Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them – Part II: Dragons

Now that I read (obviously, within 12 hours) Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, I felt is was time to continue my endeavour of fantastic beast post series.

So without much further ado, we’re here to talk about dragons.

Dragons are amazing and so are wyverns and drakes for that matter,because who doesn’t marvel at the thought of giant fire-breathing, flying lizards existing; and are the subject of many fantasy stories and fairy tails. Just to mention a few (it won’t be a few): the dragon Smaug that Tolkien envisioned in The Hobbit (and got surprisingly little screen time in the three movies), the four dragons that the Triwizard Tournamant champions battled in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, Donkey’s fiery  girlfriend in Shrek, the topic of Lady Brent’s studies in Marie Brennan’s books, the telepathic Saphira (let’s forget there was ever a movie), Dani’s dragons (hopefully we’ll see more of them soon), and – of course there are many more – the dragon of Dundee.

Which is who I wanted to focus on in the first place.

Walking through the the city centre, it is hard to miss the Dragon statue perched on the main shopping road. Of course I have posed there for my very own “Mother of Dragon” photo (though I don’t really look blond or fierce enough), and it is quite common to see children climbing on it. But why is it there? All the other statues of Dundee (or at least the big ones, there are a few subtle hidden ones like the monkey and the squirrel that might be just random) are linked to Dundee itself; there is a Lemmings statue because the game was developed in Dundee, there are several statues of comic figures reminiscing the Journalism J of the three Js of Dundee, but what is the meaning of the Dragon?

Dundee Dragon (designed by Alistair Smart, photo from

I’m sure if I had lived through them, I would have now missed the days where I would have to go roaming in the archives of an old library to unravel the origin of the statue and the legends of Dundee Dragon. But it was a much easier task in the days of internet and google, the answer was just a click away. How anticlimactic.

As far as I understand, the story – the tale of Dundee Dragon and the Nine Maidens of Pitempten – was transcribed by Jervise, who lived in the nineteenth century. Though the story must be much older.

Because it obviously happened long, long ago, as these stories often do.

In that time, there lived a farmer in Pitempan (google does not give me an indication whether this place is real). He had nine pretty daughters, as one would have in those days. One day, the farmer was very thirsty, he probably had just woken from a night of ales with his mates in Pitempan Pub. The well, or his favourite well – because in those days one could be picky about the source of water – was in a marsh nearby the house. His youngest daughter, the fairest of all nine, though they were all so fair that had all one the Miss Pitempan title at some point in time, loved her father dearly and wished to aid him in quenching his thirst and ran to the well to fetch water. It was already noonish, so all the water had been used to do the washing and therefore new water was to be fetched. But the girl took too long to return and the father grew more restless. The eldest daughter took it upon her to check on her sister and fetch the water for her father. When she did not return either, the next sister took the trip to the well and so on (there are nine in total, the story is quite repetitive) until only the middle sister was left. She assured her father that she would return soon, and followed the path her eight other sisters had taken into the woods. When she reached the well she was faced with a terrible sight! Among the bulrushes, her sisters lay mangled at the feet of a horrific dragon. She let out a cry in horror and tried to run away, but her head was chopped off immediately. Her cries had however attracted the attention of the inhabitants of Pitempan; amongst these townies was her bae, Martin, who was very noble and brave. He took up his sword, challenged the dragon and a long battle ensued. It is said the battle carried on from Pitempan to Balkello, whatever that means, but that eventually Martin succeeded in slaying the dragon. He was however overcome with grief, and his tears cause the spring in Pitempan, that was henceforth named the Nine Maiden Well, to be 0.01% more salty than fresh water springs should be. Multiple sculptured stones where erected to commemorate the tragic event: St Martin’s Stane at Balecco and the sculptured stone at Strathmartin. A carved Pict symbol marks the spot where the dragon was slain and Bishop David de Berham dedicated a church to St Martin – oh, did I mention this caused Martin to be sainted – in 1249.The farmer/father was never heard of again, legend says he tried to shed tears he did not have (you know, dehydrated from the night before) and shrivelled up and died (his body was never found). Finally, the city of Dundee wished to remember the tragic death of the dragon by erecting a statue in the centre of town, centuries later. *

Tempted at Pitempton,
Draigled at Baldragon,
Stricken at Strathmartin,
And kill’d at Martin’s Stane.

*Note, I may have made some of this up.

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…

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

# Trust Me I’m An Engineer

Some time ago, on my usually waste-of-time website, I found a post about the first female engineer. As a female engineer – let’s not go into whether that’s self-proclaimed or not – , I naturally wanted to find out more.

