Blogging; totally worth a go

This is my first post to Occam’s Irregulars and when I was planning out what I wanted to write, I though that I needed something that was going to have a splash and get plenty of clicks. But that sounded hard and possibly requiring of either talent or some kind of Buzzfeed-esq list format. So instead, I’m going for the much easier option of increasing the competition to the point where I can claim that the 10 views I get is totally understandable what with all those new science blogs that just started up.ErrantScience.comI’ve been blogging now for 2 years, pretty solidly. I think I’ve only missed my weekly schedule once or twice, and even then I think it was because I managed to lock myself out by forgetting my password. I blog because I enjoy it and hopefully, that passion shows through in more than just my insane update schedule. Reading other bloggers such as Hapsci’s Notes, Deathsplanation, and There’s a Spider In The Bath, their posts always read like passionate treatise – either on something in the media for which they have expertise, or simply their own research. If you look at all the posts I’ve linked, it doesn’t feel like an exercise in ‘putting something up for something’s sake’.

But I had no idea I would actually be that passionate about doing it before I started. I started blogging for a variety of reasons, but “because it sounds fun” was actually a pretty long way down the list. And it wasn’t something that just instantly clicked in. I wasn’t 100 words in to my first post and suddenly had an eureka moment, leaning back and saying “gadzooks, this is a ripping good laugh!”. It’s something I realised after a few weeks – that I was looking forward to writing my blog posts, and even more, looking forward to talking to people online about it.

I should be clear though – I’m not suggesting that everyone is made to have a go at blogging. One of the many, many things I’m meant to be doing right now is working on my PGCert qualification. As part of that course, the class were very strongly encouraged to all start blogs to chronicle our journey through a part-time short course we do 5 days of work on. Some of my peers did create blogs and without exception, they all stopped shortly after their first few posts. Similarly, a friend on a non-science MSc was told that as part of her coursework she (in a group) has to start and run a blog for a year. As you might expect, most of the posts fit squarely in the mould “because it was due” and are about as insightful and inspiring as you’d expect from mandatory MSc coursework that is ungraded.

Blogging, like all outreach, is really only successful when the person doing it has a drive and a passion to do it. Not everyone starts with a burning desire to stand up and shout about their work but most of us have no idea if we will ever have that passion. All I’d suggest is – go try it. Set up a blog on WordPress or tumblr; start tweeting more; share photos of your experiments on Instagram. If you find it rewarding, then keep doing it! If you don’t, then at the very least you’ve added your voice/social media to explaining your science a little better.

But whatever you end up doing, please tell me about it – I love hearing about other people’s research and I’m always happy to give someone starting out a bit of help getting noticed.

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Some words when one is speechless

The current use of “no words” in its semaphoric online sense seems to date back to five or ten years ago. To you, there may seem to be a great difference between five and ten years ago. To me, two days ago brought me fourteen years into the past, and all of us towards another future. From this perspective, there are no words to describe it, yet.

A small light, reflected and diffracted.In November, 2001, I had been admitted to the Hopital Georges Pompidou, the new hospital which had made our neighborhood a mess of construction work and traffic jams, for the life-threatening peritonitis that set in after my appendix burst. It took a while to figure out what had happened and I nearly did die; no one was responsible for the whole experience, though I blamed various aspects of it on individuals, and had others to thank for saving my life.

Two days ago, in November, 2015, fifty or sixty wounded victims were admitted through the same Georges Pompidou emergency room doors. No one is responsible for the whole experience, but there are both murderers and heroes who figure in each one of their stories. There are so many stories, and so little sense to make of it all.

In November 2001, I hadn’t yet realized that I was in the throes of a severe depression. I had been morally devastated by the import of the destruction unleashed in my homeland on September 11th, 2001. When I reached my Paris apartment with my baby and preschooler and allowed myself to finally turn on the television that day, I sank to my knees. My baby didn’t understand what she was seeing, but my preschooler, who only knew that his mother was overwhelmed and distressed, cried with me. I turned off the television then to better love the living, but it went on again, later, as did the radio, and the Internet connection, by modem still at the time, with endless comparisons of shock and people checking in with one another and the increasingly belated discoveries of who had died, who had been injured, by how many degrees of separation.

Recovering from surgery, from that first experience of mourning so close to the realization of my mortality, from the concern that the AZF chemical factory explosion later in September was yet another efficacious precursor to war against civilians, from anticipating our baby’s third operation for her congenital malformation, I finally broke down in front of the television that the women who shared my room insisted on keeping turned on. American Airlines 587 had crashed in New York, killing 265 people at once. It wasn’t a terrorist attack, but a tragedy nonetheless. The surgeon came to see me, then sent a hospital psychiatrist. I recovered from it all, except the underlying sensory processing sensitivity. I have lived and loved for many more years, have helped and mourned many more people, and done things I would never have imagined possible.

Is this a political, a personal, a philosophical essay? I don’t know. Like so many of my fellow citizens, I feel like I suddenly don’t know so much about all of my convictions at the moment, and even less about theirs. There are many differences between how devastated I was again, in January of this year, in the face of another attack on civilians in Paris, and how functional I can be, now. Depression having been part of it, but not all. I had commiserated only the day before with my Lebanese colleague here in Marseille, whose husband still in Beirut was saddened like all other residents, on how one must continue, go to school and work as usual, conscious of how tenuous the ties keeping our loved ones at hand can be.

It was in the southern working-class suburbs, she said. He never goes there. We then exchanged platitudes about how any of us in lab could have been driving home after a dinner with friends, after a rehearsal, after keeping watch over an experiment. in the same tunnel where the revenge shooting broke out here between rival gangs in a high-speed chase early last Tuesday morning.

All I know is that this commenter’s quotation of Albert Camus yesterday in Le Monde resonates loudly in my head. I couldn’t find an online English translation of the  preamble to ACTUELLES III. Chroniques algériennes, 1939-1958, so any imprecisions are my fault alone.

S’il est vrai qu’en histoire, du moins, les valeurs, qu’elles soient celles de la nation ou de l’humanité, ne survivent pas sans qu’on ait combattu pour elles, le combat (ni la force) ne suffit pas à les justifier. Il faut encore que lui-même soit justifié, et éclairé, par ces valeurs. Se battre pour sa vérité et veiller à ne pas la tuer des armes mêmes dont on la défend, à ce double prix les mots reprennent leur sens vivant. Sachant cela, le rôle de l’intellectuel est de discerner, selon ses moyens, dans chaque camp, les limites respectives de la force et de la justice. Il est donc d’éclairer les définitions pour désintoxiquer les esprits et apaiser les fanatismes, même à contre-courant.

If it is true that throughout history, values, be they of the nation or of humanity overall, cannot survive without fighting for them, then the combat and the force expended are not enough to justify them. The combat itself must be justified and illuminated by those values. Words take on their true living value by the double price of fighting for one’s truth all while taking care not to kill it with the same weapons used to defend it. Aware of that, the intellectual’s role is to distinguish as best as she can, on each side, the respective limits of force and justice. That role furthermore is to clarify the definitions of these values, in order to bring sobriety to the intoxicated and to calm their impulses toward fanaticism, even if this goes against the grain.

  • Albert Camus, 1958

Yes, it is a call to arms. But to arms truly compatible with the values of a civilization that can encourage biomedical research into rare disorders. To paraphrase Kamran Abbasi, let science be a weapon of peace. Let all our decisions be thoughtful. Let us not forget the past, recent or distant, while struggling to find the words that will describe the future we promise to ensure.

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500 dead bumblebees – the chemical blitz of modern farming

Globe thistle

Earlier this year, Sheila Horne was walking at Hacton Parkway, a public park and conservation area in Havering, East London. April is normally a good time to see insects in their prime so she was very surprised to find many dead and dying bees near the path. She alerted local naturalist, Tony Gunton who identified the insects as bumblebee queens from three species, red-tailed, buff-tailed and common carder. This was not a minor incident, there were as many as 500 bees affected.

Chemical analysis of the dead bees

Natural England was appointed to investigate the insect deaths and samples of dead bees were sent to FERA in York for analysis. The results were released in August and showed that the bees were contaminated with the neonicotinoid insecticide imidacloprid and two fungicides, flusilazole and epoxiconazole. Imidacloprid can be very poisonous to bees and bumblebees are more susceptible to this chemical than honeybees. Imidacloprid is currently subject to a two year partial ban for some agricultural uses in the EU. Neither fungicide on its own is especially toxic to bees although flusilazole was phased out this October because of its high toxicity to fish and because of other potential toxic effects.

A nearby field of oil seed rape as the source of the chemicals?

The chemical analysis raises two questions. Where did the bumblebees pick up these chemicals? Were these chemicals responsible for the bee deaths?

Neither question can be answered definitively but as so many dying bees were found together in one place, it seems likely that the source of the poisoning was close by. Hacton Parkway lies alongside arable farmland and at the time of the poisoning some of the land was planted with flowering oil seed rape, so it is a reasonable conclusion that the bees had been feeding there. Because of the chemical analysis, it was initially assumed that the crop had been planted using seed treated with imidacloprid ahead of the ban and that the imidacloprid had killed the bees. Natural England have recently concluded their investigation and found that in fact the seed used to plant the crop had been treated with another neonicotinoid, thiamethoxam. Neither imidacloprid nor epoxiconazole had been used on the crop and the last spraying with flusilazole was in November 2013. Analysis of the dead bees for thiamethoxam failed to detect any of the chemical but this could have been due to losses before the analysis.

What killed the bees?

So, why did these bees die? Because there are so many unanswered questions we cannot be sure. The dead bees were contaminated with imidacloprid but the oil seed rape crop was not the source. We can only assume that the bees fed elsewhere on imidacloprid-treated crops and were flying with this chemical in their systems. It is known that at typical field concentrations, imidacloprid does not kill bumblebees.

There is also the question of how the bees were exposed to the two fungicides if the oil seed rape had not been sprayed with these chemicals during the flowering season. As with the imidacloprid, we have to assume that the bees were exposed elsewhere. It is possible that the fungicides weakened the bees or made them more susceptible to the neonicotinoids. There is some evidence for such interactions for other insecticide/fungicide pairings.

Because the bees died close to the treated crop, the focus of lethality has to be on the thiamethoxam, now known to have been used on the oil seed rape. Although thiamethoxam is indeed an insecticide, there is evidence from one lab-based study and another field study (albeit lacking controls) that, at field-realistic concentrations, thiamethoxam is not lethal to bumblebees. I find it unlikely, therefore, that thiamethoxam alone killed the bees, providing the farmer followed safety guidelines.

