Monday, 29 September 2008

WRONG: Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin

Bacteria are creatures consisting of a single cell, usually about a thousandth of a millimetre wide. They reproduce themselves in the body, or indeed anywhere warm, moist and nutritious, though there are some astonishingly resilient germs out there (not to mention in there). Deinococcus radiodurans (“terrible berry that resists radiation”), for example, can survive a dose of radiation 500 times stronger than that which would kill a human. Geothermobacterium ferrireducens prefers boiling temperatures, while leifsonia aurea likes nothing more than a sub-zero chill.

In 1928, Alexander Fleming famously noticed small areas of inhibited growth in a dish of staphylococcus, and closer inspection revealed the active agent to be penicillium mould, similar to the one that makes an encounter with gorgonzola cheese so memorable. After three years, however, Fleming gave up on his penicillium studies, believing the organism couldn’t exist long enough in the human body to be effective. Three years later he tried again, but still had difficulty persuading other researchers to help modify the mould for human use.

It wasn’t till 1942 that a patient was successfully treated with penicillin. Oxford University’s Howard Florey, Ernst Chain and Norman Heatley were the first to turn the mould into a medicine, though during the war they had to travel to Peoria, Illinois to find a lab that could produce it on a workable scale (their seed mould came from a mouldy melon on the local streetmarket).

All this, however, overlooks the work of three other scientists.

A Costa Rican toxicologist rejoicing in the name of Clodomiro Picado Twight reported his discovery of penicillium’s anti-bacterial properties to the Paris Academy Of Sciences over a series of experiments dating from 1915, long before Fleming. His work was largely ignored, and his original manuscripts were only discovered and published in 2000.

Earlier than Twight, Ernest Duchesne, a French doctor, noticed that Arab stable boys encouraged the growth of mould on saddles to help heal sores on the horses. At the age of 23, he conducted experiments that proved strains of penicillium would cure animals infected with typhus and submitted his research to the Institut Pasteur in 1897. In what was clearly to become something of a habit among French academics, the institute ignored him completely.

Even Duchesne, however, wasn’t the first. As early as 1877 the eminent British physicist John Tyndall had noticed penicillium’s effect on bacteria. While demonstrating Pasteur’s theory of the existence of microbes, he observed in one experiment that, “The penicillium was exquisitely beautiful. In every case where the mould was thick and coherent, the bacteria died.”[5] But being a physicist rather than a physician, Tyndall gave no further thought to his observation.

Fleming, Florey and Ernst Chain shared the Nobel prize in 1945 for their work on creating the therapeutic form of penicillin. Yet resistant strains of bacteria had already emerged two years later. Thanks, Darwin!

Wednesday, 24 September 2008

WRONG: MI5 and MI6 exist

This isn't a conspiracy theory: of course the intelligence services exist, just not under the names MI5 and MI6. These designations aren’t offical titles - the former became the Security Service in 1931, and the latter didn’t have a name at all until 1994, because it didn’t officially exist. It was publicly acknowledged in the Intelligence Services Act of 1994, however, and took on its previously informal title, the Secret Intelligence Service.

The terms MI5 and MI6 are so popular, however, that the services even use those titles for their official (and surprisingly snazzy) websites. James Bond has a lot to answer for.

MI5 and MI6 are far from being the only MI (Military Intelligence) units in British history. By the end of World War II, there were a full 15 others: MI4 provided maps, MI7 governed propaganda, MI9 debriefed escaped PoWs and provided false documentation, while MI15 was concerned with aerial photography. These departments were later disbanded or merged, leaving just two (that we know of…) plus GCHQ, which is largely concerned with intelligence-gathering and the security of information (ie writing and breaking codes).

MI5 deals with covert domestic intelligence – in the words of the Security Service Act of 1989, “the protection of national security and, in particular, its protection against threats from espionage, terrorism and sabotage.” It is based at Thames House on Millbank in London, and is responsible to the Home Secretary. Fans of the BBC1 MI5 drama Spooks will be disappointed to learn that “Thames House” in that show is actually the Freemasons’ Hall on Great Queen Street.

MI5 files are gradually destroyed as they become obsolete, or are released into the National Archives if they are of historical interest. Recent releases include evidence that the leader of the British Union Of Fascists in the 1930s had, almost endearingly, written to Mussolini asking for a signed photo.

Another file highlights MI5’s suspicion that the black American singer Paul Robeson was a communist, while also expressing admiration for his voice after attending a concert. Swallows And Amazons author Arthur Ransome was a suspected Bolshevik, too, but then he did marry Trotsky’s secretary.

The overseas intelligence division MI6 was created in 1909 when Britain decided to establish a permanent secret service (though there have been British government spies in Europe since the time of Henry VIII at the very latest). Its first chief, Mansfield Cumming, was a Naval officer who was enticed into the job by Admiral AE Bethell with the suitably enigmatic note: “My dear Mansfield Cumming […] You may perhaps like a new billet. I have something good I can offer you and if you would like to come and see me on Thursday about noon I will tell you what it is.”

Ever the workaholic, Cumming turned up for work a week early. Disappointingly for those who romanticise espionage, he was obliged to note in his diary, “Went to the office and remained all day but saw no one, nor was there anything to do.”

Cumming ran MI6 out of a succession of flats for his entire life (he worked such long hours that he preferred not so much to work from home as live at the office), but the Service has been based at London’s Vauxhall Cross since 1994. The gigantic, green-and-beige, Lego-style building is so far from being a secret headquarters that it featured in a mortar-attack sequence in the Bond movie The World Is Not Enough. A year later, life imitated art when terrorists (suspected to be the Real IRA) fired a rocket at the building from Vauxhall Bridge.

Thursday, 18 September 2008

WRONG: There are four gospels

The Bible isn’t carved in stone, so to speak – the books that make it up were decided at a series of synods and councils between the 4th and 15th centuries. The four you’ve probably heard of, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, are the accepted “canon”, but there are many more that didn’t make the cut. The Gospel of Thomas, for example, is believed to date from the first century CE, and is a collection of Jesus’ sayings written by his (spiritual) “twin”, Thomas.

The Gospel Of Peter, also from the first century, is notable for presenting the cross that Jesus was crucified on as being able to speak. (It says “Yea”, which may not be the sermon on the mount, but is pretty good for a lump of wood.)

Other books of dubious origin from the second century or thereabouts include:

• The Gospel Of James, who claims to be Jesus’ step-brother.
• The Infancy Gospel of Thomas (nothing to do with the other Gospel of Thomas), one version of which records that a boy punched the infant Jesus, who responded by cursing him to death. When the neighbours complained, Jesus blinded them with his powers. Meek and mild, my arse.
• The Gospel of Judas, which doesn’t claim to be by Judas, but asserts that he betrayed Jesus under direct orders from him.
• The Gospel of Nicodemus, which includes a passage that purports to be Pontius Pilate’s report to the Emperor Claudius.
• The Gospel of Mary, which may refer to Mary Magdelene or the Virgin Mary.
• The Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew, an account of the Virgin Mary’s childhood.
• The Gospel of Philip, which suggests that Jesus married Mary Magdalene.

Most interesting of all is the Gospel of Eve, which is almost entirely lost. The only reason we know of it at all is thanks to the early church father Epiphanius, who quoted it and dismissed it as – get this – a heretical justification of oral sex. A tragedy for us all that it was lost.

The fact that there are only four canon gospels is itself largely the result of a second-century theologian’s insistence. Irenaieus of Lyons decreed that, “It is not possible that the Gospels can be either more or fewer in number than they are. For since there are four zones of the world in which we live, and four principal winds… it is fitting that she [the church] should have four pillars.” The four we have are merely the ones judged by the early church as most likely to be accurate accounts of Jesus’ life. See also WRONG: Jesus definitely existed

Tuesday, 9 September 2008

WRONG: “Jedi” became officially recognised as a religion after the 2001 Census

People start religions all the time – some even manage it accidentally. During the Second World War, the natives of the Melanesian island of Tanna encountered black Westerners for the first time, and, more importantly, saw them enjoying large quantities of airlifted goods. Their only previous Western contact had been with white missionaries and planters and they came to believe, somewhat paradoxically, that if they rejected the white way of life, returning instead to their traditional ways, they too would be granted access to all the miraculous wealth of the West. To this day, the cultists believe that a god called John Frum (Possibly a pidgin abbreviation of “John From America”) will one day come to make them rich. His personality appears to be a combination of the local deity Kerapenmun and recent import John The Baptist. If you think that’s odd, Tanna is also home to a cult of Prince Philip worshippers.

