The age of scientific discovery is over

This month, scientists based in Britain have won two Nobel Prizes — but the celebrations have been m

The message pages of the Nobel Prize website made for moving reading after the announcement that Robert Edwards, the British pioneer of in vitro fertilisation, had won this year's Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. "Congratulations. You have helped to put smiles on a lot of faces," said Mkpouto of Nigeria. "Congrats, dear doctor. Thanks for my beautiful niece. God bless you!" said Nathalí Romero Aleán of Colombia. Edwards's work has changed lives around the world.

On 5 October, a day after Edwards's prize was announced, two scientists based in Britain won the Nobel Prize in Physics. Andre Geim and Konstantin "Kostya" Novoselov, Russian-trained physicists, took up positions at the University of Manchester nine years ago. It sounds like cause for a great British celebration, but the jubilation has been muted.

“Geim and Novoselov could be the last of their kind," warns Imran Khan, head of the Campaign for Science and Engineering - formerly known as Save British Science. Martin Rees, president of the Royal Society, is similarly gloomy. "That these two people are here is a testament to the strength of our university system," he says. "But people thinking about coming to the UK now might not make the same decision."

The sense of pessimism among those working in British scientific research is profound. Research budgets will soon be cut by levels that could prove disastrous. The Royal Society has warned that a severe enough cut, coupled with proposed immigration caps that would keep talented foreign scientists from working in the UK, could mean it's "game over" for science in this country. British science is ranked second in the world, behind the United States, but that won't last long if the government does not change its plans. "There aren't many arenas where the UK can say convincingly that it's number two in the world," Rees says. "Let's not jeopardise one of them."

It was the robustness of British science that attracted the Manchester physicists, who are both supported by the Royal Society. Their prize is for the work they have conducted in isolating and researching the properties of a novel form of carbon called graphene, a material that could revolutionise the electronics industry. The newspapers have made much of the playfulness of Geim's research (he won a satirical "Ig Nobel" prize in 2000 for levitating frogs with magnets and co-authored a paper with his pet hamster). But Geim and Novoselov are extremely smart and resourceful experts in electronics and their prize-winning breakthrough came as a result of a purposeful search for materials with unexploited electronic properties.

Eureka moment

In graphene, carbon is laid out in a hexagonal pattern to create a thin sheet of atoms, like microscopic chicken wire. Initially, the researchers were looking to create thin-film carbon electronics by filing down a block of graphite. That approach failed. Then, in 2004, they saw a colleague cleaning a graphite block by attaching Scotch tape to the graphite and peeling it away. Geim and Novoselov realised this might peel away a thin layer of carbon. They created a pencil scrawl, laid tape over it and pulled. Under an electron microscope, they saw that the tape held a sheet of graphene.

Their breakthrough is already changing the electronics industry. Graphene has extraordinary properties. First, it conducts electricity with very little resistance. Thus, graphene-based electronics don't waste power as heat - so they don't require energy-guzzling cooling techniques - and operate using very little electricity. Graphene is also highly efficient at converting light into electricity and vice versa. Given these properties, it will be the material of choice for the next generation of solar panels, televisions and computer circuitry.

Geim's and Novoselov's prize came quickly because progress in the field is so fast and the Nobel Committee didn't want their contribution to be overshadowed by developments. The same cannot be said of Edwards's prize. The reason for the 30-year delay is worth noting.

“The Nobel is a vindication. It is recognition for IVF research as good medical science," says Edwards's former colleague Simon Fishel, who runs the Care Fertility clinics. In his view, the medical establishment has distanced itself from IVF research for three decades - and Britain is now paying the price.

In the run-up to the birth of Louise Brown, the world's first IVF baby, Edwards and his collaborator Patrick Steptoe were refused funding by the Medical Research Council. Documents made public this year show that among the factors which influenced the decision were a desire to limit population and concerns over safety. Edwards and Steptoe found funding elsewhere and pressed on. The result was a birth that changed the fertility landscape - but not enough for IVF researchers to be accepted as bona fide scientists. The expense and difficulty of IVF treatment caused some scientists to label it a con. That stigma is slowly being eroded as the number of IVF children grows.

