1 December 2008

The book what I wrote (or edited)... again

Hurrah! Just picked up Chemistry World to find a review of Defining Moments in Science by Marcus Adams. It says, "I found myself continually dipping into the book and finding it compulsive reading..."

And more to the point: "This book would be a much appreciated gift this Christmas for anyone with an interest in modern science."

19 November 2008

Google gets into Nature

Following on from the launch of Google Flu Trends, reported to the tune of much oohing and aahing (and probably hmming among technophobes) last week, it appears the application has bagged Google a space in a major international science journal.

I opened my Nature press release just now to find 'Google Flu Trends' spluttered all over it. So forget beardy professors - you can email 'Jeremy G' [at] Google.com to find out more about the application. (But I think I'd rather speak to his co-author on the paper... Larry Brilliant - brilliant.)

To be fair, Jeremy's other publications do apparently include 'Anticoagulant treatment of deep vein thrombosis and pulmonary embolism' and 'Withdrawal, recovery, and long-term sequelae of gamma-butyrolactone dependence', so it's not as if he's just some wacky net nerd. Still, I never thought I'd see the day Google made it into Nature. Maybe there's hope for my science podcasts thesis yet...

12 November 2008

Is a coincidence really a coincidence?

On the weekend I got into a panic about what I was going to read after finishing the Time Traveller's Wife (again) (and crying about it - again).

Having just eaten two very tiny, very dainty cupcakes - from a shop called 'Tart', where the lady at the till was very rude to me, but I digress - I started thinking about Alice in Wonderland. You know: the part where she finds a tiny cake with EAT ME written on it and it makes her grow very tall. So then I got to thinking about Lewis Carroll and wondered whether Through the Looking Glass might still be any good at the ripe old age of 25. Irritatingly, I had left my copy of Carroll's complete works at my parents' house, but no matter, I thought, I'll pick it up on Sunday.

Are you still with me? The relevance will soon become apparent...

Right. So I'm sitting at the dinner table on Sunday, making absolutely no mention of Tart or cake or Lewis Carroll, and my mum says, 'You look like Alice in Wonderland with that hair'. Now, given that I had styled myself with some sort of wild, demi-Winehouse-esque beehive which didn't in anyway resemble Alice's neat golden locks (I should also point out that I am brunette), this was a particularly strange thing to say. And, clearly, made all the more strange by the fact that I had only the day before decided to retrieve Alice in Wonderland from my old room - where it had been standing on a bookshelf gathering dust since the day I left home.

BUT, it doesn't end there. An hour later, I open the Sunday newspaper to find this - Alice herself, the little minx, pictured in a review of a book about British writers. Something, I decided, was afoot.

Perhaps, because I had been thinking about Alice in Wonderland the day before, my subconscious brain had programmed my hands to turn my hair into something that was whispering "Alice" to my mum - however much it was shouting "mess" at me. This didn't seem very likely. But as it turns out, there's a theory that deals with this idea. It's called "coincidence theory". (Ah ha! Finally we get to the point!)

Proponents of coincidence theory believe that "anomalous phenomena", like coincidences, occur when little pieces of information submerged in the unconscious somehow bob up and float out into the physical world. But they also use the term "anomalous phenomena" to refer to clairvoyancy and prayer healing - not things I believe in or want to associate myself with...

I think there's something in coincidence theory though, albeit on a very basic level. Coincidences aren't really coincidences, surely? It's like when you meet someone called Zebediah and then suddenly everyone is called Zebediah - you notice something more when you've recently been thinking about it. So in the same way, I probably wouldn't have noticed Alice when I was leafing through that newspaper if I hadn't already been thinking about picking up my book.

I'm not done with this yet. All this requires further investigation. But for the record: I certainly wouldn't expect to be able to speak to any dead relatives because of coincidence theory. However, I'm willing to concede it might have ruined my beehive.... to be continued...

4 November 2008

Sciencey things I haven't got time to write about

What with article deadlines looming, top scientists to interview and a 10,000 word thesis to edit, this is really the last thing I should be doing. But hey ho.

