From bitter bark to wonder drug – the story of aspirin

This article appeared in the January 2016 edition of the Marshwood Vale Magazine

Willow trees are a familiar sight along river banks in this country, especially the weeping willow with its graceful, pendulous branches reaching down to the water below. As well as enhancing our countryside, the willow has been generous in providing us with useful materials, including wood for making cricket bats and double basses, and rods for basket making. But did you know that the willow also gave us aspirin, one of the world’s most popular drugs?

The bitter taste of willow bark

One day in the summer of 1758, the Rev. Edward Stone, an Oxfordshire clergyman, took a piece of bark from a willow tree growing by a small stream in Chipping Norton and chewed it. We shall never know why he did this but after chewing the bark, he remarked on its “extraordinary bitterness”. The taste reminded him of the similarly bitter bark of the South American cinchona tree, imported and used to treat the ague, most likely a form of malaria and endemic to the UK at the time. The taste similarity made Stone wonder whether willow bark might also combat the ague so he gathered some willow twigs, dried them and ground them to a powder. His hunch was right because when he administered the powder to ague sufferers it alleviated their symptoms (fever, temperature, aching limbs, and headache). His observations were published by the Royal Society in 1763 and so began the modern age of the medicinal use of willow bark.

In fact, extracts of willow had been used for thousands of years for pain relief with some of the first written references found as early as 3000BC in Sumerian and ancient Egyptian cultures. Use continued at least until the first few centuries AD in Greek and Roman civilisations. After that records are less clear although the use of willow bark lived on in folk medicine.

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Willows trailing in the swollen River Asker near Bridport in Dorset

 

The rise of science in the 19th century

The 19th century was a time of huge political, intellectual and industrial ferment and with this came an increased emphasis on science. Huge strides were made in isolating the active principles from plant-derived remedies such as opium and eventually the focus moved to willow bark, although progress was very slow. Initially, a partially purified extract of willow bark (salicin) was obtained but by 1838 an acid was isolated and christened salicylic acid. These salicylates, as they are called, were named after the Latin for willow, Salix. At about the same time, scientists in Berlin purified a substance from the plant meadowsweet, known for its beneficial effects on toothache and rheumatism. This also turned out to be salicylic acid and the isolation of the same substance from unrelated plant sources underlined its potential importance. Further progress remained slow but by the end of the 19th century several controlled trials had shown that salicylates were effective treatments for rheumatism reducing symptoms of fever, inflammation and pain.

The birth of aspirin

There was a major problem with the salicylates, especially salicylic acid, when used for pain relief; they caused a gastric irritation and this hindered their widespread acceptance in medicine. Several attempts were made to modify the chemical structure in the hope that this might reduce these side effects. This was achieved most efficiently by the Bayer Company in Germany and the product, acetyl salicylic acid, was found to be an excellent pain reliever, free of gastric side effects in most patients. Bayer named their new drug aspirin after the old botanical name of meadowsweet, Spiraea. Aspirin was launched in 1899 and gradually gained in popularity with doctors and with patients.

As more and more people used aspirin, however, it emerged that the drug was not entirely free of side effects. For a small proportion of patients it led to severe gastric irritation and bleeding caused by small insoluble fragments of the drug lodging in the stomach wall. A new soluble formulation of aspirin overcame this problem and by the 1950s, aspirin was the undisputed leader in the over- the-counter pain relief market.

New pain killers and new uses for aspirin

In the 1950s and 1960s two new analgesic drugs, paracetamol and ibuprofen, entered the market and began to challenge aspirin’s supremacy. There was little to choose between aspirin and the new drugs in terms of pain relief and sales of aspirin dipped substantially. Indeed aspirin might have disappeared altogether had not new information emerged about its therapeutic effects.

In the 1970s, controlled trials showed that regular consumption of aspirin reduced the incidence of heart attack and stroke by preventing formation of blood clots. Based on this work, it is now recommended that patients who are at risk for heart disease (typically if they have already had one heart attack or certain kinds of stroke) should take a daily low dose of aspirin. This should, however, be undertaken only after advice from a doctor; there are significant risks to taking aspirin on a daily basis and lifestyle changes may also be very important. More recently, regular aspirin has been found to reduce substantially the occurrence of cancers of the bowel and oesophagus. Amazingly, aspirin is now known to attack two of the world’s major diseases, heart disease and cancer.

