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Category Archives: Science

There Ain’t ‘Alf Some Clever Bastards – Part Eighty

Lise Meitner (1878 – 1968)

Being Jewish, a woman in academia and living in Austria in the 1930s weren’t the best cards to be dealt with in life and so it proved for the latest inductee into our illustrious Hall of Fame, nuclear scientist, Lise Meitner.

Born in Vienna, Lise was only the second woman to be awarded a degree in Austria. To further her studies she moved to Berlin where she met Otto Hahn and found a position – a cupboard next to a lab and working as a guest without remuneration – at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Chemistry. It was only when she was offered a paid position elsewhere that her position at the Institute was regularised. In 1917 she and Hahn discovered a new element, protactinium.

In the 1920s and 30s the race was on to find an element heavier than uranium and it was to this problem that Meitner and Hahn applied their not inconsiderable grey cells. They noticed that whenever they put a neutron on to a heavy Uranium neutron, as you do, they ended up with something lighter. Whilst Hahn carried out the experiments it was Lise who came up with the explanation for this phenomenon and realised the import of what they had discovered. The answer was what we now term nuclear fission. What was happening was the neutron was splitting into two parts, unleashing a phenomenal amount of energy in the process. It was this energy which was harnessed to produce nuclear bombs.

By this time, 1938, the Anschluss had occurred and, sensibly, Lise had made good her escape to Sweden. Now that he had the rational explanation to the phenomenon that they had observed, Hahn wrote up the findings and published a paper, ignoring the contributions that Lise had made and, in fact omitting her altogether. Some kindly souls argue that the omission was due to political pressure exerted because of the race and gender of Hahn’s accomplice. Whether this was the case or whether Hahn just grabbed the glory for himself, we will never know. To add salt to the wound, in 1944 the Nobel Prize for Chemistry was awarded to Hahn alone for the discovery of nuclear fission.

Not unsurprisingly, Lise was royally pissed off. She wrote, “I have no self confidence… Hahn has just published absolutely wonderful things based on our work together … much as these results make me happy for Hahn, both personally and scientifically, many people here must think I contributed absolutely nothing to it — and now I am so discouraged.”  Worse still, she was horrified to find that the first use of nuclear fission was to make an atomic bomb and was devastated when the Enola Gay dropped its load on to Hiroshima.

To complete her air-brushing from history, the apparatus that was used to carry out the experiments that led to the discovery of nuclear fission was displayed in Germany’s leading science museum for 35 years without mentioning Lise’s name and role in the experiment.

Lise continued with her researches after the war and helped produce one of the first peacetime nuclear reactors and during the course of her career published some 128 articles. It was only in the mid-1960s that the enormity of her contribution to the discovery of nuclear fission was recognised. Posthumously, in 1992, she had an extremely radioactive synthetic element named after her, Meitnerium (atomic number 109) named after her and at least the Periodic Table bears testament to her brilliance.

Lise, for your contribution to the discovery of nuclear fission being air-brushed out of history, you are a worthy inductee.

If you enjoyed this, why not try Fifty Clever Bastards by Martin Fone which is now available on Amazon in Kindle format and paperback. For details follow the link

For more enquiring minds, try Fifty Curious Questions by Martin Fone


Stunt Of The Week (3)

I’m just sorry that my busy schedule does not allow me to make a visit to Detroit Zoo next Saturday.

The Detroit Zoological Society are holding a GreenFest celebration, something I would ordinarily avoid like the plague, but for the lucky first thousand visitors who visit their anaerobic digester display, I discovered this week, they are giving a bucket with 5lbs of  animal manure. I suppose they have to attract visitors somehow.

The deregister converts 500 tons of animal manure and other organic stuff each year into a methane-rich gas which is used to power its hospital. The poo, dubbed Detroit Zoo Poo (natch), is a by-product of the process and is supposed to be good for your roses.

It might have caused me a bit of trouble getting it back home on the plane, though.

There Ain’t ‘Alf Some Clever Bastards – Part Seventy Nine

Cecilia Payne (1900 – 1979)

The stars I see twinkling at night on the few occasions they are not hidden by clouds are a constant source of wonderment to me. Those of a more enquiring mind might wonder what they are made of and a few, a very few, would take the trouble to find out. One such is the latest inductee into our illustrious Hall of Fame, the British-born astronomer and astrophysicist, Cecilia Payne.

