Advancing research when mistakes could be catastrophic

Ever since our ancestors discovered how to make sharp stones more than two and a half million years ago, our mastery of tools has driven our success as a species. But as our tools become more powerful, we could be putting ourselves at risk should they fall into the wrong hands— or if humanity loses control of them altogether. Concerned with bioengineered viruses, unchecked climate change, and runaway artificial intelligence? These are the challenges the Centre for the Study of Existential Risk (CSER) was founded to grapple with.

My feature article for the Future of Life Institute tells the story of how CSER was established and its ongoing work on catastrophic risk. This area of research is growing fast to keep up with research in AI and bioengineering. Rows continue over the NIH’s review of research into dangerous pathogens, the outcome of which will determine whether to restart research efforts following the 1-year moratorium in the US. Scientists are upset that the formal assessment of the risks of this sort of research will be conducted by a private firm, a move that looks rushed and secretive.

So it’s a hot topic, and CSER and academic institutes like it are seeking expert advice from leaders in industry to guide their risk analysis. Not to halt innovation, but to guide it in the right direction. One of the best things about covering this story was getting to interview Sir Martin Rees, one of the UK science greats. Here’s my selfie with him, what a star!

With Sir Martin Rees at his office in Cambridge

With Sir Martin Rees at his office in Cambridge


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On how I overcome writer’s block (every time)

Almost every long-form article I write begins with a blockage. I try writing a few different openers, or some paragraphs to include in the middle somewhere, but I don’t like the tone and I’m not flowing. I re-read and highlight my interview notes and background information. I try to make sense of the mass of information but nothing grabs me. I start to worry: my deadline looms.

Every single time, without fail, I’ve unstopped the flood waters using a mind-map or diagram with arrows to link ideas, splurging haphazardly with a biro, in no particular order, onto a blank page of printer paper. Yesterday I refined my spaghetti diagram with blunt kids’ colouring pencils, each colour representing a common theme or idea. Suddenly themes fit together and I get them down on the page, and in no time at all I’m already on page two and almost halfway there.

I’d been struggling for days to get going on this profile article, but had resisted doing my ‘splurge’ as the assignment didn’t seem so complex, however the themes kept multiplying. Why was I surprised it worked? This is how it works every time!

Writing is somewhere between an art, a craft and a science. Story-shapes are taught at primary school from such a young age now: my daughter learnt the essentials aged just six. She came home from school and gave me the lesson in a nutshell: “Mummy, you need a beginning, a middle and an end.  You need a problem that gets resolved. And you need characters and a place where it all happens.” From the mouths of babes. We had a fun few weeks admiring her illustrated stories and inventing new ones together. For a while we enjoyed playing games of ‘story consequences’, where you write consecutive parts of the story and fold it over before handing it onto the next person.

When you’re telling someone else’s story, it seems to me that the main task is assembling information in an interesting way, and I think that’s where the mind-map helps. I’m a machine with a limited capacity to hold all the information in my consciousness, and the mind-map helps me see all the themes at once. Then I cherry-pick them as I write, keeping the diagram near and weaving themes together with a subconscious awareness of the story’s form as I go.

So this blog post is in praise of mind-maps and crazy scribbled diagrams, and of a blockage unstopped.

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Newton: a scientific great, but not alone

“If it wasn’t for Newton’s discoveries we wouldn’t have the technology we have today,” our tour guide chided, directing his wisdom at someone who dared glance at their phone instead of examining the Newton family’s outdoor toilet.  I immediately bristled: of course someone else would have got there. We wouldn’t still be getting around by horse and cart and communicating by letter.

We were exploring Woolsthorpe Manor, near Grantham, which was Isaac Newton’s birthplace in 1642 and childhood home. Here he returned in 1665, when Cambridge University was shut because of the great plague, and devised experiments that formed the foundations for his most important theories on motion and the nature of light. The Royal Society bought the house in 1942 and presented it to the National Trust to preserve it as a memorial ‘to England’s greatest scientist’.

