Universally challenged

I had to heave a sigh, not for the first time, when during last night’s BBC University Challenge quarter-final the otherwise frighteningly well-informed Pembroke College Cambridge team failed to identify Dorothy Hodgkin from the Royal Society stamp issued last year.

Most of them are reading for science degrees, too. They did have a stab – after a hasty discussion, the electron density map at the top of the stamp seemed to give them a clue. DNA, someone ventured (it’s actually Vitamin B12). Rosalind Franklin! She has always been better known than Dorothy, not so much for the invaluable role she played in the solution of the DNA structure, but for her subsequent caricaturing by Jim Watson and the fully justified backlash that followed. But it wasn’t the answer Jeremy Paxman was after, and they uncharacteristically failed to add to their eventual winning total of 240 points.

I did what I could last year – Dorothy’s centenary – to raise her profile, touring Hidden Glory and contributing to a day in her memory at the Royal Society. But it seems that even the distinction of being Britain’s only female science Nobelist is not enough to penetrate the consciousness of the best young Cambridge minds.

A mentor passes on

Alison Brading 1939-2011

Some scientists barely impinge on the general public consciousness, yet have an enormous influence on others. One of these was Alison Brading, Professor Emerita of Pharmacology at Oxford University and former Fellow and Tutor of Lady Margaret Hall. Yesterday  she was laid to rest after her heart and lungs finally gave up the struggle of coping with the aftermath of the polio that infected her in her youth.

The college chapel was packed with her former students and colleagues. Formal obituaries will appear elsewhere, but as I am one of the students that Alison set on the road to a fulfilling career, I wanted to add my personal memory.

I first met Alison when I went for interview at LMH, hoping to be admitted to read physiology and psychology. This was a late subject choice, and one I had totally failed to prepare for in my sixth form studies. I presented myself, aged 17, having offered papers in French and History in the Oxford entrance exam (you had to take it in those days) and planning to take A levels in those subjects plus English.

I had O levels (the predecessors to GCSE) in Biology and Physics-with-Chemistry, so was not an entirely hopeless case, but the college seemed doubtful about my reading physiology and tried to steer me towards philosophy instead. I was convinced, however, that I needed a solid biological underpinning if I was to make sense of the experimental psychology course.

Alison seemed to accept my argument, but clearly needed to establish that I had some basis to start from. ‘What is the function of water in the body?’, she asked. ‘Transport’, I answered, and to this day I have no idea how that word floated into my head. ‘That sounds all right’, she murmured benignly, and the interview was more or less over.

And that is the story of how I came to do a science degree with arts A levels. I won’t say there weren’t some sticky patches on the way, and Alison played an important role in helping to keep me going when times got tough.

It was was an article of faith with her that you could do anything you wanted if you put your mind to it. And as we heard from her brother during the funeral service, this was a lesson she had learned from her own experience. Having left school with a place to read medicine at Oxford, she had contracted polio in Nigeria during the summer holidays. Two years later she had survived the infection with her mind and spirit defiantly intact, but unable to walk.

To its shame (this would not happen today), Oxford withdrew its offer because of her disability. She studied at Bristol, and finally arrived at Oxford in the mid-1960s to begin a pioneering research career specialising in the physiology of smooth muscle. As tutor in physiological sciences at LMH she acted as mentor and friend to generations of doctors, psychologists and research scientists – and one science writer.

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.

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.