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.

About Austin

Middle-aged grouchy white male. Hair greying but hasn't all fallen out yet. Spreading waistline ill-concealed by baggy jumper.Semi-extinguished physiology researcher turned teacher. Known for never shutting up. Father of two children (aged 6 and 2) who try to out-talk him. Some would call that Karmic Revenge.
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2 Responses to Happy Birthday DC

  1. Austin
    Thank you. You are much too kind. I still enjoy talking about statistics with anyone who’ll listen.

    I had a rather similar experience myself. While I was a PhD student in Edinburgh (1960 -64), I was struggling with a diffusion problem. I wrote, out of the blue, to Andrew Huxley, who was then head of the Physiology Department (now gone) at UCL. I can’t recall now whether it was just before or just after he got the Nobel prize. Either way he was a lot more elevated than I was at the time you came to see me. Nevertheless he agreed to see me and next time I was in London we had a very useful discussion. One does not forget such things.

  2. Yes, that chimes with the various reminiscences of AFH (Sir Andrew Huxley) published by some of his former sidekicks after his death, David. The funny thing is that it must have been not long after AF (then still at Cambridge) gave my dad a most fearsome grilling in his PhD viva (many hours and a substantial rewrite)..! That latter story can be found in this extended obit of Gerald just out online in J Muscle Res Cell Motility.

    It is interesting how having time for grad students and very junior people is one of the things about scientists that other scientists admire. I recall hearing exactly the same thing once about Bert Sakmann, and ditto for the late John Vane – you would always get a hearing and advice and encouragement as a junior person with a scientific question, but far less if you were a high level and/or corporate schmoozer. In some ways it strikes me as the exact opposite of how politicians operate. You can also tell it is a quality scientists admire by how often it is mentioned approvingly in senior scientists’ obituaries as a defining feature.