Ask a simple question, get a complex answer

George Bernard Shaw once said that science never solves a problem without creating ten more. Recent news stories make it abundantly clear that, in science, even if you ask a simple question, you can't expect a simple answer.

In what may be one of the most pointless-looking experiments of recent times, researchers at Imperial College London sought to find just how round an electron is. Their answer? Very. Blow an electron up to the size of the solar system, and the deviation from a perfect sphere would be less than a hair's breadth.

The trouble is, electrons aren't meant to be round. According to our best theories of particle physics, electrons are egg-shaped. If they're not, a theory called supersymmetry is wrong. And if supersymmetry is wrong, the whole of particle physics is in trouble. Watch this space.

Let's ask another simple question that's been on the minds of American farmers: how can you kill crop-strangling weeds without killing the crop?

Monsanto came up with an answer - genetically modified crops that were resistant to the weedkiller Roundup (its proper name is glyphosate). Plant your crops, spray with Roundup, and the harvest is guaranteed.

But not so fast; evolution fights back. Introduce something into the environment that kills 99 per cent of weeds, and you create a niche for the 1 per cent that are resistant to your herbicide. Survival of the fittest eventually allows the 1 per cent to take over - and then you're in trouble.
Research suggests that roughly ten million acres of US farmland, sown mainly with corn, cotton and soybean, is now choked with Roundup-resistant weeds. It's not yet a disaster - the chemical is still effective on the remaining 160 million acres. But it's a sign that we're going to need another solution in the not-too-distant future. And that, we can be sure, will also be just a temporary fix.

Sometimes we don't even know where to start fighting. The answer to "Why are the bees dying?" has turned out to be anything but straightforward. There are viruses, there are funguses, there are pesticides, there are changes in bee management practices and diet that may have caused suppressed immune systems. And maybe some other factors.

Maybe, baby

What about: "Do mobile phones give you brain cancer?" Almost certainly not, but proving the point has been so hard that the World Health Organisation's International Agency for Research on Cancer has had enormous difficulty deciding whether it should issue a definitive ruling. In the end, it decided on "maybe".

Usually in science, the simple answers are wrong. As Karl Popper said, science is best described as the art of systematic oversimplification. But it is worth remembering that, to an extent, science works. You are living at a time when we know, through many independent trails of evidence, the entire history of the universe.

And, thanks to scientific advancements, life expectancy in the developed world has doubled in the past 200 years. Health-care improvements have been so fast-moving that the UN has abandoned its practice of estimating upper limits for life expectancy.

Science wrestles with nature and sometimes wins a few bouts. Just don't expect nature to give up all her secrets at once.

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 27 June 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The food issue