Max Perutz, Glenrothes and ‘common sense’ conclusions
A couple of weeks ago Stephen Curry had a blog article discussing the legacy of Max Perutz. This reminded me of the great collection of essays by Pertuz, published as ‘I wish I’d made you angry earlier‘.
I guess I wasn’t too aware of Perutz before reading the book (he won the Noble Prize for the structure of haemoglobin), but regardless of his science it is clear that he was a brilliant essayist (a prototypical blogger) and book reviewer. The one that sticks in my memory is called ‘Swords into Ploughshares’ and is a review of a book of nuclear power in the UK.
The reason this essay remains with me is a rather selfish one: it happens to mention my hometown, which tends not to get much coverage outside of out local paper. I live in a town called Glenrothes, which was one of the ‘new towns’ built by the UK Government after the second world war (Milton Keynes is another example), and the rapid influx of people to what had orignally been a disparate set of farmsteads enabled an interesting analysis to be carried out.
There are often reports (although not so many recently that I have seen) of clusters of rare illnesses, often things like childhood leukemia. These seemed to occur in some of the newly built nuclear powerstations. The common sense conclusion was that the radiation produced by such plants was to blame, and without too much analysis these seems plausible.
But there are other possibilities and Prof. Leo Kinlan of the Cancer Research Campaign offered a different explanation. In many of the nuclear sites what had happened was that a very rural location was suddenly populated by a very large number of people coming from many locales (much like Freshers Week). If the incidences of things like leukemia had a different origin, say from infection, then one would probably expect to see a spike in the number of incidences, often way above that of normal incidence.
How then to test this hypothesis? Here is where Glenrothes plays its part. At founding in 1948 the population of Glenrothes was about 1000. Over the next decade the population increased by more than 12 times. There are no nuclear power plants, or other big energy plants here, so what did our disease statistics show? Sure enough that was a spike in leukemia deaths, which stabilized over time. The hypothesis on such a trend was made before the data was collected.
Now I am not sure if there is a definitive statement on the viral nature of leukemia, but here is a really nice example of how we can;t always trust our common sense or look at the most obvious answers to scientific problems. Much like the freezing of water often we know things we don’t really know.
Perurz summarises this data and many more analyses very succinctly and I would encourage you to seek out his book and have a read.