We have so many friends to thank this morning for sending us links to a breaking story. Oxford University has received a £100 million grant from Ineos to start serious research projects into antibiotic resistance and new antibiotics. Regular readers will be fed up with us banging on about this; but we say: at last! It’s well covered this morning, so we’ve done a couple of links to stories at the BBC and Mail.
We’d like to make a couple of observations here. As some of you have pointed out, one of the most important ways in which we have squandered the opportunity antibiotics gave us was their uncontrolled and massive use in animal farming. The thoughtless desire to measure success by how cheaply you get goods to the point of sale, and no other has done immense damage to public health in so many areas. Let’s hope the new rango of antibiotics doesn’t go the same way.
Secondly to thank the work of Professor Colin Garner. He it was who first identified this problem back in 2014, since when he has campaigned tirelessly. Building a whole new charity, recruiting big hitters like Dame Sally Davies, lobbying and organising…..we would all be in a much worse place without him. If you want to learn more about his work, please visit the website of antibiotics research UK Antibiotic Research UK | Fighting Antibiotic Resistance
We at LSS are always honoured to have readers in the United States of America. For those who have never visited, it is a large country which is, on average, south of Canada and north of Mexico. It is famous for beautiful scenery and delicious foods. And for a deep, seemingly unbridgeable racial divide which is now close to tearing it down altogether.
The origins of the divide have perplexed historians and social scientists for centuries. It may well be that the instinct to form tribes and hate all who are different is a primary human drive. We certainly respect the learning of authors such as Amy Chua whose Political Tribes we link below.*
Could the United States have ever taken a different turn? Below we offer two studies of two experiments which both grew out of the Civil War. (1861-1865)
The Free State of Jones was a pro-Union rebellion in the deep Confederacy State of Mississippi between 1864 and 1865. Led by a charismatic poor farmer called Newton Knight, a group of white agriculturalists and runaway black slaves staged something that seemed to have been somewhere between a guerrilla insurrection and a full blown revolution. LSS links you to a wonderfully balanced, charmingly written piece in the Smithsonian by Richard Grant. Oddly, Knight survived until 1921 and the branches of his families still live today in various states of disamity
A political attempt to stage a multiracial democracy occurred in Wilmington North Carolina in 1898. It was overthrown when armed white insurrectionists rose up and overthrew the government, following closely contested elections. Their victory was total; segregation and Jim Crow laws were then enacted which were not cleared away until the 1960s. An irony of history was that all this was done in the name of the Democratic Party, then the principal exponents of white supremacy.
The views that genes are destiny and that our instincts are more powerful than our reason have been skated over too long by many doubtless well-meaning people. They remind us of the Victorians and sex: let’s all try very hard to pretend that it doesn’t exist. There is now an overwhelming need to discover how these instincts play out in many places from prisons and aircraft carriers to the halls of governance, and how factors like poverty and inequality may inflame them. Or not. It is the great scientific opportunity of this century. And about time too.
Education for women: British Prime Minister Alexander de Pfeffle “Boris” Johnson calls for more education for women. With a journalist’s eye for a telling phrase, he sees it as the Swiss Army Knife in the fight against poverty. Ahead of his chairmanship of the G7, he has appointed MP Helen Grant as his special envoy. As something that LSS has been advocating since our inception, we think it’s a worthy initiative. And as a man who has risen to the top with the best education that money can buy (Eton, Balliol), he must know the value of it. Here’s the BBC:
Education for Doctors: History shows that nations which are quick on the early uptake of female education soon develop a competitive advantage, as this story from nineteenth-century America shows. Nature: How the Blackwells unleashed the Caged Force of Female Physicians. Feminists of all shades should click on this
Education for our electronic friends: Machines are now becoming so intelligent that we have to educate them, just like with trainee musicians who try too hard. Here’s one with intriguing implications from Nature; Machine learning cleans microscopy images
Algorithms to filter out the noise from micrographs are yielding stunning results. But the magic does have risks: biologists must take care not to lose or muddle valuable signal. The stronger the noise, the more likely it is that the results are ‘hallucinations’ dreamt by the computer. And the algorithm’s reasoning isn’t always transparent. A growing collection of tools allows researchers to find and compare multiple de-noising approaches and to contribute new ones.Nature | 8 min read
“Educate, educate, educate” said former British PM Tony Blair. We recognise it’s not everything. We know people who used their education to go on to make millions. We knew others with two degrees who went on to lead miserable, stunted lives. We know of at least two millionaires who never went near tertiary education, and obviously blossomed. But the point is statistical, not individual. A good education system is like a healthy ecology. It is the substrate in which economic progress thrives. To leave one half of the human race under educated (or with none at all) is a sure way to fall behind. As Johnson knows, no force is more potent against the dark forces of ignorance than female education.
