George Osborne tours the labs researching graphene at Manchester. Photo: Stefan Rousseau - WPA Pool/Getty Images
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EU membership is crucial to Britain’s science excellence

Osborne can fund the creation of big institutes all he likes; if Britain left the EU, our scientists would be left isolated.

Last month top people from science and industry assembled in Manchester to work out how to start the long-awaited graphene revolution.

In essence, graphene is a sheet of carbon atoms arranged in a hexagonal pattern, an atomic arrangement that gives the material highly desirable properties, such as almost unparalleled electrical conductivity and a strength tens of times that of steel. The material is flexible, super-thin (each sheet is just one atom thick), light and transparent, a combination of properties that makes graphene a potentially revolutionary material for the electronics and mobile-phone industries, among others.

In 2004 two researchers at the University of Manchester, Andre Geim and Kostya Novoselov, discovered how to make graphene using a graphite pencil and a piece of sticky tape. It looked as if we had an easy technological win on our hands. Geim and Novoselov were knighted, they won a Nobel prize, and the UK government poured £60m into the Manchester-based National Graphene Institute, opened by George Osborne in March.

The Chancellor had already announced that the NGI would have a sibling: the Graphene Engineering Innovation Centre. This will have a similar budget, sit alongside the NGI in Manchester and enable graphene-based products to be “fast-tracked from the drawing board to the market”, as the Treasury press release put it.

Easier said than done. In some ways discovery has been the easy bit: most of the work lies in finding ways to mass-produce the material and incorporate it. So far, few people – if any – are making money from graphene.

A glance at the agenda for last month’s assembly makes that clear. More than a decade after the material was discovered, dedicated experts are still talking about “Getting graphene to market”, “Emerging trends and opportunities”, “Bridging the gap from lab potential to commercial reality” and, perhaps most important for British science, “Graphene in the European Union: future and emerging technologies”.

With a referendum on this country’s membership of the EU now a certainty, it is important to recognise that great facilities are useless unless put to use by people with rich ideas and creative imagination. Britain has more than its fair share of fine minds, but the UK is so good at science these days because its scientists are able to collaborate with the best in the world – many of whom are working in other EU countries.

It’s not jingoistic to say that Britain is a scientific powerhouse. These shores produce 16 per cent of the world’s highest-quality research yet they host just 1 per cent of the world’s population. EU funding comes “on the basis of scientific excellence”, according to the policy documents, and British science clearly is excellent: it pays into the pot of EU science money but gets back £1.40 for every £1 it contributes.

If we leave Europe because of the referendum, we stand to lose more than just money. Collaboration will become a problem. European Research Council funding requires projects to involve researchers from three different EU member (or associate) states. Today, good science is almost always collaborative: over one-third of the best journal papers result from international collaborations.

George Osborne has been relatively benign towards science up to now and makes no secret of his sense that scientific research underpins a strong economy. The stance on Europe taken by some members of his party threatens that. He can fund the creation of big institutes all he likes, but if Britain left the EU, our scientists would be left isolated, without influence or funding. And no wonder material on earth will change that.

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 14 May 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory triumph

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The one where she turns into a USB stick: the worst uses of tech in films

The new film Worst Tinder Date Ever will join a long tradition of poorly-thought-through tech storylines.

News just in from Hollywood: someone is making a film about Tinder. What will they call it? Swipe Right, perhaps? I Super Like You? Some subtle allusion to the app’s small role in the plotline? Nope – according to Hollywood Reporterthe film has been christened Worst Tinder Date Ever.

With the exception of its heavily branded title (You’ve Got Gmail, anyone?), Worst Tinder Date Ever follows neatly in the tradition of writers manhandling tech into storylines. Because really, why does it matter if it was a Tinder date? This “rom com with action elements” reportedly focuses on the couple’s exploits after they meet on the app, so the dogged focus on it is presumably just a ploy to get millennial bums on cinema seats.  

Like the films on this list, it sounds like the tech in Worst Tinder Date Ever is just a byword for “modern and cool” – even as it demonstrates that the script is anything but.

Warning: spoilers ahead.

Lucy (2014)

Scarlett Johansson plays Lucy, a young woman who accidentally ingests large quantities of a new drug which promises to evolve your brain beyond normal human limits.

She evolves and evolves, gaining superhuman powers, until she hits peak human, and turns into first a supercomputer, and then a very long USB stick. USB-Lucy then texts Morgan Freeman's character on his fliphone to prove that: “I am everywhere.”

Beyond the obvious holes in this plotline (this wouldn’t happen if someone’s brain evolved; texting a phone is not a sign of omnipotence), USB sticks aren’t even that good – as Business Insider points out: “Flash drives are losing relevance because they can’t compete in speed and flexibility with cloud computing services . . . Flashdrives also can’t carry that much information.”

Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015)

If you stare at it hard enough, the plotline in the latest Star Wars film boils down to the following: a gaggle of people travels across space in order to find a map showing Luke Skywalker’s location, held on a memory stick in a drawer in a spherical robot. Yep, those pesky flash drives again.

It later turns out that the map is incomplete, and the rest of it is in the hands of another robot, R2-D2, who won’t wake up for most of the film in order to spit out the missing fragment. Between them, creator George Lucas and writer and director JJ Abrams have dreamed up a dark vision of the future in which robots can talk and make decisions, but can’t email you a map.

Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971)

In which a scientist uses a computer to find the “precise location of the three remaining golden tickets sent out into the world by Willy Wonka. When he asks it to spill the beans, it announces: “I won’t tell, that would be cheating.


Image: Paramount Pictures. 

The film inhabits a world where artificial intelligence has been achieved, but no one has thought to pull Charlie's poor grandparents out of extreme poverty, or design a computer with more than three buttons.

Independence Day (1996)

When an alien invasion threatens Earth, David Levinson (Jeff Goldblum) manages to stop it by hacking the alien spaceship and installing a virus. Using his Mac. Amazing, really, that aliens from across the universe would somehow use computing systems so similar to our own. 

Skyfall (2012)

In the Daniel Craig reboot of the series, MI6’s “Q” character (played by Ben Whishaw) becomes a computer expert, rather than just a gadget wizard. Unfortunately, this heralded some truly cringeworthy moments of “hacking” and “coding” in both Skyfall and Spectre (2014).

In the former, Bond and Q puzzle over a screen filled with a large, complex, web shape. They eventually realise it’s a map of subterranean London, but then the words security breach flash up, along with a skull. File under “films which make up their own operating systems because a command prompt box on a Windows desktop looks too boring”.

An honourable mention: Nelly and Kelly Rowland’s “Dilemma” (2009)

Not a movie, but how could we leave out a music video in which Kelly Rowland texts Nelly on a Microsoft Excel spreadsheet on a weird Nokia palm pilot?


Image: Vevo.

You’ll be waiting a long time for that response, Kelly. Try Tinder instead.

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