The Book That Never Was
Over the years I've hopped back and forth on the issue of IQ tests. They get used in school admissions, job applications, criminal trials, military recruitment and performance management cycles but there seems to be great disagreement over whether they're actually telling us anything. The problem is that so much has been written about them (for and against) that the waters of debate are pretty muddy and it's not easy to know what the deal is.
Some books condemn the whole concept and argue that IQ tests only tell us how well people do on IQ tests (The Mismeasure of Man by Stephen J Gould, IQ: A Smart History of a Failed Idea by Stephen Murdoch, The Sun Shines Bright by Isaac Asimov) while others argue that IQ tests are useful but get nervously dismissed because they raise uncomfortable results people would rather ignore (What Is Intelligence? by James Flynn, Looking Down on Human Intelligence by Ian J Deary, The Neuroscience of Intelligence by Richard J Haier).
A while back, I decided I wanted to write a book of my own on the topic and present readers with a non-biased summary of what IQ research has actually uncovered. I approached my publisher with an idea for a book called The Science of Clever and although they were interested, it soon became obvious to me that it was going to end up a mess. The consensus on IQ testing is not cut and dried and you can't spend 50,000 words shrugging your shoulders and saying "Ummm...I dunno".
The study of intelligence research is called "psychometrics" (which sounds like a Transformers villain) and although I couldn't quite turn the whole field into a single light-hearted book, I still ended up with a bunch of interesting research, not to mention a half-finished manuscript on my hard-drive. So, I figured I might as well summarise the surprising highlights in my first blog of 2020. I doubt The Science of Clever will happen, but if it does, you're getting the first couple of chapters for free. Merry Christmas guys!
What Is An IQ Score?
First thing's first: there is no such thing as a standard or internationally recognised IQ score. IQ tests are actually products sold by private companies and there are dozens of brands available, none of which line up. For instance an IQ of 130 on The Culture Fair IQ Test is equivalent to a score of 150 on The Cattell III-B IQ Test and so on. If someone claims to have an IQ of whatever that doesn't actually mean anything unless they specify which company's test they scored it on.
The two most commonly used versions are the Wechsler Adult Intelligence Scale Version 4 (WAIS-IV) sold by Pearson Assessment for $980, and the Raven's Progressive Matrices Test sold by Hogrefe Ltd for $200, although you can't just purchase the tests from amazon as a private citizen. They are only sold to professional psychologists who have to agree to keep the materials under lock and key and never publish the contents.
From a cynical point of view, keeping the tests secret allows these businesses to continue making profit because a psychologist can't just download them from the internet. From a scientific point of view, however, keeping the contents secret means the results are more useful because subjects can't cheat by looking up questions.
The WAIS-IV takes about two hours and is administered individually (in private) with a psychologist holding a stop-watch, timing you on questions they ask. The Raven's test is a booklet of pattern-recognition questions you fill in against the clock like any exam. Both tests arrange questions in order of increasing difficulty and the further you get, the more value the questions have.
Your score is then ranked against other people and expressed as a comparison of where you come in the overall population. This is actually quite important because it means an IQ score is not an absolute number - it's a "quotient" i.e. a ranking of where you fit in a group. A good analogy is to think of it like a race in which you compete against other runners and measure your position rather than your raw speed.
How the group gets selected is very important for the results to be reliable. For instance, if you come third in a race of 100 professional sprinters that's impressive. If you come third in a race of only three people and the other two were on crutches, that's less so. The trick to getting a reliable quotient is therefore to make sure you're grouped with people of a similar type. IQ tests do this by age. Nothing else.
You probably assume, like I did, that psychologists have a) a good reason for grouping people by age and b) that the questions on the test are carefully arranged to distinguish easy from difficult. But you'd be wrong. IQ tests are unfortunately the result of historical convenience which tends to form the crux of anti-IQ arguments. They aren't based on any theory whatsoever.
The Worrying Origins of IQ
The first intelligence test was composed by the French psychologists Alfred Binet and Theodore Simon who asked local schools to provide them with a sample of "normal" boys to see what a child should be able to do. This is a problem because the baseline of normal was decided by teacher opinion rather than actual data...but that's all Binet and Simon needed; their test was a tool to help schools decide which boys were developmentally behind others. The problem came when other psychologists took the test and stretched it beyond what it was designed for.
The American psychologist Henry Goddard got hold of the Binet-Simon test and began administering it to thousands of American children (male and female) without checking to see what they could already do. Thus, if a child couldn't do what a small group of suburban French boys could, they were deemed below average.
After Goddard's test, a physician named Howard Knox wrote an adult version of the test to assess the intelligence of immigrants coming to America via Ellis island. Knox seems to have composed his questions out of thin air assuming that a "normal" adult should be able to do whatever he personally felt they should.
Following on from Knox, the Stanford psychologist Lewis Terman published his own supposedly more sophisticated version in 1916, again making-up questions based on his own personal feelings about what the average person should be able to do. Unfortunately, Terman was a noted eugenecist and racist so his test questions were based on information common to white middle-class America that black immigrants couldn't possibly be expected to know. Then, in some astonishing and offensive circular reasoning, Terman pointed to the fact that black immigrants didn't perform well on his test as proof that they worked.
Along with his student, Arthur Otis, Terman also introduced the idea of expressing results as a quotient based on the assumption that results should fit a bell-curve for a given age group. But here's the wacky thing...Terman never actually tested that assumption and nobody has since. The whole basis of calculating IQ score comes from an idea some guy basically made up!
The problem we now face is that it's unclear whether IQ test companies have actually rectified the problem because they can't publish data on how the tests are written. For example, if they published data that showed a certain type of question was harder, people could easily practice that kind of question, score higher on the test and artificially distort the results. The only way to assess whether the assumptions of IQ tests are correct would be to study them openly...which would immediately invalidate the tests themselves. A catch-22 of epic proportion!
So, does this mean IQ tests are useless ? Well, not quite. Critics of IQ tests have every right to point out that there are a wealth unfounded assumptions which go into them but, and this is important, it doesn't matter how a theory is arrived at or how sloppy the original scientists were. If a theory works, it works.
Fritz Haber was practically a war criminal but we still use his ammonia reaction to make fertiliser, Alexander Fleming discovered pencilin because he was a clumsy lab chemist who sneezed into a petri dish, but we still prescribe it for infections. Terman and the rest may have been irresponsible, even downright racist in their methodology, but we shouldn't evaluate IQ tests based on how awful the inventors were. We have to look at the data. And, against all the odds, IQ tests actually do sort of work. A bit. Sometimes. Vaguely.
By the mid 1930s, the main debate over intelligence was whether there really was such a thing. According to some psychologists, there was a single characteristic of the brain called g for general intelligence which fed down into all the different types of skill - memory, puzzle solving, pattern-recognition etc. According to others there was no such thing and people were simply good at different stuff.
One of the biggest surprises in the history of psychology came when a young student named David Wechsler settled the debate in another gob-smackingly lazy bit of science which accidentally revealed a valid result.
Wechsler had studied under many different psychologists who all had their own view of how to measure intelligence. Wechsler decided, in 1939, that the best thing to do would be to stick all the tests together and create one super-test. If g really did exist and intelligence was one thing, people who did well on one test would do well on all the others. The result was the aforementioned WAIS; a battery of thirteen sub-tests as follows...
1) Vocabulary and definitions (e.g. what does vulnerable mean?)
2) Similarity spotting (e.g. what is the link between a fork and a knife?)
3) General Knowledge
4) Comprehension (e.g. why do people put food in a fridge?)
5) Spot the missing shape in a series
6) Pattern recreation (you are given coloured blocks and have to recreate images)
7) Picture arrangement (you are given a series of pictures and have to put them in logical order)
8) Matrix puzzles (you are given a grid of shapes which follow a pattern and you need to spot it)
9) Arithmetic questions
10) Repeating sequences of numbers from memory
11) Putting strings of letters and numbers in a given order
12) Code breaking (you have to decipher a message using a table of values)
13) Finding given symbols in a grid of random ones
Wechsler himself believed there was no such thing as general intelligence and people simply had talents and preferences. The idea of a single number to reflect some underlying factor was ridiculous because how could one number reflect your whole ability? But, to his surprise, it turned out that there really is something there. People who do well on one WAIS test end up doing well on all of them...by similar amounts.
The largest survey to investigate the existence of g was carried out in 1997 by The Psychological Corporation who looked at breakdowns of the WAIS-III test, analysing 2450 Americans from 28 different cities ranging in age from 16 to 89. Given the 13 components in the WAIS-III there are a possible 78 relationships between sub-tests and every single one of them has a positive correlation. Which shouldn't have happened. Wechsler's test was cobbled together like Frankenstein's monster and yet somehow yields the inescapable result that there really is some unifying brain-feature which translates to a variety of mental skills.
The strength of a correlation can be expressed as a percentage where 0% means "no relationship" and 100% means "perfect relationship". A value of something like 20% means there is a weak relationship between the two variables while a value of 80% means there is a strong one. For the WAIS-III the average correlation across the 78 comparisons was a remarkable 50%. The strongest was 80% (between vocabulary and general knowledge) while the weakest was 30% (between number-sequence tasks and missing shape tasks).
A very important caveat is that g does not mean the same as the everyday word "intelligence". It refers to a currently unidentified cognitive feature and when we talk about intelligence there are other factors such as creativity and wisdom to consider...but g is a part of it. My personal feeling is that a correlation of 50% is still too vague for a score to be expressed as a single number, so I think an "IQ range" would be more useful, but the fact is g apparently exists and the WAIS IQ Test goes some way toward measuring it.
What Does It Tell Us?
So far all we've shown is that a single IQ score is a moderately reasonable way of measuring something inside the brain. But does it actually translate to the real world or is it just a number which tells you how well you're likely to do on other tests? Well, there are a few characteristics which an IQ score does seem to predict. I've picked a few example studies to show the most agreed-upon findings and although different studies disagree on the strengths of the correlation, the ones I've picked are fairly representative. It would appear that IQ can partly predict...
School Performance - 2015 study by Frank Spinath analysing over 105,000 students comparing IQ score with school performance and grades. They found a correlation of 54%. That's quite an important finding for me as a teacher. It means that while IQ plays a factor in how well a student does, it's only half the story. Optimistically, this means if you have a low IQ you are not destined to do badly in school although conversely if you have a high IQ you are not guaranteed straight A's either. Other factors like work-ethic, effort, teaching quality and probably a bit of luck will play into it as well. IQ is half the story of how well people typically do in school.
Income as an Adult - 2007 study by Tarmo Strenze analysed over 29,000 people comparing IQ score with income. Strenze found a 23% correlation which means there is a loose relationship but it's not everything. IQ can contribute a little bit to how much you'll earn as an adult but it's one of many factors.
Crime and Violence - 2013 study by Predesco of crime and IQ statistics of a dozen European countries found correlations of violence 50%, homicide 37%, motor-theft 39%, burglary 30% and nothing for robbery (6%). People convicted of crimes, especially violent ones, are more likely to have low IQs.
The P300 - 1998 study by Diaz found a correlation of 44% between IQ score and what's called the P300 value. This one is tantalising because your P300 value is a measure of neuron speed. It measures how quickly after a stimulus your brain waves change and on average, human neuron response-time is 300 milliseconds (hence the number) but people with higher IQs tend to be a few milliseconds faster. People with higher IQ scores are, on average, slightly faster in neuron response speed. Important note: This study sample was a lot smaller than the others but its result is too intriguing to not mention.
Weirder Stuff: IQ correlations have been shown between a few other unexpected personal characteristics. I won't go into much detail but the studies are out there if you want to go looking. IQ correlates positively with...
a) Being a fan of dark humour
b) Enjoying puns
c) Having been breastfed as a child
Because IQ is a slightly fuzzy measurement of a slightly fuzzy concept, it's possible to pull all sorts of correlations out of the data, some of which are subtle or misleading. It's widely accepted for instance that the tests are very dependent on culture and upbringing (after all, the first few sub-tests on the WAIS-IV are about things like general knowledge and vocabulary which are very environmentally shaped).
Sometimes this can be geographic e.g. children raised in Asian cultures perform, on average, slightly better than children raised in American cultures. This isn't really surprising given that the two cultures are vastly different, but it leads to the unfortunate misconception that "race" affects IQ. In fact, when you correct for environment, culture and upbringing, these differences vanish and people of all races do just as well on IQ tests.
But there are a few harder to explain quirks which come out. For instance, IQ scores negatively correlate with SAT scores i.e. people who do well on IQ tests are likely to do worse on their SATs...which is the exact opposite of what you'd expect. Another really weird correlation is that left-handed people tend to perform a few IQ points higher than right handed. Maybe because they live in a world which requires a bit of extra focus and puzzle-solving to do basic tasks (all the tools and equipment of the world are geared for right-handers) so perhaps their brains are just a teensy bit sharper and more practised?
Another interesting finding is that people's IQ tends to decrease during adolescence but then increase with old age i.e. a child with an IQ of 140 at the age of 9 might drop to an IQ of 110 by the time they're 22, but then go back up to 140 by their 40s. Contrary to popular myth, older people actually have higher IQs than younger people. Nobody has a clue why that's happening.
