20 new ideas in science

Today’s most cutting-edge scientific thinking: from switching off ageing to “enhancing” our babies;

Humans are still evolving

The modern world hasn't stayed evolution's hand. Comparisons of different genomes show that natural pressures are still doing their thing. The gene for digesting lactose, for example, is slowly spreading from European populations to the rest of humanity. A gene that appears to enhance fertility is also becoming more common across Europe. Disease is still a big driver of human evolution: people with particular genetic arrangements are more likely to survive malaria and HIV, for example. And almost all humans have lost the caspase 12 gene from their genomes, probably because those who have it are more susceptible to bacterial infections. It happens slowly, but we're still changing.

There's no such thing as time

Physicists searching for the ultimate "theory of everything" have a big problem with time. They have to stitch quantum theory - our description of how very small things behave - together with relativity - the theory behind the way space, time and matter interact. The biggest stumbling block to this is that time works in different ways in these theories.

In relativity, the passage of time is different for people moving relative to one another, so there is no absolute measure of time. In quantum theory, it's even less well defined: time doesn't even figure as something that gets measured. Quantum theory might be able to tell you where an electron is, but it can't tell you how long it's been there. One radical solution to the problem is to view time as a concept that humans have made up. If it doesn't play a fundamental, well-defined role in the processes of the universe, maybe our theories can do without it altogether.

This is one of many universes

Physicists like to know why things are as they are. Which makes it frustrating that some facts about the universe appear inexplicable. There are certain constants of nature - the numbers that determine how strong forces such as gravity are - that seem to be "just so" for no good reason. That wouldn't be so bad if they weren't so exquisitely perfect for allowing life to develop in our universe. Naively speaking, it looks as if someone designed the universe. That doesn't seem like a satisfying explanation to most physicists, so they have come up with a better one: that there are many universes, all with different properties. It is impossible to move from one to another, so we can't test this idea, but it does take away the "specialness" of the conditions we find ourselves in. Of course the universe is perfect for us: if it were any different we wouldn't be here to observe it.

We might be able to turn off ageing

Can we flick a switch in our genome that will greatly extend our lifespan? Experiments on worms, mice and fruit flies indicate that stopping certain genes from functioning, or altering others so that they flood the body with particular combinations of chemicals, can dramatically slow the rate at which an organism ages. It can even be done by more low-tech means: changing the chemical environment of the body by altering the diet or by injecting certain hormones can slow ageing, too. It's an alluring avenue of research, but it is also controversial.

Plenty of biologists still say it's a mirage because we will never overcome the biological programme whereby cells die after a certain time, or indeed the rigours of wear and tear on the genome. Add that to the dangerous genetic copying errors that occur as cells divide and, for these naysayers, growing old remains an unavoidable future for humanity. Nevertheless, the consensus is that the fight against biological ageing has moved from impossible to enormously difficult, and that is exciting progress.

Enhanced humans are coming

The next generation of humans -- or perhaps the one after that -- will face a difficult choice: do they equip their children with "enhancements"? A group of researchers, led by Ray Kurzweil, is suggesting that we are approaching "the Singularity", where technologies will enhance our mental and physical capabilities to produce a giant leap in what human beings can do. Most of these technologies were initially developed to help those with health problems, but they are now being co-opted for those looking to get past their normal limitations. Drugs developed to help children with ADHD are already in common use in academia as concentration improvers. Retinal implants that help the partially sighted are being developed as bionic eyes. Brain implants, such as those developed to fight neurological problems such as Parkinson's disease, are paving the way for neural enhancement and plug-in memory upgrades. Genetic diagnosis of IVF embryos has enabled the selection of babies that are equipped to donate to an ill sibling; selecting for other kinds of advantage is not far behind. The big worry is it may leave us with a new enhancement-free underclass. Discuss.

