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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.
  • Get the Reith lectures podcast here - you can download the lectures to listen to on your computer or MP3 player. It's free and you can keep them forever.
  • The picture shows a mosaic of pics from the recording of the third lecture, in the Royal Society's lecture theatre.


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  • rate this

    Comment number 41.

    Science is important to the uk, but uk investers are more important.
    It is one thing from having an idea to finding funding.

    A UK individual will struggle to get any where in the UK, this is why everyone ends up abroad, because UK investers are just not interested in science.
    (It doesnt make money like they want it to)

  • rate this

    Comment number 42.

    37. - 38. Thanks for the info, the link is being screwed up by the end being missed off in the linking, if you copy and paste it it works fine. Don't know why that happens.

    The anti cancer charities probably aren't interested in mobile phone invesigation as they can't get animals to use them.

  • rate this

    Comment number 43.

    #39. Influenza is a serious illness that puts you in bed for weeks and kills 10,000+ Brits a year. I've had it once (when the commonwealth games was in Edinburgh... 1985?) Its not the 'flu' people claim to have to get a few days off work. Given that I've had it once and you've had it 'many times' yet now your immune system protects you (what was wrong with it before?) makes me question how you can accuse ME of being illogical.

    On the plus side if the rich are the most unhappiest I should be pretty happy with myself. You don't go into science for the pay. You should also have a look at HYS about the England football team and read some of my comments. Unlike the rest of Britain I don't give a monkey's how many million football players earn. Not my business as long as I have what I need.

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    Comment number 44.

    "The anti cancer charities probably aren't interested in mobile phone invesigation as they can't get animals to use them."

    Is probably the stupidest comment I've ever heard. If you can make a beagle smoke you can stick a phone next to a rats head. The Cancer charities aren't interested in phones because with 40,000 UK breast cancer deaths a year and nearly the same for lung and bowel cancer a completely static incidence of very uncommon brain tumours is not worth the extremely limited funding available.

  • rate this

    Comment number 45.

    44. Don't do humour huh?

    Never mind.

  • rate this

    Comment number 46.

    On the contrary. My sides are splitting just thinking about you taking a little pill to boost your immune system manufactured to pharmaceutial production standards when simultaneously criticising scientists and praising all things natural.

    Its nearly as funny as the organic farming lot praising their manure (linked to several outbreaks of E.coli 0157) while saying nitrate based fertilisers do 'unspecified harm to our health'

  • rate this

    Comment number 47.

    43. Flu is a shortening of inFLUenza, nothing do do with excuses for sickies. And I have had it many times, possibly because I have many more years on this planet than you. If you have only had it once you have been fortunate. The difference between then and now, since you ask, is possibly that then I was unaware and merely took whatever life threw at me - sniffly nose oh no I have a cold, start taking quack cold remedies -now I consciously reject invasions of organisms, prime my immune system regularly with echinacea, and use mind techniques. Whether you belive me is irrelevent, I really don't care. It is how it is, and I have empirical proof in the fact I don't get sick. Will I market my techniques? Nah, it would only make me rich and thus unhappy, so why bother. I remember inFLUenza with utter horror; sweating so much that not just sheets but mattress was soaked, feeling so awful that I really wanted to die just for relief. That the ignorant claim to have had the flu is nothing to do with anything other than your refusal to understand what I'm saying. Mostly defensively.
    I have no idea what HYS is and have zero interest in grown men kicking a ball about and others paying large sums of money to watch them, and thus make them rich. The proles who pay out hard earned cash to make the few obscenely rich obviously deserve to be fleeced.

  • rate this

    Comment number 48.

    No 'Influenza' is a disease caused by a specific class of orthomyxoviridae virues. The fact that people with a variety of minor colds call their disease flu does not make it so, any more than calling gastroenteritis 'ebola' would make it an African Haemoragic fever. What you describe is a pretty good write up of proper influenza. You don't go back to work with it after 2 days off.

    The over the counter cold remedies generally take the edge off the symptoms but no more. 20p paracetamol and some good plain food are more effective.

    As to why I've only had it once: I know my tissue type. There's an antigenic sequence on influenza viruses that very rarely mutates and is processed by my T-cells (and 30-40% of the rest of the country) so one encounter with it gave me pretty good protection against most flu strains. I had plenty of contact with swine flu last year and showed no symptoms.

    I won't even mock your 'mind techniques' either. Positive thought is hard to measure scientifically but attitude to cancer definately improves prognosis. Thats proven.

    "I have no idea what HYS is and have zero interest in grown men kicking a ball about and others paying large sums of money to watch them, and thus make them rich. The proles who pay out hard earned cash to make the few obscenely rich obviously deserve to be fleeced. "

    Have your say = HYS. The main BBC blog page. Other than that we agree on football and those who pay to watch it.

  • rate this

    Comment number 49.

    46. Whatever turns you on.

    'The fact that you believe mobile phones cause cancer in the face of to the contrary is hilarious. How can you claim to not be 'anti-science' when you'll argue that case?'

