Stephen Emmott at NESTA

Here’s the first part of Stephen Emmott’s talk at NESTA last Tuesday, mentioned in the previous post. The end is patchy, and probably contains errors, since I have to start at the beginning again every time I correct.

He starts with a summary of what he thinks are the most important questions of our times, at the end of which he notes with surprise that they’re all questions of biological science. He doesn’t stop to consider whether the fact that he is a biological scientist himself may have been a factor influencing his choice.

He then goes on to “ridicule” (his word) the biological sciences for their ignorance. And these biological sciences (he includes climate science, epidemiology, ecology in this very large category) which are so ignorant, are telling us with certainty that we are facing imminent danger of planet-wide catastrophe.

Spot the logical flaw, if you can.

[…] I’m not entirely certain why I’ve been invited to give this talk and I’m fairly certain that by the end of it there’ll be at least half of you asking yourselves the same question.

[…] I have  about 15 minutes to give a talk and there’s quite a lot to get through, so I will just  – slightly  apologies in advance,  sort of errors and emissions excepted.

its going to be very high level, very quick fly-through, quite a lot of issues sort of tied together quite a lot of issues about why we need transformation of science and I’ll just finish off with a couple of examples from my lab of our attempt to overcome some important barriers in science, to address some important scientific issues.

[…] So I want to start off by just a very quick summary of what I think are the most important questions of our times, and certainly it might be the important questions for us as a society this century. 

The first is, you know, how is the climate going to change and more important the impact, what’s going to be the consequences. 

How we are going to feed a population of at least ten billion? – it might be  a lot more. 

How are we going to- sustainably  -power a planet of ten billion or more? We can easily power the planet if we continue to use oil and coal and gas but that would almost certainly finish it off.

Have we embarked on the sixth mass extinction of life on earth? the answer is almost certainly yes. In geological times that’s certainly true, almost certainly the case. We know that what’s happening with the loss of amphibians, birds, mammals, non vertebrates and indeed the bigger question is: what’s the future of life on earth particularly for (?) systems and ourselves, given all the other questions.

Some other interesting questions: Can we predict, prevent, or manage a global pandemic? Most epidemiologists are of the view that a global pandemic is a matter of when, not if. It could be tomorrow. It could be in (?)  years time. The last one was the  Spanish flu pandemic which was estimated to have killed 50 million people and is now estimated to have killed at least a hundred million people, and most epidemiologists agree, the rate we travel around the planet, the next one could kill up to a billion people. It’s a big deal.

How does the immune system work? Thats also an important question, because right now, the only thing between us in this room and the cemetery is our immune systems. Were all breathing in all sorts of pathogens.

How stem cells built us What is it the brain actually does? an interesting question not least beause we have 2 decadesof spectacular success n neurosciece.

And finally, related to the last batch of medical and biological questions is:  (…) are we going to be able to cure  (…) Alzheimer’s, cancer.

The interesting thing about all these questions is that they’re all related to science. Science is at the centre of them all and actually its biological sciences not physical sciences and we haven’t got answers to any of these questions, which is quite remarkable in itself. 

in fact in terms of biology we dont even knows how a cell works. In 2012. 

After 50 years of climate warming at places like the Hadley Centre, uncertainty is still a critical issue.

In ecology, despite 200 years of data collection we still are unable to answer the question  (of species loss) 

In biological medicine despite 50 years of spectacular success, which are really about advances in techniques, we literally dont understand how a cell works, even though we can describe the parts.

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6 Responses to Stephen Emmott at NESTA

  1. omnologos says:

    A bit of a split personality? Perhaps he can charge double for his talks…

  2. omnologos
    well he is a professor at Oxford and at Cambridge, after all…

  3. Pingback: Integrating Man’s Thinking and Machines’ Processing | 3D Metrics

  4. alexjc38 says:

    Emmott in a nutshell:

    We don’t know much about history,
    Don’t know much biology,
    Don’t know much about a science book,
    Don’t know much about the maths we took.

    But we do know that we’re facing our doom,
    And we know that when we’ve run out of room,
    What a horrible world this will be.

    (With apologies to Sam Cooke.)

  5. alexjc38 says:

    Second verse:

    Don’t know much about geography,
    Think taming animals is industry,
    Don’t know much about algebra,
    Don’t know what a slide rule is for.

    But we do know that one and one is three.
    ‘Cos climate change is acceleratin’, you see.
    What a scary old world this will be!

  6. Pingback: Cuckoo in the NESTA | Geoffchambers's Blog

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