I wish I was at Glastonbury …

The Glastonbury Festival is all over the media this weekend and the images have triggered my own memories of visits in 2009 and 2010.   There was the music, of course.  Not just the headline acts – Neil Young, Blur, Bruce Springsteen, Stevie Wonder and more – but also the unexpected pleasures on the smaller stages.  Then there was the variety of exotic food outlets, and the pleasures of just sitting in the sun soaking up the atmosphere.


Edward reading the Sunday paper in the enormous shanty town of tents at Glastonbury in 2010.

One of the memories dovetails very neatly with the themes of some of my recent posts – about the struggles of John Snow and others to provide London with safe drinking water.   Glastonbury is an enormous temporary town, the size of Sunderland, yet with the most basic plumbing and sanitation.   For four days or so, we are plunged back into the type of city that John Snow would have known.  A city where water has to be carried from standpipes (wells in Victorian London), where water is only warm enough to shave with if you have a stove to heat it.  And, most pertinently, there is only the most basic sanitation.  The toilets at Glastonbury are notorious although, probably, no smellier than the average London street in John Snow’s era.  The biggest differences are that we have, thanks to John Snow and other from that era, made the link between foul water and disease, and that our noses are more finely attuned to the smells.

Another strong memory of Glastonbury 2010 is persuading my family to watch Dizzee Rascal rather than the then barely-known Mumford and Sons, tonight’s Pyramid Stage headliners.  I’ve never been forgiven for that.


A forest of legs in front of the West Holt Stage, awaiting Dr John’s set in 2010.


The crowd in front of the Pyramid Stage for Tom Jones’ set in 2009.   Glastonbury Tor is just visible in the distance.

A brief diversion to South Korea

My walk along the Greenway last week led me to think back to a trip to Seoul last year and a brief visit to a similar project called Cheong Gye Cheon.   This was a stream that flowed through the centre of Seoul, eventually joining the Han River and, ultimately, the Yellow Sea.   The original stream became, like the Fleet in London, an open sewer as Seoul developed in the post-war period, and was eventually covered over by a road.

The restoration of the river started in 2003 onwards, and entails pumping huge quantities of water to the “source” as the development of downtown Seoul had left the original river completely dry.   The new river runs in a straight concrete channel of no great aesthetic value, within which the watercourse itself follows artificial meanders and flows over a series of small manmade riffles and waterfalls.  The result is an 8.4 kilometre urban recreation space in the midst of this busy and relentlessly modern city.


The upper part of Cheong Gye Cheon in downtown Seoul, photographed in October 2012.

This is no Arcadian Idyll – it is still, basically, an open rectangular storm drain running an almost straight course through downtown Seoul, but it is a narrow ribbon-like sanctuary from the noise and heat of the city.   Indeed, the immediate vicinity of the stream is about 3.5 °C cooler than the rest of the city.   On the day I visited it was busy with tourists and, like the Greenway and the High Line in New York, it is a “green lung” – a brief respite from city life – for local residents.

Visits to the Greenway and Cheong Gye Cheon are useful counterpoints to the work that takes up most of my time.  Ecologists strive to create high quality habitats, are preoccupied with saving rare and endangered species and have an inbuilt bias to wild and remote places.  Yet most of the population live in cities, with few chances to encounter the Premier League of wildlife except through their television screens.   “Ecosystem services” is the current buzzword in environmental management, referring to the benefits that humans obtain from nature in order to give a basis for their valuation.   One class of “ecosystem services” that has been identified is the cultural benefits – recreational, spiritual, educational and aesthetic.  However, these can only be fully realised if people can get easy access to natural or semi-natural spaces.   You don’t need high grade habitat to provide the “green lungs” of cities, to give people mental space away from the hustle and bustle.  A walkway on top of a mains sewer might be worth any number of SSSIs for this purpose.


More things we’ve forgotten to remember …

I left the John Snow pub and was engulfed again by the tourist hordes round Oxford Street until I reached a tube station.  From here, I travelled east on the Central Line until it burst back into daylight at Stratford.  This was familiar ground for me: I was born just a kilometre or so from here and, rising up in front of me was huge bulk of the Olympic Stadium and, beside it, Anish Kapoor’s enormous red Orbit tower.  The city skyline, dominated by the “Gherkin” rose up to the west and, just visible to the south, I could see the roof of the O2 Arena.


Abbey Mills Pumping Station, photographed from the Greenway in Stratford, East London, June 2013.

An ornate cupola was just visible in the gaps between modern high-rise buildings as I walked towards the City.  However, the full structure only came into view when I turned off the main road and walked for 500 metres or so along a gravel track on top of an embankment.   A huge ornate structure resembling a Byzantine church rose up in front of me.   This is Abbey Mills pumping station and, like the Broad Street pump, it is another incongruous landmark in the history of Victorian London’s battles against infectious disease.

This was built about 10 years after the Broad Street cholera outbreak, as part of an ambitious scheme to collect all London’s sewage, which formerly ran in open drains to the River Thames.  The engineer Joseph Bazelgette was commissioned by the Metropolitan Board of Works to build a series of interceptor sewers, which collected wastewater from all over London and channelled it towards locations downstream of the main centres of population.   The whole system relied on gravity to move the wastewater from the interceptor sewers to the Northern Outfall Sewer which joined the Thames five kilometres away at Beckton.  The Lee Valley, however, is a low point in the network and it was necessary to raise the sewage from two of the interceptor sewers by 12 metres so that it could reach the Northern Outflow Sewer.

It was only afterwards that I realised that the embankment on which I had walked to get to Abbey Mills was, in fact, the route of the Northern Outfall Sewer itself.   It has been made into a footpath and cycleway, known as the “Greenway”, running from Hackney Wick to Beckton.  Like the Romford Canal (see post of 3 June), the unpleasant associations have been discretely overlooked or forgotten but, nonetheless, this narrow embankment and the Byzantine architecture of Abbey Mills represent one of the most significant advances of the Victorian era.

A drink of water with John Snow

I’m in a pub in Soho on a humid Friday afternoon with a glass of water on the table in front of me.  Water, rather than beer, seemed appropriate in light of the story that I am about to tell.   This is the John Snow pub, an old-fashioned London boozer with dark wood fittings, a Lino floor and just half a dozen or so customers quietly drinking.  These are not part of the tourist hordes which I had pushed through on my way here from Oxford Circus station and who were milling along Regents Street and Carnaby Street but (I’m guessing) office workers on their lunchtime breaks.


My glass of water in the John Snow pub in Broadwick Street, Soho, London.

The relevance of this location to a blog entitled Microscopes and Monsters lies partly with the pub’s namesake and partly with a pump on the opposite corner from the pub.  This looks, from afar, like many of the other reminders of bygone eras that are scattered around London’s streets save for one thing: this pump does not have a handle.

Back in the middle of the nineteenth century, this area of Soho was hit by one of many outbreaks of cholera that were ravaging London at the time.  John Snow was a doctor working in this part of London who was trying to combat the disease.  This was, remember, some 30 years before Pasteur and Koch finally identified bacteria as the causal agents – microscopic monsters, in other words – in diseases such as cholera.  John Snow had, as a result, little evidence to help him except for his observation that this particular cluster of incidents of cholera were clustered around one particular pump on Broad (now Broadwick) Street.  Maybe, he reasoned, this was no coincidence.  Maybe a simple measure such as removing the handle of the pump would stem the tide of the disease in this part of London.

Now we know that there is a link between contaminated water and disease this all sounds self-evidently rational, but Snow was taking a step into the unknown with no more than circumstantial evidence with which to justify himself.  The locals would have seen him less of a saviour and more of a nuisance, necessitating a longer walk to bring their water home.  Yet it was a hunch which proved right, with the number of cholera cases falling in the period immediately following the handle’s removal.  And, in due course, a crack in the wall of a nearby cess pit was identified as the source of the contamination in the well.


The cool, dark, quietness inside the John Snow pub created an almost sepulchral atmosphere.  Sipping from a glass of clean water here takes on an almost Eucharistic purpose, reminding me of the contribution that John Snow and others made in the middle of the nineteenth century and which we take for granted today.  I emptied my glass and picked up my bag. I have one more destination on this brief pilgrimage to London before the day is over …

Hilda Canter-Lund prize 2013 shortlist

The shortlist for the 2013 Hilda Canter-Lund photography award is now online at http://www.brphycsoc.org/canter-lund/Shortlist_2013.lasso.   This is the fifth time we have run the competition and the shortlists for 2009, 2010 and 2011 can also be seen at this site.  The 2013 shortlist ranges from a mesmerising view of an underwater kelp forest, with fronds several metres in length, to a scanning electron micrograph showing an extreme close-up of the spore of the freshwater alga Nitella paludigena.   We hope to announce the winner within the next couple of weeks.

Lago di Maggiore under the microscope

My miniature shampoo bottle full of brown gunge from the bed of Lago di Maggiore made it back to the UK with no mishaps and it gives me the opportunity to see if some of the big ideas I talked about in my post of 13 June actually work in practice.   So, on the morning of the day after my return, I dipped a Pasteur pipette into to suspension and put a drop onto a microscope slide, lowered a coverslip onto this and slid it under my microscope.

The principle of an ecological level playing field is that we all share a common view of the condition of a water body.  In practice, this does not necessarily mean that we could all analyse each other’s samples because the scale of biogeographical variation across Europe is so huge that we would all find too many species we couldn’t recognise.   However, for the diatoms, we have a better chance of achieving this than for most groups of organisms.  Indeed, until relatively recently, most diatoms were thought to be cosmopolitan.  Since then, we have learnt that this is often not the case but, usually, the implications for ecology are relatively small.

I had travelled over 1200 kilometres from the top left hand corner of Europe to Lago di Maggiore but when I looked down my microscope, I had little problem identifying most of the organisms that were in the sample we scraped from the rocks at Ispra.  Some of the more distinctive forms are illustrated below.  The identifications are tentative because they are made from the live samples, without the cleaning process most diatomists use to prepare diatoms for accurate identification.  Nonetheless, most were very similar to organisms I find in UK lakes and streams.


Diatoms from the littoral zone of Lago di Maggiore, June 2013.   A.  Encyonema (probably E. caespitosum) living in a mucilage tube; b. a chain of Fragilaria capucina; c. Diatoma ehrenbergii; d., Cocconeis pediculus growing epiphytically on dead cells of the green alga Oedogonium.  The scale bar is 25 micrometres (1/25th millimetre) long.

The most abundant diatom, however, was not one of those illustrated above.   It was a much smaller diatom, Achnanthidium minutissimum or a close relative.  Seen from above, these have a lanceolate outline whilst from the side, they have a distinctively “bent” shape.   Over half of all the diatoms in the sample belonged to this species although, as it is so small, it probably does not represent half the biomass.   These are fast-growing species that can quickly cover bare surfaces and can also thrive in the presence of grazing invertebrates (we also found some small caddis larvae clinging to the edge of the stone).


Members of the Achnanthidium minutissimum complex from the littoral zone of Lago di Maggiore, June 2013.  The first two images show it from the side and above; the next two images show side views each with a short stalk by which it attaches to surfaces.   The scale bar is 10 micrometres (1/100th of a millimetre).

More importantly, from the point of view of the exercise I was conducting, Achnanthidium minutissimum and its relatives are abundant throughout Europe in lakes that are at high or good status.   You can find them in more impacted lakes too but rarely in such large numbers, so the presence of so many cells of A. minutissimum is a positive sign.

The final twist in this tale was to see how I would have classified this lake, had it been in the UK rather than Italy.  Chemically, Lago di Maggiore is similar to Windermere, in the Lake District, having water that is neither particularly hard nor particularly soft, and it is also a lake scoured out by glacial activity, though Windermere is tiny by comparison.   Had I found this set of diatoms in Windermere, the UK classification system would return the answer as “high status”.  The Italians are still developing their classification system, so I could not apply that, but I did also calculate a pan-European index that we use for international comparisons, and got the same answer.   It is only a very rough exercise, with just a single lake, but to be able to travel so far across Europe and still feel that our classification systems are broadly comparable made me feel that the whole exercise had been worthwhile.

Art at Schiphol Airport

The journey home was, thankfully, less stressful than the outward trip, and I got to Amsterdam with time to spare for a trip to the airside art gallery. The theory goes something like this: air passengers have time that they don’t know how to fill and major art galleries have back rooms full of paintings that they don’t have space to display. So putting a small gallery in the transit area of a large airport is a win-win, especially when visitors have to enter and leave through the inevitable gift shop.


Inside the airside art gallery at Schiphol Airport.

