The Aspartame Conspiracy #newstuff

sugar-485055_640-554x416You can tell your posts are getting read by someone when you get contacted by strangers. Actually it happened a lot on my first blog, but that’s because I was part of a forum and blogged about my wedding plans. That ended with marriage. But recently I was contacted by PreScouter journal and asked to produce an article in my field – chemicals, discoveries and innovations (or at least what I seem to write baout most). Jess, who contacted me, had read my nylon post, and liked it.

Have a look at PreScouter, because it’s a little different from the RSC, or other platforms like Speakers of Science I have written for. Their target audience is primarily industries, and helping them get a quick, accurate snapshot of the science so they know where to start investigating for future scientific innovations.

So I had a think and came up with ‘The Aspartame Conspiracy’. Why? It was a topic I had researched for an evening course at the Knowledge Project, Oxford, so all I needed to do was refresh my memory. But, more importantly, thetopic demonstrated a fantastic link between social and chemical aspects of a material, how the language we use to describe things affects our understanding of them, how compulsory food labelling makes us suspicious and how so many people just don’t like scientific advance. Read it to learn more.

IMAGE: from ‘The Aspartame Conspiracy’ post.

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Do you Trust Atoms?

It’s a play: ‘Trusting Atoms: the Last Trials of Ludwig Boltzmann’, a tragic science play, no less. Locked in a conflict over the existence of atoms, 19th century physics and philosophy become personal, like all other human endeavour.

I first encountered Ludwig Boltzmann during my physics A level, when I came acrossan image of his tombstone, engraved with his famous equation, S = k ln Ω, and the few words given about his life – and death – left me with a fascination that still remains today. During my second year at university, I encountered Andrew Maczek’s book on Statistical Thermodynamics, a science text book so well written that I read the thing from cover to cover just because of the beauty of the writing. I was hooked. And so this year I wrote and produced ‘Trusting Atoms’ as a play with the help of an RSC grant, 7 talented actors and a director. It’s an outreach project for the school of Engineering and Physical Sciences at the University of Birmingham, telling the story of the last 15 years of Ludwig Boltzmann’s life, between about 1890 and 1905, when he hangs himself whilst on holiday in Trieste. Boltzmann was an atomist: he believed atoms existed, and in the 1880s and 1890s, scientists decided to move on from that old-fashioned, unenlightened theory and develop new theories of energy. Since all Boltzmann’s work, his famous equation and kinetic theory of gases, rested on atomic theory, he fought furiously to have it accepted. In 1905, Einstein measured the size of atoms, but for Boltzmann, who was believed to be an undiagnosed manic depressant, it was not enough. Because sometimes your demons come from within, not without.

Appreciated by a small but enthusiastic audience, full of ideas about what to do to it or with it next, the play ran for just 55 minutes, during which time Ludwig Boltzmann showcased a plethora of emotions and spiralled inevitably out of control. He says it himself:

“[T]hink, perhaps, of the natural increase in entropy as a tragic hero tending towards destruction. Somebody must act and sustain their efforts to save him from his destiny, or else he will be conquered by it – inevitably, and the universe will dispose of all his components. It will be as if he never existed.”

There is more to this than creating an analogy for entropy. Like all literature, there is more than one story – which is why I fell for it. Ludwig Boltzmann is entropy, the mysterious measure of chaos – that is what is so fascinating about him, what fascinated me about him since I first discovered him.

“Some men are like their dogs, Henriette: do you think some scientists are like their theories?”

P1090302Another story is the story of pioneering women in science, in particular Henriette Boltzmann and Lise Meitner, the wife and student of Ludwig Boltzmann, respectively.  I liked Lise’s story: setting her first foot on her future track, longing and finding acceptance and inspiration, made necessarily what it is because of how it intertwines with the stories of Ludwig and Henriette.

“You taught me science isn’t a cold, objective study, but a passionate, intellectual venture: a battle for ultimate truth, clouded and, at the same time, driven by human judgement.”

P1090451What is she actually saying here? That science isn’t objective? Another running theme throughout the play is the concept of objectivity.

“It is not possible to find a theory free of its creator: there is no love without lovers, no music without musicians, no theory without theorists: even yours, Mach”

Boltzmann insists, echoing words deliberately lifted from Henriette, his wife, earlier in the play, as I seek to bring out their connectivity and the influence that so many scientists wives had over science in this part of history. The tricky part about science is that it’s so entwined with humanity, but the challenge is to unentwine it: the holy grail of science, as it were. Even Ernst Mach, Boltzmann’s chief rival and strong believer in objectivity confuses his own career with his own science. In the end, it is Max Planck who is the detached voice of reason, and goes on to be the better remembered, whilst wishing to be less.

“He fights for himself, not for scientific advance. He argues for notoriety, not passion.”

says Boltzmann of Mach.

You may not have heard of Boltzmann and Mach, but if you’ve studied physics in school you may have heard of Newton versus Huygens and wave particle duality (maybe I will be writing about them next). Scientists have been perpetually bashing each other over the head for individual notoriety, which is why we can think of “Great Scientists”, mostly historic ones, but not so many now. Thank god we mostly produce our modern results in research groups.


“Maths is immortal – they are not.”



Jack Richardson (Lugwig Boltzmann)

Provence Maydew (Henriette Boltzmann)

Matilda Bott (Lise Meitner)

John Cattell (Lugwig Boltzmann)

Bob Joyce (Max Planck)

John Pritchard (Chair, Erwin)

Jon Wood (Maxwell)


Tatty Hennessy

With special thanks to my husband, Guy Fletcher-Wood, for his invaluable assistance in producing the play.

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Beauty of climbing in art

Just because wow.

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Hot Topics and Fixed Conclusions

How many people out there love satellites, but hate surveillance? A friend just emailed me this, along with the title “Why would people end privacy?”

I remember having the same debate in school: is it worth having surveillance to combat crime at the expense of our privacy? In hindsight, like many of the debates we had in Religious Studies, it wasn’t pitched very well: it assumed the majority of the class would arrive at the same conclusion: surveillance is bad.

(“So you’re going to behave in school, aren’t you? You don’t want us to have to get surveillance here?”)

Surveillance is for those who can’t be trusted to be monitored by those responsible for keeping them in line. Those who can be trusted. Those for whom omnipotence is okay.

The school discussions made sure no one developed any rogue opinions, nobody had any serious arguments. Nobody went against religious beliefs (because mostly we had these discussions in Religious Studies classes). It was peaceful and nice. It was a missed opportunity to challenge ourselves. Educate ourselves. Isn’t school supposed to educate you?

We never discussed futuristic technology when we discussed surveillance. That would have made surveillance seem cool. We were limited to one technology, usually ID cards or fingerprint/DNA matching. The concept was that surveillance would take controlof your identity and extract it from your body. Not all surveillance works like that. What about face identification? Satellites? Bluetooth tracking? What about manual people counting, because I have been out there in the wilds this last week, clicking people on and off trains. Is that not surveillance?

Crime was also spoken of as something that happened to other people, never you, which is ridiculous as an adult when I think about the measures women go through to avoid getting raped and men go through to avoid getting mugged. Why would the school speak of it like that when most of us had probably experienced a burglary already? Play off the crime aspect, don’t worry their little heads. We were teenagers.

We also discussed porn. The overwhelming conclusion is, porn is harmless so long as no one exploits the industry. Elements such as sexism were never discussed, because there was never any assumption that there was no good reason porn is so one sided.

Laurie Penny claims that the idea of surveillance is more horrifying for men than for women, because the expectations on men’s social behaviour is less restrictive: women are monitored constantly to make sure they look and act perfectly. So the idea of suddenly being watched is a shock to men, normal for women. But I think that for children, who are even more used to being watched, monitored and controlled, the horror of surveillance is worse than for adults. For children, privacy is still something they fight for, search for, sneak out at night for and pass as little notes under the table. It’s part of their search for identity. Take away their privacy, and you restrict the development of identity. In short, even without being guided, that discussion did not have a fair focus group.

And what horrifies me now is not surveillance one way or another, sexism or ageism in society, crime… It’s the knowledge that the school, an institution I put my trust in, was directing my thoughts, shaping my conclusions, to suit them. To suit lack of change. Everything is good the way it is; generation of the future, please don’t change a thing. You won’t will you?

Not a new realisation, but it still horrifies me.

Suddenly, all of my memories of Sandedge appear in a new light, and I am reassessing them, regurgitating them. A whistle of remembrances spirals past me as I open them all up, frantically resorting and restocking.

I am not who I thought I was.

But the worst thing is, I don’t know who I am any more.

Alice, of her school Sandedge in Chasing Rainbows


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Things That Go Pop

These days I seem to be having articles splayed all over the place, left right and centre. I could write a bit about what I’ve been up to on here, or I could just link…

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Feeling Happy?


