A good friend of mine has an observatory in Malta. Well, I probably make that sound more grand than he would feel comfortable with. It is not Mount Palomar or the Hubble space telescope. There are no huge white domes here with massive mirrors and lenses. This is on a much smaller scale – basically a reflector telescope on a rooftop. Not a colossal structure but nevertheless, in the sense it has a telescope trained on the night skies, it is an observatory. Keep that in mind whilst I tell you more of where this telescope has taken him.

JR would be quick to tell you that he is an amateur not a professional astronomer. Astronomy is many things to many people but for JR and myself it is mostly about staring in gaping awe at the majesty of the heavens rather than computing, calculating and correcting the orbits of objects so terminally uninteresting as to leave even the theoreticians cold. JR is all about the beauty of the heavens and their visibility.

Astronomy is not about numbers (well it is but we will come to that in a minute). It is a paean to beauty and, if you are of that leaning, doubtless speaks to you of creation.

Over the last several years JR has taken a series of breathtaking photographs of what we astronomers call deep sky objects – deep sky in the sense of being way beyond our own solar system. Galaxies, globular clusters of stars, nebulae, supernova remnants, the fragmented graveyards of red giants and the blue nurseries of infant suns. These are the places where stars are born. Elsewhere stars at the end of their celestial journey fade into darkness in a final ruddy glow.

I was quick to dismiss numbers earlier but of course there are necessary to find your way round the heavens. Every astronomical object has a location in right ascension and declination, in essence it’s postcode. And whilst you can locate each nebulae or galaxy with little more than that, the faintest nebulae will still be darker than the most penetrating eyesight. So rather than stare into the darkness itself, why not use technology to one’s advantage? A laptop, some software and a motor drive on the telescope allows one to find and photograph things you cannot even see. And of course you don’t even need to enter the coordinates on the scope. You can do it through the Internet.

All of which is rather long preamble to last Saturday night when JR invited me, through the power of the World Wide Web, to take a photograph of a deep sky object of my choice. I think partly it was an exercise on software compatibility, to see whether one could take pictures remotely. But I didn’t need to be asked twice. I jumped at the chance.

But which object should I photograph? The Horsehead nebula? Perhaps the globular cluster in Hercules? Or how about the Ring nebula in Lyra? Or the Sombrero Galaxy? It was like a chocolate box with all your favourite soft fondant centres and no nut clusters.

I chose the Dumbbell Nebula (Messier catalogue M27), a planetary nebula discovered in 1764, in the tiny faint constellation of Vulpecula (the little fox). An elegant little nebula – not perhaps a premiership object but pleasant nonetheless with a white dwarf star at its centre surrounded by a gaseous veil.

We linked the two computers – in Kent and Malta and, before I knew it almost, I was giving the scope its coordinates and watching as it revolved into position. It would take several long exposures but as it did so we watched the image build on the screen.

I would like to say that it was my photograph based on less than an hour of learned expertise but the truth was that it was a collaboration between myself the neophyte and JR the expert. Not to mention a pricey telescope, software, camera and more. It was by no means my solo!

DBS Diary 05: The letter

It’s one thing knowing that your operation is to take place in the autumn but quite another to know exactly the date and location. The email (or perhaps that should read THE email) arrived today, confirming in black and white, the date when I go under the knife. No, I’m not going to announce it here but let’s just say that if it goes well, there will be fireworks!

Immediately after reading the email, I begin to notice a change in myself. Suddenly things previously only discussed in the abstract are transformed subtly into tangible realities. And that makes all the difference. ‘In the autumn’ is vague and comforting. The ‘Xth of November’ is unsettlingly immediate. Okay it’s two months away. Plenty of time to pack my hospital bag and be ready. Ridiculous then, as I did, to fish out an overnight bag and start packing it. Better to make a list. And calm down.

I sat for a moment or two on the edge of my bed while I gathered my thoughts. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t nervous. No matter how routine the procedure, how skilled the surgeon and how reassuring the statistics it is still enough to raise the heart rate a little. That’s only natural. Any procedure in which your brain is opened up to the atmosphere, however briefly, is likely to engender at least a modicum of anxiety. After all, we have evolved skulls for very good reasons – to keep the brain in and the atmosphere out. Neurosurgery respects no such distinction.

Reduced to its basic acts, the surgery is straightforward. You could do it on the kitchen table*.

