The optimism of Mark Stevenson

The former pop star and cryptographer who knows how to save the world.

With swaths of Australia's eastern seaboard underwater, this week's New Statesman has a timely piece on the simple idea that could stop the country's destructive cycle of drought and flood. (You'll never guess what it is.)

It's written by Mark Stevenson, whose book An Optimist's Tour of the Future was published yesterday. It has received stellar reviews all over the place and is one of the most interesting science books I've read for a long time.

It turns out that Mark's got the best back story since Brian Cox – he, too, was in a pop band (they were big in Chile) and he was also a cryptography expert. Now, he's a stand-up comedian, writer and educator, trying to find out whether we're all doomed.

He has decided to take an optimistic – but rational – look at what the future might hold for us as a species. In his own words:

I've travelled over 60,000 miles across four continents, talked to more than 30 geniuses, met four robots and had two terrible conversations with computers. I've contemplated immortality, the end of capitalism and a new age of human evolution. In the process, I've attended an underwater cabinet meeting, helped invent one cocktail, been insulted in the outback, made a brace of new friends and had near-death experiences. I'm not the same person I was when I started.

The contentious subjects covered by the book include the human genome, nanotechnology, genetic engineering and renewable energy. Stevenson tackles them in an approachable way by focusing on the individual stories of the (often quite eccentric) people involved.

One of them is Aubrey de Grey, the gerontologist whose work on rodents makes him think that people can live to a 1,000 years old (as long as we don't get fat). You can see de Grey in action at a Ted talk here. Not only does he have the best beard in science, he might be the fastest talker you'll ever hear.

Mark also met a Columbia University professor called Klaus Lackner, who's developed a cheap and efficient way to scrub CO2 from the atmosphere – and now needs $20m to build a commercial prototype.

Then there's the controversial futurist Ray Kurzweil, who believes that humans will soon merge with technology and become a new species. (I knew my Xbox had been looking at me oddly.)

You can read more about the book (and Mark's pop career) here.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

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A swimming pool and a bleeding toe put my medical competency in doubt

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Sometimes the search engine wins. 

The brutal heatwave affecting southern Europe this summer has become known among locals as “Lucifer”. Having just returned from Italy, I fully understand the nickname. An early excursion caused the beginnings of sunstroke, so we abandoned plans to explore the cultural heritage of the Amalfi region and strayed no further than five metres from the hotel pool for the rest of the week.

The children were delighted, particularly my 12-year-old stepdaughter, Gracie, who proceeded to spend hours at a time playing in the water. Towelling herself after one long session, she noticed something odd.

“What’s happened there?” she asked, holding her foot aloft in front of my face.

I inspected the proffered appendage: on the underside of her big toe was an oblong area of glistening red flesh that looked like a chunk of raw steak.

“Did you injure it?”

She shook her head. “It doesn’t hurt at all.”

I shrugged and said she must have grazed it. She wasn’t convinced, pointing out that she would remember if she had done that. She has great faith in plasters, though, and once it was dressed she forgot all about it. I dismissed it, too, assuming it was one of those things.

By the end of the next day, the pulp on the underside of all of her toes looked the same. As the doctor in the family, I felt under some pressure to come up with an explanation. I made up something about burns from the hot paving slabs around the pool. Gracie didn’t say as much, but her look suggested a dawning scepticism over my claims to hold a medical degree.

The next day, Gracie and her new-found holiday playmate, Eve, abruptly terminated a marathon piggy-in-the-middle session in the pool with Eve’s dad. “Our feet are bleeding,” they announced, somewhat incredulously. Sure enough, bright-red blood was flowing, apparently painlessly, from the bottoms of their big toes.

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Often, what patients discover on the internet causes them undue alarm, and our role is to provide context and reassurance. But not infrequently, people come across information that outstrips our knowledge. On my return from our room with fresh supplies of plasters, my wife looked up from her sun lounger with an air of quiet amusement.

“It’s called ‘pool toe’,” she said, handing me her iPhone. The page she had tracked down described the girls’ situation exactly: friction burns, most commonly seen in children, caused by repetitive hopping about on the abrasive floors of swimming pools. Doctors practising in hot countries must see it all the time. I doubt it presents often to British GPs.

I remained puzzled about the lack of pain. The injuries looked bad, but neither Gracie nor Eve was particularly bothered. Here the internet drew a blank, but I suspect it has to do with the “pruning” of our skin that we’re all familiar with after a soak in the bath. This only occurs over the pulps of our fingers and toes. It was once thought to be caused by water diffusing into skin cells, making them swell, but the truth is far more fascinating.

The wrinkling is an active process, triggered by immersion, in which the blood supply to the pulp regions is switched off, causing the skin there to shrink and pucker. This creates the biological equivalent of tyre treads on our fingers and toes and markedly improves our grip – of great evolutionary advantage when grasping slippery fish in a river, or if trying to maintain balance on slick wet rocks.

The flip side of this is much greater friction, leading to abrasion of the skin through repeated micro-trauma. And the lack of blood flow causes nerves to shut down, depriving us of the pain that would otherwise alert us to the ongoing tissue damage. An adaptation that helped our ancestors hunt in rivers proves considerably less use on a modern summer holiday.

I may not have seen much of the local heritage, but the trip to Italy taught me something new all the same. 

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear