Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them – Part I: Unicorns

Welcome to the first piece in our three-part series on fantastic beasts and where to find them. Or rather, exploring the question of why some countries or cities choose creatures from mythology and fantasy to represent themselves.
In this first part, we look at Scotland, that has chosen the unicorn as its national animal. That beautiful, noble creature that has annoying friends (Heeeeey, Charliiiieeee) perhaps, or maybe you know it for it’s mercury-like blood that grants the drinker an eternal but cursed life. 


The Unicorn.
Maybe first, let’s point out that unicorns


exist. They’re just not as elegant as we thought. No, I’m not talking about rhinos, their horn is made out of only keratin and do not have a bone core. So they are not technically horns.


Okay, I misspoke, unicorns 


existed. Quite recently 

scientists found

 that the last unicorn roamed Siberia 29,000 years ago. 
Elasmotherium sibericum. Face it, it’s just a really hairy unicorn.

And in a way narwals are the unicorns of the sea.

Or not.
So why is the unicorn the national animal of Scotland then? Well, it’s quite straightforward actually. Unicorns are the natural enemy of Lions. The symbol of the English royals was a Lion. And Scotland hasn’t always been the biggest fan of England. Especially not in the late 1300s. Bam, you have just been 



The Lion & The Unicorn - Traditional Nursery Rhyme Poster

The (mythological) hatred between Unicorns and Lions goes back 3,700 years, to ancient Babylon, where unicorns where worshipped (and Lions presumably were not?). Another random fact: in the Middle Ages, recipes for how to cook a lovely unicorn steak circulated, many think these were spread by the English, perhaps in an attempt to prey on the Scottish urge for fine cuisine.


In any case, one can understand the Scottish choosing the unicorn as their national animal. Apart from the lion-unicorn-feud, unicorns where known for their nobility and purity. As one myth goes, a snake would regularly poison the water hole, but luckily the unicorn would always come and dip it’s horn in it, cleansing there water for all the other animals. It would use its immense powers to protect the others rather than dominate. In times where chivalry was considered one of the greatest virtues and everyone wanted to seem nobel, this mythical animal must have sounded very attractive. King Robert thus chose this animal, with amazing powers and the ability to dominate but with the modesty and grace to use this power to protect the other animals, to be the national emblem of Scotland in the late 1300s.

The unicorns’ existence wasn’t disproved until 1825 when the evil scientist Baron George Covier, who theorised that an animal with a split hoof could never have a single horn. (I’m sure Baron Covier was not actually evil, I just don’t understand why anyone would want to disprove it’s existence!)
In Scottish folklore, the Unicorn is not the only mythical creature thought to exist. And after I’ve spent some time in the highlands, I’ve started to understand why. Some landscapes, views and forests seem to have been taken straight out of a fairy tale (or out of a Lord of the Rings movie sometimes. It’s not so hard to believe that fairies and Will o’ the wisps reside somewhere in mighty redwoods or in a lone blooming trees…

There’s plenty of room at the bottom to listen

If you are in any way familiar with the world of electronics, electrical engineering or anything with the catchword “nano” in it (except perhaps the ipod nano, though actually it is a prime example of my Moore’s law point later on), you’ve heard of Feynman’s famous words:

“There is plenty of room at the bottom”

If you’re not, here’s the jest of it:

In December 1959, Richard P. Feynman presented a talk to the American Physical Society in Pasadena,  California, commenting on the wondrous world of miniaturisation. He explains that even though they progressed so far by that time, there is so much more room to improve. Things can still be made so much smaller.

 It is a staggeringly small world that is below. In the year 2000, when they look back at this age, they will wonder why it was not until the year 1960 that anybody began seriously to move in this direction. Why cannot we write the entire 24 volumes of the Encyclopedia Brittanica on the head of a pin?

And we’ve done it. We can manipulate single atoms. And we can image single atoms. Isn’t science grand?

When I was doing a course in nanotechnology, Feynman was often quoted in one breath together with Moore. Moore’s law, which dates back to 1965, postulates that every two years, the amount of transistors (an semiconductor element that is very important in computing) that can fit on an integrated circuit will double every two years. This prediction has been surprisingly well met;  most direct consequence is that the size of computers and electronic components keep getting smaller (remember, ipod nano). But there is a limit, transistors can only be so small; single atom transistors are not impossible (and currently in research stage), but after that, we cannot go any smaller.

Has research reached it’s lower limit? As I’ve stated, we are able to manipulate single atoms, we can build single atom electronics, and in the field of optics we are pretty much at the lower limit as well with superresolution microscopy and single molecule imaging and with electron microscopy to unravel the world at an atomic scale.

