BBC BLOGS - Today: Tom Feilden

Archives for September 2010

Scientific feuds

Tom Feilden | 10:50 UK time, Thursday, 30 September 2010

"Eppur si muove." And yet it moves.

Perhaps the most famous quip in the history of science, and a one-liner that encapsulates one of its most celebrated feuds - between Galileo and pope Urban VIII - over the Catholic Church's refusal to acknowledge that the earth orbits the sun.

From such epic conflicts to mere petty squabbling, scientific progress has been dogged - and in some cases propelled - by personal rivalries and intellectual animosity.

Crick and Watson

We're treated to another fine example of that genre today, with the publication of a cache of missing letters and papers belonging to Francis Crick - the scientist who, along with James Watson, first described the structure of DNA.

Crick died in 2004 and it had been thought that much of his early correspondence had been lost. "Thrown away," as he claimed, "by an over-efficient secretary." In fact the lost papers - nine archive boxes of letters, postcards, notes and drafts dating from 1950 to 1976 - had been muddled up with those of his colleague and room-mate Sidney Brenner.

What we get from this lost correspondence, published in the latest edition of the journal Nature, is a vivid insight into the strained relations between rival labs, and the personal animosity between the individual scientists, involved in the DNA story.

Surprisingly the real feud at the heart of the story is not between the two teams - Crick and Watson in Cambridge, and Maurice Wilkins and Rosalind Franklin at Kings College London - but between Wilkins and Franklin themselves.

"I hope the smoke of witchcraft will soon be getting out of our eyes," writes Wilkins to Crick of Franklin's imminent departure to Birkbeck College in 1953.

Speaking on the programme this morning professor Ray Gosling, who was a PHD student in the Kings lab at the time, recalled running down the corridor between the two, trying to get them to embrace - something he admits he failed to do.

"That's my undying regret, because it could have been such a powerful effort."

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It's entirely possible that the names Wilkins and Franklin, rather than Crick and Watson, might for ever be associated with the discovery of the structure of DNA if only they'd got on a little better.

After hours at the Natural History Museum

Tom Feilden | 10:58 UK time, Friday, 24 September 2010

The central hall of the Natural History Museum at night

It's a once in a lifetime offer. For one night only the Natural History Museum is throwing open the doors of its store rooms and laboratories, offering the public a unique insight into the hidden world of its collections.

And what a cornucopia of delights it is. Behind the scenes the museum houses some 70 million specimens gathered from every corner of the globe. You can see pictures of a few of the exhibits here.

From beetles to Barbary lion skulls, maggots to mummified Egyptian cats, visitors will be able to examine some of the museum's most treasured possessions; take a tour of normally off-limits collections; and quiz some of the 300 scientists working on global problems including disease, climate change and threats to biodiversity.

The idea behind "After Hours - Science Uncovered" is to showcase the cutting-edge research quietly going on behind closed doors.

"Museum specimens are not just great things to look at" says the Curator of Mammals, Richard Sabin.

"They're also reservoirs of information about the animals' life history. This is a very contemporary, very important, reference collection used by scientists from all over the world."

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Highlights on show will include the recently extinct chinese river dolphin, crime busting forensic maggots, and meteorites that are older than the planet itself.

And if all that doesn't impress you, try the dinosaurs in the dark.

The meaning of life, the universe and all that

Tom Feilden | 10:26 UK time, Thursday, 23 September 2010

The Eskimo Nebula, as seen by the Hubble Space Telescope

Is science getting harder? Could discovery be grinding to a halt?

Certainly a great many more scientists seem to be spending a lot more time - and money - investigating the fundamental nature of the universe than ever before.

But this massive collective global effort does seem to be making fewer, and less earth-shattering, discoveries.

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That could be because the Newtons and Galileos of earlier eras have already bagged all the easy stuff - the low-hanging fruit like the laws of motion or gravity.

Or it could be, as the physicist Russell Stannard argues in The End of Discovery, that we're approaching the boundaries of the knowable.

"I'm not saying that applied science is going to come to an end. There will always be applications of scientific knowledge. But the gaining of new knowledge about the fundamental laws of nature, that must come to and end".

The key to Stannard's argument is not - as has been claimed before - that science will soon reveal everything there is to know.

Rather that we are approaching the boundaries of what it's possible for our brains (fashioned in the struggle for survival on the African plains) to comprehend; that many of the outstanding questions, like the nature of consciousness or free will, may not be open to empirical analysis; and that it is simply not practical to go on building ever larger and more powerful machines like the Large Hadron Collider at Cern to answer the most fundamental questions about the nature of the universe.

That's bad news for Steven Hawking, whose preferred candidate for the unified theory of everything - M Theory - would require a particle accelerator the size of a galaxy to confirm.

According to Russell Stannard, many of the most profound questions about the universe - why it is the way it is - are destined to remain unanswered.

But the Astronomer Royal and President of the Royal Society, Lord Rees, is not so pessimistic. Speaking on the programme this morning he suggested we might find new ways of asking the same questions.

"It's like saying, in the 17th century when the microscope was invented, that we can't go on building bigger and bigger magnifying glasses. Clearly we've developed quite different techniques to examine the structure of things".

One area where Russell Stannard and Lord Rees do agree however, is on the aspects of reality our brains might be capable of understanding.

"Just as a monkey probably doesn't worry about how it evolved, there may be some problems which we simply aren't able to conceive."

Could physics provide the key to cancer?

Tom Feilden | 09:59 UK time, Friday, 17 September 2010

In the 40 years since President Nixon first declared a "war on cancer", mortality and morbidity rates have remained stubbornly high.