We shall never know what actually happened at Hacton Parkway but my best guess is that these bees were flying with the three chemicals in their system and encountered the thiamethoxam-treated oil seed rape. When they fed from it, they picked up the additional neonicotinoid. Two neonicotinoids, with perhaps synergistic effects of the fungicides, were too much and they died.

The investigation is now closed!

The investigation is now closed and it will be impossible to resolve the many questions raised by this incident, which is a pity. Despite this uncertainty, the results of the chemical analysis stand. These bees died with three chemicals in their bodies: one neonicotinoid and two fungicides. They were also exposed to a second neonicotinoid. This was no laboratory experiment; this reflects what is happening around us when these chemicals are used. Have a look at this report to see more evidence of the widespread use of chemicals in UK farming. Our agricultural practices have led to this chemical blitz and the result is the deaths of important pollinators. How often is this occurring on a lower level but not being noticed or reported?

Artichoke and bumblebee

I should like to thank Tony Gunton (local naturalist) and Helen Duggan (Press Officer, Health and Safety Executive) for sharing information about this incident.

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Why a talented researcher – but a naive saleswoman – had to resort to #crowdfunding

I went and wrote, go ahead, launch the campaign – unprepared, at the end of July. That said, we ARE going to succeed in raising the money we so desperately need to make concrete things happen in our lab: registering the very many families who have been willing to participate in this research for years now, and processing their biological samples to discover the answers to those questions that just keep coming.

Why do some children with congenital melanocytic nevi (CMN) die of cancer or brain malfunctions? That’s the big one. Far too many of them – and we as yet have no idea what distinguishes their CMN from the other kids who continue to live with the difficult social stigma of looking sometimes very different. A survey and registry, but above all, the biological specimens and comparing their characteristics to our animal models, will help us understand. Our lab is collecting them, but I need personnel to really make it happen.

Therapies might already be on their way because of recent findings as to what genes can be mutated and in what tissues. However, we still don’t know how these genes work during development or how the hyperactive proteins they encode might be counteracted safely. Our research is designed to answer these questions.

The first genes identified were the same ones often mutated in adult-onset melanoma, only before birth and without sun exposure. CMN kids mostly don’t have melanoma – except for those who then do develop melanoma. A vastly greater proportion than among children without CMN. I am aware of two children in the world fighting their CMN-related melanoma as I write you, and those are just the ones I know. It is heartbreaking.

You would think that governments would recognize the potential impact of rare disease research in a condition affecting kids from birth, for understanding and treating a common adult cancer. It’s exceedingly difficult anywhere in the world, to get so-called public funding for a condition that affects a tiny percentage of the population and their caregivers

Therefore, I turn directly to the public. You. Please back this project. Show the world that the number of people affected with a difficult rare condition should not be part of the cost-benefit analysis for worthwhile research.

Look how beautiful people with CMN are! (If you follow this link, click the little boy on the stairs, for a beautiful photo campaign sponsored by Nevus Outreach, Inc. in the U.S.)

My major motivation – one of those lovely teens with CMN is my daughter. Another motivation – another one of those lovely teens had a piece of her brain removed a few years ago, to control her CMN-related epilepsy by removing the pigmented area. Another motivation – any of those lovely teens sometimes feels uncomfortably different from everyone around her, and that’s outside of spending time in the hospital, which they all have.

Look soon for a video introduction to my research group, and interests, and perhaps some more motivations.

Thank you so much for your interest and support.

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Disturbing the natural order – the case of neonicotinoid insecticides and farmland birds

Apus apus 01.jpg

A swift


One of my favourite nature writers is Mark Cocker who has the ability to capture a scene or an idea in a few hundred words. Despite his immense knowledge he never loses his sense of awe and with clever use of metaphor, his descriptions of nature leap in to life.

Here is Cocker writing about the interdependence of birds and insects:
“…… that vast efflorescence of insect life is integral to spring. After all, those swifts newly screaming over our village and the chorus that greets us at first light are little more than arthropods processed by avian digestive systems”.

Another favourite nature writer, Kenneth Allsop wrote, nearly fifty years ago, also about bird/insect interdependence. He took the example of a pair of dunnocks in the breeding season who consume more than 1000 insects each day just to maintain their chicks. Many of those insects, he pointed out, will be garden pests, “worth bearing in mind when irritated by bird damage to the green peas and apple buds”.

Despite this obvious dependence of bird life on insects, we still dump insecticides on to our gardens, parks and farmland with little real thought about the long term consequences.

One class of insecticide that has recently attracted scrutiny is the neonicotinoids. The neonicotinoids were introduced in the 1990s and are now very widely used to kill insect pests on a broad range of crops. In the UK, for example, a large proportion of the oil seed rape is grown using seed treated with neonicotinoids. One of the advantages of the neonicotinoids is their selectivity for invertebrates; in principle they have low toxicity towards vertebrates. There has, however, been increasing concern about effects of the neonicotinoids on non-target insects such as bees and the accumulation of the chemicals in soil and water courses with more general effects on invertebrates.

New worries about the neonicotinoids surfaced last week in a paper published in Nature by Hallmann and colleagues from Radboud University in the Netherlands. The Dutch group investigated whether these chemicals might be affecting the numbers of farmland birds indirectly by reducing the numbers of insects that these birds depend upon especially in the breeding season.

