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Reith Lectures 2010 - lecture four: The Runaway World

Tuesday 22 June 2010, 09:20

Steve Bowbrick Steve Bowbrick Head of Interactive, Radio 3

Reith Mosaic

The 2010 Reith Lectures are now at an end. Four lectures with a science theme by Astronomer Royal and President of the Royal Society Professor Martin Rees. And for each lecture we organised a live chat here on the Radio 4 blog. Across the four lectures, thousands of people joined in - contributing to the discussion or reading it after transmission.

If you joined in or if you read the discussion while listening to the programmes, we'd be thrilled if you'd take a minute to leave a comment here on the blog: would you like to see more live interaction like this around Radio 4 programmes? Does live conversation of this kind enhance the experience for you? Or does it make it harder to enjoy the programme? And, if you think it works, which programmes should we try it with next? Live discussion, documentaries, drama? Please leave a comment below. Your feedback will help us design more interactive activity for future programmes.

Steve Bowbrick is editor of the Radio 4 blogs

  • Visit the Reith web site to listen to all of the previous lectures and to many from the archive.
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  • The picture shows a mosaic of pics from the recording of the third lecture, in the Royal Society's lecture theatre.

Comments

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    Comment number 21.

    #17- actually for most of us our immune systems didn't cope. We died like flies. Ever heard the stat that average live expectancy used to be 40? That means for every adult who had a full life one died in infancy. Smallpox, polio, spanish flu used to wipe out whole famillies. Even my grandparents lost 2 or 3 siblings each to diseases that are almost extinct now.

    Echinancea is indeed a plant. Plants supply most of our therapies including digitalis for heart conditions (foxglove), morphine for pain (poppy) and tamoxofen for breast cancer (extract of pacific yew tree). Even aspirin is just a synthetic copy of a chemical from willow bark. It scientists discover the properties of these substances, purify them and make them into a useable pharmaceutical. You take an extract of echinacea in a capsule.... you don't eat the whole plant do you?

    London has been around for 2000 years and survived flood, plague, fire and war. I'm sure it'll outlast me. All it takes is a little of the imagination you accuse us of lacking: take your Australian case. You reckon when the aquifer runs out they'll have to die or leave. I reckon as they have a population just twice that of Scotlands and live on the coast they'll just use some of the Uranium in their rocks or the sun on the desert to generate the power for desalination plants to extract drinkable water from the sea. A big pipe running from the drier southern cities up to Darwin (which has a tropical climate and all the rain you'd ever want) would help too. If we can pipe oil halfway across the Arabian penninsula or across Russia we can do it with drinking water.

    While I am certain that eventually our technology will start reaching its limits as decreed by the basic laws of physics we're no where near there yet with most tech. I'm somewhat concerned that antibiotics are losing ground to the bacteria but we aren't only limited to antibiotics to combat bacteria. We've barely investigated the phage approach the soviets used to use and god knows what some nano-tech expert can come up with.... tiny MRSA hunting robots?

    By the way I don't think I've quoted the whole of someone's post at all on this blog just a couple of sentences.

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    Comment number 22.

    #20 Some GM crops are designed that way. What do you expect from big business? Charity? The decisions of the businessmen who own the companies are not those of the scientists. As a student I had a strip torn off me for embarrissing the chairman of Monsanto when he lectured us (his figures were incorrect).

    Did you see 'countryfile' on BBC1 on Sunday? They were reporting on a trial of a GM edible potato that had a resistance gene from a wild potato protecting it against the late blight that caused the potato famine in Ireland.

    I don't know where you get the idea that I 'fail to act globally'. See my first post about the outsourcing of manufacturing to China and India. Rather than take the BNP view of build a big wall around Britain I accept that the developing world can build cheaper and suggest ways to keep us in jobs. The fact that I develop skin cancer vaccines should also suggest to you I have a global outlook. Which nations have the most skin cancer patients? Its not Scotland is it?

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    Comment number 23.

    I think it was Karl Popper who said that scientific progress was an intrinsic good i.e. one which should be achieved for its own sake, rather than purely for the benefits it produces. I wholeheartedly agree with this, but this is not to underplay the massive benefits which scientific research has given humanity over the last 4,500 or so years.

