'Nineteenth-century' physics, Africa's unsung heroes and others

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The Independent Online

'Nineteenth-century' physics underpins all our modern technology

Sir: I am curious as to how Sir Howard Newby can label physics "a 19th-century discipline" ("More university science courses likely to close", 29 June). True, the foundations of classical physics were completed by 1900, but the explosion of "modern physics" - relativity, quantum mechanics and field theory - took place in the 20th century, and physics is still a vibrant and exciting discipline of vital importance both culturally and commercially. Like classics, physics is an elite, intellectually demanding subject which has intrinsic value as part of our culture. It also underlies almost all of modern technology.

Electronics and communications technology is built on quantum mechanics, with quantum computing and uncrackable quantum encryption being just the most recent developments. Nanotechnology is simply the physics and chemistry of large molecules. Advances in satellite-borne clocks have made possible earthquake and tsunami prediction via networks of ultra-precise position sensors.

Our understanding of disease mechanisms has been revolutionised by our ability to compute protein structures, while medical diagnosis has been transformed by imaging technologies such as CAT, PET and MRI scanners; all of them the product of fundamental research in physics.

A physics degree is a four-year study in problem-solving using mathematical methods. Physics graduates are in enormous demand in finance, business and the Civil Service. Surprisingly, the one area in which physicists do find it difficult to find employment in this country is as physicists: this and the low salaries and esteem awarded graduates who remain in the profession are probably largely responsible for the drop in the numbers of students. The research that underlies our pivotal technologies has been outsourced and offshored to countries where intellectual skills are still taught and appreciated. Instead of complacently leaving the future of physics departments to the market, Sir Howard would be better employed sounding the alarm.

DR RACHAEL PADMAN

CAVENDISH LABORATORY CAMBRIDGE

Africa's unsung heroes and heroines

Sir: There is no single cause of Africa's poverty, and so no single solution. In a continent composed of 54 countries, speaking more than 1,000 languages, and big enough to accommodate the entire land areas of China, the USA, the EU and Australia, it is misleading to talk of "Africa", implying some kind of homogeneity of situation, problems and solutions.

Second, although the list of poverty-related problems experienced by many African countries is well known, the complex inter-relationships between these issues vary widely from country to country. The very complexity, and number of such issues, makes addressing poverty a long-term and challenging endeavour.

Third, "Africa" is not alone in experiencing governance problems. Can the wealthy nations truly claim that their processes of decision-making and "partnership" with developing nations are open, transparent, altruistic and accountable?

Fourth, we hear a lot about the money which has been "poured into" the African continent - with what effect? In truth, when the absolute figures are translated into per capita sums, they are seen for what they are; the crumbs which have fallen from the tables of the wealthy. Yes, 52 per cent of Uganda's national budget is donor-supported, but the total annual figure is less than £40 per head. Is it any wonder that development takes so long?

Fifth, the people of Africa's nations are not in general the hungry helpless beggars they are so often portrayed as. I have just returned from carrying out research in Uganda to find out what people are doing for themselves to improve rural water-supply services, without waiting for government or charity. I can report that self-help is alive and well.

Finally, hidden away in Africa's government departments, NGOs, communities and families are large numbers of individuals who are trying to make a difference. Despite low or intermittent salaries, family commitments, lack of resources, and the frustrations of working with unpredictable politics, policies and funding flows, these organisations contain the real, but unrecognised, heroes and heroines who can make a difference to Africa's development.

PROFESSOR RICHARD C CARTER

INSTITUTE OF WATER AND ENVIRONMENT CRANFIELD UNIVERSITY

Sir: Oxfam welcomes The Independent's focus on the Common Agricultural Policy (report, 30 June). The CAP encourages overproduction and dumping and deprives African farmers of the opportunity to work their way out of poverty. As your article showed, the current regime does not even help poor farmers in most need in the EU. Instead it lavishes millions on big, rich landowners, at the expense of small farmers and the environment.

Sugar policies are a particularly vicious example. Three of the world's poorest countries - Mozambique, Malawi and Ethiopia - lost $238m between them in 2001-3 as a result of the European sugar regime. And yet, despite growing rhetoric on the importance of fairer trade as a tool for poverty reduction, the EU last week issued reform proposals on sugar that will put the future of these countries' industries in jeopardy.

Ahead of their meeting in Edinburgh next week, Oxfam is calling on the G8 leaders to demonstrate their commitment to the pro-development trade reforms that will improve the lives of millions in Africa who are forced to live in poverty.

JO LEADBEATER

HEAD OF ADVOCACY, OXFAM OXFORD

Sir: International development will feature strongly at the G8 summit, given impetus by the report of the Prime Minister's Commission for Africa and the Chancellor's initiatives with respect to cancellation of debt.

The developing world needs access to transport, shelter, and energy, but perhaps most critically to a safe and clean water supply. The UN has a target of providing a billion extra people with safe water by 2015. That means connecting 250,000 people per day, every day, for the next 10 years.