In no particular order, sciencey things that have amused me recently:

Grandparents a safe source of childcare
Ha! Press release headlines do make me chuckle. My first thought on reading this one was "What? Why shouldn't they be?" (Followed by images of nans playing Hot Potato with babies). But some people (h'apparently) have been accusing grandparents of having some sort of cavalier attitude to babysitting. "Recent growth in the number of grandparents providing childcare has some observers concerned they don't adhere to modern safety practices," said David Bishai. Who are these "observers" exactly? Where are they? 'Cause I think my nan would be pretty offended by them. Modern safety practices indeed. I'll have you know my nan brought up seven children - eight if you count my dad's imaginary best friend, Christoper. And they all turned out alright. Except for Christopher... admittedly nan did sit on him once when she was getting into the car.

Mohinder "The Scientist/The Hulk/Spiderman/The Fly" Suresh, Heroes
For anyone who doesn't watch Heroes, Mohinder Suresh is a geneticist (although given some of his ropey explanations, I sometimes wonder what university he went to) and part-time superhero/villain of his own making. So, just to recap: at the start of Season 3, Suresh injects himself with adrenaline from the glands of Death Girl (people die when she gets upset) and hey presto, he's a hunk with a head for heights. Off comes the lab coat and suddenly he's super-strengthed up and hanging from the ceiling. All is fine and dandy for about 30 minutes before his skin starts peeling off and he's sticking people to the walls with the gunk seeping out of his fingers... Aside from that, he looks pretty. Oh, why can't we just have a fit scientist, for once?

Charlie Brooker on Brand-Ross
Ummm, not science, but very funny. Also: Media Talk podcast, beginning with anti-Brand comments to the tune of Carmina Burana - inspired. P.S. I hope Russell Brand starts his own podcast and gives the Beeb a run for its money.

Scientists film 'jogging' shrimp on a treadmill

"The experiment was filmed and later released onto the internet where it has been seen by more than a million people.

Some fans have added backing music from the film Chariots of Fire, while others have played the Benny Hill theme tune."

Just watch it. (Via Lucy at Society for General Microbiology - thanks for my mid-morning giggle).

16 October 2008

Stanley Miller: what a legend

Of all the stories I've covered in the last few months, this (excuse shameless self promotion) has got to be the most exciting. It turns out Stanley Miller, the guy who did all the prebiotic soup experiments (come on, you must remember those from biology classes... spark in a flask creating origins of life?), was a compulsive hoarder. He died last year and left a load of boxes in his lab, full of vials... Wait, it gets interesting... I spoke to the scientist who inherited all these boxes just the other day and he told me how he came across some of the original vials full of prebiotic soup - except all crusty and dried out, obviously.

Well, I was pretty thrilled... in a geeky kind of way. I mean, I read about Stanley Miller when I was at school. This man is a bit of a legend in scientific terms. It's exciting, huh?

Anyway, they did actually find some important stuff in these vials, stuff that ol' Stanley failed to notice, it seems, the upshot of it all being... oh, look just read it on Chemistry World. I'm going to get in trouble for retelling it all here... But the main point is: I spoke to the guy that Stanley Miller - the actual famous Stanley Miller from biology text books - mentored. Ha. And I love the fact that he kept all that stuff. Apparently he also kept a vial of cyanide frozen for quarter of a century. And then published a paper on it. Tut, scientists, eh?

30 September 2008

Word doesn't do biology

Ha! I just tried to enter pathogenicity (as in, the ability of one organism to infect another) into Word and it suggested "pathogen city", immediately conjuring up apocalyptic images of a filthy, diseased metropolis teeming with giant microbes.

I wonder: can you can get a "science" add-on for your spell check?

18 September 2008

Apostrophe Catastrophe: 3






















They do actually punctuate their own name correctly on their website, so perhaps this is the fault of the sign maker... or the admin person who briefed the sign maker... Either way, it annoys me because I lived close to a "Michaels" supermarket for a couple of years.

16 September 2008

The book what I wrote (or edited)

I don't generally shout about my publications here, but this one holds a special place in my heart...

It is (literally in some cases) the blood, sweat and tears of 60 dedicated and extremely talented science writers. I would say it was my* pleasure to edit their scribblings, but four months of working until 10pm, and logging into my email on Boxing Day won't be easily forgotten.

Anyhoo, I present to you, dear friends, the Little Black Book of Science... er... scratch that... it appears the publishers have changed the name without telling us.... I present to you, dear friends, Defining Moments in Science. Huzzah!

In case the title doesn't say it all, it's (according to the publishers):

"Over a Century of the Greatest Scientists, Discoveries, Inventions and Events That Rocked the Scientific World"

And here it is (click through to Amazon):

I won't actually be opening it myself - just in case I spot a typo - but enjoy.

*When I say "my", I mean "our" - there were a couple of others involved. They know who they are.

12 September 2008

Ianto Jones in the LHC

Talk about hype. The BBC's take on the LHC: Torchwood get stuck in the tunnel where a portal to another dimension has opened and is letting through people-eating monsters. Gotta love it though.

A quote from my favourite member of the cast - Captain Jack's teaboy, Ianto Jones:

What's so bad about Switzerland anyway? They have great chocolate.

9 September 2008

Very tall scientist?






















I forgot about this... At Cheltenham Science Festival earlier this year - interviewing for our Cheltenham podcast. Was he really tall, or am I just that short? You decide.

11 July 2008

BBC2's Lab Rats: pish*?

Continuing on the theme of science (fiction) communication, I'm going to attempt a blog on the BBC's new sitcom, Lab Rats. I say "attempt" because it's sure to get a little off track somewhere along the way, as things often do when I haven't got a deadline or a word limit. (And okay, it's not science fiction in the normal sense, but it is fiction based on science).

Now firstly (and this is where we might get a bit off track), in year one of my science communication degree, we were asked repeatedly to come up with ideas for science communication projects. As well as the many Good Ideas that made it into project plans, presentations and the like, there were inevitably a number of Bad Ideas, which were generally covered in doodles and lost under piles of lecture notes quicker than you could say 'The Man Who Discovered that Women Lay Eggs**' The idea of a science related sitcom never made it into any project plan or presentation, despite the fact that I heard it mentioned on more than one occasion.

Why?

Because it's a Bad Idea.

Think about it for a minute. If we're going to persist with this Bad Idea of making a science sitcom, we're going to have to approach it in one of two ways. The first way is to approach it from the perspective of the lay person, in which case, jokes that centre on running PCR*** gels in the wrong direction are off limits. The second way is to approach it from the perspective of the scientist, in which case, they are most definitely on limits (which, as it turns out, isn't the antonym of "off limits"). If we're all agreed that no BBC comedy programme commissioner is going to see the funny side of PCR, then we're all agreed that the first way is the way in which we should proceed. The problem then, is what is funny about doing science that we can all understand?

Clearly, coming from my background (ex-editor of the Journal of Unlikely Science), it isn't that I don't believe in funny science. You can do funny science, BUT, maybe, you just can't do it in a sitcom. If you've got good writers (and I don't know much about Chris Addison or Carl Cooper, but Lab Rats does seem lacking in that respect) you can certainly do funny jokes in a science lab. But whether you can have them be about the science is another matter.

Now, of course, I'm getting into a debate about whether situation comedy is comedy in a situation or comedy about a situation. But I digress...

You can't do jokes about science because most of your audience is simply not going to get them. So this means you're going to have do jokes about a) ordinary things, like people stealing Toblerones off each other (and evidently, those jokes, at least when written by Addison and Cooper, aren't funny) or b) things that the audience thinks are science, but actually bear no relation to it, like cloning giant snails (even less funny).

I suppose a) isn't a Bad Idea. But then if you're a TV producer, why throw in the science part at all? If I've learned anything in science communication classes, it's that the general public aren't particularly turned on by science. So if you've got good writers (I say "if") why risk your viewing figures on a dicey subject?

From a science communicator's point of view b) is a very Bad Idea. We Who Communicate Science may as well throw down our carefully crafted articles/podcasts/puppet shows and stamp on them if "funny" shows about cloning giant snails are going to take off. Hey, why not start on the Frankenstein foods and MMR-autism debate too...

If, in the spirit of a true science communicator, you're trying to portray scientists as real life people - to "humanise" them as we might say - then doing jokes about things that are completely unrelated to science is definitely your best bet. Possibly the funniest part of Lab Rats, and that's not saying much, was the annoying (and predictably incapable) girl scientist mixing up the tune of one song with the lyrics of another - ooh look, so memorable was that scene that the two songs have completely slipped my mind...

Anyway, I'm getting into ranting territory, so I'll break off in a minute. What I guess I'm saying is that it's very difficult to have a sitcom about science unless it has absolutely nothing to do with science.

And if anyone has anything (bad) to say about Lab Rats, do jump in. See that picture at the top of this blog? That's how I feel about their "science sitcom".

*Someone said pish the other day and I just had to use it as soon as possible.
**Bizarre science puppet show oft quoted in science communication circles - at least mine anyway...
***An intensely boring experimental procedure, only vaguely funny because it invariably goes wrong.


9 July 2008

Useful words for a thesis...

In order of most to least critical (and strong to weak):

Random posh getting-right-to-the-bottom-of-things words
Illuminate
Rationalise
Elucidate

Something-to-prove words
Justify
Prove
Demonstrate
Confirm
Show
Support [the notion that]
Indicate
Suggest
Claim

Digging deeper words
Analyse
Examine
Explore
Seek to understand
Probe
Question
Discuss
Assess

Describing words
Illustrate
Clarify
Define
Explain
Describe

7 July 2008

Naff explanation of the Doctor's return from the brink of death

Right. There's been a long running tradition of commentary on "the science content of science fiction" on this here blog. As there has been on Doug's blog - Doug, you might want to get in on this...

So Doctor Who. Assuming we're all comfortable with the fact that, having been obliterated by an over-sized thimble wielding a plunger, the Doctor was able to regenerate himself, let's deal with the real scientific misdemeanours of the season finale.

1) Whilst regenerating, the Doctor realises he is able to "siphon off" the excess energy from the regeneration process and channel it into his severed hand (which happens to be floating like a limp fish in a nearby glass case), thereby relieving himself of the inconvenience of changing bodies - and me of several months bemoaning the loss of David Tennant.

Wait. So is this because it's his hand? If so, why hasn't he been pulling off toenails and bits of hair and dotting them around the tardis (Tardis with a capital T?) in case of emergency? Being a timelord, you'd have thought it would have occurred to him before. And, according to Wired, he can only regenerate 12 times. Er, a) why has no one mentioned this before and b) is anyone keeping track? Oh and c) does this latest regeneration only count as half?

2) Now, I'm quite happy with the 27-planets-in-the-right-configuration-will-channel-enough-energy-to-destroy-all-matter theory. Yes, we'll let that one slip through. But did anyone understand how they towed the Earth back to the Solar System? Some sort of virtual lasso generated by a computer called "Mr Smith"... And let's not forget the dog. I'm sure he helped somehow.

3) If a human-timelord metacrisis is a problem, how long is it going to be before Billie's new beaux - Doctor Two (part Tate, part limp fishy hand) - gets into trouble? Or did it only cause a problem for Catharine Tate because her brain was too small to deal with it - yeah, probably. And do we care? Um, no. Despite certain similarities, e.g. actually being the same person, Doctor Two is nowhere near as attractive as our lord David Tennant. The Tate-isms are a real turn off.

Anyway, forget metacrises and fishy hands for a moment. Let's take a minute to remember Tate. Or not. As I've learned, the only way to enjoy her is to incorporate her into the now legendary Doctor Who drinking game*. According to The Rules, you must drink: every time there's a new monster (at least once an episode), every time the Doctor says "I am the Doctor" (at least a couple of times an episode), every time there's running (substantial proportion of most episodes) and every time Catherine Tate gets up your nose (=constant drinking). Dangerous.