More baffling, and probably one of the most heated debates in the psychological community, is the "Flynn effect" discovered by James Flynn: the undeniable fact that the global average IQ scores are going up and not by a small amount. Flynn, who is not anti-IQ testing as has been reported, discovered that every generation performs significantly better on IQ tests than their parents did at the same age. So although your parents might have a higher IQ than you, you're probably smarter than they were at your age. But why is this happening??? Is modern culture preparing people to do better on the tests? Is it a change in diet? Are smarter people breeding more? We don't have a clue but the fact is there: IQ scores are going up.
There are also fascinating correlations between IQ and voting habits, religious practices and this is part of what makes IQ such a hotly debated topic. There currently isn't an accepted theory of what IQ even is, so it's up for grabs and nobody's exactly sure what's baby and what's bath-water.
The Young Science
Psychology is a new science and it's finding its feet. IQ tests are one of its first major contributions and, naturally, they're going to be a bit clunky. But, I ask you fellow scientists, were physics, biology and chemistry so different once?
Mendel's theory of genetics was a simplistic way to explain variation but it has a few nuggets of truth in it and pointed us in the right direction. Bohr's early model of the atom was unrefined and misleading but it gave us a starting point and, again, pointed us in the right direction. Lavoisier's first periodic table muddled up compounds with elements but, once again, it pointed us in the right direction. Science doesn't usually jump straight to the right answer in one go, it makes casual stabs first and I motion that IQ testing is of a similar nature.
The tests are problematic, vague and unreliable I agree but the fact that they do predict a few things with accuracy means they are a step in the right direction. There is something to be learned from them, we just don't know what it is yet. Yes, we have to be cautious and recognise that it is not the final picutre or even close to it, but it's an approximate sketch that vaguely resembles what we're ultimately looking for. Trusting or disregarding IQ in its entirely seems unwise to me. Recognising it as the first feeble attempt at something which might eventually work...that seems more like the "intelligent" thing to do.
Happy New Year
The Nerdiest Guy In School
It's been a while since I've written a blog so firstly, apologies for that. I've been quite busy the last few weeks because I've been marking exam papers, working on my next book and enjoying the delights of an Ofsted inspection at my school. It's been a long while since I added to my "Favourite Bits of Science" series but I've finally got a minute to write...and eat...and sleep.
In the first installment I talked about my favourite people from science history. In the second, I discussed science popularisers I look up to and in this third chapter I'm going to write something esoteritc, self-indulgent and weird. I'm going to talk about my favourite "things" in science. Not people, not books, not TV shows, not facts...things. What kind of person writes a blog like that, you ask? Well, more to the point, what kind of person reads it?
Favourite Particle: The Charm Quark
In particle physics, there were originally thought to be three types of quark (correctly pronounced to rhyme with 'fork', no matter what anyone tells you). The three quarks were named up, down and strange by Murray Gell-Mann, and using them we could explain the behaviour of every atomic nucleus known to man. Those three particles are really all you need. But what's interesting is that the strange quark is effectively a down quark with additional mass - as if nature gave the down quark a fat older sister for some reason. Wouldn't it be a lot neater, therefore, if the up quark had a heavier counterpart too?
The physicist Sheldon Glashow certainly thought so and proposed that there was a fourth quark hiding somewhere in the quantum wilderness. This particle was not essential to our theories and wasn't needed to explain any observation, but it made things a bit more pretty, and thus Glashow named it the charmed quark, because its existence would be a charming feature of reality. His proposed particle was eventually discovered in 1974 and his sentimental optimism was justly rewarded.
The charm quark doesn't do anything especially different to the other three, but I love it because it reminds me of something important. You sometimes get the feeling studying physics that nature only does things by necessity and that the governing law of reality is cold, mechanical causality. The charm quark is a reminder that sometimes the Universe is pretty for no reason. The Universe doesn't have to have symmetrical neatness, and yet it does. The charm quark is a reminder that nature isn't only interesting...it's beautiful and that's worth celebrating too.
Favourite Element: Phosphorus
Phosphorus is the eccentric loner of the periodic table. The unappreciated genius capable of chemistry no other element would think of. It is the only atom to regularly form five bonds to others and it comes in a variety of natural states, which is also unusual. While most elements tend to show up in one state with one colour, Phosphorus can be found as brown, black, white, red, yellow, purple, blue and glow-in-the-dark.
Phosphorus is the element which forms the backbone of DNA and is the "limiting reagent" in the biological ecosystem, meaning the entire population of living things on Earth goes up and down in line with the amount of available Phosphorus. Not only is Phosphorus crucial to life however, it's also an important part of death - being the most toxic element on the periodic table and the basis of most chemical weapons.
All of these reasons would be enough to make it an element worth taking note of, but my love of Phosphorus actually stems from something simpler and far less sophisticated. I once accidentally set fire to a chunk of phosphorus during a reaction and, before I began choking on the toxic fumes, I caught a glimpse of it burning and it is one of the most beautiful reactions I have ever seen. A photograph or video does not do it justice because on film it looks like any normal fire. But if you see it in the flesh, the flames of burning phosphorus are unique. They are silvery-white and ripple across the surface of the element like waves on a pond, hugging it as if they don't want to rise into the air. Even when being destroyed, phosphorus is incomparable.
Favourite Chemical Compound: Ionic Liquids
There are generally three ways atoms can bond to each other, called ionic, covalent and metallic. I won't go into the technicals (if you're curious, check out my first book Elemental) but ionic bonding generally goes like this...two small, roughly spherical atoms or molecules stick to each other because of a charge difference. One molecule or atom is positive, the other is negative and when they pack together they form a rigid lattice, resulting in crystals, salts and rocks etc. because they are tiny, highly charged pellets of matter crammed together in stubborn arrangements. But there is one bizarre exception.
If, instead of tiny balls of charge, you have two molecules which are quite big and bulky, the positive and negative charges get spread out across the molecules. The result is that the charge-attraction gets diluted and when the molecules bind together, it's a weak attraction, meaning they don't form solid structures. They form liquids. Something which, prior to the 1930s, was thought to be impossible.
Ionic liquids have all the properties of salts and crystals, but also the properties of liquids. They tend to be thick gloopy substances, resembling honey or treacle, and they are usually colourless, yellow or orange. What's really interesting is that because the particles in the fluid are so loosely attracted to each other, they tumble at a very low rate, so anything dissolved in them also interacts very slowly. This means you have enough time for complicated reactions to take place and you can tailor your ionic liquid to the reaction you're trying to achieve.
Ionic liquids fascinate me because they are substances which shouldn't exist...and yet do. I also spent a whole year studying their behaviour (read more about that adventure here) and I think they're going to be one of the next big things in chemical research.
Favourite Equation: S = k log W
Sir Arthur Eddington once wrote "If your theory is found to be against the second law of thermodynamics I can offer you no hope; there is nothing for it but to collapse in deepest humiliation".
The second law of thermodynamics is one of the most worshiped principles in Science and works its way into everything from data analysis to evolutionary anthropology. It says, put simply as possible, that energy tends to spread over time. Things don't become ordered at random, they become disordered and you can't get energy to stay in one place. Everything from sugar poured on a kitchen table to the fabric of the cosmos itself spreads out, and we call this spread of energy "entropy", defined via the equation above.
It's a bit hard to talk it through without diagrams and sketches but here goes. Firstly, you take the number of possible ways energy can arrange itself, represented by the letter W (nobody knows why that letter was picked). Then you find what's called the logarithm of that number. That means: how many times do you have to multiply a number by itself to reach the value of W. It doesn't matter what number you pick to use (typically you use 10 or sometimes the number "e") but once you have that, you multiply it by "k" which is called Boltzmann's constant - a number which relates the energy of particles to how they are moving and the computed answer will give you the entropy of what you're looking at.
I love this equation because it's simple enough to write in a few letters and yet it has far-reaching implications. I once carved a giant version of the equation in the snow of my high school's back field (I'd like to think it's the largest snow-equation ever made) and when Ludwig Boltzmann, the man who came up with the concept of entropy, died, they put the equation on his tombstone. Which means I have a favourite tombstone as well...
A New Day Is Dawning
In part I of this series I revealed my all-time favourite figures from Scientific history and why I admire them so much. In part II, I've decided to talk about the art of Science communication itself and what I consider the finest examples of the craft. Both my jobs are essentially: "explain Science to people who don't know the Science," so obviously this is something I care about a great deal.
I started compiling the list last week, but as I went along I began to notice something rather surprising...all the stuff I've chosen was created in the last few years. Initially, this made me feel like an uncultured swine, but then I realised something pretty exciting. I've seen Sagan's Cosmos and Bronowski's The Ascent of Man. I've read Darwin's On The Origin of Species and Levi's The Periodic Table and while I don't want to dismiss these towering works, I'm going to say something a little bold...I think Science communication is better today than it ever has been.
It's possible to respect the classics of an art-form, while simultanesouly recognising that contemporary material can outshine it. What's wrong with saying you prefer Stephen King as a storyteller to Charles Dickens? Why can't we admit that Shakespeare wrote garbage (The Taming of the Shrew) as well as genius (A Midsummer Night's Dream)? And why can't we dare admit that maybe, just maybe, Next Generation is better than The Original Series?
Absolutely we should honour the trailblazers which came first, but that doesn't mean we can't improve on them. In fact, isn't that what's supposed to happen with time? Shouldn't we learn from the flaws of the past and do better today? Well, when it comes to Science communication I think we're doing just that.
There has never been a better time to be a Science geek because people are getting more educated about how things work and as literacy improves, so does the quality of explanation. Consider how in the 1950 movie Destination Moon, the main characters walk around the lunar surface without helmets because the general public simply weren't aware there was no air in space. Or how in Superman, Kal-El reverses time by spinning the Earth in the opposite direction because people weren't aware that...it wouldn't work. You couldn't get away with those errors in a movie today because people are more informed. We're smarter than we've ever been, so I'm not ashamed to say that I think the best Science communication is happening right now. Without further ado...
Favourite Science TV Series (Non-Fiction): Planet Earth II
Perhaps it's because I'm not a zoologist and therefore less familiar with the animal kingdom, but every sequence from 2016's Planet Earth II had my jaw on the floor. Narrated by the voice of quality itself, David Attenborough (who writes his own scripts incidentally), Planet Earth II presented the most startling footage of animals and their environments I've ever seen. While Attenborough's recent Netflix series Our Planet is also worth a watch, Planet Earth II has a more optimistic tone. Our Planet puts an emphasis on how much we're screwing the planet up - I mean in fairness, we are - but Planet Earth II reminds us why the planet is worth saving in the first place. Also, Our Planet has an insufferable credits song while Planet Earth II has a score by Hans Zimmer. Planet Earth II wins.
Favourite Science TV Series (Fiction...Sort Of): Chernobyl
A bit controversial as it's not strictly about Science, but I think 2019's Chernobyl is still worth mentioning. Currently ranked #4 on IMDb (Planet Earth II is #1 by the way), Chernobyl shows, in agonising and brutal detail, how the Chernobyl nuclear power plant disaster occurred and how Soviet Scientists worked to contain and understand the damage, clashing with the political obstructions of their culture. It's a fictionalised account of the real tragedy but it's drawn from transcripts, eyewitness statements and court documents, so while it's not exactly a perfect documentary, it's pretty damn impressive. I started watching it one evening at 7pm and found myself so gripped I binged the whole series in one go, finishing around midnight. It's depressing as hell (the fact it was written by Craig Mazin who wrote Scary Movie 3 is kind of astonishing) but if you can stomach the graphic violence, Chernobyl shows you what Scientific honesty looks like.
Favourite Science Book: Behave by Robert Sapolsky
Robert Sapolsky is probably my favourite living Science writer and his books have genuinely brought me to tears from laughter and sadness. Behave is not only his masterpiece, it is the finest thing he (or anyone else) has written about Scientific knowledge. Sapolsky draws on his expertise in anthropology, primatology, biology, neuroscience, psychology, sociology and philosophy to tackle the human condition itself and figure out why we are the way we are. While it's easy to dismiss difficult questions like "nature vs nurture?" Sapolsky doesn't shy away from them or pull his punches. He gets right down to the nitty-gritty of what we know about behaviour and what makes us act the way we do, covering everything from war to religion to economics to education. I have never felt any book should be compulsory reading because forcing a book on someone will make them hate it, but I might make an exception for Behave. If there was one book every lawmaker, leader, preacher and teacher should read...it's this. Oh, and obviously my book. Duh!
Favourite Science YouTube Channel (Non-Technical): Symphony of Science
This one is just plain old fun. Created by John Boswell, Symphony of Science is a series of music videos assembled from auto-tuned interviews with Scientists and documentary footage. It's kind of hard to describe (check out the one above) but if you want a distilled barrage of cool images set to funky techno-songs about Science, Boswell is your guy. While this series doesn't really educate or explain the facts as such, it encapsulates the fun and wonder of Science perfectly, as well as giving you tunes you'll be humming for days. Science can be playful as well as heavy and it's nice to remember that. Plus if you've ever wanted to hear Bertrand Russell rapping, look no further.
