Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Science in the Pub -- November 2015

Antibiotic Apocalypse? Antibiotic Resistance: Occurrence and Challenges

By Kate Viscardi

November’s PubSci was timely, coming as it did in World Antibiotic Awareness Week. Dr Michael Byford, who is a Biochemist lecturing at London South Bank University, outlined the dangers that arise from the development of resistance to antibiotics and discussed a different approach taken in the Soviet Union.
Bacteria are all around us and generally do us no harm; indeed we have symbiotic relationships with some, inside and outside our bodies. However, when the wrong bacteria get in the wrong place they can, and do, kill. Until the discovery of penicillin, infections in wounds were very bad news indeed and made surgery a risky business, while tuberculosis patients were isolated in remote sanatoria for long periods.
Today we take antibiotics for granted – too much for granted. Bacteria reproduce simply by splitting in half, so one bacterium can become a million in just a few hours. The more “copies” there are, the more chance there is of one of them having a mutation: and that mutation could be something that enables that bacterium to survive the attack by the antibiotic that is killing its neighbours. The mutated bacterium then divides and passes on its newly-acquired resistance to its offspring. The chances of resistant bacteria developing are increased when a course of antibiotics is not completed – antibiotics take time to kill all the bacteria, if the course of treatment stops too soon there will be bacteria still around that have been weakened but not killed, and they will develop their defences. And if antibiotics are used when there is no infection it results in bacteria in balance in the body being exposed needlessly to the pressure to evolve resistance.
It takes time and costs money to identify the exact strain of bacteria that is causing an infection, so most antibiotics used are broad-spectrum – effective against a variety of bacterial strains. In fact, most antibiotics are only profitable for pharmaceutical companies if they are broad-spectrum because they can then be used for more conditions, so for more patients, so more sales volume. It is not, however, in the pharmaceutical companies’ interests for bacteria to develop resistance to their products. Developing new antibiotics is an expensive business and the speed at which resistance is now spreading makes it a risky undertaking.
Most antibiotics have at the base of their development some kind of fungus, natural or synthetic. Another approach, however, is the use of bacteriophages (phages). These are a specific kind of virus that attack bacterial cells. Their disadvantage is that they are very specific to individual strains of bacteria so banks of phages are needed in preparedness for different infections. It is said there are still buildings full of phages near Moscow and these could yet prove valuable.
Many of the audience were clearly very knowledgeable, able to follow the technical details, and the questions at the end revealed deep concern about the problem of antibiotic resistance when it affects gravely ill patients.
Will this prove to be the end of the Antibiotic Age, with the subsequent return of fear of disease and lengthy treatment regimens?  The speaker was hugely pleased when “measures to address antibiotic resistance” was chosen by public vote as the winner of the Latitude Prize 2014, but it would help now if people would trust expert knowledge. A cold is caused by a virus, not a bacterium, so there is no point in taking antibiotics, yet people express dissatisfaction with doctors who don’t prescribe them.

Pubsci is held on the third Wednesday of every month, upstairs at: The Old King’s Head, King's Head Yard, 45-49 Borough High Street, London SE1 1NA

