Monthly Archives: June 2011

A compulsory party (the best kind?)

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Never before have I had to force feed a group of hombres cake (I am learning Spanish in my spare time so may be inclined to slot Spanish words into my blogs now to demonstrate my progress).

In a past, but not too distant, life I was a prolific baker. I have mentioned this previously but always feel it is important to revise points of importance in order for them to be successfully digested. A technique I have been utilising effectively in my Spanish vocabulary learning (as an aside). In my past life I was never a quality baker. I leaned more to the side of quantity rather than quality.

I might say that my love of baking stemmed from childhood days spent in Nana’s flat during the school holidays. The sisters would always be occupied effectively; indulging in crafts, baking, playing cards and knitting to name a few. However, I must point out that I have implied here that my sister and I busied ourselves in equal measures on these tasks, but that would be misleading. The fact is, I was more of an observer. I would observe the baking; only involving myself by licking the bowl pre-oven and then again, when the product resurfaced, diving right in. In terms of the knitting, I would have every intention of knitting reams of scarves, hats of all colours and sizes and working up to a jumper or two, first for a baby/toddler, then for a grown up and possibly even starting my own woollen business. Knitting is conducive to dreaming after all. However, inevitably time would pass and two lines of woolly hoops would have been completed and I would have to lay down the needles and switch my attentions to Countdown or, better still, Supermarket Sweep.

Crafts were more common outside of the cosy flat, which was incidentally located inches away from a sweetie mix up from the local newsagents. Are we at all surprised by my addiction to sugar? We sisters would be ushered by bus to our local library for some exciting pillow embroidery, pottery (possibly if my memory correctly serves) and other such artistic endeavours. My sister has always been more inclined to create things of beauty and precision. I am more of a keen starter. Someone with impeccable intentions but little commitment towards a finished product. But I would always enjoy the day and would be delighted to show the mother as she pulled up in our white people carrier, known throughout the land (our village) as the infamous Ashbridge moto. We would slide back the rusty doors to the car and hop in, ready to splurge out details of all our exciting adventure stories of krispie cakes and patchwork quilting as we whistled up the hill to our village home.

But if I am honest I did not learn the tricks of the trade, as it were, from the Nana. Sure, I picked up the fundamentals of cake science and probably thought I knew a lot more than I did but one day the truth of my cakery flaws was finally revealed. On this fateful day I had decided to make a cake solo. I forget the reason, but it was going to be a surprise and I was highly motivated from start to finish. My focus was sustained throughout. So that, when my family returned, from wherever they had been, the cake was ready to take out of the oven. I was terribly excited and mostly proud of my ability to carry out this “craft” to completion. That is, until the cake was removed from the tin….. with a thud. This cake was not light and fluffy as I was so accustomed to. It was not springy to the touch. It was more Saharan drought than moist and airy and I was utterly confused as to what element of my preparation had led us to this brick-like gateau. My family were, however, highly amused. My reputation, unfortunately, preceded me. Their lack of bewilderment was quite infuriating. It was unclear to all as to what I had included, or failed to, to create such a monstrous excuse for a dessert. Until I let the fatal particulars slip.

Ooh yummy

Have you got any clotted cream to go with that?

Yes OK I had gathered up the batter in my hands and plonked it on the cool work surface (pre-floured of course). I keenly remember thinking it was incredibly, and unmanageably, sticky and so continued to add more and more flour to prevent my cake batter from attaching itself irreparably to the bench-top. Can you guess my mistake readers? Oh yes, having observed cake baking AND scone baking over my childhood of cookery courses I had successfully created the first cakescone. Also known as a “rock”. But not a rock cake, those leave you with a full complement of teeth in your mouth. I fear my creation would leave you with few!

Nope, not my idea of a mouth-watering tea break!

So now I am the laughing stock of my family. A joke in cookery spheres. An embarrassment to Delia Smith and Mary Berry alike. I decided, therefore, from that day on, that my calling was not in the line of baked goods.