    How can you claim to be pro science when you believe what it suits you to believe and reject what you find inconvenient?

    Tried these yet?




    Scientists once thought radiation was harmless and encouraged servicemen to face nuclear explosions and watch them. They suffered all their lives as a result, many died prematurely. We were all going to be driving about in nuclear cars also, according to scientists in the fifties. Your innocent belief in science is touching, but don't let me spoil your hilarity. Split your sides all you like, I'm sure science will find a cure. I'll just go on free of sickness, feeling half my age, while others of my generation are either already dead or suffering from cocktails of diseases and the chemical coshes doctors prescribe; looking old, scared and defeated.

    I'll not die whimpering in pain in a hospital bed stuck with needles and stitched up from pointless surgery, pleasing for no more operations, like my poor dad did, I'll go when I'm ready and without the intervention of 'modern medicine'.

    I wonder how wild animals manage to stay alive at all without a health clinic to pop into like we are apparently in need of.

  • rate this

    Comment number 50.

    48. Proof you either don't read well or fail to understand what I wrote, which is precisely what you are saying; influenza is the same as flu and is nothing to do with sickies and people saying they had a touch of flu.

    I don't have time to visit too many blog pages, especially if they contain football fanatics. Spent quite enough time here already, must go, nice talking with you. By the way, my eldest is a scientist, works in renewable energy, seeking greensolutions to burning fossil fuels. We often have these arguments about science too, I guess I just don't have the optimism of younger people that we will find a way round the present mess, I believe it's terminal. That's the only belief I have, and it's based not on mumbo jumbo or religious teaching but on observation, reading, listening and thinking over decades. Must be off.

  • rate this

    Comment number 51.

    #49. Scientists most certainly did not think radiation was harmless and encouraged servicemen to face nuclear explosions. After Hiroshima and Nagasaki we had a damn good idea what radiation did. The government exposed servicemen to radiation (and nerve gases) to see how much they could take and keep fighting. The answer actually is far more than you'd guess.

    But that just proves my point about the use of science. The same radiation is useful for fighting cancer not just causing it.

    And yes I did read those papers. They're statistical analysis not experimental papers. What they study is mobile phone useage which is measured by questionaire (which depends very much on peoples memory) and doesn't quantify how much radiation was received then compares it to rate of cancer. The study size is quite small so one or two extra cases looks quite significant but isn't. There's no explanation for mechanism of tumour development and no experimental model. I had a friend who's brother died at 20 years old from lung cancer. Never smoked. His death does not disprove that smoking causes lung cancer as he clearly inherited some terrible genetic fault that made him very vunerable to cancer. The papers you quote can't assess that sort of situation. For all you know the few brain cancer patients who also got tumours live in houses with basements full of radon gas.

    As I tell my students as a warning against jumping to conclusion:
    - if everyone drinking from the same well gets cholera its a reasonable assumption that the well is the source. However the fact that everyone who gets breast cancer also wears a skirt does not mean that skirts cause breast cancer. Associations MAY suggest a cause but they may not. Either way you have to prove a mechanism.

    In any case you're missing the point. If those papers are 100% correct then other larger studies will back them up and the bulk of scientific opinion will agree. Come up with a better explanation for evolution than Darwin did and prove your missing link and I'll ditch origin of the species for your method instantly. Thats the difference between science and religion.

    As to how do wild animals stay alive. They don't. A fox will live 12-15 years as a pet. Most wild ones are dead in 3 of starvation and disease. Just like us a few centuries back.

  • rate this

    Comment number 52.

    Give my best to your eldest. If the money is behind him (or her... you don't say) they'll probably do O.K.

    All I know is that your doom predictions have been repeated several times before- the Rev Malthus originally, then again in the early 60's before the green revolution really hit China and India. We have a pretty good record of proving the doomsayers wrong. Especially when the predictions of doom are based on dodgy evidence (such as the south sea islands drowning under rising sea levels... last week they found out that because of coral growth these islands are actually rising!)

  • rate this

    Comment number 53.

    27. At 12:25pm on 22 Jun 2010, DoctorDolots wrote:
    "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."

    I'd say that is unequivocally a criticism, true or not.

    "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."

    Indeed. Science is not an agent, it cannot invent anything. It is a mode of inquiry and endeavour, which can have results. I happen to believe those results are generally positive, perhaps because I value human life. And yes, weapons to hunt with, clothes and possibly even fire itself were the result of scientific inquiry in the earliest ages of humanity.

    "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."

    Yes, there are. As I've said (post 30), people are living your "alternative" at the moment, in conditions of unimaginable (to us) misery and degradation around the world. Perhaps it seems attractive to you because you are so far away from them. We always seem to appreciate least what we already have. This is not to say we shouldn't aspire to better corporate governance, more equality of opportunity or cleaner fuels, but these will obviously not be achieved by abandoning scientific research.

    "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."

    I do not equate food with other species (although meat can be a highly beneficial part of the human diet), but I do equate food with artificial forms of food production i.e. agriculture, by which the majority of humanity has been fed over the past 4,500 years. To attempt to deny this would be moronic.

