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The King's School, Peterborough, Cambridgeshire>

1993 Annual Sixth Form Lecture:


by Brian J. Ford

Science, as I am sure you are all aware, is the single most beneficial agency in the whole world. It has, at a stroke, come close to solving the problem of our energy supply. It has provided us with the magnificent era of the computer, which can control everything from a sewing machine to a security system, and from air traffic control to the domestic toaster. It has found ways to feed the starving, to offer higher levels of food safety than ever before, and to provide unprecedented food safety and nutritive content. Science has led us to understand our diet, so that we now know how important it is to have a regular intake of wholemeal bread, and potatoes. Modern science has come to terms with the menace of pollution, by enabling us to control liquid effluents and to limit pollutant chemicals that threaten us from the machinations of industry. It has given us the catalytic converter, first-line of defence against the out-pouring of greenhouse gases into the air we breathe. Above all, science has enabled us to analyse teaching, and to raise standards of education until they are at a pinnacle that rises above those of earlier ages of human society.If only any of that were true. The real state of science is very much more muddled, far more perplexing, and a great deal more dangerous than that idealised picture might lead you to suppose. Let us look at energy. At the present time, energy is being consumed on all sides at a most profligate and wasteful rate. Most modern office buildings are constructed as sealed units. The air conditioning plant provides their inner atmosphere. Typically, the modern American building is chilled to winter temperatures throughout the summer, when the air outside is hot and uncomfortable; and conversely - when the air outside is cool and crisp - the air conditioning ensures that the indoor environment is as hot as it was outside all summer. The truth of the matter is that, for perhaps half the year or even more in Britain, the climate is pleasant and the fresh air is comfortable. Ideally, air conditioning should be used to moderate climatic extremes, and should be out of use during those equable seasons of the year. We would slash energy consumption if modern buildings had windows you could open. The current vogue for conspicuous consumption has Western buildings alight like film-sets, whether anyone is inside or not. We can no longer endure this waste. Energy control is now the subject of fiscal controls. In Britain the Government is to levy Value Added Tax on energy and fuel supplies. Fiscal control means that people who use energy are to be penalised. It is the sanction of the stick. Governments should start to realise that the best way to ensure compliance is to reward those who take the right steps - the incentive, rather than the punishment; the carrot, rather than the cane. High costs are not directly related to lowered demand. The tax on whisky makes it unnaturally expensive to buy, but that has not curtailed alcoholism. The street market for drugs is founded on staggering high prices, since drug dealers are excessively greedy and unpleasant people, more so even than governments; yet that has done nothing to curb the fashionable demand.

Authorities are addicted to making life difficult for the public, and for creating a culture of subservience. The way we organise railways is a case in point. Railways are comfortable, safe, efficient, and relaxing. They are an overnight answer to traffic danger, parking problems, and the stress of driving yourself in overcrowded streets. Yet they are unpopular. Look at the modern management method of handling railway policies. During the 1980s the train service between Peterborough and London became steadily busier. Were I the manager of the system I'd be delighted. Demand was increasing, so I would commission more rolling stock and put on more trains. As each year went by the number of passengers would steadily increase and the image of the railway would subtly change. We would then cut prices where we could, offer extra bonuses - headsets, video, whatever - and so change the culture.

Not British Rail. They did exactly the opposite. Their reaction to the growing number of passengers was to set out to cut their numbers. If the passenger total is too high, they reasoned, then the fares must be too low. So the costs were increased until the number of people had dropped to a more manageable level. This offers a classical example of the way modern scientific management operates. The direction of policy is selected by punishment, and never by reward.

It is also predicated upon extraordinary short-sightedness. The latest development in electrical energy generation is the gas fuelled power-station. Public pronouncements and television advertisements extol the merits of these clean and non-polluting monuments to modern energy policy. And the public are left with the impression of a great new step towards a brighter future. Yet natural gas is not new. So why, then, are the power stations such a novelty? Because of a change of policy: when north-sea gas first came ashore it was agreed that it was too precious to waste. A European accord decreed that natural gas would only be used in factories and burned in our homes - but would not be used to generate electricity. It is a finite resource, and will be needed both by our grand-children, and by theirs. The recession has altered that. Now it has been quietly agreed that natural gas can be burned to make cheap energy, no matter how serious the long-term effects on our energy reserves. This generation of electricity from natural gas is no better than burning banknotes.

