Critical Focus No 32: AI: Artificial, Yes. Intelligent, Not, The Microscope 66 (2): 71-83, 2018.
The news is filled with threatening stories about artificial intelligence (AI) which warn that the age of the
robot is upon us and our careers are going to be supplanted by machines that peform better than humans.
Even the demise of romance is in the air, for sex robots will take the place of our lovers. Pepper the Robot took
the media by storm, even meeting distinguished editors. In reality, Pepper is just a doll, more sophisticated than
the toys that speak to the children who play with them, but no different in principle. Yet walking and moving robots
date back to the 1500's, and robots that respond by speaking to verbal commands were being made 90 years ago.
The transfer of menial jobs to mechanical or electrical machinery has been happenning for centuries, freeing humans
from drudgery. Although the first "artificial life" was announced 70 years ago, we lack any real understanding
of how truly ingenious and thouthful living cells can be. The world of so-called Artificial Intelligence is really
concerned with digital automation. Remarkable it certainly is, but intelligent - it is not.
Critical Focus No 31: Can we Understand Obesity? Fat Chance, The Microscope 66 (1): 35-45, 2018.
Fat cells store surplus energy for the human body, and deposits of liquid fats are found throughout the animal world.
Plants typically store their energy in the form of carbohydrates or oils, many of which are of commercial importance.
Yet rumors abound: it is not true, for instance, that fish make omega-3 oils (they merely store those that are created
by microbes). Surprisingly, fat consumption is not directly related to obesity. Many races consume little other than
animal fat in their food, yet remain slim. Communities that used to lack deaths caused by heart attacks suddenly start to
show cardiac disease as a major source of mortality once their lifestyles become Westernised. The incidence of Type 2
diabetes - related to obesity - has shown an alarming increase and is taught as being incurable, though some recent
research has shown that it can, after all, be successfully treated. Nutrition is one of the major areas of concern in
studying human health, yet it is widely ignored by medical schools. We still know so little about obesity and the
role of fat in our daily lives, yet this is a matter that underpins the healthy survival of future generations.
Critical Focus No 30, Still Waiting for Cures After All These Years, The Microscope 65 (4): 159-169, 2017.
Stem cells are known to everyone, though few people understand what they really are. Here we meet the stem cell
as a human in microbe form - a description that brought a leading BBC broadcaster to a standstill, live on air.
Stem cells are not new - they have been known about since 1868 and many attempts have been made to harness their
seemingly miraculous propensities. Yet there are obstacles: apart from our limited understanding, there are so many
legal and ethical implications that the use of stem cells has been slow to gain ground. This is a contentious field;
there have been spurious claims of success that have proved to be fake news and, on at least two occasions, senior
academics have taken their own lives, rather than face the embarrassment of dealing with complaints over the work of
their subordinates. Stem cells promise so much, yet we still have surprizingly limited knowledge of their true
potential. In today's world, countries like China are streaking ahead with applications - and it is the United
States, hidebound by restrictions and religious objections, that is being left behind.
Critical Focus No 29: Tomorrow’s Germs Threaten Today’s Lifestyles, The Microscope, 65 (2): 85-94, 2017.
Tongs spread disease. Everywhere you find a buffet, you will see tongs - designed to prevent the spread of infection.
In reality they spread disease. A single person could theoretically infect 23,000 others in the space of three days
whereas - without tongs, and picking food up by hand - the most people at risk would be just a handful. Trays, pepper
and salt pots, door handles, and the backs of restaurant chairs ... so many places act as reservors of infection.
The use of hypochlorite bleach, often decried, is actually a valuable guard against infection. Currently we are
facing new threats from parasites (like Trichinella), fungi (including Coccidioides) and viruses from SARS to
Norovirus, yet we have not updated our hygienic procedures effectively. The making of synthetic germs in the
laboratory - and even at home! - poses new hazards which we should discuss as a matter of urgency.
Critical Focus No 28: The Latest Tally: 100 lectures and counting, The Microscope, 65 (1): 21-31, 2017.
On an unseasonably warm day in September 1969, my first presentation was delivered to the Inter/Micro conference.
