Yes, chess. Look away now.

In which I revisit my youth as a chess-playing dweeb. Sort of.

Contrary to an earlier threat, I haven’t posted much here about my chess-playing activities over the last year and a bit. Partly this is because these days chess stuff mostly goes on the chess club’s Facebook page. Partly it’s because I haven’t posted much of anything this last year. Anyway, I have been carrying on with my chess comeback by playing once a week for the local club, and have ascended to the dizzying heights of first board for the third team, lower board for the second team, and occasional fill-in player on bottom board for the first team.

However, until last weekend I had not taken a run at the other thing that probably defines the hardened chess fiend – the chess congress.

Back when I was a teenage chess fanatic I used to play in several weekend chess congresses each year. These are two- or three-day events where, as the name suggests, you play one or two games a day, typically in what is a called a ‘Swiss system’ format where each round you are paired against a player with the same (or almost the same) cumulative score as you.

These congresses are, along with traditional local chess clubs, one of the backbones of the UK chess scene, something that is as true now as it was 35 years ago when I was in my teenage chess heyday.

Now, even as a keen junior I only used to do a few of these a year, including specifically junior (age-group restricted) tournaments. Some people used to play many more, and there are people at the chess club I go to now, and at others, who seem to be playing in a tournament like this practically every second week. So on the chess fanaticism scale, I would now be officially classed as only ‘mild’. Indeed, there are also plenty of club chess players who never play in a congress at all. These often tend to be middle-ranking players in their middle years with families – in other words, people like me.

Incidentally, talking of families, my better half (aka ‘The Boss’) is prone to saying that taking up chess again represents my Mid Life Crisis. I always thought ‘mid life crisis’ meant men running off with younger women, dyeing their hair or having plastic surgery, and buying convertible sports cars or large motorbikes. I just toddle off to play chess and drink the odd beer. All I can say is that it must be the world’s most low-key mid-life crisis. I probably should have started playing the electric guitar again instead.

Anyway, getting back to chess: amongst the various local congresses there is a Manchester Autumn chess congress, which is at the very end of the school summer holidays (Labour Day weekend, for my American reader). This congress also takes place a mere 10 minutes drive from Casa Elliott. Last year I went along a couple of times to spectate a bit and browse the bookstall. This year I decided I would take the plunge and actually play. So last weekend I played in my first chess congress for precisely thirty-six years (the last one was the Amersham Reserves A in late August 1977, since you ask, just after I got my O-level results). I was fortunate that there is an ‘Under 165 rating’ section at the Manchester congress, which corresponds well to my current UK chess rating of 157 (For Steve Caplan, this equates very approximately to an U-1950 FIDE, or U-2000 USCF ELO, section).

Anyway, to cut a long story short, I managed to score a decent 4/5 (three wins and two draws) and even got a modest prize for being one of the four equal 2nd place finishers. Funnily enough that is exactly the same score as I made in my last event, 36 years before.

[In another odd coincidence, my chess rating back in 1977 was 162, not too far from its current value. So I am a marginally worse player now than when I was 16. I'm not sure if that ought to be depressing, or comforting.]

The prize, BTW, was enough to just about cover my tournament entry fee and my chess club subscription for the year… or alternatively to take the family to Pizza Express for supper. The children have been petitioning for the latter, though I have been trying to bargain them down to a takeaway. Still, it’s the first time I ever won any money at a chess congress. Back in the 70s the few meagre prizes I managed to collect were all books.

I found it a bit hard going playing two games in a day – especially on Sunday, the third and final day of the congress, when my morning game was quite a tough 3 hr tactical battle (game below). When my final round game that same afternoon went nearly down to the wire too (3 hrs 15 min) I was definitely fading a bit in the later stages. Of course, the last time I played two ‘standard play’ (i.e. standard time rate) chess games in a day I was barely sixteen years old.

