Friday, 21 October 2011

Fossils and Hover Flies

Hover-fly on black-coloured variety of cornflower, Aug 2011, England

White fossil

Monday, 17 October 2011

What matters?

I suspect there comes a point in everyone’s life when they start to wonder if they are spending their days well and if whatever they are toiling away at is really worth the effort. For the most part, it probably gets marked down as “middle age angst”, apathy, or something similar and people make a few changes and then plough on, much as before. In science, though, the answers matter because what "we" as a society chose to fund and what "we" as individual scientists chose to prioritise can really affect the future of mankind. The potential is always there for any individual scientist to change the world for the better. 

Even though my scientific career has not been all that long, I have been a lot of scientific conferences and I have come away from some of them feeling that the most important things for mankind are not always those receiving highest priority. 

Today’s post, then, is just a question- “what do you think matters to mankind?” “Which questions and problems should scientists/mankind be trying to answer most urgently?” 

For what it is worth, the picture below is doodle from my notebook- my own crude, first-draft attempt to answer these questions (in no particular order- click to enlarge). 
What would you prioritise?

click to enlarge

I am asking these questions for several reasons, one reason is in response to an article on line called "What are the most important questions to answer in physics?" You can find the the article on this site, by Dr M. Rulison-
I don’t claim to be qualified enough to attempt to answer that question, or comment upon Dr Rulison’s ideas, but they do make interesting reading.

On a lighter note, pictures have now emerged of a baby pygmy hippo born in early September in Zurich zoo. The print version of The Telegraph newspaper had a wonderful photograph of it, but I can’t find this online. You can see a video of the baby hippo here- (WARNING: this video has music)

Friday, 14 October 2011

Autumn & Link of the day-Bacteria and the power of teamwork

Welcome (back) to Weirdbeautiful. Greetings from a decidedly autumnal Northern England (pictures above and below).

First link-of-the-day today is the science article "Bacteria and the Power of Teamwork" published in The Guardian newspaper and available online here-->

(Thanks to "Gene's Sci-Tech Daily" by Gene Wilburn for this link.)

Second link-of-the-day is to this science article raising hopes of a vaccine against HIV-

Cute animals, Disease Virulence and Black Death

Welcome (back) to Weirdbeautiful

Just three links today-

The first is this cute picture of a baby panda-

The second, is to a gallery of adorable wildlife photographs including a baby tiger and monkey-

The third is somewhat less cute; an article about the DNA of Black Death, which has now been isolated from bodies in plague pits and analyzed scientifically-

Some years ago (circa 1999/2000), when I was still a microbiologist and busily looking for a PhD studentship, I was interviewed for a project looking at virulence in foot-and-mouth disease. Over the course of the interview, it became apparent that the project would, essentially, involve devoting three years of my life to examining a small section of RNA at one end of the Virus’s genome and culminate- in all probability- in a single scientific paper on the subject. The aim was to investigate which mutations caused the virus to become more deadly/virulent and which, less so. If I remember correctly, the section of RNA to be examined was only around 100-bases long and it seemed such a tiny specialization that, at that point- mid interview- my interest in the project nose-dived. Perhaps that was shallow or superficial, but it is probably not a unique experience. 

As students, we are taught in summary and we view the bigger picture. But, as a researcher, one toils every day on a tiny piece often of a tiny puzzle; each day of research is just a drop in the ocean of a research career and that is a drop in the wider ocean of science itself. It is easy to sit, absolutely rapt, in lectures about virology, to marvel at the ingenuity of past microbiologists and to be excited by the prospect of working on similar puzzles. The problem, is that reality- in the form of various doctoral projects- often does not seem to match up. For this reason, the most enthusiastic students do not always make the most eager researchers. 

On the other hand, being funded to spend three years working on a project that does capture your imagination, is a really wonderful experience. For my part, I switched to zoology, studied jellyfish and spent three and a half awesome, globe-trotting years working on about a dozen different species. 

Incidentally, a couple of years after that foot-and-mouth PhD interview, the UK suffered a very costly, widespread and fairly unexpected foot-and-mouth outbreak. So, whoever did get that studentship must have taken some pleasure in the fact that their project, although narrow in focus, has undoubtedly proven useful- arguably, far more useful for mankind than my own doctoral research, but that is another issue altogether...

You can find more on foot-and-mouth disease [here] and on black death [here]. The full-text of the scientific study on black death mentioned above is currently available free online [here].