Favourite Science YouTube Channel (Technical): The Theoretical Minimum
So let's say you're wanting to get stuck into the complexities of how modern physics works. Let's say you aren't afraid of putting hours aside to dredge up your high-school math lessons and you want "just the facts ma'am". The guy you want to go see is Leonard Susskind, Richard Feynman's protege and probably the finest Physics lecturer out there. A few years ago, Susskind began a lecture series at Stanford University explaining Physics in full detail and stuck them online for anyone to watch. There's no frills or special effects, but by Thor's hammer, this guy knows his stuff. Be warned, it's "Physics with the hard stuff left in" and there isn't a whole lot of singing, but if you're wanting to be stretched, Susskind's raw approach is for you.
Onward to Optimism
In last week's blog, I talked about bits of Science I find challenging and how there's nothing to be ashamed of in getting stuck. We're all human and we all struggle (except for Michael Keaton who is too awesome to struggle with anything) so it's OK to ask for help when needed.
My aim in writing that piece was to encourage people to be open about their difficulties and not feel judged in admitting that sometimes they find stuff hard. It seems to have been a success and I want to say thank you to everyone who e-mailed me confessing to their own hated parts of Science. Nevertheless, I feel obligated to counteract the negativity of that essay and write something a bit more upbeat. What better way to do that, than to write about the bits of science I absolutely adore!
The challenge I faced this time was narrowing it down. There are so many things I want to talk about it wouldn't fit into one blog...so I decided to break it into several. I don't know how many parts there will (or when I'll find the time to write the rest) but I'm going to share my personal picks for the best bits of science ever. Is this going to be a tad self-indulgent? Probably. Sorry about that!
Favourite Scientist (Early) - Michael Faraday
Michael Faraday was the son of a poverty-stricken blacksmith and never got a chance to attend school. He routinely faced ridicule and scorn from wealthier echelons of 19th century English society for not being as well educated, but he was a determined investigator and a perpetual thinker who ended up having the last laugh when he invented the basis of pretty much all modern technology.
When the chemist Sir Humphry Davy (discoverer of seven elements) accidentally blasted his eyeballs apart during an experiment, Faraday was hired as his lab assistant and soon showed so much skill and intuition that Davy was prompted to declare Faraday his greatest discovery.
Faraday’s most significant contribution to Science was the theory of electromagnetism – the idea that electricity and magnetism are both facets of the same phenomenon and that we can manipulate or generate them given the right tools. The importance of this discovery is hard to over-sell. Pretty much every power station in the world runs on Faraday’s principle of inducing electrical current in a wire by spinning a nearby magnet, and almost all our communication techniques rely on controlling electromagnetic fields.
We have Faraday to thank for mains electricity, radio and television, mobile phones, wi-fi signals, infra-red remotes, X-rays, lasers and all of contemporary astronomy. For a guy who could barely do fractions, he more or less invented the modern age.
The main reason I admire him so much however, is not his profound discoveries but his personal character. Faraday believed in the work he was doing and did it purely for the good of mankind. He turned down the offer of a knighthood because he didn't believe in titles and he also refused to accept numerous financial rewards because he was not concerned with making money. He also started giving Science lectures twice a week to members of the public (free of charge) and permitted women and children to attend, because he wanted everyone to have the opportunities he had never been afforded.
Faraday believed in Science and he believed in the human capacity to understand it, no matter what a person's gender, race or age might be. As a Science teacher, I can't help but idolise the guy for that. Oh, and he invented party balloons. No, seriously, I'm not kidding. Faraday invented balloons!
Favourite Scientist (Modern) – Richard Feynman
Richard Phillips Feynman was in many ways at the other end of the spectrum to Michael Faraday. While Faraday was a dignified man of honour, Feynman was a charismatic rogue who delighted in pranks and parties (although, for the record, he thoroughly disliked alcohol and drug-use). While Faraday shunned glamour, Feynman swam in it - scooping a Nobel prize for physics, enjoying the “company” of countless women, and having red carpets laid out for him at weekly lectures.
Feynman was basically the Han Solo of physics, known more for his antics than his actual Science. That's not surprising mind you, given his specialism was quantum field theory, something I can't do justice to in a single paragraph. Although now's probably a good time to shamelessly plug my book on quantum physics.
The best I can do in a few sentences is say that Feynman was the first person to make quantum physics work properly. Before him, quantum physics was a disheveled array of facts and question marks which nobody had synthesised into a single idea. Feynman was the guy who achieved that, by establishing the basic principles everything else sprang from.
The reason I admire Feynman much however, is not for his caddish personality or even for his outstanding contributions to physics. It's because of the way he approached scientific problem-solving. All too often in Science you’re fed a bunch of equations and jargon-words which don’t actually get you any deeper to understanding what's going on. It’s tempting to build on the work of others, but Feynman preferred to do things differently and insisted on working everything out from first principles until he arrived at the same conclusion.
Feynman would start with a handful of easy to understand facts and extrapolate one step at a time, never introducing a new concept without picking it to pieces. He believed that the only way you could understand a phenomenon was to ignore all assumptions and work from the ground upward. Feynman's approach to knowledge is probably best summed up with this quotation of his: “If I can’t explain it to a freshman, that means I don’t really understand it.” For Feynman, the art to being a good scientist was to simplify things, not make them more complicated. Something which is forgotten all too often.
Favourite Scientist (who was really more of a mathematician) - Emmy Noether
There's a good chance you've heard of Faraday and Feynman; they're pretty well known figures in Science history. But not many people have heard of Emmy Noether and that's a shame because she was probably one of the five smartest people of the last hundred years. Oh and if you're wondering how to say her surname, it should rhyme with "murder" with a soft d. Actually, the only word I can think of which rhymes properly is the giant flaming demon-monster from Thor: Ragnarok...so if you've seen that film, you're on the right track.
Born in Germany at the end of the 19th Century, Amalie "Emmy" Noether faced a lot of prejudice throughout her life, partly down to being Jewish and partly down to having a uterus. Naturally she was treated like dirt at University, with numerous male members of staff requesting she be expelled for the crime of...I dunno...being a woman who's good at math I guess? She had to work unpaid in her role as lecturer, and had to advertise her talks under a man's name. But, just like Faraday, Noether was able to confound her doubters by coming up with one of the most important physics theorems in history: Noether's theorem.
Again, it's pretty hard to summarise Noether's theorem in a few sentences. The general gist goes something like this however: in every law of physics there are certain things which cannot change. For example, in thermodynamics we make the assumption that energy cannot be created or destroyed. In engineering and mechanics we find that it's momentum which stays constant. In particle physics it's something called lepton number and so on. What Noether's theorem does is predict which things can and cannot change for any law of physics. Or, putting it another way, it's the foundational law of physics that everything is built on.
Although technically more of a mathematician, Noether's contribution to theoretical physics is so profound it underpins everything from why neutrinos exist to where the Higgs boson comes from. Oh and as if that wasn't enough, Noether was the woman who helped Einstein figure out the mathematics of his theories of relativity when he got stuck. Just think about that. When Einstein got stuck, he asked Noether for help. Not even Michael Keaton can claim that.
Favourite Science Author – Isaac Asimov
My two jobs are talking about Science and writing about Science. So when I’m planning a lesson or lecture or when I'm sitting down to write an essay, the man I most aspire to emulate is Isaac Asimov. In a career spanning 52 years, Asimov managed to write or edit over 500 books, getting published in 9 of the 10 Dewey Decimal non-fiction book classifications. Asimov wrote histories of the Bible, analyses of Shakespeare, books of limericks, biographies of poets and critiques of politics, not to mention a somewhat phenomenal career as a science-fiction author. For me however, his greatest talent was writing about Science for non-experts.
With his wolf-man facial hair, Asimov was a professor of Biochemistry at Boston University and wrote thousands of short articles and essays explaining Science for the general public. Although some people find his acerbic self-agrandising sense of humour a little obnoxious, I always admired him as a teacher because of his guiding principle when it came to explaining things: “Be clear”.
Asimov wrote on every scientific topic imaginable, from the validity of IQ testing to the nuances of special relativity and at all times he insisted that as long as his explanations were clear, he was succeeding. He didn’t pepper his writing with flowery prose or philosophical asides (something I am often guilty of), he just stated the facts in a logical progression. So talented was Asimov, that other Scientists would challenge him to write articles on increasingly complicated and difficult-to-explain subjects, but Asimov always won because he knew something important: if you can say it with Science words, you can say it with regular words too.
Sometimes you read his work and think, “why didn’t I think of saying it like that? Ot’s really simple,” and that is the mark of a good teacher. Someone who can make even the most complicated ideas seem obvious. Frankly, he puts most other science authors to shame, myself very much included. Obviously, I know I will never be as good a writer as him...but you've got to have something to shoot for.
In 1999 the Canadian non-profit organisation Companies Committed to Kids ran a television campaign aimed at boosting children’s self-esteem with the slogan: “Nobody’s good at everything, but everybody’s good at something.” By contrast, Public Service Announcements in the UK are about wearing a seat-belt so you don’t kill your dad in a car crash. I mean, they’re both important messages but as a teacher I’m more interested in the first one. It’s rare that I crash a car inside my classroom but I frequently come across students doubting their ability to do STEM (Science Tech Engineering Maths).
That’s to be expected, of course. I mean, let’s be blunt about this…STEM is hard. There’s no such thing as an intellectually perfect person (with the obvious exceptions of Spock and Data from Star Trek) so naturally everyone struggles from time to time. In a perfect world there wouldn’t be any shame in admitting this, but for all sorts of reason we’re often reluctant to advertise our cognitive shortcomings, and this presents a real dilemma for educators.
As both a teacher and author I want to make sure my students/readers feel they can trust me to “know my stuff”. But at the same time, I want them to see me struggle so they don’t feel bad about running into difficulty themselves. If people perceive me as infallible they’re less likely to ask for my help because they’ll be worried about me judging them, but on the other hand if they see me as useless they won’t ask for help in the first place because they won’t believe I can provide it. How do you get that balance right?
I’ve been contemplating this question a lot over the past week with the start of a new academic term, when it struck me that the simplest thing to do would be write a public declaration of various bits of STEM I find difficult. I’m not one for subtlety (check the title of the blog) so, without further ado here’s a list of the top STEM areas you don’t want me teaching you. How's that for a Buzzfeed-worthy title?
Almost All of Biology
This one’s no secret to anyone who has seen me teach the subject. I know virtually nothing about animals, I’m not 100% sure what a chromosome is and I can’t tell you what the pancreas does (something to do with diabetes???). Biology has always been the weakest of the three natural sciences for me, and it's almost a running joke in my department that I'm not allowed to cover a Biology lesson.
It’s hard to pin down why I lost my way with Biology (my high school teacher was actually really good) but for some reason I got turned off to the subject as a teen. By the time I realised it was cool, I was a busy adult and could never find the opportunity to sit down and learn the basics.
On rare occasions when I do have to teach the subject, I read over the material the night before, follow a detailed lesson plan on my desk and by the following night I’ve typically forgotten everything I said. Really, students in my Biology classes might as well just read out-loud from the textbook…that’s more or less what I’m doing.
There are a few exceptions to this rule - I’m fairly well-versed on the brain, the biochemistry of medicines and drugs, and I know a disturbing amount about the composition of plant-matter - but other than that I’m typically worse than a rank amateur. I really wanted to put a Biology metaphor in there but I don't know any! That's the problem!
Basic Mental Arithmetic…that most children can do
I’ve got a tense working relationship with mathematics. The kind you have with a work colleague after you send an e-mail to everyone in the office mocking the shape of their ears, only to realise you accidentally copied them in as well.
I can use mathematics when necessary, but it’s not something I seek out. I only like it when I’m using it for chemistry or physics and if I go outside that comfort zone I’m immediately drowning in symbols. And, without a doubt, the area of maths I’m most clumsy with is basic mental arithmetic.
I’m serious here. I, a thirty one year old STEM teacher with a Master’s degree and a couple of bestselling books to my name, have difficulty doing simple sums in my head. I’ll muddle fractions, I’ll miss decimal places, I’ll get powers of ten in the wrong order and I can’t even sum a series of two digit numbers without writing them down first. I can never split the bill in a restaurant, I am lousy at calculating percentages and I can genuinely see myself getting hauled in front of a judge some day for tax fraud because I’ve accidentally forgotten to carry the one or something.
This can be quite embarrassing in front of a class when I’m struggling to work out 107 - 9 in my head, but there it is. I can explain all four of the Maxwell equations at the drop of a hat, but ask me to work out 60% of 50 and I’m going to need a minute.
There is a mental condition called dyscalculia which is a bit like dyslexia for numbers. I have no idea if I’ve got it (I wouldn’t be surprised) but either way, it doesn’t seem to be something I can avoid. That’s actually one of the reasons I respect people who work in retail. I’ve got no clue how to count my own change, let alone someone else’s.
I’d like to claim this one is just a “fiddly topic” everyone struggles with, but the whole point of this blog is that different people struggle with different things, so I can’t let myself off easy by saying everyone finds this topic hard. But...for the record…they totally do.
Fluid mechanics is the physics of how gases and liquids move and although I can massage my ego by reminding myself that lots of people find it tough, I still suspect I’m much worse at it than most physicists.
