Science is rad. For reals. For so long, the world of ‘science’ suffered from its public image defined by the stereotypical lab coat-shod propellerheads with pocket protectors and sex appeal equal to fuglio septia. But now, it has managed to break free from all that and (to an extent) fashion itself a new certain coolness. In fact, 4.9 million people ‘Fucking Love Science’, according to Facebook, and I count myself as one of them. It’s this new brand of ‘science-all-up-in-your-face’ attitude that has reinvigorated its place in the public sphere. Knowledge is cool, science is cool, biology is cool, the solar system is cool. Robots are so cool, they even formed a band – a kickarse band. But, it’s not as if the world of science has experienced a geomagnetic pole reversal and now all research findings are published as memes on Instagram or something. The eggheads still toil away uncovering the secrets of existence with their blackboards covered in alien language and particle-smashing multi-multi–billion dollar toys. And they are still as out of touch with the rest of the world as gravitational singularity.
So, who should we really thank for demonstrating that science is worth the love? If my calculations prove correct (and they always do), it’s those precious links between us and those in vanguard of discovery – the science communicators. They can be journalists, writers, spokespersons – or even practising scientists themselves, but they are the people who funnel and translate the impossibly esoteric mountains of information produced by experiments and research, and translate it into something understandable, informative – and most vitally – entertaining. They skilfully shrink down the overwhelming into something small enough for inexpert minds to grasp and enjoy, without insulting the intelligence of neither scientist nor reader alike. Without them, the undeniable awesomeness in all disciplines of science would remain invisible, foreign and boring. It’s a rare ability we take for granted as we ooh and aah watching docos, or raise a fascinated eyebrow reading Scientific American.
The idea of bringing news from the scientific frontiers to the layman goes back to the early 20th century, when Science Monthly became Popular Science Monthly – signalling a shift toward relatable and entertaining science literature. Albert Einstein was indeed an advocate. He famously said: “If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.” His ageless concepts remain the foundation of modern quantum physics, and so are pretty much as synapse-snappingly complex as they come, but he proves his point by offering some explanation of his theories of relativity in a pithy, sorta charming way. “When you are courting a nice girl an hour seems like a second. When you sit on a red-hot cinder a second seems like an hour. That’s relativity,” said the great man.
Now, I (because it’s all about me!) was never destined to be a scientist. Lab coats don’t suit me, mathematics terrifies me and I’m simply not blessed with the focused intelligence the line of work demands. But I do have a healthy appetite for knowledge. My brain is never satisfied without an enormous feast of facts – no matter how obscure – actually, sometimes the more obscure the better. Often I find myself trapped on Wikipedia – unable to escape those enticing blue hyperlinks, lures that promise to take me to new enlightenments. One minute I’m looking up premier leageue statistics, then I’m boning up on nuclear dynamics, and suddenly I’m reading this and wondering how I ever got there. Imagine information as lillypads – I’m like a frog hopping from one to another, as if the lillypads were hot, and I didn’t have little frog-shoes on my frog-feet. That was an analogy. I’m fairly crap at them, as you can plainly see… And that is the reason why I’d never cut it as a science communicator either, unfortunately.
That really is a key to great communication – particularly in this field. Finding that great analogy – that spot-on simile that simple metaphor that twists the tumblers of the ‘I-don’t-get-it’ floodgate and lets the waters of understanding rush into the sluice chambers of your ‘now-I-get-it’ brain aqueduct. I’m simply not very good at it. I’m certainly not about to take up creative writing, for fear of ending up in some infinite tautological loop (“The sea glistened like a gigantic puddle of water’); nor romantic novels for fear of ruining the idea of romance for the entire literate world (“The dancing glow of the candles illuminated her gentle skin like a flickering TV left on in a dark room… she rolled her head back and inhaled deeply, feeling her desire escalating like the electricity bill from the carelessly forgotten TV set left on in the living room.”).
