Humans: the Ultimate Litterbugs

The human race is by far the most wasteful population on the planet. Chucking something away is a part of everyday life. If it reaches a bin then often we place ourselves on the moral high-ground; we are not litterbugs.  But the fact is that our global consumer society produces more waste than we have any idea what to do with. Our ‘superior’ social structure; the way we have developed technology in order to deal with living in environments which are not really suitable for human habitation, has resulted in a vast excess of waste. For example, Abu-Dhabi is a city in a desert, thus requiring more air conditioning than imaginable. In LA, there is no water to support the city, so it’s brought in from all over, mainly for celebrities to water their vast lawns, since of course they don’t actually drink anything but bottled spring water. These are examples of human excess, which essentially leads to our uncontrollable waste situation. Read more »

Voices of Chemistry: Prof. Lesley Yellowlees

Every science needs a spokesperson, and chemistry has a good contender in Professor Lesley Yellowlees. Professor Yellowlees holds the Chair in Inorganic Electrochemistry at the University of Edinburgh. She is also the new head of the College of Science and Engineering, and has recently been elected President of the Royal Society of Chemistry.

FD:  The UN has declared 2011 to be the International Year of Chemistry. Do you feel that this has an impact on what you do?

LY: I feel that it has an impact on anybody who does chemistry, because it’s a chance to showcase the benefits of chemistry to society at large. We’re surrounded by the wonders of modern chemistry, it makes our living much nicer. So yes, I think everybody should be excited about it.

FD: Do you think that people often don’t realise what exactly chemistry does for them?
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Voices of Chemistry: Prof. Polly Arnold

Cutting-edge research in chemistry wouldn’t get done without passionate young scientists willing to explore new avenues and lead ambitious research projects. Professor Polly Arnold is such a researcher. She holds the Chair in Synthetic Inorganic Chemistry at the University of Edinburgh where her research group looks for new and exciting molecular structures.

FD: Let’s start with the basics: Could you briefly explain to us what synthetic chemistry is?

PA: Well that’s an enormous question to answer, isn’t it? Briefly, synthetic chemistry is a small part of the exploratory chemistry that we do; it’s trying to make stuff that hasn’t been made before. Our particular work is focused on making metal compounds, so metal complex chemistry, and we like to work with molecules, discrete entities that you could dissolve, rather than continuous network structures that go on forever.
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Chemistry in Genetics

In this age of rapidly evolving technology, DNA sequences can be analysed by computers, and machines can separate hundreds of proteins at once. This makes it is easy to forget that the genetic code isn’t simply a series of letters, and that proteins aren’t just what we get out of eating poultry. They are physical and chemical structures that build and care for our bodies.

The building blocks of DNA are known as nucleotides, and are comprised of three main parts: a phosphate group, a sugar, and a highly-charged unique nitrogenous base. Of the four bases, adenine (A) and guanine (G) are both purines, which consist of an aromatic ring attached to an imidazole group. The other two bases, cytosine (C) and thymine (T) are pyrimidines, made up of a single aromatic ring. It is widely known that in DNA, A pairs with T and G pairs with C, but why is this? Read more »

Stars: The origin of all chemistry

It’s a chicken and egg situation: without stars there would be no chemistry, and without chemistry there would be no stars. A few minutes after the big bang all matter in the universe was made from the simplest element, hydrogen. So how did all the exotic elements and complex molecules we know as chemistry come about? As time went on, some of the hydrogen atoms clumped together and eventually grew into the first stars. These stars then became the element ‘factories’ that fed the growing universe.  Read more »

Conrad Hal Waddington: discovering the strategy of the genes

A palaeontologist, embryologist, geneticist and philosopher, Conrad Hal Waddington was a true modern day Renaissance man. Considered by many as the forefather of systems biology, he spent the most fruitful years of his career in Edinburgh.

Born in Evesham on 8th of November 1905, his parents were of long-established Quaker families. With the help of his grandmother, the young Conrad assembled a myriad of collections of natural history, geological and archaeological objects. He displayed these in ‘Con’s museum’, located in a barn attached to his house. Under the supervision of ‘Grandpa Doeg’, a local druggist and distant relation of the family, Conrad conducted chemical experiments and was introduced to science. Waddington later described ‘Grandpa Doeg’ as "almost the last surviving real 100% scientist" who "reckoned to deal with the whole of science". Read more »

Peter Higgs: A Biography and Crash Course in Subatomic Particle Theory

At 81, far from relaxing in a rocking chair with a pipe and an afternoon of Poirot, Professor Peter Higgs is still at the forefront of theoretical particle physics in Edinburgh. Having devoted his life to hypothetical physics, Professor Higgs is now widely known for his theory of the W and Z bosons, elementary particles that explain how the universe holds together. Since CERN’s (European Organization for Nuclear Research) opening of the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) and its subsequent announcement in 2008 to search for the elusive Higgs boson particle, Professor Higgs has been busy explaining the theory of the ‘God particle’ to the masses. Read more »

Equal Opportunity Science

Astute readers of this issue's Focus articles may have already noticed a conspicuous absence. When we were planning articles about famous scientists who have worked or are working at Edinburgh, it soon became apparent that there were no women among the people we'd proposed. Not only that, but off the top of our heads, the (mostly female) Focus team couldn't think of a single historical female scientist with a link to the University. Read more »

A Bit of Edinburgh Medical History

The public’s appetite for crime is greater than its desire to hear about successes. Consequently, whilst we hear a great deal about Edinburgh’s Dr Knox and his criminal suppliers Burke and Hare, relatively little is said about the city’s more positive pioneering physicians.

From the Barber Surgeons of Surgeons’ Square, to the transplantation unit at Little France, medicine has been taught in Edinburgh since the sixteenth century. In that time, the University and the city were associated with many of modern medicine’s innovators. Three of the greatest are spirited Sir James Young Simpson, indomitable Sophia Jex-Blake and shrewd Sir John Crofton.

Simpson, born in 1811, is perhaps the most famous of the three medics in this selection, and the motto on his coat of arms boldly recalls his most significant achievement: ‘pain conquered.’ Read more »

Murder Under the Microscope: Sir Sydney Smith

For many, forensics makes us think of handsome detectives who investigate gruesome murders, using cutting-edge science to arrest the culprit. Whilst born a little early to be a TV star himself, Edinburgh nurtured a pioneer of the ‘scientist-detectives’; Sir Sidney Smith.

He arrived from New Zealand as a student, remained as a professor and went on to become Dean of Medicine, with a break in between to organise the medico-legal system of Cairo. His autobiography, Mostly Murder, vividly describes some of his most acclaimed cases and thoughts about putting murder under the microscope. Read more »

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