You may have come across the entry-level stuff in school yourself. Things like Archimedes’ principle and buoyancy, terminal velocity and air-resistance, gas pressure and expansion etc. They’re all topics I feel edgy when teaching, so if you're in my class and I look a bit nervous talking about these things, it's because I am!
In fact, to give you some idea of how lousy I am at fluid mechanics, I once managed to foul up a calculation so badly I ended up proving the Atlantic Ocean was 3 centimeters deep. Spoiler alert: it isn’t. Clearly this is a topic I’ve never been particularly…wait for it…fluent in! Ha ha ha! Fluid/Fluent? What an amazing use of language! I’m so freaking hilarious! OK, but seriously, buy my book.
And Finally, My Arch Nemesis
If Physics was a 90s video game, the boss at the end of the last level would be (for me at least) the topic of circular motion. Batman has the Joker. Sherlock Holmes has Moriarty. Kanye West has rational thinking. I have circular motion. My ancient rival, tormenting me since before time began.
Circular motion is, as the name suggests, the physics of things moving in circles. Anything from the moon orbiting Earth to balls going round on strings. It’s counter-intuitive, it’s fiddly, it’s mathematically fiendish and it kicks my butt every single time I grapple with it.
With most of the subjects I teach and write about, I understand them deeply enough to explain them in lots of different ways, but when it comes to circular motion I basically just know the facts. I don’t feel like I truly grasp them in my gut. I just cannot get my head round it (I’d like to claim that pun was intentional but it wasn’t. It was, in fact…pun-intentional).
I first encountered this jackass of a topic while studying A-level physics myself at the age of 17. I knew right away it was going to be trouble and the exam I sat on it was so horrible I remember coming out of it and making the joke to one of my friends: “well, there go my University options”. In fact, my score on that exam cost me the top grade at A-level because I nailed all the other papers but bombed that one hard.
This experience of learning circular motion has scarred me so much that I can barely listen to Circle of Life without feeling deep bitterness, and every year when we’re carving up the syllabus to teach, my head of department knows “Don’t give the circular motion topic to tim!” because I’ll go on strike if I have to teach it.
There Is Nothing To Be Ashamed Of
Everyone likes to feel smart. We place a huge value on intellect and it’s no wonder people never want to admit when they can’t do something. But I really think we need to change that mindset. STEM is a vast subject encompassing everything from how lions breed to how computer networks function. Given the sheer amount of information and skills that fall into STEM, it would be weird if you didn’t suck at at least some of it.
There’s so much out there to learn, it’s ridiculous to set yourself the target of being good at everything you ever study. Sometimes you can be smart and still suck at something. That doesn’t mean you’re slow. It simply means you find some stuff hard. Like everyone ever.
I have to remember that just because I can’t do certain parts of STEM with ease, doesn’t mean the bits I can do are suddenly tainted or devalued. In fact, I think this is one of the most important things to remember about the scientific community in general: it's a team effort and it has to be. We're trying to figure out the Universe, nobody can do that on their own!
I’m not very good at Biology but that’s OK because there are plenty of doctors and zoologists who have me covered. I’m not very good at mental arithmetic, but that's OK because Charles Babbage and Ada Lovelace invented the calculator! I’m not too hot on fluid mechanics but that's OK because there are so many chemical engineers out there I don’t need to worry about it. Circular motion…that’s a thing which exists.
While I’ll always strive to better myself and face intellectual challenges as they come, I can accept that some parts of STEM I need other people’s help on. And that’s a good thing. That’s what makes STEM so awesome; the collaborations it leads to. Being good at everything has its advantages but it isolates you quite a lot. Being human is much better because it means not only can you help other people when they’re stuck, they can help you too. Not only is there something for everyone in STEM, but there’s someone for everything.
Good luck to all the students out there starting new courses and to all the fallible educators doing their best to help!!!
Stranger Things Have Happened
I've recently been enjoying the third season of the Netflix original series Stranger Things, directed by Matt and Ross Duffer. If you've not run across it, Stranger Things is a nostalgia smoothie of 1980s pop-culture, homaging the sci-fi/horror works of Stephen King, John Carpenter, Steven Speilberg, Tobe Hooper and George A. Romero, with a few Weird Al Yankovic songs sprinkled in for good measure.
It's mostly harmless cotton-candy fun, blending coming-of-age drama with gross-out-horror, and does a nice job of honouring Generation X Hollywood without ripping it off. As someone whose adolescence included a healthy diet of these movies/novels/comics, I've enjoyed all three seasons so although I didn't grow up in 1980s small-town America I can enjoy it for the flashy, splashy, trashy homage-athon it is.
The central conciet of Stranger Things is that shady government forces have accidentally opened a portal to a parallel universe (oops) through which horrible beasties come crawling, and only a group of bicycle-riding pre-teen nerds can save the world from annihilation. Oh, and one of them is telekenitc. As I say, I didn't grow up in 1980s America, so I can only asssume this was a pretty common occurence.
In the show, this alternate dark-dimension is neatly called "The Upside Down", a reference to flipping a Dungeons and Dragons board upside down to get to the dark side of existence. Alternate realities have been a staple of fantasy and myth for centuries, but the idea was formalised in science fiction in the 1934 short story Sideways in Time by Murray Leinster, in which humanity learns there are parallel versions of Earth occupying the same space and time, only on a different frequency, the same way radio station signals exist in the same location but can only be picked up one at a time.
Surprisingly, and rather awesomely, in the last few decades theoretical physics has started taking the idea of parallel realities seriously because they may be necessary to explain some of the most puzzling phenomena about the world around us. By my count, there are three main places in modern Science where parallel universes are talked about, so let's take a look at what physics says about the Strangest Things of all...the laws of nature.
1. The Many Worlds Hypothesis - Quantum Mechanics
I don't want to give too much away on this one, because I've got a book out in less than a month which has a whole chapter on the topic (click here to pre-order Fundamental). I'll whizz through the basics however.
One of the many peculiarities of quantum mechanics is that particles are seemingly able to do more than one thing at a time, even things which are contradictory. Consider the humble light bulb, a device which can be switched either on or off, but never both simultaneously. This seems like an inviolable law of logic: something cannot be in two mutually exclusive states at the same time. Individual particles however do precisely that - an electron can choose to spit out a photon (a particle of light) and simultaneously not spit it out, meaning the electron is both giving out light and not. Although the everyday world seems to follow the laws of logic, quantum particles have no interest in them. Take that, Aristotle!
Unfortunately, we have no way of really understanding how this is possible. There are a few ways of tackling the idea to make it more palatable for our feeble brains however, the most popular of which was the view promoted by Werner Heisenberg (of Breaking Bad fame) and Niels Bohr (of I Hate Einstein fame). In their way of looking at things, you just sort of shrug your shoulders and decide nature doesn't have to make sense to us. If particles want to do contradictory things we have no choice but to let them. But not everybody is happy with that approach.
Probably the most talked-about alternative is the one suggested by Hugh Everett III, who pointed out that although we know particles can apparently do opposite things at the same time, when we observe them we only see one outcome. We have never actually detected the light bulb being on or off together, even though we can infer it must be happening, so Everett suggested both states exist in different Universes, only one of which we can see.
That, according to Everett, explains the bizarre dual nature of particles. There are two overlapping Universes and particles can take entirely different choices/paths in each one. We can infer and calculate that both are taking place at the same time, but we can only ever witness one reality - the one we are in. It's a crazy idea but large numbers of physicists, including Richard Feynman and Stephen Hawking, felt it was the only way to make head and tail of the mystery.
This means there could be a vast number of parallel Universes in which a countless number of events have taken place. The laws of physics would basically be the same, but the way particles choose to operate within those laws could be different everywhere. There are Universes where the particles in your brain have done different things, meaning you have made different choices and lived a different life entirely.
2. The Multiverse Hypothesis - Cosmology
The Universe exists (spoiler alert) and within it, there are physical laws which allow it to do so sesnibly. Things like the law of gravity, electricity and magnetism, nuclear decay, the behaviour of atomic nuclei and so on. If any one of these laws were changed a little bit, the Universe would look very different to the point of being unrecognisable.
For instance, take gravity. A Universe in which gravity did not exist would be totally unfamiliar. Not only would the apple never fall in front of Newton, it would not have existed in the first place because there would be no solar systems, no planets and no objects on their surfaces.
At the start of the Universe there were just a bunch of particles free-floating with little to do with each other. Gradually these particles started sucking themselves inwards until they were crushed into hot balls of plasma - suns - and the only way for this to happen is through gravitational attraction. No gravity, no stars. And, if there are no stars, there is no way for heavier elements to get formed via the fusion process, no heavier elements means no chemistry, and therefore no planets either. Without gravity, the Universe would be one big, boring cloud of hydrogen and helium. In a very real sense, you owe your existence to gravity.
Or let's instead suppose all the laws of physics did exist but in different ratios. What I mean by that is that the strengths of the various laws could be totally different to what they are for us. For instance, there is a force inside the core of a nucleus called the "Strong Force" because it holds protons and neutrons together strongly - gotta hand it to physicists for creative nomenclature.
If the Strong Force were not quite so strong, protons and neutrons would not stick together, meaning atoms would not exist. Forget a big cloud of hydrogen and helium, without this force being strong enough, there would be no freaking atoms at all!
In fact, we are susprisingly lucky that the fundamental forces of nature interact the way they do. Tweak them just a little and physics looks very different. So...how come we're lucky? Is there some reason the laws of physics just happened to fall into just at the right strengths to allow the beauty we take for granted to exist? There are a number of possible explanations.
The first is that it's due to random chance and that we were simply fortunate. Another explanation is that the Universe was arranged this way by a benevolent science-loving entity, which some people call God. Another explanation is that there are trillions of Universes out there all existing in different regions of space like bubbles in a foam. Inside each Universe the laws of physics are slightly different, and we just happen to be in one of the more interesting ones. This idea is called the Multiverse hypothesis and explains why the Universe is so conveniently put together. It's not that the Universe is special, it's just that there are so many Unvierses anything is possible in at least one of them.
3. The Bulk Hypothesis - String Theory
The Many Worlds and Multiverse hypotheses are quite similar. They both propose many Universes with alternate timelines and everything distributed at random with us experiencing just one of them. The physicist Leonard Susskind has even published a paper arguing that these two hypotheses could be the same thing. He proposes that random fluctuations during the big bang meant the laws of physics chose different identities in different realities before branching off. In this view, the Multiverse idea is just what you get as a consequence of applying the Many Worlds approach to the big bang itself. The Bulk Hypothesis, which we get from String Theory (which Susskind co-invented) is very different though.
String Theory is a hell of a subject and I plan to write about it in more detail in the future. For this blog however, we only need to focus on one small aspect of the theory: stacking branes.
In String Theory there are no such things as particles. Instead, all the laws of physics can be explained using a buffet of different objects which interact with each other in complicated ways. One of these objects is called a string...duh...but more relevant to our purposes are objects called Branes (short for Membranes). Membranes are surfaces which can be layered together like pages in a book, each one entirely separate to the one adjacent and the pile of membranes is referred to as a "bulk".
Now imagine an Atlas which has a 2D image of the world on every page. These 2D worlds would be stacked together in a 3D bulk and to any 2D creatures living on the page they would have no idea there was another world right next to them. Now all you have to do is imagine the whole thing in higher dimensions...easier said than done of course.
In The Bulk Hypothesis of String Theory, our Universe could be a 3D membrane, stacked alongside other Universes in a 4D bulk. We just can't see these other Universes. The same way a 2D being could not perceive a third dimension, we cannot perceive a fourth, but there is no reason such a dimension could not exist. In this view, there could be countless parallel worlds all around us, separated along a dimensional axis we cannot see.
Which Is The Upside Down?
The Upside Down in Stranger Things is the classic "dark dimension" where evil psychic tentacle monsters exist, and there are no Ikeas. The scientists in the show are able to access it using a bunch of hand-wavy Universe-penetrating machines in order to exploit a place where the Upside Down Universe and ours are so close the barrier between them is thin. And this actually gives us a major clue about which alternative Universe The Upside Down has to be.
One of the key features of the Many Worlds hypothesis from quantum mechanics is that you can never observe the other reality where particles are doing opposite things. In fact, when two overlapping Universes take different routes they are said to "decohere" from each other and we can only detect them indirectly through the mathematics of our experiments. The many worlds of quantum mechanics are completely inaccessible. Which rules them out.
The same can also be said of the Multiverse hypothesis. In this one, the different Universes are either separated by enormous distances in space, or enormous stretches in time and we have no way of getting to any of them by conventional means. We could potentially create a wormhole between the dimensions but statisically we would be far more likely to find a Universe where the laws of physics are completely different. In Stranger Things, the Upside Down is different to our reality but is still pretty close; everything is made from atoms, carbon-based life-forms exist, there is a weather system, light and electricity behave in a similar fashion etc., so it is very unlikely The Upside Down is part of the Multiverse.
