Month: December 2016

Paintings reveal early signs of cognitive decline, claims study

Psychologists believe they can identify progressive changes in the work of artists who went on to develop Alzheimers

The first subtle hints of cognitive decline may reveal themselves in an artists brush strokes many years before dementia is diagnosed, researchers believe.

The controversial claim is made by psychologists who studied renowned artists, from the founder of French impressionism, Claude Monet, to the abstract expressionist Willem de Kooning.

While Monet aged without obvious mental decline, de Kooning was diagnosed with Alzheimers disease more than a decade before his death in 1997.

Alex Forsythe at the University of Liverpool analysed more than 2,000 paintings from seven famous artists and found what she believes are progressive changes in the works of those who went on to develop Alzheimers. The changes became noticeable when the artists were in their 40s.

Though intriguing, the small number of artists involved in the study means the findings are highly tentative. While Forsythe said the work does not point to an early test for dementia, she hopes it may open up fresh avenues for investigating the disease.

I dont believe this will be a tool for diagnosis, but I do think it will trigger people to consider new directions for research into dementia, she said.

William de Koonings Woman 1, 1950 and Untitled XXVIII, 1983. Composite: Alamy

The research provoked mixed reactions from other scientists. Richard Taylor, a physicist at the University of Oregon, described the work as a magnificent demonstration of art and science coming together. But Kate Brown, a physicist at Hamilton College in New York, was less enthusiastic and dismissed the research as complete and utter nonsense.

Forsythe and her colleagues used digital imaging software to calculate how a mathematical feature called fractal density varied in artists paintings over their careers. The seven artists included Monet, Pablo Picasso and Marc Chagall, who all aged without obvious brain disease; Salvador Dali and Norval Morrisseau, who developed Parkinsons; and de Kooning and James Brooks, another abstract expressionist who was diagnosed with Alzheimers in 1985, seven years before his death.

Fractals are geometric patterns that repeat themselves at different size scales. They are seen in nature in the branching of trees and rivers, and in the craggy contours of coastlines. In paintings, fractals appear when patterns made by the tiniest brush strokes repeat on larger scales. The fractal dimension is a measure of fractal complexity, where an artwork with a large fractal dimension has a high ratio of fine to coarse fractal patterns.

Forsythe found that paintings varied in their fractal dimensions over an artists career, but in the case of de Kooning and Brooks, the measure changed dramatically and fell sharply as the artists aged. The information seems to be like a footprint that artists leave in their art, Forsythe said. They paint within a normal range, but when something is happening the brain, it starts to change quite radically.

Writing in the journal Neuropsychology, the scientists claim that the fractal dimensions of paintings by Monet, Picasso and Chagall tended to rise as they aged. For Dali and Morrisseaus work, the fractal dimension followed an upside-down U-shape over time, at first rising and then falling. The most stark result was seen in the works of de Kooning and Brooks, where the fractal dimension started high and dropped rapidly from the age of 40.

The work has echoes of previous studies that revealed early signs of dementia in the language used by the former US president Ronald Reagan, and the novelist and philosopher Iris Murdoch. Telltale hints of future dementia have also been spotted in autobiographical essays written by nuns in their 20s.

Taylor pioneered the use of fractals to study and even authenticate drip paintings by the late US artist Jackson Pollock. He believes Forsythes research could do the same for other artists and save museums from being conned into buying fake artworks. But he also saw more important applications. This work could hopefully be used to learn more about conditions such as dementia, he said.

To me, the most inspiring message to come out of this work is that beautiful artworks can result from pathological conditions, he said. When de Kooning was diagnosed with Alzheimers, some critics argued that he should stop painting, but as he slipped into dementia, his artwork changed and became more simple, Taylor said.

To me, these more simple works conveyed a peacefulness that wasnt present in his nurture-dominated earlier work. It all goes to show that sometimes you can think too much about art. Sometimes you just need to tune into your inner self, the nature part, he said.

But Brown disagreed. In 2006, she co-authored a paper in Nature that disputed Taylors research. She said that sketches dashed out on her computer had the same fractal dimensions as a Pollock drip painting and might be authenticated as the real thing.

The whole premise of fractal expressionism is completely false, Brown said. Since our work came out, claims of fractals in Pollocks work have largely disappeared from peer-reviewed physics journals. But it seems that the fractal zealots have managed to exert some influence in psychology.