There is room for about twenty pictures, half of which form a rotating, themed exhibition so the occasional visitor such as myself always has something new to see. This visit comes just a month or so after the Rijksmuseum reopened after its major refurbishment and, perhaps to celebrate, there had been a complete re-hang in its airside offshoot. The Rijksmuseum’s embarrassment of riches is such that they can spare a portrait by Frans Hals for this show, along with works by other notables of the Dutch Golden Age such as Cornelius Springer. A few year’s ago, I even saw a Rembrandt here.


Frans Hal’s Portrait of a man, possibly a clergyman at the airside art gallery at Schiphol Airport.

The contrast with Heathrow Terminal 5 always hits me when I’m here.  Schiphol has the inevitable designer boutiques but, somehow, manages to transcend Heathrow’s “shopping mall with aeroplanes” aura.  The National Gallery, surely, has just as many pictures in its store rooms but I could not envisage this ingenious outcome. The profit motive would, inevitably, get in the way.

An impromptu sampling trip at Lago di Maggiore …


Sampling diatoms from Lago di Maggiore.  Nigel Willby (left) and Sebastian Birk and, in the foreground, the sample collected in a plastic cup with a disposable toothbrush.

One of the inevitable quirks of the high-level overview of Europe’s ecology that intercalibration provided was that we spent most of our time staring at spreadsheets and relatively little time out in the field. The irony struck me as Lago di Maggiore came into view on the drive from the airport to JRC’s campus at Ispra: I’ve been here several times, always to discuss intercalibration, but I’ve never actually taken a sample from this huge lake right on JRC’s doorstep.

There was, however, a problem to overcome: I had travelled light so had nothing with which to collect or store a sample. Last night I had been given an emergency pack of toiletries by KLM, which included a toothbrush, but I had blithely discarded this. I did wonder if my own toothbrush could be pressed into service but there, waiting in my otherwise basically-equipped room at the Europa Hotel, was a toothbrush. What better sign did I need that this sampling trip was Meant To Happen?

In the gap between the end of the meeting and dinner, I pressed two colleagues who had the forethought to bring swimming trunks into service to collect stones from the littoral zone just in front of the hotel. Each had a thin slimy layer on the surface (the stones, not Nigel and Sebastian). I brushed this into a plastic cup, again filched from the hotel room, then left this on a shelf in the bathroom whilst we went to dinner so that the algae would settle at the bottom. When I got back, I poured off most of the overlying water and decanted the brown sludge at the bottom into a shampoo bottle which I had rinsed out thoroughly. A shot of grappa could have been pressed into service as a temporary preservative, but I did not think of that until it was too late.

The only obstacle that remains is airport security. I’ll have to hope that no-one questions this strange brown “shampoo” in my luggage and that, if forced to admit it is diatoms, the security staff don’t recall that fossil diatoms are a constituent of the soft, sedimentary rock “kieselguhr”, and, more particularly, that no-one ever told them that kieselguhr is one ingredient of TNT.

Still travelling … still thinking …


Lago di Maggiore, photographed on Thursday evening, after my protracted journey. 

My hopes of a lazy morning looking at the alps reflected in the calm water of Lago di Maggiore as I sipped an espresso were dashed by the French strike and, instead, I spent most of the morning in transit and reflecting on the purpose of the meeting.

My trips to JRC have all been associated with the EU’s intercalibration exercise. Because the EU operates under a principle known as “subsidiarity”, every state has developed its own approaches to implementing the Water Framework Directive (and all other Directives). Consequently, the ecological targets that each country sets for itself may differ and this, in turn, will have knock-on effects for subsequent investment. If there is to be a “level playing field”, in other words, we first need to calibrate all these national targets. Imagine a row of ecologists peering over the edge of a bridge and comparing notes on the condition of the river flowing beneath them. That’s intercalibration. Except that the ecologists are more likely to be looking at a tray full of bugs, or down a microscope or, to disrupt my Arcadian image yet further, staring at enormous spreadsheets. And an ecologist from Scandinavia might be standing next to one from Cyprus, each of whom will bring very different experiences with them.

It has been, as a result, a huge challenge and, though the results are sometimes a little more ragged around the edges than we would have liked, enormously satisfying. As ever in science, many of the successes come from applying rigorous and objective processes to the data but, as we emerge from the end of the process, I wonder how much differences in approach between countries reflect deeper currents of culture and economy that scientists tend to overlook?

