Category Archives: Biology

Alan Dronsfield and Ann Ferguson: “Mother’s little helpers: Valium, its discoverer and discovery”

Professor Dronsfield, an old friend of the WP, and Dr Ferguson (retired Consultant Anaesthetist) presented a double-act on this widespread drug.

Ann told us about Leo Sternbach, the discoverer/inventor of valium: how, as a Jew, he escaped the Nazis in Central Europe and began a new life in the US working for pharmaceutical company Roche. Alan explained how, while here, he invented a series of tranquillisers, including diazepam, marketed as “Valium”, which is celebrated in the Stones’ Mother’s Little Helper. He stressed how luck and persistence were the key ingredients to Sternbach’s success, rather than “genius”: Einstein was right.

A fascinating and wide-ranging afternoon: it’s really interesting when scientists such as Alan and Ann are able to combine technical chemistry with the history and social context behind important developments.

Mr S. Goodfellow and colleagues: “P4C”

Chigwell’s philosopher-in-chief and four Remove students (Adam Goriparthi, Max Humphreys, Tom Lockley and Michael Newman) led the Williams Project in a demonstration of the P4C (Philosophy for Children) method. We watched a ‘stimulus’ video about a near-death experience, in small groups generated questions we’d like to discuss, voted on the two we’d like to consider in more depth, and then had an open discussion on these two. Our two chosen questions were: “Can near-death experiences be medically explained?” and “If there were such a thing as life after death, why would there be life after death?”.

A really interesting afternoon. Mr Goodfellow’s P4C club will restart in September (Tuesdays of Week A, 4:15, RS1).

Howard and Mitchell Essay Competition – prizewinners’ presentations

Cordelia Griffith (Howard Essay winner) and Katie Marshall (Mitchell) gave excellent presentations on their essays to a packed library, and dealt with some probing questions with cool skill. Cordelia spoke on “Does Dicey’s conception of the “rule of law” apply in a dictatorship?”, calmly and lucidly demonstrating how the Nazis, in their attempts to ensure that everything they did was technically ‘legal’, nevertheless broke some of Dicey’s rules about how a decent legal system would operate. Katie (“How close is a cure for Parkinson’s Disease?”) explained clearly and with passion some complex science, and focused on how stem cell research might ‘in a generation’ at least bring about clinical trials of the long-awaited cure to this debilitating illness.
The presentations were introduced by representatives of the judging panels, Graham Dixon and David Gower, who stressed the range and quality of this year’s entries, and the importance of letting one’s academic interests develop in ways not overly restricted by thoughts of ‘career’: the career will follow the interests.
Later the annual dinner was held, where we were addressed by Jessica Beagley (OC and former Mitchell winner). She reinforced the point made by the judges, explaining how her career had (already) taken many surprising twists and turns, from scientific research to political lobbying, yet with the common thread of her interest in physiology. It was a perfect way to end the evening.


Daisy Thurkettle: “Plant, animal and mineral: aphrodisiacs in Ancient Greece”

The Ancient Greeks and Romans placed a huge amount of importance on their sexual being, and had a keen interest in the biological and psychological mechanisms behind lust and carnal desire. Daisy Thurkettle’s talk at the Williams Project on provided a fascinating insight into the various botanical and pharmaceutical methods that the ancients used to synthesise lust and cure impotence (or perhaps less eloquently, ‘get in the mood’). The talk began on the use of essential oils in swathes in royal palaces, such as Cleopatra (who allegedly bathed in milk and rose), but the audience was quickly surprised to learn that love potions and cures for impotence were not only used by the femmes-fatales and powerful goddesses of myth, but by actual Greek people.
These cures included a mass of vegetables and plants which were, perhaps obviously, considered to have genitally-themed aesthetics (leeks, carrots and terebinth tree, anyone?). However, what really gripped the audience were the variously disgusting, poisonous and cannibalistic ingredients; these included dried human marrow, powdered silver beetle, wolfsbane, skink lizard and the famed hippomane – a piece of membrane found on the head of a newborn foal, which was mixed with milk to create the potion Dido made for Aeneas. Needless to say, any combination of some of these ingredients probably caused more death than arousal.
Miss Thurkettle called on a wide range of texts – fragments by various ‘unknown’ ancient authors, texts by Apuleius (including the famous Golden Ass), Hippocrates, and even the Bible. The overarching message of the talk was that the ancients were actually scientifically wise beyond their time in the discovery of some biologically effective aphrodisiacs, but were also developed psychologically (perhaps unintentionally) in their use of the placebo effect.

Rhea Gupta

Alan Dronsfield: two talks on the history of medicine

An old friend of the Williams Project, Professor Alan Dronsfield from the University of Derby, gave us two separate talks on medical history. The first, ‘To Sleep, Perchance to Dream – the early chemical history of anaesthesia’, set out the nightmare world of surgery before anaesthetics, and carefully took us through the, er, painfully slow development of methods of pain-relief, from nitrous oxide and opium to chloroform.

The second, ‘Marie Curie, the discovery of radium and its early use in medical therapy’, outlined the discovery of radiation, and the lives and research of Poland-born Marie Curie and her husband Pierre, and then explained the medical uses to which radium has been put, from the Finsen Lamp, used to clear skin lesions caused by lupus, to methods of applying radium to tumours deep in the body and the flourishing of radium hospitals across Europe. Alan then, to much wincing and a little giggling, showed us pictures of pseudo-medical products, from condoms to chocolate, claiming to harness the ‘energy’ of radium for general and specific health benefits, all of them spurious, and some of them harmful. Radioactive thermal underwear, drinks coasters and cigarette holders were some of the other highlights.

Throughout Alan, for a long time now Chair of the Royal Society of Chemistry’s Historical Group, held his audience fully engaged, and inspired some excellent questions. We hope to see him again.

Mr S. Chaudhary: “God’s Golden Ratio”

Our Head of Maths, Mr Chaudhary, gave us a vastly wide-ranging and heartfelt exposition of the centrality of the ratio φ (“phi”) in the universe and the human body, and what that centrality meant.

He showed that the ratio (see above, equivalent to 1:1.618…, which is, uniquely, the same as 0.618…:1) lies behind the Fibonacci sequence, which we see in so many growth patterns in animals and plants, as well as in the relationship between a myriad of measurements of the human body. It’s also one of the commonest principles in the way we perceive beauty: painters place horizons at it.

Mr Chaudhary argued that the odds of this one ratio being at the centre of so much were virtually nil, and so it is convincing evidence of divine design behind creation. He showed us verses from the Quran which point out that God has designed the universe in a way whereby we can detect, even deduce, his hand.

Further reading:
Universal Laws and the Golden Ratio

15 Uncanny examples in nature

Disputed observations (Wikipedia)

Miss C. Cantopher: Post-structuralism and gender theory

A special end to the year: Miss Cantopher led us through the intricacies of sex and gender – beginning with the usual starting point – that sex is biological, and gender social – but then teasing this simplistic idea apart with statistics about how many people are born with no simple biological sex (about 1%), and images of how the performance of social gender roles is much more complicated than we first thought. She ended with a discussion of online gender performance – how, on sites like Facebook, and in online gaming, people can, and do, take on quite different and subtly nuanced gender roles: a burly (male) lorry-driver might play Skyrim as an androgynous elf; a young woman’s Facebook profile might show her as an old man. Miss Cantopher’s perturbing conclusion is that, if most of our waking hours are spent in such performance, which role is more real? We were left puzzling over and discussing informally this de(con)struction of the self.

Mr P. Eardley: Charles Darwin: his life, his theory, and the evidence

WP was given a real treat last night with a presentation from one of our own – Mr Eardley spoke about Darwin: his life, his theory, and the evidence. During a well-illustrated talk, with lots of interaction from the students, we learnt about Darwin’s early life – failed at school, failed at medical school and failed in the priesthood – through to his “big break” as the naturalist on the Beagle as it toured around the Southern hemisphere.

Darwin’s incredible observational work on the finches of the Galapagos, which had all evolved to fill different ecological niches on the different islands, taken with other evidence led him to formulate his theory of evolution, which he continued to investigate for the rest of his life. Mr Eardley finished the talk presenting a wide range of evidence to support this theory ending with MRSA and the rise of the antibiotic resistant strains of bacteria. We finished the session with a hugely entertaining game of evolution where the majority of us became extinct but some reached the dizzy heights of evolving as far as poisonous worms. A very good educational, entertaining and informative talk – thank you Mr Eardley.

Polarisation in thymocytes

Miss Hinchcliff, our Penn Fellow, gave a challenging and exhilarating presentation to the Removes WP on the research she had been doing before coming to Chigwell. She was working on how the thymocyte cells (or T cells) – important in the operation of our immune system – sometimes go wrong and attack our own bodies (notably in multiple sclerosis and rheumatoid arthritis).

The Genetic Code and Protein Synthesis

Mr Eardley gave the youngest WP members an A-level Biology lesson, which involved looking at the detailed structure of DNA, using knowledge of the structure to explain exactly what is meant by “the genetic code”, explaining how cells read the genetic code and follow the instructions it gives to make proteins, and, finally, considering what happens when things go wrong – the code is misread or the amount of DNA is changed – and mutations are produced. Clear, challenging and fascinating.

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