Everything is information

If you had a magic microscope that could see how things work on the tiniest scale in nature, you might get a bit of a surprise. Right at the bottom, holding everything together, is something we think of as abstract: information. The idea that has big thinkers all worked up is that everything in physics is made up of atoms of information. Any experiment or observation can be boiled down to asking a yes/no question, and the answer is a piece of information analogous to the 0 and 1 binary digits (bits) that computers process.

Ultimately, the universe works as a giant computer, with answers to questions such as "Did the photon pass through this point?" providing the digital information to be processed. Constructing the full range of binary answers to questions the universe might pose will take a while, but it might provide an entirely new way to simplify - and thus understand - the fundamentals of how everything works.

Understanding consciousness is no longer an impossible dream

How do the few kilos of spongy stuff in our skulls create the experience of being human? A combination of imaging techniques, computer models and an ever-increasing understanding of the biology of the brain means that we are in a good position to get an answer. Even if a good understanding of consciousness is another century away, there will be spin-offs that make the journey worthwhile. The quickest route to understanding the brain is to watch what happens when small bits of it go wrong. Many illnesses, such as depression, schizophrenia, autism and dementia, result from breakdowns in small component parts; researchers looking for clues to the root of consciousness are studying these malfunctions - and hope to learn as much about curing them as they do about consciousness.

Most of the universe is missing

Ninety-six per cent of the universe is in a form we can't fathom. Observations of galaxies show they are rotating too fast to hold all their stellar material in place: the outer stars should be flung out. The only explanation is that there is an extra gravitational pull from something unseen, holding them in place. The unseen stuff is known as dark matter, and accounts for just under a quarter of the mass in the universe. Around three-quarters is "dark energy", which creates a force that is speeding up the expansion of the universe. Physicists have yet to come up with a plausible explanation for the source of either of these dark entities. Dark matter requires the existence of particles with properties unlike anything else we have discovered. We are looking for what they might be, and the Large Hadron Collider might even create some. Dark energy is even more of a challenge: it comes neither from known particles nor from the empty space between them. Researchers are literally clueless about its source.

We may be close to understanding mass

Physics is becoming ever more exciting as Cern's Large Hadron Collider ramps up the energy of its colliding particles. That's because the collisions might give us a fleeting glimpse of the Higgs boson. This is the final piece of the puzzle in our best theories of particle physics. The Higgs boson creates a field that exerts a drag on certain types of particles. The result of this is that the particles feel mass, the property of matter that responds to gravity. If the Higgs boson does show up, physicists will breathe a sigh of relief, because it is a central pillar of particle physics. If it doesn't, physicists will have a lot of explaining to do. And not just about the source of mass.

Prepare for aliens

Space agencies are identifying hundreds of planets outside our solar system that could harbour life. Biochemists have a firm grasp on the conditions that make life possible, and the traces that such life would leave in their vicinity. What's more, our imaging technologies are getting better at detecting the signatures of life in the atmospheres that surround the potential homes of extraterrestrial life. It looks as if people alive today might well hear the news that we have discovered life elsewhere in the universe. It is unlikely to be intelligent life - more likely to be in the form of microbes - but it will still cause a fundamental shift in our view of life on earth. It would show that life has probably evolved more than once, and that the universe is likely to be teeming with other life forms. Scientists, ethicists and philosophers are now rushing to work out what action - if any - we should take if and when we make the discovery.

Humans are not special

So far, researchers have found only three genes unique to humans. The likelihood is that, in total, fewer than 20 of our 20,000 or so genes are not found in any other creature. Other primates have brain cells exactly like ours, and our seemingly unique mental capacities are, it turns out, more developed versions of tricks that other animals can pull off. Killer whales and dolphins show distinct cultural groups within their populations. Crows use tools and chimps display morality. Elephants show empathy, and even salamanders and spiders show a range of personalities. Though nothing in the animal kingdom is using what we think of as language, gestures used by bonobos and orang-utans come close. We are top of the class, perhaps, but not in a class of our own.