But there’s a difference between painting descriptive scenes with metaphor and striking a moment of mutual understanding with the reader. It’s the latter that is so important for scientific communication to work. If you notice in the first paragraph, I tried being clever and done flipped it around – tossing in a few obscure scientific allusions to the mix. Unless you were quite familiar with fungal growths, geophysics and quantum mechanics, it’s doubtful you’d readily comprehend what the hell I was talking about and so would be less inclined to read on. As with any matter, if the writing is too dense, it will sink. Had I used references more universally understood, then perhaps I’d have more success engaging you, the dear reader. And that’s why it is such a valuable skill in a communicator’s arsenal – particularly when it comes to explaining science. As much as I wish I did, I simply don’t have the knack for drawing perfect parallels – my mind doesn’t think along those lines (see what I did there?). But my lack of ability gives way to a heightened appreciation and respect for it.
So this is more or less a thank you to those people who enlighten us by taming the flames from the fires of great minds and lighting the torches of those who are out of reach. (Kinda better?). These are exciting times in all corners of the scientific realm, from the Higgs-particle; to new eco-innovations, robots (obviously), and bioethics – and without the talents of the world’s science scribes, we would barely even know such things could be exciting, let alone revel in the excitement of discovery. And that would be a tragic thing.
After a recent binge of David Attenborough DVDs and National Geographic magazines, I’ve happily been up to my neck in the wonders of biology, nature’s mysteries and tribal boob action. Nature is seductively striking, not just for the dramatic visual treats of volcanic storms or epic continental migrations, but for the very mechanics that sustain every living thing. Before I sound too much like the narrated introduction to a lame educational biology video – science’s relationship to nature goes far beyond cataloguing butterflies and differentiating mosses. Science itself learns from nature as much as it learns about it. I’m talking here about the concept of biomimicry – the way in which we borrow nature’s lead and use it to solve our own problems. We’re literality mimicking nature’s design, whether it’s the air-faring anatomy of a bird; the function of our internal organs; or even the infinitesimal characteristics of the humble leaf.
Like the all good big, hairy intelligent apes, we’re brilliant at copying ideas. The human brain wouldn’t have developed to its impressive proportion if our ancestors weren’t monkey seeing and monkey doing. And because intellectual property and copyright laws are human inventions, we can rip off Mother Nature with absolute impunity. In all seriousness though, the ideas we steal are put to some pretty amazing uses – many breakthrough discoveries and engineering marvels would not have happened if we hadn’t taken some cues from our natural world. Some of our incredible achievements seem quite superhuman, but there’s nothing supernatural about it – just very ordinarily natural…
Is it a bird, is it a plane? It’s hard to tell…
The most obvious and significant example of biomimicry derived from our long-held ambitions of flight. Mankind had long observed the way birds would flap their wings and soar to unreachable heights and unsurprisingly, the earliest recorded human attempts were very directly based on the bird’s example. In the ninth century, Arab scholar Abbas Ibn Firnas attached wings to his arms and covered himself in feathers and one century later, the English monk Eilmer created a rudimentary hang-glider. Both men apparently claimed success (despite inevitable crash landings) – but it was not true flight, it was just Buzz Lightyear-style falling with style. Optimus genius Leonardo da Vinci went a few steps further. He spliced passions for anatomy and engineering, by dissecting actual birds and using the knowledge to produce some sophisticated designs. Unfortunately he didn’t live long enough to fully develop his ideas – but considerations of aerodynamics and air displacement was evident in his designs.
After Da Vanci’s time a new method to reach the skies took precedence – being ‘lighter than air’. Blimps and hot air balloons were indeed successful vertical human expeditions, but it was kind of cheating with chemistry. The true believers of physics did not give up however, and eventually in December 1903, the Wright Brothers made that famous four-mile flight over the dusty plains of Kill Devil Hill. Without falling down the bottomless pit of contention over the first ‘true’ flight (pretty much every man and his dog were giving it a go on home-made contraptions at the turn of the century) – the Wright Brother’s machine worked best because they controlled their flight, sort of. By watching how pigeons manoeuvred their bodies in relation to their wings, Orville and Wilbur applied similar principles to the Wright Flier I and its breakthrough three-axis control mechanism. It was the first bonafide airplane; the blueprint for all today’s winged aircraft that conveniently take us to destinations near and far, a modern luxury our grandparent’s grandparents could barely even dreamed of.
And, it would not have existed were it not for the humble pigeon. Maybe you should think twice before calling them ‘winged rats’. Give them some bread – they deserve it.
Faster than a speeding bullet… train
On the subject of transport, closer to earth (well on it actually), streaking across the length and breadth of Japan daily are fleets of ultra high-speed shinkansen, the legendary bullet trains. The shinkansen revolutionised rail travel in the middle of the 20th century by their ability to belt along rails smoothly and comfortably at speeds of well over 300kp/h. That’s stupid fast. Powerful engines and improved track-design were enough to give the first generation of the trains the oomph to reach some brisk speeds, however problems arose, and among them something relatively unique to trains – tunnels. Changes in air pressure whenever a train emerged from a tunnel at pace created a thunderous clap – a sonic boom – that was heard for miles. It was difficult for the trains to operate when scores of disgruntled residents with ringing ears were blocking the tracks with torches and pitchforks.
And so Eiji Nakatsu, a chief engineer of the shinkansen, was sent off to find a solution to make the train quieter. Like the Wrights discovered many years before, an answer could be found in the avian world. A keen bird-watcher, Nakatsu-san noted how predatory owls were remarkably silent in flight. Swooping upon prey with stealth and speed was the owl’s trademark, so he did what any engineer would do and put a stuffed owl (on loan from the local zoo) in a wind tunnel and whipped out the ol’ notepad. “We learned that one of the secrets of the owl family’s low-noise flying lies in their wing plumage, which has many small saw-toothed feathers protruding from the outer rim of their primary feathers,” said Nakatsu. He took the saw-tooth concept to the drawing board and went to work applying it to the train. After giving it a rad engineery name (they called it a ‘vortex generator’) the owl-feather technology was hugely effective at reducing overall noise.
But the perplexing tunnel-boom problem remained. Armed with hulking mainframes, computational fluid design software and probably super-intelligent robot lab assistants – the engineering team were certainly well-equipped to tackle the problem, but again, they need only have consulted our feathered friends to solve the problem. It was the nimble kingfisher that inspired Eiji Nakatsu this time. The fish-hunting kingfisher will dive from air into water with little splash or resistance, which inspired the shinkansen designers to model a new nose based on a kingfisher’s scything beak. It too was a great triumph and resulted in not only a quieter train, but a more energy-efficient and awesome-looking train as well. Nakata would later say, “I learned firsthand that truth can be found in the way life exerts itself in order to persist and carry on in this world.” My man.
It’s not just the world around us that has inspired revolutionary technology, but the world within us – our very own biology is a hugely complex and sophisticated assortment of systems that make us… you know, be alive. There are rich veins (sorry) of inspiration to be found within our own anatomy, and recently that’s just where some scientists have looked to help solve one of the biggest scientific problems facing the world today: climate change. Global warming is largely blamed on man-made CO2 emissions and the greenhouse effect it causes our fragile atmosphere. In crudely simple terms – there’s too much carbon pumped out for the environment to process and the effect manifests as untimely changes to the climate. So, if we can’t reduce our CO2 output – then we’re going to need to shoulder some of the responsibility to help Mother Nature manage it all.
Where can we find such technology to clear the air we breathe? Well, we need only look to the tool that we’ve always used to clear the air we breathe – our lungs. United States-based Eco-tech company, Carbozyme is currently developing what it calls an ‘enzyme-catalysed liquid membrane permeator,” It sound like something that may or may not have crashed into Roswell, New Mexico, but this particular gas-separation technology borrows heavily from very terrestrial examples. Human lungs are one of the body’s greatest feats of organic engineering. The unbelievably thin membrane of the lung and its intricate branch structure gives it an enormous surface area (70 times that of your body itself), which along with certain natural enzymes creates an extremely effective gas-exchange system. Early tests by the team at Carbozyme using such artificial ‘lung’ filters in flue stacks reportedly removed 90 per cent of the CO2 emitted.
