Scientist extraordinaire Linus Pauling

Today we celebrate the birthday of one of the 20th century’s truly great scientists, Linus Pauling (28 Feb 1901 – 19 Aug 1994). Beyond being a world leading chemist and biochemist, he was also a famous and outspoken peace activist.

Pauling holds the distinction of being the only person to be awarded two unshared Nobel Prizes – the 1954 Nobel Prize in Chemistry (awarded for research into the nature of the chemical bond and its use in elucidating molecular structure) and the 1962 Nobel Peace Prize (for his efforts to ban the testing of nuclear weapons).

As a scientist, Pauling was one of the founders of the fields of quantum chemistry and molecular biology. He did groundbreaking research on the analysis of molecular structures using the experimental technique of x-ray diffraction, complimented by quantum mechanical theory.

Linus Pauling is generally considered the father of molecular biology.(© All Rights Reserved)
Linus Pauling is generally considered the father of molecular biology.
(© All Rights Reserved)

During the later part of his career, Pauling’s interest moved to molecular medicine and medical research. It is during this period that he started promoting the controversial idea of high dosage vitamin C as a treatment for various illnesses, notably cancer. Research conducted by Pauling and the British cancer surgeon Ewan Cameron was reported to show a significantly increased survival rate among terminal cancer patients who were treated with high doses of Vitamin C. These results were, however, later questioned by researchers at the Mayo Institute, who claimed the test group and control group in Pauling’s trial were too dissimilar, with the test group alleged to be less ill than the control group. The Mayo Institute repeated the experiment and found that the Vitamin C had no greater effect than the placebo given to the control group. Pauling, in turn, criticised the Mayo experiment for using oral rather than intravenous Vitamin C, and for not continuing the treatment long enough.

The Mayo results were widely publicised and reduced public interest in the value of high dosage Vitamin C. Pauling, however, continued to study the subject, and kept promoting the treatment as an adjunctive cancer therapy. He also investigated the potential for vitamin C to treat the common cold, to prevent atherosclerosis and to relieve angina pectoris.

Acknowledging his contribution to science, Pauling was included in a list of the 20 greatest scientists of all time by the magazine New Scientist, with Albert Einstein being the only other scientist from the 20th century on the list.

Alice Hamilton, pioneer of industrial disease and toxicology

Today is the birthday of Alice Hamilton (27 Feb 1869 – 22 Sep 1970), an American pathologist and pioneering toxicologist, known for her research into industrial and occupational diseases.

Many workplaces are fraught with disease risks resulting from the presence of industrial poisons.(© All Rights Reserved)
Many workplaces are fraught with disease risks resulting from the presence of industrial poisons.
(© All Rights Reserved)

Hamilton started working as a special investigator for the US Bureau of Labour in 1911, where she got involved in field investigations of mines, mills, and smelters. Initially she focused on lead poisoning, but later extended her research into other industrial poisons including arsenic, carbon monoxide, picric acid and aniline dyes. She compiled statistics on worker mortality and morbidity at various sites over time, documenting the industrial poisons that caused the workers’ deaths.

By actively publicizing the dangers of industrial toxic substances  to workers’ health, she made a meaningful contribution to improved, safer working conditions for American workers.

In 1919 she became the first woman appointed to the faculty at Harvard Medical School. Here she continued her research into toxicology and occupational health until her retirement in 1935. After retirement she served as a medical consultant to the US Division of Labor Standards, and retained her connections to Harvard as professor emerita. She lived to the ripe age of 101.

Émile Coué and the power of optimistic autosuggestion

Today we celebrate the birthday of Émile Coué (26 Feb 1857 – 2 Jul 1926), a French pharmacist who is best known for his advocacy of optimistic autosuggestion, or positive reinforcement.

As a pharmacist, Coué noticed the people he interacted with in his pharmacy appeared to react very well to positive suggestion. To reinforce and improve the effectiveness of the medicines he prescribed, he made a habit of praising the effectiveness of the prescribed treatment, and leaving small positive notes with the medication he sold.

This recognition of the power of suggestion led him to study the effect in more detail, and he became convinced that it held great potential. Even though he had no formal training in medicine or psychology, Coué introduced a method of primitive psychotherapy which involved the frequent repetition of the phrase ‘Tous les jours à tous points de vue je vais de mieux en mieux’, translated as ‘Every day, in every way, I am getting better and better.’ A strong believer in the power of suggestion, he was convinced that regularly repeating this phrase (morning and evening) would result in tangible physical and mental improvements in a patient.

