A group for anyone with a general interest in science and technology (and their histories). Most sessions will be study and discuss: either one person presenting a topic they are familiar with, or several members introducing short reviews of scientific interest stories from the media.
We will tackle everything from the science of everyday to some of those big tricky questions. We aim to have at least one visit per term to one of the many science / technology related sites in London.
Group Convener : Clare Smallman
The Group is currently meeting via Zoom on the first Monday in the month at 2 p.m.
The Group has been active on Zoom through the year. Several members have shared their favourite science related books and the next book reviews will be at the September session.
Talks have included some really fascinating stories:
Alan : How a soft drink saved millions of lives
It turns out our ideas about the discovery of penicillin barely touched the surface of an epic tale
Rob : Mrs Littleton’s great idea
The origin of Pyrex
Lesley : Why we sleep
Mike Holmes : Earthquakes, geopolitics and architecture in Lefkos
Researching holiday puzzles can lead to extraordinary places, in this case why the houses in a small Greek town on a small Greek island have corrugated iron first floors (and no second floors). The town is in the wrong place in a very active earthquake zone. Mike rounded off a splendid ramble through the historical choices and political accidents which led to the location (and the town’s defensive building style) with another consequence of the local geology – a huge neutrino detector just off the island’s coast.
Lesley Chrysanthou : Senior Stretches
We now know a lot more about telomeres (which incidentally the spell check thinks are omelettes) and their possible role in cell / tissue / organ / body ageing. Lesley built up a compelling story linking the shortening of these tiny cellular structures and the effects of time on ourselves. We did end on a positive note though – we got to do a set of graded stretches working up the body to help our flexibility.
Robert Jackson : The Art of Science
Rob’s delightful talk looked at the way artists have presented science and scientists. Taking us from the 14th century to the early 19th, we looked at the development of scientific method and selected scientific concepts illustrated by portraits of “natural philosophers”, the artefacts that accompanied them and images of science in action. We look forward to the Victorians and their successors at some later date.
Clare Smallman : Organ donation: how death becomes life
The first part looked at the medical advances which needed to be in place for successful transplants, drawing on the strongly recommended How Death Becomes Life by Joshua Mezrick. In the second half we explored the donation process, barriers to donation, upcoming changes and some unusual and new transplant areas. The debate was lively.
Charlie Sharp : Emilie du Chatelet: an enlightened mind in unenlightened times
Charlie wove a fine narrative for us about this remarkable woman. He acknowledged her lively, not to say turbulent, social and sexual life but focused primarily on her (until recently under-estimated) magnificent contributions to scientific progress.
Mike Holmes : The Truth about Detergents
”I’d forgotten how much fun chemistry can be when explained clearly and linked to real life – not just washing up but also breathing, digesting, gardening and so much more in Mike’s fascinating talk. Guided by a master, I could even learn to love the periodic table.” – Convener Clare.
Robert Jackson : The $100 Man
Benjamin Franklin was an astonishingly curious man who generated insights and technology (none of which he patented) in an amazing range of fields. All this besides being a successful printer, influential politician and, one can only assume, a spectacular net-worker.
Alan Whitehouse : 24 Hours in the Life of the Earth<br>
“We live on a busy bee of a planet”, was Alan’s conclusion. Each day, astonishing amounts of stuff arrive, leave and generally move around the Earth. We considered a host of movers and shakers including volcanoes, glaciers, winds, the Moon, radioactive decay, rivers, solar winds and the galaxy itself.
Robert East : Resistance to New Ideas in Science, with case studies
In this intriguing session we considered the reasons why the acceptance of a scientific idea might be delayed. Some examples were familiar, others not. Robert’s background a a sociologist brought a swathe of new insights to an area which had seemed to be simpler than it turns out to be.
Mike Holmes : Why on Earth?
Mike’s tour took us from the Goons to whether there might be intelligent life elsewhere via some insights into the science explaining why its possible for us to exist here on Earth. I especially enjoyed the beautifully clear explanation of water’s odd but relevant behaviour and the mind blowing numbers. Brilliant stuff.
Clare Smallman: A Not So Simple Inheritance
Clare’s tour took us through frame work dates and human ancestors and then explored in more detail the impact of gene sequencing tools in recent years. The emerging picture shifts from an almost straight forward sequence of ancestors to a complex mix of hominids who interbred and travelled travelled a lot.
Clive Gabriel: The Cost of Science is Eternal Vigilance
Clive gave us a beautifully structured ride through 2 major shifts in the approach to science. He discussed the contributions of Bacon and Boyle in the 16th Century and suggested that many of the principles and approaches they pioneered developed into the set of rules used for doing science until the middle of the 20th Century. We explored the results of having so much data, increased interest beyond the scientific community, shifting career pressures, the impact of changes in publication and reporting on matters scientific and, sadly, the corruption of scientists by big money interested. A thought provoking and sobering session.<
Vicky Assling – Buddhism and the Miracle of Mindfulness
We’ve had some good post talk discussions but this was possibly the best. Vicky’s involving talk covered some Buddhism back ground, her personal experiences, relationship to neuroscience and a meditation session. Got everyone going. Fascinating.
Christmas Quiz. “That was fun”, they said and asked for copies to try out on their family. Questions ranged from the morbid (match date of death to the famous scientist) to the really very entertaining ( work out which Ig Nobel award went to which piece of research) with a little maths and art on the way. [Ig Nobel prizes are awarded annually for published research which makes you laugh then makes you think].
Alan Whitehouse : How Refrigeration got Ronald Reagan elected as POTUS
We love a good story and Alan Whitehouse told us one in this session. The tale started with steamy southern USA summers, ice hacked out of northern lakes, a lot of innovation to put the two together and many more to replace tons of ice with more portable options. The result over 200 years has been to make major population, and hence voting, shifts in the USA. QED. Fascinating.
Charlie Sharp – Artificial Intelligence
Charlie Sharp gave us splendidly clear account of why Artificial Intelligence might better be called Machine Learning. I was sold. A little history, the contributions of statistics and neural networks, a useful diagram and a really helpful animated example led onto a discussion ranging from current medical research to the problems of using the brain as a model for computing.
Clare Smallman – Being Mortal by Atul Gawande
Gawande is an American surgeon and Being Mortal is his 4th brilliant book (“He could be a poet” said one of the group) reflecting on matters medical. Clare Smallman led a thoughtful and very participatory session considering aspects of managing the end of one’s life. Impossible to summarise, we can only recommend everyone reads the book and gives copies to everyone in the family.
Lesley Chrysanthou – Diabetes: how sweet is your understanding?
Lesley’s session was full of lucid detail (with helpful diagrams) covering the various types (more than you’d think) of diabetes: their features, causes, distribution, treatment and outcomes (not good especially if you don’t manage your condition). Lesley’s personal experience of the medical, social and emotional mix of factors involved in a diabetes diagnosis made the session especially riveting.
Helena Kania – How like us are animals? with a look at the theory of mind
Helena Kania opted to discuss the octopus family in her talk exploring animal behavior and how like animals we are. These extraordinary and intelligent invertebrates, with whom we shared a common ancestor 100’s of millions of years ago, are funny, devious and capable of the unexpected. Helena marshaled more than enough fascinating information to ensure that I for one will not be eating octopuses again.
Tony Hetherington – Where 25% of your gas bill goes
This picture of Tony with his visual aid does not do justice to his engrossing talk about the current work replacing aging Victorian gas pipes with something more durable and safe. It was entertaining, funny and rather scary. I will never look at those mysterious white poles with orange lids you see in the country the same way again. Strange how knowledge transforms the way you see the world.
Jeanette Murphy – Why systems fail, especially in healthcare
We have to live with failure because, if you don’t, you do nothing” was Jeanette Murphy’s conclusion at the end of a fascinating session. She shared her experience of working in the world of healthcare informatics over many years and through many initiatives. Objectives set for NHS IT in 1992 have hardly been met. The group explored some of the failures and successes, noting that many of the issues raised in implementing IT driven change are the case for other industries and results much the same. The NHS is just bigger and impacts all of us more directly, but, as in other areas, the problems are with people not the technology as such.
Alan Whitehouse – Communicating science ideas to busy MPs
“Well that was worth it”, was the parting comment from one of the group. March did its lion thing and most of the group braved the snow to listen to Alan Whitehouse share his experience of communicating science ideas to busy MPs. We were introduced to the the informal / formal and written/verbal processes which strive to ensure our law makers are adequately informed. Alan’s illustrations rang bells and triggered an interested discussion. Another excellent session.
Georgina Frost : Design follow up to Wellcome visit
Georgina Frost led our discussion with a summary of the “Can Graphic Design Save your Life?” exhibition at the at the Wellcome Collection, and prompted debate with well placed questions. Many of the group had visited the exhibition and the discussion was wide ranging and thoughtful. A most enjoyable session.<
Jon Raper : Acoustics in Public Places or Why Some Restaurants are Hell
Here is Jon surrounded by bags of materials which can help improve the acoustics of public spaces. He took us through sound management basics, problems for professional acousticians, and specific issues (and options) for restaurants and concert halls. We had a “handling session”, the backgrounds to several problem buildings in London (“Oh that’s why….”), and a very lively discussion. I shall never look at a restaurant the same way again.
Mike Holmes : Why Trees are the Wrong Colour
At the STG’s first fascinating discussion, Mike Holmes topped and tailed his talk “Why Trees Are The Wrong Colour” with a review of the way memes and gene have similar longevity and unintended consequences. The “meme” story was the crazy size limitation of so many objects to 4 ft 8 1/2 inches wide. We followed links back through rail tracks, farm carts and rutted roads to the Romans and their enthusiasm for easily replaceable standard parts. The “gene” story pointed out that plants should be black or at least purple to absorb the most energy. Instead most absorb blue and red light and reflect the green / yellow higher energy wavelengths. Mike took us back to the origins of life on earth. Bacteria made an initial breakthrough using yellow / green light, “and the seas turned purple”. Others had to manage on the light that made it through the haze. They stumbled on chlorophyll which had extra potential and some serious side effects. When the various subsequent disasters cleared, the winners on land had green pigment inherited from their ancestors.