1)       Toss a coin – heads  for left, tails for right.

 2)      Saw a hole on one side of the skull using a drill and a circular saw attachment (£29.99 in B&Q until the bank holiday). Oh, about the size of pound coin I guess.

3)       Jab the brain with the electrode (that’s the one that looks a bit like a cocktail stick). You might want to practice this stage beforehand – say with a cocktail stick and maybe a raspberry milk jelly until you’ve got the hang of it. Better safe than sorry.

4)       Fill the hole with Polyfilla (or whatever the surgical equivalent is) and drag wires out under the skin to the chest. You remembered the wires, right?

5)       Implant the battery pack (about the size of a Baby Bel cheese portion) on the left-hand side of the chest and connect to the electrodes.

6)       High five the surgical team, wake up the patient and wash down the table ready for the kids tea when they’re back from school.

7)       Succumb to a brief moment of panic when you realise one of the Baby Bels for the children’s tea is missing. Turns out to be in your pocket.

8)       Note to self: cheese has no place in the operating theatre.

Joking aside (you did realise I was joking, right), the first part of the surgery is genuinely Neolithic. Boring holes in the head (trephining) was a popular treatment for insanity, seizures and headaches in those cave dwelling times. If leeches didn’t work, opening up the skull was the next step in the Neolithic manual of medicine. Amazingly, some of those trephined survived. Well, long enough to have the procedure repeated – there are examples of Neolithic skulls with evidence of repeated trephining, some holes being partly healed.

As I write this I realise that I’m probably not painting the best possible picture for those whose enthusiasm for DBS might be wavering in the light of such revelations.  I’ll stop.

Sat on the edge of the bed, my mind wanders beyond the simple list of toothpaste, deodorant et cetera. Soon I’m thinking of the whole surgical procedure and how it’s assessed. For the most part, the presurgical workup involves discussion between patient and the DBS team (neurologist, neurosurgeon, DBS nurse, and a few others) of what to expect. We talk a lot for instance about expectation management. That sounds like some kind of administrative or managerial term but it’s really no more than checking that the patient has good enough insight into their condition to know what kind of improvements to expect. In simple terms, make sure the bar is at the right height. If a patient believes DBS is a cure, they are on course for a disappointment. If they think that a small reduction in tremor is their best possible outcome, then they will be pleasantly surprised.

I like to think that my expectations are realistic and I will go through them in more detail in a later blog as D-Day, or should that be D(BS)-Day draws nigh. In general, I’m more interested in numbers now. I am no longer satisfied with verbal descriptions – ‘the chances of anything wrong are  very low’. what I want to read is that the likelihood of perisurgical stroke, heart attack or infection is X, Yand Z% respectively. For the same reason phrases like ‘big improvements in motor scores‘ fails to float my boat either. I want to see A% improvement in sleep scores, a -B change in gait asymmetry and so on.

I have an innate impatience with descriptors that don’t adequately describe. After all one person’s ‘huge improvement’ is another person’s ‘better but no big deal‘. So I want to see that they both had a 15% improvement in UPDRS scores. Or whatever.

But there’s plenty of time for that. The email detailing the date of my operation invites me to get in touch if I have any questions about the procedure and the time in hospital. They may regret that. Because I have questions. Boy do I have questions.

*No, don’t actually do this on the kitchen table. Or any table. In fact, don’t do it at all. Don’t even think about doing it. This is a procedure for skilled professionals and, in case you’re wondering, no that’s not you.

LPs or CDs?

I started collecting LPs when I was 15. I can remember the record in question (Hot August Night by Neil Diamond) and the first classical album I bought shortly thereafter (Peer Gynt by Grieg). At first I bought infrequently – I was only a schoolboy and my pocket money went only just so far. But I listened to a great deal of music and consequently bought discerningly.

By the 1980s, when I was in my early twenties, with four years of university behind me, I found myself drawing a salary as a research assistant. In terms of stacking up the vinyl I had money to burn. Almost literally. It was an opportunity to buy all those albums I had coveted. No more months of grim self-denial. It was time to splurge.

Almost every Saturday would find me skulking amongst the racks at the HMV Shop on Oxford Street, The Virgin Megastore at Tottenham Court Road or Tower Records at Piccadilly Circus. And for classical music, nothing could beat the Music Discount Centre (formerly Ron’s Music Shop) opposite Charing Cross station. Occasionally I would dive down into the back streets of Soho in search of rare jazz recordings. The shops got to know me and would keep me abreast of anticipated shipments of specialist live recordings as they euphemistically described what everyone else knew as bootlegs. And I walked everywhere, connecting the dots between the tube stations, piecing together a retail homunculus of London’s West End.

