Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History

Despite being a regular visitor to California over the last couple of years, I’ve only today made the two hour drive from Los Angeles to Santa Barbara; and a beautiful and interesting place it turned out to be.

Enviable Location. All rights reserved Tim Jones 2008.

Santa Barbara’s Museum of Natural History may be smaller than its South Kensington or Los Angeles cousins, but its collections are comprehensive and its situation enviable . Sitting atop a shady gully in a forest setting, the museum, like so much of the understated value in this city, nestles in suburban anonymity. Through the front door, all the expected departments – from mineralogy to dinosaurs – spar off from a central courtyard.

Found on the Beach. All rights reserved Tim Jones 2008.

There is a complete blue whale skeleton in the front parking lot and a tranquil nature trial in the ajoining forest. The current special exhibition is a collection of dinosaur finds from Paul Sereno and teams’ dig in Africa, including whole skeletons which tangibly illustrate the simultaneous but geographically isolated (post Pangaean break-up) evolution of Africa’s version of the T-Rex.

Africa's T-Rex
Africa's T-Rex. All rights reserved Tim Jones 2008.

I found the range of exhibits truly diverse and a little surprising, particularly with slices of Von Hagens’s ‘6 metre woman’, (on loan from Bodyworlds in LA) suspended nearby a more traditional collection of 1920s stuffed mammals. Well worth the $10.


News – Better access to scientific articles on EU-funded research

European Commission press release.
Fast and reliable access to research results, especially via the Internet, can drive innovation, advance scientific discovery and support the development of a strong knowledge-based economy. The European Commission wants to ensure that the results of the research it funds under the EU’s 7th Research Framework Programme (FP7) with more than € 50 billion from 2007 – 2013 are disseminated as widely and effectively as possible to guarantee maximum exploitation and impact in the world of researchers and beyond. The Commission today launched a pilot project that will give unrestricted online access to EU-funded research results, primarily research articles published in peer reviewed journals, after an embargo period of between 6 and 12 months. The pilot will cover around 20% of the FP7 programme budget in areas such as health, energy, environment, social sciences and information and communication technologies.

Criminally in Pain – Update

With reference to my post Criminally in Pain, this Guardian article shows just how messed up the medicinal cannabis story has become in the USA. In a nutshell: the State endorses, the Federal Government prohibits. Not helping the debate over Psilocybin and headaches.

Latest position 15 September 2008

Federal Court Rules Against Bush Administration’s Subversion of California’s Medical [Cannabis] Laws

See full article here

Young Scientists, Fingerprints, and PVC

Alright class, settle down. Hands up all those who remember the original Young Scientists of the Year competition? I’m talking about the weekly BBC1 television reportage, between 1972 and 1981, of the bloody battles for scientific supremacy waged between competing UK schools. This was prime time science on the telly, presented by Paddy Feeny and John Tidmarsh, with the enthusiastic participation of judges Sir George Porter, Prof. Heinz Wolff (pictured), Dr Colin Blakemore, Prof Eric Ash, Prof Aubrey Manning and Dr Donald Broadbent.
Gateway Young Scientists with Heinz Wolf
Gateway Young Scientists with Prof. Heinz Wolff

This post is something of a reminisce for me – because – I was there; albeit as an attendee, not a competitor, at Leicester’s Gateway Grammar School. Although too young to participate, I saw the effect the show had on the school, its pupils, and the viewing public.

So, beyond the nostalgia, can we learn something from the Young Scientists phenomenon?

Gateway's winning Fingerprint Analyser
Gateway's winning Fingerprint Analyser

The show’s origins trace back to the formation in 1963 of the Science and Features Department of the BBC: the group that gave us Tomorrow’s World, the Royal Institution Christmas Lectures, and the iconic productions of Jonathan Miller, Jacob Bronowski and David Attenborough. The team also produced Heinz Wolff’s next project after Young ScientistsThe Great Egg Race.

Production entailed a combination of material filmed at the participants’ schools, cut with Q&A sequences from the studio. During the judging, contestants sat nervously with their rigs as backdrop.

My school participated twice. A project on PVC reached but floundered in the final, while an invention that automatically scanned fingerprints won in the UK final and the competition’s European equivalent, hosted by Phillips in Eindhoven. The self-effacing commentary of the PVC team, reproduced from the School Magazine, reveals the production pressures, and gives an honest insight into how laboratory science really works when delivering breakthroughs to order.

