Issue 9

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 »

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 »

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 »

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 »

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 »

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 »

The Lifestyle Diseases Timebomb

In a world where we are continuously told about the increasing risk of any number of diseases such as diabetes and heart-disease, Mismatch: The Lifestyle Diseases Timebomb breaks down humans' evolutionary journey in an attempt to answer the question of how these lifestyle diseases have come about. This book is a veritable voyage through the evolution of humans and a large number of other species. 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 »

Dr Hypothesis (Issue 9)

I recently neglected a packet of biscuits and they went all soft, but I believe when cakes go stale they go hard, I don’t actually know because I never let it happen... What’s the difference?

Biscuitless Betty Read more »

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