Wednesday, 30 November 2011

Milly: Deep sea flashers

Some brilliant research by Sarah Zylinski that came out of the deep sea research cruise in 2010. Strange to think that even in deep, dark, remote regions, animals still need camouflage...

A link to the paper here.

Wednesday, 23 November 2011

Tom Troscianko, 1953-2011

Professor Troscianko was a unique lecturer and I was fortunate enough to be one of his students.

I was really shocked and sad when I heard that he died on the 16th of November.

I know that his students, his fellow colleagues and most importantly his family will miss him greatly.

Professor Iain Gilchrist has summed up Tom's life and work in his obituary.

When it comes to death, especially the death of such a larger than life personality it is hard to find the words to express feelings. I will always remember his lectures, not only because he always had pictures of him in a bathing suit (?!) but because he was passionate about his work and most of all he was passionate about life.

Tuesday, 22 November 2011

Sir Paul Nurse and Poetry

Photo: Royal Society
There were two great events held here in Bristol last night, one at the University and one at the Bristol Old Vic, and I was hoping against hope that I would find a connection between them to make this blog post flow! And... what do you know? I did. The first was Sir Paul Nurse, president of the Royal Society, Nobel Prize winner, geneticist, president of Rockefeller University New York... all-round very very interesting scientist and excellent talker-about-science! He was giving the Sir Anthony Epstein lecture at the Wills Tower, in the largest, cathedral-like space, which was packed to the rafters... His topic was "Great Ideas in Biology" and he was quick to point out that these weren't THE great ideas in biology but his pick of great ideas... although he felt that most people would agree on 4 out of the 5.

So, what were his great ideas? Well: The Cell, The Gene, Evolution by Natural Selection, Life as Chemistry (and Physics) and the fifth, possibly contentious one, Biology as an Organized System, by which he meant looking at the biological networks and how they are structured, looking at the flow of "information", at the system as an information carrier.

It was all fascinating stuff, some of which I already knew a bit of, but always good to be reminded what a chromosome is, for example... with some great slides and historical perspective! I was then heading to a poetry event, so, I hear you ask, how are the two connected?? Well, it was at Great Idea Number 3, which you would assume centred around one Charles Darwin. But no, in fact Sir Paul wanted to focus on Charles' grandad, Erasmus, who was the first to talk about evolution (Charles later supplied the vast quantities of data to prove it). Not only that, apparently Erasmus - who was a colourful figure, so large that he cut an oval out of his dining table so he might sit rather nearer to his supper, and fathered 14 children - was a poet, at one time "one of the best known poets in England"! And not only that, he wrote much of his scientific reports in blank verse! (See Jenny Uglow on Erasmus Darwin's poetry in The Guardian). The Poetry Foundation gives us his poem, The Botanic Garden, and here is an excerpt:
 “You taught mysterious Bacon to explore
Metallic veins, and part the dross from ore;
With sylvan coal in whirling mills combine
The crystal’d nitre, and the sulphurous mine;
Through wiry nets the black diffusion strain,
And close an airy ocean in a grain.—
Pent in dark chambers of cylindric brass,
Slumbers in grim repose the sooty mass;
Lit by the brilliant spark, from grain to grain
Runs the quick fire along the kindling train;
On the pain’d ear-drum bursts the sudden crash
Starts the red-flame, and death pursues the flash.—
Fear’s feeble hand directs the fiery darts,
And strength and courage yield to chemic arts;
Guilt with pale brow the mimic thunder owns,
And tyrants tremble on their blood-stain’d thrones.

Stirring stuff! Now the poets I went to see after this lecture, Luke Kennard and Tom Philips,  did not deal directly with biology but I feel that Erasmus D would have enjoyed the evening, which moved from a searing critique/love poem about Portishead to a tale of the Murderer being taken for a haircut. I was immensely impressed by the whole event, organised monthly by Word of Mouth -  highly recommended if you are in the vicinity!

So, an evening of poetry, biology and biological poetry, what more could I have wanted?

Friday, 11 November 2011

James:A Nuclear Renaissance

Nuclear has had some what of a bad reputation of late, to such an extent that up until the white paper in 2009 there was to be no British nuclear future. As a man who grew up from the age of 4 saying 'I want to be a nuclear physicist' this was very worrying. However, now the tides have turned as realisation has come that, for whatever reason you chose, energy generation can not last on fossil fuels alone and we want power not just when the wind blows and the sun shines. So sorry folks but we need nuclear. Now I personally was very proud to be part of the launch of the new Nuclear Research Centre which will be mainly hosted by Bristol and Oxford universities supported by industry. This is, as the Minister of State Charles Hendry put it is 'the begin of a nuclear renaissance'. Which was highlighted by the demographic in the room as 'networking' began over sandwiches and tea. Britain has been out of the nuclear game too long, so there was a generation gap between those heading and steering the centre and us new guys looking to do the 'on the ground' research. It was alluded to during one of the opening speeches that this is a long term set of goals being created so they aren't for those setting the questions but more the eager minds of the new nuclear research generation coming through. Although I may look to be coming from a rather one eyed perspective I think this is a great thing and the first of many steps in the right direction which I hope to be a part of. Another key aspect that will set the NRC apart is that the research will be split into three main areas; first advanced research into generation 4 fission reactors and generation 1 fusion, secondly applied research looking to make the most of the energy produced and finally and possibly most importantly 'Nuclear Futures' a group dedicated to the social and environmental issues. So this will see working together as one not just the physicists, chemists, engineers but also those from the social sciences. I believe this is a good thing, and Tuesday could turn out to be a momentous occasion, not only for the country but also for Bristol University going forward to be the leader in yet another field.