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 Fire Brigades Union reaffiliates to Labour - what does it mean?

Any union rejoining Labour will be welcomed by most in the party - but the impact on the party's internal politics will be smaller than you think.

The Fire Brigades Union (FBU) has voted to reaffiliate to the Labour party, in what is seen as a boost to Jeremy Corbyn. What does it mean for Labour’s internal politics?

Firstly, technically, the FBU has never affliated before as they are notionally part of the civil service - however, following the firefighters' strike in 2004, they decisively broke with Labour.

The main impact will be felt on the floor of Labour party conference. Although the FBU’s membership – at around 38,000 – is too small to have a material effect on the outcome of votes themselves, it will change the tenor of the motions put before party conference.

The FBU’s leadership is not only to the left of most unions in the Trades Union Congress (TUC), it is more inclined to bring motions relating to foreign affairs than other unions with similar politics (it is more internationalist in focus than, say, the PCS, another union that may affiliate due to Corbyn’s leadership). Motions on Israel/Palestine, the nuclear deterrent, and other issues, will find more support from FBU delegates than it has from other affiliated trade unions.

In terms of the balance of power between the affiliated unions themselves, the FBU’s re-entry into Labour politics is unlikely to be much of a gamechanger. Trade union positions, elected by trade union delegates at conference, are unlikely to be moved leftwards by the reaffiliation of the FBU. Unite, the GMB, Unison and Usdaw are all large enough to all-but-guarantee themselves a seat around the NEC. Community, a small centrist union, has already lost its place on the NEC in favour of the bakers’ union, which is more aligned to Tom Watson than Jeremy Corbyn.

Matt Wrack, the FBU’s General Secretary, will be a genuine ally to Corbyn and John McDonnell. Len McCluskey and Dave Prentis were both bounced into endorsing Corbyn by their executives and did so less than wholeheartedly. Tim Roache, the newly-elected General Secretary of the GMB, has publicly supported Corbyn but is seen as a more moderate voice at the TUC. Only Dave Ward of the Communication Workers’ Union, who lent staff and resources to both Corbyn’s campaign team and to the parliamentary staff of Corbyn and McDonnell, is truly on side.

The impact of reaffiliation may be felt more keenly in local parties. The FBU’s membership looks small in real terms compared Unite and Unison have memberships of over a million, while the GMB and Usdaw are around the half-a-million mark, but is much more impressive when you consider that there are just 48,000 firefighters in Britain. This may make them more likely to participate in internal elections than other affiliated trade unionists, just 60,000 of whom voted in the Labour leadership election in 2015. However, it is worth noting that it is statistically unlikely most firefighters are Corbynites - those that are will mostly have already joined themselves. The affiliation, while a morale boost for many in the Labour party, is unlikely to prove as significant to the direction of the party as the outcome of Unison’s general secretary election or the struggle for power at the top of Unite in 2018. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.