Archive for category society

Watch out it’s the fashion police!

I didn’t intend to write about politics when I started this blog, I fully intended to stick to topics revolving around science. However this weeks activity in France where the burqa has now been banned have incensed me. For those of you who haven’t heard the French ban on wearing the burqa came into force today, now any woman found wearing the burqa will be subjected to a 150 Euro fine and mandatory attendance at a “re-education” meeting. I despise this law; it’s invasive, immoral and totally misguided at best. But what I despise more than this is the reaction some people have had. Here is some of the worst…

“If people want to live in our country they should abide by our culture!”

This statement strongly implies that all burqa wearing muslim women are immigrants who want nothing more than to segregate themselves from the rest of the country. Aside from this being spurious at best whose culture are we talking about? And is this about culture or fashion? I lived in Brighton for many years and have seen people wearing everything and often, nothing. In fact during my first week in Brighton I witnessed a very old man wearing an old man cap, shirt and tie, waistcoat, hot pants, red tights and knee length leather boots. This is not an anomaly! It is common in Brighton to witness odd clashes of fashion and style completely at odds with other norms in Britain such as hoodies and jeans, is this an example of Brighton not abiding by “our” culture? Why is it that if something is different or not native in origin that it should be shunned until it integrates (an Orwellian word that actually means conforms)? One news article went so far as to suggest that all muslim women who do not wear burqas are ‘moderates’ implying that those who do wear the burqa are extremist. At what point did it become acceptable in Europe to consider anyone who dresses or acts differently as extremest? If a selection of Europeans started painting their faces because of cultural reasons why should that not also be banned?

“You shouldn’t be allowed to cover your face in public”

Once a year this child is oppressed into covering it's face. Ban Ghosts

So we are going to ban hoodies, masks and helmets now are we? I accept that in some cases you should have to show your face (i.e. when engaging in an activity which requires ID) but why the hell is it the governments business if I show my face or not? As a matter of fact why is it anyone’s business what I wear?  When celebs are hounded by paparazzi and cover their face should we arrest them? Should faces no longer be blurred out on TV?

“Muslim women are oppressed”

The issue of women being oppressed is a strong one however ordering women not to wear a burqa is hardly a step forward especially as I have yet to see any evidence that the majority of burqa wearers do so under male instruction. I have a friend whose girlfriend tells him what and what not to wear. It’s ridiculous that a man of 22 can be ordered around and told which shirt he is allowed and not allowed to buy, should we ban shirts then? Tackling one small symptom is never going to get rid of the disease.

In addition I find it hard to see why there is a belief that here in Europe our culture doesn’t oppress women by demanding what they can and cannot wear. Our TV bombards us with programs featuring normal women who are then taken by some Guri, told they are doing it wrong and reborn with make-up, surgery and new clothes. Are you any more liberated if going out in jeans and a jumper results in sneers and odd looks from those dressed in less fabric than a small hanky? Anyone who believes that women in Europe can walk down the street wearing whatever they like without fear of judgement needs to get their head checked.

There’s a lot more to be said on this issue that I’m not going into now. All the arguments for banning the burqa are veiled attempts at forcing out Islam under the guise of liberation and integration. I can’t help feel that this is a bad time for our free world when the liberties that we fought to obtain are the ones we are now invoking to justify interference and oppression of our citizens. I, as a free European citizen should be allowed to wear whatever the hell I please and that freedom should be universal. What kind of world are we creating when we say it’s ok for government to pass laws over specific people like this? Is this not another example of what Niemöller warned against?

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Living forever?

One of the more remarkable gifts our technological world is the increase in our life expectancy. Even but a century ago the average life expectancy of a British man was half of that of today, even in the last two decades it’s gone up by five years. This increase has a myriad of reasons; an abundance of food, water, law and order, an increase in hygiene and sanitation and finally massive advances in medical science.

Extending one’s life and capability through innovative means is part of what makes us human. This trend of increasing life expectancy is one that doesn’t seem to be slowing down, indeed as we develop our biosciences we are gaining a deeper understanding as to the mechanisms of ageing. This occurred to me as a topic to talk about when I saw an article on the BBC news website reporting on the state of anti-ageing science. The report highlighted a few issues that were vehemently discussed in the comments, to get to the issues I’ll go over a bit of the science behind ageing.

