Wednesday, 20 May 2015

Galena - a pretty name for a girl

It's been a week of two nights, two late nights, so far.  On Monday, I skipped going to work and spent the morning at home doing some desultory marking of project reports. The weekend had been busy with the Blackstairs Walk, pushing the goddamn mower about the haggard to keep the grass in check, and Sunday sheep surgery. In the afternoon on Monday, I set off by bus, with an apple in my pocket, for the Pint O'Science gig in Dublin . . . and promptly fell into a drooling sleep which bypassed Gorey and Arklow.

Pint of Science was a good buzz, very modern, with lots of instant social media going on in parallel with the formal talks.  It was kind of weird to find out afterwards that, even as I was waving my arms and clicking through some powerpoint slides about chromosomal anomalies and pathogen-host interactions, one of the PoS organisers was pushing out pictures of self on Twitter. I consciously used the event as an opportunity to push The Blob out but I've seen effectively no hint of going viral . . . yet.  It was the same nil response that I got when I posted something on the Royal Society website.  I don't care, The Blob is a near infinite resource now: everything I know is there, so it's an easy seam to mine for a presentation about Science.  Pint of Science was meant to be scientists explaining their passion to The Public but when the first speaker asked "Who doesn't know what a transcription factor is?" only one bloke put up his hand.  The rest, by elimination, did know about TFs and so could hardly be classified as the [drooling] Man on the Wexford Omnibus.  It's less vital and important for scientists to be talking about their stuff to/with other scientists but still useful; if only because it forces you-the-speaker to imagine what it could be like not to know what you take for granted.  In the mill afterwards I was introduced to a young chap who had done science in TCD several years ago and was now working in biotech.  He said that he met me before when he was a chap and I'd harangued him for 30 minutes about the Joy of Bioinformatics . . . and that it had changed his life!  That was nice, and they gave me a pint glass etched with the Pint of Science logo; that was nice too.

On Tuesday evening, it was off the The Wexford Science Cafe after another morning reading and marking project reports in The Institute.  I brought my lappy and a 24" TV flat-screen in a mail-sack in case anyone wanted to hear about chromosomes and diarrhoeia. They didn't. But we did hear about a recent visit to the halls of the Royal Society, which has been in the news The Blob recently.  One of our number has been recently co-opted onto the editorial board of the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B and had been in London last week at the annual editors meeting.  That was pretty awesome, to be in the halls of an organisation civilised enough to be talking and publishing science 350 years ago. When she was there (the power of smart-phones) she sent me an e-mail saying she was sitting in the Council Chamber of the RS under a portrait of Sir Isaac Newton (1642-1726).  The two things everybode kno about Newton is A is for Apple and b) he claimed to stand on the shoulders of giants. I suggested last week that she get off a selfie with herself standing under Newton's feet. Bwwahahahaha. Turns out that the RS portrait [L above: it has no feet] is by Charles Jervas an Irish portraitist from King's County, which is where my people are buried. More connectedly, Jervas also painted a picture of Lady Mary Wortley Montagu (1689-1762) which hangs in the National Gallery of Ireland.  I haven't talked about Lady Mary yet but I have talked about two blokes who stood on her shoulders later in the 1700s.  Montagu, Jesty and Jenner made the first scientific steps towards eradicating smallpox from the planet - the last case of smallpox (1977) was covered in The Blob last October.  We heard at the Pint of Science gig on Monday that 500 million people had died from smallpox in the 20th Century.  That doesn't seem credible . . . must check sources . . . science is finding out.

Meanwhile back in Wexford, we had been promised to hear something about Galena from Our Man in Radio Telephony. Galena is a crystal, not an element as part of my brain was claiming - I was confusing it with Germanium; probably because they are both semi-conductors.  Galena [R in crystalline form with a spike of calcite in the background] is a heavy rock 7.5x denser than water at least partly because it is loaded with lead; chemically it is PbS or lead(II)sulphide. It is smelted to obtain metallic lead although much less now that previously because we are trying to minimise the lead in our environment. It all made me think of the wonderful chapter "Lead" in Primo Levi's book The Periodic Table: it should be in the library: must read! Galena has been useful unsmelted in the past because the crystal is a semiconductor with a handy bandgap of 0.4eV, that allowed it to help sort signal from noise in early wireless transmission. It was the crystal in crystal wireless sets of 100 years ago.  This-all was just fascinating but we couldn't agree on much because the five of us couldn't muster much information at our finger-tips in a bar in Wexford. But that's the point: science is hearing about something that sounds a little 'off' and the hounds are off after that fox.  I think we agreed that Galena was a pretty name for a girl and resolved to find out more about the tumbled clatter of things that had cropped up over pints. I feel alive.

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