My daughter poses near the apple tree at Woolsthorpe, thought to be the tree under which Newton claimed to have been inspired to develop his ideas about gravity.

Perhaps he was our greatest, but he certainly wasn’t our only scientist and his work arose in its time and context, because of what was being done around him. Newton spent many years arguing with other researchers who were thinking along the same sort of lines about gravity, for instance. In his book Isaac Newton James Gleick sets the context for Newton’s greatest work: Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica.

First, he was provoked by the Astronomer Royal, John Flamsteed, to explain the transit of a comet that appeared in 1681. Then Newton had a fiery exchange with Robert Hooke, president of the Royal Society, which started with Hooke asking Newton to comment on his essay about the orbital motion of the planets. The young astronomer Edmond Halley “had been discussing planetary motion in coffee houses with Hooke and the architect Christopher Wren,” writes Gleick.

“Halley himself had worked out (as Newton had in 1666) a connection between an                 inverse-square law and Kepler’s rule of periods – that the cube of a planet’s distance             from the sun varies as the square of its orbital year…Halley put the question to                       Newton directly in 1684: supposing an inverse-square law of attraction toward the               sun, what sort of curve would a planet make? Newton told him: an ellipse. He said                 he had calculated this long before. He would not give Halley the proof – he said he               could not lay his hands on it – but promised to redo it and send it along.”

And so he got to work on the proof, which he dispatched to Halley in London two years later, becoming the first of the three books that comprise Principia. Without provocation, and encouragement and questioning from Halley, Newton’s scientific ideas could have remained muddled and unpublished, like his alchemy, leaving someone else to come to it later on.

Inspired by the new film about Stephen Hawking’s life, The Theory of Everything, Owen Jones wrote in the Guardian yesterday that science is about “building on and interacting with the work of others, an enterprise that stretches across the centuries…a great scientist is a team effort – as we all are.”

Whilst it’s fascinating to learn about an individual’s struggles and discoveries, their work doesn’t arise in a vacuum. Progress doesn’t depend on one or two people’s brilliance no matter how much we exaggerate their importance.

Woolsthorpe Manor, near Grantham

Woolsthorpe Manor, near Grantham

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Looking at individual cells in the body, using heat and sound

I’m writing an article for the EC’s Horizon magazine on efforts to track stem cells once they are put inside a body to repair something like a damaged liver. It’s a treatment fairly far into the future, but all the aspects of safety need investigating in the meantime. The biggest fear is that the stem cells might go elsewhere in the body and cause tumors, so it’s important to watch to see where they go.

Joan Comenge at the University of Liverpool is developing nano-sized gold rods to put inside these stem cells in their thousands, to act like bio-markers. A relatively new imaging technique called photoacoustic tomography can give incredibly high resolution images of what is happening inside the body. The stem cell tagging idea works thus: you irradiate the cells containing the nanorods with near infrared radiation. The body is pretty much transparent to this sort of radiation, but the nanorods aren’t: they absorb it like crazy and heat up to about a thousand degrees. Hot things vibrate, so they emit sound that an ultrasound device – a bit like the devices used for imaging a baby in utero – can pick up. Scientists hope to be able to reconstruct the acoustic signals into an image of the cells containing these nanorods and where they are situated.

The techniques are in their early stages, and haven’t yet been tested in animals. There are all sorts of details to unpick, such as what coating is best on the nanorods to prevent them from interacting too much with the cells, and what happens to the nanorods once the cells die. And the biggest problem of all seems penetration – the imaging technique only works to a depth of about 5 centimetres, so imaging tagged stem cells isn’t yet workable in humans. But the idea is there.

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Rosetta mission team pick a landing site


Rosetta selfie (Copyright: ESA)

I’m loving the beautiful ESA images of the Rosetta spacecraft – especially this ‘selfie’ with comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko behind. You can almost imagine you are there, peeping out of a little window and seeing the solar panels unfurled below. It’s as comforting as seeing the wing out of your aeroplane window.

