Now that summer is here, something keeps happening to me on my cycle to work, and it keeps on surprising me. The cloudy sky of spring has lifted, more or less permanently, and so as I round one particular corner on my route, I see the alpine vista over the train lines. I can’t help but smile stupidly every time. The horizon is beautiful when the sky is blue in contrast to the snow capped peaks. And I consistently forget that I will see this view almost every day. It’s nice to smile on the way to work!
Disclaimer: So, I’ve been reading Frankenstein recently in order to fully associate my new Swiss situation (more on that some other time perhaps), and as a result, my view of weather here is a bit skewed.
On Friday, we went for drinks after work because the sun was shining brightly. Summer had finally come to Bern and was to be enjoyed. It was great, getting to know some new people and learning some of the important differences between Hochtdeutsch (standard German) and Bärndutsch (the wonderful and specific dialect of Bern). For example, the past tense in Bern is always the perfect (“I have been in Ireland / Ich bin in Irland gegessen / i bi in Irland g’si “) and never the imperfect (“I was / Ich war“). Good information for someone who wants to be a chameleon!
But I digress. As the sun set, the air got heavy and suddenly out of the corner of my eye, I caught a glimpse of a flash of light. I assumed that someone at the other end of the park was taking a photograph with a very strong flash… I couldn’t have been more wrong, but I didn’t think much more about it.
Over the next half an hour or so, these flashes became more frequent, and soon were accompanied by low rumbles echoing from the sky across the plain on which Bern sits. The forks of lightning were starkly visible, standing out against the dark clouds which rolled in. Drizzle began to fall and our drinking-in-the-sun broke up. One of my new acquaintances asked me how far I had to cycle. I told him it was a twenty minute trip. He chuckled and wished me luck. I’m Irish – what’s a bit of rain? That was my naive thought!
Beginning my cycle, all was well, though the streets were markedly empty. The gaps between lightning and thunder became shorter and I counted the seconds with interest; the rain grew heavier. I joined a pack of terrified cyclists, all pelting their way full speed down the long road along the train tracks. Then heaven fell!
The cyclists peeled off one by one, seemingly evaporating into side streets and buildings along the road, leaving me alone to face the wall of water that crashed down without mercy or respite. It was incredible. I was only minutes from home, but my hat and coat were ineffectual. In seconds, I was the wettest I’ve ever been! My jeans darkened three shades and clung to my skin and my shoes were literally full of water. Removing my shoes had the same sound as taking off a wetsuit!
I have gained an appreciation and respect for the changeable weather here. Thunder storms are serious about living up to their maximum potential!
Now I just need to erect a lightning rod on my lab and I can start the project of bringing reanimated monsters to life!
I like hiking – or at least, I did in Ireland. A look to the scenery all around me in Switzerland suggests that my understanding of the word “hike” may need an upgrade. The Wicklow “Mountains” where I so often wandered with friends and colleagues are only foothills on the scale of the Alps. The Great Sugarloaf (An Beannach Mór), the pointy quartzite cone visible from anywhere high in Dublin or Wicklow is a mere 500 metres at its summit, and I considered that a considerable day out!
With nothing else planned for my third Saturday here, my new co-worker was interested in an outdoor activity, so we met at the train station and walked up the Aare River (which I had only seen briefly to date) southwards out of town. It was a decent trek to the base of the mountain, but it was a fine sunny day and I was keen to explore my new home.
Eventually coming to the tram stop where a lazier adventurer would have started, we ignored the cool retro furnicular which climbed the slope of the hill on mechanisms of cogs and rope. I should, of course, say “mountain”. It’s 858 metres at the peak – that beats anything I’ve done before, I think.
It was a steep climb up the wooded path. We were, however, constantly being passed out by infuriatingly fit old Swiss people zooming up and down the slope. Everyone is fit here – I suppose that’s what they all do on Sundays when the city becomes eerily quiet and empty. If not, they’d all just be hiding indoors. With this scenery on your doorstep, why wouldn’t you be hiking or climbing or skiing? We were treated with occasional glances back up the river to the Old City of Bern which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Anyway, we reached the top of the mountain, turned left and the scene opened out – I looked out over the vista and saw the Alps in the distance, straddling the horizon… so that’s what a mountain looks like! I mean, they’re really big. Still snow-capped into Spring, despite the sun. Jungfrau mountain in the distance (for comparison to our paltry examples) is a whopping 4158 metres high! The peaks were away over the rolling green manicured lawns of the park on top of Gurten. It’s truly an idyllic scene.
We strolled around the top, stumbling upon a meadow, full of dandelions and other wildflowers; it was a Sound of Music moment. In the distance, across the valley, the sound of cowbells drifted across on the air as a herd wandered on the far slope. They made quite the noise with only a few cowbells, I can only imagine the din if there were more cowbell [I couldn’t resist].
Suitably put in my place by my new understanding of what “tall” means, we wandered back by the river Aare and saw the local celebrities, the Bernese Bears, just waking up from hibernation. They’ve been moved out of their pit into a very pleasant and spacious environment.
I’m living in a nice country now! Plenty of peaks to attempt, although I may have to be more satisfied with shoulders going forward.
I did go to a book shop around the corner on Langässestrasse to get a cheap paperback to read and save my phone battery on the long solo journey. I got Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, appropriate given his impending 400th deathday anniversary.
I left at 5.30, just missed am earlier train from Bern main station, but got the 18.09 to Lausanne. It was raining and cold (unwelcome). At Lausanne, there were lots of soldiers in uniform with guns going home for the weekend – this is apparently nothing to be concerned about, according to my Swiss sources, but it is odd to see in contrast to Ireland. I waited here to change to the train to Grandvaux, one of the two stations that service the town of Cully, but which had more connections to get home if I needed to leave late.
I arrived at the bare platform at the top of a hill, looking down over the expanse of Lake Geneva (or perhaps I should say Lac Léman)! It is vast. There was meant to be a “car postale” connecting Grandvaux to Cully station, but I couldn’t see where it left from so I started walking… I could see the town below, how hard could it be! Pathways wound through what appeared to be fields and fields of bare vines…
I got a little lost in the maze of houses and vineyards and had to use GPS to find myself and then find some way to get down the steep, steep paths to the town without going on the winding roads which lacked footpaths. This was the point I realised that perhaps travelling 100 km with little research on my own in a new country in the drizzle might have had risks associated…. But in the end, I found the way downwards (and decided I would definitely take the free shuttle bus back uphill!) into the lovely jolie ville de Cully.
I wandered off when they finished and finally stumbled on the oldest building in town, Caveau Potterat, a quaint wine cellar/cave, which was packed with people. I squeezed in the door just in time to hear the start of “Swiss Yerba“, an old school jazz outfit that sounded straight out of a ’30s swing record: trombone, tuba, upright bass, banjo, trumpet, clarinet, scat singing and piano. I wanted to dance to the great tunes, but could barely move. People were everywhere, nearly hanging from the roof beams. This gig was in demand!
I eventually left to sample what else was on offer. I was hungry, so I got a beef baguette (with Parmesan topping, rocket, dried tomatoes, etc). It was 12CHF (! – I’m still getting used to the relative cost of things), but delicious and totally worth it. I then wandered into Das Schlagzeug and caught the end of a really out-there ‘ambient/experimental’ group (Trio Heinz Herbert) who stretched what I thought the definition of jazz was. However, I am certainly no expert! They were clearly working very hard to create the soundscape and rhythms they produced, but it wasn’t for me – too modern! Certainly showed the range of the festival – indeed ‘every type of jazz covered’. At this point, around 10 pm, everything seemed to be finishing up. So I went to the station, caught the postal bus up the long hill to Grandvaux and waited for the first of many trains to bring me homewards from my adventure. I was impressed with my memory of school French, being able to use it make inquiries with the bus, order food and drink and generally get around. If only my German (which is spoken in the city I now live in) was on par! Something to work on in the coming weeks. I got home at 2 am, 200 km round-trip completed -thoroughly satisfied and exhausted. I call that a successful micro-adventure.
I had the opportunity this week to present some of my work to secondary school students, taking part in a mid-term outreach course in Trinity, co-ordinated by Dr Noelle Scully. I may talk about the outreach lecture itself at a later date (it was similar in content to our participation in Discover Research Dublin a few months ago), however the aspect of the activity I want to mention today is artist-scientist collaboration for educational purposes.
I attended a Science Gallery Seminar last week on this very topic; they have a strong track-record on bringing artists and scientists together to broaden the impact of research to the public at large. Their programmes are often ambitious, and in some cases may even be used to collect data, and indeed give new insights to the scientists. Such interactions can be of great benefit to all involved.
I am lucky enough to be friends with an artist called Sophie Longwill, whose workis always interesting and high quality and, since we are both interested in science, we have been looking for a way to collaborate for a long time. We both find our discussions about art and science to be mind-opening – she forces me to see my work from a very different perspective and her imagination and insight allows accessibility to the general public. I would encourage people from both sectors to consider what we can learn from each other.
We began by designing glass moulds together for practical applications in the lab (forming polymers into precise shapes). During Discover Research Dublin, we wanted to share some results about molecular ‘logic gate’ mimics (Chem. Commun. article can be found here) with the public, and Sophie’s illustrations really helped explain the processes involved. My favorite is the following one, which is how I now imagine my life (turning chemical inputs into data)!
These illustrations (there were many) really helped get the ideas across much more than all the graphs and tables I had prepared.
This week, we got a bit more time with the students and I decided to give them the back-story of George Boole (who was born 200 years ago last year), who became the father of mathematical logic while working in University College Cork. In order to tell his story, I reached out to Sophie again and the result was a series of images, including the one at the top of this post of a young Boole teaching himself maths without a formal education.
I present the others here now because:
- they are gorgeous engaging pictures
- they really helped the teenagers connect with this story of Irish contributions to science
The first image shows Boole’s argument with an eminent philosopher Sir William Hamilton about the usefulness of mathematics in logical discourse (about which, of course, he was correct), and the second illustrates his early death which occurred as a result of teaching a whole day’s lectures in wet clothes and poor medical treatment in the aftermath.
So, as vital as scientific collaborators can be to acquire and interpret the data we need to make our findings, I would also encourage scientists to reach out through the invisible interdisciplinary walls and work with artists to tell our stories to the widest audience possible.
I had the pleasure of spending some time this month in Hong Kong University in the laboratory of Professor Vivian Wing-Wah Yam, a high-profile inorganic chemist. We had previously had conversations about some overlap in our research interests and, thanks to the generous support of Science Foundation Ireland’s “International Strategic Collaboration Programme for China“, I was able to visit HKU and begin collaborative work, investigating luminescent inorganic compounds. I am also very grateful for the support of my supervisor Professor Thorri Gunnlaugsson in encouraging this endeavour and Professor Yam and her group for their hospitality: I ate the best authentic Cantonese food for lunch all through my stay!
Dr Sammual Yu-Lut Leung was exceptionally generous with his time during
my visit, arranging an office for me and teaching me some new techniques in the laboratory. The work we carried out during my visit will form the foundations for an exciting project.
I was invited to give a research seminar to members of the Chemistry Department in HKU on Friday 11th December 2015 and was delighted to have the opportunity to share my work with researchers so far geographically from home and discuss it in detail afterwards.
Hong Kong is a beautiful city, a real melting pot of cultures, cuisine and indeed science. I immensely enjoyed my time there and believe this trip was the start of something fruitful.
After a lot of work, we finally got these results off my bench and into the literature. In our new article in “Chemistry – A European Journal” (Wiley), we present a convenient one-pot approach to synthesising chiral bis(triazolyl)pyridine ligands from enantiopure amines with the stereochemistry retained. This approach is broadly applicable.
The beautiful mirror-image crystal structures were obtained by Dr Miguel Martínez-Calvo (now in Santiago) and show interesting supramolecular hydrogen bonding interactions between the ligands which we will exploit in the future.
Dr Bob Peacock in Glasgow performed circularly polarised luminescence spectroscopic measurements on the coloured lanthanide(III) complexes of these ligands, illustrating their optically active nature.
In this article, we were able to show interesting behaviour which has only really been studied so far by researchers in Prof Thorri Gunnlaugsson’s lab (with two other examples published recently in projects led by Dr Oxana Kotova and Sam Bradberry, respectively). This behaviour was the notable changes in the circular dichroism (CD) spectra of these chiral molecules upon addition of lanthanide(III) ions. These spectral changes could be fit to determine binding constants of this self-assembly. These clear chiroptical spectra are in contrast to a dissapointing aspect of results we published earlier this year in Inorganic Chemistry (with remote amino acid substituents giving rise to weak CPL and CD) and shows that placing the chiral centre nearer to the metal ion binding location enhanced the effect on the chiroptical properties of such systems.