I don’t think the way chess congresses run has changed much, if at all, in the time I’ve been away, bar the arbiters/organisers having laptop computers and printers. However, chess congresses now do sound different. This is because the key sound of a chess congress in my youth was… ticking. Lots of ticking. Chess clocks then were all clockwork, and ‘massed ticking’ was the sonic backdrop to all congresses, or any other kind of serious chess-playing. But nowadays, the clocks are digital, and silent. No ticking. One or two players have told me they find this paradoxically more distracting, as now the other sounds in the room are more noticeable. It doesn’t feel quite right to me. A bit like the Morgan Freeman character in The Shawshank Redemption, who finds that he has been ‘institutionalised’ to the point of not being able to the bathroom without being ordered to, I find that it seems… well, wrong, really, to play a serious chess game without ticking in the background.

So…. will I be doing it all again next year? I’m not sure, but on balance I’d say ‘probably not’. Though I enjoy playing chess, Friday evening and most of Saturday and Sunday is a lot of free time to give up, especially on one of the last weekends of the Summer. Perhaps the one-day speed chess events might be more ‘bite-size’, though given my age and declining powers of calculation/concentration I would likely do a bit worse at rapid than at ‘slow play’.

Overall, though, the decisive factor is probably this; after trying both, I reckon spectating/kibitzing/browsing the bookstall at chess congresses is more fun, and certainly less stressful, than actually playing.

Now you might think – and so might I, come to that – that that parallels my view of scientific research these days.*


* ‘I shoulda bin an Editor.’ I sometimes think. “I coulda had class’. Hey ho.


More actual chess details – for the really keen. [Warning: includes algebraic chess talk, chess positions and games.]

I started the congress a bit slowly on Friday evening, despite my first round opponent gifting me a pawn in the opening, and then a whole piece in the middle game. I decided to try and win by direct attack and them embarrassingly missed or botched a whole series of tactical points, worst of all a simple forced mate in six. Luckily I still won.

I was still a bit rusty in round two on Saturday morning, when my opponent again obligingly gifted me a pawn early on. I then made heavy weather of the Queenless middle game, though I did gradually manage to trade off pieces into a R+B v R+N ending where I still had my extra pawn. I was trying to work out how to win when my opponent basically committed suicide.

After White's 32. f5

After White’s 32. f5

End of the game; I’ve just played 32 f5 to try and finally get my Rook, which had been dozing on f3 for the last 15 moves, into the game. Luckily for me, my opponent now had the bizarre idea of a solo charge by the King;

32. ..Kf6?
33. fxg6+ Kxg6
34. e5! (making a possibly outpost on f6 and looking at Rf6+ and then takes e6)
34. … Kh5? (Suicidal – he has to play …Rf7, though I suspect he didn’t want to swap the Rooks off given his pawn deficit)

35. Rf6 (played quickly, and hoping for…)

After Black's 35. ..Re7. White to play and win.

After Black’s 35. ..Re7. White to play and win.

35. …Re7?? – see diagram –  which protects the pawn, but…

36. h3!

..and there’s no way out, as Rh6 will be mate next move. 36. ..Kh4 fails to 37. Kf2 (again threatening mate on h6) …h5 38. Rf4+ and a discovered check next move wins the Black Rook.

It isn’t often you get to set up a mating net by playing a little move like h3, especially with so few pieces on the board, so I was quite pleased with the finish of this game.

Full game, with a few notes:

My most enjoyable game was my 4th round win on Sunday morning, though it was also my most tiring game, as there were plenty of sharp tactics involved. I misplayed the early middle game, and my attack was slower than it should have been, but by move 25-30 I had some real threats to my opponent’s King. He was also critically short of time, which helped. The diagram position is after his 29th move, Kg8-h8 (As will become apparent in a minute, h7 might have been better). Seeking to open more lines towards his King, and with a tactical idea in mind, I played in the diagrammed position:

White to play

White to play

30. f5!?

