The fastest supercomputer in the world - 2000. Your toaster probably has more computing power now. Photo: Getty
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Reviewed: At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise

Ian Steadman reviews Michael Brooks’s book on scientific discovery.

At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise 
Michael Brooks

When the Higgs boson was detected by the Large Hadron Collider in 2012, it was something of a bitter-sweet moment for many scientists. The way it provided a neat resolution to the final outstanding problem with the structure of fundamental particles was just too tidy for many. It was the last chapter of 20th-century particle physics but it did little to bring to light any new mysteries that would need solving.

Science, after all, needs mysteries and surprises, as the subtitle of Michael Brooks’s latest book, At the Edge of Uncertainty, makes clear. If you feel that we have not only picked the low-hanging fruit but also shaken the tree naked, then this journey through 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise will thoroughly disavow you of that notion.

Starting breezily and ending profoundly, it’s a look at the current state of several major scientific disciplines – from research into consciousness and computer science to epigenetics and studies in animal culture – with Brooks (who writes a weekly column for the New Statesman) communicating difficult stuff in a typically amiable and lucid manner. He doesn’t get into hard data but rather takes the reader on quick tours through the history of a science, picking up on relevant or remarkable anecdotes along the way.

One highlight is the tale of Ilya Ivanovich Ivanov, a Russian veterinarian to the tsars whose job artificially inseminating racehorses evolved in the early 20th century into an obsession with trying to breed a human/ape hybrid. This horror story was later suppressed by the Soviet Union but Brooks points out that stem-cell research necessarily requires experimenting with human/animal chimeras in the laboratory. A human embryo could accidentally form inside a mouse and, he writes, there is “the other nightmare” of “the pig – or monkey or mouse – with a human brain”.

A recurring theme is the idea that scientists often push forward with research faster than they can understand its moral or political consequences, even if it is rarely out of malice. By definition scientists need to “push at the door of what is possible” and: “The reactions of the society around them are what keep them in check.” Yet there’s a metaphysical note to these 11 topics, too. We find many of these things strange or surprising because they expose how limited our perspective, as clever apes, can be.

Supercomputers, for example, work in binary – but the universe doesn’t. Imaginations and learning are features of non-binary organisms (such as us) but our ability to create machines that can understand more than binary is stymied by “our picture of reality, [which] tends to be constrained by our conception of time and sits within just a few dimensions of space”.

In another chapter, time is revealed to be an illusion – as proven by Buddhist monks or volunteers high on magic mushrooms, observed using magnetic resonance imaging machines. It appears that we perceive it as we do only because this is the most effective survival strategy for the world in which we find ourselves.

Later, Brooks writes about quantum uncertainty and how the act of observing something on the quantum level causes it to change – but astonishingly it seems that the universe might be best understood as a computer simulation (running on God-knows-what) and that quantum uncertainty reflects our ability to “reprogramme” the world as we see it. “We become participators in the processes of the universe . . . We are in a paper-scissors-stone situation where we cannot find the logic to disentangle ourselves from the universe.”

From this perspective, consciousness is the inevitable result of a computer the size of the universe running for billions of years; Carl Sagan’s observation that “We are a way for the cosmos to know itself” was more true than he ever realised.

“The edge of uncertainty,” writes Brooks, “is not a static line, but a dynamic, ever-changing set of answers. What other way is there for humans to behave than to push at the boundaries of our knowledge and our existence – even if the act of pushing exposes our ignorance?” A curious result of reading At the Edge of Uncertainty is to come away with a net total of new ignorance, not new knowledge – but also a sense of excitement at the inevitable success of science to remedy it. 

Ian Steadman is a staff writer on science and technology at the New Statesman

Ian Steadman is a staff science and technology writer at the New Statesman. He is on Twitter as @iansteadman.

This article first appeared in the 16 July 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Our Island Story

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How hackers held the NHS to ransom

NHS staff found their computer screens repleaced by a padlock and a demand for money. Eerily, a junior doctor warned about such an attack days earlier. 

On Friday, doctors at Whipps Cross Hospital, east London, logged into their computers, but a strange red screen popped up. Next to a giant padlock, a message said the files on the computer had been encrypted, and would be lost forever unless $300 was sent to a Bitcoin account – a virtual currency that cannot be traced. The price doubled if the money wasn’t sent within six days. Digital clocks were counting down the time.

It was soon revealed Barts Health Trust, which runs the hospital, had been hit by ransomware, a type of malicious software that hijacks computer systems until money is paid. It was one of 48 trusts in England and 13 in Scotland affected, as well as a handful of GP practices. News reports soon broke of companies in other countries hit. It affected 200,000 victims in 150 countries, according to Europol. This included the Russian Interior Ministry, Fedex, Nissan, Vodafone and Telefonica. It is thought to be the biggest outbreak of ransomware in history.

Trusts worked all through the weekend and are now back to business as usual. But the attack revealed how easy it is to bring a hospital to its knees. Patients are rightly questioning if their medical records are safe. Others fear hackers may strike again and attack other vital systems. Defence minister Michael Fallon was forced to confirm that the Trident nuclear submarines could not be hacked.

