Big Ideas: Lewis Wolpert and Frank Close

by endlesspsych

By Keir Liddle

Before I give my account of the two Edinburgh Science Festival talks I attended today, I’d like to remind readers that we are on the lookout for your reviews as well, as we can’t be everywhere all the time, and will as such be missing a fair bit of science goodness! If you have been to a Science festival event, do please let us know what you made of it; whether you’re impressions were good, bad or neutral!

Today, I went to see Lewis Wolpert’s talk: “How We Live and Why We Die: The Secret Lives of the Cell” and Frank Close’s talk on Anti-Matter. Both were informative and interesting talks, but presented very differently.

Unfortunately, Wolpert’s talk seemed to be plagued with sound and vision problems, which detracted from some people’s experiences if the cries from the back of the room were anything to go by. However, Prof Wolpert responded to the concerns that people could not hear with good grace, and the venue staff remedied the issues as best they could without causing massive disruption to the lecture.

Prof. Wolpert talked about the cell, for its size the most complex object in the world, and how we are all composed of them. Indeed, 1/3 of the energy we produce is used just to keep our cellular saline pumps going, to stop our cells from absorbing too much water by osmosis and bursting. He explained how the essence of life itself is cell division, and how our cells, though we may not like it, all have in-built “suicide programs” that kick in should cell division go wrong.

The idea that all of our cells have an in-built suicide mechanism is not perhaps the thing that some people might have found “not to like” about Prof. Wolpert’s talk, as he did not shy away from making what some might see as controversial statements. When talking about stem cell research Prof. Wolpert talked about the “moral masturbation” of bio-ethics, and the Catholic church mandate that determined that a fertilised egg was a human being in spite of evidence and research that suggests the contrary. It is a point which I admittedly broadly agree with, but did wonder what other audience members might have made of such a pronouncement; although, no one seemed to take issue with it in the Q&A session following the talk. Wolpert was very careful to stress the potential benefits of stem cell therapy without wishing to oversell the technique as some miraculous panacea for all manner of conditions.

On the subject of cloning, Wolpert was also quite forthright in his views regarding ethical concerns, dismissing them for the most part as hysteria, and offered a bottle of champagne to anyone who could raise a new ethical issue with cloning (if the issues was found not to be an ethical concern than the terms of the wager meant any plucky challengers would risk two bottles of champagne should they be wrong). However, Wolpert did explain why cloning was a bad idea from a scientific standpoint as “Dolly wasn’t normal”, and it seems the scientific evidence suggests that cloned animals develop abnormally.

The talk also dealt with gastrulation, the French Flag theory, ageing and disposable soma theory, cancer and how we all develop from one cell (a fertilised egg). and ultimatelyare all descended from a single cell as well. The Q&A was lively and interesting; Professor Wolpert dealt well with a number of questions, although, as with the previous talk the night before, I did wonder how well a Q&A session really works in such situations. People tend to ask questions that don’t necessarily have “quick” answers, and indeed, could probably be the basis for a whole lecture in and of themselves! Anyway, I digress. The overall message of Wolpert’s talk was that, however complex you think the cell is, it’s certainly more complex than that.

From the complexity of the cell, the next talk I attended took me into an even smaller world: that of sub-atomic particles and anti-matter. Thankfully, there were no technical issues during Frank Close’s talk!

Close revealed that the inspiration for his book Anti-Matter was reading Dan Browns “Angels and Demons” with its anti-matter bomb (which is, for all intents and purposes, impossible – particularly as portrayed in the film) and “jumping on the bandwagon” to write a book about the science fact of anti-matter as opposed to the fiction.  The talk detailed how anti-matter is real, can help save lives (via PET scans), tell us about the origins of the Universe and presents us with a number of huge mysteries.

Close explained that PET scans work by bombarding the electrons within our bodies with positrons and annihilating them – which may sound unpleasant but doesn’t do us any harm – creating an image from the flashes of energy given out by these annihilations and allowing medics to save lives without relying on invasive methods of inquiry. He explained how anti-matter and matter are indistingushable except at the sub-atomic level, where they are made of different particles: protons – antiprotons, neutrons – anti-neutrons, electrons – positrons, and that, when matter and anti-matter collide they annihilate each other, leaving only gamma rays.

Close went on to explain how anti-matter is not, as is suggested in some science fiction, a solution to our energy woes as, although a huge amount of energy can be released when anti-matter and matter meet and annihilate each other, energy several orders of magnitude above that released by the annihilation would be required to create the anti-matter in the first place. As disappointing as it maybe seems to some,  it appears Star Trek has been lying to us for years.

The talk also touched upon the role of the LHC at CERN in attempting to discover the Higgs Boson, and made a bold effort at explaining some of the counter-intuitive findings of modern physics to a lay audience. To find out how successful it was, you could, I suppose, ask me some questions about physics and measure my bafflement! But all in all, this talk definitely had the “WOW” factor about it.

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