HeLa – more than just a cell line.

March 7, 2011 § Leave a comment

In trying to remember if I’d ever read a non-fiction book I realized that of course I had, and, actually, that most were about science. But none have gripped me in the same way as the book I just finished. In just over 24 hours I had turned the last page of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot and realised why it received such critical acclaim.

I tend not to enjoy harping on about a good book – I want to appreciate them for what they are; not dissect their every sentence, hunting for hidden meanings whose beauty and subtleties are only destroyed when you try to describe them.

But this book deserves every ounce of praise and every award it is given.

It describes the fascinating story of the woman whose cells have lived on for longer outside her body than she ever did herself. They have been flown into space, blown up in nuclear bombs and had just about every conceivable disease injected into them. They helped establish cell culture techniques and equipment; develop a vaccine for polio and unlocked some of the secrets of the world’s biggest killers.

Some of Henrietta Lacks' immortal cells

Some of Henrietta Lacks' immortal cells

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In praise of irreverent research

October 13, 2010 § 1 Comment

My last post reminded me that I have yet to say or write anything about a recent set of scientific prizes – yeah, yeah, the Nobels, we know all about them. But what about the Ig Nobels? For those who don’t have a clue what I’m on about – these are the prizes awarded by The Annals of Improbable Research. The prizes, and improbable research itself, are dedicated to work that first of all makes you laugh, and then makes you think. And they really do.

I’ve been a huge fan of these awards since I became aware of them in 2007, when I went to watch the Ig Nobels ‘on tour’ in London. Sitting in a room full of scientists at an evening to celebrate award-winning research you might expect a series of long and boring lectures about seemingly tedious research into a tiny incremental change in something-or-another, or a newly discovered whatdyumacallit. Nope. I got woodpeckers and head injuries, a teenager repellant and evidence that female mosquitos like the smell of Limburger cheese.

That intriguing bunch weren’t the only winners; other highlights of the 2006 Ig Nobels were studies into why we hate the sound of fingers down a blackboard, how to get the perfect blink-free photo and an ingenious method of curing a the hiccups.

So what craziness has been going on this year then?

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