It’s extraordinary to make discoveries about the universe…


This week’s guest post features an interview with Michael Brooks. As well as holding a PhD in quantum physics, Michael is an author, journalist and broadcaster. He’s a consultant to New Scientist, has a weekly column for the New Statesman, and is the author of the bestseller in non-fiction titled ‘13 Things That Don’t Make Sense’. As part of an ongoing cycle of lectures, the City of Arts and Sciences in Valencia, Spain, together with the British Council, recently invited Michael Brooks, to explain the simple question of the origins of the universe.

Nicolas Jackson, from North by Southwest, a partnership between National Radio of Spain (RNE) and the British Council, caught up with Michael Brooks on the occasion.

For a quick taster, here are a few snippets from Michael’s interview, but you can listen to the full interview in the podcast at the end of the post.

Q When did humans first begin to take an interest in discovering the origins of the universe?

Michael Brooks It’s a really interesting phenomenon that today, in 2011, we think of there being an origin to the universe or a beginning, because actually that’s a relatively new idea. It wasn’t really put out there till the 1920s by a Belgian catholic priest called Georges Lemaître. He came up with this idea of a day without yesterday, and there was a kind of firestorm, fireworks and suddenly, what he called the primeval atom, kind of exploded… and from this came the universe.

And… he kind of put this out in the late 1920s, and when Einstein heard about it in 1933, he said: “This is the most beautiful idea I’ve ever heard of”. In the meantime Edwin Hubble, the astronomer, had been gathering data that showed that most of the galaxies that surround us are moving away from us very fast, and if you wind that back, that implies that somehow they were all together in one place at the same time, which we would consider to be the beginning of the universe.

This seems like a common-sense idea to us now, actually it wasn’t accepted until the 1960s; it did 30 years in the cold and there were various debates over whether the universe had always existed. You couldn’t say anything about a beginning until we discovered the cosmic microwave background radiation, which was the echo of the Big Bang, and proved that there was some kind of cosmic explosion, like Lemaître had said. And that was the point at which we just dropped the idea of there being a steady state, always existing universe, and decided that there had to have been a beginning of everything.

Q Might the idea of the origins of the universe be challenging for certain religious sects in the same way that Darwin’s Origin of the Species has been?

Michael Brooks It’s very important to realise that scientists aren’t deliberately undermining people of faith and religious ideas. What they are doing is looking out into the cosmos and finding evidence for this and for that, and with that evidence we adjust our ideas – of course with Galileo we adjusted our ideas about whether the earth was at the centre of the universe. Based on the evidence we had to change that to having the sun as the centre of the solar system and the earth spinning around it.

Now, there is some backlash against this, particularly in the United States, where people want to only deal in terms of what their faith tells them to believe, or what their religious leaders tell them to believe. Science is no respecter of that really, in many ways, science comes in and says, “this is just what the evidence says, and this is what our experiments tell us,” or, “this is what we uncover in the fossil record.” I don’t think there is a deliberate attempt to create trouble; it’s certainly not an attempt to undermine some of the other benefits of faith communities and everything else. I think it’s just that there are historically always areas where science just treads on the toes of people who hold religious faiths, and whereas science doesn’t really kind of pull any punches, the religious people, the religious leaders have to bend and accommodate the new scientific understanding. So this is always going to happen, I think.

Q Scientific discovery is obviously accelerated massively in the last hundred years. How much more is there for mankind to discover?

Michael Brooks Science is actually very humble in a sense, in that we’ve had 400 years of discovery, and cosmology has uncovered the history of the universe – 13.7 billion years old. But at the same time we realise how little we know, and we’ve discovered that 96% of the universe is in some form that we don’t understand, 72% is dark energy, a mysterious force that seems to be pushing on the very fabric of the universe, and 24% is dark matter, the stuff that exists out there, we know it must be there, or we think it must be there, or our calculations say it must be there. And we then have to work out what it is and look for it, and we’ve actually been looking for it properly for about 40 years now and still not found any clue about where it might be, or what kind of particles these might be.

So it keeps us humble, in a sense inside, and that’s one of the great things, [that] for every discovery that we make, there seem to be about ten more unanswered questions coming. And I think that’s one of the beauties of science, that it never seems to end, it seems to provoke more and more curiosity and questions.

Q You and the City of Arts and Sciences in Valencia coincide in their desire to bring science closer to ordinary people and to make it accessible. Many people might see this as the exact opposite of the arts, where great art is not always meant to explain itself. Why is this?

Michael Brooks I think science takes the trouble because some of the concepts that we deal in are so abstract and so difficult to grasp. You can look at a painting and appreciate a painting without really knowing an awful lot about who painted it, or why, or what they were trying to get across, and you get this aesthetic beauty. Whereas some of the aesthetic beauty in science lies in very complicated equations, or in complicated ideas about, for instance, the beginning of the universe.

And so scientists are really taking it upon themselves to explain. And also there is a passion as well, about what we’ve discovered. It’s an extraordinary thing to be able to discover these things about the universe and how they work. So it’s very rewarding in and of itself to actually explain these to people and see their faces light up.

So maybe some of the arts, certainly painting and writing, people can take it in at whatever level they want to take it in at. So they don’t need so much kind of advocacy, they don’t need so much explanation and communication, whereas science is actually quite inaccessible until somebody is there acting as a bridge between the scientific community and the general public.


North by Southwest 50 – Michael Brooks at The City of Arts and Sciences by British Council

North by Southwest is an English-language radio programme giving a taste of British and international culture and arts in Spain and also explores social, scientific and educational issues. North By Southwest is broadcast every week on RNE’s Radio Exterior (World Service) as part of its English-language programming.

The Witches’ Sabbath

Manjit Kumar.JPGThis week’s guest blogger is Manjit Kumar. Manjit’s book_, Quantum: Einstein, Bohr and the Great Debate,2?ie=UTF8&qid=1300958722&sr=8-2 is about the nature of reality, and was shortlisted for the 2009 BBC Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-fiction. He writes and reviews regularly for a variety of publications, including The Guardian, The Independent, The Times and the New Scientist. He used to edit a journal called Prometheus that covers the arts and sciences, and he was also the consulting science editor at UK Wired._

The first Solvay Conference on Physics, held in Brussels


Left-to right standing – Robert Goldschmidt, Max Planck, Heinrich Rubens, Arnold Sommerfeld, Frederick Lindemann, Maurice de Broglie, Martin Knudsen, Fritz Hasenöhrl, Georges Hostelet, Edouard Herzen, James Hopwood Jeans, Ernest Rutherford, Heike Kamerlingh Onnes, Albert Einstein, Paul Langevin. Seated – Walther Nernst, Marcel Brillouin, Ernest Solvay, Hendrik Lorentz, Emil Warburg, Jean-Baptiste Perrin (reading), Wilhelm Wien (upright), Marie Curie, Henri Poincaré.