But her contribution to our understanding of stars which should have assured her a stellar career was for decades hidden under the penumbra of male chauvinism that pertained in the groves of academe at the time. Cecilia was a bit of a brain-box and read botany, physics and chemistry at Newnham College in Cambridge in the early 1920s but she did not get a degree as the University only started awarding them to the fairer sex in 1948. She did, however, listen to a lecture by Arthur Eddington which sparked her nascent interest in astronomy.

Winning a scholarship, Cecilia moved to the United States in 1923 and enrolled in the graduate programme run by Harvard College Observatory, specifically established to encourage women to study there. She was encouraged to write a doctoral dissertation and in 1925 Cecilia became the first woman to receive a PhD from Radcliffe College, which is now part of Harvard, for her dissertation, entitled A Contribution to the Observational Study of High Temperature in the Reversing Layers of Stars.

And some contribution, it was too.

I will not bore you with the details – the precise findings and analytical processes that she used go way above my head – but in essence Cecilia concluded that whilst the stars shared the same elements to be found in the Earth, hydrogen, by a factor of one million, and to a degree helium was the most abundant element in stars and by extension the Universe. Later astronomers were to call her work “undoubtedly the most brilliant Ph.D. thesis ever written in astronomy”.  But Cecilia’s problem was that she had made her discovery in 1925 and it flew against the then received wisdom that the composition of sun and the stars was no different from that of the Earth.

The villain of the piece, Henry Norris Russell of Princeton University, now enters our story. He was assigned the task of reviewing Cecilia’s dissertation. Because the findings were contrary to the commonly accepted theories he declared them “clearly impossible” and Cecilia, bowing to the pressure exerted by the eminent professor, amended her conclusions and stated that the calculated abundances of hydrogen and helium were “almost certainly not real.

But something about Payne’s conclusions intrigued Russell and he conducted his own investigations, concluding four years later in 1929, in a short paper, that the principal constituent of the sun and starts was hydrogen. Russell magnanimously acknowledged Payne’s contribution but in popular and academic circles he was recognised as the person who established this ground-breaking fact.

Cecilia spent most of her career studying stars but was forced by the conventions of the time to accept low paid, low grade academic positions. It was only in 1956 that she was able to break through the glass ceiling when she was appointed a professor at Harvard.

To add to the irony, Cecilia was awarded the Henry Norris Russell Prize for her contributions to astronomy in 1976. She was typically phlegmatic, commenting at the time, “the reward of the young scientist is the emotional thrill of being the first person in the history of the world to see something or to understand something.

For discovering the composition of the sun and stars and being ignored, Cecilia, you are a worthy inductee into our Hall of Fame.

If you enjoyed this, why not try Fifty Clever Bastards by Martin Fone which is now available on Amazon in Kindle format and paperback. For details follow the link

For more enquiring minds, try Fifty Curious Questions by Martin Fone


Innovation Of The Week (5)

A soggy burger is a first world problem if there ever was one.

But it may soon become a thing of the past, if an innovation I came across this week takes off.

American based Emily Williams, co-founder of Bo’s Fine Foods, has come up with a dry version of the condiment that is tomato ketchup that people will insist on slapping on their food.

She stumbled across the idea when she eschewed the normal method of making ketchups and condiments which entails braising vegetables and then throwing them away. Appalled at the amount of waste the traditional method entails, she chose to mix, grind and dry the vegetables into flat slices, not unlike those horrible slices of processed cheese that are readily available.

Instead of using preservatives and high fructose corn syrup that go into the traditional ketchup, she has used healthier ingredients. This seems to me to be counter-intuitive. No one chooses to eat a burger for its health benefits.

Anyway, the ketchup slices come in a sachet of eight and can be carried around conveniently and don’t need to be kept in the fridge.

Whether it will take off is anyone’s guess but the resourceful Emily is trying to raise some dosh via Kickstarter.

Ketchup in a sachet is messy, for sure, and there seems to be an inexhaustible appetite for the stuff. I had a pre-packed breakfast picnic provided for me in India recently which consisted of a cucumber sandwich, two muffins and a bowl of fruit together with two sachets of liquid tomato ketchup. I couldn’t work out which of the three dishes it was supposed to go with but, in any case, splashing it around in a moving car would have proved problematic. If I only I had had a dry version.

Emily’s idea may be a solution looking for a problem but more power to her elbow, I say.