In the UK, however, religions don’t really have any special status outside of very specific legal contexts (employment discrimination law and religiously-motiviated violence), so there’s little advantage in seeking official sanction. The government doesn’t particularly care what you believe.

390,000 Britons
did indeed enter their religion as “Jedi” on the 2001 Census, believing they were mischievously forcing the government to acknowledge The Force as an official religion. But in the tradition of young Padawans since a Long Time Ago, they were reckless. All the Office Of National Statistics was forced to acknowledge was that 0.7 per cent of the British population got a kick out of writing “Jedi” on an offical piece of paper.

25 of the Jedi adherents were from the tiny Isles of Scilly, 28 miles off the coast of Cornwall – go, Scilly!

Wednesday, 3 September 2008

WRONG: Columbus discovered America

On October 12 1492, having spent two months on board a rancid, crowded ship crossing the Atlantic Ocean with no guarantee of a destination, the Genoese adventurer Christopher Columbus finally made landfall in America. But he wasn’t the first to arrive on the continent. He wasn’t even the first European to arrive on the continent. He didn’t, strictly speaking, arrive on the continent at all – he was on an island that the locals called Guanahani, and which he renamed San Salvador. (It’s now one of the Bahamas, though no one’s sure which one.)

Columbus didn’t actually find mainland America until August 1498, six years later, on his third voyage. He made landfall in Venezuela, describing the natives as being “very numerous, and for the most part handsome in person”. He never made it to North America, and he died convinced that he’d landed in India.

It’s often claimed that Columbus undertook his voyages to prove the earth was round. In fact, there wasn’t a lot of dissent on that subject among the learned, and Columbus actually came to believe that it wasn’t a sphere. “I have come to another conclusion regarding the earth,” he wrote to the King of Spain. “Namely, that it is not round as they describe, but of the form of a pear… or like a round ball, upon one part of which is a prominence like a woman’s nipple.” Sailors, eh?

While Columbus may have started the rush to exploit the New World, other explorers have a greater claim to the title The First European In America (the hunter-gatherers who crossed the Bering land-bridge and colonised America 25,000 years earlier, were, of course, Asian). John Cabot, or Giovanni Caboto to give him his proper name, was the first to map the North American coastline in 1497, placing him on the mainland a year earlier than Columbus.

Before the arrival of either of the notable explorers, however, the Vikings had settled Greenland and Newfoundland. In 1960 archeologists discovered the 1,000-year-old remains of a Norse village in L’Anse Aux Meadows in Newfoundland. Among the debris found on site were a bronze fastening-pin and a bone knitting needle, which makes you wonder a little about the Vikings’ reputation as hammer-swinging berserkers. (The Vikings didn’t have horned helmets either, by the way, that’s a myth.)

Norse sagas also recall Leif Ericsson’s arrival in Vinland (usually identified as Newfoundland) to preach the Catholic faith. They mention lands called Markland (“wood land”) and Helluland (“stone land”) to its south.

Evidence is much sketchier for the claims made for other nations’ expeditions. Among those chancing their arms:

• Ireland – St Brendan was reported as having made a legendary journey to the “Isle Of The Blessed” in the sixth century CE.
• Polynesia – a cross-disciplinary team of anthropologists and biologists claims that their DNA studies of ancient chicken remains prove that the birds, which are native to South-East Asia, must have been introduced to South America by Polynesians no later than 1424. Their thesis is backed up by the discovery of sweet potatoes, an American vegetable, in archeological digs of pre-European Polynesian settlements.
• Australia – Similarities in skull types between Australian aborigines and prehistoric Brazilians have led some to speculate that aborigines somehow found their way to Brazil around 50,000 years ago, 25,000 years before the arrival of bands of settlers across the Bering land bridge from Asia.
• Mali – Drawing from a tradition of oral history and ancient Egyptian documents, the historian Gaoussou Diawara theorised that the Muslim emperor Abubakari II sailed to Brazil in 1312 with a fleet of 2000 small boats.
• China – Gavin Menzies, a retired British submarine commander, wrote a popular book claiming Admiral Zheng He made it to America in 1421 (he must have been practically neck-and-neck with the Polynesians if he did).
• Portugal – There is evidence to suggest skeletons found in Canada may be Portuguese, dating from 1424.