To judge the health of a nation, count the taps, not the hospital beds. The engineering community has the skills and knowledge to improve the health of nations and make a real impact on poverty reduction. The challenge we lay down to those attending the Gleneagles summit is to remove the barriers of bureaucracy and corruption and to unlock the capital, allowing us to mobilise the engineering profession and get on with the job.

PROFESSOR PAUL W JOWITT

VICE-PRESIDENT, INSTITUTION OF CIVIL ENGINEERS & CHAIR OF ENGINEERING WITHOUT FRONTIERS LONDON, SW1

Sir: Two hundred years ago, public opinion swung from seeing slavery as a natural condition, to recognising it as an outrage. I feel a similar pendulum swing is happening with extreme poverty. It is becoming universally recognised as a man-made outrage, created by unfair trade, debt, exploitation and war.

I hope the G8 leaders recognise this swing - otherwise they will go down in history as dinosaurs, struggling to perpetuate obscene injustice.

DR BOB BANKS

GRINDLEFORD, DERBYSHIRE

Diseases are not due to germs alone

Sir: Acquiring an infection equals infective agent plus level of immunity ("Superbug hits 15 hospitals", 30 June). Louis Pasteur favoured the germ theory whereby the infective agent was the direct cause of disease. Claude Bernard, on the other hand, believed that the internal "terrain", or health of the immune system, was more important.

It is well established that our immune systems are compromised by poor diet, stress, pollution and inappropriate use of antibiotics. Antibiotics can cause microbial resistance and therefore more virulent microbes: they also kill off beneficial bacteria leaving the intestines open to invasion by pathogens which can become harmful to the host, causing diarrhoea and septicaemia. The diarrhoea causes loss of vital nutrients, further compromising the immune system. Therefore doctors should be prescribing probiotics, nutritional supplements and improving diets for vulnerable patients and not oversubscribing antibiotics.

On his deathbed Pasteur said: "Bernard was right, the pathogen is nothing, the terrain is everything." Unfortunately Pasteur's legacy is the obsession with the pathogen. Modern medicine has largely forgotten the importance of the terrain.

HELEN MURRAY

CARDIAC PHYSIOLOGIST BRIGHTON

Britannia rules both waves and Proms

Sir: May I reassure your correspondent Richard Welch (letter 28 June) that the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Trafalgar will indeed be celebrated at this year's BBC Proms: it suggested our theme of music inspired by the sea, which flows through the entire season.

Sir Henry Wood's famous "Fantasia on British Sea-Songs" was written 100 years ago for the centenary of Trafalgar, so "Rule, Britannia!" will be performed on the Last Night as he originally arranged it, and thanks to the addition of Proms in the Park around the country, not only Wales, but also England, Scotland and Northern Ireland will be represented in that sequence. I hope Mr Welch may especially approve of the restoration of Wood's original naval bugle calls, which will be sounded around the UK on this special occasion.

NICHOLAS KENYON

DIRECTOR, BBC PROMS LONDON W1

ID: let the people decide

Sir: There ought to be a referendum on something as fundamentally constitutional as identity cards. The United Kingdom had been prepared for a referendum on Europe; now we must be permitted to decide on something equally radical - the government holding of all of our intimate personal data. The Prime Minister spoke on the new Europe directly to the people of Europe: does he not trust his own citizens to decide on the future of our own country?

GERALDINE VAN BUEREN

PROFESSOR OF INTERNATIONAL HUMAN RIGHTS LAW QUEEN MARY COLLEGE UNIVERSITY OF LONDON

Sir: My cat, along with many other pets, has been given a unique identifier in the form of a microchip. Surely in this pet-loving nation what is good enough for our pets is good enough for us - and a lot cheaper than identity cards.

PAT JOHNSTON

HARPENDEN HERTFORDSHIRE

Relocate the hedgehogs

Sir: The decline in the population of Britain's hedgehogs (report, 30 June) is not helped by the stupidity of Scottish Natural Heritage which continues to slaughter them every year in the Hebrides, when there is an overwhelming weight of compelling evidence from mammal experts showing that a) relocation of hedgehogs to the mainland would be a more humane and cheaper solution and b) that the problem of the decline in the seabird population on the Uists and Benbecula is in any case part of a wider ecological issue involving more than just hedgehogs eating eggs. Relocation, not extermination, is the answer.

STEVE RUDD

HUDDERSFIELD

Not all narcissists kill

Sir: Your exploration of the effects of "narcissistic personality disorder" ("Student who killed his parents...," 30 June), including as it did a cross reference to Barry George, jailed for the murder of Jill Dando, may have left readers with the somewhat inaccurate impression that its effects inevitably result in murder. That is not so; its effects may be limited only to the writing of poor novels and perjury, as in the case of Jeffrey Archer.

DAVID COLLINS

KIDDERMINSTER

Tennis vs rain

Sir: Listening to commentators and weather forecasters, it seems that the drought in South East England is of less concern than the threat of rain at Wimbledon.

DOUG MEREDITH

MANCHESTER

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