In June 1911 Albert Einstein was a professor of physics in Prague when he received a letter and an invitation from a wealthy Belgium industrialist. Ernst Solvay, who had made a substantial fortune by revolutionizing the manufacture of sodium carbonate, offered to pay him one thousand francs if he agreed to attend a ‘Scientific Congress’ to be held in Brussels from 29 October to 4 November. He would be one of a select group of twenty-two physicists from Holland, France, England, Germany, Austria, and Denmark being convened to discuss ‘current questions concerning the molecular and kinetic theories’. Max Planck, Ernest Rutherford, Henri Poincare, Hendrik Lorentz and Marie Curie were among those invited. It was the first international meeting devoted to a specific agenda in contemporary physics: the quantum.

Planck and Einstein were among the eight asked to prepare reports on a particular topic. To be written in French, German, or English they were to be sent out to the participants before the meeting and serve as the starting point for discussion during the planned sessions. Planck would discuss his blackbody radiation theory, while Einstein had been assigned his quantum theory of specific heat. Accorded the honour of giving the final talk, there was no room on the proposed agenda for a discussion of his light-quanta – better known these days as photons.

‘I find the whole undertaking extremely attractive,’ Einstein wrote to Walter Nernst, ‘and there is little doubt in my mind that you are its heart and soul.’ Nernst with his love of motorcars was more flamboyant than the staid Planck, but was just as highly respected – in 1920 he was awarded the Nobel Prize for chemistry for what became known as the third law of thermodynamics. A decade earlier, in 1910 he was convinced that the time was ripe to launch a cooperative effort to try and get to grips with the quantum he saw as nothing more than a ‘rule with most curious, indeed grotesque properties’. Nernst put the idea to Planck who replied that such ‘a conference will be more successful if you wait until more factual material is available’. Planck argued that ‘a conscious need for reform, which would motivate’ scientists to attend the congress was shared by ‘hardly half of the participants’ envisaged by Nernst. Planck was sceptical that the ‘older’ generation would attend or would ‘ever be enthusiastic’. He advised: ‘Let one or even better two years pass by, and then it will be evident that the gap in theory which now starts to split open will widen more and more, and eventually those still remote will be sucked into it. I do not believe that one can hasten such processes significantly, the thing must and will take its course; and if you then initiate such a conference, a hundred times more eyes will be turned to it and, more importantly, it will take place, which I doubt for the present.’

Undeterred by Planck’s response, Nernst convinced Solvay to finance the conference. Interested in physics, and hoping to address the delegates about his own ideas on matter and energy, Solvay spared no expense as he booked the Hotel Metropole. In its luxurious surrounding, with all their needs catered for, Einstein and colleagues spent five days talking about the quantum and, as Lorentz said in his opening remarks, the reasons why the ‘old theories do not have the power to penetrate the darkness that surrounds us on all sides’. However, he continued, that the ‘beautiful hypothesis of the energy elements, which was first formulated by Planck and then extended to many domains by Einstein, Nernst, and others’ had opened unexpected perspectives, and ‘even those who regard it with a certain misgiving must recognize its importance and fruitfulness.’

‘We all agree that the so-called quantum theory of today, although a useful device, is not a theory in the usual sense of the word, in any case not a theory that can be developed coherently at present,’ said Einstein. ‘On the other hand, it has been shown that classical mechanics…cannot be considered a generally useful scheme for the theoretical representation of all physical phenomena.’ Whatever slim hopes he abhorred for progress at what he called ‘the Witches’ Sabbath’, Einstein returned to Prague disappointed at having learnt nothing new. ‘The h-disease looks ever more hopeless,’ he wrote to Lorentz after the conference.

Nevertheless, Einstein had enjoyed getting to know some of the other ‘witches’. Marie Curie, whom he found to be ‘unpretentious’, appreciated ‘the clearness of his mind, the shrewdness with which he marshalled his facts and the depth of his knowledge’. During the congress it was announced that she had been awarded the Nobel Prize for chemistry. She had become the first scientist to win two, having already won the Physics prize in 1903. It was a tremendous achievement that was overshadowed by the scandal that broke around her during the congress. The French press had learned that she was having an affair with a married French physicist. Paul Langevin was another delegate at the congress and the papers were full of stories that the pair had eloped. Einstein, who had seen no signs of a special relationship between the two, dismissed the newspaper reports as rubbish. Despite her ‘sparkling intelligence’, he thought Curie was ‘not attractive enough to represent a danger to anyone’.

The Solvay Congress was the end of the beginning for the quantum. It dawned on physicists that it was here to stay and they were still struggling to learn how to live with it. When the proceedings of the conference were published it brought to the attention of others, not yet aware or engaged in the struggle, what an immense challenge it was to successfully do so. The quantum would be the focus of attention at the fifth Solvay conference in 1927. What happened in the intervening years is, as they say, history.

Safe spaces

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Rosemary Randall is a psychotherapist, founder of the community-based charity Cambridge Carbon Footprint and the nationally acclaimed Carbon Conversations project. Her work brings insights from psychotherapy to work on climate change and she writes and lectures widely on the psychological dimensions of the public response to the issue. Links to her work can be found on her website.

The idea of the ‘safe space’ is crucial to psychotherapy. What relevance does it have to climate change?

Many people find it hard to accept the reality of climate change and the need for both urgent action and widespread socio-political change. This is often an emotional rather than an intellectual problem: climate change threatens much that people hold dear. ‘Safe spaces’ where people can come to terms with what may happen, the changes that are needed and their own feelings about it can be crucial in helping them take action both in their personal lives and politically, as citizens.