But The Bulk Hypothesis works nicely. If we were to connect to one of the other membranes of the bulk, it would probably be somewhat different to our own Universe, but close enough to be recognisable. The same basic laws of physics would apply, just with a few minor discrepancies - which is what we see in the show. In fact, the show makes a big deal of objects and locations in our world corresponding to objects and locations in the other one e.g. we don't open a portal to the Upside Down and find ourselves in the middle of empty space - there's a planet the same size as ours on the other side, with the same gravity and roughly the same geography.
What's more, the other membranes of the bulk are the only ones we might actually have a way of "reaching". Whereas the many worlds and multiverse realities are completely separated from ours, in String Theory, there are hypothetical particles called gravitons which can move from one membrane universe to another, allowing two universes to talk. Perhaps if we found a way of controlling a graviton beam (which the scientists in the show seem to have done) we might be able to send a pulse from our Universe to the next one along, opening a channel across which information and maybe even matter might be exchanged. What's more, once this rift in the bulk had been opened it would be very difficult to close...leading to huge problems and lots of useful plot developments. So there you have it, Elven and the gang are early pioneers of String Theory!
Personally, I find it pretty cool that the ideas of a speculative TV show like Stranger Things are actually matched by real developments in theoeritcal physics. Sometimes sci-fi shows have no regard for real science, which is fine of course (it's entertainment not education), but I always find it rewarding when there's a plausible way to justify the fun.
The only other show to feature String Theory in any detail was NBC's dubious sitcom The Big Bang Theory, which I have written about here. That show also attempts to mash-up a bunch of nerdy pop culture references but the main difference is that in The Big Bang Theory the nerd characters just spend their time arguing over movies and sex, whereas in Stranger Things the nerds get to save the world.
One year ago, I published a couple of blogs outlining (1) How I somehow became a science author and (2) How I wrote my first book: Elemental. I concluded them both by saying that whether my book was a success or not, I was just honored to have the chance at getting one published. It probably seemed like I was covering my ego’s back there, but I was being truthful. Really.
It was actually quite a surprise to feel that way. I assumed that in the run up to release-date I’d be pining for a success, but I actually became very stoic about the whole thing…I was just happy to have my own book. If it flopped then so be it. How many people get such an opportunity in the first place? Obviously, I wanted people to read and enjoy my work, but I was not aiming for glory.
It was released on July 1st 2018 and, after finishing up my day-job as a school teacher, I headed to my local bookshop to do a signing. It has to be said, it’s a very cool feeling to see your book on the shelves amid the works of…y’know…real authors. But it felt more like the end of a journey rather than the beginning of one. The book was complete, the work was over, now I just had to accept whatever happened.
In fact, if I’m being totally honest, I didn’t expect Elemental to be a hit. It’s a biography of the periodic table - something most people famously hated in school. I figured I’d sell a few hundred copies to my gran perhaps, but that would be the end of it. The shock I got when I learned that Elemental has been a success still hasn't sunk in.
“Yeah it’s doing OK thank you”
People are so supportive when you do something like this and I get asked all the time how the book is doing. It’s really nice that people take such an interest, but I tend to respond in the same way every time I'm quizzed about it. I sort of shuffle my feet and mumble bashfully that it’s doing fine thanks.
I have no clue why I act like this! I respond to people asking about my book the same way I would respond if they were asking about an inflamed gall bladder - like I’m ashamed of the success or something? It’s flattering that people actually want to hear about it, but I guess it's because I don’t know what the etiquette is for an author whose book is doing well. Do people want sales figures? Do they want to know how much money I’ve made? Do they want to know what the critics have been saying?
I tend to be fairly coy about the whole thing and people have to dig it out of me, but I’ve been informed by enough people that being a tad boastful about my achievement would be acceptable, even healthy.
I dunno, it feels a bit weird to acknowledge it, but I will say that Elemental did a lot better than I or my publishers anticipated. It sold out on Amazon within a few weeks and they had to print a second run. Bookshops had to order double the typical amount and it was stocked in at least eight countries I’m aware of, being translated into three other languages. I got featured in Science magazines, did interviews for BBC radio and The Daily Mail listed it as one of the top books of 2018. Even The New York Post arranged an interview with me for the US release - although sadly that never made it to print (I’m not quite that famous yet!)
However, the most gratifying thing about the whole experience, more exciting than the prestige of telling people I’m an author, is the messages and reviews I get from people telling me how much they enjoyed and learned from it.
I’ve received e-mails from people I’ve never met in countries I’ve never visited whose language I don’t even speak, telling me they enjoyed Elemental. I’ve had people e-mail me saying the book has persuaded them to study chemistry at University and I’ve even had people tell me they’re reading it to their kids as a kind of bizarre bedtime story.
The positive response has been worth all the stress and gave the publishers confidence in me as a writer. That was the main reason I wanted to do well…so they’d give me a chance to write more! And, thanks to the response of my loyal readership, two weeks after the release of Elemental my publishers at Little, Brown offered me a deal for a sequel.
They liked the format of Elemental, being a humorous and informal guide to Chemistry, so they asked what other topics I could do it with. This was quite different to last time. When my agent and I first approached publishers we were trying to persuade them to take a chance on me, but now I had proven myself they wanted to see if I had more tricks up my sleeve. I did. There wasn’t even a moment’s hesitation. It had to be quantum mechanics...
When people ask what my favourite area of Science is, I usually respond with the same joke: “Oh I don’t have a favourite, I love all of it. Also, quantum mechanics.”
When I was a teenager my science teacher, Mr Evans, gave me a textbook on the subject and, putting it simply, I fell in love. That sounds mawkish but honestly the feeling wasn’t all that different. I became obsessed with it to the point of adoration and could think of nothing else. Studying it made me happy and I wanted other people to see its beauty.
The basic premise of quantum mechanics is that there are two Universes around us. There’s the universe of everyday “big” things, where laws of logic and common sense hold and then beneath the surface, at the scale of atoms, there’s a different world entirely; a world where the normal laws of physics no longer work and you have to let go of common sense for it to make sense. Quantum mechanics is full of parallel universes, teleportation and time travel as well as approaching profound questions of spirituality and consciousness.
Don’t get me wrong, I love chemistry and Elemental was a really fun book to write. But this one was going to be a passion project. Something I would be writing from the heart. First though, I had a difficult question to answer.
How the hell do you write about quantum mechanics in plain English?
As soon as the publishers gave me the greenlight, I outlined my chapters, got a library of textbooks by my bedside for research and then…I’m just going to admit this plainly…I was hit by a wave of self-doubt.
The pressure of a second book was enormous. Surely I should be playing it safe and writing about something easy! Why had I picked, of all things, quantum mechanics for my sequel? I kept thinking of when Josh Trank got hired to be the director of the Fantastic 4 movie following the success of his small indie-sci-fi horror Chronicle. Trank was not ready to tackle such a huge project and it resulted in a total mess - one of the worst super hero movies in history. Was I in danger of making the same mistake? What if I was a one-hit wonder whose first book did well only as a fluke?
Elemental worked because chemistry can be described in simple terms, without having to get too bogged down in technicality. Quantum mechanics, on the other hand, is so abstract and counter-intuitive that explaining it in plain English is impossible without covering the deep science. In chemistry, you can go straight to the fun bits without having to lay any conceptual groundwork, but in quantum mechanics it’s the reverse. In order to get to the cool bits you have to do the tricky stuff first.
That’s the reason physicists prefer to communicate about quantum mechanics through equations - describing this stuff in words is difficult, so it’s easier to come up with a bunch of symbols that represent “the weirdness” and not worry about understanding them. But I wanted to write a book about quantum mechanics without a single equation. That’s not impossible - if you can say something in mathematical symbols you can say it in english language symbols - but it’s a major challenge.
Then there was the problem of which bit of quantum mechanics to focus on. Some books focus on the experimental details, some tell the historical story of how we came up with it, some focus on pure explanation and some handle the philosophical implications. I wanted my book to be all of those things. I wanted to write a complete tour of the quantum landscape, but maybe I was in danger of becoming the Victor Frankenstein of Science popularisers - cobbling together things which did not belong and, in my hubris, creating a monster.
Then there was the biggest threat of all...quantum mechanics is a subject close to my heart. It’s always a risk when writers, musicians, filmmakers etc. get to make their passion projects because they can become self-indulgent. I wanted to make sure my second book wasn't just me going on about something I loved, I needed to show other people why I loved it and why they should love it too.
A Sweeping Epic
As soon as the contract was signed I felt I had bitten off more than I could chew. I started to doubt it could be done or whether I was the right person to do it. In fact, for the first few weeks I didn’t even begin typing - I was too afraid of writing something dreadful. But then I was reminded by a friend that this was a book I’d wanted to write since I was a teenager and that I had a lot to say. If I just got to work without second-guessing myself, maybe the book would just flow out of me. I decided to heed this advice and got on with writing the damn thing. Sure enough, once I started, I couldn’t stop.
Initially, one of the things which intimidated me was that the publishers asked for an 80,000 word manuscript. Elemental was half that size. The task of writing something so huge was daunting, but once I began, I found the stories I wanted to tell forming on the page as if it wasn't me writing them. By late August, I was up to 60,000 words with roughly two thirds of the intended material covered. I was going to hit my target…or so I thought.
A week before school term started I headed to publisher HQ in London to discuss my progress. I explained in a meeting, rather proudly, that I was on track with 60,000 words done already. At which point my publisher stared in confusion: “How are you going to cut it down?” he asked.
I think everyone experiences these moments of horror at some point in their lives. It’s the feeling you get when you suddenly know exactly what the bad news is going to be, but you have to ask for it anyway. Turns out there had been a typographical error in the contract. They wanted the book to be 45,000 words max.
God knows how someone accidentally types 80 instead of 45, but I was now seriously over my word limit, with only two thirds of the book done, and the deadline approaching in a few months. And I was about to start back at school (which is a pretty time-consuming job).
The suggestion was made at one point that I split the book into two - one focusing on the history of quantum physics and one focusing on recent developments. I probably would have made a bucket load more money doing that, but I didn’t want to pull a Deathly Hallows on my readers. People don’t like paying twice to get one story. So I decided I would just write the book in full, then trim it down from whatever size it ended up as. The final first draft wighed in at 76,000 words which I had to reduce by 40%. The only way to do this was to be ruthless.
My Only Advice
I don’t feel like I have much advice to give on the topic of writing. I’m new to it as a professional, but the one thing I would say to anyone wanting to become a writer is: pick your test audience well and listen to what they say. Chances are your first draft isn’t going to be a masterpiece and by the time you’ve finished it and put all that work in, you’re too close to know which bits work and which bits don’t. You need to get outsider opinions, you need to trust that they’ll be honest, and you need to act on their feedback.
As with my first book, I recruited a group of people to read the book from different perspectives and be cuttingly honest. I got friends who knew nothing about quantum mechanics, friends who were enthusiastic about it but not necessarily experts, friends who had degrees in the subject and friends who had no interest whatsoever…and asked them all to tear it to pieces as best they could.
Your ego has to take a hike here, because you’re not writing the book for yourself anymore, you’re writing for your readers. The early drafts are where you selfishly write the book as you think it should be…then you have to make it worthy of others. You can’t just sit there feeling smug; you have to expose it to criticism and actually accept it. Don’t argue with the people who review your early drafts, otherwise what’s the point in getting them to read it?
There were jokes which didn’t work and had to be removed. There were sections that made no sense or contradicted what I’d said earlier. There was even a bit where the legal team had to intervene because I spent a whole chapter making fun of a scientist I had forgotten was still alive and liable to sue. But, over the course of several stressful but productive months, we battered the book into shape and by the end of January 2019 it was ready. 45,000 words and a week left on my deadline
Ready for Round Two
The title for my second book had been something I’d joked about since before Elemental. Because Elemental was all about the elements, a book about the fundamental laws of particle physics should be called Fundamental. Presumably my future books will have to be about the brain (Mental), climate change (Environmental) and teeth (Dental).
Discussions then began about what the front cover would look like. As I explained in my previous blogs, the cover is of great importance because that is often the only advertising a book gets. We decided to model the design on a similar theme to Elemental - a simplistic image that would communicate a straightforward approach, as well as looking vaguely friendly and non-intimidating.
At least a dozen e-mails were exchanged about capitalization of words in the subtitle and which letters should be upper and lower case (really) as well as font sizes and styles. This attention to detail still surprises me, but it really is a testament to how seriously publishers and graphic designers take their craft. They absolutely want to hone the design to a point of perfection, so that everything about the cover says “give this book a go”.
Then came the audiobook. With Elemental, the audio was recorded by voiceover artist Roger Davies but for this one we decided it would work best coming from my own throat. I headed down to ID Audio Studios in London and spent two days sitting in a studio where such luminaries as Olivia Coleman, Bill Nighy, Roger Moore and Richard E Grant have recorded books, and then I talked for two days into a microphone as a producer directed me (mostly telling me to slow down because I have a tendency to talk fast when I get enthusiastic).
And now, Fundamental is ready. It will be published in the UK and a few other European countries on August 1st 2019 in paperback, e-book and audiobook. You can pre-order it now on Amazon if you want (which may seem pointless from a consumer perspective, but it helps me as an author by encouraging bookshops to stock it), and now I am ready for round two.
