Liam Shaw

14 March 2024

Where’s my tail?

At some point in the past, humans and other apes lost their tails. Research recently published in Nature proposes a mechanism to explain how.

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9 January 2024

Like Scotch Eggs

In the 1880s, the Danish bacteriologist Hans Gram was working in the morgue of the Berlin city hospital, trying to identify bacteria in sections of lung tissue under the microscope. But there was so much blood that the bacteria were ‘impossible to see’. He used a dye – gentian violet – to stain the whole sample, then rinsed it with alcohol to wash out the purple colour. The bacteria appeared ‘an intense blue (often almost black)’ while the human cells were unstained.

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14 August 2023

Conspicuous Cruelty

Thirty-nine asylum seekers were received onto the Bibby Stockholm, moored off Portland, on 7 August. The opening of the barge had been delayed by fire safety issues including a door being fitted the wrong way around, but Robert Jenrick, the immigration minister, told Sky News: ‘I can absolutely assure you that this is a safe facility.’ On the day the asylum seekers arrived preliminary results suggested the presence of Legionella in the water supply – the bacterium that causes the form of pneumonia known as Legionnaires’ disease. They were not evacuated until four days later.

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20 July 2023


On 18 July 2003, Johnson & Johnson filed a patent for bedaquiline, a new antibiotic against Mycobacterium tuberculosis. It was first approved as a medicine in the US in 2012 and is now listed as an essential medicine by the WHO. What should a fair price be for an essential drug? J&J sell bedaquiline at tiered prices around the world: it is more expensive (but easily available) in wealthy countries and cheaper (but hard to come by) where it is most needed. According to Médecins Sans Frontières, in late 2022 it was nearly three times as expensive as it would be in low-income countries if generic forms were available.

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31 May 2023

Open the pod bay doors

It has been reported that a new antibiotic was ‘discovered using AI’. This needs a bit of unpacking. Finding any new drug means searching through ‘chemical space’ – the many possible configurations of atoms that can make up molecules. It’s difficult to get a grip on how vast this universe of possibility is. Most drugs consist of molecules with fewer than thirty atoms and a molecular mass of less than 500 daltons (a hydrogen atom has a mass of one dalton, give or take). It’s hard to estimate, but even if you restrict yourself to a handful of elements (carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen, sulphur) there are at least 1060 possible molecules that fit these criteria. This is a big number, more than a thousand times the number of hydrogen atoms in the Sun. Exploring this chemical universe in its entirety is impossible. The hope is that using predictive algorithms from machine learning can help guide you to the right galaxy.

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30 November 2022

Notifiable Diseases

On 12 November, a man travelled to the UK on a small boat across the Channel. On arrival in England, he was taken to Manston processing centre in Kent. On the night of 18 November, he became unwell and was taken to hospital. He died the following morning. The Home Office said there was ‘no evidence’ that he had died of an infectious disease. A week later, a follow-up PCR test came back positive for diphtheria.  

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2 November 2022

Diphtheria in the UK

One doctor who has worked in Manston told the Today programme of inadequate washing facilities in the ‘horrible and crowded conditions’. The chief inspector of borders and immigration said last week that the conditions he had seen on a visit had left him ‘speechless’. According to the Refugee Council, one boy contracted scabies – caused by parasitic mites – after a nineteen-day stay. A video taken by the campaign group SOAS Detainee Support on Sunday, 30 October showed children chanting: ‘We need your help.’

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19 October 2022

The Back of the Medicine Cabinet

The UK health secretary, Thérèse Coffey, has announced her intention to make it easier for people in England to get antibiotics. The plans are still vague, but involve patients being able to get some antibiotics directly from pharmacists without a GP prescription. Pharmacists in Scotland have for several years now been able to prescribe antibiotics for uncomplicated urinary tract infections (UTIs). Based on this data, the Department of Health and Social Care believe that such a move in England could save 400,000 GP appointments a year.

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17 May 2022

Stolen Time

In Hogarth’s An Election Entertainment, depicting the 1754 Oxfordshire by-election, a placard lies on the floor: ‘Give us our Eleven Days’. The slogan refers to the adoption of the Calendar (New Style) Act, which caused eleven days in September 1752 to be removed from the calendar. The idea that there were actual riots over the erasure bobs up like a historical beachball no matter how often it is punctured. It’s all too easy to imagine people taking to the streets in outrage at the bureaucratic theft of time. UK universities were invited to begin their submissions to REF2021 in February 2020. 

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8 December 2021

Rivers of Fire

We have an eyewitness account of the 1646 eruption in the form of a letter from the governor of Tenerife, Alonso de Yclan y Valdès, to the king of Spain. I consulted the copy in the British Library; it was almost like reading the news.

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