opinion

2050 – A world without plastics


An experimental bit of writing – be nice ūüėČ

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The 20th centuries wonder material had turned into a blight of biblical proportions. The world was awash with plastic. From obvious fragments of polystyrene packaging, to polyethene shopping bags, and discarded PVC furniture to the microscopic micro-fibres shed from our polyester clothing during every wash. It accumulated in great, becalmed garbage patches in the middle of our oceans or washed up as vast invasions of flotsam, where it was consumed by wildlife, mistaking our discarded packaging for food.

Meanwhile the currents and geological forces abraded the jet-sum into tiny fragments that found their way into, well everything. Our cheap, durable and omni-present material had reached every corner of the globe, it had became part of the very fabric of the planet. Geologists coined a new type of sedimentary rock; plastiglomerate Рpart plastic pollution part stone.

For decades the litter had been building. The obvious detritus featured on every street corner, beach and country park. It became part of the scenery, we got used to it, ignored it, or mildly complained, whilst making sure we kept hydrated by sipping from our water bottles, that we clutched like life-support systems.

Then almost two decades into the 21st century the zeitgeist shifted. Seemingly triggered by the haunting image of pilot whale grieving her dead cub. The narrator blamed plastics. Our blinkers fell away, and we noticed the plastic as if it had just been dumped on our doorsteps. Unlike the invisible carbon dioxide, ravishing the climate and the oceans, we could point at this culprit.

Almost overnight plastic packaging became universally distasteful. Shoppers curled their lips when offered a plastic punnet of mushrooms and then stripped of the useless artificial skins from their purchases before dumping them in front of the supermarkets. Companies raced to see who could strip the plastic from their products the quickest. Listicle blogs sprang up providing tips on how to throw the ultimate plastic free dinner party. And, much to children’s dismay, drinking straws disappeared from cafes across the land.

Politicians were as quick to jump on the bandwagon, keen to cash in on the voters’ new plastic outrage, they vilified cotton buds, toothpicks and wet wipes.

But all this outrage, bans and boycotts was just tinkering around the edges. One small island’s war on drinking straws did little more than remove a mole hill from the mountain of the world’s plastic waste. Something much more radical was needed.

Gaia had the beginnings of an answer. She was used to cleaning up detritus. Over millions of years the myriad of micro-fauna have found biochemical ways to harness the resources from organic dead matter. But plastics had only been around for a few decades. So microorganisms simply hadn’t had enough time to evolve the necessary biochemical tool kit to latch onto the plastic fibres, break them up and then utilise the resulting chemicals as a source of energy and carbon that they need to grow.

Or so we thought.

But deep within a Japanese rubbish tip, devoid of organic matter on which to feed, evolutionary pressure had selected an organism with a new feeding strategy. Nature it seemed, had quietly made a start on tackling our plastic plague. Somewhen, in the recent past, a bacteria had undergone a random mutation and a protein that normally allowed the bug to feed on fats had been converted into one that empowered it to digest plastics.

Not that the plastic waste was noticeably decomposing. The bacteria wasn’t up to the scale of the job. After all, it was a mere evolutionary infants, taking the first tentative bites of a new food, still unequipped to make full use of it. It might have been decades or longer before anyone noticed the rubbish was rotting. Or maybe some other natural pressure may have been to much for the new species. It could so easily have gone extinct before anyone ever became aware of its existence.

But for Prof Yoshiharu Kimura’s eureka moment. Struck by an inspiration particle, it occurred to him that the obvious place to look for a plastic eating organism was in the heaps of rubbish. For five years he hunted through 100s of samples of soil, sludge and stagnant water seeping out of tips and recycling plants. Then, back in the lab, he painstakingly tried to grow something, anything, by feeding his soup of organisms little more than ground up polythene bottles. Miraculously, in just one dish a single bacteria flourished, multiplied and thrived. Soon he had a viable culture. Professor Kimura had found the needle in the plastic stack. He called it Ideonella sakaiensis.

For a while people were mildly interested, there was a flurry of pressproclaiming the solution to the plastic problem may have been found. But soon the excitement died down, for this was still two years before the dead whale cub was beamed into homes around the world. And so the newly discovered I. sakeienis slipped from the folk mind. That was until, a second breakthrough came. Perfectly timed, on this occasion, coinciding with the new anti-plastic movement. Professor Kimura had been happily sharing his cultures with scientist far and wide, and and one group had accidentally genetically engineering the protein that empower I. sakeienis to be a much more efficient plastic digester. In those 24 months they had done what nature might have taken centuries to achieve. The bacteria hit the headlines. They showed the world that by taking what Gaia started and combining it with 21st century biotechnology we could at last tackle the plastic problem of our own making.

