There Ain’t ‘Alf Some Clever Bastards – Part One Hundred

The story behind DNA

Rosalind Franklin (1920 – 1958)

I am a great fan of crime stories from the period between the two World Wars, known as the golden age of detective fiction. Policemen and amateur sleuths had to rely on their wits and their powers of analysis, reason and deduction to solve many a fiendish crime which, at first blush, seemed both impossible to have been committed and to crack. They invariably did, though, usually because the felon left some tell-tale sign that led to their undoing.

Life has moved on and these days the police have a more powerful array of tools at their disposal, at least if you believe the police dramas which are the staple fare of our TV screens, not least DNA testing. If I had even the faintest inkling to commit a crime, the threat of being unmasked by my DNA would be enough to put me off.  Interestingly, the tale of the discovery of DNA is a murky one with elements that would not have been out of place in a good whodunnit.

Rosalind Franklin always wanted to be a scientist, even though her father tried to steer her away from a career path that was nigh-on impossible for women to make much progress in. She was fortunate enough to attend St Paul’s Girls’ School, one of the few schools at the time that taught physics and chemistry to girls, and then graduated from Newnham College, Cambridge.

During the Second World War, Rosalind studied the structure and uses of coal and graphite, publishing several papers and contributing to the development of more effective gas masks. She was awarded a PhD in Physical Chemistry by Cambridge University in 1945.

After the war, Rosalind went to Paris to work under Jacques Mering, from whom she learned about the use of x-ray diffraction techniques to explore and understand the molecular and atomic structures of crystals. Then, in 1951, she made the fateful decision to accept a three-year research scholarship at King’s College, London.

Maurice Wilkins was trying to understand DNA by using X-ray crystallography and so Rosalind was perfectly equipped to contribute to the project. But Wilkins, who was away when Rosalind arrived, assumed that she was hired help rather than be someone who could more than contribute to the project.

Their relationship never recovered from this rocky start.   

Working with a student, Raymond Gosling, Rosalind continued to refine her X-ray images of DNA fibres, using ever finer strands. Wilkins, in somewhat of a huff, spent increasingly more time with his friend, Francis Crick, at the Cavendish Laboratory, where Crick and James Watson were attempting to understand the structure of DNA by using a model-based approach.

Around this time Rosalind made a dramatic discovery when looking at what later became known as Photo 51. The DNA in the image had a distinct helical structure with two strands attached at the middle. She gave details of her findings in a lecture but no one seemed to pay any notice.

However, at a conference, at which Crick and Watson rolled out their theories about the structure of DNA, Rosalind challenged them, pointing out that she was working with empirical data not highfalutin ideas. This open criticism of his friends worsened relationships between Wilkins and the woman he now called the Dark Lady. Sensibly, Rosalind decided to move on and took a position at Birkbeck College in 1953.

But during the move, Wilkins came into possession of the famous Photo 51, certainly without Rosalind’s permission, and showed it to Crick and Watson. It was an earth-shattering moment. Here was the missing piece of information, which Crick and Watson needed to complete their accurate model and proof positive that DNA’s helical structure had two strands attached in the middle by phosphate bases.

The duo rushed to print, publishing an article on the structure of DNA in a 1953 edition of the scientific journal, Nature. Ironically, the same edition carried articles by Wilkins and Franklin on the X-ray data they had compiled about DNA but it gave the impression that their contribution was supplementary to rather than one that had informed Crick and Watson’s discovery.

Rosalind continued her researches at Birkbeck, now turning her attention to the structure of tobacco mosaic virus before succumbing to cancer, which she may well have contracted through her work with X-rays.

In 1962, Crick, Watson, and Wilkins were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. There was no mention of Rosalind and it is only recently that her contribution to the understanding of DNA has been acknowledged. The Nobel Prize, of course, cannot be awarded posthumously.

Did Crick steal the photograph? Perhaps we should run a DNA test.    

If you enjoyed this, look out for Martin Fone’s new book, The Fickle Finger, which will be published in April 2020. For details follow this link

In the meantime, to get your fix of unfortunate inventors, try Fifty Clever Bastards by Martin Fone, details of which are here


Lifestyle Tip Of The Week

As someone who is prone to see the gloomier side of things, some news reached me from the pages of that august journal, Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, that plunged me into the slough of despond.

