A Nursery web spider (Pisaura mirabilis) has taken up residence in the garden. I’d never seen or known about this spider before. The first thing I noticed, a few months ago, was a very neat cocoon nest in a Spiraea shrub, about 3 inches across and full of spiderlings. The mother, long legged and grey bodied was standing guard. The spiderlings were gone in a few days. In the last few days the female has reappeared with a large yellow egg sac. Today, she’s woven the nest and is standing guard again in more or less the same position as the first brood. Spiderlings awaited. A very nifty spider with an engaging lifestyle. In the picture, the spider is just below the web.
Penguin recently sent me their reissue, as a Pension Modern Classic, of Arthur Koestler’s The Sleepwalkers. His book entranced me when I read it as the age of 23. It was a formative influence in my developing understanding of the culture of science. I also devoured Koestler’s Ghost in the Machine and that inspired a burgeoning interest in biology which has never left me. Over the year though I came to see that Koestler’s attempt to justify anti-scientific paranormal cults seriously dented his credibility as a historian of science. Nevertheless, his books had been catalyst and I remain grateful.
But now the reissued Sleepwalkers come with an Introduction by John Gray in which he praises Koestler for showing that great science does not proceed by “scientific method” and attacks Richard Dawkins and other scientific proselytizers s for advocating “If only we apply scientific method to our problems, the world can be immeasurably improved”.
This is seriously misleading. Dawkins and others are not suggested that the masses should practice “scientific method” but that they should pay heed to scientific evidence. Dawkins’ book The Evidence for Evolution is a good example.
Non scientists will never be able to devise research strategies to find the nature of dark matter or to synthesis a drug that can overcome bacterial resistance to antibiotics. Ordinary people do though possess the ability to understand and respect evidence. That is why juries are composed of 12 such people.
Dawkins in particular and many others like him are concerned about the 40% or so of Americans who consistently deny the facts of evolution and the even greater percentage who deny anthropogenic global warming. You don’t have to be able to sequence a genome to recognise that the remarkable base-for-DNA-base similarity between the human and the chimp genome is telling us something. Or that every organism on earth, from a bacterium to us uses the same genetic code and the same metabolic machinery.
The road to a great discovery may be an error-strewn drunkard’s walk but the result is a piece of elegant machinery that everyone ought to be able to understand. Read James Watson’s The Double Helix and compare the sordid tale of personal rivalry, arrant sexism, error and skulduggery with the beautiful image of the DNA double helix and the wonderful single page paper describing the structure in Nature.
John Gray’s confusion of scientific method and evidence is deeply damaging to the human understanding of science and to the progress of humankind generally.
Mitochondrial transfer has been licensed in Britain and the first such operation could take place from next April. It ought to be to the media’s shame but they have none: the result of this process is commonly called a Three-Parent Baby.
This is misleading and totally exasperating to anyone who knows a little of the science. The mitchochondrion is a vital part of our cellular metabolism and it has its own genes, albeit very few of them. It is friendly little parasite. The mitochondrion is the cell’s powerhouse and it derives from an ancient piece of cellular fusion 1.5 billion years ago when life consisted only of single-celled organisms. One cell swallowed another and put its machinery to work. The mitochondrion was once a bacteria-like entity but in higher animals it has lost almost all its genes except those that carry out its vital energetic functions. It does not have “people” genes, only a few relics of its ancient bacterial genes. It is a kind of battery, if you like. The biochemical functions of the mitochondrion are common to every form of multi-cellular life – it is low-level chemical plumbing.
We accept heart and other transplants as routine these days. If you‘re happy to take a dynamo from another person, why not start a baby with a battery that works? A baby resulting from mitochondrial transfer is A Man a Woman and Battery Pack or, if you prefer A Man a Woman and a 1.5 Billion Year Old Piece of Cellular Metabolism. Not a Three-Parent Baby.
There is a whole school of folding techniques that produce intricate 3 -dimensional forms from flat sheets. They all involve folds at angles which allow the 3-D shape to develop. Paul Jackson’s book Folding Techniques for Designers (Laurence King) has many such easy-to-make structures. At the highest end, these structures are useful in engineering: the Japanese space scientist Koryo Miura developed folding space antenna using these techniques and also the one-pull map. Nature uses similar systems in unfolding leaves from the bud. I wrote about these techniques in The Gecko’s Foot.
Now, in an ingenious development, Christophe Guerin has developed a technique for printing such patterns in an ink that causes the paper to field automatically as the ink dries. The results can be seen at http://vimeo.com/39914902.
The Invisible Garden at the Hampton Court Flower Show is a great way of opening up the most exciting frontier in the world: the nanoworld. Scientists know this but because the nanoworld can only be seen through microscopes of one kind or another it remains terra incognita for most. Visionaries in the past, long before microscopes, intuited that that the world must be structured in an intricate way at the most infinitesimal of dimensions:
Nature, who with like state, and equal pride,
Her great works does in height and distance hide,
And shuts up her minute bodies all
In curious frames, imperceptibly small.
Ricardo Leigh (1649-1728), ‘Greatness in Little’
But it is our generation who can finally see what goes on at this level. Nature’s greatest powers – the photosynthesis that powers all life on the planet, the intricate structures that create iridescent butterfly wings; the billions of tiny hairs that allow the gecko to walk on the ceiling –all these are nanophenomena
Trying to mimic the powers for our own technical ends is the burgeoning science of bioinspiation. Straightforwardly working with the very small is the even more burgeoning science of nanotechnology. In truth, there is considerable overlap: the gecko sticks by the laws of physics. A dead gecko sticks as well as a live one, which is why there is now a race to create dry gecko-style adhesives.
My co-author for our recently published NanoScience: Giants of the Infinitesimal, Tom Grimsey, has worked for some years to make the nanoworld visible via the large-scale kinetic self-assembly tanks he has devised with fellow artist Theo Kaccoufa. The Invisible Garden is the latest show that brings the world of the small into the light of day. Many of nature’s marvels are featured in my The Gecko’s Foot (2006) and the most recent marvels are covered in Nanoscience: Giants of the Infinitesimal (Papadakis, 2014).
Simon Jenkins’ most insistent message in his recent Guardian columns has been that governments are terrifying their citizens with needless panics: pandemics, terrorism, and antibiotic-resistant bugs. For Jenkins these have all been proved to be hysterical over-reactions. His analysis, that governments play on these fears to cow the populace and that big money is often made out of such scare-mongering is undoubtedly true. But that doesn’t make him right every time. The point about the story of the boy who cried world is that eventually there was a wolf.
The most likely wolf amongst the current terror stories is the antibiotic crisis. Trying to resolve this is now the aim of the new £10 million Longitude Prize. It is on the Prime Minister’s radar, which is one reason Simon Jenkins dismisses it.
But the science is inexorable. Current antibiotics only have a time-limited window against the evolutionary potential of bacteria. Without new therapies – and there have been no new antibiotics since the ’ 80s – the bugs will win. It is still possible that Simon Jenkins will go to the grave saying I told you so: “the antibiotics are still working”. But we’re not good at understanding time scales beyond our own lifetime. The bugs have got time on their side.
I'm a writer whose interests include the biological revolution happening now, the relationship between art and science, jazz, and the state of the planet