No, we probably won't have talking cars driven by reincarnated mammoths

Science "news" stories to avoid.

There are two types of stories about exciting technology. They can look very similar to the unwary optimist, since both generally start with a phrase along the lines of "it seems like the stuff of science fiction, but…"

Nevertheless, the difference between them is crucial.

The first type, and the most familiar, is the "scientists say" piece, usually accompanied by an engaging proof-of-concept video and hooking a society-changing event on the result of research by an academic somewhere.

You will know these: a good example are stories featuring Kevin Warwick, the Professor of Cybernetics at the University of Reading, whose research into interfaces between computers and the human nervous system has mind-blowing implications.

But without seeking to discredit Warwick in any way, these implications tend to remain just implications. There’s no doubt the work conducted in his field provides constant incremental benefits to medical science – particularly in the field of prosthetics. Nevertheless it does not, and could not, immediately lead to the sort of dramatic, Robocop-style stuff conjured by the headlines and standfirsts that journalists usually dress it with.

Probably the most prolifically repeated "science fiction to become reality" narrative is the "scientists say they can bring back mammoths" story that comes floating out of Russia every couple of years. It has spawned documentaries, broadsheet features and endless daydreams from anyone who had a bag of plastic dinosaurs as a kid, but it never bloody well leads anywhere. It has reached "boy who cried hairy elephant" status, and as such receives serious diminishing returns in terms of public interest.

The very worst of these stories, however, are the ones concerning flying cars. The machines themselves are now eminently possible, but the practical issues around their use are so many that they seem doomed to remain forever trapped at proof-of-concept stage.

We have gotten to the point where “where’s my flying car?” has become the battlecry of those who find themselves perpetually disappointed by the lack of dramatic futurism in their everyday life. Of course, the fact that most of the people issuing this complaint have, within the last five years, come to own a handheld box providing access to a near-infinite repository of human knowledge, is an irony that’s generally lost.

But there you go – no matter how astonishing and accessible information technology becomes, it’s flying cars that people really want.

And talking of IT and cars, here’s the second type of "science fiction" story – the type where company names get mentioned. Here’s a story the BBC ran today, about the onrushing development of cars that "talk" to other vehicles and the world around them. Note the first line of the piece.

The extremely important thing to note when reading this story is that not only is it a business, rather than an academic, driving the development (Frankfurt-based Safe Intelligent Mobility Testfield, or Sim TD), it is backed by the corporate muscle of Daimler, BMW, Volkswagen Group, Ford and Opel.

What’s more, Sim TD goes so far as to state, clearly and without ambiguity in the sixth paragraph of the story, that we will see talking cars in our everyday lives starting from 2015. Whether they will have a more dramatic takeup than electric cars is in the hands of those who will be selling them – the important thing is, we are being given a clear date for their arrival.

So, while cars that fly may be stuck forever in the purgatory of the cloned mammoths, at least soon they will be able to talk.

Photograph: Getty Images

By day, Fred Crawley is editor of Credit Today and Insolvency Today. By night, he reviews graphic novels for the New Statesman.

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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