Category Archives: Science

Santa’s timetable.

I thought I was stressed and up against it coming into the festive season. But everything has been put into perspective thanks to a report from Sweden on Santa’s timetable for Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.

Santa Claus is coming to town – for 34 microseconds.

It would seem that everyone’s favourite jolly old white bearded visitor has got the blink of an eye to land, get the right presents, drop down the chimney, deliver the presents, eat the cookies and drink the whiskey, get back up the chimney and move onto the next house. Not an impossible task but it’s no wonder he needs a year to recover!

Reindeer need to fly at 5,800 Km/hr to achieve the feat, the sleigh will experience some serious G force and air resistance en route but I’m sure Santa has thought of it. Otherwise he’ll be toast within 4.26 thousandths of a second. Bummer.


The heat is on…

“The heat”, being work, not the weather. It’s miserable here, but then it’s winter, what was I expecting? I’m just hoping that the horizontal rain and wind here equates to nice fluffy snow on the mountains. I’m looking forward to the ski season this year.

We spent a very nice long weekend in Amsterdam celebrating Sinterklaas. In my opinion this is a much better alternative to the over-commercialised Christmas we celebrate. You hand make presents and write poems for people and then sing a few songs and have a big meal. Great fun, plenty of pressure trying to out-do each other in the hand made presents and writing the poems, capped off with lots of sweets, Christmas beer and food.

But over the weekend I heard a very interesting statistic. It seems that the ski season, or the cold weather at least is linked to the activity of the sun. The more sunspots, the warmer the winter and the less snow you get. The sun has a cycle of eleven years between minimum sun spot activity and 2007 is one of those minimums! So, this winter will be cold with lots of snow for me to plant my face into at high speed.

Lovely jublee. 

Darwin Award Nominee

This guy must be included in this year’s Darwin Awards.

Man hurt using gun to change tyre

As a scientist it’s good to see evolution at work!

Discuss using references

In the middle of December I have to demonstrate to 3rd Year Biophysics and Structural Biology students on differential centrifugation. Essentially you get a pig liver and spin it really fast until it separates into it’s components. Fun and games for all the family.

I generally approach these practicals with a mixture of trepidation that something is going to go wrong and we’ll look like idiots and a distinct feeling of impending boredom. As demonstrators, we’re seen as the all knowing founts of practical biological knowledge which couldn’t be further from the truth. We got together two weeks ago to go through the experiment we’ll be demonstrating and ended up getting it wrong! Things didn’t go completely tits up, but the results were “interesting”. We’re just hoping the students actually follow the protocol instead of our attitude of knowing better!

Last year I had a student come up and ask me about a section of the experiment. She was wondering why we didn’t include a certain control. The minute she asked I had that feeling of dread that we’d overlooked something. And we had, she was right but luckily it didn’t impact on the overall results. So we congratulated her on finding the problem, sort of intimated that we’d put it there to see if anyone was paying attention and recommended she included it in her report so we could include it in this years practical! All knowing experts we are not, so it’s always a little worrying going into these things.

Students also have the canny knack of always asking the one question you haven’t prepared for. But this year I get to ask back! I’ve been asked to submit an exam question for them to take next year. It’ll only be a small one, but by God it’ll make ’em work! Now whether to go for the old “Compare and contrast” approach or my personal favourite “Discuss with references”, I don’t know but this feeling of power can really go to your head!

My new favourite word

I came across this today on a poster at work about an upcoming talk:


Don’t worry, I haven’t a clue what it means either.

What’s your favourite biscuit?

I wrote this last night because at this precise moment in time I’m in front of forty to fifty of my colleagues reporting on my progress. I’ve never been a big fan of public speaking but in science this goes with the territory.

I’ve prepared my thirty minute presentation and have been through it multiple times since. But no matter how well you think you’ve prepared or progressed over the last few weeks, when you put it all together, you notice the gaps and the mistakes and the things that could be done just a little bit better.

Because of this I generally prepare talks to avoid obvious gaps and to deflect any possible questions after the presentation. This is an art in itself and requires, for me at least, a lot of practise because when I get up there, the nerves generally make me forget everything and I just start blurting. And blurting is never tactical or smart.

In life I generally try to avoid confrontation, I don’t consider myself an overly confident or self assured kinda guy. Of course the purpose of these talks is not to grill the speaker but to understand more about what everyone is doing and to keep up to date with the departments progress. However, questions are inevitable and sometimes people have to defend. This is the bit I don’t like.

But what doesn’t kill you can only make you stronger and when I consider how nervous I am now compared to a few years ago when I started in this game, it’s getting a lot better. I always remember a bet I had with a friend during my PhD. We went to lots of talks and every talk ends with the usual:


Thanks for your attention and if anyone has any questions I’d be happy to answer them.

Of course what follows are highly intelligent, probing and thought provoking queries on the data that has just been presented. Most of the time, boring. We always wanted to ask:


I really enjoyed your presentation but I would really like to know, do you prefer fig rolls or chocolate digestives?

We never had the guts to go through with it, but who knows, it might happen tomorrow!


Ps. The answer for anyone wanting to know is chocolate digestives. Dark chocolate obviously. They win every time.

Do you come here often?

I suffered an incredibly long “awkward pause” yesterday and I’m still cringing from the stupidity of it all. Here’s how it happened. My department is holding interviews for potential students to come to the various labs to do PhDs. But the scholarships they’re offering are quite good so something like 400 people applied for the 8 -10 positions. So, they’ve narrowed it down to about twenty who were invited to come give talks on their work so far, meet the lab leaders and see the department.

So during yesterday we had a steady stream of incredibly nervous/frightened/tired students coming through the lab waiting to speak to the boss. I tried to engage them in some small chat to take their mind off things and to relax a little. That’s when it happened:

Student: I’m here for an interview with the professor, is he free?

Me: It’ll be two minutes, I think he’s still talking to another student. Take a seat and it won’t be too long.

Student: You have a great view from the window.

Me: Ah yeah, you can see Germany over there, France over there and that’s the back of a prison! So have you travelled far…?

That’s where it all went pear shaped as I thought she was from Germany. Of course, the Russian-English dictionary, the thick Russian accent and the fact she was called Olga should have given it away. But no, that would be too bloody smart on my part.

Student: Yes, I come from Siberia, I spent two days on the train from my home, then I waited for one week in Moscow for my visa, then I flew to Zurich and got the train here last night.

Me: Ahhh, right so…

Cue complete silence and me wanting the ground to open up! I hope she gets something because it’s an awful long way to come for a polite refusal.