We had won the heat largely on the technical achievement of building the machine and so we made it our policy to concentrate on doing some research with it rather than make modifications to improve its working. With reactions taking up to eight hours and only a few weeks to go before the recording of the final, we had to start working late again and on occasions were still at school at about 2 a.m. During this time we managed to produce two polymers, B.S.R. and P.E.O. but with the limit on our time we were able to complete only a preliminary investigation into these polymers. From these results we managed to draw a few vague conclusions and plan our future research. Armed with this we went to Birmingham for the recording of the final. We were not so apprehensive about what would happen this time as we had the experience of our first visit behind us. As expected, the procedure was much the same as before and we approached the day for judging and filming in a much calmer state of mind than on the first occasion. However, as soon as the first judge, Sir George Porter, began to question us we began to realise that all was not going well. He continually probed us about details of the process which we had only just begun to study. Because of the short period of time which was available to us between heat and final we had not been able to familiarise ourselves with all aspects of the chemistry of the process. Consequently our answers to our questions were rather vague and lacking in the detail that he seemed to want.

The 'Competition'  -  Hiss!  Boo!
The 'competition' - Hiss! Boo!

The series ran for nine years on BBC1. Why so successful? The popularity, I suggest, was partly due to the show’s tangible competitiveness – the ‘tune in again next week’ factor. The content itself was made accessible through the pupils’ explanations and chatty atmosphere of the studio. By raising the status of school science and ordinary pupils, there may even have been some flattery of parents by association.

Were there deeper benefits beyond entertainment value?  Who knows how many fifteen year olds were swayed to science A-Levels by an inspiring episode of Young Scientists?  I believe the participant schools were strengthened by the experience, and others motivated to reach the grade. Involvement would encourage higher quality teacher and pupil applicants to the school, and raise the school’s status with universities and employers. For those directly involved, the show was a springboard.

Could the formula be repeated?  Was Young Scientists simply ‘of its time’ – never to be repeated?  Promotion of school science is now more important than ever.  Science competitions for young people still exist, but do they afford science the public exposure, status, and continuity offered by Young Scientists. Critics might say the format wreaked of elitism (the Grammar to Comprehensive school ratio would be interesting). Do schools have the time now? Would staff be motivated and willing? What about health and safety; PVC manufacture at 2 a.m.?

Despite the obstacles, the goal of broadcasting innovative school science – on prime time national television – with our greatest scientists in attendance – is a noble aspiration.

Could the UK public again be enticed to watch school kids do science? I like to think so.

Fine Words

In dusting down an old review magazine from my former school, I couldn’t help but notice a similarity, in tone and content, between the mission statement from one of the more formatively influential past headmasters, and some of my favourite lines from Thomas Huxley. As to which of these inspired me the most, or whether the ethos of the one led to a later empathy with the other – I cannot say. Both statements follow. In each case you will have to forgive the sexism; Huxley was a man of the Victorian Age, and Frazer was the headmaster of what was at the time an all boys school. Anyhow, not much evidence for ‘two cultures’ here. Both are worthy sentiments – enjoy !

Huxley first….

Thomas Huxley
Thomas Huxley

“That man, I think, has had a liberal education who has been so trained in youth that his body is the ready servant of his will, and does with ease and pleasure all the work that, as a mechanism, it is capable of; whose intellect is a cold, clear, logic engine, with all its parts of equal strength, and in smooth working order; ready like a steam engine, to be turned to any kind of work, and spin the gosamers as well as forge the anchors of the mind; whose mind is stored with knowledge of the great and fundamental truths of Nature, and of the laws of her operations; and who, no stunted ascetic, is full of life and fire, but whose passions are trained to come to heel by a vigorous will, the servant of a tender conscience; who has learned to love all beauty, whether of nature or of art, to hate all vileness, and to respect others as himself.”

Thomas Henry Huxley

Dr H.Frazer
Dr H.Frazer

“A school in the twentieth century must try to educate the hands and senses as well as the mind; it will do each separate task the better for attempting all three. It will teach its pupil to create as well as to criticise, by giving him the chance to create in a variety of ways, so that he can find his own particular medium while to some extent sharing the experience of artists and craftsmen of all kinds. It will teach him to find out for himself, as well as to absorb the findings of others. It will try to produce men who may earn a living as scholars or scientists or technologists or craftsmen or artists, but who are to a varying extent all of these at once, and gentlemen too. Thus only can we produce the all-round men we need if the next age is to be one of high civilisation as well as of great prosperity.”

Dr H. Frazer


– Happy Birthday Thomas Henry Huxley

Thomas Huxley and the Return of the Rattlesnake Bones

Thinktank – Birmingham Science Museum

Thinktank, Birmingham, UK (Photo: Tim Jones)
Thinktank, Birmingham, UK (Photo: Tim Jones)

It must be over ten years since I last visited the Science Museum in Birmingham (UK), so yesterday’s visit to the present incarnation at Birmingham’s Millenium Point was way overdue. Now called Thinktank, the museum’s new name reflects more than simple rebranding; there have been some real content changes. The most obvious change is the introduction of the Science Centre format.

Thinktank Birmingham: a mix of science centre....
Thinktank Birmingham: a mix of science centre....
And 'conventional' museum.
And 'conventional' museum. (Photo:Tim Jones)

On reflection, the old Science Museum was always ahead of its time when it came to interactivity. The traditional glass-cased exhibits featured in abundance, but many could be brought to life by pressing of a button, activating a motor, sliding a piston, turning a cam, or rotating a prism. Modern science centres have taken interactivity to new levels, and the glass cases have largely gone, but Birmingham led the way.

The new complements the old in Birmingham
The new compliments the old in Birmingham

I enjoyed the agreeable hybrid of Science Centre and older style displays at Thinktank. Birmingham and the ‘Black Country’, as the region is still referred to in deference to its industrial past, has a rich history in science and technology; the evidence of that history needs a home too. Hence we find Thinktank Level ‘0’ populated by Boulton and Watt steam engines, plus other heavy engineering legacy exhibits from the former site: the steam locomotive City of Birmingham, and a speed record-breaking car. Shadows of the region’s former industries and crafts are also represented: jewellery, watchmaking, and gunmaking (the Birmingham gun barrel proofing house is still intact within a quarter mile of the site).

All in all a good day out and well worth the visit.

Find Out More

Thinktank – Birmingham Science Museum at Millenium Point, Birmingham

Criminally in Pain – When Politics Meets Medicine


Earlier this year I captured some thoughts on the plight of cluster headache sufferers and issues raised by research into a particular drug for its treatment.   I’ve updated the original article with only a few changes as, unfortunately, nothing much seems to have progressed….

While society vacillates over the role of controlled drugs in medicine, the devastating pain of cluster headache is driving some sufferers to the ‘magic’ of the psilocybin mushroom, turning them into lawbreakers of the highest order.

More Than A Headache

Imagine being taken out of normal life for two or three months every year and, for an hour or more every day, having metal spikes driven through your eye socket and into your brain – all with no anaesthetic!

cluster headacheThe metal spikes are dilating blood vessels pressing against the trigeminal nerve, sending an acute, disabling pain down the side of your head; but the analogy well describes cluster headache – a rare but devastating condition for its 10,000 or so UK sufferers.

Drugs are of some help, when they work, but side effects can be serious and unpleasant.  As a result, some self-tagged ‘cluster heads’: a highly motivated collective of networked self-helpers, are pushing the boundaries on what they’re prepared to try for some respite.  And that can include self-medication with unconventional substances like the psilocybin found in ‘magic’ mushrooms, a practice carrying its own side-effects – of a legal nature.

There are similar, more widely publicised, issues around medicinal cannabis, another drug that despite its illegality sufferers find effective for a variety of conditions from nausea to multiple sclerosis.

It’s not just recreational consumption of the psychedelic neurotransmitters psilocybin and psilocin found in the mushrooms that’s banned, but serious research too.  That’s the case in the USA and the UK, where, as a Class A drug, psilocybin users and would-be researchers alike risk lengthy seven-year prison terms.

Despite this gloomy background, there was a ray of hope in 2006, when Harvard researchers Dr Andrew Sewell and Dr John Halpern published survey results taken from 53 cluster sufferers who were also illicit users of psilocybin and LSD.

Psilocybe cubensis (Wikicommons)

The positive indicators from the study were put forward as justification for full clinical trials, with a view, ultimately, to the drug attaining legal prescription status.  Yet, two years on in 2008, with the Federal Drug Administration (FDA) still refusing trials,  it doesn’t look like psilocybin will be joining the list of approved cluster headache remedies afterall.

 Sewell and Halpern put the reluctance down to over politicisation of the ‘War on Drugs‘.  And for sure, this does look like an inflexible policy approach holding back the valid scientific study of psychedelics, leaving legitimate patients as the real victims.

Until that changes, probably the best advice for sufferers persisting with mushroom self-medication is to keep one bloodshot eye firmly on the door.

Find Out More

Here’s a video of a guy suffering a Cluster Headache attack. Not pleasant.


OUCH – Organisation for the Understanding of Cluster Headache

Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS)

Also see: “The Effects Of Psilocybin And LSD On Cluster Headache: A Series Of 53 Cases.” Abstract.

Sewell, R. Andrew, M.D.; Halpern, John M., M.D. National Headache Foundation’s Annual Headache Research Summit. February, 2006.


Sept 2010

Psilocybin and cancer (article in LA Times, September 2010)

Feb 2013

Interesting video interview from February 2013 that discusses use of psychedelic drugs and particularly psilocybin for medical applications including treatment of depression and helping end-of-life cancer patients: Dr. Robin Carhart-Harris – Psychedelics as Medicine | London Real


Feb 2017

In The Atlantic: The Life-changing magic of mushrooms


Picture ‘Headache’ copyright Erin Conel Jones


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