To be a scientist, you need a well-rounded education

Of late, science has demonstrated why all types of knowledge lead to discoveries.

Science has been demonstrating the value of a broad education. Let’s start with classics. If you’ve read your Herodotus you’ll know that Persian kings insisted on drinking water that was transported in silver containers because they would keep the water fresh. The water supplies on the International Space Station are fed through silver for exactly the same reason.

Now, nearly two and a half thousand years after Hippocrates described the healing properties of silver, we know how it works. A team at Boston University has shown that, when dissolved, silver ions will get inside the bacterium and send its oxygen-generating machinery into overdrive, making the bug self-destruct.

Clearly, dissolved silver ions have been doing a great job throughout history and we can now expect even more. The Boston team showed that silver ions will also lever open the membranes surrounding various microbes, allowing antibiotic medicines to penetrate the bug’s defences. A dose of silver seems to disable many bugs’ resistance to our drugs: there is now talk of the ancients’ antibiotic getting us out of the terrifying growth of antibiotic resistance.

It’s worth sounding a note of caution here. For years, proponents of alternative medicine have been pushing “colloidal silver”, a suspension of microscopic silver particles, as a treatment for everything from cancer to haemorrhoids. However, European regulators and the US Food and Drug Administration have banned any over-the-counter sales because in most scenarios the best it will do is turn your skin a purple-grey as the silver ions accumulate in your body.

As unsightly physical afflictions go, the effects of a silver overdose are right up there with the Black Death, which has also caught the attention of scientists – though this time it’s a history lesson. The bacterium that wiped out half of Europe’s population between 1347 and 1351 is still around. However, it doesn’t seem particularly deadly to modern scientific eyes, which makes the virulence somewhat puzzling. That puzzle is about to be solved: thanks to a newly developed technique, scientists are studying the genomes of the various strains of plague bacterium. The hope is that the insights gained will warn us about which subtle changes to pathogens in our environment could lead to widespread modern-day epidemics.

Thanks to the same new technique, we also now have the complete genome sequence of a leprosy bug carried by a young Danish woman who died 700 years ago. The makeup of the medieval bacterium, published in the 14 June issue of Sciencemagazine, is remarkably similar to what we know of the make-up of modern leprosy bacteria. That means the Danish leper may well help us find new treatments.

Finally, religious studies. The writer of Ecclesiastes said there’s nothing new under the sun, and the US National Institutes of Health has decided that it’s a good piece of advice. The NIH has instigated a programme which suggests that the best way of speeding the discovery of new drugs is to repurpose the old ones. Drugs that passed safety tests but were abandoned for reasons of efficacy or profitability are being tried in previously unexplored applications. So far, the search has unearthed candidates for treating conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease, alcohol and nicotine addiction and muscular dystrophy. The drugs will now go into animal studies and clinical trials; researchers hope that some will reach the market in a few years’ time.

Various Roman artefacts, including a metal water container. Photograph: Getty Images

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 01 July 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Brazil erupts

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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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