Meanwhile, other similar solutions are being inspired elsewhere in nature, such as the CO2 to limestone conversion processes discovered by studying molluscs. Both technologies are still in the development phase, but both testify that the best ideas occur naturally. If only nature had thought of making the atmosphere itself something of a giant lung… actually, no. That’s a very disturbing idea.
Cleaning up crime… and grime. Actually just grime
Cleaning – is there anything worse? Teenagers and beleaguered housewives on daytime infomercials know what I’m talkin’ ‘bout. The endless battle against dirt and grime is such a chore – is there no other way? Well, in fact yes, there is. And no, it’s not a steam-mop or sham-wow, but in fact something small – very small – and quite ingenious inspired by the humble lotus flower The lotus grows in muddy, swampy regions, but its flowers and leaves are always immaculately clean and spectacularly vibrant. They seem to radiate a quality that earned them cultural and religious significance since ancient times in places such as India, China and Japan. But the secret to the lotus’s spotlessness is no miracle – it’s a clever skin with intricately-patterned microscopic bumps that allow no dirt to cling stubbornly to its surface. You can carelessly wave glasses of red wine and shake tomato sauce bottles with reckless abandon around a lotus plant and it will not so much as flinch – virtually nothing can stain them thanks to their unique, extremely water-resistant surface. Like you may notice on a plants’ leaves on rainy days, water doesn’t soak in, but glides off the surface in droplets, this is because they are masters of the hydrophobic principle, allowing only 2-3 per cent of the water’s surface area to come into contact with the leaf – on lotus leaves, this is 0,.3 per cent.
Because of this, contact with water actually cleans the surface of the leaf with remarkable ease, and this has inspired many companies to harness the ‘lotus-effect’ for their own products. Already in existence are stain-proof materials such as nanotex and self-cleaning paint, such as Sto Lotusan, which bears it’s inspiration in its very name. The next steps? There are visions of entirely self-cleaning bathrooms, self-cleaning houses, self-cleaning hospitals – even whole cities. Successful application of lotus-inspired surface technology means less money spent on maintenance, less chemicals flushed through our plumbing systems and less back-breaking hours spent on your hands and knees smiting mildew with a toothbrush. We create the structures with advanced superhydrophobic surfaces and nanotechnology takes care of the rest. Just add water – literally.
Knowingly or not, biomimicry is in some way responsible for countless other engineering feats. Though it as a distinct, defined concept is something of an anomaly of traditional sciences; the schools of biology and engineering sit as two very separate entities. The biologists scurry about with petri-dishes and microscopes, while at the other end of a research campus, engineers sit around a table salivating over trusses and peaking loads. No pun intended, of course. Biomimicry has existed before it was given a name, but now as a recognised scientific concept gathering momentum, it’s a particularly exciting bridge spanning biology and engineering (and one that isn’t as riddled with ethical concerns as other bio-engineering pursuits, which is another topic entirely).
Perhaps most importantly, it champions the theory that the presiding principles that dictate the universe are no different at an atomic level as they are in vast clusters of galaxies. The beauty is that no matter how highly regard our intellect; we’re humbly reminded that we are ourselves nothing but a product of nature, as is everything we ultimately achieve. Superhuman feats will only be seen on the pulp of comic books – we’ll never fly on our own accord, but when nature finds a way, we won’t be far behind.
Howard, Fred (1998). Wilbur and Orville: A Biography of the Wright Brothers.
On the morning of 3 September, 1928, Scottish biologist Alexander Fleming returned from a month-long holiday to his dusty work bench, deep within the bowels of St Mary’s Hospital in London. A veteran medic of World War One, Professor Fleming came back ready to clear out a stack of old petri dishes containing colonies of the boil-causing Staphylococcus bacteria that he left and failed to disinfect before breaking out his Hawaiian shirt and sandals. But just as he set about tossing what he considered ruined specimens, he noticed something peculiar in one of the dishes. A stinky little blob of mould. He peeked in closely and noticed that the area surrounding this mould was clear. The bacteria was absent where the mould was present – it had killed the germs. Completely by accident, Fleming had discovered Penicillin, the antibiotic that has saved millions of lives and won him the Nobel Prize. Thanks to Fleming’s mouldy lab supplies, a sneeze is no longer feared as a death knell. It’s one of the most famous stories in science – not least for the discovery’s profound influence in medicine, but for the fortuitous circumstances around it.
