Read Do You Think You're Clever? Online

Authors: John Farndon

Tags: #Humour

Do You Think You're Clever? (4 page)

Is it moral to hook up a psychopath (whose only pleasure is killing) to a reality-simulating machine so that he can believe he is in the real world and kill as much as he likes?

(Philosophy, Cambridge)

It’s certainly a gruesome, distasteful idea and reminiscent of some low-budget horror film – with the terrible twist being that the simulated killing turns real. And the idea of allowing a psychopath to indulge in this ghastliest of fantasies seems deeply shocking. But however much the idea provokes outrage, it is a valid question.

Of course, if the situation posed were to arise, the chances are it would be in a hospital where the psychopath was already being treated for his affliction. In this case, it would be our moral duty to ensure his well-being. It’s hard to imagine how the killing machine could be anything but a retrograde step in his treatment. So unless there was strong evidence to the contrary, allowing him to indulge in simulated killing would be neglecting our duty of care.

If, however, someone were to demonstrate strong evidence that playing the killing machine actually helps in the
psychopath’s treatment, then it would be entirely moral to hook him up. But should we hook him up against his will? A similar moral question arises over chemical castration or libido-diminishing treatments for dangerous paedophiles, which may increase their chances of living freely without posing a threat to children. Most liberally-minded people would agree that we should never forcibly castrate paedophiles. What we can do at most is to allow them to make that decision themselves – and we’d have to consider carefully the way we provided advice and assistance.

In the same way, it would be moral to hook the psychopath up to the machine only if he actually agrees to it. But we cannot morally force him to, even if we have powerful evidence that it helps; we can only try to persuade him. The same is true of all patients being treated for mental health in hospitals; the treatment must be with their consent. Only if they are genuinely incapable of making an informed decision should any treatment be carried out without their consent, and even then only with the informed consent of those charged with their care. It doesn’t matter what we think. Mental patients, even psychopaths, have a right to decide for themselves, as long as they are capable of making a decision and as long as their decision doesn’t harm anyone else.

Interestingly, though, while we might reel in disgust from the idea of the killing machine, a crime in the mind
is actually very different from a real crime. We all have fleeting thoughts and fantasies about doing something that could be criminal. When angry we might momentarily have had a vision of burning the school down or killing the boss. But most of us know even at the moment we think it that we would never really do it. We may not be able to control all our thoughts and fantasies, but we can control our actions. And while we might personally fight against ‘evil’ thoughts, and others might fight to stop us having them, society cannot and should not police our thoughts, only our actions.

So if the psychopath’s game with a cyber killing machine harmed no one, then we would not necessarily have the right to interfere in a hypothetical situation in which he has access to the machine. There is no reason why we should actually help him, of course, either by providing him with the machine or hooking him up. And if he is in prison, the prison authorities would be entirely right to refuse to provide a machine and to hook him up if they chose to. Interestingly, though, prison authorities do allow prisoners access to computer games in which they can commit virtual, often quite violent crimes. Whether this is wise or not is open to question, but it’s certainly not a problem of morality.

Should obese people have free NHS treatment?

(Social and Political Sciences, Cambridge)

Of course they should. The NHS is intended to provide free treatment for all. The question may be intended to arouse indignation in a diminishing majority of thin people. Obesity is a major risk factor in some illnesses, such as heart disease, and some people are obese because they choose to overeat. It could therefore be implied that their illness could be, in part, self-inflicted and therefore shouldn’t be treated free. However, there are almost no grounds on which to make a good case. In no illness, for instance, is there a direct cause-and-effect link with obesity, and only in some is it a major risk factor. Moreover, many of the health problems that obese people suffer are nothing whatsoever to do with their weight.

More importantly, even if every illness an obese person suffered could, in fact, be shown to be directly caused by their weight, it would be completely unreasonable to refuse them free treatment. We cannot be sure that they chose to be obese (very few people do!). Yet even if they did, we must acknowledge that people also persist in indulging in dangerous activities such as riding motorbikes, smoking, drinking, working on oil rigs and down coal mines – all of which put their health at risk. Yet the NHS quite rightly treats all these people free, even if there is a direct cause and effect between their health problem and their lifestyle. The ethos is for the NHS to treat all people who need
treatment without charge, not treat them according to their lifestyle.