Fast forward a few years and I am an undergraduate student. My Grandpop has been collecting American-sized baking mixes and is delivering them at regular intervals to me so that I can feed my friends and make some new ones in the process. I find that I like this way of baking: just add eggs and maybe a cup or two of water. A step by step guide on the box and voila 30 or so minutes later my home smells like a heaven and hungry, sugar-crazed students are rushing to relieve me of my fare. (Sugar is certainly the cheapest form of bribery)

I have been reborn. My reputation left far behind me I am teaching myself again how the science of baking can complement my chosen career. I can engage successfully with my peers through the medium of cookies, krispie cakes, lemon drizzle and chocolate tray bakes. I have no need to expand my repertoire since these staples are all the youngsters need to satisfy their tastes and that suits us both!

So it is safe to say, I have been a born-again Delia for several years now. Feeding the rich and sometimes even the poor with flour, sugar and eggs. Sometimes I go a little crazy and make a bakewell tart. I know, madness after what I just described? Probably just to prove to myself, more than anything, that I am no fake. Yes I can make a mean shortcrust pastry (but only when Jamie Oliver holds my hand throughout).

Cue New York City and a laboratory of scientists and medics. Cue no formal arrangement of birthday celebration and cue my new calling in life. A party of cakes whether you want one or not. Yes that is correct. You scientists will eat my sugary creations and you will love them. You will leave your precious benches, be it reluctantly, and you will sing that global singalong “Happy Birthday” and then you will take a piece of brownie, a slice of chocolate cake or even a ball of Mars bar krispie cake and you will stand in silence as I watch you eagle-eyed until you finish every last crumb. No seriously, lick those fingers and then I will unlock the door.

I am Delia Smith reincarnated (before she dies) and I will make you joyful on sugar.

Documenting the Tonys because it makes my heart soar!

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Neil Patrick Harris opens the show with a number entitled “It’s not just for gays anymore”. He promises “there’s so much to discover with your different-gendered lover!” Indeed.

This is the Oscars with musical show tune accompaniment. Needless to say I am delighted.

First up Best Actress (without singing) presented by my absolute favourite Mr Alec Baldwin…. and the winner is Ellen Barkin for playing Dr Emma Brookner in the Broadway Revival of The Normal Heart. Saw it last night. Great voice.

Book of Mormon is cleaning up and with lyrics like

“I believe that in 1978 God changed his mind about black people. I am a mormon”

“I believe that the Garden of Eden was in Jackson County, Missouri”

I cannot wait to sing along to this one on Broadway.

Daniel Radcliffe’s ensemble get on the Beacon Theater stage to perform a number from his musical “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying”. Not too bothered about that one I must admit.

I am getting nervous now though as Best Actor nominations include Al Pacino and although I obviously LOVE Pacino (OOooo Haaaaa) he is up against the magnificent Mark Rylance who has been labelled the “best actor of his generation” and rightly so. This man should win every award he is nominated if only for the fact that he historically gives the most diverting acceptance speeches. But not simply for that. If I could pontificate a trifle more. If you ever have the opportunity to see this man on stage then jump at the chance. Leap I tell you and you won’t regret a moment. In fact I dare you to take your eyes off him.

Now a Hugh Jackman versus Neil Patrick Harris sing off. Happiness in the form of musical Broadway showbiz. I cannot express how much I love jazz hands. I may have to march around my apartment in the commercial breaks (we all know there must be another one coming up any minute. This is the US. TV means ads) and sing a few show tunes. Don’t Rain on my parade encore? Cut to Alec Baldwin who clearly loves the Jackman/Harris medley as he wolf whistles beaming from ear to ear. Why are the general public, clearly as devoted to this business as the professionals themselves not allowed in? Can you imagine if I were in the audience. No check that. My heart might actually burst. That would be embarrassing not to mention messy.

Bono and The Edge (is this really his grown up name?) have taken some abuse so far from the host as their musical debut “Spiderman: Turn off the Dark” has had a rocky opening road on Broadway. Broken arms, legs and actors don’t make for safe theatre and they are just now being permitted to release their revised million-dollar-over-budget production next week. But never known for being humble these Irishmen do very well (I know I admit it I am proud of you Jesus… oops I mean Bono) in mocking themselves and their initially cursed launch.

