The war, the mouse, the protein and the lovers: the curious tale of the search for a common cold vaccine

  “Would you like 10 days free holiday and travel expenses paid?” The advertisements were enticing. They turned up regularly across England for decades. Posters. Newspaper ads. Leaflets. They offered time away in the countryside near Salisbury. Fresh air. Relaxation. Free meals. Not only that, you would be paid for your time. Sound lovely? Married couples were welcome.  Singles were invited, too.  There was even the prospect of romance, provided that those interested in courting remain at least thirty feet apart at all times.  It wasn’t that the organisers were prudish, they… Read More

Cold Snap: the physics of food security

How a single mutation in one gene leads to cold-tolerance in rice   In the summer of 1980, Korean rice farmers were getting nervous.  The weather was cooler than usual. The unseasonable temperatures had begun in July and were continuing through late August.  When September began, things got worse. Even the autumn temperatures were lower than normal. In the end, it was the worst harvest since the Korean War. More than three quarters of a million hectares of rice crops had been damaged, equating to a loss of around 1.5 million tons of… Read More

This Butterfly Is Not Really Blue

  Deep Look is a wonderful new science video series from KQED.  Here they show us how the blue Morpho butterfly actually does not contain any blue pigment.  The blue effect is due to the way light scatters off microscopic structures on the wings. Something very similar happens in blue eyes, which also contain no blue pigment at all.  Paul Van Slembrouk’s story ‘Structural Eye Color Is Amazing’ on Medium provides a great explanation of why each eye colour looks the way it does.     Thanks to, where I found this gem, and where many… Read More

The Mysterious Colour Purple

A little while ago, I wrote an article for Cosmos Magazine on the weird and wonderful history of the earliest known purple pigment. The story begins ancient China, makes a stop in ancient Egypt, finds its way into modern superconductors and winds up in the hands of quantum physicists.  There’s also a little bit of Taoism along the way. It’s a strange tale indeed, and still one of my favourites.  I hope you enjoy! The Mysterious Colour Purple Tphoto credit:  Sharon Drummond  creative commons BY-ND 2.0  

The Bilingual Brain

 late learners benefit, too   Speaking a second language has many obvious practical advantages when it comes to communicating with the wider world. But the question of whether bilingualism confers consistent cognitive benefits, such as better memory or better problem-solving skills, is a topic of much discussion and debate in the fields of psychology and neuroscience.  Some studies show distinct advantages, others not so much. But when we look at the effects of bilingualism on the structure of the brain itself, something is definitely going on.  Moreover, learning a second language seems to help protect the brain as it… Read More

The Vanishing Writers

the curious tale of the scribbles left behind   It begins with a tree. Start a blog, I told myself. Then you can write about anything you want. The idea was enticing, but the promise of writing about anything led very quickly to indecision and that led rather rapidly to no writing at all. Galaxies, immune cells, archaeological digs, neurons, human behaviour, string theory. Where to begin? Specialise, they say, and there is indeed wisdom in that. But part of the fun of this blog is the chance to explore, to tread… Read More