What is left to improve?*

* I’m not claiming research in these areas are futile. Obviously there is so much more to do in optics, electronics, atomic force microscopy, … Obviously there is so much more to learn. I just want to point out that size-wise, we have pushed these fields pretty much to their (lower) limit. So maybe it is worth exploring other fields as well? 

There are different ways to study something. For example, let’s take cancer cells. We can look at them, through a microscope, and if we want at very high resolution, to unravel the differences between cancerous cells and their healthy counterpart. We can feel them, well not us directly but through techniques such as atomic force microscopy, which also can provide very high resolution, to investigate the effects of different mutations. Additionally we can listen. Well, not us directly, but by using ultrasound. Now there’s a field with plenty of room on the bottom.

Conventional ultrasound, for example the type that is used to look at babies in wombs, uses frequencies from over 20 kHz (which is the maximum frequency of sound that is audible to us, hence ultrasound) to a few MHz and provides a resolution usually no less than 100 µm. Compared to optics, this is nothing. However, ultrasound has quite some advantages over optics. Higher penetration depth, no lasers (pew pew pew), possibility of quantifying a lot of useful things like mechanical properties, just to name a few. And it has plenty of room at the bottom, we are now where near the limit yet!

We can increase the frequency up to 47 MHz (what I use routinely), or 150 MHz or even up to 1000 MHz. It’s called high-frequency ultrasound. Or super-high ultrasound. Things get really interesting then. You can image cells. You can do superresolution imaging.

There are really exciting things going on in the field of ultrasonics, and I’m not just saying that because I’m looking more into it for my own research at the moment. Researchers were recently able to image the rat brain at a previously unseen resolution (see the pretty picture below). Other groups are extracting information from single cells using ultrasound that can’t be obtained using optical techniques. And that is just mentioning a few of the many recent advances.

In any case, my point is that we might be plateauing with regards to improving resolution on optics or miniaturising our electronics, but there is still plenty of room at the bottom to listen !


High resolution image of vessels in a rat brain. Red/blue shows directionality of the blood, brightness gives an indication of speed. Photo credit: ESPCI/INSERM/CNRS.



This is a collection of some notes I have saved in my “draft” folder. I was afraid they’ll disappear into oblivion but I cannot be bothered to write a full-blown blog post on each topic, so I just made three tiny incomplete blog entries instead.

1. Powers of Ten

You might have been like me, and grown up watching reruns of the Simpsons just before bedtime. You might remember a specific so-called “couch gag”, incidentally the best couch gag as voted by some people who were asked to vote, with the Simpsons family sitting down in the couch (the usual premise of such a “couch gag”), with the camera (is it called a camera in animation?) zooming out, zooming out zooming out zooming out, all the way into space. And without you knowing it, space has turned into subatomic structures and your zooning out until the view is on Homer’s head. Wait, why am I explaining this… just click hereGenius.

Turns out this couch gag was a spoof on a video from 1977 called Powers of Ten, as you can watch here, in case you have 10 minutes to spare to learn about the 10s and powers of 10s and anything 10-related:


2. On unconscious bias and why I don’t always trust my own judgement

Could it possibly be an accident?

(The answer, by the way, is yes. In this case it proved not to be, but such things happen all the time, when one’s data is as scanty as ours was. The human mind is very good at imagining patterns where none truly exist. If you are reading this book because you have an interest in pursuing science, whether natural history or some other, bear that warning in mind. It will save you a great deal of humiliation–I speak from experience. But that is a tale for a later book.)

From: A Natural History of Dragons: A memoir by Lady Trent – by Marie Brennan

 3. Nerds on a telephone

I made some notes after making a phone call to a fellow researcher. It was a relatively tedious conversation, and I’d spoken to this person before in person and over Skype and there were no awkward silences. I know my own feelings about phone calls (ranging from do I really have to? to what am I supposed to say again? to uncontrollable crying, depending on the day), and wondered if it was maybe a universal scientist thing.

Probably it’s more of an introvert or overthinker thing, and possibly a lot of researchers just turn out to be introverted overthinkers *insert Venn diagram here*. But that seems like an overgeneralisation and a whole lot of box-thinking so let’s just pretend I was very good at imagining a pattern where none truly exists, and with a sample number of n=2, there is more than likely to be no pattern at all.


A tabby cat’s walk – part II

Forgive me. In my excitement of being able to make a Harry Potter reference, I did not adequately research the previous post.

It all became clear yesterday. It was a lovely day, a Sunday deserving its name. I was out for a walk, had just explored the Dundee Botanical Gardens, and was now heading towards Tesco Riverside to stock up for the upcoming week (Thanksgiving, hurray!). On my way, I passed aforementioned McGonagall’s walk.