It seemed impossible that this would eventually lead to more than 100 talks presented at the same conference over
the following five decades. Professor Walter McCrone had extended that first invitation, and I returned throughout
the 1970s when the conference was held at King's College, Cambridge University. In 1984 the conference was in
Chicago, and a few years later Walter named the talks "An Evening with Brian". They have continued ever since,
with topics including research into microbial behavior, emergent diseases, color vision in dogs, the pioneering
investigations by Antony van Leeuwenhoek and Robert Brown, human spontaneous combustion and the muscle cells in
a dinosaur's tail. Some of the topics were featured on TV and several gave rise to books published internationally.
Critical Focus No 27: Beer and pizza, a slice of ancient life, The Microscope, 64 (4): 163-175, 2016.
People debate about who made the first pizza, and which is the oldest beer; whether wine is healthy and
which salami is best ... though rarely stop to reflect that these are ancient traditions. It is not just that
they date back for centuries, for most date back thousands - and even tens of thousands! - of years. Flat-breads
were being made more than 30,000 years ago, and traces of beer and wine production have been found in prehistoric
excavations. These foods rely on fermentation; either with yeast (as in beer, wine and bread) or through lactose
fermentation (which gives us preserved sausages, olives, and chocolate). Although the Cornish pasty now has official
status as a regional specialty dish, it actually arose, as did pizza, from the Arabic world thousands of years ago.
Critical Focus No 26: Fantastic Physics, and Worlds we Never See, The Microscope 64 (3): 119-129, 2016.
Current findings in astrophysics, and developments in theoretical physics, bear little relationship to reality.
Reputable science magazines are publishing artist's impressions of newly discovered exoplanets, as if they were
based on facts, when they are actually mere fantasy. The vast cost of the Large Hadron Collider has given us little
benefits; physicists have been awarded a Nobel Prize for research that other teams call into question; and which other
researchers have separately reported in research programs costing only a fraction of the LHC. We have ridiculed the graphic
inventions of medieval philosophers who created images of dragons and unicorns, yet much current research is equally ill-founded.
Meanwhile, real observations of great value can be made by using the microscope. This is real science, not mere imaginary
creations based on guesswork and the desire to claim ever-increasing grants from the unwitting funding agencies.
Critical Focus No 25: Big Beef over Mad Cow Disease, The Microscope 64 (2): 69-78, 2016.
Twenty years ago, after repeated official denials, the fact that 'mad cow disease' was a threat to human
health was finally admditted by the British government. Now that imports of British meat into the United States
are resuming, we can look back at the episode and see how much (or how little) has been learned. A chance
remark about the problems faced by the public led to the author taking on a commission for an instant book:
within a month a book was written, illustrated, published and went on sale in bookshops. This is a record for
scientific publishing. One of the most contentious conclusions was that the disease caused in humans, and known
officially as a variant of CJD, was actually kuru, the disease of the cannibals of Papua New Guinea. In recent
years even this startling revelation has proved to be accepted. Now that new threats (like Zika virus) are
are emerging, we review the situation and see how the future might unfold.
Critical Focus No 24: Cloudy with a Chance of Microbes, The Microscope 64 (1): 29-41, 2016.
Climate (what you expect) and weather (what you actually have) are high on the agenda. Yet many of
the resolutions from the Paris discussions last December are meaningless. And - for all the detailed
analysis of global weather - the role of the oceans has been down-played. One of the most influential
aspect is the role of microbes, and they are absent from the debate. Microbes lie behind cloud formation
and rainfall, and they may explain how the fabled "rain dance" could actually cause rain to fall. The key
factor, which the general discussion ignores, is not mere warming, but the development of weather as we under-
stand it today - but with far greater extremes: stronger winds, deeper snow, longer droughts, greater floods. The
draft for this article was ready in December 2015, and the weather we have seen in 2016 is precisely in line with
with the predictions in this article. Understanding the role of energy (and the part played by microbes) gives us,
for the first time, an informed insight into the future of our changing world.
