Page 1

Produced by

Issue 1

Michaelmas 2004

in association with

A New Science Magazine for Cambridge

• The Science of Pain • World of the Nanoputians • • For He’s a Jolly Old (Cambridge) Fellow • Designer Babies •

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Contents Issue1: Michaelmas 2004



Editorial ..................................................03 Cambridge News ...................................04 Events ..................................................05 Focus ..................................................06 On the Cover .....................................20 A Day in the Life .......................21 Away from the Bench ........................22 Initiatives ..................................................23 History ..................................................24 Arts and Reviews....................................26 Dr Hypothesis .....................................28

Channelling the Pain Ewan Smith explains how we feel pain



Jobs for Bacteria: Metal Miners Nerissa Hannink explores the curious world of rock eating bacteria ..............................


For He’s a Jolly Old Fellow Is the life of a Cambridge Fellow really a longer one? Rosie Clift investigates .............


Molecular Clocks: a Timely Perspective John O’Neill looks into what makes our body clock tick



Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde


Laura Blackburn examines the two sides of the desert locust ...............................................

Stem Cell Research: Getting to the Root of the Issue Carina Lobley discusses the ethical concerns surrounding stem cell research.............


Nanoputians Set to Invade


Davina E. Stevenson ventures into Nanoput .................................................................................

Cubic Jellyfish: Looking Out of the Box


Matthew Wilkinson explains why we shouldn’t underestimate the humble jellyfish.

The front cover shows a ‘Nanoflower’ Created by Ghim Wei Ho from the Nanoscience Centre. To find out more see page 20.

If you’ve enjoyed our first issue, then why not write for us? We are currently looking for contributions for our Lent issue, which we need to receive by 15th November. We want articles on all kinds of science, but in particular we are lacking contributions from the physical sciences! So whatever your scientific passion why don’t you share it with our readers?

Or perhaps you want to join our production team? We need committed people to help with the editing and production of the magazine. If you’re interested just email

To find out more information please visit our website Next issue out January 2005

What’s it all about? This year the Science Show is going to be better than ever before, packed full of competitions, the latest science news, interviews, reports, and a look at some of the really intriguing aspects of science.

The Science Show Science Radio on CUR1350 Tuesday nights 18.30 - 19.30

To look forward to... A different theme each week: past shows have included the science of food and drink, the science of sport, and special Valentine’s shows. This year brings more themes, more random and interesting facts, and more prizes! Get involved! The show is now interactive: you can email, text the studio, or take part in our interactive web discussion board!

To listen, tune into 1350 MW or listen live online at

We're always keen to get presenters, researchers, and reporters, as well as people to work behind the scenes. Whatever your interests – just send us a mail!

From BlueSci Cambridge is both internationally and historically renowned for its scientific achievements. In an effort to make science accessible to all, CUSP has created BlueSci, a popular science magazine for Cambridge. BlueSci will be produced termly, and will be distributed free of charge to the University’s scientific departments and colleges. Science is endlessly fascinating and diverse, and we hope that the range of content in BlueSci reflects this.We aim to promote the understanding and awareness of science and its importance within society. We welcome submissions on all disciplines and related issues. So whether you’re a student at the University or a post-doc, you can share your passion for science by writing for us. For details of how to submit an article, and of the type of articles we would like to receive, please visit our website, can also send us

From CUSP CUSP, or Cambridge University Science Productions, is a Cambridge University society dedicated to promoting science through the media. CUSP is open to anybody, and has a large range of members, from first year undergraduates to post-docs and junior fellows. So what does CUSP do? We provide training in science communication, produce science media, and collaborate with other groups. In terms of media production we have The Science Show (a weekly radio show on CUR1350), science films, interviews, video lectures, and of course BlueSci.We offer hands-on workshops for science writing, audio and video recording and editing, as well as documentary making. Our exciting programme of activities can be found on our website,

your letters and opinions via email, The plan to produce BlueSci was ambitious, and its realisation has required many months of hard work. In fact, it seems a miracle to see our first edition in print! It has, of course, only been made possible by the dedication, enthusiasm and hard work of everybody involved. We would like to thank Varsity, whose support has made the magazine possible, as well as the CUSP committee. A very special thank you must also go to all those who have written articles for this first edition. Helen Stimpson & Rachel Mundy

However, it isn’t our mission to turn scientists into career journalists, far from it in fact! We believe that communication should be part of any scientific training. We want to give our members the skills to communicate science successfully, and to contribute to the public understanding of science. The skills learnt at CUSP are important whether you’re intending to stay in academia, or planning to start out in an alternative career. CUSP: don’t just sit there, get involved! Björn Haßler, CUSP Chairman

Issue 1: Michaelmas 2004 Produced by CUSP & Published by Varsity Publications Ltd. Editor: Helen Stimpson Managing Editor: Rachel Mundy Business Manager: Eve Williams Submissions Editor: Joanna Maldonado-Saldivia Design and Production: Katherine Borthwick,Tom Walters, David Wyatt, Jonathan Zwart Section Editors: Cambridge News: Joanna Maldonado-Saldivia Events: Louise Woodley Focus: Ewan Smith Features: Joanna Maldonado-Saldivia, Helen Stimpson On the Cover: Jonathan Zwart A Day in the Life: Nerissa Hannink Away from the Bench and Initiatives: Louise Woodley History: Edwina Casebow Arts and Reviews: Owain Vaughan Dr Hypothesis: Rob Young Magazine PR: Jasmine Leonard, Rob Young, Claire Slater CUSP Chairman: Björn Haßler The CUSP Committee

Varsity Publications Ltd 11/12 Trumpington Street Cambridge, CB2 1QA Tel: 01223 353422 Fax: 01223 352913

Helen Stimpson

Rachel Mundy

Björn Haßler


BlueSci is published by Varsity Publications Ltd and printed by Cambridge Printing Park. All copyright is the exclusive property of Varsity Publications Ltd. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system or transmitted in any form or by any means, without the prior permission of the publisher.


Cot Death Link Research undertaken by the Department of Obstetrics and Gynaecology with the Greater Glasgow Health Board’s Public Health Department has found a link between maternal blood levels of Alpha Feto Protein (AFP) in pregnancy and the risk of a baby dying of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS) or cot death. The research, headed by Professor Gordon Smith, was supported by a grant from the Foundation for the Study of Infant Deaths. AFP is a protein that circulates in foetal blood. Small quantities cross the placenta

and the levels can be measured in the mother. High levels of AFP detected in a pregnant woman’s blood indicate a possible placenta failure. Poor placenta function can lead to low birth weight and premature birth.These in themselves are risk factors for SIDS. High levels of AFP are linked to stillbirths, but this is the first time that anyone has looked for, and found, a link with SIDS. Blood test results for over 200.000 women who gave birth in Scotland between 1991 and 2001 were examined. The risk of having a baby that would go on to die as a cot death was three times higher among women with the top 20% of AFP levels compared with the bottom 20%.

Dinosaur Brought to Life After seven weeks of painstaking work by staff and volunteers, the dinosaur Iguanodon is ready for re-installation in the Sedgwick Museum. Standing more than five metres tall, Iguanodon is a giant jigsaw puzzle of bone casts. Each part of this 120 million year-old giant has been cleaned and repainted by hand using colours that represent the original fossil more closely. This should enhance the specimen as a teaching aid and bring the dinosaur to life. The restoration of the dinosaur is the latest event in a major new phase in the re-development of the Sedgwick Museum.


Michaelmas 2004

Articles courtesy of Cambridge University Press Ofiice

The president of the New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology (New Mexico Tech), Dr Daniel Lopez, and the head of the Cavendish Laboratory at the University of Cambridge, Professor Malcolm Longair, formalised the collaboration between their two institutions to build the Magdalena Ridge Observatory Interferometer, the world’s most ambitious optical telescope array. The Interferometer will be composed of several telescopes, spread out over an area larger than a football pitch, and optically linked together to form a single ‘synthetic aperture’ 400 metres in diameter. Its huge size yields images with much greater clarity than is available from any single telescope. The array will produce images 100 times sharper than the Hubble Space Telescope and, for the first time, enable scientists to watch the final moments of dying stars, study the formation of planets around other stars, and get close to the heart of active galaxies.

The Titan Arum in full bloom

The Medical Research Council (MRC) announced funding of £1.5M towards a stem cell research centre of excellence at Cambridge. The MRC Cambridge Centre for Stem Cell Biology and Medicine will form the core of the Cambridge Stem Cell Institute, an interdisciplinary coalition of research teams to address the challenges of stem cell genetics, biology and medicine. The University has already demonstrated commitment to stem cell research by providing £10M of its own funding, and by endowing a prestigious professorship. Studies will focus on how stem cells can be used to benefit the millions of sufferers of degenerative conditions such as diabetes, Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, spinal cord injuries, and Multiple Sclerosis throughout the world.

Joanna Maldonado-Saldivia

The Titan Arum, giant of the plant world, enveloped visitors in its rotten stench as it flowered for the first time ever at the Cambridge University Botanic Garden. In August, glasshouse staff at the Botanic Garden noticed a mottled green shoot pushing through the soil of a gigantic pot they have been nurturing in the Palm House for over 20 years.This specimen of a Titan Arum had been dormant since December 2003. Over the last two weeks of August, a cream spike called a spadix grew up to 1.6 metres and a blood red, fluted, and frilly-edged spathe unfurled around it, shaped like an upturned bell. At its base, the spathe forms a chamber enclosing thousands of tiny flowers on the spadix.The female flowers are clustered in a pale green band with the male flowers forming a cream band above. When the female flowers are ready for pollination, the spadix heats up and emits an atrocious stench, so bad that the Indonesians call the plant ‘the corpse flower’. The powerful smell produced by such a huge structure attracts its pollinators, thought to be carrion beetles and sweat bees, from vast distances.

Astrophysicists Plan Ambitious Telescope


Stem Cell Centre to Open

Titanic Stink Comes to Town

Nerissa Hannink

Cambridge News

Cambridge News

E ve n t s

Events If you, your department, or your society, would like to publicise events here, please email

Oxygen Oxygen by Carl Djerassi and Roald Hoffmann, will be performed at the ADC Theatre on 26th-30th October at 19.45. There will be a series of pre-performance talks to accompany the play, including one by co-author Carl Djerassi. For more details see

Think You Know How Wings Work? Bernoulli’s principle and all? Think again. Dr Holger Babinsky (Cambridge University Engineering Department) challenges popular misconceptions in his lecture available online at the Engineering Department’s Virtual Open Day. Visit virtual, and follow the links to the main lecture theatre on the ground floor.

Thinking Outside the Box Or rather, outside your subject: For a list of the University’s departmental seminars see

Saturday Night Science TV

Millennium Maths Project

What would it be? A beginner’s guide to geological time? The eye of the beholder? Mathematics, magic, and electric guitars? Or perhaps you would be looking for life in unlikely places? At you can find online movies (produced by or in association with CUSP), as well as a number of online lectures.

The Millennium Mathematics Project is running a mathematics lecture series for schools and the general public. Each talk is suitable for different ages and abilities, and children are welcome. Topic range vary widely, and this term include paper folding, the solar system, catastrophies, and more. The series begins on 5th October, and you can find out more at

Cambridge Discovery Cambridge Discovery is a series of informal public talks and events highlighting the renowned collections of various Cambridge University Museums and their research. The Discovery talks are given fortnightly on Thursdays at 19.00 (doors open 18.00). Venues alternate between the University Museum of Zoology and the Sedgwick Museum of Earth Sciences. Admission is free, talks and events are open to all. Although most talks are written for adults and teenagers, some are suitable for younger children. To find out more visit and follow the link to Cambridge Discovery.

COVER COMPETITION Would you like to see your work on the front cover of BlueSci? One lucky reader will have the chance to see their own scientific photograph on the front cover of Issue 2. Anything from microscopy to views of the galaxy will be considered. Send your images to, or send a hard copy to Varsity (FAO Bluesci), 11-12,Trumpington Street, Cambridge, CB2 1QA

(East Anglia Branch)


The Physics of Spin Lecture: Sport in Sports Hands-on Demos: Spinning Cars (Scalextric) Spinning Bullets Hurricanes Spinning Buckets and many more Panel Game: Call my Bluff - in Physics (Spinning Heads)

Sunday 12 December 2004 2 till 5 pm Cavendish Labs, Cambridge Admission Free - just turn up! For more info:


Designer Babies

Katherine Borthwick

Should we be allowed to select embryos according to their genes? Edwina Casebow discusses both sides of the debate The heated ‘designer babies’ debate has been re-ignited. This follows the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority’s (the HFEA’s) policy extension on 21st July 2004 concerning the tissue typing of embryos. Their ruling allows couples to test the genetic make up of embryos, and consequently select one as a match for a seriously ill brother or sister. After birth, this ‘matched’ baby would be able to provide a bone marrow transplant for the ill sibling in order to treat some rare, potentially fatal, genetic disorders of blood cells, such as Diamond Blackfan anaemia and Fanconi anaemia.

The decision comes after a review of both the physical effects of the embryo tissue test (a process which involves taking a cell sample from an embryo eight cells in size), and the psychological and emotional implications on ‘matched’ children and their families. It replaces the HFEA’s legislation from 2001, which permitted selection only in cases where embryos were being tested for serious inherited genetic disorders at the same time. Playing devil’s advocate, in this article we impartially examine the debate and present the arguments for and against the HFEA’s new ruling.

exist? Indeed, the new ruling will mean that applications for tissue testing won’t be turned down for this reason. When this has happened in the past, most notably in the case of Charlie Whitaker’s parents in 2002, it created uproar in the popular press for perceived discrepancies between the handling of different cases. Charlie suffered from Diamond Blackfan anaemia, a condition for which no embryological genetic test exists. However, earlier in the same year, the HFEA had granted permission for tissue typing and embryo selection to the parents of Zain Hashmi, a boy with thalassaemia, another type of rare genetic blood disease. Although this permission was granted because a genetic test exists for Zain’s condition (meaning that, unlike Charlie’s parents, the Hashmis could combine screening embryos for thalassaemia with tissue typing, in line with the HFEA’s 2001 ruling), the apparent disparity in the HFEA’s decisions was still widely condemned. According to Suzi Leather, selecting an embryo with the potential to save the life

of its sibling can “benefit the whole family” too. When the psychological impact on the child created to save its sibling has been considered, it has usually been assumed to be a negative one. This is, however, debatable: it is unlikely that a child would be any less loved, or valued for his or herself, than any other. On the contrary, both the tissue-matched child and his or her ill sibling would clearly be very much wanted by his or her parents, much more so than the many unplanned or unwanted children born in Britain each year. A crucial factor in the HFEA’s decision to extend its policy was whether or not the invasive tissue test caused any physical harm to embryos. Suzi Leather reports that its review of the available evidence “does not indicate that the embryo biopsy procedure disadvantages resulting babies compared to other IVF (in vitro fertilisation) babies”. In other words, the medical technology to select embryos according to their genetic make up is available to couples undergoing IVF at no increased risk to the future foetus.

The Motion For The life of a dying child can potentially be saved if couples are allowed to select an embryo that could provide a bone marrow transplant for the ill infant. According to Suzi Leather, the HFEA’s chairwoman, “faced with potential requests from parents who want to save a sick child, the emotional focus is understandably on the child who is ill.” But this is not to say that tissue testing won’t be subject to careful scrutiny and regulation by the HFEA. Applications will still be considered on a rigorous case-bycase basis, requiring both a consultant’s referral detailing why other treatment has failed and a second opinion. Although the ethical argument against allowing embryo selection for this purpose is mainly based on the idea that the child of the sick sibling should not be a ‘means to an end’, some people have challenged this view, asking why a conflict of interest between saving the life of one child and wanting another should



Michaelmas 2004

Fo c u s

The Motion Against

Arc hiv e

The HFEA’s recent policy extension on tissue typing allows parents to select embryos in order to act as donors for sick siblings. As a result, couples can now have a child specifically to save the life of an ill brother or sister. This therapeutic benefit is directly opposed by adherers of the Kantian argument against treating children as a ‘means to an end’ rather than an ‘end’ in themselves, and by those objecting to the destruction of human embryos for theological or other reasons. There can be no ‘right’ answer to this debate. Only one thing is sure: as the scientific advances in reprogenetic technologies continues, the number of ethical and moral dilemmas can only increase.


transplant? If such cases are subsequently allowed, would it only be a matter of time before children are selected on the basis of sex to ‘balance a family’, or for particular physical characteristics? The Pro-Life Alliance opposes any form of embryo selection and IVF because of the waste of fertilised embryos that such procedures involve. “Every method involves loss of life”, they say. As a result, the ‘murder’ of many embryos – all considered potential babies – cannot justify the birth of one child. Indeed, the ethical and theological arguments surrounding IVF and embryo selection warrant a separate debate in themselves. There also remain some concerns about the practicalities of the test itself. Although HFEA’s review of current evidence concluded that it does not physically harm embryos any more than the procedure of IVF itself, some new scientific technologies and pharmaceutical agents initially thought to be safe in the past were subsequently proved otherwise. Who knows what we may discover about tissue testing techniques in the future?

Var si

In the eighteenth century, the philosopher Immanuel Kant proposed that every individual should be treated as an ‘end’, not merely as a ‘means to an end’. His theory forms the basis of much of our ethical thinking today, and can be applied to argue that embryos should not be selected in the manner that the HFEA’s recent policy change allows. This is because a future child would not be valued for his or herself in their own right, but only in the context of being a potential lifesaver for an ill sibling. Consequently, pressure groups such as Human Genetics Alert and ProLife Alliance, express concern that children are becoming objectified and viewed as a commodity, not as equals of their parents. One of the main considerations that the HFEA has reviewed since 2001 is the potential negative psychological effect of being a so-called saviour sibling. Despite the authority’s conclusion that such tissue matching and transplant treatment can “benefit the whole family”, scientific advances are so new that it is difficult to assess the long term effects properly. There are major worries that tissue-matched children may have psychological problems and difficulties integrating within their families if they believe that they are not valued in their own right as individuals. Furthermore, according to the ProLife Alliance, embryo selection could be a “slippery slope to designer babies”. Other people also worry where the HFEA’s increased permissibility will take us in the future: what happens if a first cousin, or even a parent, requires a

In Summary

Edwina Casebow is a fifth year medical student with an MPhil in History and Philosophy of Science.


Channelling the Pain Ewan Smith explains how we feel pain

After cutting yourself shaving, it’s easy to curse, but have you ever wondered why it hurts? Pain is an important survival mechanism that acts to prevent injury. Although a painless life may seem enviable, a life without pain would be disaster-ridden. For example, if you pick up a hot dish from an oven, without protection, the pain will cause you to release it before serious injury occurs. If it didn’t hurt when you picked it up, you might not break the dish, but you would certainly burn your hand!

Special types of nerve fibre, called nociceptors, detect noxious stimuli. Nociceptors are present throughout most of the body, and when activated they generate an electrical signal that travels to the brain via the spinal cord.A part of the brain called the thalamus then interprets the stimulus as painful, and signals to tell the body how to react. It is this reaction that would cause you to drop the hot dish.

All photographs, Rebecca Eaton

Broadly speaking, pain is caused by three types of stimuli: thermal, chemical, and mechanical. These stimuli activate proteins present on nociceptors called ion channels. Different stimuli activate different ion channels, allowing us to differentiate between types of pain. Most nociceptors respond to more than one type of pain, although with differing sensitivities depending upon the ion channels they contain. When activated, ion channels open, and charged particles flow into the nerve, much like water flows through a canal lock gate. These particles provide the driving force for the electrical signal that travels to the brain. Why is it that when we eat too much chilli, we wave a hand in front of our mouth and pant as though putting out a fire? This sensation of burning occurs because of a substance present in chilli peppers called capsaicin. There are several ion channels that detect temperature, and interestingly, capsaicin is sensed by the same one (called TRPV1) that is activated by a thermal stimulus of around 42ÂşC. This temperature is approximately the human threshold of pain, and thus chilli tastes uncomfortably hot. TRPV1 is not the only ion channel that is activat-

ed by painfully high temperatures, as was demonstrated by a study which used mice in which TRPV1 had been removed.These mice display similar pain behaviour at 50ºC to normal mice, suggesting that a factor other than TRPV1 must be involved in sensing very high temperatures. This factor is probably the related ion channel TRPV2. In general, hotter temperatures are more painful due to increased activation of TRPV1 as well as the likely activation of TRPV2. We are all aware that cold temperatures can be painful too, and this form of pain is sensed by ion channels of the same family that sense heat. In particular, TRPM8 is activated at temperatures below 25ºC.This channel is also activated by menthol, explaining the cool sensation of menthol sweets. The ion chan-

but skin tests on humans suggest that ASICs are more important in the response to acidic stimuli. Although acid touching our skin causes pain, we can also feel acidic pain in a less obvious way. When an area of the body does not receive enough oxygen, high acidity can build up. This occurs during a heart attack, and the channel ASIC3 triggers this pain. Catching your toe on a doorframe undoubtedly hurts, but the precise mechanism for the detection of this kind of mechanical stimuli remains unknown. A possible candidate though is an ion channel called TRPV4. Recent studies have shown that mice without this protein have decreased pain behaviour in response to mechanical stimuli.This suggests that this ion channel could be

