Brave New World with Stephen Hawking – 21st Century Machines

Brave new World with Stephen HawkingScience is as magic until it gets superseded and becomes a commonplace – consider the humble transistor radio overshadowed by television, the computer and the world-wide-web – yet to anyone from even a hundred years ago this pint-sized bit of technology would appear astonishing and unbelievable if not outright witchcraft.

This new science series Brave New World with Stephen Hawking currently airing on Channel 4 speculates where science might be taking us in the not too distant future exploring in its own words ‘the scientific breakthroughs that are transforming our lives in the 21st Century.”  What is the science of today that can astonish our jaded sated 20th Century selves?

And will their promises be delivered or disappointed? For those of us brought up on the BBC’s hope show Tomorrows World we thought we would be moving about by personal jetpack by now, with a cure for death thrown in and even more amazingly a robot that could iron our respective shirts and blouses – on all accounts we have been let down. Though to be fair (!) Tomorrows World almost certainly featured many more modest scientific innovations that are today near-ubiquitous.

Brave New World with Stephen Hawking is being broadcast as previously posted of a Monday evening before The Origins of Us airs on BBC 2. Each of the five episodes addresses a different subject. The opening episode is dedicated to Machines and subsequent episodes will dedicate themselves to Health, Technology, Environment and Biology, in that order. And this post is of that opening Machines episode.

Though Stephen Hawking lends his name to the series-title his involvement is one of overseer rather than presenter delegating that role to a wide range of international scientists who present their own featurettes of those subjects they think matter most.

He opens this opening episode by opining that “our lives have been defined my machines” citing Galileo’s Telescope, Watt’s Steam Engine and Bell’s Telephone before going on to state ‘that we now stand on the edge of a new era. Tonight we want to show you the five machines we think are the most important’.

The five scientists presenting are likely familiar to all of us who watch science on TV – though not a Richard Dawkins among them! –  having presented science shows previously on the BBC and Channel 4 – does ITV do science?

Brave new World with Stephen Hawking

Kathy Sykes – Look ma no hands

First up was Physicist Kathy Sykes (previously in Channel 4’s Genius of Britain) who describes herself as a Scientist and cautious driver as she presents the driverless car – or rather a car driven by a silicon not carbon life-form.

Much science fact incubates in science fiction and viewers of the 1980’s  fantasy hokum US TV series Knight Rider will be unfazed by a car that drives itself. We also already have aircraft that pilot themselves but aeroplanes at least have a relatively uncongested skyline to navigate, unchauffeured cars have the traffic nightmare of the modern highway to contend with.

I for one do not doubt the ability of technology to overcome the moving obstacle course of modern traffic and am mightily impressed with the science involved. However as someone who drives a car myself much of the pleasure is in the driving – in the same way that could I afford a chauffeur I would never employ one do I want my car itself taking this pleasure away from me. For much the same reason indeed that I drive a car with a manual and not automatic gearbox!  It may not be safer but it is more fun!

Brave new World with Stephen Hawking

Mark Evans – thought-waves

Next up was Mark Evans a Veterinary Surgeon and Engineer (who more modestly on his website describes himself as ‘Animal Doctor, Grease Monkey and Motor Mouth’!) and past presenter of Channel 4’s Inside Nature’s Giants, here exploring mind-control, and no not some Derren Brown hypnosis experiment but using our own mind to control the world around us. Literally using the power of thought to interface with electronic communication – called BCI – yes Brain Computer Interface!

To this end he was taught to propel a wheel-chair to go left and right, backwards and forwards, by the power of will alone. It did involve him donning what looked like a shower-cap with wires connected to his head. Again this was staggering science. And it was not just the power of thought but the machine doing some of the thinking for you – the machine augmenting us rather than we augmenting it…but perhaps there veering into science dystopia as utopia.

