A blue plaque for Dorothy

IMG_1333Yesterday in brilliant sunshine Dorothy Hodgkin’s son and daughter Luke and Liz unveiled a blue plaque in her honour on the house in Oxford’s Woodstock Road that was her home when she won the Nobel prize. Hodgkin died in 1994: if you think recognition has been a long time coming for Britain’s only female Nobel-prizewinning scientist, then bear in mind that people don’t qualify for plaques  until at least 20 years after their deaths. Needless to say Dorothy’s name has been on the list from the earliest opportunity. Continue reading A blue plaque for Dorothy

RIP Tony Broad – creator of Nobel-prizewinning X-ray tube

I’ve just been told by the writer Henry Nicholls, who interviewed him in 2009, that the engineer Tony Broad died last week at the age of 93. It is one of my sins of omission as a writer that I did not interview Broad myself when I undertook my research for  Max Perutz and the Secret of Life, though I did acknowledge his critical role in the solution of the first protein structures. Continue reading RIP Tony Broad – creator of Nobel-prizewinning X-ray tube

Remembering LEO

Lyons Electronic Office – LEO – on completion in 1953

Today is a day of forgotten heroes, and the Leo Foundation chose it to remember those visionaries at J. Lyons & Co who built the world’s first business computer. Ever since I wrote A computer called LEO I’ve been honoured to belong to the small community of LEO veterans and enthusiasts who come together from time to time to celebrate its extraordinary achievements. This month sees the 60th anniversary of the day on which the machine ran the world’s first clerical computing application, known as ‘Bakery Valuations’. To mark the occasion, the Leo Foundation invited LEO veterans, computer history VIPs and members of the press to a lunch at the Science Museum. The event was sponsored by Google. We had all been delighted when Google’s Eric Schmidt went out of his way to mention LEO as a high point of British innovation in his McTaggart Lecture at Edinburgh in August. Today I discovered that the researcher working with him on the speech, Lynette Webb, found the story in my book, thanks to a chain of events involving Bletchley Park and the business network LinkedIn. As a further consequence, Google arranged for its in-house video unit, Across the Pond Productions, to make a five-minute film for the anniversary celebration, and you can now see it online. You can also read the story in the Daily Telegraph, and hear Frank Land, one of the programming pioneers, speaking on the Today programme this morning.

Women scientists lost and found

Laura Bassi, professor of anatomy and natural philosophy at the University of Bologna in the 18th century

Just a quick note to mention that I have just published an article in Encyclopedia Britannica on the history of women in science. It was tough to pick out just a few names in the 4500 years or so that the article covers (especially as I had a tight word limit). The ones I’ve included illustrated particular social factors that helped them to exercise their scientific minds: the brief flowering in Enlightenment Italy that saw both Laura Bassi and Maria Agnesi appointed professors at Bologna; the opening of women’s colleges in the late 19th century that proved a rich source of scientific assistance to the astronomer Edward Pickering or the geneticist Edward Bateson; the women’s movement that finally opened so many more doors.

The ‘lost’ women of science seems to be quite a topic of debate. There’s also a nice piece by Uta Frith on the Royal Society’s history of science blog, about the palaeontologist Mary Morland. She married Oxford University’s founding Reader in Geology and dinosaur discoverer William Buckland, bore him nine children, edited and illustrated his manuscripts and coped with the mental breakdown of his final years.

My recent experience as a biographer of scientists suggests that being a scientist is a bigger handicap than being a woman when it comes to penetrating  the public consciousness.

A disappearing number

Shane Shambhu (Ramanujan) and David Annen (Hardy)

Last night I went to see a live relay of Simon McBurnie’s A Disappearing Number in our local cinema, largely prompted by Miranda Cook (who plays Dorothy in Hidden Glory) enthusing about its recent London performance. I missed the Complicité production when it originally opened in 2007: having won numerous awards it’s been all over the world before its final tour in the UK this year.

I thought it was one of the best things I’d seen for ages. I loved Saskia Reeves’s performance – I saw some similiarities between the characters of Ruth and Dorothy Hodgkin, the combination of slight social diffidence with absolute command of and love for her subject, plus incredulous delight at falling in love, and using laughter to cover nervousness, embarrassment or even pain.

I thought the staging was breathtaking, creating so many moods and spaces with such economy. And I was surprised at how few people came on for the curtain call – somehow it felt like a much larger cast.

The story of Ramanujan, the self-taught mathematical genius who came to Cambridge in 1914 to work with G.H. Hardy,  is inspiring and heartbreaking at the same time. Interweaving the historical narrative with modern characters was much more than a device, as McBurnie created moving parallels of love and loss as well as a means of explaining the maths in simple terms. I thought his courage in including complex content with quite a lot of exposition paid off, and not just because the performers were excellent.

I am lost in admiration at the way he wove together the themes of continuity and connection (the way he exploits the dramatic possibilities of the telephone is masterly)  , in a way that made the endings seem optimistic rather than tragic. The use of music (by Nitin Sawhney, dance and video gave physicality to an otherwise intellectual theme and increased the emotional impact.

I gather this was the last performance of the current run, but who knows when anyone might think of reviving it, so I’m so glad to have grabbed the last chance to see it.

More science on stage 1

Last Friday I went up to London to see a work-in-progress performance of The Nature of Thingsthe ‘other’ Dorothy Hodgkin play. I don’t regard it as competition as Esther Shanson’s work is so much more ambitious and complex than Hidden Glory. More than two years ago she set out to tell the stories of three women crystallographers – Kathleen Lonsdale, Dorothy Hodgkin and Rosalind Franklin – using dance, drama, music and both still and video projection. The result was a revelation, though still unfinished.

The Place, London’s leading centre for contemporary dance, has supported Esther’s production and it was packed for the free show with an eclectic mix of dance lovers, crystallographers, Dorothy’s relatives and colleagues, and curious members of the public. We saw the first act, which focuses mainly on Kathleen Lonsdale but introduces the other two women, and a video clip from the second act which uses gradually multiplying images of dancers performing to a fast jazz score to represent the three-dimensional structure of insulin.

I know I come to the subject with a lot of prior knowledge and interest, but I was riveted throughout. Esther and her company have developed a wonderfully touching script that fleshes out the relationships between Lonsdale, her mentor William Bragg and her husband Thomas. An altogether more spiky relationship characterises the pairing of a reincarnated Rosalind Franklin and James Watson as they review the history of structural molecular biology. Dorothy’s early, tentative steps in both science and love feature in this first act, but we will have to wait for the second for her ultimate triumph, the solution of insulin.

I’m less qualified to comment on the dance elements, but using dancers to represent the molecules that the three women studied brings out the personal relationships each had with her subject, and the sense of trying to pin down an elusive quarry. For DNA, the extraordinary aerialist Ilona Jäntti wove patterns with her body suspended between two ropes hung from above the stage.

We are promised the complete piece in 2011, and I for one can’t wait.

Dorothy goes on tour

As promised, here are the tour dates and contact details for Hidden Glory so far. Three more (London, Cambridge and York) are close to confirmation and I will add them as soon as possible.

Monday 25 October, The Lowry Studio, Salford Quays M50 3AZ, 7.00 pm, as part of the Manchester Science Festival. Book at www.thelowry.com

Wednesday 27 October, The Wickham Theatre, Bristol BS8 1UP, 7.30 pm, as part of the Bristol University Centre for Public Engagement’s Twilight Talks series. Free. Book at www.bristol.ac.uk/twilight-talks

Friday 19 November, Otley Courthouse, Otley, W.Yorks LS21 3AN, 7.30 pm, as part of Otley Science Festival. Book at www.otleycourthouse.org.uk

Lives of the cell

The series on The Cell that has just concluded on BBC 4 is possibly the best presentation of history of science that I’ve every seen on TV. No cringe-making reconstructions, just an informed and engaging presenter (Adam Rutherford) visiting the locations of key figures in the development of cell theory and repeating their experiments using their own technology. Result: a programme that recreated the genuine wonder of discovery for the viewer.

Rutherford made us care about the remarkable individuals who got us from medieval ideas about spontaneous generation to our modern understanding of how cells reproduce and differentiate to perpetuate life on earth. He evoked real sympathy for poor Robert Remak, the 19th-century German physiologist who proved definitively that all cells come from other cells – and that therefore we and all other life must trace our ancestry back to the same single cell. Remak’s so-called friend Rudolph Virchow pinched his idea, published it in a book and took all the credit.

The hero-based approach to history of science is rather frowned upon by academic historians. But for evidence that it works as a route in for the non-scientifically trained, see Lucy Mangan’s characteristically ebullient review in The Guardian.’It was, as ever, the incidental anecdotes about the pioneering investigators that lodged most firmly in the mind’, she says, and I couldn’t agree more.

Three cheers for Mangan, by the way, for not assuming that her readers think all science is boring and denigrating its practitioners accordingly.

Floating on ice

A friend emailed today to tell me that Giles Foden’s new book Turbulence contained a sequence in which the central character made a voyage on a boat made of Pykrete. Turbulence is a novel, but Pykrete was entirely real. It was a frozen mixture of water and wood pulp that was central to the secret war project, codenamed Habbakuk, that occupied some of the best scientific brains in Britain throughout most of 1943.

Pykrete was named after Geoffrey Pyke, an extraordinary entrepreneur and inventor who somehow gained the ear of Louis Mountbatten, then Chief of Combined Operations. In the autumn of 1942, having been despatched to the US, Pyke wrote a 250-page memo to propose a fantastic project: the construction of a fleet of vast aircraft carriers out of ice. His fellow scientific advisor, the physicist and Communist John Desmond  Bernal, whittled this down to two pages that sounded half sensible. In remarkably short order Churchill gave the project his approval, and Bernal hired the young Cambridge crystallographer and Austrian refugee Max Perutz to work on ways of making ice stronger.

Perutz adopted a method discovered by his fellow Austrian Hermann Mark, then working at Brooklyn Polytechnic in New York. By mixing wood pulp or other fibrous material into water as it was freezing, one could make ice that was resistant to cracking even if assaulted by a bullet fired from a pistol. Demonstrations of this impressive material kept the top brass fascinated, but no one properly explored the seaworthiness of Pyke’s proposed vessels, or the costs of building them, until the Americans joined the project and quickly cancelled it.

The story of Habbakuk and Pykrete is an extraordinary example of the faith Britain’s wartime leaders placed in their ‘boffins’ – mostly, it has to be said, with justification. Radar and the code-breaking computer Colossus are two of the triumphant successes that resulted. Foden’s novel is based on the true story of the attempts to forecast the weather accurately for the D-Day landings, another success.

I ran across Habbakuk – in the form of a groaning table of wartime files in the British National Archives – in the course of researching my biography of Perutz, which Foden reviewed for the Guardian.

This is the first post in a blog in which I hope to comment on scientific themes as they crop up in contemporary culture, and reflect on science in our history. Hope you enjoy it.