Good chemistry: a display of cupcakes iced with chemical element symbols. Photo: Flickr
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The Periodic table versus the Apocalypse

Not just a faded poster on a lab wall, but “as impressive as the Pyramids or any of the other wonders of the world”. The table also holds the key to finding replacements for antibiotics. 

This month, researchers will gather at the Royal Society for two days of meetings about the periodic table of the elements. To most people, the phrase conjures up images of a fading poster on a chemistry lab wall – but to scientists, it is “the most fundamental natural system of classification ever devised” (in the words of the organisers).

And it’s not a thing of the past – the periodic table is still inspiring new angles of research. Because it suggests connections and similarities between elements, it is a source of ideas for extending our range of tools for manipulating nature and finding medical solutions. That third row of transition metals, for instance, might look boring but it isn’t if you have cancer. More than half of chemotherapy patients receive platinum in their treatment but it may not be as effective as some of the other metals in the third row, such as osmium and rhenium, research is discovering.

The periodic table has come a long way since its creation. We have added dozens of elements and have even learned to make 26 elements that nature didn’t get round to creating. By examining the building blocks of the natural world, we have designed some blocks of our own and extended the natural atomic scope by almost a third. According to the astrobiologist Lewis Dartnell, the periodic table is “a colossal monument to achievement, as impressive as the Pyramids or any of the other wonders of the world”. He makes this claim in his book The Knowledge, which was published last month.

In some ways, the book is a hymn to human ingenuity, charting how we have taken control of the planet, engineered solutions to the many problems that plagued us as we developed modern societies and learned to beat our microbial assailants to live ever longer lives. Yet it is more than that. It is a manual for rebuilding society in the face of catastrophe.

The periodic table makes an appearance because reading its patterns after the Apocalypse will help us find ways to exploit the properties offered by natural substances. It may be worth starting now, however.

At the end of April, the World Health Organisation warned that antibiotic resistance is reaching epidemic proportions. “The world needs to respond as it did to the Aids crisis of the 1980s,” the microbiologist Laura Piddock told the Telegraph. We need to do far better than that. Our initial response to the Aids crisis was inadequate at best.

We are doing so well in the fight against Aids (in the global north, at least) because of Aids activists, not scientists. Scientific research into HIV and Aids was ready to sacrifice an entire generation of patients in the pursuit of carefully managed experimental data. This wasn’t because scientists were indifferent to the problem. They cared, but science, left to its own devices, is not a fast worker. That was why the patients rebelled and forced governments to adopt a crisis approach.

The intervention worked and there is every reason to think this could happen again with antibiotics. Researchers have been warning of the growing threat from antibiotic resistance since the 1980s. We are trawling for new ready-made alternatives but there are other avenues to explore, too. We know, for instance, that the answer to antibiotic resistance, if there is one, must lie within the elements of the periodic table, or the combinations they offer. The periodic table in hand, we need to implement an emergency procedure – before Dartnell’s book becomes essential reading.

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 08 May 2014 issue of the New Statesman, India's worst nightmare?

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Why Twitter is dying, in ten tweets

It's ironic that the most heated discussions of the platform's weaknesses are playing out on the platform itself. 

Twitter has been dying since 2009, and commentators have pre-emptively declared it deceased pretty much every year since. To declare that it's on the downturn has become a bit of a cliché. But that doesn't mean that it isn't also, well, true.

Grumbling among users and commentators has grown to a roar over the past few days, thanks in part to a Buzzfeed report (refuted by Jack Dorsey, Twitter's CEO) claiming the service will move away from a chronological timeline and towards an algorithmic one. Users coined the hashtag #RIPTwitter in response, and, tellingly, many of their complaints spanned beyond the apparently erroneous report. 

They join a clutch of other murmurings, bits of data and suggestions that things are not as they should be in the Twitter aviary. 

Below is one response to the threat of the new timeline, aptly showing that for lots of users, the new feed would have been the straw that broke the tweeters' backs:

Twitter first announced it was considering a new 10,000 character limit in January, but it's yet to be introduced. Reactions so far indicate that no one thinks this is a good idea, as the 140 character limit is so central to Twitter's unique appeal. Other, smaller tweaks – like an edit button – would probably sit much more easily within Twitter's current stable of features, and actually improve user experience: 

While Dorsey completely denied that the change would take place, he then followed up with an ominous suggestion that something would be changing:

"It'll be more real-time than a feed playing out in real time!" probably isn't going to placate users who think the existing feed works just fine. It may be hard to make youself heard on the current timeline, but any kind of wizardry that's going to decide what's "timely" or "live" for you is surely going to discriminate against already alienated users.

I've written before about the common complaint that Twitter is lonely for those with smaller networks. Take this man, who predicts that he'll be even more invisible in Twitter's maelstrom if an algorithm deems him irrelevant: 

What's particularly troubling about Twitter's recent actions is the growing sense that it doesn't "get" its users. This was all but confirmed by a recent string of tweets from Brandon Carpenter, a Twitter employee who tweeted this in response to speculation about new features:

...and then was surprised and shocked when he received abuse from other accounts:

This is particularly ironic because Twitter's approach (or non-approach) to troll accounts and online abusers has made it a target for protest and satire (though last year it did begin to tackle the problem). @TrustySupport, a spoof account, earned hundreds of retweets by mocking Twitter's response to abuse:

Meanwhile, users like Milo Yiannopolous, who regularly incites his followers to abuse and troll individuals (often women and trans people, and most famously as part of G*merg*te), has thrived on Twitter's model and currently enjoys the attentions of almost 160,000 followers. He has boasted about the fact that Twitter could monetise his account to pull itself out of its current financial trough:

The proof of any social media empire's decline, though, is in its number and activity of users. Earlier this month, Business Insider reported that, based on a sample of tweets, tweets per user had fallen by almost 50 per cent since last August. Here's the reporter's tweet about it:

Interestingly, numbers of new users remained roughly the same – which implies not that Twitter can't get new customers, but that it can't keep its current ones engaged and tweeting. 

Most tellingly of all, Twitter has stopped reporting these kinds of numbers publicly, which is why Jim Edwards had to rely on data taken from an API. Another publication followed up Edwards' story with reports that users aren't on the platform enough to generate ad revenue:

The missing piece of the puzzle, and perhaps the one thing keeping Twitter alive, is that its replacement hasn't (yet) surfaced. Commentators obsessed with its declining fortunes still take to Twitter to discuss them, or to share their articles claiming the platform is already dead. It's ironic that the most heated discussions of the platform's weaknesses are playing out on the platform itself. 

For all its faults, and for all they might multiply, Twitter's one advantage is that there's currently no other totally open platform where people can throw their thoughts around in plain, public view. Its greatest threat yet will come not from a new, dodgy feature, but from a new platform – one that can actually compete with it.

Barbara Speed is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman and a staff writer at CityMetric.