India’s monsoon and Surrey’s green fields

I got back from a couple of workshops in Princeton in America yesterday. They included a talk by an author of this paper on how we appear to be changing the summer rainfall  that India relies on to grow the crops to feed its billion people. On my doormat I found an election flyer by the Guildford’s save the greenbelt party. There is an election in the UK the week after next. They want to stop house building on green fields in the Guildford area. I don’t doubt their sincerity, and green fields are something we all enjoy. But when you read about the changes in rainfall that crops required by a billion people, this does look a bit parochial.

Continue reading

Close encounter with a Nobel Laureate

Olive oil with Balsamic VinegarI always get a bit stressed before I give a talk, so I was listening nervously to the talk 40 mins before mine, when in ambles Nobel Laureate Philip Anderson. He took a seat at the front left of the room. He is in nineties now so long since retired but clearly drops round sometimes. The workshop is at Princeton where he is an Emeritus Professor. My seventh and eighth slides were on his classic More is Different article from 1972. I did slightly brick myself at that point. But I needn’t have worried, he ambled out after the next talk, so missed mine. I guess I am a bit disappointed, but I was also a bit less stressed.

Continue reading

More is different

Gold-crystalsMore is Different is the title of a famous article (pdf) by Philip W Anderson in Science in 1972. In it he argues that when you go from say one electron or one atom or one molecule etc, to many electrons, many atoms or many molecules, then completely new behaviour governed by new laws of physics arise. Many molecules are different from one. A classic example of this new behaviour is the colour of gold, one gold atom is not gold coloured, only a crystal of many thousands or more gold atom is. Anderson argues for the importance and interest in studying behaviour like this that only happens due to having many atoms or molecules. He was pushing against particle physicists claiming that what was important was discovering the most fundamental particles, and that once they were known, then everything else (e.g., working out why gold is gold coloured) was just routine*.

Continue reading

To be the best, you need the ocean’s hot dog

Fishfinger classic broken 2The American university MIT is ranked at number 1 in the world in engineering and technology, by the Times Higher Education Supplement. They say it is officially the best university in the world at technology. It is also where some of the research that led to the modern fish finger* was done. Coincidence? Probably. I used to really like fish fingers when I was a kid, so I am grateful to MIT.

Continue reading

Ignoring 9,999 proteins and just studying one seems to just about work

In a couple of weeks I will be amongst Princeton‘s dreaming spires, on the other side of the Atlantic. I have been starting to write my talk over the last couple of days. A quick look at the programme suggests I will also be hearing about some work what are called nucleoli — these are structures in the nucleus of cells that make ribosomes; ribosomes are the nanoscale factories that make protein molecules. So they are basically the factories that make the factories that make proteins.

Continue reading

Understanding life with the aid of a Tequila Sunrise

Tequila Sunrise garnished with orange and cherry - Evan SwigartI have never had a Tequila Sunrise, a cocktail made from tequila and orange juice (the top orange layer), and grenadine syrup (the bottom red layer). I like tequila but this cocktail may be a bit sweet for me. But I am writing a talk for a meeting in Princeton, about coexisting liquid phases inside our cells, and am looking for analogous systems. A Tequila Sunrise may be one.

Continue reading

Learning at the Friends of Ham

XamónsI have just got back from a conference on crystallisation, held in Leeds. It was great fun. The conference was on how crystals start to form, a process called crystal nucleation. Crystallisation is a process that pops up all over the place. I learnt that some drugs given intravenously come with instructions that when the hospital makes up the solution for the drip, they have to use it within four hours. After that the drug will start to crystallise. That is an example of crystallisation being a problem, as when crystals start to form, the dose can’t be controlled. Drugs are powerful but dangerous things, and if £100 million worth of drug trials have shown that a concentration of X effectively treats patients then that is what you need to give them. A concentration of 0.1X will not help the patient, and a concentration of 10X may poison them.

Continue reading

When is a crystal not a crystal?

Blausen 0660 NaClI had thought I had about 3 months to write a paper, but it turns out iI have about 3 weeks. As you can imagine, this has kind of light a fire under my arse. This is especially true as the paper’s current status is: lots of kind of interesting looking data, no conclusion, no clear questions it attempts to either ask or answer, and no words down on paper. The data are on crystallisation. Crystallisation is how crystals form, for example how crystals of salt form when salt water evaporates.

Continue reading