Tuesday, March 25, 2008

On hobbits and Merlin
[This is my latest Lab Report column for Prospect.]

In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. But the rest of this story is not fit for children, mired in accusations of grave-robbing and incompetence. The ‘hobbits’ in question, some just three feet tall, have been allegedly found in caves on islands of the Palauan archipelago in Micronesia. Or rather, their bones have, dating to around 1400 years ago. The discoverers, Lee Berger of the University of Witwatersrand in South Africa and his colleagues, think they shed new light on the diminutive Homo floresiensis remains discovered in Indonesia in 2003, which are widely believed to be a new species that lived until 13,000 years ago. If relatively recent humans can be this small, that belief could be undermined. Berger thinks that the smallness of H. floresiensis might be dwarfism caused by a restricted diet and lack of predators on a small island.

But others say Berger’s team are misrepresenting their find. Some claim the bones could be those of individuals no smaller than ‘pygmy’ groups still living in the Philippines, or even of children, and so are nothing to get excited about. And the new species status of H. floresiensis does not rest on size alone, but on detailed anatomical analysis.

On top of these criticisms, Berger’s team faces accusations of cultural insensitivity for prodding around in caves that locals regard as sacred burial places. To make matters worse, Berger’s work was partly funded by the National Geographic Society, which made a film about the study that was released shortly before Berger’s paper appeared in the online journal PLoS One (where peer review focuses on methodology, not conclusions). To other scientists, this seems suspiciously like grandstanding that undermines normal academic channels, although Berger insists he knew nothing of the film’s timing. “This looks like a classic example of what can go wrong when science and the review process are driven by popular media”, palaeoanthropologist Tim White told Nature.


As well as sabre-rattling, the Bush administration has a softer strategy for dealing with nuclear ‘rogue states’. It has set up a club for suitably vetted nations called the Global Nuclear Energy Partnership (GNEP), in which trustworthy members with “secure, advanced nuclear capabilities” provide nuclear fuel to, and deal with the waste from, other nations who agree to peaceful uses of nuclear power only. In effect, it’s a kind of ‘nuclear aid’ scheme with string attached: we give you the fuel, and we clean up for you, if you use it the way we tell you to. So members share information on reactor design but not on reprocessing of spent fuel, which can be used to extract military-grade fissile material. Everyone’s waste will be shipped to a select band of reprocessing states, including China, Russia, France, Japan, Australia and the US itself.

For all its obvious hierarchy, the GNEP is not without merit. The claim is that it will promote non-proliferation of nuclear arms, and it makes sense for the burden of generating energy without fossil fuels to be shared internationally. But one might worry about the prospect of large amounts of nuclear waste being shipped around the planet. Even more troublingly, many nuclear advocates think the current technology is not up to the task. John Deutsch of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, a specialist in nuclear energy and security, calls GNEP “hugely expensive, hugely misdirected and hugely out of sync with the needs of the industry and the nation.” The US Department of Energy’s plans to build a massive reprocessing facility, without initial pilot projects, has been called “a recipe for disaster” by the Federation of American Scientists, which adds that “GNEP has the potential to become the greatest technological debacle in US history.” It accuses the DoE of selling the idea as a green-sounding ‘recycling’ scheme. Nonetheless, in February the UK signed up as the GNEP’s 21st member, while contemplating the estimated £30 bn bill for cleaning up its own reprocessing facility at Sellafield.


Having come to expect all news to be bad, British astronomers saw a ray of hope in late February when the decision of the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) to withdraw from the Gemini project was reversed. Gemini’s two telescopes in Chile and Hawaii offer peerless views of the entire sky at visible and infrared wavelengths, and the previous decision of the STFC was seen as devastating. But now it’s business as usual, as the STFC has announced that the e-MERLIN project is threatened with closure even before it is up and running. This is an upgrade of MERLIN, a system that sends the signals of six radio telescopes around Britain by radio link-up to Jodrell Bank, near Manchester. In e-MERLIN the radio links are being replaced with optical cables, making the process faster and able to handle more data. It will boost the sensitivity of the observations by a factor of 30, revealing things that just can’t be seen at present – for example, how disks of dust around stars evolve into planetary systems.

e-MERLIN is now nearly completed, but the STFC is considering whether to pull its funding in 2009. That would surely axe jobs at Jodrell Bank and the astronomy department at Manchester, second only in size to Cambridge, but would also harm Britain’s impressive international standing in radio astronomy. With more than ten other projects on the STFC’s endangered list, everyone is now asking where the next blow will fall. There are no obvious duds on the list, yet something has to give if the STFC is to make up its £80 million deficit. But it is the opaque and high-handed way the decisions are being taken that is creating such fury and low morale.