One might suppose this to be a young man’s indulgence, put aside or curtailed by each sequential life event – marriage, children and so on, with their associated dips in spending power. Wrong. Although I never quite ever topped the unfettered retail assault of my twenties, the habit continued unabated. I am now in my early 60s and the record (LP and CD) collection stands at a giddying 4000 discs. 4000 discs in 48 years is 83 albums per year. That’s a disc every 4 1/2 days. On average. I don’t know whether I should be ashamed or proud.

The truth of it is I love music. Almost every form or manifestation of music. From the Taiko drummers of Japan to the Fado singers of Portugal. From unaccompanied folk singers in Northumbria to the Symphony of a thousand by Mahler. From the jingle jangle of Javanese gamelan to the woody resonance of a solo cello. A cornucopia of music.

And it had to be on LP or, latterly, CD. I was never a huge fan of cassettes. The quality was never adequate despite the weight of advertising trying to persuade us otherwise. Cassettes flattered to deceive. I started with LPs and postponed the decision to swap over to CD (or not) until the late 80s. I’m not sure why I was so reticent. The price differential between LP and CD was certainly offputting, with CDs essentially double the price of LPs. That wasn’t the sole cause of my caution.

Mixed messages seemed to emerge from the CD lobby. “Perfect sound forever” was the courageous claim of the CD manufacturers. Forever is a long time. And this kind of perfection was difficult to reconcile with those bizarre adverts showing CDs daubed with butter, strawberry jam and whatever. There are surely better ways of demonstrating the durability of this then new vehicle. In any case, it hardly a fair comparison. I have always taken my LPs neat – no butter or jam.

CDs were easy – put them in the tray, press play. That was it. All of it. What could be easier? I guess that was another attraction for many listeners. They didn’t need to worry about any rigmarole.

Okay so the the sound seemed better on unbuttered CDs – brighter, clearer and more detailed. You really could hear one of the trombonists quietly break wind in the seventh bar of Mahler 5. On LP, his blushes were spared by the background rumble, snap, crackle and pop of the LP’s groove. For classical music, the pleasure of hearing the music emerge from silence, apart from the occasional flatulent brass player (why is it always the brass?) was worth the premium. For rock, the claimed advantages of CD were less obvious. And certainly you would have been hard pressed to detect any trouser coughing against the backdrop of John Bonham’s drumming.

I think my reticence in changing over completely to CD was twofold. Firstly and most obviously perhaps, I liked the physical presence of LPs much more than CDs. In the early days of CDs, often the cover design was little more than a scaling down of the equivalent LP and whilst the writing on an LP sleeve was readable, the same could not be said for the minuscule text on the CD booklet. Call me picky but I quite like being able to read those background notes. Especially on jazz albums where documentation is everything – “Jellyroll Morton played this with a sprained thumb causing him to miss the entry in the second bar of Cold Ravioli Blues”. That sort of thing.

But the real root of my reticence is what I called the rigmarole. Secretly I think I quite enjoyed it. Putting the record on the turntable, carefully wiping it down with a carbon fibre brush to clear the surface dust, brushing the stylus with isopropyl alcohol before slowly lowering the arm down onto the disc. It was my way of showing my respect for the music and for the record itself. If I looked after it then it would look after me. So many of my friends paid little attention to such preparatory ritual and paid the price with records that showed their age in the ingrained surface debris and compromised sound.

And what of my LPs, mostly 30 or more years old and largely unplayed for most of those three decades? How do they sound? well, pretty good if I’m honest. With a decent if not state-of-the-art turntable, they have aged well. Protective sleeves have helped. The sound is bright and musical and whilst the flatulent trombonist is inaudible, the rest of the brass section rings out clearly.

I haven’t failed to notice the recent resurgence of LPs. And whilst I was reticent 40 years ago to change from LP to CD, I’m in no hurry to change back again. Sonically I think CDs hold the edge unless competing with the kind of turntables that need a mortgage. Pound for pound, CDs remain superior (in my humble opinion). No end of side distortion, more limited dynamic range and ever so slightly muddier sound quality. Plus, most remarkably, they often cost more than the equivalent CDs. That seems to me particularly paradoxical.

And when it comes to streaming, don’t get me started. Well at least not for the moment.

Children of the night

It’s a little after four in the morning and already I know that further attempts at sleeping will be futile. It doesn’t matter when I go to bed I’m always woken at four. And it’s always by the milkman on his rounds.

I have two points to make here. Firstly, why does it have to be at four in the morning? What’s wrong with say six? And secondly, what kind of milkman delivers dairy goods in a Subaru? I was accustomed to the gentle whining of the milk float’s electric motor punctuated by the clinking gamelan of empties. Soothing almost. Which is more than can be said for the supercharged snarl of the Subaru making its rounds. They may not even have been in my street, so loud is the sound.

But, milk float or rally car, the effect is the same. I’m awake and, if not exactly alert, at least teetering on the side of wakefulness over somnolence. This, as any parkie will tell you, is bonus time – those nameless hours that span the time until the rest of the world stirs. In the kind of perverted logic that sacrifices sleep on the altar of stupidity, we arise like a legion of zombies from our beds, switch on the computer and watch YouTube or drift through the chat rooms until the grey light of day. We know we shouldn’t but still we do. We are children of the night.

As dawn breaks, we sip espresso, breathing cold swirls of condensation, triaging our email – delete, answer or ignore. The usual misspelt ‘personal’ invitations to launder untraceable Angolan dollars, life changing secrets of the stock market, never-to-be-missed offers on plastic surgery (two nips and a tuck) for one all-inclusive price. The usual stuff. All deleted unopened.

Then there are the more marginal but invariably unsolicited invitations to upgrade my satellite subscription. For additional £5 a month I can have a further 10 shopping channels, endless reruns of half baked sitcoms that should have long since been put out of their misery, and ‘gems’ from the Ready Steady Cook archive. It could be worse – those unfortunate enough to answer within a week receive an additional secret gift which, too late, turns out to be an endlessly repeated treasury of Graham Norton celebrity interviews. Sometimes, if in the mood for sport, I will call the 24-hour freephone number where, I’m assured, “operators are waiting to take your call” to ‘discuss’ their offer. Mostly I don’t. Note to self: cancel the cable subscription. Then there is the weekly invitation from Who’s Who to be part of their next edition. All for a temptingly modest sum upfront and an annual subscription to cover the costs of the “lavishly bound” leather covered volume. I think not. Does anybody fall for this nonsense?

Nestling amongst this quasi-criminal, vainglorious twaddle are prescription transcripts, reminders of elapsed
computer-generated hospital appointment advisories and magazines profiling the condition. Worthy but interesting. Usually they are enough to induce the kind of sleep I have otherwise struggled to attain. Perhaps I should stop trying to sleep in a bed and simply sit at my desk once I have put my pyjamas on. Whatever works.

I have taken to siestas recently, bowing to the need for sleep over the need for coffee. Well, I call it a siesta but it’s not a formal siesta as such. More a sort of crash landing on the bed in an undignified heap. A sort of belly flop. Sometimes not even entirely on the bed. A kind of disaster siesta.

I’ve been thinking a lot about sleep recently, since reading Matthew Walker’s book which, in an inadvertent tribute to the author, I find particularly somnolent. Don’t get me wrong, it’s an excellent book, full of science and practical advice. But there is a certain irony to a book entitled “Why we sleep” when its primary readership is those who don’t.

Over the many years of my insomnia, I have learnt depressingly little about its nature and how to combat it. You tell people you have insomnia and their responses usually one of “then go to bed earlier”, “yes I get that” or “you should take something for that”

Really? Do you think so?

I have tried every sleeping tablet you could imagine (and many you probably couldn’t). I have tried herbal recipes from across-the-board, infusions of improbable garden herbs, tinctures of this, tizanes of that. I have listened to the mating calls of humpback whales, chirping crickets in tropical rainforests and babbling spring brooks. Whilst considerably more soothing than listening to the foxes wailing outside, I cannot vouch for their efficacy. In fact I worry more about the people who recommended these therapies. Just how did they discover that humpback whales humping (or any whale for that matter) might send you to sleep? Has this been subjected to proper scientific scrutiny? I’d be surprised. And what kind of person conducts those experiments anyway? I think I’d rather not know.

Talking of conducting experiments, I’m testing a device at the moment. Two speakers and a central programme tablet which emits some kind of slow pulses intended to mimic or induce normal sleep patterns. No results yet – hold your horses. I’m trying to evaluate it as scientifically as possible. Sleep is notoriously vulnerable to placebo effects.

The device in question comes with a swathe of positive testimonials from those who have tried it and been satisfied. There’s not a lot of data on precisely what they consider to be success. More sleep? Better sleep?Plus the thing carries an eye watering pricetag. If you bought “his” and “hers”, you would not have much change from a grand. Justified I’m sure if it works, less so if not.

So I’m looking at time to onset of sleep, duration of sleep, number of times woken and quality of sleep whilst, at the same time, factoring in as many confounding variables as I can think of – things like temperature, food intake and timing, lighting, ambient sound, drug regime and so on. Essentially I am trying, like all good scientists, to turn subjectivity into objectivity.

Watch this space.

Writers and writing

I am uncomfortable with badges in general. Butcher, baker, candlestick maker (incidentally who does that these days?). Tinker, tailor, soldier, sailor, rich man, poor man and so forth. Badges pigeonhole people. They are diminishing not encompassing. Badges belittle. So I am uncomfortable with their overusage. In any case, few of the above descriptors apply in 21st-century parlance. Everyone is either a media consultant, a lifestyle guru, communications analyst, or website designer. Even the dustmen are now tarmacadam surface cleansing technicians, whatever the hell that means.

Not surprising then that such descriptors unsettle me. More to the point I am specifically uncomfortable with badging myself. For much of my life it has been easy, sequentially climbing each rung on the academic ladder: student, doctoral student, postdoc, lecturer, senior lecturer and reader. I never made it quite to professor before my academic career ended, a fact that still rankles some two decades later.

In terms of broad subject arena, I used to describe myself as a neuroscientist and, whilst I led a neuroscientific research lab, it seemed reasonable. But those days ended nearly 2 decades ago and any current claim to that noble epithet is, at best tenuous. If you don’t conduct research, it’s hard to call yourself a neuroscientist. With the onset of retirement, my grip on any neuroscience title hangs by a thread.

Friends – well, the kinder ones – tell me ‘neuroscientist’ is still appropriate, reflecting perhaps the primacy of past achievements over current standing. That makes me feel a little better even if I’m not sure I buy it myself. But if I’m not a neuroscientist, then what am I?

It feels a little awkward to call myself a writer. I have friends who are genuinely writers, their work published, acknowledged and recognised as such. I don’t mean blogs and bloggers although (seeing that I am digging myself into a hole) some of those can also legitimately be considered the work of ‘writers’. Many however are not, being little more than vehicles for political rants, social commentary, hobbies and interests. Nothing wrong with that. Everyone needs an outlet and, if a blog provides such a mouthpiece, so be it. It works for me, a convenient space to contain and constrain my ramblings and meanderings. I’m happy to hold my hand up as a blogger. But a blogger is not necessarily a writer.

I certainly don’t consider myself to be a writer or any suchlike. Writers are people like Hemingway, Kerouac, Twain, Austen, Joyce, Elliot, Dickens and Kipling. Those are writers. And there is a world of difference between what they did and what I do. But, in the sense that I am paid (sometimes) for what I put on paper, I suppose I am a writer of sorts. And you can see why I’m uncomfortable with the title. It doesn’t sit well.

For me, writing is a noble profession and writers estimable practitioners of the same, their work unconstrained, free-flowing and imaginative. Others might define it differently as little more than a process by which facts are conveyed. For me, that’s not writing. Technical writing is a grim bastardisation of the profession. I know. I’ve been there. In one of the darker corners of my curriculum vitae are the several years I spent fruitlessly trying to get back into academia. Nobody, as I know now but didn’t then, wanted ex-academic fortysomethings. But the kids still needed feeding so I reinvented myself, dividing my time as a psychology lecturer with the Open University and as a medical writer. The former briefly pandered to my lingering academic pretensions while the latter paid the bills. I wasn’t proud.

Let me put in a disclaimer here. I have a good many friends in that industry that I admire and appreciate. Lifers. And maybe for them this was the chosen path. But not for me. I resented writing other people’s research. It felt wrong. Still does to be honest. It didn’t feel like writing. One day I will shine the torch more deeply into those dark recesses. But not today.

It brings me to my final point about writing. Writing is not the squawking of a caged bird. Writing must be free. Writing is soaring the thermals at sunset, catching insects on the wing. That’s writing. And that’s the work of writers. And I know one thing for sure. I’m not there yet.

The diva, the boffin and me.

As time passes, my memory fades on some of the peripheral details. It was sometime in the early 1980s at the Wigmore Hall in London where I was waiting for a concert.

I glanced down at my watch. 7:10 and a steady drizzle was encouraging the concertgoers to file in. The concert in question was sold out many weeks in advance, long before I was aware of it. But fortune smiled on me that day and a friend ducked out, generously passing on his ticket to me via a fellow student. I was still waiting for Aidan, uncharacteristically late for a mathematician who prided himself on precision. When he finally appeared, joyfully waving the tickets at me in a manner that precluded any serious admonishment, I was greatly relieved. Not least because, standing in the rain, I needed to be greatly relieved.

You will perhaps forgive me for dabbling in hyperbole but, in classical music terms, these were the hottest tickets in town. A rare recital of the Wesendonk Lieder [1] by the great Wagnerian soprano Gwyneth Jones – Bayreuth’s celebrated Brunnhilde for much of the 1970s [2] and early 1980s. One of my absolute musical heroes.

After a brief exchange of tickets, money and banter about keeping a lady waiting, we headed for our seats. Or would have done had a taxi not drawn up immediately behind us. A lady’s voice from within the cab called “excuse me, young men…” in a tone that made bystanders look as much at us as the source of the voice. “Yes, you two” she said “you look strong”. Aiden and I exchanged looks of bewildered amusement.

Anyone who knows me at all knows that my physique is not that of an Adonis. I have a barrel where others have a sixpack. And matchsticks for arms. My PE teacher at school once asked me if I would ever consider bodybuilding. I told him body building was unlikely as I would, almost certainly, not get planning permission. In short, I don’t get called strong very often. Or at all. Ever.

Still, the tone of her voice made it clear that we were to assist in such manner as she needed. After a brief ‘discussion’ with the cabdriver over the fare (the cabbie capitulated quickly), she turned her attention to us, the strong men, and outlined our role. Once she had extracted her husband’s wheelchair from the taxi, we were to extract him from said vehicle, make him comfortable in the chair and wheel him to the awaiting disabled seat at the front of the auditorium, brushing aside anyone in our way. Aiden pushed while I cleared a path with more ‘excuse me’s than a tea dance at the Ritz.

“Do introduce yourself dear” she said to her husband. He tried – it was clearly a big effort – and, in stroke-scrambled speech managed to say “I’m Peter M*****”. I didn’t catch his surname, so slurred was his diction. Eventually we made it to the front, the journey interrupted by several “Hello Peter, hello Jean”. Just as we turned to find our own seats Jean said “We are having a little supper with Gwyneth afterwards. Would you gentlemen care to join us for a drink?”

The concert itself was magnificent. Gwyneth Jones had, at that time, a glorious honeyed soprano voice, Effortlessly ranging from the delicate intimacy of lieder to the soaring peaks of the Wagnerian canon. A voice capable of whispering the words of a song as though in your ear or taking on the massive wall of sound that is a Wagnerian orchestra in full charge. A voice of subtlety, emphasis, tenderness and beauty, all capable of being delivered at heroic volume. But of course she was Welsh and all Welsh can sing!

But who was Peter? He looked faintly famous and certainly the greetings from other members of the audience seemed to support that but I couldn’t quite place him. Then I remembered I had seen his picture whilst at school which was doubly confusing. Why would he be featured there? Was he a writer? An artist perhaps? Or a scientist? As the music played, I ran through the mental desk file of famous people who went alphabetically to my school [3] until I reached M and one Peter Medawar. Indeed the science block was named after him. And of course his portrait hung there.

It suddenly dawned on me that I was in the presence of one of the most celebrated biologists of his generation. And this generation included people like JZ Young, JBS Haldane and JD Bernal. Sir Peter, for it was he, had won pretty much every prize in biology there was. Indeed it went further – there are even prizes in biology named after him. In 1960 he was awarded the Nobel prize for his work on tissue grafting, research which provided the groundwork for modern organ transplantation. In short, a genius.

His achievements were breathtaking, his life strewn with academic and civil awards and titles. Indeed he would have been president of the Royal Society had not a stroke rendered that impossible. Medawar was also a prolific writer on science and the philosophy of science. One of my most treasured possessions is a first edition of his book “Advice to a Young Scientist”, still essential reading for anyone starting out on a PhD.

That much was well-known. Less well-known was his passion for cricket, philosophy and opera – especially Wagnerian opera. He was a polymath in every sense. My favourite kind of person.

I still treasure that remarkable chance encounter some 40 years ago, often playing over the details in my mind. After all, it’s not every day you find yourself invited to take a glass of fizz with the greatest Wagnerian soprano of her time and a Nobel Laureate.

[1] I can’t be absolutely certain it was the Wesendonk Lieder. It could just possibly have been Richard Strauss’s Vier Letzte Lieder (Four Last Songs). But they are both magnificent song cycles for a soprano.

[2] Gwyneth Jones sang her first Wagner role at Bayreuth in 1966 and her last in 1982. She was Brunnhilde from 1975 to 1980 and starred in the infamous centenary production under the direction of Pierre Boulez and Patrice Chereau.

[3] I went to Marlborough and, like Medawar, didn’t much enjoy it. Nonetheless it has, in its time, had a few famous pupils – Sir Francis Chichester, Siegfried Sassoon, Capt Mark Phillips, Kate Middleton, John Betjeman, William Morris, Anthony Blunt, James Runcie, Chris de Burgh, Jack Whitehall and John Zachary Young to name a few. I must’ve been quite a letdown.

DBS Diary 04: Dr Stamford and Mr Hyde

When you stop to think about it, it’s hardly surprising that DBS is associated with some degree of behavioural change in those given the procedure. In part that’s the reason to do DBS – to change things.

That’s perhaps a little glib. When you “change things” in the brain you alter the activity of at least one neuronal pathway and, because such pathways are close proximity to others, most likely more than one. Depending on the placement of the electrodes one may get more or less stimulation of our desired pathway relative to the unwanted stimulation effects. Think of it like darts. If you aim for the treble 20 with your three darts you may get lucky (or be incredibly good at darts) and score 180 (60+60+60). If your aim is off by a couple of centimetres vertically, you may well score only 60 (20+20+20). A few centimetres horizontally and your score could be as low as 3 (1+1+1). And yes, we’re being ultra pedantic, you could miss the board altogether and score 0+0+0. But in that case you should probably just give up darts (or, by analogy, neurosurgery).

The point is that there is a ‘sweet spot’ within the subthalamic nucleus where one gets most benefit at the least cost. That seems to be in the superior lateral parts of the nucleus.

So in other words, perfectly placed electrodes can be thought of as a 180 score. But most of the time, and bearing in mind that this is the brain not a dartboard, the scores are lower. And that’s not placing any burden of responsibility upon the neurosurgeons; that’s just down to variability in our patient brains. None of us (well, few of us) have supermodel brains, perfect in every curve and tuck. No, most of us have rather frumpy brains, sometimes asymmetric but often – especially by the time we are considering DBS – misshapen or battered in some way or other. So, even if your neurosurgeon is the best darts player in the world, he will struggle with your tatty old darts board.

Okay, and I realise I’m testing your patience with a further analogy, but think of the subthalamic nucleus once more as a busy railway station. Lines (neuronal pathways) pass through the station. Some terminate, others carry on. Some stop briefly, others pass through without stopping. Think of DBS as the equivalent of a transient signal malfunction. Traffic through the station is disrupted for some lines more than for others. Some are even reversed. No, I know this doesn’t fit with the darts analogy. Forget the darts. We are on trains now.

So where do the railway lines go to and come from? As you can imagine, there are many. The subthalamic nucleus is Clapham Junction. Neurones come in from the cerebral cortex, and parts of the thalamus. Trains, sorry neurones, leave for the substantia nigra.and beyond. It has reciprocal connections with the internal and external globus pallidus and the pedunculopontine nucleus.

The point I’m (rather laboriously) making is that we cannot affect individual lines – yet. Whatever stimulation parameters we choose, it will always affect adjacent brain nuclei to some extent.

What does that mean?

In simple terms it can mean changes in behaviour, affect, emotion and action. Mostly trivial and perhaps even unnoticeable but occasionally more extreme. in some cases, changes of personality have been noted. Again mostly minor modifications but occasionally more profound changes.

