This article is a preview from the Autumn 2015 edition of New Humanist. You can find out more and subscribe here.

Biology – Lydia Leon

Reporting on the long and elusive quest for a cure for HIV has more often consisted of enigmatic anecdotal case studies than of the results of large-scale clinical trials. Still, these cases give hope, along with new avenues to explore. In July, it emerged that an 18-year-old HIV positive French patient has lived in good health for 12 years since ceasing all medical treatment. This is the longest known account of drug-free HIV remission. Born with HIV, the patient was immediately given anti-retroviral therapy (ART) but her treatment was stopped by her family when she was six. She has remained healthy, the level of virus in her bloodstream nearly undetectable. The teenager joins a small group of highly studied HIV positive young people, known as “post-treatment controllers”. Although medics emphasise that these individuals are not cured, they are in a state of remission that very few can sustain without treatment.

This case gives further support to the growing body of evidence that very early treatment of HIV positive infants is a highly effective way to control the virus. Other reports of remission after cessation of early treatment exist, but most have ended in re-emergence of the virus at a later date. Some scientists greeted the news with caution, pointing out that since the patient was given treatment from birth we don’t know whether she was one of the very rare “elite controllers”. These individuals can withstand viral infection due to a specific genetic mutation in the protein that enables HIV to enter the cell. This mutation was transferred to a HIV positive patient during a bone marrow transplant, and resulted in the only known case of a person being fully cured of HIV. The “Berlin Patient” revealed himself as Timothy Ray Brown in 2012.

Whether the case of the French patient points to the power of modern ART or is another case of rare genetic resistance, the story has been welcomed as an encouraging development. Less than 50 per cent of the world’s HIV positive population have reliable access to ART, but access is improving. There is a long way to go, but we may be one step closer to taking control of this global epidemic.

Lydia Leon is a PhD student at University College London

Chemistry - Mark Lorch

Chemistry has an image problem. Chemical scientists fear that the preponderance of “healthy” products claiming to be “chemical-free” translates into a general fear of chemicals. To the ears of those trained in chemistry these claims are pure nonsense. Some years ago, the Royal Society of Chemistry (RSC) pledged a £1m prize for anyone who could identify a truly chemical-free consumer product. Needless to say, the prize money goes unclaimed.

More recently the RSC has taken a more considered approach to tackling perceptions of chemistry, chemists and chemicals, by commissioning a survey of 450 of its members and a further 2,000 UK adults. The findings highlight a surprising problem. Chemical scientists don’t understand the public: 84 per cent of the public thought that chemists make a positive contribution to society, but only 12 per cent of chemists thought the public would have said so.

It can be hard to define a chemist. Imagine a chemist at work and chances are you are thinking of a pharmacist dispensing prescriptions. But the term covers those working on topics relevant to medicine, agriculture, renewable energy, clean water, environmental monitoring or a host of other things. In the survey, the reaction to chemistry as a subject (as opposed to chemists as a group) was overwhelmingly related to school – which means that chemical scientists haven’t managed to communicate what we do. Other sciences are prominently featured in science pages and TV shows. And chemistry news just doesn’t get the same coverage as the big physics projects.

It’s possible that this dearth of chemistry in the news is due to chemists’ own lack of confidence; that the “chemical-free” advertising has made us scared of the public’s reaction. More than half of the chemists surveyed agreed that most people “would say that all chemicals are dangerous or harmful”. But this didn’t materialise. Chemists no longer have an excuse to hide in the shadows. Instead we should be proudly extolling our contributions: the development of the materials, medicines and analytical methods that make our modern world possible.

Mark Lorch lectures in chemistry at Hull University

Physics – Ceri Brenner

On 14 July there were two remarkable steps forward on the opposite ends of the spectrum of physics discovery. Our Pluto camera (officially known as New Horizons) reached its destination in the outer edges of the solar system. And we discovered a new arrangement of the fundamental building blocks of matter.

Researchers at CERN described the observation of a new particle made up of five quarks. Quarks are the fibres which make up the fabric of matter. They bind together to form protons and neutrons, which in turn bind together and surround themselves with electrons to form the atomic structure from which everything and everyone is made. Quarks are arranged in pairs or triplets, each unique combination being a separate particle. The observation of a particle made of five quarks is the main point of CERN’s paper, which explores an idea suggested back in 1969 when quarks were first theorised. To determine whether five bonded together is a brand-new structure, or a bonded formation of pair and triplet, requires more experiments.

The New Horizons project left Earth nine years ago on its voyage to the end of the solar system. Its mission? To capture images and information of Pluto the dwarf planet, 3 billion miles away. The system beamed its information back to us via radiowaves and mission control translated this into the beautiful high-resolution images that made it onto the front page of most national papers worldwide. In that moment, we glanced at the rocky, scarred surface of the most distant large object orbiting our Sun, its features revealing mountain ranges and craters that are baffling and exciting astrophysicists.
These discoveries open up more questions about the universe than they answer. They encourage new ways of thinking, which in turn seed technological progress and innovation. Being a physicist often feels like being on a highly complex treasure hunt. There are so many dead ends and trap doors, but with each additional clue you start to understand the map in front of you

Ceri Brenner is a physicist who works for the Science and Technology Facilities Council