Could Physics Cure Cancer?

Paul Davies is a theoretical physicist, cosmologist, astrobiologist, and bestselling author. He is Director of the Beyond Center for Fundamental Concepts in Science and co-Director of the Cosmology Initiative, both at Arizona State University. Previously he held academic appointments at the Universities of Cambridge, London and Newcastle upon Tyne in the UK, before moving to Australia in 1990, initially as Professor of Mathematical Physics at The University of Adelaide. Later he helped found the Australian Centre for Astrobiology in Sydney.

Davies’s research focuses on the “big questions” of existence, ranging from the origin of the universe to the origin of life, and include the nature of time, the search for life in the universe, and foundational questions in quantum mechanics. He helped create the theory of quantum fields in curved spacetime, with which he provided explanations for how black holes can radiate energy, and what caused the ripples in the cosmic afterglow of the Big Bang. In astrobiology, he was a forerunner of the theory that life on Earth may have come from Mars. He is currently championing the theory that Earth may host a shadow biosphere of alternative life forms.

Davies has lectured on scientific topics at institutions as diverse as The World Economic Forum, the United Nations, the Commission of the European Union, Google, Windsor Castle, The Vatican and Westminster Abbey, as well as mainstream academic establishments such as The Royal Society, The Smithsonian Institution, and the New York Academy of Sciences. Davies devised and presented a series of 45 minute BBC Radio 3 science documentaries and a one-hour television documentary about his work in astrobiology, entitled "The Cradle of Life." Among his bestselling books are "The Mind of God," "How to Build a Time Machine," and "The Goldilocks Enigma." His latest book, "The Eerie Silence," was published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in 2010.
  • Transcript


Question: What do you hope to accomplish by applying physics to cancer research? 

Paul Davies:  A couple of years ago I had a call from the deputy director at the National Cancer Institute, Anna Barker, with an amazing proposal.  She said "Well, we’re spending billions of dollars worth of taxpayer’s money on the famous war on cancer and most of this is going to cancer biologists, oncologists, geneticists following sort of the well trodden path that those very brilliant people have trodden and they’ve accumulated a vast, vast amount of information. Here is a subject about which an enormous amount is known, but unfortunately very little is understood." And so she had this very bold proposal that maybe physicists and physical scientists generally, including mathematicians and chemists and so on might be able to lend a hand, not by giving the cancer biologists a new death ray, but by lending some of the concepts in, say, fundamental physics to the problem of cancer.  Physicists think about the world in a very particular way.  They go about solving problems in a certain manner.  The whole culture of physics is really very different from that, biology, so maybe physicists have got something to contribute.  Now this is obviously a bold venture, but as a consequence of two or three workshops exploring that possibility the National Cancer Institute announced about a year ago that they will be funding 12 centers around the country and Arizona State University has one and I’m principle investigator.  There are about 12 people on my team, a similar number in the other centers, and it is early days yet, but it’s an experimental as well as a theoretical program. 

Because I’m completely new to the field I’m having to learn very fast.  My own contribution is in running workshops, brainstorming workshops questioning the hidden assumptions that go into our current folklore understanding of cancer.  If you open a textbook or talk to an oncologist you will be taught all sorts of things about the nature of cancer, stuff which may be true, but it may not be true, and it’s always good in science to say "Well how do you know that?" and "Are you really sure?" and "Could there be an exceptional case?" And so my job really is, I call it grandly a "cancer forum."  I run a cancer forum in which I bring together from time to time about 20 people from different disciplines and we’ll pick a particular subject.  The next one is applying evolutionary mathematics to cancer and we’ll focus on that and we’ll really try and come up with a totally new way of thinking and hopefully with a new research agenda.  It’s all about coming up with new ideas, but we’ve got to be able to test those ideas in the lab or at least with computational models to see if we can move forward, so what we’re aiming for is the big breakthrough, the penicillin moment, which cancer research has never had.  If you look at the mortality rate from cancer it has largely unchanged in 40 years whereas almost all other diseases have had enormous success and so there hasn’t been that really major breakthrough, that now we’ve nailed it type of moment where the cancer can be tackled to make a really dramatic difference in the mortality rate.  There are one or two cancers that have been cleared up.  Childhood leukemia, has been huge success there, but you know it’s odds and ends.  The overall picture of the major killers, breast cancer, lung cancer, stomach cancer, and so on, the statistics there are really pretty dreadful and I think all of us working in this field feel that if we can make a contribution by coming up with a genuinely new idea, tackle the problem in a completely different way, then this could be what we have really waited a long time for, which is that big breakthrough that is going to maybe halve that mortality rate.  That’s my ambition.

Recorded April 15, 2010
Interviewed by Austin Allen