Gavin

I try to write about [interesting] science as interestingly, and as well as I can...


My enemy’s enemy is my… enemy?

Like a kind of Russian doll infection, a prolific human parasite—responsible for almost 250 million infections annually—can itself harbour a parasite, a virus. You might reasonably feel a sense of something akin to schadenfreude; glad it’s getting a dose of its own medicine, so to speak… But you may be too hasty. The very presence of this virus—though it doesn’t infect human cells—in its parasite host could be making infections worse, or even stymying our attempts at ...(Read More)

An Unlikely Traveler In The ‘Death Zone’…

It’s called the ‘death zone’. The area above 8,000 meters where humans can no longer acclimatise to the effects of altitude; the oxygen is too low, the air too thin. We can only venture there briefly if we want to survive*. Yet despite the thin air and low oxygen there are reports of an unlikely visitor: geese. The geese in question are bar-headed geese. Normally residents of areas in China and Mongolia that migrate to over-winter ...(Read More)

Waking the (Tiny) giant…

Nestled safely away within your cells, among your DNA, lies something…foreign. An invader. Something you weren’t born with, hidden, evading your immune system and waiting to make its next strike: a ‘latent’ virus. In all probability, there are armies of different viruses performing this same trick throughout your body. Remaining silent; some of their own mysterious accord, others kept in check by your immune system or by random mutations, rendering them useless. Now researchers at ...(Read More)

Ancient whales, secret passages and diversity

Getting to see the relatives can be a chore for most, especially if they’re a long way away. Now imagine your relatives live in a different ocean, separated by a continent, and the only way there is frozen solid all year long. This is the problem that the Atlantic Bowhead whale populations face if they wish to meet their Pacific dwelling relatives; presumably separated millennia ago as the arctic froze, slamming shut the door of ...(Read More)

Fall Fashions: Red or dead…?

 “Autumn is a second spring when every leaf is a flower.” – Albert Camus This is certainly true of the autumn here in Ontario. It’s spectacular. Parks and woods are alive with colour; yellows, oranges, golds and reds so impossibly deep it’s like a new kind of black. Some trees are a near uniform gold, others are a tortoiseshell mottling of all the hues of the autumnal palette. As the daylight hours dwindle and temperatures ...(Read More)

Finding the un-natural in the lab…

Taming the power of the immune system in the lab wasn’t easy. For a start, it was a mystery how we have so many different antibodies, millions at any one time. But if it’s one gene per protein, and we only had something like 30,000 genes, how could we have millions of different antibodies? Understanding this problem was the key that unlocked one way to make antibodies against targets that we select. We can use ...(Read More)

Well, I could’ve told you that…

We’ve all been its victims. We ‘knew it all along’; we look back on events and can clearly see that something was obviously going to happen. Or at least, you ‘knew it all along’ now that it’s happened. This is the weird world of ‘hindsight bias’: when we convince ourselves that an event—maybe a football score or an election result—was more predictable than it really was after you know the outcome. On the surface it ...(Read More)

The “Dirty Little Secret”* About Vaccines

Note: This originally appeared on the SciBox section of the Oxford SciBar. Check out the site, there’s a host of podcasts of talks and other articles there.   In some ways, the immune system’s like a brain: it can learn, it can adapt and, so it’s ready for the next time, it can remember. This is, perhaps, its single most important feature. The immune system has the chance to learn a unique signature on the surface ...(Read More)

Bioluminescent Proteins Shed Light On The Inner-life Of Neurons

It could almost be the negative of a view from a plane over a busy city at night. The lights of vehicles moving in and out, clusters of traffic; a city going about it’s business. But this city is a brain cell. A neuron. The roads are axons and dendrites; long slim projections that send (axons) and receive (dendrites) electrical impulses to and from the cell body. The lights aren’t cars, but proteins moving up and down ...(Read More)

The wisdom of crowds: Masturbation and asking the right questions

Here’s a small challenge for you: how many £2 coins are in this tin? Your answer, perhaps unsurprisingly, is likely to be some way off.  Some will guess too high, others too low. But, curiously, if enough people make a guess, and you average out the guesses, the ‘average guess’ is likely to be close to the right number: The wisdom of crowds. The statistician Francis Galton in 1907 is credited with first noticing the effect. A public ...(Read More)