Monday, March 17, 2008

More burning water

[Here is my latest Crucible column for Chemistry World (April). I’m not sure if I’m one of the “unscientific critics who did not delve into the facts first” mentioned in the Roy et al. paper. If so, I’m not sure which of the ‘facts’ mentioned in my earlier article is wrong. Nonetheless, this is an intriguing result; I leave you to judge the implications.]

Take a test tube of sea water and hit it with radio waves. Then light a match – and watch it burn. Flickering over the mouth of the tube is a yellow-white flame, presumably due to the combustion of hydrogen.

When John Kanzius, an engineer in Erie, Pennsylvania, did this last year, the local TV networks were all over him. ‘He may have found a way to solve the world’s energy problems,’ they said. The clips duly found their way onto YouTube, and soon the whole world knew about this apparent new source of ‘clean fuel’.

I wrote then in Nature that Kanzius’s claims ‘must stand or fall on the basis of careful experiment’. Now, it seems, those experiments have begun. Rustum Roy, a materials scientist at Pennsylvania State University with a long and distinguished career in the microwave processing of materials, has collaborated with Kanzius to investigate the effect. The pair, along with Roy’s colleague Manju Rao, have just published a paper describing their findings in Materials Research Innovations[1], a journal that advertises itself as ‘especially suited for the publication of results which are so new, so unexpected, that they are likely to be rejected by tradition-bound journals’.

Materials Research Innovations
, of which Roy is editor-in-chief, practises what it calls ‘super peer review’, which ‘is based on reviewing the authors, not the particular piece of work… the author (at least one) shall have published in the open, often peer-reviewed literature, a large body of work… The only other criterion is that the work be “new”, “a step-function advance”, etc.’

I’m not complaining if Roy’s paper has had an easy ride, however. On the contrary, given the wide interest that Kanzius’s work elicited, it’s very handy to see the results of a methodical study without the long delays that such efforts are often likely to incur from other, more cautious journals under the standard peer-review model. Of course a review system like this is open to abuse (aren’t they all?), but the new paper suggests there is a useful function for MRI’s approach.

Mystery gas
The experimental details in the paper are simple and to the point. Put an aqueous solution of as little as 1 percent sodium chloride in a Pyrex test tube; expose it to a 300 Watt radio frequency field at 13.56 MHz; and ignite the gas that comes from the tube. Note that the inflammable gas was not collected and analysed, but simply burnt.

The effect may sound surprising, but it is not unprecedented. In 1982, a team of chemists at Western Illinois University reported the room-temperature decomposition of water vapour into hydrogen peroxide and hydrogen using radio frequency waves with around 60 percent yield [2]. They too used precisely the same frequency of 13.56 MHz – no coincidence really, since this is a common frequency for radio frequency generators. And in 1993 a Russian team reported the apparent dissociation of water into hydrogen and hydroxyl radicals using microwaves [3]. Neither paper is cited by Roy et al.

Free lunch
If water can indeed be split this way, it is intrinsically interesting. That it seems to require the presence of salt is puzzling, and offers a foothold for further exploration of what’s happening.

But of course the story neither begins nor ends there. The TV reports make it plain what was in the air: energy for free. None of them thought to ask what the energy balance actually was, and Kanzius apparently did not offer it. Roy et al. now stress that Kanzius never claimed he could get out more energy than was put in; but given the direction the reports were taking, it seems not unreasonable to have expected an explicit denial of that.

Still, we have such a denial now (in effect), so that should put an end to the breathless talk of solving the energy crisis.

The real question now is whether this process is any more energy-efficient than standard electrolysis (which has the added advantage of automatically separating the two product gases). If not, it remains unclear how useful the radio frequency process will be, no matter how intriguing. Sadly, the present paper is silent on that matter too.

