The Future of Science?

Yesterday I went to the Dana Centre, attached to the Science Museum, where we were challenged to listen to a series of presentations and decide to whom we would entrust our scientific future. Or something to that effect! Apparently it was to be like speed-dating, without the dating bit, unless you actually got those signals from someone…

The presentation format, called Pecha Kucha, involves 20-slide presentations from each participant and they’re allowed to spend 20 seconds on each slide. This makes for a fast-paced, info-packed session, particularly good for those of us who tend to tune out when talked at for too long.

I loved it and highly recommend future events to everyone.

I’ll go through the presenters’ content a bit as there was some fascinating stuff, some links worth checking out, and lots of funny and important ideas that deserve to go beyond that room.

Should anyone who spoke see something I’ve got entirely wrong/an important link I’ve missed, do let me know. That was a lot of stuff to take in in such a short time!


1. Andrew Pontzen, Institute of Astronomy, University of Cambridge

Andrew asked: Is Cosmology Science?

Traditionally ‘science’ means having ideas that lead to experiments, revision of ideas, new experiments and so on.

There are very few actual experiments you can do in terms of cosmology, the LHC being an obvious example.

But the kind of energy levels cosmologists are thinking about, during the time directly after the big bang called inflation, are far higher than those experimentally studied with the LHC; by a factor of 1 x 10^12 (or a thousand billion: 1,000,000,000,000!).

He walks among us, unseen…

The only evidence we have for this kind of energy is in the cosmic background radiation and cosmologists can predict only the likelihood of these patterns relative to others, rather than abolute predictions about their (non-)existence.

Inflation cannot be disproved; a bit like Russell’s teapot, as I understand it. Or, as Andrew theorised – the concept of a magical hedgehog creating the universe! I’ll refer to it as ‘magic hedgehog theory’ or MHT.

Recently a legal ruling in the US established that creationism is not science for this very reason; you cannot disprove it. Can evolution be disproved? Fairly sure most evolutionary biologists would say yes; the discovery of an organism that simply didn’t fit, for example. I should look into this more, but feel free to leave a comment, my more evolutionarily-literate friends.

Is there another way to think of such theories?

Laws and phenomena. MHT has no ‘rules’ associated with it; it’s just a case of going around and saying this and that was created by the great Magic Hedgehog himself (here I think of Eddie…) – based on nothing but the fact that they exist, so it’s not scientific.

Is science just taking big ideas and squashing them down into smaller bite-sized chunks, based on these laws and rules that hold true for everything, as far as we know? The question here is then:

Why should Nature be so compressable?

2. Tania Hershman, writer

Tania’s presentation was fantastic, but not one I can relay here; she’s a writer, inspired by science and scientific news. Her short story involved a physicist meeting with a painter and they discussed abstract ideas around colour and the nature of facts. I recommend checking out her stuff!

3. Jon Butterworth, University College London / Atlas experiment, CERN

Jon did his best to squeeze in a lot of technical details on the current aims of the largest collider in existence and what kind of machines we might see in the future.

Anyone with an interest in racing, skating etc. knows that whenever you bring corners into play, speed is lost. We’re always coming up with ways of getting around that, whether it’s in the tyres, working on your cross-overs or any other speed-conserving tactic. With this in mind, would it be sensible to make a linear collider to stop particles losing energy as they round corners (the LHC being composed of giant circles)?

Not really, as that would be horrifically expensive.

Going back to the racing analogy (Mario Kart Wii/NASCAR fans take note!), there’s drafting; like the reason geese fly in their V-formation. You can also make use of that effect in these kinds of experiments, by firing particles through a plasma (super-heated gas). I won’t pretend to understand any more about how that would work, but I hope you get the general idea.

Perhaps we could also go for a Muon collider, plans for which are in place in Chicago. Muons are heavier than electrons, so considering E=mc^2, you can achieve higher energies with them. The upshot of this is you produce lots of neutrinos so can study those too.

Is the future of science bigger colliders, particles going faster, looking at greater and greater energy levels? The LHC won’t make a black hole, (apart from possibly really tiny ones that only exist for a teeny fraction of a second and won’t destroy anything!) but perhaps we will at some point… ?