Critical Focus No 23: Leeuwenhoek Microscopes, Mystery and Mischief, The Microscope 63 (3): 131-142, 2015.
Antony van Leeuwehnoek as the first person in history fo study microbial life. He observed, and
faithfully recorded, a range of microscopical specimens ranging from bacteria and protozoa to algae,
rotifers and blood cells. His characteristic microscopes have long been treasured relics from the dawn
of modern science. Within the space of a single year, two hitherto unknown examples have emerged and have
referred to the author for authentication. One was dug from mud taken from a Delft canal and advertised on
eBay; the other was from a box of dollhouse toys that was taken to a London auction house and which was
later privately sold to a collector. Each has a story of mystery and intrigue. A third recent discovery
is to be found at the Boerhaave Museum in Leiden, Netherlands. The background to each is recounted, along
with a summary of the scientific investigations that each has entailed.
Critical Focus No 22, Forensic Science, Peering down a Blind Alley, The Microscope 63 (2): 77-88, 2015.
Forensic science is in crisis. Microscopy is being used, not to establish the truth of a crime,
but to find a way to convict suspects in order to close a police file. One leading specialist claims:
“We know that thousands upon thousands of fellow citizens wait in cages or are sent to death chambers,
unfairly tried and convicted.” The public still believe that forensic science is objective and it remains
a popular subject. Sherlock Holmes is the most popular character in fiction, and Crime Scene Investigation
(CSI) is the most successful television series in history. Many important legal cases have hinged upon the
abuse of the scientific method and campaigners are now seeking to put matters right. The present situation is
disturbing, and the honesty of science must re-assert itself if justice is to prevail.
Critical Focus No 21, The Incredible, invisible World of Robert Hooke, The Microscope 63 (1): 23-34, 2015.
Mention the name of Hooke to most people and they would likely think of Peter Pan's adversary
rather than the pioneering scientist who influenced the birth of modern science. We learn of
some surprizing revelations hidden within the pages of this, the first popular science book in
history, which was published by the Royal Society 350 years ago. Hooke is known for the discovery
of 'cells', though here we find out that the observation had been made earlier. The spectacular
engravings in the book are highly detailed, and we will see that in many respects the results we
obtain with our latest microscopes are little better than Hooke recorded 350 years ago. In private
life, he may have been a pedophile and a drug addict, though such matters were viewed differently
during his lifetime. He was also co-designer, with Sir Christopher Wren, of central London after
the Great Fire of 1665. Hooke was, truly, a complex character.
Critical Focus No 20: The Hidden Secrets of Snowflakes, The Microscope, 62 (4): 171-181, 2014.
Here we encounter the earliest printed study of a microscopical subject: a
snowflake published in 1555. This journey takes us through 450 years of snowflake
science, revealing unexpected twists and turns along the way. Many of the
investigators mentioned are rarely encountered in the formal reference sources,
and the illustratiuons include examples that have been neglected for centuries.
European scientists led the way in the study, but we will find researchers from
the Far East also played their part. And, in today's world, we will find a leading
snowflake scientist with an unexpected connexion with the "Big Bang Theory" series
on TV and a Russian microscopist who holds an old macro lens in place with tape.
Digital cameras are enouraging more scientists to embark on this truly fascinating study.
Critical Focus No 19: Crisis point: the Rise and Fall of Penicillin, The Microscope 62 (3) 123-135, 2014.
Ourbreaks of diseases that we cannot treat are spreading fast. Bacterial
infections that were easily cured are now untouched by conventonal
treatments. The introduction of penicillin was a crucial event in the history
of medicine, yet it had a far more ancient history than the standard accounts
suggest. It may have been penicillin-producing molds in bread that made a poultice
so effective in curing boils and other surface lesions - and this probably
dates back thousands of years. The first observations of the action of penicillin
date back to the 1870s, and there were many reports before Fleming began his work in 1928.
This is a story rich in anecodte and misunderstanding, yet now the antibiotic era is
drawing to a close. Without urgent research, medicine could retreat to the
conditions of the Victorian era.