First, it seemed necessary to find a definition for “engineering”.

As so many other words, engineering is derived from Latin. It can have originated from either – or perhaps both – ingenium or – and – ingeniare. As the word ingenious might hint, the first means something in the lines of cleverness, though I’ve also seen it translated as talent; the latter means to devise (according to wikipedia, I had more trouble finding the word through other sources). The stem of the word seems to resemble ingenerare (to implant) and ingenere (to instill by birth). Therefore it seems that the word initially meant something along the lines of having a natural talent for something but slowly evolved to coming up with clever tricks or solutions to solve a certain problem.

Nowadays, the current official definition of “engineering” is (according to Engineers’ Council for Professional Development):

The creative application of scientific principles to design or develop structures, machines, apparatus, or manufacturing processes, or works utilising them singly or in combination; or to construct or operate the same with full cognisance of their design; or to forecast their behaviour under specific operating conditions; all as respects an intended function, economics of operation or safety to life and property.

Hmmm, that’s one of those sentences that I still haven’t completely grasped after reading it three times and then I usually just give up. Let’s give that definition another try then. According to my understanding (and self-proclaimed experience), engineers aim to design (or invent, or optimise, or improve) something by the application of scientific and mathematical principles. This something can range from materials, instruments, software, living systems, you name it; basically anything that you can imagine inventing or improving on.

It differs from science mostly due to the fact that sciences aim to build on knowledge starting from predicions and hypothesis about the universe (or, anything).

If this not making much sense… Well, probably this comic by Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal does a better job on describing the essence of engineering:

So, I guess you can say that engineers are more interested in applying scientific knowledge to whatever they are working, while scientists are more aimed at acquiring said knowledge. In my opinion (and again, “experience”) the distinction between the two is not always very straight cut, and a lot of people are more somewhere in between, say applied scientist, or scientific engineers, or engineering scientist (though that last one sounds more like someone trying to create a race of super-scientists through genetic engineering). I also think it’s quite obvious that both (or all people on that spectrum) need each other to achieve progress.

Nevertheless, my post was going to be about the first female engineer. Because which ever way you look at it, woman are still underrepresented in these fields, even if the situation is already much more balanced than it used to be. It also strongly depends on the type of engineering. For example, while there are about 50% females studying bio-engineering or architectural engineering at my formal school, only 15% of engineering (that later specialises into mechanical, civil, chemical, biomedical, computer, and mathematical engineering) consists of female students. Perhaps “us girls” just need some role models?

The first candidate-rolemodel, and the “first female engineer” according to that post I mentioned, is Elisa Leonida Zamfirescu.

Elisa Leonida Zamfirescu

Elisa was born in 1887 in Romania, in a quite engineery – yes that is a word, stop it red squiggly line – family.  Her grandfather, on her mother’s side, was an engineer and so was her older brother Dimitrie. I imagine her as a child inventor, a bit like Violet Baudelaire, who did not give up after being rejected from engineering school (School of Bridges and Roads in Bucharest). No, she just applied to other schools, and in 1909, she was accepted at the Royal Academy of Technology Berlin. Three years later, she graduated, and started her career in geology laboratories back in Romania. She passed the war years (World War I) in the Red Cross, around which time she met her husband, Constantin Zamfirescu, a chemist.  She spent her engineering career leading several geology labs in the Geological Institute in Romania and teaching physics and chemistry. Her contributions include her role in identifying new resources of coal, natural gas and copper. She worked until she was 75, and died in 1973.

Despite her contributions to the world of engineering, Elisa was not technically the first engineer. Alice Jacqueline Perry, an Irish cailín born in 1885, graduated a few years before. Her family sounds very well educated; her father was co-founder of the Galway Electric Light Company as well as county surveyor for the County Council and her uncle invented the navigational gyroscope (two of her sisters also continued into higher education, by the way), Alice was quite a mathlete, or would have been if they had those in the 1900s.

Alice Jacqueline Perry

She received a scholarship to study at the Queen’s College in Galway in 1902, where she pursued a degree in engineering. She graduated in 1906, with first class honours. Alice was the first female engineering graduate in Ireland, the UK, and in my understanding the world. A month after her graduation, her father’s death caused her to take up his position temporarily for County Council, making her the only woman to have been a County Surveyor – basically a Council Engineer – in Ireland. She moved to London in 1908, starting a job as a Lady Factory Inspector. She moved to Glasgow in 1915 (and seemed to have continued an inspector job there as well). In 1921 she grew bored of engineering, an started writing poetry (eventually publishing seven books of poetry). She was heavily involved in the Christian Science movement, and moved to Boston headquarters in 1923, where she worked until her death in 1969, about a month after the moon landing.

These may seem like quite ordinary lives, but I can only imagine the challenges Elisa and Alice might have faced as female engineers in those days, just as female scientists or female doctors had a whole stream of male criticism and prejudice to swim up against.

I assume that there were some female engineers before 1900, though perhaps not with an official engineering degree; after all, inventors have been around forever and it is no great leap of imagination that some of those inventors were woman. And you might argue that we don’t really know any famous female engineers because they haven’t contributed anything major, but I will argue back that a lot of progress happens in little bits and every little contribution has been necessary to get to those major leaps. (Come to think of it, I don’t think I can name any great engineers off the top of my head.)

As there are quite some great female scientists, there are some great female engineers, and naming the first ones is only the start of a long list, that I am positive will grow longer in the future. Perhaps one day, I’ll find my name on that list. (I doubt it, but it can’t hurt to be ambitious, eh.)

On Growth and Form

Before I start, a short comment on personal growth:

After a quite frustrating day yesterday, I decided to get up bright and early, go for a run and then head to work today. It’s actually a national holiday here (ascension), but as I have to take my holidays explicitly, and “I’m here for work and not for fun (except for weekends)”, that was my plan. So I was up and ready to leave for my jog, when my flatmate just entered the front door, after a night out. Made me think.

I guess I’m a “real grown-up” now…

But now, On Growth and Form.

I have discovered that Dundee has had quite an interesting inhabitant. His name is D’Arcy Wentworth Thompson. I had never heard of him until sometime last year when we went out to dinner in a restaurant called The D’Arcy Thompson. A plaque on the wall informed us he was a biology professor in Dundee (at the time the university was still part of the University of St. Andrews) around 1900.

Sometime later, I went to a talk about penguins, more specifically about the two penguins that Dundonian Arctic explorers had brought back from their trip south. The penguins had gone through quite a bit, one even was the official mascot of a student faculty club, but they are now on display in the D’Arcy Thompson Zoology Museum on the campus of the University of Dundee. We went to go see the museum after the talk, it’s a room stuffed with, well, stuffed animals. Quite an impressive collection, including a giant crab. (Giant means more than a meter across. Imagine running into a wild one!)

The penguin before it went missing. (ca. 1900)

But it wasn’t until last week that I realised how interesting Mister D’Arcy really was – and I just realised that sounds like a sentence from Pride and Prejudice. A research letter in Nature Physics on the combined mechanics of cells in tissues mentions the following:

In 1917, D’Arcy Thomson published a treatise On Growth and Form in which he suggested that morphogenesis could be explained by forces and motion – in other words by mechanics.

You might recall that my PhD is about the mechanics of gut cancer. And I didn’t know about D’Arcy, shame on me! In the meantime I’ve tried to get my hands on the book, not too difficult because there are some on line pdfs circulating with the whole thing. Unfortunately, I’m the worst at reading from a computer screen, so I haven’t gotten very far*, but it seems that Mister D’Arcy was quite interesting indeed. His 1136-paged book reads a bit a philosophy book (or it does in the first 304 pages). He tells the story – for it’s written like a story – of how the mechanics in biology is quite similar to the mechanics of inanimate bodies, and that growth and morphology can essentially be explained by physics. He gives a whole list of examples, where he makes analogies between biological systems and physical systems. He admits that this will not explain every detail of biology, but that it is possible to explain certain simpler phenomena of organic growth and form using mathematical and physical descriptions. His studies on fractal patterns and linear transformations (rotation, translation, shearing) have been important for image analysis, architecture, mathematics and probably many other fields.

Mathematical transformations of homologous features in fish.

Then how had I never heard of Mister D’Arcy (I realise it should be Mister Thompson but that just doesn’t have that ring to it)? Luckily I’ve figured my lack of knowledge on time and can rectify that mistake. D’Arcy had innovative ideas, that have been pushed to the sidelines by molecular and genetic research in morphogenesis. Nevertheless, is book is merely descriptive, so there is still much to be learned. Which is where projects like mine come in.

Hurray, I have a purpose!

Thank you Mister D’Arcy!

*If anyone knows where I can get my hands on a good hard copy, please let me know! Amazon only cells “bad quality and incomplete” versions, so it’s proving quite difficult.