Visit Birmingham Symphony Hall on Saturday 10th May for a range of handd on happiness workshops.

How do foods change your mood?

Learn tricks to make yourself happier, explore our cultural understanding of happiness and measure your mood!

For more information or to contribute your thoughts on happiness visit .

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NEET Figures “Prove” Single Parenting Sinful

As anyone who has grown up with a single parent knows, their parents are complete layabouts, and by virtue of not being in a socially accepted relationship, have no work ethic and have taught us to mooch off the system. So apparently concludes this British Problems article, because there was a spike in single mothers (oops, sorry! Single fathers are perfect parents; it’s just single mothers who are a drain on society) during the 80s, and now there is (mostly and in some places) a spike in NEETs.

NEETs – 18 to 24-year-olds classed not in education, employment or training – has soared over the last five years. This is clearly due to the uber-chavs, a class of “offspring of the first big generation of single mothers … in the 1980s” who are now adults.

Being an ’88 birthday and 25 years old, this is a quick calculation for me, and the conclusion obvious: any 18-24 year old NEETs are NOT born in the 80s, or are born in the second half of ’89. So mathematically, it makes no sense to blame single mothers of the 80s, as their children are not the crime-causing, dole-stealing, social delinquents the article is discussing. But apparently we’re not supposed to notice this mathematical discrepancy. Um, sorry, who is socially unproductive and a drain on society?

This is the kind of conclusion which leads me to say, very firmly, that science pwns belief. Every time. Because here we have a clearly at-odds situation, and no one is convinced that the same set of people were born both in the ’90s and the’80s for the apparent conclusion to make sense. But most wouldn’t bother with the calculation and just read another article condemning single parenthood and go away carrying that prejudice.

I don’t for a minute mean to suggest that single parenthood is awesome. It’s hard work. And it’s statistically disadvantaged, largely because of the social disadvantage of women in society coupled with the fact that many single parents are accidental parents, or even teenage parents. But I’m not even trying to make a point about my beliefs about single parents here, dear though the issue is. The key point is that they are a [blame category] for social imperfection that breeds prejudice and prevents us from confronting real problems. Often, a [blame category] is deliberately constructed to prevent the constuctor from feeling guilty or uncomfortable about their own failings.

What does this mean in this context?

It means that in 2008 there was an economic crash, and we still haven’t recovered from it. Anyone who has been seeking employment in the last few years knows that, and knows how hard it is, especially if for some reason (e.g. being a parent, but let’s not go there) you are tied geographically. And a lot of people could be considered responsible for that, but essentially it was a middle-aged, middle-class problem which affected young, working class people most. And so there is still a mass unemployment problem with geographical hotspots and a young person spike, especially amongst those leaving school and university… because now the job market is so competitive that experience is a clinching factor… and guess who doesn’t have it?

So let’s blame single mothers. Let’s make the unemployed sign on every day to prove they DESERVE it (and not mention the fact that ritual demeaning procedures like signing on significantly diminish your self-respect to such a level that it will decrease your chances of obtaining work anyway), and if they don’t sign on, assume they’re not overwhelmed by time or cost, but are only jobless out of laziness. Because that makes it their problem, not society’s, and certainly not yours.

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So Much for Romeo and Juliet

Apparently in America, some states will prosecute a teacher for having a relationship with a student regardless of age… and in the rest it’s okay. There seems no middle ground where it’s not a legal offence but is a breach of professional conduct that will cost you your job.

Maybe that is just the one state, but still, it shocks me. And I really don’t think it’s okay. A relationship like that carries dubious implications when it comes to consent, life experience and power – but I’m not arguing about this because I don’t think anybody disagrees with me. In our culture it is generally accepted that teacher-student relationships are not okay – blanket. What I want to argue is that the Romeo and Juliet relationship in Shakespeare’s play was also not okay.

We (well, not me) see it as a tragedy, where two lovers were thwarted because of the selfishness of their families and wound up dead. That’s one interpretation, but it can also give a different moral tale.

In the culture in which Romeo and Juliet lived, their relationship was not seen as acceptable, yet looking at it from the modern day it is apparently a true romance. Let me explain some of the things which are very twisted about this: Romeo is 17 and Juliet is 13. They meet and have sex pretty much straight away. Their eyes meet across a room and they are “in love”. In Shakespeare’s time, love, by the way, was equated to sexual attraction, and that is what he is describing here: a magnetic, instant sexual attraction – something relatively normal and human – not vindicating the myth of love at first sight as we see love today. So two teenagers are attracted to each other, marry and go to bed, despite the irresponsibility of that and the immorality of this in their culture, let alone Romeo’s past behaviours which seems to have been sharking and stalking and sulking when he didn’t get his way. But hey, Juliet doesn’t know about these red flag behaviours because she just met him. And she is 13. And when she doesn’t get her way – the boy she wants – she kills herself, as does he.

If your 13 year old daughter slept with a 17 year old boy she had just met, how would you feel? It’s not quite legal rape, but it’s illegal sex.

If your 18 year old went to uni and slept with a 22 year old final year student in fresher’s week, how would you feel? That she was an adult and could make up her own mind and the age difference wasn’t that much anyway?

Well, what about your 18 year old daughter sleeping with her 22 year old A level teacher, whilst she was a member of his class? Different?

The moral standards we establish are dependent upon the level of our understanding of how much responsibility we can give the people involved and how healthy the relationship is. A 4 year age gap is not much for two young people in a similar life situation, but it’s a lot for children and teenagers still developing cognition. It is completely irrelevant to a teacher-student scenario because the power status of the teacher is higher by virtue of being a teacher, not by virtue of being older: i.e. a 40 year old teacher sleeping with a student is not very much worse than a 22 year old teacher sleeping with a student.

So what is my argument? My argument is that Romeo and Juliet’s “romance” should be considered an unhealthy and disturbing relationship today as it was by the parent characters in the play. Because it is fiction and because of the changing meaning of words such as “love”, readers have detached themselves from the unpleasant reality of it and hold it up as a shining example of romance, perpetuating social inconsistencies in moral culture.

Assess each situation carefully, rather than taking accepted word on it, and look out for warning signs and damaging scenarios. I certainly hope that no child of mine ends up in such a relationship as Romeo and Juliet’s (even without the deaths). At least if they do, I hope they are adults, mature enough to make and learn from mistakes. I cannot endorse this as “romance”.

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A Creative Supper

I have recently been trying out some more interesting ideas for meals which came to me and thought I would share these three.

1. Pizza chips

This dish consists of homemade oven chips covered with cheese and pizza toppings (pineapple, chilli, olives, sweetcorn and sweet pepper) and grilled to resemble pizza. It is served with a spicy tomato salsa, onion rings and rocket. It worked surprisingly well! A deeper pallet of chips might have been good, and onion rings are awesome with salsa, we learn.Do your chips in the oven to make the dish less horrifically unhealthy and serve with vegetable pizza toppings and salad. Greasy toppings would not have worked.

P1070643  2. Onion and ginger dumplings

This simple dish is made by finely chopping half anonion (I used a herb chopper) and a couple of thumbs of ginger, mixing with flour and water to form a dough and steaming in small lumps. It only takes a couple of minutes to steam dumplings. Serve with a tomato sauce or spicy salsa that does not contain ginger – the flavour will ooze out of the dumplings as you eat them and add a tang to the sauce flavours. Cheese and rocket also go well.


3. 4-layer pie

This crazy invention comes from comining already known concepts. Four layers are prepared and fill the base from bottom to top. The pie is left open topped and French cheese is put on top. I don’t know why I feel this dish is French… it just is.

The four layers from bottom to top are:

a) Spinach, nuts and cranberries

A little spinach is wilted or defrosted and combined with some toasted pine nuts and cranberries. I added in a large spoonful of herby cream cheese for mixing and to dilute the flavour a bit. You also have to add plenty of salt to properly bring out the spinach flavour. Try splitting it in half, adding salt to one half until you think it tastes too salty, then recombining it with the unsalted half. You need considerably more salt in spinach than you would think.

b) Creamy button mushrooms

Lightly fried then stirred with herby cream cheese, flour and milk to make a thick cheesey sauce. Let the cheese sauce simmer a short time until the correct thickness is reached. Add in finely chopped rosemary and fresh garlic to flavour.

c) Roasted pepper and smokey tomato

This is made by blending together some roasted red pepper, lemon juice and tomato puree. You can also add more cream cheese…! I also added in a few dashes of smoked paprika and some larger, chopped chunks of roasted red pepper. You will need to add a touch of salt to this layer as well.

d) Grilled aubergines stirredwith caramalised onions

Grill the aubergines separately, caramalise the onions in butter and the tiniest amount of sugar by using a low heat and caramalisingl slowly, then mix together afterwards. Layer the aubergine over the top with onion all over it and filling the gaps.

Top with cheese and warm in the oven before serving. Mmmm.


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