We are born believers

It takes a lot of effort to be an atheist, and not just because you now have to find new ways to fill Sunday mornings. The human brain evolved to attribute a living cause to every phenomenon - if the rustling of a bush in the forest wasn't a predator, then it was probably an evil spirit. Those who instinctively assumed something was there were the ones who survived when it actually was a predator. And those people - and they alone - are our ancestors. Neuroscience experiments show that belief in invisible entities interacting with the physical world has become the default state of the human brain.

Most of the earth is unexplored

Covering 70 per cent of the planet, with an average depth of 4km, the ocean is the largest habitat on earth, and it is largely virgin territory. Whenever researchers go into the deep, they almost always discover new species. The oceans are also throwing up new geology, and surprising us about the conditions under which life can thrive, redefining what we think of as habitable zones. As it turns out, we probably know very little about life on earth.

The tree of life is a web

Darwin's tree of life is evolving. No longer do we think one creature leads to another down an ever-branching path, while at the base of everything stands Luca, the Last Universal Common Ancestor of all living things. Genetic analysis is showing that life is much more complex than that: all kinds of hidden mechanisms have allowed speciation to occur as a wandering from branch to branch. Life is a web, not a tree, which means he future of biology is much more interesting than anyone had dared to hope. Rather than just cataloguing the differences between species and looking for ways in which natural selection has acted, we can explore the plethora of mechanisms and revel in the inventiveness of life.

There's more than one path to the final theory

The ultimate aim of physics is, as one wag put it, to be able to write all the equations of the universe on a T-shirt. This snappy, self-contained final theory will encompass all other explanations of phenomena - the forces of nature, the way particles come together to form atoms, planets and stars - and offer a single, simple explanation. For years, the only game in town was string theory, an attempt to describe the stuff of the universe as arising from the vibrations of loops of energy. Now some serious competitors have turned this into a race.

They have suitably exotic names, such as loop quantum gravity, causal dynamical triangulations and quantum graphity. More important, though, they provide the prospect of testing and elimination through experiment - the acid test of any theory. Biology doesn't have exclusive rights over
the survival of the fittest.

We can do big physics in small labs

Not all physics is sexy. There are physicists who work in dingy basements, following electron movements through slivers of metallic crystal or spending hours watching the swirling patterns in vats of liquid helium. These physicists have often looked at their colleagues working on huge, expensive particle accelerators with envy. But not for much longer, perhaps. It turns out that particles in crystals and bubbles in liquid helium follow the same laws as some of the fundamental particles of nature. That makes them excellent ways of simulating much bigger systems, and perhaps even replacing the mega-machines of physics. They can even make artificial black holes. How sexy is that?

The graphene revolution is here

A discovery made from pencil lead is promising to change the future of the electronics industry. In 2004, Andre Geim at the University of Manchester made a pencil scrawl on a sheet of paper, then used a length of Sellotape to pull off the graphite deposits. They came off as sheets of carbon atoms linked together in a hexagonal array, rather like microscopic chicken wire. Tests have shown that these "graphene" sheets have extraordinary properties. Graphene is ten times stronger than steel. Where copper wire and semiconductors lose a lot of electrical energy as heat, resulting in the average computer chip wasting 75 per cent of its power, graphene conducts electricity with little loss of energy.

Researchers have now refined the production technique and are busy turning graphene into low-power electronic components such as transistors. It gets better: graphene's optimum electronic performance comes in the high-frequency range. This has phone manufacturers, eager to squeeze ever more information through their circuits, falling over themselves to get graphene components into handsets. And, as if its future wasn't bright enough already, graphene is also transparent to visible light. That makes it the ideal material for transferring information between optical fibres and the electronic devices they link. Because of this, graphene-based telecommunications devices are already on the laboratory bench, as are graphene-based TV screens and high-efficiency solar cells. The humble pencil just made good.

