Slight return

I wrote this somewhere else, and it got sufficiently long that I thought it might as well go here, since the blog is still here. Prompted by Nov 11th, of course, but by other things too.
Nov 11th 2020
My Anglo-German children have two WW1 veterans among their great-grandfathers. One London law clerk who was a Lewis gunner at Passchendaele, fortunately invalided out part way through the battle with trench fever. And a Bavarian farmer who fought the Russians in the German army and came back with bullet fragments in his head. But they both survived.
The kids also have a Northern Irish great-grandfather who was a WW2 veteran, a regular army ‘Desert Rat” at Tobruk and later a Chindit in Burma – a taciturn man who never spoke about the war. And they have a British grandfather, my now-deceased dad, who as a nine year-old kid sat in an Anderson shelter in SE London during the bombing of London in 1940, or watched the fires of the City of London and the East End burning across the river.
The kids also have a German grandfather, still alive in his early 80s, who took over the Bavarian farm. He wasn’t supposed to – it was expected to be his (much) older brother. But in late 1944, when the kids’ future grandfather was 6 and his brother was 17, the Volkssturm militia turned up in the village, forcibly enlisted all the older teenage boys and marched them off. And that was the last the family ever saw of the older boy. To this day the family have never been able to find out what happened to him, or where or how he died. That includes my father-in-law, who spent years trying to track down what had happened to his older brother. No detailed record, no exact location, no grave. “Lost on a Winter forced march”.
So – we remember the people on Nov 11th, and we should. But the bigger thing we should remember is that wars bring terrible loss, and lifelong scars for survivors, and for those who lose people. War is hell.
And that, to me, is the real lesson. Never forget.
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More about Everest pioneer Griff Pugh

I’ve got a piece out today over at The Conversation about Griffith Pugh, who I mentioned a couple of days ago. I won’t post it here in full, I think. There weren’t enough edits to make it worth posting a pre-edit version, and if you read it at their place there are some nice photos as well. Anyway, here’s the opening couple of paras:


Meet Griffith Pugh – the Everest pioneer you’ve never heard of


Scientists almost never get to be household names just for doing science. Most who impact the public consciousness, like Brian Cox, Richard Dawkins and Stephen Hawking, tend to at least combine the science with being best-selling authors. You might just encounter (Francis) Crick and (James) Watson in a pub quiz for their discovery of the structure of DNA, but what about (Alan) Hodgkin and (Andrew) Huxley, responsible for working out the basis of nerve transmission, one of the 20th century’s greatest discoveries in biology?

Given that other pre-eminent discoverers, even Nobel Laureates, remain relatively unknown, it’s probably not a great surprise that you haven’t heard of Griff Pugh.

Pugh – full name Lewis Griffith Cresswell Evans Pugh – was a pioneer of what we now call exercise physiology….. Continued here



Comments welcome, either at their site, or here if you prefer.

Posted in History, Physiology | Comments Off on More about Everest pioneer Griff Pugh

Two more days to vote for the unsung hero of Everest


A couple of days ago the June e-Newsletter from the Physiological Society dropped into my inbox. Among other stuff it contained this:



Biography of exercise physiology pioneer in the running for British Sports Book Prize 

Harriet_Tuckey_Book_CoverGriffith Pugh (1909-1994) was a pioneering exercise physiologist and member of the first successful Mt Everest expedition in 1953. Sir Edmund Hillary would later describe Pugh as the man who ‘made it possible’ – no exaggeration given Pugh’s contribution to virtually every aspect of the Everest Ascent, from oxygen delivery, to fluid and food intake, to boots and clothing.  

Griff Pugh’s daughter Harrriet Tuckey’s biography of her dad (Everest – The First Ascent), recently reviewed in Physiology News, is on the short list for the prestigious British Sports Book of the Year Award – you can support and vote online by 9 June.



And indeed, why not do just that? It is a great book (I’ve read it and reviewed it), and as the author, and various other people (including me) have pointed out on Twitter, it isn’t every day – or year, or decade – that a book about a physiologist, or indeed about any scientist, is up with a chance of Sports Book of the Year. Mostly one expects sportspeople’s autobiographies, probably ghosted.