Some 83 years later, scientists working at the Swiss physics laboratory superpower, CERN and the Gran Sasso lab in Italy announced they may have discovered particles that travel faster than the speed of light – by accident. This news in September shook the science world to the ground – someone was actually saying they just disproved Einstein’s famous theorem – that no object can travel faster than light. None. Ever. Full-stop. But the gospel according to Albert is now under scrutiny after these recent claims from the scientists. Basically, neutrinos (sub-atomic particles) were shot down a huge subterranean tube into a particle detector some 730 km away. When the scientists registered the results, the data showed – shockingly – that the neutrinos had arrived at the end of their journey in a brisk 2.43 milliseconds – some 60 nanoseconds faster than the speed of light. The results are still in dispute, but the incredible part of this story (well, maybe the second-most incredible) is that the scientists weren’t conducting the world’s tiniest race between light and neutrinos, they had actually set the experiment to try and convert the neutrinos into another type of neutrino. Testing the little particle’s top-speed was never part of the road test; this experiment was never going for glory. Unlike Fleming’s world changing work eight decades ago, this kind of accidental discovery is getting rare in high-end modern science.
Science is the beautiful pursuit of knowledge. The endeavour of science can be laborious to be frustrating and can sometimes be overwhelming. But human inquisitive instinct forbids us from abandoning the chase for enlightenment – and the paths it takes us (opposed to path we try to take) are breathtaking. Discovery is the scientist’s opiate – an addictive, all-consuming habit. Every new microbe discovered through the lens of a microscope; every detection of an unusual orbital path of a planet’s satellite; every new piece fitted into the genetic puzzle – it all goes towards the great bank of human knowledge, expanding as fast as the universe it is chasing.
This year is the International Year of Chemistry, last year was the year of Biodiversity, 2009 was the International Year of Astronomy and 2008 was the International Year of the Potato, so starchy foods and science are clearly at the top of the global agenda. Discovery is the force driving a scientist, but with it carries a paradox that is as old as recorded science itself. How are you to expect the unexpected?
Greek philosopher Plato argued thousands of years ago, that true originality is impossible to achieve without chance. In Plato’s Dialogues, Meno throws a curly question at Socrates: “How will you inquire into a thing when you are wholly ignorant of what it is? Even if you happen to bump right into it, how will you know it is the thing you did not know?” Socrates serenely strokes his beard and responds, sagely, “A man cannot search either for what he knows or for what he does not know. He cannot search for what he knows – since he knows it, there is no need to search – nor for what he does not know, for he does not know what to look for.”
Unfortunately for those gunning for some Nobel bling, Socrates’ logic is acute. While other legendary thinkers such as Aristotle and Michael Polanyi point to things such as tacit knowledge (think riding a bicycle, or speaking a native language) as a fly in Plato’s paradox ointment; science as a discipline is somewhat of a prison for knowledge. It requires boundaries, rules, precision, control. Big money for research grants comes with big responsibility. Scientists can become accountable to fidgety investors who bear little tolerance for uncertainty. the very kind of serendipity that lead Fleming to penicillin. There are few these days who’d happily hand over their money to your typical, frizzy-haired mad scientist. Predictability and control is safer.
As if in some exclusive club of science – in order to be a ‘fact’, an idea or theory or thing needs the backing of other, certified, facts. Without it, the numbers at the end of an equation will be worth nothing more than the chalk dust it’s scribbled in. By logic, if a scientist proves their hypothesis – does that warrant a new discovery, or is it simply theoretical confirmation? If they do not, is that a failure in the labs? Well, as most things are when discussed in that wonderfully grey philosophical realm – yes and no.