Turns out, that in my previous post, I had quoted the wrong poem! Mr. William McGonagall had written another poem about the bridge, some time before the Tay Bridge Disaster. Nevertheless, I think the jest of my post still rings true: this poet was an absolute disaster.

The full poem will be at the end of this post, as to not force you read through the whole thing, but I will quote one verse here. It seems Mr. McGonagall was a bit of a fortune teller. Sadly:

Beautiful Railway Bridge of the Silvery Tay!
I hope that God will protect all passengers
By night and by day,
And that no accident will befall them while crossing
The Bridge of the Silvery Tay,
For that would be most awful to be seen
Near by Dundee and the Magdalen Green.

Before I leave you alone with the full poem (feel free to not read it), I’ll leave you with some pictures from my Sunday walk. Better use of your time to look at those, I’d say.


The Railway Bridge of the Silvery Tay – by William McGonagall

Beautiful Railway Bridge of the Silvery Tay!
With your numerous arches and pillars in so grand array
And your central girders, which seem to the eye
To be almost towering to the sky.
The greatest wonder of the day,
And a great beautification to the River Tay,
Most beautiful to be seen,
Near by Dundee and the Magdalen Green.

Beautiful Railway Bridge of the Silvery Tay!
That has caused the Emperor of Brazil to leave
His home far away, incognito in his dress,
And view thee ere he passed along en route to Inverness.

Beautiful Railway Bridge of the Silvery Tay!
The longest of the present day
That has ever crossed o’er a tidal river stream,
Most gigantic to be seen,
Near by Dundee and the Magdalen Green.

Beautiful Railway Bridge of the Silvery Tay !
Which will cause great rejoicing on the opening day
And hundreds of people will come from far away,
Also the Queen, most gorgeous to be seen,
Near by Dundee and the Magdalen Green.

Beautiful Railway Bridge of the Silvery Tay!
And prosperity to Provost Cox, who has given
Thirty thousand pounds and upwards away
In helping to erect the Bridge of the Tay,
Most handsome to be seen,
Near by Dundee and the Magdalen Green.

Beautiful Railway Bridge of the Silvery Tay!
I hope that God will protect all passengers
By night and by day,
And that no accident will befall them while crossing
The Bridge of the Silvery Tay,
For that would be most awful to be seen
Near by Dundee and the Magdalen Green.

Beautiful Railway Bridge of the Silvery Tay!
And prosperity to Messrs Bouche and Grothe,
The famous engineers of the present day,
Who have succeeded in erecting
The Railway Bridge of the Silvery Tay,
Which stands unequalled to be seen
Near by Dundee and the Magdalen Green.


A tabby cat’s walk

The Tay Bridge, after the collapse

More than a century ago, a tragic accident occurred in Dundee: during a violent storm, the bridge crossing the Tay river collapsed while a train was passing over it. All passengers were killed. The architect who had designed the bridge had his reputation ruined; his design for the rail bridge over the Firth of Forth (near Edinburgh) was never used. A poet wrote a poem.

Along the river Tay, there is a walkway. A small bit of this walkway, close to the new railway bridge, has been named “McGonagall’s walk”. The first time I came across it, I have to admit, my mind jumped to the strict but fair, animagous Hogwarts teacher Professor McGonagall. Yes, I’m from the Harry Potter generation, how did you guess?

McGonagall’s walk is engraved with a poem by a certain William McGonagall – hence the name -, The Tay Bridge Disaster :

Beautiful Railway Bridge of the Silv’ry Tay!
Alas! I am very sorry to say
That ninety lives have been taken away
On the last Sabbath day of 1879,
Which will be remember’d for a very long time.

I felt slightly guilty, that first time I walked over McGonagall’s walk and read the poem, for finding it absolutely hilarious. Things like these do not call for comedy. Fortunately (for my soul), I am not alone: this poem is considered to be the most famous poem about the Tay Bridge disaster, it is also thought to be of very low quality and borderline comical. Some more reading tells me that William McGonagall is known as the worst poet in British history. So it was okay for me to be humoured by the poem. (Hurray, I’m not a heartless person.)

Maggie Smith as Professor McGonagall

Quite by accident, I was reading about Professor McGonagall yesterday. It turns out her surname was indeed inspired by Mr. William “disaster of a poet” McGonagall, because J.K. seemed to love the irony of naming her after such a ridiculous man, especially because McGonagall (the professor one) is absolutely brilliant and bad-ass. Luckily, she was blessed with the name Minerva, the Roman Athena, the goddess of wisdom, a name worth living up to.

In any case, that tiny link between my current city of residence and those books that took up so much of my teens, just made my day.

The Tay Bridge today (photo by Eric Niven)


The Wikipedia page on the Tay Bridge disaster
The Pottermore page on Professor McGonagall

“All these autumn leaves are yours tonight” *

Lets just skip over the (slightly depressing) fact that we seem to have skipped over summer this year. I’m not really sure there was even a proper spring, though in Scotland’s defence, I wasn’t in the country for most of it, so maybe I just skipped over it personally. But I think it’s official now, the clocks have been turned back, petty colds have made their introduction, people have started to quote Game of Thrones and the trees have started painting a colourful palette. Autumn is here.

Autumn leave pallet as seen through PDMS drip lenses.
Autumn leave palette as seen through PDMS drip lenses.

You might have noticed I said autumn and not fall. I may sound very American (not that you can hear that by reading this), but let’s be fair, autumn is simply a much nicer word.

Let’s dig in a bit deeper. Until the 16th century, autumn was referred to as Harvest, from the Old Norse word haust meaning “to gather or pluck.” In those days, a lot of people were dependent on farming, and this was the time to harvest crops, so it makes sense. But as more people went to go live in towns and cities, the word wasn’t as relevant anymore. Two new words came into use then: Fall, which was probably short for “fall of the leaf” and Autumn from the Latin automnus. There were both used, as far as I understand, but at a certain point of time the colonies stuck to the word fall (maybe because it’s easier to spell?), while fall fell into disuse in the UK. It’t quite interesting how US english and UK english started to evolve differently, and this season’s name is just one example.

Etymology aside, what I have noticed most, is that here in Dundee, in the autumn, it’s like living in a cloud. No, I’m not being particularly dreamy, or aspire myself to be in the virtual datacloud. It’s literally in a cloud. It gets really really foggy, or misty, or hazy, and this results in feeling like your stuck in a The Gothic Archies song.

View from my office. (This is not actually a picture I’ve taken of the view, this is just a image of a white square, or the cover of an album with the band name omitted if you will. But that is the view we get a lot.)

Okay, turns out foggy is the best word. In ye olden days, it would have been hazy, but language has evolved since then (yes, were talking about the words again). In general, mist and fog both consist of tiny water droplets, a low hanging cloud if you will, and their difference is quite vague and depends a lot on who you ask. Let’s just say fog is thicker than mist and is what caused my plane yesterday to be cancelled, and the next one to be delayed (because they waited until it got foggy again!), causing me to finish 2,5 books over the whole day. Haze is used to refer to a particularly thick fog, but now means “a rather thin fog and other causes of reduced visibility”, for example heat haze, something that I have not seen occur here yet.

Just imagine a night out drinking: you might be hazy after a few beers, misty after a few more, and foggy would be the last step before a complete black out. Not that I would know.

There another mist/fog-phenomena occurs here quite often: haar. This is cold sea fog that occurs when warm air passes over the cold North Sea, causing it to condense locally. This haar seeps in over the Tay (the local river) and in some cases just stays confined right there. It feels a bit like a scene in where cursed pirates would use a cloak of mist to creep up on their victims, in this case the city of Dundee.

Well, I guess autumn in Dundee is not that bad. It’s occasionally eerie. But in the moments when there is no fog, the sunrises are absolutely stunning, and there is nothing better to wake you up than a morning stroll in the cold. Bring along a pocket microscope and have a blast.

Not always white views... The bottom left depicts why I have occasional urges to break into
Not always white views… The bottom left depicts why I have occasional urges to break into “Nants ingonyama bagithi Baba“. An example of haar can be seen on the right.
Just some more PDMS drip lens images, taken during a autumn stroll.
Just some more PDMS drip lens images, taken during a autumn stroll.

* From Autumn by Paolo Nutini.

Wasteful waiting

from xkcd

Sometimes doing research involves quite a lot of waiting. I’ve made a little graph to illustrate:

There is absolutely no point to the Torosaurus, except that it's adorable.
There is absolutely no point to the Torosaurus, except that it’s adorable.

The trick is to find productive (no, not office chair sword fights) things to do. Seeping could be useful, especially for overnight protocol steps. Or reading papers. Or doing other experiments. Or having inspiring coffee meetings. Or doing a little morning stretch.

Waiting time is not necessarily a waste of time. The French sculptor Auguste Rodin once said:

Nothing is a waste of time if you use the experience wisely.”

Yes, I did just find that through searching google for a “waste of time quote”, but nevertheless, take advantage of down time. Rest, think, talk, dream, experiment, blog (meta). Do anything, except waste it.