There seems scant reason, then, for all the media excitement. But this episode is a reminder of the power of visual images – here, a flame dancing over an apparently untouched tube of water, a seductive sight to a culture anxious about its energy resources. It’s a reminder too of the force of water’s mythology, for this is a substance that has throughout history been lauded as a saviour and source of miracles.


1. R. Roy et al., Mat. Res. Innov. 2008, 12, 3.
2. S. Roychowdhury et al., Plasma Chem. Plasma Process. 1982, 2, 157.
3. V. L. Vaks et al., Radiophys. Quantum Electr. 1994, 37, 85.

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Enough theory

One of the side-effects of James Wood’s widely reviewed book How Fiction Works (Jonathan Cape) is that it has renewed talk in the literary pages of theory. Er, which theory is that, the ingénue asks? Oh, do keep up, the postmodernist replies. You know, theory.

Why is this ridiculous affectation so universally indulged? Why do we not simply laugh when Terry Eagleton writes a book called After Theory (and he is not the first)? Now yes, it is true that we are now living in an age which postdates quantum theory, and Darwinian theory, and chaos theory, and, hell, Deryaguin-Landay-Verwey-Overbeek theory. But these people are not talking about theories as such. To them, there is only one theory, indeed only ‘theory’.

All right, we are talking here about literary theory, or if you like, cultural theory. This is not, as you might imagine, a theory about how literature works, or how culture works. It is a particular approach to thinking about literature, or culture. It is a point of view. It is in some respects quite an interesting point of view. In other respects, it is not terribly interested I the business of writing, which is what literature has (I hope you’ll agree) tended to be about. In any event, it became in the 1980s such a hegemonic point of view that it dropped all adjectives and just became ‘theory’, and even in general publications like this one, literary critics no longer felt obliged even to tell us what it says. Sometimes one feels that is just as well. But when critics now talk of theory, they generally tend to mean something clustered around post-modernism and post-structuralism. You can expect a Marxist tint. You can expect mention of hermeneutics. You had better expect to be confused. Most of all, you can expect solipsism of extravagant proportions.

Eagleton’s review of Wood in the latest Prospect is a good example. It makes a few telling points, but on the whole speaks condescendingly of Wood’s ‘A-levelish approach’, pretending to be a little sad that Wood’s determination to read the text carefully is ‘passé’. Eagleton doesn’t quite tell us what is wrong with Wood’s book, but assumes we will know exactly what he means, because are we too not adepts of ‘theory’? It bemoans the absence of any reference to Finnegan’s Wake, which (this is no value judgement) is about as relevant to the question of ‘how fiction works’ as is Catherine Cookson. I am no literary critic, and I’ve no idea if Wood’s book is any good, but I know a rubbish review when I see one.

In any event, ‘theory’ is all very much in line with ‘theory’s’ goals. It takes a word, like ‘theory’, and scoffs at our pretensions to know what it means. It appropriates language. This doesn’t seem a terribly helpful thing in a group of people who are meant to be experts on words. It is a little like declaring that henceforth, ‘breakfast’ will no longer mean the generic first meal of the day, but the croissant and coffee consumed by Derrida in his favourite Left Bank café.

Monday, March 03, 2008

Can a ‘green city’ in the Middle East live up to its claims?
[Here’s my latest piece for Nature’s Muse column.]

The United Arab Emirates has little cause to boast of green credentials, but that shouldn’t make us cynical about its new eco-city.

When Israel’s first prime minister David Ben-Gurion proclaimed his ambition to “make the desert bloom”, he unwittingly foreshadowed one of the enduring sources of controversy and tension in this beleaguered region of the Middle East. His comment has been interpreted by some as a signal of the centrality of water to political power in a parched land – and without doubt, Israel’s armed conflicts with its neighbours have been fought in part over control of water resources.

But Ben-Gurion’s remark also prompts the question of what it really means to make a desert bloom. To critics, one of those meanings involves an inappropriate transposition of a temperate lifestyle to a water-short land. Wasn’t the ‘desert’, which for centuries supported grain, fruit and olive groves, already ‘blooming’ in the most suitable way? Does ‘blooming’ entail golf courses and verdant public parks sucking up precious water?

In other words, there’s something of a collision of imagery in talk of ‘going green’ in an arid climate, where literal greenness imposes a huge burden on resources. That’s now highlighted as plans to create an ambitious ‘green city’ near Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) get underway.

