Ebola – what’s going on?

(First published in October 2014 in Solidarity; also included is a critique of an article by Paul Vallely criticising the response of the West to the Ebola crisis)

From a scary but rare problem, Ebola Virus has exploded into public consciousness as a real disaster in West Africa and a potential threat to anywhere else connected by any means of travel. Where has it come from and why is it now such a problem?


Back in 1976, a new virus was discovered in a group of villages in the equatorial forests of Zaire (now Democratic Republic of Congo). Victims suffered fever, pain, vomiting, diarrhoea, and massive internal bleeding (haemorrhage): 70% died. A young Belgian microbiologist, Peter Piot,* examined blood samples from an affected woman, a nun from a mission, and found large worm-shaped viruses of an unknown kind. It was similar to Marburg virus (discovered 1967), which also caused a haemorrhagic fever with high mortality. They were both members of the Filoviridae family of the order Mononegavirales, most of which cause serious plant and animal diseases.

Piot went with a team to Zaire to find an epidemic that was out of control. To stop it, they needed to know how the virus was spread. Mapping the distribution of cases implicated the local hospital: the fact that many victims were women who had attended the antenatal clinic was even more suspicious. It turned out that they had received routine injections but with re-used needles: the virus thus spread in blood or body fluids. Other cases were among attenders at funerals who had taken part in washing or preparing bodies for burial.

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Don’t panic about computers

Comments on the theory of “mind change” propounded by Susan Greenfield

(first published in Solidarity 18 11 14 http://www.workersliberty.org/node/24265)

In her book Mind Change1, Susan Greenfield says “We may be living in an unprecedented era where an increasing number of people are … learning a new default mind-set … one of low grade aggression, short attention span and a reckless obsession with the here and now”. The key word in that statement is “may”!

The dangers of digital technology have become a major theme of Greenfield’s but what is less known is that this is way outside her area of expertise.

This matters because Greenfield is a “public intellectual”, one who is listened to. A prominent populariser of science, she was the first woman to give the Royal Institution Christmas lectures in 1994, and actually became Director of the RI in 1998. She received a CBE for services to the public understanding of science and was made a baroness in 2001. These rewards follow a career researching factors in the development of Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s diseases.

As a role model for women aspiring to become scientists, she bears a responsibility to lead by example. How has she measured up?

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Chemistry and the Great War

In April 1915, American newspapers reported that the USA faced a “dye famine”, with only two months’ supply left. This was not a minor inconvenience but threatened the livelihoods of 2 million workers as dyes were essential in the textile, paint, paper, and printing industries, among others. What had happened?

You may recall the Bunsen burner, the Liebig1 condenser, and the Haber2 process from your school days, named after just three of the many world-leading chemists underpinning the German chemical industry, the largest in the world by the outbreak of the Great War. Developing in the 19th century, this industry made steel, dyestuffs, explosives and medicines. In 1913, Germany produced getting on for 90% of the world’s artificial dyestuffs or raw materials for these, mostly produced from coal tar. They also dominated in other areas, such as production of potash fertiliser.

After the war started, Germany could no longer export dyes due to a naval blockade: hence the “dye famine.” In any case, the Central Powers needed these chemicals themselves for the war effort but so did the Allied Powers and the latter had to rapidly scale up their chemical industries. By the end of the war, chemicals production had expanded greatly in many countries, setting the scene for the development of an extraordinarily effective and lucrative industry that has dominated the world economy ever since.

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