…the best defence here is ..Bg5. I hadn’t exactly decided whether to meet this by sacrificing an exchange to eliminate the Bishop – 30. ..Bg5 31. R6xg5 hxg5 32. Qxg5 – or just to try and exchange off the Bishop with 31. Be3. I think I’d probably have gone for the latter, especially as the trade ought to favour me with him so short of time. Anyway, to my surprise and delight he played instead:

30. …..exf5?

I had calculated that he couldn’t do this because of:

31. Rxh6+! gxh6??

In fact he could fight on here with the cool response 31. ..Kg8, though he would still be in a pickle. The text move loses at once.

32. Qxh6+ Rh7
33. Qxf6+ Rg7
34. Rxg7

Simplest – Black will be at least a piece down after 34. ..Qxg7 35 Qxd8+

And he resigned.

This one put me on 3.5/4, only a half-point behind the two leaders with one round left.

Full game:

Finally, as a comparison for those who have time to play through games, here are two of my wins from the 1977 Amersham congress. See if you think my playing style has changed over the intervening thirty-odd years.

PS  Once again I should thank Our Blog Overlordz (aka Richard) for setting up playable game support.


Posted in Chess, Getting old, Nerdishness, Procrastination, Uncategorized | 23 Comments

IUPS Part 2

Now that IUPS 2013 has concluded successfully, I thought I should add a few of my conference thoughts, other than those mentioned in the earlier post.


As I am a lazy so-and-so, and I can’t muster too much thinking this late on a weekend evening, I shall give my thoughts in a kind of poll/questionnaire format.


The Conference Centre Was…

Actually pretty good, despite my antipathy to big conferences/conference centres AND my pre-bash misgivings that Birmingham in mid-Summer was any sort of place for a gathering. The centre/site is actually very good, less than 10 min walk from Birmingham New St Station (which is being renovated, and looks like it will be quite good if it ever gets finished). The conference centre is well air-conditioned, and had enough halls of sufficient size for all the things I went to. The conference centre staff directing you to the halls were unfailingly tolerant.

The one gripe, common to many such events, is that in non ‘camber-ed’ rooms – rooms where the floor doesn’t slope downwards toward the front like in a lecture theatre – it is hard to see the slides projected at the front unless they are projected high up. Some rooms have high enough ceilings to do this, but not all. In the absence of a high ceiling, only rows 1-3 and the people by the central aisle can actually see the data, which is a shame.


The surrounding area was….

A pleasant surprise. Birmingham has converted its canal network into a kind of ‘red-brick Riviera’, with canal boats cruising along past complexes of canal-side restaurants and bars. There are lots of these around the ICC and the various conference hotels near it, which provided a good place to do the informal conference-related stuff (that’s eating and drinking -ed). Though a few more inexpensive sandwich outlets or lunch places would have spared my bank balance.

Just down the road was the Birmingham Walkabout Bar, which has attained a certain level of fame in the world of cricket, at least with respect to this year’s Ashes series between England and Australia. I did point the bar out to my Australian friends but they all seemed suddenly to have lost interest in cricket.


The biggest downside of mega-conferences is…

Too many things clash. This is especially true when you are running TWELVE (sic) sessions in parallel.


The organisers are…

To be applauded for doing an excellent job.

They are probably also mighty relieved.

I seem to remember being on the Phys Soc’s ruling Council at about the time when the successful bid to hold IUPS 2013 was made. It seemed then to be years and years away (well, probably ten or so). I cannot believe it has come around so quickly – at least quickly for me, though I dare say it feels every bit of ten years, or possibly a few more, for those involved in the organisational effort that goes into a mega-meeting.

I actually happened to bump into one organiser a few weeks before and asked him if he was looking forward to it.

“Yes.” he said “Get there on the Saturday. Six days and nights of it. Then I’m free!”


People came from…

All over.

One thing I hadn’t expected was just how many delegates there would be from developing countries. Indeed, it was the Brits who seemed a bit thin on the ground this time (recession? conference fatigue? dislike of Aston Villa FC?). Total delegate numbers topped 3000, I’m told, though I don’t know what fraction were UK-based.