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Funeral for WW2 soldier Roy Wooldridge saved by Erwin Rommel – BBC News

Media captionRoy Wooldridge was captured in France while on a secret mission

The funeral of a decorated former soldier spared from the firing squad by a Nazi general in World War Two has taken place.

Roy Wooldridge, 97, of Hendy, Carmarthenshire, was captured in France while on a secret mission just before D-Day in 1944.

He was taken to Erwin Rommel who decided he should not be shot.

Mr Wooldridge, who was twice awarded the Military Cross, later lived in Cardiff, where his funeral was held.

The Royal Engineer previously recounted his memories of war on the BBC’s Antiques Roadshow in 2014.

He recalled how Rommel asked if he needed anything and he replied “a pint of beer, cigarettes and a good meal”.

His collection of war memorabilia, including the empty cigarette packet given to him by Rommel, was valued at 10,000 by experts but he did not want to sell it and it will now be donated to the Imperial War Museum in London.

Mr Wooldridge went to Llanelli Grammar School and graduated from Aberystwyth University with a first class honours degree in mathematics.

He married three days before a telegram ordered him to report to his unit and he was sent to the French beaches to ensure there were no mines which could blow up the boats during the D-Day landings.

After the war, he lectured at colleges in Brighton, Wolverhampton and Lanchester in Coventry before becoming college principal in Derby.

Mr Wooldridge did not talk about his experiences of war until much later on in his life.

“He had a good war, not that we heard much about it when we were growing up,” his son Ian Wooldridge said.

“He didn’t talk about it a great deal, many of the people who came back didn’t, but certainly he was regarded as a hero. The Military Cross and bar bear testimony to that.”

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Erwin Rommel was a respected general who was nicknamed the Desert Fox
Image caption Mr Wooldridge’s sons Ian and Pete

“He always regarded Rommel as a man of honour who fought a clean war, despite the fact Hitler had ordered anybody captured without names tags, which our father was, was to be shot,” he added.

“Rommel didn’t agree with that and so dad always reckoned that it was Rommel who saved his life.”

Mr Wooldridge died on 9 December. A procession with a New Orleans-style jazz band was held on Thursday ahead of his funeral at St Martin’s Church in Roath.

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8 Animals Who Cant Even Begin To Comprehend Relative Velocity

Sure, maybe most of us humans dont understand relative velocity, and thats fine, but these creatures of the animal kingdom dont even have the capacity to understand any scientific concept at all. Pathetic.

1. This rhino

Heres an African rhino who knows nothing of the complex relationship between mathematics and theoretical physics. What a complete waste of time this thing is.

2. This elephant

The elephant is, by all accounts, a smart creatureone of the smartest creatures on Earth, in fact. But how smart could she be if she doesnt understand that an object moving at a speed of 55 miles per hour enclosed in a vehicle traveling through space is also moving at a relative speed even if it appears stationary?

3. This sloth

This adorable sloth has no concept of the fact that friction acts as a variable to the constant of a cars momentumassuming, of course, that a cars momentum is constant. But this sloth cant assume that, or assume anything of any scientific consequence. So, we pretty much have no way of evaluating the effect of friction on a car. Thanks a lot, dummy.

4. This panda

We dont want to call this panda ignorant, but how else would you describe an animal who cant comprehend elementary things like language, objective reasoning, and physics?

5. This otter

Hey, otter, whos a good boy? Are you a good boy? Are you a good boy who understands that acceleration impacts velocity? Are you accelerating right now? Are you? Are you, boy?

6. This lion

The African lion is one of historys most ancient, fabled animals, with legends dating back thousands of years, and in all that time, it hasnt learned anything about displacement vectors.

7. This fox

This fox cant fathom force, energy, velocity, or Newtons second law. Can we ask you something, fox? Do you even know where you are right now? What are you even doing here?

8. This polar bear

What a moron.

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Man Brings Tiny Scrap Of Paper To Auction, Then Discovers Its Worth $16 Million

Finding out an old scrap of paper, a family heirloom, or a flea market find is actually worth millions seems like something that only happens in movies. After all, priceless artifacts are carefully watched over, aren’t they?

