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A virtually human test subject

Soon, scientists will have no need for such things as the "Rabbit Grimace Scale".

After a week in which scientists published the rather upsetting Rabbit Grimace Scale, it’s good to know the Higgs particle is playing a part in the rescue plan. One day, thanks to everybody’s favourite boson, we’ll no longer need to assess how much pain bunnies are feeling.

Not that scientists in Geneva are colliding beams of subatomic particles with fluffy mammals. It’s simply that the data-processing requirements of modern particle physics have driven computing forward so fast, we now have enough processing power to create realistic simulations of human organs and tissues. Beating human hearts, livers that process virtual chemicals, kidneys that excrete simulated urine and myriad other silicon organs will come together and do away with the need to test drugs on animals.

Researchers gathered at University College London this month to hear how the project is progressing. If it can be made to work, there will be all kinds of applications. We will be able to punch a virtual human in the head to see how brain injuries are caused. We can get it drunk by pouring simulated alcohol into its belly and then trace the chemical pathways that lead to liver damage. If we’re feeling particularly heartless, we can give it lung cancer and watch the disease progress in silico.

First, however, we’ll simply test our drugs on it – and that’s not a pipe dream. More than a decade ago, Denis Noble of Oxford University used a computer model of a functioning heart to help the pharmaceutical company Hoffmann-La Roche get a drug to market. In clinical trials, mibefradil caused some patients to get a hiccup in their electrocardiogram signal. When Noble put a virtual version of the drug into his heart model, it, too, created the hiccup. Unlike the doctors running clinical trials, Noble was able to use his computer program to trace the cause of the anomaly, and show that the raw drug posed no danger to the patient.

The aim these days is to go much further, establishing the effects of a drug on the entire system of organs. Such is the promise of this “virtual physiological human” (also known as the digital patient) that the EU has put €72m into getting it up and running. Drug companies are excited.

No doubt so, too, are the military; the idea of the virtual human began with the forces’ desire to test new methods of hurting people, without hurting people. In the mid-1990s, the US marine corps approached the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee asking whether computer simulations of the human body were able to make predictions about the effects of non-lethal weapons. No, the researchers said – but it got them thinking.

On the grid

Scientists on both sides of the Atlantic are now co-operating on the effort to build a virtual human. And central to this effort is the vast computing network set up to help the world’s particle physicists process their results. The LHC Computing Grid came into its own with the hunt for the Higgs at Cern’s Large Hadron Collider, but its high-speed dedicated fibre-optic cables are also helping to create virtual human organs.

The Grid runs at speeds 10,000 times faster than internet traffic. That’s the kind of data-shifting power that makes it possible to watch what happens when you smash a virtual fist into a virtual kidney to see the impact on its virtual cells. Soon the bunnies will be smiling again and we can all get over the trauma of this decade’s most harrowing discovery: that anyone needs a Rabbit Grimace Scale.

Michael Brooks’s “The Secret Anarchy of Science” is published by Profile Books (£8.99).

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 24 September 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Lib Dem special

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Why I refuse to complain about email spam

The bleaker things get, the easier it is to be annoyed about absolutely everything.

“I need just one night and your cock
I want to give you a [sic] head Nice [sic] ginger hair and big bubbly boobs”

It reads like poetry. Poetry by an early 00s DVD player that has recently mastered the English language and doesn’t know what to do with it. A DVD player that’s lying on a skip and has a discarded Cornetto sitting atop its plastic exoskeleton like a depressing party hat, sluggishly oozing ice cream into all its crevices. Yes. If a broken and abandoned DVD player were to start writing poems, they’d probably look a bit like that stunningly naïve and post-post-modern cock and bubbly boobs mess.

Innermost contemplations of an obsolete piece of technology or not, these lines of poetry recently appeared in my email junk folder. Subject line: “Sex right now.” Sender: “Teresa Hughes”.

The bleaker things get (economically, politically, socially) the easier it is to complain about absolutely everything. Knowing that I’ll probably spend the rest of my life either living with my parents or renting shitholes from miserly Dickensian landlords makes selfie sticks all the more annoying. And slow walkers. And rugby fans. And people who stand on street corners, shouting about Jesus and doom. All of these things, within the context of generalised rubbishness, are worthy of a billion pissed off tweets.

Spam, on the other hand, the bugbear of the privileged but stressed since about 1996, is one of the increasingly few things about which I refuse to complain. Reason being: spam, the porny kind in particular, has always been there for me… in a way.  

I can’t remember my first email address. Knowing prepubescent me, it was probably a) boringly weird and b) just a fucking abomination. Something like What I can remember though is being emailed about blowjobs way before I knew what they were. Which was, in a sense, educational.

Over the past few days, my junk folder has been inundated by requests from robots who want to do stuff to my penis. This is my first incursion of porn spam in a long while; years, possibly. And I’m finding it almost impossible to be annoyed or disgusted by it. Instead, I’ve been getting nostalgic. Nostalgic for a simpler digital time. A time in which connecting to the internet made a sound like an android with norovirus, and people were trusting enough to click on links in emails with subject lines like, “Mega-PU$$Y 4 U!!!!”.

I like to imagine that, over the next century, great leaders will come and go; empires will rise and fall; bootcut jeans will have moments of fashionableness roughly every fifteen years; and, all the while, people like “Teresa Hughes” will email us reminders that they would dearly like to suck us off, in exchange for a hard drive-melting virus.

Plus, I was only being a little bit facetious about that “poem” thing. When I did an art history elective at uni, a lot of it was spent gazing at pictures of Marcel Duchamp’s “Fountain” (that urinal that’s art) and wondering what art actually is. Can a urinal be art? Can Danny Dyer be art? And, most pressingly, can spam be art? In one word: sure.

Let’s return our attention to those lines of spam at the beginning of the piece. I shall now attempt to apply GCSE-level analysis to Sex Now by “Teresa Hughes” (the lesser-known offspring of Ted and Sylvia, presumably).

The speaker, a woman, in a grab for immediate attention, addresses the reader directly. The line break after “cock” places emphasis on that word, reassuring the reader just how much she “needs” his/her penis. The unusual phrasing in the next line, “a head”, rather than “head”, for example, is a play on words that neatly juxtaposes [seriously, how much did you use the word “juxtapose” in GCSE English essays?] the primal act of giving head with the intellectual act of having one (and using it).  The alliteration in “big bubbly boobs” highlights the exact largeness and roundness pertaining to the speaker’s breasts. Furthermore, she wants us to know that her horniness transcends grammar.

Even furthermore, spam is literature and the world would be a darker place without it. So don’t be a great honking philistine and complain about it.

Eleanor Margolis is a freelance journalist, whose "Lez Miserable" column appears weekly on the New Statesman website.