Kim Jong Il always with us

By Andy Brooks
Our Party joined millions of Koreans and millions of communists all over the world last week in recalling the outstanding achievements of dear leader Kim Jong Il on the occasion of the 4th anniversary of his passing.
Four years have passed since the loss of dear leader Kim Jong Il, who dedicated his life to the revolutionary movement that was founded by Kim Il Sung, and the young militants around him, to fight the Japanese colonialists and build a modern communist party that would lead the Korean workers and peasants to a new life under socialism. Building a guerrilla army that took on the might of the Japanese Empire, great leader Kim Il Sung mobilised the masses in a struggle that ended in victory in 1945 and the establishment of a people’s government in the north of the country.
The Workers’ Party of Korea, with Kim Il Sung at the helm, led the battle for land reform, education and socialist construction in the 1950s and 1960s, and then pushed forward on the engineering, technical and scientific fronts to build a modern socialist republic where every individual worker is master of his or her own life. The DPRK stood shoulder-to-shoulder with the peoples of the Third World struggling to break the chains of colonialism, and gave technical and economic aid to their new republics to defend their freedom and independence.
From an early age Kim Jong Il worked side by side with Kim Il Sung, and when Kim Il Sung passed away Kim Jong Il told the Korean people and the world that they could “expect no change from him”.
 Under his leadership the Workers’ Party of Korea won even more great victories. Natural disasters were overcome. Imperialist diplomatic isolation was broken and the intrigues of US imperialism were exposed. Scientists in Democratic Korea mastered the secrets of the atom to guarantee the DPRK’s defence and energy needs, and now Korean rockets reach for the stars.
The tragedy of Korea is that it has been divided since the Second World War and that division is entirely due to the United States, which has propped up a puppet regime in south Korea to maintain American imperialism’s military, strategic and economic dominance of north-east Asia and the Pacific Rim.
A monstrous concrete wall divides Korea. Tens of thousands of American troops remain are stationed in the south, backed by a US nuclear armada that threatens the DPRK and its neighbours. The communist movement is outlawed in the south and contacts with the north are tightly controlled by the repressive regime.
The Democratic Korean government has worked tirelessly to end the partition of the country. It has called on the United States to normalise relations with the DPRK. A proposal for the re-unification of Korea based on the principle of “one country – two systems” – similar to the one that led to the peaceful return of Hong Kong and Macau to the People’s Republic of China – remains on the table.
Democratic Korea threatens no one, but the imperialist campaign to demonise and isolate the people’s government continues as a smokescreen to cover US plans to dominate the entire Pacific basin.
Following in Kim Il Sung’s footsteps, Kim Jong Il led the Workers Party of Korea into the 21st century to build a strong and prosperous democratic republic. Kim Jong Il was a leading Marxist thinker who made an important contribution to modern communist theory, as well as an astute statesman who led the Korean people through thick and thin to overcome natural disasters, imperialist blockade and diplomatic isolation.
Kim Jong Il made an immense contribution to Marxist-Leninist theory and ideology. In his 1982 work On the Juché Idea, Kim Jong Il brought together and systematised the Juché theory; his 1994 thesis Socialism is a Science affirmed that socialism would eventually become the economic system of the entire world because it is the only form of society in which people can be truly free.
            Kim Jong Il worked tirelessly to ease tension on the Korean peninsula to pave the way towards the peaceful reunification of Korea whilst at the same time ensuring the DPRK’s defence against the threats and provocations of US imperialism and its lackeys.
On 15th June 2000 Chairman Kim Jong Il of the National Defence Commission of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea and President Kim Dae Jung of south Korea signed the historic North–South Joint Declaration.  This was an historic landmark in the struggle of the Korean people to reunify their homeland that had forcibly been divided by the US imperialists following World War Two. The Declaration opened up a new era for independence, peace, reconciliation and reunification on the Korean peninsula until the US-sponsored anti-national, anti-communist and retrogressive Lee Myung Bak clique in the south began to sabotage its spirit and principles.
But US imperialism cannot forgive the DPRK for being the first country following the Second World War to defeat it on the battlefield, setting an example for all people fighting for independence and self-determination. Its revenge seeking against the DPRK continues unabated to this day.
The intrigues of the US and their south Korean lackeys are becoming increasingly dangerous as they work together to try to isolate the DPRK and the movement for national reunification. This includes jailing peace campaigners like Ro Su Hui under the fascist National Security Law, and carrying out endless provocations such as the joint US–south Korean military exercises aimed at invading the DPRK and bringing the Korean peninsula ever closer to a cataclysmic nuclear war.
 The DPRK has had no alternative but to develop a nuclear deterrent to defend its socialist system. At the same time it has pledged that it will never be the first to use nuclear weapons, and it has also vowed never to threaten the use of nuclear weapons nor allow
the transfer of nuclear technology to other countries.
Kim Jong Il was a great leader of the Korean people who devoted his entire life to serving the Korean people in the cause of building a human-centred society, a cause that is one espoused by the democratic and anti-imperialist forces the world over.
We believe that the will of the Korean masses, expressed in concrete terms
by their vanguard party, the Workers’ Party of Korea now led by Kim Jong Un, and following in the footsteps of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il, will overcome all obstacles to fulfil the revolutionary tasks that faced the Korean people when they began their long march to socialism in the struggle against Japanese imperialism.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Ada Lovelace Day at Science in the Pub