In case you hadn’t guessed, I might have had a bit of a hand in alerting the Physiological Society to the upcoming vote, as it was me that reviewed the book for Physiology News. However, it was actually here on OT where I first came across Griff Pugh’s name – fifteen months ago, in a post by Frank Norman entitled ‘High Altitude Boots’. Full story below, for the very hard up for something to read.

But the MAIN point of this little post is to say: please READ THE BOOK. And vote for it, if you feel like it. You have two more days to cast your vote, as voting closes at midnight on Monday June 9th.



The detailed backstory, for those without a life

Frank’s post, the first place I ever came across Griff Pugh’s name, appeared in March 2013 and explained how Frank had been delving into the archives at the National institute for Medical Research trying to find an obscure article Pugh had written. He was doing this at the request of Harriet Tuckey, who needed a copy. Harriet had written her father’s biography, due for publication a couple of months later on the 60th anniversary of the famous first ascent of Everest in May 1953.

I’m not sure exactly what it was that pricked my interest about this, though the mention of Pugh’s being a physiologist was certainly a big part of it. Perhaps the connection to NIMR, where I did some of my PhD work in the 80s (though, as I later worked out, not on the same site) helped? Or was it the likely connection, as I guessed at the time, to Prof John West. the doyen of human respiratory physiology and historian of high altitude medical research? My better half (aka ‘The Boss’) owns one of John West’s textbooks from her years as a trainee anaesthetist, and I had consulted it from time to time – including once to work out if a hangover ought to help your tolerance of 3000 m altitudes. Or perhaps the connection to the Everest Ascent, something I recalled my mother, who was a teenager in 1953, talking about – the news came through on the day of the present Queen’s Coronation – and that had been held up to us at school in the 70s as an example of British derring-do and achievement.

Whatever it was, I recall mentioning it to my better half when I got home that day. At which point she told me that she had heard Harriet Tuckey being interviewed on Radio 4 a few days previously. What had really caught ‘Er Indoors’ attention was Harriet’s explaining how she had really only got to know her father after his death via her exploration of his work, and especially his role in the Everest ascent.

Which makes me thing another reason it resonated with me later might have been the mention of fathers and children. Looking at the dates, I read Frank’s post, and commented on it, just hours before I heard that my own father had died suddenly late on March 6th. The tenuous link is that I might – speaking, of course, totally without bias – be tempted to describe my father as another scientist who arguably didn’t get the recognition his achievements and ideas deserved.

Anyway, some weeks later I spotted that Harriet Tuckey was on Twitter, and started following her and RT-ing some of her tweets about the book. Then, after the book was out, someone asked me if I would review it for Physiology News. No fee, of course, but “You’ll get a free copy’ they said. Of course, by then I had actually bought one, but I said yes anyway. Ultimately I did both the book review and a related longer piece noting the anniversary of the Everest Ascent and of Pugh and others reporting their scientific endeavours concerning the expedition to the Physiological Society. In the meantime, I discovered there was a scientific history session at the IUPS (big international physiology) meeting last Summer, discussing among other things the 1960-61 Silver Hut altitude physiology expedition which is probably Pugh’s greatest scientific achievement, So I trotted along to that and briefly met Harriet and two of the surviving expedition members, as I described briefly here.

It has been a lot of fun to explore, albeit in a very superficial way, the ‘linked’ history of altitude physiology and high-altitude mountaineering. For instance, did you know you can find a paper of Pugh’s in the Journal of Physiology  that tells you what Edmund Hillary’s alveolar oxygen tension (gas pressure) was at Camp IV. 21,200 feet (almost 6500 m) above sea level?  Stuff like that. It’s somewhat revived my interest in writing about the history of physiology, which I used to do in regular ‘vignettes’ when I edited Physiology News, but had stopped doing when I stood down a couple of years ago.

There are also many links to the physiology we teach the medical and science students. Hypoxia and the body’s response to it is a major challenge in medicine, then as now. And much of the experimental human physiology we teach and demonstrate in the labs uses the same kinds of equipment Pugh carted up Everest – large bags (‘Douglas Bags’) to collect exhaled air in being one example. The main difference is that now the bags are plastic, rather than the thin waxed cotton Pugh used in 1952-3.

Talking of which, I could, erm, wax on about this kind of stuff for much longer, but I think it’s time to put this one to bed and have another glass of wine.




Posted in Blog-ology, History, Physiology, The Life Scientific, Uncategorized | Comments Off on Two more days to vote for the unsung hero of Everest

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:

[pgn][Event “Manchester U-165 Major 2013, round 2”][Date “2013.08.31”][White “AE”][Black “SC”][Result “1-0”]1. e4 c5 2. Nc3 g6 3. f4 Bg7 4. Nf3 Nc6 5. Bc4 d6 6. O-O Bg4? { Losing a pawn to the following trick. } 7. Bxf7+ Kxf7 8. Ng5+ Ke8 9. Qxg4 Nh6 10. Qh3 Nd4 11. Ne6 Nxe6 12. Qxe6 Qd7 { I probably should have kept the Queens on here, as I am rubbish at Queenless middle games, but the temptation to trade pieces when material ahead is strong. } 13. Qxd7+ Kxd7 14. Ne2 Raf8 15. d3 e6 16. c3 Rf7 17. Bd2 Rhf8  { Black’s pieces are better coordinated than White’s, which makes it slightly heavy going. } 18. Rf3 Ng8 19. Raf1 b5 20. a3 Ne7 21. d4 Nc6 22. dxc5 dxc5 23. Be3 c4 24. Bc5 Rd8 25. Rd1+ Kc8 26. Rxd8 Kxd8 27. Kf2 { The King is needed on e1 to keep the Black Rook out of d2. } Rd7 28. Ke1 Na5  { Heading for a tasty-looking spot on b3. } 29. Nd4 Bxd4 30. Bxd4 Nb3 31. Be3 Ke7 {Black still had half an hour on the clock when he came up with this mistaken plan of a King rush to the K-side. } 32. f5 { To activate the f3 Rook. } Kf6? {A bad mistake allowing White’s rook open files. } 33. fxg6+ Kxg6 34. e5! { Giving the Rook an outpost square on f6, from where it will attack the e6 pawn. I didn’t think he would want to play Rf7 – which is probably the best move – as I suspected he would be loathe to trade the Rooks off a pawn down. I was assuming that if I played Rf6+ his King would have to retreat, as advancing it to g5/h5 looked suicidal. } Kh5?? { Missing the point. } 35. Rf6 { Played very quickly! } Re7?? 36. h3! { Oops. It is quite satisfying playing a quiet little move like h3 to generate an inescapable mating net. } Na1 { There is no defence; 36. ..Kh4 37. Kf2 h5 38. Rf4+ and wins the Black Rook with a discovered check. } 37. Rh6# 1-0[/pgn]

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:

[pgn][Event “Manchester U-165 Major 2013, round 5”][Date “2013.09.01”][White “AE”][Black “LR”][Result “1-0”]1. e4 d5 2. exd5 Qxd5 3. Nc3 Qd6 4. d4 Nf6 5. Bd3 c6 6. Nge2 Bg4 7. f3 Bh5 8. Bf4 Qd8 9. Qd2 e6 10. O-O-O Be7 11. Kb1 O-O 12. g4 Bg6 13. h4? { Better to take on g6 before pushing the pawns. the mistaken text slows the attack and thereby gives Black counter-chances. } Bxd3 14. Qxd3 Na6! 15. h5 Nb4 16. Qd2 Nfd5 17. Bg3 Qb6 18. g5 { Nothing to do but cross the fingers and get on with it… }Rad8 19. g6 h6 20. gxf7+ Rxf7 { An open file leading to Black’s King at last. } 21. Rhg1 Bg5! 22. f4 Bf6? {Having found ..Bg5! to force f4, thereby keeping the White Bishop out of e5, Black goes wrong straight away and gifts White several precious tempi. …Be7 was the move. The explanation was that Black assumed the White Knight was tied to c3 for the defence and dare not move. } 23. Ne4 Be7 24. c3! {Forcing Black’s Knight to a poor square and solidifying the White Q-side. } Na6 25. Bf2 Qc7? { Another mistake, moving the Q to a less useful square and forcing White’s Rook where it wants to go anyway. } 26. Rg4 c5 27. Rdg1 Nf6 28. Nxf6+ Bxf6 29. Rg6 Kh8? {..Kh7 is likely better, for reasons that will soon become apparent. } 30. f5!? { By this point Black was down to under 5 minutes on the clock. } exf5?? { ..Bg5! (again!) was the only move to defend. } 31. Rxh6+! gxh6?? { He could still struggle on with the cool …Kg8! } 32. Qxh6+ Rh7 33. Qxf6+ Rg7 34. Rxg7 1-0[/pgn]

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.

[pgn][Event “Amersham Reserves A, round 1”][Date “1977.08.26”][White “AE”][Black “J Munday”][Result “1-0”]1. e4 c5 2. Nf3 e6 3. d3 Nc6 4. g3 Nge7 5. Bg2 d5 6. Nbd2 g6 7. O-O Bg7 8. Nh4?! { (A slightly odd way to play this position.) } O-O 9. f4 b5 10. Ndf3 Bd7 11. g4 Rc8 12. Qe1 Qb6 13. Kh1 c4 14. f5 { Thematic after Nh4 but already a bit desperate. } exf5 15. gxf5 dxe4 16. dxe4 gxf5 17. exf5 Nxf5 18. Nxf5 Bxf5 { Black is a reasonably safe pawn up. } 19. Ng5 Bg6 { The first slip. 19. ..Nd4 (which I hadn’t even considered) was Black’s strongest move, and even 19. ..Bxc2 is playable. I had thought of answering 19. ..Bxc2 with 20 Nxf7, but Black doesn’t have to recapture with ..Rxf7? 20. ..Bg6 or – again best ..Nd4 would give Black a big advantage. } 20. Qg3 Qc7? { A poor move, giving white several tempi and fair compensation for the pawn. } 21. Bf4 Be5 22. Qh4 Bxf4 23. Rxf4 Qe5 24. Raf1 { 24. Rg1! – the 2013 computer move – is much stronger, but how would you know? } Qg7 25. Rf6 Ne5 26. Bh3? { Trying to put pressure on e6 – a good idea, and gaining a tempo on the Rook, but 28. Bd5! is much better. } Rce8 27. Qf4 Re7? { Missing the tactical shot the next move and losing. 27. ..Bxc2! (clearing g6 for the Knight) is the computer move, but 27. ..h6 was a good alternative. } 28. Ne6! Rxe6 29. Bxe6 Nc6 30. Bd5 Ne7 31. Be4 Bxe4+ 32. Qxe4 Ng6 33. Qc6 Qh6 34. Qd5 Qg7 35. Qxb5 Kh8 26. Qxc4 Ne5 27. Qf4 Ng4 38. Rxf7 Rxf7 39. Qxf7 Qxf7 40. Rxf7 { Black lost on time. } 1-0[/pgn]

[pgn][Event “Amersham Reserves A, round 5”][Date “1977.08.28”][White “FP Best”][Black “AE”][Result “0-1”]1. e4 c5 2. Nf3 d6 3. d4 cxd4 4. Nxd4 Nf6 5. Nc3 g6 6. Be3 Bg7 7. Be2 Nc6 8. f4?! O-O 9. O-O Qb6! 10. Qd3 Ng4 11. Na4 Bxd4! { Don’t be too impressed by this trade of the Queen for three pieces -apart from being materially equal, the idea came straight out of an opening book. } 12. Nxb6 Bxe3+ 13. Kh1 Bxb6 14. Bxg4 Bxg4 15. h3 Be6 16. c3 Rfd8 17. Qb5 Na5 18. b3 Rac8 19. Qd3 d5 20. f5 dxe4 21. Qxe4 Bd5 22. Qg4 Rxc3 23. fxg6 hxg6 24. Rac1 Rd3 25. Rfd1 Be6 26. Qe2 Rxd1+ 27. Rxd1 Rc8 28. Qe4 Rc3 { White is clearly losing but now starts to go really wrong. Probably time pressure, as he had only around 10 minutes to reach move 40. } 29. Rd2? { Leaving the back rank dangerously weak. } Nc6 30. Qh4? { A poor square for Her Majesty. } Bc7 31. Kg1?? { Losing on the spot. 31. Rd1 would at least keep fighting. } Bg3 0-1[/pgn]

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 on IUPS Part 2

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 on Too Many Tweets Make A… Historical Record?