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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Forget fake news on Facebook – the real filter bubble is you

If people want to receive all their news from a single feed that reinforces their beliefs, there is little that can be done.

It’s Google that vaunts the absurdly optimistic motto “Don’t be evil”, but there are others of Silicon Valley’s techno-nabobs who have equally high-flown moral agendas. Step forward, Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook, who responded this week to the brouhaha surrounding his social media platform’s influence on the US presidential election thus: “We are all blessed to have the ability to make the world better, and we have the responsibility to do it. Let’s go work even harder.”

To which the only possible response – if you’re me – is: “No we aren’t, no we don’t, and I’m going back to my flowery bed to cultivate my garden of inanition.” I mean, where does this guy get off? It’s estimated that a single message from Facebook caused about 340,000 extra voters to pitch up at the polls for the 2010 US congressional elections – while the tech giant actually performed an “experiment”: showing either positive or negative news stories to hundreds of thousands of their members, and so rendering them happier or sadder.

In the past, Facebook employees curating the site’s “trending news” section were apparently told to squash stories that right-wingers might “like”, but in the run-up to the US election the brakes came off and all sorts of fraudulent clickbait was fed to the denizens of the virtual underworld, much – but not all of it – generated by spurious alt-right “news sites”.

Why? Because Facebook doesn’t view itself as a conventional news provider and has no rubric for fact-checking its news content: it can take up to 13 hours for stories about Hillary Clinton eating babies barbecued for her by Barack Obama to be taken down – and in that time Christ knows how many people will have not only given them credence, but also liked or shared them, so passing on the contagion. The result has been something digital analysts describe as a “filter bubble”, a sort of virtual helmet that drops down over your head and ensures that you receive only the sort of news you’re already fit to be imprinted with. Back in the days when everyone read the print edition of the New York Times this sort of manipulation was, it is argued, quite impossible; after all, the US media historically made a fetish of fact-checking, an editorial process that is pretty much unknown in our own press. Why, I’ve published short stories in American magazines and newspapers and had fact-checkers call me up to confirm the veracity of my flights of fancy. No, really.

In psychology, the process by which any given individual colludes in the creation of a personalised “filter bubble” is known as confirmation bias: we’re more inclined to believe the sort of things that validate what we want to believe – and by extension, surely, these are likely to be the sorts of beliefs we want to share with others. It seems to me that the big social media sites, while perhaps blowing up more and bigger filter bubbles, can scarcely be blamed for the confirmation bias. Nor – as yet – have they wreaked the sort of destruction on the world that has burst from the filter bubble known as “Western civilisation” – one that was blown into being by the New York Times, the BBC and all sorts of highly respected media outlets over many decades.

Societies that are both dominant and in the ascendant always imagine their belief systems and the values they enshrine are the best ones. You have only to switch on the radio and hear our politicians blithering on about how they’re going to get both bloodthirsty sides in the Syrian Civil War to behave like pacifist vegetarians in order to see the confirmation bias hard at work.

The Western belief – which has its roots in imperialism, but has bodied forth in the form of liberal humanism – that all is for the best in the world best described by the New York Times’s fact-checkers, is also a sort of filter bubble, haloing almost all of us in its shiny and translucent truth.

Religion? Obviously a good-news feed that many billions of the credulous rely on entirely. Science? Possibly the biggest filter bubble there is in the universe, and one that – if you believe Stephen Hawking – has been inflating since shortly before the Big Bang. After all, any scientific theory is just that: a series of observable (and potentially repeatable) regularities, a bubble of consistency we wander around in, perfectly at ease despite its obvious vulnerability to those little pricks, the unforeseen and the contingent. Let’s face it, what lies behind most people’s beliefs is not facts, but prejudices, and all this carping about algorithms is really the howling of a liberal elite whose own filter bubble has indeed been popped.

A television producer I know once joked that she was considering pitching a reality show to the networks to be called Daily Mail Hate Island. The conceit was that a group of ordinary Britons would be marooned on a desert island where the only news they’d have of the outside world would come in the form of the Daily Mail; viewers would find themselves riveted by watching these benighted folk descend into the barbarism of bigotry as they absorbed ever more factitious twaddle. But as I pointed out to this media innovator, we’re already marooned on Daily Mail Hate Island: it’s called Britain.

If people want to receive all their news from a single feed that constantly and consistently reinforces their beliefs, what are you going to do about it? The current argument is that Facebook’s algorithms reinforce political polarisation, but does anyone really believe better editing on the site will return our troubled present to some prelap­sarian past, let alone carry us forward into a brave new factual future? No, we’re all condemned to collude in the inflation of our own filter bubbles unless we actively seek to challenge every piece of received information, theory, or opinion. And what an exhausting business that would be . . . without the internet.

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 24 November 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Blair: out of exile