Genetically modification of organism, vilified for decades as the technology that would destroy our ecosystems, suddenly became the answer to all our worries. Folks who had ripped up experimental GM crops, fell over each other in their efforts to support genetically enhanced plastic munching microbes. After all, the plastics were unnatural and evil. And so, they reasoned, it was perfectly acceptable (at least in this case) to utilise GM bugs to clear up our mess. It might even be that we were just giving nature a helping hand, it was possible that some organisms might even have made a start on the plastics in the oceans.

The great cleanup began. Governments and eco-charities around the world throw money at the problem. What started with the odd publication here and there became a torrent of papers describing newly discovered and genetically enhanced bacteria, fungi and even worms. All equipped with an arsenal of plastic eating enzymes. Soon concerned citizens got in on the act. School science fairs featured projects dreamt up by keen children attempting to breed plastic-eating creatures, the maker movement got involved, as they discovered home bio-hack kits could be used to tinker with microbes molecular machinery.

By 2022 we had identified thousands of organisms, both naturally evolved and artificially enhanced, equipped with the molecular and mechanical machinery required to set to work on our poly-materials. In just a few more years the impact was tangible. Recycling plants quickly harnessed the new biotech boom to turn rubbish into fuel and chemical feedstocks used to create, amongst other things, fresh virgin plastics. Plastics production and recycling had at last become a truly circular economy. It even became economically viable, with the help of solar powered drone barges, to sweep up the great ocean garbage patches.

The oceanic rubbish rafts shrank, plastics slowly rotted on our beaches, reports of plastiglomerate dwindled. There was a collective sigh of relief.

Except it wasn’t just the rubbish the new breed of bugs were eating. Once out in the wild they were unable to distinguish between refuse and infrastructure. Whether the plastic-munching organisms escaped from the recycling plants, the amatuer bio-hackers’ sheds, or just naturally evolved, we can’t be sure.

The world was once crisscrossed with polythene pipes delivering gas and water to homes and industry. PVC insulated electrical cables and sheathed the world’s fibre optic communication networks. The many uses of plastics were incalculable. At its peak 350 million metric tonnes of plastic materials produced annually had formed the fabric of not just our single use packages, that we so quickly discarded, but also the very structure of our civilisation. And now that fabric rots like so much soft-wood.

By May 8, 2018 4 comments opinion, science news

Curiosity and distress


I had a particularly low period during my post-doc career, nothing seemed to be working.  The days of failed experiments stretched into weeks and then months, with no end is site.

About that time I came across a quote (from the zoologist Marston Bates), that mirrored my mode

Research is the process of going up alleys to see if they are blind.

At first this seemed like a dark description of the scientific method that chimed with the distress I felt after yet another fruitless week in the lab. It conjured up an image of a lost scientist wondering down one street after another, repeatedly hitting dead-ends and having to double back to the point where he started. And as a result achieving nothing for his efforts.

That evening I nursed a beer whilst dwelling on the quote and considering my options. Maybe research science wasn’t for me after all. Perhaps I should try something that felt less like wondering around in the dark. And then it occurred to me that Marston may have left a word out. Perhaps the quote should read

Research is the process of, systematically, going up alleys to see if they are blind.

If I treated every failure as a setback, as I was doing at the time, then I was without hope of reaching my goal. But that one word changed everything, no longer was I haphazardly wondering around trying to find my way out of a maze. Instead I became a cartographer plotting the possibilities and marking off the blind alleys.

That moment represented a sea change in my thinking, it is a moment that I often look back on as a fork point in my life, without that light bulb moment I may well have remained in the dark and taken a completely different career path.

But despite this moments importance I couldn’t quite label what had happened. Until I came across a piece within Merck’s Curiosity report. It described the four traits of the curious. The first three seemed obvious, and I imagine they are words that would crop up regularly when folks are asked to described characteristics of the curious. They are¬†inquisitive, creative problem solvers and open minded. The fourth trait I hadn’t considered before, but it is the one I now recognize as having germinated in my mind as a result of Bate’s quote; distress tolerance, the ability to cope in difficult and anxious situations.