We don’t fully understand every mechanism that goes on whilst we age. There are many contributing factors that we have discovered though; the most often touted cause of ageing is the shortening of telomeres. These are stretches of DNA found at the end of chromosomes, every time a cell replicates a bit of these telomeres are cut off. Over time this leads to shortened telomeres and a more likely chance of DNA damage. Other contributing factors include protein build up inside and outside of cells, DNA mutation and cellular replacement (many cell types die faster than they can be replaced, this is more apparent in the elderly). Designing therapies to counter all of these (and any undiscovered causes) would lead to a stabilisation and even reversal of the ageing process.

Chromosomes with telomeres highlighted in red

This is all interesting science but it has far reaching consequences for our society and people have a lot of different ideas about the ethics of life extension. Let’s imagine that effective treatments for all the causes of ageing are produced, in this scenario a regime of drugs is introduced to the public that when taken every day reverse your age to a physically fit, healthy 25 year old body and keep it that way. I’ve heard many arguments for why this is apparently a bad thing. A common argument is that we should not “play god” or “mess with the natural order”. The argument states that death is natural and any attempt to prevent death from old age is morally wrong. Whenever I am faced with this argument I simply ask the person if they take medicine, drive cars or use the internet. If the answer is yes then the argument for being unnatural seems pretty thin. Furthermore nobody has ever died from old age; people die from age related disease. Getting old is simply a slow wearing out until finally something vital fails. In curing old age diseases we ramp up the life expectancy. Are these people really going to advocate not researching medicines for these diseases? Are they going to tell elderly patients “we don’t have medicine for your kind. It’s natural! Accept it”?

Another popular argument is that of overpopulation. Proponents state that if we do not allow people to die the world will be overfull. I’m always sceptical of this claim; firstly it assumes that we cannot support this amount of people. In the year 1800 we could not have supported the 6 billion people we have today because it took over 200 years of technological development for us to be able to support us. The claim that there will be too many people assumes that this progression will not continue. Secondly the claim assumes that we will still give birth to as many people as we do today. Add to that the fascinating discovery made over the last century that if you give women rights, education and prospects they (shock horror) don’t want to spend their lives spitting out children like high-throughput human factories! The birth rate in countries with equal rights for women shrinks enormously. Couple this with the decreasing need to have so many children (you don’t need to have 12 in the hope 6 will survive to adulthood to take care of you) and we get a scenario of 1 or less children per adult.

For me life extension always makes me wonder; I am 21 years old; once I’ve lived that many years again I hope to have had kids, be married and have a good career. At that age I can expect that once I’ve lived that many years again I will probably be dead or close to it. But that is on the basis that near 80 is the age I will kick the bucket. If the regime of drugs we have supposed comes to pass and my life expectancy jumps from 80 to several hundred years I doubt my principles will stay the same. Why have kids at any age before 100? Why not spend a few centuries learning, travelling and establishing a good life before tying myself down with other humans to raise?

Personally I would work for decades then take a sabbatical (instead of retirement) and spend a few decades travelling, studying and generally being on holiday. I’m interested to know what you all think. Do you think age-stabilising drugs would be a good thing? What would you do if your life expectancy jumped by orders of magnitude? How do you think society would change? Ultimately these issues are nothing new, but as science marches on our life expectancy is shrinking over the horizon. So who knows? Perhaps one of you will be mulling over this blog on your 200th birthday…

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Do no harm…?

At the end of Christmas time I settled down to watch what I thought would be one of those typical Channel 4 documentaries called Britain’s Fattest Man. If you missed it the documentary was about Paul Mason who became the world’s heaviest man weighing in at over 440kg (that’s 70 stone or 980lb for all you imperialists)! Not to go through the whole documentary but in essence it was very sad, Paul became this size after suffering a series of devastating blows in his life before becoming addicted to food. He was bedridden and required carers to wash and feed him. Paul was desperate enough to go for a gastric bypass (a procedure that shrinks the available stomach size) which enabled him to shed 120kg in just a matter of months.

Paul Mason 48 years old at a time when he weighed nearly half a tonne

You may ask why I am bothering to blog about this, I had no plans to. It was merely one of those stories we hear about and perhaps relay in a shocked tone to others. The thing that really got me about this documentary was the way people treated Paul. Other than receiving hate mail I was dismayed to see a wealth of articles both online and in newspapers lamenting the cost of Paul’s care and medical treatment. Per year Paul costs slightly over £100,000 to the NHS and over the fifteen or so years Paul has needed this care he has topped over £1,000,000. Reading through some comments online I couldn’t believe the amount of people who were advocating Paul either not receiving this care or not deserving it. This is a bit of a problem for me, I believe in social healthcare. I think medicine should be a right not a privilege.  There’s two dangerous mentalities here, one is that if you don’t contribute you don’t deserve (ridiculous, what about students, mentally ill, prisoners and those down on their luck) and the other is that if you did it to yourself you don’t deserve help. To me that’s a pretty slippery slope to start on.