Well, not always. It’s rare, but pieces of history doturn up at flea markets.Some even hide in plain sight for years before someone recognizes what they really are.

That’s what happened back in March 2016, when a retired doctor brought a collection of old drawings tothe Tajan auction house in Paris.

Most of the drawings were nice, but nothing special, untilThadde Prate, director of old master drawings at the auction house, saw something that set his heart racing.

It was a small ink drawing, browned with age, showing the martyrdom of St.Sebastian. Prate believed it was a long-lost drawing from the Renaissance master himself, Leonardo da Vinci.

Of course, he wasn’t about to go making wild claims. Prate sought a second opinion from another expert, Patrick de Bayser.

de Bayser discovered two more sketches on the back of the drawing that looked scientific in nature, complete with tiny notes written backward. He also noted that the drawing had been created by a left-handed artist.

Leonardo da Vinci was left-handed, and he was known for making notes in a curious, mirrored handwriting. Still, it seemed impossible. How can a da Vincioriginal justappear like that?

But when a third expert was called in, it was, as far as they could tell, confirmed. This drawing, that had been shut in a folder with 13 other drawings, was really created by Leonardo da Vinci.

[H/T: My Modern Met, New York Times]

This is the drawing that was found amid a collection of other unidentified drawings brought to the Tajan auction house in Paris by a retired doctor.

When expert Thadde Prate saw it, he immediately thought of Renaissance artist and innovator Leonardo da Vinci, but he couldn’t believe that a real Leonardo drawing had simply fallen into his hands.

The drawing shows St.Sebastian tied to a tree, moments before his martyrdom, and is only about five by seven-and-a-half inches.

But upon further examination, it became increasingly clear that this was something created by da Vincihimself.

On the back, there were two scientific sketches as well as some small, backward handwriting.

Leonardo, who was left-handed, liked to write backward.

In fact, it’s one of his trademarks. This detail made it certain: Thedrawing was created by Leonardo da Vinci, probably in the early 1480s.

It’s estimated that this small, 534-year-old drawing is worth $15.8 million.

Leonardo da Vinci is known for his brilliance in a variety of subjects, including art, mathematics, astronomy, architecture, music, history, and much more during the Renaissance.

Basically, there was nothing he couldn’t do. He’sthe original Renaissance man.

He’s famousforpainting theMona Lisaand her mysterious smile.

Actually, many people in Leonardo’s paintings are smiling!

He’s also famous for his contributions to science and math.

He studied everything from human anatomy to plants tothe stars and planets. He studied by observing and drawing what he could see.

He was even granted special permission to dissect human remains for study.

Leonardo’s also credited with designing, though not building, modern machines like tanks, cannons, and even flying machines like the one pictured above.

These ideas never took real form, but they inspired plenty of inventors in centuries to come.

The newly rediscovered drawing of St. Sebastian is believed to be a sketch for what would later become a large painting.

And the retired doctor who brought this piece of history into the auction house to begin with?

“I’m very pleased,” the doctor, who wishes to remain anonymous, said, “but I have interests in life other than money.”

You really never know what might be hiding in the most ordinary of places.

SHARE this incredible find with anyone who loves an unexpected discovery!

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First Edition Of Newton’s Principia Mathematica Becomes World’s Most Expensive Science Book

A first edition of one of science’s most important works, Principia Mathematica by Isaac Newton, has sold for a whopping $3.7 million.

The book went under the hammer on December 14 at Christies auction house in New York for more than triple its original valuationof $1 million, meaning it’s now the most expensive scientific book ever sold. Its thought there were only around 80 continental editions ever published in 1687, as opposed to the British version of which there are a few hundred. Newton published two further editions in 1713 and 1726.

Originally written in Latin, the seminal book laid out Newton’s laws of motion, the foundation of classical mechanics, Newton’s law of universal gravitation, andexpanded on Kepler’s laws of planetary motion. In 1747, French physicist Alexis Clairaut said the book “marked the epoch of a great revolution in physics. Some of the claims in thePrincipia Mathematica have since been questioned, deconstructed, and developed. Nevertheless,it would be fair to say this is one of the most important books ever produced.

But who would buy such a thing? Or, more to the point, who has the money buy it?