In psychotherapy the safe space is created by the therapist who initiates a relationship that:

• Is non-judgmental and offers tolerance and respect

• Accepts the complexity and strength of feelings

• Embodies belief in the possibility of change and development

• Offers challenge as well as support

• Encourages and trusts in people’s creativity

The ‘safe space’ is not one which feels cosy but one which allows creativity and change to occur. It is safe enough to think, to feel, to question, to become uncomfortable, to be upset, to argue, fall out, make up and survive. If the safe space becomes merely comforting or self-congratulatory it is not doing its job.

The relevance for this to climate change relates to the fact that people do not change their opinions or adopt new behaviours through being given information or being put under pressure. Information on its own doesn’t work. Telling, arguing, shocking or bludgeoning just don’t do it. What does help is creating situations where people can reflect and get in touch with their own conflicting feelings, motivations and creativity. Creating situations that draw on the idea of the ‘safe space’ can lead to some interesting outcomes.


In my work for the charity Cambridge Carbon Footprint, the idea of the ‘safe space’ lay behind the Carbon Footprint interviews we conducted with over 2500 people in the City between 2005 and 2008. 32 questions about their home, their travel, the money they spent and the food they ate took people quickly to the heart of their carbon-dependent lives. Although an answer emerged at the end which told people where they stood in relation to the national average footprint, the point was the conversation that took place. Training the interviewers to make this a non-judgmental, exploratory, welcoming experience was key.

My subsequent work has continued this emphasis on safe spaces. Training volunteers in personal communications skills helps them judge quickly how a climate change conversation is going, alerts them to the subtle resistances that people bring to difficult subjects and helps them offer appropriate support and challenges. Carbon Conversations, a scheme now organised nationally by COIN, brings people together in small facilitated groups to share their responses to climate change and explore how to make major reductions to their carbon footprints. Again, it’s the creation of the safe, responsive space which is key to the success of these groups.

Safe spaces are not unique to psychotherapy. They can be found in many other contexts and can occur spontaneously where people trust each other enough to open themselves to new ideas and possibilities. Sharing values is often key and I experienced a good example of this at the recent Sustainability in Crisis conference in Cambridge. This was a conference of people from faith groups, primarily Christians, and so it had the ease of understanding and acceptance that comes when people know that their basic premises about life are likely to be affirmed and understood by others. Into this conference, (which like many meetings of like minds carried a risk of cosiness) flew Bill McKibben, the US environmentalist and activist, fresh from cooling his heels in a Washington clink, having been arrested during a demonstration about the planned oil pipeline from Canada. Warm, engaging, sharp and inspiring, McKibben embodied the creative challenge that the safe space both needs and makes possible. McKibben was uncompromising in his argument that the additive process of individual action won’t work. Political engagement is critical. He reminded his audience of the origins of non-violent direct action in the Christian tradition and encouraged them to stand up, take part and risk arrest. Conversations over coffee and supper were testament to the way he pitched his challenge but it was the context of the safe space that made it possible for him to be properly heard.

Politics and campaigning

In more directly political work the tension between the need to challenge and the need for a safe space can be tricky. Confrontation, uncompromising demands and irresistible pressure on those in power are necessary. The clue is to think about who needs to be confronted and who needs to be safe. There is often a dual audience, those in power who need to be challenged and a potentially sympathetic public who need to be engaged and encouraged to come on side and take part. Climate Rush with their mix of humour, drama and surprise is one group who seem to have a good balance of confronting those in power without alienating those who witness their demonstrations. Occupy London seem similarly well positioned in engaging the public while causing grave discomfort to those in power. Bill McKibben’s plea was for climate protestors to abandon the polar bear outfits and come dressed in respectable suits in order to demonstrate visually to the powerful that this is a protest of mainstream opinion and to mainstream opinion that here is a protest they can identify with and participate in. However it is done, the capacity to create the space in which ordinary people feel safe enough to pause, become curious, explore and then act is essential.

“Reaching Further” The Exscitec Project

shreena.PNGThis week’s guest blogger is Shreena Patel, Scientific Projects Manager for Exscitec. In partnership with Imperial College Outreach,

they provide hands-on practical activities for students to raise aspirations in Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (STEM).

Science is cool. Science is fun. If you’re anything like me, you love keeping up to date with the latest technologies and discoveries that emanate from the scientific world. However, trying to convince a less than enthusiastic 14 year old that a peak in the data from the Large Hadron Collider could possibly change Physics as we know it…well that’s slightly more challenging! The reality is that for a large number of students, science is simply not seen as fun or cool.

Recently I asked a group of year 6 students (10-11 year olds) “What is a scientist?” What appeared on the whiteboard was a disturbing cross between Doc Brown and Einstein. I was told by the students that the image depicted in the picture was concentrating hard on NOT blowing up the ‘potions’ in his lab and was about to invent something spectacular (hence the light bulb hovering over his head). The excitement in the room was so infectious that even I wanted to meet this amazing scientist drawn on my whiteboard.

Ask this same question of year 10 (14-15 year olds) and the image on the whiteboard becomes the stereotype of a boring, geeky individual stuck in a dingy lab all day. Despite some very hard working teachers, a lot of students at this age just don’t realise how vast the reach of STEM is in the real world.

As outreach providers for Imperial College, over the past 12 years, Exscitec has provided bespoke courses for school students of all ages and abilities. Whether it’s building robots, synthesizing compounds or discovering who committed murder most foul through forensic testing, we try to take STEM off the textbook page and into the real world. In a nutshell, we try give students that ‘wow’ factor that will change the way they look at STEM.

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With the new Reach Out Lab (ROL) at Imperial College, we are now able to connect with even more students throughout the year. Opened in 2010 and championed by Professor Lord Winston, Chair of Science and Society, this multi-purpose laboratory provides a year round teaching facility for young people and teachers. Exscitec’s CEO, Alan West, who is also the Director of the ROL, was recently awarded an MBE for services to STEM education. Speaking about his work, he says, “In recent years, my work, and that of the Exscitec team, has focused very much on the development of STEM enrichment activity connected with Imperial’s Reach Out Lab, the success of which is enabling us to develop more exciting initiatives in support of STEM education”.

One of these new initiatives is called Reaching Further, which is a program which allows school students the opportunity to work with PhD, MRes and Masters students from the Imperial College research community. The premise is simple: students get to speak to a “real scientist”, and in return, researchers are able to share their work and strengthen their public engagement portfolio.

By giving students the opportunity to work with these researchers, we are able to tackle one of the main issues facing young students studying science: the time it takes for scientific breakthroughs to make it into students’ textbooks. This disconnect is one of the major issues we are trying to overcome here at the ROL. So far we have worked with researchers from the National Heart and Lung Institute, the Energy Futures Lab, the Grantham Institute for Climate Change, UK Energy Research Centre (UKERC) to name but a few.

Sarah Lester, Energy and Mitigation researcher at the Gratham Institute for Climate Change, along with Dr Jeff Hardy and other colleagues from UKERC, recently led Energy Islands – a role play workshop where year 12 students (16-17 years old) negotiated a reduction in carbon emissions for their world. Talking about her work with outreach so far, Sarah says, “I think the outreach work has been going really well and has helped the students get involved with academics and research on climate change. The Energy Islands game has also given us great motivation and an excellent tool to work with under 18s and the public as part of our education and information sharing work. One of the best things was being reminded how passionate people can be about this area once they feel they can make a difference.”

I couldn’t have put it better myself. When it boils down to it, students want to be spoken to, not at. Once they feel that someone is listening, you find that they have an awful lot to say. Whether it’s stem cells or solar cells, who better to talk to than those who are at the forefront of the field? As Claire Doyle, PhD student in Organic Chemistry put it, “It definitely added variety to my doctorate and has given me some great experience for the future. Plus it was very rewarding to see students so excited about what I did.”

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So to all those hard working researchers sitting reading this during a break from their next round of tests, I urge you to get involved in outreach in whatever way you can. One interaction can literally change a student’s whole outlook on a subject. Science becomes cool, science becomes fun and as a consequence back at school the attitude towards science learning changes too.


With that, it’s time I return to my lab, where a group of year 9 students (13-14 year olds) from Watford are eagerly waiting to accuse me of murder based on some smudged fingerprints and some suspicious stains on my clothing… which may have tested positive for blood (rookie mistake!) I have been informed that I am going to be thoroughly interrogated after lunch…!

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If you’re interested in reading more about mentoring in science, the Communities team ran a recent Science Online NYC (#sonyc) discussion about “Reaching the Niches”. Links to our coverage, including a series of guest posts on other mentoring initiatives can be found here.

The Living Dinosaur

This post was originally published in Harvard Magazine, the alumni magazine of Harvard University.


This week’s guest blogger is historian Jill Jonnes, author of Eiffel’s Tower, Conquering Gotham, and Empires of Light. She is a scholar this fall at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, working on trees as green infrastructure.

IN EARLY OCTOBER 1989, Peter Del Tredici of Harvard’s Arnold Arboretum was high on the slopes of Tian Mu Mountain Nature Reserve in western Zhejiang Province, counting ginkgo trees with two Chinese collaborators. For 1,500 years, visiting pilgrims had journeyed to this sacred mountain, where Buddhist monks in the late thirteenth century built the famous Kaishan Temple, the largest of many picturesque shrines scattered about the steep hillsides. In the cool fall weather, wrote Del Tredici, then 43, “we walked all the paths and trails in the reserve and measured and mapped the locations of all the ginkgos that we could locate. Ginkgo leaves were turning yellow, making it easy to locate the trees even at some distance.” All told, they found “167 spontaneously growing Ginkgos.” In the world of trees and botany, the finding of wild ginkgos was big news.


The Ginkgo biloba is one of the wonders of the natural world, a “living fossil” whose arboreal ancestors date back to the Jurassic period. “How or why the ginkgo managed to survive when all of its relatives went extinct is an unsolved botanical mystery,” wrote Del Tredici in Horticulture back in 1983—a mystery he would spend two decades helping to partially unravel. The term “living fossil” was coined by Darwin; in Del Tredici’s words, it refers to a living species “with a long evolutionary history and no close living relatives.” An average plant species may have an evolutionary run of a few million years; Ginkgo biloba has been around, with minimal changes, for about 56 million years.

Sharing the earth with dinosaurs, the ginkgos—often a dominant forest species—grew across the Northern Hemisphere along disturbed stream beds and levees. Then, about seven million years ago, the glaciers pushed out the last of the ginkgos in America; two million years ago, the ice pushed out the last of the ginkgos in Europe. Ultimately, Ginkgo biloba survived only in Asia.

Today, the dinosaurs are long since extinct but the ginkgo, thanks to gardeners and urban foresters, has recolonized the very continents where it once thrived, a ubiquitous, super-hardy city-tree species. Also known as the maidenhair tree, it has long been admired for its distinctive, elegant, fan-shaped leaves, and valued for its delicate nuts—but it is infamous, too, for the foul odor of its fruits, whose “fleshy outer covering [the sarcotesta],” noted Arboretum founder Charles Sprague Sargent in 1877, “exhales an extremely disagreeable smell of rancid butter.” (Others describe it as “vomitous.”) Having long outlived the pests and diseases that may have afflicted it, a ginkgo is young at 100, when most other street trees have long since died of old age or disease. This is an amazing botanical conquest and comeback.

In the late nineteenth century, when Western plant explorers descended upon China and Japan seeking botanical treasure, they were amazed at the size and antiquity of certain ginkgos: 100-foot-tall trees with 50-foot girths that were 1,000 or even 2,000 years old, growing around temples and monasteries. One of those plant men was collector Ernest H. “Chinese” Wilson, whose two China expeditions from 1907 to 1911 amassed 65,000 botanical specimens for Harvard’s arboretum. (Artfully laid out on 265 acres in Jamaica Plain, the arboretum was conceived in 1872 as both a Boston public park and a Harvard research institution, where the “Living Collections” would serve as a “Tree Museum” and a research resource. Harvard purchased the land for the arboretum and then donated it to the city of Boston, which constructed the park and leased it back to the University for a thousand years for $1 a year.)

In 1930, not long before Wilson’s death in a car accident in Worcester, this legendary botanical explorer declared in no uncertain terms that the ginkgo “no longer exists [in Asia] in a wild state, and there is no authentic record of its ever having been seen growing spontaneously. Travelers of repute of many nationalities have searched for it far and wide in the Orient but none has succeeded in solving the secret of its home….In Japan, Korea, southern Manchuria, and in China proper it is known as a planted tree only, and usually in association with religious buildings, palaces, tombs, and old historic or geomantic sites….What caused its disappearance [in the wild] we shall never know.” Such was Wilson’s clout, reported Del Tredici, that this romantic story of venerable monks preserving this ancient tree “had become dogma.” In 1967 a professor wrote in Science, “It is doubtful, however, whether a natural stand of ginkgo trees is to be found anywhere in the world today.”

Wandering the woods of Tian Mu more than two decades later, Del Tredici, who is today a senior research scientist at the arboretum, believed he had found the elusive and long-sought wild ginkgos. Locating them could help address some of the tree’s evolutionary mysteries. For Del Tredici, the ginkgo offered botanists “a unique window on the past—sort of like having a living dinosaur available to study.” He hoped to learn how this amazing species had managed to survive in the wild since the dinosaurs. How had some ginkgos lived more than a thousand years when few tree species live even hundreds of years? What served as the dispersal agent for its seeds? And what evolutionary purpose caused their fruits to smell so god-awful?

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THE 600 SPECIES of trees that grow in temperate North America today fall into three divisions: Pinophyta, which includes all the hundreds of conifers, or cone-bearing seed plants; Magnoliophyta, including the hundreds of broadleaf trees, whose reproduction is tied to their flowers and fruits; and Ginkgophyta, which includes only one tree, Ginkgo biloba, with a reproductive system unlike that of other trees. Although the fact that ginkgo trees are either male or female is not unusual in the tree world, this gender distinction is considered evolutionarily primitive.

“The order to which the tree belongs, the Ginkgoales,” wrote Del Tredici in Arnoldia, “can be traced back to the Permian era, almost 250 million years ago,” thanks to the study of many ginkgo fossils found in the Northern Hemisphere. “The genus Ginkgo made its first appearance in the middle Jurassic period, 170 million years ago….At least four different species of Ginkgo coexisted with the dinosaurs during the Lower Cretaceous.” One of the four species, G. adiantoides, possessed leaves and female ovules that are similar to, but smaller than, those of G. biloba, the species that exists today. In short, the ginkgo has probably existed on earth longer than any other tree now living.

The first ginkgo to grow in Europe after the Ice Age was raised from seed brought from Japan around 1730 by German physician-botanist Engelbert Kaempfer. Planted at the Botanic Garden in Utrecht, Holland, that ginkgo (which thrives to this day) was viewed simply as another rare and exotic tree from the land of the shoguns. In the ensuing decades, botanists at Kew Gardens in England, the Botanic Garden in Montpelier, France, and elsewhere on the continent planted their own rare specimens. In 1784, Philadelphian William Hamilton was delighted to be the first in his young nation to have one of these “Oriental” trees on his Woodlands estate. Naturalist William Bartram planted one nearby in his garden. Today it is the oldest ginkgo in America. But until 1896, botanists, who knew ginkgos were ancient thanks to fossilized specimens, had no idea just how old Ginkgo biloba was.

That year, on September 9 in Tokyo, Japanese botanist Sakugoro Hirase peered through his microscope at the inside of a female ginkgo tree’s ovule. The previous spring, a male ginkgo’s pollen had wafted on the wind toward a female ginkgo with many dangling pairs of round ovules. On the tip of an ovule, a secreted drop of gooey fluid captured and absorbed the pollen into an interior pollen chamber. The pollen had grown all through the summer and, as Hirase was astounded to observe, it had become a multiflagellated ginkgo sperm (three times larger than human sperm) that was swimming to fertilize a waiting egg cell.

“This was really momentous,” according to Del Tredici. “The discovery of motile sperm captured people’s attention. From the scientific point of view, motile sperm was considered to be a trait associated with evolutionarily primitive, non-seed plants such as mosses and ferns. And yet here was the ginkgo tree—clearly a seed-producing plant—with its motile sperm that linked non-seed plants to the more evolutionarily advanced conifers and angiosperms with pollen tubes and non-motile sperm. People realized, ‘My God! Ginkgo is a missing link—a living fossil.’ ”

The ginkgo tree has the same archaic reproductive system as the cycads, which predate the dinosaurs. It takes about 133 days for the ginkgo pollen to develop into sperm that then flails its way to the egg and creates a growing embryo. Soon thereafter, in the fall, the fleshy seeds, containing a hard-shelled nut with a tiny embryo, drop to the ground. Not until the next spring will the seeds germinate. Ginkgo fossils showed that the tree’s reproductive system has been largely unchanged since the Cretaceous. This “direct link with ancient fossil plants,” from before the age of flowering plants, wrote Del Tredici, “gives the modern Ginkgo biloba a pedigree unmatched by any living tree.” Thus Ginkgo was catapulted to a new status of “living fossil”—but a fossil, it was believed, that had survived only through human cultivation, whether for its delicious nuts or its status as a revered “elder.”

When Del Tredici began stalking the wild ginkgo in China in 1989, he was resuming a plant-hunting tradition at the Arnold Arboretum that had ended when “the Bamboo Curtain came down in 1949.” He worked with Nanjing Botanical Garden director Yang Guang and Chinese forester Ling Hsieh. What was hard to ignore as the three men located and measured the golden-leaved ginkgos on Tian Mu Mountain was the paucity of young trees. “Clearly,” wrote Del Tredici, “the Ginkgo population was not actively reproducing from seed under the shady, mature forest conditions that currently prevail on the mountain.” Then they learned that the local populace (and the red-bellied squirrels) had already played “an important factor limiting seedling establishment”: they had collected most of the foul-smelling fruits for the seed-kernel inside. In fact, many Chinese farmers had established ginkgo orchards in order to harvest these nuts as a cash crop.

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But Del Tredici did observe something exciting and unfamiliar on Tian Mu: “[M]ost of the larger Ginkgos were reproducing vigorously from suckers arising near the base of their trunks….Wherever the base of the trunk of a large Ginkgo came into direct contact with a large rock or where its base was exposed by erosion, these structures developed…When these growths reach friable soil, they produce lateral roots, develop vigorous growing shoots, and continue their downward growth.” Where conditions were disturbed or tough, ginkgos responded by sending up new shoots from their roots that began growing into new trees. As a result, many old ginkgos have multiple trunks.