With these new and unexpected therapeutic effects, sales of aspirin have picked up again and it is now one of the most widely used drugs in the world. 35,000 metric tonnes are produced annually, equivalent to 100 billion standard tablets.

Little did the Rev. Stone know when he sank his teeth in to a rough piece of willow bark in 1758 that the “extraordinary bitterness” he experienced would lead 250 years later to one of the most popular and useful drugs in the world – a true wonder drug.

The featured image shows a willow tree by the River Asker in Bridport.

Kings, Queens, apple trees and shotguns – a Wassail Tale

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Last weekend, to the accompaniment of the setting sun, we made the short journey along narrow Devon lanes to the village of Stoke Gabriel. It was the evening of their annual Apple Wassail, a traditional ceremony to encourage the apple trees to produce a bumper crop of fruit later in the year. The custom was revived 24 years ago in Stoke Gabriel and judging from the hundreds of people who turned up this year, it is set to continue well in to the future.

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One apple tree with a lantern and the moon

 

The Wassail ceremony began with a lantern procession to the community orchard. This started in a fairly orderly manner as we gathered in a nearby lane but once the procession entered the orchard any semblance of order evaporated. People moved about freely among the trees, the strains of “Here we come a-wassailing” drifted through the night and the orchard took on an air of mystery. Although I knew there many people around me, it was mostly too dark to see them. Occasionally one of the lanterns would pick out an eerie face and I imagined Shakespeare’s midsummer fairies making a special visit to help bless the trees. My reverie ended suddenly when, ahead of me across the orchard, I heard loud singing and shouting followed by a sharp burst of gunfire (from real shotguns!); the first apple tree had been wassailed.

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Adam Lay, the Wassail Master of Ceremonies

 

The Wassail Master of Ceremonies then moved to another old apple tree near where I was standing. Adam Lay looked suitably gothic, dressed in black tail coat with silvery epaulettes, yellow muffler and black top hat with a white scarf tied around it. With him were the Wassail King and Queen, a young boy and girl chosen from the local community to perform the evening’s rituals. This year’s King was Barnaby Hargreaves and with his flat cap liberally decorated with leaves, he was more Puck than Oberon. Amy Rance was the Queen, a convincing Titania with her floaty clothing and her hair decorated with ribbons and flowers.

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Barnaby Hargreaves, the Wassail King.

 

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The Wassail King and Queen scramble in to the tree

 

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Safely installed

 

The duties of the Wassail King and Queen are not particularly onerous. They began by pouring cider over the roots of the tree after which they scrambled precariously up a ladder in to the branches. Once safely installed in their airy kingdom the Wassail Royals decorated the branches with pieces of cider-soaked toast supposedly to feed the robins, the good spirits of the trees. In the meantime the Wassail Singers had materialised beneath the tree and when the MC gave them the nod they sang the Wassail Song.

Old apple tree we wassail thee
Here’s hoping thou wilt bear
For the Lord doth know where we shall be
When comes another year;
For to bloom well and to bear well,
So happy let us be;
Let every man take off his cap
And shout out to the old apple tree

The MC then led the Wassail Shout urging everyone else to join in and generally make as much noise as possible.

Old apple tree, we wassail thee
Here’s hoping thou wilt bear
Hats full,
Caps full,
Three-bushel bags full,
And little heaps under the stair!
Hip-hip-hooray
Hip-hip-hooray
Hip-hip-hooray

Loud gunfire followed the cheers, the King and Queen descended and the MC moved the crowd to the third and final tree where the ceremony was repeated.

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The Wassail shout

 

The earliest reference to the Wassail ceremony dates from the 16th century in Kent and there are later reports from Sussex, where it is commonly referred to as Apple Howling, and across the West Country. The aim of the Apple Wassail is to encourage a good crop of apples in the year’s harvest and it is usually accompanied by noisy shouting and gunfire to frighten off evil spirits that might lurk among the trees and to wake the trees from their winter slumber.

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Newton Bushel Morris Dancers perfoming a hankie dance

 

You might think all this messing about in the orchard was enough for one evening but earlier we had been treated to some warm up acts to get us in the mood. First on were the Newton Bushel Morris Dancers who entertained the assembled masses with their lively Cotswold dances. I have a lot of time for Morris Dancers, I enjoy the music and the tradition and they were a perfect introduction to the joy and the eccentricity of the Wassail ceremony. Talking of joy and eccentricity, there was a wonderful moment when one of the older dancers wearing a long white smock addressed the crowd about the link between Morris Dancing and fertility.