Critical Focus No 18: Breaking the Myths of Microscopy, The Microscope 62 (2): 63-73, 2014.
The light microscope is known world-wide as a symbol of science. There is no
area of human activity which doesn't have a relationship to the microscopic realm
and yet the dsevelopment of this crucially-important instrument is widely misrepresented.
The early observers, we are told, used primitive instruments (and a good deal of guesswork)
as they crudely peered into their mysetrious specimens ... all of which is untrue. From the
earliest days of the microscope, investigators used incredibly sophisticated techniques, many of
which are with us in the today's laboratories. Here we discover how they made their microscopes,
prepared their specimens, and launched today's scientific era.
Critical Focus No 17: There is always Life after Death, The Microscope 62 (1) 15-24, 2014.
Television programmes and everyday experience tell us that we all know when
a person dies. "Time of death, 12.15 am," says the attending doctor. Yet if we
look at the microscopic view of a dying individual, a very different picture emerges.
At the moment that someone dies, every cell in their body is still alive.
And we will still be alive for a long while - perhaps hours - after onlookers
think we are dead. The longest interval between 'death' and revival that
has been recorded is some four hours. In that case the patient took ten days before
waking up - and eventually went to work on the medical staff of the same hospital.
Experiments have shown how a head can live on without its body and a body can live
without a head. Those tragic suicide victims who decapitated themslves on the railroad
will have known what they did as the train rolled on down the line. The vast cell
commmunities take a long time to shut down completely, and even longer to die.
Our view of the 'moment of death' is due for re-examination for, as this article
shows, we do live on after we die - and there truly is life after death.
Critical Focus No 16: Brainstorm - New Insights on Human Intelligence, The Microscope 61 (4) 169-178, 2013.
Large sums of money are being doverted to brain research, but much of it will
be wasted. Current research focusses on the networks of the mind, and thought
processes are seen as devolving on the synapses - the points of contact
between nerve cells where they meet, but do not quite touch. It is argued here
that this is a mistake: thought does not go on beween the cells of the brain,
but within each of them. Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging has been
correlated with brain activity, but the results need handling with care; one
recent experiment showed what seems to be brain activity in a dead fish from
a supermarket. We now have a range of techniques that reveal the connection
networks of the brain, but little that seeks to demonstrate what goes on
inside each neuron. Recordings of the spike signals from neurons cultured in
vitro can be processed to reveal the signals hidden within them, and this
allows us to eavesdrop on the 'language of the mind'. Clearly, the brain is
vastly more complex than we realize and current research is heading
in the wrong direction.
Critical Focus No 15: A New theory on Old Leaves, The Microscope 61 (3) 121-129, 2013.
Excretory mechanisms are widely ignored in the standard works on plant
physiology. They are supposed to be of crucial importance for the definition
of life (along with movement, respiration, growth and reproduction, etc.) -
yet the index of most books on plant physiology simply omit the term
'excretion' as if it did not matter. We visit the complexities of kidney
function in this article, before turning to look at how plants deal with
their wastes, where we set out a unifying concept - namely, tnat vascular
plants deposit waste conmpounds within their leaves prior to abscission. In this
way, the leaf is seen as providing two discrete functions: first, (as is well
known) as a photosynthetic organ, but also as an excretophore - an organ
designed to provide an excretory mechanism. The theory is methodically
explored, yet (in a surprising conclusion) it seems that it was anticipated
in a storybook written for children in 1957.
Critical Focus No 14: Shining the Spotlight on Movie Microbes, The Microscope 61 (2) 63-73, 2013.
Hollywood is missing a trick. Many popular movies deal with the microscopic world, but they fail to
reveal what it really looks like. 'Honey I Shrunk the Kids' and 'A Bug's Life' show tiny living
things at highly magnified scale. The world around them would be rich in microscopic detail. The
stems, leaves and flowers that are featured in these films have the appearance of sheets of
plastic, with none of the rich detail apparent that the microscope reveals. Recent films made for
television are no better. The BBC has produced a film showing life under the microscope, yet one of
their key sequences showed little but dirt particles - and they overlaid three separate sequences in a
vain attempt to make it interesting to the eye. Yet the first-ever full length horror film,
'Nosteratu' of 1922, had microscopic views of Hydra devouring its prey, and the opening
sequence of Steven Spielberg's 'War of the Worlds' had CGI ciliates swimming around in its opening
moments. There is so much waiting to be screened - what we need is a producer with enough insight to
open the window on this astonishing and unexplored world.