    None of the problems humanity has faced or faces now are solved by abandoning the quest for knowledge. Increased food supply, elimination of diseases like smallpox, improved communication and transport, and greater life expectancy are just some of the myriad benefits of scientific research, just over the past 200 years. Hopefully our leaders will see this, will make sure scientific research is well funded and protected, and will ignore the luddites who are terrified of everything they don't understand.

    If those criticising scientific progress were living naked in the woods, catching food with their bare hands and eating it raw, and heroically dying of easily curable diseases for the sake of the environment, I might have some respect for them. Instead, they are living in centrally-heated houses, well-fed, healthy, safe, and (evidently) using computers. It's difficult to take their "arguments" seriously as they so clearly lack the courage of their own convictions.

    Regarding the unsubstantiated allegation that use of mobile phones causes cancer, I think I'll believe Cancer Research UK, who apparently know quite a lot about cancer.

    http://info.cancerresearchuk.org/healthyliving/cancercontroversies/mobilephones/

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    Comment number 24.

    'god knows what some nano-tech expert can come up with....'

    Indeed. Perhaps something that was unexpected and instead wipes out the human population. So it's onwards and upwards to the stars with ever more ingenious ways of putting off the fateful day huh? I think that day is much closer than you think. You may think we are invulnerable, but it is anything but the case. Of course people died, that what every living thing does. Of course many died young, and the survivors were the strongest and fittest to survive. That's how natural selection works. We removed our species from natural selection [well, partially removed] and as a result our species need for medical intervention and drugs grows and grows as more and more are unviable, but alive.
    The echinacea I take is powdered root, something that's been done for ages, untouched by scientific hands I believe. And I am well aware of plant-based medicines, the only ones I ever use. Other species also use them when sick. Didn't you know that? Only time I visited the doctor in the last twenty years was to have my ears syringed by the nurse.

    Most of the diseases you list are the result of bad living conditions, mostly down to living in cities. And everyone's grandparents lost family members, but having large families helped keep the numbers up.

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    Comment number 25.

    #23. Well said.

    Even a quick examination of the argument about mobile phones and cancer reveal them to be nonsensical. Take Dr DoLots post "They cause brain tumours. Haven't you heard either? Think microwave ovens, same technology, only you're holding it to your head. Ever noticed your ear getting hot? It's being microwaved as is your brain." Who implies that tumours are caused by the phone heating the brain.

    I had influenza as a kid and had a temperature of over 39'c for a week. Surely that would be far more carcinogenic if 'brain heating' is the cause of the cancer? By the same logic wearing a dark hat on a sunny day would be carcinogenic because that will heat your brain far more effectively than a phone.

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    Comment number 26.

    19. Well said!

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    Comment number 27.

    23. 'If those criticising scientific progress were living naked in the woods, catching food with their bare hands and eating it raw, and heroically dying of easily curable diseases for the sake of the environment, I might have some respect for them.'

    Why? Actually I'm not criticising scientific progress, rather I'm criticising the attitude that it can only ever be good, that things will only ever get better and that more science will lead to a better world. My thesis is that we are unsustainable, that we are damaging the world we depend on utterly for our existance and that techno fixes are not the answer but a complete change around from the acquisitive, selfish, greedy ape we have been for millenia. But to return to that sentance; did science invent weapons to hunt with? Did science invent clothing and cooking? By making ludicrous statements you undermine your case. There are many ways of living other than the city-stuffed, corporate-greed, trash the planet way to riches and a 'full' life beloved of the techno whiteman in his infernal combustion powered phallusmobile. None of them involve living naked [unless you want to] or catching animals with bare hands [what would vegetarians do with them other than pet them anyway?]interesting that you equate food with other species, presumably cousin mammals. Yet the vast majority of the Earth's human population exist largely on plant derived foods.

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    Comment number 28.

    'Regarding the unsubstantiated allegation that use of mobile phones causes cancer, I think I'll believe Cancer Research UK, who apparently know quite a lot about cancer.' well, they're in the business certainly, and have a vested interest in cancer. Which doesn't make them experts. They also conspire in the torture of millions of captive animals annually for research into a human disease, something I fundamentally oppose as immoral. I therefore have no interest in what they claim or believe. You believe what you want to.

    Question: do you think microwaving the brain, sometimes for hours on end, is good for it?

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    Comment number 29.

    27 "did science invent weapons to hunt with? Did science invent clothing and cooking?"