So how did this happen? The virus, called WannaCry or WannaDecrypt0r, was an old piece of ransomware that had gained a superpower. It had been combined with a tool called EternalBlue which was developed by US National Security Agency spies and dumped on the dark web by a criminal group called Shadow Brokers. Computers become infected with ransomware when somebody clicks on a dodgy link or downloads a booby-trapped PDF, but normally another person has to be fooled for it to harm a different computer. EternalBlue meant the virus could cascade between machines within a network. It could copy itself over and over, moving from one vulnerable computer to the next, spreading like the plague. Experts cannot trace who caused it, whether a criminal gang or just one person in their bedroom hitting "send".

Like a real virus, it had to be quarantined. Trusts had to shut down computers and scan them to make sure they were bug-free. Doctors – not used to writing anything but their signature – had to go back to pen and paper. But no computers meant they couldn’t access appointments, referral letters, blood tests results or X-rays. In some hospitals computer systems controlled the phones and doors. Many declared a major incident, flagging up that they needed help. In Barts Health NHS Trust, ambulances were directed away from three A&E departments and non-urgent operations were cancelled.

The tragedy is that trusts had been warned of such an attack. Dr Krishna Chinthapalli, a junior doctor in London, wrote an eerily premonitory piece in the British Medical Journal just two days earlier telling hospitals they were vulnerable to ransomware hits. Such attacks had increased fourfold between 2015 and 2016, he said, with the money being paid to the criminals increased to $1bn, according to the FBI. NHS trusts had been hit before. A third reported a ransomware attack last year, with Imperial College London NHS Trust hit 19 times. None admitted to paying the ransom.

Hospitals had even been warned of this exact virus. It exploited a vulnerability in Microsoft Windows operating systems – but Microsoft had been tipped off about it and raised the red flag in March. It issued a patch – an update which would fix it and stop systems being breached this way. But this patch only worked for its latest operating systems. Around 5 per cent of NHS devices are still running the ancient Windows XP, the equivalent of a three-wheeled car. Microsoft said it would no longer create updates for it two years ago, rendering it obsolete.

There are many reasons why systems weren’t updated. Labour and the Lib Dems were quick to blame the attack on lack of Tory funding for the NHS. It is clear cost was an issue. Speaking on BBC Radio 4’s PM programme on Saturday, ex-chief of NHS Digital Kingsley Manning estimated it would take £100m a year to update systems and protect trusts against cyber attacks. Even if that money was granted, there is no guarantee cash-strapped trusts would ringfence it for IT; they may use it to plug holes elsewhere.

Yet even with the money to do so updating systems and applying patches in hospitals is genuinely tricky. There is no NHS-wide computer system – each trust has its own mix of software, evolved due to historical quirk. New software or machines may be coded with specific instructions to help them run. Changing the operating system could stop them working – affecting patient care. While other organisations might have time to do updates, hospital systems have to be up and running 24 hours a day, seven days a week. In small hospitals, it’s a man in a van manually updating each computer.

Some experts believe these are just excuses; that good digital hygiene kept most trusts in the UK safe. "You fix vulnerabilities in computers like you wash your hands after going to the toilet," said Professor Ross Anderson, a security engineering expert at Cambridge University. "If you don't, and patients die, excuses don't work and blame shifting must not be tolerated."

It is not known yet if any patients have died as a result of the attack, but it certainly raised fears about the safety of sensitive medical records. This particular virus got into computer files and encrypted them – turning them into gooble-de-gook and locking doctors out. Systems were breached but there have been no reports of records being extracted. Yet the scale of this attack raises fears in future the NHS could be targeted for the confidential data it holds. "If it’s vulnerable to ransomware in this way, it could be vulnerable to other attacks," said Professor Alan Woodward security expert at the University of Surrey's department of computing.

In the US, there have been examples where ransomware attacks have led to patient data being sucked out, he said. The motivation is not to embarrass people with piles or "out" women who have had an abortion, but because medical information is lucrative. It can be sold to criminals for at least $10, a price 10 times higher than can be earned by selling credit card details. Dossiers with personal identification information – known as "fullz" on the dark web – help crooks commit fraud and carry out scams. The more personal details a conman knows about you the more likely you are to fall for their hustle.

Hospital data is backed up at least hourly and three copies are kept, one offsite, so it is unlikely any medical records or significant amounts of data will have been lost – although the hack will cost the NHS millions in disruption. A British analyst, who tweets under the name Malware Tech, became an unlikely hero after accidentally finding a killswitch to stop the virus replicating. He registered a website, whose presence signalled to the virus it should stop. Yet he admits that a simple tweak of the code would create a new worm able to infect computers.

Experts warn this event could trigger a spate of copycat attacks. Hacker may turn their eyes to other public services. Dr Brian Gladman, a retired Ministry of Defence director, and ex-director of security at Nato, points out that our entire infrastructure, from the national grid, food distribution channels to the railways rely on computer systems. We now face an arms race – and criminals only have to get lucky once.

"We’re going to get more attacks and more attacks and it’s going to go on," he said. "We’ve got to pay more attention to this."

Madlen Davies is a health and science reporter at The Bureau of Investigative Journalism. She tweets @madlendavies.

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