On Birds

I wrote this nearly two years ago when I first started reading  Teju Cole’s Open City, and it has appeared on Twitter in some form.

Started reading Open City.. Beautiful:

“..and I doubted in some part of myself whether these birds [migrating geese], with their dark wings and throats, their pale bodies & tireless little hearts, really did exist. So amazed was I by them that I couldn’t trust my memory when they weren’t there.”

Makes me think of V-formations of birds-perhaps not geese- against pink Tasmanian skies. I always hoped they were geese. My backyard was shadowed by the foothills of Mount Wellington, the centre of my world. My anglophilic parents made me grow up wishing for imaginary English meadows. I looked for cardinals, wrens, thrushes and found none. I didn’t even find rosellas. Kookaburras laughed in the distance, at a willow creek.

I grew up with books illustrated by Rene Cloake. Treasuries of poetry. Enid Blyton. Swallows featured heavily in the illustrations. I looked for swallows, everywhere, over the years, the split tale silhouette etched in my mind from Cloake’s drawings. They didn’t come to Tasmania. Nor to Sri Lanka to escape the Northern winter.

In the osiers which fringed the bank he [the Water Rat] spied a swallow sitting. Presently it was joined by another ,and then by a third; and the birds, fidgeting restlessly on their bough, talked together earnestly and low.

‘What, already,‘ said the Rat, strolling up to them. ‘What’s the hurry? I call it simply ridiculous.’

”O, we’re not off yet, if that’s what you mean,’ replied the first swallow. ‘We’re only making plans, arranging things..what route we’re taking this year, and where we’ll stop and so on. That’s half the fun!.. No, you don’t understand, naturally.. First,we feel it stirring within us, a sweet unrest; then back come the recollections one by one.. They flutter through our dreams at night.. They fly with us in our wheelings and circlings by day.. I moved southwards week by week, lingering as long as I dared but always heeding the call!’

In Canberra, the winters were bitterly cold but the sun shone over frost-encrusted fields. We Southerners don’t have names for these frosts – the English do ,but we are unused to them. Hoar, rime. I walked across the oval from my college to the lab. Sometimes taking a longer route, the better to enjoy the grounds. I don’t recall if it was summer or winter, spring, autumn. One twilight I walked across the damp oval with muddy tyre marks. A bird was wheeling, low,around the oval. Nearer to the ground, them soaring up into the air suddenly. A tiny bird. In the dim light I caught the dark blue. Was there.. was there a tiny red bib? The bird soared upwards suddenly against the fading light. The split tail silhouetted against the sky. The swallow had come South for the winter.

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The Home Molecu…

The Home Molecular Gastronomist


hand held centrifuge/operated

mini distillery sets

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A Day in the Life

The calmest moment of my day comes when I walk through the park.  The tall elms, planted by a foresighted, public spirited planner, form colonnades and avenues: fresh, intense green in late spring, gold in autumn.  The Institute, ensconced in a hospital lies across the park, with splendid views through rare windows over its faux-meadows, forever dreaming of England.  This walk makes my day.

Peter is at the lifts.  He’s part of an army of volunteers who give their time to the hospital, helping patients, or simply manning the lifts.  He’s been there for as long as I have worked there, longer.  He smiles, and points upwards, mouthing the word “up.” I don’t even need to ask.

Belongings disposed of:  no food is allowed in the PC2 labs, for fear of DNA escaping into the air and attacking our food items.  Rush in. The day begins.

First things first: Check in with the boss. Are there any pressing items?  Any extra experiments that must be planned for this week, or done today?  The timetable I was forming in my head in my walk across the park is readjusted.  The day is defined by the longest experiment, more often than not, a fluorescence assoaicted cell sort (FACS), where cells are stained with antibodies to determine or confirm various outcomes.  For example, we use them to determine whether the cells we are studying express a certain gene or protein, or factor.  We use it to check whether the cells are growing and proliferating, or dying when we treat them with drugs.  The experiment has breaks in it, or incubations.  The cells sit with the reagents for about half an hour at a time, leaving me with a break into which I insert other tasks – or a lunch or tea break.  Everything else must be arranged around it – the other, shorter experiments, the maintenance work of keeping cells going, mice happy, the lab tidy.  Science is the prosaic means by which we discover the sublime.

I don’t have to start the FACS experiment straight away. Not always.  The cells we frequently use are grown in the lab, as sheets growing on plastic,or suspended in media.  Less frequently, the cells are harvested directly from tumours.  The tumours must be mashed up to separate the cells, processed to extract the cells we are interested in – either the tumour cells themselves, or the immune cells that infiltrate them. If I do that experiment, then the whole day is made over to it.  But not today.  Today, it’s a run of the mill FACS stain, by my standards at least.  Two incubations, half an hour each, and I’m set.  I can do many other things today.

My timetable coalesces as I read my email.  Around me the lab banter continues, an endless stream begun some time past,it’s an ongoing conversation that’s added to, day by day, meandering from an original subject, which was probably a query as to where the magnetic beads were kept.  The English PhD students and postdocs mock the recent loss of Australia to the Indian cricket team, on Australia’s home soil.  The Old Enemy has never forgotten the sting of the first Ashes.  “We’re just checking the H2N lines for expression profiles today,” was the brief.  H2N is short for Her2neu

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ad astra per aspera

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