Burrito birthday!

October 13, 2011 at 10:05 am | Posted in Science Lite | Leave a comment
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As you will no doubt have noticed it is the 40th anniversary of Laboratory News, and this issue is something of a ‘birthday party’ issue.

The Editor has been rattling his ‘40th anniversary sabre’ for several months now. “I want you all fully on board with this. I want original ideas” he regularly shouts. “…And yes, I’m looking at you Science Lite desk.”

Now, regular readers of Science Lite will be all too aware that ‘ideas’ and ‘originality’ are not necessarily something for which we hold a natural inclination. Yet a small seedling started to germinate in the collective imagination of Science Lite and we got to thinking, Lab News is 40 – so what do 40 year olds want on their birthday?

Well, a bit of a reminisce followed by far too much alcohol and then a fully fledged mid-life crisis complete with sports car and a wardrobe full of inappropriately youthful clothing. Obvious really.

It was the first of these that was to be our gift to Laboratory News – a trip down memory lane. After a swift search through the dusty archives we discovered that at its inception the magazine was based at a rather glamorous sounding address on London’s Fleet Street. Excellent we thought – a quick trip to the big smoke, a swift befriending of the current residents and a tour of the office to lap up the heady atmosphere of glories past – followed, of course, by a few celebratory beverages.

The Editor was swift to voice his concern. “You have checked that the current occupants will be happy for us to traipse around their office haven’t you?” he said. “…of course” we lied. Permission to enter the premises however was to turn out to be the least of our woes come the big trip – you see such was our enthusiasm we had neglected to check if the building was even still standing, let alone occupied.

Having gathered all the staff that showed even the slightest hint of willingness, we set-off on the retrospective trip of a lifetime – yet almost immediately upon arrival on Fleet Street the inevitable sense of failure began to gather around our little field trip. You see we neglected to examine who was occupying our ex-office as we simply – and wrongly as it turned out – assumed it would be another publishing company given its locale on Fleet Street. Much to our – and our Editor’s – chagrin it was, in fact, nothing of the sort.

So what was the noble enterprise that now occupied our hallowed ground? A library perhaps, a charitable foundation working for the betterment of science, a venture capitalist specialising in R&D investment?

No – in fact we were greeted by Chilango, a Mexican fast food joint. After standing open mouthed for a few minutes we had to act. “Well, this is perfect!” We announced, hoping to dissolve everyone’s obvious discontent with the situation. “Let’s go in and celebrate. If nothing else it surely shows that even businesses behave according to the laws of thermodynamics – all commercial enterprise inevitably breaks down, eventually becoming a fast food joint of some kind.”

Inside, the mood of our little trip started to noticeably change. Perhaps it was the delicious scent of the food, perhaps it was the frankly mood altering décor – a picture of neon perfection which could surely batter any ill feeling into submission – either way tensions began to lift. This combined with the incredibly friendly staff and the absolutely delicious food meant that the day started to pull back from the precipice of calamity.

So to you the staff of Chilango we say thank you – not just for the lovely food and warm welcome, but for saving what was otherwise bound to be another Science Lite disaster. And to our readers we implore you to pay a visit to Chilango on Fleet Street – not only will you be able to bask in Lab News tradition, but you will also be able to eat very well indeed. And finally to you Laboratory News we simply say: Feliz cumpleaños!

Happy birthday to us…

October 3, 2011 at 8:50 am | Posted in 40th birthday celebrations, Editorial Comment | Leave a comment

Welcome to the 40th anniversary edition of Laboratory News! I am pleased and indeed very proud to bring you this special birthday edition.

Starting on p15 you’ll find a special anniversary section where we celebrate the last 40 years of the magazine, and the science and people that have played a part in it. On page 16 we hear from some previous editors – each has put their own inimitable stamp on the publication over the years and each has contributed to the magazine it has become. But of course we aren’t just celebrating the magazine as it is today; throughout the last 40 years Lab News has been a stalwart of the science community – and it is a community that has seen many changes and challenges. On page 18 we take a look at a few past headlines, some of them particularly reflective of today’s scientific climate.

Of course science itself has advanced in ways that would astonish the team that worked on the launch issue of Laboratory News back in 1971 – and on page 20 we have charted some of the highlights of scientific discovery and development over that time. But if you think we have missed something, or would just like to comment then please do e-mail me – as always I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Just as important as what we have seen over the past 40 years is what the next 40 may hold. On page 24 some good friends of the magazine give their fascinating insights into what course we might expect science to take in the future.

Like any good retrospective however, my aim isn’t just simple nostalgia – we must endeavour to look back and learn from history. These are challenging times for UK science, yet something that has become evident from looking back over past issues of the magazine is that science has always faced barriers. Headlines involving a funding crisis, job security issues, and education apprehensions have adorned our news pages for as long as they have existed – and this is no different today.

I hope you enjoy the issue, and I hope that it might go some way to framing the problems – and the potential successes – that science faces today and in the future. But most of all I’d like to thank you, the readers. This is your magazine and it is down to you that it has gone from strength to strength. Happy Birthday Laboratory News – and here’s to the next 40!

You’re having a laugh?

September 15, 2011 at 8:53 am | Posted in Science Lite | Leave a comment
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Laughter, they say, is the best medicine. Strange then, that the world’s pharmaceutical companies have yet to cotton on to this and develop a cure-all in the form of a simple laughing pill.

Could it be that the laughter/medicine link is simply cosy phraseology, with no actual link to biology? Well yes, of course it is – yet associations betwixt the two are, it seems, becoming apparent. So much so in fact that the study of the health benefits of laughter now has its own name – indeed, if you do ever happen upon a professor of parody, a doctor of drollery or a medic of mirth, then you’ll know they are proud members of the Gelotological circle.

Yet we can’t help think that the physical rendering of an emotional state rooted deep in the ancestral parts of our brains can surely achieve nothing of note medically? As you can tell, the inner cynic that constantly patrols the Science lite desk is growing ever more alert, growling and drooling like a distempic hound primed for its next kill.

So what, exactly, do these purveyors of prankery (…sorry, this will stop in a moment. Largely as we are rapidly running out of synonyms) think laughing will achieve medically speaking? Well, they say there are so many that we are resorting to bullet points. A cheeky chuckle will can:

  • Lower blood pressure.
  • Increase vascular blood flow and oxygenation of the blood.
  • Give a workout to the diaphragm and abdominal, respiratory, facial, leg, and back muscles.
  • Reduce certain stress hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline.
  • Increase the response of tumor- and disease-killing cells such as Gamma-interferon and T-cells.
  • Defend against respiratory infections–even reducing the frequency of colds–by immunoglobulon in saliva.
  • Increase memory and learning; in a study at Johns Hopkins University Medical School, humor during instruction led to increased test scores.
  • Improve alertness, creativity.

And so it appears our collective cynicism has been shot down in flames. The beast rests once again. It is the last two of these points that really strike home – essentially the gelotologists seem to be saying that a good, hearty guffaw could actually help you think. Interesting in its self of course, but especially as it is once again time for the Ig Nobels.

If you are not aware of the Ig Nobels – then let us introduce you to the highlight of the international scientific calendar. The Igs honour achievements that “first make people laugh, and then make them think” – although knowing what we now do from the insights of gelotology, perhaps that should be “first make people laugh and then make them think in an altogether more superior way”.

This year’s winners are to be announced on the 29th September, and while we’d dearly love to give you a rundown of the front runners, we’re afraid finding out nominees prior to the event has become harder than winning an actual Nobel Prize. So by way of a little appetite wetter, here are some of our favourite past winners.

First up is the winner of the 1994 entomology prize Robert A. Lopez. And what a winner he was – as scientifically dedicated as he was entirely out of his mind. In 1993 he published work in The Journal of the American Veternary Medical Association based on a series of experiments in which he obtained ear mites from cats, and proceeded to insert them into his own ear, whilst carefully observing and analysing the results.

Then we have Peter Fong of Gettysburg College in Pennsylvania who is definitely up there with Lopez in the ‘why would you do that’ stakes. In 1998 he won an Ig for his paper Induction and Potentiation of Parturition in Fingernail Clams (Sphaerium striatinum) by Selective Serotonin Re- Uptake Inhibitors (SSRIs). In short, he gave clams Prozac.

Our next pick comes from the 2000 psychology prize which was awarded to David Dunning of Cornell University and Justin Kruger of the University of Illinois, for a report in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Now, we are slightly reticent to publish the title of the paper for fear that our Editor will immediately assume it is a detailed description of the Science lite desk – but in the interests of accuracy here goes: Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One’s Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments.

And our final pick of the Igs goes to the Medicine winners of 2010 – Simon Rietveld of the University of Amsterdam and Ilja van Beest of Tilburg University – for discovering that symptoms of asthma can be treated with a roller-coaster ride. Why? Well it turns out that positive emotions at the end of the ride helped sufferers with breathlessness. Someone should report this to the Gelotological gang – yet more evidence that laughter can be the best medicine.