They took advantage of long-term monitoring schemes in the Netherlands to compare the average concentrations of one neonicotinoid (imidacloprid) in surface water between 2003 and 2009 with bird population trends over the same period. The comparison was made in different regions across the entire country and focussed on 15 species of common farmland bird that depend on invertebrates during the breeding season.

Yellow wagtail.jpg

Yellow wagtail (one of the farmland birds suffering a decline)


The comparison showed that in regions where concentrations of imidacloprid in surface water were higher, population growth rates of these insectivorous birds were lower or negative. Although superficially this suggests that imidacloprid has caused the decline in bird numbers, we first need to rule out alternative explanations for the apparent association.

Hallmann and colleagues consider two possible alternatives: first, the apparent effect of imidacloprid might actually reflect an ongoing decline in bird numbers that predated the introduction of this insecticide; second, the apparent imidacloprid effect might actually reflect changes in land use linked to agricultural intensification. They eliminate both of these alternatives.

Another possible confounding factor that the authors seem to have ignored is the effect of other pesticides. The Netherlands is a very intensively farmed country with more than 60% of land under cultivation. Many different chemicals are used to control pests including imidacloprid. It seems likely that areas with high imidacloprid use will be associated with high usage of other chemicals. Another Dutch group has analysed the large numbers of chemicals present in Dutch agriculture and shown that, in some regions, concentrations of imidacloprid are high enough to kill invertebrates but levels of other chemicals also exceed toxic doses. So, it could be imidacloprid that is leading to the decline in farmland birds or it could be a generally toxic environment. Either way, the conclusion is bleak and ought to make us reflect on the way we are producing our food.

Although the effects of imidacloprid described in this paper are open to interpretation, the evidence against the neonicotinoids continues to accumulate and some authors believe they are having widespread deleterious effects on the natural environment. George Monbiot, writing in the Guardian last week, called for a complete ban on the use of these insecticides.

The Center for Food Safety, a US-based non profit organisation, recently took a different approach to the neonicotinoid problem by asking how much the insecticides actually increase crop yield. Analysing 19 published studies, they found either inconsistent or no evidence that neonicotinoids increase yield. So, astonishingly, dumping neonicotinoids on farm crops has little discernable effect on productivity. Have we all been conned by the agrochemical companies?


[picture credits: “Apus apus 01” by Paweł Kuźniar (Jojo_1, Jojo) – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Yellow wagtail” by Andreas TrepteOwn work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.5 via Wikimedia Commons.]

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The Flying Squad*

An imposing, white-painted beehive stood in the middle of the room. Emblazoned across the front in large black letters was one word – POLICE.

The police keep bees?

But why?

On a nearby wall was a screen showing a short documentary film: “Policing Genes” by Thomas Thwaites. The film featured police beekeeper, Mark Machan, from the Metropolitan Police Genetic Surveillance Unit. Machan manages 43 beehives around south London and part of Kent. He collects pollen from bees returning to their hives. The pollen is analysed to see if people are growing GM crops and infringing intellectual property; also whether they are cultivating illicit substances. Machan takes advantage of the bees’ “waggle dance” to locate the source of the pollen. Bees returning to the hive perform this dance to communicate the location of rich forage to their nest mates. Machan analyses these waggle dances to infer the location so that officers can be sent to suburban gardens growing unlicensed GM plants. The advantage of using bees is that they can go anywhere, they don’t need a warrant. They save human time and money.

It sounded plausible and I must admit that, for a short time, I believed the story, but this was an art gallery and I should have been more circumspect.

0TC1004_WELLCOME_ 092_fin_RGB_v2_Large.jpg

The poster advertising the Apiculture exhibition


I was visiting the recent exhibition “Apiculture: Bees and the Art of Pollination” at the University of Plymouth which showed how artists have responded to the problems faced by bees. The exhibition was curated by Amy Shelton as part of the Honeyscribe project which explores the relationship between bee health, human health, the environment and the arts. Her exhibition brought together the work of ten internationally known artists many of whom also work with scientists.

Once I realised that I was being taken for a ride, I could see that the police beehive and this film might be warning about of the perils of a culture where overexploitation of wildlife and infringement of personal freedom were commonplace.

I was made to think again, however, when I read a recent paper from the Apiculture Group at Sussex University. Dr Margaret Couvillon and colleagues had been interested to find out whether so-called agri-environment schemes really were effective. Major changes in farming have occurred since the middle of the 20th century leading to the loss of habitat for wildlife and the increased use of chemicals. European Union agri-environment schemes are designed to provide practical support to farmers to protect valuable and threatened landscape and to encourage them to adopt practices that support wildlife. Different levels of “stewardship” exist corresponding to different levels of support for the environment. Payments amounting to £400 million a year are made to farmers in England for these schemes but outcomes are often unclear.

In this new study, Couvillon and colleagues have used foraging honeybees to act as assessors of landscape quality to see if agri-environment schemes actually do deliver.

Honeybees depend for their survival on the availability of abundant forage in the form of flowers so they are continually assessing the “quality” of the surrounding environment. Worker bees returning to the hive perform the “waggle dance” to communicate to their nest mates the location of the most profitable foraging locations. The waggle dance encodes information about the distance and direction of the preferred forage and if this “language” could be decoded then honeybees could be used to monitor the quality of the landscape.

