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Pathfinders

Christmas Crackers   

Two of the biggest science news stories of the year, and possibly of the decade, broke in late November. One was the derivation of multi-purpose or ‘pluripotent’ human cells from simple skin (BBC Online, 20 November). Until now, the only known way to extract stem cells, cells which have the capability to turn into any of the 220 cell-types in the human body and thus potentially grow or repair any bodily organ or tissue, was from aborted human embryos. The moral issues around this have mired the science in controversy and, especially in the United States, have all but throttled research. Already a small culture of former skin cells has been grown into heart tissue which has begun beating. The consequences, if this technique works, are hard to exaggerate for many otherwise untreatable conditions, or for those people with little chance of a life-saving transplant, or for those with a successful transplant but facing a lifetime of immuno-suppressants and at risk from the mildest infection.

Of course, it might not work, but if does, it would take the worst kind of Christmas Scrooge to point out that this is rich-country technology to cure rich-country people, and which doesn’t do a whole lot for the several million kids who die every year because their mostly corrupt governments won’t spend one lousy dollar on their healthcare.

The other story concerns a Californian surfer and part-time snowboarding instructor, named Garrett Lisi, whose curious hobby just might make him as famous as Einstein (New Scientist, 17 November). For Garrett, when not surfing in Hawaii, moonlights as a theoretical physicist, and has just come up with an idea that might, from a physicist’s point of view, be the answer to life, the universe, and everything. The ‘standard model’ of physics has for the last thirty years or so made reliably accurate predictions about everything from the minutest particle to the largest galaxies, using its two main propositions, quantum mechanics and Einstein’s general relativity. The problem has been that these two propositions have never fitted together. While quantum mechanics describes three of the four fundamental forces in nature, electromagnetism, and the strong and weak nuclear forces, gravity is the odd one out, and can only be understood using relativity. Logic dictates that there must be an underlying law which unites the behaviour of these four forces, and intuition suggests they might even be aspects of the same thing, but despite all kinds of highly elaborate ideas, such as string theory and loop quantum gravity, nobody has managed to connect them.

What Garrett has done is to take a known, 8-dimensional mathematical pattern with 248 points, and map all the 40 known particles in their various ‘identities’ to one or other of those points, uniquely including particles representing gravity. Rotating the pattern then gives known and observed relationships between these particles, but also throws light on new unsuspected relationships. In addition, having 20 points left with no particles to put in them, Lisi has posited the existence of 20 new particles which, tantalisingly, might be found next year when the Large Hadron Collider comes online at CERN in Switzerland. If the LHC finds the missing particles, physics will have found its holy grail, a theory of everything, the greatest advance for thirty years, and Lisi, at the very least, will surf his way to the Nobel Prize. Lisi has even devised a curious video animation which you can watch here: http://tinyurl.com/25DPF9. It doesn’t explain anything very well, but it’s quite fun to watch.

Of course, the theory still might be wrong, but if it isn’t, it would take the most miserable seasonal grouch to point out that the greatest advance in physics for three hundred years still wouldn’t mean a damn thing if we’ve killed our planet off because of our collective inability to spend one lousy brain-cell on our social and planetary healthcare. And several YouTube cynics, after watching Lisi’s bizarre ‘confetti’ video, make precisely this point. One particularly concise offering sums them up: “All I want to do is figure out how to make a living without having to go to work. Is that too much to ask?” Well, too much for theoretical physicists, anyway. Pity they aren’t asking socialists that question.

However, 2007 hasn’t been groundbreaking in every department, and there have been a fair collection of silly stories around this year. Two now sadly untraceable stories seen this year involve, on the one hand, the invention of ‘space money’ for all those space tourists of whom the likes of Richard Branson are rubbing their greedy hands together in anticipation, and the intriguing suggestion that NASA’s proposed crewed moon-base, due to be ready in 2020, won’t use money because internal trading would be seen as divisive in the colony. Extreme efforts to locate this story have turned up nothing, so perhaps it was, after all, a figment of a fevered mind.

On firmer ground, there is the continuing argument over online copyright issues. On the progressive side, the band Radiohead recently released an album online with an invitation to ‘pay what you like’. With some paying nothing, but many paying approximately a ‘fair price’ and one clearly disturbed enthusiast paying over £700, other bands are likely to follow this innovation. As this column has previously noted, the fight to preserve copyright online is viewed by many as a lost cause, and many entertainers now seek to recoup through live appearances and promotions instead of through the music. Elsewhere, a wonderful initiative by a Canadian student resulted in thousands of previously unobtainable and out of copyright musical scores being placed online, for any budding pianist to have a go at. But, like the proverbial turd on a bowling green, an Austrian company has appeared on the scene with an international, and unprecedented lawsuit which, on the mere suspicion that there might somewhere be one manuscript still under copyright, has succeeded in closing down this free resource and depriving musicians everywhere of harmless fun (http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/technology/7074786.stm).

Anyone who has ever sworn at a Satnav device will be interested in two conflicting stories, one of which asserts that Satnav is better and safer than using maps (New Scientist, 4 August), the other reporting a litany of building damage and road bridge demolitions resulting from large lorries being sent down totally unsuitable roads by their ‘eye in the sky’ (http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/wales/south_west/7088105.stm). It might be wise to see in this perspective the breathless predictions of one robot engineer that humans will be marrying robots within the next 40 years (David Levy, Love and Sex with Robots, publishing date 6 November). Jaded socialists will conclude from the above stories that the human race is going off track in more ways than one.

Lastly, of more interest to those socialists interested in the science/religion debate, the second Beyond Belief conference of concerned scientists has just taken place at La Jolla, California. New Scientist (10 November) takes a surprisingly disparaging view of scientists like Richard Dawkins who refuse to accord respect to religion, and this may of course be due to their high-minded moral impartiality. Or it may be the fact that they have started taking two-page advertisements from the religious Templeton Foundation, that organisation which, as Dawkins has noted, are prepared to pay huge amounts of money to ‘any scientist willing to say something nice about religion’. New Scientist would presumably have no comment to make on what must be the oddest news story of the year (BBC Online, 14 September), in which, after huge protests, the Indian Government withdrew a report to the Supreme Court which dared to claim that a rocky formation lying between the Indian coast and Sri Lanka was not in fact a bridge built by the god Ram and his army of monkeys but was a natural geological feature. Work on the shipping canal project was disrupted for months and the Interior Minister’s resignation was demanded. Who said there’s no fun in fundamentalism?