#borisjohnson #educationfor women #elizabethblackwell #feminism #artificialintelligence
March 1982. Even the Falklands (Malvinas) were unheard of, and everything that followed that is but a twinkle in the eye of time. In the cold winter air we braved our way on Friday nights to the Beachcomber Bar in Berkeley Street W1. Here we gathered in happy hours with a crowd of civil servants, scientists, advertisers and IT folk, to while away some time in the company of a supercharged cocktail or two. And what a tropical locale in that icy landscape! Dense vegetation of palms and parrots, with real live caimans floating in pools and tanks. A little more fun than The Gasworks Arms! And to celebrate the tropicality of it all, here’s a scorpion, which had a sting that left you unable to walk. Well, we were young.
Put five cubes of ice in a cocktail shaker. Add one measure of brandy, half a measure of white rum, and half a measure of dark rum and two teaspoons of Amaretto, then two measures of fresh orange juice. Shake, and serve into a chilled glass over the cubes. Decorate with slices of orange and lemon
When you’re in a desperate situation, think laterally. Think differently. Think about something that was there all along, but which you’ve overlooked That’s why we couldn’t resist showcasing two stories from the Daily Mail about new natural solutions to our ecological crisis.
Global Warming Everybody agrees there’s quite a lot of it about. One solution is to grow more trees. Trouble is: they’re slow to grow, and there’s always a danger that one of the President’s mates will be allowed to come along in five years and chop them all down. According to Ian Randall, a better alternative is humble sea kelp. It grows thirty time faster than trees. Its carbon capture properties are prodigious. Kelp forests give a marvellous haven for sea life. And get this- you can harvest it for cattle feed, which in turn cuts down methane emissions from these large beasts. So what’s not to like? Read this story about Carbon Kapture and its kelp farms
Plastics Ever heard of sea grass? Neither had we. But this humble little ocean vegetable may be helping to gather up the 8 million tonnes of plastic which are dumped annually into our oceans. And to deposit them in easier-to-manage clumps called Neptune’s Balls. (Neptune was the Roman god of the sea- we didn’t know he liked dancing). Here Shivali Best tells of studies in Mallorca which are looking at using sea grass to turn the tide on this disgusting act of self harm we’re all doing. Incidentally, what a great place to do scientific research!
No one would ever dare accuse the Kelloggs Corporation of being lefties, pinkoes, liberals or any of the other adjectives in the demonology of the Right. It’s always been a shining example of progressive, enlightened capitalism, supplying the market with clean, benign products. (Declaration of Interest-we love them). That’s why when they come up with a report on child hunger, it needs to be taken very seriously indeed.
UK readers will be aware of the controversy swirling around the footballer Marcus Rashford and his campaigns on child hunger. Readers may take many views on this. Some religious readers may look at it on compassionate grounds. Libertarians and economists of the Chicago persuasion may take the view that any interference in a free market is both inefficient and an intolerable assault on liberty. The aforementioned Lefties and pinkoes may well develop tropes on abstract concepts like social justice and equity, whatever they are.
