Saturday, 11 December 2010

Liu Xiao-Bo

Liu Xiao-Bo

The West, I mean the non-Chinese world, is in danger of hustling Liu Xiao-Bo into a martyrdom that is more dramatic than the merely heroic stance he intended. To spend 11 years in prison, from age 54 to 65 is a heavy sentence; but perhaps even that is not heavy enough for the ghouls who rub their hands and gloat at the awfulness of the Chinese regime. 'We few, we happy few' who live under representative democracy with a free press, and central heating, are well cushioned against the realities of life in the monolithic communist or ex-communist states of China and Russia, and remain happily ignorant of those realities. We flaunted capitalism and encouraged the dismantling of the Russian communist machine with whoops of triumphant glee, and look at the devastation that has resulted! Are we now setting-to to repeat that devastation in China?

How many of our experts in democracy and penmanship remember the Taiping rebellion, and the awful success of the messianic Hong Xiu-Quan, self-styled brother of Jesus, who stormed through southern China in the mid nineteenth century in an attempt to establish the 'Heavenly Kingdom of Great Peace' ? Millions slain, 20 million dead. Or even the more recent 20-year long struggle between Chiang Kai-Shek and Mao Ze-Dong when "more than a million died"?  China is a different place, with a different history, and above all a different psychology. It is foolish, presumptuous, and dangerous, to interfere; to inject little bits of 'foreign' thinking into a country that has for millennia governed itself by its own laws for its own perceived benefits.  

It is not since 'time immemorial' (1189 A.D.) that we in Britain have enjoyed free speech; that is a relatively recent innovation. Today we can call for the abolition of the monarchy, if we want to, or make jokes about the prime minister, because no-one will pay any attention. Some person could doubtless call himself the younger brother of Jesus without raising a revolution, or much more than a frown. During the 17th century that would have been a step too far. In 1697 the 20 year old Edinburgh student Thomas Aikenhead was hung for 'blasphemy'; it was a cold night and the lad, walking home from a drinking session, said he wished he were in the place Ezra called 'hell' so he could warm himself. Even riding into Bristol in front of a crowd of enthusiasts crying "Holy, holy, holy" got James Nayler  thrown into prison in 1656. However, both these punishments can be judged as harsh, even for their times, because, though people were offended, neither episode led to armed rebellion, public disorder, or loss of life.

I doubt that "freedom of speech" was ever won by violent protest; it is surely won by exactly the opposite; by quiet listening and mature reflection. So, instead of clamouring about Liu Xiao-Bo, crying "holy, holy, holy",  and placing medals on empty chairs, why don't we indulge in a little mature reflection. Charter 08 draws attention to the fact that the Chinese government signed two important international human rights conventions in 1998; in 2004 it amended its constitution to include the phrase "respect and protect human rights"; in 2008 it promised to promote a "national human rights action plan." So, what is that action plan? We are listening.

Occidentis, MORPETH

Friday, 10 December 2010

Kenneth Burton, FRS

Kenneth Burton, FRS — a tribute

(Born: 1926; FRS: 1974; Died: 22nd  Nov 2010)

It will be well known that Professor Kenneth Burton was made a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1974 (incidentally, the same year as Stephen Hawking); a distinction that marked him as lying in the top 1,200  scientists in Britain, at that time. I see it as my first objective to explain, in non-technical terms, what Kenneth's achievements amounted to that were so valued by his peers, and what mental qualities and circumstances allowed Ken to make those contributions.  I shall then refer briefly to his years as Professor of Biochemistry at Newcastle, and end by quoting a short paragraph from Professor George Petersen, Kenneth's second research student and a lifelong friend.

The American golfer, Arnold Palmer, famously remarked that the more he practiced the luckier he became. In this sense there is an element of luck in science as well as in sport. Many scientists have one stroke of luck; geniuses like Sir Hans Krebs strike lucky over and over throughout their lives. Kenneth Burton had three occasions when he struck lucky.

The best known of these was his citation classic of 1956 in which he described a sensitive and reproducible assay of DNA which proved so popular that it is known as "the Burton Method". This paper has been cited by other scientists 17,000 times, and is still being cited 50 years later; that is some 1000 times more often quoted than the average scientific paper. His 'stroke of genius' on that occasion was to leave the half-completed assay tubes on the bench overnight instead of staying late and finishing the experiment properly. Ken Burton observed that the colours developed by themselves overnight much better than by the traditional protocol. He next observed that the colours that developed with Chicago acetic acid did not develop in Oxford. Well, that was the serendipitous part; the rest of the achievement was having the curiosity and the ready mind to interpret and exploit the observations; for example, by adding acetaldehyde that presumably contaminated the Chicago acetic acid. [Burton K. (1956) Biochem. J. 62, 315 - 20; "A study of the conditions and mechanism of the dipehnylamine reaction for the colorimetric estimation of deoxyribonucleic acid."]