Christie’s didn’t announce who its new owner is, although it’s believed to be a private buyer. However, if there’s someone with a lot of money paired with a strong admiration for science, it’sa techy nerd.

People who have big books these days maybe are the kinds of people who have made their money on the internet or the web … If you have a few million quid to spend, why wouldnt you buy a copy of Principia Mathematica? Keith Moore, head of the Royal Society library, told The Guardian.

Its not just the history and development of science; its one of the greatest books ever published. It was hugely influential in terms of applying mathematics to basic physical problems, he added.

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Grammars ‘will not boost poorest pupils’ science grades’ – BBC News

Image copyright Thinkstock
Image caption There is no evidence that grammars will boost overall standards in the sciences, says the Royal Society

Top scientists fear plans for more grammar schools in England will not boost disadvantaged pupils’ grades.

Overall, the poorest pupils do worse in science and maths subjects in areas with selective schools, suggests research for the Royal Society, the UK’s independent scientific academy.

New grammars are likely to help “only a small proportion” of the poorest pupils, it says.

Ministers maintain that their proposals will improve social mobility.

A government consultation on plans for more selective education closed earlier this month.

“Social mobility is a complex issue,” said Prof Tom McLeish, chairman of the Royal Society’s Education Committee.

“We support the government’s commitment to ensuring all students fulfil their potential, regardless of their background.

“However, we are concerned that the approach to selective education outlined in the green paper may only support the small number of high ability disadvantaged pupils who do attend selective schools, at the cost of disadvantaged pupils who do not.”

Image caption Disadvantaged pupils in areas where there were selective schools do less well overall in GCSE maths, research suggests

Researchers from the Education Policy Institute, commissioned by the Royal Society, looked at the impact of selective education on the attainment of the most disadvantaged young people – those on free school meals – in STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) subjects.

The researchers found free school meals pupils performed less well in GCSE maths in areas where there were selective schools.

In non-selective areas in 2015, 48.1% of free school meals pupils got a C or more, compared with 72.3% of pupils not eligible for the meals.

But in selective areas the attainment gap was wider, with only 43.9% of free school meals pupils getting at least a C, compared with 74.8% of pupils not receiving the meals.

The researchers found that free school meals pupils in selective schools performed very well, with 98% getting at least a C, compared with 99.2% of non-free school meals pupils.

However, free school meals pupils make up only 3% of selective schools so their achievements are not enough to make any difference to “an overall negative impact on the attainment of all free school meals pupils in GCSE mathematics in selective areas”, say the researchers.

Specialist teachers

They also found that fewer free school meals pupils in selective areas took double or triple sciences at GCSE.

“We have found no evidence to suggest that overall educational standards for free school meals pupils in STEM subjects in England would be improved by an increase in the number of places in selective schools,” the Royal Society concludes.

Dr McLeish added that the best way to help every pupil achieve their potential is to make sure that they are taught by “well-trained, motivated and supported, specialist science teachers”.

Support is essential, he said, to help teachers “draw out the natural curiosity and creativity that grows from a framework of knowledge in science”.

In particular, the Royal Society proposes partnerships between universities, schools and businesses which could involve university staff teaching part-time and even carrying out some of their research in schools.

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Breakthrough prize awards $25m to researchers at ‘Oscars of science’

Researchers in life sciences, fundamental physics and mathematics share awards from prize founders Yuri Milner, Mark Zuckerberg and Sergey Brin

It is not often that a scientist walks the red carpet at a Silicon Valley party and has Morgan Freeman award them millions of dollars while Alicia Keys performs on stage and other A-listers rub shoulders with Nasa astronauts.

But the guest list for the Breakthrough prize ceremony is intended to make it an occasion. At the fifth such event in California last night, a handful of the worlds top researchers left their labs behind for the limelight. Honoured for their work on black holes and string theory, DNA repair and rare diseases, and unfathomable modifications to Schrdingers equation, they went home to newly recharged bank accounts.

Founded by Yuri Milner, the billionaire tech investor, with Facebooks Mark Zuckerberg and Googles Sergey Brin, the Breakthrough prizes aim to right a perceived wrong: that scientists and engineers are not appreciated by society. With lucrative prizes and a lavish party dubbed the Oscars of science, Milner and his companions want to elevate scientists to rock star status.

