SARS-CoV-2 : the virus

I’ll say one thing for the coronavirus outbreak, it has prompted a lot of curiosity. Whether you believe we are going back to the days of the plague pit, or it’s nothing but a severe cold, I have been asked a lot of questions about viruses in general and the coronavirus in particular. I’m not an epidemiologist, but I’m pretty sure the plague pits will remain safe in history. That’s no reason for complacency however, because this virus has the potential to cause widespread illness and far-reaching disruption. How widespread and far-reaching we will have to wait and see. And if anyone reading this thinks the coronavirus is an escaped bioweapon or made by big-pharma so they can sell more drugs, then I will save you time and tell you not to bother reading any further.

The term coronavirus relates to a number of viruses mostly circulating in animals. Occasionally they jump from animals to humans, as with SARs which appeared in 2002. That virus was the SARS-Cov-1 and now the latest has been designated SARS-CoV-2. Based on genomic analysis SARS-CoV-2 is closest to a strain of coronavirus known as BatCov RaTG13, carried by bats.

In this post, I will not get into the possible consequences of viral spread – I honestly don’t feel qualified to make such judgements. Instead I thought I’d quench the curiosity of those who have asked me about viruses, how they infect and what we can do about them. This takes me back to my old profession – pharmacology.

It is one of those quirks of history that we had vaccines against viruses before we knew viruses existed. Although their existence had been suspected for some time, it wasn’t until the electron microscope was invented in 1931 that viruses were first seen. Which means that medicine was ignorant of the viral cause of the Spanish flu pandemic in 1918 which infected half a billion people world-wide.

The reason viruses evaded detection was because they are tiny, ranging between about 20 to 400 billions of a meter in diameter. To put their size into context, if the smallest of the viruses were enlarged to the size of a football* then that is on the same scale as enlarging a football to a sphere with a diameter from London to Rome. SARS-COV-2 is a relatively large virus, coming in with a diameter of around 200 billionths of a meter. Although it’s carried in water droplets, there’s no evidence for airborne spread and its size may be a contributing factor for that.

Viruses inhabit the twilight world between living and non-living. They are constructed from genetic material, protein and some sugar and lipid. SARS-COV-2 does not contain DNA but RNA (ribonucleic acid), which like DNA comprises a string of bases in the form of a helix. Viruses cannot live alone. They invade cells and take them over like some ultra microscopic version of invasion of the body snatchers; turning the cells into viral factories, which pour out many more viruses to invade other cells.

Viruses invade cells through protein spikes on their surface. Proteins can be likened to a biochemical set of spanners and wrenches, each shaped to fit some other biological molecule – typically another protein. When the “spanner” protein fits onto another, it twists into a new shape which elicits some biological response. With viruses, the protein spikes latch onto cells which twist an opening in the membrane allow them to enter. These spikes are essential to viral infection and they are also their Achilles’ heel when it comes to fighting them. The structure of the SARS-COV-2 spike is now well characterised (see image) and is a target for new anti-viral drugs.

Antibiotics are useless against viruses and can only be used to treat bacterial infection. (There is a class of virus called a bacteriophage that attacks bacteria, but that’s another story). Developing anti-viral drugs is tricky because it’s a tightrope between killing the virus and the cell it’s invading. If the anti-viral does the latter, then the reason for side-effects becomes obvious. The spike-protein offers something specific to a virus, not found in human cells, for a drug to attack. The best known antiviral drug, Tamiflu (Oseltamivir), works in this way. It attacks a protein called neuraminidase on the viral surface, preventing it from release and infecting other cells. Another anti-viral called ritonavir is used to treat HIV by targeting a protein that inhibits the reproductive cycle of the virus. I am proud to say I have done a small amount of research on ritonavir – tiny in the big picture of drug development admittedly. The effectiveness of ritonavir against the current virus is being assessed.

What about a vaccine? The specifics are outside my field, but, similar to anti-virals, vaccines target specific proteins on the surface of the virus. Our immune system constantly looks for things it considers foreign to the body and it does that through our old friend proteins. These proteins are called antibodies and they latch onto non-self proteins, essentially painting a target on them to prompt attack from other components of the immune system such as white cells. A vaccine elicits appropriate antibodies to the virus, which then patrol the body and knock them out before they do too much damage. As I say this is outside my field but I get the feeling there’s a lot of misinformation going around about the development of a vaccine. Knowing the structure of the viral proteins helps but it’s likely to be a year or more before a vaccine becomes available.

A final word on hand-washing. Here in the UK, and I believe some other countries, stocks of hand sanitizer are sold out. The fact is however, soap and water is probably more effective. The virus has a lipid coat known as a capsule and it is disrupted by detergent. It’s like removing grease from a frying pan with washing up liquid (trying doing that with hand sanitizer). The thing about washing your hands for 20-seconds, is not just about removing the virus, but it gives time for the soap to act on the lipid capsule.

Advice varies as to how to time 20-seconds when hand-washing. Some say it’s the time it takes to sing two versus of happy birthday. One of our Members of Parliament (Jacob Rees-Mogg) suggested singing Rule Britannia. Such are the times in which we live.

* – a soccer ball, not an American football

(Edited and corrected, 17 March 2020)

Cobras and pencil stubs – be careful what you wish for

Here in the UK we are in the conference season, when political parties get together to tell the faithful what they intend to do if they get into government. Not being a political blog, I’m not commenting on proposed tax cuts, or increases in government spending, or public schools,* or homelessness, or anything else, but I would offer a few words of caution. What might seem sensible policies to the faithful, they might do well to remember human behaviour doesn’t always conform to the intention. Allow me to provide two examples.

During the time of colonial India, Delhi became overrun with poisonous cobras. The government therefore instigated a policy whereby every cobra killed earned a bounty. It sounded like a sensible approach and soon the number of cobras started to fall. This was until someone saw a money making opportunity and began to farm cobras to claim the bounty. Several farms sprang up and were quite lucrative until the authorities caught on and abolished the cobra bounty policy. Not knowing what to do with all the farmed cobras, they were released into the wild. What seemed a sensible policy to ameliorate an excess of cobras actually ended up causing a deluge.

The other example goes back to the days I worked for ICI and I attended a talk by the then chairman John Harvey-Jones. He told a story, probably apocryphal, of a micromanaging supply manager who became alarmed by the number of pencils being booked out of the stores. Believing the pencils were being taken home by employees, he issued a policy that required presentation of a pencil stub before the store could issue a new one. He underestimated the employees however, because they began cutting up pencils into pieces of the required length and presenting them at the stores for replacement. Pencil consumption increased exponentially.

Both of the above examples are known as the cobra effect, named after the incident in India. There are no end of other examples where action with good intention ended up achieving the exact opposite to what was intended. I think the political parties should be cognisant of the cobra effect, less they too get bitten.

* for readers outside the UK, we call private schools public schools and those run by the state, state schools. The rather confusing naming arose in the 18th Century when some schools started taking fee-paying pupils from anywhere in the country, whereas other non-fee paying schools only took local pupils. Hence the names public and local schools developed, which are now known as public and state.

Luminous toothpaste

Imagine my delight when I discovered a toothpaste that promised luminous teeth. I imagined lighting my way at night with a glowing smile, or even having British teeth brighter than those in the United States. Of course, I’m not so gullible to take this literally and can spot marketing hyperbole when I see it. Nevertheless, it was still disappointing because such a toothpaste did once exist. Called Doramad Radioaktive Zahncreme, it was genuinely luminous because it contained radioactive radium.

Marie and Pierre Curie first isolated radium in 1898 and by the 1910s its luminescent properties had developed into a craze. Science was naïve to the dangers of radium at that time and it was added to the most bizarre range of products. From cocktails, such as the radium highball, to glow in the dark radium ink and even Vita radium suppositories advertised, “for restoring sex power”.