Masdar City is slated to cost $22 bn, and the government of the UAE hopes that by 2018 it will be home to around 15,000 people, and a workplace for 50,000. Yet it will have no cars, will run on solar energy, and will produce no carbon emissions or other waste.

Concerns have been raised about whether this will just be an oasis for the rich, with all the incongruous trappings of luxury evident elsewhere in the UAE, where the wealthy can play golf on lush greens and even ski on immense indoor slopes covered with artificial snow.

Others have dismissed Masdar City as a figleaf to hide the energy profligacy of the UAE, where the carbon footprint per capita is the highest in the world, over five times the global average, and greenhouse gas emissions per capita are exceeded only by Qatar and Kuwait. Cynics might ask whether a little patch of clean energy will do much to alter that.

These are fair questions, but it would be a shame if Masdar City was discredited on this basis alone. Like it or not, we need to take greenness wherever we can find it. We do not need to be naïve about the motives for it, but neither does it help to be too snooty. There is some pragmatic truth in the satirical poem ‘The Grumbling Hive’ published in 1705 by Belgian physician Bernard Mandeville, who argued that private vices can have public benefits: that good may sometimes come from dubious intentions.

One might make the same accusations of a cosmetic function for China’s plans to build a zero-emission city, Dongtan, near Shanghai (although China is more worried about environmental issues than is sometimes acknowledged, recognizing them as a potential constraint on economic growth). One might also point out that the US government’s new-found enthusiasm for clean energy is motivated more by fears of its energy security than by an acceptance of the reality of global warming. But if these things lead to useful innovations that can be applied elsewhere, we would be foolish to turn up our noses at them.

It’s not just energy that is at issue here; water is an equally critical aspect of environmental sensitivity and sustainability in the baking Middle Eastern climate. Here there can be little question that necessity has been the mother of invention that makes the Middle Eastern countries world leaders in water technology. Israel has been criticized in the past for its irresponsible (not to mention inequitable) use of the region’s aquifers, and the ecosystem of the Sea of Galilee has certainly suffered badly from water practices. But Israel has in other ways become a pioneer in wise water-use schemes, particularly desalination and sewage farming. The latter reduces the strain on water systems relative to the way that some other less water-stressed countries moisten the crops with water fit to drink.

It would be good to think that there has been some recognition here that even in purely economic terms it is better to find technological solutions to water scarcity than to fight wars over it. The cost of a single F-16 jet fighter is comparable to that of the massive Ashkelon desalination plant in Israel, which produces over 300,000 cubic metres of water a day.

Desalination is a major source of fresh water in the UAE too. The Jebel Ali Desalination Plant, 35 km southwest of Dubai, generates an awesome 300 million cubic metres a year. For Masdar City, on the outskirts of Abu Dhabi City surrounded by sea, desalination is the obvious solution to the water demands of a small population cluster, and the current plans state with almost blithe confidence that this is where the water will come from. That doesn’t seem unfeasible, however. And there is now a wealth of water-resource know-how to draw on from experience elsewhere in the region, such as intelligent use of grey-water recycling.

One of the most attractive aspects of the planned design, however – which will engage the services of British architect Norman Foster, renowned for such feats as the energy-efficient ‘Gherkin’ tower in London – is that it plans to draw on old architectural wisdom as well as new. Without cars (transport will be provided by magnetic light rail), the streets will be narrow like those of older Middle Eastern towns, offering shade for pedestrians. It has long been recognized that some traditional forms of Middle Eastern architecture offer comforts in an energy-efficient manner, for example providing ‘natural’ air conditioning driven simply by convective circulation. It would be good to see such knowledge revived, and indeed Foster has talked of “working with nature, working with the elements and learning from traditional models.”

It seems unlikely that anyone is going to be blindly seduced by the promises of Masdar City – part of the support for the project offered by the World Wildlife Fund seems to involve monitoring progress to ensure that the good intentions are met. Yet we can hope that the lessons it will surely teach can be applied elsewhere.

Saturday, March 01, 2008

Heart of Steel

Birth of an Idea

Chemical art with heart

[Here’s my latest Crucible column for Chemistry World, which appears in the March issue.]