*I'm not into drinking games. I'm very responsible actually. I was only enticed this once because it involved wearing silly hats.


27 June 2008

RESEARCHER seeks science podcast enthusiasts for chats

No long term commitments, not fussy about looks/gender. I just need 15 minutes of your time to talk to you about podcasts.

Must have own phone.

Please email podcasts@manyfinewords.co.uk and we'll hook up.

6 June 2008

Overheard at Cheltenham Science Festival

Apologies for sniggering at two lovely pensioners sitting next to me in a sustainability talk, but...

"I thought it was nature, nurture and something else."

"Nature, nurture and er..."

"Nature, nurture and environment, isn't it?"

"Well, no, that's nature."

This sort of thing continued for quite some time...

22 May 2008

Found whilst researching for an article on cigarette lighters

Correction published by The New York Times on 21st July last year:
"An article yesterday about a decision to allow passengers to carry cigarette lighters on board airplanes misspelled the surname of the man who tried to ignite a bomb in his shoe during a flight from Paris to Miami in 2001. He is Richard C. Reid, not Reed."
- I love that they're still courteous enough to spell his name right. Maybe the lady at the Post Office (or wherever) will remember him now and send him packing.

8 May 2008

Strawberry Flavoured Science

I'm starting a new blog for Null's troop of gorgeous science buskers. It's not quite done yet, but when it is it will be deeeee-licious.

Over the summer, we'll be heading north to the Cheltenham Science Festival in June and north-east to the Secret Garden Party in July. We'll keep the blog updated with the sights and sounds of busking life.

If anyone would like a science busker, or several, to go with their event, they're welcome to ask. But somewhere along the line, we might need to start getting paid...

2 May 2008

Chaos & Randomness

Note to self: don't say stupid things when meeting important sciencey types.

Recent example: upon meeting very nice and normal professor man who had given a talk on chaos theory and the random nature of bread making (don't ask), the following fell out of my mouth... "Since you're kind of a Professor of Randomness, and I'm the editor of the Journal of Unlikely Science, I wondered if you fancied doing an interview?"

Learn from this. You could have said: "Hello Professor. I really enjoyed your talk. Could we do an interview. Would you? Oh, that would be lovely."

16 April 2008

Book Meme

So there's this thing called a book meme...

I obviously wasn't paying attention in blog class, but apparently these memes are all over the net. As far as I was concerned, a meme was something Dawkins came up with to explain cultural evolution - and, oh dear, that sounded so pretentious. Very bad science communication.

I won't try to fashion a better explanation of meme than Dawkins himself. So here he is: "Examples of memes are tunes, ideas, catch-phrases, clothes, fashions, ways of making pots or building arches. Just as genes propagate themselves in the gene pool by leaping from body to body via sperms or eggs, so memes propagate themselves in the meme pool by leaping from brain to brain via a process which, in the broad sense, can be called imitation."

Book memes then. From what I gather, it's a kind of game/way of showing off your literary prowess to the blogosphere. The idea behind most of them seems to be that you take a random section of a book that "just happens" to be sitting on your shelf and post it on your blog. My Dawkins excerpt, for example, wouldn't count because I selected it for a specific reason. (Although it did serve the purpose of showing off my literary prowess - if you rate Dawkins, that is).

Probably the best way to explain this is just to do it. So... I stole this book meme from Niobe at Dead Baby Jokes, and it goes like this: Pick up the nearest book (although in my case The Selfish Gene is actually right next to my keyboard, so I'm going to cheat and pick something else), turn to page 123, count down to the fifth sentence on that page and post the next three sentences. Simple. Here goes then.

"It is still too early to say whether or not a malaria vaccine is a real possibility. Malaria research is not, however, just about drugs, vaccines and bed nets. One successful programme in Kenya is examining how local shopkeepers dispense anti-malaria tablets and whether their effectiveness in the web of malaria control can be enhanced through education."

Hmm. Not as successful as I'd hoped. For a start, page 123 had a picture on it, so I had to go to 124. And despite having picked up a sci-art book, I seem to have landed us with some pretty heavy issues. Never mind. Perhaps we've all learned something.

Oh, and to "transmit" the meme, you have to tag someone in your blog post. Captain Doug, my fellow blogger... you're It.

12 April 2008

Small People and Survival

I visited the Science of Survival exhibition at the Science Museum in London a couple of days ago. Primarily for academic reasons, but also because I was hoping to extract myself from the swarms of small people on the main museum floor. Unfortunately, nobody explained to me that the exhibition room itself was mostly inhabited by a particular type of person - namely, small persons.

It was probably my own fault. I purchased my ticket before the giant cartoon characters guiding the way to the entrance loomed into view. Still, £6 is £6, and I was determined to undertake some serious critical evaluation. My apologies to one member of museum staff who got an impromptu grilling.

Now, I should stress that in general I'm a fan of innovative communication methods. But when innovative equals touch screens and flashy lights I get a bit twitchy. All very entertaining, for the small ones, but as Mr. Impromptu Grilling himself said, "Oh, it's engaging, but whether they learn anything is another matter."

Science of Survival has big ambitions. Once you get past the (actually quite misleading) title and the cartoon characters, you realise that what it's really trying to do is tackle the rather complicated issue of the future of our planet. But I'm not convinced many of the small people realised this. They were far too engaged in catching virtual pizza slices (jabbing buttons) to understand how this related to the population crisis and global poverty.

On paper, it must have looked like a great idea. Four characters, cleverly designed so that each kid would identify with one of them - Eco is the outdoorsy sort, Tek is the geek - and their virtual city, for which visitors are asked to design eco-cars and houses, and choose energy and water sources. Everything you do is stored on your visitor card and at the end, you plug it in to see how your ideas fit into the 'future city'.

Yes, on paper, it must have looked like the last word in public engagement - and a lovely example of two-way dialogue. And even in practice, if you take this thing seriously, you'll learn a lot. My problem is that nobody is taking it seriously. It's just somewhere you can take your kids to entertain them for an hour. According to Mr. Grilling, most parents were doing a pretty bad job of explaining the underlying issues. "It's really left up to us to do that." That's all very well Mr. Grilling, but there are only two of you and you've been standing staring at the wall for the past 15 minutes...

In any case, it's likely that any kid with an up-to-date games console is going to be distinctly underwhelmed by the quality of games on offer at Science of Survival. I noted that most small people were making their way through the different sections - relating to water, food, energy, transport etc - at quite a pace. Perhaps this was partly due to the lure of the 'future city' - and the fact that Eco, Tek and co. kept spoiling all the fun by jumping in to tell the kids why none of their answers were right.

I'm in total agreement with the virtual ones. There are no right answers when it comes to the saving the planet. But try telling that to a seven-year-old who has just built a snazzy-looking, virtual electric car and painted it orange. "Nice idea, kiddo - no petrol fumes, but you're going to have to build a nasty big power station to make your electricity. Tut tut. You can't win where the environment is concerned." Stuff that, thinks kiddo, computer games are about winning.

Maybe all this touch screen malarky is just no substitute for real hands-on and having someone explain it to you. A friend who works as an explainer recently vowed to wage war on touch screens. His words: "Why not just stick it all on the internet and make room for something more interactive?" I'm afraid I'm inclined to agree.

I should probably mention that there were also several sparkly glass cases housing eco things such as toilet-top sinks. They were labelled in very small print at above head height - if you're a
small person, that is. But nobody, not even the tall people, was really bothered about those.

10 April 2008

This one has been bugging me for ages...

What's even more annoying than the Apostrophe Catastrophe itself is the fact that they actually punctuate it correctly on their website!

I'll never eat there, I swear.

4 April 2008

Time to buy stuff

So it's the end of the tax year tomorrow. And being a freelancer, this means, as far as I understand it, that I should spend whatever money I have earned this year on things "for business purposes" so that I have less tax to pay.