That said, the NHS does have finite resources and so, to some extent, has to distribute treatment according to need. That means, of course, that urgent, life-threatening or severe illnesses must always get priority. Doctors must also decide how much of their resources they are going to put into treating each case. Some patients will not necessarily be prescribed a drug that would alleviate their condition simply because it is very expensive for the benefits it produces, and money and resources are deemed better spent elsewhere. Such decisions about priority are being made all the time and provoke a great deal of questioning and controversy.

It’s in this light that questions such as the one about not treating obese people must be seen. Doctors are within their rights to refuse to treat doggedly persistent smokers for smoking-related ailments and recalcitrant alcoholics for alcohol-related illnesses. The cause-and-effect relationship between obesity and illness is not quite so clear-cut. Nevertheless, levels of obesity are steadily growing in the UK, and the health problems it creates are imposing a growing burden on the NHS. One in four people in the UK were obese in 2007, and the proportion is swelling all the time, especially amongst young people. Health experts talk of an obesity time bomb, with the associated health problems likely to put massive pressure on resources in the future. This is why the government is under pressure to launch as powerful a public information campaign against obesity as past governments have against smoking. Refusing to treat obese people on the NHS, however, will solve nothing.

Why did they used to make the mill chimneys so tall?

(Engineering, Cambridge)

Actually most chimneys are tall; mill chimneys were just taller. Chimneys need to be tall for two reasons. The first is to vent smoke high up into the air where it can be carried away and dispersed by the wind. The second is to provide a good updraft for the fire, and this is probably what really mattered for the mill owners of the Industrial Revolution, who I suspect weren’t that worried about pollution as they created the dark, satanic mills that filled the skies with black smoke in Blake’s bleak vision. The mills of the early Industrial Revolution were of course driven by steam power, and the tall chimneys provided the powerful up-current make the fire burn intensely enough to create the steam to drive all the mill’s machines.

Tall chimneys provide a good updraft because of the pressure difference between the inside of the chimney and the outside. The heat of the fire makes the fumes or ‘flue gases’ expand and become less dense and so rise up the chimney. The result is that the flue gases filling the chimney are at a much lower pressure than the outside air. The
pressure difference draws air into the fire through a vent near the base of the chimney and so makes the fire burn more fiercely. On the whole, the taller the chimney, the more pronounced this effect, known as the stack effect, is. Build a tall chimney and you get a big pressure difference, a strong updraft and a roaring fire hot enough to generate the steam to drive a lot of heavy machines.

Build your chimney too tall, however, and the flue gases cool too much by the time they reach the top of the chimney and the effect is diminished. So the height of the chimney needed to match the needs of the mill’s steam engine, which is why the chimneys at the onset of the Industrial Revolution were shorter than those later on. As the machines got bigger and the steam engines got more powerful towards the mid-nineteenth century, so the chimneys soared to amazing heights. (I suspect that the updraft in a tall chimney is also enhanced by the stronger, more reliable winds that blow over the chimney top far above the ground. Tall chimneys may also be less affected by the temperature inversions that sometimes virtually stop smoke rising in certain atmospheric conditions.)

The tallest mill chimney of all was the Port Dundas Townsend chimney in Glasgow, built in 1859, which at 138.4 metres (454 feet) was the tallest man-made structure in the world until outstripped by the Eiffel Tower in 1889. But there were many other mill chimneys in mid-Victorian times that towered well over 100 metres. As steam engines gave way to other kinds of power, however, mill chimneys gradually became redundant, and the tallest stacks belonged to steel smelters and power stations. Once the dark, smoky skies of industrial regions were filled with the mill chimneys that rose up like forests of gaunt, leafless trees across the landscape. Now only a few survive – haunting reminders of the origins of the modern urban world.

Why can’t you light a candle in a spaceship?

