The week in higher education

October 7, 2010

Continuing his mission to enthuse the masses about science, Brian Cox told readers of The Sun that life in the laboratory was not only for "clever people with frizzy white hair". Writing on 30 September, the University of Manchester physicist said children should be getting fired up by such projects as the atom-smashing experiment at Cern, the European Organisation for Nuclear Research. "The scientific world view is tremendously inspiring. It tells us...that the atoms in our bodies were assembled deep in the hearts of long-dead stars. We are, as the great astronomer Carl Sagan said, built of star stuff." Stirring words, although as the "Sun Professor" indicated with a reference to his television appearances, radio programmes and books, some have more star material than others.

The strained relationships among scientists behind the discovery of the DNA double helix have been exposed by a batch of letters long believed to have been destroyed. It features correspondence between Francis Crick, who with University of Cambridge colleague James Watson built the first three-dimensional model of DNA, and Maurice Wilkins, who led a rival group at King's College London. Both Wilkins and the Cambridge duo had fallen out with Rosalind Franklin, a member of Wilkins' team, whose work was crucial to Crick and Watson's eventual success. In one letter, Wilkins explains apologetically to Crick that he and Watson will not be invited to a talk by Franklin. In what was described on 30 September as evidence of sexism, Wilkins writes: "I hope the smoke of witchcraft will soon be getting out of our eyes." It was already known that Wilkins referred to Franklin as the "dark lady" of DNA.

The public-health hazard caused by germ-carrying beards, the asthma-reducing properties of roller-coasters and the usefulness of wearing socks over shoes in icy conditions were among the research projects honoured with Ig Nobel Awards this year. The annual honours for "improbable" scientific discoveries saw four British-led projects taking prizes, it was reported on 1 October. Among them was the Ig Nobel Peace Prize, which went to a Keele University team for its discovery that swearing can help to alleviate pain. The Zoological Society of London collected the Engineering Prize for "perfecting a method to collect whale snot using a remote-controlled helicopter".

A long-term collaborator of Stephen Hawking has dismissed the physicist's latest book as "hardly science", it was reported on 1 October. Commenting on The Grand Design, which concludes that God is "unnecessary" because physics can explain the origins of the Universe, the mathematical physicist Sir Roger Penrose said M-Theory, the book's central theme, was "not even a theory".

As vice-chancellors' lobbying hits fever pitch in the run-up to the 20 October announcement of the Comprehensive Spending Review, the new head of the University of Cambridge has declared that he will not join in with the "shroud-waving". Speaking on 3 October in his first week in post, Sir Leszek Borysiewicz said there was "enough rhetoric out there to wallpaper a room twice over". He added: "Look at the history of this institution: it's really faced some crises over 800 years, and these funding problems get into the level of short-term hiccups."

Thirty-two years after the first baby was born as a result of in vitro fertilisation, the Briton who pioneered the technique has won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. The win for Robert Edwards, 85, was described by Martin Johnson, professor of reproductive sciences at the University of Cambridge, as "long overdue". It will compound the Medical Research Council's embarrassment over its 1971 decision not to provide Professor Edwards and his colleague Patrick Steptoe with long-term financial support, forcing them to rely on private funds. The Nobel Prize in Physics, announced on 5 October, went to Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov, based at the University of Manchester, for their work on graphene. Other winners had yet to be announced as Times Higher Education went to press.

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