My own more mundane mind considered merely that I could switch my bedroom lights off before going to sleep without having to get out of bed, then the following morning I could open my curtains, again just by thinking it! I was pleased then that Mark Evans himself cited both opening curtains and switching lights on and off as practical examples of its use. Simple steps come before complex steps afterall. And to that end perhaps a future iteration of Apple’s Siri will require not voice recognition but empathy alone with its owner’s mind, and not having also to cope with all our endless local accents – though do we think in our accents? – and I digress.

Brave new World with Stephen Hawking

Jim Al-Khalili with iCub

The next feature was presented by Professor Jim Al-Khalili who introduced himself as a Theoretical Physicist. That’s a hard job-title to trump – I imagine even a High Court Judge, an Astronaut or a Brain Surgeon may feel a dip in their supernatural self-esteem having to introduce themselves to a Theoretical Physicist. He has the longest TV presenting CV of the five tonight including the BBC ‘s Atom and The Secret Life of Chaos.

He introduced us to to iCub – an infant robot – or baby-bot – sorry! – a robot designed to think like a human, but an infant not an adult one. So as to learn and develop towards its own autonomy, establishing its own sense of self. More mind-boggling stuff.

Though the science and theory behind this autonomous robot is high-minded and extraordinary I could not help but envisage that its practical uses may mean a darker future for it – if not as a robo-soldier or bomb-disposal worker then at best servant of all our mundane human needs.

Brave new World with Stephen Hawking

Joy Reidenberg

Next up was Joy Reidenbeg a Comparative Anatomist, and also presenter of Inside Nature’s Giants, who introduces us to an exoskeleton that can make the paralysed walk and a man lift three times his own weight.  Again this made me think of Science Fiction and again not even some prize-winning literary work or cinema classic but back to US Telly this time a decade earlier than Knight Rider to the 1970’s and sci-fi staples The Six Million Dollar Man and The Bionic Woman. And as with Steve Austin and Jaime Sommers this also arose not from some vain-glory pursuit to make able bodies even more able but from seeking to repair badly injured ones and make as new, if not better than new.

Here we saw two hitherto wheel-chair bound women able to stand up on their two legs with this exoskeleton in place and walk. This was the one scientific breakthrough featured that not only made me think ‘wow’ but brought a tear to my eye too.

Brave new World with Stephen Hawking

Maggie Aderin-Pocock

The final piece of scientific wonder was presented by Maggie Aderin-Pocock whose title was given as Astrophysicist and perhaps a title that does even eclipse Theoretical Physicist in the impressive sounding show-off stakes!

She introduced us to one of the worlds most impressive Telescopes the GTC – the Gran Telescopio Canarias – described as a Time Machine as it is powerful enough to be able to look as far backwards in time as to the beginning of the universe  itself. Its particular purpose was to discover Earth like planets – as it finds such they are catalogued and detailed.

And this viewer cannot but wonder are they populated by beings such as us, watching programmes such as this.

And whether our own planet Earth is the subject of a similarly searching alien telescope out their in the depths of space?!

And that as this is science we should never say ‘Let’s not go there’.

Origins of Us – nature’s story with Dr Alice Roberts

Origins of Us LogoOrigins of Us, the new Natural History three-part series from BBC Productions currently airing on BBC 2 (and on BBC HD and iPlayer, the latter subject to usual time constraints), explores human evolution.

It aired after Channel 4’s new series Brave New World with Stephen Hawking  it exploring how science is striving for humankind’s next leap forward. A welcome two-hour celluloid science session of a Monday evening. I am hoping the BBC and Channel 4 get embroiled in an escalating TV science war vying to produce and schedule ever higher quality and ever greater quantity of science programming, an antidote to the endless cookery and home improvements shows that saturate our schedules. And I am not averse to a Sophie Dahl or Kevin McLoud but all things in moderation – even Crime drama’s have their limits, just about!

The opening one-hour episode of Origins of Us is called Bones, the next episode is Guts and third and final episode is Brains.

