Category Archives: Science, space and astronomy

Keeping alive the idea of extending lifespans

I’m just re-reading John Wyndham‘s classic Trouble with Lichen, so I was attracted to the idea of watching a local TV (That’s Cambridge) re-run of the 1962 film of his 1951 masterpiece The Day of the Triffids.

I must say that, watching such amateur incarnations of the deadly plant creatures so vividly and frighteningly portrayed in the book, any concerns I had about the current over-use of CGI in modern movies were quickly put to bed. I think a secondary school art class could have done a much better job!

But as is so often the case with great sci-fi novels, the film did bring to mind a number of very current issues: there, in key scenes, was Moorfields Eye Hospital, where NHS finances were no doubt in much better shape back in the early ‘sixties; the flashing lights from the falling meteorites gave an echo of the recent asteroid near miss; and seeing the great triffids advancing towards the seemingly helpless humans reminded me of the debate around GM crops.

In the film, our heroes managed to stay alive through the use of fire, turning the triffids and their lethal whiplash tongues into a glorified stir-fry as they tried unsuccessfully to break through the wire fence around the compound. (Personally I would probably have gone in with a glyphosate-based weedkiller – the gardening equivalent of an AK-47 – although to be fair to Wyndham, glyphosate wasn’t discovered until 1970 and Roundup didn’t hit the market until ’74).

Trouble with Lichen is equally, almost spookily, far-sighted. It too points to a number of themes of modern living that remained on the socio-cultural agenda throughout the latter half of the 20th century and continue to do so in the twenty-first.

(Lichen, small mosses and the like don’t get a very good press. In fact they don’t get much of a press at all, even though they can be quite decorative and add colour to an otherwise bland part of a garden or building).

The heroine of the novel, Diana Brackley, surreptitiously markets a newly-discovered (by her) anti-aging drug, Antigerone, developed from a rare form of lichen, only to influential women. Her objective is female empowerment. But Wyndham’s 1960 novel again opens up a number of associated topics that ring all too true even today; for instance, the media have a lot to say about who should get the new drug (the Evening Flag is right behind the idea of the Queen being the first to benefit. The Times and the FT underline the effects on the chemical and insurance industries). The sometimes controversial field of clinical trials is also hinted at.

Diana herself muses on the subject of relationships in a society where marriage becomes an almost interminably long institution:

“‘I’ve been wondering, as a matter of fact, how marriage is going to mesh with the new order. One feels that people who can go on loving one another for two or three hundred years are probably pretty scarce’.

“‘It doesn’t mesh, as you put it, any too well with the present order’, Francis remarked, ‘but it gets adapted. I don’t see why it should not be adapted further. Fixed term marriages, with options, as in leases, perhaps?’

“Diana shook her head”.

Wikipedia draws attention to “a notable parallel between Antigerone and rapamycin, a polyketide drug produced by soil bacteria discovered on Easter Island. Although originally developed as an antifungal medication and used clinically primarily as an immunosuppressive to prevent immune rejection of transplanted organs, rapamycin has recently been the subject of intense interest as a potential anti-aging drug”.

Earlier this year, an international team from Harvard and the University of New South Wales (UNSW) – announced a discovery that may well lead to a revolutionary drug capable of reversing aspects of the aging process. By offering a treatment for DNA damage from aging and radiation, the drug could be especially helpful for astronauts who set out on extended missions to Mars and beyond. My son Will Fox has an excellent article on this topic on his highly popular website, Future Timeline.

But when will we see this or other anti-aging research come to fruition? And will anyone living now be around to benefit from it?

Only time will tell!




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Remembering Jupiter

It’s been all about Jupiter recently …

I watched in awe the gathering strength and ferocity of Hurricane Matthew as he hovered over the Florida coastline recently. Using the wonders of the Periscope app, I was able to empathise with people all along the coast who broadcast their experiences whilst readying their homes for the onslaught. Some expressed their fears; others were angry that their families had decided to stay put and not evacuate; many others gave live broadcasts from the windows of their homes or even from the beach.

