Thursday, 5 August 2010

Decisions, decisions.

We went to the Fleet Air Museum at Yeovilton yesterday, because one of our friends has just written a book about her father's experiences as a pilot in World War II ('Bomber Jack', by Valerie Ashton). As a result she has recently met a number of younger men, handsome, charming, hospitable RAF types in smart uniforms, and so she's now developed an insatiable interest in everything and anything to do with aeroplanes. I managed to summon up a certain amount of interest in rotary air-cooled engines and the difference between aerofoils and flaps, but what really interested me was the Concorde, which had been used in the early tests at Filton.

As a junior doctor I'd once been told by Professor Ken Donald that the Government often took important decisions on the whim of one person who was totally unqualified to reach such a decision. He gave as an example his own experience in World War II when, as a junior medical officer in the Navy with a modicum of research experience with regard to 'the bends' (nitrogen bubbles in the blood stream), he'd been sent from London to Portsmouth to inspect a new type of escape hatch for submarines which had just been invented. The Government was going to install the new system in all our submarines if he approved the design, but if it was installed and did not work well, then many sailors might die from 'the bends' as a result. He was duly met at Portsmouth station, driven to the barracks to meet the senior officers, given a drink or three before, during and after lunch in the officers' mess, and by 4 p.m. when the escape hatch was finally inspected and discussed he was in no state to understand the finer points of a wooden door, let alone novel escape hatches. And he had to catch the last train back to London. Nevertheless he cobbled together some sort of a Report and some faceless Whitehall wonk then advised the Minister who took this momentous decision based entirely on young Ken's befuddled recollections.

Of course I took this story with a pinch of salt. The Government don't take important decision just like that, do they? Surely the Government is full of clever, caring people and they have masses of well-informed advisors. Haven't they?

Shortly after I became a hospital consultant in 1973 I received a telephone call from the part-time medical officer for the British Aerospace factory at Filton, which was hoping to manufacture Concorde and fly it daily from London to California. The doctor had been asked by the management to advise them about skin cancer because the Americans (i.e. their rivals, Boeing) were claiming that the exhaust gases from Concorde would deplete the ozone layer in the statosphere and this would increase the incidence of skin cancer because it would let through more of the damaging UVR wavelengths. He wanted to know if I could advise him how to reply, as it was a very long document, it involved a lot of technical data, and if he didn't produce a satisfactory written reply to the American Senate hearing within 10 days it seemed likely that they wouldn't be allowed to overfly American airspace. All that Anglo-French Concorde development money would be wasted!

In those days our great nation was affluent, but some people thought Concorde would be a great White Elephant, and so we urgently needed to know whether this effluent from the affluent elephant was really damaging or was this just American bull-shit?

So I was presented with this great tome, around 2000 pages, to read, digest and riposte within 10 days. The skin cancer bit was easy, because I understood it. It was written by all the recognized U.S.A. experts on the causation and epidemiology of skin cancer and what they said was perfectly correct. But there was a much more complicated section on the production and chemical composition of aircraft exhaust gases (gulp), another on the formation of stratospheric ozone and all the possible reactions of oxygen and ozone with numerous nitrates and nitrites (blimey), another on the meteorology, real and hypothetical, of the various layers of the atmosphere all round the world (crikey), another on the effects of previous atomic explosions in the stratosphere (heck), another saying Texas farmers would go bankrupt because of cancer of the conjunctiva in their cattle (this is serious!). Also, almost as an after-thought, it seemed that bees would not be able to pollinate plants because of the UVR disturbance, so crops would fail, palnts would die out and so all mammalian life on earth would probably become extinct (Oh dear!). And I have 10 whole days to criticize this Report, which has taken many of the finest scientists in USA more than 2 years to produce! Of course, said the factory doctor, the whole thing was politically motivated. Unfortunately though it might turn out all to be correct.

So what did I do? I discussed it in broad terms with the members of the MRC Environmental Research Committee, but unfortunately it was August and most of them were on holiday.

Then it was time for desperate lateral thinking. I pointed out in my critique that it was far from certain that the statospheric aircraft exhaust gases would deplete the ozone layer, but if they did, perhaps the Americans could say what quantity of exhaust gases their stratospheric military aircraft had been producing for 24 hours every day for many years, ever since the Cold War. And I also pointed out that increasing the UVR at sea-level might also have beneficial effects (e.g. fewer hip fractures) which their Report had neglected to mention.

And did it make a difference? Did it hell.


  1. This led to more lunch being spattered on my mac. I misread the Professor's name and thought you'd been chatting about this to Ken Dodd!

    I think that they are still making huge decisions based on the whim of one person - maybe the advent of the Con Dems will change things. Doubt it though.

    Really glad to have you blogging again :-)

    Ali x

  2. Ken Dodd and escape hatches- Tattifilarious!
    The similarity in names explains why my subconscious brought up 'chuckle-centre' so readily. Not sure about Freud and the suckle-centre.
    Anyway Ken Donald was the Regius Professor of Medicine at Edinburgh and Physician to the Queen in Scotland. Not a man to be taken lightly. Ken Dodd he wasn't, though he did know some rather good earthy Naval jokes.