Critical Focus No 13: Debunking the Myth of Intelligent Design, The Microscope 61 (1) 25-34, 2013.
Many Americans claim to believe in intelligent design, and insist that life was created rather than
evolving. What can science say on the subject? And what will the microscope say about the way
life originated? This column examines the realities of life and shows that, rather than being shaped
by an intelligent influence, life is poorly designed. Some of the most basic aspects of cellular
metabolism are flawed and inefficient. The rules of anatomy are regularly flouted and we humans,
in particular, are full of flaws that make us prone to disease and even death. God is not only
an unnecessary influence when we consider how life originated, but clearly could not have been
involved. Religions have many interpretations of God, but none of them claims that their own deity is
an idiot. Yet only a fool could design life the way it is. Had we been created, we'd be in far better shape.
Critical Focus No 12: The Microscope and the Caveman, The Microscope 60 (4) 157-165, 2012
Here is a new theory on the origins of humans - what came before the hunter-gatherer? An ape-like
pre-human that had strength to hunt with tooth and claw is a familiar concept, as is the more highly
intelligent humanoid with a sophisticated brain and the ability to manufacture tools, spears and other
weapons. Yet until these creatures had a well-delevoped brain, hunting for meat is inconceivable for
a weak and puny pre-human. Yet meat is accepted as crucial for the brain to have evolved. It is
proposed that these intermediate humanoids were kleptocommensals who relied on predators
(like wolves) to do their hunting. Recent microscopical research proves the point.
Critical Focus No 11: Aquatic Dinosaurs under the Lens, The Microscope 60 (3) 123-131, 2012.
Dinosaurs, argues this artile, evolved as aquatic reptiles. The theory has been met with universal
condemnation by paleontologists, though academic support subsequently began to emerge. Giant
dinosaurs had huge tails which never left marks with their fossilized footprints. Yet when we consider
the cells within the dinosaur, we can show that holding the tail erect would have imposed a large
metabolic burden upon the dinosaur. Much controversy has surrounded a paper published earlier in
2012, which argued that dinosaurs evolved in a watery environment that supported their tails. The
recently-published scientific research substantiates the view, for dinosaurs have the isotope ratios of
aquatic creatures, fish scales have been found in their remains, and many have the dentition of
crocodilians. Other questions (like the warm-blooded controversy) are solved by this alternative view.
Published correspondence (for and against) exemplifies the academic response.
Critical Focus No 10: Solving the mystery of Spontaneous Human Combustion, The Microscope, 60 (2): 63-72, 2012.
For centuries, scientists have tried to explain spontaneous human combustion (SHC) without success.
Many believe that the phenomenon is a myth; those that accept it usually insist that SHC is related to
over-indulgence in alcohol. Even when marinated in ethanol, mammalian tissues will not burn. Cells can
change their metabolism, and produce acetone as an energy source instead of glycogen. This is a normal
constituent of the body's metabolism - and is highly inflammable. Experiments have shown that
tissues treated with acetone become highly inflammable. This is the first demonstration of how
a moist and normally incombustible body can catch fire and burn.
Critical Focus 9: Fifty Years in Microscopy, The Microscope 60 (1): 17-25, 2012.
Looking back over fifty years since election to the Royal Microscopical Society, this illustrated
autobiographical account includes childhood adventures in Potters Bar, education in Peterborough
and later years based in Cardiff and Cambridgeshire. There is another retrospective article entitled
Half Century of Fellowship in the Proceedings of the Royal Microscopical Society (Infocus magazine)
which covers different aspects of the same period of time.
Critical Focus 8: The Strange Paradox of Blood, The Microscope 59 (4): 165-173, 2011.