Much more important, scientifically speaking, was Ken's paper of the previous year in which he showed that viral DNA synthesis (in bacteria) required viral proteins to be synthesised first. This is a very fundamental point in understanding viruses, and of course anti-viral medicines. Virus reproduction requires viral proteins.[Burton, K. (1955)  Biochem. J. 61, 473–483; Relation between the synthesis of deoxyribonucleic acid and the synthesis of protein in the multiplication of bacteriophage T2.]

It is argueable, however, that Ken Burton's greatest achievement was his publication of the following year, i.e. of 1957. He wrote an appendix to a massive paper by Krebs and Kornberg, in which he calculated and listed the free-energies of formation of all the compounds of energy metabolism, from the sugar we eat to the CO2 we breath out, and everything in between. Things falls downwards, in biochemistry as in every other field. Ken's tabulation allows us to see which direction is downwards (in this metaphor.) It allows us to understand why thing happen, everything, from the contraction of muscle to the synthesis of protein. Countless students of biochemistry learn and quote the values from that table and never realize they are quoting Ken Burton. Were it possible to count citations in this case I think it would run to millions.[Krebs HA, Kornberg HL, Burton K (1957) Ergebnisse der Physiologie; 49: 212-298; "A survey of the energy transformations in living matter"]

Some of this may be news to Ken's friends, for I never heard Ken talking proudly about his successes. He was a  singularly un-boastful man. Most of us are motivated, at least in part, by self-love, prestige, and scoring over ones contemporaries. This can get so bad, in a mediocre department, that one person's success is generally bemoaned, as implying failure for the rest. Ken rose above that. His objectives were more remote, more absolute; he was motivated, I think, less by the glory of doing science, than simply by the fun of it. Characteristically he liked to tell, not of his fame, but the story of a failure, or of bad luck; of how he missed identifying the role of co-enzyme A in citric acid synthesis, thus allowing Fritz Lipmann to announce that discovery a year or two later and share the 1953 Nobel prize with Hans Krebs. Ken's mistake (he said), on that occasion, was too much veneration for the opinions of colleagues; a fault I believe he subsequently corrected![Novelli G. D., Lipmann F. (1950) J. Biol. Chem. 182:213–228.]

Ken's were significant achievements! But why did they happen to Ken Burton? Well, he was very sharp; he was well grounded in chemistry, physics and maths (his undergraduate subjects); he had a roving curiosity, a sense of enjoyment in science, and persistence. He studied for his PhD under a master of benchwork biochemistry in Malcolm Dixon; a legendary enzymologist, an intensely shy man, but a very considerable pianist . It was said of Malcolm Dixon that he was as happy fixing a gas boiler as doing biochemistry. When Kenneth moved to Sheffield in 1949 he came under the mantle of one of the worlds great scientists; Hans Krebs was hard-working, methodical but imaginative. He was remarkable amongst scientific bosses in not letting his name get onto the papers of colleagues merely because he was their boss. Krebs encouraged Ken's independence of mind. Kenneth was remarkable too, in a similar way, in that a high proportion of his papers were single author papers. He did his own thinking and his own experiments. Medawar pointed out that to achieve a big answer you have to tackle a big problem; Krebs gave Ken Burton access to the big question of Free Energies.

Following those 3 classic papers of the mid fifties Ken Burton followed two other major projects, with equal tenacity and skill, but to less acclaim. He and his students followed up the diphenylamine reaction for several years, developing methods for cleaving the long threads of intact DNA in the hope of finding a way of determining the sequence of bases and thus "reading" the genes. In this they initially had some success. Last year, in her Nobel acceptance speech, Elizabeth Blackburn admitted using Ken Burton's depurination reaction in her 1975 investigations of "satellite DNA". But much more powerful methods of sequencing were developed by others and "Burton's depurination method" has been forgotten.

[Burton K. (1965) Essays Biochem. 1, 57-89. Sequence determination in nucleic acids.].