“It's taken 30 years and four million children to realise it's not a con. It works and it's a routine medical practice," Fishel says.

Poor relations

Government funders remain cautious. But Fishel and his colleagues aren't too worried about the axe hanging over science funding; they don't get any public money anyway. They are still handcuffed by government regulation, however, because of which Britain's pre-eminence in the field has been squandered. Fishel warns: "It's good to have regulation, but we have become the poor cousins. Researchers in several areas of the world are rocketing ahead."

If the perfect-storm scenario - immigration caps and a funding vacuum - arises, British pre-eminence in other areas of science will suffer similar decline. UK investment in science has now sunk to the point where it is proportionately lower than in almost every other developed country. France, Germany, Singapore, China and the US are all increasing their funding and trying to entice foreign scientists. "If it's looking bright there, and gloomy here, the most talented people will go," Rees says. Novoselov has already warned that researchers such as he and Geim have many options.

The knock-on effects are likely to be horrendous. A 2007 government report showed that science-based industries cluster around centres of academic excellence. What's more, the best researchers pull in the best students. "The Nobel laureates are incredibly important role models - when you're a young scientist, you look to these people as heroes," says Jennifer Rohn, a cell biologist at University College London. But even the presence of Nobel winners can't overcome a lack of funds. "There's been a very large axe over all of us for years," Rohn says. "More and more of my colleagues are bailing out."

Michael Brooks is the New Statesman's science correspondent and author of "13 Things That Don't Make Sense: the Most Intriguing Scientific Mysteries of Our Times" (Profile Books, £8.99)

The fightback has begun

Facing the dual threat of cuts and an immigration cap, Britain's scientists are mobilising for action. The Science Is Vital campaign, started by Jennifer Rohn at University College London, wants the government to recognise the importance of science and not reduce funding. Boosted by support from the Campaign for Science and Engineering, Rohn and her organising committee (which includes the former Liberal Democrat MP Evan Harris) are driving a concerted programme of lobbying, letter-writing and protesting in an attempt to bring about a change in government policy.

So far, the petition has over 26,000 signatories, drawn mainly from science and academia, though not exclusively - the comedians Dara Ó Briain and Robin Ince and the Labour MPs Andrew Smith and Mark Lazarowicz have also added their names to the list.

“We have everyone from musicians to soldiers and housewives recognising the importance of maintaining a strong science base in this country," Rohn says.

Eight Nobel laureates - including this year's physics prizewinners Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov - have been petitioning the government on the immigration cap, arguing that it is not just Britain's institutions that have attracted global talent, but that our "inclusive culture" has also made a difference.
Michael Brooks

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 15 September 2003 issue of the New Statesman, Who owns the world?

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The age of loneliness

Profound changes in technology, work and community are transforming our ultrasocial species into a population of loners.

Our dominant ideology is based on a lie. A series of lies, in fact, but I’ll focus on just one. This is the claim that we are, above all else, self-interested – that we seek to enhance our own wealth and power with little regard for the impact on others.

Some economists use a term to describe this presumed state of being – Homo economicus, or self-maximising man. The concept was formulated, by J S Mill and others, as a thought experiment. Soon it became a modelling tool. Then it became an ideal. Then it evolved into a description of who we really are.

It could not be further from the truth. To study human behaviour is to become aware of how weird we are. Many species will go to great lengths to help and protect their close kin. One or two will show occasional altruism towards unrelated members of their kind. But no species possesses a capacity for general altruism that is anywhere close to our own.

With the possible exception of naked mole-rats, we have the most social minds of all mammals. These minds evolved as an essential means of survival. Slow, weak, armed with rounded teeth and flimsy nails in a world of fangs and claws and horns and tusks, we survived through co-operation, reciprocity and mutual defence, all of which developed to a remarkable degree.

A review paper in the journal Frontiers in Psychology observes that Homo economicus  might be a reasonable description of chimpanzees. “Outsiders . . . would not expect to receive offers of food or solicitude; rather, they would be fiercely attacked . . . food is shared only under harassment; even mothers will not voluntarily offer novel foods to their own infants unless the infants beg for them.” But it is an unreasonable description of human beings.

How many of your friends, colleagues and neighbours behave like chimpanzees? A few, perhaps. If so, are they respected or reviled? Some people do appear to act as if they have no interests but their own – Philip Green and Mike Ashley strike me as possible examples – but their behaviour ­attracts general revulsion. The news is filled with spectacular instances of human viciousness: although psychopaths are rare, their deeds fill the papers. Daily acts of kindness are seldom reported, because they are everywhere.

Every day, I see people helping others with luggage, offering to cede their place in a queue, giving money to the homeless, setting aside time for others, volunteering for causes that offer no material reward. Alongside these quotidian instances are extreme and stunning cases. I think of my Dutch mother-in-law, whose family took in a six-year-old Jewish boy – a stranger – and hid him in their house for two years during the German occupation of the Netherlands. Had he been discovered, they would all have been sent to a concentration camp.

Studies suggest that altruistic tendencies are innate: from the age of 14 months, children try to help each other, attempting to hand over objects another child can’t reach. At the age of two, they start to share valued possessions. By the time they are three, they begin to protest against other people’s violation of moral norms.

Perhaps because we are told by the media, think tanks and politicians that competition and self-interest are the defining norms of human life, we disastrously mischaracterise the way in which other people behave. A survey commissioned by the Common Cause Foundation reported that 78 per cent of respondents believe others to be more selfish than they really are.

I do not wish to suggest that this mythology of selfishness is the sole or even principal cause of the epidemic of loneliness now sweeping the world. But it is likely to contribute to the plague by breeding suspicion and a sense of threat. It also appears to provide a doctrine of justification for those afflicted by isolation, a doctrine that sees individualism as a higher state of existence than community. Perhaps it is hardly surprising that Britain, the European nation in which neoliberalism is most advanced, is, according to government figures, the loneliness capital of Europe.

There are several possible reasons for the atomisation now suffered by the supremely social mammal. Work, which used to bring us together, now disperses us: many people have neither fixed workplaces nor regular colleagues and regular hours. Our leisure time has undergone a similar transformation: cinema replaced by television, sport by computer games, time with friends by time on Facebook.

Social media seems to cut both ways: it brings us together and sets us apart. It helps us to stay in touch, but also cultivates a tendency that surely enhances other people’s sense of isolation: a determination to persuade your followers that you’re having a great time. FOMO – fear of missing out – seems, at least in my mind, to be closely ­associated with loneliness.

Children’s lives in particular have been transformed: since the 1970s, their unaccompanied home range (in other words, the area they roam without adult supervision) has declined in Britain by almost 90 per cent. Not only does this remove them from contact with the natural world, but it limits their contact with other children. When kids played out on the street or in the woods, they quickly formed their own tribes, learning the social skills that would see them through life.

An ageing population, family and community breakdown, the decline of institutions such as churches and trade unions, the switch from public transport to private, inequality, an alienating ethic of consumerism, the loss of common purpose: all these are likely to contribute to one of the most dangerous epidemics of our time.

Yes, I do mean dangerous. The stress response triggered by loneliness raises blood pressure and impairs the immune system. Loneliness enhances the risk of depression, paranoia, addiction, cognitive decline, dem­entia, heart disease, stroke, viral infection, accidents and suicide. It is as potent a cause of early death as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, and can be twice as deadly as obesity.