Hemostasis research is critically examined, and we discover that the conventional explanations of blood
coagulation cannot work in practice. The author's interests date back to the 1960s, and we follow a
line of investigation culiminating in a bench-top blood text for hemostatic efficiency that supplements the
standard procedures. As the research becomes international news, we encounter the involvement of
leading surgeons from Britain and America, and see how the spurious study of "live blood analysis"
has developed over the years.
Critical Focus 7: Darwin, the Microscopist Who Didn't Discover Evolution, The Microscope 59 (3): 129-137, 2011.
Although the name of Charles Darwin is inextricably connected with the discovery of evolution, others
were there first. Even his own grandfather, Erasmus, wrote of advanced organisms evolving from
simpler life-forms and others who wrote extensively on evolution were Maupertuis in 1745 and Sullivan
in 1794. Darwin was not the official naturalist on board HMS Beagle and indeed, during his lifetime, his
book on worms outsold anything he wrote on evolution. Charles Darwin was an excellent
microscopist, and we discover how he recorded the way in which early microscopes
were best put to use as instruments of research.
Critical Focus 6: Cultured Meat, Food for the Future, The Microscope 59 (2): 73-81, 2011.
Cultured meat was introduced to Earth by Martians in a 19th century science fiction novel. How
Churchill predicted the era of cultured meat, but plagiarised a friend's ideas. The long wait for
scientific progress, which emerged only in the 1990s. The development in Britain of mycoprotein
as a popular meat substitute and the need to regard foodstuffs from the cellular viewpoint. How a
range of cells could be processed as food, even bacteria from a Japanese sewage treatment plant
used to make the 'shit burger'.
Critical Focus 5: Story of the Leeuwenhoek Specimens, The Microscope 59 (1): 11-19, 2011.
Retelling the discovery of Leeuwenhoek's original specimens by Brian in 1981. The response of
academics and the media, interviewed by Sir Robin Day, and the restoration of Robert
Brown's microscope of the 1820s. Analysis of Leeuwenhoek's sections with modern
and comptemporaneous microscopes. How the discovery could have been made earlier.
Critical Focus 4: The Good Guide to Bad Lectures, The Microscope 58 (4): 167-172, 2010.
Discussion of good and bad lecturing techniques with some embarrasing personal reminiscences.
Projectors that fail, presentations that are incompatible, and slides that simply repeat what
the speaker has just told the audience. Memories of presentations on photography
which had to be delivered without any visual support; and problems caused
by being intoxicated or even absent at the scheduled time.
Critical Focus 3: Censoring the Cell: How the Microscope is Abused by the Media, The Microscope 58 (3): 121-129, 2010.
How television ignores life under the microscope. Dr Brian Cox showing colonies of
intriguing bacteria, which the viewer is never allowed to see. Stephen Hawking
presenting a TV series in which we see microscopes, but the cell is misrepresented.
The BBC attempt to recreate pioneering microscopical observations but are unable
to reveal living cells, spermatozoa and the nucleus. We examine the many superb nature
documentaries produced by the BBC, all of which exclude the microscopic realm.
Critical Focus 2: Inventing Life - or Reality?, The Microscope 58 (2): 71-79, 2010.
Responses to Craig Venter and his prediction of synthetic living cells. Sir Paul Nurse
(pictured with Brian) and his views on synthetic life. Brian's article on reconstituting
viruses from 1967. The importance of studying existing species of microbe which
can already control pollution. Little-known facts from the decoding of DNA.
The origins of genetic experiments that gave us present-day farm crops,
and the pressure on scientists to exaggerate in order to claim funding.
Critical Focus 1: The Royal Society turns 350, The Microscope 58 (1): 35-40, 2010.
Looking back to the birth of the Royal Society and the academies that date back
even further. First meeting with a Royal Society President in 1961, and the first
lecture Brian gave in the Society's lecture theatre in 1965. Help and advice from
Sir Andrew Huxley, meeting Lord Florey in Oxford and Lord Porter in Delhi;
radio, television and press interviews with Brian at the Society in Carlton
See web page listing other regular articles and columns by Brian J Ford.