To study and encourage popular interest in all branches of Science.

Newsletter April 2004

Dear Member,

Our last lecture meeting this session will be:
Thursday May 20th, Dr Gerald Roberts (Birkbeck College) on Earthquakes and Active Faults in Italy.

ANNUAL GENERAL MEETING on Thursday June 24th at 8.15 pm.

This will start with wine and cheese (£2 each).
The AGM itself will start at 8.45 and will be followed by a Scientific Quiz.

The agenda will include the usual reports from Officers and Sections and the Election of Officers and Ordinary Members of Council for the coming year. The Council re-appointed Professor Robert Weale to be President at its meeting on 21st April. Council also proposes the following::

Secretary Julie Atkinson
Treasurer Peter Wallis
Membership Secretary Elisabeth Fischer
Programme Secretary Jim Brightwell
Ordinary Members Brian Bond
Simon Lang
Angus McKenzie
Eric Morgan
Michael Sabel
Betty Weale
John Oakes

Council invites further nominations to the above officer posts and ordinary members; such nominees shall be duly proposed and seconded and have agreed to serve if elected.

Special Business. Council proposes to amend Clause 5b of the Constitution to reduce the number of ordinary members on the council from 8 to 5; in their view the present total, inclusive of Vice-Presidents and the Secretaries of Sections, has become too unwieldy. The reduction would be effected by natural wastage as members retire from Council under the four-year rule.

HSS Visit to the London Wetland Centre, Saturday June 12th.

The award-winning London Wetland Centre is the first project of its kind in the world ---more than 40 hectares of created wetlands in the heart of a capital city. In February 2002 the center was designated a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI), supporting nationally important numbers of Gadwall and Shoveler duck.

Meet at the Bus station adjacent to Hammersmith Tube Station at 1230. Then take the 283 “Duck Bus”, arriving at 1pm. Sandwiches or lunch in the Cafeteria. Tour, with guide commences at 2pm.

The entry price is £6.75, with £5.50 for Seniors and £4 for children; the bus fare is extra, though covered by your Freedom Pass or Oyster Card as appropriate.

A Note to all members from the President:

Those of you who attended the March and April meetings of the HSS may have been justified in wondering what is going on with our planning and organization. In March we arranged an ex tempore debate on the scheduled speaker’s topic at three days’ notice because the speaker was prevented from coming, his father being about to die. This was not a contingency to be foreseen. In April it was a little more predictable that London traffic would wreak havoc with the speaker’s transit through it so that his talk on the Transit of Venus became compromised.

Lightning obviously does strike twice (a topic for a talk?), but someone has to carry the can for the Unexpected. Please accept my apologies for any inconvenience you may have suffered, and also my thanks for your good humour in the face of adversity.

Robert Weale, President HSS

Royal Society Summer Science Exhibition.

It is held at the Royal Society at 6-9 Carlton House Terrace, London SW1Y 5AG and is open to all, with free entry. The nearest underground stations are Piccadilly Circus, Charing Cross and Green Park; the nearest bus-stops Trafalgar Square, Haymarket and Lower Regent Street.

Times of Opening:

The Royal Society’s Summer Exhibition offers a fantastic opportunity to discover the best of the UK’s science and technology research, 25 exhibits competitively selected from all around the country. And what makes this event unique is the chance visitors get to meet and talk to the scientists who are conducting the research.

The Exhibition puts the emphasis on hands-on, interactive, approachable exhibits that have many applications in the real world. So come along and find out what’s going on deep in the Earth, deep in space and much closer to home. Web visitors can access the Summer Science Exhibition at The exhibits this year are:

Dieting for plants (Rothamsted Research) – The oldest field experiment in the world helps us to understand the genetics of plant nutrition.

Forever blowing bubbles (The Open University & University of Bristol) – Volcanic degassing: from bubbles in Magma to greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

Catch that molecule! (University of Nottingham) – Managing molecules on surfaces and in solids

Biological cruise missile: beetle vs beetle in forest protection (Forest Research) – Predatory beetle targets an alien pest – a biological control hit!

A ‘Molecular Microscope’ (Fairfield Sensors Ltd,Lancaster University, UMIST, University of Liverpool and Cranfield University) – The examination of the molecular machines of life.

Forbidden Beauty (The Open University and University of Liverpool) – Quasi crystals – advanced materials with novel order and symmetry.

Seeing single molecules (National Physical Laboratory, Imperial College London and University of Glasgow) – Looking at single molecules to understand the biology of cells.

UK goes to the planets (PPARC, Rutherford-Appleton Lab, Mullard Space Science Lab, Queen Mary, University of London and The Open University) – A guide to the UK’s involvement in exploring the solar system.

Studying the Biological continuum (Imperial College London) – A framework for visualizing and modeling structure and function in the human body.

Hearing where it’s at (University College London) – How the brain determines the direction of a sound source.

Stars ‘R’ us (University of Nottingham, University College London, The Open University, The National Maritime Museum and Royal Observatory Greenwich and Leiden University) - Stars, planets and life: the chemistry controlling the Universe.

Should we judge a book by its cover? (University of ST Andrews) - First impressions of face and voice.

Signals from the sea (Sir Alister Hardy Foundation for Ocean Science and University of Plymouth) – How studies of plankton help to interpret the marine environment.

Visualising Middle Earth (BP Exploration) – Experience a journey through the oil ‘field of the future’.

410 million years ago in Scotland! (University of Aberdeen, University of Munster and University of Oxford) – The best-preserved early terrestrial ecosystem in the world.

Fish ‘n’ chips – zebrafish, genes and gender-bending chemicals (Zoological society of London, University of Exeter and Cardiff University) – How genetic approaches are unraveling chemically-induced sexual disruption in fish.

A Star is born - fusion powering your future (Culham Science Centre and Walsh Scientific Ltd) – The process that powers the sun is no longer a dream; it’s close to reality.

Shooting cancers (UMIST and University of Manchester) – A new device to deliver DNA into cells.

Exercise turns back the muscle clock (BBRSC and Manchester Metropolitan University) – Muscle structure changes with age; exercise can combat these changes.

Animal Locomotion which horse can run the fastest? (The Royal Veterinary College) - The anatomical and mechanical attributes required for fast locomotion.

Hunting for planets in stardust (UK Astronomy Technology Centre, University of St Andrews, Royal Observatory Edinburgh Trust and Joint Astronomy Centre, Hawaii) – How pictures of stardust are revealing new solar systems around nearby stars.

Meningitis from hitch-hiker to killer bug (Institute of Molecular Medicine, University of Oxford) – How science can detect a bacterial master of disguise through a vaccine.

Plant rescue! ( Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew) - From discovery to conservation, the science behind maintaining plant diversity.

Face transplantation: fact and fiction (The Royal Free Hospital)

Our Star! (Neatherd High School, Dareham, with the University of Cambridge) - School pupils and scientists: partners in solar exploration.

The information above was provided by the Royal Society.


Henry Wildey

Members were notified in Christmas 2003 newsletter of the sudden death of our Vice-President Henry Wildey. His contribution to the Society in life was immense; he was Astronomical Secretary from 1946 to 1988. In death his support has continued by his bequest of £1000, to be divided equally between the Astronomy Section and the Society’s general account.

Thank you, Henry.

For Orchid Lovers

A Royal Society Partnership Grant helped pupils at Writhlington Comprehensive School in Bath to develop links with the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew and schools in Sikkim. They have developed specialized propagation and cultivation skills aimed at the global conservation of endangered orchids. At the 2004 Cheltenham Festival of Science, 9 – 13 June these award-winning young scientists will be on hand to demonstrate some of the techniques they have developed to mimic pollination and optimum growing conditions for their unique collection of orchids. For more information, contact 01242 227 979.

Articles for the Newsletter.

I welcome scientific articles from members to future issues of the HSS Newsletter.

Peter R Wallis, Hon Treasurer.

Early Life

Peter R Wallis

I recently attended a talk at the Amateur Geological Society in Finchley by Mr M Macdonald-Ross. His subject was early life on the Earth, how it changed the planet and what fossil evidence remains.

The planet was a truly fearsome place during its accretion phase some 4,500 million years (my) ago and the subsequent cataclysm in which material was torn out of it which coalesced to form the Moon. The Moon, not having an atmosphere, retains uncontrovertible evidence of a late heavy bombardment, now estimated to have occurred some 3,900 my ago. A similar bombardment must at the same time have struck the Earth, hardly providing a stable environment for complex life.

But the life of which we are talking is not even little green men, but bacteria of one sort or another. We now recognize the continued existence of ‘extremophiles’, bacteria which can survive temperatures of over 100 degrees C and pH values of 1 to 2, corresponding to concentrated sulphuric acid. These are classified as Archaea, distinct genetically from other bacteria; evidence is growing of their ancient nature. Perhaps such life could have evolved in spite of regular bolide impacts. Indeed, environmental challenges encourage evolution and the speed of evolution in bacteria is enormous. Such conditions make it difficult however for us to obtain fossil evidence, since Archaean sedimentary rocks will have been squeezed and cooked.

The earliest known fossil life generally acknowledged by text books is dated at 3,465 my ago. It was discovered by J W Schopf and students in the Apex chert at Marble Bar in the Pilbara sequence of Western Australia. For more details read Schopf’s Cradle of Life. He asserts that eleven kinds of cellular thread-like microbes can be distinguished. Recently this result has been challenged by Brasier[1] and a vigorous debate continues.

Other indications of early life are to be found in banded iron formations (BIFs) and in stromatolites. Both are connected with blue-green bacteria, the earliest photosynthesisers to produce oxygen – and change the Earth’s atmosphere. BIFs earlier than 3,500 my have been claimed, but need reassessment in the light of challenges. Stromatolites exist today in some highly saline environments and are definitely biogenic, being produced by layers of bacteria, but argument continues about those alleged to predate 3,200 my ago.

With thanks to notes provided by Mr Macdonald-Ross.

[1] Brasier M D et al, 2002, Nature 416, 76-81 Back


Home Page


Last updated   28-Jan-2018 contact