Sunday, December 12, 2010

John Lennon, Natural Healing and the Church in Southern Germany

The magnificent Heiliggeistkirche.

Well, I'm on one of my tri-monthly visits to Heidelberg right now, and happened upon a couple of articles in Friday's local Rhein Neckar Zeitung that offer contrasting perspectives on attitudes towards activities that, from the point of view of the Church in Southern Germany, might appear borderline.

The first article reported on a concert entitled "John Lennon forever!" by 'Freddy Wonder and friends' in the magnificent Heiliggeist Church in Heidelberg. The Lennon concert was hailed by all as a triumph and the Heiliggeistkirche as the perfect place to hold it, despite the fact that Lennon himself had an uneasy relationship with Christianity and, for a while, practised Hinduism.

The second article reported on the eviction of the "Naturheilverein" (Natural Healing Club) from the Catholic Church Rectory rooms in the tiny village of Spechbach in the surrounding Odenwald forest. The Club has been meeting in the Spechbach Rectory since 2002, and has now grown to 300 mostly female members. They were welcomed by the local priest, Father Meier, so long as they were offering innocent-sounding courses such as 'Mushroom Identification', 'Healthy Eating', 'Seminars for Couples and Pairs' and '"Classical" Homeopathy'. So far so good, but then the ladies started to offer suspicious-sounding courses in 'Chakra Meditation' and 'Healing with Stones'. Father Meier and the Catholic elders appeared to swallow hard and turn a blind eye. However, with recent offerings such as "Healing the Soul with Shamanistic Psycho-Kinesiology" the ladies have finally danced across the line, and are thus out on their asses. Pushed it a bit too far. They are, it is reported, rather aggrieved as they have already printed 4500 brochures for 2011 with the Catholic Rectory Rooms named as the meeting place.

I can't imagine 'Imagine' being allowed in the Heiliggeistkirche 30 years ago, so maybe the Nature Ladies would just need to wait awhile? Hard to predict that one, but I do suspect that in 2040 they'll still be in alternative accomodation.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

CAUTION: graphic descriptions of disease and violence below.

Excerpt from “The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer” by Siddhartha Mukherjee. Mukherjee, a doctor, describes watching a two-year-old leukemia patient’s condition deteriorate as another drug fails:

"The patient “turned increasingly lethargic. He developed a limp, the result of leukemia pressing down on his spinal cord. Joint aches appeared, and violent, migrating pains. Then the leukemia burst through one of the bones in his thigh, causing a fracture and unleashing a blindingly intense, indescribable pain."

Excerpt from "JOKER ONE: A Marine Platoon's Story of Courage, Leadership, and Brotherhood" by Donovan Campbell.:

"The little kids stood in a tight knot on the sidewalk right next to our third vehicle, waving at us as we hopped in the Humvees, pleading for us to hand out more gifts.... Another explosion rang out, and the crowd of small children disintegrated into flame and smoke. From somewhere behind me, Marines started screaming out the worst words a platoon commander can hear: "Doc up! Doc up! Someone get a corpsman! Doc up!"I jumped out of the Humvee and looked around. I can't give specifics of the scene—I was too busy scanning the whole area and sorting out the enemy threat in my head—only a general impression, and it was of a macabre tableau from hell. The rocket had missed us. Instead it had impacted squarely in the middle of the crowd of small children. Dead and wounded little ones were draped limply all over the sidewalk, severed body parts mixing in with whole bodies, or in some cases flung even farther, into the street. Blood, always the blood, streamed onto the sidewalk and into the dirt, where it settled darkly in pools or rivulets. Across the whole scene drifted smoke and dust. The Marines jumped out of the vehicles and ran helter-skelter among the children, collecting the wounded and their body parts, applying first aid where they could. The docs were working frantically. I noticed, strangely enough, that they 'adn't bothered to put on their latex gloves."

Now for Jeremy's Soapbox:

We just don't get it. Why do we just accept cancer, heart disease and the other deadly afflictions? We just seem to seem to grin our teeth and bear it. People must not care, and here's why - because they only spend 0.2% of their wealth on finding ways to stop diseases. The US GDP is about $13tr and yet according to the OECD we spend only $26bn on health R&D i.e., 0.2%. Obviously we just don't care. Yet there are 1.5M new cancer cases per year in the US, and 500k cancer deaths. 1 in 4 of us will die of it, and a further 1 in 4 from heart disease. This absolutely dwarfs anything terrorism will ever do to us. If we make the effort research WILL stop these diseases. If people knew that themselves and their loved ones would be spared these diseases, wouldn't they want more than 0.2% of their income dedicated to it? Apparently not. Life is indeed cheap. We live for today, and don't care of tomorrow. Needed basic research is not funded, promising molecules are not synthesized and tested and clinical trials go unperformed.

As for energy research, improving and encouraging homegrown energy sources, while not eliminating international conflict, will surely lessen the pressure to go and fight foreign wars. Yet we pump trillions into stalemate conflicts while neglecting this simple way forward for both national and energy security. Again we fail to get it.

Science can cure cancer, heart disease, Alzheimer's, multiple sclerosis and the other hellish diseases. Science can mitigate the need to fight foreign wars, increasing national security via energy independence with renewable energy. Curing dreaded diseases and achieving energy independence is possible. But it takes time and resources and the short-term nature of the financial world makes it difficult for industry to do the groundwork research needed.

Energy and health research and development should be a top priority over the next twenty years. We must make sure the world's brainiest kids go into science and receive the support and motivation they need to do their research.

Why do we casually accept Middle Eastern oil as the lifeblood of our energy economy, and
two-year olds dying in excruciating pain?

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

What makes a 16-year-old GIVE UP?

I gave up pronto, I did, in 1976, on a dark afternoon in the dark country, Wolverhampton, England.

I had feverishly trained at long jumping for four summers, several times a week. My run up was paced perfectly to hit the board, with two checkmarks, my hang technique was impeccable, and I had made it to the National Under-17 final.

There it all ended abruptly! There were eight of us, and I finished a solid, emphatic last, more than a foot behind the lad in seventh place, and a meter behind the winner, Gus Udo. Outclassed, depressed, I realised the talent just wasn't there. That's what makes a 16-year-old give up. I never jumped again. Not once.

Not so my training partner Tim Newenham who kept going, threw javelin at the Commonwealth Games, became National Javelin Coach then fitness coached the tennis player Tim Henman for five years (Henman's the English guy who reached the Wimbledon semi-finals four times and lost each one, thus firmly cementing the national sense of sporting futility!). Now, with pleasure I see Tim N. is javelin coaching Oliver Bradfield from my same old athletics club, and Oliver last year threw 63m, the best throw in the world for his age, and this year over 75m, breaking the UK U15 record by over two meters. Way to go Ollie and Tim!

As for Gus, well, his 7.08m winning jump in 1976 broke the championship record, and he also won the high jump. I couldn't seem to get away from him, because we both ended up at Harvard a few years later. He, however, was the revered co-captain of the Crimson track team while yours truly gave him a wide berth. Fingers burned, you see...

Oliver Bradfield, wearing that same Norfolk County athletics vest I wore 34 years ago (brings tears to one's eyes, it does :-)).

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

New Musical Creation

I like to create and perform music, and my latest album, Paroxysms of Indifference, is now available for free download on (just click the icon on the right). Paroxysms follows 'Elementary' with the Parisian “Baskervilles Blues Band” (1994) and the Johnson’s Jump (2004) piano improvisation compilation.

The tracks on Paroxysms were recorded between about 2005 (I think) and last week.
Here's a description:

Tripped Hop (electronic): Was supposed to be inspired by Massive Attack’s Trip Hop style but somehow strayed from the straight and narrow.

Three Jolly Boys (Traditional English folk, Acapella): Bit of fun about women and drink but delivered too straight laced (rather angelically).

Reverie in White, Black, Blue: Dreamy improvised piano with white, black and blue themes.

Okavango (electronic): The Okavango delta in Botswana every year undergoes a remarkable river swelling, bringing life with it. You can here the flooding river towards the end.

Light on a Faraway Shore (Orchestral): Inspired by a night-time sailing approach to Milford Haven when I was 13. The bell represents the light and you can hear the yacht lolling, rain arriving with an increased swell and yawing, then, as the rain stops, the boat continues to approach the shore slowly.

Lac du Plan Viannay (Improv Piano): A remote, high lake in the Parc des Ecrins.

Fion: (Acapella). Traditional Gaelic Song. Yes, I’m singing all the parts! (Duh!... no, not all at once)

Paroxysms of Indifference (electronic): Title refers to the critical acclaim this album is sure to generate. Towards the end gets a bit Stravinsky-esque with the dissonance.

Song of the Wandering Aengus: W.B Yeats’ poem about the Irish mythological figure, set to music. Only track with acoustic guitar in.

Recording details: All music and vocals for all tracks performed arranged mixed etc by JCS. All tracks also composed by JCS except for the traditional vocal numbers and ‘Aengus’ for which the lyrics were by Yeats and the melody by D. Leitch. Software: Cakewalk, Garage Band. Light on a Faraway Shore was written using Finale Print Music and was the programmed straight into the computer using a software synthesizer. It was thus only piece not ‘performed’ using a musical instrument. MIDI-free.

Instruments: Keyboard: Yamaha Motif, Guitar: Guild acoustic with rotten strings, Piano: Kawai Grand (bass A flat slightly out of tune).

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

How to Win a Nobel Prize in Physics

Andre Geim : "You put [sticky tape] on graphite or mica and peel the top layer. There are flakes of graphite that come off on your tape. Then you fold the tape in half and stick it to the flakes on top and split them again. And you repeat this procedure 10 or 20 times. Each time, the flakes split into thinner and thinner flakes. At the end you're left with very thin flakes attached to your tape."

Aha! That's all it takes, then. Maybe we should quit messing around with supercomputers and pulsed neutron sources....?

Monday, October 4, 2010

Powerful Supercomputer Peers into the "Origin of Life"

ORNL has just released this press article on our research into a ribozyme, performed by Tomasz Berezniak together with Mai Zahran, Petra Imhof and Andres Jaeschke and myself. The UT Kraken supercomputer bore the brunt of the load for these calculations. The work was published in this article. Ribozymes (catalytic RNAs) were the center of a presumed RNA world at the early origins of life.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Drug Discovery Research at Oak Ridge

Well, I've been involved to some extent in human health research for a while, including participating in research suggesting a common pharmacophoric footprint for AIDS vaccine design and in helping design experimental methods for detecting single tumour marker molecules in serum.

Now we appear to be on the road to working with Milton Brown and his colleagues at Georgetown University in prostate cancer research, as part of a new NIH Clinical and Translational Science Award center. Milton heads the Drug Discovery Center at Georgetown Medical School. The idea here is to use Oak Ridge's supercomputers to help design molecules of potential therapeutic use. Jerome Baudry will play a leading role in this research from our side. I'm kind of excited about what might happen.....

Friday, September 10, 2010

Something Wondrous Happens to this Blog.....

At 2.08 p.m. EST on Thursday 9th September 2010, something wondrous happened to the detached, unassuming, sleepy, oft-neglected little cyberspace backwater that is Club Mod. It was touched by magic.

Events started to unfold at 10.22 a.m. when Frank Munger gave a nice plug for the previous Beam me Up Scotty (BUS) post on his Atomic City Underground blog. But then, miraculously, the eye of the almighty Instapundit fleetingtly alighted on unsuspecting little Club Mod (apparently via the Atomic City entry), and, at 2.08 p.m. --- linked. Our dumbstruck, bewildered little blog was then overrun by 4000 visitors in the next 12 hours - more than in the entire previous year! Well, they've presumably mostly gone now, too late to be welcomed, but we hope that, one day, with or without pixie dust, they'll visit again. If they do Club Mod will try to be up, shaved and ready. But maybe they never will, which reminds me of a quote from Dylan Thomas' "Under Milk Wood":

"Alone until she dies, Bessie Bighead, hired help, born in the workhouse, smelling of the cowshed, snores bass and gruff on a couch of straw in a loft in Salt Lake Farm and picks a posy of daisies in Sunday Meadow to put on the grave of Gomer Owen who kissed her once in the pig-sty when she wasn't looking and never kissed her again although she was looking all the time"

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Public Transport: Nah. Beam me Up Scotty!

I can't imagine conventional public transport ever working out in a sparse city like Knoxville, TN - even if they quadrupled the number of routes it would still take most people 30 minutes to walk to the nearest bus stop - but maybe the time will come when a BUS scheme might work. Now by BUS I don't mean those big, dirty, noisy, infrequent, uncomfortable mass transport monsters, I mean "Beam me Up Scotty" - a kind of really quick, safe and efficient car pooling system. Here's how it might work.

You see, those of us participating as drivers in the BUS scheme would do it for the money and (maybe) company. We would have equipped our cars with a small LCD on the windscreen with a number on it that lights up when we want to be available. All we have to do is enter in our GPS which location we are driving to (to work, for example) and click on the "BUS" icon. When that happens our GPS position and destination would be transmitted to some kind of serious computerized HQ place that instantaneously forwards this info to the GPS-equipped cellphones of any potential passenger also in the scheme. So, the potential passenger, standing on the side of the road, would get a kind of local google map with all the participating cars that are about to drive close by pinpointed together with where they are going. And all the passenger has to do is click on a car. The driver would then get beeped and know to stop and pick them up on the way. The passenger identifies the number on the windscreen LCD (just to make sure) and hops in. The cost of the journey (fixed at, say, 50 cents per mile or whatever) would be shared between driver and passenger and the correct money would be automatically transferred from one account to the other at the end of the journey because the serious HQ computers would be tracking the cellphones of the participants. There couldn't be any hanky-panky, of course, because the identity and position of the participants would be known to the HQ guys. Moreover, you could maybe even preselect what type of person you feel comfortable traveling with.
Could this work?

Monday, August 2, 2010

BMW Owners - you can tell 'em anywhere.

Here are some of the cars I have owned over the years.

The first was a Citroen 2CV:

followed by a Renault 4L:

then came the AMC Hornet, Renault 5, Ford Escort and Opel Corsa. All the above were low budget cars for people who just need to occasionally pootle from A to B.

However, now I have 2006 BMW 330Ci:

An improvement you might think? Well, maybe from some perspectives, but, apparently, not the social viewpoint. According to a recent article, BMW owners are almost universally despised, and this holds for whatever country the poor owner happens to be in.

Here's a quote:

"The bad rap is worldwide, of course. In the UK we are informed by the boys from Top Gear that BMW drivers are "[expletive deleted]s" (though I think they have since decided those people drive Audi's instead). In Australia they are known as "[expletive deleted]s". And even in Tajikistan the dialect, while somewhat difficult to translate directly into English, refers to them as "[expletive deleted] with [expletive deleted] on a yak's [expletive deleted] to your mother's [expletive deleted]"."

Hmm....maybe I should trade it in for a Rolls Royce???

Monday, July 26, 2010

Cellulosic Ethanol: $2.35 per gallon

Test plots of switchgrass at Auburn University, taken from ORNL report here.

Well, work on cellulosic ethanol has progressed over the last few years and things look good for large-scale commercial application. A recent report put the production costs at $2.35 per gallon, and ethanol produced from switchgrass yields 540% of the energy used to grow, harvest, and process it into ethanol. Equally important, it appears that switchgrass really is carbon neutral, as it absorbs essentially the same amount of greenhouse gases while it's growing as it emits when burned as fuel.

This kind of progress makes it all the more bewildering to read that budget cuts are planned for DOE, or rather, should I say were planned: these things seem to change direction every week.
Now the economy is just about stabilized we do need to slash government spending, but surely not in an area so critical to national security, energy independence and the environment?

Thursday, June 24, 2010

College Athletics Spending - purely a business.

Ray Cannon in his Tennessee football uniform in 1939. UT won the SEC that year.

Thanks to Splette for this link to an article berating colleges for spending too much on athletics.

I'm not against big spending on college athletics as long as it is cost beneficial to academics, in other words as long as academics makes a profit from the athletics. For some of the smaller colleges this does not appear to be happening.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

High-School Rebirth

Another personal note....

What a pleasure to see one's high school saved!

Poor old Earlham School in Norwich, where I spent six years in the 1970s, was ranked academically 51st out of 52 high schools in Norfolk in 2008 and was also consistently one of the lowest ranking schools in the whole of England, seemingly destined for closure and oblivion.

Now, however, it has been been resuscitated as "City Academy Norwich" with much improved results. Aaaah, so our fond memories of soccer at break time with a tennis ball and who-knows-what behind the bike sheds shall not be despoiled!

Maybe I should even send my own daughter there now?

Wishing the old alma mater the best of luck.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Press Release

by ORNL here, on an article we published in PNAS.
A Zymomonas mobilis mutant was identified by Steve Brown and colleagues demonstrating sodium acetate
tolerance that has potential importance in biofuel development.
Over-expression of the sodium-proton antiporter
gene nhaA confers the elevated AcR sodium acetate tolerance
phenotype. A structural model for the NhaA sodium proton
antiporter was constructed to provide mechanistic insights.

Monday, May 10, 2010

The LEAF Festival in North Carolina

Just back from a magical getaway weekend at the LEAF festival in Black Mountain, N.C.
Well recommended for those living in these parts.

Highlights for me included playing my Djembe impromptu with the Atlanta Swamp Opera Cajun Band ("Oh, Madeleine!"), and later again at midnight in the Drum Circle, and tenaciously hanging in there to force a defensive three-hour draw with the chess senior master Robert Frederick (although admittedly he was playing six other people at the same time!).

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Flooding in Tennessee

Every cloud has a silver lining!

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Top Gear Visas

Here's an excerpt from the British TV program "Top Gear" concerning U.S. Visas: rather topical for the current travails of our lab:

James: What we have down here is a selection of American muscle cars. Now the recipe for this for this sort of thing was always very simple: massive engine; crude, simple suspension; very low price; and finally [gesturing to a Dodge Challenger] some orange paint. Now, this sort of thing never really caught on in the civilised world and we thought that what with petrol prices being so high now, they'd have died out in America as well.
Richard: However, in the last few months three brand-new American muscle cars have arrived. So we thought we best pop over to the states and find out if they're any good.
Jeremy: Unfortunately, there was a problem. You see, we all have visas which allow us to go to America and make a factual documentary. But, since our last trip over there when I might have accidentally put a cow on the roof of my car, the American — the U.S. state department no less — has decided Top Gear is actually now an entertainment show.
James: And unfortunately that requires a different type of visa and we didn't have time to go and get one. So, in the end we were only allowed in to the country if we promised — this isn't a lie is it?
Jeremy: No, this is absolutely, hand on heart...
Richard: This is for real.
James: — if we promised not to be entertaining.

with credit to where I originally found this.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

They're the Champions...

Norwich City just won the League One Championship.

Hence I should keep my promise and again lend them my support.


Let us not forget the team's 2005-2009 elegant swan dive from the heights of the Premier League to the sleepy backwaters of England's third division, which at times drew serious comparison with Britain's Official Worst Football Team (AFC Aldermaston, who recently scraped a draw after 40 consecutive losses).
Hopefully, the return to the second tier signals the swan dive was in reality just the first half of a sweet sinusoidal bungee jump back to the very top.....

Monday, April 19, 2010

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Yes, thought so, missed one.....

..from Reasons to be Cheerful Part III:

Sampath K. got a Spot Award from Novartis for a novel method for assessing protein structures.

....and that officially closes the Reasons to be Cheerful blog entry.

Reasons to be Miserable coming up.....(suggestions welcome, to me via e-mail, not directly as a comment here (!!), and no whining please:-)))).

Monday, April 12, 2010

Reasons to be Cheerful, Part III

(i.e. successes of people I am working with..
..see here and here for Parts I and II.)

Jerome B. got an NIH grant with Igor Jouline.
Xiaolin C. has been publishing like crazy.
Tongye S. got a cheery new postdoc.
Ricky S. got a cheery new supervisor.
Hong G. got a cheery new DOE mercury grant (with cheery me:-)).
Hao-Bo G. got a PNAS paper and yanked his green card out of the fire.
Barbara C. is getting her mega-CPU drug design stuff in shape.
Krishnan got a faculty position
Moumita got a well-behaved cellulase reaction profile.
Jerry P. was on TV talking about our mercury stuff.
Loukas P. is, amazingly, self-similar over 3 orders of magnitude.
Nikolai S.'s simulations agree with spin-echo experiments.
Srini got invited for a faculty interview.
Zheng got beamtime for P450 neutron experiments.
Yinglong got intriguing solvent-channel results.
Dennis G.'s paper on water model comparisons was published.
Xiaohu H. got weird and wonderful phase transitions in water (do we believe them?:-).
Benjamin L. 's lignin:cellulose simulation movies wowed the Undersecretary and others.
Roland S. scaled MD to 150,000 cores.
Jason H. decided wisely to join us.
Barmak M. has learned he can work well wherever he is.
Isabella D. got a faculty position.
Zoe C. got a faculty position.
Nadia E. became a Mum (and got her bacteriorhodopsin paper finished as well!)
Thomas N. graduated summa cum laude.
Petra I. seems to be quite desired in Germany these days.
Jakob U. has definitively solved the peptide membrane partioning problem.
Mithun B. has his theory paper on DNA submitted.
Emal A. is getting a mega-salary (f0r a while).
Tomasz B. got good reviews for his paper.
Mai Z. got good reviews for her paper.
Dieter K. got his QM/MM paper submitted.
Thomas S. got his second actin paper submitted.
Lipi T. understands peptide folding like no other.
Corinne W. got her Diplomarbeit nailed.
Heinrich K.'s model for cellulose H-bonds behaves most interestingly.
Karine V. has a cheery mechanism for nucleosome dynamics. who's going to come back at me for forgetting someone this time?....

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

ORNL Voted Top Place to be a Postdoc in The Scientist magazine, though dropping to 38th place from 11th last year.

Did they take into account that Knoxville is Number One nationally for allergies?

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Why Science Takes Centuries to be Accepted:

Read these two articles in the mainstream British media:

"Government Scientific Advisors: Who Needs these Nuts in White Coats"

Excerpt: "The public is no longer in awe of scientists. Like squabbling evangelical churches in the 19th century, they can form as many schismatic sects as they like, nobody is listening to them any more. Unquestioned authority derived from a white coat and a doctorate is as dead as the Druids."

and "The Unpersuadables"

Excerpt: "If they don’t want to know, nothing and no one will reach them."

The more evidence is shown to some people, the less they believe it. For science this is exacerbated by the fact that scientific information appears remote from the day-to-day reality we experience, even if its effect on that reality is solidly established. A layman exposed to 'remote information' that points to him altering his life in any significant way is unlikely to accept it and will mistrust the information provider. He won't accept the concrete link until the results of his actions are staring him in the face. And stoutly defending what he rigidly believes reinforces it in his mind.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Biology and Medical Research at the Exascale

...a glimpse into the future, but the challenges in reaching the exascale are formidable, not the least in mastering the power requirements and the consequences of regular core failures in systems of 100 million cores.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Foreigners at ORNL

A recent blog item of Frank Munger's deals with the travails of non-citizens at ORNL. While it's true ORNL overtly brands us as potentially dangerous with glaring red badges, the practical fallout of this and other measures is minimal, and things are somewhat easier than what I witnessed as an "Agent CEA" in the French National Laboratory at Saclay in the 1990s. No, the main obstacles hampering our attempts to get our work done come not from ORNL but from dealing with visas and green cards for lab members - a constant headache.

All this reminds me of my former mentor, Martin Karplus, who tried to move from Harvard to Paris in 1974. The Universite Paris VII (Jussieu) wanted to offer him a tenured professorship, but tenured professors were civil servants and thus had to be French. Enter Jacques-Emile Dubois , a lively man who I enjoyed chatting with occasionally while working with the French Chemical Society. Dubois was a chemistry professor at Jussieu, but he was also Head of Research at the French Minstry of Defence and he had connections high up in the Pompidou adminstration. Dubois got weaving and, sure enough, eventually a decree was published exempting university professors from the citizenship requirement. However, by that time I think Martin had had enough and he didn't leave Harvard (wisely maybe: even a Dubois couldn't cure the deeper sclerosis of the French academic administration), but he apparently received a number of thank-you letters afterwards.

Friday, February 19, 2010

An Open Letter to Sir Richard Evans

Dear Sir Richard,

As Chairman of BAE you were responsible for securing the largest arms deal in British history: the Al-Yamamah sales to Saudi Arabia, worth $67bn so far over 20 years and potentially $60bn more. Of course this created thousands of jobs in Saudi Arabia and the UK. Admirable!

However, there does appear to have been a slight problem with it, doesn't there?

I mean, it really did seem inordinately clever of your guys to manage to sell a military air traffic control system to the government of impoverished Tanzania in 2001 for $30m when Tanzania didn't even have an air force! There's salesmanship!

And now, finally, your company has admitted to "false accounting" over Al-Yamamah, Tanzania and other deals and agreed to pay $470m in fines. However, Sir Richard, is "false accounting" really the best description? Wouldn't bribery be more accurate?

For example, the US justice department has been investigating claims that $180m a year was transferred by BAE to Saudi Prince Bandar. And the Serious Fraud Office were just about to get going on you lot in 2006 when Tony Blair wrote a secret letter to them instructing them to stop the investigation for reasons of national security (i.e., Saudi threats).

Now, BAE's admission of "false accounting" means that there will be no trials and the company won't be blacklisted. And the fines are tiny compared to the deals, aren't they? It was still all well worth it, wasn't it? And for being the architect of the gigantic Al-Yamamah deal you were yourself well rewarded: a huge salary, a knighthood and considerable power within BAE. Two luxury homes in central London were made available to you by companies linked to al-Yamamah.

But don't you think an admission of bribery would be more appropriate? Restitution of the $67bn to the international companies that lost the deals because of your lubricative activities, maybe? Or, even better, and this is where a lowly molecular biophysicist comes in, setting up a $67bn research fund to develop alternative energy so that we can find ways to stop having to funnel huge sums of money to OPEC countries to buy oil, enabling Saudi princes in turn to transfer vast sums of money to eager BAE so they can retain multi-billion-dollar personal sweeteners. How about it, Sir Richard?

Yours sincerely,

Jeremy C. Smith.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Wonderful Video Compilation from one of our Graduate Students...

Splette Showreel 2010 from Thomas Splettstoesser on Vimeo.

Having got that out of the way maybe he can now concentrate on graduating??? (grin)

[small disclaimer: about one second of the video depicts cows and small furry animals succumbing to mercury poisoning - not something that happens very often in reality]

Sunday, January 31, 2010

To be or not to be...

..a Norwich City football supporter.

On May 3rd 2009, when Norwich were ignominiously relegated to League One, I announced that I was no longer a fan...and marked the occasion with a bitter, fractious poem.
Now, given recent exploits of the lads on the field there here have been raised eyebrows as to why my green and yellow scarf is still studiously banished to the attic.


it is true that..

- Norwich are presently top of the table
- The misers have taken 44 out of the last possible 47 points
- They have shattered the club record for the consecutive number of home wins (11 and counting)
- They are packing them in Carrow Road to a point where even flocks of migrating geese have been reported to pause and perch upon the Barclay Stand to take in the spectacle.
- Manchester United's manager, Sir Alex Ferguson, after his team's comprehensive defeat by second-placed Leeds, was rumoured to have said: "Lucky we weren't drawn against Norwich otherwise we would have got a real hammering."

However, one's support should not be pledged lightly.

Therefore, under the following conditions only will I formally resume with the Canaries:

- Norwich are promoted this year.
- Ipswich are not relegated. [Yes, not. This may sound strange given that Ipswich are Norwich's sworn lifelong arch enemies, but there would be little point in them plunging down past us as we are flailing past them on the way up, would there? The existence of the local derby is quintessential. Perenially one place above the relegation bracket is the ideal purgatory for Ipswich.]
- (optional get-out clause, to be invoked facultatively): Norwich City win the World Cup in South Africa this Summer.

However, even were the above conditions to be satisfied, there would, of course, be no guarantee of a celebratory poem.....

Ice-adorned trees in my garden

Hope it thaws soon because I've been snow-bound at home for two days.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

The flora and fauna of Pandora....

..,which are what made Avatar worth seeing, awaken the innate taxonomist in viewers.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Welcome, China, to the Club of Scientific Superpowers

Data, released today by NSF, illustrate quantitatively what many have been feeling over the last 10 years - that China is surging in the world of scientific research. Looking at the rate of change of many indicators, China will very soon overtake the U.S.

This has been interpreted in gloomy terms as a "worrisome trend showing erosion of U.S. competitiveness" and as indicating that the "U.S. dominance in science is at risk".

I would look at things a different way. I would welcome China to the club of scientific superpowers, applaud their progress over the last decade (which does not seem to have been mirrored by India, which arguably could have done as well), and try to see what we can learn from it.

Well, the U.S., to its credit, has lead the world in welcoming qualified foreigners to populate its research universities and fuel the creative technological drive the future always requires. But since time immemorial (meaning, at least since I was first in the States in '85-'89!) we have bemoaned the number of homegrown graduate students in the sciences. Local kids just don't seem to get motivated and curious about finding things out.

Compare this with the sentiment embodied in the following quote in Time Magazine from Energy Secretary Chu on a trip to Beijing: "In the U.S., rock stars and sports stars are the glamour people. In China, it's scholars. Here, Nobel laureates are the equivalent of Britney Spears." If this is truly the case, look forward to a fair fraction of the best and brightest of the youth of the presently 1.3 billion Chinese keenly dedicating their creative abilities to science.
And if, as is likely, the U.S. cohort remains mired in banker/rock-star/NFL fantasyland then China will quickly swamp the science stats.

How, then, will the U.S. remain at the table? Maybe the only way will be to rapidly further step up immigration of qualified talent from China? Rapid immigration isn't impossible - just look at Vancouver which, in the blink of an eyelid, has quickly become 30% Chinese, albeit not uniquely of the highly-qualified variety. But whether such an influx happens in the U.S. may well depend on whether we will continue have the means to attract the brightest over here. If not......

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Snake-Mimicking Moth

....the picture tells all.

Monday, January 11, 2010

ORNL-UT cooperation to be strengthened..

....according to an announcement by Gov. Bredesen, with 200 new faculty positions at UT staffed by researchers at the lab, and a doubling of the number of doctoral degrees awarded at the university. This is just what both institutions need, but for best effect will require overcoming some obstacles.

One of these is that there is a problem at ORNL in housing undergraduate and graduate students and postdocs as they do not 'carry off' much overhead. Thus, according to the 'full cost recovery' model by which ORNL operates, these young researchers become financial liabilities for ORNL, which must provide office space, heating, basic facilities etc out of the organisational burden (overhead), even if they arrive with salaries from elsewhere. This problem could be remedied at least in part by expanding the space allocated on the ORNL campus to the UT/ORNL Joint Institutes, by re-assigning parts of existing buildings, if this is legally conceivable. My perception (maybe wrong?) is that the Joint Institutes have so far been largely technology platforms e.g., for the Bioenergy Science Center (BESC) systems biology apparatus and the UT/ORNL NSF Kraken supercomputer. Although BESC and Kraken have been very successful for both UT and ORNL, (and I am involved with both myself) the dedication of the Joint Institutes to facilities rather than UT:ORNL grassroots research cooperation leaves a vacuum. So basically what I am saying is that if a student, postdoc or visitor wants to come and work with an ORNL staff member or UT faculty member at ORNL (and has their salary already paid from some external source) then ORNL needs to have a mechanism in place to welcome these people with space, offices and open arms, without needing to worry about extra costs, and whatever the subject they work on: this will be cost effective for ORNL in the long run as it will produce lots of cheap, high-profile science that can be used to write money-winning grants in the future.

Secondly, if ORNL staff scientists are to become UT faculty then they need to teach - maybe not a lot, but some at least - and most of the staff scientists I know would be happy to do this. This would help staff UT classrooms in the coming budget crunch, but there would have to be a mechanism in place to pay them. Given the relatively high salaries and astronomical overheads applied at ORNL the hourly rate of an average staff scientist is likely to be much higher than UT could afford. Hence, the corresponding budget strain may have to be absorbed by the funding agencies currently paying the staff scientist salaries. How they could do that is a good question, but I believe it is in the interests of the agencies themselves (DOE, NIH, NSF, etc) that their funded researchers keep their minds broadened and in contact with bright students by the noble endeavour of teaching. It's certainly in the interests of both ORNL and UT to have hordes of bright, motivated graduate students populating the offices and corridors at Oak Ridge at midnight...

Friday, January 1, 2010

Quote of the Decade

...for a football tifoso at least.

Pepe Reina and the big red ball.

"I lost sight of the official ball and stayed on the red one. I went for the red one instinctively as that was the one closest to me and the other one went past me." Pepe Reina on that demon beach ball that condemned Liverpool to a 1-0 defeat by Sunderland, October 2009.

Wishing readers all the best for 2010 and not too many red beach balls.