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Carriacou Interview: Mike Leahy

Mike Leahy

What do you do?
I'm a virologist working on influenza virus at Oxford University. I have also worked with various exotic viruses. Viruses represent a sort of twilight zone. It really is very hard to determine whether they are living things or just self-multiplying chemicals. Unlike bacteria, viruses are incredibly simple and so small that you can't even see them with a microscope. Even so, millions of people die from viral illnesses every year. Because viruses are so simple they have to hijack the mechanisms that we use ourselves in order to replicate. This makes it difficult to kill disease-causing viruses without killing the patient in the process. As you might appreciate, this makes virus research a very challenging area.

How and why did you end up working in science?
There were loads of reasons that made me start working in science. One was that as a mechanic, which was my previous job, you're always working hard and you're cold and you're wet and that just doesn't happen in the lab. You earn more money as well. I genuinely think that science is far easier than slaving away in a garage. That said, the mechanic in me always wanted to know how things work and in this respect being a scientist is very similar to being a mechanic. So I suppose inquisitiveness led to me choosing science as a career.

Were there any figures that inspired you to work in science?
There weren't really any scientific figures that inspired me but my Taekwondo instructor suffers from multiple sclerosis so I'm pretty committed to medical research.

Who in science do you admire today?
I don't think much of the dogmatic old characters in science but people like Edward Hooper who wrote the book The River, I've got a lot of respect for. I quite like his ideas but I think he's wrong. I don't believe that AIDS or HIV was caused by polio vaccine but I like people who actually question the establishment.

If you weren't a scientist, what do you think you would have done instead?
If I wasn't a scientist I may have stayed as a mechanic but I would probably have become more involved in motorsport and the international rally scene. I do still work occasionally in the classic rally world, and it's fun, so I suppose I would have spent more time doing exciting mechanics rather than working in a local garage. I also enjoy writing and would love to have a novel published, probably based around encounters I have had when travelling.

How would you define the differences between the scientific theory and Rough Science practice — what problems are you encountering?
In Rough Science you're dependent on scientific theory. You know, there's no way you can get away from it but what's different is you haven't got the apparatus to work in such a controlled, precise way so you've got to be much more dependent on common sense, and that's where my experience as a mechanic comes in. It's a lot more useful than my experience as a virologist I've got to say.

Are you concerned about any recent scientific issues?
Well, I think there are a lot of scientific issues that that concern me. Perhaps one is just the way that powerful scientists can be so dogmatic; it wastes so much time. There's a history in America of somebody at the National Institute of Health being involved in a big argument over HIV which probably held back AIDS research for ten years. The same is true of polio virus. This time the Rockafella Institute in the United States was said to have held back polio research for twenty-five years by sticking to the dogma that it was an aerosol born virus when in fact it wasn't.

Why is science important?
Why should we bother trying to understand it? I think it's worth understanding science because ultimately science is a way of understanding ourselves and how things around us work. For example, if you look at foot and mouth disease, it would be very easy to think that it was caused by a curse, or that some witch had cast a nasty spell. You've got to understand the science behind it to understand how foot and mouth spreads, for example, and work out a way of stopping it. I think that science is often poorly understood, and believe that there is a real need to communicate science in an interesting way to non-scientists. For example, viruses are genuinely very interesting, and very scary. It would be great to write a book talking about how weird they are, and how much impact they have on our day-to-day life in a way which would be interesting to those not usually into science. As has been said before, sometimes science fact is far weirder and more interesting than science fiction.

How is science fun?
Like most jobs science isn't always fun. Unless you're on the Rough Science team and then it's cool because you're on tropical island getting pissed every night among people who are good fun to be with.

What do you think is the largest impediment to scientific advances at present?
I think the largest impediment to scientific advance is probably the Press and a poorly informed public because there's a history of the Press making very outlandish headlines that were very poorly informed, that have caused a lot of reactionary comment from the public. I think it's got to be the Press.

On a day-to-day basis, what scientific discovery do you find essential?
On a day-to-day basis, I find the internal combustion engine absolutely invaluable. I can do without hot water, I could do with electric lighting but I couldn't do without my motorbike.

What do you find hardest to cope with in your job as a scientist?
Boredom. Science, or research at least, is one of the most tedious jobs ever inflicted upon mankind, so boredom is a major problem. That said, just like when you are trying to solve a really difficult crossword, when you come up with the right answer, a positive result, it's hard to describe the feelings of elation.

What would you really like to be good at?
I take my spare time activities much more seriously than my work but I am not naturally gifted at any of them. Although I now have a black belt in Taekwondo, I would really like to have more natural talent. For example, it would be great if I was more flexible and if my sense of balance was better. I would also like to be a more consistent archer and would love to be a faster and more courageous dirt bike rider. These things just won't happen, however, so for now I will just have to train harder and become as good as I can.

What's the difference between art and science?
I think science is a subject whereby you apply yourself to a problem, and you hope to solve that problem in some way, whereas art is just a way of expressing yourself. I think both of them can be interesting, both of them can be beautiful, both of them can be pretty horrible as well.

If you were to make a scientific discovery and become very rich, what would you do with the cash?
I'd need a lot of money because I'm very good at spending it! I love travelling but I'd start out by making sure my family and friends were OK financially. I would then buy myself a new dirt bike and buy my brother a new dirt bike. Maybe spend some money on a nice new dojang (gym) for my Taekwondo club, and then I'd finally start being altruistic when I've travelled around the world and found out what I really want to do with my life. There are so many deserving causes that I would have to give it a lot of thought.