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

Jeremy Corbyn. Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Lexit: the EU is a neoliberal project, so let's do something different when we leave it

Brexit affords the British left a historic opportunity for a decisive break with EU market liberalism.

The Brexit vote to leave the European Union has many parents, but "Lexit" – the argument for exiting the EU from the left – remains an orphan. A third of Labour voters backed Leave, but they did so without any significant leadership from the Labour Party. Left-of-centre votes proved decisive in determining the outcome of a referendum that was otherwise framed, shaped, and presented almost exclusively by the right. A proper left discussion of the issues has been, if not entirely absent, then decidedly marginal – part of a more general malaise when it comes to developing left alternatives that has begun to be corrected only recently, under Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell.

Ceding Brexit to the right was very nearly the most serious strategic mistake by the British left since the ‘70s. Under successive leaders Labour became so incorporated into the ideology of Europeanism as to preclude any clear-eyed critical analysis of the actually existing EU as a regulatory and trade regime pursuing deep economic integration. The same political journey that carried Labour into its technocratic embrace of the EU also resulted in the abandonment of any form of distinctive economics separate from the orthodoxies of market liberalism.

It’s been astounding to witness so many left-wingers, in meltdown over Brexit, resort to parroting liberal economics. Thus we hear that factor mobility isn’t about labour arbitrage, that public services aren’t under pressure, that we must prioritise foreign direct investment and trade. It’s little wonder Labour became so detached from its base. Such claims do not match the lived experience of ordinary people in regions of the country devastated by deindustrialisation and disinvestment.

Nor should concerns about wage stagnation and bargaining power be met with finger-wagging accusations of racism, as if the manner in which capitalism pits workers against each other hasn’t long been understood. Instead, we should be offering real solutions – including a willingness to rethink capital mobility and trade. This places us in direct conflict with the constitutionalised neoliberalism of the EU.

Only the political savvy of the leadership has enabled Labour to recover from its disastrous positioning post-referendum. Incredibly, what seemed an unbeatable electoral bloc around Theresa May has been deftly prized apart in the course of an extraordinary General Election campaign. To consolidate the political project they have initiated, Corbyn and McDonnell must now follow through with a truly radical economic programme. The place to look for inspiration is precisely the range of instruments and policy options discouraged or outright forbidden by the EU.

A neoliberal project

The fact that right-wing arguments for Leave predominated during the referendum says far more about today’s left than it does about the European Union. There has been a great deal of myth-making concerning the latter –much of it funded, directly or indirectly, by the EU itself.

From its inception, the EU has been a top-down project driven by political and administrative elites, "a protected sphere", in the judgment of the late Peter Mair, "in which policy-making can evade the constraints imposed by representative democracy". To complain about the EU’s "democratic deficit" is to have misunderstood its purpose. The main thrust of European economic policy has been to extend and deepen the market through liberalisation, privatisation, and flexiblisation, subordinating employment and social protection to goals of low inflation, debt reduction, and increased competitiveness.

Prospects for Keynesian reflationary policies, or even for pan-European economic planning – never great – soon gave way to more Hayekian conceptions. Hayek’s original insight, in The Economic Conditions of Interstate Federalism, was that free movement of capital, goods, and labour – a "single market" – among a federation of nations would severely and necessarily restrict the economic policy space available to individual members. Pro-European socialists, whose aim had been to acquire new supranational options for the regulation of capital, found themselves surrendering the tools they already possessed at home. The national road to socialism, or even to social democracy, was closed.

The direction of travel has been singular and unrelenting. To take one example, workers’ rights – a supposed EU strength – are steadily being eroded, as can be seen in landmark judgments by the European Court of Justice (ECJ) in the Viking and Laval cases, among others. In both instances, workers attempting to strike in protest at plans to replace workers from one EU country with lower-wage workers from another, were told their right to strike could not infringe upon the "four freedoms" – free movement of capital, labour, goods, and services – established by the treaties.

More broadly, on trade, financial regulation, state aid, government purchasing, public service delivery, and more, any attempt to create a different kind of economy from inside the EU has largely been forestalled by competition policy or single market regulation.

A new political economy

Given that the UK will soon be escaping the EU, what opportunities might this afford? Three policy directions immediately stand out: public ownership, industrial strategy, and procurement. In each case, EU regulation previously stood in the way of promising left strategies. In each case, the political and economic returns from bold departures from neoliberal orthodoxy after Brexit could be substantial.