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

Do woodpeckers suffer brain damage?

One of the distinctive sounds to be heard in the garden of Blogger Towers is the drilling of a woodpecker as it tries to dislodge insects from within the bark of one of the nearby trees. It has always struck me that there must be easier ways for them to get their food. After all, each time they strike the tree their beaks and head undergo forces of between 1,200 and 1,400 G, over fourteen times the force that would give a human concussion.

A team of scientists from Boston University School of Medicine, led by Peter Cummings, reported in the ever popular Plos One, carried out some research into the brains of woodpeckers, using exhibits from the Field Museum and Harvard Museum of Natural History. The tell-tale sign for brain damage, in human brains at least, is the build-up of tau protein around our axons. Normally, tau protein wraps around the axons, giving them protection and stability while preserving their flexibility. Too much of it, though, disrupts the ability of the neurons to communicate, causing problems with functions such as emotional, cognitive and motor.

In what is thought to have been the first detailed examination of woodpecker brains, the little grey cells were removed from a number of exhibits and the amount of tau protein was compared with that to be found in the brains of Red-winged Blackbirds. Now, of course, the woodpeckers in question may have been particularly stupid, having allowed themselves to be caught and end up in a museum’s glass case, but the researchers found that there was considerably more tau protein in their brains than in the blackbirds.

Is this indicative of brain damage? Frustratingly, the researchers are not prepared to commit; all Cummings was prepared to say was “We can’t say that these woodpeckers definitely sustained brain injuries, but there is extra tau present in the woodpecker brain.” It is dangerous to assume that what is good for humans must also be the case for other forms of animal life so a bit more research is needed, I guess.

Empirically, though, as woodpeckers have been around for 25 million years and nature evolves – a controversial contention, I know – you would think that they would have developed mechanisms to prevent injurious damage to their bodies. And it seems they have. Researchers have previously established that woodpeckers have particularly thick neck muscles which serve to diffuse the blow when their beak strikes the wood. They also have a third inner eyelid which prevents their eyeballs from popping out.

In 2012 scientists from Beijing’s Beihang University and the Wuhan University of Technology carried out a more detailed examination of the thick bone that surrounds and cushions the woodpecker’s brain, details of which were reported in Science China Life Sciences. It appears that their brains are surrounded by a spongy bone plate made of tiny beams or rods called trabeculae. This provides a protective layer around the brain. Similarly, their beaks contain these same trabeculae. It is thought that the beak deforms during impact, absorbing the impact rather than sending it onwards towards the brain.

So the answer is probably no. Makes sense, I suppose.

If you enjoyed this, why not try Fifty Curious Questions by Martin Fone which is now available via

Quacks Pretend To Cure Other Men’s Disorders But Rarely Find A Cure For Their Own – Part Sixty Four

Cigares de Joy

Smoking is rather frowned upon these days and with good reason, given its linkage with cancer, strokes, heart attacks and the like. Cigarette packets are decorated with lurid pictures of some of the problems consuming tobacco cause and smokers with a penchant for a spot of gallows humour take delight in trying to collect the full series of pictures. I suppose they make a useful self-diagnostic kit.

That being the case, it seems somewhat strange to the modern eye that smoking some form of cigarette could be healthy, let alone being helpful to asthmatics but such were the claims for the delightfully named Cigares de Joy. The advert showed a rather vacant-looking young woman, Joy perhaps but not personified, puffing away at a cigarette. The copy advised the reader that said cigarettes “afford immediate relief in cases of asthma, wheezing and winter cough and a little perseverance will affect a permanent cure.” What not to like?

Naturally, the Cigares de Joy were “universally recommended by the most eminent physicians and medical authors” and were so safe to use that you could liberally dispense them to the weaker members of your family or, as the advertising copy claimed, “agreeable to use, certain in their effects, and harmless in their action, they may be safely smoked by ladies and children.” A box of 35 reefers would set you back half a crown and were available from most chemists and stores. Alternatively, you could send your money to Wilcox & Co of 239, Oxford Street in London who would dispatch them to you pronto, without passing on the postal charge.

