John C. Kirk (johnckirk) wrote,
John C. Kirk

RI FED: Asthma

Each year, the Royal Institution do a set of Christmas lectures: these are presented to a live audience, then broadcast on TV later. They're aimed at children, but I've found some of them quite interesting as an adult, and I've felt a bit jealous of some of the bored kids who are squandering the opportunity to be there in person.

The RI also run several other events during the year, and most of these are open to the general public. Back in 2006, I went along to a lecture about consciousness and anaesthesia. I enjoyed it, but it was the only event I attended that year, so I let my membership lapse.

Last week I went along to a lecture about Treatment of asthma through the ages. This was one of their Friday Evening Discourses, which are only open to members and their guests, so I had to rejoin in order to attend, but it was definitely worthwhile.

According to the website: "If you haven't been before, you should bear in mind that FEDs are by tradition formal occasions, and while evening dress is not obligatory, it is customary. Smart dress is acceptable." This was a bit ambiguous, and I wondered whether black tie (DJ) would be smart enough, or whether they expected white tie (tails). However, since I don't have white tie stuff, I just wore black tie and hoped for the best.

When I was younger, I was quite vigorously opposed to any kind of dress codes, particularly the idea of wearing a suit and tie to work. As an undergrad in Durham, most people wore jeans, which makes sense: they're cheap, comfortable, tough, and easy to clean (none of which can be said for a suit). This applied to lecturers as well as students, and people still took them seriously because we respected their knowledge. Having said all that, I also have to admit that it's quite fun to dress up every now and then. Besides which, I am reliably informed that bow ties are cool! I have a real bow tie, but it's been a couple of years since I last tied it, and 5 minutes in front of a computer didn't yield brilliant results; fortunately one of my work colleagues took pity on me, and retied it for me so that it actually resembled a bow.

As it turned out, about half of the men in the audience (and the speaker) were wearing black tie. Other men either wore suits or "smart casual" clothes (and a few youngsters wore school uniform), so the RI didn't have bouncers enforcing a rigorous dress code. As for the women, I didn't see any ballgowns; a few wore dresses, but most wore stuff that would suit an office environment. I think that as long as you don't turn up in jeans/T-shirt and trainers, you'll be fine.

The lecture started at 20:00, but they asked everyone to be seated by 19:45. While we were waiting, they had projectors showing the speaker's name and university. This led to an interesting effect (apparently traditional): the speaker came in just before 20:00, then started speaking on the dot, without any introduction. That makes a nice change from some other events I've been to, where people waffle on for ages at the start. The talk lasted an hour, then he took questions from the audience, and I was impressed by the calibre of these. At the Turing lectures, for instance, lots of people ask long rambling questions which mainly seem phrased to show off how smart the questioner is. Not all the questions are like that, but I can see why some people make a swift exit as soon as the main event is over. By contrast, most of the questions at the RI talk were short and relevant.

After the talk, I filled out a short survey form. This included one question about my background, i.e. why I'd attended the event:

  • This issue affects me personally

  • I am working in this field

  • I am a scientist working in another field

  • General interest

A couple of my friends have asthma, but it doesn't directly affect me. I'm also not doing any research in this field; my professional interest only extends as far as St John Ambulance (I'm teaching a class night on asthma next week). So, this left an interesting question: am I a scientist? There is some debate about whether computer science is a science at all, but I think it is. So, I have science degrees, and I work for a research organisation, but I don't really think of myself as a scientist, so I ticked the "General interest" box. I did try some garage band science a few years ago, but I haven't spent much time on that. (Also, as susannahf pointed out yesterday, I don't always adhere rigorously to scientific standards.)

More generally, this makes me think about my academic aspirations. I really enjoyed my time at university, and I always intended to do a PhD in due course, although that seems less likely as time passes. In my BSc and MSc I did far better with the exams than the projects, so I'm not sure whether I'm suited to a research degree. My main problem was that I got distracted too much. Part of this was "real life" stuff, e.g. working part-time and sorting out the building work in my flat. However, another issue was that I'd study irrelevant stuff, e.g. I read the "Science of Discworld" books during my MSc and thought "Wow, I'm learning all this new stuff, so that counts as work." The learning is what I enjoyed the most about both degrees, and I was taught by people who literally "wrote the book" on some of the topics (e.g. algorithmic graph theory). So, this comes back to the RI: I can go along and learn about new topics, and since it's my free time I don't have to justify the relevance (or cost) to anyone else.

Mind you, I think relevance can be a trap. The speaker mentioned that he was talking to someone at a wedding 10 years ago who is mainly famous for discovering 7 different species of starfish. However, it turned out that they were both working on the same molecules, and the stuff that's on the outside of starfish (to stop barnacles sticking to them) could also be useful to treat asthma (to stop mucus sticking to the lining of the airway). That was a chance meeting that led to them doing a joint research project at work, and if I'm aware of developments in other fields then it may help me in IT. It also fits in with the "renaissance man" ideal, and it avoids the embarrassment of a medical researcher reinventing calculus (thanks to shuripentu for the link).

Coming back to the asthma talk, the topic was "treatment through the ages", so he started out with some bizarre treatments from Ye Olde Days (e.g. crocodile poo). This was amusing, and a nice hook to advertise the talk, but not particularly substantial. So, he mainly focussed on treatments from the past 100 years. For instance, an early treatment involved injecting people with epinephrine (aka adrenaline), in order to ease constriction of the air passages. However, this had the side-effect of raising the patient's pulse and blood pressure, which isn't desirable when they're already panicking about not being able to breathe properly. Since then, researchers have been trying to get more specific about the effects of their drugs, e.g. beta antagonists. As a side note, apparently the person who's made the major breakthroughs in asthma medication (whose name I've forgotten) has also been working on migraine treatments, so some people should be double grateful to him.

The most interesting thing I learnt is that there are two main symptoms of asthma. I'm familiar with airways constricting, but the other issue (new to me) is that mucus builds up on the lining of the airways. He showed a photo of a cross-section of a lung (from someone who died of an asthma attack), and the spaces that should have been storing air were almost completely full of mucus.

The speaker also mentioned the "hygiene hypothesis" - this means that you can strengthen your immune system by exposure to dirt, rather than staying in a sterile environment. As a related issue, he said that people used to dry their clothes outside, whereas nowadays most people use tumble-dryers: this means that the clothes get charged with static electricity, so they act as dust magnets when they come out of the dryer, which can then trigger an asthma attack. (I drip-dry my clothes inside, and I assume that's as good as leaving them outside.)

In general, I think that the RI lectures are aimed at a lay audience, i.e. you don't need to know much about the particular subject already. That said, I think that I benefitted from my past experience (SJA and clinical drug trials).

Anyway, all in all it was a good evening, and I'm glad I went. The RI haven't posted their event calendar for next year yet, but I think it should be out very soon, so let me know if you'd like a guest pass to any of the other FEDs.
Tags: clothing, postgrad, rigb

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