According to research carried out at Boston University School of Medicine, women who had an optimistic view on life had a lifespan almost 15% longer than those who verged towards a pessimistic viewpoint. With men the results showed the glass half full brigade had a 11% longer lifestyle than those whose glass was half empty.

Lifestyle may come into it. For the pessimists it may be that drinking to excess, smoking and taking drugs is the only way they can face the day whilst those happy souls without a care in the world are likely to eat what’s good for them and indulge in the dread E word, exercise. Yes, the scientists had thought of that and, allegedly, adjusted their results to take into account lifestyle choices.

The difference in lifespans reduced, I found that surprising, but not significantly.

Looking on the bright side, by maintaining my usual pessimistic take on life, I’m likely to be out of here sooner than otherwise might have been the case. Now that has cheered me up.

There Ain’t ‘Alf Some Clever Bastards – Part Ninety Seven

Walter Hunt (1796 – 1859)

If you stop and think about it, and few of us do, the safety pin is a piece of design perfection. It is a pin with a spring mechanism and a clasp which fastens the pin to whatever it is to be attached to and prevents the user from pricking their finger. The design is so simple and effective that it is hard to envisage how it can be improved upon. It has stood the test of time and has barely changed since the latest inductee into our illustrious Hall of Fame, Walter Hunt, came up with the idea.

The story goes that fretting over a $15 debt, Walter was fiddling with a bit of wire. In a flash, the idea of a covered pin came to him and within a few hours, had completed his design. Although he patented the design, he sold it on for somewhere between $100 and $400, a fraction of what he could have earned from it.

And that in a nutshell is the story of Hunt’s career; he was a serial inventor but was so strapped for cash that he sold the patents on often for a modest sum, swapping uncertain future income for the certainty of immediate cash. By the early nineteenth century a vibrant secondary market for patents had emerged where companies or individuals would buy the exclusive rights to inventions. Hunt sold the rights of most of his inventions this way.

Born in Martinsburg, in upper New York state, Walter Hunt trained as a stonemason but ended up working in a local flax mill. He had an inquisitive mind and an inventive streak, he went on to become a serial inventor, and began to potter around to see if he could develop a more efficient form of flax spinner.

Naturally, Walter could and sufficiently encouraged by his model, he applied for and was granted a patent in 1826. Recognising that his machine was a game changer, he wanted to build a business around his invention, but there was one problem. He didn’t have the financial resources to bring his plans to fruition. The solution was to treat his patent as a commodity and sell it to the highest bidder. This became Walter’s modus operandi throughout his career.

And a prolific career it was too.

Among his many inventions, the list is too exhaustive for this vignette, were a coach alarm system, which allowed a coachman to warn pedestrians of oncoming horses, a nail-making machine, a ship which broke up ice, a knife sharpener, a rope-making machine, and a street sweeper. Where they were patented, Walter soon sold them on.

Another of Walter’s brainwaves was to develop a repeating rifle and cartridge system, the design of which would be used by Smith and Wesson. Naturally, Walter saw little financial reward for this innovation.

Some of Walter’s inventions were off the wall, or not, in the case of what was known as an “antipodean apparatus”. Despite its odd name, it was a pair of shoes, which allowed the wearer to walk up walls and ceilings. It went down a storm amongst circus performers. It continued to sell and be used until well into the 1930s, but despite its apparent success, Hunt was on his uppers.

In what must be an early example of inventor’s remorse, wishing that he could put the genie he had released back into the bottle, Walter made a significant breakthrough in the development of the sewing machine. In 1833, he came up with what was the first workable sewing machine. He was concerned that if the machine took off it would damage the employment prospects of seamstresses and so, true to form, sold the rights to a businessman.

The businessman struggled to manufacture the machine commercially and gave up, crucially omitting to patent the design. That seemed to be the end of the story until, in 1846, Elias Howe was awarded a patent for his sewing machine.

Howe was disputatious and launched a series of lawsuits against other sewing machine manufacturers to protect and assert his patent rights. This alerted Walter to the fact that Howe’s design was not dissimilar to the one he developed thirteen years earlier. After a legal battle, Hunt was recognised as the inventor, but the absence of a patent meant that Howe got to keep the intellectual property rights to the machine.

Now enter Isaac Singer.

His iconic sewing machine, the prototype of the machine we know today, incorporated elements from Hunt’s and Howe’s design. Howe took Singer to court for Patent Infringement. In his defence, Singer claimed that Howe had ripped off Hunt’s design. The absence of a patent on Hunt’s machine counted against Singer, who had to pay Howe substantial damages.

As a by-product of this case, Singer eventually agreed, in 1858, to pay Walter $50,000 for incorporating elements of his design in his machine but then fate intervened. Walter died of pneumonia in 1859, before he had received a cent from Singer.

That, I suppose, is the lot of the inventor and why, Walter, you are a worthy inductee into our Hall of Fame.

If you enjoyed this, why not check out Fifty Clever Bastards by Martin Fone

Lake Of The Week

The search for that perfect spot for a selfie which will make your friends envious and become a sensation on social media knows no bounds. On the face of it, a lake close by the Russian city of Novosibirsk looks to be the ideal place for that perfect selfie. Because of the quality of its bright blue water, it is known as the Novosibirsk Maldives.

It even has its own Instagram account but the Russian authorities, spoilsports that they are, have revealed that all is not quite what it seems. The intense blueness of the water, they say, is caused by calcium oxides diluted in the shallow waters, the type of stuff found in quicklime and, although not poisonous, has a high acidity content. Rather than a natural miracle, the Moscow Times notes, the lake “is an ash dump into which CHPP-5 (a coal plant owned by the Siberian Generating Company) is dumping waste”.


But some people are not deterred and the oxygen of publicity has encouraged more brave, foolhardy souls to take a dip. Some report that the water tastes a bit sour and looks like chalk. One person who went for a dip seemed to confirm the warnings that the water may cause an allergic reaction by reporting that the following morning “his legs turned slightly red and itched for two days” but that didn’t put him off.

After all, as the German poet, Rilke, once noted, “no great art has ever been made without the artist having known danger”.

Motivated By Curiosity And A Desire For The Truth – Part Thirty Seven

How is a hailstone formed?

Here in Britain we are often accused of being obsessed with the weather. It is not surprising. As well as being the perfect ice-breaker to get a conversation going, we can often get all four seasons in a day. Take a day in early April this year (2019). I woke up to mist, then the sun came out in the late morning almost enticing me to take a stroll, until, suddenly, the skies darkened and we had one of the sharpest hail storms I have known for ages. As I dived for cover and watched pellets of ice bounce on the patio and my verdant lawn turn white before my eyes, I realised I knew very little about this meteorological phenomenon.

The first thing to get straight is that although the end result of a hailstorm is a ball of ice, it is not necessarily a winter phenomenon. They can happen at any time of the year and are particularly frequent in the summer months.

The harbinger of an impending storm is the presence of cumulonimbus clouds in the sky. These are the tall, vertical clouds that seem to lower menacingly in the skyline and the only ones that can produce hail, lightning and tornadoes. When a storm is brewing the top of the cloud flattens to make an anvil like shape, sometimes known as a thunderhead. As the cloud grows, it stores more and more energy until it effectively bursts.

At the base of the cloud is warm air but the temperature is below freezing in the upper reaches. Strong winds carry rain drops from the lower level to the upper, where they freeze, and then they are carried back to the lower level where they begin to thaw and collect more rain droplets. The process is repeated several times until the frozen raindrop is too heavy for the wind to carry it and it falls to the ground as a hailstone.

A new layer of ice is added to the droplet each time it shuttles up and down between the lower and upper levels of the cloud. If you were to dissect a hailstone, I have never tried it myself, you will find it has rings, just like a tree, and you could work out how many times it had been trapped in its celestial lift until it finally broke free.

Snow, on the other hand, can be formed in any rain-bearing cloud when water vapour cools rapidly and turns to ice crystals. There are up to eighty different forms of ice crystal that make up snow but that’s another story.

The enquiring mind, though, is not just content to leave matters at that. Other questions spring to mind; How big do they get, how fast do they travel, and what are the chances of being killed by one?