  • rate this

    Comment number 54.

    Thanks to all to another week of excellent comments. Over the four weeks of the lectures we've had hundreds of comments and thousands of listeners have joined in the discussion, here on the blog, on Twitter and on the live chat.

    Two emails that came in after transmission are worth publishing here. First, from Ben:

    In the past decades hundreds of Government funded labs have closed, been sold off or run down – a prime example being government defence labs which are a shadow of their former past and which were a significant source of technology subsequently exploited by UK Industry.

    And from Malcolm:

    What a pity Mr Rees had to make a veiled attack on the Arts and Eastern mysticism. I think it shows a poverty of spirit! It isn’t through science and technology that Britain will remain one of the greatest places on earth to live. Its through the richness of its people’s arts, culture and philosophies. What a dry and sterile world this would be if we were all scientists!

    Steve Bowbrick, editor, Radio 4 blog

  • rate this

    Comment number 55.

    I saw a Discovery documentary not long ago, that showed some scientists in Texas making synthetic petrol from water, carbon dioxide and sunlight. They mixed the right proportions together in a solar furnace (a furnace powered by sunlight) which raised the tempreture into the thousands, and voila: petrol. Each furnace could produce up to 5 gallons a day, without the use of any electricity. It made me suddenly feel hopeful about our future energy security. With the right investment Im sure it could be made more efficient. It would mean turning deserts into processing plants, but nobody lives there anyway. It should also completely prevent any environmental disasters and would probbably be cheaper than drilling for oil.

  • rate this

    Comment number 56.


    What a pity Mr Rees had to make a veiled attack on the Arts and Eastern mysticism. I think it shows a poverty of spirit! It isn’t through science and technology that Britain will remain one of the greatest places on earth to live. Its through the richness of its people’s arts, culture and philosophies. What a dry and sterile world this would be if we were all scientists!"

    I'm not convinced of this. First of all, most "mysticism" is pure dross, concocted in the 1930s by fraudsters like Madame Blatavsky and Rudolf Steiner to make money off the idle rich, something it continues to do today. It had nothing to contribute then, and nothing to contribute now.

    Second, a large part of the culture and philosophy of modern Britain at its best (and other western countries) is an open-minded enthusiasm and optimism for the potential benefits of scientific endeavour, which sets us apart from despotic, backward-looking regimes determined to keep their populations ignorant, downtrodden and deprived.

    Far from being "dry and sterile", a world in which people tackled problems using empirical observation and deductive reasoning instead of prejudice and emotion would be greatly preferable to the one we live in now.

  • rate this

    Comment number 57.

    Having read so many sophisticated comments from those 'sow' much brighter than me, I comment with huge trepidation?

    1) GM crops - honestly? Are still ultimately about private license and permission to grow said GM crop? Why are huge multi-national companies investing in GM crops? If you were a share-holder and not a peasant - what would you invest in?

    2) As for climate change - am agnostic - the focus for science and scientists, in all areas, should focus on ensuring and maintaining a clean drinking water supply. Australia is building de-salination plants.

    3) All governments, scientists, business and 'ordinary' people absolutely KNOW that we, as humans are living on the edge of power supply and that however many millions of ordinary people cut their use of power - it is nothing compared to the waste of ALL government departments and business globally?

    It would be helpful if governments, scientists etc., stopped pretending - people know the problems - be honest and deal with power and water supply - don't allow anarchists and greens with no answers to run the main problems?

  • rate this

    Comment number 58.

    education - inseparable from science - was cut by 25% today. Says it all!

  • rate this

    Comment number 59.

    Life is important in all its various guises. We know, with or without science, our tendency to think about beginnings and endings may be very simplistic and death may be a far more complex event than we can consciously understand. We know, with or without science, our subconscious is a jewel in our personal crowns, almost unfathomable in its rich tapestry of potential.

    Science needs to apply the same unlimited freedom of expressions it bestows in cosmology to all avenues of human endeavour, including, dare I say it, the more spiritual, sacred, and esoteric guilds of humanity.

  • rate this

    Comment number 60.

    I find the lecture of interest, but the debate it has provoked profoundly depressing.

    Science is neutral, like fire or a knife. It can do great good and it can do great harm... and often it is not on purpose but an accident which outcome you get. But we don't forgo fire because it can destroy, not get rid of all our knives because if you stick them in people it hurts and they can die (ask any surgeon!).

    It is the old "Two men look out from prison bars, one saw mud the other stars" concept: your opinion on the value of scientific endevour depends more on YOUR outlook than on SCIENCE itself. I believe in the optomistic view, but tempered with pragmatism - and prefer above all, to KNOW. Finding out can be the greatest fun imaginable, it's why learning is such an enjoyable process even when you are learning about what others have already done rather than adding something new.

    No event is devoid of opportunities... and climates have changed ever since the planet was in a state to HAVE a climate. The trick is to find out what the climate is doing, and adapt to it.


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