This week (15 September) scientists announced their chosen landing site for the Philae lander: on the head of the comet not too far from where there are some jets of water vapour. So if the landing scheduled for November goes well, Philae is well-positioned for seeing some action as the comet comes closer to the sun and the jets become more active.

Unfortunately the landing site has slopes, ridges and boulders, but holds more promise than the other four provisional sites being analysed. Finding a suitable spot for landing is difficult because of the comet’s double-lobed shape. Scientists originally assumed the comet would be a simple, rounded shape like a potato, and even then the chances of a successful landing were estimated at between 70% and 75%. But we have the advantage that the 4 km comet’s gravity is very weak, and there is no atmosphere, so touchdown will happen at walking speed.

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George Green – the unschooled Nottingham mathematician championed by Einstein and Kelvin

There’s a new special exhibition opening tomorrow (12 September) at Lakeside Arts Centre, Nottingham University, presenting the life of George Green, a working man from Nottingham born in 1793 whose insights on electricity and magnetism were praised by Nobel prizewinners Lord Kelvin, Einstein and Julian Schwinger. There’s a plaque paying tribute to his work – with a windmill symbol representing his home and where he did his maths – alongside Isaac Newton at Westminster cathedral. But his genius was never recognized during his lifetime, and he died in obscurity in 1841.


Green’s Windmill in Sneinton, Nottingham

In 1845 Thomas Thomson – later Lord Kelvin – read his essay while studying at Cambridge University, and republished it, paying tribute to Green and popularising his work among the new generation of physicists. Green’s mathematical technique, called Green’s theory, is widely used today, and became the basis for the 20th century pillar of modern physics called Quantum Field Theory developed by Feynman, among others. In that sense he was 120 years before his time.

Green grew up and worked in his father’s mill in Sneinton, Nottingham, which has been restored and turned into a science centre that you can visit Wednesdays – Sundays. Einstein wanted to visit it in 1930 when he was visiting a friend at Nottingham, but train problems prevented his trip.  Remarkably, Green had very little schooling – just one year – and it’s mysterious how he gained so much knowledge about maths. Only one person educated in maths, John Toplis, is known to have lived in Nottingham at the time. There’s a lunchtime talk on 12 November to explore who may have influenced him.

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Gaza – renewable energy for a just a durable peace

I found this interesting article in the Ecologist today setting out a vision for providing stable power supplies in Gaza, by solar power expert Keith Barnham, of Imperial College London. A major problem with the blockade of Gaza has been electricity – residents describe it as one of the most soul-destroying aspects of life there. And in July the only power plant in Gaza was destroyed by Israeli fire

I can’t really imagine living somewhere when you only have a few hours of electricity each day, and not even knowing when they will happen. It means any industrial processes or high-tech industry is unfeasible. It destroys a country’s development.

Barnham’s vision is for a massive investment in wind and solar power in Gaza, by the international community, to power the relief efforts. It would remove the country’s dependence on Israeli supplies. “Fundamentally the conflict is about who owns the land, trees, water and holy sites. But no one owns the wind above the land and the sunlight falling on the land.”

Electricity is also an issue in the West Bank, with supplies often being cut-off, or threats being issued. I was following the spats between Israel and the West Bank earlier in the year, when the Israel Electric Company (basically a state-owned, state-controlled company) was trying to recover massive debts totaling billions of dollars from the PA, and threatening to end supplies to the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Obviously the PA can’t pay these debts, but neither is its jurisdiction properly recognised. So it is liable? I gather that the debts were run up by illegal harvesting of electricity via tapping into the cables – so not directly a PA action but something no doubt the Electrical Company sees as the responsibility of a local government to prevent. Perhaps solar power is the answer for the West Bank too! I didn’t see many solar panels when I visited Bethlehem.

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