Very old ginkgos had long been observed to grow “air roots” from their upper branches. These were known in Japan as chichi (nipples, or breasts), harking back to a Japanese folk tale about an ancient ginkgo in Sendai that grew over the tomb of an emperor’s wet nurse, who vowed to Buddha that mothers who failed to lactate could pray there and would then be able to nurse their babies. Del Tredici was not seeing the aerial “breasts,” but basal chichi (lignotubers). “They had never before been described in the English literature,” he says. This helped explain how ginkgos could live so many millennia. Not only had they outlived pests and diseases, but they resprouted when under stress.

“Going to China was really a leap of faith, but that’s what science is all about,” said Del Tredici during a recent conversation in his arboretum office—an airy space of exposed brick walls, large windows overlooking many trees, two desks and two computers, his collection of old herbal medicine bottles, drawings and photos of ginkgos, and bookcases crammed with titles like Design in Nature: Learning from Trees. “When I came back I did experiments on reproduction and morphology in the lab and the greenhouse on this survival mechanism that ginkgo had evolved.” In the greenhouse, he was able to demonstrate that "basal chichi develop from suppressed cotyledonary [embryonic leaf] buds.

“To my great relief, on that first trip to China,” he said, “I found and explained the ability of ginkgos to survive so long. Even though their sexual reproduction system is archaic and doesn’t work all that well, the tree has this ability to resprout. I call it ecological immortality. Ginkgo became my case study for integrating ecological knowledge with botanical knowledge with horticultural knowledge. I was able to bring all these pieces together into a unified picture.” He was well launched on helping to unravel some of Ginkgo’s evolutionary mystery. The basal chichi helped explain the persistence of the species into the modern era and the extraordinary age of individual trees. Del Tredici’s discovery established a mechanism that has allowed this “living fossil” to survive in the wild in the face of massive ecological change.

DEL TREDICI’S PASSION for ginkgos advanced in fits and starts. A native Californian from Marin County, one of his distinct childhood memories is of 10 ginkgos planted across a neighbor’s front yard. “The thing about ginkgos,” in his view, “is you can be totally illiterate about trees and you still know what a ginkgo is.” With a B.S. in zoology from the University of California at Berkeley, and an M.S. in biology from the University of Oregon, he came East to be with his girlfriend (and later, wife) while she finished Radcliffe College.

After five years at the Harvard Forest greenhouses, running what is now the Torrey Research Lab, he joined the arboretum in 1979 as an assistant plant propagator. “I was working on Sargent’s Weeping Hemlock, an old Victorian plant with a mysterious history,” he said. “I started visiting old estates and inevitably there would be these old ginkgos—100, 200 years old. So I ended up writing this article about old ginkgos.” The arboreal infatuation was heating up. Then Del Tredici discovered that just a few years earlier, in 1977, the Boston Common had lost Gardiner Greene’s ginkgo, an eighteenth-century tree so beloved it had been moved at great expense, when already 40 feet tall, from Beacon Hill to the Common in 1835.

“Believing that it is sometimes good to repeat history,” wrote Del Tredici, “I thought it would be nice to get a public-spirited Bostonian to donate a 40-foot male ginkgo [no smelly fruits!]…to fill the empty space where the tree had been.” On Arbor Day 1982, he and like-minded citizens welcomed the ginkgo to its new home. “It’s been my comeuppance,” he said ruefully of this romantic episode. “I visualized this beautiful ginkgo. Thirty years later and it’s maybe five feet taller. The site conditions are really difficult—compacted soil, on a slope, some extreme drought conditions.”

“In 1985, I had just turned 40,” said Del Tredici, “and felt I needed a new strategy, because I was getting too old to make a living with my back in the greenhouses.” He enrolled in a Ph.D. program at Boston University the next year, intending to write about black cherries. This turned out to be a somewhat more complicated subject than anticipated and one of his committee members, Lynn Margulis, impressed by a paper he had written for her evolution class about the dispersal of ginkgo seeds, suggested, “ Why don’t you do your dissertation on Ginkgo?”

“A light bulb went off,” recalled Del Tredici. “Ginkgos. Probe every little evolutionary detail and you find something unique.” At that time, many posited that dinosaurs ate ginkgo fruits and excreted the seeds, and the beasts’ demise partly explained the disappearance of wild ginkgo—but no dinosaur droppings with ginkgo seeds had ever been found.

In 1988, not long after that Ph.D. light bulb went off, Del Tredici happened to read in the Harvard Gazette that Emery professor of organic chemistry Elias J. Corey (who soon thereafter won the Nobel Prize) had just isolated a compound—ginkgolide B—that might have a medical aspect. He decided on a lark to call Corey, who said, “Come on over.” “I told him I was working on Ginkgo,” Del Tredici continued, "and that I thought it probably existed in the wild, but my question was: ‘What ecological role did Ginkgo play? How had the species survived so many millions of years? What would it look like as a wild plant? Is it a pioneer species?’ I wanted to go to China, but I didn’t know what I would find. Despite what Wilson said, there were plant hunters—including Chinese botanists—who had reported it in remote valleys, little wild remnants.

“Corey said, ‘That sounds like a great idea.’ He was working with a French pharmaceutical company that was providing ginkgo leaves for him to work on. He said, ‘Write your letter describing your project and I’ll write one in support and we’ll put them in the mail at the same time.’ In a month or so, I had a check for $5,000. That was a lot of money in those days. All the French wanted was that I write a book chapter for them.”

While working on Tian Mu in 1989, Del Tredici was persuaded he was seeing wild ginkgos because the trees were mixed in with the natural forest, the sex ratios were normal (half female, half male), and the trees were single or multistemmed and looked as if they had grown from seed. Equally exciting was his discovery of basal chichi.

And then there was the mystery of the stinky fruits. On that trip to China, he learned that local nocturnal scavengers and carnivores like Chinese leopard cats and the masked palm civet ate the ginkgo’s fruit. He hypothesized that the stinky flesh mimicked the smell of rotting meat, a successful strategy to attract these creatures. The ginkgo nuts, in turn, were eventually excreted, and were far likelier to sprout and grow if dropped in sunny sites. Back in Boston, in various experiments and field trials, Del Tredici confirmed that ginkgo seed germination rates soared (71 percent versus 15 percent) minus the smelly sarcotesta (as would happen when eaten and excreted). “During the Cretaceous,” he wrote, “potential dispersal agents included mammals, birds, and carnivorous dinosaurs.”