By Kate Viscardi

Ada Lovelace Day is celebrated on the second Tuesday of October every year, while Science in the Pub (PubSci) meets on the third Wednesday of every month. Starting in 2009, Ada Lovelace Day was originally a day of blogging about female role models in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics), but quickly grew into events run around the country. PubSci sticks to its usual date but has an annual Ada Lovelace event each October. This year the speaker was Dr Charlie Lea who, a few years ago, used a PubSci audience as guinea pigs in her PhD research. Charlie is now a Psychology lecturer at the University of Brighton and returned to PubSci to take a different approach to commemorate Lady Ada King, Countess of Lovelace.
Despite her programmes for Babbage’s unrealised programmable computer, and Babbage’s own acknowledgement of his “Maths fairy”, Ada Lovelace was dismissed by many contemporaries in the early 19th Century and her efforts attributed to Babbage. Charlie took this as her starting point and discussed the way that women have been whitewashed out of the history of Psychology.
Educated women were regarded with horror in 19th Century society. G Stanley Hall said: “Educated women are functionally castrated”, but there were pioneers determined to succeed, and succeed they did. Nevertheless, they have still been largely written out. Charlie attributed this to the bias of misogynist historians and that women tended to work in under-valued areas, such as educational, social and occupational psychology. Much less famous than the “founding fathers” of the discipline, Charlie gave brief biographies of some amazing women.
Mary Whiton Calking founded the Psychology lab at Wellesley College and was already working on memory and synaesthesia at the start of the last century. William James taught her in his own home and described her as his best PhD student ever, but Harvard never awarded her PhD. No US university would let Christine Ladd Franklin into their Physics labs, so she switched to Logic and Mathematics and fulfilled the requirements for her PhD at Johns Hopkins University in 1882, but it was not awarded until 1926. She was introduced to Psychology in Germany and developed her own theory of colour vision.
Margaret Floy Washburn did ground-breaking work on the animal mind, including maze-learning rats. Lillian Moller Gilbreth, whose interests were in engineering and management theory (“time and motion”), left academia and together with her husband ran a consultancy company. Amongst other things she invented the pedal bin – and they also had 12 children.
Charlie summed up by saying that women invented important paradigms yet had difficulties even in being awarded their PhDs, getting lectureships or funding. They were influential teachers but the areas in which they worked were often devalued. They have also suffered from mis-attribution of their work, for instance by being described as “X’s student” instead of being given the dignity of their own names. And they continue to be whitewashed out. Finding little mention of women in histories of psychology, Charlie searched her university library for a book specifically about female psychologists and found just one, published in 1982 in the USA.
Science in the Pub meets at 7pm on the third Wednesday of every month, upstairs at the Old King’s Head, 47–49 Borough High Street, London SE1 1NA. Arrive early to take advantage of the pub's Happy Hour from 6–7pm. Our next speaker, on November 18th, will be Dr Michael Byford on Antibiotic Resistance.

Friday, October 30, 2015

Mist, Rain and fiery haze

Film review: Macbeth

by Daphne Liddle

Directed by Justin Kurzel; starring Michael Fassbender, Marion Cotillard, Paddy Considine, Sean Harris, Jack Reynor, Elizabeth Debicki and David Thewlis. 113 minutes.

THIS IS a very powerful film which definitely benefits from being seen on the big screen. It is shot in chiaroscuro through the ever changing rain and mist against a backdrop of the glorious Scottish landscape, in which characters emerge from the mist, say their piece, do their deeds and then merge back into the mist.
The Bard’s original play has been edited a bit but all the important scenes are there, showing the familiar story of a good man, nudged by prophesy from the three witches, into ambition and an opportune murder that will set him on the throne and on the road to hell.
Once he has committed the crime he must cover up by committing more and more shocking murders until he has become a paranoid tyrant.
The play opens with the “Battle of Ellon”, close to Cruden Bay where in a real battle in the 11th century the Scots under their King Malcolm II (father of the King Duncan in the play) defeated an attempted Norwegian Viking invasion led by young Canute, later to become King of England.
A couple of scenes are changed from the original – the murder of Lady MacDuff and her children, as revenge for MacDuff’s defection to the camp of Malcolm, son of the murdered King Duncan, is not in her castle at Firth. Instead Macbeth has them captured and brought to be burnt at his castle at Dunsinane. This is a scene that drives Lady Macbeth insane with horror and guilt.
And in the final battle where Birnam Wood “comes to Dunsinane” it is not carried as branches for camouflage but set on fire and comes as fire, red smoke and a cloud of ash so that the final battle between Macbeth and MacDuff happens in a fiery red haze.
Throughout the film there are bystanders standing still, wrapped in long black cloaks against the wind and rain – impossible to distinguish man from woman – like a Greek chorus, witnessing everything.
The three witches are also dressed in long black cloaks pulled tightly about them. There is no Hecate but there is a girl of about eight-years-old with them. They appear from the mist, say their piece and disappear back into the mist.
In the final scene, after Macbeth is killed by MacDuff, Fleance, a young boy and son of the murdered Banquo, appears and picks up Macbeth’s sword – hinting that one day he will be king and be the founder of a long line of kings – including James I of England and VI of Scotland – for whose benefit Shakespeare wrote the play.
The three witches then appear, take a good look, turn and walk away with an air of “job done”.