In science, no work is completed until it has been picked to pieces

Dangerous dithering.

What does a scientist have to do to convince you? The answer used to be “wait until his critics die” – hence the physicist Max Planck’s assertion that science advances one funeral at a time.

But sometimes even that is not enough. Late last month, the smell researcher Luca Turin published striking new evidence supporting an idea first put forward by Sir Malcolm Dyson in 1938. Dyson presented his “vibrational” theory of how our sense of smell works to universal apathy. Three generations later, scientists are still saying “meh”.

That year, 1938, was also when it was first argued that pumping carbon dioxide into the atmosphere would raise global temperatures. The idea came from the steam engineer Guy Stewart Callendar; the broad response was “implausible”. Today, in 2013, scientists have shifted: they generally agree that Callendar was right. Yet there remains a dangerous level of disagreement about the detail.

At least Turin’s scientific peers have presented him with a clear path to follow. Dyson’s idea was that when a molecule gets up our nose, its characteristic smell is created by the way the bonds within that molecule vibrate. In a clever piece of experimental work, Turin has shown that human beings can distinguish between two molecules that differ only in the way they vibrate. The two molecules tested were both cyclopentadecanone, but while one contained normal hydrogen atoms the other contained “deuterated” hydrogen, which has an added neutron in its atomic nucleus. The additional particle creates a difference in the way the molecules vibrate. And that is why, according to Turin, they smell different to us.

The experiment punches a hole in the accepted theory of smell, which says that smell experiences are triggered by differently shaped molecules fitting different receptors in the nose. This “lock and key” idea can’t explain why two identically shaped molecules smell different. But Turin’s critics said last month that before they will even consider accepting his theory, they want him to show exactly what goes on in human smell receptors.

They are right to make such demands. This is science, where no work is finished until it has been picked to pieces. But that is exactly why it has been so easy to do so little about climate change since 1938. Later this year, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change will make some highly equivocal, backtracking announcements. In a report due for release in December, the IPCC will concede that we can’t be sure tropical cyclones will become more frequent, or that droughts will get worse. Worries that the Gulf Stream will collapse, tentatively raised in the 2007 IPCC report, are allayed: such an event is “unlikely” to occur in the foreseeable future.

Concern over details can have an unhelpful effect, masking the big picture on climate change – the one that Nicholas Stern, who wrote the UK government’s 2006 review on the science, said at Davos last month is “far, far worse” than we were led to believe originally. Until that, rather than the detail, becomes the focus, we can continue to dither over whether to do anything, let alone deciding what course we might take.

It does not matter a great deal that no one is willing to risk his career by backing Luca Turin – but to wait for absolute certainty over the details of climate change before we do anything about it will spell life or death for many. If science continues to advance one funeral at a time, its acceleration is assured; and there will be no shortage of funerals in a world that’s 4° warmer.

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 11 February 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Assange Alone

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“Stop treating antibiotics like sweets”: the threat we face from antibioitic resistance

Currently, 700,000 people die per year from the resistance of microbes to medicine, and it is predicted that 10 million people will die per year by 2050.

Got a cold? Take some antibiotics. Feeling under the weather? Penicillin will patch you up. Or so the common advice goes. However, unless we start to rethink our dependency on antibiotics, a death every three seconds is the threat we potentially face from evolving resistance by microorganisms to the drugs. The stark warning was issued following a review which analysed the consequences we could face from needless administering of antibiotics.

The antimicrobial resistance (AMR) review was led by economist Jim O’Neill, who was tasked by the prime minister in 2014 with investigating the impact of growing resistance. Currently, 700,000 people die per year from the resistance of microbes to medicine, and the report predicts that 10 million people will die per year by 2050. An overwhelming global expense of $100trn will be the price to pay unless incisive, collaborative action is taken.

Antimicrobial resistance (as referred to in the title of the report) is an umbrella term for the resistance developed by microorganisms to drugs specifically designed to combat the infections they cause. Microorganisms include things such as bacteria, fungi, viruses and parasites. The report especially focused on the ramifications of increased resistance of microorganisms to anitbiotics.

Many medical procedures are dependent on the effectiveness of drugs such as antibiotics: treatments for cancer patients and antibiotic prophylaxis during surgeries, for example. All could be under threat by increased resistance. The continuing rise of resistant superbugs and the impotence of antibiotics would pose “as big a risk as terrorism”. A post-antibiotic world would spell dystopia.

Bacterial microbes develop resistance through evolutionary-based natural selection. Mutations to their genetic makeup are passed on to other bacteria through an exchange of plasmid DNA. Unnecessary prescriptions by doctors and inappropriate antibiotic usage by patients (such as half-finishing a course) also contribute. Over the years, a number of bacteria and viruses have found a way to counteract antibiotics used against them: E. Coli, malaria, tuberculosis and Staphylococcus aureus, to name a few.

The report employed the consultancy firms KPMG and Rand to undertake the analyses, and O’Neill outlines 10 different measures to tackle the issue. Key areas of focus include: global campaigns to expand public awareness, the upholding of financial and economic measures by pharmaceutical companies in the development of new medicines and vaccines as alternatives, greater sanitation to prevent infections spreading, and the creation of a Global Innovation Fund which will enable collective research.

O’Neill told the BBC:

“We need to inform in different ways, all over the world, why it’s crucial we stop treating our antibiotics like sweets. If we don’t solve the problem we are heading to the dark ages; we will have a lot of people dying. We have made some pretty challenging recommendations which require everybody to get out of the comfort zone, because if we don’t then we aren’t going to be able to solve this problem.”

In the foreword of the report, O’Neill states that over 1 million people have died from developing resistance since 2014. The urgency in tackling this issue is clear, which is why he has offered an incentive to companies to develop new treatments - a reward of more than $1 billion will be given to those who bring a successful new treatment to the market.

According to the report, the cost of successful global action would equate to $40bn over the next decade, which could result in the development of 15 new antibiotics. Small cuts to health budgets and a tax on antibiotics have been proposed as ways of achieving the financial quota for drug research.

Though the report has highlighted the severity of antibiotic resistance, some believe that the full extent of the matter isn’t sufficiently explored. O’Neill mentions that there are some secondary effects which haven’t been taken into account “such as the risks in carrying out caesarean sections, hip replacements, or gut surgery”. This suggests that alternative remedies should be found for non-surgical procedures, so that antibiotics aren’t made redundant in environments where they are most needed.

Since the analysis began in 2014, new types of resistance have surfaced, including a resistance to colistin, a drug which is currently used as a last-resort. Its affordability resulted in increased use, particularly as a component of animal feed, meaning greater opportunity for superbugs to develop resistance to even our most dependable of antibiotics.

Widespread drug resistance would prove to be a big issue for many charities tackling infections around the world. Dr Grania Bridgen from Médecins Sans Frontières told the BBC that the report addresses a “broad market failure”, which is important but isn’t enough.

Despite the mixed response to the report, it has had a seal of approval from the Wellcome Trust and the Department of Health. Speaking earlier this year, Chancellor George Osborne stated this issue “is not just a health problem but an economic one, too. The cost of doing nothing, both in terms of lives lost and money wasted, is too great, and the world needs to come together to agree a common approach.”

If antibiotics are to remain potent antidotes to infectious diseases in the future, we need to put a plan in motion now.