Advanced photo technology

I do love the Today programme on BBC Radio 4, but when it comes to stories about science and technology or popular culture the presenters can be exasperating. This morning John Humphrey kept calling Philae the “Mars explorer” and seemingly no-one noticed or dared to correct him.

Then he introduced an item allegedly about some new photographic technology, a “great technological breakthrough” he called it, related to taking selfies. (Listen to the clip). This was the cue for his retreat into bumbling confusion – his stock response to any technology introduced since about 1990. I was a bit surprised therefore when he announced that they were talking about selfie sticks.

I first saw them in use while on holiday in the Philippines in May this year. On our trip to the island of Corregidor (a must-see for anyone interested in the history of the second world war) another person in the tour group had a selfie stick and took countless photos of herself and her boyfriend in various poses with the historical ruins and gun emplacements.  Intrigued, we purchased one when we got back to Manila and found that it was really useful for taking photos with your camera phone – not just selfies but all kinds of things. The stick (or monopod) helps you to take photos from different angles, and to reach things in difficult positions. In short, they are great for helping to take holiday snaps.

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The stick – unextended (left); partially extended (right).

I thought that selfie sticks were probably well-known and it was only me that hadn’t heard of them, but our friends were as intrigued as we had been when they saw the stick. It is basically a telescopic pole, with an adjustable grip at one end into which you can slot a mobile phone and then adjust the angle. Provided your phone’s camera has a timer on it then you can use the stick to take photos of yourself from a distance that doesn’t make you look scary, unlike typical selfie photos.

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On the beach in Boracay, Philippines. OK, so I do look a bit scary here but that’s only because I am squinting due to the sun.

If pressed I would have guessed that the selfie stick started in the Philippines, which has a real love affair with mobile phones and communications tools. The Today programme suggested that it may have started in Indonesia and that it was somehow associated with extreme sports. A piece from March this year in the Huffington Post confirms that the sticks are very popular in Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines.

I’ve not looked to see if they are on sale in the UK, but you can find them on Amazon. It’s this year’s must-have Xmas stocking filler.

 

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Terrors transcended

On balance, I prefer laughing to crying but I am not afraid to let my tears flow. Powerful drama can do it, so can stirring music. I may cry when I recall events or times in my life when I have been sad. I can cry when I read about or watch representations of human cruelty. These things are all likely to give my tear ducts a workout. I cried when I read Schindler’s List. I cried at the end of the film Life is beautiful. I cried the first time I saw the ballet Romeo and Juliet, at the tragic denouement of the story intensified by the emotion of the music.

As a performer I struggle to contain the emotional impact I feel when I am singing music. I need to experience the emotion to help me put across the feeling in the music, but too much emotional reaction can interfere with my ability to control my voice. My choir’s next concert is a case in point. It’s a double bill featuring Michael Tippett’s A Child of our Time and a new piece of music written by James McCarthy about an extraordinary young woman whose story has just taken another extraordinary twist. Both pieces use music to tell true stories about awful events, and to point up strong messages for the world.

A few weeks ago my niece left home to start her university career in Bristol, the city where I started my own student life 38 years ago. This stirred up recollections of my time there – the feelings of terrific excitement (the freedom of life away from home!) and terror (the intellectual challenges of education). There were so many new things all happening at once. I tackled them with enthusiasm if not always success. Maths assignments were tough going, but on the home front I did carry out several successful proofs that throwing together lentils, herbs and spices into a saucepan was not a guarantee of creating something edible.

A Child of Our Time

Another challenge back then was my first encounter with Child of our Time. The Bristol University Choral Society, under the baton of Raymond Warren, rehearsed it for many weeks and performed it in concert in the spring of 1977. Prof Warren introduced us to Tippett’s dissonant and luxuriant harmonies, the expressionist pain of his storytelling and the warmth of his arrangements of the traditional spirituals that are interspersed throughout the work.

It tells the story of Herschel Grynszpan, a 17 year old Polish Jewish refugee who in November 1938 shot and killed an official in the German Embassy in Paris. It is a story of anti-semitic prejudice, oppression and exile. The story is tragic in itself but the events that followed the shooting defy description. The assassination “provided the Nazis with the pretext for the Kristallnacht, the antisemitic pogrom of 9-10 November 1938″. I visited Berlin last year, 75 years after Kristallnacht, and saw exhibitions and memorials all over the city. At first I didn’t realise what the memorial panels were – they had a name, a photo, birth and death dates and a brief life story. So many people, such a variety of interesting stories. As I read the stories the link between them became clear. All those people were murdered, executed, or disappeared.

This is the pain portrayed in Tippett’s piece – it is not just about one Polish boy. Composed between 1939 and 1941, it transcends his individual story to deliver a powerful message about all of us, and the evil that can happen if prejudice gains a hold.

Herschel Grynszpan nov 7 1938

Tippett wrote his own libretto. At the heart of the piece is a drama. He tells the bare facts of the story: how the 17 year old boy, worried about his mother back home in Poland and frustrated by official bureaucracy and prejudice, shoots and kills the official. The text is by turns narrative and poetic. We see into the mind of the boy and his family; we hear the antisemitic hatred of the people and the fears of those who are oppressed. Tippett  also gives space for wider reflections, and this is where the spirituals come in.