The wide geographical distribution of delegates serves as a good reminder that the practise of scientific disciplines (and also teaching them to students) is not confined to the rich countries that do most of the higher-profile research. Reflecting this, the developing world representation seems to be strong in the Symposia devoted to teaching and to the history of science. As I sat in one Symposium, the chair introduced two delegates from North Korea (aka the DPRK), noting that they ‘had had a complicated and difficult journey to get here, but were most welcome’. This triggered a spontaneous round of applause. As I’ve written here before in a number of contexts, the sense of science as an international endeavour remains strong amongst scientists. Indeed, in some ways that feeling of collectiveness, and solidarity, seems to me to be a major purpose of these 4-yearly mega-fests.

Another thing that came over strongly was the increasing amount of science coming out of China. This was especially noticeable in the poster sessions. A feature of the posters from Chinese labs was how many of them dealt with effects of natural products used in traditional medicine. This is an area where there has been some controversy in recent years regarding clinical trials, so it was good to see the evidence of experimental rigour being applied to the investigation of the basic biology of these substances.


A personal high spot for me was…

Meeting Harriet Tuckey, author of the excellent Everest: The First Ascent, at the science history session, together with two of the members of the 1960-61 Silver Hut altitude expedition, Prof John (JB) West and Jim Milledge.


The presenter I felt the most sympathy for was….

The young clinical medic presenting a summary of her intercalating BSc dissertation work from a few years back looking at the Silver Hut Expedition … to an audience where sat, in the front row, were expedition members West and Milledge together with Harriet Tuckey, daughter of Expedition Co-Leader and Chief Scientist Griff Pugh..! If I’d been doing that talk my knees would have turned to jelly. Luckily, junior doctors are made of sterner stuff than me, and she carried it off admirably.


Most unusual occurrence…

For me has to be the only time I have heard a heated row at a conference, this one in front of one of the exhibitor stands. As far as I could tell, one speaker seemed to be accusing the other speaker (who wasn’t speaking much and looked mostly bemused) of mis-appropriating their ideas. I heard, inter alia, the words ‘a million dollars’ and ‘lawyers’, and the parting shot ‘You’re an [expletive deleted]‘ You don’t hear THAT every day at a conference.


We’re all getting old

As one does at these events, I also got to catch up with a good few of my global network of cronies and scientific friends. Some of them I hadn’t seen since Christchurch in 2001. It will come as no surprise that we are all looking older, though there was the odd person whose appearance was so apparently unchanged that they must have a mysterious picture of themselves ageing in an attic somewhere.

Posted in Conferences, Getting old, History, Physiology, The Life Scientific, Uncategorized | Comments Off

Too Many Tweets Make A… Historical Record?

In which we debate the historical usefulness of hashtags, especially in connection with scientific conferences like IUPS 2013.

I occasionally get asked, within my University and even beyond it, to pose as some kind of social media expert. Which I’m not, of course – I’m more like a person with far too much familiarity with f!*ting about on the internet.

There is also, of course, the problem that being identified within one’s profession as ‘the bloke that does that ‘social media’ stuff’ is potentially a kind of unwelcome badge that says: ‘Yes, he IS that bloke who spends far too much time f!*ting about on the internet’.

But… since I admit to having a Twitter feed, and a couple of blogs, of which this is one, I’m probably guilty as charged. And getting back to social media, I dare say I perhaps have more familiarity with it than some.

Which might be why, the other morning at IUPS 2013 in Birmingham, I found myself explaining Twitter, hashtags – like #iups2013 – and Storify to one of my Physiological Society History and Archives Committee colleagues, Prof Dafydd Walters.[Who, by the way, both Dr Billyo and I reckon would be a natural for Twitter. Would someone please talk him into signing up?]