“A life without pain would be disaster ridden” nel most likely to be responsible for detection of more noxious cold, such as experienced when cycling without gloves in winter, is TRPA1. As discovered recently, this ion channel is activated at around 17ºC, which closely correlates to the human threshold of noxious cold. But what about other types of pain? Cutting your hand while cooking can hurt, but if you are unfortunate enough to splash lemon juice over the cut, it

involved in the detection of noxious mechanical stimuli. Pain is extremely helpful to us as a warning mechanism, but when tissue is damaged, as is the case in arthritis, inflammation can occur causing the surrounding area to become tender. This can lead to hyperalgesia, where noxious stimuli hurt more than normal, as well as allodynia, a condition in which stimuli that are usually innocuous, such as tickling, become excruciatingly painful.This

really stings! The trigger for this pain is the acidity of the lemon juice. Within the last decade, a separate group of ion channels called acid sensing ion channels (ASICs), have been proposed to detect acidic stimuli. The heat sensing ion channel TRPV1 also responds to acid,

process is called sensitisation, and involves the release of inflammatory substances from damaged and inflammatory cells. These substances can lower the activation threshold of nociceptive nerves, increasing their sensitivity. One of these substances is bradykinin, which


causes modulation of the ion channel TRPV1 resulting in a magnification of the response to heat. For other people, the feeling of pain doesn’t exist at all. They suffer from a rare disease called congenital insensitivity to pain, whereby their nociceptors express a mutated form of a protein required for proper growth, and consequently the nociceptors die. Unfortunately sufferers of this disease usually die an early death. So before you complain next time you hurt yourself don’t blame the razor and remember that pain is there to help. It stops you damaging yourself further and can help in the healing process as an injured, painful part of the body is often rested.

For a recent review of the molecular aspects of nociception see Julius, D. and Basbaum, A. (2001). Molecular mechanisms of nociception. Nature 413, 203-210. Ewan Smith is a PhD student in the Department of Pharmacology.


Jobs for Bacteria: Metal Miners Nerissa Hannink explores the curious world of rock eating bacteria the rocks to generate their own energy source, whereas most other organisms utilise sunlight for this.The bacteria’s chemical reactions create acidic conditions that result in the metals being leached out of the rock into water. This process occurs every day in the Earth’s crust at a very slow rate. Scientists have found that if they increase the activity of the microbes, they can increase the rate of extraction of the metals that our society has come to depend on. So how is biomining performed? For cheaper metals, such as copper, a technique called “bioleaching” is employed. Here, the ore (in which the bacteria live) is crushed and put into large heaps on an impermeable base. An acidic solution is then percolated through the heap.The liquid that leaches out of these piles is collected and metals are recovered from it.Waste from traditional mining techniques can also be treated in this way to extract the remaining metals. The second form of biomining was developed in the 1980s to treat more costly metals like gold.The rocks containing gold and

As we use up the highly concentrated mineral deposits in our earth, traditional mining techniques have become less economical and methods to extract from the less concentrated (low grade) ores are needed. This is the major force behind the development of biomining. The technique is also attractive because, unlike conventional mining, biomining does not use the high amounts of energy required for roasting and smelting, and does not produce harmful gases such as sulphur dioxide. The bacteria employed for biomining live in the rocks from which the metals are mined. These organisms are called chemolithotrophs which literally means rock eating.This is because they use chemicals in

bacteria are crushed and put into a stirred tank at 40 to 50ºC, which is supplied with oxygen and nutrients for an extra energy supply for the microbes.The bacteria then go to work to decompose the rock structure. Next, cyanide is added to extract the gold. Without the microbes, the cyanide could not come into contact with the gold.This technique is now widely used and “the largest fermentation plant in the world, aside from sewage, is the gold Ashanti-Sansu reactor in Ghana” says Rawlings. Professor Rawlings adds “With the selective pressures we are creating in the tanks we are always selecting for the best metalextracting bacteria”. Because they are made up of only one cell (compared to billions in

All photographs, Katherine Borthwick

“Ewww yuck, gross!” is often our first reaction when bacteria are mentioned. The idea that we live with microscopic organisms on our skin, in our bodies, and in our homes is for many an unpleasant thought. Whilst a small number of bacteria are responsible for disease, microorganisms help us humans in many ways.Without them, for instance, we couldn’t digest a thing! Now scientists are identifying and selectively breeding bacteria for a role in a rapidly growing new technology known as ‘biomining’. Twenty years on from the miners’ strikes, 21st century mining has moved into biotechnology. Gone are the fears of flying pickets: the latest recruits are bacteria and they’ll work for food. Professor Doug Rawlings from Stellenbosch University, South Africa, explains: “Biomining uses the natural ability of bacteria to extract metals from mineral deposits (ore)”.This technique dates back to Roman times when these early miners used microbes to remove copper from ore without being aware that bacteria were involved.



the human body), bacteria can evolve relatively quickly to take advantage of a particular energy source or environmental condition.And the good news is that,unlike genetically modified bacteria (which contain DNA from another organism), these microbes are being selected by a kind of evolution in fast-forward. So, if they were to return to the soil, they would not be a problem as they were originally living in the rocks that were mined. Current biomining research involves finding new types of bacteria that may be useful. As a general rule, for every 10ºC rise in temperature, reaction rates will double, and so researchers are looking for new miners that will work at higher temperatures. Hot sulphur springs of 75ºC are the current job centre for biomining bacteria.The chosen bacteria will eventually be introduced to high temperature tanks for extraction of an increasing range of metals. Professor Rawlings is also interested in the genes that enable bacteria to survive amongst such toxic metals. By studying bacteria that could grow with and without metals, he was able to look at which of their genes were different. In one study with arsenic, his group discovered that the genes giving resistance to arsenic toxicity were essentially ‘jumping genes’ (transposons).These are genes that can move from one part of the DNA to another and even between bacteria. It seems that when bacteria were exposed to arsenic, they had to acquire the arsenic resistance genes from other bacteria in order to survive. So the next time you think of bacteria, remember that the ring on your finger and the copper circuit boards in your computer could all come from microscopic miners. Nerissa Hannink is a postdoctoral researcher in the Department of Plant Sciences

Michaelmas 2004

For He’s a Jolly Old Fellow Is the life of a Cambridge Fellow really a longer one? Rosie Clift investigates The archetypal Oxbridge fellow is male, chain-smokes a pipe, drinks excessive amounts of port and overindulges in rich delicacies such as roast swan, caviar, and foie gras. A lifestyle perhaps not conducive to longevity? A recent study by Dr Michael Brooke at the Department of Zoology in Cambridge showed that Cambridge Fellows live significantly longer than the average UK man. In fact they outlive British males by four years! The project involved recording the life spans of fellows born between 1900 and 1920, who died aged 60 or greater. Brooke had two control groups: undergraduates born 1900-1920 who also died at 60 or greater, and a group of men born in 1911 who were taken as representatives of the wider UK population. It was assumed that the undergraduates had the same social background as the fellows. By using data only from individuals that died having already reached 60 years of age, Brooke and his team hoped to reduce unwanted effects of any deaths due to random events. The idea behind this was that pensioners were unlikely to have died on the front line, nor would they have been out drinking, getting into fights, or careering around in stolen cars! Statistical analysis showed that the Fellows lived to an average of 79 years, while the undergraduates only made it to 76, a significant difference of three years. The undergraduates didn’t significantly outlive the national population, who lived to an average of 75.3. One possible reason for this difference in longevity is that the fellows experience a life of privilege. Is this a valid suggestion? In his paper, Brooke proposes that certain features of the college-based lifestyle may contribute to a long and stress-free life, such as a secure job which includes a pension and accommodation, the presence of a supportive community, and the esteem of ones peers. This relaxed and comfortable lifestyle shares features with a monastic existence, and in fact a study of Dutch con-

templative monks found increased longevity among them, relative to the general population of the Netherlands. M.G. Marmot’s Whitehall study carried out in the 1980s found a distinct social gradient in mortality rates in all industrialised nations.The gradient showed that those of higher social classes lived longer than those from the lower classes. Further analysis presented a correlation between a long life and a high social status and income. Interestingly, the same longevity gradient has been observed in non-human primate societies where it is explicitly linked to social ranking. Although Cambridge fellows aren’t the fattest cats around, they certainly hold a high status among their peers nation-wide. Additionally, they have a socially active lifestyle and a high degree of control over their working lives, factors which Marmot states contribute to longevity. In parallel, molecular gerontologists explore the issue of longevity from a genetic angle. For example, the High Initial Damage Load hypothesis states that as early on as conception

and throughout our experiences in utero, events occur that greatly influence our risk of heart disease and other ailments later in life.