Every day, in every way, I'm getting better and better.(© All Rights Reserved)
Every day, in every way, I’m getting better and better.
(© All Rights Reserved)


In 1920 Coué published a book on the topic, entitled ‘Self-Mastery Through Conscious Autosuggestion’ (available for free on the Gutenberg project). In his book, he reiterated the potential power of autosuggestion, describing it as “… an instrument that we possess at birth, and with which we play unconsciously all our life, as a baby plays with its rattle. It is however a dangerous instrument; it can wound or even kill you if you handle it imprudently and unconsciously. It can on the contrary save your life when you know how to employ it consciously.”

Thanks to his tireless work in this field, his method of autosuggestion, sometimes referred to as ‘Couéism’, became very popular in the early part of the 20th century, first in Europe and later also in the USA. He had his detractors, particularly from other schools of psychoanalysis, but his approach has remained popular among many followers.

Perhaps the most succinct summary of the Émile Coué approach comes to us courtesy of Rev Charles Inge, who composed this limerick in 1928:

“This very remarkable man
Commends a most practical plan:
You can do what you want
If you don’t think you can’t,
So don’t think you can’t think you can.”

Inspiring cultural tolerance through global learning

It’s Monday, 25 February, and try as I might, I just couldn’t find anything interesting related to this date, to write about.

Just as I was about to give up completely (hence the lateness of this post) I discovered that this week, 24 Feb – 2 Mar 2013, is Peace Corps Week. And as part of this week of celebration, each day of the week has a particular sub-theme:

  • Sunday: Grow Your Peace Corps Family Tree
  • Monday: Inspire Global Learning
  • Tuesday: Share Culture from Around the Globe
  • Wednesday: Invite the World to Your Table
  • Thursday: Foster Global Citizenship
  • Friday: Champion RPCVs as Global Professionals
  • Saturday: Act Locally, Influence Globally.
Today is all about learning to appreciate the diversity around us.(© All Rights Reserved)
Today is all about learning to appreciate the diversity around us.
(© All Rights Reserved)

So today, Monday, it’s all about Global Learning. The idea being to integrate global issues and cultural awareness into the daily reality of the youth. That awareness of the diversity around us is just so important, leading to increased tolerance for people that are different to us, and customs that are foreign to what we know. And this helps us appreciate the uniqueness of vastly different cultures around the globe, adding to the realisation that our way is not the only way – on the contrary, it is just one of many equally valid ways of living your life.

In essence this day is a celebration of global diversity, and a gentle reminder that you’re never to old to learn more about the ways of others. It’s a potentially thrilling journey – enjoy it!

Entomologists, the new investigative superstars

Today is the birthday of Steve Jobs. Definitely someone worth a write-up, but he’s probably been the subject of this blog before.

Instead, our subject for the day is insects. Actually, entomology, to be exact. Two big names in entomology share a birthday today.

I wonder what Bones' Dr Jack Hodgins would be able to deduce from studying these two critters?(© All Rights Reserved)
I wonder what Bones’ Dr Jack Hodgins would be able to deduce from studying these two critters?
(© All Rights Reserved)

Firstly, we have Asa Fitch (24 Feb 1809 – 8 Apr 1879), an American entomologist who originally trained as a medical doctor, but committed his life to insect studies, specifically the relationship (beneficial or damaging) between insects and agricultural crops.

Then there’s John Henry Comstock (24 Feb 1849 – 20 Mar 1931), another entomologist from America, who made a pioneering contribution to the classification of scale insects, moths and butterflies. One of the factors that caught readers’ attention in Comstock’s early books was the insect illustrations drawn by his wife, Anna Botsford, underlining the importance of good visuals in science communication. Comstock’s insect studies included research into the arrangement of the veigns in insect wings (also called ‘venation’) – an area where he made many fundamental contributions.

Entomology – the scientific study of insects. Definitely not an area where I can claim any special knowledge. But an area, I am sure, that must be fascinating when it’s your domain of expertise. What I find quite amusing, though, is how entomologists are lately becoming quite the celebrities in popular culture. Along with coroners, medical doctors and detectives, entomologists are more and more being displayed as part of teams of scientific geniuses who solve seemingly unsolvable cases. Think about the character Jack Hodgins in the TV series Bones, or Gill Grissom in CSI. Brilliant, driven and committed scientists who can practically solve a case by merely investigating the bugs found in or near the victim’s decomposing body.

Judging by characters such as these, I would not be surprised if there’s an increased number of bright young people inclined to pursue a career in entomology. It may not yet have the superstar status that IT enjoys (thanks in no small part to people like our other birthday star Steve Jobs) but it’s definitely got star potential!

Cycad specialist, Charles Chamberlain

Today we celebrate the birthday of Charles Joseph Chamberlain (23 Feb 1863 – 5 Feb 1943), an American botanist who did groundbreaking research into cycads.

A young cycad plant.(© All Rights Reserved)
A young cycad plant.
(© All Rights Reserved)

Before Chamberlain, little was known about these weird plants that look like something of a cross between tree ferns and plants. Chamberlain’s unique contribution was to apply techniques from zoology – microscopic studies of cells and plant tissue in particular – to the study of plants. He was not only a laboratory scientist, however – between 1904 and 1922 he undertook several studies into wilderness areas in Mexico, Fiji, New Zealand, Australia, and South Africa and Cuba  to study the cycad in its natural surroundings. He collected a wide variety of specimens, which allowed him to investigate the generic stages of a cycad’s development.

In 1919 he published ‘The Living Cycads’, a comprehensive summary of his research on the taxonomy, morphology and reproductive biology of cycads, which is still a key reference work today.

By the time of his death, Chamberlain was close to finishing a monograph on the complete morphology and phylogeny of the cycad family, which would have been a most impressive culmination of his seminal work in the area. Sadly, because of his death, this monograph was never published.

Discussing the average man

Today we celebrate the birthday of Adolphe Quetelet (22 Feb 1796 – 17 Feb 1874), a Belgian mathematician, statistician, astronomer and sociologist. Quetelet made significant contributions in the application of statistics to sociology. He was a pioneer in the field of probability theory, applying it to social phenomena, and crime in particular.

Quetelet developed a unique method to statistically profile people. He defined the concept of the ‘average man’ – a theoretical construct that represented the average value for a wide range of human characteristics. In other words, Quetelet conceptualised a person who was average height, average weight, average age, average intelligence, etc.  Real individuals would therefore be grouped around this average man according to a normal bell curve. Quetelet’s average man was useful in people profiling, as real people could be defined in terms of how much they differed from the average man.

If you walked past the average man, would you recognise him?(© All Rights Reserved)
If you walked past the average man, would you recognise him?
(© All Rights Reserved)

I find this ‘average man theory’ fascinating. Imagine meeting a real version of the absolutely average man. Would he seem average? Or would his incredible averageness actually make him stand out? How will the average people from different nationalities compare? Imagine putting the average American, Aussie, Kiwi, Englishman, German, Frenchman, Indian, Chinese, Japanese, South African, Italian, Russian, etc in a room together (each equipped with Douglas Adams’ Babel Fish, so they could communicate). How do you think they would get along? Who would be the smartest? The strongest? The most obnoxious? The most aggressive? The fattest? Who will be best able to survive in a jungle, Bear Grylls style?

And how has the average man evolved over the past 200 odd years, since Quetelet first came up with the idea? Imagine putting the average men (from a specific nationality of your choice) from 1813, 1913 and 2013 next to each other – how would they differ?  For one thing, Mr Average 2013 would probably be older than his predecessors, given how populations are aging. Depending on the population we are operating in, he may also be more overweight. Will he be more intelligent than those before? Wil he be happier or more prone to depression? Who will be physically the strongest? The fittest? Who will have the best posture?

Of course, given enough statistical data on the different populations, the above answers should be available. I just don’t know what they are, so I can only wonder. And the most interesting thing is that we all have our own preconceptions about different nationality stereotypes. I am sure if you could select Mr Average from each of the world’s nationalities, and had to pick the most intelligent, the strongest, the most obnoxious etc, you would most likely already have someone in mind. The fun bit will be to see, given hard statistical data, just how wrong our preconceptions and stereotyping may be!

Promoting cultural identity on International Mother Language Day

It’s 21 February, International Mother Language Day – the day language diversity and variety is celebrated worldwide.

Mother language education helps a child appreciate his or her culture and heritage. This, in turn, contributes to a healthy and positive self esteem.(© All Rights Reserved)
Mother language education helps a child appreciate his or her culture and heritage. This, in turn, contributes to a healthy and positive self esteem.
(© All Rights Reserved)

We live in an age where people live increasingly mobile lives, moving around the globe, and calling multiple countries home at different times. Mother Language Day is an opportunity to encourage people around the globe not to lose their mother language knowledge. By retaining mother language competence, even those people who have emigrated to a new country can contribute to the continued survival of their language of birth.

Even as the world’s population becomes more mobile, mother language will always retain a special position in each individual’s life. It remains the language of his thoughts, the language of his dreams. To quote Nelson Mandela: “If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.”

Pipe smoking – the more acceptable alternative?

February seems to be a month of addictions, or at least potentially addictive substances – we’ve already dealt with mathematical addiction and wine, and today we have International Pipe Smoking Day.

On 20 February each year, pipe smokers the world over unite to celebrate what they like to consider ‘the art of pipe smoking’. Linking back to the traditions of ancient cultures like the Native Americans, who engaged in peace pipe ceremonies, International Pipe Smoking Day promotes the socialising and relaxing aspects of the ritual of pipe smoking. The great Albert Einstein, himself a pipe smoker, once said “I believe that pipe smoking contributes to a somewhat calm and objective judgment in all human affairs”, no doubt referring more to the ritual of pipe smoking than to the smoking itself.

Is pipe smoking making a comeback?(© All Rights Reserved)
Is pipe smoking making a comeback?
(© All Rights Reserved)

The oldest traditional form of smoking, pipe smoking has in modern times lost ground to cigarettes, yet the ‘dying breed’ of pipe smokers appear to be making somewhat of a comeback, with water pipes, also known as a ‘hookah’ or ‘shisha’, becoming particularly popular. Pipe smoking is promoted as a less dangerous and more socially acceptable form of tobacco smoking.

I’m in no way pro-smoking, and tend to feel that saying pipe smoking is less dangerous than cigarette smoking is a bit like saying being shot by a 9mm bullet is less dangerous than being shot by a .45. In defence of pipe smoking, however, I guess one can at least make the point that there are ‘social pipe smokers’ who perhaps smoke only once or twice a day, while cigarette smokers tend to be much heavier smokers, resulting in correspondingly higher health risks.

As far as socially acceptable goes – while the pipe smoker may believe he looks more sophisticated than the cigarette smoker next to him, his habit is equally frowned upon anywhere cigarette smoking is prohibited.

To all pipe smokers – happy International Pipe Smoking Day. I leave you with a popular story about the French historian and statesman Francois Guizot. When he was an advanced age, a woman saw him smoking a pipe. “What! You smoke, and yet have arrived at so great an age?” she gasped. “Ah, madame,” he replied, “if I had not smoked, I should have been dead 10 years ago.”

Carolus Clusius, father of the Dutch tulip industry

Today is the birthday of Charles de L’Écluse (19 Feb 1526 – 4 Apr 1609), also known as Carolus Clusius. A Flemish doctor and botanist of French descent, he introduced the tulip to Holland, and effectively shaped the image of an entire nation.

Clusius worked throughout Europe as a collector of botanical information and material and also introduced various new plants from outside Europe. In 1593 he became the Chair of Botany at the University of Leiden in the Netherlands. Here he established one of the earliest botanical gardens, where he introduced and grew a wide variety of flowering bulbs, including the tulip. He planted the first tulip bulbs in 1593, and hence 1594 is considered the official date of the first tulip flowering in the Netherlands.

The tulip, one of the main export products of the Netherlands.(© All Rights Reserved)
The tulip, one of the main export products of the Netherlands.
(© All Rights Reserved)

Interest in the lovely tulip flowers quickly blossomed (excuse the pun!), to such an extent that it resulted in a frenzy that came to be known as the ‘tulip mania’. Tulip prices spiraled out of control, and they were even treated as currency by speculators. Tulips became the fourth largest export product of the Netherlands (behind gin, herring and cheese) and many traders became very rich very quickly. It is said that at the height of tulip mania, sought-after tulip bulbs were sold for prices 10 times the annual income of a skilled worker. Of course the economic bubble couldn’t be sustained, and as quickly as fortunes were made, fortunes were lost. Subsequent to this manic period the bulb industry stabilised, eventually growing again to become a huge international trade. Holland currently produces approximately 3 billion tulip bulbs annually, of which the majority is exported.

Clusius’ work laid the foundations of Dutch tulip breeding and their bulb industry, including the tulip industry in particular – a flower that to this day forms an integral component of the visual identity of the Netherlands. The country is popular for its tulip festivals, and it plays host to the world’s largest permanent display of tulips, at Keukenhof.