution, schmevolution…

Case in point...
Case in point...

Run now monkey men!!! Go hide behind your bearded idols, your simple tools at the ready, to remove those who dare to disagree from your delusional primate chain. I am here with disturbing thoughts and beliefs your “science” can not resolve. Your highest atheistas have failed, prepare to be exposed to ideas your simian minds can not hope to adequately resolve…

If there’s one thing I’ve learnt in life (and, by all accounts that might be stretching me slightly) it’s that truth is in the eye of the beholder and evidence is the ass of a penguin. By that I mean; people believe what they want (yes, even atheism is a belief structure ladies) and you can easily pretend something isn’t there just because you can’t see it.

So, to all you latent-agnostic banana apologists out there; What about this blushing thing??

Yeah, that’s right, explain to me (and the rest of the befuddle scientific community while you’re at it) how the simple act of becoming red-faced at one’s embarrassment fits into the whole natural selection scheme of things…

With the 200th anniversary of the Anti-Christ Darwin’s birth looming large on the horizon, New Scientist (in an unusual act of objective examination) decided to ask luminaries from around the globe to express their thoughts on what gaps there still are in evolutionary theory. Richard “I-can’t-believe-it’s-completely-immaculate” Dawkins surprised everyone by taking up the mantle of Lord Inquisitor and asking his usual roll of meaningless questions. Frans de Waal however posited the much more succinct “Why do humans blush?”

Apparently, after 2 centuries of perverting our best minds and devouring more research monies than Black Mesa, evolutionary science has failed to explain this phenomenon in it’s own terms. There is no advantage to having this involuntary ability in any respect, in fact it can be said quite assuredly that it is a huge disadvantage (in both society and the natural world) and should have been routed out long ago if there is even the smallest grain of truth in “The Evolutionary Superstition” TM.

Now, I’m really sorry to rain on your vegan-hippy-carbonoffset-treehugging-love-renewable-Xmas parade, or whatever other pseudo religious humanist back-slap-athon you were all planning to mark the day your heathenistic confuser was laid into the world he tried so hard to subvert, but if you can’t tell me why I go red when I’m caught looking at some pretty girls A.R.T. then I ain’t buying your wares and I may even go to the extent of shooting the horse you rode in on just so you don’t try and peddle your sub-standard dross to any unassuming saps you might be find elsewhere…

Gone to pot?

A report by a group of leading academics will controversially push for changes in cannabis laws, allowing the state to prepare and distribute marijuana for recreational use. Amanda Fielding, the founder of the Beckley Foundation,  “a charitable trust set up to promote the investigation of consciousness
and its modulation, and the science of drug use, from a
multidisciplinary perspective” will present the findings of their report to the UN Commision on Narcotic Drugs, who will in turn report to the UN general assembly at a meeting that will decide the international drug control policies for the next decade.

The findings of the Beckley report show that cannabis damages the health of heavy users as is to be expected, including increased risk of psychosis, lung and heart problems. Around 40% of Americans admit to having tried the drug and 3.9% of teenagers worldwide use marijuana regularly, compared with just a single per cent of the world population that uses other illegal drugs. Teenagers have an increased likelihood of dropping out of school early, and being in traffic accidents.

The potency of cannabis is also getting higher (pun definitely intended :p) as levels of THC (delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol), the chemical that gives the user a high, are treble the levels that were present 10 years ago. Similarly the levels of cannabidiol, believed to help prevent psychosis, are falling, and are absent in certain strains.

Comparison of the dangers of different drugs - Hennigfield & Benowitz
Comparison of the dangers of different drugs - Hennigfield & Benowitz

There are obviously dangers associated with the drug, however the Beckley commision concludes that “the damage done by prohibition is worse than from the substance itself.” The drug is thougt to be less harmful to users and society than other illicit drugs, and far less damaging than legal drugs like alcohol and tobacco. Each year 2.5 million deaths are attributed to alcohol and 5 million to smoking. To date there have been just two documented deaths from marijuana overdoses.

Many of the harmful consequences stem from the fact that cannabis is illegal, the Beckley commision claims. University of Maryland Criminologist Peter Reuter, a co-author of the report said “If you don’t think being arrested is a harm, you’re unpersuadable, in the US, 750,000 people were arrested in 2006, and I think that’s a substantial harm.”

A study by the National Drug Research Institute in Perth, Western Australia, in 2000, came to the same conclusion. Cannabis possession here attracts a criminal conviction, although in South Australia this is not the case. It was found that 32% of those ‘criminalised’ had severe employment consequences, compared with just 2% of those ‘infringments’ in Southern Australia.

The Beckley report is recommending that cannabis should be subject to strict standars to ensure that it is not strong enough to cause psychological problems and sold through government outlets. This will ensure that children are unable to buy the drug and that the criminal element that currently profit from drugs are slowly pushed out.

Fielding accepts that it is a controversial proposal, but I for one think it seems well thought out and potentially beneficial. The key seems to be moderation, for me, as with all things in life. People will always take drugs, if we can help make this safer for the user then, that can only be a good thing. It would obviously need to be proven that the weaker strains discussed are genuinely safer, and a large-scale information campaign would be required, but it has to be better than the alternative.