I can’t record Periscope broadcasts but I certainly remember a ‘peri’ (the other jargon term is ‘scope’, of course) from Juno beach in Jupiter, a town in Palm Beach County, where so many people seemed prepared to risk their lives as the storm advanced with ever-growing force. They either stood, just taking it all in, or filmed, or even – unbelievably – went swimming. I even saw a hang-glider in flight over the pounding ocean. At least the people shown in the video above were being reasonably sensible, though at that point Matthew had still to reach full strength.

There’s much more drama in this kind of broadcasting. Live, uncut, unslick, unrehearsed … the amateurishness adds to the feeling of being at a newsworthy event in person. Professional, live outside broadcasts are better than studio-sourced replays; but for a real frisson of actualité, give me a peri anytime.

Speaking of the unrehearsed …

Once again, the Proms season has come and gone and there were many performances I wanted to see but either had no time or forgot to set up a recording. Fortunately we now have the i-Player – so all is not lost. Of those I saw, there were some really memorable moments. For me, one particular highlight was the Aurora Orchestra‘s performance of Mozart‘s Jupiter symphony. Astonishingly, they played the whole work from memory, without sheet music.

I would expect solo virtuosi to be able to play major works from memory, of course; but for an orchestra to do so strikes me as something of a minor miracle. No doubt Aurora’s musicians spend much, much longer than usual in rehearsal. But the result is a seemingly impromptu performance that sounds more spontaneous – unrehearsed – than usual, with all the belief and conviction of an orator who needs no notes but gives an affective speech drawn from a well of deeply-laid passions.

In a piece* on Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Hans Keller describes the Jupiter symphony as “the most important work historically as far as the birth of the Symphony with a capital ‘S’ is concerned”. This symphony clearly has wider significance for the genre. But what does it actually mean for the individual listener? In the same chapter, but referring to music more generally, Keller suggests that we don’t need to know. Indeed, with a nod to a remark by Einstein, he demolishes the idea that typical listeners wrestle with meaning or want to dig down to discover what the composer’s intentions were, pointing to the “supreme paradox” of

“… the ready acceptance of music not because it is understood, but because it isn’t. The idiom sounds familiar … so what more do we want? Do we really want to get down to the clear substance, when pleasantly vague feelings are so readily aroused on the surface?”

We have the composer’s contribution (the writing); the players’ contributions (the performance); and – ultimately as ‘consumers’ – our own interpretation. Full marks to Keller, whose advice, by the way, seems largely to parallel the Reader Response theories of literary critics such as Stanley Fish, Jauss, Iser and others.

But getting beneath the surface was a key objective for NASA‘s Juno mission to the gas giant Jupiter …


Whereas Hurricane Matthew’s winds touched 155 mph at their peak, the winds on Jupiter can reach a speed of 384 mph. Hang gliding? I think not.

According to the NASA mission pages,

“The spacecraft’s name comes from Greco-Roman mythology. The god Jupiter drew a veil of clouds around himself to hide his mischief, but his wife, the goddess Juno, was able to peer through the clouds and see Jupiter’s true nature”.

The task of the Juno spacecraft is to do that very same thing. The mission is almost symphonic in structure, comprising a series of thirteen movements, including its presto launch on August 5th, 2011; then a two year andante voyage around the Sun, including an Earth ‘flyby’; a lengthy voyage to the planet itself, culminating in an accelerando phase in which it reached 165,000 mph before a ritardando “insertion”, slowing it for orbit around the planet; a series of thirty-seven largo , information-gathering orbits around the planet; and a prestissimo finale lasting 5.5 days during which it will be ‘de-orbited‘ and ultimately crash through the Jovian atmosphere into oblivion.

All the while, the tennis-court-sized Juno spacecraft is sending home data and photos of its excursion to the biggest planet in the solar system. The information gathered will be analysed for around two years.

But the mission itself will be remembered for far longer than that.



* The Symphony: 1. Haydn to Dvorak, ed. Robert Simpson, Penguin Books Ltd., 1966; ch. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Hans Keller.

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