The Silicon Valley backers paid out $25m in prizes at Sundays ceremony at Nasas Ames Research Center in California. It brought the total winnings for researchers in physics, life sciences and mathematics to $175m since the prizes were launched in 2012.

Huda Zoghbi, a Lebanese-born medical scientist at Baylor College of Medicine in Texas, was discussing her postdoctoral researchers latest data when a prize judge called to tell her she had won. Sworn to secrecy, Zoghbi asked her postdoc, Laura, to leave the room while she took the call. I was totally stunned, she said. After the call, I invited Laura back in to continue our meeting, but can you imagine trying to concentrate?

Zoghbis work is a masterclass in scientific investigation. In one branch of research, she set out to understand the genetic causes of a rare condition called spinocerebellar ataxia. She ran tests on families affected by the disorder and found that a mutation in a gene called SCA1 was the sole cause of the disease. She then bred mice with the same mutation so she could study the disorder as it progressed from first symptoms.

Tests on the mice revealed that when SCA1 was mutated, the protein the gene helps to make could not be cleared from the animals cells properly. And just as rubbish builds up in the house when the bins are not emptied, so levels of the protein, ataxin1, built up in mice with the mutation. These cells may have only 10 to 20% more protein, but that little bit extra is enough to wreak havoc in the brain cells, Zoghbi said.

Having teased out the mechanism underlying the disease, Zoghbi went on to find an enzyme that when suppressed caused ataxin1 levels to fall. Her team is now searching for drugs that can block the enzyme. If they find one, it could become a treatment for the devastating disease.

Spinocerebellar ataxia affects one in 100,000 people. But Zoghbis work on the condition, and on another called Rett syndrome, led her to study the most common neurodegenerative diseases, Parkinsons and Alzheimers. In both groups of patients, abnormal proteins build up in the brain and potentially kill off neurons. In her latest work, Zoghbi showed that blocking an enzyme called Nuak1 stopped a protein called tau building up in the brains of mice. High levels of tau have long been linked to Alzheimers disease. What we have is a potential druggable target for dementia, she said.

Zoghbi, who received one of the five Breakthrough prizes in life sciences, plans to set up a mentorship award; a fund to help young postdocs pursue their own ideas; and scholarships at her alma mater, the American University in Beirut.

The prizes may give scientists a glimpse of fame, but celebrity has little appeal, Zoghbi said. Material things and limelight are fleeting, they come and go. You could give me all the money in the world to do another job and I wouldnt do it, she said. I am working on something that will help people, and that reward is with you every day. She sees her colleagues as an extended family: her lab members call themselves Zoghbians.

Among the other awards handed out on Sunday was the Breakthrough prize in mathematics, won by Jean Bourgain at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton for work that ranges from extensions to Schrdingers equation, to the unification of maths itself. The Breakthrough prize in fundamental physics was shared by three academics for work on string theory and black holes. Joe Polchinski at the University of California, Santa Barbara, who has studied the baffling question of what happens to information that tumbles into black holes, plans to use the winnings for the betterment of science, but said he was terrified at what the next US administration might mean for research.

Morgan Freeman was invited to host Sundays ceremony, where others on the guest list included Alex A-Rod Rodriguez, the former Nasa astronauts Mark and Scott Kelly,, and Bryce Dallas Howard, who as Claire Dearing in Jurassic World justified the creation of the troublesome Indominus rex with the line: We needed something scary and easy to pronounce. The celebrities, however, might find they are as unknown to the scientists as the scientists are to the them. My nieces and nephews will know more about them then I do, said Polchinski.

Another life sciences prize winner on Sunday was Stephen Elledge, a geneticist at Harvard Medical School. I wasnt expecting it, he told the Guardian. What can you say when someone tells you they are going to give you $3m? Im not used to that, I can tell you.

Elledge discovered how cells respond to DNA damage. The mechanism can kill off the most tattered cells and put others into a state of suspended animation called senescence. The process prevents cancer by shutting down abnormal cells, but senescence also triggers inflammation that drives ageing. Elledge is now looking for ways to turn off the inflammation, or wipe out senescent cells completely. That could impact all kinds of diseases in the ageing population, he said.

