Lesley Thompson: "Steve Jobs showed that engineering and design are the same thing"

The director of sciences and engineering at the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council answers the NS Centenary Questionnaire.

What is the most important invention of the past 100 years? 
For me, it’s the transistor. It has had such an impact: I don’t think there’s an area of life that hasn’t been transformed in some way by the transistor, from computing and mobile phones to health-care technology.

What is the most important scientific discovery of the past 100 years?
Penicillin. I had a great-uncle who died at Dunkirk. If penicillin had been available at that time, he would probably still be around today. So that’s quite a personal one.

And sporting event?
The 1966 World Cup final. I’m the non-sporty one in my family. I can remember being completely silenced and put to one side of the front room, while my avid football-fan family watched the World Cup.

Which book, film, piece of music or work of art has had the greatest impact on you and why?
Elizabeth David’s French Provincial Cooking. I love food, I love eating, I love cooking and France. The whole package is just a dream to me. It’s a book that I always take with me when I go anywhere.

Who is the most influential or significant politician of the past 100 years?
Nelson Mandela, because of the power he has had to unite. You only have to look at the world’s reaction to his illness at the moment.

And author or playwright?
J K Rowling. She’s been able to teach children to read and to enjoy reading.

How about someone in business?
Steve Jobs, for the joy that people have got from the iPod, then the iPhone and now the iPad – and because he showed that engineering and design were the same thing.

And sports person?
Jonny Wilkinson, because of what he did in the Rugby World Cup, in those last three minutes of the match when everything looked desperate. The ability of one person to kick a ball and have it lead to such joy – it’s just extraordinary.

And philanthropist?
Isaac Wolfson. He made all kinds of investments in technology and infrastructure. I think he should be better known.

Do you have a favourite quotation?
I wouldn’t say that this is my absolute favourite, but: “Happiness is not a goal; it is a by-product.” Eleanor Roosevelt said that.

Favourite speech?
Martin Luther King: “I have a dream . . .” Every time you hear it, it gives you the shivers.

What do you think will be the most significant change to our lives in the next 100 years?
There’ll be sensors everywhere. We’ll have the ability to add them to all sorts of devices and draw data, helping people live their lives better, whether it’s at work or in leisure or in health care. Any scientific advance has to be made with caution and with a strong ethical framework. This shouldn’t hold science back: you need to develop the ethical strand and the scientific strand at the same time. That’s the responsibility of all scientists and society as a whole.

What is your main concern about the future and why?
Water. Its distribution is very uneven. I think the potential for war or strife because of problems with water is profound.

What will be the most dramatic development in your own field?
This is going to upset some people. My area is quantum technology and it could be very disruptive. Think about the effect the quantum world will have on computing, sensing, communications, the measurement of time, the measurement of geography . . . The impact will be vast if we can seize the opportunity of quantum science and turn this into quantum technology. At the moment, we work down at a scale where electrons can be in more than one place at a time. That opens a whole new world of potential for how you might build electronic devices or optical devices and how to provide security for computers and have different way of communicating.

What do you think is the priority for the future well-being of the people and the planet?
The most important thing for me is to ensure that the world is investing in open-minded education. By this, I mean educating children so that they are able to question, not just learn by rote. Some of the conflicts we are seeing are driven by ideology. Opportunities for the world to create and to develop things could open up if education was available to everybody in a way that enabled people to develop their own thoughts and ways of questioning things.

Lesley Thompson is the director of sciences and engineering at the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council

Artwork by Ellie Foreman-Peck

This article first appeared in the 06 November 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Are cities getting too big?

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A swimming pool and a bleeding toe put my medical competency in doubt

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Sometimes the search engine wins. 

The brutal heatwave affecting southern Europe this summer has become known among locals as “Lucifer”. Having just returned from Italy, I fully understand the nickname. An early excursion caused the beginnings of sunstroke, so we abandoned plans to explore the cultural heritage of the Amalfi region and strayed no further than five metres from the hotel pool for the rest of the week.

The children were delighted, particularly my 12-year-old stepdaughter, Gracie, who proceeded to spend hours at a time playing in the water. Towelling herself after one long session, she noticed something odd.

“What’s happened there?” she asked, holding her foot aloft in front of my face.

I inspected the proffered appendage: on the underside of her big toe was an oblong area of glistening red flesh that looked like a chunk of raw steak.

“Did you injure it?”

She shook her head. “It doesn’t hurt at all.”

I shrugged and said she must have grazed it. She wasn’t convinced, pointing out that she would remember if she had done that. She has great faith in plasters, though, and once it was dressed she forgot all about it. I dismissed it, too, assuming it was one of those things.

By the end of the next day, the pulp on the underside of all of her toes looked the same. As the doctor in the family, I felt under some pressure to come up with an explanation. I made up something about burns from the hot paving slabs around the pool. Gracie didn’t say as much, but her look suggested a dawning scepticism over my claims to hold a medical degree.

The next day, Gracie and her new-found holiday playmate, Eve, abruptly terminated a marathon piggy-in-the-middle session in the pool with Eve’s dad. “Our feet are bleeding,” they announced, somewhat incredulously. Sure enough, bright-red blood was flowing, apparently painlessly, from the bottoms of their big toes.

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Often, what patients discover on the internet causes them undue alarm, and our role is to provide context and reassurance. But not infrequently, people come across information that outstrips our knowledge. On my return from our room with fresh supplies of plasters, my wife looked up from her sun lounger with an air of quiet amusement.

“It’s called ‘pool toe’,” she said, handing me her iPhone. The page she had tracked down described the girls’ situation exactly: friction burns, most commonly seen in children, caused by repetitive hopping about on the abrasive floors of swimming pools. Doctors practising in hot countries must see it all the time. I doubt it presents often to British GPs.

I remained puzzled about the lack of pain. The injuries looked bad, but neither Gracie nor Eve was particularly bothered. Here the internet drew a blank, but I suspect it has to do with the “pruning” of our skin that we’re all familiar with after a soak in the bath. This only occurs over the pulps of our fingers and toes. It was once thought to be caused by water diffusing into skin cells, making them swell, but the truth is far more fascinating.

The wrinkling is an active process, triggered by immersion, in which the blood supply to the pulp regions is switched off, causing the skin there to shrink and pucker. This creates the biological equivalent of tyre treads on our fingers and toes and markedly improves our grip – of great evolutionary advantage when grasping slippery fish in a river, or if trying to maintain balance on slick wet rocks.

The flip side of this is much greater friction, leading to abrasion of the skin through repeated micro-trauma. And the lack of blood flow causes nerves to shut down, depriving us of the pain that would otherwise alert us to the ongoing tissue damage. An adaptation that helped our ancestors hunt in rivers proves considerably less use on a modern summer holiday.

I may not have seen much of the local heritage, but the trip to Italy taught me something new all the same. 

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear