Lessons of Fukushima

On 12 March 2011, an earthquake near Tōhoku, about 200 miles north of Tōkyō, caused a tsunami which killed up to 20,000 people in eastern Japan.

One of its effects was to overtop the defensive walls and knock out the cooling systems of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant (NPP), resulting in three meltdowns, hydrogen explosions and releases of radioactivity. Those resulted in the death of… no one.

As a safety precaution, 109,000 people were ordered to evacuate from within a 20 km radius of the NPP (while 45,000 others chose to evacuate from the wider surroundings). Among these, there were over 2,000 deaths, mainly of elderly and sick people who died at greater rates than usual when being moved from hospitals and care homes or while in temporary housing.

There have been several suicides, including a 102-year-old man who refused to leave his village and a 60-year-old woman who burnt herself to death while depressed about her inability to return home. Those deaths exceed those caused in the Fukushima prefecture by the tsunami.

No danger from radiation

Analysis in a recent article in The Conversation concludes that probably no one needed to be moved, with a minimal risk to life expectancy from staying put. This was also the judgement of physicist and radiation expert Professor Wade Allison who has argued that current radiation safety levels are at least 1,000 times too low.

Allison has written and lectured on nuclear safety and Fukushima before and since 2011, criticising the dominant Linear No-Threshold (LNT) model which is the basis for the setting of permissible levels of radiation.

The LNT model assumes that radiation damage is simply cumulative and it is — for non-living material. But living matter has evolved in an environment where radiation is ever-present (“background”) from cosmic rays and naturally occurring radioisotopes. All cells contain efficient DNA-repair systems that fix the damage that occurs constantly from background radiation; only when these systems are overwhelmed by an enormous dose does serious harm occur. Such enormous doses would be impossible in the Fukushima situation unless one was a worker in the power plant, and even the few who suffered radiation burns have not suffered subsequent ill effects.

It appears that there are two scandals with Fukushima.

One concerns the inadequate tsunami protection of the Fukushima plant: the protecting walls were too low, flood water knocked out the electricity, and the back-up cooling system only operated for a short time, so the fuel rods started to overheat. The owners, TEPCO, had been warned in 2000 and again in 2008 of the need to urgently improve tsunami protection. Other safety failures made the accident in 2011 much more likely. In contrast, the Onagawa NPP, closer to the epicentre but with safety features exceeding minimum design requirements, was undamaged.

The second concerns the largely unnecessary evacuation of people in area surrounding Fukushima. The threat to people’s health from any increase in radiation levels would have been statistically undetectable, indeed negligible, given the usual threats to health from infections, diet, life style, cancer and so on. In addition to the deaths attributable to the evacuation, people have suffered severe psychological and economic harm from being exiled from their homes.

There is a knock-on effect in that nuclear power in Japan has fallen from about 20% of the energy mix to 7%, meaning that, in the absence of a significant increase in renewable energy, Japan has continued to get about two-thirds of its energy from fossil fuels, with resulting carbon dioxide emissions, and air pollution causing morbidity and mortality. Japan is the third-largest coal importer, with most coming from Australia.

Since 2011, there have been about 50 deaths of Australian miners alone, with many more worldwide, compared with virtually zero proven deaths from nuclear power radiation. We need a public discussion of the risks of all forms of energy generation and this might well conclude that nuclear power has a role in the carbon-free electricity generation needed for the switch to electric vehicles.


The Wuhan coronavirus outbreak: background

What happened in Wuhan?

People visiting a seafood and wild animal market a few weeks ago almost certainly picked up a species of virus from live wild animals on sale. This virus, a member of the Coronavirus family, causes fever, a cough and sometimes pneumonia. It seems to be relatively easy to transmit between people and identified cases have risen sharply to well over 10,000 in a few weeks, most in the city of Wuhan with a few (so far) in other towns and countries. 

Each infected individual is estimated to be infecting about three others – this rate needs to be reduced to near zero to eliminate the disease but the incubation period is up to two weeks, during which time the virus can unwittingly be passed on. 

In most people, the disease is mild, but there have been getting on for 300 deaths, mainly in those with compromised health. Although the fatality rate is only about 2% (compared with 70% for Ebola), an epidemic affecting, say, 1 million people could still result in 20,000 deaths. It’s obviously important to interrupt its spread, hence the various steps that have been taken, including travel bans and quarantine for exposed individuals. The WHO has acted fast and declared an international health emergency (which it didn’t for nearly a year after the Ebola outbreak).

What is a virus?

Viruses consist essentially of small amounts of genetic material, DNA or RNA, coding for a few genes, all wrapped in a protective coat of protein. They are not alive because they lack the machinery of cells that enables growth and reproduction but they can use the machinery of cells that they infect to reproduce. Viruses are therefore parasites on living organisms, from bacteria to whales.

There are about 1031 (1 followed by 31 zeroes) viruses on Earth, some 1021 times more than there are humans on the Earth.

How do viruses infect people?

Once a virus is released from its host, it must survive long enough to reach another host and then be able to enter its cells. Some are transmitted by insect bites (e.g. yellow fever), others have to be transmitted in shared body fluids (e.g. HIV), while still others are capable of surviving on surfaces, such as skin (flu) or in fluid droplets from coughs and sneezes (colds). 

The virus must enter the cells of its host to be able to reproduce and this relies on the coat proteins being able to attach to a protein in the cell membrane. Most viruses can only infect the limited range of hosts whose cells they have evolved to “recognise.” They can only jump the species barrier if the new host has cell proteins similar to those of their natural host.

How serious is a viral infection?

The effect viruses have on their hosts ranges from mild (almost symbiosis) to lethal: it is a matter of what benefits the spread of their genes. For animal (including human) pathogens, the best solution seems to be for the virus to cause a mild infection that allows the host to pass on the virus to close contacts. Of course, even a mild infection can be serious for vulnerable individuals.

Some cause acute illnesses which may or may not be serious (e.g. common cold, flu, Ebola). Others can lie dormant, sometimes by incorporating their genetic material with that of their host, re-emerging from time to time to cause illness (e.g. shingles, cold sores); some cause or increase the likelihood of developing certain cancers (e.g. cervical cancer from human papilloma virus, liver cancer from Hepatitis C virus). 