I’ve been here before of course, but this time I’m far more nervous. With my first book, I was just thrilled to have gone on the adventure. But as I write this, with publication a few weeks away, I’m feeling very different. It’s not that this book is a more ambitious project, nor is it the fact that there’s more money involved. When I really think about it, my anxiety comes down to something very simple: I don’t want to disappoint my readers.
With Elemental I didn’t have a fanbase so to speak. I mean the website gets hits and I have followers on Instagram and YouTube, but my debut book was published all over the world to people who had never heard of me. This time I have fans to satisfy. A group of people who enjoyed and learned from my first book and I want them to feel I’ve done them a service with the sequel.
I once heard an author, the name of whom I’ve forgotten, saying “I hope my readers enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it”. I see where they’re coming from but actually I want my readers to enjoy it more. Readers give writers their purpose and if you’re not concerned with keeping them happy, you’re just obnoxiously writing for yourself!
Fundamental was a fun book to write, but the only thing that matters is that other people read it, enjoy it, and learn from it. So, to all my fans out there, thank you for the overwhelming support you’ve shown for Elemental. I’ve put a huge amount of myself into Fundamental but I’ve written it for you. I hope you enjoy what I’ve created!
You can pre-order it here if you want to support the writing: Fundamental: How Quantum and Particle Physics explain absolutely everything (except gravity)
Welcome To Jurassic Park
If you’re anything like me, you probably have fond memories of Mr DNA, the animated strand of genetic material from Jurassic Park (shown below). During the first act of the film, entrepreneur John Hammond asks Mr DNA to explain how scientists have brought dinosaurs back to life so the audience can understand the plot. Interestingly, Hammond’s budget was sufficient enough to reverse 65 million years of evolution, but didn’t extend to animating Mr DNA with a head.
You probably also remember from school that the people who discovered DNA and figured out how it worked were James Watson and Francis Crick, who shared the 1962 Nobel prize for their work. But if you talk to most biologists today, you find that Watson and Crick are spoken of in the same shady tones that wizards use when discussing Lord Voldemort.
These two iconic figures, once heralded as the greatest biologists of the 20th century, have fallen into ill repute and their role in the DNA story has been exposed as a little less shiny than textbooks usually claim. Let’s look at the sordid story of DNA.
Oh and by the way, it’s important in scientific discussion to separate the scientist from their work. You may dislike a particular researcher but if their findings point to an obvious conclusion you have to put personal flaws aside and evaluate the discovery on its own merit. The fact that James Watson is on record as having made racist comments like claiming black people are intellectually inferior to white people is not something I need to mention in this paragraph. I probably won’t bring it up at all in fact.
What Is DNA?
When your mother was pregnant with you, her uterus had to find a way of turning all the food she ate into your body (happy belated mother’s day by the way). You did the same thing as you grew from a baby into an adult and are doing it right now as your cells die and need to be replenished.
You’re able to reconstitute food this way thanks to nanoscopic biological machines called ribosomes that live in your cells and have the ability to draw in chemicals from digested food before sticking them together in the right order to make a bit of liver, a bit of heart, a bit of lung etc. Ribosomes are like building contractors, but in order to do their job they need a blueprint. This is where DNA comes in.
DNA is the molecule which stores information the ribosomes use. It’s the molecule responsible for all your inherited characteristics and the reason evolution takes place at all. The way DNA works is ingenious but confoundingly complex, so I’m going to simplify it and give a crude physicist’s understanding of the process. Enjoy…
Firstly, there are four molecules we need to meet called Adenine, Thymine, Guanine and Cytosine. These molecules - collectively called nucleobases - are each bonded to two other types of molecule called phosphate and deoxyribose, which join together in a long chain (shown below). The backbone of the chain is made from alternating phosphate-deoxyribose units, with the nucleobases hanging off like pegs on a clothes line.
Nucleobases are attracted to each other and if you get two of these strands lined up side by side, the nucleobases link to form the rungs of a ladder. Due to their specific sizes and shapes, A always pairs opposite T and G always pairs up opposite C, meaning the backbones of the structure stay at a constant distance. Then, as you probably know, the chains twist into a double helix, like so…
When DNA is needed for decoding, the strands of the ladder are unzipped, exposing the nucleobases so that a ribosome can read them. There’s a whole bunch of steps which take place but the gist is that the sequence of As, Ts, Gs and Cs, are read by a ribosome like a cassette-tape fed through a player (if that analogy doesn’t make sense because you have no idea what a cassette tape is…ouch).
As ribosomes move along the nucleobase chain, they analyse it like fingers gliding over Braille. The ordering of the ATG and C molecules tells the ribosome how to arrange molecules from your food into a specific body-part protein and thus the living organism itself (shown below).
Changing the order of the nucleobases completely changes what the ribosomes build, which is why tiny variations in DNA can lead to major differences in the organism. Put the bases together in one order and the ribosomes will build a goldfish. Rearrange them just a little and you get a gooseberry.
Oh and technically I should mention there is a fifth nucleobase called Uracil which your bio-machinery uses as part of the process, but I’m going to ignore it in my explanation because it just convolutes things. Sorry Uracil, you aren’t needed for this. Ura-still important though. (I don’t know what I’m doing with my life).
So, Watson and Crick Figured That All Out?
The general idea of DNA was actually suggested by Charles Darwin in 1859 when he published On the Origin of Species. In order for his theory of evolution to work, it was necessary that genetic information be encoded inside a living thing somehow and copied with occasional errors. Obviously Darwin had no idea we needed to be looking for a specific molecule (we didn’t even know atoms existed at this point) but he knew the body had to have some mechanism for storing genetic information. Frankly, if we hadn’t discovered and figured out the behaviour of DNA, Darwinian evolution would still be just a hypothesis rather than a theory we teach in Kentucky high schools.
DNA itself was discovered ten years later by Friedrich Miescher who was doing experiments on bandage-pus obtained from a Swiss hospital (There. Right there. That’s why I chose physics and chemistry over biology). Miescher discovered that most white blood cells contain an acidic chemical in their nucleus - hence the “NA” part of Nucleic Acid - which had a lot of phosphates in it. Miescher had no idea what the significance of the chemical was, just that the body seemed to contain a lot of it.
Then, in 1878, Albrecht Kossel found that nucleic acid contained the nucleobases A,T,G and C, while Phoebus Laverne discovered they were bonded to deoxyribose sugars - hence the “D” part of the name “Deoxyribose Nucleic Acid”. The idea of DNA being made of chains with nucleobases sticking off them was suggested by Nikolai Koltsov and we thus had a good idea of what DNA was. We just didn’t know what it was for.
That was until 1944 when Oswald Avery discovered something surprising about it. Avery found that by transferring the DNA of a harmful virus into a harmless one he could convert the safe virus into a lethal one i.e. the defining characteristics of a thing, the very notion of inherited characteristics Darwin had proposed, was the DNA molecule. Figuring out the structure of DNA would give us the key to life itself.
Then, in 1950 Erwin Chagraff discovered that the amount of Adenine in DNA is always equal to the amount of Thymine, while the amount of Guanine is always equal to the amount of Cytosine - suggesting nucleobases were somehow paired up. All we had to do was figure out how. And this is where the backstabbing begins. (Unlike Watson's racist comments which came several years later)
Lady of Crystal
The same year as Chagraff’s discovery, a talented physical chemist named Rosalind Franklin came to work at King’s College London as a research associate with the Medical Research Council. She was given the task of analysing crystals of DNA using X-ray crystallography (a way of taking photographs of a molecule) alongside another scientist named Maurice Wilkins.
Franklin was a skilled scientist with several papers to her name, but felt a bit of an outsider, being one of the only Jewish researchers at King’s College. Her feeling of isolation was not helped by Maurice Wilkins who openly badmouthed her and treated her as a lab assistant rather than an accomplished scientist in her own right.
She persevered however and by 1951 had gathered useful data about DNA. In November of that year, she gave a lecture in which she explained “the results suggest a helical structure which must be very closely packed, containing 2, 3 or 4 co‐axial nucleic acid chains.” In attendance at this lecture was James Watson, a geneticist from America studying at the Cavendish laboratory in Cambridge. A week after hearing Franklin’s lecture, Watson and his lab partner Francis Crick proposed that DNA might be helical. Wonder where they got that idea from.
Watson explained in his book The Double Helix that he hadn’t really been paying attention to Franklin’s lecture however, because he was more distracted by her unflattering womanly appearance…so I guess…that’s a defence??? I mean we only have his word for it that he was more of a misogynist than a plagiarist, but in any case he relayed the gist of Franklin’s lecture to Crick and they built a 3D model of the structure: a triple-helix of deoxyribose-phosphate threads with nucleobases sticking out the sides.
As chance would have it, the following month Rosalind Franklin was visiting the Cavendish laboratory, having been invited by its director Lawrence Bragg. When Franklin saw the triple-helix model she immediately explained that it was chemically impossible because phosphate backbones repel each other, meaning the helix Watson and Crick had proposed would tear itself apart in seconds.
Bragg was so embarrassed by this that he told Watson and Crick to drop the project and leave the structure of DNA to Franklin. They officially complied and sent Franklin their disassembled model, possibly to give her a hand but possibly as a childish taunt.
Franklin continued her research and by May 1952 had perfected the technique required to crystalise DNA and take a snapshot. Her best result was an X-ray plate titled Photograph 51 (shown below) taken right down the axis of the helix, which was then written up for the Medical Research Council.
In January of 1953, Maurice Wilkins (the guy who hated Franklin) wrote to Francis Crick and suggested they collaborate on the structure of DNA again. He finished his letter by stating: “Let’s have some talks…when the air is a little clearer. I hope the smell of witchcract will soon be getting out of our eyes” – referring to Rosalind Franklin who had recently applied to be transferred.
Then, on 30th January, James Watson was visiting Wilkins to complain that if they didn’t solve the structure of DNA, somebody else would get the glory (most likely the American Nobel prize winner Linus Pauling who had recently published his own triple-helix model). Unable to find Wilkins, Watson instead went to Rosalind Franklin and got into a row with her after telling her she wasn’t able to interpret her own data and would need his and Crick’s help to do so. Wilkins arrived on the scene and took his friend Watson away from “the witch” and then decided to comfort him by showing him Photograph 51 – without Franklin’s permission.
Watson went straight back with the information and Crick began speculating on what it might be showing. He had recently come across Chagraff’s discovery that nucleobases were paired together but couldn’t figure out how. Then came the crucial month. February 1953.
Round about Valentine’s day, Rosalind Franklin wrote in her lab notebook that DNA was made from two chains of deoxyribose-phosphates, wrapped around the outside with nucleobases on the inside. Basically, she solved the structure of DNA. At roughly the same time, Max Perutz, Francis Crick’s thesis advisor, showed Crick Franklin’s data from the unpublished MRC report – again without Franklin’s permission – and Crick made a crucial deduction. The two strands of DNA wound about each other in opposite directions.
He and Watson set about building a model to show this and finally, on 28th February, Crick announced to his friends in a local pub that the structure had been solved. Franklin was already in the process of writing up her own research and, on 17th March, learned that Crick had already begun announcing himself and Watson as the discoverers.
Graciously, she added a note to her paper saying that her results agreed with their structure and on 25th April, Watson and Crick published the idea. Watson and Crick did at least admit in the article that their work was “stimulated by the unpublished ideas” of Franklin but gave little indication that she basically came up with most of it.
Sadly, Rosalind Franklin died in 1958, four years before the Nobel prize committee decided to award that year’s prize for DNA and the prizes are not awarded posthumously so her name was not featured. Instead, the prize went to Francis Crick (who published the double helix theory first), Maurice Wilkins (who did some of the experimental work) and James Watson (a scientist).
So the timeline is roughly as follows...
1859 – Darwin proposes the idea of a genetic code
1869 – Meischer discovers DNA
1878-1928 – Kossel, LaVerne and Kotslov figure out what DNA is made of
1944 – Avery discovers what DNA does
1950 – Chagraff discovers nucleobase pairing
1951 – Franklin suggests DNA is a helix, Watson attends the lecture but doesn’t get it right
1952 – Franklin takes “Photograph 51” which looks helical (May)
1953 – Maurice Wilkins shows Watson photograph 51 (January) who then tells Crick about it
1953 – Franklin almost figures out the structure (early February)
1953 – Perutz shows Franklin’s data to Crick (mid February) who figures out the structure
1953 – Crick announces the structure has been solved (late February)
I am the Law
Franklin was treated horribly by the men involved; that much isn’t in dispute. Even Crick admitted “I'm afraid we always used to adopt -- let's say, a patronizing attitude towards her.” The human interest story is therefore that Franklin was mistreated by three men who got rewarded, with her name becoming a footnote. However, the question remains: did the men break any codes of conduct or were they just being sneaky?
Was Wilkins wrong to show Watson Photograph 51 without Rosalind Franklin’s consent? Was Perutz wrong to show Franklin’s data to Crick? Was Watson “stealing” Franklin’s helix idea after seeing her lecture or was he simply building on her work? The morality is a little unclear for one big and important reason: there is no law or governing body in Science. Science works as a collaborative effort and the sharing of ideas is a necessary part of the process – which kind of muddies the waters on what counts as stealing an idea and what counts as testing it.