    More or less. Certainly you said 'well said' to post #19 "the most significant contribution of science has been to the conduct of war and conquest"

    The reason for your confusion is that science is neither good nor bad. Only its application is good or bad. A bow and arrow to hunt food is good. A bow and arrow used as a weapon of war is bad. Its the same with pretty much any other discovery. The basic bacteriology that fights disease is the same skill set you need to make germ weapons. If you want someone to blame blame the big corporations who market the science or the politicians who start the wars. Blame the engineers who take basic scientific discoveries (like polarised highly focused light) and engineer it into a man killing laser.

    P.S the vast majority of meat eaters largely exist on plant derived foods too. I'm not a lion. I need vitamins and fibre that only come from plants. Equally most vegetarians are not vegans and consume a fair bit of (none fatal) animal products like milk and cheese.

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    Comment number 30.

    24. At 12:11pm on 22 Jun 2010, DoctorDolots wrote:

    "Of course people died, that what every living thing does. Of course many died young, and the survivors were the strongest and fittest to survive. That's how natural selection works. We removed our species from natural selection [well, partially removed] and as a result our species need for medical intervention and drugs grows and grows as more and more are unviable, but alive."

    "strongest and fittest" in what sense? Resistance to one type of illness in infancy doesn't correlate to all-round better life chances except in environments where there is no medical treatment for the illness in question. Do you have any evidence to suggest that those who suffer from illness at a young age are more likely to be less physically strong or intelligent? And is this a good enough reason for letting them die?

    "The echinacea I take is powdered root, something that's been done for ages, untouched by scientific hands I believe. And I am well aware of plant-based medicines, the only ones I ever use."

    That is irrelevant. You have access to a daily supply because of a mechanised system of production, distribution and retail which is the product of scientific endeavour.

    "Most of the diseases you list are the result of bad living conditions, mostly down to living in cities. And everyone's grandparents lost family members, but having large families helped keep the numbers up."

    So please explain why the incidence of these diseases has fallen as urbanisation has increased? And having large families in which multiple siblings die young is neither a humane or resource-efficient alternative to having small, healthy families.

    To be honest, the society you seem to idolise is that of an undeveloped country (large families, high incidence of infant mortality, little access to modern medicine, non-mechanised agriculture). So why are you living in Scotland?

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    Comment number 31.

    " They also conspire in the torture of millions of captive animals annually for research into a human disease, something I fundamentally oppose as immoral. I therefore have no interest in what they claim or believe. You believe what you want to. "

    I think you've just killed the claim that you're not anti-science stone dead there. I was paid by CRUK for 10 years and never used a single mouse. My work was all human cell based or used pathological material from hospitals. The fact that you dismiss anything they publish as "claim or believe" rather than "can prove in peer reviewed journals" is as anti-science as you can get. If Coppernicus had dissected mice would you refuse to believe that the Earth orbits the sun because you don't agree with the technique used?

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    Comment number 32.

    Whetever you may think about science, the truth is that the future for science based jobs in the UK is very bleak. Most major employers in the science area have made massive reductions over the last 5 years and the rumours are that there are more to follow.

    Science in academia is under budget pressure due to the numbers of students vs resource.

    With this background can you honestly recommend science as a career to any young person.

    Scentific solutions e.g. a working fusion power plant will potentially 'save the planet' but we must 'save the people' first.

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    Comment number 33.

    To Dr DoLots,

    As Peter said, you are confusing science with the application thereof. Your comment on GM crops is a fine example, the science can create pest resistant crops that can produce seeds to be sown the following year, if the companies chose not to invest and produce these instead opting for pesticide resistant varieties, that is not the fault of the science but of the businesses and the politicians

    Also you never answered the question of, if using science to try and solve some of the world's problems is not the answer then what is?

    Everything practical in this world is science. The primative civilisations that first discovered that Ecinachia was good for the immune system were performing their own for of science even if the methods were very different to those considered the norm today.

    Your posts read as someone who hates life and has given up on the human race, well I say we are an amazing species, yes, we have made mistakes and our advancement has polluted the world and we are now at a tipping point, we can either work to rectify things by delevoping and enhancing new greener technologies or we can give up, sit back and say "science is bad" whilst watching our infrastructure crumble around us, when the heating and the lights go out, will you still be condeming science?