In 1966  Ken Burton became the first professor of Biochemistry at Newcastle upon Tyne. Designing the course and selecting staff took over his time and energies, but did not completely prevent active research, nor indeed bench work. Ken soon started an investigation into the mechanism by which adenine is actively taken up by bacteria, a project he pursued almost single-handedly till retirement. It was not fashionable. ('Bacteria take up everything; so what?') The trend in science was towards progressively bigger research groups getting more and more of the money. With great ingenuity and a "shoestring", Ken eventually brought the subject to a satisfactory conclusion with his last scientific paper in 1994, identifying a gene and proposing a proton-linked uptake and intense product inhibition.  

[Burton K. (1994) Proc. R. Soc. Lond. B; 255:153-7; Adenine transport in Escherichia coli.]

I have tried to show Kenneth Burton the scientist; but that is only one aspect of the whole man. I understood that Ken had enjoyed building the department from scratch but had found the deeply entrenched Medical Faculty aloof, if not actually hostile. Successful integration of Biochemistry into the Mecidal School only came in 1985 when Ken was Dean of Science. "Prof Burton" was universally regarded as completely fair, singularly unaffected by egotism, unusually given (for a head of Department) to working at the bench, and an enthusiastic walker. Malcolm Page, who did his PhD with Ken and subsequently worked with me writes: "Having now supervised a few students myself, I realize what a special quality [Ken] had and I have endeavoured to give my students the same freedom". Thus we see the baton passed on.

George Petersen, one of Kenneth Burton's first research students and a lifelong friend has written a charming and well balanced personal tribute from which I shall quote a short paragraph. It shows how well George knew Kenneth. Professor Petersen writes:

"Kenneth Burton had an endearingly impish sense of humour and many little human quirks.  In conversation, he had a disconcerting way of drifting off while speaking and going into some sort of trance.  Whether he actually lost consciousness, I don't know. But, after a short interval of gazing into space, he would return to continue the conversation as though nothing had happened.  And it has to be said that he was not the world's most lucid lecturer.  Basil Smith, another DPhil student in Ken's laboratory, once said, "Ken could mystify for England".  Perhaps this was part of the same phenomenon.  Ken told us once that, after a lecture, he could not recall much of what he had said and could only conclude that he had fallen asleep during his own lecture." 

I concur, but would not have dared say it.

Ian West, 12 Longhirst, 
MORPETH, NE61 3LT
++++++++++++   OOOOOOOO  ++++++++++++

Tuition Fees 3

Tuition Fees 3

This 'Tuition Fee Fiasco' is threatening to become the present government's 'Poll Tax'; a tax however sensible, that is so misunderstood and loathed it has to be revoked. Heads and windows are being broken and thousands of well intentioned youngsters are wasting time and energy protesting, but in ignorance of the true nature of "the beast". 

Shaun Ley on 'World at One' (Thursday 9th Dec., 2010) tried over and again to get the coalition minister Danny Alexander to explain how the present proposals for student loans is progressive; i.e. how it comes harder on the  better off than on the less well off.  Shaun Ley could not see it. The minister could not explain it, so he quoted the Institute for Fiscal Studies. "No!" said Shaun Ley, "I am asking you, as Minster."  It turns out that we (the public) don't yet know enough of the detail to make a sensible decision. Let us hope that Parliament does.

The media flash a headline, alarmist or scoffing depending on the political colour of the owner. But they seldom give us the proposals. I think this could be done quite simply in a 10 x 10 cm2  advert; not the analysis, justification, spin, excuses, apologies, etc.; just the proposals.

The Institute of Fiscal Studies does a good job, in websites that are available, but not accessible, to all. Even there one has to read between the lines ("we calculate that total the taxpayer burden.. " presumably means "…the total taxpayer burden.. "); and guess at the meaning of 'levy', 'discount' etc.

It turns out that the 'fairness' question hinges on [1] the rate at which the loan is paid back (9% of earnings), [2] the interest rate that is charged on the outstanding loan for every point on the salary scale above £21,000 pa, below which no money need be repaid, and [3] the number of years after which the debt is wiped (30). Without this information the question cannot be discussed as to of how "Fair" or "Progressive" the education burden is. Given only a 30 second 'sound-bite' the best that ministers can do is to shout over and over that "the bottom 25% of students will be better off", and that education is "free at the point of use", till they are hoarse and we are bored.

Nothing is free. The government's proposals aim to place the cost of education on the presumed beneficiaries. But the entire discussion presupposes that the 'benefit' of an education is a financial benefit to the educated. Were that the case, the proposals make a lot of sense. The system would adjust; graduate salaries would presumably rise to allow the loan repayments. But is that the only 'benefit', or even the main benefit of education. The benefit of street-sweepers is not the salary it brings the sweeper, but the clean streets it brings everyone else.

Occidentis, MORPETH