Author Archives: Eva Amsen

A visit to the Herschel Museum

(cross-posted from

The day after the Brexit referendum I went to visit a museum dedicated to two German immigrants, and some of England’s most prolific astronomers.

2016-06-24 13.50.02Siblings William and Caroline Herschel lived in Bath during the 18th century, in New King Street. Two and a half centuries later, the street was quiet, with recycling bags outside every door, and a few straggling hopeful “Vote Remain” posters in some of the windows. The Herschels used to live at number 19, where the front door was now partly open.

I stepped inside, into a very normal corridor of a very normal terraced house. Normal, aside from a man standing behind a desk in the room at the far end of the corridor, welcoming me to the museum, and explaining that I could walk around the house, which was entirely converted to a museum devoted to the Herschels’ life and work.

I started at the basement level, which had access to the garden. This was the very garden in which William Herschel discovered the planet Uranus in 1781.

Until his discovery, there were only six known planets in the solar system: Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn. All of these could be seen with the naked eye, and had been recognized as planets from the way they travelled across the night sky and changed position in relation to the stars.

2016-06-24 13.47.23The remaining planets were too far away to see. There were telescopes at the time, but none were good enough to see that far into space with enough detail. William Herschel developed a telescope that made it possible to see further into space in more detail. He had a workshop attached to his home, where he worked on his telescopes, and he soon became the world’s foremost telescope maker.

But despite discovering a whole new planet, astronomy was just Herschel’s hobby at the time. His day job was as organist for the Octagon Chapel in Bath. The organ is no more, but a set of pipes from the old organ are on display in the music room, upstairs in the museum.

2016-06-24 13.57.50The music room also has several objects related to the life Caroline Herschel. She initially came to England to help her brother around the house and to pursue a professional singing career. When William’s astronomy hobby slowed turned into a full career, she became more involved with that, and made a few astronomical discoveries of her own.

When William discovered the planet Uranus, he proposed to name it Georgium Sidus (George’s Star) to honour England’s King George III, who was also Duke of Herschel’s hometown Hanover. The name didn’t stick, because other astronomers preferred a more international name, but in 1782, William Herschel was employed as King’s Astronomer. A few years later, the king also paid Caroline a salary for her assistance to William, making her the very first woman in the world to receive a salary for scientific work.

In the gift shop on the ground floor of the house I picked up two booklets about the Herschels’ musical careers, before heading back to the train station.


In the following days, it quickly became clear that in the wake of Brexit it has become quite difficult for European scientists in the UK, when nobody knows whether they will need visas, or whether new researchers will even want to come. Even British scientists are already having trouble applying for collaborative grants with their EU colleagues, as they might not qualify for the funding in a few years, and hinder the joint application.

So how did the Herschels get to work in England so easily, centuries before the EU? There may not have been a Europe-wide open borders scheme at the time, but there was an arrangement between Hanover and England, since they shared a ruler (King George III), so it was an obvious and easy choice to move between the two places.

I wanted to visit the museum because I was interested in the Herschels’ dual interests in music and science, but the date of my visit couldn’t have been more poignant, as the Herschel story is a textbook example of the work that foreign scientists have contributed to the UK.

Music of the Spheres

This was something I wrote for the “review” assignment of my writing course.

2016-01-20 17.44.32There is a time and a place for complex atonal music, and perhaps the drinks reception of a genomics conference at the Excel Centre was not it. Through the chatter it wasn’t always easy to hear what the string quartet was doing, and meeting attendees were confused about the performance. “I thought they were still tuning”, said one of the guests.

There was a good reason the Kreutzer Quartet was playing here, at the Festival of Genomics, surrounded by exhibit stands for DNA sequencing companies and clusters of geneticists. Their performance was a crucial part of an art piece by Charlotte Jarvis, which explored the possibilities of encoding complex information in DNA.

Jarvis and Goldman introducing the Kreutzer Quartet.

Jarvis and Goldman introducing the Kreutzer Quartet.

The work, Music of the Spheres (named after a Byron poem), combines music, science, and a bubble machine. It requires some effort on the part of the audience to grasp how all the components fit together.

The core of the work is a three-movement musical composition, written by the Kreutzer Quartet, and inspired by DNA. The musicians performed the first and third movements live during a drinks reception at the Festival of Genomics, on January 20th. They used asynchronous glissando scales to express the coiling strands of DNA, and tapped the strings with the wooden part of their bow (col legno) to suggest the sound of large machines handling genetic information.