The only real law scientists hold to is: “don’t make it up”. Other than that, Science is the search for truth and you can’t trademark that because it belongs to everyone. It’s largely accepted that scientists should give each other credit when appropriate, but if people choose not to, there is no “official punishment”. Science is a self-regulating community with nobody in charge, which means that if a Scientist is unethical it’s up to other scientists to exact informal justice.
Sometimes, the scientist’s university will strip them of their titles (as happened to Watson when he made those comments about black people), sometimes they will not get funded again, or never be published in another journal. But they don’t have their Science license revoked and go to Science prison because there’s no such thing.
In the case of Watson (and to a lesser extent Crick) the general response has been to simply judge them as jerks and subtly badmouth them wherever possible. What else can we do? Franklin was 95% of the way to solving DNA but in fairness Crick was the guy who made the final step and published first.
If we assess the facts dispassionately then I think Crick does deserve some of the credit for the DNA discovery. That doesn’t seem fair because he solved it by nefarious means, but I said at the beginning that we have to evaluate the science and the scientist separately. Crick did make a contribution so he deserves to be acknowledged, but I am still allowed to say that what happened to Franklin was downright despicable!
The Great Relay Race of Science
Watson, Crick and Wilkins’s behaviour toward Franklin was not nice but DNA got solved and that’s what matters. We got to the final answer in stages rather than as one revolutionary breakthrough and it’s hard to single out any one person as having been the most instrumental, (although Rosalind Franklin is probably the standout candidate having both carried out the experiments and interpreted the data correctly).
Science is often like a relay race where each person gets the baton for their stretch of the track. The person who actually crosses the finish line (Crick) might get the cheer but they are no more important than the other members – remove any one of them and the whole team loses.
Sadly, or perhaps fairly, that’s how credit tends to work. It’s the person who gets the answer first who is praised, even if they were just adding final touches to other people’s ideas. This is a result of human psychology more than anything else. We like praising people for achievements and we aspire to be like our heroes, but our brains are wired to focus on individuals rather than ensembles. Unfair perhaps, but nobody ever said evolution was fair – thank DNA for that.
As a final thought, I will share that I was recently the subject of outright scientific plagiarism myself. A blog I wrote on “The Science of Infinity Stones” was copied word for word by someone who I will not name and reposted on Instagram without crediting me. They didn’t even paraphrase the damn thing – they literally copy-pasted it word for word and blocked me before I could let anyone know. The person’s account has tens of thousands of followers, many of whom commented how great the post was and that the person should write a book (irony).
I was mildly annoyed about this for a moment, but then I realised I didn’t care that much. I wrote the blog for free and just wanted to entertain and educate. The phrasing and humour is obviously my invention but the Science isn’t “mine” at all. Ultimately, my ideas were being read and people liked it – that’s pretty gratifying in itself!
Getting credit is nice because it boosts the ego but if I’m honest, that’s not the reason to do Science or to teach it. You do it to make the world a better place and sometimes that has to be good enough. Of course, if that guy wins a Nobel prize for my post, I might change my tune.
If you want to find out a bit more about the complex history of Franklin, Crick and the other two, check out my sources...
If I Could Talk With The Animals...
Most animals on Earth engage in some form of communication. Baboons rub feet in each other’s faces to signify “I am in the mood for sex,” herring gulls tap their beaks on the ground to let the young know “I have food,” and cats sharpen their claws on your ankles to make sure you know “you ain’t all that.”
My favourite mode of animal communication however is easily that employed by honey bees. When scouts want to describe their nectar finds to the rest of the hive, they perform what are genuinely called in the literature a “waggle-dance”. They shake their rears around in a figure eight with the length of dance indicating distance from the hive, and the angle they make to the vertical axis of the hive translating to the angle between the sun’s position in the sky and the food source. They also secrete pheromones to indicate how good the source is, meaning rival bees have to argue for whose find is superior. That's right. Bees communicate using bum-dance trigonometry battles.
Sadly, humans have not mastered this subtle art, but we have invented something truly remarkable for sharing ideas and information: languages. Six thousand five hundred of them are known to our species alone, so is it possible that other species could develop something similar?
First off, I think we can argue that many other species have “words” – unique noises which convey a meaning. Chickens for instance have distinct clucking sounds for “predator approaching from above” and “predator approaching on the ground”, indicating that the noise is not just a panic - it is telling other chickens vital information.
Squirrels take this even further with their barks; they are more likely to make a warning call if members of their family are close and less likely to do so if there is a rival squirrel in the area i.e. some animals can not only use sound to convey information, they can change their noises depending on who is listening. There is even a fascinating project being carried out at the University of Washington called Deep-Squeak which aims to build a computer capable of translating mouse-squeaks into English.
You might consider these noises to be nothing like words because they are just simple sounds, but I would immediately dispute that. Consider Silbo, a language which is entirely whistled, allowing shepherds to communicate across the valleys of La Gomera island. Or take the Taa language of West Africa which contains 164 letters, 111 of which are clicking sounds. Or how about the Wakashan language of British Columbia which features throat-grunts as well as vowels. If we consider clicks, whistles and grunts to be legitimate word sounds, why not the noises animals make too?
But Is It Language?
This all sounds pretty optimistic but there is something really important we need to consider. As the linguistic philosopher Noam Chomsky pointed out when addressing this issue, language is more than just a collection of words – it is also the rules for how those words can be combined.
A vocabulary is not the same as a language, in the same way a dictionary is not the same as a play by Shakespeare. In fact, the English language contains over 171,000 words and the average English-speaking adult speaks 60,000 of them, meaning the average English-speaking adult only knows 35% of their own language. Clearly there is more to a language than just "knowing the words".
For example, here is a sentence I doubt anyone has ever written: In Antarctica there are a species of pink pandas who eat wood shavings. That sentence is not one you have seen before, so you cannot simply be recognising the combination. Yet you still know exactly what the sentence means. Language is not just memorising and regurgitating words. It allows us to generate new combinations that are still meaningful.
Another key feature of language is that as we increase the length of word combinations (the sentence) we increase the information contained within them. For instance:
1) I like hats.
2) Janet said “I like hats”.
3) According to Frank the fishmonger, Janet said “I like hats.”
4) According to Frank the fishmonger, who really should not be trusted given the fact he is a Twilight fan, Janet said “I like hats”.
The more words we put in, the more information we convey and we can do this infinitely. Then of course we have to consider the order the words come in. The sentence “Margaret likes Jeff and hates Richard,” means something different to “Margaret hates Richard and likes Jeff”.
These are the kinds of features we do not find comparisons for in other species. Animal noises are mostly isolated and combinations of them contain no new information. A chicken can utter the squawk “predator approaching” over and over, but this longer sentence does not increase the meaning, it is just repetition. Animals also do not seem to invent new sentences or have a grammar to their limited sounds, but this makes sense from a neurological perspective because, as it turns out, human brains are genuinely different to those of most animals.
Dawn of the Language of the Apes
I’m about to horrendously simplify half a century’s careful study into the field of linguistic neurology, but hopefully you should pick up the gist even if my words are not precise. There’s another feature of human languages - a distinction between literal and implied meaning.
The human brain has two main centres for processing language (found on the left side of the brain for 90% of the population) called Broca’s area and Wernicke’s area. Put crudely, Wernicke’s area is the part which deals with comprehension while Broca’s area deals with remembering words and generating combinations.
People who suffer damage to Broca’s area are still able to follow complex instructions and listen attentively to what people are saying, but speak in a halting, staggered fashion. “Me…want…food” etc.
By contrast, people who suffer damage to Wernicke’s area are able to speak fluently and elaborately, but their sentences are meaningless word-salads: “There wasn’t four parsons undulating to birefringent celery opacity for plums with your mesmerisation.”
Most other animals do not even have a Broca's and Wernicke's area, so language is physically beyond their capability, with the exception of the ape species of course. Chimpanzees, orangutans, gorillas and bonobos have very small Broca’s and Wernicke’s areas. Nowhere near as develeoped as ours, but these emerging structures might imply that apes can learn something akin to language.
The first attempt to teach an ape to speak was made by Catherine and Keith Hayes in 1951 with their chimpanzee Viki. By rewarding the chimpanzee and moving its mouth to encourage certain sounds, the Hayes were able to get Viki to “say” four words: mama, papa, up and cup. And yes, listening to recordings of Viki is every bit as disturbing as you might imagine.
A lot of debate raged over why Viki could only master those four words for several years, until someone pointed out the freaking obvious: chimpanzees don’t have the vocal chords needed. In fact, no other animals do.
While many animals have a larynx and tongue, the arrangement of them inside the human throat allows us to make a wider variety of sounds than any other creature. There are obviously animals which can make noises we can’t - pistol shrimps produce screaming sounds which reach 200 dB - but those are the only sounds these animals can make. It isn’t just our brains which are unique, but also our mouths and throats.
However, just because apes cannot make sophisticated vocalisations does not mean they cannot learn language. After all, there is a whole category of human languages that involve no sound whatsoever: sign languages.
Sign of The Times
Sign languages have all the same features that “verbal” languages have. American Sign Language for instance has over 50,000 words as well as grammatical rules and syntax. Word-order matters in ASL, longer sentences contain more information, new sentences can be invented, different people sign with different "hand-accents" and they can be used to express metaphor, write poetry and tell jokes.
In fact, deaf and mute babies start “babbling” with their hands at the same age hearing and speaking children start babbling with their mouths. They begin to wave their hands in an incoherent fashion as they grasp the language they are exposed to…which means language is not really about moving your throat and engaging your ears, it is about understanding the meaning behind the signifiers.
And, perhaps most importantly, Broca’s and Wernicke’s areas light up in brain-scans just as much for deaf and mute people as for speaking and hearing people. These brain regions are not really about the ears or the throat, they are about the far more abstract notion of processing and creating meaning for symbols. So whichever muscles your language uses are irrelevant. Your brain still allows you to speak. So obviously we tried it with apes.
The first chimpanzee to learn sign language was named Washoe. In 1967 she was adopted by Beatrix and Allen Gardner who taught her 350 words in American Sign Language, and there were many remarkable findings. Washoe could hold basic conversations with the Gardners and was observed “talking to herself” i.e. signing when nobody else was around.
More remarkable was that Washoe, on a few occasions, was apparently able to join words together to form new combinations. When presented with a picture of a duck for instance, Washoe signed “water-bird” which at the time seemed astonishing.
However, the primatologist Herb Terrace was skeptical of these claims and by studying both Washoe and his own chimp fluent in ASL (which he named Nim Chimpsky), he discovered that what the chimps were doing was not really language.
Apes can only make two-three word combinations at most and are unable to increase the amount of information by extending a sentence. For instance, one of Washoe’s favourite phrases was “tickle me” (Chimpanzees love to be tickled) but if the Gardners refused to tickle her she would simply repeat the phrase over and over: “tickle me, tickle me, tickle me, tickle me”. She could not handle a longer sentence like “tickle me now” or “tickle me or I will be sad.”
Washoe was also not able to get word-order correct. Just as often as “tickle me” she was liable to sign “me tickle”. So her signing ability had no syntax and no extension of meaning. In fact, as Terrace pointed out, even the water-bird phenomenon was nothing special. Washoe could just as easily have been signing “water” because there was water in the picture and then “bird” because there was a bird. The sign combination “water-bird” did not mean “bird that floats on water” but simply “there is some water…there is a bird.”
Whereas children start inventing new sentences (and sometimes words) around 15 months old, the chimps never did. They were just repeating the physical signs they had been taught and were not understanding them the same way we do. Don’t get me wrong, it’s still impressive that a chimpanzee was able to look at a picture of a bird on water, process the information and sign the correct symbols…but it’s not what we would call a language. Sign language does not allow apes to speak, unless we somehow strap them into some kind of robotic talking device...
The Koko Kontroversy
Perhaps even more famous than the Washoe experiments was the work of Penny Patterson, a former Stanford psychology doctoral student who, in 1979, decided to recreate the Washoe trials with a female gorilla called Koko, borrowed from San Francisco Zoo (“borrowed” is a generous term because Patterson actually refused to return Koko after the agreed lease was over, claiming Koko did not want to live among gorillas anymore and had fully acclimated to humans…which many people considered a form of animal cruelty, isolating Koko from her kin).
Patterson taught Koko a lot of signs (she claims over 1000) and it appeared for a long time that Koko’s verbal skills were even greater than Washoe’s. Koko could identify colours, answer simple questions and even expressed sadness at the death of Robin Williams (a celebrity she had met many years prior). Koko would also issue Christmas cards online through Patterson’s website, wishing the world peace and love. This is a gorilla supposedly making abstract comments about an entire species. It seemed too good to be true. And of course, as Herb Terrace began to demonstrate, it was.