James Chadwick was a physicist who had the misfortune of being in Germany at the outbreak of the first world war and interned in a prison camp. Chadwick convinced a guard to buy some Doramad Radioaktive Zahncreme for him and he used it to conduct simple experiments with a home-made electroscope constructed out of tin-foil. Whether he also attained a glow-in-the-dark smile history does not record. After the war Chadwick carried on working with radioactivity and went on to win the Nobel Prize for physics in 1935 for the discovery of the neutron.

I don’t think my purchase of luminous toothpaste will earn me a Nobel Prize but I checked it out with my Geiger counter and, predictably, I was disappointed.

Sunday Church

For the first time in over 3-years I went to church. A member of my immediate family became dangerously ill and my wife, sons and their partners gathered together with little hope of her survival. As is so often the case, some light humour helped release the pressure. I looked up into the sky and said, “if she recovers, I promise to go to church to say thanks.” Two days later she started to recover and the hospital consultant called it a miracle. I honoured my word and went to church last Sunday.

Although I class myself as an agnostic I have religious friends who were quick to claim that it was their prayers that were answered. I find this very hard to accept because it immediately begs the question as to why God would let my loved relative get so ill and why so many others fail to recover from diseases that presumably God put into the world in the first place. I know this is answered with “God moves in mysterious ways” but that begs even more questions. I prefer to put my faith, as it is, in medical science and recognise the skill of the doctors rather than the prayers of strangers. But I don’t mean that to sound condescending because unlike hardened atheists such as Richard Dawkins, I don’t see how one can have such certainty about the non-existence of a God. I certainly have respect for those with religious faith, providing it isn’t an excuse for bigotry. I know too many who believe gays will go to hell, or the universe is 6,000 years old, or women are inferior based purely upon their religious doctrine. Religion is not alone in this of course, politics can also bring out the worst in people. The majority, in my experience, either religious or political are outside that bigoted sphere. I therefore remain an agnostic because I can’t believe in something which has nothing to support it, but on the other hand I can’t rule it out entirely. But I don’t want to confuse the concept of a God with that of organised religion because they are not the same thing.

Throughout history there may have been over 4,000 different religions, some polytheist some monotheist but all insisting they had some exclusive window on the truth. Why is modern Christianity or Islam anymore right than say the Gods of ancient Greece? To me the capricious nature of Zeus and Hera seems far more credible. And yet the plethora of different Christian denominations and those of Islam would be as certain of their own faith as the ancient Greeks would be of theirs. For me, it takes a little more than just believing in something to make it real. My agnosticism is therefore more of a philosophical stance than anything else. I did once explore the idea of Humanism, which has great appeal to me. I went to several meetings but that experience, which is entirely personal, left me unimpressed. The meetings invited religious speakers and then threw metaphorical stones at their ideas. My intention was to try to understand the beliefs of others and why they held them, but these particular Humanists had another agenda. As I say, this is a personal experience and I have no idea if this is universal.

I chose to go to a Baptist Church. An odd choice perhaps, given the reputation of, for example, the Westboro Baptists in the United States, the very epitome of those aforementioned bigots. I chose a Baptist church partly for convenience as my nearby neighbours attended and partly because each church has a lot of autonomy and doesn’t necessarily have to follow some central doctrine. I found it an interesting experience because the congregation I met were friendly, undogmatic and welcoming. On the other hand, they were not the types who would question their faith in any form of analytical way. And it’s here where I have a problem. If there is a God who made humankind, then he gave us the power of reason and an intellectual capacity. If there was ever one sin against my version of God it’s the rejection of those cognitive analytical abilities and acceptance purely on faith or authority. And that goes for politics as much as religion. My visit to Church nevertheless gave me food for thought and I may go back again to gather more data.

How do we know humans are responsible for climate change?

I write this a few days after David Attenborough’s program, “Climate Change – The Facts” appeared on the BBC. It received great acclaim but like so many accounts it explained the consequences, not the science behind how we know climate change is anthropogenic. It’s not surprising there are so few accounts of the science because it is rather complex and hence difficult to explain to the public. That complexity then leaves the door open for those who wish to mislead with over-simplifications. There are, in fact, multiple avenues of scientific evidence that humans are responsible for climate change, but I will explain just one of them.

Carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas. It’s not the only greenhouse gas, but by far the most significant regarding rising temperatures since the industrial revolution. It gets its dubious reputation because it’s transparent to solar heat that passes through the atmosphere but absorbs infrared that irradiates back off the ground. The absorbed infrared then heats the troposphere leading to a rise in average surface temperatures worldwide. By analysing bubbles of gas trapped in ice cores we know that in 1790, at the start of the industrial revolution, atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations were about 280 parts per million. At the time of writing (April 2019) this has increased to 412 parts per million which is the highest for 800,000 years.

The first reports linking carbon dioxide with global temperature were as early as 1896. Concerns that rising industrial outputs of carbon dioxide were warming the planet appeared in the 1950s. Nowadays 97% of climate scientists agree that the cause of the warming planet is human activity but there are still those who claim it isn’t real.

Nigel Lawson, who served in the government under Margaret Thatcher from 1981 to 1989 and was once the Secretary of State of Energy, wrote a book in 2008 called, An Appeal to Reason: A Cool Look at Global Warming. Here he says, “…. the great majority of those scientists who speak with such certainty and apparent authority about global warming and climate change, are not in fact climate scientists, or indeed scientists of any kind and thus have no special knowledge to contribute.” Of course, Nigel Lawson is no scientist either. If he was, then he might have known that climate change, like so many branches of science today, is multidisciplinary. My own area of expertise is with isotopes and isotope chemists have provided some strong evidence that climate change is indeed a result of human activity.

The periodic table lists 92 naturally occurring elements from hydrogen to uranium. Elements are defined as the fundamental building blocks of matter that cannot be broken down into simpler substances. Each element comprises its own type of atom that contains a unique number of protons; one proton for hydrogen, two protons for helium, three protons for lithium and so on, to 92 protons for uranium. Atoms also contain neutrons and while the number of protons defines the element, so the number of neutrons defines the isotope. Take, for example, the three principal isotopes of carbon called 12C, 13C and 14C. All carbon atoms have 6 protons but 12C has 6 neutrons, 13C has 7 neutrons and 14C has 8 neutrons (the sum of protons and neutrons is where the number in front of the C comes from).

All three isotopes of carbon will combine with oxygen to make carbon dioxide but the properties of each isotopic form are slightly different. We’ll come to 14C in a moment but let’s first consider 12C and 13C. When plants take in carbon dioxide during photosynthesis, they preferentially use 12C over 13C and so plant-based material is 13C-depleted. This phenomenon has utility in many scientific fields such as the study of food chains and to authenticate plant-based products. Largely formed from vegetation many millions of years ago, fossil fuels are depleted in 13C. If the increase in carbon dioxide comes from fossil fuel therefore, we should see atmospheric 13C concentrations becoming progressively lower over time. And indeed we do. In fact atmospheric 13C levels today are the lowest for 10,000 years. We know this from variations in tree ring 13C data obtained as an offshoot of archeological dendrochronology and from bubbles of gas trapped in ice cores.

14C is different to 12C and 13C because it is a radioactive isotope which decays away over a few thousand years. Constantly generated by cosmic ray bombardment, the atmosphere and biosphere contain small amounts of 14C. Because fossil fuels were formed over 100-million years ago however, any 14C would have long decayed away. As with 13C, if the increase in carbon dioxide comes from fossil fuel we should also see atmospheric 14C concentrations progressively decreasing over time. There is a glitch however, because of the atomic bomb tests in the 1950s, which injected large amounts of 14C into the atmosphere. Globally this doubled the atmospheric levels of 14C and therefore masked any potential dilution from fossil fuels. (A previous blog told the story of how the 14C from atomic bombs shows the age of cells in the body). We can nevertheless observe a decline in atmospheric 14C from the start of the industrial revolution up until 1950 by looking at those aforementioned tree rings and ice cores. There is, in fact, a direct relationship between the fall of 14C and the rise in total atmospheric carbon dioxide. Even with heightened bomb related 14C in the atmosphere it’s still possible to see depletion in areas of significant industrial activity, such as over China. All this clearly points towards fossil fuel being the source of rising atmospheric carbon dioxide, but what if this is coincidental and it comes from other places?

Is it possible that carbon dioxide is coming from geological sources? Because of its immense age geological carbon dioxide is free of 14C and so that would be consistent with the observed decrease of this isotope over time. The chances that geological seepage just happens to coincide with industrial centres is unlikely but is there more evidence to rule out this source of carbon? As it happens there is because geological sources of carbon dioxide have significantly larger amounts of 13C compared to fossil fuels. Indeed, if volcanic carbon dioxide was the source, then atmospheric 13C levels should increase not decrease.

What about the oceans? There is a common assertion amongst those denying anthropogenic climate change that rising carbon dioxide levels are not the cause of increased temperatures but instead arise from oceanic degassing as a result of the Earth warming by some other natural process. The problem with this is that gaseous exchange with the ocean occurs on the surface and surface carbon dioxide has the same levels of 13C and 14C as the atmosphere. If the oceans were the source of increasing atmospheric carbon dioxide, then there should be no change in the proportions of these isotopes.

When scientists proclaim a 97% confidence, then it’s never based on a single line of evidence. There are instead many independent lines of evidence all converging and pointing in the same direction. This is indeed the case with anthropogenic climate change but I have limited myself to one aspect of the evidence here. In fact I have simplified the isotopic evidence for clarity and there are many other aspects which also point in the same direction. No matter which way you look at it, the isotope data tell us that the source of rising atmospheric carbon dioxide is fossil fuel and human kind is the guilty party.

Is Science Popular?

Scientists often despair at the general lack of scientific understanding by the general public. And to be fair, that understanding is not brilliant, evidenced by regular surveys. I have summarised a snapshot of a series of surveys from across the world below to illustrate the point.

Percentage of people getting the right answer to a selection of science literacy questions by country. Complied from: Ipos MORI Survey, commissioned by the Government Department of Business, Innovation and Skills in 2014. Pew Research Center Poll in collaboration with the American Association for the Advancement of Science (2015) The National Science Foundation, 2014. National Science Foundation, Division of Science Resources Statistics, Survey of Public Attitudes Towards Understanding of Science and Technology, 2001, University of Michigan, Survey of Consumer Attitudes 2004. How well would you do?
The correct answers are: 1 – false, 2 – True, 3 – True, 4 – True, 5 – False

The other side of the coin is that scientists are sometimes seen as arrogant and aloof and science as unfathomably complicated. Nevertheless, similar surveys to those examining the scientific literacy of the public also report that there is a growing enthusiasm to understand it, and a huge 90% agree that it’s the sciences that will define our future prosperity. Neil deGrasse Tyson’s 2014 television series Cosmos topped 40-million viewers and Brian Cox’s recent tour sold out more than 150,000 tickets. Spurred on by all this I decided to try and write a popular science book myself but then some points of reality hit home.

In the United States, home of Young Earth Creationism and the anti-vaccine movement, popular science is still number five on the list of non-fiction genres amounting to over $155 million in sales in 2017 (published in 2019 by Statista). The genre is dominated by a few authors such as the aforementioned Brian Cox and generally speaking a celebrity figure is much more likely to get a book accepted for publication than just an everyday scientist. The publishing business is a commercial enterprise after all, bringing to mind the Monty Python Struggling Architect sketch and, “not caring a tinker’s cuss about the struggling artist”. As I embark upon a long and difficult journey in book writing I have to be realistic and accept the fact that many more books get written than ever published.

So why bother? It’s partly a matter of personal philosophy. I have always been passionate about the public understanding of science and in the past I have organised some memerorable public events (if I say so myself). Moreover, researching my own book has opened my eyes to how the general public may indeed get the view that science can be aloof.