He is still working out what to do with his winnings, but one hope is to set up scholarships for disadvantaged kids from his hometown of Paris, Illinois. He also wants to support institutions that could come under pressure in the next administration. Now that the political terrain has shifted in the US there are going to be a lot more places that will need help, he said. In the US there is pressure against science. People deny the validity of science and facts. These are dark days. And as scientists we have to push back. We have to stand up to the challenge.

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Can you solve it? Are you smarter than a Singaporean 10-year-old?

Take the test based on Singapores innovative primary maths syllabus

Hi guzzlers,

On Tuesday we will again learn how much better Asian children are at maths, science and reading than we are with announcement of the OECDs Pisa rankings, which compare the abilities of 15-year-olds from around the world.

In the last two Pisa tables, in 2009 and 2012, the top three countries for maths were Shanghai*, Singapore and Hong Kong*, and this years results are expected to be the same or similar.

(*Yes, OK, not countries, but I didnt make the rules.)

Even though many educationalists are cautious about what we can infer from international comparisons, they are a major reason why the UK government recently announced 41m funding for primary schools to copy the east Asian approach to maths teaching.

But just how good are these Asian kids? Today I am setting you ten questions from this years International Singapore Maths Competition, aimed at primary Years 5 and 6. (Thats kids aged 10-11 and 11-12). The questions are all based on Singapores much lauded maths syllabus, which aims to teach fewer topics in greater depth. I think you will be impressed at the level of these problems, and many adults may find them quite challenging!

The children taking these tests had a total of 25 questions to answer in 90 minutes. They did not have the multiple choice responses, but had to work everything out by themselves. They were, however, allowed to use calculators.

Make a note of your answers since the form will not give you a score but instead give you the answers. I will collate your submissions so when I post full explanations of the answers at 5pm GMT you can see how well you did compared to everyone else. [The percentage in square brackets is the percentage of Singaporean schoolchildren expected to get the right answer.]

Ill be back at 5pm GMT with the scores and full explanations of the answers.

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Stephen Hawking Opens Up About Teacher Who Changed His Universe

Stephen Hawking may never have become a renowned physicist if his school teacher Dikran Tahta hadn’t inspired him to become a math professor.

In a new video (below) that the Varkey Foundation Global Teacher Prize released on Tuesday, Hawking remembers how his life changed when he met Tahta as a student at St. Albans School in Hertfordshire, England.

“Many teachers were boring,” Hawking says in the video. “Not Mr. Tahta. His lessons were lively and exciting. Everything could be debated.”  He mentions that he and Tahta built his first computer together, made with electromechanical switches.

“Thanks to Mr. Tahta, I became a professor of mathematics at Cambridge, in a position once held by Isaac Newton,” Hawking says. “When each of us thinks about what we can do in life, chances are, we can do it because of a teacher.”

YouTube/Varkey Foundation Global Teacher Prize
Dikran Tahta, Stephen Hawking’s teacher at St. Albans School.

Hawking admits to being a lazy student with bad handwriting, but he praises Tahta for igniting a sense of wonder and curiosity in him — and inspiring him to pursue a career in math and science.

Tahta died at age 78 on December 2, 2006.

When each of us thinks about what we can do in life, chances are, we can do it because of a teacher.” Stephen Hawking

The heartwarming video is part of the Varkey Foundation’s effort to recognize exceptional teachers with its annual Global Teacher Prize, which is awarded to instructors around the world. The inaugural prize was presented last year.

This year’s $1 million award will be presented to a winning teacher during a ceremony at the Global Education and Skills Forum in Dubai on Sunday. The top 10 finalists for the prize were announced last month.

“I count my teachers as among the most influential people in my life,” said United Nations secretary-general Ban Ki-moon in a statement. “Teachers are entrusted with nurturing the potential of the young and helping them blossom as productive and responsible members of society. It is hard to underestimate their value. … I applaud the launch of the Global Teacher Prize, which recognizes their worth.”

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Kazuo Ishiguro: ‘Were coming close to the point where we can create people who are superior to others’

Social changes unleashed by new technologies could undermine core human values unless we engage with science, warns author

Imagine a two-tiered society with elite citizens, genetically engineered to be smarter, healthier and to live longer, and an underclass of biologically run-of-the-mill humans. It sounds like the plot of a dystopian novel, but the world could be sleepwalking towards this scenario, according to one of Britains most celebrated writers.

