Satellite of Love

By Stephen D Leach, on 10 January 2016

The Chemical Physical Society is a student run society like many others. What is great about this society is that we don’t bother with boat parties. I barely even know what a boat party is. What I do know is that the CPS provides extra lectures for anyone who doesn’t already have enough lectures. Yes, it’s great and there’s more. These lectures are not part of formal assessment and they are sandwiched between two predictable and intense periods of snacking, all free of charge for attendees. For those of you concerned with dietary requirements, or who are considering skipping dinner on Tuesday nights, pre-talk provides enough caffeine and sugar to ensure you’ll be buzzing in resonance for the duration of the lecture. Post-talk crashes are mitigated by a raft of savoury delights and liquor. I expect you might be unsure of many things so here follows a brief saunter into the world of CPS tuesday night events. An eclectic series of engaging lectures touching on all manner of scientific interest.  At the end of this post is a song.


Some technical staff of Surrey Satellite Technology (left) with RapidEyes 1-5 (right), courtesy of Surrey Satellite Technology.  You can click on the image for higher res.

A personal favourite came from Andrew Margets-Kelly of Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd. The company is a hugely successful commercial spin-out from Surrey University. His talk related to the application of satellite technology in areas we may not readily suspect.

The unblinking eyes of satellites inevitably spend a lot of their time staring at the oceans. Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) are commonly mounted on the satellites of SST, these are non optical devices and hence are unfazed by low light or cloud cover. Systems provided by SST can act as the air traffic control equivalent for ships, with the ability to calculate headings and velocities. All registered vessels have a marker that allow ships and boats to be tracked. The Automatic Identification System would allow a ship has an: “Iceberg, right ahead!” to be warned. Illegal shipping traffic can also be monitored but this requires the use of optical satellites in concert.

The use of SAR can be used to detect oil slick on the surface of the water because of a minor difference that occurs in the surface texture. This might be useful for those who are looking for natural sources of oil seeping from ocean floors. However, it can also be used to monitor pipeline integrity and check that tankers are not washing out their with sea water.

Another impressive activity of the company is the Disaster Monitoring Constellation (DMC). It is an SST Ltd project that aims to provide free imaging to the Governments of nations struck by disaster. This can be coordinated within hours of the event and is crucial in providing efficient response strategies. On orbits that follow the rising sun, the satellites are able to cover the entire surface of the planet and have been integral in relief responses in such as Hurricane Katrina or the 2010 Haitian Earthquake. The Imaging helps governments to assess how best to distribute relief in early stages when resources may be limited. Infrastructure damage such as loss of roads or bridges is resolved in the DMC imaging. At such times when conventional communication may be suspended, such information can be utilised by responding emergency services. In addition to disaster response, satellite data is also used in prediction. SAR is used in concert with rainfall data and hydrology models to monitor extent of ground saturation or developing flood progress. This methodology was used as flooding progressed in Malawi in 2015, which affected 220,000 acres of land and 390,000 people. Satellite data from NASA in this instance was used to monitor the developing flood and direct the humanitarian response.

Sheep dogs are saaa-aad. This is about Farming with Satellites. Satellite data can be used to monitor the health of crops! Satellites can detect differences in chlorophyll levels across vast areas of rural land. This data is fed into the Normalised Differential Vegetation Index and the outcomes can be returned to farmers with instruction of which of their fields need more water or fertiliser. This is about efficiency of resources and maintaining food security in adverse climatic conditions. Crop infection or pest infestation can also be tracked and predicted, allowing the focussed application of pesticides only to high risk areas. No mention of sheep, Fifi the dog is still welcome on the farm. Thanks Andrew Margets-Kelly and thanks SST Ltd. More info can be found here, job vacancies and a Grad. Development Programme.

Lou Reed and David Bowie performing ‘Satellite of Love’:  here.


Contemplating a PhD in UCL Chemistry?

By Stephen D Leach, on 26 March 2015

Brought to you by the Athena Swan committee in UCL Chemistry– promoting diversity in science.


Deciding whether to do a PhD can be a hard decision, as well as choosing the course and how to go about applying for one. However, it can be even more difficult if you are unaware of what it’s like or what else the experience can offer if you do end up studying towards one- it’s just like walking into the unknown…

During reading week, 14 students had the opportunity to hear about what it takes to apply for a PhD, the support mechanisms available to them if they decide to undertake one at UCL and what makes research in chemistry at UCL so unique and attractive. The 5 minute video below, premiered at the event, gives a little taster into the reality of researching in UCL chemistry and the added benefits of doing a PhD.

Please note: Student ALERT!- This video was made by UCL chemistry students starring UCL chemistry students (subtitles included for the hard of hearing).

So why the sudden need to hold this event? In the chemistry department, the Athena Swan committee has been monitoring the experiences of students and staff during their time here in UCL. In the last survey, we had a total of 33 respondents all of whom were PhD students. We found that 80% of students felt their previous/ current experiences impacted on deciding whether they would continue a career in academia, with over half of the respondents only having an undergraduate or master’s degree, as opposed to other routes such as industrial placements or teaching positions. We therefore felt it was important to create a dialogue between us (the Athena Swan committee) and final year undergraduate students to help impact the next step towards an academic career.

The reading week event introduced students to the research focus of UCL lecturers in the fields of organic, inorganic, computational and physical chemistry. PhD students from each section shared how they landed where they are now and described their current experiences. Students were given time to ask questions and the feedback from the event has proven successful, inspiring us to deliver more of such events.

We are always willing and wanting to know the experiences of current students and postdocs to develop a diverse and inclusive environment for everyone. Please help us by filling in our 5 minute survey and be a part of the change you want to see:



Einstein and Relativity: CPS Talk 9.3.15

By Stephen D Leach, on 15 March 2015

Screen shot 2015-03-15 at 21.01.16

Professor Pedro Ferriera of Oxford University joins an eager CPS to discuss the lifespan of ‘the perfect theory’.

Since it was conceived by Albert Einstein, the theory of relativity has been in and out of favour. Its relation with the scientific community and society in general has led to what Prof. Ferriera described as a ‘Cult of Relativity’. The physicists whom are studying it often having to keep it hidden away as their guilty pleasure; a dead end? It seems not, Prof. Ferriera warns that a relativity comeback is on the cards right now, as the ESA is preparing a cohort of projects all of which have relativistic proofs at their zenith. Interferometers and radio telescopes of enormous scale are being built and poised to measure the elusive signatures of gravitational waves.

When Einstein published his theory on special relativity in 1905 it caused quite a stir and soon followed a relativistic treatment of gravity. Up until that point, the Newtonian physical description of gravity was indeed the most useful approach to the motions of the celestial bodies. Indeed Newtonian physics was doing a fine job of describing such things and still does to a first approximation, its imperfections became apparent when in 1859 the French astronomer Urbain Le Verrier found a discrepancy in the orbit of Mercury. Newtonian physics failed here and does so in other in other settings where gravity is extreme.

Prof. Ferriera likened the journey of Relativity to the life of the writer Penelope Fitzgerald, who had a terrible incident with a house boat.

The theory of relativity was conceived in a time of profound social disruption. Scientific universalism, the notion that scientific knowledge is devoid of the cultural, political and economic whims of its practitioners, had not at this time taken hold. This quote from Sir William Ramsey 1915 demonstrates this quite appropriately:

“German ideals are infinitely far removed from the conception of the true man of science; and the methods by which they propose to secure what they regard as the good of humanity are, to all right thinking men, repugnant…”

Conversely, a group of 93 German scholars had also signed a manifesto supporting their nations foreign policies of the time. Einstein however was not included. This chaotic political period provided a highly unusual context for such a publication. Historian of science: T. S. Kuhn says:

“…A new theory… is seldom just an increment to what is already known. Its assimilation requires the reconstruction of prior theory and the re-evaluation of prior fact, an intrinsically revolutionary process that is seldom completed by a single man and never overnight.”

Relativity required that absolute space and time where not realistic constructs and that the speed of light was the only non relativistic constant.

Considering the mistrust between Britain and Germany at this time it seems unusual that a British scientist would be the one to provide the empirical evidence for Relativity. It was the conscientious objector Arthur Eddington of the Royal Astronomical Society who had some ‘faith’ in Einstein’s work. In 1919, on the island of Principe off the coast of Africa, a spring solar eclipse saw the performance of an experiment to test whether the sun was able to bend light from distant stars. He confirmed the theory, it was headline news, though very few people would be able to understand what any of it meant, the general public were simply told in a headline: ‘Relativity Proved; No need to worry’.

There now exists some debate over the findings of this famous experiment, with commentators claiming that the results could support either Relativistic or Newtonian physics and that Eddington was predisposed to support Relativity.

Regardless of this, the theory was taken up by a great number of physicists at the time all of whom pushed it to its limits and were able to predict astrological observations that should support the theory. For example, black holes, pulsars, dark matter and an expanding universe.

Why did it all cool off? What was the house boat incident for Relativity? First of all the technology required to prove the existence of pulsars and black holes did not exist. There were also additional political and economic factors that were swelling upon the build up to WWII. Russian physicists were forced to reject the theory on the grounds of its incommensurability with dialectical materialism, while the US was on a more pragmatic heading, Relativity had few applications to offer at the time. Both view points meant that Relativity was somewhat cast out. In Germany, quantum mechanics was being developed, which carried with it even more esoteric concepts than Einstein was comfortable with, he famously quoted:

Quantum mechanics is certainly imposing. But an inner voice tells me that it is not yet the real thing. The theory says a lot, but does not really bring us any closer to the secret of the ‘old one’. I am at any rate convinced that ‘He’ does not throw dice”

A response to it’s probabilistic nature.

How did the house boat of Relativity rise up from river bed? Politics became more rational and… Radio Telescopes. These have played a huge role in the understanding of our universe from our small planet. Gravitational waves have not been detected yet but the projects are lining up and a lot of attention is being paid to what’s going on ‘out there’. Have a look:

Q&A with Dr Simon Banks

By Stephen D Leach, on 15 March 2015


That’s right. An exclusive interview with Dr Simon Banks prior to his departure from the department.  If you are already missing the sound of his voice, read on and you might just hear it in your head.  Other highlights include: some sage advise about taking a PhD and his favourite ‘office object’.

Hello Dr Banks, did you always want to be a scientist?

“Nope. In high school I wasn’t quite sure, I didn’t really know what I wanted to do. By the time i’d done my GCSE’s and A levels I wanted to be a medical doctor. I even got as far as doing medical foundation courses and work experience in hospitals.

I realised when I came to complete my UCAS application; that what I really liked about that (doctor) idea was the mental challenge; the problem solving, the diagnosis. I liked the concepts that were involved more than I liked the idea of getting down to the nitty gritty, the dirty work; treating people and dealing with the emotional side of ill health. My interest in those concepts is what led me to science.”

What did you study as an undergraduate and where?

“My undergraduate study was at UCL chemistry, MSci Chemistry.”

How did you come to choose your masters project?

“I had a very clear picture that I wanted to do theoretical work, I’d geared myself up for that in my third year with my optional choices, with a good idea of the people in the department that I might want to work with in terms of their research interests. So when the projects were advertised, I knew which people to look at in terms of the projects being advertised.”

Who inspired you most when you were at university?

“So I guess the person who ultimately became my PhD supervisor, Professor Steve Bramwell. He was a great source of inspiration throughout my PhD. Also before that, in his teaching and in his tutorials, the way that he approached the science. He was always somebody whose work I was drawn to. It’s really hard to single anybody out, because I was taught by many great people. To varying degrees they all gave me something that I benefitted from.

Another person who stands out, strangely, given that I shied away from organic chemistry very early on was William Motherwell. His approach to science, the way that he talked about it and his depth of knowledge was always very impressive. It made me want to achieve a similar philosophy of science.

Prof Mike Ewing. He inspired my love of thermodynamics, statistical mechanics and computer programming, all of which formed the basis for pretty much the whole of my academic life thereafter.

Prof David Clary – inspirational quantum mechanics lectures; excellent at teaching which is not always easy to master/give time to for someone with such a high profile research career.”

Are there any other people throughout history that have inspired you?

“I tend to be skeptical of pinning too much admiration on a person. I was always very impressed with Richard Feynman and the work he had done. I remember reading his lectures on physics and liking the style and the tone, but the more I learnt about him as a person the less I wanted to emulate him. I suppose my greatest inspiration in how I would approach work, life and so on would probably be much more closer to home, for example, my father.”

When you are not being a scientist, what are you being?

“OK, so there’s a deep philosophical question here; if you are a scientist, can you switch off being a scientist? And… I would argue that the answer is probably no. Because even when you are enjoying the things that life has to offer, like listening to a piece of music or watching a beautiful sunset, or whatever it might be, you still have your brain there, telling you things, which you know as a scientist are at the root of what’s going on, the way the music is created, the way sunset looks; these feed into your appreciation of that particular thing.

So I don’t think I ever turn off being a scientist.”

And if your trying purposely to think about something else?

“For me it’s sport primarily. I play a lot of tennis and squash and I run. I find that running gives you a lot of time to think, but tennis and squash let me switch my mind off from other things. There are also the standard answers, that I often read on UCAS forms, like listening to good music or reading a good book, these are universal but for me primarily it’s sport.”

Who would be your ideal tennis partner?

“I’d happily have a hit with Federer but I can’t imagine it would last very for very long.”

What is the most rewarding part of your job?

“At the moment, being departmental tutor, I see a lot of students who are having issues with their studies be it academic or otherwise, who may want guidance. It’s very nice to see students who’ve requested guidance and have then been able to go on and deal with their particular obstacle.

The teaching side of things,whether in tutorials or lectures. I get to talk about things that I genuinely find interesting and I get the sense that sometimes someone in the room actually sees why I find it so fascinating, who may go away and try to find out more about it, they go away and realise there’s something in this. Then there’s the research, which now I do less of. There’s nothing quite so nice, as a theoretician, than to make a prediction and to see it tested experimentally or numerically. To get confirmation of the prediction is a real buzz.”

Did you expect to find the position rewarding in that way?

“No. Apart from the teaching and the research which have rather obvious rewards. Incidentally research should never be done in isolation. If you are working on a research project, the only way to make it fun and interesting is to collaborate, it’s only in the collaboration that you get the joy. I didn’t anticipate that I would find the pastoral guidance of students so rewarding, I didn’t really ever envisage doing it but came to it through the positions i’ve held.”

What do you dislike about your job?

“The things I dislike as so far outweighed by the things I enjoy that I tend not to dwell on the former.

Have you worked at any other universities?

“Yes, I worked at the University of Oxford.”

How did it compare to working here at UCL?

“It was different. It’s difficult to compare like for like because I did a very different job there. At Oxford, I was a post Doc. then a research fellow, I only spent a small time teaching and most of my time was spent doing research. The ‘job’ I do here and did there are like chalk and cheese.”

How have you found the working environment at UCL?

“So, I was here as a student, then returned as a member of staff, I love UCL, i’ve got a great fondness for it and i’ve found its a very good place to work.”

Have you ever worked in industry?


Do you have any desire to?


So, your entire career will be in…?

“Academia. It’s horses for courses. Some people get a great deal from spending some time in industry and then coming back into academia and bring a lot of knowledge and skills with them. Other people start out in industry and migrate into academia and for some people their natural home is on one or the other, and for me it’s definitely in academia.”

What is it about industry that you know you wouldn’t like?

“It’s very hard to say … don’t knock it till you’ve tried it, but.. I like the concept of education; passing on knowledge, interacting with students. I’ve moved into a role that involves more teaching, I would have never really have wanted to go in the other direction, into a role that was 100% research. For me, one of the reasons to work in a university is to interact with students and to be involved in teaching.”

Here we are in your office. Are there any objects in here of special significance?

“There’s a book up there, Volume 1 of the works of Gibbs. That used to belong to Maxwell McGlashan, an ex head of department. It was handed down and became the property of Professor Mike Ewing and he has bequeathed it to me. It’s a fantastic work of science and means a great deal to me because its an area of science that i’ve done a lot of work on; it’s the foundation of thermodynamics. The history of that book, going through the generations at UCL, is quite important to me.”

What is your motivation to leave the UCL chemistry department?

“I think its always good in any career to keep challenging yourself and keep moving forward, a new role came up that interested me very much, something a little bit different, these roles don’t come up very often so it might not come round again… it’s a natural evolution.”

Do you have any advice for those pondering on what to do after graduation?

“If you’re thinking about carrying on in academia, as an option to tide you over whilst you figure what you want to do, you need to give careful consideration to what’s involved in doing a PhD.

It’s a really non trivial thing to do, you need to be committed you need to put in a lot of work. When it comes to writing a PhD thesis, talk to any post grad. writing one up, it’s a hard task. Students who are good undergraduates do not always make good postgraduates, its a very different set of skills, 100% of time is spent on research and its very different to studying a module and doing well in an exam.

I can’t advise students as a global entity because everybody’s different but people who choose to go into industry or into the world of work tend to do so as part of an active decision. Students who go the other way, can do so actively or passively, it’s a familiar environment, they don’t know what else to do, they are good students, so its comfortable to just keep going. If you feel as though you might be in the passively inclined bracket, talk to people, talk to PhD students and potential supervisors, try and get a realistic impression of whats involved, so you don’t commit to something that you may not really want to do. When you’ve got all the information, make your decision and do it actively.

Thank you Dr Banks and Farewell


Learn an Instrument? Yes, it’s good for your brain: CPS Talk 3.3.15

By Stephen D Leach, on 15 March 2015


Professor of Education and Music Psychology; Susan Hallam, joined the CPS this week to discuss some of the latest findings on the effects of music education.

The way that music is adopted in society unveils its role as an emotional catalyst, there’s a song for every occasion. National anthems played out at sporting events, easy listening played out in cow sheds, classical music in tube station ticket halls. Evidently musical-emotional stimulation is a short cut for all manner of desired effects: the promotion of national identity and cohesion, relaxation of anxious cows and the prevention of loitering.

A full understanding of the relationship between people (or cows) and music is a long way off. Current studies often struggle in drawing meaningful conclusions because of the difficulty in controlling such experimentation. How do you measure the effects of music? Supposing it was hypothesised that kids who had regular music lessons showed better average performance in all other subjects, with respect to kids who had no musical tuition. It is virtually impossible to prove that music has played any part in it. The musical kids could be receiving better all round education or they could be getting more encouragement at home. Once considerations like these are made, the variable control of an ‘experiment’ becomes tricky.

However the benefits associated with learning musical instruments are becoming ‘factual’ owing to the weight of studies that support this general conclusion.

Prof. Hallam has focussed on the act of learning music and its associated rewards. To get the full benefits package, it seems one should be able to read music, play an instrument and perform in a group. Listening to pop music not been proven to improve your brain, but if it feels good… These combined exercises have been found to improve language skills in young people and children. Interaction with music from a young age stimulates auditory neural centres and has been shown to improve aptitude with phonics and sound comprehension. Some studies have shown improved reading skills in dyslexia sufferers following rhythmical musical exercises.   

Reading and playing music seemed to be at the root of the positive effects. The structure of written music is far more logical than written language, when this is combined with the auditory stimulation and motor skills involved in playing it emerges as a rigorous cognitive work out.

An interesting addendum is that virtually no benefits are associated with being taught music by a bad teacher, surely that would apply for any subject? This highlights the importance of music as a model language; unless its structure and patterns are elucidated to the student, it remain an incomprehensible novelty and is less beneficial to the user, the active understanding of it facilitates the associated benefits. However it should still be stressed that engagement with music as a listener or a non expert participant in a group exercise has real advantages. This is because it is not only a tool for cognitive stimulation but also a means for social and communicative interactions with far reaching and subtle effects.

The positive effects of music are fairly obvious and fortunately society sees no reason to wait on its approval or proof by the scientific community. In Venezuela there is a programme called El Sistema, it was a originally a grass roots project that now spans continents, it uses music to build more than just musical skills and really requires no scientific justification.  

In conclusion is their manifesto:

“El Sistema is…a set of inspiring ideals which inform an intensive youth music program that seeks to effect social change through the ambitious pursuit of musical excellence. El Sistema focuses primarily on children with the fewest resources and greatest need.”

The Western Front to Camp Bastion: CPS Talk 23.2.15

By Stephen D Leach, on 2 March 2015


Our speakers this week are Dr Emily Mayhew; Author and Historian and Major Dafydd Edwards; Field Surgeon for the British Army and PhD student at the Centre for Blast Injury Studies at Imperial.

As the ‘Great War’ and the physics of high explosives were under discussion, there was an inevitable air of contemplative and/or melancholic pondering but it was a brilliant talk no less.

Dr Mayhew is a Historian at Imperial College whom specialises in the history of medicine and war. The book ‘Wounded’ covers her research on the stretcher bearers of the First World War and tonight Dr Mayhew will tell us what were the two greatest medical achievements of WWI.

Dr Mayhew began. Medical training for WWI was insufficient. The Second De Boer War in South Africa had preceded WWI by about 15 years but technological advances in that time were sufficient to nullify the current level of training in battle field medical practises. WWI brought with it high velocity weaponry. Projectiles were so energetic that not only did they cause puncture wounds but destroyed flesh in the entire region of the entry. During the De Boer war 7/10 soldiers in the wards would be suffering from minor wounds and communicable diseases. In WWI virtually all casualties involved catastrophic haemorrhage. This involves some highly destructive injury which has incurred very rapid and heavy bleeding.

Upon facing these severe injuries, it was clear to the officers that the wounded would die unless the bleeding was stopped very quickly. This meant that field hospitals were brought as close to the front line as could be safely justified.

Dr Mayhew showed us a detailed map drawn by a medical officer prior to the battle of Messines Ridge, its purpose was to show the stretcher bearers their exact route to the nearest medical out post. It indicated the extensive preparation for medical support that was undertaken along with these manoeuvres.

The responsibility of the stretcher bearers must have been an incomprehensible burden. They were unarmed but were not spared fire and would have to fetch mortally wounded soldiers from a hellish WWI battle field, additionally they were given the task of retrieving the bodies of alleged ‘cowards’ who had been shot by firing squad. Dr Mayhew informs us that putting together their history was not trivial and few official sources of information survived. However it was these stretcher bearers who were the precursors to the modern day battle field medics.

The training of the stretcher bearers to stop catastrophic haemorrhage was the first great medical achievement of WWI

The second great achievement is the Field Hospital, a centre of clinical expertise just behind the front line. Many lives were owed to the proximity of these facilities.

Next we are joined by Major Edwards who actively served in the British Armed Forces as part of a Medical Emergency Response Team.

He tells us that medical practises of WWI have still persisted into modern warfare. Only men bearing stretchers have been replaced by helicopters, at least on one of the sides. He took some time to highlight that WWI was symmetrical warfare. The front line, the mirror of symmetry, separated two forces that were evenly matched in technology and methodology.

Today however, Britain is involved in what are classed as asymmetric conflicts. No front lines and unevenly matched opponents with very different methodologies and resources. Improvised Explosive devices have meant that catastrophic haemorrhage is still a possible occurrence on battle fields.

The British Army medical infrastructure is now highly advanced. Wounded soldiers receive sequential treatment, critical measures are taken by a highly trained team in the Helicopter and if necessary a wounded soldier is flown back to the UK within 48 hours. The hospital at Camp Bastion, Afghanistan, has a higher quality rating than any NHS facility in the UK.

If you are waiting to hear about the physics of high explosives, I will have to disappoint you. I had to leave the talk early in order to get the pizza’s ready, my apologies.

Should you wish to find out more investigate the Centre for Blast Injuries at Imperial College.

If you would like to know more about asymmetric conflicts, watch the film Bitter Lake by Adam Curtis, it’s on the BBC iplayer as of now. It’s something to have seen.

Airborne Particles CPS Talk 9.2.15

By Stephen D Leach, on 23 February 2015

10495706_973275192683535_6066155244544101331_oStalwart of the SCI Dr Fred Parrat led an illuminating discussion on the ebbs and flows of airborne particles. Dr Parrat is a Big Band enthusiast, enjoys observing demolition and has his own brand of Dust Meters.

Dust is not something many of us spend a lot of time pondering on but it’s always encouraging to know that someone somewhere is. When it comes to dust (but not limited to dust) Dr Parrat is thinking on it. Indeed nothing can be so mesmerising as watching the dust glide through a beam of light in the still air of a darkened room…

Dust can refer to a variety of non living airborne particulates between 1 and 100 microns and before long Dr Parrat had reminded us that dust is not trivial. Remember how an unpronounceable Icelandic volcano brought the aviation industry of the northern hemisphere to a halt in 2010? The combination of dust with weather killed at least 4000 people in the 50’s because of the burning of coal in the city of London. The dust that was released after the collapse of the Twin Towers has since caused subsequent fatalities. It can be a slow and silent killer, hence it’s difficult to follow directly its effects.

Dust can originate naturally or by industrial or agricultural agitation, workers in certain industries are at high risk from unsafe exposure to dust and hence Dr Parrat’s dust concentration instruments are of important use making sure that safety standards are being met. The most heavily offending industries, dust wise, are Tapioca and Rice Bran.

Levels and varieties of dust are strongly dependent on locality, unsurprisingly in cities we are subjected to a vast amount of it from cars, from their exhausts and the wear and tear of their tyres. Humans are also very generous contributors to the dusty milieu by our frequent shedding of dead skin cells.

How does Dr Parrat fit in to the dust business? First of all he doesn’t limit himself, he said since beginning life as a Consultant he has learnt to say “yes” first and work out the details later. A large part of his business has been that of monitoring or containment of dust in industrial settings. However his instruments have been developed to include the detection of living air borne particles, from viruses up to fungi. He has developed a machine that passes a known volume of air over an Agar plate, this is then cultivated to figure out the number of colony forming units per m3. Such a device could be very useful in calculating the concentration of airborne microbes as a function of locale or time. For example, an intrepid researcher was able to conclude that the period of most heightened airborne bacterial frenzy, in the vicinity of a toilet, is right after it’s been flushed. But was that with lid down or up? Find out below…

“Potential for aerosolization of Clostridium Difficile after flushing toilets: the role of toilet lids in reducing environmental contamination risk” E.L. Best, J.A.T. Sandoe, M.H. Wilcox. Journal of Hospital Infection, 80, 2012, 1-5.

The word “dust” does not do dust justice. Dust is something we brush under the carpet, or attempt to banish with cleaning products. It is a heady mixture, consisting of just about any stable substance from anthropogenic or natural sources. Once consigned to the atmosphere dust undergoes a radical unchecked global redistribution, like Saharan grains of sand being swept onto the bonnets of SUV’s in St Johns Wood. I’m glad to have spent some time thinking about dust.

Chemistry and the Discovery of New Medicines

By Stephen D Leach, on 11 February 2015


CPS Talk 2.2.15 Dr Dave Alker, Phzer

Dave Alker, Medicinal Chemist and Recruitment Manager at Phzer spent the first 5 minutes of his talk insisting that everyone who studies chemistry is great. Thanks Dave. Perhaps he was worried that university chemistry departments are populated by modest and uncertain shrinking violets… He told us that we already know more about chemistry than Harry Kane or Zoella and hence we are on the road to becoming experts. Dave was fired up on coffee and general gumption for chemistry. If anyone in the room had felt meandering upon entry, I think they would feel less meandering on their way out.

A seasoned medicinal chemist, Dave had started working at Phzer in the eighties around about the time of the HIV-AIDS scare. He has a rather fascinating incite into how a pharmaceutical company attempts to deal with such a scenario.

Ordinarily, in the absence of a health scare, a pharmaceutical company will operate under three motivations; can an existing therapy be improved? Is the scale and impact big enough to warrant the investment? Is there a sufficient theoretical starting point; has a target been defined?

‘The Target’ is a key feature of the development of a therapy. It is the medicinal equivalent of pre-crime, unless the target has been defined therapies are constrained to treat symptoms. Hence it is the root mechanism of an ailment. For example the adrenergic receptors where the targets for beta blockers and a whole host of other drugs. Finding the target is a massive component of biochemical research. For example, the underlying cause of Multiple Sclerosis is not accurately known and hence it cannot be treated directly.

HIV-AIDS during the eighties was a profoundly frightening thing, with what appeared to be a 100% mortality rate. In the event of such publicised health scares, pharmaceutical companies have even been known to collaborate so that progress can be made more quickly. Such is the potency of the virus that no cure or vaccine currently exists, only a therapy that is able to keep the virus at bay and prevent or delay the onset of AIDS.

One might expect that the target for a viral infection should be the virus itself, this has however been found to be impossible to implement given the fast mutation of the virus. So in the case of HIV the best therapy presently relies on refusing HIV entry into the T4 cells. This radically hinders their propagation.

Development of this method required in depth knowledge of the viral mechanism so that it could be inhibited. It required the isolation of a specific protein on the surface of a white blood cell called CCR5. The viral mechanism involves binding to CCR5 after which it becomes incorporated into the T4 cell, which it destroys. Thus the target was the CCR5 receptor protein, if it could be blocked to HIV then the entire viral spread could be stopped. This is where the medicinal chemistry begins.

Maybe I made a mistake when I was writing this down, but Phzer tested 0.5 million compounds against CCR5!? This is to provide ‘the lead’, the molecule that has the right general applicability in terms of lipophilicity, potency and ligand efficiency. After the lead, the task begins to improve the action of the molecule. This can be related to how the molecule behaves in the body, can it gross the gut wall, does it impede ion channels, does it become oxidised by the liver and get excreted too quickly? All of these problems occurred during the development at Phzer but thanks to the chemists who are able to manipulate the structure and functionality of molecules, they arrived at a therapy; Maraviroc. It was gradually tailored so that the addition of functional groups or structural elements gave it the desired action inside the body. Dave assures us that its synthesis should contain nothing alien to a Chemistry undergraduate, insisting that it’s discovery was dependent on thorough and systematic practices as opposed to strokes of genius.

Often the challenge does not end there, it still requires a chemical engineering treatment so that it can be synthesised in vast quantities. In addition, the stability and administration of the compound need also be considered. In the end it was education the stemmed the spread of HIV and prevention is consistently the best defence.

“The Elementary Unknown Sea” CPS Talk 26.01.15

By Stephen D Leach, on 6 February 2015


Andrea Sella braves the ‘Elementary Unknown Sea’. An account of the Rare Earth Elements, their place in our technological-cultural hearts and why they made the headlines in BBC news.

Prof. Sella is one to embrace historical context and the story of the Rare Earths begins in Sweden 1792 with Johan Gadolin who was given a rock. This is a long time before Mendeleevs Periodic Table, new elements were there for the taking and rocks would be a good place to start. However isolating such elements would prove to be a tricky task. For the Rare Earths this is made even more difficult by their analogous chemistry, dominated by the (III) oxidation state and similarity in size. Separating them would remain a problem right through to the 20th Century.

The Rare Earths start at Y and end at Lu, they are not so rare as of yet so their name rings of antiquated nomenclature. The chemists of the time made laborious and ingenious attempts to isolate new materials, in the case of the Lanthanides this could involve thousands of consecutive solvent extractions. In some cases they still didn’t isolate an element, Didymium was a compound masquerading as an element for about 40 years.

It was thanks to Carl Auer von Welsbach that the Rare Earths became incorporated into the technical demands of society. Firstly he solved the Didymium problem and showed that it consisted of the two elements Praseodymium and Neodymium. He then went onto illuminate Europe, literally, and this was thanks to another of the Lanthanides; Thorium. In the 1890’s the Thorium gas mantle first lit the streets of European capitals bringing with it the requirement of piped gas. For his contribution he is commemorated on a special addition Austrian 25€ coin. The gas mantles were phased out because Thorium is radioactive, but if you can dig out an old camping lamp you may just have some Thorium Dioxide in the mantle, so don’t eat it.

Those of us lucky enough to receive the core third year Inorganic Chemistry Lectures by Dr Jeremy Karl Cockcroft (another Rare earth enthusiast), were given full proof of the radioactive nature of old gas mantles, nothing is quite so unnerving as the gentle clicking of the Geiger counter.

What other strange uses may these rare earth’s have? Currency. Hopefully this is not too instructive, but modern Euro notes contain Europium in an ink which is used to mark their authenticity. This is due to its fluorescent properties that allow it to glow pink under UV light. So don’t eat Euro’s either, most heavy metals are toxic.

There’s no chance of anyone eating these, but rare earths are also used in catalytic converters, sweetening the deal with the combustion engine problem by making sure that only fully oxidised hydrocarbons are released into the atmosphere. Not great for the green house effect but very good for improving air quality. Specifically Cerium (IV) Oxide a highly stable, non toxic, high refractory material that provides a low energy oxidation of combustion by products such as carbon monoxide.

Finally, Erbium. I get the impression that this application will still be going when combustion engines have long been scrapped. Erbium compounds act as the solid state optical amplifiers for fibre optic data signals. The huge cables that carry the internet under the Atlantic etc. Do so with the help of Erbium. Such materials have lessened the energetic requirements of optical data transfer by removing the need to amplify the signals electronically and then resubmit optically, Erbium does the hard so we don’t have to.

The Rare Earths hit the headlines when the Chinese Government decide that they would limit the amount of rare earths that they would export. This move saw the price of rare earth stock rise very sharply and got the prospectors very excited. Economics 101. The US kicked up a fuss and the move was reversed and down came the price. It illustrates that a lot of industries got wobbly knees when it looked like they’d have to pay more for their Rare Earths.

So what was Andrea’s final thought? Yes we should all take care of ourselves… and each other, but we should also respect the materials; respect the fact that future generations will be grateful for forests instead of quarries and let’s be careful not to make the rare earths any rarer.

Women in Science: CPS Talk 19/01/15

By Penny Carmichael, on 26 January 2015

– Article by Stephen Leach



The second CPS lecture of the term was given by former President of the RSC Prof Lesley Yellowlees. She had no qualms about giving a motivational talk and was qualified to do so. The encouragement on offer would benefit representatives across the whole gender spectrum BUT the take home message was:

“make the right improvements for everyone and there will be a disproportionate benefit in favour of women.”

What’s going on? The problem is the lack of female academics in STEM subjects, (STEM industries show the same pattern). There is a 92% – 8% split in favour of men in the number of professorships in STEM subjects in the UK, which is made even more startling when we note that at undergraduate level there is roughly a 50/50 split (for chemistry). In physics, engineering and computer science, there are too few female undergraduates to start with, compounding the problem further down the line. Even when the numbers are balanced in undergraduate courses, during the years of postgraduate education there is a serious decline in the number of women who opt to stay in STEM academia, the question is; why is this happening and what are the right improvements to make?

As more and more careers require STEM educations, more students in general will need to be encouraged to take scientific subjects. Obviously girls in school need to be assured that it is a feasible and exciting career path to follow.

Some of the possible reasons that women may avoid careers in STEM academia are unsociable working hours and the macho-ism of a male dominated work place. I think it’s fair to say that these things could also put off men, but as noted previously, the under-represented gender will be more sensitive to these pressures. The concept of unconscious bias was raised; this is the idea that there are functions in the brains of men and women that favour men. ‘Unconscious’ bias on top of plain sexism which tips the balance. The damning evidence came from a study where a large number of employers, equally male and female, where given some CV’s. Some employers were given John’s CV some were given Jennifer’s CV. The trick was that John and Jennifer weren’t real people and had identical CV’s except for their name and its implied gender. Low and behold John was given more jobs than Jennifer by both male and female employers. What’s that about? Our speaker said she found this depressing and didn’t dwell on it, from what I could tell, she would’ve had a better CV than Jennifer and John anyway.

Prof. Yellowlees stressed that it is the environment that needs to develop, essentially putting the onus on the employer; more flexibility in working hours, better mentoring and support and better ways to facilitate these things. Universities are not short of cash these days, they need the imagination and motivation to make changes and that requires the right group of individuals in positions of power.

Patience*. This was not given on the list of motivational slogans. It originally said ‘put up with difficult colleagues’. I thought ‘patience’ was an acceptable substitute. Difficult colleagues would put a downer on the motivational vibe.

This subject is too big for me to tie up, Prof. Yellowlees is working hard to bring on the change, the talk was encouraging but she needs others to lend a hand. She wants to hear from you if you have any ideas that could help.  You’ll find her at Edinburgh University.

I’ll end by saying that Hamley’s Toy Shop has scrapped its gender apartheid. Toys are toys, for any of the genders. They should be picked without the guiding influence of pink or blue. Same with jobs.