Does a country with a tradition of high taxation and public spending produce methods that are more resource-intensive than one where the public sector is less well financed? Does a country in the midst of economic recession have the budgets to develop methods as advanced as those in the wealthier parts of Europe? Does a country with a high population density (and, as a result, less wilderness) have lower expectations for the state of its freshwaters than one with a low density? The answer to all those questions is “perhaps” and, hopefully, the intercalibration exercise has given us an opportunity to iron out the major differences – whether scientific or cultural – and bring us closer to this “level playing field”.

However, because so many new methods have been developed over the past few years in response to the demands of the Water Framework Directive, I have one extra concern: many of these new methods have emerged “box fresh” from academia and are still not fully tried and tested in the real world. My long-term worry is that academic science generally sets high standards for “data” whereas end-users are more focused on “information”. Between the two there can be much redundancy yet, at the same time there is a fine line between “streamlining” data collection to increase efficiency, and “cutting corners”, which might lead to poor decisions. Maybe a state that has not been hit hard by the Eurozone crisis and which has a tradition of a genorously funded public sector will not be unduly concerned by this but, elsewhere, costs of implementation are a real concern.

I am convinced that the relationship between data and information follows the law of diminishing marginal utility (the “Pareto principle”) whereby we get most of the information we need to inform a judgment relatively quickly, and then spend a lot more time dancing the stately pavanes as decreed by the traditions of our academic sub-disciplines. I also suspect (from the quality of “applied” ecology papers I read) that few journals have sufficient stakeholder/end-user engagement to challenge these traditions. The risk is not just higher costs of ecological assessment, but that the process will remain in the hands of a “priesthood” of elite scientists and that this will, ultimately, limit our ability to communicate with stakeholders. They, ultimately, pay the bills, so we ignore them at our peril.

En route to Milan: more musings about Leonardo

How better to follow a post about Leonardo da Vinci than with a trip to Milan? I am not actually going to Milan itself, but landing at the airport and then travelling about 50 km north of Milan to the shore of Lago di Maggiore and the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre. I’ve been here about half a dozen times in total and, so far, other commitments have always conspired to prevent me from having time to travel into Milan itself. The one time I did have the opportunity to fulfil a long-held desire to see the Last Supper, I did not realise until too late that it was necessary to book weeks or even months in advance. There was a happy ending of sorts because a month or so after this abortive trip, I saw a contemporary copy of the Last Supper in an exhibition at the National Gallery. Ironically, this full-size oil on canvas copy had survived rather better than Leonardo’s original fresco, so I had the last laugh.

The Last Supper encapsulates the reasons why the borderlands between art and science fascinate me. The exhbition at the National Gallery had many of Leonardo’s preliminary sketches and these, along with his anatomical sketches, show how his finished works are built on a foundation of understanding, borne out of observation, of the human form. Behind a large work such as the Last Supper there is also a deep understanding of the mathematical principles of perspective. Add in a knowledge of pigments and we have three distinct areas of science combining in Leonardo’s mind to inform the finished work.

But why? The Last Supper fills one wall of the refectory at the Convent of Santa Maria fella Grazie. The monks saw lifesize and anatomically-accurate depictions of Jesus and his disciples eating as they ate. Leonardo had brought all that science and art together to evoke the presence of Christ, with all the complex symbolism of the eucharist. This is not “fine art” that exists in a vacumn, but a work with a very clear function: an ever-present reminder to the monks of their vocation.

Ours may be a less superstitious world, but it is no less mysterious and one of the roles art can still play is to fill in some of the gaps when the “hard” evidence upon which science depends runs out. Some of the best examples are the reconstructions of the worlds inhabited by dinosaurs, when the meagre anatomical evidence is extrapolated into plausible entities. Just as the monks were pulled into the Last Supper as they ate their meals, so we can use these “imagined but not imaginary” landscapes as ways to enter (or, at least, come closer to) prehistoric worlds or, in my case, microscopic ones.

Postscript: I didn’t make it to Milan today after all. An air traffic control strike in France disrupted flights all over Europe and I’m writing this from a hotel close to the airport at Amsterdam. It’s not just me: go to heatherkellyblog.wordpress.com for more travelling misadventures today.