    To reitterate, science is the solution, the application of science can sometimes be the problem, but these are very different areas

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    Comment number 34.

    #32 Interesting point.

    I'm not sure I would recommend science as a career but I'm not sure what I'd do myself if I got the chance again...... aircraft engine mechanic probably. I always liked planes, I'm good with complex machines and easyjet/ryan air etc are a growth industry.

    Medicine is a very harsh, poorly paid (by hourly rate) job (my father and sister are doctors), law can be good but getting the first job after graduation is extremely hard. I.T is paying less and less and getting outsourced abroad....and as for finance.

    #33 Nicely put. The bowmaker in 12th century England deciding that Yew makes a better bow than elm by comparing both is as much a scientist as I am.

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    Comment number 35.

    I am no scientist but enjoy reading and following science news and sometimes I even understand some of the more complex issues but I am lost when the talk goes into detail.
    Is science important? You bet it is as it affects each and every one of us in our daily life and we should invest in the science in the UK. I would go further and say that we should give more to scientists to come up with solutions to problems.
    Take me for example, as an ordinary man my life has been saved on more than one occasion by science, including the testing of drugs on animals. Through cancer I almost died twice but each time radiotherapy saved me, and chemotherapy saved me. Since my life was saved 27 and then again 22 years ago the chemo drugs have come on in leaps and bounds and with each small advancement in knowledge more lives are saved and this is just in cancer research. What about trauma treatment which has saved untold thousands of lives. How can we not think a hip replacement (new metals and plastics) is not a worthy subject to be given money, just see how this and limb replacements can change the lives of people particularly younger people.
    How many people use plastics in their lives that would never have been available 40 years ago without science? Even the DNA and human genome breakthroughs have major affects on our lives.
    We often talk about heroes in our country but how often do we celebrate and declare some of our scientists are heroes, people whose dedication to often mundane, repeated tests that in end bring about so much. I wish to thank all the scientists, the people who perform scientific tests on blood, cells and tumours for saving my life. I don’t know who they are, or if they know what life saving work they do, but I thank you.
    Science is most important; we should invest in it and give the proper accolade to the scientists who change our lives each and every day.

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    Comment number 36.

    You are all laying claims for science which are illigitimate. Ancient herbal remedies were not science as we know it, you are attempting to move the goalposts in order to score points. Never a good debating stratagem.
    The bowmaker is not a scientist any more than the herbalist, unless you want to put all human activity, learning, knowledge and belief down to science, in which case it ceases to be anything, it merely describes thehuman animal's way of being. If that is your thesis, many of your previous points fall flat.
    I don't need to answer questions like what if science isn't the answer is the answer, perhaps there is no answer, perhaps it will all inevitably reach a conclusion and that will be your answer. I'm not here to provide answers, I observe and comment. I'm not in the business of providing solutions, there are none. Hominids will be hominids just as wildebeest will be wildebeest, we are what we are and we will one day become extinct because we weren't anywhere near as clever as we thought we were.
    Why would Copernicus have dissected mice to explore the stars? Hardly logical thinking if I may say so. My point is that all cancer charities refuse to stop animal testing. That you didn't torture one mouse is irrelevent. Why my opposition to animal testing kills my claim not to be anti-science is illogical; plenty of scientists are similarly opposed, are they by your definition non-scientists?

    A working fusion power plant will save the planet LOL, in your dreams.

    To fail to be inordinately impressed by the sheer brilliance of my species to the point where I think it has more right to everything than any other is not anti-human. It is pro life and pro diversity. All we seem to do is pave paradise and put up a parking lot. What's the point of it all? Breeding more and more humans to choke the roads with vehicles as they go about their micro-obsessed little lives in pursuit of the 'dreams' which largely come down to having yet more babies who in turn will sit in cars on the way to the supermarket, uncaring that everything they do has effects on other species ability to just survive. If they get in our way we label them pests or vermin and destroy them, oh and science has some wonderful tools for carrying out mass killings, we even use them against our own kind. Yes, the naked ape is so impressive, so admirable. You're all suffering species narcissism. But it's only human.

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    Comment number 37.