Movement 2, however, was not performed – at least not by the string quartet. This middle movement was converted into DNA code according to a system developed by Nick Goldman at the European Bioinformatics Institute. He initiated this collaboration with Jarvis to illustrate the enormous potential of using DNA code to digitize large amounts of information: in this case, a recording of the Kreutzer Quartet playing the middle movement of their genetics-inspired piece. This segment of custom-designed DNA was then created and mixed into a soapy solution. So it wasn’t the string quartet playing the middle movement of the piece, but a bubble machine. While the musicians rested, Jarvis switched on the machine, and the music travelled in the air – unheard, but tangible and visible. If you were to capture a bubble, isolate the DNA and sequence it, you might be able to get the data for the recording back out of its unconventional storage format.

2016-01-20 17.48.45This was not the first performance of Music of the Spheres. It had previously been set up in a large empty building, a gallery along the coast, and Hornsey Town Hall. The string quartet can’t be everywhere, but the bubbles are always there, and form the core part of the work. In fact, Jarvis turned on the bubble machine a few times during breaks at the Festival of Genomics. Without the string quartet, this created an effect of simple party entertainment, not out of place at this conference, which also featured a lively talk show and a treadmill challenge. People engaged with the bubbles by photographing them, popping them, or shielding their coffee cups from soapy surprises. Many of them were unaware that each bubble contained fragments of DNA encoding a piece of music.

2016-01-20 15.29.00

But while the bubbles alone were a good match for the hectic venue, the live performance unfortunately was not. It seems a shame that the talented Kreutzer Quartet came all the way here to perform for a crowd that could barely hear them and was more interested in catching up with colleagues over a drink.

Music of the Spheres is a work that makes us think about the potential of DNA as a data storage method. It requires thoughtful reflection, and is best experienced against a quiet backdrop – not one of clinking wine glasses and murmuring conversations.

Lise Meitner

I’m taking a writing class at the moment, and one of the assignments was to write a profile about Lise Meitner:

Lise Meitner with Otto Hahn

Lise Meitner with Otto Hahn

On Christmas Eve, 1938, sitting on a tree trunk in the snow in Sweden, Lise Meitner and her nephew Otto Frisch figured out the mechanism of nuclear fission. They had gone for a walk during a family holiday to discuss a letter Meitner had received from her colleague Otto Hahn. He asked for her opinion on a strange scientific phenomenon he had discovered.

Until a few months earlier, Meitner and Hahn had worked closely together at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute (KWI) in Berlin, where they studied the effect of bombarding uranium atoms with neutrons.

Meitner had moved to Berlin shortly after completing her doctorate degree in her birth city of Vienna. She was one of the first women to reach this level of academia, and encountered some archaic attitudes and ideas: in Berlin, she worked unsalaried for a few years, and was occasionally expected to entertain the wives of visiting physicists while the men talked about science.

During the three decades she worked in Berlin, Meitner made Germany her home, but when the Second World War edged closer, it was no longer safe for Jewish people in Germany. With her piercing brown eyes, dark frizzy hair and pronounced nose, Meitner’s heritage was unmistakable. She fled to Sweden in July 1938, with help from an international group of friends and colleagues from the physics community.

Now, six months later, Hahn’s curious letter had reached her. He described how, after another round of shooting neutrons at uranium, he discovered barium in the reaction mixture. Where had it come from? Pondering this question with Frisch during their winter walk, Meitner realised that the neutron in Hahn’s experiment must have split the uranium atom in half. This would leave two smaller atoms in its place, which would continue to produce even smaller atoms, and generate large amounts of energy.

The discovery came at a dangerous time: Could the Nazis use this technology to create a weapon? The USA quickly launched the Manhattan Project to ensure they were the first to build an atomic bomb. Meitner was invited to join, but she refused. She didn’t want to be part of such a violent application of her discovery – not even to defeat the enemy who had chased her out of Germany.

After the war, Meitner spent several months in the USA as part of a visiting professorship. She was named Woman of the Year there, in 1946, and was interviewed by Eleanor Roosevelt for NBC radio.  Roosevelt told her: “We are proud of your contributions as a woman in science”.

Meitner continued to inspire women in science throughout her retirement years. A photo taken at Bryn Mawr, in 1959, shows her sitting casually on the steps of a university building. Her frizzy hair now grey, but with the same dark piercing eyes, she is surrounded by students in long floral skirts who have come to hear her fascinating stories.