The aim of the series then is to explore the evolutionary development of humans focusing on our bones, guts and brains.

Origins of Us Episode One BonesThe programmes are presented by Dr Alice Roberts. Viewers may be familiar with her from archaeological programmes such as Time Team and Extreme Archaeology – proving that presenters of archaeology programs don’t have to be living fossils themselves.

Archaeology and Natural History are a natural enough step (sorry!) though Origins of Us is not Dr Alice Robert’s first foray into Natural History programming or indeed those specifically about Natural Selection having presented the BBC series The Incredible Human Journey and an episode of Horizon earlier this year titled ‘Are we still evolving?’.

Origins of Us Sahelanthropus

Skulls of Sahelanthropus or Toumai – and Chimpanzee – which is which?!

Are indeed Natural History TV Presenters still evolving? Some may have argued that David Attenborough is that roles natural full-stop but Dr Alice Roberts does prove otherwise!

Dr Alice Roberts herself is not just a TV presenter but author, Anatomist and Physical Anthropologist.

She is an engaging, impassioned and informed presenter. The content of Origins of Us is presented in an accessible way so as not to be so dry as to verge on an Open University Documentary Tutorial, but not dumbed down to insult our intelligence either.

The first episode ‘Bones’ looked at how our skeleton reveals the evolutionary journey of our ancestors. The BBC webpage for this program explains more about the purpose of the series and the background of Alice Roberts.

In their words this program is ‘a journey through your own body, 6 million years and 300 000 generations of our family, from a tree dwelling ape in the forests of Africa, to you and the six billion other humans on Earth today.’ The BBC’s Family Research series Who Do You Think You Are? for the whole of humankind.

The web-page also provides some great art visualising our ancient ancestors from Propliopithecus right up to we modern Homo Sapiens.

There is also a link to Dr Alice Robert’s blog on the series. She also has her own website. Or if you prefer to digest her thoughts in bite-size she tweetstoo.

Homo heidelbergensis

Homo heidelbergensis

The nub of the first episode was exploring what it was about we humans that caused us to diverge from our nearest animal relatives chimpanzees and to look at the first forest dwelling ape to stand up on their own two feet and walk, six million years ago in Africa.

The program commenced in the jungles of Uganda observing chimpanzees in their natural forest habitat and examining how their anatomy allowed them to climb and then jump from tree to tree as oppose to how ours is built to allow us to be upright, to walk and to run.

The show goes on to explore variations in our skeleton to that of a chimpanzee such as how our spine joins to our skull, the shape of our hands and feet (did you know that 25% of your bones are in your two hands?!) and of surprising significance to me at least the role of our posterior in our human motion.

Origins of Us Babies in motion

Early Ascent

One charming section of the program exploring human motion saw Dr Alice Roberts among a group of babies and toddlers – some of them walking, some of them not quite there.

A later section has Dr Alice Roberts wired up as she is monitored on a running machine exploring the surprising muscle combinations required for this such as a ligament in our neck essential for keeping us balanced when we are running.

Origins of Us - Running Machine Alice Roberts

Dr Alice Roberts on Running Machine

As I share this with you I am sitting down in front of my iMac – typical of my sedentary lifestyle – and typical I suspect of the majority of you reading this. But as Alice Roberts points out even the most active of us today is sedentary compared with our first human ancestors who spent most of their time not even walking but running – for prey, for safety, the proverbial fight or flight.

Finally the first episode explored our tool-making abilities with the perhaps surprising revelation that it was not the making of tools that defined us from the other apes but how we made use of those tools.

Also a quick mention to the musical soundtrack by English composer Niraj Chag though it should be added that the sounds of the African jungle were captivating enough.

Origins of Us

Chimpanzee and Human skeletal hands – we are the big thumbed humans…

I am greatly looking forward to the next ‘Guts’ episode.

£400 Blood Test to reveal your life-span – would you take it?