Language is the key to thought

We used to think that all human languages arose from brain programming that existed, fully formed and ready for action, at birth. This idea, put forward by Noam Chomsky in the 1960s, is no longer unchallenged. Ethnographic research has thrown up so many exceptions to the "universal" rules of language that some researchers are rejecting Chomsky's dominance and suggesting that nothing is pre-programmed: instead, different cultures' ways of thinking and their languages are intertwined. It may even be that the restrictions of a primitive language are a barrier to creating complex thoughts.

DNA origami could change our inner world

First take a few hundred strands of DNA, then chemically alter them so they will bond at various points. Now put them all together and use every technique available to chemistry to get those bonds to stick to each other. If you do it right, you'll end up with all kinds of tiny shapes. The highlights so far are "toothed gears", a nanoscale tetrahedron and a lidded box that can be locked or unlocked with a key made of a short strand of DNA. It looks like chemists messing around, but could be the best way to get drug doses delivered into the heart of a cell, and build DNA-based computers and micromachines that work on the same scale as standard biological machinery.
newstatesman.com/subjects/science

Michael Brooks holds a PhD in quantum physics. He writes a weekly science column for the New Statesman, and his most recent book is At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise.

This article first appeared in the 16 August 2010 issue of the New Statesman, The war against science

Show Hide image

Why Jeremy Corbyn is a new leader for the New Times

In an inspired election campaign, he confounded his detractors and showed that he was – more than any other leader – in tune with the times.

There have been two great political turning points in postwar Britain. The first was in 1945 with the election of the Attlee government. Driven by a popular wave of determination that peacetime Britain would look very different from the mass unemployment of the 1930s, and built on the foundations of the solidaristic spirit of the war, the Labour government ushered in full employment, the welfare state (including the NHS) and nationalisation of the basic industries, notably coal and the railways. It was a reforming government the like of which Britain had not previously experienced in the first half of the 20th century. The popular support enjoyed by the reforms was such that the ensuing social-democratic consensus was to last until the end of the 1970s, with Tory as well as Labour governments broadly operating within its framework.

During the 1970s, however, opposition to the social-democratic consensus grew steadily, led by the rise of the radical right, which culminated in 1979 in the election of Margaret Thatcher’s first government. In the process, the Thatcherites redefined the political debate, broadening it beyond the rather institutionalised and truncated forms that it had previously taken: they conducted a highly populist campaign that was for individualism and against collectivism; for the market and against the state; for liberty and against trade unionism; for law and order and against crime.

These ideas were dismissed by the left as just an extreme version of the same old Toryism, entirely failing to recognise their novelty and therefore the kind of threat they posed. The 1979 election, followed by Ronald Reagan’s US victory in 1980, began the neoliberal era, which remained hegemonic in Britain, and more widely in the West, for three decades. Tory and Labour governments alike operated within the terms and by the logic of neoliberalism. The only thing new about New Labour was its acquiescence in neoliberalism; even in this sense, it was not new but derivative of Thatcherism.

The financial crisis of 2007-2008 marked the beginning of the end of neoliberalism. Unlike the social-democratic consensus, which was undermined by the ideological challenge posed by Thatcherism, neoliberalism was brought to its knees not by any ideological alternative – such was the hegemonic sway of neoliberalism – but by the biggest financial crisis since 1931. This was the consequence of the fragility of a financial sector left to its own devices as a result of sweeping deregulation, and the corrupt and extreme practices that this encouraged.

The origin of the crisis lay not in the Labour government – complicit though it was in the neoliberal indulgence of the financial sector – but in the deregulation of the banking sector on both sides of the Atlantic in the 1980s. Neoliberalism limped on in the period after 2007-2008 but as real wages stagnated, recovery proved a mirage, and, with the behaviour of the bankers exposed, a deep disillusionment spread across society. During 2015-16, a populist wave of opposition to the establishment engulfed much of Europe and the United States.