“the college-based lifestyle may contribute to a long and stress-free life” Another avenue to be explored is a potential link between intelligence and life-span, an idea that particularly interests Brooke himself. Using data from the “Scottish Mental Survey” of 1932, based on IQ tests carried out on all children born in Scotland in 1921 who attended school that day, Gottfredson and Deary found that ‘intelligence’ was a good predictor of adult mortality, even when controlling for socioeconomic variables. They propose that intelligence enhances an individual’s care of their own health because it represents learning, reasoning and problem-solving skills useful in preventing chronic disease and accidental injury, and in adhering to complex treatment regimes. Social factors can have substantial consequences on an individual’s health and lifespan. However, these factors are controversial and often contested by molecular gerontologists. The issues concerning longevity are complex and inter-connected and the race to find the secret of a long life will no doubt be a long one. Meanwhile, I shall don my smoking gown, light my pipe, and wander over to hall for a swift glass of port… or two! Rosie Clift is a third year Zoology student.


ine Bo



Molecular Clocks: a Timely Perspective All photographs, Rebecca Eaton

John O’Neill looks into what makes our body clock tick

Sun, sand, surf. We all appreciate the benefits of holidays abroad, but no one enjoys the miserable few days it takes to adjust to the new local time. We become jetlagged because of interference with the normal running of our body’s internal 24-hour timer: the circadian clock (circa – about, diem – daily). In recent years, groundbreaking research by circadian biologists has led to a new understanding of the clock’s molecular mechanisms. Our biological timekeeper is robust and surprisingly accurate (only about 10 minutes drift each day under constant conditions). It is a system we share with most species on the planet. Indeed, experiments in the 1950s showed that bees and rats could be reproducibly jetlagged when they were flown from Paris to New York. Jetlag leaves us tired and impairs our physical and mental abilities. Even top athletes are affected: a study of US baseball games over 3 years, published in the journal Nature in 1995,


showed that teams travelling across time zones were significantly more likely to lose when travelling from West to East than in the other direction. The away team players were handicapped relative to their opponents because their bodies struggled to adjust to the new time zone.

few hours after waking. Disturbingly, epidemiologists report that those in occupations with irregular working hours suffer adverse health effects. For example, in a study of 78,000 nurses carried out at Boston’s Brigham & Women’s Hospital, it was found that women who worked night shifts at least three times a month, for up to 29 years, were 8% more likely to develop breast cancer. The risk more than quadrupled for women working night shifts for more than 30 years.This finding is supported by a further study which looked at the work histories of 763 women with breast cancer and 741 women without. Again, this study found that women who worked night shifts were more likely to have breast cancer than those who didn’t. The general explanation for this phenomenon is that the body orders its behaviour, metabolism, and physiology according to the time of day. So, as the body moves through each 24-hour cycle, it experiences circadian fluctuations in temperature, wakefulness, gastric activity, heart rate, blood pressure and hormone levels. For example, levels of the hormone cortisol are high

“Some describe the effect of long term shift work on general health... as the equivalent of smoking a pack of cigarettes a day!” Beyond sport and travel, disruption of the clock has important health consequences. Some drug side effects vary depending on the time of day the medication is administered, and we also see the major occurrence of strokes and heart attacks during the first


before we wake in the morning, whilst the hormone melatonin peaks in the evening, before we sleep. These rhythms are important for optimal functioning of the many processes vital to our health. In fact, some describe the effect of long term shift work

Michaelmas 2004

on general health and life expectancy as the equivalent of smoking a pack of cigarettes a day! By the early seventies, the region of the mammalian brain responsible for circadian patterns of behaviour had been localised to a tiny structure, named the suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN). The SCN comprises just 16,000 neurons, yet it appears to be both necessary and sufficient to account for circadian behaviour. Laboratory mice lacking the SCN have been shown to lose their circadian rhythms. In recent years, it has been shown that even single isolated SCN neurons can sustain an approximately 24-hour pattern of firing activity when cultured in a petri dish. Certain neurodegenerative diseases, such as Parkinson’s, can result in disruption of circadian rhythms through lesion of the SCN.These

patients have no temporal order to their day, which means that they require 24-hour care and supervision. Indeed, this is one of the primary reasons for the institutionalisation of those with advanced Parkinson’s disease. More recently, a small number of core ‘clock genes’ have been discovered through the study of animals with faulty versions of these genes (resulting in a clock running too fast, too slow, or not at all). Studies into a particular clock gene named Period2 have proved to be of particular interest. Mutations in this gene can lead people to suffer from a rare disorder in which patients have a 20-hour clock, causing them to wake at odd times. Interestingly, Period2 has also been identified as a tumour suppressor in humans. Scientists have deleted the Period2 gene from a mouse’s genome and observed its behaviour.A normal

mouse has an approximately 24-hour cycle of behaviour, even in the dark, whereas mice lacking Period2 cannot sustain a regular cycle without external time cues. Their clock has effectively stopped. Recent work suggests that many other cells in the body, in tissues besides the brain, can self-sustain their own circadian patterns of gene expression.The search is now on to discover to what extent the SCN controls rhythms in other tissues. Ultimately, circadian biologists hope to understand the clock well enough to allow us to better deal with the ravages of our 24-hour culture, and to fully unravel the health implications of our amazing, self-sustaining biological clocks. John O’Neill is a PhD student in the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology.

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Dr Jekyll


Laura Blackburn examines the two sides of the desert locust

Farmers in sub-Saharan Africa are hoping and praying that the locust swarms that have been darkening the skies in recent months will not destroy all of this year’s crops. In many cases it is already too late. Recent heavy rainfall in countries such as the Gambia and Mauritania has broken years of drought, thus providing ideal conditions for these insects to breed voraciously. Each swarm can contain billions of insects, and each insect can eat its body weight in food every day, enough food to feed thousands of people. Locusts display a phenomenon called phase polymorphism, which means that they can switch between two forms: a non-swarming (or solitarious) phase, and a swarming (or gregarious) phase. Most of the time locusts are solitarious in the wild, existing at low densities that do not cause problems. As the name suggests, the solitarious locust is reclusive


and actively avoids others of its kind, being more active at night and not migrating great distances. It is only when, in response to an increase in pop-

their numbers quickly increase on the abundant food supply. What causes the solitarious locust to switch phase, changing its behaviour and

“Physical contact can change a locust's behaviour from solitarious to gregarious in only four hours” ulation density, solitarious locusts switch phase to become gregarious that problems start.The most dramatic and immediately noticeable change is in behaviour, as gregarious locusts actively seek out others, quickly forming swarms. In the wild, this gregarisation process starts when drought forces solitarious locusts to group on the small amount of vegetation that remains. Once rain has broken the drought, locusts breed very quickly and gregarious behaviour is reinforced as


ultimately its physiology to become a swarming, brightly coloured gregarious locust? Researchers in Cambridge and Oxford have been working on what causes the switch from solitarious to gregarious, and have also compared their behaviour and physiology in the laboratory. It was found that the smell or sight of other locusts has a small effect on solitarious locusts, making them behave in a slightly more gregarious way. This,

Michaelmas 2004


Mr Hyde

however, was nothing compared to the striking effect of crowding solitarious locusts in a small group of five to ten animals. Physical contact can change a locust’s behaviour from solitarious to gregarious in only four hours. The researchers also found that certain parts of the body are more sensitive to physical contact than others. The hind legs, which are covered in hair, are particularly sensitive. If a solitarious locust is tickled with a paintbrush on the hind leg at regular intervals, it will show gre-

(gregarisation) spot. Overall, solitarious locusts have more of these hairs on their legs, which helps to explain why it is easy to change their behaviour in this way. Reversing the process requires gregarious animals to be isolated, in a process that can take one or two generations to complete, although at present no-one is quite sure why. One of the easily observable behavioural differences between phases is their mode of walking. Solitarious animals creep along the ground, holding the

“each insect can eat its body weight in food every day” garious behaviour after four hours, just as if it had been crowded. There is an especially sensitive spot on the leg where the hairs are particularly dense, which was unfortunately christened the ‘G’

body close to the floor and moving the legs through small distances. It makes sense for solitarious locusts to have a slow, creeping walk as it helps them to stay cryptic and hidden. Gregarious ani-


mals, on the other hand, walk with the body off the ground and take much bigger steps. Also, the force that these gregarious locusts produce in the largest muscle of their hind leg is greater. Understanding how locusts become gregarious, as well as all the differences between the two phases, will lead to the development of specific insecticides that can switch off the gregarisation process and prevent swarming.The gregarisation of the locust shows how the delicate biological balance of nature can change, sometimes to the detriment of thousands of people across many parts of the world.

Laura’s photographs show the solitarious locust on the left and the gregarious locust on the right.

Laura Blackburn is a PhD student in the Department of Zoology.


Stem Cell Research:

Joanna Maldonado-Saldivia

Getting to the Root of the Issue

Carina Lobley discusses the ethical concerns of stem cell research After fertilisation of a human egg, the resulting cell divides and eventually gives rise to an array of specialised cells that form a whole individual. Cells of the early embryo are also capable of forming stem cells, which divide indefinitely and can generate all the tissues found in an adult, from blood to brain to muscle. By the time of birth, all that remains are specialised stem cells, whose capability is restricted to a particular tissue type. The potential to generate cells of any type makes stem cell research both scientifically exciting and ethically daunting. The excitement surrounding stem cells is due to their potential use in the treatment of illness. With the ability to specialise, stem cells could provide solutions to diseases ranging from Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s disease to spinal cord damage. Transplanting stem cells which have been specialised in a labo-

“embryonic stem cells ... have the greatest therapeutic potential” ratory can potentially treat any disease resulting from cellular malfunction. These are laudable goals, and on the basis of preliminary results appear to be attainable.However, due to the complex ethical issues surrounding the use of stem cells in research, much of their potential remains largely hypothetical. Stem cells can be generated from the early


embryo, the umbilical cord and adult tissues. While stem cells derived from embryos are considered to be the most adaptable, obtaining them raises a host of ethical issues. Cells derived from the umbilical cord or from adult tissue are believed to be less adaptable, but have the advantage of being genetically identical to the individual they are taken from, and therefore, subsequent transplantation does not give rise to tissue rejection. Whilst embryonic stem cells can be made to form any cell type and, therefore, have the greatest therapeutic potential, their use precludes the development of the embryo.This is an extremely controversial issue.There are different opinions about the point in development at which a life has begun, and many question whether it is morally sound to create an embryo solely for the purpose of research. Current research is carried out using the unwanted embryos from in vitro fertilisation treatment, but it is the use of cloning techniques to generate embryonic stem cells that is the most contentious. So why not simply use adult stem cells? First, in some tissues such as the brain or pancreas, these cells are very rare and their isolation is both invasive and technically challenging. Secondly, there are many types of adult stem cell, and each is responsible for a specific tissue type. For example, hematopoetic stem cells,obtained from bone marrow, give rise to cells of the blood (red blood cells, leukocytes, lymphocytes and platelets). This specificity is considered by many to limit the versatility of adult stem


cells, and thereby restrict their uses. However, the recent identification of multipotent adult progenitor cells (MAPCs) by Catherine Verfaille and co-workers at the University of Minnesota, has generated considerable interest.These cells, found in adult bone marrow, appear to be as versatile as embryonic stem cells. Since this may provide an alternative to the use of embryos, thosewho oppose research on embryonic stem cells support this work. There have been several notable successes using adult stem cells for therapy: we are all familiar with the use of bone marrow transplants in the treatment of leukaemia. More recently, Alain Fischer and co-workers in Paris took bone marrow cells from two babies suffering from Severe Combined Immunodeficiency Disease, a life-threatening genetic disorder.The damaged gene was repaired and the functional cells returned to the babies and a full recovery ensued. Several problems are common to all stem cells:how to successfully direct specialisation; how to be sure that a stem cell has completely differentiated and will behave normally if transplanted; and how to prevent rejection of transplanted cells. The approach to answering these questions differs depending on the type of stem cells used.As this research is still in its infancy, it seems premature to reject either embryonic or adult stem cells. In light of the undoubted potential of stem cells, failure to undertake the basic

“to undertake this research without due caution would be unmindful” research necessary to fully understand them would be remiss. However, to undertake this research without due caution would be unmindful. Past experience shows us that advances in science often come with less desirable consequences.The invention of the motor car brought fast transport but also pollution, the development of nuclear fission as an energy source came with the threat of nuclear war. It would be imprudent to ignore the possibility of far-reaching negative consequences, no matter how great the desired outcome. In the face of compelling arguments both for and against this research, the job of regulatory bodies to temper the desire for knowledge with the requirement to consider the merits of the proposed research is daunting. The title photograph shows an early embryo in culture.The cluster of green cells will give rise to embryonic stem cells. Carina Lobley is a PhD student in the Department of Biochemistry.

Michaelmas 2004

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Nanoputians Set to Invade Davina E. Stevenson ventures into Nanoput In the land of the Nanoputians, science meets art. A research group at Rice University in Texas has achieved the ultimate in designed miniaturisation by making a family of molecules which resemble humans but are only 0.000000002 metres tall! The family name is derived from the Lilliputians that lived in Jonathan Swift’s classic story Gulliver’s Travels. The name also describes their size, as nano means 1x10-9 (or 0.000000001 metres). Synthetic chemists are fascinated by the molecular building blocks of life, but these are invisible to the naked eye and can be daunting when described by complex structures, abstract theories and formulae.

Structures represented by lines

Joining head and body Although comical and mocked by many chemists, these structures are not only potentially useful, but are an invaluable way to give non-scientists of all ages a new appreciation of chemical design and synthesis in a friendly and entertaining way. As a bonus, they show that not all chemists are boring! Davina E. Stevenson is a PhD student in the Department of Chemistry. All figures: Rice University; Montage:TCW

Since the age of the caveman, drawings and structures have been simplified into lines: the ultimate chemical formula uses lines to represent a carbon framework, where each line has a carbon atom at the end. To simplify research, chemists often describe molecules with terms such as ‘east’

and ‘west’, and for the Nanoputian this is extended to include body parts such as ‘head’, ‘neck’ and ‘legs’. When represented on paper according to the standard methods used by chemists, certain molecules actually look like parts of cartoon people. Following the rules of chemistry, the angle of the line depends on how many and what other types of atoms are attached to the carbon atom. So rather than just being a cartoon, the molecular structure of the Nanokid (seen below and right) actually represents a precisely defined molecule. Generally chemists aim to use the least number of reactions to make a compound.To create a Nanoputian, this entails joining the top and bottom of the ‘bodies’ at the ‘waist’. From the first Nanokid a whole family of Nanoputians was born, and all that was needed was a kitchen microwave to give the system energy and swap the heads. The population now includes characters such as the NanoAthlete, NanoJester and the NanoBaker. How do we know what these structures really look like? Chemists use techniques such as Nuclear Magnetic Resonance (which uses a powerful magnet) to determine structure. We can also detect the mass of a compound, and use computer programs to add colour to depictions of atoms and predict structures. Are these just the fantasies of a mad chemist? No, these molecules have very useful applications when combined to form larger

structures. At present, limits in microchip technology mean that wires are at least twomillimetres (0.002 metres) in width, but imagine using a row of Nanoputians with a molecular diameter of one-nanometre to reduce the size of the wire by 100 times! A wide variety of clinical and engineering applications might be possible using these Nanoputians to transfer signals. Dr Jim Tour has already demonstrated that these nanocells can be used as non-volatile memory for computer chips. They offer the potential to reduce the size and, therefore, the fabrication costs of electrical components: the two factors critical to electronics in the 21st century. This is not the first attempt to create art from chemistry: Professor Kawata’s research group at Osaka University, Japan has used a resin to make a bull-shaped structure that is 0.00001 metres long. Not bad, but this is still 5000 times longer and 200000000000 times the volume of a Nanokid!

The Nano-population



Michaelmas 2004

Dan-Eric Nilsson

Cubic Jellyfish: Looking Out of the Box

Matthew Wilkinson explains why we shouldn’t underestimate the humble jellyfish Jellyfish are not normally considered to be the epitome of evolutionary advancement. They are more often regarded as little more than jelly-filled sacks with a mouth and tentacles.This opinion is unfounded: jellyfish belong to one of the most ancient animal groups, and the fact that they are still with us is a testament to the success of their biological design. They are also, in many surprising ways, extremely specialised, a fact illustrated most clearly by the remarkable box jellyfish, or cubozoans, shown above.

“The sting of one species, Chironex fleckeri, can kill a grown man in minutes.” Box jellyfish are notorious for including among their number some of the most poisonous animals in the world. For example, the sting of one species, Chironex fleckeri, can kill a grown man in minutes. They are found only in tropical seas and, as their name suggests, are somewhat cubic in shape: the opening of the swimming bell is four-sided, with a tentacle or cluster of tentacles at each corner, and a stalked sensory structure called a rhopalium on each side. It is these rhopalia that set the box jellyfish apart, because they support extraordinarily complex eyes, two on each rhopalium, each with a lens, retina and cornea, that seem to be capable of forming an image, like our eyes. The presence in a simple jellyfish of image-forming eyes of this kind, more

often associated with vertebrates and cephalopods (such as octopus and squid), is surprising to say the least. Why should such a basic animal that lacks a brain have such complex visual equipment? Melissa Coates, of the Hopkins Marine Station in California, has come up with a possible explanation for this enigma. She has noted that cubozoans, uniquely among the jellyfish, tend to live in complex nearshore marine habitats such as mangroves, coral reefs and kelp forests.These environments are cluttered with submerged obstacles that are very dangerous for delicate animals like jellyfish. It is then easy to understand why the cubozoans should need good eyesight. For their visual acuity to be of any use to them, the box jellyfish also need to be good enough swimmers to avoid collisions with any mangrove root or kelp frond that comes into view. Unfortunately, jellyfish are not known for their swimming prowess: most do little more than drift aimlessly at the mercy of the currents. However, cubozoans once again defy our preconceptions. For jellyfish, they are remarkably fast and agile: they reach speeds of up to six metres per minute (an Olympian performance for such flimsy animals!) and can completely turn around with just a few pulses of their swimming bell. They manoeuvre using a muscular skirt of tissue that extends inward from the margin of the bell, called the velarium.This acts as a nozzle through which the jet of water expelled by each contraction of the swimming bell passes. By tensing muscles in one part of the velarium, the jet is directed sideways, causing the jellyfish to turn rapidly.


It is tempting to conclude that the complex vision of box jellyfish has evolved in response to the need to accurately navigate within the animals’ cluttered habitat. There are, however, other possibilities. It has been suggested that a fine sensitivity to light, coupled with high speed and agility, may enable cubozoans to hunt bioluminescent prey. They are, indeed, voracious predators and are active during the night. Cubozoans are also unique amongst the jellyfish in indulging in copulation. Instead of the usual haphazard release of eggs and sperm into the water, a male box jellyfish actively chases a female, grabs her, and deposits sperm onto her tentacles. When they separate, the female then internally fertilises herself by eating the sperm. Again, this behaviour seems to require advanced visual capabilities.

“Cubozoans are also unique amongst the jellyfish in indulging in copulation.” Of course, it is possible that all these factors, or others we have yet to consider, have contributed to evolution of the remarkable eyes of box jellyfish, and more research is needed to solve the mystery. Regardless, the amazing vision of these seemingly simple creatures shows us that even the lowliest animals are not to be underestimated. Matthew Wilkinson is a Fellow of Clare College and works in the Department of Zoology.


Jonathan Zwart speaks to Ghim Wei Ho, a PhD student at the Nanoscience Centre, who is responsible for our stunning front cover image

Nanotechnology: The branch of technology that deals with dimensions and tolerances of 0.1 to 100 nanometres, or, generally, with the manipulation of individual atoms and molecules. (OED) smaller and more efficient devices with novel optical and electrical properties. Another significant compound is zinc oxide, the war paint worn by cricketers, which is a piezoelectric material. A tiny voltage is generated inside it when pressure is exerted, making it especially suitable in sensing applications. What all this means for you and me is cheaper, smaller and more powerful computers, biomedical sensors, intelligent vaccination vehicles and the next generation of lasers.The development of nanomaterials is essential for a theory known as Moore’s law, which drives the computing industry forward, to continue to hold. This states that computing power, or the number of transistors in a given volume of computer chip, must roughly double every 18 months: the evolution of ever smaller components is, therefore, of vital importance.


Size is not the only issue however. Individual devices of atomic scale can be fashioned into quantum computers, each capable of carrying out thousands of calculations simultaneously. With these quantum machines, computer power will reach new heights, using algorithms never before seen, including those needed to crack, in a flash, the world’s bank security systems. Quantum computing is currently something of a holy grail for physicists.The experimental physics involved is by no means straightforward, but there is no doubt that the future of this field utterly depends on the successful manipulation of nanomaterials. This is why Ho devotes more than half her time to the synthesis of nanomaterials in a dust-free assembly laboratory. To create a nanostructure, a layer of catalyst particles is deposited on a two-centimetre long piece of silicon substrate, which is then coated with a layer of photosensitive plastic (PMMA). This coated block is exposed to a source of patterned light or electrons, which corrodes selected regions of the PMMA. A catalytic material (usually gold, or a transition metal such as iron or nickel) is then sprayed onto the silicon through the gaps in the plastic. Finally, the plastic is lifted off, leaving behind a patterned film of catalyst. Next, she makes use of a technique known as Chemical Vapour Deposition. The coated silicon is roasted in a threecentimetre oven for 15-20 minutes, at gas mark 5 (sorry, er, 1000°C!). This is essentially a fan oven: methane is passed over the substrate at a high flow rate and at a pressure one hundredth that of atmospheric pressure. The gas is ionised only where the catalyst is present, causing silicon carbide nanostructures to grow there. Ho conducted a series of experiments, subjecting the silicon substrates to different temperatures, gas flow rates and pressures. These

Another part of the nanogarden


are the sole factors in determining whether the structures formed are one-, two- or three-dimensional. She synthesised square blocks, triangular films, cones, nanowires and the nanoflower. For this last structure, Ghim Wei Ho won this year’s Department of Engineering photography competition.

Ghim Wei Ho

Cambridge’s Nanoscience Centre is an interdisciplinary group of around 120 biologists, physicists, chemists and engineers led by Prof. Mark Welland of the Department of Engineering. These scientists work in the rapidly expanding field of nanotechnology. They are seeking to develop and exploit materials and construct devices (transistors, resistors and capacitors, to name but a few) at the atomic scale of one nanometre, or a billionth of a metre. Ghim Wei Ho explained the advantages of nanomaterials to me. Today’s micronscale silicon devices are in widespread use in computers, mobile phones and even washing machines. These devices are a thousand times bulkier than the nanoscale silicon carbide counterparts that Ho expects to replace them in the decades ahead. Silicon carbide’s present role is as an abrasive, but its use in the world of nanotechnology will allow the building of

Ghim Wei Ho & Mark Welland

On the Cover

How Does Your Garden Grow?

Ghim Wei Ho, Nanoscientist Many tools are available to the nanoscientist to study these structures, including mechanical, optical and electrical transport measurements.Too small to be seen under a conventional microscope, a Scanning Electron Microscope is needed to observe the nanostructures (as seen in the photograph below).The nanoflower on the cover is actually part of an entire nanogarden of other beautiful flowers. Each petal is just 200 nanometres in diameter, making the nanoflower an extravagant one micron, or one millionth of a metre, across! These tiny nanoflowers in particular possess a number of interesting properties.They are superhydrophobic, meaning that their surfaces repel water; they are crystalline at their centres, but disordered at their surfaces; and they fluoresce under UV light. Ghim Wei Ho spent the second year of her PhD growing and characterising nanostructures, and now the task before her is to develop their applications.Although the future of the nanoflower is uncertain, its path probably lies in the direction of electronics and optoelectronics, for example in display technology. But just to be on the safe side, I thought it best to place my order for a nanolava lamp now. Jonathan Zwart is a PhD student at the Cavendish Laboratory.

Michaelmas 2004

A Day in the Life

A Runner at the Cheltenham Science Festival

A Day in the Life of....

Emma Brennand is questioned by Nerissa Hannink about her time as a science festival helper The Cheltenham Science Festival runs every year in June and attracts many prominent scientists and those promoting the public understanding of science.This year’s theme was perception, and topics ranged from animal consciousness to body language. Activities included talks and discussions on new research (including ethical aspects), as well as a free discovery programme where the public could interact with scientists in activities such as racing computers and digging for dinosaurs. It was the festival’s most successful year with 27 000 visitors and many of the events selling out.

All photographs, Rob Lacey

What made you decide to apply for the position of runner? I thought it would be a great chance to escape the lab for a week, whilst participating in something to do with science. It wouldn’t look bad on my CV either! Who were your fellow runners? The festival takes on about 20 volunteers each year to help with constructing and running the festival. The volunteers came from all over the country, and from all sorts of backgrounds, not just the sciences.The team turned out to be a mixture of working folk,

Dr Bunhead at work

PhD, students and science communication students. Some people were interested in promoting science and others wanted to gain some experience in organising events. What did you do in a typical day? Our days started early as we had to get to the festival by 8:30 a.m., and we would usually finish about 10 p.m., as there were evening events too. The structure of our days varied

The hall at Cheltenham

depending on the festival programme. Most days I spent time in the discovery programme, helping set up activities and run ning demonstrations with the visiting scientists. Jobs ranged from building stages,to arranging the robot war competition and stocking the bar for VIP scientists and press.The staff were really enthusiastic for runners to experience all aspects of the festival, from meeting and greeting the speakers to manning the phones. How were the runners’ jobs organised? Every morning before the doors opened to the public, the runners met with the festival team to sort out the jobs for the day.The first task to be sorted was the allocation of the station pick-ups.This was a great opportunity to have ten minutes with a speaker to ask them any burning questions. The other jobs were called out and we signed ourselves up to as many as we wished (whilst trying not to double book ourselves, which sounds easier than it actually was with so much going on!). Describe your favourite part of a day. No two days were the same. I enjoyed working in the school workshops and the discovery programme. I spent a morning making windmills, an afternoon extracting the DNA from peas, and abseiled with the outdoor activities team.The rest of the days were spent helping out in different talks and debates, ranging from the antics of Dr Bunhead to discussing scientific ethics with Sir David King. How did you manage to answer the audience’s questions? Visiting scientists were present at all of the activities in case of tricky questions.The fes-


A visitor enjoys an exhibit

tival organisers invited science groups to run demonstrations, so all of the stalls I worked on had someone from the group to help the runners. Generally, the runners chose stalls in their areas of interest, and there was something for everyone, from molecular biology to a theatrical production which re-enacted famous physics experiments. Did you have a chance to listen to the talks? If we wanted to attend a particular talk we would organise our jobs so we could go. People would swap activities depending on their interests. We could also help with the roaming microphones at the talks.One of my favourites was a session called Mutants?, discussing genetically unique groups like the ostrich-footed people of the Zambezi. Would you recommend the job to others? Yes, the week taught me a lot about communicating science to non-scientists. Maybe next time I try to explain my PhD to my parents they won’t look quite so baffled. Still, after such a mad week, I was really glad to finally retreat back to my peaceful lab... until next year anyway! Emma Brennand is a Chemistry PhD student at the University of Bristol.


Away from the Bench

Physics on the ‘Axis of Evil’ Lucy Heady describes her experiences at a summer school in Iran

Lucy Heady

Imagine it’s a Saturday night and a group of physicists are having a party. Cheesy music blares out of a cheap tape player and a few geeky boys are jerking arrhythmically on the dance floor. Now imagine that this innocuous party is actually illegal. Why? Because there are girls there, without chaperones and without headscarves and we are in Iran, number two on George W. Bush’s ‘axis of evil’.

A mosque in Zanjan

Most PhD students will spend a part of their summer going to conferences and summer schools,but I knew I was letting myself in for something a bit different when I signed up for a summer school on soft and biological matter at the Institute for the Basic Sciences, Zanjan, Iran. A lot of my friends thought I was mad, going to a country seemingly so dangerous, where I would be forced to wear the hijab (strict Muslim dress-code for

women) and, worst of all, not be allowed a drop of alcohol! In fact, it turned out to be the most interesting trip I have ever taken. As my plane touched down in Tehran my fellow passengers took their last swigs of whisky, the women put on their headscarves, and I steeled myself for my first experience outside the developed world. The impression we get of Iran from our media tends to paint a picture of an evil and religiously fanatical dictatorship oppressing a population brainwashed into rabid antiwestern feeling. I was fairly sure that this was an exaggeration, but I suddenly wasn’t too keen on being denounced as a decadent westerner. I needn’t have worried. Far from being treated as a foreign infidel, I was welcomed into one of the friendliest countries I have ever had the pleasure of visiting. Even the gun-toting customs officials waved and shouted out a hearty “Welcome to Iran!” as I walked past. The attitudes were a shock after living with the anti-American sentiment of Europe. Although not everyone agrees with the current US administration, most people I met see the US as the land of liberty, a place where research needn’t be hindered by a poor economy and trade sanctions. The welcome became even warmer when they found out my reason for visiting: Iranians love physics. I know now you’re thinking back to recent reports about Iran’s nuclear weapons programme and are smiling knowingly, but the respect for physicists in this country goes far beyond their ‘usefulness’. Education is very highly valued in Iran, they are proud of their culture and its

reliance on education is to them self-evident (something our government could learn from).This part of the world is the birthplace of mathematics, and science was practised here even before the time of the ancient Greeks. Scientists are responsible for continuing this integral part of Iranian culture, and the importance of science is reflected in the dizzying geometric patterns that cover the walls of their elegant mosques.

“Iranians love physics” Unsurprisingly, the summer school was a worthwhile experience. I even managed to forget about my sweltering headscarf from time to time. Well known lecturers from across Europe and the US talked about their latest research in a range of fields varying from protein membrane modelling to complex pattern formation. Evenings were spent watching the European Cup (Iranians make the English look positively half-hearted when it comes to football) and marvelling at how the skilled producers manage to edit out all shots of immodest female England supporters. Summer schools are an excellent way of meeting other people in your field and learning what the ‘hot’ topics are. They are also a fantastic way to visit a new country and understand the people who live there. So, where to next? Well, I’ve heard about a conference in North Korea… Lucy Heady is a PhD student in the Department of Physics.

Three Days To Find My Future We PhD researchers may be welltrained experts in our own discipline, but we lack the ability to critically assess ourselves and step back from our research problems. In the middle of a career crisis, I seized the Royal Society of Chemistry’s (RSC’s) offer to pay for a GRADschool course, and chose three very intensive days at Durham University. Constructing the perfect ‘widget’ from coat hangers and silver foil may be reminiscent of Blue Peter, but it identified our skills and weaknesses. Although they are buzzwords on a CV, in reality the following traits are vital to complete even trivial tasks:


commitment, negotiation, time management, flexibility, enthusiasm… the list goes on.We also covered the tangible aspects of career progression, such as CVs and interviews, while other ‘games’ targeted the public and private sectors, the promotion process of academia and the business aspects of the not-for-profit sector. What was the outcome? I write this content in the knowledge I have secured a job. Personally I think it has more to do with the rewriting of my CV and the fact that I made my interview mistakes in front of eight GRADschool colleagues instead of my future employers, not to mention the motivation and self belief I returned


home with. If you’re looking for advice on careers or managing your research, the UK GRAD website is the place to browse ( Not only does it cover the essentials, but in moments of despair and soul-searching, it can provide reassurance and a much needed ego boost. So thank you UK GRAD and the RSC: I found out lots about myself, most importantly that I’m a unique individual. Davina E. Stevenson is a PhD student in the Department of Chemistry, and was commissioned to write this article by the UK GRAD programme

Michaelmas 2004

CHaOS is a science outreach group. Sophie Canfield recalls their summer tour painstaking process, grandly based in the Cavendish bike sheds,seemed to take an eternity to finish. My heart sank: wasn’t it going to take hours for us to complete the loading process at every different venue? Hadn’t we probably forgotten half of the minute components needed for these experiments,which included rubber gloves, bags of corn flour, locusts, and x-rays?

“the water rocket ... seemed to enthral the kids!” The experiments we took on tour were aimed to be hands-on, interesting, and above all fun for children. They included: a ‘Bermuda Triangle tank’, to demonstrate theories about how ships might have been sunk in the Bermuda Triangle by bubbles rising in the sea; a vast-array of bridge building materials; and a kiwi fruit-DNA extraction platform.A portable dark room had experiments to show the effect of sunscreen, why a sunset is red, and how lenses and cameras focus light (camera obscura). Medics such as myself were

Thomas Williams

Children and parents alike from around the country were impressed by the third Cambridge Hands On Science (CHaOS) summer tour. The ‘Crash Bang Squelch’ kids’ science event is run by the Cambridge Society CHaOS, and has famously taken place at the end of Lent term every year for the last seven years. Nearly a hundred students from all disciplines of science gather in Cambridge University’s Zoology department to try to enthuse Cambridge kids about science.The CHaOS tour was born three years ago as a way of contacting young people not fortunate enough to live near university towns and science museums. Every year the number of demonstrators and experiments has risen.This year the tour had a total of thirty volunteers, both graduates and undergraduates. Being a newcomer to the student-run society, I had been slightly hesitant about signing up to a summer tour which lasts two weeks, involves plenty of camping, and was this year going to what was, for most of its members, unknown territory. On the day before the start of the tour, we loaded the hired van with some of the hundreds of tailor made experiments CHaOS has. This


The CHaOS Effect keen to show diverse things, such as how we detect head rotation by using a ‘semi-circular canal’ we’d made out of plastic tubing. We also went over x-rays, anatomical models, used an oversized lung model to show how we breathe, and tried to demonstrate the effects of exercise on the heartbeat.The highlight, to many people’s minds, was the “really cool show” about what liquid nitrogen does to molecules (primarily those in washing-up gloves and flowers). Not to be forgotten, however,was the water rocket,which seemed to enthral the kids! The tour started on the 10th of July, in Hawick,and then moved to Jedburgh,Irvine, Cumnock, Dumfries, the Glasgow Science Centre, Downham Market, Norwich, Thetford, Ipswich, and ended in Felixstowe on the 25th of July. Each day involved setting up experiments in the morning, being enthusiastic about them for the afternoon, packing away, and then having a communal meal in the evening.The venues were mostly town halls, but we also visited the Glasgow Science Centre as guests of (and workers for) The Biochemical Society, which was holding a two-day event called “BioScience Kids”. CHaOS is very thankful to The Biochemical Society, as well as our other sponsors: Cambridge University, The Institute of Physics, Microsoft Research, COPUS, PPARC and Arthur D Little. Many university departments are very generous to our cause, too, providing materials for the experiments, advice, and investing a lot of trust in us to bring things back unharmed! It transpired that we had forgotten nothing. Some of Cambridge’s best scientific minds inspired, built, drove and had fun. Our surveys suggest that 99% of our visitors found the events “enjoyable” or “very enjoyable”. Kids’ comments in our comment book included “It was great fun, you learn a lot here!”,“Brilinty” [sic], and “I liked the gooey stuff!”. I take back any reservations I might have held, and look forward to helping out again next year. If you are interested in getting involved with CHaOS, for the tour, our schools outreach teaching,or “Crash Bang Squelch”,any help is appreciated! We are also looking to expand our committee. Please check out our website, for more information. Sophie Candfield is a third year Medic, and the Publicity Officer for Cambridge Hands on Science (CHaOS)

3...2...1...the water rocket blasts off!




Crick: Co-Discoverer of ‘The Secret of Life’

Why is he famous? In 1953 James Watson and Francis Crick proposed the double helix structure of DNA, reportedly announcing their discovery in Cambridge’s The Eagle pub with the statement, “we’ve discovered the secret of life”. Although Crick’s day-to-day academic work focussed on solving the structure of proteins, he was fascinated by the problem of deducing the structure of DNA. In 1951 he had befriended the 23 year old American, Watson, and the two of them had spent a great deal of their spare time discussing the problem. For this groundbreaking work, the pair, together with Maurice Wilkins, won many awards.The ultimate of these was the 1962 Nobel Prize for Medicine and Physiology. Why ‘Watson and Crick’? The toss of a coin decided the all-important order of their names on the seminal Nature paper, which was published on 25 April 1953!

“we’ve discovered the secret of life” A bit of background… Born near Northampton on 8th June 1916, Francis Harry Compton Crick went to his local grammar school before winning a scholarship to a boy’s public school in London. He studied Physics at University College London (UCL), obtaining a second-class degree in 1937. He stayed on at UCL to research the viscosity of water at high temperatures. This work was interrupted by the war, during which Crick worked for the admiralty designing magnetic and acoustic mines. Following the war, he was at a loss as to what to study next – he was thirty and had published no academic papers. Crick turned this lack of specialisation to his advantage and picked two fields that interested him: the borderline between the living and the nonliving,and the workings of the brain. These subjects fascinated the agnostic Crick, partially because many peo-


MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology

Francis H. C. Crick, widely heralded as one of the most important scientists of the twentieth century, died on 28th July 2004. Katherine Borthwick looks back at his career.

ple thought that they were beyond the power of science to explain. Turning his attention to the former, Crick worked for a few years at the Strangeways laboratory in Cambridge, before moving first to the Cavendish and then to the newly established Medical Research Council (MRC) Laboratory for Molecular Biology, under the direction of Max Perutz. Here, as a member of Gonville and Caius College, Crick undertook his PhD study into the X-ray diffraction of polypeptides and proteins. After the helix… Watson and Crick quickly published a second Nature paper, suggesting that the double helix provided an elegant mechanism for the replication of DNA. Crick went on to work with Sydney Brenner and together they proposed that a DNA sequence contains the code for a protein’s amino acid sequence.They also laid out the ‘central dogma’ of molecular biology, namely that the flow of information goes from DNA to RNA to protein and never back again – a hypothesis that has remained true until the recent discovery of ‘rogue’proteins called prions. His later research life Following a move to California when he was 60, Crick decided it was time to study the second of his two pet topics – the brain, and spent his last decades publishing extensively in the field of neurobiology. During his life, Crick studied a wide range of topics, from weapon design to the origins of life (he had a theory that life on Earth evolved from micro-organisms sent by a


higher civilisation elsewhere). In total, he published over one hundred academic papers and books. Indeed, it is said that he was still working on the last of these on the day he passed away. His legacy Crick wrote in his autobiography that, “what needs to be emphasized about the discovery of the double helix is that the path to it was, scientifically speaking, fairly commonplace.What was important was not the way it was discovered but the object discovered – the structure of DNA itself […] it is the molecule that has the glamour, not the scientists”. A significant amount of work fundamental to modern biology has arisen from the determination of that object’s structure. Indeed, many would say that the unravelling of the double helical arrangement of DNA founded the field of molecular biology.

“many would say that the unravelling of the double helical arrangement of DNA founded the field of molecular biology” Did you know? The MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology has produced thirteen Nobel Prize Laureates, four of whom received their prize in 1962 – Watson and Crick (Physiology and Medicine) and Max Perutz and John Kendrow (Chemistry). Further reading: What Mad Pursuit. Francis Crick (1988, Weidenfield and Nicolson) – Crick’s autobiography. ‘Molecular Structure of Nucleic Acids – a Structure for Deoxyribose Nucleic Acid’ Nature, April 25 1953. Reprint available at Katherine Borthwick is a postdoctoral researcher at the Cambridge Institute for Medical Research.

Michaelmas 2004

Professor Peter A. Lawrence, Division of Cell Biology, MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology.

“We will have fairly clear mechanistic understanding of normal human biochemistry, and disordered function in many diseases. Some truly novel, reasonably effective treatments will emerge,including some for currently completely untreatable inherited conditions. Most common diseases will still be around because they have strongly environmental causation, whose control requires control of human greed and irrationality - unlikely in only half a century.” Professor Martin Bobrow, Head of the Department of Medical Genetics, Cambridge Institute for Medical Research.

Where will science take us in the next 50 years?

“Science today seems so exciting, and the vistas ahead of us so vast, that the possibility that knowledge might be finite, and that one day the scientific endeavour as we know it will be over, appears ridiculous. But there's a real possibility that in 50 years we will have mined out most of the productive seams.What are those seams likely to be? ‘The brain’ is one obvious answer we still have to understand the big questions like consciousness, perception and the neural basis of intelligence and of the genetic and cultural determinants of it. This seems to me one of the major unsolved questions in science.”

"The last one hundred and fifty years of science and technology have been a remarkable story of unimaginable successes, of great benefits to the lives of selected elites, a mixed blessing for the majority of the human race (who, it should be said, would probably not exist without these achievements) and a disaster for the planet and the other biological species inhabiting it.Without a significant change of direction, or unforeseen discoveries, the best bet must be that science will continue to make more such advances, which will bring to a definitive close the history of the human race."

Professor Peter A. McNaughton, Head of the Department of Pharmacology.

Professor John Forrester, Department of History and Philosophy of Science.

All photos by Katherine Borthwick

“As did Francis Crick, I hope science will take us away from religion, and from other crazed ideas.We need to care for our world and (almost) every living being on it and the only way is the road of reason.”

“Boundaries between current well defined scientific disciplines will get increasingly blurred, with key advances being made in interdisciplinary research. A good example of this is at the ever-growing interface between physics and the life sciences, with exciting developments expected in bionanotechnology for example, as we learn to understand and control the ability of nature to self assemble.”

“Philosophers are not into prediction – and I have no more prospect of getting it right than the next woman – let alone of predicting scientific developments accurately! I can see no more than a range from the disastrous (run away global warming) to 'things stabilising' (a mix of greater energy efficiency and population stabilisation, with non-carbon energy technologies).”

Professor Athene Donald, FRS, Professor of Experimental Physics, working in Soft Condensed Matter.

Baroness Professor Onora O’Neill, Principal of Newnham College, lectures in Philosophy and History & Philosophy of Science.


Just over 50 years ago, when Watson and Crick determined the structure of DNA, it would have been hard to imagine the countless number of scientific advances to which their revelation has contributed. Nearing the end of 2004, we even have the ability to clone human embryos! So what is left for the scientific community to discover: where will science take us in the next 50 years? Some eminent Cambridge academics and researchers share their view with us.



Kate Miller takes a look at the portrayal of science on the stage Sarah Martin

Arts & Reviews

Science in the Spotlight

Copenhagen The eminent physicist Richard Feynman once said “What men are poets who can speak of Jupiter if he were like a man, but if he is an immense spinning sphere of methane and ammonia must be silent?” In saying this, he put his finger on the problem: how to represent scientific concepts in a non-scientific medium and convey understanding to an unfamiliar audience. Science and the arts have combined in a multitude of ways, from the machiavellian scientist villains of the Spider-Man films to the beauty of fractal art and the stunning images produced by the Hubble telescope. However, in the field of drama, science has failed to make the impact it has in other forms of art. Until recently plays about science have been few and far between; but why is this the case? It can hardly be due to a lack of ideas which could be depicted on stage. A trawl through the history of science and the characters involved would provide enough material to keep the playwrights busy for centuries. Just think of the jealousy and rivalry which provoked the feud between Newton and Leibniz over the invention of calculus. Furthermore, imagine the religious persecution suffered by Galileo for his supposedly heretical beliefs. Or even the cruel irony of Haber’s Zyklon B pesticide being used, after his death, against his fellow Jews. Insanity, passion, war, morality – all these can be found with little effort. Is it the problem of having to depict science on the stage? In film and television scientists are often portrayed as people in lab coats staring intently at a microscope or bubbling liquids in a selection of intricate glassware.This stereotypical view is misleading, but an understandable ploy for generalising science to something familiar so as not to lose the interest of an audience. In Oxygen, by Carl Djerassi and Roald Hoffmann, the 18th century scientists Lavoisier, Priestley, and Scheele conduct a series of experiments to support their claims for the discovery of oxygen. In a recent German production the play was performed using puppets of the scientists controlled by


the counterpart actors while the supporting cast members wore yellow rubber gloves. Eye-catching it certainly was, but what relevance did it have to the science it was trying to describe? Is it then the difficulty of describing complex scientific principles to a largely unscientific audience? Playwrights would

“A trawl through the history of science … would provide enough material to keep the playwrights busy for centuries” be reluctant to include huge chunks of exposition to describe a scientific principle for the benefit of the audience. A way to avoid this is to integrate the science by using it as a metaphor for the play itself. In Michael Frayn’s Copenhagen, the plot revolves around the meeting in 1941 between Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg. However, the play takes the Uncertainty Principle, where the move-

ment of particles cannot be entirely predicted, and relates it to the wider concept of the understanding of human actions when placed under the extreme pressures of war. In spite of the difficulties apparent in the translation of science to the stage a few playwrights have succeeded in producing excellent works of theatre that portray not only the humanity, anguish, and triumph of science, but also the beauty of scientific discovery and experimentation. Perhaps those inspired to produce scientific art should heed the warning of a character in one of Djerassi’s plays that “If competence in mathematics is required for a playwright, no plays will ever be written about mathematicians”, but also remember that reaching a wide and varied audience is not without its challenges. Kate Miller is a PhD student working in the Cambridge Unit for Bioscience Engineering. She is Publicity and Events Coordinator of Top Quark Productions and directed Top Quark’s 2003 production of Michael Frayn’s Copenhagen. See page 5 for current Top Quark events. • Why do volcanoes erupt? • • What makes a boomerang fly? • • How do you take the perfect penalty kick? •

Find out in Plus! the award-winning free maths and science magazine Plus is a free online magazine about maths and its applications produced by the Millennium Mathematics Project at the University of Cambridge. Packed with interesting and accessible articles about fascinating and unusual areas of maths, Plus is the most exciting and enlightening mathematical sciences magazine around.


Michaelmas 2004

Oxford University Press

Arts & Reviews

Philip Ball’s book about the elements is informative and an interesting read, detailing the journey from the four elements of antiquity to the modern periodic table. Unlike other similar titles, such as The Periodic Kingdom by P. W. Atkins, The Elements is not a tour of the periodic table, and does not describe the elements, their properties, and relations between them. Rather, Philip Ball takes a mainly historical approach to the development of the periodic table, introducing the key players from Aristotle to Lavoisier to Mendeleyev (and some lesser known

The Elements: A Very Short Introduction by Philip Ball (Oxford University Press, 2004) Reviewed by Sonia G. Schirmer

figures), the questions that preoccupied them, their methods, and important discoveries. In addition to providing an excellent account of the development of the modern periodic table, with a focus on the crucial role of the elements oxygen and gold, Ball also addresses the creation of new elements such as plutonium in the laboratory. The discovery of radioactivity and the transmutation of elements by nuclear fission are described along with an account of the race to make the first nuclear bomb. The importance of chemical isotopes for applications such as carbon dating is explained in the penultimate

chapter.The book concludes with a chapter about the technologies of the elements from the discovery of iron to the central role of the humble element silicon for microelectronic devices to novel applications for noble gases such as argon in stateof-the-art double-glazing. Elegantly written and illustrated, and spiced with anecdotes about philosophers, alchemists and scientists involved in the quest for the elements, this book is both enjoyable and easy to read. Sonia G. Schirmer is a postdoctoral research Fellow in the Department of Applied Maths and Theoretical Physics.

MSc in Science Communication MSc in Science Media Production These courses are designed to help science and engineering graduates develop the necessary skills and knowledge to switch to media careers. The Science Communication Course is a general preparation while the Science Media Production programme is designed for those who specifically want to go into televsion or radio. Both courses are available full-time over 12 months, and Science Communication can be undertaken part-time over 24 months. For more information contact Paul Wynn Abbott, Science Communication Group Administrator, Room, 313C, Mech. Eng. Building, Imperial College, London, SW7 2AZ. Tel: 020 7594 8753 Fax: 020 7594 8763, email: web:

Closing Date: 25 February 2005 Valuing diversity and committed to equality of opportunity

Dr Hypothesis

Dr Hypothesis Dear Dr Hypothesis, I am anxious about all the recent attention given to the complete sequencing of the human genome. I have never given a sample of my DNA and do not wish to, yet we are told that somehow this code represents us all. When they sequenced the human genome, exactly whose genome did they sequence? Genome Jean DR HYPOTHESIS SAYS: Well, Jean, I don’t think there’s any need for you to be overly concerned at this point. The simple fact is that nobody knows exactly whose genomes have been sequenced. As I’m sure you’re aware, all humans have much of their genetic code in common (well over 90%) and that is what has been sequenced through the random sampling of a number of different volunteers. The rest of the DNA in our cells is what makes up the enormous variation seen in humans.

Dear Dr Hypothesis, I have been offered a job by NASA to become their next astronaut, but I am unsure whether or not to take the job. The problem is, I have a real love of fizzy drinks and suffer withdrawal symptoms without them. How do canned carbonated drinks behave in zero gravity? Fizzy Fred the Anxious Astronaut DR HYPOTHESIS SAYS: If you take a can of fizzy juice directly into space,


then the resulting pressure difference between space and the inside of the can will cause the can to explode. Certain cans have been developed to be opened inside the pressurised cabin of a spaceship but care needs to be taken here. The gas that escapes from the can when you open it would then propel it forwards (or you backwards), so it is important to hold the can against a surface so as to absorb the pressure. Even then, it’s still not plain sailing as the drink may escape from the can due to the lack of gravity keeping it forced into the bottom of the can. You would need to make sure that you swallowed any escaping juice before it damaged the delicate electrical equipment in the craft. Perhaps it would be simpler if you just got a job nearer the ground, Fred.

Dear Dr Hypothesis, there have been rumours for a while that an underground car park will be built under Midsummer Common like the one under Hyde Park. I live near Midsummer Common and make use of it for a number of activities such as jogging and walking my dog, Scraps. Could you tell me, when they build such things how do they do it? Do they tunnel underneath or do they dig down and replace the top layer afterwards? Strolling Steve and Scraps DR HYPOTHESIS SAYS: The construction of an underground car park is a massive engineering project which requires a lot of planning, and the details can often differ between projects. The majority of underground structures are created by excavation and then replacement of the upper layers of soil, but of course there are a few exceptions to this rule, such as the Channel Tunnel. Tunnelling underneath Cambridge would cause major disruption to many of the protected buildings, so I think that an excavation approach is more likely to be favoured. If the work goes ahead, whichever approach is eventually decided upon, I would think it unlikely that you or Scraps would be able to continue using Midsummer Common as you currently do. .htm


Dear Dr Hypothesis, I am about to make a long distance trip, and, despite many worries that have recently been highlighted by the press, I am actually more concerned about the direction water will drain down my plughole when I cross the equator. Is it true that it flows in a different direction in the southern hemisphere, and if so, why? Plughole Paul

DR HYPOTHESIS SAYS: This is a widely held misconception, Paul, but it does have some basis in scientific theory. The Coriolis force, which is driven by the rotation of the Earth, can drive fluids to flow anticlockwise in the northern hemisphere and clockwise in the southern hemisphere. However, this force is very weak and so, on the scale of a sink or a bath, is almost always overcome by more important factors such as the temperature of the water or previous currents in the water. It should, in principle, be possible by to make water flow clockwise, anticlockwise and even straight down the same plughole by simply altering other variables such as those mentioned above.

Dr Hypothesis needs your problems! If you have any worries (purely of a scientific nature, obviously) that you would like Dr Hypothesis to answer, then please email him at He will award the author of the most intriguing question a £10 book voucher. Unfortunately Dr Hypothesis cannot promise to publish an answer to every question, but he will do his very best to see that the most fascinating are discussed in the next edition of BlueSci.

Michaelmas 2004

Supporting Biotech in Cambridge With over 300 members from major pharma, big bio, small bio and specialist service providers, ERBI is Europe’s leading biotech industry group. Established in 1997, ERBI has a successful track record in delivering events and activities that make a significant contribution to the growth of biotech in the greater Cambridge area. These range from an annual conference showcasing Cambridge’s latest bio products and services to a formal partnering day for pre-arranged bio and pharma meetings. Evening network meetings, training courses and special interest groups are held throughout the year. The latter provide a forum for members to meet and discuss topical issues such as recruitment, business development, health and safety, facilities management and raising finance.

ERBI is pleased to support Bluesci in this first magazine edition. For further information about ERBI visit

If you are a postgraduate researcher we can help you to: • assess and develop your skills • complete your studies effectively • make a successful transition to your future career The ‘Just for Postgrads’ section of the UK GRAD website is a dedicated on-line gateway to advice covering areas such as evaluating your skills, completing your research, and planning your career. You can download resources and handouts from “The ‘Just For Postgrads’ section of the UK GRAD website was a real life-saver during my PhD: full of practical tips that really helped me manage my research” We also run a national and local programme of courses across the UK called GRADschools designed especially for postgraduate researchers. Whether you are planning to stay in academia or thinking of other options, these courses are for you.

For more info and to apply on-line go to *If you are funded by one of the following organisations

“Absolutely essential to evaluating my own skills and opportunities and broadening my horizons. Has significantly changed my life”

BlueSci Issue 01 - Michaelmas 2004  

Cambridge University science magazine FOCUS: Designer Babies

BlueSci Issue 01 - Michaelmas 2004  

Cambridge University science magazine FOCUS: Designer Babies