Maybe she told them about the time she went for a walk with her nephew, through the snow in a cold Swedish winter. Or maybe they asked her about that other winter in Sweden, when in December 1945, Hahn – and Hahn alone – received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry at the award ceremony in Stockholm.

It’s an oversight that’s still often mentioned, especially in the context of continuing challenges to retain women at the top level of science.  But even without a Nobel Prize, Meitner was well-respected, and happy to sit down for a chat about her work: in the snow with her nephew, on the radio with a former president’s wife, or casually outside on the steps with admiring students.

Image: Meitner and Hahn. Public domain, via Wikimedia. Other image described in the text was not free to use, so click that text for a link.

Malheur National Wildlife Refuge

“Malheur National Wildlife Refuge is closed until further notice”, says the website for the Oregon bird sanctuary.

This is the refuge that is currently being held by an armed group. There is much circulating online about the fact that they have guns and want snacks, but very little is mentioned about the location.

Some unarmed occupants of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge

Some unarmed occupants of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge

The Malheur Refuge was originally founded in 1908, and has expanded since then by government purchase of surrounding lands. This is ultimately what the group holding fort in the wildlife center is acting against: they are acting on behalf of ranchers who want their land back – not just this land, but land in other locations as well.

So why has the wildlife refuge been buying these lands? Conservation.

In the late 19th century, many birds in the area fell prey to hunters who gathered their feathers to sell to the hat industry. The white heron population almost entirely disappeared during this time. Rather than sitting idly by as their local fauna was turned into hats and fascinators, locals took action. Wildlife photographers and the Oregon Audubon Society lobbied for the creation of a preservation area, and in 1908 President Roosevelt established what was then known as the Lake Malheur Reservation.

These days, the area supports “between 5 and 66 percent of the Pacific Flyway’s migrating populations for priority waterfowl” and “over 20 percent of the Oregon population of breeding greater sandhill cranes”. It’s a major bird habitat, but it’s also home to many species of mammals, fish, and insects.

Researchers make use of the refuge for moth, bee and bat inventory studies. According to a recent study, Malheur is one of the few places in the Pacific North-West where the canyon bat is found.

If you want to see the bats or birds on the refuge, you’re going to have to wait for the occupation to end. Don’t send snacks.


Image by Barbara Wheeler, CC-BY via Wikimedia.



Of Mice and Men – a poem

Every line in this poem is the title of a scientific article. References below. Reposted from

mouseOf mice and men?1

Of mice and men.2
Of mice and men, metals and mutations.3
Of mice and men, corticosteroids, and vicarious participation.4
Of mice and men–universality and breakdown of behavioral organization.5
Of mice and men: the riddle of tubular regeneration.6

Of mice and men: the human sciences and the humanities.7
Of mice and men: skin cells, stem cells and ethical uncertainties.8
Of mice and men. 9

Of mice and men, rats, and atherosclerosis. 10
Of mice, cats, and men: is human breast cancer a zoonosis?11
Of mice and men. 12

Of mice and men: a model of HIV encephalitis.13
Of mice and men: murine models of anti-GBM antibody nephritis.14
Of mice and men: genetic skin diseases of keratin.15
Of mice and men. Honesty and integrity in medicine.16

Of mice and men.17
Of digital mice and men. 18
Of cholesterol-free mice and men. 19
Of (stressed) mice and men.20
Of (only) mice and men.21
Of mice and men…but so much more too!22

Of mice, men, and physicians.23
Of mice, men, and trypanosomes.24
Of mice, men, and cholesterol.25
Of mice, men and the genome.26

Of mice and men, and chandeliers.27
Of mice and men…and elephants. 28
Of mice and men – and lopsided birds. 29
Of mice and men: the road to tolerance. 30

Of mice and men: the evolving phenotype of aromatase deficiency.31
Of mice and men: an introduction to mouseology or, anal eroticism and Disney.32

Of mice, and other beasts, and men. 33
Of mice and men (and cows and cats)34
Of mice–and rats, dogs, rabbits, cats, and monkeys–and men.35
Of fruit flies, mice, and men: the illicit review of science. 36
Of flies, mice, and men.37
Of mice and men.38

Of mice and men…and broken hearts.39
Of mice and men: the tale of two therapies.40

Of mice and men: the mice were right.41

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