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The Abel Prize; the last interview with John Nash

When my friends at the Norwegian Academy of Science asked me to interview the winners of the 2015 Abel Prize, I said yes, of course.  They are very, very nice people and more than that, I love Norway. What’s not to like?  The problem for me was that the Abel is one of the world’s great math prizes and I am shamingly bad at math.

The winners were Louis Nirenberg of the Courant Institute in New York over 90 but still brim full of vigour and great charm and John Nash, 86 whose life is more familiar perhaps to us than his math because of ‘A beautiful Mind’ in which he was played by Russell Crowe.  It documented his battle with schizophrenia.  I prepared more for these interviews than perhaps any other in my life.  Did by the end, I understand partial differential equations.  Dear reader, it was the North Face of the Eiger and I failed to make it to base camp.  All I can tell you is that PDEs have had an extraordinary impact in the world, making it possible to model the unpredictable.  And remember Nash also gave us the Nash Equilibrium, kickstarting Game Theory and once again, having an extraordinary impact on everything from organ donor allocation to broadband auctions.

During the interview, Nash’s voice was faint, making it hard to follow what he said.  He was very frail, with a stooping, shuffling walk – a great contrast to his wife Alicia who although only a couple of years younger seemed much more robust.  Nash was very interesting about his illness.  I asked whether there was a problem that he would have tackled had he not been so ill.  He replied something to the effect that his mind went on strike but that he was now back in control adding that being in good health does not guarantee that you can discover, let alone think through a problem – which of course is right.

There was a wonderful dinner for Nirenberg and Nash at the Akershus Castle in Oslo, in the presence of the King of Norway.  I went there with Cedric Villani, the French mathematician, media personality and spider lover (he always dresses immaculately and wears big spider brooches).

I came back to London briefly and then left for Seville for a cardiology congress. At the very moment that I was telling a group of cardiologists about my encounter with Nash, someone said they had just received a news alert on their phone.  Both Nash and his wife were dead, killed in a car crash on the New Jersey Turnpike.  It was deeply shocking.

The world contains all sorts of people.  Nash was challenging but he also had extraordinary insight, making leaps of intuition that almost no-one else could. He was genuinely that very rare thing.  A genius




Tulips. I love ’em

I love tulips.  I can enthuse about almost any sort, except those funny ones with fringed petals.  Some people treat tulips like annuals, digging them all up once they have flowered which gives you the luxury and fun of choosing a whole new colour scheme next year.  Fine plan but it comes expensive, not to mention time consuming.  So I’ve been looking for tulips that you can leave year to year.

Species tulips in general are the gem like tiddlers, hailing from places like bare mountain slopes in Turkey.  The hotter they bake during the summer, the better they perform.  They hate to be wet so plant them somewhere free draining in full sun or plant them in pots, one sort to a pot and they’ll multiply with time and give you a great display every year.  Sudden disappearances are almost always down to mice who love tulips more than life itself.

So what about the fancy tulips?  A reliable friend from year to year is the orange ‘Ballerina’ which is unusual for a tulip in that it is scented.  I plant it with red kingsblood. In this picture, the red tulips are flowering for their third and fourth season.  This won’t be the case for all tulips and some, like parrot tulips never seem to come again although I have tried.   I have just been to the Chelsea Flower Show and the Bloms stand was magnificent, with tulips of great opulence and beauty.   I order loads and then usually  forget what I have ordered but whilst  I still remember it was several different shades of apricot and orange parrot tulips

For pots, I try different tulips each year.  This candy stripe one is Carnaval de Nice.  It looks like the sort of tulips you see in Dutch still life pictures

I’ve tried many different bulb suppliers.  My favourite for tulips is De Jaeger, followed by Bloms.  For more specialist bulbs, I use Avon Bulbs which have some beautiful species tulips.  Try Battalini Bright Gem.


Girls, girls, girls

Iris 15 (2)

Girls, girls, girls

How gorgeous are these girls? All are dwarf iris and all named after girls which seems appropriate as we come up to International Women’s Day. Katharine Hodgkin, the unmistakeable pale blue and yellow, Lady Beatrix Stanley (that mass of mid blue) and Pauline, elegant in deep purple. The great plantsman, E B Anderson crossed two rare irises in the 1960s and named the stunning result after his chum Eliot Hodgkin’s wife. Katharine. The colours are so elegant, the patterns a joy – how wonderful to have something quite so beautiful forever bear your name.

I use three suppliers of bulbs – these come from Avon Bulbs This is about their third or fourth outing. When the flowers die away, I feed them all with a liquid feed.

I am also feeding my Fritillaries now, even though the shoots are still tiny. This is because the fritillary bulbs are even now bulking up for the future and need some extra help. They smell really strongly of foxes but unfortunately this does not deter lily beetles who love them almost as much as lilies themselves.