The Cigares de Joy were described in the Medical Times and Gazette of 1875 as “very useful little agents for inhaling the smoke of stramonium.”  So what was stramonium? To give it its full name, Datura stramonium is a member of the nightshade family and was known by a variety of names in England including jimsonweed, Devil’s snare, the wonderful Hell’s bells and Thornapple, to name but a few. The Elizabethan herbalist, John Gerard, was an enthusiastic exponent of Thornapple, writing in his Herball of 1597, “the juice of the Thornapple, boiled with hog’s grease, cureth all inflammators whatsoever, all manner of burnings and scaldings, as well of fire, water, boiling lead, gunpowder, as that which comes by lightning and that in very short time, as myself found in daily practice, to my great credit and profit.

In Ayuverdic medicine, stramonium was used to deal with the symptoms of asthma, the leaves being smoked in a cigarette or a pipe. It is thought that the practice was introduced into Europe by the Physician General of the East India Company, James Anderson, towards the end of the 18th century. So there would seem be some medical provenance for the efficacy of the Cigares de Joy.

There was one significant downside about the use of stramonium. It was used in certain parts of the world as an analgesic in surgery or for the setting of bones and was known to be a powerful hallucinogen and deliriant, producing intense visions. Indeed, the tropane alkaloids that it contained were fatally toxic in doses only slightly higher than would be used for medicinal purposes. If you smoked too many of the Cigares in too short a time, you would feel high and run the risk of causing yourself harm at best or killing yourself at worst.

They were still available to buy shortly after the end of the Second World War. Unlike many of the cures we have seen, there is a plausible case for arguing that the Cigares de Joy did some good, in moderation, and ingesting was the quickest way of getting the drug into your lungs. But to modern sensibilities, it all seems a bit odd.

Social Media Tool Of The Week

I have to admit it, I don’t really understand social meejah. I have the obligatory Facebook and Twitter accounts but the number of my followers remains steadfastly at a level that they were when I pretty much set up the wretched things.

Fans of these forms of digitised social interaction seem fixated on statistics, particularly on numbers of followers and or so-called friends. They will go to enormous lengths to boost them, thus increasing the chances of their latest inanities trending, as I think the term is. The thinking is that success begets success and the more followers you have the more likely your fan club is to grow exponentially.

One company called Devumi, I read this week, buys and sells fake followers so that those who subscribe to their services appear to be more influential than they really are. For just $17 you can generate a thousand followers and they claim to have at least 3.5 million automated accounts to offer.

If you are going to use them, you had better move sharpish. Allegations have surfaced that this is a fraud, that their address in Manhattan is a fake and that the founder’s LinkedIn career summary is somewhat questionable. The New York prosecutor is investigating Devumi as I write.

It was only in November that Facebook revealed that as many as 60 million of its accounts are generated by automated bots. Not all is at it seems in the digital world, it would appear.

And there was me thinking that it was going to be the brilliance of my apercus that would see my numbers soaring into the stratosphere. A man can dream!

The Most Wonderful Plant In The World

Charles Darwin may have gone a bit overboard in his praise but there is something deeply fascinating about a Venus flytrap, unless of course you are an insect. Dionaea muscipula, to give it is botanical name, lures flies and spiders on to its leaves and a complex system of tiny hairs springs its trap shut. The poor creature is then slowly digested. Apparently the Venus flytrap is a bit fussy and will only start the digesting process if there have been half a dozen triggers of the trap mechanism. After all, it doesn’t want to waste energy.

I share Darwin’s enthusiasm and have long thought that a flytrap might be fun to have. If it does its job properly then there should be a marked reduction in the number of insects that seem to delight in flying around the inner chambers of Blogger Towers. So during a recent trip to the local Garden Centre I couldn’t resist the siren call that was a lurid blue card inviting me, courtesy of Fun Seeds, to grow my own Venus Flytrap. It was clearly aimed at children – although not the under-fives because of small parts – but now that I have reached grandfather status, albeit vicariously, I think I can indulge myself from time to time in reverting to my former childlike state.

The card contained a small red pot, a desiccated piece of Sphagnum moss, a packet of infinitesimally small black seeds, and some rudimentary instructions. The starting point was to dunk the moss into water but not any old water would do. It had to be rain water or, failing that, distilled or filtered. Fortunately, we have buckets of rain water assiduously collected during the not infrequent downpours we have experienced over the winter. As soon as the moss tablet hit the water, it began to swell and break up. After a while I scooped up the moss, squeezed it to remove most of the surplus water and put it into the red plastic pot.

