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Pathfinders

One gets so used to warnings of woe and dire prognostications that the occasional ‘good news’ item really stands up and waves with both hands, and lately there have been more than one such item. We have recently learned, for example, that the disaster attending the melting of the West Antarctic ice sheet might not be so bad after all (‘Ice sheet melt threat reassessed’, BBC Online, 14 May). No indeed, instead of the sea level rising by six metres, it may only rise by three. This may not comfort the sub-sea-level Dutch, who can’t afford a rise of three centimetres never mind metres, but you might be able to get by living on the first floor of your house and punting to work. Heartwarming news, too, that some species of insects are not as threatened with extinction as previously believed. "We were a bit surprised that the dragonflies are not that bad off", says one researcher (‘Dragonflies face uncertain future’, BBC Online, 15 May). Entomologists probably won’t be partying while Rome burns for mammals, birds and amphibians, who make up 63 percent of threatened species. It’s just amazing that the Grim Reaper – that Horseman of the Apocalypse known as ‘Capitalism’ – has been so remiss as to overlook something.

Rather more inspiring news for astronomer buffs came with the successful lifting off of the Herschel and Planck space telescopes on an Ariane 5 on 15 May. Herschel is an infra-red telescope that will see through gas and dust clouds to observe stars and galaxies being born, while Planck will study the Cosmic Microwave Background radiation, key to unlocking the secrets of the Big Bang and the proposed Inflation event, and perhaps even finding hints of earlier universes. The holy grail of grails would be to find experimental evidence of the ‘multiverse’, the supposed multiplicity of parallel universes predicted, or rather unavoidably encountered, by string theory. This might then suggest that physics has not, as some suspect, been wasting its time for thirty years tunnelling down a hopeless blind alley.

Easily the most expensive projects undertaken by the European Space Agency, these telescopes were bundled together on one rocket (which has been known to explode) for economy’s sake. So were the scientists nervous at take-off? You betcha. It wasn’t just the prospect of a £1.7 bn firework display, it was the gambling of a huge time investment by hundreds of people. "I woke up at 4.15am this morning, I was so nervous”, said one Cardiff astrophysicist. “Some people have spent 10 years and more on this .... I felt sick to the stomach."

And it wasn’t just past effort that was riding on the launch. "If this were to have blown up... a lot of people could have lost their jobs and grants and funds coming for it would have gone." (‘Jitters and joy at rocket launch’, BBC Online, 14 May). As a bonus, Cardiff University looks forward to seeing a big boost in undergraduate admissions as a result of their involvement in the ESA project. In capitalism, even in pure science, there’s always an angle.


Patent Stupidity

Imagine getting cancer and being told that you can’t have a cancer test because one of the genes involved in the cancer belongs to a private company. This is what happened to Genae Girard of Austin, Texas, in 2006, when she ran up against a patent owned by the company Myriad Genetics. Now, with the backing of other cancer patients and professional groups of pathologists, she is suing Myriad and the US Patent Office (‘Cancer Patients Challenge the Patenting of a Gene’, New York Times, 12 May). At stake is the question of whether it is legitimate for companies to own natural processes. Yes, say companies like Myriad, who wish to charge patients like Girard $3,000 and who refuse to work with their health insurers. Yes, says the Patent Office, who argue that patent restrictions encourage technological development. No, say a host of researchers, who argue the precise opposite, that patents limit research and result in mediocrity and stagnation. Other companies say they can do the same work as Myriad, faster and cheaper, but are legally prevented from doing so. Though one patent-owning company drew praise by being generous with free licensing, this is not likely to be the norm, and future research involving the crossing of multiple patent walls will most probably founder. Many scientists are simply outraged at this imposition of market values on the quest for knowledge. For them, the future of science is in the balance. “You can’t patent my DNA, any more than you can patent my right arm, or patent my blood,” says Jan Nowak, of the Association for Molecular Pathology. But in capitalism, you can own anything, no matter how much it flies in the face of common sense and common interest

We can only hope that the next bit of good news is that someone has patented the swine flu virus. That way, none of us will be allowed to catch it.

Lawfare and Disorder

While litigators across the Pond battle over intellectual property  rights, litigation over in the UK seems bent on abolishing intelligence. The well-known enthusiasm among member states of the Organisation of the Islamic Conference (OIC) to pursue libel suits against Western newspapers and individuals seems now to have spilled over into junk science. Using libel law to prevent and punish unwelcome criticism is known as ‘lawfare’ and even ‘libel terrorism’, and is a standard tactic for the OIC, but now snake-oil merchants everywhere will be ecstatic that the British Chiropractic Association has won its libel case against the science writer Simon Singh, who described certain of its practices as ‘bogus’ (New Scientist, 16 May). This victory may owe a great deal to the fact that, in English libel law, the burden of proof is upon the defendant, not the prosecution, a peculiarity which has spawned a UK-centred ‘libel tourism’ industry. Now the homeopaths and crystal-therapists will be catching on. You don’t need to prove that your ‘alternative’ homespun voodoo works, you can just rely on the defence being unable to prove that it doesn’t. Were we to claim in the Socialist Standard that fairies don’t exist, we would nonetheless have a hard time proving it.
 

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