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

How Jim Murphy's mistake cost Labour - and helped make Ruth Davidson

Scottish Labour's former leader's great mistake was to run away from Labour's Scottish referendum, not on it.

The strange revival of Conservative Scotland? Another poll from north of the border, this time from the Times and YouGov, shows the Tories experiencing a revival in Scotland, up to 28 per cent of the vote, enough to net seven extra seats from the SNP.

Adding to the Nationalists’ misery, according to the same poll, they would lose East Dunbartonshire to the Liberal Democrats, reducing their strength in the Commons to a still-formidable 47 seats.

It could be worse than the polls suggest, however. In the elections to the Scottish Parliament last year, parties which backed a No vote in the referendum did better in the first-past-the-post seats than the polls would have suggested – thanks to tactical voting by No voters, who backed whichever party had the best chance of beating the SNP.

The strategic insight of Ruth Davidson, the Conservative leader in Scotland, was to to recast her party as the loudest defender of the Union between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom. She has absorbed large chunks of that vote from the Liberal Democrats and Labour, but, paradoxically, at the Holyrood elections at least, the “Unionist coalition” she assembled helped those parties even though it cost the vote share.

The big thing to watch is not just where the parties of the Union make gains, but where they successfully form strong second-places against whoever the strongest pro-Union party is.

Davidson’s popularity and eye for a good photo opportunity – which came first is an interesting question – mean that the natural benefactor in most places will likely be the Tories.

But it could have been very different. The first politician to hit successfully upon the “last defender of the Union” routine was Ian Murray, the last Labour MP in Scotland, who squeezed both the  Liberal Democrat and Conservative vote in his seat of Edinburgh South.

His then-leader in Scotland, Jim Murphy, had a different idea. He fought the election in 2015 to the SNP’s left, with the slogan of “Whether you’re Yes, or No, the Tories have got to go”.  There were a couple of problems with that approach, as one  former staffer put it: “Firstly, the SNP weren’t going to put the Tories in, and everyone knew it. Secondly, no-one but us wanted to move on [from the referendum]”.

Then again under different leadership, this time under Kezia Dugdale, Scottish Labour once again fought a campaign explicitly to the left of the SNP, promising to increase taxation to blunt cuts devolved from Westminster, and an agnostic position on the referendum. Dugdale said she’d be open to voting to leave the United Kingdom if Britain left the European Union. Senior Scottish Labour figures flirted with the idea that the party might be neutral in a forthcoming election. Once again, the party tried to move on – but no-one else wanted to move on.

How different things might be if instead of running away from their referendum campaign, Jim Murphy had run towards it in 2015. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

0800 7318496