The Sussex group have done just that. By analysing the bees’ waggle dances, they can “eavesdrop” on honeybee workers when they express their foraging preferences for different types of landscape. Three hives situated at the University of Sussex were studied over two flowering seasons. The bees foraged over a mixed landscape consisting of urban land, rural land receiving no environmental support and rural land receiving different levels of agri-environment support. Couvillon and colleagues decoded waggle dances from 5484 worker bees and found considerable variation in foraging preference for different parts of the landscape. Rural land supported by agri-environment schemes was visited more often by the bees whereas urban land, rural land not receiving agri-environment support and, surprisingly, rural land under organic stewardship were visited less often.

The bees expressed their strongest preference for rural land under higher level stewardship including local nature reserves. These schemes provide the greatest support for the environment and may encourage growth of forage-rich wild flowers. Money spent on higher level stewardship schemes and nature reserves may, therefore, be helping to support bees and other important pollinators whose habitat has been degraded by changes in farming practices during the 20th century.

In contrast, the bees expressed their lowest preference for rural land under organic entry level stewardship. Although this scheme does provide support for the environment and the land is farmed using organic principles, the practices used to establish the land may prevent nectar-rich plants from flowering. This unexpected observation should make organic farmers reflect on the methods they are using.

This is a fascinating study illustrating how the language of the honeybee waggle dance is used to communicate information about the health of the surrounding landscape to the hive community. Couvillon and colleagues have shown that by translating the bee language they can also access this information and, potentially, use it as an important tool to inform policy for supporting wildlife.

At the end of the paper, Couvillon and colleagues emphasise how, with their analysis, honeybees can be used to survey landscape health and they can do this more cheaply, more effectively and more quickly than humans could ever do – a surprising echo of the words used by the “police beekeeper”.

*The Flying Squad is a branch of the UK police specialising in the investigation of commercial armed robberies. They were immortalised in the TV series, The Sweeney.

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Lock up your hydrangeas, drug thieves about!

Hydrangea hortensis smith

Plants are rich and varied sources of chemicals that change brain function, so-called psychoactive chemicals. For example, the coca plant, a shrub indigenous to the foothills of the Andes, was used for thousands of years by the local people because of the effects of the cocaine contained in the leaves. The peyote cactus has been used for millennia by the inhabitants of Mexico and Central America to experience the psychoactive effects of mescaline. In the 19th century, many families living in the Fens in the East of England grew a stand of white poppies in a corner of their garden. These were harvested to make a “poppy-head tea” containing small amounts of opium. The tea was used as a traditional remedy for the various ailments that afflicted rural life in that part of the UK.

These are just three examples but they illustrate the ingenuity of humans for finding plants that have interesting or useful properties when consumed. For every flower or plant, someone, somewhere will have tried eating it or smoking it and, if they survived, they will have reported the effects.

Hydrangea May 2012-1

I was, therefore, more than surprised when, last month, I read a Guardian leader “In praise of hydrangeas” which not only extolled the plant for its blooms but also pointed out the recent discovery of the psychoactive properties of the flowers. According to a companion piece there had been a spate of hydrangea attacks in northern France, attributed, so the article alleged, to people wishing to smoke the dried flowers and leaves because of the hallucinogenic and euphoria-inducing effects which are similar to those of cannabis. The thieves must be after the new shoots judging from the state of a hydrangea in my garden; it has plenty of new growth but the few flowers left are dry, brown and rather mangy.

I hadn’t heard of the psychoactive properties of hydrangea before and didn’t know quite what to make of the story. It sounded worthy of April Fool’s Day but in fact the craze for smoking hydrangea is not new and springtime hydrangea theft has been known in Bavaria for more than 10 years. In Romania, they are so concerned that they have stopped planting the shrub in parks.

Hydrangea does not feature in my pharmacognosy textbook suggesting that if hydrangea does possess any interesting pharmacological properties, these have been overlooked. Nevertheless, the shrub does contain some unique chemicals including the coumarins, hydrangine and hydrangenol but unfortunately no psychoactive properties have been reported for these substances. Importantly, hydrangea does not contain compounds typical of cannabis such as tetrahydrocannabinol.

So what’s going on here? It doesn’t look as though there are major psychoactive chemicals in hydrangea so how does smoking the shrub produce a high? Perhaps we can get a clue from veterinary reports on the dangers of hydrangea to pets. Apparently dogs and cats can become unwell if they eat the leaves. This is attributed to chemicals found in hydrangea called cyanogenic glycosides which can break down, when metabolised, to produce the very poisonous substance, hydrogen cyanide. Cyanogenic glycosides are found in many different plants including some apricot kernels and almonds, also apple and cherry seeds.

Hydrogen cyanide is very poisonous to humans as it inhibits energy production in cells. Some of the short term effects of cyanide are headache, dizziness and confusion. Perhaps when leaves or flowers of hydrangea are smoked, small amounts of hydrogen cyanide are released. Consumption of one hydrangea joint might, therefore, provide a little cyanide and the effect, combined with a good dose of imagination could be interpreted as cannabis-like. This would also fit with the many warnings about not smoking more than one hydrangea joint because of the significant risk of cyanide poisoning.

I have not come across any reports of hydrangea smoking in the UK but I did find a report of bloom theft in Hastings and Bexhill in 2012. Apparently, the thieves were then selling the dried blooms to flower arrangers at a boot fair. At least that’s what they said!