    The mobile phone issue is a good example of poor communication of science to the public, and media and establishment control. There are lot of high quality scientific papers published in international journals about damaging effects from mobile phones and yet very few people seem to know about it. Those that talk about it are told to put on their tin hats, or accused of being anti-progress. These are not helpful comments, they only serve to stop us moving forward to finding out which technologies are sustainable and which ones may increase disease. I work in science, and love it. I'm interested in how things really work, how cells respond and interact in networks. I want to know what is really going on, not what someone else wants me to think because it is convenient for them.

    As for tumours you can see:
    http://www.surgicalneurology-online.com/article/S0090-3019(09)00145-1/abstract
    http://www.spandidos-publications.com/ijo/35/1/5
    http://aje.oxfordjournals.org/cgi/content/abstract/167/4/457

    But phones also damage DNA, alter protein structures, lead to cell death, cognitive impairments, alter foetal development, and all at lower exposures than are needed for heating. Heat has nothing to do with it. Our cells respond to non-ionising radiation at very low powers.

    We can deny science that we don't like, but we won't be moving forward towards an honest understanding of the world. The next 50 years of science will bring developments where is it essential that we know what is really going on. One day ignoring the science we don't like may damage life beyond repair.




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    Comment number 38.

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    Comment number 39.

    25. Peter_Sym

    I suggest you study logic, when you have time. Your argument is riddled with inconsistencies and nonsensical conclusions.

    I've had influenza many times, that you only had it once as a kid is astonishing. I don't have it now, my immune system protects me as it does from colds. When all others around me are sneezing and coughing and suffering, I'm not. Haven't had a cold for over twenty years, don't intend to again.
    I'm not anti human, I'm just not overly impressed by humans like most seem to be. But then chimps [who also wage war against other chimps, our closest cousins]probably think they are pretty amazing too.
    I absolutely love life, live every minute to the full, appreciate beauty all around me, make the most of what I have and am content with little, because many years ago I discovered that to be happy you didn't need wealth and accumulated stuff, but a free mind and the ability to enjoy every moment. The Tao shows the way of living in harmony, or wanting nothing of stepping outside the circle of constant desire that plagues the human species. That's why the rich are the most unhappy people on the planet; forever needing more, forever dissatisfied with others being richer, forever wanting to feed that hunger inside but not knowing that getting richer won't do it. Yet still most others wish to emulate them, and the whole edifice of consuming capitalism depends on your slavish desire to 'better' yourselves and get more stuff. Yet all thinkers and sages throughout time have celebrated poverty and the absence of desire. Don't any of you ever listen.

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    Comment number 40.

    DoctorDoLots: the scientific principle is simple:

    Hypothesis: I believe that A is responsible for B happening.

    Experiment: a series of tests with suitable controls to test A and look for B happening.

    Conclusion: A either causes B or it doesn't cause B.

    That applies the same to me or the bowmaker. I make a vaccine that fails to produce an immune response then it goes in the bin and I go back to the drawing board. The bowmaker makes a Yew bow that shoots better than an elm one and elm goes in the dustbin and he starts refining yew.

    Whether you morally agree with the methods used to test the hypothesis or not doesn't affect the validity of the results at all. For instance in a series of totally abhorent experiments in Dachau the nazi's immersed people in freezing water to study the effects of hypothermia. It goes without saying that I would never replicate this however the results are correct - below 30'c you die. Whether you support freezing jews to death or not does not make the result incorrect. The scientists who object to testing on animals do so because in many cases an animal is a poor model for a human. Citing something like thalidomide for instance (which doesn't cause birth defects in rats) is a perfect idea of a scientific rejection of animal testing. As I stated earlier this is one of the reasons my CRUK funded work ONLY used human material.

    That it why I suggested that you would reject the teachings of copernicus if he'd dissected mice. Your objections are moral not scientific and are apparently so strong you'd argue black is white in the face of all the evidence. Incidentally Gregor Mendel (one of those 'best scientists working by candle light in monasteries' you're so keen on) didn't cross pea plants but mice. His results don't work on pea plants but do work on mice. Catholic monks aren't meant to be breeding mammals of course.

    The fact that you believe mobile phones cause cancer in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary is hilarious. How can you claim to not be 'anti-science' when you'll argue that case? What someone 'believes' is not scientific, only what they can prove and prove in a way that is replicatable to others.



    P.S I really love the fact that you object to CRUK, a registered charity yet praise FTSE listed Holland and Barret or wherever you buy your 'herbal tablets'.

 

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