The interesting point to come out of this discussion was whether something like a conference hashtag, or more precisely the tweets using it, would be the nearest thing these days to an historically-useful record of what went on at the conference.

Which is partly interesting because such records are increasingly not kept in a formal way, in the fashion they once were, by the societies running conferences.

For instance, the Physiological Society used to have something called the ‘Meetings Minutes Book’. This was supposed to be a record of every scientific meeting the Society ran, going right back to the mid 1870s. Each meeting was recorded in a report written by the Society’s Meetings Secretary. These reports were then read out at (or more precisely after) the dinner which would be part of the following meeting.

I can’t remember when this finally stopped happening, but it was probably only after the turn of the millennium. I’m a bit hazy on the exact date, but I’m sure I remember the minutes book being read out at the dinners in 2000-2001.

Now, I don’t want to bemoan the loss of this tradition, though it obviously had a long an interesting history. It was not popular – to put it mildly – with the rank-and-file younger attendees in the 1980s  when I first went along, let alone later (I can’t speak for earlier). The style of the reports was supposed – supposed! – to be humorous AND informative, but that is a difficult balance to achieve. All the Meetings Secretaries I have known clearly struggled with the task of producing something amusing each time, and after-dinner speeches that aren’t funny are, as you could guess, not very welcome. For those that don’t know, the tradition had its beginning in the Physiological Society’s Victorian origins as a dining club for men (definitely men) of science, and it likely outlived its usefulness, at the latest, at the start of the 1960s.

And yet – as Dafydd Walters pointed out, one thing the meetings book and its reports did provide was some kind of informal or more impressionistic record of what had been going on at the meeting. The list of lectures, communications, and posters – the conference programme, in other words – would tell you something. But it wouldn’t tell you, say, which was the best-received lecture, or which drew the largest audience, or which one provoked the most heated discussion. A conference programme would also not tell you who said what in the speeches after the dinner – possibly an important guide to what issues were preoccupying physiologists at the time – or what they were talking about in the bars or the restaurants afterwards.

It hardly needs saying that this kind of stuff would be of considerable interest to an historian trying, perhaps years later, to work out what was going on in physiology in 1975, or 1983, or whenever.

So what is the equivalent ‘information source’ for a conference in the post-meetings-book era? Like IUPS 2013?

Well, one could certainly argue that a compendium of the tweets under the #iups2013 hashtag might do it. Especially now that tweets often include photographs.*

Which I think means – to all those tweeting the conference – ‘tweet on dudes’. (Or something).

It is, after all, for the record.

PS – If you are not UK-based, and didn’t get the joke in the title, I refer you to our Prime Minister, Mr Cameron.


* The Physiological Society’s office staff are already onto this, via the medium of Storify – see here.

Posted in Conferences, History, Physiology, The Interwebz, The Life Scientific | Comments Off

Shame. Or should that be ‘Postdocalypse’?

Not IUPS-related tonight – but something that should concern the people there – should concern *us*. Especially the people WITH senior positions.

Scientific research has a lot going for it as a job.

There’s the big money, for a start.

[Actually, that was a joke, as my scientific readers will have spotted. The money is pretty lousy compared to other higher-end 'graduate professional jobs', at least if you factor in the years spent getting your PhD, aka your 'Union Card', and some postdoctoral experience. I don't know what a PhD with quantitative/ mathematical/ computer skills makes going into finance, but I strongly suspect it is rather more than a postdoc gets. And I don't know what a moderately successful lawyer with twenty-plus years experience makes, but I suspect it is a whole lot more than I earn after 25 years as a lecturer.]

But… the money is a living wage.

I live on it, so I should know.

And there is lots of other stuff to put in the plus column. You get to do something interesting and challenging. And, hopefully, something ultimately useful. You get a varied job. You get to solve problems. You get a lot of freedom to set your own timetable and what you are going to do. You get to travel. And you get paid to read, and think. I mean, how many jobs are there where they pay you to READ?