Now sowing tomatoes.  Trying more bush tomatoes.  This is really hope over experience because I know my cold Oxfordshire garden isn’t really tomato heaven.  But that’s the deliciousness of gardening.

Bring on spring

Lachenalia liliiflora
Bring on spring
There’s something about freezing weather in February that has me rushing out to the greenhouse with packets of seeds, as if by doing so I could conjure up warmer weather.  This week it has been aubergines (Black Beauty) since you ask and Padron peppers.  If you haven’t tried growing these before, these are the classic Spanish tapas peppers.  They are easy to grow but need to be started soon because with our cooler temperatures, they require a really long growing season.  Once they are big enough to handle, put them first in three inch pots, and then pot them on into big pots or, as I do, into growbags, with three plants to a bag.  They start off little and green (which is when you pick them) and then, if you leave them, turn red.  Be warned.  For inexplicable reasons, one or two of every couple of dozen little green ones are ferociously hot.  There is no way of telling them apart so it’s a bit like Russian Roulette.  They also get hotter as the season progresses so that by August almost all of them are eye watering.  Flash fry them in olive oil, sprinkle with sea salt – fantastic.
I am very taken with Lachenalias.  These are bulbs from South Africa.  Lachenalia liliflora has glorious spotty leaves and stems and flower spikes that are a mass of translucent violet tubes each with a little natty white fringe  of protruding stamens and I have been admiring them in the greenhouse whilst planting my seeds and fussing with my pelargoniums.  Every couple of weeks I move the resting pelargoniums (well actually some of them haven’t been resting, it’s been so warm, they are getting all enthusiastic with leaf) around a bit and remove all the dead leaves.  I am Mrs Messy indoors but in the greenhouse, I suddenly become Mrs V. Tidy – but that’s only because long experience has told me that messy things turn into mouldy things which then infect the whole greenhouse.   But there’s one pelargonium that I leave outside all winter – astonishingly, even in our cold frosty garden, Pelargonium sidoides ‘Pink Fizz’, a species pelargonium from South Africa which spreads through underground tubers – seems untroubled by cold.  It’s more than you can say for me.

Wonders of proton beam therapy

Wonders of proton beam therapy
I am making a film about proton beam therapy which is a highly advanced form of radiotherapy.  Sometimes there are facts that stop you in your tracks.  At the heart of the kit that hurls proton at tumours is something the size of a car which weighs as much as a Boeing 747.  Huge gantries, each the size of a three storey house, house tubes down which protons are accelerated, guided by magnets.  The exquisite precision of PBT, which is used to treat deep or awkwardly sized or placed cancers in the head, neck and spine, is down to the Bragg Effect, an explosion of energy that is only released as the protons reach their target.  It means there is hardly any collateral damage to tissue whilst the tumour gets a pinpoint nuclear strike.  One of these machines is being built at UCL and the other in Manchester, which is very appropriate given that Ernest Rutherford, discoverer of the proton, was at the University of Manchester (and yes for those Trans Pennine-ists, Bragg the Younger after whom the effect was named did work in Leeds).
Installing this kit requires vast quantities of special concrete and a hole which, in London, is deeper than tube train tunnels. 
And now see the film here:
Note how we magically transformed a grey cold Manchester day  into a sunny one, courtesy of our brilliant post production team.

The Crucible Programme

The Crucible Programme
I’ve just had the joy of facilitating the 7th Heriot-Watt Crucible.  The Crucible programme was begun by the innovation charity Nesta back in 2005.  It brings together some 30 early to mid career researchers, all of whom have been identified as potential high flyers for three residential sessions helping them to communicate, collaborate in an interdisciplinary way and develop leadership skills.
For many years,  I have led the first of these sessions which helps these young research stars communicate, unravels the mysteries of the media for them and, perhaps most important of all, helps them understand how best to talk to policy makers.  If you are a young researcher, you need to know how the research firmament revolves and, if you really want to make an impact on the world and your research is of this type, how to make sure that you get heard in the right places.  Impact is a bit of a dirty word amongst researchers but it shouldn’t be.  People don’t do research simply for their own pleasure.  They do it because they want to make a difference.  But policy makers speak a different language and, a bit like journalists, operate to a different time scale to the average researcher.  Academics need to understand how they work if they want to communicate the importance of their work.
The Heriot-Watt Crucible, like the Scottish Crucible (which I will be facilitating in April) spend a day in the Scottish Parliament. As ever, there were some absolutely outstanding individuals from some astonishingly diverse disciplines.  In this session we had someone who studied the anthropology of children’s clothing, another whose area was shipping and supply chains, another in photonics, another in memory research and so on.  They were dazzling.  How lucky am I to be able to spend time talking to such a talented bunch of people?  I always learn something new.  This time it was about what landscapes submerged beneath the waves can tell you about how the future climate change will affect dry land.  Dr Claire Mellett you were brilliant.