Robin Williams gives Book of Mormon another award (is someone counting or did you also lose count a while ago?) and Whoopi Goldberg introduces another musical number in the form of her Broadway Musical “Sister Act“.

Best Play nominees are Jerusalem, Good People, The Mother with the Hat, and War Horse (which is booked and I am eager to see these magnificent puppets from Michael Morpurgo’s children’s book of the same name). So we are winding down now and building up at the same time to the final biggies. Best Play, Best Actor and Best Musical. Here we go and Samuel L. Jackson comes out to present it. (If only the Bronx Zoo cobra were here. I’ve heard they’re friends?)

WAR HORSE WINS. Come on Michael Morpurgo. Come on the Brits.

Anything Goes looks like a true hoot! Sailor hats, tap dancing. real old fashioned Broadway style. Best get my credit card out again. Ouch!

Vanessa Redgrave and James Earl Jones are giants on stage and get a standing ovation and a sigh of joy from the audience when each of them introduce the next section of the show. Darth Vader and Guenevere of Camelot. Who could ask for anything more from an evening of great performances.

Frances McDormand wins Best Actress in a Leading Role and she accepts the award on stage decked out in her denim jacket. She passionately “loves her job” and I am regretting that I unfortunately missed this performance.
The company of Priscilla Queen of the Desert and the original Weather Girl take to the stage now. It’s Raining Men. And despite Neil Patrick Harris’ opening announcement I would still estimate that about 90% of the audience would not complain about that particular meteorological phenomenon.
Come on the Tonys. Let’s award Mr Rylance already so I can go to sleep. Here comes Catherine Zeta Jones looking stunning. Doing the Welsh proud. She announces the nominees and my heart stops as she pauses before the result.
YESSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSS! Mark Rylance. You take the award for the Best Actor of all time. Al Pacino. So sorry but go and see Jerusalem and you’ll understand everything. I am tired now. These shows are so long but totally worth it.

Remembering the rings of Saturn

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Friday night and my next World Science Festival was a discussion on memory.

As the lights went down, the screen flickered into life with an old clip from the film Gigi (1958). As Maurice Chevalier tries to impress his love with memories of their affair, we see how recollections fade and skew as we get older. He is corrected on nearly every account and the audience can only laughsas they seem to relate all to well.

Presented by ABC co-anchor Dan Harris (The Anchorman! hehe), 4 neurologists, psychologists and memory heavyweights have been rounded up from the various and numerous East Coast scientific institutions to teach us laypeople about the complexities of memory acquisition and storage. Daniel L. Schacter from Harvard University explained how memory is not simply storing an event or detail in neurons and synapses. So far it is understood that there are 4 distinct types of memory: Episodic- referring to the personal events and details we experience, Priming- a method of recalling specific numbers or images that we have seen previously in some other setting, Semantic- our ability to store and recollect general knowledge-type intelligence like dates and figures and finally Conditioning memory- a necessary process of storing emotional experiences for our survival instincts and to prepare us perhaps for traumatic events we may yet encounter.

Professor Schacter has written a book on the “sins” of memory and described to us one example of how a colleague in the field was one day arrested when policemen arrived at his door with a woman who claimed he had brutally raped her. She was certain beyond a shadow of a doubt that he was the perpetrator and it was only after his airtight alibi proved her wrong that the truth came out. He had in fact been giving a live talk on Australian TV about his research on memory (ironically) and the victim had been watching it when she was attacked. Through her traumatic experience she had stored the vivid image of this man’s face and completely been misled by her own mind, dangerously mixing the facts of the event. Had the discussion been recorded this truth may have never come to light.

Professor Nadel then went on to teach us about the hippocampus and explained how sufferers of amnesia and other neurological diseases or defects had been instrumental in uncovering the important role this portion of the brain plays in storing memory alongside spacial information. One man, named HM in the literature, had been treated in the 1950s for his increasingly severe epilepsy. At the time little was known about the importance of the hippocampus  and so to prevent his dangerous seizures, nearly 2/3 of this area was removed as part of the surgical procedure. They found that HM now suffered acute memory loss for newly experienced events. Anything post-1953 now evaded him.

Next Professor Sacktor from Columbia University tells us about his cleverly designed experiments that have led to the better understanding of how memories are laid down in the brain. He was able to show that through inhibiting a particular enzyme known as protein kinase C (PKC), memories were no longer stored, demonstrating that this protein kinase is the chemical link necessary to actively catalyse the making of memories. Since adding enzyme inhibitors to the brains of humans would be unethical (for fear of innumerable side effects) this research is ongoing, but it was fascinating to watch how animal experiments can prove so ingenious in breaking down the fundamentals in this complicated organ we call the brain.

Which leads very nicely to our final expert. Dr Elizabeth Phelps is interested in the conditioning, and specifically the fear conditioning, aspect of memory acquisition. She described a wonderful experiment where rats were trained or conditioned to fear a beep accompanied by a small electrical shock. Having taught the rats to dislike this beep (that was always associated with a little unappreciated shock) Dr Phelps’ team was able to demonstrate that when a memory is made it takes time before effective storage is achieved. They have shown that each time a memory is reviewed this process of laying down and storing the memory must again be executed; a process known as reconsolidation. During this review exercise, the memory can be modified or strengthened depending on whether or not the memory storage is disrupted. In the experiment, the rat in question is injected with a chemical into it’s hippocampus just after the new or previous memory had been initiated. She was able to show us definitively that immediately after a beep sounded the rat would store the memory or, if disrupted by chemical means, would be unable to store the memory effectively and subsequently any further recollection of this memory could be controllably updated by the experimenter. So that if the memory making process is disrupted in any way, a specific memory cannot be effectively stored.

So one and a half hours later and the crowd seemed highly satisfied with the brimming knowledge they had just obtained. There was so much more but I was only able to remember what I described above. Pardon the humour. World Science Festival. Bravo. A well scripted and informative event.

Next up, my partner in crime and I jumped on the subway and journeyed down to Brooklyn Bridge for a final dose of what was had been a science-filled treat. For under the Brooklyn Bridge, on the Brooklyn side, we were afforded both wonderful views of an illuminated Lower Manhattan and the stargazing event of the Festival. People wielding telescopes of all sizes and powers had gathered to point their instruments at the visible Saturn, complete with rings, so that we the public could marvel at the enormity of the universe and the seemingly false clarity of the bands of this distant planet. We were thoroughly impressed by that and then clambered willingly into a NASA borrowed mini inflatable planetarium. We viewed the Northern Hemisphere as it was last night and watched how NASA had landed on Saturn’s largest moon, Titan. We observed the pictures they took as the probe hurtled through Titan’s vicious atmosphere. Squeezing safely out we were delighted by our evening of popular science and again felt tremendously encouraged by our chosen career paths. Roll on Monday morning and another week in the lab!

Saturn and her rings

Women in Science

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The World Science Festival was launched this week in NYC. Having already missed the opening night gala where Alan Alda presented his play about Marie Curie, (with the help of some Broadway friends) I was committed to getting my act into gear. So last night my Rockefeller buddy and I sped downtown to pick up our tickets for our first choice on the program: Women in Science.

Apt you might say? You would be right. We were under the impression, despite the event being held under the Brooklyn Bridge, Brooklyn side, we were supposed to pick up our ‘will call’ tickets from the NYU box office off Washington Square Park. So, in the heat of the rush hour, we powered down on the F train to avoid missing the closing deadline of 6pm. We made it just in the nick of time and decided now, since we had time to spare, we should enjoy the evening sun with a peanut butter sandwich and a small bag of carrots in the Park.

As we strolled towards the fountain to select a place to pause, we spotted a young student sat on a stool behind a beautiful mint-coloured typewriter. His sign read “Poems while you wait”. L and I just could not resist. First, we sat on a bench under the burnt yellow glare of the setting sun, munching on our peanut butter themed dinner and counted our cents. We imagined, you see, that he probably didn’t accept debit cards. Mustering up a respectable round $10, we felt this was enough of an offer for a poem dedicated to us on this sunny Thursday evening. Marching back fully satisfied by our fare we put forward our collection and requested if he could write us a poem while we waited? He was happy to oblige. Keen to get an angle he tried to get to know us a little. We explained our reason for living in the city and that we were en route to Brooklyn to attend an event discussing women in science, of which we both were. With this brief explanation and eager to leave him to his creative process we sat a little away from our poet and pondered, philosophically, on our evening ahead.

Minutes later Alan had completed a poem. Having first made a carbon copy for himself he handed over his art. Thanks Alan.

Delighted with his words we skipped happily towards the subway and on to Brooklyn’s Main Street and our destination: the Galapagos Art Space. Arriving in good time to pick a prime spot we were presented with a dimly lit venue attempting to imitate the Galapagos Islands (complete with surrounding moat). Each round table was linked to a central walkway, each ‘island’ surrounded by dark pools. In the muted light it was easy to mistake the still water feature for a deep pit, the lucid reflection as if we were suspended.

I, of course, always try to make an entrance and sat myself so firmly down on my lower-than-expected stool that I accidentally fed the body of water with my playbill. Honestly, I can’t take me anywhere! However, once the guilty sheet had been successfully rescued from its soggy fate the show was about ready to start.

First up, Jean Berko Gleason jumps aboard the ‘floating’ stage. Each scientist was tasked with trying to present their career from both a personal level and also a more professional overview of what their research involves. Professor Gleason is a child language specialist and the mother of the field of psycholinguistics. She invented the Wug test to investigate how children deal with language rules and how they apply them to form plurals, for example, or create the past tense of verbs they are meeting for the first time. Jean teaches us that it is always better to “experiment on other people’s kids” (good advice) but also that children do not simply master language by copying their elders. In fact they are able to acquire rules and apply them to new words they hear. On a more personal level, Jean began her studies in the 1950s, reading history and literature at Radcliffe College (which was strictly Harvard but since women could not be admitted formally at that time they were affiliated members of this ‘other’ college). She was living in a world where women were not able to enter the Harvard library, for fear of distracting the men, and she was even discouraged from following a career at all, unless of course she chose the path of secretarial work. That was the most appropriate profession for a woman. She ignored both and followed her heart soon becoming an academic herself and pursuing her love of linguistics (in the meantime dressing up as a man and sitting in the library until she was thrown out with her comrades). Against all odds, Professor Gleason was determined to study something she loved and despite the issue of women in science still being relevant today she promised us we have come a long way since then.

Next up was a cosmologist who maps dark matter in the universe (and publishes poetry on the side). Priyamvada Natarajan is a Professor in the Departments of Astronomy and Physics at Yale who is fascinated by the so-called ‘exotica’ of the universe: dark matter, dark energy and black holes. Growing up, she tells us, she was an avid armchair explorer. She had dreams of journeying to far off places revealing new worlds through her love of maps. Since then, her dislike of long voyages and her fear of scurvy soon curbed that pursuit. However, she has not abandoned her love of maps in her chosen line of research. Encouraged by Einstein’s work, she and others are able to use the distorted light from far off galaxies to chart the pattern of dark matter that constitutes over 90% of the universe and through its strong gravitational pull is able to warp the path of light from galaxy to Earth.

Next we heard from a Columbia University neuroscientist, Jo Hirsch, who has published pioneering work breaking down how the brain understands and processes different emotions. She admits she was “terrified” about presenting her personal story, finding it much more agreeable to simply talk science for hours. However, spending some time thinking about how she came to be in academia, she attributed her passion for this difficult scientific frontier to her genes and her heritage of spirited females. Her great grandmother had been a sharp shooter with a rifle and was enlisted to protect a wagon carrying families across North America over a century ago, while her grandmother had been a political activist helping to change laws for the rights of women in two states. Professor Hirsch was confident in her field and, just like the others, no male dominance was going to halt her pursuit of the answers that motivated her life’s work. And then we meet the cryptographer Tal Rabin who through the medium of ‘Where’s Waldo” (Wally in the UK) demonstrated how IBM is able to ensure privacy on the internet and provide a public security service. She highlighted the plight of women in her field. This world of cryptography and computer science desperately needs more women. And we were entrusted with passing on her plee.

Finally up on stage was the youngest of tonight’s speakers, a Junior Mathematics Fellow at Harvard University. Corina Tarnita is a Romanian born mathematician who was influenced by strong female role models. Her mother is a mechanical engineer and her grandmother, who raised her, was always in charge of the financial side of the farm on which they lived. She was unaware of the stigma associated with women in science and it was not until she started competing in Mathematics Olympiads in her country and beyond that she noticed a disparity in the male to female ratio. She attended Harvard for her B.A and Ph.D in Mathematics and now applies her skills to biological problems working with the two-time Pulitzer Prize winner and winner of the National Medal of Science, Professor Edward O. Wilson. A famous naturalist E. O. Wilson is a leading researcher on ants and Dr Tarnita has been joining forces with him to better understand the evolutionary successes of this elegant organism through the power of mathematical modelling.

At this point I sense a tidy link to the start of the show. Dr Tarnita tells us that after presenting an accessible summary of her detailed 50-page mathematical proof to the 81-year old non-mathematician Professor Wilson, she received a call the next day asking her to take him through it step by gruelling step.

Now we can document the path of women in science over the last century. In the 1950s, Professor Gleason was not allowed to step foot in the Harvard library or call herself a Harvard scholar let alone tutor a man in her scientific expertise. Now, just over 60 years later, a young female mathematician is studying alongside her male peers, she is competing and winning awards against the other men in her field and she is even able to teach a renowned scientist her mathematical proof, and he will listen.

We still have a long way to go but there is nothing like an evening of inspiring women to point you back in the right direction.

Sharks, Heat Wave, Tornadoes and more

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Just a typical June week in NYC? I hope not!

A pack of 18-foot sharks are seen off the coast of Queens. All swimming is suspended until further notice.

Tornado warnings for the East coast. Tornado misses NY and devastates Massachusetts instead, killing 4 people.

Heat wave in NYC as temperatures hit 90 degrees Fahrenheit with high humidity. One young 21 year old girl fainted on the subway platform falling onto the track in front of an oncoming train.

Young man attacks 85 year old woman while another woman is attacked in the same week, both on the Upper East Side.

What a dangerous place NYC seems to be this week!

 

For giants who play squash

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I played my first squash match last night in Queens.

I set off in plenty of time, as always, just to make absolute certain I was not late for my first ever squash match on this side of the pond. However, I soon managed to get on the wrong subway train. I got an express service, despite asking for advice, and so was left standing and sweating on the steamy train for 5 extra stops down the line. I could only glare in the direction of the subway driver as I steadily powered past each further stop ending up 60 blocks from where I was intended. I watched as the time was ticking away before match kick off.

When I eventually got there I was to play doubles. I had imagined doubles (as I have played it once before) to be played on a normal squash court with a squash ball. Nope. When I got there I felt like I was on the set of Gulliver’s Travels. The court was super sized and the ball was hard and very bouncy indeed. So, here I am, 5 minutes before an actual match, with my equally clueless partner having to practice on this giant’s court with a super duper bouncy ball without knowledge of any rules at all.

However, our opponents (clearly having played this before/proper squash players) were very kind to us. We lost of course as I kept getting in the way of everyone, but all in all, it was not an un-enjoyable beating. And afterwards, we even mixed up the teams to level out the playing field.

This activity does however reiterate how the Americans seem to feel the need to create all combinations of court size, ball bouncey-ness and line and wall colours. I am constantly amazed by their imagination in this department. But one could argue more choice is better than less? Just take their ice cream for example!

I have found this youtube clip for you to watch to give you a taste of how to play and how big the court is. The music is very emotional for some reason but I think the clip is all the better for it.