But what if the real argument is none of those? What happens if you take the patriotic view of long term national efficiency? The Kelloggs reports waxes lyrical indeed on the damage that hunger is doing to teaching, exam passes and assessment. We’ve included a couple of other links which suggest childhood hunger leads to increases in things like violence and physical and mental health problems. We were shocked to discover that the ancient evil of rickets is back on the rise. (Economic History note: a high incidence of rickets in the lower classes is a pretty good sign you have a truly free market economy).
If Britain is now to be a successful, stand-alone nation, it will need the best trained, best-educated workforce it can muster. There is depressing evidence that it is stuck at mid table in the world education leagues, but we promise another blog on that later. The lesson from History is also clear. The malnourished, stunted late Victorian lower classes were not up to their tasks either as workers or defenders of the Empire. (During the Boer War, the Army was forced to reject between 40 and 60% of volunteers on health grounds). There is evidence that the Government is taking Rashford seriously. Good-we can’t afford to make the same mistake twice. There’s no Empire to fall back on, nor anyone else.
We’ve all heard of BioNTech-they were Pfizer’s partner in developing the first of the new generation mRNA vaccines against Covid-19. Remember all the excitement back in November last year? Now it seems that mRNA technology can do a lot, lot more. Like potentially curing the dreadful disease of Multiple Sclerosis. BioNTech scientists Katalin Karikó and Ugur Sahin have released results on studies on mice with a neurodegenerative disease which is similar to MS. The mRNA injections seem not only to slow the progress of the disease, but also to reverse it. It’s early days yet, but the implications are revolutionary.*
So, let’s open out this whole trope of mRNA a little further, courtesy of Nature Briefings*:
Please click on the link below for the piece by Elie Dolgin. It’ll quickly tell you how these things were dreamed up, how they work, and their potential, even against “Holy Grail” illnesses like malaria, tuberculosis, HIV and cystic fibrosis. We think such knowledge should now be part of the mental furniture of every educated person. Just as your grandparents suddenly had to know about things like radar, nuclear reactions and antibiotics back in 1945. Because if even half of this mRNA technology works, it will transform the world more surely than even those advances did.
for the BioNTech story, here’s Nuño Dominguez in El Pais– translators at the ready
If there’s one type we can’t stand at LSS it’s can’t-doers and nay-sayers. There were lots of them around fifteen years ago, trotting out their gloom about how solar power could never work, it was expensive, it was inefficient. Fortunately Professor Henry Snaith and his company Oxford PV* don’t listen to rubbish. Instead they are pushing back the boundaries on new solar panels which will soon revolutionise our homes, workplaces, and so slash carbon emissions.
We’ve come a long way with solar panels, but they tend to operate at only around 20% efficiency. That’s because their semiconductor layer is made of silicon, which absorbs best in the red end of the spectrum. Henry’s idea is to incorporate a second layer of Perovskite, which looks for the bluer end. He thinks he can now push the efficiency up to around 44%. And that’s not all.
The perovskite idea has been floating around for a while, but Henry has taken the bull by the horns and set up a factory in Germany which should soon be churning out these panels big time. Instead of a 320W output, your average panel could now be churning out 440W. They hope to add a third layer which could take efficiency up to 50%, close to the practical limit from solar panels.
There’s so much to like here. The combination of learning, intelligence and optimism to try something new. Uniting the best of technology and finance to make a real difference. International co-operation, implying faster spreads of new ideas and systems, as well as economies of scale in production. As for their research labs-it’s a masterpiece of antiseptic efficiency, just look at their website if you don’t believe us!
And its not the only great new idea. The BBC has a series discussing 38 other ways to save the planet.* We link to their Oxford PV podcast below, with Tom Heap, but you might want to try a few more. Room for optimism, dare we think?
Learning, Science and Society is not an investment advice column-don’t read this if you want to get rich. But as citizens of the globe, and with the advice of persons far wiser than ourselves, we feel entitled to observe the trends in world markets, much as we observe those in science or the weather-because they affect each and every one of us.
