Malaria: we’ve come a long way in 140 years

This is an excerpt from a letter to Nature published in 1870, written by E. L. Layard, an English naturalist living in South Africa.

Permit me to add my mite to Mr. Horace Waller’s theory respecting the utility of mosquito curtains in warding off fever, generated by the miasma of decaying vegetation.

When the body is relaxed in sleep and the pores of the skin act freely, then is the time that the deadly miasma, cold and damp, even in the tropics, seizes on its victim. What jungle traveller does not know the feeling of the air an hour and a half or two hours before daylight? But the warmth from the body and breath within a well-secured mosquito net, I think effectually protects the sleeper.

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Bouquet de garlic

Bouquet de garlic

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The 2011 Wellcome Trust science writing prize

A few months ago I entered the 2011 Science Writing Competition, put on by the Wellcome Trust in association with the Guardian and the Observer. I was lucky enough to be shortlisted, which meant that yesterday I got to go to a science writing workshop at the Guardian as well as an awards ceremony hosted by the brilliant Dara O’Briain.

The ceremony consisted of drinks and canapés in the Wellcome Trust Collections, surrounded by sciencey art installations – a gorgeous blown-glass sculpture of an H1N1 virus, a hanging skeleton with the skull and pelvis switched, and the like. The Wellcome Collections are what my house will look like when I am rich.

Somewhere in the middle there were a couple of great speeches, including an impassioned pro-science polemic by Dara O’Briain, after which he announced the winners: for my category (non-professionals), Tess Shallard; and in the professional category, Penny Sarchet. Their pieces will be published in The Guardian and/or The Observer within the next couple of weeks, and I’m looking forward to reading them – I think my own entry, and the other shortlisted entries, will be published online in due course.

The event also provided an opportunity to meet several of my idols (e.g. Dara, Ed Yong and Ben Goldacre) and be rather too effusive (it was an open bar). Most of these conversations went like this:

Me (earnestly): Dude, you’re fucking awesome.

Ed Yong (equally earnestly): Hey, where did you get that beer?

In truth, everyone was utterly charming, and I’m very grateful to The Guardian and the Wellcome Trust for being excellent hosts and for putting on the competition in the first place. Congrats to Tess and Penny!

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Monday sourdough

…the first made with my new starter culture, now ~3 weeks old.

Monday sourdough

Lacking the equipment to make a proper scientific measurement of the ingredients, I just combined flour, water and salt in roughly the right proportions. 8 hour preferment with 1/3 of the flour, dough mixed and proved for 4 hours, shaped, and retarded in the fridge overnight.

The crumb is denser than one might prefer, probably due to the starter still being somewhat young and underpowered. It could have risen for another hour or two.

But the flavour is promising, and the crust is good: caramelised, brittle, shattering.

Crumb.

Oxford is slowly filling up with returning students; having finished my degree, I’ll be leaving at the end of the week.

Oxford from St. Mary's Tower

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Vintage Science Saturday

One of the nerdier things I enjoy is reading through back-issues of scientific journals. Really old ones: archival issues of Nature, The American Naturalist, Anthropological Review, The American Microscopical Society and others, dating back to 1840-1900. These are available online; JSTOR, for instance, recently made everything in their archives from pre-1923 completely open-access.

I really can’t recommend this highly enough. In those days, many scientists were also excellent writers, and even formal papers were often written with clarity, style, and a liberal use of figurative language. Here is an excerpt from a paper (“The cockroach and its enemy“) published in The American Naturalist in 1867. The author, G. A. Perkins, is describing how a species of wasp stupefies a cockroach before laying eggs in its still-living body: Continue reading

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The solar system is very big

SciencePunk has a nice post on “Five iconic science images, and why they’re wrong.” The visual clichés in question include the Atom With Hula Hoops, the Monkey Turning Into a Guy with a Spear,  and the Pocket-Sized Solar System.

The last of these reminded me of a passage in Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything, one of the best popular science books ever:

Most schoolroom charts show the planets coming one after the other at neighborly intervals—the outer giants actually cast shadows over each other in many illustrations—but this is a necessary deceit to get them all on the same piece of paper. Neptune in reality isn’t just a little bit beyond Jupiter, it’s way beyond Jupiter—five times farther from Jupiter than Jupiter is from us, so far out that it receives only 3 percent as much sunlight as Jupiter.

Such are the distances, in fact, that it isn’t possible, in any practical terms, to draw the solar system to scale. Even if you added lots of fold-out pages to your textbooks or used a really long sheet of poster paper, you wouldn’t come close. On a diagram of the solar system to scale, with Earth reduced to about the diameter of a pea, Jupiter would be over a thousand feet away and Pluto would be a mile and a half distant (and about the size of a bacterium, so you wouldn’t be able to see it anyway).

Coincidentally, I also just now came across this online scale model of the solar system (via Ed Yong, an awesome and ridiculously prolific science writer).

You can see why it’s never drawn to scale: the web page is apparently about half a mile wide, on a typical computer screen. Happy scrolling.

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The Eternal Bread

Carefully positioned on a warm, sunny corner of my desk, there is a squat glass tumbler half-filled with a thin paste of whole wheat flour and water. It’s been there since Sunday; lifeless and inert at first, but lately beginning to bubble and foam towards the rim of the glass, quietly inflating its transparent ziploc bag. Continue reading

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