Issue 9

Science in Edinburgh: Giants from the Past

Edinburgh is nowadays an internationally acclaimed centre for research and its leading university, the University of Edinburgh, is consistently ranked amongst the world’s top universities. Every year hundreds of students from the UK and abroad flock to the University, lured by its excellence in teaching and research. From what does this prestige originate? Who paved the way for it? Read more »

Standing up for Science Media Workshop

The idea of interacting with media outlets, and using them as a platform to communicate research to the wider public is often a daunting prospect for early career researchers. They lack exposure to the machinations of the media, and examples of poorly reported science, as well as limited media and PR training combined with often irrational fears leave them insufficiently prepared to deal with media. Consequently, young researchers often neglect the media as a very effective stage for communicating their science. Read more »

Joseph Black: “so pale, so gentle, so elegant and so illustrious”

A Joseph Black Building can be found on the campus of both the University of Edinburgh and the University of Glasgow. Each is home to one of the oldest chemistry departments in Britain and can trace some of their earliest successes to their scientific namesake.

Joseph Black (1728–1799) was born in Bordeaux, France, to an Irish wine merchant father and Scottish mother. He was schooled in Belfast and at 18 trained in medicine in Glasgow, finishing his education in Edinburgh. During his academic career he took positions at both universities. Read more »

Putting Our Heads Together

A surprising resource is revolutionizing how we solve problems and get information. It is available in great abundance and can be harvested for almost nothing. This resource is the simple power of human thought.

We all know that computers can beat us at chess, find enormous prime numbers and remember our friends’ birthdays. If a task involves only calculations and large quantities of information, then a computer is perfect for the job. On the other hand, ask your computer to find the photos of a lovely peacock that you took on your last holiday, and it’s likely to throw in a picture of an elderly relative. Of course, any of your friends could do a much better job, but only if you can persuade them to bother. The emerging field of human computation is doing just that by using computer games to harness human brainpower. 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 »

Should We Try to Defeat Nature, and Win?

Many human ideologies presume that we can manipulate nature without cataclysmic consequences. Yet history begs that we try to live in harmony with nature, and within our means, but who wants to live with this hippie nonsense? Zero growth? Sustainability? Do these ideologies drive nations? Let us cast back to the late 1950s– early 1960s China, to the period in history when Mao Zedong’s war against nature and the scientific establishment killed 36 million people. Read more »

Uranium Glass Skull Bowls with Eva Walsh

Art and science are often seen as conflicting subjects. There is a common belief that arts degrees are less strenuous than science subjects, and have less contact time between students and lecturers. More often than not, science and technological advances push art, and the arts in general, forward. Frequently used art techniques are more scientifically influenced than many artists would like to admit. Similarly, nature is a massive inspiration for art, a commodity we all share that must be protected. Scientists contribute to this protection in that they are often seen as the keepers of knowledge about the natural world. 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 »

The Immortal Life Of Henrietta Lacks

If you have ever tried your hand at cell culture (the process by which cells are grown under controlled conditions in the lab), then you will probably have come across HeLa cells, the most widely propagated continuous cell line. I once cultured these whilst studying the protein interactions that take place inside cells. At the time, I didn’t think about whom these cells had originally come from or what had caused them to divide indefinitely. In The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, Rebecca Skloot tells the story of the lady from whom these cells were taken. 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 »

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