(Physics, Oxford)

Well, actually you can light a candle in a spaceship. It would just be a very, very foolish thing to do if it was a conventional wax candle. Out in space, of course, there is no air, so spaceships must create their own oxygen-containing internal atmosphere for the astronauts to breathe. If the candle burns oxygen faster than the spaceship’s systems can replenish it, the astronauts would soon die of oxygen starvation. Even if the ship’s oxygen supply could keep pace with candle’s oxygen consumption, it would dramatically shorten the mission.

Worse still, if the spaceship’s atmosphere is oxygen-rich, lighting a candle could start an inferno. The dangers of this were tragically illustrated in 1967 when three astronauts in America’s Apollo 1 space capsule lost their lives. Earth’s atmosphere is about 21 per cent oxygen and 78 per cent nitrogen, but in the lower pressures encountered in space, an atmosphere this rich in nitrogen would have given
early astronauts the bends. The bends, otherwise known as decompression sickness, plagues scuba divers and occurs when nitrogen bubbles form in the blood, which can lead to paralysis and even death. So the capsule was filled with pure oxygen. Unfortunately, this proved fatal, because without the nitrogen to slow reactions down, oxygen is highly combustible. So when a spark started a fire, it engulfed the entire capsule in a ball of fire in less than a minute.

On later Apollo missions, the astronauts wore oxygen-filled spacesuits for lift-off, while the cabin was filled with a safer mix of 60 per cent oxygen and 40 per cent nitrogen. Only once the spacecraft was up in space and past the dangerous take-off stage was the nitrogen vented and the cabin atmosphere turned to pure oxygen, allowing the astronauts to take off their helmets. It was still a high-risk strategy, and even a brief electrical spark could have brought disaster, let alone a candle.

Now space missions and orbiting space stations use a mixture of oxygen and nitrogen similar to earth’s atmosphere, and the spaceship’s atmosphere is kept pressurised at a similar pressure too, to avoid the problem of the bends. So lighting a candle would not be quite so instantly catastrophic, but it would still consume vital oxygen at a terrifying rate. Short space missions like the American space shuttles and the Russian Buran are brief enough for the oxygen to be supplied entirely from tanks of liquid oxygen.

Space stations, however, must generate their own oxygen supply and recycle as much as possible. Blowers continually circulate air through the spaceship and into ducts where impurities are removed. A bed of charcoal soaks up smells. Fine filters trap floating particles. Cold plates like refrigerator coils condense moisture from the astronauts’ breath and feed the water into a tank. Carbon dioxide from the astronauts’ exhalations is more of a problem, and is usually absorbed in canisters of lithium hydroxide, then simply vented into space.

In the Russian Elektron and American Oxygen Generation systems, new oxygen is created from water collected from the cold plates and from urine and waste washing. The water is split into hydrogen and oxygen by electrolysis, and the oxygen is supplied to the cabin crew, while the hydrogen is vented into space or made to react with waste carbon dioxide to produce methane and water, which can be used for washing, or for making more oxygen. Neither of these systems, though, has yet proved completely reliable, so keeping astronauts supplied with oxygen on long missions remains a problem. So you might be able to burn a candle in the space station, but it would prove a constant drain on the oxygen-generating systems because, unlike human breathing, it consumes oxygen as it burns without producing much water for recycling.

There is a final twist to this question, because the International Space Station, like Mir before it, carries an emergency oxygen supply in the form of ‘oxygen candles’.
Made of lithium or sodium perchlorate, these are flares that burn slowly to produce lithium or sodium chloride, iron oxide and oxygen. The candles burn for about six hours, and the International Space Station has 350 of them, enough to keep three people breathing for three months. So you can burn an oxygen candle in a spacecraft, and it could save your life! Even oxygen candles are not entirely safe, though. One burned out of control on Mir in 1997. Fortunately, no one was injured, although the space station was damaged. More tragically, it’s thought that an explosion of one of these candles caused the death of two sailors aboard the nuclear submarine HMS
beneath the Arctic in 2007.

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