I am a scientist with around 30-years working with isotopes one way or another but when I try to research areas adjacent to my own specific field I still end up having to compile a dictionary of technical terms. It’s an understandable problem when experts take their specific language for granted but it makes it difficult for others to cut through the jargon. Of course if they are scientific publications aimed at other scientists in the field its understandable but when the intension is for wider communication it’s a different matter. Just as an example, I was looking at a summary of how isotopes are used to follow the flow of nutrients from rivers into the oceans and came across terms such as “sediment porewater” and “aquifer” as if they were everyday terms like, drain or sewer. They are absolutely everyday terms to an oceanographer but to anyone else what do they mean? (If you’re interested I’ll let you look them up as I had to).

I would say to all scientists, new or old (old like me) dedicate just some of your time to the wider communication of your subject but watch that jargon. There’s a thirst for science and you’ll be doing your discipline a great service. And perhaps a few of you might have a try at your own popular science book …. and you never know…

… damn lies and statistics

The saying, “there are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics” is attributed to Mark Twain but may have originated from Benjamin Disraeli. It’s one of those phrases that has been misquoted more times than I can remember because in truth statistics is a branch of mathematics essential to understanding the world. Statistics is like a scalpel; in the hands of a skilled surgeon it can save lives, but in the hands of a serial killer it is an instrument of death. And the worse serial killers of statistics are marketing executives and politicians.

Probably the most common statistical parameter used by the news media is the average. The average size of family, or the average income; it has become so familiar it hardly gets a second thought. An average is calculated by adding up all the numbers in a data set and then dividing by the number of data points. An average can be useful as it reduces a lot of data to one easily understood number, but it can also mislead for precisely the same reason. The problem with average is that it says nothing about the way the data are distributed. An average is most useful when the data are what is known as a Gaussian, or normal distribution, whereby they are evenly distributed and the spread of numbers is bell-shaped (see Figure-1).

Random events such as the height of individuals in a country, or the weight of grains of sand on the beach will form a classical Gaussian distribution. Other data, such as earnings in the UK are not Gaussian, they are skewed to one side. To take an extreme example to illustrate what I mean, fifty people might have an average salary of £30,000 per year but that average could equally arise from all fifty earning £30,000 each or from forty-nine having a salary of one pound per year and one person having a salary of £1,499,951.

I want to be careful not to make political points rather than focus on the use – or misuse – of statistics. All politicians, in my experience, have selected statistics to suit their purpose at one time or another but it just happens that a particular example has recently come along. There was a Tweet from UK politician Dominic Raab saying real wages are rising at the fastest rate for 10-years (Figure-2).

The plot shows average weekly earnings versus year. It shows the latest average weekly wage as £495, which is equivalent to £25,740 per year. The first thing that strikes me is that the graph is pretty flat across 2016-2018 and to my eye, the fastest rate of increase was around 2015. The claim that wages are rising at the fasted rate for 10-years therefore seems to me to be somewhat ambitious based upon the graph in the Tweet.

Nevertheless, putting the basics of graphical interpretation to one side, the use of average is fine if the data have a Gaussian distribution such as in Figure-1 but, as I’ve already said, UK earnings are not Gaussian. Take the 2013/14 earnings statistics for example (Figure-3). In such cases, two other parameters are more meaningful: the median and the mode. (For a Gaussian distribution, the average, median and mode all coincide, but these parameters part company if the spread of data leans one way or another).

The median shows the point at which the data are centred, that is the mid-way point. Since those earning lower wages are more numerous than those earning higher wages, then the average will always be a higher number than the median. The mode sits at the apex of the data, coinciding with the most frequently occurring number. For the 2013/14 statistics the mode was around £16,500 per year and given the distribution pattern it’s going to be a lower number than the median and the average. You can see the mode of £16,500 is around 56% of the mean of 29,172, a very significant difference. In short, the use of average with non-Gaussian wages data will always give a more favourable number than the median and mode. This is important because the use of average in this case hides the income for most wage earners.