What of the computer? The greatest and most costly fiasco in the history of the City of London occurred last year when their much-vaunted computer system proved it was unable to function. Millions of pounds had been invested in the computerising of the buying and selling of stocks and shares. At the end of the day, the entire system proved unworkable. A parallel example was the computerising of the ambulance system in London. Can you imagine the simplicity of the concept that lay behind this operation? All you had to do was to record the situation of ambulances on a grid, and the whereabouts of the patient, and link the two in a chronological timetable. It seems like a proposal of effortless simplicity. In reality it quickly cost a dozen lives. People sitting at switchboards could do the job more efficiently.

There is a dangerous tendency for science to be seen as more successful than it is. At a recent discussion meeting I listened to a geneticist speaking of the improvements they hoped to make to the productivity of crops. 'Does that mean we may become self-sufficient in food production?' asked a member of the group. The answer was muddled, and little was said. In fact we have been self-sufficient in food for some time now. So are many of the nations that are shown on television to be populated by starving children. Ethiopia has been a net exporter of food, for example. No, the main reason for the starvation is civil war, and the refusal of local governments to allow convoys to deliver the food to the starving. The world has enough food for us all, if only the good-will existed to distribute it. Perhaps the most absurd scientific principle to emerge from the high-level think tank in Brussels is setaside. Farmers are now paid not to produce food. Europe produces more food than we can handle. There are lakes of over-produced wine, warehouses of over-produced butter and mountains of over-produced grain. Some wine is even distilled these days to liberate alcohol for use as a fuel. There is nothing else to do with the surplus.

So much for the scientific management of the production of food. What about the diet? Everybody here knows that if you want to have a healthy and fulfilling diet you need a good supply of bread and potatoes. Science has not always concurred with that. Look back a generation and there you will find that the first items to omit from a weight-control diet were - potatoes and bread. There is much fashion in the science of the diet. What is acceptable one decade can be anathema the next. For example, the essential item on the menu of every health-food restaurant would be quiche lorraine. This dish typifies healthy eating. Against that we can set the one dish that everyone should avoid - the traditional English breakfast. Egg, bacon and fried bread; the very idea symbolises the unhealthy diet of a previous generation.

Now let us compare the ingredients of the typical breakfast with those of that quiche. Both contain the egg; both contain the bacon - whole for the breakfast, diced for the quiche - and instead of the fried bread of the breakfast you have the pastry for the quiche. Just like the fried bread, the pastry is rich in flour, high in gluten and in fat. In terms of health the two dishes are directly comparable. They are essentially made of the same ingredients: the quiche contains just as much cholesterol, just as much fat, the same over-dose of flour and salt.

Dairy produce is a much-vaunted health food. People guzzle milk and yoghurt and regard cheese as a mainstay of a natural diet. I have to say that cow's milk is an entirely unnatural food for anything other than a new-born calf. Cow's milk is dangerous as well as unnatural. A significant proportion of the population are allergic to the protein component of this category of foodstuffs, and some people show lactose intolerance too which can make them ill. If any other new food were to be introduced with such a legacy of ill-health its sale would be banned by law. I can set alongside this the morbidity caused by bakery produce, for there is much evidence of allergy to that category, too, and some people are made ill by the gluten in grain. I do not know what the proportion of people who suffer might be. But even if it was, say, a mere ten percent it would still give us six million patients in Britain alone - patients suffering through what they believe to be the healthiest and most natural of foods.

I have said how unnatural is the consumption of dairy produce. But if you wish to find something even more unnatural, then let me present the basic component of the healthiest diet - traditional whole-meal bread. It began with wild grasses, which were genetically modified by our stone-age ancestors until they had been transmuted into the grain crops we know today - wheat, oats and barley. We separate the wheat from the chaff by beating, and then grind it to starchy flour. After this it is mixed with a fungus naturally found on fruit, and left to ferment. These processes involve technology - traditional technology, certainly, but unnatural processing for all that. The fermenting is the height of sophistication, for there is no possible means in which a fruit fungus could ferment an extract of genetically modified grass! And after that comes the ultimate technological process - the fermented mass is placed in a heated oven and left whilst it starts to caramelise, and whilst the protein components undergo coagulation.