The accepted way to think about the size of a hailstone is by considering its diameter and relating it to an everyday object. A hailstone with a diameter of around a quarter of an inch is called a pea while a marble is twice the size. A golf ball would describe a stone of around an inch and a half while a grapefruit would be a whopping four inches in diameter. All very imprecise but I’m sure you get the picture.

But these all pale into insignificance when compared with a hailstone with an eight-inch diameter found by Lee Scott, following a storm in Vivian, South Dakota on July 23, 2010 and one with a circumference of 18.75 inches which fell on a roof in Aurora in Nebraska on June 22, 2003. The heaviest hailstone, though, fell in the Gopalgani district of Bangladesh on April 14, 1986, weighing an astonishing one kilogram.

As to speed, there are a couple of rules of thumb which you should bear in mind. The bigger the stones, the faster they are likely to fall and some will travel at a rate of up to 50 metres per second or over 100 mph. On the other hand, the larger the stones, the fewer there are likely to be. The prevailing winds will play an important factor, either slowing their progress or accelerating them down to earth. The shape of the stone will also have an effect, some being more aerodynamic than others.

Hailstorms usually last a few minutes at most but the one that hit Seldon in Kansas on June 3, 1959 deposited a layer of hail some 45 centimetres thick across an area of 140 kilometres.

As to the risk of injury, those cheery people at the National Oceanic Atmospheric Association calculate that 24 people in the United States are hospitalised each year from injuries sustained from hailstones. But, according to the World Meteorological Organisation, the highest death toll from a hailstorm is 248, after hailstones, described as large as “goose eggs and oranges and cricket balls” struck Moradabad in Uttar Pradesh in India on April 30, 1888.

My advice. Next time you see a cumulonimbus, take yourself indoors.

If you enjoyed this, check out Fifty Curious Questions by Martin Fone

A Measure Of Things – Part Thirteen

I always find that the pages of that wonderful organ, Case Reports in Urology, have the salutary effect of cheering me up. At first blush, an article entitled Superselective Embolisation with Microcoil and Gelfoam for High-Flow Priapism Secondary to Bilateral Cavernous Fistulae: A Case Study, published a couple of months ago, wouldn’t set the juices to flow. But there are some hidden gems inside, not just for practising urologists.

The case study, reported by Sarah Prattley, Timothy Bryant and Rowland Rees of the University Hospital in Southampton, tells of the misfortune that befell an unnamed 35-year-old man when he fell off his moped. Instead of the usual cuts and grazes, the poor man had bruised his perineum, the area between the anus and the genitals. More concerning, though, was that he had developed an erection that just would not go down, as if he had had an overdose of Viagra. Some reports suggest it lasted as long as nine days. The permanent erection was not painful, just causing him “mild discomfort when walking”.

There are two causes of long-lasting erections, low flow priapism, where the blood doesn’t flow away from the penis as it should, and high-flow priapism, where too much blood rushes into the organ and won’t stop. Our friend had the latter and instead of adopting the usual method to deal with an unwanted erection, ice packs, the medics deployed a catheter to block the arteries feeding the erection and then diverted blood away using a gel-like foam and a microfoil. Happily, after a few weeks of soreness, the man’s organ was performing satisfactorily and his erection lasted just long enough to disappoint his wife.

But the takeaway for me from this story is that there is a medical scale for measuring the hardness of an erection. And not just one, but two. The medics reported that the subject of their case study had an erection that was 4 on the Erection Hardness Score (EHS). I had to find out more.

Well, the EHS is one of these scales where you are asked a question and you have to give a number as a response. An example would be on a scale of 1 to 10, how happy are you? Psychologists call these things Likert scales. The question germane to the EHS is “how would you rate the harness of your erection?” Respondents use a scale running from 0 to 4, 0 being the penis does not enlarge, 1 being the penis is larger, but not hard, 2 being the penis is hard, but not hard enough for penetration, 3 being the penis is hard enough for penetration, but not completely hard while 4 is the penis is completely hard and fully rigid.