I should like to thank Dr Ben Whalley (University of Reading) and Prof Kurt Hostettman (University of Geneva) for helpful discussions.

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Relative oblivion and revivals

Image of Penny Candy paperback edition, by Jean Kerr

Penny Candy paperback edition, by Jean Kerr

While on vacation in California, I had the U.S. version of a famous online bookstore locate and then send me a copy of a collection of essays I once enjoyed in the very same yard-sale paperback edition. It is as old as I am, and entitled Penny Candy, by Jean Kerr. Back when, this book enabled me share other people’s experiences in a world rather different from my own, with the same efficacy and novelty as any Emily Brontë or Lois Lenski novel.

Rereading the brittle, acid-yellowed pages with nostalgic pleasure, I was immediately struck that some of the shorter essays, like the one I will transcribe below, would have made wonderful blog posts. I then went to find this particular one online, to discover that it is not easy to dig up – its original publication was in the Dramatists’ Guild Bulletin, an erstwhile publication of the Authors’ League of America, before being reprinted by Fawcett Crest [(c) Collin Productions, Inc.]. To my disappointment, the essay I had in mind has been reduced to being “a great quote” of its author, and its actual content apparently buried under many hundreds of millions of other English-language blogs, editorials and opinion essays.

So, I will consider that I have performed my requisite sourcing, and with no further ado, here I revive for the Internet annals:

I Don’t Want to See the Uncut Version of Anything
by Jean Kerr

Subtitled: “Reflections of a Part-Time Playwright*

Recently, I was heard to murmur against the endless frustrations connected with getting a play produced. I mean I was exploding in all directions and pounding on the table with the handle of a broom. My husband finally quieted me by saying, “How can you complain so much – do you know that Euripides was exiled?” Actually, I didn’t. But now that I know, it makes all the difference. In the future when shadows gather and vexations mount, I shall take solace from the fact that, in any event, I was never exiled.

But I don’t mean to talk about playwriting. My experience as a playwright is so limited that I think it would be hasty for me to theorize about it*. On the other hand, because of my husband’s sorry occupation, my experience as a member of the audience is enormous. It occurs to me that in the last eighteen years I have become the most experienced audience in America.

We are agreed that a critic is not, and never will be, a member of the audience. Not only is he paid to attend, he is paid to listen; and this sobering circumstance colors his whole attutude toward the material on stage. The critic says: This is an extremely bad play – why is that? The audience says: This is an extremely bad play – why was I born? There is a real difference.

Anyway, on those melancholy opening nights when one sees that the jig is up and the closing notice soon will be, I make little notes to myself. I list some of them here in the wistful hope that somewhere there is a beginning playwright who will believe that my prejudices are shared by some other people. I think they are. I think I am pretty close to being the square root of the ordinary audience. I notice that I perk up when other people perk up. I slump when they slump. And I most certainly do not keep my head when all about me are losing theirs. I think paradise will be regained on 44th Street when young playwrights understand that they must try not to write plays that will cause nice, ordinary people from Riverdale to wish they were dead.

Little Notes to Myself:

I believe that plays that are successful are almost invariably more entertaining than plays that fail. This will come as a revolutionary idea only to those who have spent their lives avoiding beautiful girls because they are rumored to be dumb.

It is perfectly all right with me when a character in an avant-garde play points to a realistic iron bed and says, “That is a piano.” It is still all right with me when another character sits down in front of the bed and plays The Blue Danube Waltz on the mattress. But thereafter I expect that nobody will lie down on the piano.

I think that if there are only three characters in a play, one of them ought to be a girl.

I do not wish to see musical comedies performed entirely on bleachers in which the leading man wears clown-white make-up (the only man in the world who can put on clown-white make-up and be Marcel Marceau is Marcel Marceau).

It strikes me as less than hilarious when an actor, impersonating a foreigner, is required to struggle with our quaint American colloquialisms. (“How ess eet you put it? I shovel you. Ah, no. I deeg you.”)

I do not like to hear the most explicit four-letter words** spoken from the stage because I number among my acquaintance persons of such candor and quick temper that, for me, the thrill is gone.

I have noticed that in plays where the characters on stage laugh a great deal, the people out front laugh very little. This is notoriously true of productions of Shakespeare’s comedies. “Well, sirrah,” says one buffoon, “he did go heigh-ho upon a bird-bolt.” This gem is followed by such guffaws and general merriment as would leave Olsen and Johnson wondering how they had failed.

It may have been bearable the first time it was done, but it is no longer bearable to see a comedy in which the ingenue yap yap yaps the whole first act long about the burdens of her virginity.

Images of brunch coats.

Brunch coats. They make everyone look terrible.

Also – speaking of the same kind of play – the heroine always does look as cute as all get out when, for reasons of the plot, she has to wear the hero’s bathrobe. On the other hand (and this is happening more and more), when the hero is required to wear her brunch coat, he looks just plain terrible.

I have noticed that an entertainment that opens or closes with the setting up or dismantling of a circus tent always gets good notices***. I don’t know what to make of this.

I have seen plays performed on steps in front of a cyclorama that I enjoyed – but not many.

