The man who saved a billion lives.

If someone were to ask which scientist had saved most lives in history, perhaps familiar names like Alexander Fleming or Edward Jenner might come to mind, whose work in combatting disease has been indispensable in creating a new era of health and longevity.  But arguably the work of these great men would be rendered nearly inconsequential if it were not for the work of another, a man whose name is regrettably absent from the common list of scientific saviours. That man is Norman Borlaug, and he has transformed the world.

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What did Borlaug accomplish? He saved wheat. It doesn’t sound too exciting does it? Certainly it doesn’t seem as exhilarating as the race to vaccinate an ailing population, or discovering new antibiotics; which is doubtless why so few people are familiar with his work. However, this tale becomes far more stirring when you consider that wheat accounts for around 20% of the calories consumed by the entire world population, coupled with a rapidly accelerating rate of over-population, and it’s plain to see why the survival of wheat is paramount to the survival of humanity.

In the 1940’s Borlaug journeyed to Mexico to attempt to bolster wheat production, which had become dangerously low. Over the next 16 years he and his team worked tirelessly to ‘back-cross’ important traits into wheat, and eventually succeeded in creating a high-yield, disease resistant new variety, with the startling ability to be grown in double season, instead of once a year. However, there was a major set-back; this variety’s tall, thin stems caused the wheat to collapse under its own weight, making harvest ineffectual. Undeterred, Borlaug’s team pressed on and succeeded in crossing their line with a species of Japanese dwarf-wheat, producing a new ‘semi-dwarf’ species with shorter, sturdier stems. Once again Borlaug’s ingenuity and relentless work ethic prevailed.

From success in Mexico, Borlaug’s wheat was taken to Asia to feed an exploding population. In the 1960’s it was becoming horrifyingly apparent that there wasn’t enough wheat being produced to feed the extra 200 million people expected to appear in the next two decades. The subsequent famine and population crash would be among the worst in human history. Despite fiery Mexican politics and a burgeoning Indo-Pakistani war, Borlaug succeeded in shipping seeds from Mexico to the continent to begin trials. The results were more than impressive. Initial yields were the best ever harvested in South Asia, leading to a mass import of his seed lines. Over the next decade yields doubled in Pakistan and India, even leading to the closure of schools in some areas to be used for grain storage, and ever since, the rate of yield increase has exceeded the rate of population growth in many regions, a phenomenon we now call ‘The Green Revolution’. Without Borlaug, the world would not have emerged from the 20th century ignorant of the horrors of famine, but thanks to his brilliant work we were spared this unconscionable reality.

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The Meta-lympics: a catalyst for scientific discovery

298_298_building-the-new-super-athleteThe Olympics provide a rare opportunity to see what human beings are capable of.  We marvel at what is possible when humans push themselves to the edges of their ability. Most people consider performance enhancing drugs to be antithetical to the notion of sport, as they create an un-even playing field. But could they be utilized to usher in a new era of sport, and scientific discovery?

On the surface, I agree with those who seek to ban drugs from sport. The fun of sport lies in the knowledge that every competitor is on a level playing-field, this is vital, and ensures that the winner has fairly defeated his opponents, with no special advantage that wasn’t also available to them. If it transpires that the winner has secretly used drugs to gain an unfair edge over his opponents, the joy immediately evaporates. Hence a great effort is made to prevent performing enhancing drugs from ruining what is so central to the essence of sport.

But what if we created a new playing field, a new sporting class, where participants are allowed to utilize everything science has to offer them in developing their skills, without fear of penalization? Think about it, what would it be like to watch someone run the 100m knowing they have done absolutely everything in their power to be as fast as possible? Utilizing a spectrum of performance-enhancing drugs, gene therapies, modified diets in conjunction with sophisticated training regimes.

What would it be like to watch a race knowing that every competitor has done this? There would be no inherent unfairness in this; they could have chosen to augment their body in any way they wished, with any combination of drugs or therapies they consent to.

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Some people may object to this on the grounds that an athlete would become only as good as the team of scientists and doctors behind him, but there is another sport where this is obviously true, and it doesn’t seem to hinder the enjoyment of millions of fans, and that sport is racing. Formula 1 drivers do everything they can t develop their reaction speeds and driving sensitivity, but they are hugely dependent on the quality of their equipment, and by extension, the abilities of a team of mechanics and engineers that work for them behind the scenes. Does this make racing a joyless sport? Not at all, it is a thrilling sport, made all the more exciting for knowing there is nothing hindering the speed of the winner except the laws of physics, and the sometimes frustrating progress of science.

Why do we arbitrarily limit the speed of our runners, or the distance of our jumpers, the strength of our weightlifters and throwers, by banning drugs from ALL sport? Obviously I’m not supporting the notion of introducing performance enhancing drugs to every single sport; I’d still like to watch events in which the competitors could only use natural means to succeed. However, I very much desire to watch a different Olympics, alongside the traditional one, a new Olympics, a meta-lympics, where records are obliterated with regularity, as athletes attain near super-human levels of physical proficiency and skill.

The brilliance of science married to the determination of the athlete, with the common pursuit of glory. I am reminded of JFK’s speech about the importance of putting a man on the moon, an endeavour which many people considered a waste of time and money, he said to them:

“We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win.”

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In 1969 the USA put two men on the surface of the moon, just to see if it was possible, just to see how far our species could go. But this mission had an unintended reward; economists estimate that for every dollar spend on the Apollo missions, 14 dollars returned to the US economy.  This was due to sheer tidal wave of scientific progress that was created. Thousands of new patents were filed, new devices invented and the best minds in the country were brought together to their mutual benefit. Not to mention the long term investment the moon-landing represented in terms of the new generation of engineers and scientists that it inspired.

Think what the meta-lympics could accomplish for science to this generation. The space race provided a catalyst for scientific discovery in the 1960s, and likewise, rival teams of pharmacologists and doctors working on perfecting athletic ability could make overwhelming contributions to medical science.

Who is to say that the cures for muscle wasting diseases such as muscular dystrophy wouldn’t be discovered by doctors and scientists working in the meta-lympics? Or a panoply of new drugs for neuro-muscular diseases, such as Parkinson’s or Huntington’s, being developed by the same labs that worked for a team of athletes? I see no convincing moral argument against such a sporting event, as long as the doctors and scientists were competent and the athletes were consenting, and understood fully the nature of the risks associated with each drug and treatment they were offered.

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Some people may object on the grounds that it “encourages drug use”, however this is spurious, I think it more likely that it would reduce drug-abuse in regular sport. Suppliers of growth hormones, EPO and other drugs would have been just given a massive new (legal) market in the form of the meta-lympics. Why would they choose to deal underhand to regular athletes for little profit when they could simply focus their energies in making, and researching, drugs for the meta-athletes? Could there be a Lance Armstrong in the age of the metalympics? I think there’d be no market for him, no reason to aid him. If he wants to use drugs he could join the meta-lympic cycling team, and if not stick to regular cycling. There’d simply be no reason to cheat in the conventional sense of the word.

By ‘legitimizing’ the drug culture in sport, and giving it an outlet, we would not only create a new era of sporting glory, but protect regular sport from deception, whilst also furthering the goals of medical science. Here’s to the meta-lympians.ff_superhuman4_f