So all of those are positives.

And: for many – probably most – people in scientific research, there is much, much more to it. For most scientists, the ones who get or want tenured or permanent jobs, science is a vocation. For one example of how I know that, try the story here.

But, and increasingly so these days, a career in scientific research is an awfully hard road.

That is especially true for those in the trying-to-transition-to-a-permanent-job phase of a scientific career.

For an example, you should read this post by my Twitter mate ‘DrBillyo‘, aka Dr Bill Wilkinson. It says it far more eloquently than I could.

I think there are real systemic problems with a profession that does this to its most highly-skilled junior members. That takes people’s dedication, and years of training, and just lets it all go because they weren’t quite lucky enough.

Other people have said this on Occam’s Typewriter. I’ve said it before.

People have said it elsewhere.

It is time, in my opinion, that the Great and Good of science did something about it. At the moment, far too many of those in positions of power simply look a bit glum and wring their hands. The response when the problem is discussed often sounds a bit like the guys in The Sopranos when they learn that one of their fellow wiseguys has been ‘whacked’ (killed)

“Fuggeddaboutit. Whaddya gonna do? This, it’s the business we’re in.”

Well – it shouldn’t be.

Not like this.

Posted in Science policy, The Life Scientific, Uncategorized, Universities | 5 Comments

IUPS Part 1

A dispatch from the IUPS conference in Birmingham.

I have to admit to some trepidation when it comes to big international mega-conferences like the IUPS (International Union of Physiological Sciences). They have never entirely agreed with me. The first conference I ever attended, the IUPAB (B for biophysics) in Bristol in 1983, was one of the mega-jobs, and almost my first act as a conferee was to fall asleep in the opening plenary lecture.

By mega-conferences, BTW, I mean anything with an opening ceremony, dignitaries, 1000s of delegates (or at least 1000+) and twelve scientific sessions running in parallel – all the above also meaning the conference almost certainly has to take place in a large purpose-builit conference centre. Like a lot of other people, I guess, my natural preference has always been for the max-250 participants only-one-single-theatre and posters-plus-free-beer format, as in the Gordon Conferences and various other smaller meetings. As the years have rolled by I’ve tended to go to more of the small events and less of the big ones. Indeed, my last IUPS was Christchurch in New Zealand in 2001.

However, it’s not that often that the big circus rolls into a city just 90 min train ride away from home base. The prospect of meeting up with a few old friends – not to mention getting to sleep in an air-conditioned hotel room for a few days in the middle of a Summer heat-wave – was too good. So here I am.

One thing that sets mega-meetings apart, as already mentioned, is opening ceremonies. The last IUPS I attended had a formal Maori welcome, with dancing and singing, and the IUPS Council, all decked out in full academic robes like at a graduation ceremony, responding in Maori. (No, really. If you don’t believe me there are pictures). Top that. Sensibly the local crew didn’t try, but settled for a welcome from an eminent scientific guest, President of the Royal Society and Nobel Prizewinner Sir Paul Nurse.

Now, Paul Nurse commands pretty much universal respect from scientists, but I did slightly wonder what sort of reception he would get. This is because, as a notable molecular cell biologist, he could be said to be an examplar of the kind of ‘molecular sciences’ that physiologists in the UK often feel they are being squeezed out by. Typically of Nurse, he chose to tackle this head on, arguing that physiology remained central but needed other sciences – including the molecular ones – to provide the tools to get the job done. I’m not sure he really convinced the audience – many of whom probably have bruising experiences of being in departments or faculties run by cellular and molecular biologists who are not convinced physiologists are good for much in research terms – but it was a good try.

Denis Noble then gave his IUPS President’s Lecture. Denis seems to have been ‘our man at the IUPS’ for as long as I can remember – he is in the photographs from Christchurch 2001, sitting on the platform in his robes – and it thus seemed appropriate for him to be doing the Big Beginning.

I only found it slightly odd to be hearing Denis do a speech that was only in English.

