Some Saucy Studies

The science making the news this weeks has taken a sexy turn, with some eyebrow raising complimentary studies, and something else maybe a little more contradictory.
Firstly, you’ll all be glad to hear that, as msn reported, sex and alcohol make you happier than kids and religion. Well no shit Sherlock. It doesn’t take a bearded academic to realise that we live in a world of hedonism and pleasure-seeking. Anyone with opportunity is a fool not to take advantage of the modern luxuries available to them, and even those more disadvantaged are likely to seek solace in the bottom of a bottle, or the reckless abandon of a romp between the sheets.
But I found the reports a little misleading. According to the study from the University of Canterbury in New Zealand, which used ‘experience data’ gathered from text messages and digital media, sex and alcohol indeed top the pleasure list, but religion and children far from make us unhappy – they’re numbers four and five of the top bestest things what make us happy, just after volunteering at number three. A little misleading reporting there msn, tsk tsk. An entirely different list was compiled of those things that make us unhappiest including at number one, predictably, being ill. Also on the list are ‘Facebook’ and ‘texting’. So people are using Facebook and texting to moan about Facebook and texting. The profundity of it all staggers me.
Happiness
So why do we get so much pleasure from sex? Well a study, from the State University of New York, and appropriately reported in The Sun and the Daily Mail, says its all in the semen. Apparently seminal fluid has been found to contain antidepressants and ‘mood altering chemicals’, that are actively good for women’s cognitive health. Not particularly helpful in advocating protected sex, and part of me is surprised that we’ve only just found this out (after all, men have been advocating the dietary benefits of the stuff for decades), but it’s a fascinating perspective on our sexual evolutionary adaptations.  I feel a book coming on, really I do.
So, given that we’re evolutionarily predisposed to relish a little rumpy-pumpy and would sooner clutch at a bottle than a prayer, it might come as a surprise that a study published in Current Anthropology found that we are more cooperative and community minded than our ancestors ever were. Contradictory though these findings may seem, the new theory proposed by Michael Tomasello and others from the Max Planck Institute in Germany, on the basis of psychology experiments and studies of human development, explains altruism in a whole new light. Altruism poses a bit of a problem for group evolution, going against the grain for survival of the fittest – but our developing culture and the need for ecological balance may just have forced us into bed with one another, so to speak, and ensured our mutual and cooperative interest in continuing that culture.
And what better way to secure that trusting cooperative relationship necessary for the continuation of the species, than to open that bottle of wine, put on a little Barry White, and to sneak attack her with some antidepressants where she least expects it…
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I’m not one to boast but…

…I’m a Doctor!  Don’t worry, not a useful one, unless you want someone to look over your ancient fossils (not your grandmother). On Monday I passed my viva voce, a three hour examination that marked the end of the four year trial by science that was my DPhil. Given leave to supplicate, you can apparently now call me ‘Dr Leila Battison’.

The last few months have been completely crazy.  After my last post, I spent another month at NASA, made some truly unforgettable friends in San Francisco, then skipped town with a friend from England to tour around the western USA.  I came home at the beginning of October, and sat still for just over a week before I skipped of to tour the UK and Ireland with a friend from the US.  It’s just been one long adventure, and the date of the viva completely crept up on me.  Best way probably, as I didn’t have time to get worried about it until about half an hour before!
Anyway, with all of that out of the way, I’m finally starting to catch up with the many things that I’ve abandoned over the last 2 months of adventuring.
Also expect a flurry of updates over here.  Having travelled around ten thousand miles in the last month in the name of adventuring, I have stories to tell and photos to share.
Yours,
a very relieved Dr Leila.
(here’s a picture of me looking drunk and happy with my lovely friends who celebrated the day with me)
me being drunk and looking smug

me being drunk and looking smug

F*ck yes! Curiosity lands on Mars!

It was spectacularly ambitious and terrifying complicated, but at 10:31pm Pacific time, the MSL rover, Curiosity, touched down softly on the surface of Mars, and sent back its first thumbnail image of the horizon through a fisheye lens.

First thumbnail image returned to Earth from MSL/Curiosity after its landing on Mars.  Courtesy of NASA.

First thumbnail image returned to Earth from MSL/Curiosity after its landing on Mars. Courtesy of NASA.

