Clive Cookson

A visit to Purdue, a state university in the cornfields of Indiana almost three hours drive from Chicago, shows the strength in depth of the US academic system.

I’m just back from my third visit, courtesy of Purdue’s imaginative Science Journalism Laureates programme. On each occasion I have been struck by the intellectual quality of the academic staff – faculty, as they are known in America – and the curiosity of the students.

For research as a whole, Purdue is not in the same league as Harvard or Stanford but in some fields it is world class. One is palaeoclimatology, the study of past climate and what it can tell us about the likely course of global warming in future.

Matt Huber left me fascinated but deeply depressed by his latest conclusions about the climate’s response to rising and falling levels of carbon dioxide over the past 50m years. He and his Purdue colleagues have discovered that climate is more sensitive to CO2 than previously suspected – which is of course extremely bad news for efforts to control manmade global warming. I’ll use his insights soon for an FT article on climate history.

Another Purdue scientist with thought-provoking views is David Waters. He showed us how misguided some of the big clinical trials of vitamins and nutritional supplements have been – particularly the $175m US trial to see whether selenium pills can cut men’s risk of prostate cancer, which was stopped last year because it was, if anything, increasing the incidence of disease.

The problem, according to Waters, was that the trial took all comers in the chosen age group, rather than focussing on those – a minority in the US – who are actually deficient in selenium. From that base he built a devastating critique of the “either-or-ness” of public health medicine, and the search for things that are “good for you”.

Part of the rationale for the laureates programme is to interact with Purdue people – and part to discuss issues in science journalism. This year’s set-piece theme was “science journalism in the age of Twitter” in the form of what Americans call a “town hall meeting” with Purdue staff.

Each of the 12 journalists present had to kick off proceedings with a 100-word statement. One managed to do so within the 140-character (about 25 words) Twitter limit.

Opinions about the future of science journalism varied from optimism through “we’ve seen it all before” to utter gloom.

Clive Cookson

An imaginative campaign to inspire the next generation of scientists and engineers is launched today.

More than 60 well-known figures from the worlds of entertainment, sport, science and business have come up with “if only” ideas – one discovery or invention they wish existed.

They range from the selfish (Gary Lineker, former England footballer, wanted “A time machine so I could go back and play one extra game for England to become England’s all time highest ever scorer”) to the altruistic.

Many people chose solutions to climate change and the energy crisis. My favourite wish comes from Colin Blakemore, Oxford neuroscientist and former head of the Medical Research Council: “If only we had an attractive solution to global warming and the energy crisis. What about synthetic Wisteria, capable of performing artificial photosynthesis, capturing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and converting sunlight to electricity, with its roots connected to the National Grid?”

Blakemore’s “if only” is one of several illustrated by the organisers of the National Engineering Competition. They’ll be accepting entries from 11-18 year olds before 30 October. Finals take place at the Big Bang Young Scientists’ and Engineers’ Fair in Manchester in March.

If you have children at secondary school in the UK, encourage them to have a go…

Clive Cookson

From tomorrow (Tuesday, September 15) the public will be able to view the gigantic “cocoon”, eight stories high and 65 metres long, which houses the new £78m Darwin Centre at London’s Natural History Museum.

The cocoon

The cocoon

The spectacular cocoon, made of polished plaster over sprayed concrete, sits inside a glass atrium on the museum’s western site, next to the original 1881 Alfred Waterhouse terracotta building. It was opened this afternoon by David Attenborough and Prince William (the latter’s first official museum opening).

Danish architects C.F. Møller designed the centre to combine public displays, specimen collections and working scientific laboratories. Research staff will be on hand to discuss their work with visitors.

“Many people love the museum for its iconic Victorian building,” says Neil Greenwood, programme director. “We wanted to challenge this traditional perception and highlight the work of our scientists and the importance of our collections.”

His colleague Paul Bowers says an important aim is to “counteract the public image of museum science as being done by older white men working on their own.”

Funding for the extension came from the Heritage Lottery Fund, Department for Culture, Media and Sport and the Wellcome Trust, among other organisations.

I loved the place, on my press preview, and strongly recommend a visit.

Clive Cookson

London’s great Science Museum opens its centenary celebrations today, with an invitation to visitors to vote for the object that is most significant in the history of science, technology and medicine.

The museum is proposing 10 candidates, of which the most ancient is Thompson’s Atmospheric Engine (1791), the oldest surviving industrial steam engine. The most recent is the Apollo 10 command module in which Tom Stafford, John Young and Gene Cernan travelled around the Moon in 1969 (see picture below).

In between the museum is offering Stephenson’s Rocket locomotive, a Model T Ford car, the V2 rocket engine and Watson and Crick’s DNA model, among other exhibits. They have been arranged in a special Centenary Journey trail.

Further details of the Science Museum’s development plans for the beginning of its second century will be announced this morning. They include new galleries and an updated façade on Exhibition Road.

Lord Mandelson, head of the newly created Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) - the latest home for science in the government – says in a speech released last night ahead of today’s centenary launch: “Every time I come here, I feel like a kid again.

“And of course, every day hundreds of children and their parents walk through this Museum’s doors… What follows is wide-eyed amazement, lively debate and exciting experiments. It’s never boring.”

I agree with him. I’ll never forget my boyhood excitement coming to London to visit the Science Museum.

(And incidentally my vote for the museum’s top “centenary icon” goes to the Model T, with the DNA double helix in second place.)


Apollo 10 is winched aboard its recovery vessel at the end of its lunar mission in May 1969 Credit: NASA/SSPL

The world of research

The science blog is no longer updated but it remains open as an archive.

Clive Cookson, the FT's science editor, picks out the research that everyone should know about, in fields from astronomy to zoology. He also discusses key policy issues, from R&D funding to science education. He'll cover the weird and wonderful, as well as the serious side of science.