And it’s the lack of distress tolerance that can put the kibosh¬†on curiosity, the most creative, open-minded and inquiring person will come to naught if they give up when things get tough.

Which leads on to my next challenge… These days I spend a significant amount of my time out of the lab, communicating science. I direct a science festival, I go out and about to schools and public arenas.¬† Why? Well in no small part I’m trying to inspire people to be creative, inquisitive and open minded. But maybe that isn’t enough, do I need to introduce distress tolerance to my science festival?

But how to do that?

Should I focus on tales of failure as much as the rare successes? After all science is full of things that don’t work, the eureka (or even the ‘oh good’) moments are the rarity. But when we communicate our science we invariably showcase the things that work and gloss over the mass of experiments that didn’t produce the result we hoped for.

And if we only ever present the good stuff, how will folks react when they get into the lab or out into the fields and discover that actually stuff, largely, doesn’t work? Somehow I doubt that a workshop filled with demos that don’t work isn’t going to draw the crowds, but stories might? Tales that celebrate stresses and challenges of science and the stuff that doesn’t work, the ideas that proved fruitless, the broken kit and the pitiful yields, would people come and listen to those?

So here’s my aim. I’m going to try and bring narratives, to my science festival, that highlight the challenges and the way we overcome them, but equally as important the ways we don’t. There are some really great examples of this sort of thing out there already. Story Collider, is full of them (Stories about stressful situations),¬†Maryam Zaringhalam¬†writes¬†about¬†failure¬†at Scientific American, she has even started a¬†¬†forum for scientist to recount their failures¬†(by her own admission it’s a flop). And then there’s¬†F*#$up nights¬†where folks recount their greatest screw-ups to the assembled audiences.

Watch this space, watch me fail ūüėČ

 

 

Full disclouse … ¬†Merck asked me to join their ¬†Curiosity Initiative, which consists of science and technology-based opinion leaders. It was established by Merck to seek connections between scientific research and the underlying question: Why Curiosity? There really is some interesting stuff in their curiosity report, so do take a look.¬†Merck is known as Merck KGaA, Darmstadt, Germany in the United States.

By December 8, 2017 0 comments opinion

Campaign for Clear Code starts here!





I‚Äôm concerned about the software that’s installed on my electronic¬†devices.

You should be worried as well.

Have you really considered what you are opening yourself up to every time you download a new app or install an upgrade?

Have you thought about what all those faceless software giants are doing with the code that they are busy sneaking onto your phone?

Do you have any idea what they are slipping directly into your pocket? It certainly isn’t good for you. After all its not you they care about. All that really concerns them is profit, pure and simple. They want you coming back for more, why else would they make those damn games so additive?

Screen Shot 2015-05-08 at 21.26.12

And has that code even been tested properly? They claim it has, but why then does big software continually release patches and updates?

Just stop for a minute and ask yourself this. Do you really know what you are putting on your computer when you downloaded Candy Crush? Have you ever seen the code?

Take a look at this.

“;
for(i=0;i<=20;i++)
{
f=random(3);
z=random(3);
if(tic[f][z]==’ ‘)
co-ordinates
{
tic[f][z]=’O’;
goto x;
}
else
continue;
}
x:newdisp();
d=check();
if(d==0)
user();
else
{
cout<<“

Understand it?

No, me neither.

Want to know where that snippet of code came from? Its just a small part of a computer program for tic-tac-toe. And if a game as simple as that has stuff like that in it then imagine what’s in Candy Crush, Angry Birds or even Powerpoint?

And it gets worse. Because some computer programer, in the pay of cooperate giants, writes this sort of thing¬†before¬†processing it into something that¬†might not even¬†contain recognisable words!¬†The software companies call this ‚Äėcompiling‚Äô and afterwards its bears no resemblance what-so-ever to the natural¬†code.

I, for one, won’t stand for this sort of thing being foisted on me by big-software any longer.

Now is the time to take a stand.

I call for a campaign for clear code.

Basically, if a 10 year old child can’t code it then it has no place on my devices.

From this point onwards I’m reverting back to simple code that anyone can understand. I’m using nothing more than Scratch running on a nice wholesome Pi. I urge you to do the same.

And don’t even get me started on anti-virus software. Much better to share infected USB sticks around.

By May 8, 2015 2 comments fun, opinion, Uncategorized