Thursday 20 February 2014


Infanta Cristina Federica Victoria Antonia de la Santísima Trinidad de Borbón y de Grecia Duquesa de Palma de Mallorca came up in conversation at dinner with the out-laws last night.   I am absolutely certain that I've never cited Hello Magazine on the The Blob before, but you can find out there why we, republicans all, were talking about this spriglet of the Spanish Royal Family when we should have been scarfing down more chips.  Somebody made the point that royalty are 'just folk' in the sense that they are not more (or less) dishonest, adulterous, greedy or unkind than other people. It's just that, if they slip, their sins are brought sharply into focus and are reported widely in the press with a barely disguised glee.

I think it is important to emphasise this - that no group has a monopoly on "things of which the rest of us disapprove" a.k.a evil.  A few months ago I pointed at the irony that a Hasidic Jew (and galloping WWI militarist) played an important part in the creation of Zyklon-B which offed so many of his co-religionists in WWII.  As an antidote to this I have written about "our own" Chaim Herzog, who grew up in Dublin and became President of Israel. Because things, including famous Jews, always go in threes, we can now reflect on another Chaim, who was also President of Israel. C Herzog was a barrister and soldier.  C. Weizmann was a scientist.

One of the several classes I look forward to teaching each week at The Institute, is the Yr3 Food Microbiology practical where we investigate the biochemical properties of various groups of bacteria which play a role of food production or food spoilage.  We're winding up the course now with Clostridium spp. which can grow in the absence of air, survive boiling water and make the most toxic substance known.   Dr Weizmann was a fermentation chemist before the term was invented.  Indeed some people call him the father of industrial fermentation.  He is famous for having developed an efficient and cheap process for making acetone - an essential precursor of the explosive and propellant cordite.  To do this he used a pure culture of Clostridium acetobutylicum which enzymatically converts starch into a mixture of acetone / butanol / ethanol in a 3:6:1 ratio.  These different products cane be separated and purified by distillation. Acetone is known to normal people as the distinctively smelling solvent marketed as paint-thinner or nail-polish remover.  You get a whiff of acetone when talking to some diabetics - and also people on starvation diets -  because it is a breakdown product of fat-metabolism.  Usually our medium-term energy reserves are held as the complex polysaccharide glycogen, but when that is all depleted we start to burn fat.  Ketones in the blood is one of the conditions that can be diagnosed by your doctor from a dipstick in a urine sample.

So important was the production of cordite in WWI, that several gin factories were commandeered by the British Government and repurposed for distilling the excretions of C.acetobutylicum to make more artillery shells to sow into the mud of Flanders.  To feed the maw of these factories after supplies of maize dried up or were diverted to feeding people, a scheme was hatched whereby thousands of bushels of horse-chestnuts Aesculus hippocastanum were gathered from English woodlots, milled and shovelled into fermenation vats. That's a another reason why it's important to preserve trees.  Horse-chestnuts are mildly toxic to us but their carbohydrates are relished by many sorts of bacteria.

As a charming and educated person Weizmann got to be personal friends with senior politicians including Prime Ministers David Lloyd-George and Arthur Balfour.  They recognised the extra-ordinary contribution that Weizmann had made to the war effort and are said to have asked him, like fairy-tale potentates, what he desired as a reward.  Weizmann had little use for money and asked instead for a homeland for his people. Some of the powers-that-be at that time fantasised about having the central African colony of Uganda (almost entirely empty - except for rather a lot of invisible black people) fulfill this role.  I think it was the absurdity of imagining their dinner-jacketted pal's starched wing-collar wilting in the jungle humidity that made them issue the momentous Balfour Declaration and encourage Jews to start the greening of Palestine.  Israel and its neighbours have woven a large part of the carpet of the History of The West over the last 65 years.  If it hadn't been for Dr Weizmann's careful attention to his petri-dishes and test-tubes we'd live in a very different world.

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