May the force not be with you: Sandra Bullock goes for a spacewalk in Gravity. Photo: Warner Bros
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In search of the notorious Big G: why we still know so little about gravity

Gravity is pathetic and so is our understanding of it.

Gravity is pathetic. The Oscar statuette, for instance, has a mass of 3.85 kilograms but it is pulled down to earth by a force so weak that you can buy a £2.99 fridge magnet that can beat it. It’s shameful that the gravitational pull of the entire earth can be overcome by a cheap piece of magnetised steel.

Gravity is by far the weakest of the fundamental forces of nature (the fridge magnet puts the far stronger electromagnetic force to work). It is so weak that its strength is proving difficult to measure accurately. In late February, while Alfonso Cuarón, the director of the sci-fi film Gravity, was on tenterhooks waiting for the Oscars result, the world’s experts on gravity assembled just outside Milton Keynes in an attempt to sort out this most embarrassing problem.

Numbers such as the strength of gravity, the speed of light and the charge on an electron are known to physicists as the “fundamental constants”. They are in some ways the sticking plaster of physics. We can explain the origin of most things but we know the values of the fundamental constants only by measuring them – there is no way to work them out from a theory.

These days, most are very well defined – but not gravity. It is the only fundamental constant for which our uncertainty over its value has got worse over the years.

The gravitational constant is sometimes known as “Big G”. This differentiates it from “little g”, which describes how fast things accelerate towards Planet Earth when free to fall. The first accurate measurement of Big G was made in 1798. Henry Cavendish used a torsion balance, a device in which two lead weights are attached to the ends of a metal bar. The bar hangs horizontally by a metal wire attached to its midpoint. Cavendish then brought other weights close to one of the lead weights and measured how much the gravitational attraction between the weights twisted the wire. From that measurement, he calculated the strength of gravity.

Cavendish’s accuracy was five parts in 1,000. Over 200 years later, our accuracy stands at roughly one part in 10,000. Given that modern measurements use lasers and electronic devices and Cavendish used a mirror and a candle, it hardly counts as a great improvement.

What’s worse is that our measurements of Big G are getting less accurate. The latest measurement, reported at the end of last year, reduced the overall value by 66 parts per million but the uncertainty
of the value increased from 100 parts per million to 120 parts per million.

The measurement was taken by Terry Quinn, emeritus director of the International Bureau of Weights and Measures in Paris. At its meeting in February, he argued that it was time researchers admitted that everyone must be making some basic errors in their method and that they should give up on making any more unilateral measurements.

The experts now agree that future experiments seeking the value of Big G will be done in big collaborations, with the proposals for equipment and methodology being scrutinised by everyone in advance to minimise the chance of further embarrassment.

It will, they say, mimic the way that researchers worked together to find the Higgs boson. That gave us the secret of mass: the hope is that if the physicists all pull together, they can finally work out exactly what size of force brings that mass down to earth.

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 05 March 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's power game

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An antibiotic-resistant superbug is silently spreading through UK hospitals

There have already been outbreaks in Manchester, London, Edinburgh, and Birmingham, but deaths are not centrally recorded. 

Lying in a hospital bed, four months pregnant, Emily Morris felt only terror. She had caught a urinary tract infection and it was resistant to common antibiotics. Doctors needed to treat it as it could harm the baby, but the only drugs that could work hadn’t been tested on pregnant women before; the risks were unknown. Overwhelmed, Emily and her husband were asked to make a decision. A few hours later, gripping each other’s arms, they decided she should be given the drugs.

In Emily’s case, the medicine worked and her son Emerson (pictured below with Emily) was born healthy. But rising antibiotic resistance means people are now suffering infections for which there is no cure. Doctors have long warned that decades of reliance on these drugs will lead to a "post-antibiotic era"– a return to time where a scratch could kill and common operations are too risky.

It sounds like hyperbole – but this is already a reality in the UK. In the last four years 25 patients have suffered infections immune to all the antibiotics Public Health England tests for in its central lab, the Bureau of Investigative Journalism has discovered.

While these cases are rare, reports of a highly resistant superbug are rising, and infection control doctors are worried. Carbapenem resistant enterobacteriaceae (CRE) are not only difficult to pronounce, but deadly. These are bugs that live in the human gut but can cause an infection if they get into the wrong place, like the urinary tract or a wound. They have evolved to become immune to most classes of antibiotics – so if someone does become infected, there are only a few drugs that will still work. If CRE bacteria get into the bloodstream, studies show between 40 per cent and 50 per cent of people die.

These bugs are causing huge problems in India, certain parts of Asia, the Middle East and some countries in southern Europe. Until recently, most infections were seen in people who had travelled abroad, had family members who had, or had been in a foreign hospital. The boom in cheap cosmetic surgery in India was blamed for a spate of infections in Britain.

Now, doctors are finding people who have never boarded a plane are carrying the bug. There have already been outbreaks in Manchester, London, Liverpool, Leeds, Edinburgh, Birmingham, Nottingham, Belfast, Dublin and Limerick among other areas. Patients found with CRE have to be treated in side rooms in hospital so the bacteria does not spread and harm other vulnerable patients. But in many of Britain’s Victorian-built hospitals, single rooms are in sparse supply. Deaths from CRE aren’t centrally recorded by the government - but it is thought hundreds have already died. 

Across the country, doctors are being forced to reach for older, more toxic drugs to treat these infections. The amount of colistin – called the "last hope" antibiotic as it is one of few options still effective against CRE infections - rose dramatically in English hospitals between 2014 and 2015, the Bureau has revealed. Colistin was taken off the shelves soon after it was introduced, as it can harm the kidneys and nervous system in high doses, but was reintroduced when infections became immune to standard treatment. The more we use colistin the more bacteria develop resistance to it. It’s only a matter of time before it stops working too, leaving doctors’ arsenal near-empty when it comes to the most dangerous superbug infections.

Due to a kidney problem, Emily Morris suffers repeat urinary tract infections and has to be hospitalised most months. Her son Emerson comes to visit her, understanding his mummy is ill. If she catches a superbug infection, she can still be given intravenous antibiotics to stem it. But she worries about her son. By the time he is an adult, if he gets ill, there may be no drugs left that work.

Madlen Davies is a health and science reporter for the Bureau of Investigative Journalism