Perhaps because we are in thrall to the ideology that helps to cause the problem, we turn to the market to try to solve it. Over the past few weeks, the discovery of a new American profession, the people-walker (taking human beings for walks), has caused a small sensation in the media. In Japan there is a fully fledged market for friendship: you can hire friends by the hour with whom to chat and eat and watch TV; or, more disturbingly, to pose for pictures that you can post on social media. They are rented as mourners at funerals and guests at weddings. A recent article describes how a fake friend was used to replace a sister with whom the bride had fallen out. What would the bride’s mother make of it? No problem: she had been rented, too. In September we learned that similar customs have been followed in Britain for some time: an early foray into business for the Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, involved offering to lease her posh friends to underpopulated weddings.



My own experience fits the current pattern: the high incidence of loneliness suffered by people between the ages of 18 and 34. I have sometimes been lonely before and after that period, but it was during those years that I was most afflicted. The worst episode struck when I returned to Britain after six years working in West Papua, Brazil and East Africa. In those parts I sometimes felt like a ghost, drifting through societies to which I did not belong. I was often socially isolated, but I seldom felt lonely, perhaps because the issues I was investigating were so absorbing and the work so frightening that I was swept along by adrenalin and a sense of purpose.

When I came home, however, I fell into a mineshaft. My university friends, with their proper jobs, expensive mortgages and settled, prematurely aged lives, had become incomprehensible to me, and the life I had been leading seemed incomprehensible to everyone. Though feeling like a ghost abroad was in some ways liberating – a psychic decluttering that permitted an intense process of discovery – feeling like a ghost at home was terrifying. I existed, people acknowledged me, greeted me cordially, but I just could not connect. Wherever I went, I heard my own voice bouncing back at me.

Eventually I made new friends. But I still feel scarred by that time, and fearful that such desolation may recur, particularly in old age. These days, my loneliest moments come immediately after I’ve given a talk, when I’m surrounded by people congratulating me or asking questions. I often experience a falling sensation: their voices seem to recede above my head. I think it arises from the nature of the contact: because I can’t speak to anyone for more than a few seconds, it feels like social media brought to life.

The word “sullen” evolved from the Old French solain, which means “lonely”. Loneliness is associated with an enhanced perception of social threat, so one of its paradoxical consequences is a tendency to shut yourself off from strangers. When I was lonely, I felt like lashing out at the society from which I perceived myself excluded, as if the problem lay with other people. To read any comment thread is, I feel, to witness this tendency: you find people who are plainly making efforts to connect, but who do so by insulting and abusing, alienating the rest of the thread with their evident misanthropy. Perhaps some people really are rugged individualists. But others – especially online – appear to use that persona as a rationale for involuntary isolation.

Whatever the reasons might be, it is as if a spell had been cast on us, transforming this ultrasocial species into a population of loners. Like a parasite enhancing the conditions for its own survival, loneliness impedes its own cure by breeding shame and shyness. The work of groups such as Age UK, Mind, Positive Ageing and the Campaign to End Loneliness is life-saving.

When I first wrote about this subject, and the article went viral, several publishers urged me to write a book on the theme. Three years sitting at my desk, studying isolation: what’s the second prize? But I found another way of working on the issue, a way that engages me with others, rather than removing me. With the brilliant musician Ewan McLennan, I have written a concept album (I wrote the first draft of the lyrics; he refined them and wrote the music). Our aim is to use it to help break the spell, with performances of both music and the spoken word designed to bring people together –which, we hope, will end with a party at the nearest pub.

By itself, our work can make only a tiny contribution to addressing the epidemic. But I hope that, both by helping people to acknowledge it and by using the power of music to create common sentiment, we can at least begin to identify the barriers that separate us from others, and to remember that we are not the selfish, ruthless beings we are told we are.

“Breaking the Spell of Loneliness” by Ewan McLennan and George Monbiot is out now. For a full list of forthcoming gigs visit:

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood