Science talk

Man meets machine, unbalanced minds and how to fake your tax return - more highlights and lowlights from the Edinburgh International Science Festival.

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The Edinburgh International Science Festival ran from 5 to 16 April 2002. Here, freelance science journalists Richard Northover and Stuart Blackman give the second instalment of their festival highlights and lowlights.

  • 10 April: Genetics – new fortune-telling, Royal Museum

Professor Nicholas Hastie, director of the MRC Human Genetics Unit in Edinburgh, gave an inspiring and entertaining insight into the medical implications of the Human Genome Project. He described the science behind new treatments for Alzheimer’s, bowel cancer and Duchenne muscular dystrophy, and outlined the possibility of tailoring treatments to an individual’s needs.

But, he said, genetics can do little at present to prevent ailments such as coronary heart disease, in which the genetic component is spread between many genes – instead recommending that more should be done through health education programmes to tackle such illnesses. However, jogging yourself to immortality is also difficult. A 10 percent reduction in serum cholesterol in the population might reduce mortality from coronary heart disease by 27 percent. But in terms of individual life expectancy, this represents only 2.5 to 5 extra months (1).

Hastie dismissed widespread fears about the possibility of ‘designer babies’ and the use of genetic information by employers and insurers – largely on the grounds of the difficulty of the techniques involved.

But surely these are important issues? In glossing over them too quickly, Hastie prompted some tough questions from the floor. One audience member challenged him over the difficulty of selecting for desired traits, citing the recent discovery of a single gene mutation in mice that increases intelligence. Hastie survived, but only just – and only with help from other members of the audience.

In trying to counter fears that genetics is all-powerful, Hastie ended up giving the impression that it is a fairly innocuous and impotent science. Hence the newspaper headlines that followed his speech: ‘Lifestyle more important than genetics in tackling killer diseases’, and ‘Genetics will not lead to medical cures for diseases says professor’.

Bend over backwards too far, and you risk falling over.

SB

  • 12 April: A Short Introduction to Drugs, University of Edinburgh

Before aspirin, the first mass-produced synthetic drug, appeared on the market in 1900, half of all deaths in the Western world were caused by infectious diseases. Now, says Professor Leslie Iverson, that figure is down to five percent – and pills are taken for diseases, for headaches, for hard-ons, for kicks, and for granted.

As well as the usual core of academics, students and retired people in the audience, there were family groups here – embarrassed adolescents accompanied by parents – and some jumpy young men.

Maybe they had read the promotional material in which festival director Dr Simon Gage wrote: ‘Giving people direct access to leading experts in the areas of healthcare…is one of the most important things that the Science Festival can do. [O]ur speakers can provide in-depth information which hard-pressed doctors simply don’t have the time to give.’ So another function of the festival is to ease the burden on the NHS?

In fact, the only drug advice that Iverson offered during his clear, if unspectacular, history of drugs – both medical and recreational – was that if aspirin irritates your stomach, you should try a new type of pill that releases the drug only when it reaches the small intestine.

Before long, the adolescents were slumped in their seats, a mother lapsed into a permanent frown, and the jumpy bloke in front of me started filling out his audience-feedback questionnaire. I wondered how many of these punters would come back the following day, to hear Iverson expand on this introduction with a lecture about the science of marijuana.

SB

  • 15 April: You bet, Edinburgh University

This talk was introduced in the way that mathematical talks in science festivals are always introduced: along the lines that we hoped that our speaker would be able to make the difficult and potentially boring subject of probability interesting – and even fun. Simon Singh succeeded with bells on.

In a relaxed speech, Singh showed just how abysmal people’s general understanding of probability really is, and how lotteries and ‘psychics’ take advantage of this. He explained the history of probability theory, which goes back to Fermat (whose Last Theorem Singh has written a book on); how 70 percent of all numbers in the world start with the digits 1, 2, 3 or 4 – and how this bizarre fact means you could get caught out if you fake your tax return (2).

Apart from all the coin-tossing and intriguing asides (did you know that if you buy a lottery ticket at the start of the week, you’re more likely to be dead than a millionaire by the weekend?), Singh’s wider point is that ‘probability is part and parcel of life’ and that we need to get a grip. With probabilistic subjects like climate change, DNA evidence and MMR vaccination high on the public’s agenda, and being dealt with so poorly, the need for proper understanding is perhaps more obvious than ever.

We were left with an HG Wells quote: ‘Statistical thinking will one day be as necessary for efficient citizenship as the ability to read and write.’ Singh is cautiously optimistic: ‘Maybe, gradually, we’ll improve’, he says. But with so much misleading statistical discussion all around us, what are the chances of that?

RN

  • 16 April: Cyber-Man: an evening with Kevin Warwick, Edinburgh University

At this session, psychiatrist Bryce Avers took on the role of Michael Parkinson to interview Kevin ‘part man, part machine’ Warwick.

Warwick first melded with machinery in 1998, when a transponder was implanted in his arm. This cross between a pacemaker and a smart-card allowed a computer to track his movements around his department at Reading University, opening doors for him and saying things like ‘good morning Professor Warwick’.

His second implant, installed in March 2002, is far more interesting – plugging into the median nerve in his wrist, intercepting signals travelling in either direction between his brain and hand and relaying them to a computer, which can itself transmit signals down the nerve fibres.

Warwick hopes to identify signals for movement, pain and, perhaps, emotions – and the work has important implications for the treatment of spinal injuries. He believes another reason for humans to start plugging into machines is to help us keep up with them intellectually in the future. His long-term goal is to develop the technology to the point that people can communicate by thinking – like telepathy, only real.

This is what everybody came to hear about. Unfortunately, Warwick has a publishing deal that restricts him from speaking about his findings until the launch of his book in August.

So instead we heard how Warwick left school in 1970 aged 16, joined British Telecom as an apprentice engineer, and didn’t go to university until he was 26. The only break in the conversation was for a five-minute video clip of Warwick being interviewed on BBC Breakfast TV, with footage of his operation. We ended up watching Warwick watching himself on TV.

This was a missed opportunity: Warwick’s research is fascinating and controversial – the minutiae of his life are no more interesting than yours or mine.

SB

  • 16 April: The Unbalanced Mind, Edinburgh University

For the final event of the festival, we were invited to ‘hear a leading expert in social and cultural psychiatry argue that human behaviour cannot be explained in terms of genes or neurotransmitters’.

The lecture hall was packed, as Professor Julian Liff explained that recent advancements in the field of molecular genetics have led to ‘heady’ optimism, and that the way we view the subject of mental health has itself become unbalanced. This talk would be ‘the antidote’.

‘We’re not mechanical puppets of our genes’, he explained. ‘Emotional
relationships are key to restoring people to their health.’ So the answer is therapy, and lots of it.

The main crux of Liff’s talk was that while the underlying biology of the human brain does set the basic scene for the workings of our minds, our genes and biochemistry are not the places to look if we want to understand depression, schizophrenia and the other conditions he deals with as a psychiatrist.

He argued that, just as the properties of water can’t be deduced from any amount of knowledge of hydrogen and oxygen atoms, human behaviour is too complex to be appreciated on the basis of mere molecules.

He described how ‘life events’ – things that happen in our lives, usually involving a loss of some kind – are the fundamental causes of depression. He may be right – but it seemed to me that his talk seemed as unbalanced about nurture as he accuses others of being about nature. ‘I’m beating a drum about this’, he told me later. But is it okay to present a distorted view just because the general view might already be biased in the opposite direction?

Professor Liff’s talk seemed to boil down to the fact that the outside of people’s heads is easier to measure than the insides. As a molecular biologist said to me on the way out of the talk, ‘If the answer to your question is either nature ot nurture, then you’re probably asking the wrong question’. But she would say that. She’s a scientist.

RN

Stuart Blackman and Richard Northover are freelance science journalists.

Read on:

More festival than science, by Stuart Blackman and Richard Northover

(1) British Medical Journal, 16 April 1995, pp1038-39

(2) Benford’s Law, MathWorld

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