To explain that last, thinking back over the times I have seen Denis N presiding and/or speaking at conferences, I can remember speeches in Italian, Japanese. Korean, Maori (at Christchurch in 2001) and Medieval Occitan French. There may have been other languages I’ve forgotten. There is an interesting piece by Denis in the last Physiology News where he talks about the languages used at conferences over the years. It wasn’t always just English for the papers at the IUPS, as you will find out if you read his article.

I’d seen a version of Denis’ lecture before, but I think this one was better – though sadly lacking the gag about Denis being one of Richard Dawkins’ PhD examiners. It did a nice job of introducing the congress by explaining that many of the central dogmas of genetics and evolutionary biology, at least as perceived by dim people like me, are over-simplified (and even downright wrong). This, Denis argued, meant that physiology – the study of function in systems and organisms – was still central, and still essential. It was an excellent rallying cry, though again I had the feeling that, while we wanted to believe him, we were still a bit dubious as to whether a new dawn of plenty for physiology was around the corner.

The future of teaching – High tech from top to bottom

Apart from feeling ‘squeezed out’ by other trendier and more molecular disciplines, the other central challenge facing many working University physiologists might well be ‘teaching overload’. Physiology remains popular with life science undergraduates, and also still needs to be taught to seemingly ever-expandingnumbers of students in healthcare professional degrees. But as student numbers rise, and staff numbers fall, the problems of less people doing more work are obvious.

One of the things Deans and other senior types tend to tell you when you mutter about this is that ‘technology will provide the solution’. With this in mind I trotted along to a session this morning on New Technologies in Physiology Teaching, which was interesting, but also rather terrifying. I learned, inter alia, that you can wire yourself up and post your physiological variables to your Facebook page (don’t expect me to be doing this any time soon). I also learned that the ‘Pillcam’ cameras that you can swallow to provide a photo readout over many hours as the pill ‘proceeds’ through your GI tract top-to-bottom are now only a few hundred dollars (or other currency). The speaker, my old mate Prof Phil Poronnik from Sydney, opined this would make for a great GI physiology practical. Though you probably wouldn’t want to be the second person to be the experimental subject.

One questioner pointed out another snag, namely, what if the pictures showed something untoward-looking?

Which reminded me of the only time in my three decades in the trade that something slightly analogous to this happened in a class I was running. This was a 1st year medical student pulse and blood pressure practical some time in the early to mid 90s.

As I was wandering round officiating, or more accurately trying not to catch anyone’s eye, a puzzled-looking student called me over. ‘He’s got a double pulse’, he said, pointing to his slightly nervous-looking lab mate. And he had – feeling the second student’s pulse at the wrist, there was a double pulse wave, then a gap, then another double wave.

I didn’t have a clue what that could mean.

The student asked the obvious question:

“Am I alright? Is there something wrong?”

To which all I could think of to say was:

“Well, you look pretty healthy to me”

But I could see I would have to do better than that. I had a brainwave.

“I don’t know what that pulse pattern means, but I know a man who might. The Prof. He’s medically qualified”

With which I dashed off to find the Professor of Renal Physiology, the only man in our physiology department possessing a medical degree.

The Prof, when I’d found him, came and felt the student’s pulse.

“Do you drink a lot of coffee?” he asked.

“No. I don’t like coffee.” said the student, who was now looking distinctly worried.“Does that mean something? Am I alright?”

“Well” said the Prof, looking the student up and down with the eye of an experienced clinician “you look pretty healthy to me”.

Sometimes, as they say, it is less the words, than who the person is that is saying them.

Posted in Conferences, Grumbling, Medicine, Physiology, Universities | Comments Off

Happy Birthday DC

DCIt is a pleasure to wish a Happy Birthday today to my friend Professor David Colquhoun, who, as he reaches the palindromic age of 77, is still fighting the various fights for good science – and reality in general – and against ‘Unreality’, managerial bullshit, Prince Charles and his ‘knight-starved’ toadies, and all sorts of other things. To see the kind of pace David is maintaining (which makes me tired just to read about it) see the ‘Diary’ page on his blog.