The first suspicious thing was that studies published by Patterson were non-existent. She did not publish data or describe any controlled experiments, preferring to communicate everything through press conferences and edited online appearances. It’s easy to get “oohs” and “aahs” from an audience, but this does not prove Koko was doing the things Patterson claimed. In fact, when Terrace got hold of the original videos of Patterson communicating with Koko, the story which emerged was quite absurd and a little worrying. Here’s the kind of thing that would happen:
Patterson might hold up an object like a banana and ask Koko to sign it. Koko would then sign something like the word for “building,” to which Patterson might respond “come on Koko, stop being silly, what is it?” Koko would then make the sign for “trousers” and Patterson would laugh and say “she’s being funny, come on Koko what is it?” And then, after a bit of cue-ing from Patterson herself, Koko would finally symbol something like plant and Patterson would go “well done Koko it is a plant! What kind of plant?” Koko would then symbol “pain” and Patterson would respond with “yes that’s right, if you eat too many plants your stomach can be in pain! Well done!”
Patterson would sometimes claim Koko was being ironic when signalling the wrong words (I’m not kidding) or that the end of October was tough on her because it was the anniversary of another gorilla’s death. I don’t think anyone would dispute that Koko could be sad when remembering the death of another animal, but Patterson was claiming Koko knew how to use the Gregorian calendar and acknowledged anniversaries the same way humans do. Gradually the scientific community began to distance themselves from Patterson and she was accused of delusion, misrepresenting data and, by her harshest critics, mistreating Koko as some sort of party-trick animal.
Also, bizarre true story: Patterson claimed Koko had an obsession with nipples and there were several charges of sexual harassment against her, claiming she would instruct her students to expose their nipples to Koko (as she would regularly do herself).
From a scientific point of view the Washoe and Koko experiments are super-cool but they don’t prove apes have the capacity for language. In fact they seem to prove the opposite. We could maybe go so far as to say apes have proto-language ability and there is one bonobo currently being studied (Kanzi) who seems to show word-combination skill. But, I’m afraid if we are honest, we cannot justify saying that apes have language. However there is one other place we should consider looking.
Under The Sea
Humans do not have the biggest brains in the animal kingdom by a long shot, but this is not necessarily the most important thing to look at. Elephants have huge brains, but considering the size of their bodies they need them just to move around. Instead, it makes more sense to consider what is called the encephalisation quotient, which measures how big the animal is in relation to its body volume. On this scale humans have the highest score with apes coming in third place and then, sitting in between them, are the cetaceans: whales, dolphins and porpoises. This is where the research gets really interesting.
In 2018, Stephanie King working in Shark Bay, made the discovery that dolphins appear to have what we might consider “names”. A specific sound can be uttered by a member of the pod and only one dolphin repeats it back. When King recorded the same sounds and played them herself, the same individual dolphin echoed it and none of the others paid attention. It’s almost like the Dolphins are shouting “You there Harry?” and the other one shouts back “This is Harry.”
Then there was an intriguing study carried out in 2016 by Vyacheslav Ryabov who analysed the clicks and whistles exchanged between two Black Sea bottle nosed dolphins named Yasha and Yana. What he found is that the noises were broken down into as many as five distinct sound-chunks which he likens to five-word sentences. Even more crucially, he discovered that dolphins do not interrupt each other when doing this.
If you bring two chimpanzees together who have both been taught sign language (as has happened) they do not exchange information. They “talk” over each other constantly, and repeat the same symbols back and forth. Dolphins however, pause when the other dolphin is making their noises and they do not repeat the same sounds. This could genuinely be a form of language.
Then there is whale song which is a total mystery. A pod of whales will sing patterns of notes which can carry several kilometers across the water to a different group who can modify and send it back, or pass it on to another pod. Some researchers have suggested that whale songs are transferred across great distances like a whale internet and everything from mating calls to story telling has been touted as a possible explanation. Although obviously I’ve seen Star Trek IV, so I know exactly what's going on.
Why Cetaceans Are Tricky
Unfortunately we know hardly anything about cetacean neurology because of the obvious problem…all the methods we use to analyse the brain cannot be used under water. We tend to figure out how brains work by performing brain scans on live animals, observing the behaviour of brain-damaged individuals, observing the effects of medication, or by carrying out various tests in a controlled environment.
Brain-scanners are out of the question because (funnily enough) sensitive electrical equipment doesn’t work under water. We also cannot tell if a whale has been brain-damaged or suffered a stroke because all we can observe is how they swim about. We cannot ethically give them psychiatric medication either and because they move in vast arenas (it’s the sea) it is not easy to perform any kind of controlled experiment.
The only things we can sensibly do are make deductions about their behaviour in captivity or analyse the brain once the animal has died. But even that is difficult because you either have to wait for a carcass to wash up on shore and hope the brain is in tact by the time you extract it (a rare occurence) or you hunt and kill a whale yourself. Curiously, people who feel passionate about cetaceans and want to study them are not the same people who want to hunt them.
On the rare instances we do get hold of a cetacean brain in good condition, there is still a limit to what we can find out about it. We cannot watch it in action, so we can only make statements about things like size, mass and chemical composition, which is like trying to figure out what software a computer was running by looking at the hard drive after it has broken down. And even when we do this we run into a huge problem: cetacean brains are not put together the same way ours are. It isn’t known if they even have Broca’s and Wernicke’s areas. Their brains look different so, simply put, nobody has a clue what’s going on inside them.
Personally, I feel there is just enough evidence to answer the overall question of animal language with a hard "maybe". Whales and dolphins are our best bet and, given that the field of cetacean linguistics is new, we could be in for some exciting surprises over the next few years.
Maybe if we can learn to speak dolphin we will get an insight into how another intelligent creature views reality. Maybe we can learn how our own minds work from studying those which are drastically different. And maybe, just maybe, if we can prove these wonderful creatures are capable of language it will persuade those who hunt them to reconsider what they are doing. Maybe Science won't just save our species, but others too!
Unicorn Hunters of Ye Olden Days
The King James Bible has unicorns in it. There are nine separate references in the Old Testament to these magical beasts (Num 23:22 & 24:8, Deut 33:17, Job 39:9-10, Psalm 22:21, 29:6 & 92:10, Is 34:7) and baring in mind the Old Testament gives historical records of ancient culture, are we to conclude there were genuine unicorns roaming the Earth at this time?
Well, probably not. The King James Bible is a 1611 translation of the Biblical books, derived in part from a 4th Century Latin translation called The Vulgate, based on a 3rd Century BC Greek translation called The Septuagint, based on earlier texts written in Hebrew, Persian and a few other languages.
In the original Hebrew, the animal being referred to is called a re’em and unfortunately we have lost the identity of whatever this animal was. All we know for definite is that it was a strong creature with...ironically...more than one horn. Which is kinda weird. In Deuteronomy 33:17 the writer talks about the horns (plural) of a single re’em so it was obviously not believed to be a unicorn and nobody knows how the term 'unicorn' entered the language.
The hypothesis I find most reasonable is that re’em is close to the older Assyrian word rimu, which referred to a species of now-extinct ox called, in English, an auroch. In Assyrian art, aurochs were depicted in side profile (see below) giving them the appearance of a one-horned animal and thus early writers may have mistook auroch paintings for one-horned animals.
It could also be that "one-horn" was a nickname for an actually two-horned beast. Like the species Bradypus Variegatus which is nicknamed "three-toed sloth" despite obviously having twelve toes. The name is not meant to be taken literally, but understood in a certain context. Just like the equally disappointing Vampyroteuthis infernalis, more commonly known as a "vampire squid" despite being neither a vampire nor a squid. Sometimes we just give animals dumb names.
Either way, rimu in Assyrian seems to have become re’em in Hebrew, which became ‘monokeros’ in Greek (which means one-horn) and then finally 'unicorn' in Latin and thus English. It is tempting to ridicule the early translators for being careless, but we shouldn't judge them too harshly. Unicorns were once beleived to be genuine creatures. Even the Greek scholar Ctesias described a one-horned beast native to India which he called a rhinokeros (nose-horn). That animal was almost certainly a rhinoceros, but once again a series of mistranslations and misunderstandings led many to believe Ctesias had discovered unicorns in the Asiain subcontinent.
The idea of unicorns being horses with spiralled horns seems to have begun during the middle ages, probably due to sailors bringing home narwhal tusks (which are spiraled) and selling them to buyers as "unicorn horns". Even the throne of Denmark is constructed from narwhal tusk but was originally claimed to be bona fide unicorn.
For obvious reasons, unicorns were perceived as creatures who refused to be captured and many houses of Scotland during the 1400s displayed unicorns on their banner-crests to represent a refusal to submit to English rule. Even today, the Unicorn is the official emblematic animal of Scotland (the Welsh flag features a dragon for similar reasons).
It is only in the last couple of centuries that people have finally accepted unicorns are probably not real. However, I am pleased to inform you that there is nothing about them which is biologically far-fetched. After all, many different species have evolved horns. There are breeds of lizard, mammal, fish and even one species of bird (the cassowary) which have horny structures on their heads, so it's obviously something evolution is fine with.
The primary function of horns is for fighting rivals or predators but they also serve for the purpose of attracting a mate. Because living things use most of their energy on movement, brain-activity and maintaining a healthy immune system, if your immune system is in perfect order you have energy to spare. What better way to advertise that than adorning yourelf with unnecessary decorations which would hinder a lesser creature?
It’s called the Zahavi Handicap Principle and is often used to explain why certain animal species evolve completely unnecessary features; even features which serve as a handicap. Peacocks grow spectacular tails, giraffes grow inconvenient necks and we may even see evidence of it in humans (the only species whose female members have engorged breasts all year round rather than exclusively at the time of ovulation). So why not horses too?
Unicorns of the Sea
Horses do not have horns of course, and usually attract their mates via a combination of elaborate tail flicks and enticing urination (yeah, I know) but there is no reason they could not have evolved down the route of growing horns. In fact, some of them sort of did.
It’s widely accepted that life began in the oceans and eventually made its way to land, but it can happen in reverse sometimes. That’s what whales are. Whales were originally land-dwelling creatures, similar to hippos, but gradually moved into the ocean as a permanent residence, losing their legs over time. That’s why whales have useless hip-bones under their blubber. Sometimes they use these hips as slightly ineffecient sex-anchors to attach themselves to prospective mates, but the shape and design is clear. Whales used to be hippies.
That is also why whales and dolphins move their spines vertically as they swim, reminiscent of horses galloping, while fish (who have always been aquatic) move their spines horizontally. Whales and dolphins are effectively trotting and cantering through the ocean. Now, since narwhals are a species of whale and whales are descendants of horsey creatures, evolution can, in a certain sense, if you are very patient, give horns to horses.
But I don't want to wait millions of years, tim!
Of course you don't. You want a live unicorn without having to rely on the chance-nature of Darwinism and hippos who like to swim. Is there a scientific way of justifying the existence of real equine unicorns? The answer (magically) is maybe. Provided we invoke the right kind of tumor!! And I know what you're thinking at this point. This is a family-friendly blog and I’ve just given unicorns cancer. But fear not, the kind of tumors we are talking about will be totally safe. Twilight Sparkle will go unharmed if you bear with me...
A tumor is not an infectious disease caused by a bacteria, virus or parasite, it’s certain cells of the body growing too much, too fast. If cells in one area start growing at an accelerated rate they begin absorbing nutrients away from other cells or squashing everything in their vicinity to one side, damaging the organs and preventing them from doing their job. That’s when a tumor becomes a cancer. But tumors can be harmles. In fact, to avoid the negative association, let's call them "neoplasms" which is a friendlier-sounding word for the same thing.
Since neoplasms are cells growing out of control, what can sometimes happen is that the cells get so excited they mistakenly believe they are a different part of the body and turn into that instead of what they’re supposed to. This is possible because every cell’s nucleus contains a full DNA strand, with the genetic information necessary to become any part of the body. A cell in your kidney contains the information required to build a heart or a lung and if the cell is activated incorrectly (which can happen if it’s growing too fast) you can grow body parts in the wrong place.
It’s called a teratoma and although it sounds like something from a David Cronenberg movie, it’s absolutely real. It is rare to develop whole organs though (the creepiest example is an instance reported in 1999 by doctor Otto Herwart who discovered a fully grown eye inside a neoplasm) but keratin, which horns are made from, is straightforward for your body to produce so teratomas can easily manufacture horns.
It’s a rare condition called cornu cutaneum and in all honesty nobody knows what causes it. The skin spontaneously begins growing a neoplasm on its surface which overproduces keratin and thus ends up forming a horn. They are completely harmless and easily removed since they have no bones or nerve endings, but my advice would be not to Google image-search them right before a meal.
The most astonishing instance of this condition in humans is that of Zhang Ruifang, a 101-year old woman from China who grew a pair of horns on either side of her forehead in 2009 which she refused to have removed, despite them earning her the obvious nickname in her neighborhood of ‘devil-woman’.
And it’s not just humans who can get horns. There are reports of dogs, cats, cows and, fortunately, even horses, developing horn-bumps as a result of a neoplasm. In fact, Unicorns are not only within the realm of possibility, one or two may have existed by accident.
Yes, you read that right. I, a public school teacher with a responsibility to educate future generations, am throwing my lot in and saying “sure, there has probably been at least one unicorn”. Horses have been around for over 50 million years and today there are an estimated 60 million roaming the Earth, mostly in the wild. Chances are that at least once, somewhere, purely by chance, one of those horses developed a teratoma neoplasm which gave it a horn between the eyes.
I love science, let me tell you why.