I am wary of plays in which God or the devil appear in characters. We will waive any discussion of theology and I don’t mean to be irreverent when I say that, for all practical purposes in the theater, God is a lousy part. (A play I really loved, The Tenth Man, had to do with a girl who was being exorcised of the devil, but it may be relevant to note that we never saw the devil.)

I don’t want to see productions that run four and one-half hours. (I don’t want to see the “uncut” version of anything.) In a recent production of King Lear, the first act ran for two and one-half hours. By that time I considered that I had given up smoking, and I spent the entire intermission wondering if I should begin again. And I was once more made aware – during that interminable first act – that the most serious materials eventually seem comic if they are allowed to go on too long. For instance, during the protracted scene in which Lear (now mad) is talking to poor, blinded Gloucester, all I could think was: first they put his eyes out, now they’re going to talk his ears off.

One thing, though. Whatever their losses on other fronts, actors have got to keep their teeth in. I would have thought this went without saying until I saw two plays by Joe Orton. In one a slatternly landlady, who was competing with her brother for the affections of a male lodger, lost her dentures under the sofa. In another, a young man plundered the corpse of his recently dead mother, removing her false teeth so that he could use them as castanets. If this sounds funny, I’m not telling it right.

When The Little Foxes was revived recently, there were those who said it was too well constructed. To me, that’s like saying a Pan Am pilot is too conscientious. What I like about Lillian Hellman’s play is that you couldn’t play the second act first. I know all about improvisation and the free-form that mirrors the chaos of our time, but I do like to feel that the playwright has done some work before I got there.

I dislike seeing actors perform in the nude. Not that, at my age, I am shocked, but I become exceedingly uncomfortable as the naked performers begin to perspire under the hot lights and develop a tendency to stick to the furniture, or, worse, to each other. In the aura of silliness which prevails on such occasions, I find myself distracted from the plot (which seems merely to be against the audience) into practical considerations. Do they still call them dressing rooms? If an actor develops a boil in an unsuited area, is a Band-aid used, or the understudy? Is it possible to say to an actor, “I saw you in Oh, Calcutta!,” without laughing?

At plays like A Man for All Seasons, The Matchmaker, The Lady’s Not for Burning, A Streetcar Named Desire, The Odd Couple, The Great White Hope, Summer and Smoke, and The Front Page, I don’t make any notes at all. I just sit there and bask and bask and bask and then, when the glow begins to wear off, I go back again.


* see her biography … multiple essay collections, a particularly rich and busy family life, no computer, and enough plays to qualify as full-time in my book.

** “Good authors too who once knew better words, now only use four-letter words. Writing prose, anything goes.” Cole Porter, Anything Goes (1934)

*** Kerr may be referring to J.B. among others, which was relatively appreciated by her husband.

Posted in Art, Fun | 4 Comments

Research talks about large congenital melanocytic nevi

Cross-posted from The Node:

Limited time offer until 30 April 2014. Read on.

CMN-NCM conference

As a developmental biologist, I have found my calling in applying what I have learned  about normal embryogenesis to better understanding the pathophysiology of various  human congenital malformations. Often these are rare diseases, and I work closely with patient associations devoted to those conditions and learning to live with them (or with the death of the child who had been afflicted).

Among these, the congenital melanocytic nevus (CMN) is one in which I have been interested for the longest time. I organized a conference last fall in Marseille specifically devoted to the basic biology, epidemiology and medical and psychological considerations around the largest and rarest forms of CMN. I have also assisted the existing worldwide patient groups to federate, which will help us help them build a prospective registry for further research.

I didn’t do it alone, of course. Mark Beckwith from Nevus Outreach, Inc. was the most active, and the only non-physician, member of my organizing committee. We innovated by asking all the speakers to make their presentations available online, behind an inexpensive but secure paywall, and by dubbing the presentations with the sound of their actual delivery. In some settings, this is known as a slidecast. The slides advance automatically in sync with the sound.

We also placed the videos, when relevant, of the Q&A periods following the talks. The titles of the talks in the programme are at this link, and the PDF with the abstracts and titles can be downloaded directly from this one.

The idea was to make a resource that would slowly garner hits over time, as I have done with some of my teaching in the past. However, the company hosting the slidecasts has decided to eliminate the slidecast offering for good, after seven years, in the next three months. After I paid for a subscription for a full year, of course.

So: 33 presentations from the ESPCR-sponsored International Expert Meeting on Large Congenital Melanocytic Nevi and Neurocutaneous Melanocytosis in September, 2013, are currently available online. They are web-viewable “slidecasts” (author-approved slideshows with synchronized sound from the live presentations). In addition, there are 29 videos of the corresponding question and answer sessions. The slidecasts disappear at the end of April, 2014.

You can virtually “attend” this conference for only 25 euros (approximately 35 USD or 21 GBP) by navigating to this webpage. All proceeds will directly support building a prospective patient registry by the Naevus Global international federation of advocacy groups. I’m writing this to ask you to support a worthy cause and consider learning about the direct result of the developmental biology of a neural crest derivative, gone wrong in one particular molecular way (I’ll let you discover which).

After secure payment through PayPal using either a PayPal account or a credit card, we hand-distribute unique identifiers and the address of a restricted part of the Naevus Global site. There, the order of the program is reproduced, with hyperlinks to the slidecasts and videos.

Thank you for your budding interest in current research on congenital melanocytic nevi & neurocutaneous melanocytosis! I hope you find this resource beneficial and informative, and that you will support our patient registry initiative in this manner.