I got to know David reasonably well a few years ago through our shared interest in debunking ‘pro-Unreality’ folk (like homeopaths), and managerial bullshit, as well as a shared admiration for the late, great AV Hill. I was particularly pleased that when I was editing Physiology News we ran David’s wonderful article on ‘How To Get Good Science’, (or PDF) which seems more prophetic with every passing year.

However, I actually first met David much longer ago – thirty years ago , in fact – when I was a callow and very inexperienced PhD student at UCL. I think I will take the risk of embarrassing David – if he should ever read this – by explaining how.

As a very green first year PhD student one of my main jobs was to ‘validate’ the use of the resonance frequency of inorganic phosphate, in 31-P NMR spectra, to estimate the pH of the solution the inorganic phosphate was dissolved  in. The interesting point was that this solution might be the cytoplasm of a living cell, including inside an intact organ. However. in practise what I mostly did for my first year was run a lot of titrations of ‘model solutions’, generating numerous rather dull titration curves.

In these days of ubiquitous personal computers, Excel and stats packages, it may seem surprising that the issue of fitting a titration curve to the experimental data was not one with an easy off-the-shelf pre-packaged solution, but back them (1983 or early 1984) it wasn’t – at least not in the lab where I worked. If we wanted to fit a theoretical curve to the data we would need to work out how. My supervisor didn’t know how, and nor did the lab head. A statistician we consulted via the UCL ‘Stats Clinic’ was clearly both startled and amused we would ask him anything so basic, and referred us to ‘a man called Colquhoun in Pharmacology… he’s written a basic stats book and knows about these things’

So I rang David up, and trotted along to see him with my question about fitting titration curves. Thinking back, he was also clearly a bit surprised the answer wasn’t obvious to me, muttering something like “Errm… well, it’s a sum of least squares, isn’t it?” On spotting that this wasn’t something that automatically made sense to me, he took the time to explain least-squares curve fitting, so that I could go back and program it on my lab’s much-prized Hewlett Packard – and only – computer (probably one of these, from the look of it). . He was very gracious about it, sparing an hour of his time (which I dare say he couldn’t afford), and never actually saying anything like: ‘Surely you know how to do this?’ – even if he might have been thinking it. Many years later this data finally appeared in a paper here.

Looking back from the perspective of being not-too-far-off the sort of age David was then, what strikes me is that he treated my question with complete seriousness, even though I wasn’t his student and it wasn’t really a very interesting question. I was reminded of this some years later when I read something David had written in a beautiful piece about one of his heroes, Bernard Katz:

“[Katz’s] lack of pomposity is nicely illustrated by an occasion in 1974 when a young PhD student was giving his first demonstration at a Physiological Society meeting. The demonstration involved voltage-clamp of muscle fibres, and his supervisor had properly suggested that when a visitor came in to see the demonstration, he should be asked if he was familiar with the methods before launching into an explanation. A middle aged man came in and ‘I went through the motions and asked him if he was familiar with the method, to which he replied “..a little…”. I then explained my demonstration, to which he listened patiently’.

It was only later that the student discovered that his visitor had been BK, who had spared the student’s blushes by not revealing his identity. It was the universal experience of his colleagues that he was a person with enormous enthusiasm, always willing to discuss with the most junior of them the details of their work and to offer advice.”

Somehow, that description of BK always reminded me of my first meeting with David three decades ago, and also made me think of the way in which the best of scientific traditions are passed on down the generations. Though as a scientist I am several leagues below David, let alone BK, I’d like to think that over the years I have tried to do the same when approached by students and colleagues with queries and questions.

Anyway – happy birthday, DC.

Posted in Getting old, History, Pseudoscience, The Life Scientific, Uncategorized, Universities | 2 Comments