The first words we sing give a clue to what is coming:

The world turns on its dark side. It is winter.

A little later the chorus asks:

Is evil then good? Is reason untrue?

One of the longest choruses us aptly titled “The Terror”. It is terrifying for the choir to sing, with ugly jagged phrases and harsh violent words:

Burn down their houses. Beat in their heads. Break them in pieces on the wheel.

At the end of singing that chorus you feel disgusted with yourself. The storytelling ends, focusing on the boy:

He too is outcast, his manhood broken in the clash of powers.

But Tippett was an optimist. These words are followed by an instrumental evocation of spring, which leads into the powerful extended final chorus:

Here is no final grieving, but an abiding hope … It is spring.

In rehearsal this week our conductor, David Temple, pointed out how extraordinary it was for someone in 1941 to write such positive words and music. The soloists introduce the themes one by one, then the chorus pick them up and elaborate a little. The soloists return to sing an extended rhapsody leading to a musical singularity – a moment of infinite emotion that seems to last forever. The mood relaxes and the music eases into ‘Deep River’, the final spiritual which closes the whole piece in calm.

Back in 1976/77 when I was learning this music for the first time Raymond Warren did a great job of motivating his singers. While the spirituals are a joy to sing, and there are rapturous choruses, some of the other choruses might be described as squeaky gate music. (Richard Witts summarised Tippett’s style as ‘wild, thorny, splashy and opulent’). It was hard work and at first unrewarding. Prof Warren had started a correspondence with Tippett about our forthcoming performance and every few weeks he would read out the latest postcard he had received from the great man, including an assurance that Tippett would attend the concert. This was quite exciting.

Even better, my parents came down for the weekend to hear the concert. I couldn’t imagine what they would make of it. Their musical tastes were fairly conservative, as far as I knew, but they surprised me by expressing great enthusiasm for the work. They had lived through the war as young adults- my father in the North African campaign and my mother back in London. The horrors of the time were real for them and Tippett’s depiction of war and inhumanity bore into them in a way I could only guess at.

Malala

The other piece of music in our concert will be the first performance of Malala, by James McCarthy. It tells the story of Malala Yousafzai, the girl from the Swat valley in Pakistan who was shot in the head for insisting that all girls should have the right to go to school. This is another shocking story, with a message for humankind. The text was specially written by Bina Shah. James McCarthy wrote on his blog:

An educated mind tends to be inquisitive, doubtful, questioning, innovative, logical, playful and creative. … An educated mind, because it is questioning and doubtful, is less susceptible to brainwashing by extremists and it cannot easily be radicalised with promises of an eternal bliss in an afterlife.  As George Washington put it (in a line that Bina Shah quotes in the libretto), ‘education is the key to open the golden doors of freedom.’

James McCarthy talks about the piece in this video, which also features interviews with Bina Shah and David Temple.

If you haven’t read about Malala or seen her speak then take a look at this video of her addressing the United Nations. She is admirable: articulate and determined; calm and non-vengeful.

The text we sing in Malala describes Pakistan as

a land of ice-capped mountains and moonlit glaciers .. [with] forests of fruit trees, mulberry, pear, apricot

Malala is from Swat in Pakistan, and these words put me in mind of a trip to Pakistan I made in 2000. I visited cities, including Lahore which I loved (beautiful mosque), and the mountainous northern region of the Hunza valley. In Lahore I visited someone I had previously worked with. He was a pious Muslim, with a family of six daughters of whom he was inordinately proud. They all worked hard at school and the eldest was at University already.

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Hunza was famous for its apricots and I remember the disgusting-sounding bread and apricot soup which turned out to be delicious, and the delicious-sounding mulberry spirit, which turned out to be highly intoxicating and undrinkable. The most memorable point of my trip was watching sunrise in the mountains, as the sun’s rays kissed each peak in turn, waking it up for a new day.

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The story and music of Malala are very different to Child of our Time. Less drama, perhaps, and less poetry, but there is an equal passion. There are moments when I feel emotion welling up in me as the choir tells the story:

Then came the day when they told her that girls could not go to school… Malala dreamed of freedom

Her enemies said: Malala has shamed us. We’ll put a bullet in her head. How dare a girl think that she can defeat us.

At the end of the piece we join forces with a choir of 100 girls voices, to sing:

Malala set the world ablaze. And the world sang back ‘We are all Malala’

If you are free tonight (Tuesday 28 October) then come to the concert at the Barbican. You will be moved by the music and the storytelling. You may see one of the tenors in the second row with glistening eyes, wiping away a tear.  That’s me.

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Contraflow

I was taught as a child that if you are walking on a road that has no pavement then you should walk on the side of the road so as to face the oncoming traffic. If the cars are driving on the left, as in the UK, then you must walk on the right.  This was drummed into me as a safety thing. I think the rationale is that you will be able to see (and take action to avoid) vehicles that are coming towards the spot where you are. Walking on the same as the cars would mean that they could come up behind you, unseen.

During my recent holiday (well, it was May/June so it seems an age away now) my favourite route for a morning run was along the side of the Marikina river. There was a good path, almost a road, alongside the river. Even at 6am it was well-populated with walkers, runners and cyclists. One short stretch of it allowed motor vehicles but mostly it was car-free.

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OK, so this part of the path was a bit quiet when I took this photo.

By instinct I followed my childhood rule, running on the side to ensure that I was facing oncoming traffic (bicycles). But it felt wrong.  Most of the other users of the path were walking or running, not on wheels. Should I be running on the same side as them, or the opposite side? I didn’t need to take evasive action against them. Furthermore, many of those who were on cycles were going so slowly that I was actually running faster than them. I was part of the same stream as the walkers, runners and cyclists, so I should stop seeing them as a different flow to be opposed and just join their side.

That’s a bit how it is for me at work just now. By instinct I am flowing along in the ‘old Institute’ and feel that the ‘new Institute’ is flowing on the other side of the road. We have had several years of taking guard against the opposing flow (foe). Thus the habit of talking about the new as “them” and the old as “us” has become ingrained and is hard to shake off. Partly this is because the locus of all decisions about the new Institute is outside any management structure that I am a part of. In a matter of months we will be formally incorporated into the new organisation. I need to start thinking of myself as part of the same stream as the new Institute, not walking on the other side of the road. I hope that soon I will instinctively join the flow towards the future.

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One hundred years old

Just a few years back it seemed unlikely that we would ever celebrate our centenary. We were to be rejuvenated exterminated absorbed into a new Institute.  Back in 2007 when this project was announced we expected that 2013 would be the beginning of the new, and the end of the old Institute just shy of its 100 years. But the awesome immensity of the project to design and build the Francis Crick Institute meant its opening date was pushed a little further into the future. Now it is anticipated that the official transfer of staff from NIMR to the new Institute will take place in 2015 (though physical relocation to the new building will take a bit longer). Hence, NIMR will cease to exist as an entity having reached the Adrian Mole-esque age of 100 and three-quarters.

The Centenary

I like anniversaries so I’m glad we made it to 100.  Just over three years ago I remarked to those in power that 2014 would be our 100th anniversary. A consensus quickly formed that we should mark this centenary. A variety of ideas were floated, and we prioritised three of them: a book about the history of the Institute, a film about the Institute, and a scientific symposium/celebration. These all came to fruition, though some had a more tortuous path than others.

The date of foundation of the Institute is not clear-cut. Many people assume that we started life in 1950 – when we moved into our present purpose-built accommodation in Mill Hill. Some think we began in 1920 – which is when the Institute moved into its first home at Hampstead and when it first acquired the name of National Institute for Medical Research. I have also seen the date given as 1918 – I am not sure why. There is some rationale for giving the start date as 1913, when the MRC was created and when it decided, in one of its first meetings, to create a “Central Institute”.

I examined the first annual report of the MRC, for 1914-15, in hope of finding an answer. I learnt that the MRC purchased the building in Hampstead in early 1914, and that the first Institute staff commenced MRC employment on 1 July 1914. This – the beginning of research work – seemed like a reasonable criterion for determining the first existence of the Institute, even though the staff were not housed in the Hampstead building at that time.  So we agreed to settle for 1 July 2014 as our anniversary date.

The Symposium

The speakers were a mixture of current staff and alumni, covering all areas of science from infectious disease and immunology to structural biology, developmental biology and neuroscience. I attended all the talks and  pushed out tweets for two days from the Institute Twitter account, using hashtag #100NIMR. Some talks were pitched better than others, so listening could be hard work and extracting something meaningful to tweet about was challenging for a non-specialist like me. Luckily I had help from some fellow Institute tweeters. If you really want to read all about it see the Storify for the symposium.

After the main symposium there were two further events. Julie Clayton, author of the new book on the history of the Institute, gave a talk on Institute history, and a film about the Institute made by Taslima Khan was shown.

The Book

The book about the Institute history was my main contribution to the centenary. I gave shape to the idea, I created an outline, I pushed for it to happen, I made plans, I suggested sources, I oversaw the project and was involved at all stages.  I even drafted a couple of chapters and did some editing.  I also had to make sure that the project was delivered on time, meant we had to be realistic about what we could achieve in the time available.  How we wished we could have included more material, spoken to more people, added further chapters, but that would have needed more time than we had. Our primary target audience was current and past staff of the Institute, and we wanted to deliver something that was readable and enjoyable. (See my previous post  about our thought processes in defining the book’s scope).

It was 18 months of hard work, both for the writer we engaged, Julie Clayton, and for me. We were lucky to have a summer assistant in 2013 – Sophie Hopkins – who analysed several printed sources (Annual Reports mostly) to extract lists of names, Divisions, and associated dates and affiliations. The master spreadsheets that Sophie produced, covering 100 years, proved invaluable.  My workload increased as we gradually got closer to the final form with round after round of editing and rewriting. Colleagues in the PhotoGraphics department put the book together into its final shape, and scanned the hundreds of photos that were included in the book.

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I think the result is everything that we hoped it might be but a lot better than I dared hope it would be. It would have been easy to write something quite dry and factual. It would have been fun to focus on amusing anecdotes. Julie steered a careful path between these two extremes, managing to tell the institutional story alongside several human stories. She also lowered the level of technical detail so that the text would be accessible to non-specialists. Each of the 22 chapters is a good read in itself but put together they add up to a great book.

All staff have been given a copy. The book is also published online as a series of PDFs, on a special History of NIMR blog created for the purpose.  We will be adding more material there in due course. I aim to post most of the images used in the book to Wikimedia Commons.

The Film

In 1964 the BBC’s Horizon series made a film about NIMR. We wanted to make a fresh film, about the Institute in 2014, one that captured the essence of the place and the people who work there today. I grabbed this ball and ran with it for a bit, having discussions with a group of interested ex-staff including two who were in the film-making business. We thought we could make a commercially viable film, something for BBC4 say, but it became apparent that the kind of film that could be made for that market would not fit with our ambitions – just to reflect the reality of the Institute and its life. So the idea was abandoned. Disappointment was tempered with relief – I needed to focus on the book project.

However, one of the group – a past PhD student who still lived locally – held on to the idea and eventually she was given approval to make a film on her own initiative.  She interviewed various past members of staff and a few current staff, and assembled these interviews very skilfully into a coherent whole. The result was magnificent – a funny and informative and revealing film.

She is doing a little more work on the film and hopes to produce a version that can be shared more widely by the end of this year. The film is a great complement to the history book, with some overlap as well as some fresh material.

The Memory

I really enjoyed the final session of the Symposium on Wednesday afternoon, with the history talk, film, cake-cutting and party all going off splendidly. I hope that an awareness of the Institute’s past is now fixed in the minds of the present staff, and that the foundations of NIMR’s research culture and achievements are now writ large for the future.

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Boundaries and boxes

No-one likes to be pigeonholed but the tendency to pigeonhole, or put things into boxes, comes naturally to us and can be valuable, within reason.

Categories

I think pigeonholing gets an overly bad press. The word has a pejorative ring, suggesting a kneejerk, over-simplistic focus on superficial elements. (“Don’t judge a book by its cover”). The impulse behind it, though, is our desire to organise our thoughts and our mental representations of the world. The trouble is that the pigeons have a habit of flying out of one hole and into another, or flitting between two adjacent holes.

Our mistake comes if we set too much store by the categories we use, and believe in their reality. They are just a convenience, a mental tool.

I used to do a bit of cat and class and subject indexing. One thing you learn when you have to apply classification and indexing systems to the real world is that categories are fluid – they leak into each other. Whenever you think you can see a clear boundary between two categories then you will discover something that destroys that clarity.

“Here is chemistry. Here is biology. Oh, wait – what’s this? Biological chemistry? (or chemical biology)? “.

“Here’s a biscuit. Here’s a cake. So what is a Jaffa cake?”

I encountered a problem about boundaries and definitions a little while ago when trying to find the right person to write a book.

Finding a writer

This year, 2014, is the centenary of our Institute so it was decided that we should produce a book about its 100-year history. We agreed on the intended audience, a structure, an outline of chapters and the overall style. The book was to be a record of the Institute’s achievements, its growth and development during the 20th century. It would document the research culture and the many scientists who worked in the Institute. There would be a series of chapters describing the overall development, followed by a number of chapters going into more detail about various scientific areas. The book was aimed primarily at Institute staff, past and present, plus other scientists and those interested in science policy or organisation.

We just needed someone to write the book. To put it another way, we needed a writer. But as there was going to be a good deal of science in the book we agreed that we needed a science writer, or a writing scientist. Then again, as the book is about history (albeit recent history) maybe we needed a historian, that is a historian of science. Or perhaps a scientist interested in history. This was getting complicated.

We had some constraints – resource was limited and we had barely 18 months to complete the project before the target date of our centenary in July 2014. This meant the book had to be a canter rather than a slow walk through history.

I tentatively put out an enquiry via email and Twitter about my need to “find a science writer with a historical bent“. This generated some helpful advice, quite a few people interested in bidding for the work, and some critical comments to the effect that I should be looking for a science historian not a writer. These latter comments did cause me to think again but my conclusion was the same. We were not in a position to commission a full history of the Institute – that would probably take five years and fill several volumes. We were also not looking to commission an academic work of history but a more popular overview – a memoir rather than a scholarly biography.

A little after this I saw a blogpost by Rebekah Higgitt which made me wonder again whether I was being hopelessly naive. She said:

Simplistic and heroic accounts of the history of science cannot be defended by the claim that the public like them…

science’s history should be  crowded and full of tangents, dead ends and competing approaches. The question is how to capture such complexity in an elegant way, not whether or not we should give up on the task.

I could see that we were in danger of being simplistic and telling the story from just one point of view, that of the Institute. This seemed the inescapable result of the path we had chosen. We also wanted to tell the stories behind the science however – including some stories of the people doing the science. I hoped we could manage to tell a realistic story that included more than just the so-called heroes.

Well, we found our writer – Julie Clayton. She is an ex-scientist, having previously done postdoc work in immunology. She also has editorial experience (at Nature), has worked in TV and journalism, and is now a freelance science writer. She has written a couple of historical booklets previously. All of that experience seemed very pertinent to the job at hand.

The book

We planned that the book would have two sections. The first was to be a series of chapters that told the story of each Director in turn, and the way they steered the Institute as a whole.  These were to be written largely by Julie based on published reports, materials from our archives, and interviews. The second was a series of chapters (‘boxes’) about key areas of science and these were to be written by a number of current and retired members of staff, then expanded and edited by Julie. We had a draft list of topics, for instance Henry Dale would be covered in the Neuroscience chapter. But then someone complained that Dale had been a pharmacologist not a neuroscientist and we should really put him in the Pharmacology chapter (except pharmacology wasn’t on our initial list of chapters!). Noting that Dale was originally head of the ‘Department of Biochemistry and Pharmacology’ I had to concede that the complainant had a point so we created a new chapter (box) for Pharmacology. As things turned out he is also mentioned prominently in the Biochemistry chapter, the Chemistry chapter and the Biological Standards chapter. He really didn’t like staying in one box.

Julie has done a remarkable job. I had expected the book would be a collection of facts, drawn from official documents, with some photos and a bit of narrative. She has thrown her net far more widely, conducting interviews with many people and combing our archives for interesting and revealing details. The result is something really colourful and fascinating, readable and entertaining.

It has been a great journey through the history, and we are nearly at the end. The chapters are going through their final stages of editing and assembly right now. In fact, I must stop right here and go back to copy-editing chapter 11.  I’ll post again to let you know when the book is published.

 

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Address, affiliate, attribute

A few weeks back I saw an OA paper published in PNAS that has over 37,000 authors. (Well, that’s one way to defray the costs of OA charges!). There are ten regular authors, plus “EteRNA Participants” and a link in the footnotes to the EteRNA author list delivered as a 2Mb supplementary CSV file (ht Greg Jordan).

Science magazine commented:

researchers have now crowdsourced their experiments by connecting players of a video game to an actual biochemistry lab.

This got me to pondering about authors and OA. I imagine that no-one else in the world is interested in this, but here goes anyway.

Deciding who should and who should not qualify as an author has received a good deal of attention over the years, including a post by me. The question of what address each author should use is much less scrutinised. In particular, I have not seen generalised guidance on whether the address given should reflect the address at which the research was carried out or the current address of the researcher.

It seems fairly obvious to me that the ideal is to always list the address at which the research was carried out, with a footnote listing the current address if that is different. But perhaps that reflects my primary interest in things like attribution of credit.  For me the address (or affiliation) is there partly to show which institution “owns” the credit for the research, and partly in order to make it possible to communicate with the author. But I have come to realise that many authors are not concerned with that first function. One said to me recently “I put on my new address as my old email doesn’t work any longer and I wanted people to be able to contact me here”.  The idea of putting a research address AND a correspondence address had not occurred to him.

I am forever looking at lists of publications and trying to decide whether they should or should not be included in the list of outputs from this Institute. We search for anything that mentions the Institute in the address field, and add those to our outputs database. This requires some vigilance though as the search throws up many papers that have our address in but turn out to be authored by current staff  before they came here. Only rarely is this clear from the addresses given on the paper.

Does this matter? I think it does for two reasons. One is that mis-attribution to Institution X rather than Institution Y can potentially affect bibliometric analyses. OK, maybe that is a marginal effect (a guesstimate would say 10% of papers include a wrong address like this) but who knows?  The other reason is that it can confound the picture around Open Access compliance. We have been set a target for compliance as an Institute and there may be a financial penalty if we do not make it. I am not sure how the compliance calculation will be done, but if it involves a simple search for our address then the denominator in the calculation will be higher than it should be, probably making our compliance appear lower than it really is (depending on the open access status of the extra papers).

Guidance to authors is patchy. I have not made a detailed study of journal policies, but I found a few encouraging signs. One Elsevier journal stipulates:

If an author has moved since the work described in the article was done, or was visiting at the time, a ‘Present address’ (or ‘Permanent address’) may be indicated as a footnote to that author’s name. The address at which the author actually did the work must be retained as the main, affiliation address. Superscript Arabic numerals are used for such footnotes.

A society journal requires:

  • the names of all authors (first name, middle initial, last name) and their departmental and institutional affiliations at the time the research was done. Indicate which authors are associated with which institutions by listing the appropriate author initials in parentheses after each affiliation listed.
  • If an author has changed affiliations and wants this information in the article, then this information should be included in a separate line on the title page.

But Nature says only:

ensure addresses and affiliations are current

I was pleased to see that the issue had been discussed briefly in a thread at ResearchGate, though opinions varied. The actual question posed was what affiliation should be reported if the experimental work was carried out at Institution X but the data analysis and writing up was done at Institution Y, which is more tricky. I think it is justified to use both addresses in that case, provided the work at Institution Y was ‘substantial’. Another tricky example is where a review article was started in one place but finished in another. Again, probably both addresses are justified.

I am not about to start a big campaign about this, but maybe someone will notice and slowly more people will adopt the idea of using a separate Research address and Correspondence address. I did see that ORCID are going to launch an affiliation module, so perhaps they might help to spread the word.

Thanks for reading this far.  I feel better now I have got that off my chest!

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Music for love

Today, 14 February, was a day of celebration devoted to lovers and their love. Love remained a mystery to me for many years. Now that its full majesty has been revealed to me I embrace it with all my limbs and I pulsate with love.

Music and love are natural companions. The ecstasy aroused by music can (almost) match that derived from love. Both music and love can make you feel deeply, both joy and pain, and both have an irresistible force that can leave you gasping.

Here then is my musical compilation for lovers, or perhaps it is just a compilation of love in music, or a meditation on love and music. At any rate, it is music that I love.

1. Sibelius’ Violin Concerto

This is romantic music, music from the heart, played here with a gloriously sweet tone by Jascha Heifetz. I love the phrase that comes a little after 3 minutes into this clip: a blast of extra sweetness like a sudden gesture of affection between lovers. It always makes me catch my breath, like a rush of hormonal emotion.

2. Rachmaninov’s vespers

Rachmaninov wrote so much wonderful romantic music! He is forever associated with thwarted love because the film Brief Encounter used music from his 2nd piano concerto. The 3rd piano concerto and the deliciously tender 18th variation from his Paganini Variations are equally lovely, but I am choosing something from his Vespers – section 12, the Greater Doxology (Znamenny Chant). To me this conveys not love exactly but rather awe, a muscular serenity, and ecstasy. Imagine you are walking into a great church building; you feel the silence and immensity. Then you hear this music coming from somewhere, you can’t see where. It is beautiful and heartfelt and sweeps you up in its flow. Soon you are flying, high up, like an angel, looking down from the ceiling.

3. Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet

I think Prokofiev was at his most intensely lyrical in his ballet music, Romeo and Juliet, based on Shakespeare’s play. Many years ago I saw Rudolf Nureyev dancing Romeo to his own choreography at Covent Garden and I have loved the piece ever since. I am ashamed to say that I was not familiar with the play before, so when the ending came I was shocked (i.e. wept buckets). It is a classic romantic tale, so gorgeous but so tragic. I know it’s only a story, but it is too sad. In the balcony scene Prokofiev gives us throbbing bass, surging music, soaring strings that match the intensity of emotions of these young lovers. This is music that expresses my heart.

4. Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time

A little contemplation to follow that: the last movement of Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time. Religion and love were two of Messiaen’s preoccupations and here he expresses his love for Jesus. Yes, it may seem weird, but love of God is a thing too. This is not romantic love then, but something noumenal. The beauty of the violin tone evokes for me the contemplation of your beloved, like watching your lover sleeping.

5. Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde

Tristan is another classic tale of love, again with an outcome that I’m not eager to match. Liebestod seemed an alien concept to me for many years – what connection is there between love and death?  Now I can understand it. Having found love, experienced that joy, one may feel a satisfaction with one’s life, a sense of completion. Death can come and there is no regret. At the climax of this music the feeling of release is incredible.

6. Philip Glass’s Songs of Liquid Days

These songs are not about love. However, the text of one of them – Forgetting - conjures up for me a vision of the ideal lover:

Bravery. Kindness. Clarity.
Honesty. Compassion. Generosity.
Bravery. Honesty. Dignity.
Clarity. Kindness. Compassion.

Linda Ronstadt sounds oh so sultry, and the Roches on backing vocals give an edge of sweet frenzy to the music. It is full of energy and light.

7. Bartok’s Duke Bluebeard’s Castle

Duke Bluebeard is the kind of man that I’m sure your mother warned you about. In the opera Judit has gone and married him anyway. Love is blind and all that. Bartok’s opera tells the story as Bluebeard shows his new wife round his castle There are seven doors that he unlocks one by one to reveal a succession of horrors, a bit like a scary estate agent. The fifth door is the least scary – a vision of his vast lands. The music is grand and terrifyingly impressive. This doesn’t really fit well with the Valentine’s Day theme, except as a warning that all may not be as it seems. Bartok coaxes some ear-ticklingly beguiling sonorities from the orchestra which make this piece come alive for me. Plus, the soprano in this clip is one of my favourites – Jessye (no relation) Norman.

8. Ravel’s Daphnis and Chloe

Another ballet, another love story. Ravel’s sumptuous orchestration is masterful and overwhelming. He includes a large choir at certain points which adds another dimension. The music is hard to sing but thrilling. This extract includes my favourite section, reaching a truly pornographic climax. From about 13mins 30secs it is pure sexual energy. I used to be innocent and to think it wasn’t really meant that way, but now I’m sure it is.

9. Richard Strauss’ Der Rosenkavalier

Richard Strauss produced an evocation of beauty, pain, love and regret in the closing scene of his opera Der Rosenkavalier. The music always has a profound effect on me, I can’t explain why. Well, I can – I suspect it has something to do with my father. He loved this music. I bought tickets to see the opera with him in 1981. Sadly he had a stroke and died a month before we were due to see it. I still have not seen it performed live. Put this one down to filial love.

10. Poulenc’s Figure Humaine

Poulenc’s cantata Figure Humaine is an a capella setting of Paul Eluard’s poetry. The last movement is extraordinary. It begins:

On my school notebooks
On my desk and on the trees
On the sands of snow
I write your name

The tension builds as each stanza ends with the same line: I write your name. You think you know where it is going – it seems like a love poem. As the movement proceeds your expectation and curiosity increase – whose name?  Who is it?  The final word of the final verse reveals the true meaning of the poem. It comes as a blinding flash, with a suitably ear-splitting final top note for the top sopranos.

The poem was first published in 1942 and reprinted a number of times.  The RAF dropped copies of the poem over occupied France as a morale-booster.  This piece is not about the love of a person, but about the love for an idea. It is just as powerful as the other kinds of love described above. You can love and idea, and love a person because of their ideas.

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The Linnaean Society Library

Visiting other libraries can be a great source of inspiration to a librarian, giving you ideas to copy and making you jealous of the lovely things that other libraries have. Over the past twelve months I have hosted visits to my Library by three separate groups of librarians, during which I told them about our library service and showed them our collection. The most recent of these was on Tuesday this week.  Yesterday I sat on the other side of the fence, joining a group visiting the Library of the Linnaean Society of London.

Portrait of Carl Linnaeus.  Original in Linnaean Society of London

Carl Linnaeus on his wedding day
Click to enlarge

I read Wilfrid Blunt’s 1971 biography of Linnaeus not too long ago, so I knew a little about the man, but I had not visited the Linnaean Society before.  It is one of those Learned Societies housed in the rather lovely Burlington House in London’s Piccadilly. It is an interesting example of an institution founded around a collection – Carl Linnaeus’ own collection of his published books, his library of books, and his notebooks and specimens.  When Linnaeus died in 1778 Joseph Banks, the President of the Royal Society and longtime correspondent of Linnaeus, made an offer for his collection but at that time Linnaeus’ widow decided to give the collection to her son. Sadly he too died just five years later, so the collection was offered to Banks again. This time he was not in a position to purchase it but recommended it to his young protege James Edward Smith. Smith persuaded his father to put up the money for purchase, not without some difficulty. The collection arrived in London in 1784 and in 1786 Smith was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society. The Linnean Society was founded in 1788. You can read more about this story in a lecture by Mark Seaward on the Joseph Banks Society website.

My visit to the Society comprised a very good introduction to the man and the society, a tour of the Library collection and a bit of archival scholarship thrown in for good measure. We started off in the Society’s meeting room, where we were told about Linnaeus and the Society that bears his name.  I spotted a plaque on the wall from 1 July 1958, commemorating 100 years since the day when Darwin and Wallace’s paper was read out to the Society members. At the time I didn’t realise that the visit was taking place on Darwin Day, so this was very appropriate.

Plaque from the Linnean Society meeting room

Memorial plaque

In the meeting room there a number of portraits, pride of place going to those of Darwin and of Wallace. I particularly liked the portrait of Wallace, painted by Roger Remington in 1990 or thereabouts.

Next we went down into the basement, into something like a strong room, with a heavy door and carefully controlled temperature. There were about a dozen shelves of books by Linnaeus and a whole lot more with the rest of his library, the earliest volume dating back to 1488. We were shown a copy of the 12th edition of one of his works, with interleaved blank pages containing his notes of corrections and additions to be made for the following edition. He was clearly a methodical and meticulous man. We also saw a first edition of his Systema Naturae - it is a very large format book, with pages like charts. Someone commented that the pages would make great posters.

Systema Naturae

Close up of Systema Naturae

Next to come out were the beetles. Not live ones, obviously.  These were Linnaeus’ specimens so they were well and truly dead, and dried. Apparently once dried then the specimens can last for a very long time. We also saw some beautiful butterflies, but I decided to scare you with a photo of the beetles instead.

Beetles from the Linnaean Society
Click to enlarge

We then left the basement and went up to the main Library upstairs. Now, that’s what I *call* a Library – a beautiful double height room with a sculpted ceiling.

The Library of the Linnaean Society of London
Click to enlarge

Here we were treated to a display of some of the Library’s treasures, including Edward Lear’s book of parrots. Lear was an accomplished painter as a well as a writer, it seems. Sometimes I wish I worked in a botanical or zoological library – they have such beautiful books. Those floras and, er, whatever the zoological equivalent is (do they call them faunas?). I remember when I was a library student we were treated to a visit to the Royal Botanic Gardens Library in Edinburgh and I was astounded at the beauty of the drawings they held. I recall that the Zoological Society of London Library also has some fantastic visual material. The closest I ever got was when I worked in a hospital library and we had some colour medical atlases. The most gruesome were A colour atlas of Accident and Emergency medicine and A colour atlas of genitourinary medicine.

One of Edward Lear’s parrots
Click to enlarge

An Indian reed
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Flora Graeca
Click to enlarge

One of the most interesting items on display was  a book of ‘cyanotypes’ by Anna Atkins. Cyanotype is a photographic printing process, the origin of blueprints. Anna Atkins, an English botanist and photographer, used this process for capturing botanic specimens.

Book by Anna Atkins
Click to enlarge

Not content with delighting our eyes and our sense of history, the Librarian then introduced Isabelle Charmentier, a historian working on Linnaeus, who explained her research into “the writing technologies of Carl Linnaeus“. Briefly, and as far as I understood it, she has explored the way that Linnaeus collected information in his various notebooks. At one time he used a blank notebook, reserving chunks of pages for groups of species. Of course, if he underestimated how many pages he would need for a particular group then he would have a problem. Later he moved onto using looseleaf pages. He might still have problems if he needed to insert a new species into an already-crowded page, but at least he could always add an additional page. Later still he used index slips – one for each species. This was apparently the first use of what we now call index cards. Just think what he could have done if he had had Filemaker Pro?

One of Linnaeus’ notebooks
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A looseleaf notebook
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Index cards
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This was truly a fascinating visit, and I am indebted to the Librarian and Deputy Librarian, as well as Dr Charmentier, for their time and erudition. Thanks also to the CILIP ARL group for organising the visit.

Note added 14 Feb.  I forgot to say that more information is available on the Library’s website, including digitised versions of 16 of Linnaeus’ manuscripts and images of his specimen collections 


I was very pleased to be able to take photos during the visit, though at one point the phone on my camera got confused and this photo appeared by mistake.

 

What is this photo of me doing here?

Posted in History, Libraries and librarians | 8 Comments

Marking the occasion

Yesterday was my first anniversary. See this and this for more details of what the anniversary was.

A first anniversary is a special day – and hopefully the first of many more to come. But, though it marks a whole year, it is quite a lowly event in the cannon of anniversaries. I checked and found that the first anniversary is deemed to be the paper anniversary, so gifts of paper are to be exchanged. That struck me as very retro and quite inappropriate for a digital hipster like me, fluent in the multifarious ways of online scholarly communication. So I set about drawing up an alternative list. Here is my version of the Twelve days of Christmas the first ten years of anniversaries. Sadly I ran out of inspiration after 8th.

I made a start yesterday.

Anniversary Old style My style
1st Paper Tweet

2nd Cotton Tweet with Instagram

3rd Leather Tweet with Vine

4th Linen Short blogpost (up to 200 words)
5th Wooden Full blogpost (500 words)
6th Iron Long blogpost (1000+ words)
7th Copper Blogpost with video

8th Bronze Guest blogpost somewhere more high-profile
9th Pottery
10th Tin

 

Posted in Uncategorized | 5 Comments

Paperless at last

1 January 2014 marks a watershed moment for my library: I have cancelled the last of our print journal subscriptions.

Back in 1995 we subscribed to our first online journal, Journal of Biological Chemistry, from Highwire Press. I still have the email which announced:

We are pleased to announce that a World Wide Web version of the Journal of Biological Chemistry is now available for testing. Beginning with the April 14, 1995 issue, the full-text of all articles, including images are available. The URL is: http://www-jbc.stanford.edu/jbc/

After opening the JBC Home Page, we recommend that users read the “JBC Online Handbook” so that they can configure their machines properly. Netscape version 1.1 is the recommended (and the only supported) browser for accessing the Internet version of the Journal of Biological Chemistry.

This was, to the best of my recollection, the first online production version of a mainstream bioscience journal, though there had been a great deal of other development activity (including publishers sending out their journals on CDROM! We had a drawerfull but never used them).

During the years 1995-2000 we gradually built up our portfolio of online journals corresponding to our print journal subscriptions, so we had both print and online in parallel.  In 2000 a JBC editorial celebrated the journal’s 5th year of being online, saying:

Now virtually every life science journal, as well as journals of many other disciplines, publish online.

Declan Butler reported in Nature in 1999, in a fascinating round up of publishing at the time, that one Danish library had:

decided to phase out print altogether, and deliver journals direct to staff desktops via the World-Wide Web.

Many librarians (including me) were more hesitant to abandon print, wanting reassurance on issues of continuity and archiving.

A joint ICSU/UNESCO symposium was held in 1996 to consider the issues raised by electronic publishing in science. The eminent biologist Joshua Lederberg addressed the conference and his talk makes interesting reading today – much of what he says still holds true.  He stated:  “Electronic materials need to be archived”. Print journals were archived by libraries, but the model that was adopted for publishing electronic journals meant that the publishers held the content of the journals in digital form. Would the publishers commit to longterm archiving, and if not who would? This was an issue that gnawed at librarians’ souls – we wanted to embrace the e-future but didn’t want to abandon our archival duties. This was much-discussed in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

Initiatives such as LOCKSS (1999) and Portico (2002), together with the activities of various national libraries, began to provide that reassurance (though there are still fears that not everything is adequately preserved). Thus libraries began to cancel print subscriptions, relying only on the online versions of journals.

I was a bit slow to join the print cancellation trend. I didn’t want to race ahead of our library users, many of whom still seemed uneasy about the idea of relying on online journals.  I remember getting comments such as “I no longer use the print journals, but I like to know that they are there” and “it would be unthinkable for an institute like this not to have PNAS on the shelves”. But by the mid 2000s I could hold off no longer and I did begin to cancel – at first cancelling print subscriptions that would save us money, picking off a few more each year. Then I cut print titles even when we would make no direct saving by so doing (thanks to the vagaries of publisher pricing and UK VAT anomalies). It made no sense to spend staff time on processing printed issues that hardly anybody ever read, so I kept on pruning.

Thus for the last few years we have had only a handful of print titles: those that seemed too important to lose (e.g. Science, Nature), those that were not important enough for us to purchase higher-priced online versions (e.g. New Scientist, Scientific American) and one or two that our agent insisted were not available online only.

This year I have finally cancelled this last clutch of print titles. The usage of even these titles proved very low so I don’t think that anyone will notice. Fingers crossed that there is no internet apocalypse. Now, where did I put those old CDROMs?

(Footnote: If you are interested in how ejournals developed, Martin White traces some more of the history of ejournal development in a 2012 article.)

Posted in Journal publishing | 6 Comments