Serendipity in science

tumblr_kqp56wjyAh1qzn0deo1_500Some of the greatest scientific discoveries of all time were made entirely by accident. When you take a cursory glance at the history of science, it can seem like a long list of extra-ordinary flukes; a sort of ‘right place at the right time’ deal. Yet somewhere along the line we have acquired this romantic notion of science, we think of it as a deliberate interrogation of nature.  The very concept of the ‘eureka’ and ‘newton’s apple’ moments implies that we consider scientists nearly perfect inductive reasoners; given enough time they could work it all out. However, I think this is only part of the picture; accidents and dumb luck have a much larger role in scientific progress than you might imagine.

We all know that Alexander Fleming discovered antibiotics purely by accident, when through his poor laboratory protocol he allowed a fungus to contaminate a petri dish of growing bacteria. The very next morning he noticed that there was a clear, impregnable ring around the fungus that apparently the growing bacterial colony could not impeach, and later found out that the fungus itself released a protein that would prevent bacterial growth, as a natural self-defence mechanism. Hey presto, antibiotics for the masses. No longer do people have to die in their millions of silly old infections.

Einstein

Even the seeds of Einstein’s theory of relativity can be traced back to a few plucky 19th century astronomers who set out to measure the speed of light bouncing off the earth, in the direction the earth was going. According to newton it should be faster than normal, as you’d have to add the speed of light to the speed of the whole earth. Just like when a man is walking down the carriage of a moving train, his total speed is a combination of the train’s speed and his own walking pace. But bizarrely, when measured it was the same. Light did not get faster (or slower) at all, in fact light is always travelling at the speed of light relative to anyone, however fast they’re moving. (Luckily they documented this phenomenon well enough for a young Albert Einstein to ponder many decades later.)

In fact, all these examples of lucky observers pale in comparison to that which was made famous by physicist Lawrence Krauss in his book ‘a universe from nothing’. As we all know, the universe is expanding, which means everything is getting further away from everything else. More space is literally being created between things, pushing them further apart. Recently we discovered that not only is the universe expanding, but the rate of expansion itself is accelerating, so in a short few billion years, every galaxy will be so far away from every other galaxy that each one will be effectively isolated. Galaxies will be the desert islands of space, surrounded by nothing but an incredibly vast expanse so big that even light can’t traverse it.

Stars Above Haleakala, Haleakala National Park, Maui, HI

Here’s the kicker: If intelligent life were to evolve in any of these galaxies during the coming ‘age of isolation’, they themselves would have no method of knowing that the universe was expanding. If they looked outwards they’d see nothing beyond the few stars huddled together in their own galaxy, suspended in endless black void. They wouldn’t be able to measure red-shift or the astronomical distances between celestial bodies, they would have no conception of black holes or singularities. They would have to assume that a simple, eternal, steady state model of the universe is true. To put it simply, they’d never get further than a 18th century understanding of astrophysics no matter how long they were around for. How fortunate we are to be born so soon in the life of the universe that everything is still close enough to be seen!

But what does that mean for science?  What about its tradition of deduction and logic and pure rationality, does it all ultimately boil down to luck? By no means, I still there is great skill and reason involved in the progression of science, it’s just important not to deny the role of luck so far.

Alexander Fleming was a trained scientific mind, when he walked into the lab that fateful day and noticed something unexpected he didn’t just brush it aside and start over, he noticed its implications and set about looking deeper; this is the essence of Science. It is not necessarily about pure, rational or conscious deduction (though that would be ideal), but more noticing those unexpected phenomena and flukes when they arise in nature, documenting them, and attempting to understand them. Perhaps science is more about being watchful, and not letting even the seemingly insignificant little anomalies escape your attention.

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Science is more akin to photography when considered in these terms. The photographer, like the scientist, is dependent ultimately on his equipment; its scope, resolution and quality will all affect the outcome of his work. He must be ever watchful and observant, with all his powers of observation trained on his subject. There is also a combination of luck and proficiency, neither is more important, without fortunate accidents we could not hope to make much progress at all, and without the ability to notice and utilize these mistakes then we would also be unable to advance.

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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

The causes of war

300px-Hands_of_God_and_AdamAs the debate over religion rages on, those on both sides resort to a common argument, one that we have all heard at some time. Simply put: the other side’s beliefs lead to war. Critics of religion are quick to ascribe the crusades, along with the jihadist war on the west, to religious ideology. They claim that is a natural follow-on from such dated and hostile beliefs. Those of faith are quick to respond by ascribing the atrocities committed by Hitler and Stalin at the turn of 20th century to an atheistic world-view, asserting that their lack of religious ethics follows on naturally to war-crimes and persecution. Whilst simultaneously writing off religious acts of war and terrorism as the actions of extremists.

Let us examine these arguments under the microscope of history to see if either of them hold water, and ascertain whether there are any negative implications that naturally result from faith, or the lack of it.

Firstly, I’d like to point out that even if there are definite negative ramifications of either religion or atheism, it still says nothing about whether or not they are true. Even it could be demonstrated incontrovertibly that atheism would lead a man to a life of crime without exception, and a belief in God to a more moral existence (or vice versa) this would imply nothing about the existence of God either way, or the veracity of religious texts. That subject must be debated separately. That said, let us first look at the evidence for religion leading to war.

Certainly the crusades were an effort to advance the borders of Christendom forcefully and recapture a site of spiritual significance. Many were killed, and many forced to convert. I don’t think anyone can argue that if not for Christianity, many lives would be spared in that era, and the subsequent handing over of power to the church was that so devastating to progress, both scientifically and societally has held us back. Cue the dark ages.

terrorist-islam-koranFast forward to the middle-east today, and you find a similar situation. Islamic doctrine is enshrined in national law for many countries, yielding oppressive and devastating regimes. This religious law is unquestionable, after all, who-ever questions that law is also questioning Allah. Militant groups like Hamas and others see no separation between mosque and state, and have a rather militant interpretation of spirituality and the Qur’an, which they gladly enforce to the letter. It seems that once religious ideology finds its way into the mind of a king, or the laws of a nation, oppression is soon to follow.

Now run-of-the-mill, moderate religious folk are quick to point out that they themselves are nothing like the fundamentalists of old, or even these modern day fundamentalists in America (creationists, anti-abortion murderers) and the middle-east (jihadists, terrorists). “That’s not how we interpret the bible/Qur’an” they say, “We think it’s about peace or love, these extremists don’t represent our religion in any way, they’ve misunderstood the central message.”

I’m afraid my dilemma is that if a certain ideology, or holy text, is so open to interpretation that it could inspire some people to live peaceful, moral lives (the bare minimum really), whilst causing others to fly planes into skyscrapers, force women to live in cloth-bags, murder scientists and doctors in their homes and instil a vivid fear of hell into the minds of young children; we should be seriously questioning that ideology’s (or text’s) right to exist in a progressive, modern society. It is crucial that we ask ourselves these questions.  To what extent is a belief harmless if some are led by it to such barbaric conclusions?

Despite the good intentions of some, we cannot deny that countless horrors have been joyfully committed in God’s name, lifted straight out the very same holy words that others have taken to imply peace and love. Jesus’ commission to “spread the good news” has caused some people to kill, others to stand in streets shouting about hell and eternal pain, and others to build hospitals.

Despite your own opinions about Jesus, or Mohamed, and their messages, you cannot deny that some have felt moved by him to do terrible things. They were doing it in his name, as much you disagree with the notion. Their motives are firmly rooted in religious doctrine and there is no way around it.

stalin.nStalin, an atheist, killed upwards of 20 million people as a result of his horrible political oppression, and poor leadership in war. The religious are quick to point this out. Yet is tough to see how his being an atheist played any direct part in it. He was not trying to further the cause of atheism, and certainly had no God to serve. Just as Stalin and Hitler both wore moustaches, yet moustachism is not even remotely a causal factor in continental war.  This highlights the essential difference:

The key point is that no atheist has ever killed in the name of atheism.

Some people are good by nature, and some are bad. They also may, incidentally, be atheists. But this is quite unrelated to how good they may be, and won’t motivate them to any sort of irrational or extreme behavior. This is because there is no prescribed truth or dogma handed down to atheists, there are no ten commandments or divine decrees to be gleefully enacted. Atheism is simply the lack of belief. However religious people, being also both good and bad in nature, may be led to commit a terrible act of inhumanity simply by believing it to be God’s will; even if they were otherwise a good person.  They don’t even stop to question the ethics of their actions, because it came straight from God. This is obviously a dangerous and irrational belief, seeing as God may apparently tell one man to build a church and another to strap a bomb to himself and board a bus. The salient point to consider is that Abraham was held up as a shining example of faith for attempting to murder his son at God’s command without question.  A rather fitting metaphor.

Steven Weinberg summed it up nicely: “Without religion, good people would do good things, and bad people would do bad things; but it takes religion for good people to do bad things.”

Some religious people might want to claim that if Stalin wasn’t acting specifically for atheism, it must have been instead his lack of religious values, which left him somehow morally deficient, that led him to be so monstrous. I think this argument would only be valid if the crusades had never happened. If every religious person on earth were a shining example of moral fibre and integrity and every dictator was an atheist I would be forced to consider the preposition. But this, however, is not the case. On average religious people are just as bad and as good as atheists. Equal amounts of both have been at the helm of some terrible catastrophes in history. Yet I’ll restate, at least none of the atheists were motivated by their atheism, which cannot be said for religion, which has definitely caused some people to commit vile acts where they otherwise would not have.

Instead Stalin was actually motivated by unwavering belief in Marxism, a political ideology. Many of the Nazis were manipulated by extreme nationalism, a belief in “my country right or wrong”.  It seems that lurking behind every terrible event in history is some sort of subscription to an ‘ideology’. Some set of beliefs that have been held on to long past their usefulness, whether they happen to be a religious belief or text, a political philosophy, or a deeply held prejudice. The common factor is a kind of faith in these ideologies, a refusal to update your views when you observe something that contradicts them. Maybe, just maybe, communism doesn’t work in practice, and you should lead your country elsewhere.  Maybe your country isn’t a glorious place destined to rule by some sort of genetic right. Maybe that 2000 year old religious text is not the best authority on how to conduct a moral life, and maybe God isn’t telling you to blow a car up, or kill a bunch of people. Maybe he doesn’t even exist. Just maybe. images