My accountant informs me that large pieces of equipment, such as computers, and cars (and houses - darn it) are out. New computers are apparently permissible, but I could only claim on 40% in the first year, which is, quite frankly, rubbish. So I'm left in a bit of a quandary. When does something become sufficiently large/important/expensive so as to be conspicuous in the eyes of the Inland Revenue?

What if, for instance, I decide to go out and buy enough printer cartridges to keep my printer happy for a decade? Actually, scratch that - what fun are printer cartridges? It's always much more exciting to wait until the poor thing is squeezing out the last drops of ink and I'm up against a deadline so tight I can barely breathe before shelling out for a new one.

I already bought a new microphone and a stack of paper. What else does a writer need? Think, Hayley, think.

What about investing in some fancy equipment that transcribes interviews automatically? No, I'm never going to find that down Maplins on a Friday afternoon. Or how about some folders and a few of those scented, sparkly pens... Wait, what is this, year nine?

Okay, maybe I need to think a bit more creatively. I could sign up to every science communication/journalism/new media conference going and charge the travel expenses to my business account...

Bingo! Google informs me that the University of Texas is hosting a whole summer of science communication events. Brilliant. And of course, to save money on flights, I'll have to stay out there until September.

29 February 2008

Golgi lyrics

I just want to congratulate Professor Science on some of the best sci-pop lyrics I've ever heard.

"Where I like to go when things get awfully chaotic
And I want to feel a little more eukaryotic.
On the endomembrane system inside of a cell,
There's a groovy little organelle.
It isn't a place you can find in an atlas,
That's right, you guessed it: the golgi apparatus."

Nuff said.

14 February 2008

Traffic cones have feelings too you know

I like this photo.

I don't know why, but I saw it out of the corner of my eye, and my brain said, "Those traffic cones are alive! Look at them - they're trying to hold up that huge pile of rubble. It's nearly breaking their poor plastic backs, but they're standing firm. They're holding their ground. Without those traffic cones, a whole street might have been swamped in smashed up bits of tarmac. Well done those traffic cones, well done."

Thanks to a man who calls himself Fishmonk for my morning's entertainment.

19 January 2008

Science Blogging Conference

It would have been nice if I could have jetted off to North Carolina for the 2008 Science Blogging Conference. Unfortunately, I'm confined to a dingy study, staring out at a drizzly Saturday in Bristol, UK. I shall, however, be keeping a close watch on proceedings. And they've got a rather nice wiki to help matters along.

14 January 2008

Cell Kiss

Does anyone remember - boys, I defy you to forget it - the scene in Cruel Intentions where Sarah Michelle Gellar gives Selma Blair a few pointers on the subject of French kissing? The audience sees a visible string of saliva connecting their lips after the kiss. (You can just about see it starting to form here - lovely).

The reason I ask is because I just read something that reminded me very much of this scene. It turns out there are cells in our bodies - come on, bear with me - that, when they bump into each other, become connected by a line of cell spittle. Just like a cell kiss.

Except of course, it's not spit at all, it's made from a sort of membrane called a nanotube. I prefer spittle. And if you're losing interest at this point, perhaps start thinking about these cells as Sarah and Selma.

What's quite interesting though, is that this "spittle", which the cells use to communicate between themselves, might allow the HIV virus to move more quickly between T cells. These are the immune cells under attack from the virus in HIV patients - the ones doctors keep tabs on to see how far the disease has progressed. In the lab, HIV sends its proteins sliding along the interconnecting strings between infected and healthy cells.

So you see, you can't spread HIV by kissing, and neither can Sarah and Selma, but your T cells might be able to. Huh.

(I've probably lost most of you to You Tube at this point, where you're all hastily searching out snippets of the legendary lesbian spit fest. But still.)

More importantly, however, if this turns out to be the case in the body as well as in the dish, it could mean a new focus for researchers trying to develop treatments. Stop spitting, stop AIDS. Kind of.


Image: I may or may not have stolen it from World of Pop. But I'm pretty sure they didn't pay for it either.