Sincerely yours,

Heather C. Etchevers, Ph.D.

P.S. Added on 7 February: This is a mouse blood vessel along the underside of the forebrain, with a little cuff of melanocytes – black – instead of smooth muscle, though all of both kinds of cells in theory are carrying the same mutation that is commonly found in human CMN.

We can get some pretty black brains in this manner, but that’s not what kills the mice who end up dying. They’re not a perfect model for the human condition, partly because they’re not human.

But we all have a few pigment cells normally in our meninges (and heart valves, and some other odd sites), and the mice are no exception.

Posted in Conferences, Education | 6 Comments

A night at the opera – or how the myth of the love potion seduces both writers and scientists

The Glyndebourne Touring Opera visits Plymouth in the South West once a year and it’s a real treat to go to their productions. This year we went to see Donizetti’s frothy but very popular L’elisir d’amore. This was beautifully sung and played by the young cast and the production, directed by Annabel Arden, was slick and sexy, with plenty of laughs and a few naughty bits. The story is slight: unsophisticated country lad, Nemorino wins the heart of knowing beauty, Adina with the help of “the elixir of love” sold by the travelling quack, Dr Dulcamara. The elixir is purported to make the drinker attractive to all members of the opposite sex but is actually only cheap wine. Despite the lightweight plot, it was a charming evening and Donizetti captured my attention for more than two hours with his ever changing melodies. Here is a link to some pictures of the production.

Donizetti is not the first to have been captivated by the idea of a “love potion” and we find the motif frequently in both myth and in literature. One of the earliest examples is the Celtic legend of Tristan and Iseult: Tristan is sent to Ireland to collect Iseult, already betrothed to King Mark. Along the way, Tristan and Iseult ingest a love potion and fall deeply in love causing all sorts of problems. Wagner used this story in his opera Tristan and Isolde and the legend surfaces again in L’elisir d’amore; Nemorino hears Adina reading the story and this gives him the idea of using a love potion to win her heart.

Other examples of writers using love potions as plot devices include Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Gilbert and Sullivan’s comic opera, The Sorcerer. JK Rowling used the idea in her Harry Potter books; her love potion, Amortentia causes powerful infatuation or obsession in the drinker.

It is, however, in a Hollywood movie that we finally see scientists confronting the love potion myth. The 1992 film Love potion number 9 introduces geeky biochemist Paul and his comparative psychobiologist colleague Diane; Paul has a secret crush on Diane but, as you might predict, his geekiness gets in the way. Paul is given a love potion by Madam Ruth, a gypsy palm reader, to help overcome his diffidence. He is sceptical at first but, when he sees the effect of the potion on the sex life of his cat, he enlists Diane’s help in “scientifically” analysing the potion; this includes shedding their lab coats and testing the love potion on themselves. The plot twists and turns, but all ends happily ever after for Paul and Diane.

Although the storyline in this movie is lighter than the foam on a perfect cafe latte, the idea of manipulating romantic attraction using a love potion is a perennially fascinating topic, which is why it continues to emerge as a plot device in fiction of all kinds. The same fascination may be what drives real scientists to investigate the basis of romantic attraction.

One of the more infamous scientific investigations in to the basis of romantic attraction is the so-called “sweaty t-shirt experiment” performed by the Swiss Zoologist, Claus Wedekind in 1995. Wedekind was interested in the factors that influence human mate choice and for his study he recruited a group of young men and women. The men were given t-shirts and asked to wear them for two days. At the end of that time the men were instructed to put their t-shirt in to individual but identical boxes. The women were then asked to smell the t-shirts and declare which they found most sexually attractive. Definite preferences were exhibited by the women in their choice of sweaty t-shirt suggesting that odour plays a part in male/female attraction. Moreover, Wedekind showed that the women tended to select men with dissimilar genes in part of the immune system (MHC complex). This could be a means of ensuring that potential offspring have a strong immune system.

Another, very recent, study from the University of Bonn examined a different aspect of romantic attraction, namely how the bond between loving couples is maintained. The work focussed on the role of the brain chemical oxytocin, dubbed the “cuddle hormone” by the popular media. Pair-bonded heterosexual men were shown pictures of their partner or of unfamiliar women. Before the pictures were examined, the men were given intranasal oxytocin or placebo and neither the subjects nor the scientists were aware of the treatments.

After receiving intranasal oxytocin, the men perceived their partner’s faces as more attractive, and there was no such effect when pictures of unfamiliar women were presented. The enhanced partner response was paralleled by activation of the brain’s reward system in a manner similar to that produced by some drugs. The authors concluded that oxytocin contributes to romantic bonds for men by enhancing partner attractiveness and so may contribute to human monogamy.

You can imagine that these kinds of studies might, in the future, lead to forms of love potion but based on another piece of fiction, we might want to be wary of the consequences. In 1974, Roald Dahl published a slightly risqué and slightly unpleasant book called Switch Bitch consisting of four short stories. One of these stories describes the efforts of Belgian olfactory chemist, Henri Biotte, to make a perfume, the ultimate love potion, which activates the nasal receptors corresponding to the eighth human primary odour, for sexual desire. His synthetic odour does what he expects it to do but when his co-worker sprays it over herself, Henri gets overexcited and suffers a heart attack as a consequence.

Posted in Guest posts | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments