This blog is currently on hiatus owing to work commitments. Whilst I still keep an eye on the goings on at RiAus, and contribute to the work of the good folks at eLife, little will be added to this blog for the foreseeable future. Simon Says remains open for business, albeit at a reduced capacity. Thanks for stopping by, and I hope the archive of content found here will prove to be of interest.

Monday, 28 April 2014


"NATURE! We are surrounded and embraced by her: powerless to separate ourselves from her, and powerless to penetrate beyond her.
Without asking, or warning, she snatches us up into her circling dance, and whirls us on until we are tired, and drop from her arms.
She is shaping new forms: what is, has never yet been; what has been, comes not again. Everything is new, and yet nought but the old.
We live in her midst and know her not. She is incessantly speaking to us, but betrays not her secret. We constantly act upon her, and yet have no power over her.
The one thing she seems to aim at is Individuality; yet she cares nothing for individuals. She is always building up and destroying; but her workshop is inaccessible.
Her life is her children; but where is the mother? She is the only artist; working-up the most uniform material into utter opposites; arriving, without a trace of effort, at perfection, at the most exact precision, though always veiled under a certain softness."

from Nature: Aphorisms by Goethe, as quoted by T. H. Huxley, Nature, Vol 1, 1869

Monday, 16 December 2013

The Naked Scientists Guide to Genetics

I HAVE had the pleasure over the past two months to work with the Naked Scientists at Cambridge University, culminating in a one-hour live show on BBC Radio Cambridgeshire last night.

As part of my internship, kindly funded by the Genetics Society, I made an audio guide to Genetics, introducing the key terms - DNA, genes, chromosomes, alleles and so on - while meeting fascinating people who work in the field. I come across a strange creature from the depths of the sea bed, and make some furry friends! Plus, humans are 50% banana, yet only 4% Neanderthal. What does that mean?

The guide is available to listen and download here in its entirety or as separate sections.

Feedback is very welcome, as I've never made anything like this before.

Contributors, in order of appearance:
Enrico Coen, President of the Genetics Society
Max Telford, University College London
Mark Thomas, University College London
Eugenio Sanchez-Moran, University of Birmingham
Nelly Brewer, Rothamsted Research

Terms explained:
DNA, Nucleotide, Genes, Chromosomes, Genome, Chromatin, Mutation, Allele (dominant and recessive), Genotype, Phenotype, Heterozygote, Homozygote, Epistasis

Music: Adventure, Darling by Gillicuddy freemusicarchive.org/music/gillicuddy/; Dan-O, at danosongs.com.

Monday, 18 November 2013

Nikolai Vavilov: Forgotten Scientist

CENTENARY celebrations are afoot for the life and legacy of Alfred Russel Wallace, the co-discoverer of evolution by means of natural selection, who died in 1913. Many are familiar with the story of Charles Darwin, but fewer are aware of Wallace's contribution, which triggered the publication of Darwin's seminal work. Wallace is one of many poorly appreciated, and forgotten, scientists.

Another, is Nikolai Ivanovich Vavilov.

A botanist and geneticist who uncovered the geographical origins of widely grown crop plants, whose worked inspired the modern study of Crop Wild Relatives (CWRs), and whose collections were so valuable that they were guarded night and day throughout the two-year World War II Siege of Leningrad, during which at least one of his assistants starved to death; an adventurer once stranded in the Sahara, who led caravans across unmapped Afghan mountains and up the crocodile-infested Nile; a scientist whose work ensured the global population could be fed, Nikolai Vavilov died of starvation in a Soviet gulag, forgotten.

Vavilov's scientific career featured many more adventures than most scientists could dream of. Posted to Iran in 1916 to collect plants on behalf of the Russian Empire, he was arrested before even leaving his own country, charged as a 'German spy' for carrying German textbooks and diaries written in English. He was abandoned by Kyrgyz guides in the Pamir mountains in Central Asia; took a caravan of fourteen guides "and two revolvers" into Eritrea; caught malaria in Syria; caught typhus in Ethiopia; and further visited the United States; Central and South America; China, Taiwan, Japan and Korea, all in the name of collecting plants.

But why?

Sunday, 17 November 2013

Where the Booze is Cheaper

"Queen Victoria, listening to a military band at Windsor, was captivated by a certain tune and sent a messenger to ascertain the title of it. He returned in some embarrassment and said that it was called 'Come Where the Booze is Cheaper'."

They Were Singing by Christopher Pulling,
seen in Encyclopedia of World History, 1999, edited by Professor Jeremy Black