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The Wassail Singers with their conductor

 

The Wassail Singers were on next and gave a very spirited performance of several Wassail Songs. They were urged on by their conductor and when she sensed a loss of spirit she did a little dance while continuing to conduct. And if you weren’t in the mood by now, there were also stalls selling local cider, beer, burgers and hot mulled apple juice.

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The food and drink stalls

This was a lovely traditional evening and many people (and dogs!) of all ages from the village turned out to take part as well quite a few incomers like ourselves. In this cynical, scientific age we don’t really believe in apple spirits but we do still value community spirit and that is perhaps the strength of events like this. Many people work together to make the event go well and the profits of the evening go back in to the community.

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The church with a lantern and the moon, taken from the orchard

The meaning of a winter bumblebee

As I drove back from Paignton, the low sun cast long shadows across the sensuous folds of the South Hams hills. But the sunshine was deceptive; the temperature outside was 7oC and in the distance, there stood Dartmoor sprinkled liberally with snow like icing sugar on a cake. It was our first taste of winter and, inspired by Mark Cocker’s recent Guardian Country Diary on “The meaning of a bumblebee”, I had been to Roundham Head in Paignton to see what insects were about on this cold day.

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Grevillea

 

There were pockets of warmth in sheltered corners of the Roundham Head Gardens but generally it felt cold in the wind and by the time I got back to the car my hands were numb. Despite the conditions, there were plenty of flowers about: yellow scorpion vetch in profusion, hanging curtains of rosemary with a few grey-blue flowers, exotic pink and white grevillea, purple spikes of hebe and the pink cup-shaped flowers of bergenia.

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Painted lady butterfly on rosemary

 

What about the insects? I saw a few large black flies and one hopeful hoverfly but my biggest surprise was two smart looking painted lady butterflies enjoying the sunshine. Seeing bumblebees required patience but eventually I was rewarded by the appearance of a few buff-tailed bumblebee workers filling their pollen baskets by probing the rosemary, grevillea and bergenia. I also saw one plump and furry buff-tailed queen meticulously working the bergenia flowers before she flew off.

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Buff-tailed bumblebee (B.terrestris) worker on rosemary

 

 

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Buff-tailed bumblebee (B.terrestris) worker on bergenia. The pollen baskets are visible.

 

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Buff-tailed bumblebee (B.terrestris) queen on bergenia

 

Mark Cocker attributes his surprise sighting of a bumblebee in Norfolk on January 1st to anthropogenic global warming and anomalous weather linked to El Nino but there must also be suitable forage for the bumblebees if they are to be active in winter and survive. The British penchant for gardening and for planting winter-flowering shrubs seems to supply this forage.

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The view across Torbay from Roundham Head Gardens with tamarisk in the foreground

 

I visited Roundham Head Gardens on January 15th 2016

Nurofen – a popular pain killer, a case of misleading marketing and the power of suggestion

Sounds great doesn’t it? Pain killers targeted at different kinds of pain. You can pick the pill for your particular pain.

Consumers in Australia were, until recently, offered this choice. The pain killer, Nurofen was sold in different brightly coloured packets each labelled to target one of four kinds of pain (Tension Headache, Migraine Pain, Period Pain, Back Pain). The only problem was that, despite the specific labelling, the drugs inside the four packets were identical and behave the same whatever the labelling says. Following a long campaign by the media, the Australian Federal Court last week ordered the makers, Reckitt-Benckiser to stop selling the drug in this misleading manner.

Nurofen and the over-the-counter market

In many parts of the world, Nurofen is the brand name for the drug ibuprofen, one of the leading over-the-counter (non-prescription) analgesics. This market is very lucrative for pharmaceutical companies but it is also very competitive. Here in the UK, the over-the-counter market for all medicines and supplements nets £2.5 billion a year, corresponding to sales in pharmacies, drug stores, supermarkets, corner shops and filling stations. Pain killers, including ibuprofen, are the largest individual sector in this market, worth about £550 million. With such large sums of money and in a competitive market, companies work hard to maximise their share and this perhaps explains Reckitt-Benckiser’s behaviour. Should you want to know about other tricks used by companies to boost sales, take a look at Ben Goldacre’s book, Bad Pharma.

Targeted marketing in the UK

Given the Nurofen marketing scam in Australia, I wanted to find out if the same was happening in this country so I went to our local branch of Superdrug. This is not a pharmacy but they sell a range of permitted medicines alongside all kinds of beauty products, perfumes, baby supplies etc. The over-the-counter drug section is not hard to find and there is a dizzying array of brightly coloured products especially in the pain section. Nurofen is the principal branded form of ibuprofen on sale but it’s not the only one and generic versions of ibuprofen are also available.

When I looked carefully I found that Nurofen is indeed being sold in the UK in the same targeted manner as in Australia. I didn’t find all four targeted forms but I did find packets of Nurofen labelled Tension Headache and Migraine Pain, both containing the identical drug. It’s not just Reckitt-Benckiser who play this game: Feminax Express (made by Bayer) is marketed for period pain relief but inside the packet it’s just ibuprofen. To be fair to Feminax, they do say that the drug targets other kinds of pain but you can’t avoid the connotations of the brand name. Superdrug have their own generic versions of ibuprofen, ibuprofen labelled for period pain and ibuprofen labelled for migraine pain and again the drug inside each packet is the same.

Should we be concerned about targeted marketing in the UK?

The Australians believe this targeted labelling is misleading but should we also worry in the UK? This turns out to be a complex question.

Labelling packets to imply that they treat different kinds of pain is deliberate deception when the drug inside is the same. It’s not that the ibuprofen doesn’t work, it does work but it cannot target a specific kind of pain. On this basis, the targeted packets should be withdrawn.

There is, however, another side to this story and to understand this we need to go back to 1981 to an experiment conducted by Branthwaite and Cooper who studied 835 women with headaches. They gave the women aspirin or dummy pills (placebo) and the two treatments were further subdivided by packaging. Half were supplied in neutral boxes, half were supplied in flashy, branded packets. Neither the experimenters nor the subjects knew who was receiving aspirin or placebo. As expected, aspirin was better than placebo for headache but, surprisingly, both aspirin and placebo did better when supplied in branded boxes. If we can extrapolate these findings to the Nurofen story, then perhaps the targeted packets of Nurofen do perform better against specific kinds of pain, not because of pharmacological effects but because the packet says so and the consumer believes this.

This borders on quackery and makes me feel very uneasy. Surely we should not be using misleading marketing to achieve a specific effect, and make a tidy profit along the way. Can I suggest a compromise? Ditch the targeted labelling and have a single Nurofen or generic product but put all four indications on the packet. That way there would be no deception but people would be reassured that the drug worked on the pain they wanted to treat.

A seal steals the show

The smooth sheet of water ahead of me alternates between sparkling and dull as the low sunshine and grey clouds compete on this mild, early December day. Across the water, bordering the beds of tea-coloured reeds at the river’s edge, a thin strip of brown mud holds on tenaciously against the high tide and a few curlews and one little egret take advantage of the drier land. I am standing on the raised viewing platform looking across the confluence of the Rivers Clyst and Exe just south of Topsham in east Devon; this is the western end of Bowling Green Marsh, a local nature reserve.

As I scan hopefully with my binoculars I hear someone nearby say “Did you see the seal?” I hadn’t, but when I lower the binoculars I can see great swirls of mud in the shallow water. Then, about twenty feet away, a shiny black shape breaks the surface; with its domed dog-like head this is unmistakably one of Devon’s grey seals. It looks about furtively and raises its head at an angle displaying thick, grey, wiry whiskers. Now we can also see a large flat fish in its mouth, still alive judging from the twitching tail. There’s a bit of a battle on; the pale fish is resisting and the seal is trying very hard to gulp it down with a little help from gravity. Eventually the seal gets its way; the fish disappears and I can almost hear the belch! It swims a short victory lap, dives and disappears but we count ourselves fortunate to be treated to such a display.

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The view from the road near the Bird Hide

 

The Bird Hide is a short walk away; it’s a new and rather luxurious building and I have never seen so many birders in one place. This human parade is trumped by the avian display outside the windows. Plump, brownish-grey wading birds with long legs litter the riverside grass across from the Bird Hide. There are up to a thousand of these Black-tailed Godwits on Bowling Green Marsh at present but I can’t see much detail from the Hide, the birds are too far away for my binoculars. From the nearby road I get a better view: the birds are rarely still, continually and edgily moving about probing the grass with their long spear-like beaks as they feed.

But the Black-tailed Godwits don’t have it all to themselves; I notice several elegant black and white birds picking their way cautiously among the flock as though trying to avoid something unpleasant on the ground. With their prominent black bibs over white chests and elegant swept-back, black crests these Lapwings look like a cross between a posh waiter and a 1920s flapper. On the edge of the main flock a few wigeon and teal are enjoying the shallow water. The teal spend much of their time searching for food from the river bed, paddling frantically to maintain this unorthodox tail-in-the-air position. When the low sun shines, their yellow, under-tail patch glows like creamy butter.

Before I leave, I walk back to the viewing platform. The tide is now falling rapidly, water giving way to mud and I almost miss the first major arrivals. A large group of waders, probably Black-tailed Godwits, appears suddenly as if from nowhere, descending rapidly, wheeling and banking as they come in to land. The low sunshine picks out their pale under-parts and once they are safely down, they create a dark slick on the shallow water and concentrate on the important job of feeding.

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Looking across the water from the viewing platform, the slick of waders is just visible

Bowling Green Marsh, Topsham, December 4th 2015.

The featured image is a view across the Exe near Topsham.

A rare dose of autumn sunshine

Not far from the quaint, walled harbour at Paignton in South Devon lies Roundham Head, a rocky headland that protrudes nose-like in to the sea. The northern part of the Head is a grassy plateau and views from here across the vast sweep of Torbay can be spectacular. Today, rust-red cliffs glow and the steel-blue sea sparkles; even the slew of white buildings scarring the Torquay hills acquires some dignity in this bright, late autumn light.

On the southern edge of the headland are the Cliff Gardens and promenade, built in the 1930s to protect the crumbly rock against sea erosion. Paved paths zigzag up and down the steep slopes between flower beds and the gentle microclimate allows many exotic plants to flourish, providing a haven for wildlife. Dotted around the Gardens are the distinctive Torbay palms and the stiff breeze rattles their leaves like an avuncular uncle ruffling the hair of his favourite nephew.

I know it is autumn but as I walk up and down the zigzag paths it seems that the plants are less sure about the season. Yes, there are swathes of cobwebby old man’s beard, mature olive-green ivy berries with their rich brown caps and the agapanthus has exchanged mauve flowers for massive green seed heads. But there are also gaudy splashes of lemon yellow scorpion vetch, hanging curtains of rosemary with their sparkling blue flowers, clumps of shrubby bindweed covered with their yellow-throated white trumpets and dense sprays of pink bergenia.

With all these flowers about and a sunny, mild day, I expect to see wildlife. Eventually my patience is rewarded by the buzzy arrival of a huge furry bumblebee queen. Despite her size she moves deftly among the plants, systematically probing the rosemary and bergenia flowers. She appears to be in very good condition, and, in the sunshine, her golden yellow stripes glow and her tail is a warm tan colour, so she must be a buff tailed (B. terrestris). Later I see several worker bumblebees collecting pollen from the rosemary so there are active nests nearby, even in mid November. It doesn’t surprise me any longer to find these bumblebees at Roundham Head; I have seen them even in January and February and I am beginning to think that they are active throughout the year. What did surprise me was to find two yellow and black wasps mating on a fleshy green bergenia leaf. They start end to end, lying back on the leaf, but eventually the larger female mounts the male. When they are finished the fertilised queen will find somewhere to pass the winter, the male will die, his job done.

From the top of the Cliff Gardens there are good views down and across Goodrington Sands. This popular holiday beach is quiet today, its cafes and beach huts closed for the winter. The sea here is more battleship grey than steely blue but I also notice tinges of yellow and green where the underlying sand shows through shallow water. The strong offshore wind creates ripple patterns on the sea and lifts crests of fine spray from the incoming waves.

Once the tide falls back, dog walkers and their canine friends appear on the beach in the sunshine. The still-wet sand is a mirror to the sun and the dogs and walkers become dark silhouettes. Elsewhere on the beach, curious low piles of sand appear in apparently random patterns, the work of local bait diggers.

Roundham Head, Paignton, November 13th 2015.

Torbay Palm and scorpion vetch
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Goodrington Sands

How would you cope after an Apocalypse? Lewis Dartnell is here to help.

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Dr Lewis Dartnell

 

I recently spoke to astrobiologist, science writer and broadcaster, Dr Lewis Dartnell who talked about his best-selling book, The Knowledge (how to rebuild our world after an apocalypse) at the recent Bridport Literary Festival. Here is the article I wrote for the Marshwood Vale Magazine about his book and our conversation.

……………….

The world as we know it has ended!