4. Chris Binny and Sara

This was a pleasant surprise for me as I used to work with Chris and didn’t know he’d be presenting!

For the non-biologists in the audience, Chris explained the central dogma. DNA makes RNA makes proteins and the proteins do all the work in life, they’re (arguably, says my inner geneticist!) the most interesting molecules.

Cloning technology (that’s making copies of bits of DNA, not people!) has come on leaps and bounds since we discovered DNA; it’s relatively simple to do now and companies have made affordable, effective kits to help us out in the lab.

Now there is the phenomenon of hobbyist labs – news to me – and there are even some in London. People getting together for DIY science.

Chris’ co-presenter Sara described how DIY Bio is making biology accessible to people; you can buy equipment on ebay and there are some entrepeneurial ventures that provide it.

For example, (agarose gel tanks for $200), (PCR machines for $500), and my personal favourite, (I lol’d at that one).

Check out the London Hackspace if you’re interested!

5. Ralph Cordey, EADS Astrium

We are so much more familiar with our planet now; we’re used to seeing it from space whether as satellite images, weather maps or simulations. We recognise it as our home and have come to think of this as our solar system.

What if we discovered other life? Scientists may be emotionally prepared for this, but are we?

This is not science fiction. Alien ‘bugs’ are a real possibility. Probability, even.

We’re discovering planets around other stars – it made sense that there would be many but until recently we had no proof. Now we do, and there are loads of them.

Perhaps we even think of this galaxy as our Milky Way – but is it? Are we alone? I’m inclined (and excited) to say probably not.

6. Rachael Pearson, University College London

Rachael talked about blindness; whether it’s hereditary (retinitis pigmentosa) or age-related (macular degeneration; AMD), it affects many people and it has long been a goal of medical science to reverse it.

Photoreceptors (the cells in the retina at the back of the eye that detect light) and/or their supporting cells die during retinal degeneration.

Newts and frogs have the ability to regenerate the eye (we can’t, having lost the ability during evolution as our genes have changed from those of our common ancestor with amphibians) so clearly through studying them we hope to understand how they do it and hopefully develop therapies using that knowledge.

Lovely newts

One strategy is transplantation; can these photoreceptor cells be transplanted successfully? So far, in mouse models we’ve seen that the transplanted cells can move into the retina and seem to take hold. But do they work? The pupil reflex was restored so that’s encouraging; but this was only using rod cells, the ones we use to see in low light.

What about cones? The cells we use to see colours in good light. These were also successfully transplanted but we don’t yet know if they work; it’s just a mouse model so far but definitely a promising one.

There is one particularly important consideration; the time at which the donor cells are harvested. They must be at just the right stage of differentiation; a path of cell development from when a cell can ‘decide’ to do any function out of approximately 200 available in the body (pluripotency), through committing to becoming one particular cell type until finally it is fully differentiated and has only that one function.

The stage at which these eye cells are ready to be transplanted occurs in embryos. Obviously this is not ideal due to the controversial nature of embryonic stem cell research (ESCR, as I’ve written about before) and possibility of rejection due to the cells coming from a foreign body (a risk with any such transplant procedure).

So can we make use of adult stem cell (ASC) technology here? Can we de-differentiate already committed cells, make them go backwards in their development, restore their potential to become many other types of cells, and force them down the path to becoming an eye cell?

Personally I’d advocate for the ESC approach at present, but if it’s a possibility that ASCs could be used in this case, it’s certainly worth pursuing.

7. Jenny Rohn, scientist and blogger

Jenny wanted to convince the audience that science needs our help; the way it is perceived by the public and, probably more importantly, politicians, must improve if we’re going to see a future worth having.

Looking back to the thousands of bodies lined up in 1918, the fatalities of that year’s flu pandemic, compared to the ability to walk into our GPs and get a vaccination now – who would not be impressed by the power of science to change the way we live our lives?