Trillions of research hours have been racked up, and billions of dollars, pounds, euros and yen have been spent trying to crack the problem, but cancer remains a major killer around the world.

It's a disappointing outcome - all the more so when you consider the progress made in other areas, like heart disease, where spectacular advances in treatments have lead to dramatic improvements in outcomes - and one which begs a simple question: Why?

It's a question the National Institutes of Health in America has clearly been giving a lot of thought. The answer it's come up with is to approach the problem from a completely new direction - the direction of physics.

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"Physicists think about the world in a very particular, sometimes quirky, way" says the astronomer Paul Davies, who heads the Beyond Centre for Fundamental Concepts in Science at Arizona State University. "The whole idea is to think creatively, outside the proverbial box, and by importing ideas from the physics community maybe we will get that big breakthrough we've all been waiting for".

The NIH is funding twelve new centres to explore the insights physics could bring to the treatment of cancer over the next five years. Professor Davies will lead the centre at ASU, which will focus on the 3D imaging of cancer cells and computer modelling of tumour growth.

Of course applying the lessons of physics to medicine is nothing new - the technology behind both MRI and CAT scans was originally developed to probe the structure of the atom - but the approach being pioneered at Arizona State University takes the relationship to a more fundamental, conceptual level.

"Cancer cells are physical objects with properties such as elasticity, adhesion forces and electric potentials" says Davies. "These are things that physicists understand well. Perhaps we can spot something the biologists have missed".

So how have biologists reacted to having a bunch of - medically at least - ill-informed outsiders poking about in their labs and telling them where they might be going wrong? One of the leading experts in the field, Donald S. Coffey from the Johns Hopkins Medical School in Baltimore, was surprisingly upbeat at a recent conference to discuss the idea.

"This is just amazing. It's just wonderful to see all this talent come together and wrestle with the question of how to make a difference on cancer".

And if a fresh look at an old, intractable, problem can break the logjam, no one is going to worry too much about whether it was a physicist or a biologist who provided the spark of inspiration.

Cancer's penicillin moment?

Tom Feilden | 09:56 UK time, Wednesday, 15 September 2010

It is so new it doesn't even have a name yet, but PLX 4032 is already being hailed as "one of the most exciting new cancer drugs in a generation".

That's partly a reflection of the promising results this experimental new drug has been producing in early stage clinical trials - successfully shrinking tumours in patients suffering from malignant melanoma - but also because of the way the drug was developed.

PLX 4032 is one of the first in a new class of drugs specifically designed to target the abnormal molecular activity resulting from an individual genetic mutation - in this case the B-RAF gene, which is stuck in the "on" position in malignant melanoma.

Its chemical structure is described in a paper in the journal Nature, which outlines the drug's discovery, development and functioning.

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We've known for some time that all cancers are the result of mutations in individual genes, but it's only been in the last few years that a phenomenal increase in the computational power of gene sequencing has allowed scientists to begin to sift the DNA code, comparing healthy and diseased cells and teasing out the subtle variations that give rise to cancer. That's given drug companies new targets for drug therapies like the mutated B-RAF gene in malignant melanoma, a previously incurable form of skin cancer.

"We really are at a remarkable moment," according to the Director of the Sanger Institute Professor Mike Stratton. "Modern sequencing techniques give us the potential to identify all of the genetic mutations that give rise to cancer. We've entered the end game in which we're going to complete our understanding of what causes cancer."

Of course getting to that end game is not the same thing as crossing the finishing line. Simply identifying all the genetic mutations that give rise to all the different types of cancer remains a colossal sequencing task, and even where that's achieved there's no guarantee that drug companies will be able to develop suitable treatments.

But the power of DNA sequencing does at least put us on a level playing field with cancer, and the hope, as one researcher put it, is that genomics may be about to deliver cancer's penicillin moment.

Inconstant constants

Tom Feilden | 09:34 UK time, Friday, 10 September 2010

"We hold these truths to be self evident...."

With apologies to the founding fathers, the Declaration of Independence might as well have included a line about the universal constants alongside the unalienable right to "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness," such is the faith placed in the immutability of these numbers.

From the speed of light to the pull of gravity, the physical constants are the yardsticks by which we measure the universe. The physical laws, according to Einstein's principle of equivalence, apply equally everywhere in the universe and always have.

Until now that is. According to research submitted to Physical Review Letters, the value of Alpha - the fine structure constant that describes electromagnetic interactions - may vary depending on where you look in the universe.

The study, by a team from the University of New South Wales in Australia, used the Very Large Telescope in Chile to analyse the light emitted from distant galaxies. They found a value for Alpha very slightly higher than that measured in the laboratory here on earth.

Even more mysteriously, the strength of Alpha seemed to imply directionality, with a large value at one "end" of the universe and a low number at the other.

"It is a surprising finding," says Professor John Webb who lead the study, "but one with fairly profound implications for the physical laws governing the universe. If one of the fundamental constants varies with position in the universe, perhaps the others do too".

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One conundrum that a variable Alpha could help to solve, however, is the fine tuning problem - the fact that the universe seems to be set just right to allow life to evolve.

If the constants vary, then there might be locations in the universe - perhaps large parts of it - where the physical conditions were not conducive to life. The "Goldilocks zone" becomes just one small patch in a larger, dynamic universe.

But if we can't be sure that the physical constants really are, well, constant, we can't be sure of anything.

Perhaps the force of gravity or the speed of light are mere local phenomena. In that case, perhaps we don't need to invoke dark matter or dark energy to explain the apparent contradictions we see when we look at distant galaxies.

As John Webb puts it, "Maybe the universe is just much more interesting than we've been thinking".

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