I watched the rover’s launch in November from my bedroom and shed a private tear of pride and hope. Tonight I was at NASA Ames in California, sharing many tears of happiness and relief.  Nearly ten thousand people packed out the parade ground inside Ames, watching the two huge screens as mission control checked off each automated stage from NASA’s JPL in Pasadena.  Ripples of applause at the switching of antennae and data feeds turned to hearty cheers and then whoops and shouts of delight as entry began, the parachute was deployed, the retro-boosters set in, and finally, MSL touched down on Mars.  It’s hard to believe any image has caused such universal joy as that first 64×64 thumbnail of the Martian surface.

Mission control for MSL/Curiosity Landing at NASA JPL via the big screens at NASA Ames.

Mission control for MSL/Curiosity Landing at NASA JPL via the big screens at NASA Ames.

Over the last few weeks I had become increasingly tired of watching NASA’s cinematic ‘7 minutes of terror’ trailer, and explaining the to best of my knowledge the intricacies of the upcoming landing.  But the event tonight, experienced not only by the scientists involved, and the thousands packed into NASA centres across America, but by the whole world through unrivalled live streaming, is something that can not be easily explained or forgotten.  Watching the landing, I had chills that had nothing to do with the coolness of the night, and seeing its success, there is a warmth and elation that is nothing to do with the celebratory swigs of fizz.

We have landed toys on Mars before, small rovers the size of remote control cars, and barely better equipped.  In comparison, the behemoth we have just lowered out of the sky from a freaking jet pack, is a fully equipped geochemical and geological laboratory.  It’s the size of a small car and weighs nearly a tonne, and we’ve just airlifted it from 500,000 miles away.  It’s going to tell us more about the geological and habitable history than we’ve ever known before, and I get to work with that data to look for traces of past life. It’s going to be an unbelievably exciting couple of years.

But first, I’m just going to bask in scientific glory and pride.  Today we touched Mars with curiosity, and Curiosity survives to tell the tale.  What a fucking awesome time to be here.

Beers to fit the Mars landing theme...

Beers to fit the Mars landing theme…

A Fortnight in ‘Frisco

Well, so much for keeping a regular travel blog.  Little did I realise, but travelling half way across the world to an entirely new place, with an entirely new group of people, and entirely new kind of work, sort of knocks you backwards for a while.  It’s been a little over two weeks since I arrived in San Francisco, and I finally feel like I’ve caught up with myself.

So, a fortnight ago I set off from rainy Wales, which became rainy London, and I soaked in the padded, rolling English countryside from the train window, only too conscious that it would be the last time I’d see anything like it for the next three months.  A warm sunset with puffy clouds and contrails, like one of Marie Robinson’s paintings, was my last sight of England.

Twenty-four hours of transit was, as could be expected, near hell.  As the hours ticked by beyond our scheduled departure from Heathrow, I was conscious of my dwindling transit time in Houston, and sure enough, I have never seen an airport at quite such speed.  My impression of Houston, Texas was green – a lot more green than I had been expecting.  But no time to explore and I was straight onto my flight across the mountains to ‘Frisco.

It was dark when I arrived, but I was welcomed like a lost friend into my cosy houseshare in the centre of the City.  This Californian attitude is easy and heartfelt, and something that many places could benefit from.  Never mind the acts of blatant generosity (dinner, wine, lifts to the train station), just a smile when you arrive is enough to dispel any gloomy thoughts.

New friends in San Francisco

New friends in San Francisco. Me and my new housie Julie on my birthday.

Well, I was well looked after by my housemates, and the first weekend was spent exploring the city, getting my bearings.  I think I had been in San Francisco less than 12 hours when I saw my first naked man.  Five in fact, in the gay centre Castro, just a 15 minute walk from the house.  Just sunning themselves in the square, they brought towels to sit on, although I’m not sure whether that was for their benefit or for the benefit of succeeding patrons.

The weather has been unseasonably warm for July, I am told.  It has been mid to high 20s and clear most days in the city, although the dense marine layer of cloud blanket and fog usually rolls in around sunset, and perseveres until mid morning.  The weather here is so dramatic and dynamic, it reminds me of this heartbreakingly beautiful time lapse of clouds over the Canary Islands.  It could just as easily be here.

So once settled in San Francisco, Monday was time to start my new job. NASA here I come.  The commute was ridiculously easy, buses and trains door to door – although so few people seem to use it.  The numbers of cars are frightening.  I’m carpooling now with a postdoc in our lab, and every morning we sail down the freeway that is packed bumper to bumper with one-commuter cars.  It seems madness when the pubic transport is so efficient, but then I guess Americans sure do like their cars.  Some of them even have six wheels. Why? Beats me.