It’s taken less than 100 years to reach that point. What about climate change, feeding our growing population (which we’re currently failing at spectacularly),

all the other problems we face, which scientific research could help us with?

Fund the blue-sky research too!

Jenny argues that the creativity of scientists should not be stifled. This is what policy-makers seem to want to do, though, by wishing to fund only “commercially-useful” science. What is that? This kind of attitude does not work.

Tim Berners-Lee did not set out to invent the internet when he was tinkering with ideas to make life easier for himself and his colleagues at CERN. But now look at what we have.

Consider from the time when antibodies were discovered to the present, when many therapies use antibodies, including one close to my own work; Avastin (or bevacizumab), an anti-blood-vessel drug used to treat cancer (and other diseases).

You never know when, from who or where the next breakthrough will come – it’s impossible to know. Often it takes decades to realise the potential and significance of discoveries. Science does not work the way politicians would like and they must realise this or our scientific future will remain bleak.

Paul Nurse is a fantastic scientist with an impressive career, but he’s wrong in his desire to focus funding on ‘excellent individuals’ – who are these people, how are they identified exactly? Looking at his own initial publications, you’d not single him out as a future Nobel laureate. You can’t tell who’s going to be the next big thing; the whole idea is inherently flawed.

Jenny started the Science is Vital campaign, which seems to have had a huge impact on our politicians’ views already – from threatened 25% funding cuts we’ve been promoted to a freeze (still a cut in real-terms, but it’s far better than we thought it was going to be).

Still, considering other countries are increasing science funding, because they know how important it is for the economy and their ability to compete in the global market, we should be ashamed of this. Our science is world-class, despite our tiny budget.

Think what the future of British science would be if we could convince the government to give it the support it needs and deserves.

8. Sophie Scott, Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience

MRI scans have revolutionised our ability to the study the brain.

Sophie explained how our brains are ‘plastic’ with respect to sound; for example, every time we hear a new person speak, we adjust to their particular voice and apply what we know about language to their sounds in order to understand them.

Cochlear implants have been used since the 70s to improve people’s sense of hearing, to varying degrees.

The changes in the brain associated with adult hearing loss and stroke are very different from those in children born deaf. We don’t yet fully understand how the brain works in these various cases, but work is ongoing to do so so that effective hearing restoration therapy can be developed.

Interesting observed phenomena can give us clues to the causes and effects of neural damage and how these affect hearing. There are visible differences between the brains of people who perceive sounds very precisely, for example, such as those who have exceptional ability to recognise and reproduce accents.

Sophie left us with a very intriguing final thought; considering we are social primates, with others in our order using social grooming to bond and communicate and we no longer really do so – have we replaced grooming with language?

8. Anders Sandberg, Future of Humanity Institute

While it may be the case that:

All science is either physics or stamp collecting.

– Ernest Rutherford

Stamp-collecting in science is important!

Anders asks, will the scientists of the future be cyborgs? Not necessarily in terms of implants, but the tools we use. I’d be inclined to say that it’s already the case; we can’t do much of what we do without our beloved machines!

Papers and patents are not the only factors; we are a collective.

Locutus of Borg

(Are we the borg?!)

We make great use of non-scientists too now; I notice, for example, how many wiki pages I’m linking to in this (a record number, I think!) to give quick and easy access to some background where needed.

Marvellous projects such as Galaxy Zoo and Polymaths were mentioned. Computers are indispensable to us.

Artificial Intelligence may not necessarily journey into the philosophy of life, but it is developing nonetheless.

Better artificial brains could improve our own brains! Or, I wonder, will we end up with that most loved/hated of sci-fi concepts; our Butlerian Jihad, Rise of the Machines, a Matrix? I’ll opt for probably not at the moment.

Anders finished with a great quotation, perfect as an end to the evening – and this post:

Our future is greater than our past.

Ben Okri

3 thoughts on “The Future of Science?

  1. Pingback: Firing a quark through the early universe |

  2. Pingback: The Nobel Laureate who might not have been - Samuel PeepsSamuel Peeps

  3. Pingback: Science is Vital 2012 « Purely a figment of your imagination

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