To serve it as bread and cheese, you take this extraordinary product, smear it with the congealed extract of secretions from modified sweat-glands on the underbelly of cattle, and then add a slice of cheddar. And how is cheese produced? Why, by taking this secretion and keeping it until it to become so stale that is solidifies and starts to go mouldy. The slice of whole-meal bread and cheese has not a single natural component involved in its production. It is the result of human interference and the technology developed over thousands of years. Let nobody here believe that this has any bearing on 'natural' eating.

Much of the effect of science on our daily lives has its roots in fiction. Americans all know their cholesterol number - the level of cholesterol in the blood- stream. They are shocked to know that in Britain the population are far less interested in the topic. Yet there is no direct causal relationship between the levels of cholesterol in the blood and those in the dietary intake. Blood cholesterol is produced by the liver, and does not derive directly from the food. Yet those vague principles have become transmuted into a firm and solid way of life for the greatest nation in the world. The result is that people who know their cholesterol number is high live stress-filled lives. They are anxious that they may die. Thus, the scientific knowledge causes stress; and there is plenty of evidence to link stress with disease.

Muddled science lies behind the extraordinary saga of the pollution-free motor-car. There was a green car in the Sunday Times a few days ago. It was powered by a fuel cell, and used hydrogen and oxygen as its energy source. As the gases combined in the ration of two to one, they produced H2O - water vapour. The water was equivalent to the same molecules which had originally split to produce the hydrogen and oxygen. It was a closed circuit, a pollution-free principle of power. Expect for one thing: the source of the oxygen and hydrogen for fuel. They were made by the electrolysis of water. The reaction was driven by electricity, the electricity came from the power-station, and the power-station generated the energy by burning petrochemicals. The car was not polluting after all. The fuel was being burned at the power station, instead of in the car. But: there are transmission losses in the cables, generation losses in the conversion of energy, there are inefficiency losses in the combustion of the fuel and in its conversion to steam; and mechanical losses as the steam is used to drive the generators themselves. Size for size, the fuel cell motor-car produces more pollution than its petrol-driven counterpart. The Sunday Times were invited to publish a rejoinder, but declined to show themselves up.

Modern motor-cars are fitted with catalytic converters that the public see as a protection against the greenhouse effect. The converters remove the harmful oxides of nitrogen and sulphur which otherwise pollute the air. For one thing, they help reduce the incidence of acid rain. I have to add that rain has always been acid, and indeed is meant to be. The sulphur content of rainfall is a principle source of sulphate for the upland grasses, and without sulphurous rain the high plains would soon become denuded of vegetation. Acid rain is normal and natural - it is only when the normal limits are exceeded that problems supervene. The reduction of any noxious gases is a timely move. But the effect on the greenhouse gases is the opposite of what the public believe. The output of the catalytic converter is very highly polluting until it has heated up properly and is working at its design efficiency. The liberation of CO2 is rather higher from a car fitted with a convertor than it is in one without. And these cars run slightly less efficiently too, so they do rather less mileage for as given volume of fuel. The result it that, for all their good points, catalytic converters add to the greenhouse effect of carbon dioxide. They do not reduce the burden. Action should be taken against the manufacturers of cars which claim they are environmentally friendly, and which set them in luxurious forests with claims that the car is 'green'. Every motor-car produces seventy litres of carbon dioxide from every litre of fuel. That is not a 'green' thing to do.

And then we have education in this scientific age. Standards of literacy and general knowledge are lower now than they were one hundred years ago. The complexity of examination questions has been progressively falling. The sixteen-year-old of the nineteenth century could expect to be asked to drawn an outline map of Europe, and to mark on it a selection of named rivers and major cities. I doubt whether sixth-formers of today could aspire to that. In my library is a collection of volumes published by Cassells in Victorian England. They are entitled the Household Guide and are aimed at the housewife of the time. Alongside articles on dressmaking and embroidery are sections on household science: the chemistry of iron, the construction of locks, detecting the adulteration of flour and how water softeners work. In one volume there are ten articles on household chemistry, and only two on dress-making. The modern magazines for women show clearly how divorced we are from science. To Victorians, science as part of culture. Today it is widely ignored.