Does this really matter? Yes it does. If a democratic society is to have informed opinions then at the very least those who are elected to office should present a complete picture of what’s happening in the country. We hear a lot about fake news – which is frankly, just stuff made up. The misuse of statistics however, is much more subtle. It can give an air of authority but also be perniciously misleading. Whether the politicians are spinning the statistics to suit their preconceived beliefs or whether they are just ignorant, I will leave to the reader to decide. In the meantime, beware of political statistics and remember Mark Twain.

Old in a young age

The stereotype of people of my age is someone who, when asked to press “any key” on the computer, asks, “where’s the anykey”. I’m not like that. Although my children might smile when I claim to be technically savvy, I like technology and I’m generally the antithesis of a Luddite. Just recently, for example I was introduced to Apple Pay and the idea of holding all my plastic credit and cash cards in a virtual wallet on my iPhone, I find quite inspiring.

I am nevertheless of an age where I can remember a world long before the internet – actually even before the common use of the transistor. I thought perhaps I’d take a short journey down memory lane so these young whippersnappers who take modern technology for granted, understand what it was like – all within a single lifetime.

My first memory of virtual money was in the 1960s when the Co-op man came to visit. In those days it was always a man. He came round once a week and my father deposited money into a Co-operative fund. Co-operative stores were not little corner shops but places where us working class bought clothes, furniture, Christmas presents and anything else you could think of. Money deposited in the Co-op fund was recorded in a book – yes by pen and ink – and then placed into the Co-op man’s brown leather satchel. He carried a lot of cash around and “the Co-op man’s been robbed again”, was an often heard phrase. When you wanted to spend some of the fund, he issued you with Co-op money, also from his satchel.

These were tin tokens that you could then exchange for goods in Co-op stores. I think the idea was you got discounts if you used Co-op money as opposed to real money, which of course they still accepted. That was a time of mostly cash. My father got his wages paid in cash and although cheques were about, many people didn’t have bank accounts. Down the street where I lived, cheques were considered a little bit posh.

I got a bank account when I started work in the 1970s. To get cash meant queueing up in the bank and handing over a cheque. Banking hours were 10 am to 4 pm and so it wasn’t unusual to run out of spending money. By the 1970s a new innovation arrived – the cash machine. They were available 24 hours a day – a huge improvement, but they were nevertheless, a little different back then.

The bank issued a plastic punch card which dished out a set amount of money – typically £10 from the cash machine. They retained the card and then posted it back to you in the mail to arrive a few days later. Pause for a moment and imagine that – a snail mail cash card.

I’ll skip the part when transistor radios first arrived. In those days you needed a radio licence, just like a TV licence today*, and I remember inspectors from the BBC going around sunbathers on the beach asking if they had a licence for their transistor radio. I’ll mention that I also remember when telephones became common. These were big black heavy devices a long way from today’s mobiles. My next-door neighbour had a telephone installed, the only one in the street. They were, my father said, getting a bit above their station. My mother didn’t like telephones, she said it would ruin the art of letter writing.

Credit cards came to the UK in the form of an ACCESS card – “your flexible friend”. To use it in the shops, it had to be placed in a little machine that took an imprint which was followed by a physical signature. Credit card fraud rose dramatically and over time, other innovations were introduced such as PINs then chip and PIN.

Internet banking came in by the 1980s. I recall many saying it wouldn’t catch on because it was too impersonal. I remember the actor, Robbie Coltrane, advertising internet banking, telling everyone it was liberating. I guess it was but remember this was the time of dial-up modems with speeds equivalent to the rate grass grows. Email was born around the same time (in common use anyway) but again, there were some who resisted because they thought it would replace the telephone and ruin the art of conversation. I worked for ICI at the time and they adopted one of the first email systems called all-in-one. It only worked internally within the company but we loved it because you no longer had to write a memo and put it into the internal post.

The first computer I bought was an Olivetti with, what was then, a massive 100 MBytes of memory. You might laugh but this was when word processors replaced the old typewriter and gallons of correction fluid. It was bliss, I can tell you.

