To be a scientist, you need a well-rounded education

Of late, science has demonstrated why all types of knowledge lead to discoveries.

Science has been demonstrating the value of a broad education. Let’s start with classics. If you’ve read your Herodotus you’ll know that Persian kings insisted on drinking water that was transported in silver containers because they would keep the water fresh. The water supplies on the International Space Station are fed through silver for exactly the same reason.

Now, nearly two and a half thousand years after Hippocrates described the healing properties of silver, we know how it works. A team at Boston University has shown that, when dissolved, silver ions will get inside the bacterium and send its oxygen-generating machinery into overdrive, making the bug self-destruct.

Clearly, dissolved silver ions have been doing a great job throughout history and we can now expect even more. The Boston team showed that silver ions will also lever open the membranes surrounding various microbes, allowing antibiotic medicines to penetrate the bug’s defences. A dose of silver seems to disable many bugs’ resistance to our drugs: there is now talk of the ancients’ antibiotic getting us out of the terrifying growth of antibiotic resistance.

It’s worth sounding a note of caution here. For years, proponents of alternative medicine have been pushing “colloidal silver”, a suspension of microscopic silver particles, as a treatment for everything from cancer to haemorrhoids. However, European regulators and the US Food and Drug Administration have banned any over-the-counter sales because in most scenarios the best it will do is turn your skin a purple-grey as the silver ions accumulate in your body.

As unsightly physical afflictions go, the effects of a silver overdose are right up there with the Black Death, which has also caught the attention of scientists – though this time it’s a history lesson. The bacterium that wiped out half of Europe’s population between 1347 and 1351 is still around. However, it doesn’t seem particularly deadly to modern scientific eyes, which makes the virulence somewhat puzzling. That puzzle is about to be solved: thanks to a newly developed technique, scientists are studying the genomes of the various strains of plague bacterium. The hope is that the insights gained will warn us about which subtle changes to pathogens in our environment could lead to widespread modern-day epidemics.

Thanks to the same new technique, we also now have the complete genome sequence of a leprosy bug carried by a young Danish woman who died 700 years ago. The makeup of the medieval bacterium, published in the 14 June issue of Sciencemagazine, is remarkably similar to what we know of the make-up of modern leprosy bacteria. That means the Danish leper may well help us find new treatments.

Finally, religious studies. The writer of Ecclesiastes said there’s nothing new under the sun, and the US National Institutes of Health has decided that it’s a good piece of advice. The NIH has instigated a programme which suggests that the best way of speeding the discovery of new drugs is to repurpose the old ones. Drugs that passed safety tests but were abandoned for reasons of efficacy or profitability are being tried in previously unexplored applications. So far, the search has unearthed candidates for treating conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease, alcohol and nicotine addiction and muscular dystrophy. The drugs will now go into animal studies and clinical trials; researchers hope that some will reach the market in a few years’ time.

Various Roman artefacts, including a metal water container. Photograph: Getty Images

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 01 July 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Brazil erupts

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The snowflake Daily Mail cries over free market capitalism taking our blue passports

UK, hun?

The poor old whining snowflakes at the Daily Mail have discovered that maybe it’s better to put the state above private companies after all.

They’ve run a ranty yet doleful lament on their front page about Britain’s “ruling class” (which they are definitely, definitely not part of, of course) showing its “hate” for “our country” by letting a Franco-Dutch firm make our post-Brexit blue passports:

“Today the Mail has a question for Britain’s ruling class: Why DO you hate our country, its history, culture and the people’s sense of identity?”

In a beautiful bit of irony, the £490m contract to make our grim new tickets to bigotry was awarded to Gemalto, a Franco-Dutch firm that beat the British-based De La Rue (lol) that also tried bidding for the contract.

The Mail’s complaint seems to be that the bloody Frogs shouldn’t be making our passports – the UK should be doing it instead. So, according to this logic, either the state should make them, or, to guarantee a private British firm winning the contract, the state should ignore free market forces?

Neither seem particularly in tune with the Mail’s usual preferences. Nor those of the Tory Brexiteers, for that matter.

Yes, this is part of European competition law – big public contracts like this have to be open to bids from across the EU. But right-wingers in this country don’t seem to mind when foreign companies run our railways (Greater Anglia, West Midlands and ScotRail franchises are majority-owned by the Dutch state company Abellio).

Looks like these over-sensitive social justice warriors want to have their cake and eat it. Political correctness gone mad.

I'm a mole, innit.