Science is a cultural activity. It is a creative process that goes on in the brain, and not only in the laboratory. Technicians work in laboratories, but real science extends across all aspects of life. Real science is a cognitive, innovative, multidisciplinary process. It is aerobics for the mind. There is no reason why people should assume that you have to turn up at an institute to prosecute science. It is not true of other creative endeavours. Science is an activity like being a painter, a philosopher or a novelist. A portrait painter does not turn up at an institute of portraiture to begin work at nine in the morning, any more than does a philosopher stop philosophizing as she strolls across the beach. The popular view that scientific discoveries come from the work of serried rows of white-coated individuals ensconced in large institutions is very far from the truth. Dunlop, for example, was a vet. Sir Christopher Wren's monument to medicine was his invention of the hypodermic syringe. The photocopier was invented by a lawyer, tired of copying out documents by hand. Multi-layer colour photography - the basis of Kodachrome - was devised by two professional musicians who carried out their experiments in the spare time between concerts. William Herschel, discover of Uranus (the first planet to be discovered with the aid of a telescope) was no professional astronomer, but a church organist at the spa city of Bath; whilst Ladislao Biro was a sculptor.

A further category of important applications of science came about by mistake. Float glass is an example. It was developed in England, and the idea itself is simple enough. Rather than being flattened through rollers, float glass is allowed to flow in the molten state across the smooth, liquid surface of a bath of molten metal. It is drawn off, still in a flexible condition, and cut into lengths as it cools. Polishing and surface smoothing are eliminated. The idea is obvious, but the practicalities proved to be difficult to surmount. The first successful production of float glass was only made possible by something going wrong with the experiment. For fourteen months the experimental glass plant at Pilkington's produced unacceptable sheets of glass. One day after an overhaul the product was suddenly flawless, and it was found that part of the equipment had broken. It was this accident which perfected the process.

A similar situation lay behind William Shockley's discovery of the transistor. His research had started in the thirties, but was interrupted by the Second World War. Immediately the war was over his team began to investigate solid-state devices, and soon found that something was preventing the flow of current into the body of a semiconductor. They predicted how the flow of current might be modified by the application of an external voltage, but when experiments began the results were the exact opposite of what they had expected. The result of this accident was the first point-contact transistor, from which the vast world of micro-electronics has since developed. The world's first antibiotic, penicillin was first discovered by accident, when a petri dish of staphylococci was contaminated by an air-borne fungus spore whilst Alexander Fleming was on his holidays.

The same is true of polythene. Several research teams had tried to unite the molecules of ethylene to produce a polymerised solid, but the early experiments had shown that ethylene under pressure tended to explode. In 1933 one experiment went wrong: at a crucial moment the pressure vessel sprung a leak and the pressure inside decreased. When it was opened a small residue of a white substance remained. It could be cold drawn like nylon, or rolled out into thin filmy sheets. The uses of this plastic have become a great catalogue of innovation in the following sixty years, and it is intriguing to reflect on the accident of its conception. It is equally impossible to imagine the modern world without the great range of fabric dyes that chemists have developed. The first successful experimenter was William Perkin, and his crucial major discovery was that of mauve, the first aniline dye in history. He was not looking into dyes at the time, mind you, for he was actually trying to synthesize quinine. Perkin was no experimenter at the time, either; he was a teenage student at the Royal College of Chemistry.

Perkin's case reminds us that pre-eminence in science is no pre-requisite for important research. The case of Leeuwenhoek is a good example. He revealed to us the microbial world, and did so in his spare time whilst working as a draper and - latterly - as a civic official in the Dutch town of Delft. Leeuwenhoek was the first to draw the cell nucleus, to see Brownian movement, and to document spermatozoa. In the sense that he was unravelling a previously undivined universe, he was in many ways the first in the modern era of scientific investigators, and a pioneer of biological experimentation. He made his microscopes with tiny lenses mounted in slivers of metal no larger than postage stamps, which he manufactured on the kitchen table in his home. Trans-global communication relies on automatic dialling, and this system was originally perfected by an undertaker. He was denied business because the local manual exchange was controlled by a lady who was in love with the rival undertaker in the town. Clearly, the best way to prevent her listening in would be to develop an automatic exchange, and this need for secrecy gave rise to a development whose effects have been felt round the world.