NASA Ames is a lot more homely than you might expect.  Nestled right up next to the Moffatt Airfield, the aeronautics heritage is ever-present.  The science buildings are dwarfed by vast wind tunnels and hangars, used rarely now modelling technologies are so much more efficient. I was told that the largest wind tunnel there uses as much energy as the whole of San Francisco when in operation.  Although that fact was later floored by the laser at nearby Lawrence Livermore, which in the few picoseconds of its operation uses as much energy as the whole USA.  Anyway, big machines doing big science.

Airship hangar at Moffett Field

Just an airship hangar at Moffett Field

The second most amazing thing about NASA is how friendly everyone is.  Must be California again.  The lab is made up of a couple of PIs, a few postdocs, and a seemingly endless stream of short term researchers, interns, and summer students.  Even those who are here short term are welcomed, inducted, and given free reign in the labs, permitting the kind of self-driven, self-motivated blue sky research that sets NASA apart from other universities and research institutions.  All specialisations are mixed in together.  I’ve had meetings with algologists, shared beers with geobiologists, visited the golf club with molecular biologists, and my office is sandwiched between the eminent Mars geologists that I spent my academic career referencing and respecting.   I feel so different to the talent base there, and yet so welcomed for the skills I do have.  It is a nurturing environment that I could easily get used to.

My academic home for the summer

My academic home for the summer

And so two weeks have passed already.  I’ve set up my experiments, caught up on sleep, finished all the books I brought with me, and finally unpacked my suitcase.  I’m on first name terms with the guy at the corner shop, and the guy who drives the NASA shuttle bus, and pretty much everyone in California, or so it seems.  I’m looking forward to a profitable and fun six weeks in Frisco, with a short visit to Pasadena for AbGradCon, and then an epic road trip to take in all the sights that differ so much from the English countryside I’ve left behind.  And then, who knows.  I’ve got 2 months to think about that….

 

 

Moving Out and Moving On

Not enough posts from me in the last month or so.  Well, none at all.  But I do have the best excuse of all.  Try writing a 360 page thesis, and a 600 page atlas in a month, and then see how motivated you can be to write more than an email.  Anyway, you’ll be pleased to know I survived the experience, and the thesis was gleefully, if exhaustedly, submitted on the 6th June.

Since then it has been all change at Pen and Ink towers.  After a week long conference, supposedly exploring the origins of life, but mostly exploring the local wine lists courtesy of the Lyon Institute of Origins, I packed up and drove away from Oxford for the last time, ending an eight-year era that has been the majority of my adult life.  A tear was shed, but stepping out into the unknown can be exhilarating with a look to the future instead of the past.

The last week has been a complete change to the pure academic life I’ve been leading of late, as I organised and led the Diamond Jubilee tour of The Ancient Men Morris Dancers on their 107th tour in 60 years.  This past week we have danced from Llandeilo to Llanelli, Camarthen to Cardiff, in some of the most inclement weather the UK has seen for years.  An unremittingly wet, but unremittingly fun week was spent with some of the finest people I know, and while the bruises and blisters may take some time to heal, the memories will stick around for a good while yet.  Here’s a photo of us after our last dance on the beach at Port Talbot.

The Ancient Men at Port Talbot

The Ancient Men at Port Talbot

So, onwards and upwards to this future, and I am now counting down the days before I leave for my summer of adventure.  On Saturday, I fly out to San Francisco, to join the exalted ranks of NASA scientists as we strive for a truer understanding of our place in the universe.  Or, more simply, I’m going to poke some algae for a couple of months.  The plan is to try and approach some of the enigmas of early Earth microbial systems from a biological point of view, with a view to understanding what they may be doing, or may have done, if life arose elsewhere.  I expect the work to involve collecting, culturing, and sequencing algal mats, as well as investigating nutrient flows and responses to extreme external stimuli.  I have high hopes and am super excited for a new direction and a new location.

Also super exciting is the prospect of living and working in San Francisco.  Renowned for its microbrewery and chilled out folk culture, somehow I feel I’m going to get on pretty well there.  I’ll be living just off Alamo Square, and while its about an hour commute, I think its going to be well worth it, for living in the middle of everything.  Recommendations for places to hang out, or things not to be missed are greatly welcomed!

As seems to be the thing these days, I’m going to try and keep some semblance of a travel blog/diary right here for those of you who will be missing me desperately, or want to find out how I’m treating San Francisco.  So watch this space for considerably more updates on life as a Brit in the States, life as a Morris dancer in San Francisco, or life as a palaeontologist at NASA.