Sunday, 9 October 2011

Climate denial's next top model

I've noticed an insidious and increasingly widespread meme in the climate-change denial community. Having summarily failed to establish actual misconduct on the part of climate science research, or undermine the validity of their models and methods, climate change denialists have taken to denying the very idea of using a model to test a hypothesis (for an example, look at comment #29 here, or this).

I can hardly think of a more anti-scientific attitude, and the people making these statements have either never set foot in science or didn't know what they were doing when they got there.

Models are the bones of science. Forget any theory-of-everything mumbo-jumbo you might've heard from physicists, heady from decades of happy marriage to the gorgeous standard model of particle physics, bombshell thought it may be. We cannot simply take our best set of approximations and extrapolate up to whatever we want to test in the large-scale world. It doesn't work, for various reasons (not least of which is complexity, in lower-case and capital-C forms). Equally, we cannot test most things from a purely empirical standpoint, a benchtop experiment or scientific intervention with a simple yes-or-no outcome. Some behaviour doesn't appear at these scales, or presents itself quite paradoxically.

So we're left with empirical or theoretical models. Approximations. Good approximations. No more clearly can this be seen than in chemistry, halfway between the empirical fleshiness of biology and the theoretical purity of physics. Chemistry is a menagerie of models. Organic chemists operate at a level of approximation that would make any quantum physicist faint in horror; inorganic chemists engage molecular orbitals which are little more than convenient fictions of correct symmetry. These are grounded approximations, proven in experiment and traced to their roots in theory (electronegativity is a wonderful example), but approximations none the less. Powerful intellectual ideas, cutting to the heart of chemical behaviour, and allowing us to create and communicate ideas.

Models are deeply important in other fields of science. The recent discovery of a probably-diamond stellar remnant in orbit around another star was established by the proper modelling of various possible remants, to see what matched. Biochemistry uses carefully constructed patterns of reaction to represent living creatures. And climate science uses awesomely powerful computer modelling to figure out what's driving our atmosphere.

Deal with it.

One of my favourite chemists, R. T. Sanderson, has written on the use of real, physical models in teaching chemistry. I really like ball and stick models. Therefore you can imagine my delight at this video of augmented reality ligand binding:

Friday, 3 June 2011

How the Syrian opposition charges its batteries?

This morning's NPR World Story of the Day discusses the attempts to organise Syria's opposition movement. The activist groups face ongoing challenges ranging from military attacks to power cuts. How can you organise resistance when you can't charge your phone?

"For example, Blackberry. We have a glass of water and two Duracell battery. We put it for one hour in this glass, then we use the USB and we put it just in the water. And it's... that gives us two hours or three hours charge to talk."

Original here.

Obviously I have no idea how this is supposed to work, and it's quite possible that it's just a language issue. If people really are promulgating this as a way to recharge their phones, interested in finding out whether this is a popular meme in Syria, or in activist groups in general. (It does not appear to be.)

Tuesday, 1 March 2011

Regarding the Pfizer Sandwich closure

Pfizer is to close its historic research facility in Sandwich, Kent. It would be difficult to overstate the scale of this closure, and the magnitude of its impact on the pharmaceutical research community in the UK. I've been to the Sandwich labs. They are a sprawl of buildings with the population the size of a small town. They have their own (subsidised) Starbucks.

I'm not really qualified to talk at any great length about the state of the pharmaceutical industry - I will defer to whatever Derek Lowe has to say on the subject - but I've had a thought I'd like to share. Pulling a successful drug from the chemical space has never been easy, with success rates in the just-double-figures or lower. Never the less, the drug business built a reasonably efficient and quite profitable machine to tease out these leads.

The pharma system is built on blockbusters, big money makers that have to support a handful of complete failures or niche drugs, and in the glory days of the 1980s and 1990s it appears that quite enough were arriving for the whole operation to come out in the black. More recent history, however, is littered with high-profile failures. It's not so much that the well of molecular possibility has gone dry - it was never gushing - but that it's gone from recalcitrant to downright surly.

Against this background it seems one approach to success might be to cut down the failures. To get to my idea, it seems that university and government biotech spin-off companies, having performed much of the preliminary study and trimmed down the possibilities under the umbrella of pure science, have a better chance of then bringing a commercially and clinically successful molecule to market than the pharmaceutical business, which traditionally starts from a broader search.

Given the ongoing economic crisis and the longstanding pressure from on universities to balance their books, might we be on the brink of a sea-change in the way medicines are created? I am probably overstating something that's comically obvious, but there you go.