While not banned outright by EU law, public ownership is severely discouraged and disadvantaged by it. ECJ interpretation of Article 106 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU) has steadily eroded public ownership options. "The ECJ", argues law professor Danny Nicol, "appears to have constructed a one-way street in favour of private-sector provision: nationalised services are prima facie suspect and must be analysed for their necessity". Sure enough, the EU has been a significant driver of privatisation, functioning like a ratchet. It’s much easier for a member state to pursue the liberalisation of sectors than to secure their (re)nationalisation. Article 59 (TFEU) specifically allows the European Council and Parliament to liberalise services. Since the ‘80s, there have been single market programmes in energy, transport, postal services, telecommunications, education, and health.

Britain has long been an extreme outlier on privatisation, responsible for 40 per cent of the total assets privatised across the OECD between 1980 and 1996. Today, however, increasing inequality, poverty, environmental degradation and the general sense of an impoverished public sphere are leading to growing calls for renewed public ownership (albeit in new, more democratic forms). Soon to be free of EU constraints, it’s time to explore an expanded and fundamentally reimagined UK public sector.

Next, Britain’s industrial production has been virtually flat since the late 1990s, with a yawning trade deficit in industrial goods. Any serious industrial strategy to address the structural weaknesses of UK manufacturing will rely on "state aid" – the nurturing of a next generation of companies through grants, interest and tax relief, guarantees, government holdings, and the provision of goods and services on a preferential basis.

Article 107 TFEU allows for state aid only if it is compatible with the internal market and does not distort competition, laying out the specific circumstances in which it could be lawful. Whether or not state aid meets these criteria is at the sole discretion of the Commission – and courts in member states are obligated to enforce the commission’s decisions. The Commission has adopted an approach that considers, among other things, the existence of market failure, the effectiveness of other options, and the impact on the market and competition, thereby allowing state aid only in exceptional circumstances.

For many parts of the UK, the challenges of industrial decline remain starkly present – entire communities are thrown on the scrap heap, with all the associated capital and carbon costs and wasted lives. It’s high time the left returned to the possibilities inherent in a proactive industrial strategy. A true community-sustaining industrial strategy would consist of the deliberate direction of capital to sectors, localities, and regions, so as to balance out market trends and prevent communities from falling into decay, while also ensuring the investment in research and development necessary to maintain a highly productive economy. Policy, in this vision, would function to re-deploy infrastructure, production facilities, and workers left unemployed because of a shutdown or increased automation.

In some cases, this might mean assistance to workers or localities to buy up facilities and keep them running under worker or community ownership. In other cases it might involve re-training workers for new skills and re-fitting facilities. A regional approach might help launch new enterprises that would eventually be spun off as worker or local community-owned firms, supporting the development of strong and vibrant network economies, perhaps on the basis of a Green New Deal. All of this will be possible post-Brexit, under a Corbyn government.

Lastly, there is procurement. Under EU law, explicitly linking public procurement to local entities or social needs is difficult. The ECJ has ruled that, even if there is no specific legislation, procurement activity must "comply with the fundamental rules of the Treaty, in particular the principle of non-discrimination on grounds of nationality". This means that all procurement contracts must be open to all bidders across the EU, and public authorities must advertise contracts widely in other EU countries. In 2004, the European Parliament and Council issued two directives establishing the criteria governing such contracts: "lowest price only" and "most economically advantageous tender".

Unleashed from EU constraints, there are major opportunities for targeting large-scale public procurement to rebuild and transform communities, cities, and regions. The vision behind the celebrated Preston Model of community wealth building – inspired by the work of our own organisation, The Democracy Collaborative, in Cleveland, Ohio – leverages public procurement and the stabilising power of place-based anchor institutions (governments, hospitals, universities) to support rooted, participatory, democratic local economies built around multipliers. In this way, public funds can be made to do "double duty"; anchoring jobs and building community wealth, reversing long-term economic decline. This suggests the viability of a very different economic approach and potential for a winning political coalition, building support for a new socialist economics from the ground up.

With the prospect of a Corbyn government now tantalisingly close, it’s imperative that Labour reconciles its policy objectives in the Brexit negotiations with its plans for a radical economic transformation and redistribution of power and wealth. Only by pursuing strategies capable of re-establishing broad control over the national economy can Labour hope to manage the coming period of pain and dislocation following Brexit. Based on new institutions and approaches and the centrality of ownership and control, democracy, and participation, we should be busy assembling the tools and strategies that will allow departure from the EU to open up new political-economic horizons in Britain and bring about the profound transformation the country so desperately wants and needs.

Joe Guinan is executive director of the Next System Project at The Democracy Collaborative. Thomas M. Hanna is research director at The Democracy Collaborative.

This is an extract from a longer essay which appears in the inaugural edition of the IPPR Progressive Review.

 

 

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