In our opinion one of the wisest of those persons is Larry Elliott of the Guardian. An inveterate Brexiteer on a staunchly Remain newspaper, he’s very much his own man, and so when he speaks, we sit up and listen. And Larry is troubled. In his piece Are soaring house prices and house prices an epic bubble about to pop?,* he points to some troubling signs. History fans will recognise the eerie similarities with the spring of 2007 or even the uneasy summer of 1929. Firstly, the real economy is shrinking, and employment is falling in the US. Meanwhile asset prices in things like homes and shares are roaring away-with new tech equities like Tesla being singled out for scrutiny. Eyebrows are starting to rise on wise heads. Elliott cites investment sage Jeremy Grantham. But he’s not the only one, as we found elsewhere.
New entrants to the markets are always the most open to volatility. There’s nothing inherently wrong in this; once upon a time, steels and automobiles were new stocks! So we have nothing against crptocurrencies per se, it’s just that anything new will jump around until it finds its true price. So we see news that the FCA has issued risk advice to cryptocurrency investors as actually a sign that markets overall may indeed be starting to overheat. As evidence of this, the piece by Kalyeena Markotoff* notes that Bitcoin has already gone down to $35,000. This could be a blip on an upward march, of course. Bitcoin has been around for eleven years now. But does it trade in a world where assets generally are overpriced, as they were in 1929? We can’t help but be reminded of one of those cartoon characters who runs off of a cliff and keeps running, until he looks down-when the fall begins. And this goes for holders of everything, not just cryptos.
To be sure: we are not investors, much less advisers. But the straws in the wind seem to indicate caution, a little reigning in of exuberant spirits, at least until we see how the new Covid-19 vaccines really play out.
So much this week, gentle readers! And even you, the cream of the elite of the cutting edge of the top 1% (that’s enough superlatives-ed) are going to have to be a bit picky. So we’ve thrown them under different filter headings to aid you in your busy lives.
Crime and Forensic Science It was always the non sequitur in Forensic Science that DNA techniques could do anything except pull apart identical twins. Now at last that may be changing. Nature posts a Guardian story on small but significant variations in the genomes even of identical twins. We are sure that some enterprising forensic scientists are already working on this!
Scientists have quantified the small genetic differences between monozygotic twins. Researchers analysed the DNA of 381 identical twin pairs (and 2 triplets) and found thousands of mutations that appeared in one twin and not the other. Twins differed on average by 5.2 early developmental mutations, which occurred after the initial formation of the zygote. Some siblings differed by dozens of mutations, and some did not differ at all. “The implication is that we have to be very careful when we are using twins as a model” for teasing apart the influences of nature and nurture, says geneticist Jan Dumanski.The Guardian | 4 min read Reference: Nature Genetics paper
Our old friend Mr Covid Big one here is: will the new variants of Sars-CoV-2 prove immune to our new vaccines. Nature looks at the current state of play :
Researchers are racing to determine why SARS-CoV-2 variants identified in Britain and South Africa spread so quickly and whether they’ll compromise vaccines. The first laboratory results are trickling in, and many more are expected in coming days. Researchers are probing the viral variants and their constituent mutations in cell and animal models of SARS-CoV-2, and testing them against antibodies elicited by vaccines and natural infections. A preprint study (that has not yet been peer reviewed) published today found that a mutation shared by both variants did not alter the activity of antibodies produced by people who received the Pfizer–BioNtech vaccine.Nature | 7 min read Reference: bioRxiv preprint
Environment All those pesky waste plastics are slowly killing us and every living thing on the planet. It’s like the whole place is a rubbish tip to be honest. Maybe plastic destroying enzymes in microorganisms could be the answer. Here’s Monit Khanna in the Times of India
we thank Mr Gary Herbert of Buckinghamshire for this story
If we’re going to save this planet, change must come at local levels. Here’s the Cambridge Independent on how the residents of Swaffham are weaning themselves off of oil and into renewable energy systems. Is your community this far-sighted?