Except at the extremes – Greece perhaps being the most notable example – the left was not a beneficiary: on the contrary it, too, was punished by the people in the same manner as the parties of the mainstream right were. The reason was straightforward enough. The left was tarnished with the same brush as the right: almost everywhere social-democratic parties, albeit to varying degrees, had pursued neoliberal policies. Bill Clinton and Tony Blair became – and presented themselves as – leaders of neoliberalism and as enthusiastic advocates of a strategy of hyper-globalisation, which resulted in growing inequality. In this fundamental respect these parties were more or less ­indistinguishable from the right.

***

The first signs of open revolt against New Labour – the representatives and evangelists of neoliberal ideas in the Labour Party – came in the aftermath of the 2015 ­election and the entirely unpredicted and overwhelming victory of Jeremy Corbyn in the leadership election. Something was happening. Yet much of the left, along with the media, summarily dismissed it as a revival of far-left entryism; that these were for the most part no more than a bunch of Trots. There is a powerful, often overwhelming, tendency to see new phenomena in terms of the past. The new and unfamiliar is much more difficult to understand than the old and familiar: it requires serious intellectual effort and an open and inquiring mind. The left is not alone in this syndrome. The right condemned the 2017 Labour Party manifesto as a replica of Labour’s 1983 manifesto. They couldn’t have been more wrong.

That Corbyn had been a veteran of the far left for so long lent credence to the idea that he was merely a retread of a failed past: there was nothing new about him. In a brilliant election campaign, Corbyn not only gave the lie to this but also demonstrated that he, far more than any of the other party leaders, was in tune with the times, the candidate of modernity.

Crises, great turning points, new conjunctures, new forms of consciousness are by definition incubators of the new. That is one of the great sources of their fascination. We can now see the line of linkage between the thousands of young people who gave Corbyn his overwhelming victory in the leadership election in 2015 and the millions of young people who were enthused by his general election campaign in 2017. It is no accident that it was the young rather than the middle-aged or the seniors who were in the vanguard: the young are the bearers and products of the new, they are the lightning conductors of change. Their elders, by contrast, are steeped in old ways of thinking and doing, having lived through and internalised the values and norms of neoliberalism for more than 30 years.

Yet there is another, rather more important aspect to how we identify the new, namely the way we see politics and how politics is conceived. Electoral politics is a highly institutionalised and tribal activity. There have been, as I argued earlier, two great turning points in postwar politics: the social-democratic era ushered in by the 1945 Labour government and the neoliberal era launched by the Tory government in 1979.

The average Tory MP or activist, no doubt, would interpret history primarily in terms of Tory and Labour governments; Labour MPs and activists would do similarly. But this is a superficial reading of politics based on party labels which ignores the deeper forces that shape different eras, generate crises and result in new paradigms.

Alas, most political journalists and columnists are afflicted with the same inability to distinguish the wood (an understanding of the deeper historical forces at work) from the trees (the day-to-day manoeuvring of parties and politicians). In normal times, this may not be so important, because life continues for the most part as before, but at moments of great paradigmatic change it is absolutely critical.

If the political journalists, and indeed the PLP, had understood the deeper forces and profound changes now at work, they would never have failed en masse to rise above the banal and predictable in their assessment of Corbyn. Something deep, indeed, is happening. A historical era – namely, that of neoliberalism – is in its death throes. All the old assumptions can no longer be assumed. We are in new territory: we haven’t been here before. The smart suits long preferred by New Labour wannabes are no longer a symbol of success and ambition but of alienation from, and rejection of, those who have been left behind; who, from being ignored and dismissed, are in the process of moving to the centre of the political stage.

Corbyn, you may recall, was instantly rejected and ridiculed for his sartorial style, and yet we can now see that, with a little smartening, it conveys an authenticity and affinity with the times that made his style of dress more or less immune from criticism during the general election campaign. Yet fashion is only a way to illustrate a much deeper point.

The end of neoliberalism, once so hegemonic, so commanding, is turning Britain on its head. That is why – extraordinary when you think about it – all the attempts by the right to dismiss Corbyn as a far-left extremist failed miserably, even proved counterproductive, because that was not how people saw him, not how they heard him. He was speaking a language and voicing concerns that a broad cross-section of the public could understand and identify with.