So as I now add my cards to Apple Pay and it does it by scanning the card via the phone’s camera, I spent just a moment remembering what life was once like. And I wonder, when my grandchildren get to working age, what will things be like then? Impossible to say, I think, but I hope I live to see it because I am, in truth, a bit of a technology geek.

* if you are from the USA it might surprise you to hear you need a TV licence in the UK, when you are from a country where a gun licence is optional.

A Plastic Revolution

Plastic and the pollution it causes is in the news. There’s the plastic free challenge and the UK government has set aside £60 million to fight plastic waste.

I could not agree with all this more whole heartedly and have tried hard to reduce my personal use of plastic. It’s only when you take time to think about the amount of plastic that get’s thrown in the bin that you realise how bad the problem is. Just as an example I no longer buy laundry detergent in plastic bottles and have switched to powder in a cardboard box. Having said all this however, just recently I disposed of mounds and mounds of plastic, over which I had no control.

I have just had a new kitchen installed. The old one was 20 years old and was certainly showing it’s age. The majority of the materials in the new kitchen are recyclable being mostly wood products from renewable sources. Indeed the kitchen suppliers advertise their environmentally friendly credentials on this basis. All this seem laudable but nevertheless misleading because the amount of plastic packaging that comes with all the “environmentally friendly” stuff was overwhelming.

All the units where wrapped in plastic. The doors were covered in a plastic film that had to be peeled away and every cabinet came with it’s own plastic bag of screws. The hob was wrapped in enough plastic bubble wrap to choke a blue whale. By the time the kitchen was installed there were no fewer than dozen bags full of plastic waste.

The reason given for all this packaging is of course to protect the customer’s expensive purchase, but I am just not convinced. Everything in the old kitchen had to be packed away and I was tempted to purchase plastic bubble wrap for glasses and crockery. Instead of plastic however, I found a paper-based alternative. A sort of corrugated cardboard made from recycled paper that goes by several names, including Ecorap, Corrugated papercan and Cushion Paper amongst others. It was little more expensive, but in terms of the cost of a new kitchen it was trivial.

This exorbitant use plastic packaging doesn’t just apply to new kitchens, it’s everywhere you look. Every new appliance, furniture or household item is likely to be packed in either bubble wrap or contained in a plastic bag. I am therefore left with the felling that even if I reduced my own personal plastic usage to zero, it would be but a carrier bag in the ocean compared to its industrial use. Avoiding detergent in plastic bottles seems an almost pathetic effort in context of the reliance on plastic in packaging. Industry will continue to use plastic packaging because it’s cheep and convenient, until such times that environmental taxes change that attitude, and that takes government action and the will of the people!

You say 'aluminum,' I say 'aluminium' let's call the whole thing off

News headlines are buzzing over Donald Trump kicking off a trade war. In amongst the smoke and mirrors of politics one thing is very clear, the name of the 13th element is pronounced differently in North America and Europe. In Europe the discussion surrounds US tariffs on steel and ‘aluminium’, while in North America it’s steel and ‘aluminum’: why the difference you may wonder? I am told it’s a classic case of the United States messing up the English language, like they did when they removed the U from color. But is this true?

Tracking the name of the 13th element back to its origins, it was first called ‘alumium’ by the English chemist Sir Humphrey Davy in 1808. Then in 1812, in his Elements of Chemical Philosophy, he called it ‘aluminum’, the same as in North America today. The use of ‘aluminium’ was subsequently adopted in Britain because it was considered to have a more classical sounding name.

Both ‘aluminium’ and ‘aluminum’ therefore evolved from a common extinct ancestor, ‘alumium’. Both terms are officially accepted today and it’s hard to argue one is more valid than the other.

And for the record, the origin of ‘color’ is from the latin ‘color’ and colour came from the Anglo-Norman ‘colur’. I’ll leave the final comment to the philosopher Bertrand Russell who said, “It is a misfortune for Anglo-American friendship that the two countries are supposed to have a common language.”