Science and social media

September 1, 2011 at 8:38 am | Posted in Editorial Comment | Leave a comment
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After the Arab spring, and the recent English riots it is now clear to anyone who doubted it that web based social networking is having an enormous impact on the world. The number of interactions that can occur between vast swathes of people – largely irrespective of their global location – in such compressed time scales is unprecedented.

Understanding the science behind this novel mix of technology and social interaction has to a large degree foxed current expertise in networks and systems science. This is something that DARPA – the US defence research agency – is so worried about that it is offering $42million in grants for researchers to develop what it calls “a new science of social networks”.

Their motivation is of course to develop better mechanisms to monitor any uprisings – “or adversary influence operations” as they put it. And what a gold mine of information on the population social media is – I’m sure governments across the globe are drooling at the prospect of fully mining such a resource.

Yet Twitter in particular has a bad reputation amongst nay sayers – when pushed many will subscribe to the idea that ‘never before has it been so easy for people to say something, yet seemingly they have nothing to say’.

But let’s not forget social media is just a tool, and it is how it is used that should define it. And this got us thinking – how are you using it? Can it really be a useful scientific tool?

Well, certainly there is a growing camp of scientists that think so – and of course it isn’t such leap to see why they think that. Science is rooted in the formulation and exchange of ideas and what better way to do that than through the ever growing plethora of social network sites?

This is a view best explained to me by a good friend of mine, in what may seem to the social networkers as a quaintly old-fashioned way – face-to-face over a few beers. He is an expert on many things, especially after a few beers, but on one thing I trust him implicitly – the use of computing in research. With a background in bioinformatics and genomics, he is acutely aware of the importance micro-blogging for scientists to communicate their work – and thinks that nothing could be more useful for young researchers to increase the impact of their research than a carefully applied bit of tweeting.

“I know it has a dubious rep” he says of Twitter, “but the truth is it can really increase the amount of people interested in your work, and for a PhD student for example – that level of interest can be really hard to come by otherwise. That aspect of micro-blogging shouldn’t be spoilt by a constant barrage of people detailing what they had for dinner last night.”

On p31 you can see what scientists are saying about their experience of using social networking – and it makes for fascinating reading. But let us know what you think – do you use social media? Do you think it is over rated? Can it really be useful in your research?

There’s big, and then there’s this…

August 18, 2011 at 1:43 pm | Posted in Science Lite | Leave a comment
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Motivation. Unfortunately something the Science lite desk has but a passing acquaintance with, yet even we are aware that it can usually be boiled down to several key ingredients – and money is more often than not the king, and indeed queen, of driving forces. And so it appears to be for one of the biggest technology projects being undertaken at the moment.

Fuel giant Shell is forging ahead with a project that will revolutionise natural gas production. Now, they say that there are several environmental benefits to the project, but the real nub of the matter is the vast amount of money they stand to make from it. You see, they want to tap into an enormous gas field that is unsullied by any other company pipelines. Why so virginal? Well, it is located 250m under the sea in an area known as ‘cyclone alley’.  Hmm – should alarm bells be ringing at this point? It has become increasingly clear that large scale energy production and extreme natural events do not mix particularly well.

That said some incredibly advanced science and technology has been utilised in the project, and some 600 people around the world have spent over 1.6 million hours working on the problem – and what of their findings? An innovative pipeline perhaps? An advanced submersible? A pod of highly trained gas-collecting dolphins? Nope, pleasingly – for us at least – they are to build THE WORLD’S BIGGEST SHIP!

Now, it is kind of an unwritten law that writers should not really refer to the little devices they employ in order to get a sentence to covey meaning. A skilfully constructed sentence should leave you not only with information, but also the emotional context with-in which that information should be set. There are many tricks writers use to do this, and expertly applied they can be a thing of joy. However, it is pretty much universally understood by those in the word game that simply capitalising the words upon which he or she intends to hang an emphasis is a big no no. And so for that we apologise, but some things are simply beyond subtlety, and THE WORLDS BIGGEST SHIP! surely falls under that category?

Now whilst all this might sound a little bit like we are trying to convince the Editor to stop throwing our work back at us – the truth is that this particular ship seems to warrant capitals. Let’s have a look at the numbers. It is 488m long – that is longer than 4 football pitches. When fully loaded it’ll weigh 600,000 tonnes – six times the weight of the largest aircraft carrier. And the real kicker – its 200 strong crew will be ferried back and forth by 6 return flights a week.

By 2017 the vessel should be anchored off the north coast of Australia, where it will be used to harvest natural gas from Shell’s Prelude field. Once the gas is on board, it will be cooled until it liquefies and stored in vast tanks at -161°C. Every six or seven days a huge tanker will dock beside the platform and load up enough fuel to heat a city the size of London for a week.

Whichever way you look at it, it is a big boat. In fact big doesn’t really do it justice – nor do any superlatives we can currently think of to be honest. Time to break another writing rule­ – time for some excessive word-compounding. Ginormohuge, Enormassive – yes, they both seem to define this leviathan fairly well.

So to sum up – the world’s biggest ship, which will suck up gas from the seabed only to cool it to         -161°C in order to produce millions of tonnes of liquefied gas, is to be positioned in one of the world’s stormiest seas a mere 200km from western Australia’s beautiful Kimberley coastline – we can’t decide if this is human ingenuity at its greatest or its most foolhardy, but whichever it is, it definitely warrants capitals.

Picking apart the media

August 3, 2011 at 8:32 am | Posted in Editorial Comment | Leave a comment
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As News International continues to self destruct in the midst of editorial practices that would make Dr Evil blush, all eyes are once again on the media – and for scientists at least our incredulous gaze is being drawn toward the BBC.

Back at the beginning of 2010 the BBC Trust decided to review the accuracy and impartiality of the BBC’s science coverage. This, only the third ever such review, came about largely due to the Beeb’s reportage of climate issues. Climate change sceptics were up in arms over the fact that information on the now infamous Climate Gate appeared to have been leaked to the BBC months before it was reported. The fact that it wasn’t immediately splashed all over the News at 10 seems to have led some to cry foul and pin labels of ‘institutional bias’ on the Beeb. And it was a label that the Trust took seriously – for the review was to be carried out by none other than genetics superstar Professor Steve Jones, and he was asked specifically to look at accuracy and impartiality.

And what of his findings? Well, in a nut shell, the Beeb appears on the whole to be accurate – on the thorny issue of impartiality however, Professor Jones has a problem and I suspect it is not the problem that the sceptics who were largely responsible for the report thought he would find. You see, Jones thinks that when it comes to science coverage, the BBC can be guilty of overplaying the impartial card.

Indeed, he suggests that at times the over-rigid application of the editorial guidelines on impartiality fail to take into account the non-contentious nature of some stories. He even goes so far as to point out the need to avoid giving “undue attention to marginal opinion”.

Clearly not something the sceptics wanted to hear. It is clear the BBC is being held accountable to higher standards than the average media outlet, but of course that is absolutely correct and proper. It is our national broadcaster – and should be a bastion of openness and impartiality – especially when it comes to science.

However, I do hope that the BBC heeds Professor Jones’ words, and in their efforts to be impartial they don’t tip the balance too far and give a voice those who really don’t deserve one. Any science journalist worth their salt needs to apply some kind of critical filter to the work and people upon which they are reporting – being passively impartial and giving all and sundry the same amount of credence is, I would argue, less helpful than applying an experienced and knowledgeable appraisal of who has said what.

After all ­­– if done correctly, nothing is more impartial than science itself. A fact has no bias – let us hope that the media at large get used to giving them the respect they deserve.

It’s our birthday soon…

July 7, 2011 at 1:43 pm | Posted in 40th birthday celebrations, Lab News videos | Leave a comment
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Laboratory News celebrates its 40th anniversary in October and in preparation for our birthday edition we’ve been trawling the archives finding out how we’ve changed since the first issue back in 1971. Much has changed with the magazine in that time, as it has with science – from the Space Shuttle program which launched the ISS and Hubble Telescope, to sequencing the entire human genome and cloning Dolly the sheep.

We’d love to know what you consider to be the most significant scientific advance of the last 40 years – justlet us know. We’ll collate your responses and publish a Laboratory News top 10 in our October issue. If you’d also like to write a little on why you think your choice is so significant then we may even publish that as well!

What about life in the lab over that time? What has changed? What has remained steadfastly the same? We love to know your thoughts on life as a scientist over the past 40 years or so.

We’re also hoping to get in touch with past editors, writers, contributors and advertisers – please get in touch if you can help us trace them.

As always this is your publication – so please do get in touch, we really do value your input.

As always the address is phil.prime@laboratorynews.co.uk

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