It is possible to go through your whole life without smoking or exposing yourself to any airborne carcinogens and still get lung cancer. The following numbers aren’t real but they illustrate a real point; out of 100 non smokers 20 get lung cancer and out of 100 smokers 60 get lung cancer. Now out of those 60 smokers with cancer 1 in 3 could have contracted the disease independent of their smoking. If we adopt the mentality of “you don’t deserve healthcare if you did it to yourself” we have to deny or charge for care for 40 of them. But it’s impossible to tell! Do we just deny all of them because they took a risk? Even though every third man didn’t cause it themselves? This principle is very damaging and whilst I don’t condone Paul Mason eating himself to that size I certainly don’t think he is any less deserving than a healthy taxpaying member of society. The whole philosophy of social healthcare is that those who can contribute so that all can receive any and every medicine or treatment that they require.

What do you think? Is Paul justified in receiving medical treatment? At the end of the day would you rather live in a society which takes care of those in need or one that dismisses those who can’t help themselves?

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What the ruddy hell is this ‘science’ thing anyway?

First things first I need to declare that I am indeed one of those long haired, lab coat wearing boffins known as a scientist. I have always been a scientist even before I actually got to wear the coat. From a very young age I wanted to know things, I wanted to figure things out and I wanted to use that knowledge to build wicked stuff (I’ve still not entirely fulfilled my childhood dream of building my own spaceship but we’ll see…). I do accept however that I am in the minority. Most people don’t like studying science whether it’s because they find it hard or boring or perhaps just have a penchant for something else. But there is a problem with this that I have come to notice over my (admittedly short) career, whilst its absolutely fine if people don’t want to be scientists most people don’t even know what science is. And that as we shall see is like being a sailor whose doesn’t recognise the water beneath him…

A typical scientist at work

It should be self evident to anyone reading this blog that we live in a technologically developed world. I’m touching a variety of pressure sensors that are converting that pattern into a digital code that is then represented on my screen as words and images. That code can be distributed on the interwebz for all to enjoy. Our lives are an expression of an ocean of knowledge that has been painstakingly gathered and built upon over thousands of years. There’s little I can point to in my life or the lives of anyone I know that hasn’t been affected by science and technology. This brings us neatly to our first question “what’s science and whose technology?”

The broad definition of science that most people might say is that it is a process of gathering facts about the world. A more accurate definition though would be that science uses empirical reasoning to build predictive models about the world; it’s all about model building. Empirical reasoning in science simply put goes observation – hypothesis – experimentation – conclude. We observe natural phenomenon, we develop a hypothesis about how it occurs (what in colloquial terms may be called a ‘theory’ or ‘idea’), we then test this hypothesis and from that we make a conclusion. Technology is the application of the understanding drawn from these models. We build shiny machines and funny sounding chemicals that run on the principles we have discovered to perform tasks that we find desirable.

What makes science so different? Sometimes in life truths are rather unpalatable for us humans. Whether it’s finding out that the Earth doesn’t revolve around us, that we are indeed related to other animals or that yes our bum does look big in this there is a plethora of things about the world that many might not like. But whether or not you like an answer has no veracity on its truth. Whilst this seems obvious it’s a statement I often see disregarded; just watch Fox News or read the Daily Mail and you’re bound to be bombarded with ideas like climate change is a conspiracy, vaccines cause disease and that its only ‘fair’ to teach fundamentalist religion in school science classes as a matter of ‘balance’.

In science no answer, no matter how devastating to our world view, is disregarded or accepted on the basis of what it is. The only reason to accept anything in science is that it has evidence for it no matter what it is. Science isn’t about what people think or what people reckon based on personal experience or anecdotes they’ve read about, it is about demonstrable truth through good, repeatable unbiased experimentation. This doesn’t mean that I go and do some experiments then just tell you the answer, other scientists will repeat my work over and over to see if the results are correct, to see if my method was flawed or to see if the results I obtained do not match the conclusions I have made. Nobody’s word is taken as gospel in the scientific community, something is considered to be true only when it has been demonstrated time and again by other experts in the field. This is the peer review process and I will go into it in more detail in another post.