Kazuo Ishiguro argues that the social changes unleashed by gene editing technologies, such as Crispr, could undermine core human values.

Were going into a territory where a lot of the ways in which we have organised our societies will suddenly look a bit redundant, he said. In liberal democracies, we have this idea that human beings are basically equal in some very fundamental way. Were coming close to the point where we can, objectively in some sense, create people who are superior to others.


Ishiguro spoke to the Guardian ahead of the opening of a new permanent mathematics gallery at the Science Museum in London, which features a machine to predict coastal storm surges built by his oceanographer father, Shizuo Ishiguro.

The author hopes that the 5 million exhibition, and others like it, will encourage people to engage with the process of science and its future trajectory, rather than simply tuning in for the headline results of research and only then worrying about the implications.

Despite the atom bomb and things like this, were still in the habit of compartmentalising scientific endeavour, he said. Its important that we, as a society, get much more interested in science and maths, that we dont silo it off in our minds … until theres some breakthrough product that turns up.

Ishiguro cites three areas – gene editing, robotics and Artificial Intelligence – that he believes could transform the way we live and interact with each other over the next 30 years.

We are on the brink of all kinds of discoveries that will completely alter the way we run our lives, said the author, whose 2005 book, Never Let Me Go, imagines a dark future in which humans clones are raised to be organ donors.

The gene editing tool, Crispr, allows scientists to cut, paste and delete single letters of the genome with unprecedented precision, meaning aberrant genes can be overwritten with working copies, and, potentially, functional genes replaced with enhanced versions. Chinese scientists are already trialling the technology in patients to treat lung cancer.

When you get to the point where you can say that person is actually intellectually or physically superior to another person because you have removed certain possibilities for that person getting ill or because theyre enhanced in other ways, that has enormous implications for very basic values that we have, said Ishiguro.

He also has concerns that in AI and robotics the bulk of intellectual capital lies with the Silicon Valley masters of the universe rather than universities or government-funded labs.

There are some very powerful and rich people who want to do enormous research in this area, he said. Some of them might want to come out with things that are very beneficial, but its probably outside of regulation and so, yes, I think society as a whole needs to be more engaged.

Ishiguros father, an oceanographer originally based in Nagasaki, moved with the family to Guildford, Surrey, to work at the National Institute of Oceanography in 1957, when Ishiguro was five.

Dr Shizuo Ishiguro with his electronic analogue machine, which converted meteorological and ocean data into electrical signals on a series of wire meshes. This allowed the height of storm surges, and where and when they would make coastal impact, to be predicted. Photograph: Image courtesy of NOC Archive.

Despite the two countries having been at war just a decade previously, the family were made welcome, he said. The British people of that era had a very sophisticated sense of the international community because they had come through the war, he said. They knew the difference between serious things and less serious things, [having] lived through a period when they thought they were going to be under Nazi occupation.

Ishiguro contrasts this with the anti-immigrant rhetoric that dominated the Brexit and US election campaigns.

We have become much more multi-cultural and much more cosmopolitan in many ways, but the attitude to, say, the refugee crisis, I think is quite different to what I remember from the Britain I grew up in, he said.

His fathers electronic analogue machine, which is the size of a large wardrobe, converted meteorological and ocean data (wind speed, tidal motion, water depth and so on) into electrical signals on a series of wire meshes. This allowed the height of storm surges, and where and when they would make coastal impact, to be predicted. The system was originally developed to help Japanese fishing fleets, but modified to be applied to the North Sea, where floods following a storm surge in 1953 led to more than 2,000 deaths.

Ultimately, the machine was superseded by digital computers, but the scientist continued to perfect his creation in the family garden shed in Guildford until his death in 2007 a fact Ishiguro describes as entirely unsurprising.

Despite having taken a different career path, Ishiguro inherited an obsessive attitude towards work from his father, he said, recalling him mulling over equations every evening while watching American thrillers on television.

Looking back now I can see that the whole approach to his work is quite like my approach to my work as a writer, he said. He didnt think of it as a job at all. It was something he obsessively thought about the whole time. That was my model.

Mathematics: The Winton Gallery, designed by Zaha Hadid Architects, opens on 8 December. It spans 400 years of mathematics, focusing on ideas and objects that have influenced everyday lives.

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