This year's programme was a good mixture of applications of science and technology to practical problems, one on the 'history' of science, and others with a medical bias.
The first lecture, on 16 October 2017, was given by Professor Robert Young, FRS, FREng who added the subtitle “When Science Meets Politics” to his original title 'Engineering with Graphene'. His talk illustrated the interplay between scientific discoveries, their application, and the desire of politicians to be seen to be “picking winners” in technology. Professor Young also described The National Graphene Institute, a collaborative graphene research facility of the University of Manchester, with £65m UK Government and EU funding, which was announced in 2011, with the remit of applying the material in engineering and technology. He expected key applications would be found in electronics and printed circuits, energy storage, biomedical devices, membranes and barriers, and composites and coatings, on which the speaker’s own research focussed. Incorporation of graphene can make plastic/epoxy electrically conducting, allowing composite materials to be used in aircraft components (lightning strikes), and electrical de-icing systems.
The next talk ‘Insect Control – ideas from the unexpected’ on 1 November 2017 was by Ian Whelan, who started his own company to promote Hedrin, the first silicone-based product against lice. This was based on an idea by a Guildford housewife, a physical insecticide acting against head lice, especially in children. It essentially leaves the insect in a shroud of the involatile silicone, and the lice suffocate, and dehydrate, or – if they need to lose water – burst. Previous insecticides had been based on killing the insect, and these proved to be persistent environmental pollutants.
Whelan demonstrated that someone with an inquisitive mind and training in the 'university of life' can make a significant contribution in some of the intractable problems encountered in everyday life. He explained how he has been awarded a Winston Churchill Fellowship to establish collaborations with various Greek scientists to explore the ethnobotany of the region, especially for insect control materials.
© David Hunter, 2017
On 4 December 2017 Mr Alan Segrott, the Bridge Project Engineer for the Mersey Gateway right up to the completion and opening of the crossing in October 2017, gave a timely lecture on this new crossing of the River Mersey.
The Mersey Gateway bridge is based on the cable stay design and has become necessary to relieve congestion on the existing Millennium suspension bridge over the Mersey at Runcorn; to promote local economic development, and provide a landmark that fits the environment. The project embraced a 1 km long cable-stayed bridge with approximately 8 km of new and upgraded highways. Mr Segrott made excellent use of photography, CGI, and time-lapsed video to show how the work progressed. The use of modularisation throughout the construction meant that the pouring of concrete could progress rapidly, as the moulds were moved along the project.
On 12 February 2018 the subject returned to the life sciences with Professor Kevin Ryan, FRSE presenting a lecture entitled 'Cell Death in life - good and bad!'. The best-understood form of cell death is apoptosis which is usually a benign programmed event in which the dead cell is engulfed and digested by others. In addition to apoptosis, cells can die by two other mechanisms: autophagy, and necr(opt)osis. In contrast, autophagy (Greek, “self-eating”) allows for the orderly degradation and recycling of cell components. In disease, autophagy is an adaptive response to stress, which promotes survival, whereas in other cases it appears to promote cell death and morbidity. Work in the speaker’s own laboratory identified the genes turned on by the cell-death-inducing protein p53.
In normal animal tissue cells grow where and when they should, individual cells receiving both positive growth signals leading to proliferation and survival, and negative growth signals leading to differentiation or death. The balance is lost in cancerous tissue, in which negative signals suppressed, leaving a balance of positive signals. Targeting anti-cancer drugs to cell death works: the p53 family of proteins are strong promoters of apoptosis, and as the title of the lecture suggested cell death can be both good and bad - the challenge is to use it in the most beneficial way.
Professor Kenneth Letherman began his talk 'The Life and Work of James Clerk Maxwell', on 5 March 2018, by pointing out that although James Clerk Maxwell is a hero to many physicists he was not more widely recognised and celebrated until recently. During his short lifetime from 1831 to 1879 he made significant contributions to many fields including electromagnetism, molecular theory of gases, optics, astronomy, bridge structures, dimensional analysis and the principles of steam engine governors.
Professor Letherman took the audience through Maxwell's academic life and its successes, culminating in 1871 when Maxwell was appointed the first holder of an endowed chair in Experimental Physics in the University of Cambridge. This endowment culminated in the world famous Cavendish Laboratories. Maxwell died in November 1879, aged only 48 - the world lost a true scientific polymath.
The final talk of the year on 3 May 2018 was given by Professor Sir Stephen O’Rahilly FRS entitled ‘Why do we get fat and why does it make us ill?’. If energy intake in food exceeds that consumed by metabolic processes and physical exertion then it has to be stored. In practice this is achieved by laying down fat or adipose tissue: a particularly efficient form of storage. Prof. O’Rahilly preferred to talk of adiposity rather than obesity, because the latter carries potentially pejorative overtones. Adiposity is increasing in developed and many second world countries at an alarming rate and clearly this has to have an environmental and cultural basis.
Having discussed the causes of excess adiposity, O'Rahilly then pointed out that being overweight has adverse mechanical consequences contributing to osteoarthritis of the hips and knees, gastro-oesophageal acid reflux and sleep apnoea. It is also associated with a variety of common cancers, and at the metabolic level increased weight is associated with insulin resistance, type II diabetes, high blood pressure, atherogenic cardiovascular disease and fatty liver.
At the simplest level to avoid obesity and its consequences we need to avoid positive energy balance and weight gain. Restricting energy intake however is not easy particularly for those who have the misfortune to have inherited a major single gene mutation, (e.g. leptin deficient children), or alternatively, and more commonly, several genetic polymorphisms which predispose to increased appetite. While specific treatment is available for leptin deficiency no specific treatments are yet available for most genetic defects. Some drugs used in the treatment of diabetes do promote significant weight loss but most have not stood the test of time because of adverse effects. He concluded that for the time-being we are largely reliant on lifestyle measures supported by public health programmes to induce cultural change.