Would you want to know how long you had left to live if let us assume the above test is nearer to science fact than fiction?

£400 is about the price of a certain Apple tablet – knowing the extent of my remaining mortality or enjoying the myriad delights of an iPad?!

This test made me think of the film The Bucket List which I watched recently for the first time on ITV – one of the items on my bucket list was to watch the fine 2007 Rob Reiner film The Bucket List starring Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman – sorry could not resist!

Scene from The Bucket List

In that film the Carter character opines that a survey revealed that if we could know the exact date we would die 95% of us would not want to know. The Edward character replies that ‘if life has taught him anything is that 95% of people are always wrong’!

I though would be one of the 95% here – there is the Latin expression and wise advice Memento Mori – Remember You Will Die – to remember that life is indeed not a dress-rehearsal, that one day tomorrow will not come and that very knowledge should cause us to live our lives more fully, not to squander our time but to cherish it.

That said, accepting I will die is one thing, knowing the exact day or even week month or year is knowledge I would rather not have.

This particular test is based on established scientific work on the length of telomeres – briefly a correlation between their length and the lengths of our lives – hint we would want our telomeres to be as long as possible!

The Nobel Prize Winners

This is Nobel winning science – the 2009 Prize for Physiology or Medicine for ‘the discovery of how chromosomes are protected by telomeres and the enzyme telomerase”  – but the recent media interest such as this article in The Independent is due to commercial interest in its application – most obviously offering us the blood DNA test for a fee. This clearly is information that insurance companies would want too – where here the shorter our telomeres the higher our premiums.

It could also be of use in health practice prioritising care and or prejudicing care depending on your viewpoint. The science is moving along a pace and as often is the case the ethics are left lagging behind.

For me I can think of a lot of other things I could spend £400 on – and not just an iPad!

Feel the power – Solar power








Fashion designer Katharine Hamnett was on the BBC’s graveyard political show This Week first broadcast last week March 18 arguing against nuclear power in the wake of the Japan Fukushima Nuclear plant disaster and still potential meltdown – with host Andrew Neil studio regular Michael Portillo and Labour MP and current regular guest Jacqui Smith.

The case for it was reprised – energy security and reducing the carbon foot-print – not being over-dependent on Oil and the despotic regimes responsible for much of its output and being clean and green.

Naturally arguing against nuclear power or at least to pause and re-consider its safety and security before commissioning any new reactors the alternatives were considered – and the alternatives discussed were wind, carbon capture & storage of existing fossil fuels, finally tidal power,  but not solar power – it was listed in her preamble but not mentioned at all in the ensuing studio discussion.

Studio Discussion

I wondered about this – perhaps the science was still not advanced enough – or perhaps too expensive to be commercially viable.  I do not profess an expertise in this area and thought it was something I should explore further.

And what should arrive in my Inbox a few days later in the latest weekly Email from Scientific American but a guest blog article by Ramez Nam titled ‘Smaller, cheaper, faster: Does Moore’s law apply to solar cells?’.

You should read the article yourself as it will explain it far better than I ever could but its brief thrust is that solar power could provide not just some of all our energy needs – not even all our energy needs so much as beyond all our energy needs!  We would be overwhelmed by the surplus it could produce. And the science is there and commercially it is getting ever  cheaper ever more viable – if not viable just yet – a decade or so over the horizon perhaps.

And in respect of the energy production and consumption cycle so much greener and safer – no terrifying radioactive waste produced needing to be stored for millennia thereafter. And no nation would or could have a monopoly on it.

Why then is solar power so overlooked and why are so many countries continuing to go nuclear?  I am not going to ask why governments and political parties are not able to look beyond the horizon of the next election cycle – I am not that naive! – but cannot but wonder that had a solar bomb been developed in the last century as part of the Manhattan Project rather than a nuclear one that solar energy would now be in all our homes.

War leading science, the proverbial tail wagging the dog.