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As cumbersome as G. biloba’s sex life is, it, too, has served an evolutionary purpose. As Del Tredici and other botanists studied the tree’s reproductive cycle, he began conducting experiments at the arboretum—both in the greenhouse and outdoors—growing seeds from Guizhou and Boston ginkgos, further confirming that all “aspects of Ginkgo’s sexual reproductive cycle are strongly influenced by temperature.” During the Ice Age, he wrote in a review paper, “Such a trait would have allowed this species to reproduce successfully in regions of the Northern Hemisphere that were undergoing dramatic cooling after a long period of stable warm conditions…Ginkgo biloba’s temperature-sensitive embryo developmental-delay mechanism could well have been another climate-induced Cretaceous innovation—an evolutionarily primitive, but ecologically functional, form of seed dormancy.” Ginkgo seeds do not try to grow until the weather favors their survival. Between 1953 and 2000 in Japan, the temperature-sensitive Ginkgo adjusted to the warming climate by extending its growing period: four days earlier each spring and eight days longer in the fall.

Like “Chinese” Wilson, Peter Del Tredici loved botanizing in China, a place he has visited eight more times and calls “Horticultural Heaven.” He has worked with many Chinese colleagues, and said they have now taken the lead in researching ginkgo, a national symbol of their botanical heritage. Ginkgo DNA is three times larger than human DNA and is unlikely to be fully sequenced anytime soon, but by using smaller snippets for DNA testing in 2008, botanist Wei Gong and her colleagues confirmed Del Tredici’s 1989 find of wild ginkgo growing on the slopes of Tian Mu Mountain. The Chinese also confirmed that several other small wild ginkgo remnants displayed “a significantly higher degree of genetic diversity than populations in other parts of the country.” In some of these forests, growing near peoples with no history of gathering ginkgo fruits, there are young ginkgos growing. Although no one knows for sure where Ginkgo originated, it’s now clear that during the Ice Age, the southwest mountains of China served as refugia. Subsequent DNA studies have also shown that China is the ultimate source of all the world’s cultivated ginkgos.

Many of Ginkgo’s mysteries are probably unsolvable. Did it once have a pollinator? We will never truly know, said Del Tredici, “why Ginkgo is still around when all of its relatives have gone extinct…many of its life-history traits evolved under conditions that no longer exist, which makes reconstructing its ecological niche difficult to establish.” What, for instance, he continued, were “its original dispersal agents? What role did the medically active chemicals it produces play in its evolution? Were they feeding deterrents? I assume Ginkgo survived because it was somehow able to remain competitive with flowering plants, but in what ways was it different from species that went extinct? For all intents and purposes, Ginkgo has stopped evolving.”

For decades now, Del Tredici has been gathering ginkgo seeds and cuttings from historic and unusual trees, and he recently planted a large hillside in the arboretum with some of his more prized specimens, part of a larger grove of young trees that are all deciduous gymnosperms: larches, golden larches, dawn redwoods, and bald cypresses. He expects that when Harvard has to renegotiate the lease for the arboretum in 861 years, the ginkgos will be looking pretty magnificent.

Until then, when next you pass a ginkgo on a busy street, remember you are looking at a mysterious species that shared the earth with dinosaurs. “As remarkable as Ginkgo’s evolutionary survival is,” said Del Tredici, “the fact that it grows vigorously in the modern urban environment is no less dramatic. Having survived the climatic vicissitudes of the past 120 million years, ginkgo is clearly well prepared—or, more precisely, preadapted—to handle the climatic uncertainties that seem to be looming in the not-too-distant future. Indeed, should the human race succeed in wiping itself out over the course of the next few centuries, we can take some comfort in the knowledge that the ginkgo tree will survive.”  

Bioinformatics what is it and how it can bring prehistory to life?


Ivan Karabaliev joined Eagle Genomics located at the Babraham Research Centre in Cambridge, UK, a bit more than a year ago and has been discovering the essence of bioinformatics. Coming from a business marketing background, Ivan likes to explain the complex world of bioinformatics to new audiences and the general public.

Explained in just one sentence, bioinformatics is the science of managing, analysing, storing and merging biological data (DNA sequences, proteins, etc.) using advanced computing techniques. Put another way, it is the application of computer science and information technologies to solve biological questions. Simple questions include asking what a specific region of given DNA is responsible for, or how closely related one organism is to another by comparing their genomes.

The genome is the entirety of an organism’s hereditary information; the genetic make-up of all living organisms. It contains the instructions needed for a living organism to grow and function. When we know the sequence of a gene, the role it has in an organism and the diseases caused by malfunctioning copies of the gene, this information can be used to improve life for the organism. This is where bioinformatics comes along, to better interpret and understand genetic messages.

The genomes of organisms, some of which can be several billion DNA base pairs long, can be stored in biological databases. The data stored may include gene function, structure, localization (both cellular and chromosomal), physiological or clinical effects of genetic mutations, as well as similarities of biological sequences and structures.

In 1990 the Human Genome Project was formally given a green light, encouraged by the need to understand and help cure human diseases – the genomic revolution started to take its first steps. The project was led by Dr. Francis Collins, head of the International Human Genome Institute. The whole human genome, which is 3 billion base pairs long, was sequenced in 2000. The news was proclaimed by Bill Clinton:

Humankind is on the verge of gaining immense, new power to heal. It will revolutionize the diagnosis, prevention and treatment of most, if not all, human diseases!

You can watch a YouTube video of the announcement here. During the announcement a very important fact was neglected: the sequence was not truly complete, but a mere first draft. About 10 percent of the human genome had not been read.

It wasn’t until 2003 that the human genome’s sequencing was officially completed. Since then, along with the constant improvement of bioinformatics, genetic investigations have enabled the development of new tests, drug targets and have given fresh insights into the basis of human disease. However, these pioneering investigations have also revealed just how complicated human biology is and how much remains to be understood.

The human genome project is a great example of the application of bioinformatics. The project stores huge amounts of genetic data in a database that analyses and maintains human genome sequences. The database is able to write complex, biologically-aware algorithms to analyse the massive amount of information and to compare it to other related data. This enables the efficient sequencing and identification of all three billion chemical units in the human genetic instruction set, helping to find the genetic roots of diseases. But, this is just one example of how bioinformatics can be used. Below is an overview of some of the other interesting applications of bioinformatics:

The Microbial Genome Project where scientists are determining the DNA sequence of C. crescentus, one of the microorganisms used for sewage treatment. Genomes of highly resistant bacteria are sequenced and analyzed to aid the waste treatment industry. Some bacteria can reduce levels of uranium in water. Other bacteria species like the Geobacter are capable of breaking down petroleum compounds so polluted waters can be treated.

• Climate change can also be aided thanks to bioinformatics. How? Well the Department of Energy in USA launched a program to decrease atmospheric carbon dioxide levels. One method of doing so is to study the genomes of microbes that use carbon dioxide as their sole carbon source.

• In the food industry, researchers anticipate that understanding the physiology and genetic make-up of Lactococcus lactis bacteria used in the dairy industry (buttermilk, yogurt, cheese, also used to prepare pickled vegetables, beer, wine and breads) will prove invaluable for food manufacturers as well as the pharmaceutical industry. Similar advances are expected in forensic science where bioinformatics tools are used to compare crime-scene samples to existing databases to see if they are present there or if they are related to other microbes.

• Another and potentially controversial application of bioinformatics is in defence. Scientists have built the virus poliomyelitis using entirely artificial means. They did this using genomic data available on the Internet and materials from a mail-order chemical supply. The research was financed by the US Department of Defence as part of a biowarfare response program to prove to the world the reality of bioweapons. The researchers also hope their work will discourage officials from ever relaxing programs of immunization.

In agriculture, sequencing of the genomes of plants and animals has enormous benefits for the field. Bioinformatics tools are used to search for potentially useful genes within these genomes and to elucidate their functions. The gathered genetic knowledge could then be used to produce stronger, more drought-, disease- and insect-resistant crops, or to improve the quality of livestock making them healthier, more disease-resistant and more productive.

Future uses of bioinformatics

• Medicine will become more personalised with the development of the field of pharmacogenomics, which is the study of how an individual’s genetic make-up affects the body’s response to drugs. At present, many drugs fail to make it to the market because a small percentage of patients show adverse affects to a drug often due to sequence variants in their DNA.

• Enhancement of gene therapies. Gene therapy is the approach used to treat , cure or even prevent disease by changing the expression of a person’s gene. Currently this field is in its infancy. There are currently many ongoing clinical trials for different types of cancer and other diseases.

• And finally my favourite example for potential use of bioinformatics is in sequencing dinosaur DNA. Remember Spielberg’s movie Jurassic Park based on the book by Michael Crichton? Scientist Mark Boguski read the book and decided to do a simple experiment to replicate the movie’s premise of dinosaur DNA having been preserved inside an amber-encased mosquito. He found out that the genetic sequence quoted in the book and movie had nothing to do with dinosaurs, so he wrote a journal article about his findings. Crichton came across this manuscript and approached Boguski to provide him with a real DNA sequence for his second book: The Lost World. (Read the full story here.) This is the actual paper where Boguski wrote his findings:


Bioinformatics isn’t going to replace lab experiments any time soon. For now it is best used to help “focus” and complement scientific research. In most cases, bioinformatics helps to eliminate false positives, saving time and money pursuing false leads. However, with the ever-increasing volumes of data, bioinformatics has become an important part of all genomic research projects and the future is bright. As developments in genomic and molecular research technologies improve, in line with developments in information technology, bioinformatics is becoming a major player in the understanding of biological processes and disease.

Science Across Egypt© Project

gihan.png This week’s guest blogger is Gihan Samy Soliman, an Educational Consultant & Master’s Researcher at the Institute of Environmental Studies & Research, Ain Shams University.

Since 1936, when Egypt became a party to the Convention Relative to the Preservation of Fauna and Flora in their Natural State, they have been among the pioneering countries taking an active interest in the conservation of biodiversity and the preservation of natural resources. In 1992, Egypt signed the Biodiversity Convention of Rio de Janeiro and ratification of this Convention was completed in 1994. This Convention required the parties to formulate national strategies setting a framework for the conservation of biological diversity (biodiversity). Although much “technical” attention has been paid to biodiversity in Egypt, with many conferences, recommendations and ratification of laws, the problem of an evidently defective system of education in Egypt means that the right information on conservation doesn’t seem to reach the right people: students.

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Teaching methods in Egypt need to be addressed, particularly in relation to biodiversity. Biodiversity is the degree of variation of life forms within a given ecosystem and is a measure of the health of ecosystems. Biologists define biodiversity as the “totality of genes, species, and ecosystems of a region.” For students in the US, biodiversity is studied as a science; students can explore textbooks and review material according to their curriculum, which is usually based on each state’s learning standards (Figure 1). However, in Egypt there is hardly any real relationship between science and the environment, making learning about these issues difficult.

Several attempts at reform have been made to enhance science education in Egypt and raise awareness of biodiversity issues. However, they’re usually confined to issuing books, booklets, CDs and posters which are not systematically presented to students and end up sitting on school library shelves and hidden away in cupboards (e.g. ).

As an educational consultant working with Ahmed Abdel Azeem, Ph.D, I have started working with schools on a self-financing environmental and applied science project called Science Across Egypt©. The project’s aim is to integrate conservation of biological diversity into curricula and extra-curricular activities in “Egyptian schools”.:

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The Science Across Egypt project carries out many initiatives that aim to teach children more about the environment. As an example, on International Water Day on March 22, 2011, students of Port Said American School

were accompanied to the Nile River bank to celebrate the event and take water samples to measure the level of pollution onsite. They also campaigned for declaring the river Nile as a natural protectorate (Figure 2). The Media reported the event as being a unique opportunity for children to learn more about the environment.

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Reforming science education in Egypt will need more determined efforts on both national and international levels (Figure 3). Taking a step in this direction, for the first time in Egypt, a group of scientists and attentive community leaders have established an international Egyptian NGO (International Foundation for Environment Protections and Sustainability) to address the issues of biodiversity in Egypt ( ). Will such efforts work? Let’s keep our fingers crossed.