The real science behind Years and Years’ vision of the near future

By | June 5, 2019

Years and Years, the BBC drama series written by Russell T. Davies, is not exactly science fiction, but Davies has taken inspiration from cutting-edge research to imagine the technologies that will influence our lives over the next 15 years.

If you don’t want to read spoilers, come back after you have watched the first two episodes.

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Gluten intolerance

In episode 1, Muriel has made gluten-free rolls for Bethany, but Celeste says her supposed intolerance was a misdiagnosis. “Turns out it’s a misdiagnosis for most of the world,” she says. “What we thought was gluten intolerance turns out to be fructans intolerance.”

This possibility was raised by a 2017 study we reported in New Scientist. Fructans are a type of sugar chain found in wheat, barley and rye. Researchers gave 59 adults with gut sensitivities cereal bars containing gluten, fructans or neither. The fructan bar triggered 15 per cent more bloating and a 13 per cent increase in overall gastrointestinal symptoms, compared to the control bar, while the gluten bar had no effect.

Synthetic alcohol

When Edith appears at Muriel’s birthday in episode 2, she brings two bottles of synthetic alcohol bought “slightly under the counter” in Japan. “It’s designed to cut out all the by-products so you get completely plastered with no hangover,” she says.

Unfortunately, whatever is in Muriel’s bottles doesn’t work as it is supposed to. But such a product really does exist, according to David Nutt of Imperial College London. Alcohol acts on receptors for a brain chemical called GABA, and there are 15 subtypes that mediate its range of effects – both good and bad. Nutt claims he has devised a molecule that selectively binds to some of the receptors but not others, letting you become tipsy – not plastered, though – with no damage to health. He calls it Alcarelle, and is attempting to raise £20 million from investors to bring it to market.

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Transhumanism

In episode 1, Bethany reveals to her parents that she is a transhumanist. “I don’t want to be flesh. I want to escape this thing and become digital,” she says. “They say one day there will be clinics in Switzerland where you can go and sign a form and they’ll take your brain and download it into the cloud. I want to live forever as information. That’s what transhumans are. Where I’m going, there’s no life or death; only data. I will be data.”

The idea that we can escape death by turning ourselves into machines is hundreds of years old. Since the growth of the world wide web, it has become a global cultural movement, whose figureheads include philosopher Nick Bostrom and neuroscientist Randal Koene.

Mark O’Connell’s book To Be A Machine, a travelogue of bizarre encounters with transhumanists, won the 2018 Wellcome Book Prize. In an interview with New Scientist, O’Connell said on some level, we are already in a state of merger with technology, but downloading your brain onto a computer remains far-fetched. “If that future means an actual merger of artificial intelligence and human intelligence, I think that’s a deeply terrifying idea, and not, touch wood, something that is ever going to happen.”

Spina bifida cured in the womb

In episode 2, Rosie tells Edith about a baby who had a spinal malformation treated in the womb. “They’ve been doing that for years but now they can grow the nerve tissue,” she says. “They can cultivate it inside and fix it completely. She’s only six months so we’ll see how it goes but really that’s it – spina bifida cured.”

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In babies with spina bifida, the backbone and associated membranes fail to close properly around the spinal cord. The disorder can be diagnosed early in pregnancy with an ultrasound scan.

At present, it is usually treated with surgery after birth, but these children are often unable to walk and may have to have operations later in life to drain fluid from the brain.

Surgeons in the US began repairing spina bifida in the womb in 2002, and trials have shown that children who had this procedure were less likely to require shunts and more likely to walk without crutches. More recently, minimally invasive surgery techniques have allowed the procedure to be done without making large incisions in the woman’s abdomen and uterus, making it less risky.

However, we cannot yet cure damage to nerve tissue that may have occurred early in fetal development. Some researchers are developing ways to augment the existing surgical approach using stem cells to salvage or regrow damaged nerve tissue. So far, this work has been restricted to animal models.

The prospect of curing developmental disorders in the womb makes Rosie, who has spina bifida herself, uneasy. “Once they start fixing people, where do they stop? Too tall, too short? Do they want to fix me? I think I’m brilliant. I don’t want fixing.”

Nuclear strike

At the end of episode 1, the US detonates a nuclear device on the Chinese island of Hong Sha Dao. In episode 2, we learn that China did not retaliate.

That scenario seems highly unlikely. Since the 1950s, the leaders of nuclear states have been persuaded not to use their weapons first by game theory, believing that such an attack would be suicidal, for retaliation would be guaranteed.

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The only way a first strike might go unanswered is if the attacker took out all of its opponent’s nuclear weapons first. However, in the last 10 years, the US has upgraded its nuclear arsenal with a “super-fuse” that may enable them to do just that. “Ultimately, the technological capacity to see, hear and otherwise detect and destroy other countries’ weapons could become so good that first strikes will become winnable, and deterrence will no longer work,” wrote Debora MacKenzie in a 2017 New Scientist feature.

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New Scientist – Health