A pioneer of molecular genetics, Max Delbrück , coined the handy principle of ‘limited sloppiness’, which suggests researchers shouldn’t balk at making a minor miscalculation, or forgetting to disinfect a petri dish. “If you are too sloppy, then you never get reproducible results, and then you never can draw any conclusions,” said Professor Delbruck, “But if you are just a little sloppy, then when you see something startling you… nail it down.” It deftly sidesteps the knowledge paradox by placing just a little of the responsibility in the hands of fate. ‘Sloppiness’ isn’t an encouragement for scientists to just abandon the measuring beaker and just dump the whole bucket of acid in to ‘see what happens’, which, in most cases would probably be death or hideous scarring and irreversible blindness. Rather, Delbruck meant there needs to be a degree of flexibility – to make sure that there is indeed room for the unexpected and to be perceptive enough to notice it – rather than dismiss as a failure to hit a hypothesis, and draw a line through it.
None have summed this idea up better than Claude Bernard, the brilliant French physiologist and early influencer of modern biomedical research. Bernard, described by historian Bernard Cohen as one of the greatest scientists of all time, stressed the importance of free science some 150 years ago: “Men who have excessive faith in their theories or ideas are not only ill prepared for making discoveries; they also make very poor observations,” he said. “Of necessity, they observe with a preconceived idea, and when they devise an experiment, they can see, in its results, only a confirmation of their theory. In this way they distort observations and often neglect very important facts because they do not further their aim.”
While this ideal still sits somewhat out of place in the measured and sterile world of modern science, it’s those researchers who recognise the pivotal role of chance who are better equipped to achieve their goals. Pure, random chance is rare, but opportunity is ever-present. Professor Fleming was, after all, deliberately searching for new anti-bacterial agents, and Charles Goodyear, the man who stumbled across the technique for vulcanising rubber by nonchalantly brushing his hands above a heated stove, had been furiously seeking such a thing for years. Archimedes (yes, another ancient Greek) was tasked with the tricky task of determining the density of a gold crown without melting it down. He famously bolted down the street sans toga in excitement when he twigged onto the theory of displacement by simply setting into his evening bath, probably to ponder about his conundrum. Had any of these men not possessed a ready and open mind, these windows of profound opportunity would have been lost in a laboratory bin, the bottom of a sponge, or underneath an ancient Greek rubber-ducky. It’s almost as if providence – a sworn enemy of science -cheekily lifted the covers off what they were looking for, but didn’t let them know when, nor where, nor what until that enlightened moment of ‘Eureka!’
Serendipitous discovery is responsible for some incredible things we take for granted today. Without a bit of fate we’d not have discovered the x-ray, plastic, radioactivity, pacemakers or helium. The world would be a lot less sweet (and the dental profession would go out of business) without coca cola, ice blocks, choc-chip cookies and artificial sweetener. Parties would be far less debauched without the accidental discoveries of brandy, LSD, Viagra and vaseline. In fact, the Nobel Prize itself may not even exist had Alfred Nobel not have clumsily spilled some nitro-glycerine onto some sawdust to discover dynamite (immediately after changing his soiled long-johns).
These discoveries literally changed the world. And it’s rare to use that phrase as fact, not cliche. Today, experimentation seems to be more about confirming a theory and less about sheer curiousity. The term: ‘modern science’ sheds the romantic connotation cultivated in the Enlightenment and replaces it with the sterile lab. Scientists are no longer hands-on visionaries but pedantic in goggles and lab coats. We’ve somewhat lost the idea of the scientist working for the joy of discovery and not with the burden of investor expectation upon their shoulders. It’s hard to imagine a researcher at CERN trying to explain the principle of limited sloppiness to those who have invested millions into the Large Hadron Collider. Will we ever discover this mysterious Higgs-Boson – the so-called god particle – exactly as outlined in their hypothesis? Or are we going to need a bit of luck to discover the origins of the universe? How can you look for something if you don’t know what it is, and then how do you find it if you can’t recognise it as what you were looking for?
Maybe it’s time the folk at CERN took a holiday, and maybe forget to turn the Collider off for a while.