***

The reason a large majority of the PLP was opposed to Corbyn, desperate to be rid of him, was because they were still living in the neoliberal era, still slaves to its ideology, still in thrall to its logic. They knew no other way of thinking or political being. They accused Corbyn of being out of time when in fact it was most of the PLP – not to mention the likes of Mandelson and Blair – who were still imprisoned in an earlier historical era. The end of neoliberalism marks the death of New Labour. In contrast, Corbyn is aligned with the world as it is rather than as it was. What a wonderful irony.

Corbyn’s success in the general election requires us to revisit some of the assumptions that have underpinned much political commentary over the past several years. The turmoil in Labour ranks and the ridiculing of Corbyn persuaded many, including on the left, that Labour stood on the edge of the abyss and that the Tories would continue to dominate for long into the future. With Corbyn having seized the political initiative, the Tories are now cast in a new light. With Labour in the process of burying its New Labour legacy and addressing a very new conjuncture, then the end of neoliberalism poses a much more serious challenge to the Tories than it does the Labour Party.

The Cameron/Osborne leadership was still very much of a neoliberal frame of mind, not least in their emphasis on austerity. It would appear that, in the light of the new popular mood, the government will now be forced to abandon austerity. Theresa May, on taking office, talked about a return to One Nation Toryism and the need to help the worst-off, but that has never moved beyond rhetoric: now she is dead in the water.

Meanwhile, the Tories are in fast retreat over Brexit. They held a referendum over the EU for narrowly party reasons which, from a national point of view, was entirely unnecessary. As a result of the Brexit vote, the Cameron leadership was forced to resign and the Brexiteers took de facto command. But now, after the election, the Tories are in headlong retreat from anything like a “hard Brexit”. In short, they have utterly lost control of the political agenda and are being driven by events. Above all, they are frightened of another election from which Corbyn is likely to emerge as leader with a political agenda that will owe nothing to neoliberalism.

Apart from Corbyn’s extraordinary emergence as a leader who understands – and is entirely comfortable with – the imperatives of the new conjuncture and the need for a new political paradigm, the key to Labour’s transformed position in the eyes of the public was its 2017 manifesto, arguably its best and most important since 1945. You may recall that for three decades the dominant themes were marketisation, privatisation, trickle-down economics, the wastefulness and inefficiencies of the state, the incontrovertible case for hyper-globalisation, and bankers and financiers as the New Gods.

Labour’s manifesto offered a very different vision: a fairer society, bearing down on inequality, a more redistributive tax system, the centrality of the social, proper funding of public services, nationalisation of the railways and water industry, and people as the priority rather than business and the City. The title captured the spirit – For the Many Not the Few. Or, to put in another way, After Neoliberalism. The vision is not yet the answer to the latter question, but it represents the beginnings of an answer.

Ever since the late 1970s, Labour has been on the defensive, struggling to deal with a world where the right has been hegemonic. We can now begin to glimpse a different possibility, one in which the left can begin to take ownership – at least in some degree – of a new, post-neoliberal political settlement. But we should not underestimate the enormous problems that lie in wait. The relative economic prospects for the country are far worse than they have been at any time since 1945. As we saw in the Brexit vote, the forces of conservatism, nativism, racism and imperial nostalgia remain hugely powerful. Not only has the country rejected continued membership of the European Union, but, along with the rest of the West, it is far from reconciled with the new world that is in the process of being created before our very eyes, in which the developing world will be paramount and in which China will be the global leader.

Nonetheless, to be able to entertain a sense of optimism about our own country is a novel experience after 30 years of being out in the cold. No wonder so many are feeling energised again.

This article first appeared in the 15 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn: revenge of the rebel

Martin Jacques is the former editor of Marxism Today. 

This article first appeared in the 15 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn: revenge of the rebel

0800 7318496