The next stage of the operation was to sprinkle the seeds on to the moss. The instructions were very clear – they weren’t to be buried but had to rest in the moss. It suggested the use of a spoon to achieve the desired results although I found the seeds just stuck to the spoon. My fingers seemed to do the trick.

The pot was then placed on a saucer which contained a small amount of water – rain water (natch) – to keep the moss moist. Then I placed a plastic bag over the pot and placed it on the windowsill of my study.

Frustratingly, it will take the seeds up to 12 weeks to germinate and three years for a fully developed flytrap to grow so I will have to exercise a modicum of patience and .

I will keep you posted on progress.

Culinary Tip Of The Week

One of my tasks in the kitchen is to peel the spuds and prepare them for roasting. I cut each potato into half and then half again. They are then popped in the oven and eventually they become crispy.

But according to some hospitality students from the University of Essex’s Edge Hotel School I’m doing it all wrong. In conjunction with the mathematics department at Samuel Whitbread school, they set about finding the formula for the perfect roast potato, I read this week.

It’s all about maximising the potato’s surface area. Their research found that the optimal way to prepare the spud was to cut it lengthwise and then cut each half at an angle, creating a point of approximately 30 degrees. This increases the surface area exposed to the oven by 65%, resulting in a crispier and more delicious roast potato.

I’m happy to pass this on. I will be interested to see what difference it makes.

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

Do your ears grow as you get older?

Ears are wonderful things. As well as opening up the world of sound for those blessed with the sense of hearing – that is another story – they provide us with something to which we can attach our spectacles. In Chinese physiognomy large ears are a sign of longevity. As I grow ever older I get this unshakeable feeling that the size of my ears is increasing. The consensus seems to be that old men have big ears and so for those of us with an enquiring mind this prompts the question: Do ears really grow larger with age and, if so, is it a phenomenon restricted to men?

The starting point for our investigation into the lughole is a paper published in the British Medical Journal (BMJ) in 1995, entitled Why do old men have big ears? In this fascinating monograph a general practitioner from Bromley in Kent, James Heathcote, recounts a survey he and three of his doctor colleagues conducted into the size of men’s ears in 1993. The doctors measured the ear sizes of 206 men of aged 30 and over and analysed the results. They calculated that ears grew at an average of 0.22 millimetres a year or, to put it another way, around a centimetre every 50 years. Frustratingly, the worthy medics didn’t hazard a guess as to why this may happen.

But it seems that the British investigation only tells half a story, having concentrated exclusively on the male sex. For an understanding of what happens with the ears of the fairer sex. A paper, reprinted in the BMJ in 1996 entitled Correlation of Ear Length with Age in Japan details the findings of some physicians working in care homes in Japan (surprise, surprise) where they measured the ears and height of some 400 adult patients of both sexes.  What they found was that there is a significant correlation between the length of your ear and age, confirming Heathcote’s findings, and that there is an even greater correlation when adjusted for height – across both sexes.

An Italian study in 1999, conducted by VF Ferrario and others, measured the ears of groups of males and females in age categories 12 to 15, 19 to 30 and 31 to 56. What they discovered was that ear dimensions were significantly larger in males than females and that there was a significant effect on the size of lugholes with age with larger ears to be found amongst the aging population.

A more exhaustive study was conducted in around 2006 was conducted by a team of Germans from the Freie Universitat Berlin, led by Carsten Niemitz, based upon some original original research carried out in 1959 by Montacer-Kuhssary. The team found some 1448 photographs of ears of people of all ages ranging from new-born children to adolescents to adults and old codgers up to the age of 92. Each of the photographs was subjected to fifteen different sets of measurements. What the team found that “in all parameters where post adult growth was observed, female ears showed a lesser increase than those of men.” Moreover the extent to which older men have bigger ears than younger males is greater than the extent to which older women’s lugholes are bigger than younger females’. But the fact is that women’s ears grow with age as well. Perhaps the reason why we don’t notice this phenomenon is because they often wear their hair in styles which cover the ears.

They also found that noses grow with age but not at the rate of ears – perhaps the Pinocchio effect of those shaggy dog stories the elderly are so fond of telling. There is no certainty as to why ears grow. It may be due to the loss of elasticity in the skin and the effect of gravity. Who knows?

Glad to have uncovered the truth on that one, though.

If you enjoyed this, why not try Fifty Curious Questions by Martin Fone which is now available via