So why is it important that everybody understands how science works? We all rely on the fruits of its labour to survive and flourish; in the developed world we live in a Garden of Eden where we suffer little threat from parasites, predators, natural disasters and where food and water are plentiful. All this is a product of science and technology but don’t take it as a constant! There are people in this world who have little interest in truth, merely agenda. It is because of these people that we all must have a fair understanding of how science works, if we don’t then how can we know what to do about issues such as climate change, pandemics and so on? A scientifically illiterate person has no immunity to the bullshit and propaganda that surround us like wolves beyond the campfire. How can the public know whether it’s right to teach evolution or creationism? To vaccinate or not? These are issues that I will address in further depth later on, until then I hope I’ve sparked a curiosity and shed a little more light on what exactly this ruddy ‘science’ thing actually is.

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How many men does it take to make a light bulb?

Not just men in fact but women as well. The question has been one that I’ve been throwing back and forth for a while now. I’ve encountered similar questions before all essentially asking “how many people does it take to sustain a technologically developed society?” The question implies a society that we in Britain are used to with as much consumerism, technology, law and light bulbs as we have today. The answer might be a little more than most would guess.

Throughout history we have gone forth and multiplied. Countless times wooden boats have been built carrying less people than the average train on the Tube across waters to new lands where those people have managed to build a society. From that we would think that the answer to “how many people does it take to sustain a technologically developed society?” wouldn’t be that much. Perhaps the citizens of our hypothetical society can each be employed only in jobs that are necessary with no overlap or needless jobs (by needless jobs I refer to multiple companies providing the same service which in our hypothetical society can be cut down). In colonial times they would start essentially from scratch and work their way back up with trade and supply from neighbouring lands boosting the fledgling society. But in trying to answer “how many men…” we need to come to a number of how many people we need to maintain the world we are used to rather than rebuild it.

Pre-1900 most things could be constructed by generalist industries (blacksmiths, carpenters, masons etc). Over the past century however our world has exploded into an ecology of superspecialisms. Whilst early machines could be built or maintained by the typical tinkerer in his workshop the complexity of everyday objects today has pushed the reality of one dedicated jack-of-all-trades up to a large interdependent group of masters in one field.

A few examples; today’s smartphones contain microprocessors built from transistors just tens of nanometres thick, wires etched a few dozen atoms wide, GPS systems, radio transmitters, microscopic pressure sensors underneath a full colour screen all packaged in a palm sized container. In the medical field rather than having the traditional doctor, surgeon, nurse, dentist we have specialists in far narrower fields like cardiologists, radiologists, neurologists, ophthalmologists etcetera etcetera. Examples like this can be seen in all walks of life and in building our hypothetical society we can forget none of them! A temporal lobe neurosurgeon might seem unnecessarily specialised until you get a tumour that needs to be excised. And for each field we must have a sizable portion educating the next generation. Contrary to Heinlein’s popular quote specialisation is not just for insects.

So to address the original question, how many men does it take to make a light bulb? Let’s break it down; a typical incandescent light bulb is made up from a glass bulb containing a tungsten filament surrounded by an inert gas. Sounds simple at first but for all of that we need an industry to mine and refine the materials, transport to take those materials to factories (and consequently an industry to maintain that infrastructure), make the bulbs and ship them out to the people. Apply that to every product we have and how many industries do we need now? Sure there may be no overlap in some areas (we may only need one tungsten mine and one infrastructure maintenance consortium) but the sheer complexity of life in the developed world today is mind boggling.

Adding together the populations of large hives of industry such as NAFTA, the EU and China we come to a number of over two billion. This number can be trimmed to about one billion by taking into consideration the communities that provide little overall input (half of China’s population is solely agrarian for example). If we take one billion people to be the upper bound we can consider removing as much overlap as possible whilst maximising efficiency but I see no reason as to why the lower bound number would not be less than the high tens or low hundreds of millions. So to live in a society capable of providing all the technologies and services we are used to would require a population greater than that of the United Kingdom today.

This realisation has important implications. For those of an ideology that the world would be a better place with less people simply living in one with nature or those who have a special place in their heart for the idea of living on Mars (or any other non-Earth body) the reality is quite different. To maintain a technologically developed society such as ours we are not going to be living in self sufficient pioneering communities, instead we have to be a thriving interdependent hive of industries, experts and above all specialists.

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