The benefit of the EHS, created in 1998, the po-faced description of the scale states, is that men can use it on their own and report back to their doctor with their findings. But the dog’s bollocks of erection scales, or as we like to call it the gold standard, is the International Index of Erectile Function (IIEF). This is a questionnaire consisting of fifteen sections, requiring the respondent to mark their experience over the last four weeks, a score between 0 and five given to each response. The scores are added up to give a cumulative reading across five categories – erectile function, orgasmic function, sexual desire, intercourse satisfaction, and overall satisfaction. The results will determine what action is taken.

Comparative tests have shown that there is little variance in outcome and diagnosis whether the EHS or IIEF methodology has been used.

Where would we be without a bit of precision in our lives. I will never look at moped riders in the same way after this.

There Ain’t ‘Alf Some Clever Bastards – Part Ninety Five

Angela Ruiz Robles (1895 – 1975)

Books do furnish a room.

You can tell a lot about a person by the presence or absence of books in their house. When I encounter a bookshelf, I feel drawn towards it, as if I am answering the siren call. There is something magical about the physical properties of a book, the feel, its weight, the cover, the spine, its illustrations, the layout of the text, even the type selected.

Beautiful as they undoubtedly are, they are heavy and take up a lot of room.

I’m a voracious reader and get through books by the dozen. I have a few favourites, which I return to from time-to-time, but most of my reading matter is engorged once and once only. And one of my personal nightmares is being away from home, travelling or on holiday, and running out of reading material.

To me and, I’m sure, many others, the e-reader is a Godsend, allowing me to have almost instantaneous access to hundreds of books in a portable rectangular device. Aesthetically pleasing it is not and unlikely to revolutionise the way books are delivered as the format’s early evangelists once claimed, but it is convenient and, for bookworms like me, an invaluable support prop.

The concept of an automated reading device dates back to the 1940s, the brainchild of the director of the Instituto Ibanez Martin in Ferrol in Spain, Angela Ruiz Robles. Her vision was to make teaching easier and to enable her students to maximise their knowledge with the minimum of effort.

Fundamental to achieving this aim would be the development of a mechanical book, which contained all the texts that a student would need. Instead of volumes of battered text books, all their satchels would contain would be a light-weight, portable, easy-to-use mechanical reader.

Angela worked away on her idea and by 1949 had come up with a pastel-green coloured metal box which she called, snappily, I feel, Procedimiento mecánico, eléctrico y a presión de aire para lectura de libros or, in English translation, “a mechanical, electrical and air pressure procedure for reading books”.

Inside were a series of tapes on interchangeable spools, some containing text and others illustrations, all protected by a transparent and unbreakable sheet. It came with a magnifying lens and a light so that it could be used in the dark. The mechanical encyclopedia even had an audio component, which brought the text to life.

Angela had considered a wider application for her book than just Spain, proposing alphabets and texts in a number of languages. Content could be read from start to finish or the reader could skip to a new chapter by pressing a button. She even envisaged an interactive index and a list of installed works, which the student could move between by pressing one or more buttons.

To entice the publishers, Angela proposed a standard size for cartridges and, of course, some of the production costs associated with book production, such as pasting and binding, would be eliminated.

What was there not to like?

Satisfied with her prototype, Angela applied for a patent. On December 7, 1949 she was awarded Spanish patent 190,698 for what was described as a mechanical encyclopedia. She paid the annual renewal fee up until 1961 but was unable to attract sufficient funding or interest from publishers to make her vision of an alternative to a book a commercial reality.

Undaunted, on April 10, 1962, Angela applied for and received a patent (No 276,346) for an “apparatus for diverse readings and exercises”. Although it contained many of the components of the original mechanical encyclopedia, it had a slightly more streamlined design. Be that as it may, it still met the same fate as Angela’s original machine. No manufacturers or publishers would back it with cash to bring it into production.

And, so, the idea of a mechanised book or reader as we would now call it withered and died, only to be picked up again by Michael Hart in 1971 with the prototype of a truly electronic reader.

Belatedly, Angela’s contribution to the development of e-reader has begun to be recognised but she missed out on the commercial gains of her brainwave. A version of her early prototype, a splendid affair made from bronze, wood, zinc, and paper can be seen to this day at the Science and Technology Museum of La Coruna.

If you enjoyed this, check out Fifty Clever Bastards by Martin Fone