These examples may suggest that it is untrue that research has to be expensive. The greatest biological discovery of the last half-century has been the resolution of the structure of DNA. Chemically it was understood well enough, but the problem that beset Watson and Crick at Cambridge was how the atoms fitted together to make the molecule. They had tried to assemble the atomic model in various ways, but the realisation that DNA was a spiral molecule arose from Oxford. Rosalind Franklin, a brilliant young crystallographer of whom most people have forgotten, told the two eager scientists that her x-ray diffraction patterns suggested the molecule was spiral in shape. They returned to their laboratory in a state of high excitement, and set about recreating the molecule in a spiral configuration. With Franklin's new findings the model suddenly fell into place. Their short paper in Nature set out the idea of a double helix, and revolutionised the history of biology. The work was done in their spare time, for they had been warned off the apparently fruitless task of molecular modelling DNA by their head of department. Is there an inverse relationship between the importance of a breakthrough and its cost? It would be easy to reach this conclusion. The greatest scientific development of the century must be Einstein's theory of relativity. Its effect on our understanding of the space/time continuum has been profound, and it underpins much modern mathematics - including Stephen Hawking's search for ultimate mathematical models. At the time of his work, Einstein was a junior clerk at the Patents Office in Zurich. Thus, the cost of his investigations was no more than the price of a pencil or two.

Many current textbooks are sprinkled with inaccuracies and inconsistencies, and the level of awareness in this field is much lower than would be tolerated in books on sport, say, or politics. We hear much of the way that the media distrust scientists or misrepresent them. In recent years scientists seem to have been ignored by the media, too; indeed I am told that two national science correspondents have recently been laid off for lack of interest. But in my view much of the difficulty comes from the scientist's side. And the principle reason may lie in the disparity that exists between the gulf by which we select scientists, and those by which the public might like them to be selected. I believe that an analysis of the criteria behind any process of selection can be crucial and highly illuminating if we are to understand how the world works. I will end with an illustration. First, let us take politics. What are the criteria by which a reasonable person might select a political leader? Shall we opt for wordliness perhaps? After that might come humility, followed by directness. Honesty would be a part of the blend, and one would hope that the person had had some personal success in a relevant field.

The Politician

 Ideal Criteria   Actual Criteria
  Worldliness   Partisanship
  Humility   Boastfulness
  Directness   Insincerity
  Honesty   Need one say more?


Those are the ideal criteria by which we would diagnose our political leader, and now we will set against them the criteria which apply in practice. Against worldliness we must set narrow-minded partisanship. A politician has to follow the party line, no matter what, and always finds arguments against the opposition no matter what the merits of their case. Humility came next, and contrasts poignantly with the brash arrogance that typifies the typical political figure. Against directness we must set insincerity; against honesty a widespread lack of openness. And are politicians drawn from a pool of successful individuals? Of course not. A political career is set for possible extinction after four short years or less, and there is not the faintest sign of a reliable career structure. The only people who are likely to put themselves in the way of such a position are those where professional success has so far been elusive. The valued members of society stay where they are, secure in progressive careers.

Let me end with a similar analysis of people we find in science. The notion of a scientist involves an investigator with originality of approach, intellect, and the capacity to innovate. Scientists exist to find out new notions, and are heterodox in approach. The criteria by which we select them are so very different: they are expected to conform with the teacher's view, to exhibit a good memory, and to be subservient to their peers. No attention is paid to the cultivation of intelligence, and too much novelty of approach is positively discouraged.

The Scientist

 Ideal Criteria  Actual Criteria
 Originality  Subservience
 Intellect  Memory
 Innovation  Conformity
 Heterodoxy  Orthodoxy


Our era relies heavily on the products of a scientific culture. Yet the detachment of the public from the realm of science is all too evident. We are no longer facilitating the production of real scientists, and the failure to cultivate a broad-based understanding of the discipline faces us with unacceptable danger. Science as currently practiced is no match for the problems that beset us. If we are safely to survive the future we must potentiate the pupils of the present.

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