Is it too late to save the planet?

Stephen Emmott, head of Microsoft’s Computational Science Lab in Cambridge and professor of computational science at Oxford, is one of Britain’s leading scientists. He also emerged this summer as a star on the London stage, with a three-week run at The Royal Court of Ten Billion – a solo show looking at the dire consequences of a human population rising far beyond Earth’s carrying capacity.

Emmott’s compelling pessimism, delivered from a stage replica of his Cambridge office, attracted almost universal praise. Sarah Hemming of the FT and Michael Billington of the Guardian both described Ten Billion as “one of the most disturbing” evenings they had ever spent in a theatre.

Two weeks after the end of the sell-out run, Emmott comes for an interview at the FT, conveniently close to his home on London’s South Bank. He is still walking on crutches, the result of a back injury earlier this year, which reduced his mobility on stage but curiously added to the emotional power of his bleak message.

“Doing Ten Billion was an amazing experience and thoroughly worthwhile,” he says. “But, of course, it was a distraction from my day job and I’m relieved to get back to that.” Emmott’s day job is as interdisciplinary as research can get. His lab develops computer models to understand and predict the most complex questions in science, such as how the brain grows and how to design synthetic living cells. Particularly important for Ten Billion is research on “earth system models” that try to capture all the main physical, chemical and biological processes taking place within and between the atmosphere, oceans, landmasses and biosphere.

Such work led Emmott to the “rational pessimism” he expressed on stage. After each performance he hung around The Royal Court foyer and bar to gauge audience response.

“Most interesting was the division of reactions between young and old,” recalls Emmott, who is 52. “Older people tended to say: ‘You’re right, we really are f***ed.’ People in their twenties said things like, ‘We must find a way for every politician on Earth to see this’ or ‘you have galvanised me into wanting to take action.’”

Many people told Emmott that Ten Billion had changed their views but his own pessimism is as strong as ever: “I’m deeply sceptical about the rational optimists’ view that we will invent ourselves out of trouble, because our inventiveness and cleverness got us into trouble in the first place,” he says.

Emmott does not believe that science and technology can save the planet. Research may solve parts of the problem, he says, but the whole interconnected crisis is fundamentally too serious – because the population is so far beyond the number that Earth could sustain comfortably without running out of some essential raw materials and without catastrophic climate change and other environmental disasters.

“There is almost certainly more hope for the future in changing people’s consumption patterns,” he says. “Radical behaviour change is needed more urgently than anything that science and technology could provide.”

So how might this be achieved? “It requires mass action at a societal level as well as government and businesses. But I’m not a social scientist,” adds Emmott in an unusually defensive moment.

As a computational scientist, however, Emmott is determined to help solve problems as best he can. While he loves the big picture of looking at the whole Earth, his own background as a biologist gives him a particular interest in biological computation.

He is involved, for example, in re-engineering cells and organisms to perform tasks such as producing food or energy more efficiently or healing diseased tissues. The field is often known as synthetic biology, though Emmott does not like that term. “You can think of the genome as living software, in which case we’re programming life,” he says. “It is not beyond the realm of possibility that within 25 years – and perhaps within as little as a decade – programming biology will be at least as big a field as programming silicon.”

Which is why Microsoft, the world’s biggest software company, is interested in biological computation, he adds.

But Microsoft is also pleased with the success of Ten Billion. So Emmott is likely to do something similar but bigger next year. “I’ve been approached by several documentary film makers,” he says. “The issue is how to enable the largest number of people to hear the message.”


Diamonds lose their tough credentials

Hard stuff: pink C60 buckyballs and blue xylene molecules

Diamonds may be forever but they are no longer the hardest substance on earth. Scientists from the US and China have created a form of carbon hard enough to dent diamonds, writes Ling Ge.

Carbon takes on a variety of forms, including diamond, graphite, graphene (made of carbon atoms just one layer thick) and the football-shaped cages of 60 carbon atoms known as “buckyballs”. The new material, termed “ordered amorphous carbon cluster”, is a hybrid of crystalline and chaotic structures – the first time this combination of short-range disorder with long-range order has been seen. It is made by crushing buckyballs and the organic solvent xylene under extreme pressure.

Below 300,000 times atmospheric pressure, the buckyballs bounced back to their normal shape after the pressure was released. Above 320,000 atmospheres, the cages collapsed and transformed into non-crystalline clusters, which retained their structure after the pressure was removed. This material was so hard that it created ring cracks on the diamond anvils used in squeezing the buckyball/solvent mixture. Details appear in the journal Science.

According to researchers at the Carnegie Institute of Science, Argonne National Lab and Jilin University, the unique aspect of the experiment was the solvent. When they applied extreme pressure, the buckyballs were damaged, but the solvent preserved some structure through the entire system.


‘Silent strokes’ find voice in new centre

The focus on Alzheimer’s disease in medical research and the mass media has distracted attention from the other common cause of dementia in old age: strokes, blood clots and other vascular events in the brain. So the Wolfson Foundation, one of Britain’s leading medical research charities, is giving £4m to set up a Centre for the Prevention of Stroke and Dementia at Oxford University.

The centre will focus particularly on relatively small “silent strokes” and mini-strokes, which are much more common than full-scale clinical strokes but can cause serious cognitive decline.

The incidence statistics for vascular dementia are less clear than for Alzheimer’s disease, but Peter Rothwell, who will lead the new centre at John Radcliffe Hospital, says that about 150,000 people a year suffer a stroke or mini-stroke – and one-third of them will suffer significant cognitive impairment.

Symptoms of vascular dementia are clinically distinct from those of Alzheimer’s disease, though there is some overlap. “Alzheimer’s usually presents with memory impairment and patients are sent to memory clinics,” says Rothwell. “Patients with vascular dementia become apathetic and lose their drive but they don’t complain about their memory.”

Rothwell believes that big benefits can be achieved in the relatively short term through better early diagnosis, more reliable prognosis and more effective use of existing preventive treatments.

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