Several years ago I attempted to launch a project that would use the methods of chemical synthesis as a means of sculpture, creating a genuine plastic art at the molecular scale. I shelved it when I saw that it was unrealistic to expect chemists to think like artists: they generally inherit an aesthetic that owes more to Platonic conceptions of beauty than to anything the art world has tended (now or ever) to employ.

But the experience brought me in contact with several people who seek to integrate the molecular sciences with the visual arts. One of them is Julian Voss-Andreae, a former physicist who now works as a sculptor in Portland, Oregon. Despite his background, much of Voss-Andreae’s work is inspired by molecular structures; his latest piece is a metre-and-a-half tall sculpture of an ion channel, commissioned by Roderick MacKinnon of Rockefeller University in New York who shared a Nobel prize for elucidating its structure. It has the elegance and textures of twentieth-century modernism: with its bare, dark metal and bright wire, supported on a base of warm, finely joined wood, it wouldn’t have looked out of place at the recent Louise Bourgeois exhibition at London’s Tate Modern gallery. The title, Birth of an Idea, alludes to the role of ion channels in creating the electrical impulses of our nerve cells.

I find it hard to imagine that sculptures like these could be made by anyone who did not have a deep understanding of what molecules are and what they do. Iconic images of DNA’s double helix are commonplace now (the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory on Long Island has two), but do little more than express delight at the graceful spiral-staircase shape (while implicitly failing to acknowledge that this is crucially dependent on the surrounding solvent). Voss-Andreae’s molecular sculptures have more to say than that. His Heart of Steel (2005), placed at an intersection in the city of Lake Oswego in Oregon, is a steel model of the structure of haemoglobin, with a red glass sphere at its centre. The twisting polypeptide chains echo those depicted in physical models made in the early days of protein crystallography, photos of which would appear in research papers in lieu of the fancy computer graphics we see today. But Heart of Steel engages with the chemistry of the molecule too, because the steel structure, left exposed to the elements, has gradually (and intentionally) corroded until its coils have become rust-red, a recapitulation of the iron-based redness of our own blood cells. Blood and iron indeed, as Bismarck said of the German Empire.

It’s no surprise that Voss-Andreae is sensitive to such nuances. As a graduate student at the University of Vienna, he was one of the team led by Anton Zeilinger that conducted a ground-breaking experiment in quantum mechanics in 1999. The researchers showed that even molecules as big as C60 can reveal their fundamentally quantum nature under the right conditions: a beam of them passed through a diffraction grating will exhibit the purely wavelike property of interference. A subsequent experiment on C70 showed how interactions with the environment (a background gas of different densities) will gradually wash away the quantumness thanks to the process of decoherence, which is now recognized as the way the classical world emerges from the quantum.

Such experiences evidently inform Voss-Andreae’s Quantum Man (2006), a figure 2.5 m tall made from thin, parallel steel sheets that looks ‘classically’ solid when seen from one angle but almost disappears into a vague haze seen from another. C60 itself has featured in more than one of Voss-Andreae’s sculptures: the football cage, 9 m high, sits among trees in Tryon Creek State Park in Oregon.

Among Voss-Andreae’s latest projects is a sculpture based on foam. “My obsession with buckyballs seems to be due to their bubble-like geometry, which got me started on this new project”, he says. His aim is to produce a foam network that is ‘adapted’ to a particular boundary shape, such as the human body. This involves more than simply ‘carving’ a block of foam to the desired contours (as was done, for example, in making the spectacular swimming stadium for the Beijing Olympics), because, he says, “the cellular structure ‘talks’ with the boundary.” Voss-Andreae is attacking the problem both mathematically and experimentally, casting a resin in the gaps between an artificial foam of water-filled balloons. Eventually he hopes to cast the resulting structure in bronze.

I admit that I am not usually a fan of attempts to turn molecular shapes into ‘art’; all too often this draws on the chemist’s rather particular concept of beauty, and to put it bluntly, a pretty picture does not equate with art. But Voss-Andreae’s work is different, because it looks to convey some of the underlying scientific principles of the subject matter even to viewers who know nothing about them. That’s what good ‘sciart’ does: rather than seeking to ‘educate’, it presents some of the textures of science in a way that nudges the mind and enlivens the senses.