Perhaps a huge asteroid struck the planet, fatally changing the climate, killing millions, or………

A thermonuclear war left a few survivors struggling to cope with a nuclear winter, or………

A deadly virus spread rapidly across the planet, killing most of the population……..

It doesn’t really matter what happened. What matters is that you and a small proportion of the world’s population survived. What would you do? How would you live? How much of our current technologically advanced civilisation would you try to re-establish? How much could you re-establish?

…………………..

For most people this is the stuff of science fiction novels or disaster movies and we carry on our lives oblivious to how much we depend on science and technology. Worse still, we have become disconnected from the basic processes that underpin our lives and would be helpless faced with having to produce our own food, clothing or even medicines. The apocalypse would expose a terrifying skills gap.

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The book

 

This is where Lewis Dartnell’s recent best-selling book, The Knowledge (how to rebuild our world after an apocalypse) steps in. Dartnell imagines a post-apocalyptic world and the challenges facing survivors. He then provides enough practical knowledge of science and technology to help survivors re-establish a simple life style, and describes enough basic science to allow them to move on and relearn for themselves. For example, we read about how to grow food, generate power, prepare medicines, make basic chemicals and how to get metals out of rocks. It’s a post-apocalyptic self-help guide but also an impressively wide ranging celebration of modern science and technology and how it underpins our lives. Dartnell writes engagingly and lucidly although with such broad coverage some may feel their favourite topic has been underplayed.

………………………..

The Knowledge was a Sunday Times and New York Times best-seller and Sunday Times “New Thinking” book of the year in 2014. I began by asking Lewis Dartnell why he thought it had been so popular. “One reason, I believe, is that it covers a very nice self-contained topic that people had been thinking about – how would you start again from scratch if the world ended? What do you need to know to progress again? Taking one fundamental example, how do you grow food, store seed and even make a simple plough? “

Writing a book is a major undertaking so I asked him why he had chosen this particular subject. He told me that he had been driven “as a scientist, by curiosity, plain and simple”. He had wanted to find a way of describing the most important scientific discoveries through which civilisation had progressed to its current technologically advanced state. Surprisingly, he had based the book around the apocalypse only to provide a useful framework upon which to hang these ideas.

One of the impressive aspects of the book is its breadth and I wondered how he had arrived at such a broad understanding of science and technology? “Hard work”, he told me, “I read a lot; if you look in the bibliography there are 400 references. I checked facts with experts. I also wanted to try out some of the basic technology myself so I had a go at making glass from scratch and I spent a day with a blacksmith working with metals.”

Survivors of the apocalypse would find themselves in a very inhospitable environment but I wondered if it offered humans the chance for a fresh start, perhaps to set up a better life? “There is this allure of the post-apocalyptic society where we might learn from our past mistakes, but”, as he explained, “we should be very wary; there is no guarantee that society will remake itself after an apocalypse. History teaches us that many advanced civilisations have prospered, only to stall and disappear altogether. We are not invulnerable; we face many challenges (climate change and soil erosion to name but two) and could lose all we have achieved.”

Part of this inhospitable post-apocalyptic environment will be a breakdown of law and order; would society be able to move forward under such adverse conditions? “Some people will inevitably take advantage of the absence of control, the collapse of policing and it will become a bit wild.” But he went on to say that he had faith in the human spirit; humans would eventually work to help one another.

So, with all this negative talk, did the threat of the apocalypse keep him awake at night? “No, there is no reason to expect an apocalypse any time soon but there are plenty of other issues to be concerned about. Climate change is one,” he explained, “but we know how to solve the problem, it’s just the political will that is lacking.”

A particularly novel aspect of the book is its linked web site (the-knowledge.org) and I wondered how successful this had been? “I see the book as just the start of a discussion,” he explained, “the web site has been very successful in getting that discussion going, allowing people to express their own ideas, and of course I have learnt so much from it”. The web site also provides lots of additional material and background information about The Knowledge.

As well as writing best-selling books, Lewis Dartnell works at the University of Leicester Space Research Centre where he is an astrobiologist. I asked him to explain what that means: “I am trying to find evidence for life on other planets. My research focus is looking for bacteria on Mars and I am searching for traces in meteorites derived from the Red Planet. Why is this important? If I can find evidence for bacteria, this would show that we are not alone, the Earth is not the only place where life has evolved and that would be very exciting.”

The featured image is the Four Horseman of the Apocalypse by Viktor Vasetsnov

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