Most viruses co-exist with their hosts and cause few or no problems: viruses and hosts co-evolve so that both survive to pass on their genes. The major problem is when a virus jumps from one species to another which has not had time to evolve defences. Then the infection can be very severe, even life threatening. An example is myxomatosis in European rabbits. In the 1950s, this killed over 95% of rabbits infected but resistance evolved in the surviving rabbits while the virus evolved to become less virulent – it doesn’t help the survival of the virus if the host dies out.

What are coronaviruses?

Coronaviruses (CoVs), discovered over 50 years ago, are a family of viruses that cause zoonotic diseases (diseases in humans caught from animals). Other viruses that can jump the species gap and cause illness in humans include influenza viruses, as well the Ebola virus and HIV.

The family of CoVs seem to infect various populations of wild animals, often birds or bats, and some domesticated species. CoVs cause a significant proportion of common colds in humans. Other CoVs affecting humans include SARS and MERS, which both cause serious lung problems with high rates of fatality. The Wuhan virus is new to science and is known as novel coronavirus (2019-nCoV).

Where did nCoV come from?

The coronavirus outbreak in humans seems to have started in the Wuhan market, where many wild animals are sold (for food or traditional Chinese medicine), including bats, the probable natural host for nCoV. Many of the animals on sale, when tested, were found to be carrying the virus. It is logical to assume that all the human cases can be traced back to this source, though infection could have arisen through contact with wild bats when capturing them. Habitat encroachment and destruction may also be routes for humans to be exposed to diseases endemic to wild animals (suggested in the case of Ebola).

Treatment of nCoV infections

There is no treatment for virus infections in general but vaccination works against specific viruses, such as smallpox. Research groups have been working on vaccines against viruses since the Ebola crisis and therefore have a bit of a head start in developing one for 2019-nCoV. In this research, they have been supported by the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI), funded by governments and philanthropic organisations. It is difficult to see how this sort of vaccine would ever be developed by private drug companies reliant on profits.

Homeopathy: the debate continues

[This letter is a response to a debate in late 2019 in the pages of Solidarity (for Workers’ Liberty), a socialist weekly newspaper. Links to the other contributions are given below.*]
Dear Solidarity,
Exactly four years ago, you published my article on homeopathy, provocatively titled Homeopathy: the one NHS cut we should support.1 In it, I examined the evidence provided by the Faculty of Homeopathy itself for the efficacy of homeopathic treatments and found it to be unconvincing and inconclusive.
The latest version of the FoH’s evidence,2 written by its then President, the late Dr Peter Fisher,3 cites the same reviews and claims these are conclusive evidence of benefit. However, ‘gold standard’ systematic reviews of homeopathy4 can find almost no convincing evidence of benefit (the terms “uncertain”, “no firm conclusions can be drawn”, “not enough evidence”, “no evidence of efficacy”, “low quality of evidence”, or similar, are common). Where positive effects were identified, these were generally small and, in any case, needed replication. Curiously, the studies cited by the FoH itself frequently include similar caveats.
We can agree that homeopathic treatments are generally harmless because they are indistinguishable from placebos. Paradoxically, this is an argument against their having any effect since, if the water used to prepare dilutions retained a memory of a substance’s beneficial effects, it would also retain a memory of all its other effects, good or bad. The exception to their harmlessness is where the homeopathic treatment replaces an effective treatment for a serious condition.
Can homeopathic treatments ever be beneficial? When compared with placebo, the answer is almost definitely “No” but, when compared with a harmful treatment, the answer might well be “Yes”. This explains why Hahnemann’s patients fared better than those subjected to the conventional blood-letting. Even today, there are conventional treatments for which there is little evidence of benefit and indeed some evidence of harm.
It seems that homeopathic treatments are ‘just’ placebos but this is to dismiss something of immense importance. All living beings can mount a response to disease but the size of that response depends on external factors affecting the amount of energy available to the organism. The body is said to have a “health governor” which decides how much energy is available for healing, a theory developed by psychologist Nick Humphrey.5  And, for a deeply-social species like us, the health governor is affected by how much social support we feel we are getting and therefore how much energy we can devote to healing ourselves. This support is exemplified by the deeply personal attention given by a homeopath in a consultation (or a GP with sufficient time), another argument for a well-resourced NHS.
2 homeopathy-the-evidence

3 Peter Fisher, homeopathic physician to the Queen, was tragically killed 18 months ago by a lorry while cycling in central London. Several other cyclists have been killed in the same area by large vehicles. The driver was found not to be at fault but her lorry had restricted visibility directly in front. This shows the danger of mixing vulnerable road-users with large commercial vehicles. The Labour-controlled Greater London Authority is constructing segregated cycle paths and will ban lorries with restricted vision after pressure from cycle campaign groups.

HBO’s Chernobyl – making a drama out of a crisis

Chernobyl was a disaster – there is no doubt about that – but what lessons should we learn from it? 

[This article is also published in Solidarity 512 June 2019]

Though the catastrophic meltdown and explosion of the RBMK Reactor No 4 happened almost half a lifetime ago, when police states claiming to serve the workers ruled eastern Europe, the recent HBO mini-series Chernobyl has brought that time back to life. Though partly fictionalised and sometimes wrong (according to survivors and experts), the basic facts are correct. 

During an ‘experiment’ aimed at improving safety procedures, Reactor No 4 responded erratically and attempts to bring it under control, including the extraction of virtually all control rods, were to increase the danger later. The experiment should have been aborted at this point but a bureaucratic adherence to a plan, coupled with a not-uncommon reticence to challenge one’s superiors, led to continuance until an unexpected rapid power surge demanded an emergency shutdown or SCRAM. This would normally involve rapidly inserting control rods which absorb the neutrons without which the chain reaction in the fuel rods cannot continue. 

In the RBMK, these were poorly designed, being only capable of slow insertion and having graphite tips which actually reflect neutrons back into the fuel rods (a moderator made of graphite, i.e. pure carbon, surrounded the reactor core to reflect neutrons back into the uranium fuel and drive the chain reaction). The result was to momentarily increase the overheating. This increased steam pressure from the coolant water and the fuel rods seem to have disintegrated, blocking the control rod channels before insertion could be completed. The chain reaction went further out of control, power output continuing to rise to about ten times normal levels, according to some estimates. 

The pressure build-up resulted in a steam explosion which caused further damage to the fuel rods and a loss of coolant…and more overheating. The graphite would have been burning by this time. Three seconds later, a second explosion blew the core apart, stopping the chain reaction but exposing highly-radioactive material, some of it burning, some of it flying through the air, to the environment. This second explosion may have been like an atomic bomb which has not detonated fully but ‘fizzled,’ supposedly impossible in properly-designed nuclear reactors.

This is covered well in Chernobyl, as is the heroism of many who lost their lives preventing a worse disaster, according to a highly-complimentary review by Hamish Johnston in Physics World.1 Johnston praises the courtroom scene where investigator Valery Legasov explains how a nuclear reactor works and the way design flaws contributed to the disaster.


While Legasov is a real character, the investigative journalist Ulana Khomyuk is fictional. Curiously not mentioned in Chernobyl is a real investigative journalist, Lyubov Khovalevskaya, who, as editor of the Chernobyl atomic energy plant newspaper Tribuna Enerhetyky, obtained secret documents which enabled her to break the story of the Chernobyl reactor’s serious problems a month before the accident. 

According to the International Women’s Media Foundation2 (which awarded her its 1991 Courage in Journalism Award), Khovalevskaya “spent the next three years collecting official documents on the facility and entered the forbidden radioactive zone more than 30 times to interview workers and cooperative officials. Risking her own life, she reported the accident and aftermath extensively, pointing to its disastrous impact on the soil and water system and numerous victims and publishing documents the government was trying to keep secret.” Perhaps Khomyuk is based on Khovalevskaya but the latter could have appeared as a real character in Chernobyl.

Some reviews have made much of the inaccuracies in Chernobyl. These, under the heading of ‘artistic licence,’ are difficult to justify but detract little from the overall truth of its account of the causes and events of the accident. 

On health effects, speculation is general anyway and Chernobyl brings little clarity or perspective. The direct deaths are known (28) and an estimate exists for deaths from thyroid cancer, almost entirely due to children absorbing radioactive iodine (I-131) from their milk. Iodine is essential for the thyroid gland to make thyroid hormone. This cancer is nearly always curable but leaves survivors on lifelong medication. There have been some 5000 cases in the region affected by fallout from Chernobyl with some 15 deaths. Though the initial cause of I-131 release was the accident at Chernobyl, the bureaucracy is blameworthy for not distributing iodide tablets in time: these work by swamping the thyroid gland with harmless I-127. 

Overall deaths definitely or most likely due to the accident number 43 at present. Illnesses and deaths among survivors do not seem much different from expected in unaffected populations and so there is at worst a slight increase in cancers. The total number of excess cancers may be as little as 4000, a tiny increase in risk given that about one third of people die from cancer. According to the WHO,3 any increase in cancers will be undetectable. This is particularly so, given the health decline in the former Soviet Union since its collapse in 1991.

Chernobyl was a disaster (except for local wildlife4); people died unnecessarily; people’s lives were disrupted by displacement from their communities and fear of the future; the ‘Soviet’ bureaucracy showed itself incapable of or uninterested in protecting its citizens, which may have accelerated its demise. The makers of Chernobyl have done a major service in informing or reminding us of this. However, many will conclude (as the Left did at the time and many still do today) that this means nuclear power is inherently unsafe. But, since that time, we have learnt much about the dangers of fossil fuel extraction and energy production. These are between 40 and 400 times as dangerous as nuclear power!


The review includes an embedded YouTube video (an episode of Going Nuclear with Scott Manley). This is particularly praising of the description of the science of the reactor ‘for the lay person’ in the final court scene but goes into more details.

2 https://www.iwmf.org/1991/10/lyubov-kovalevskaya-1991-courage-in-journalism-award/

3WHO: Health effects of Chernobyl: an overview




Picture caption: assemblage of SO articles on Chernobyl

AWL and Chernobyl: The predecessor paper to Solidarity, Socialist Organiser, covered Chernobyl extensively in 1986, including a four-page special a fortnight after the accident explaining what happened, how radioactivity works, how secrecy and bureaucracy work against safety, and making a realistic assessment of the health risks.

Marxists and science

Marxism does not provide a ready-made key for making judgements about scientific ideas. It cannot substitute for a detailed knowledge of the appropriate scientific material.1

Marx and Engels saw themselves applying a scientific method to economics and the dynamics of class societies. Their philosophical approach was derived from that of Hegel who used dialectics, a discussion between opposing points of view, to arrive at truths. Marx and Engels applied Hegel’s methods to the real world, in particular showing that the capitalist mode of production gave rise to a class whose interests lay in overthrowing it and replacing it with a socialist society. Marx and Engels’ methods were therefore historical and materialist but later came to be called dialectical materialism (DM), unfortunate because this jargon term masks its straightforwardness. 

Seeing their work as part of science in general, both were deeply interested in the natural sciences of their time. Indeed, Marx wrote of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species that it “contains the basis in natural history for our view.”2 Eleanor Marx’s partner, Edward Aveling, was a populariser of Darwin’s theory. Simon Ings, in his recent Stalin and the Scientists,3 sees Marx as believing in scientific government, where science would be extended into politics until there was “no distinction between knowledge and policy.” Sadly, evidence-based government policies are just as elusive now as then.

Engels was particularly interested in modern science: he saw his philosophy of “new materialism” (i.e. DM) potentially uniting all disciplines. It was materialist, in that all phenomena arose from the physical world, and dialectical, in that all knowledge was obtained through reasoned argument and inquiry. As a philosophical method, DM was therefore a study of how all things change, whether these be species, chemical substances, or societies. Perhaps the most successful of Engels’ attempts to use DM in considering a scientific problem is contained in his unfinished 1876 essay The Part Played by Labour in the Transition from Ape to Man.4


Modern natural science* has no choice but to be materialist and both Engels and Lenin sought to connect science to DM, seeing scientists as unconscious dialectical materialists: Engels likened the scientists of his day to Molière’s Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme who had been speaking prose all his life without realising it. These included natural scientists, such as the chemist Mendeleev, who pulled together the different chemical elements into a systematic periodic table, or the physiologist Pavlov, who with his dogs elucidated the conditioned reflex, found widely in the natural world. In practice, scientists are often “reductionist” in that they break up problems into smaller parts to work on. This has been criticised but is only wrong if one assumes that the whole is simply the sum of the parts, not recognising that higher forms of order may emerge from combinations of factors.

Engels criticised idealists who believed in a static universe since his dialectics, “conceived as the science of the most general laws of all motion,”5 did not admit of stasis in nature, any more than in human society. While he was correct in this, it is not generally helpful to try to apply DM in the natural sciences. Indeed, the attempt to force the natural sciences into the straitjacket of Stalin’s distorted idea of DM was counterproductive, to say the least. Where it came to Stalin’s influence on agricultural science in the Soviet Union (USSR) through Lysenko, it may rightly be said “It was worse than a crime – it was a blunder.”

Engels was particularly impressed with Mendeleev’s prediction of “eka-aluminium” from an anomaly in his Periodic Table of the Elements.** Mendeleev found that arranging elements into columns of those with similar properties led to some contradictions. Guessing that not all the elements had been discovered yet, Mendeleev left gaps (in order to preserve correspondences in behaviour) and predicted the properties of the ‘missing’ elements. He was resoundingly vindicated when eka-aluminium, since named gallium, was discovered in 1875, with the predicted properties, just as Engels was compiling his thoughts on science. Engels saw the periodic table and its resulting predictions as a manifestation of the dialectical law of the transformation of quantity into quality.

Lenin’s interest in science led him to take time out in 1908 to write a weighty tome demolishing the philosophy of Ernst Mach, a respected physicist and a fairly influential philosopher. Mach’s ideas had caught on with some Bolsheviks, such as their co-founder Bogdanov who was challenging Lenin for leadership, and Lenin thought this was a dangerous departure from materialism. Bogdanov was subsequently expelled.6 

Mach enumerated three principles for valid physical theories:

1 They should be based entirely on directly observable phenomena;

2 They should based on the principle of relative motion, rather than on absolute space and time;

3 Any properties apparently based on absolute space and time should instead be seen as arising from the large-scale distribution of matter in the universe.

Principle 1 led Mach into error when he refused to accept the existence of atoms, even after Einstein had showed how to prove their existence in his 1905 paper on Brownian motion (and Jean Perrin had actually done so in 1908). This was because no-one had directly observed them, a rather poor reason given that many small objects had been invisible to the human eye until the invention of the microscope and one might have allowed that other smaller objects might exist, particularly with the overwhelming indirect evidence for atoms. The atomic nature of matter is so fundamental that the great physicist Richard Feynman once said that the simple sentence “Everything is made of atoms” encapsulated the most important scientific knowledge we possess.

Principles 2 and 3 were rather more sound and Einstein praised them as important influences in his development of the theory of relativity. Nevertheless, Mach, with his habit of backing the wrong horse, rejected Einstein’s theories; indeed Mach’s name was included in a rather embarrassing tome entitled A hundred authors against Einstein (though he appears not to have contributed). Einstein remarked that, if he was wrong, one author would have been enough!

Aleksandr Bogdanov, an interesting character, is given quite a bit of attention by Ings. Bogdanov, a medical doctor, was very interested in science, seeing capitalism as fragmenting scientific progress into separate, non-communicating, disciplines. The “pursuit of ‘science for its own sake’ was a tragic error.” In a socialist society, “practice and theory would once again be fused, and science could at last be put to the service of society.” In other words, “there is no such thing as pure science.”3 This is a profoundly misleading approach as there is no way of knowing what there is to discover and you can’t just say “Let’s find the cure for cancer” (though of course you can try to find it). Unfortunately, this is close to the attitude of Stalin to science. As Lenin recognised, Bogdanov, a follower of Mach, had departed somewhat from Marxism some 10 years before the revolution. 

Bogdanov did not rejoin the Bolsheviks but did set up Proletkult, a “proletarian” art movement whose rather ultra-left aim was to completely replace the old bourgeois culture. He later became interested in the idea of rejuvenation through blood transfusions but seems not to have been aware of the painstaking work that had revealed the existence of blood groups and their role in death following blood transfusions…in 1901! He died in 1928 after receiving blood from a student with malaria, tuberculosis, and an incompatible blood group: the student recovered.

Lenin seems to have been widely read on nature and ecology and would go for long hikes in the wilderness and mountains while in exile in Switzerland.7 While desperate to find ways of increasing agricultural productivity and aware of the latest science on soil fertility (such as the discovery of nitrogen-fixing bacteria in leguminous plants in 1888), he understood that people could not simply ignore the forces of nature. It was essential to understand nature and work with it: “To replace the forces of nature with human labor … would be just as impossible as replacing the arshin with the pood***…man may merely avail himself of the actions of nature’s forces, if he knew these actions, enlisting machines and tools to make this process easier” ( from The Agrarian Question, quoted in7).

The other great leader of the October Revolution and leader of the triumphant Red Army, Trotsky, who is not really discussed by Ings, had an important though short-lived role in Soviet science. After being forced to resign as People’s Commissar of the Army in 1924, he was given two scientific posts in 1925, head of the Electro-Technical Board and chair of the Scientific-Technical Board of Industry, nominally in charge of science in the USSR. He clearly rejected the idea that politics could direct science, as he stated in a speech to the 1925 Mendeleev Congress (on the centenary of Mendeleev’s birth).

An individual scientist may not at all be concerned with the practical application of his research. The wider his scope, the bolder his flight, the greater his freedom from practical daily necessity in his mental operations, all the better.8 Clearly, Trotsky understood that science cannot simply be ordered to come up with the answers. Soon he was to resign over Stalinist political interference in science policy.

The history of science in the USSR from the revolution through Stalin’s counter-revolution to its collapse (and even to the present day) confirms Paul Mattick’s conclusion that Marxism has nothing to say about the physical sciences, beyond taking their results into consideration when considering the development of the class struggle and setting physical limits to what may achieved by a workers’ government.9 This history has been dealt with in more detail previously10 and articles on genetics and physics are planned. Suffice to say that the reverence for facts that characterised the early scientific policies of the Bolshevik government gave way to the idea of science as a tool to implement the plan. If scientific theory indicated the impossibility of the plan, so much the worse for scientific theory – and for the scientists who tried to explain this. All too frequently, the messenger was shot!

References and notes:

1In Marxism, Science and the Big Bang, by Peter Mason. This is a critique of Reason in Revolt, by Alan Woods and Ted Grant, which included an unhappy attempt to disprove the Big Bang theory from “Marxist” principles.

2Engels wrote of On the Origin of Species: “Darwin, by the way, whom I’m reading just now, is absolutely splendid,” while Marx replied “This is the book which contains the basis in natural history for our view.” (in Karl Marx, by Francis Wheen).

3Stalin and the Scientists: A History of Triumph and Tragedy 1905-1953, by Simon Ings (Faber & Faber, 2016)

4Anteil der Arbeit an der Menschwerdung des Affen (published in The Dialectics of Nature)

5Dialectics of Nature, by Friedrich Engels (Marx-Engels Institute, Moscow, 1927).

6Materialism and Empiriocriticism, by Vl Ilyin [VI Lenin] Moscow, 1909.

7Models of Nature: Ecology, Conservation, and Cultural Revolution in Soviet Russia, by Douglas R Weiner, 1988.

8Dialectical Materialism and Science, by LD Trotsky, in Problems of Everyday Life (1925)

9Marxism and the New Physics, Philosophy of Science 1962;Vol 29(4):350-64.

10The Bolsheviks, Stalin and Science (https://www.workersliberty.org/story/2018-05-01/bolsheviks-stalin-and-science).

*Modern social science, however, has very little chance to be materialist, despite the efforts of those who see themselves as Marxists. The ruling ideas of a society are generally those of its ruling class and ideas that challenge these are stifled in a variety of ways. When Trotsky, for example, declared that the new, post-1917, society would take possession of the cultural heritage of the past (specifically including scientific), he explicitly excluded the social sciences which were “useless in acquiring knowledge of nature but only useful in justifying class inequality and all other kinds of historical untruth… The greater the trust of socialism in sciences devoted to direct study of nature, all the greater is its critical distrust in approaching those sciences and pseudo-sciences which are linked closely to the structure of human society, its economic institutions, its state, laws, ethics, etc.” He allowed that social science could approach the rigour of the natural sciences but held that they tended to justify “historically-arisen [i.e. bourgeois] society” and thus “their accomplishments were of little value.”8

**Fittingly, 2019 is the 150th anniversary of Mendeleev’s Periodic Table of the Elements.

***Arshin (unit of length) = 28 inches; pood (unit of weight) = 36 lb. This would be like exchanging the foot for the pound.

Where Are The Women In Physics? Professor Strumia speaks…


Physics pervades our lives, not just in the experiences of gravity, momentum, heat and cold that our ancestors would have felt but with the engines, electricity, communications and computing that are now taken for granted. The laws of physics have been elucidated by a group of people unknown for much of human history – scientists – and this group has been largely, but not entirely, male, the balance changing slowly throughout the last century. Women are still under-represented in physics, research, teaching, and industry, relative to their proportion in the general population – that is beyond dispute. The proportion of girls taking Physics A-level is little more than 1/5th (2014), about the same as for women taking physics degrees, while the figure for women in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Maths) jobs is about 1 in 8.

There is no reason apart from prejudice to assume that women could contribute any less than men to the development of physics and many universities, research facilities and physics organisations, as well as self-organised groups of women physicists, have been trying to tackle the popular misconception that physics is not for women.

CERN (European Centre for Nuclear Research, home of the Large Hadron Collider)1 has been taking the promotion of gender equality and diversity seriously, with initiatives to encourage girls to study physics in schools and for women to enter physics study and research. One of these was a workshop on high energy physics (HEP) theory, and gender in the world of physics. The aim was to present up-to-date research into nuclear physics, including string theory, to improve the visibility of women in HEP, and to discuss how to support women and minorities in HEP.

Open to all, the workshop was attended mainly by early-career women physicists. The speakers were mainly young women HEP theorists, with a quarter of the sessions devoted to gender-related issues. These included the aspirations of young women, academic recruitment and retention, and unconscious bias. CERN reported that the workshop was a great success in promoting gender diversity, allowing young researchers to discuss with senior women theorists how they might progress their careers in a male-dominated area.

However, the success of the workshop was, in CERN’s words,2overshadowed by one speaker who made statements contrary to the ideals on which CERN is based.” This was Professor Alessandro Strumia who announced to a shocked and angered audience that men had “invented and built” physics. His arguments were a re-hash of pseudo-scientific justifications for gender imbalance in physics, and in science in general, asserting that women were just less capable than men.

Furthermore, said Strumia, with current attempts to promote inclusion and diversity in physics-based studies and research, it was men who were now being discriminated against, giving himself as the example – it appeared that a woman whom he regarded as less qualified had got a job that he had applied for. As CERN states, “worse, the same speaker used his presentation to make unacceptable personal allegations against individuals attending the workshop, which is why we have been obliged to take action.2 

This included suspending Professor Strumia from any work at CERN (he is employed elsewhere) while an alleged breach of CERN’s Code of Conduct was investigated. Referring to his comments as “highly offensive,”3 CERN removed his slides from the online repository [they were extremely poorly produced, in addition to being very poor science – LH]. He had after all accused a less-qualified (in his opinion) named woman of taking part in the appointment of another less-qualified (in his opinion) named woman to a job that he had applied for. The successful candidate was in the audience to hear his insulting attack.4

Strumia’s fellow physicists were quick to condemn his behaviour in a statement signed by over 200 particle physicists (PP) and endorsed by some 3000 other physicists.5 On the relative abilities of men and women, they observe that “Strumia is not an expert on these topics and is misusing his physics credentials to put himself forward as one.” There was already a perfectly plausible explanation for the observed gender imbalance as the result of discouragement and discrimination. They also took apart his claims to greater qualification. One piece of evidence is his greater citation rate than the named women [this is to do with how many times a scientist’s published papers have been referred to in other papers]. But citation rate is not by itself proof of anything. Scientists work in groups so one citation of a paper benefits all authors equally. Strumia got nearly 17000 citations, about a third of his total, from a single CERN paper (on the discovery of the Higgs boson) of which he was one of 2872 authors. And the cited work may be wrong, as occurred with nine of Strumia’s CERN papers about a blip in the data which disappeared when more data were collected: the nearly 700 citations all count! 

Strumia claims that the likes of Marie Curie were not discriminated against so the rarity of female Nobel prize-winners reflects the rarity of talented women physicists. The PP statement points out that Curie was discriminated against, suffering sexism and xenophobia for a large part of her career. It also names four other women physicists who arguably deserved Nobel prizes: Chien-Shiung Wu, Vera Rubin, Lise Meitner, and Jocelyn Bell Burnell. I can think of at least two more – Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin and Emmy Noether. The PP statement ends “we would also like to underline how grossly unethical it is to misrepresent the topic of one’s talk to promote an agenda which is antithetical to the workshop itself. To personally attack one of the organizers during said talk is even worse.”5 

It is clear that Strumia has done himself no favours: in addition to CERN’s action, Strumia’s home institution, the University of Pisa, has opened an investigation into “reported violations of the University Community fundamental values” and “contravention of academics’ code of conduct.”

However, there are no doubt many other physicists who feel the same way without trumpeting it – they simply fail to support or actively hinder women or minority groups in their physics careers. One notably absent voice in the fight for inclusion and diversity has been that of the trade unions. Despite policies favouring equality, they seem to have spoken out little on combating sexism in science.

1I have covered the activities of CERN before, particularly the discovery of the Higgs boson. https://www.workersliberty.org/story/2011/11/23/what-cern-and-what-good-it https://www.workersliberty.org/story/2012/07/11/higgs-here





Glyphosate guilty? Not proven!

Glyphosate is guilty of causing cancer! Or is it? A jury in California decided that it caused the terminal cancer (non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma – a type of white-blood-cell cancer) in Dewayne Johnson, a school groundskeeper who used RoundUp, a glyphosate-containing herbicide, in his work. However, what a jury decides ain’t necessarily so.

Is glyphosate carcinogenic? Not according to the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the European Food Safety Agency (EFSA). However, the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) states that glyphosate is “probably carcinogenic,” Category 2A in its classification of substances and circumstances according to their likelihood of causing cancer (see table).* But so, according to IARC, are red meat, wood smoke, drinks hotter than 65C, working as a hairdresser, and mobile phones.

Now at least some of these may be carcinogenic but what is needed is evidence. In the case of mobiles, which emit non-ionising radiation and might be thought unlikely to harm anyone, IARC cited the results of experiments where rats were exposed to heroic doses of mobile-type radiation, way above those experienced by people, throughout their 2-year lives. The IARC overstated the case in labelling mobiles “probably carcinogenic,” where the truth is that most likely the risk is zero.

The situation is similar with glyphosate. The IARC actually found little evidence from studies of humans exposed to glyphosate and equivocal evidence from rats and mice given high doses. IARC say that glyphosate may cause NHL in humans: nothing of the sort was found in animals where a few completely different tumours were found. 

I looked at some of the studies for myself. There were few and the sample sizes were small. This means the results cannot be accounted as anything but weak evidence for an association between glyphosate and NHL, particularly since other studies show no link. Some studies passed the test of “statistical significance” but it is not generally understood that such results may still be false – “false positives.”

The IARC also claims that studies show evidence of genotoxicity (damage to chromosomes that might lead to cancer): if true, this would provide a mechanism by which glyphosate might cause NHL. However, its strongest evidence (from five regions in Colombia where glyphosate was sprayed onto illegal coca plantations) was contradictory. The authors concluded that “genotoxic damage associated with glyphosate spraying for control of illicit crops … is small and appears to be transient.”  

Another study took white blood cells from three (3!) healthy volunteers and grew them with glyphosate. There was some evidence of changes to chromosomes and to the metabolism of the cells but at the very least such studies need repeating in realistic settings with larger numbers and longer time scales. And it is not clear that such changes could result in NHL.

Environmentalist Mark Lynas accuses the IARC of ignoring key evidence and mysteriously deciding to increase its level of the estimated danger posed by glyphosate. In evidence given in another case against Monsanto brought by people alleging that their NHL was caused by glyphosate, epidemiologist Dr Aaron Blair, a leading member of the IARC working group, seems to accept that unpublished data from two big studies (Agricultural Health Study (AHS) and North American Pooled Project (NAPP)) did not establish a link between NHL and glyphosate and that animal experiments only show a possible link with some cancers (but not NHL). 

The IARC’s terms preclude it from considering unpublished data but this introduces a problem. It is more difficult to get research published which shows no effect than that which shows some effect. This is called publication bias. And Dr Blair accepted in court that the IARC did not have that information when it made its decision…and neither did any other regulatory agency. By coincidence, Dr Blair was actually aware of the unpublished data (but was precluded from telling IARC about it).

Other experts and interested parties, by no means supporters of Monsanto/Bayer, are sceptical of the verdict. Cancer Research UK says that the highest levels of glyphosate might increase the cancer risk but not the low levels experienced during normal use. Cancer epidemiologist Professor Paul Pharoah (University of Cambridge) says that some cited studies have serious design flaws and, if there was an effect, it would be very small. Others point out that glyphosate targets biochemical pathways only found in plants, and that it is quickly eliminated from the body if ingested or absorbed. The EPA says (December, 2017) that “glyphosate is not likely to be carcinogenic to humans” and poses no other risks to humans if used according to the instructions. The European Chemicals Agency and the EFSA agree, leaving the IARC on its own. At most, glyphosate should be classified Group 2B, “possibly carcinogenic.”

Dewayne Johnson’s terminal illness is a tragedy for him and his family but it has not been proved to have resulted from glyphosate. As Mark Lynas says, the evidence shows that glyphosate is extraordinarily safe and he points out that using glyphosate to kill weeds before crop-sowing reduces the need for tilling the soil, preventing soil erosion and loss of plant nutrients. He sees the attacks on Monsanto as linked to the unscientific demonising of genetic modification. Otherwise, campaigners against cancer would be targeting IARC Group 1 substances and circumstances which are carcinogens and trying to ban…bacon?!


Group 1 Carcinogenic to humans
Group 2A Probably carcinogenic to humans
Group 2B Possibly carcinogenic to humans
Group 3 Not classifiable as to its carcinogenicity to humans
Group 4 Probably not carcinogenic to humans


Intelligence and race: an example of racist science?


A recent article by Gavin Evans in The Guardian has drawn attention to a resurgence in the idea that race and intelligence are linked.1 These terms, though commonly used, are quite difficult to define…and for good reason. (see separate boxes below)

In the 19th century, despite the religious tradition that “God…hath made of one blood all nations of men,” it was axiomatic that there were different races with different abilities. Since European powers were dominant, “Caucasoid” (white) peoples were held superior. Other races were divided into Mongoloid (yellow), Malay (brown), American (red), and Negroid (black), in a hierarchy linked with the darkness of their skin.

For Darwin, the races were too similar not to have descended from a common ancestor but others held that the races had evolved separately. White slave-owners held their African slaves to be of a different, inferior, species which justified their enslavement. This idea that inferior races were liable to enslavement was unaltered by the fact of millions of white slaves being held by the Ottoman Empire from the 16th to 19th centuries, captured by Barbary pirates from as far north as Iceland.

Despite Darwin, as late as 1939, the prominent anthropologist Carleton S Coon divided people into Caucasoid, Congoid/Capoid, Mongoloid (including native Americans), and Australoid, believing them to be descended from different populations of Homo erectus, a view which some hold even now. Coon’s views were certainly of interest to those who believed in a hierarchy of races. However, another prominent anthropologist Alfred Kroeber (father of Ursula K Le Guin) actively opposed racist interpretations of human differences throughout his long career.

It is now accepted that Homo sapiens is one species with superficial differences in facial features, hair, eye and skin colours, and so on. Genes2 for these are distributed according to environmental factors such as temperature or sunlight. Other genes seem equally distributed and equally variable, with some exceptions, such as genes for lactose tolerance in dairy farming societies, genes for sickle cell trait in areas where malaria is prevalent, and genes for cystic fibrosis where tuberculosis is common. These genes have survival value in these environments.

However, this doesn’t stop some people asserting that there are genetic differences between ethnic groups which affect characteristics such as intelligence and tendencies to violence (e.g. alt-right hero Steve Bannon, fan of the Front National). DNA structure discoverer James Watson also strayed out of his field to assert that melanin was linked to libido.

There are appreciable differences in habitats occupied by different groups of humans, and in their cultures, but there is no evidence that humans of particular groups are genetically any more or less able to adapt to, act on, or alter their environments. The differences in the state of “advancement” of various human cultures already have an adequate explanation, as Jared Diamond says.3

Diamond, an expert on the birds of Papua New Guinea, was talking to a local politician who asked him “Why is it that you white people developed so much cargo and brought it to New Guinea, but we black people had little cargo of our own?” Diamond rejected the simplistic explanation that different “races” had different levels of ability and looked instead at their different environments. He argues that indigenous New Guineans and Australians are probably more intelligent than the white colonists, despite their “stone age” technology, since they easily master advanced industrial technology when given the opportunity. Caucasians were simply luckier: their civilisation arose in an area where metals could be obtained, plants and animals suitable for domestication existed, and the resulting denser populations encouraged the development of resistance to disease.

All this begs the question of what intelligence is. (see box) It is often assumed that the complex abilities humans have to share ideas and work with each other to gain their living can be measured, not in real life tasks, but with pencil and paper! This has given rise to IQ testing which inevitably reflects middle class Caucasian culture. Diamond speaks of how “stupid” he felt in the company of New Guineans who could follow faint jungle trails or erect a shelter but who would fail dismally in an IQ test!

Early IQ testing led to theories about the intelligence of immigrants to the USA. Robert Yerkes’ tests, used to evaluate draftees in WW1, showed that southern and eastern European immigrants had lower IQs than native-born Americans; that Americans from the northern states scored higher than those from southern states; and that African Americans scored lower than White Americans. Some began to talk about a “Nordic” race as being the most intelligent.

Partly driven by revulsion at the Nazis’ racist policies, scientists began to recognise the unscientific nature of IQ testing, ignoring as it did environmental and cultural factors. However, anti-immigration, eugenics, and segregation lobbies continued to use IQ tests to support their theories. Modern racist theories of intelligence emerged some 60 years ago with arguments that genetic differences made it necessary to segregate black and white children in school. In the 1960s, transistor inventor (!) William Shockley claimed that black children were innately unable to learn as well as white ones and psychologist Arthur Jensen argued that it was pointless trying to improve education for black children as their genes were to blame for their poor attainment (rather than poverty, discrimination, racist violence, unemployment, poor housing, and worse schools).

Murray and Herrnstein’s The Bell Curve (1994) refined the race and intelligence theory to argue that poor, especially poor black, people were inherently less intelligent than White or Asian Americans. They argued for reducing immigration, against welfare policies that “encouraged” poor people to have babies and against affirmative action. More recent opponents of affirmative action include Jordan B Peterson and James Damore (author of the Google memo opposing inclusion and diversity policies).4 Damore’s is an interesting case. He argues that women are inherently less likely to excel in software engineering for biological (i.e. genetic) reasons but then argues for dropping all diversity and inclusion initiatives, including those for Black and Hispanic people. Logically, he must feel that they are also genetically unfitted for software engineering…

Intelligence is not what intelligence tests measure. Practising intelligence tests can improve one’s attainment (as can having a good breakfast!) but doesn’t necessarily mean that one is more “intelligent.” But even if intelligence was simply determined by genes, it would still be the case that people should be encouraged to fulfil their potential. I don’t normally agree with the CBI but, when they said recently that thoughts, questions, creativity and team-working were just as desirable outcomes of education as academic achievement, they referenced a wider and more humanly relevant concept of intelligence.

What is intelligence?
In Latin, intelligens means understanding and comes from inter (between, among) and legere (to choose, select or pick out, and later to read). An excellent definition of intelligence is “the ability to use what you have got to get what you want.”5 Modern dictionaries have subtly changed this: “The ability to learn or understand or to deal with new or trying situations; the ability to apply knowledge to manipulate one’s environment or to think abstractly as measured by objective criteria (such as tests).”6 [my emphasis]

Thus, a general ability to understand one’s environment and manipulate it has become reduced to skill with abstract tests of certain abilities which produce a number. Other tests that produce numbers are to found in the educational system but, as the CBI recently complained, success in “exam factories” (i.e. schools) does not necessarily lead to success in work and life.

Are there genes for it?
Yes – human genes! We all share the vast majority of our genes and those genes give us our large (but not so large as Neanderthal) brains and they give us the ability to learn, which is key to mastery of our environments. But are there genes for the narrowly-defined intelligence which is measured by intelligence tests? No doubt! A studypublished in 2017 analysed the genomes of 78,000 people of European descent and identified up to 52 genes associated with a general intelligence factor, g (a measure that various IQ tests seem to share).

What this means is that these genes, which all humans possess, occur as two or more slightly different alleles:2 some alleles are associated with higher values of g, others with lower. Most of these genes seem to be involved in brain development or nerve functioning. There is a massive correlation between educational attainment and certain alleles but this is hardly surprising since intelligence tests measure the sort of knowledge and abilities taught in schools and tested in exams.

There are also moderate positive associations with brain volume, autism spectrum disorder, giving up smoking(!?), longevity… and moderate negative associations with Alzheimer’s disease, depressive symptoms, ever having smoked, schizophrenia, “neuroticism”… Other factors, such as BMI, insomnia, ADHD, have weaker negative links. These are modest conclusions, given the size of the study.

It would seem that knowledge of an individual’s genes would allow little to be predicted apart from educational attainment…but this can be found out anyway through the education process. It is difficult to see why this research has been done and what lessons it has.

Is there such a thing as race?
According to scientists, no.8 Neither of the biological concepts of race, genetically distinct or geographically isolated groups of a species, apply to humans. Svante Pääbo, an eminent evolutionary anthropologist, says “What the study of complete genomes … has shown is that even between Africa and Europe … there is not a single absolute genetic difference, meaning no single variant where all Africans have one variant and all Europeans another one, even when recent migration is disregarded.”

1Gavin Evans The unwelcome revival of race science. https://www.theguardian.com/news/2018/mar/02/the-unwelcome-revival-of-race-science

2Genes occur in different forms called alleles. All humans have the same genes but the different forms (alleles) are present in differing proportions in different populations. However, there is no general pattern to these differing proportions that would support the idea of separate races.

3Guns, Germs and Steel, Jared Diamond (1997)

4See http://www.workersliberty.org/story/2017-09-21/google-memo-and-real-bias

5David Adam in The Genius Within (2018)

6Merriam-Webster online

7Sniekers et al. Nature Genetics 2017;49(7):1107-12

8See https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/race-is-a-social-construct-scientists-argue/ and Biological races in humans https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23684745

We’re here because we’re here: A Brief History of Time

I wrote this review in 1989 for the left-wing newspaper, Socialist Organiser. Unlike most other left journals of the time (and indeed today), SO felt it was important to be aware of scientific developments, as did our inspirers Marx. Engels, Lenin and Trotsky. SO’s successor Solidarity maintains this aim. 

In 1963, when he was a student, Stephen Hawking was told he had motor neurone disease and had possibly two years to live. Now, confined to a wheelchair, unable to move, breathing through a hole in his windpipe, communicating by computer and voice synthesiser, he is one of the world’s leading theoretical physicists.

It cannot have been easy for Hawking to build his career, even with the devoted help of his family, colleagues and students. Luckily, theoretical physics requires little equipment and much thought. Like Newton before him, Hawking is Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at Cambridge. His major work has been to describe the appearance and behaviour of black holes.

And – a rare achievement for any scientist – Hawking has written a readable book about the origin of the universe, tackling the age-old questions: “Why is the universe the way it is?” And “Why are we here?”

Over the last 300 years, science has banished humanity from the centre of the universe to the sidelines. We live on a speck of dust orbiting round an average star near the edge of a galaxy of a hundred thousand million stars, surrounded by a hundred thousand million other galaxies. Was all this created just so we could exist?

Through the 20th Century, reality has become more and more weird. Light can only travel at one speed, which nothing else can reach; absolute time and speed do not exist; there are no simultaneous events; space-time is distorted by gravity so that straight lines do not exist; gravity and acceleration make clocks run slower and let radio-active particles live longer; matter and energy can be converted into each other; the universe is expanding and has a definite age; it started when all matter was concentrated at one point (a singularity) and then exploded in a ‘big bang.’

The list of strange truths does not end there. Energy comes in little packets called quanta, rather as matter does as particles; but both energy and matter can behave as waves; and we can never predict exactly how something will behave because we can never accurately know both its position and momentum.

Bizarre and disturbing though these facts are, they have all been identified as true many times, even down to the discovery of the echo of the Big Bang still reverberating round the universe as microwaves.

Hawking takes his readers through all these discoveries, including his own work on black holes. These are formed by the collapse of a large dying star under its own gravity. An astronaut on the surface of the star would be stretched like spaghetti by the colossal gravitational pull of the new black hole. Luckily, time would stand still at that moment.

Hawking has calculated that black holes are not really black. Though they crush matter out of existence, black holes radiate energy and are really a sort of cosmic recycling plant. The only equation included in the book, E = mc^2, exemplifies this conversion.

The story is leavened by humorous anecdotes or scenes from Hawking’s life. For instance, he describes how he met the Pope in 1981 at a Jesuit conference on the origin of the universe.
The Catholic Church had already, some 30 years earlier, accepted the Big Bang as being the same as the biblical moment of creation. The Pope sanctioned research into the evolution of the universe but not into the Big Bang itself since that was God’s work! Hawking had just given a talk denying the idea of a precise moment when the Big Bang had occurred.

This is Hawking’s particular contribution. He argues that the universe has a finite size but no boundaries, just like the surface of a ball but including time. But with no start to space-time there is no creation.

Some other physicists are eager to see the hand of God in determining the fundamental values of things, like the strength of gravity, so that intelligent life could evolve. If things like the charge and size of the electron, or the rate of expansion of the universe, had been even slightly different, life would not have been able to develop.Hawking argues, however, that things are as they are because, given the number of possible universes, one like this was most likely to result. Even less role for a creator!

Hawking ends by saying that a complete theory of everything would be the ultimate triumph of human reason for “then we would know the mind of God.” Since, up to there in the book, he had argued that there was little or no place for a creator, I can only assume he put the phrase in to sound good to reviewers.

That apart, I can’t praise the book highly enough. Read it!