If I’m honest, this worries me a little. I like to think, and perhaps I’m flattering myself, that I am a reasonably nice human being. I try to be friendly, to do the right thing and so on. I’m no saint but I hope there aren’t too many people out there I’ve offended or upset (unless intentionally obviously). I’m reasonably comfortable in my skin. I don’t want to find my personality changed out of all proportion. I don’t want to be apathetic, depressed, anxious or disinhibited.

Of course there is no way of knowing whether any of this will happen. It may be plain sailing. I may emerge psychologically indistinguishable from my pre-DBS form. That would be wonderful and, in many respects, is the most likely outcome. I’m probably fretting over nothing. But lurking at the back of my mind is the concern that inside my Dr Jekyll, there is Mr Hyde, just waiting for those electrodes to release him.

Greta and Gaia

For a long time, perhaps too long, we have regarded the earth, literally and figuratively, as a mother, a benign provider, supportive of our endeavours and blind to our faults. It has suited us to do so. We have treated natural resources as though they were infinite and our use of them justifiable. Our thinking has been limited to a timescale of years rather than decades, centuries and millenia. And we have been negligent of our impact on the planet’s resources, turning a blind eye to the earth’s fragile biosphere. Throughout we have assessed the extent of our damage through rose tinted spectacles, been selective with the evidence, dismissive even when uncomfortable. We have all allowed this to happen either by commission or omission.

Sure we have been vocal about the urgent need for change, with our fingers crossed behind our backs, endorsing toothless policies couched in empty language. We have made schoolkids into celebrities, patted them patronisingly on their backs whilst doing nothing. Taking a selfie of yourself with Greta Thunberg is not a commitment to meaningful action. But then it’s easier to applaud than it is to act.

How will we answer for ourselves in front of our children? How will we explain our wholly inadequate custody of the earth? How will we justify the systematic abuse of their planet on our watch? Can we really look our children in the eyes and tell them that we thought it was for the best?

We have changed the map of the world forever. All that Amazonian deforestation, who raised a hand? Islands the size of Spain made entirely of plastic. Who complained until our holiday beach snaps were littered with milk cartons, plastic toys and kinder eggs? And who, in the face of volatile petrol prices, was prepared to concede that our love affair with the internal combustion engine was an abusive relationship?

Before you bridle at my preaching, let me stand up and say Mea Culpa. I never made the connection between South American logging and climate change. I never worried about plastic mountains and valleys. I drove big gas guzzling sedans where I could have chosen differently. I admit it.

But that’s not enough. I do not absolve myself with the panacea of ignorance. The truth is, when we turn the spotlight upon ourselves, that we did make the connection between losing forests and gaining carbon dioxide. We did know that plastic would be in our environment forever. We did know that big thirsty engines polluted more. You see what I mean – we are even kind to ourselves when we know we are wrong.

I am 63. To quote Roy’s final speech in Blade Runner, I have seen things you people wouldn’t believe. I have lived through what you might consider to be the golden age of consumerism, an age of plenty. LPs and CDs reproducing music with infinite fidelity. Television and radio reaching all parts of the globe. Computers shrinking from the size of houses to the palm of your hand. The Internet and the democratisation of information. Hyperrealistic videogames. Virtual reality for those who can’t cope with real reality. I watched a man walk this on the moon. Supersonic airliners briefly shrinking the world. Cruise ships the size of cities wandering from sunspot to sunspot.

And now, in 2021, we find ourselves like acquaintances at the end of restaurant meal, our gaze downward to avoid eye contact, wondering who will pay. For pay we must. Because it’s time to realise the uncomfortable truth – that this was not our planet to abuse. We have ruined it for our children. How are we going to explain that? I didn’t know? I didn’t think it was important? I didn’t realise it was happening?

I don’t think it matters. That may seem a ridiculous position in the light of everything mentioned above so let me explain. I don’t think it matters because I feel we may already be beyond the tipping point. We have been consistently told that we have a decade to mend our ways or face catastrophic change. I don’t think that’s the case. I believe we have already done so much damage to the planet’s biosphere that we cannot reverse it. There is no consistent agreed and enforced global climate policy. Nor will there ever be one. Every climate accord has opponents. Trump (and I really hoped I would never have to write his name again) sacrificed the planet on an altar of consumerism. He had the opportunity and could just, only just, have made a difference. He chose not to, presumably secure in the knowledge that his kids would pick up the check.

Greta expressed it better than anybody when she said that our house is on fire, lending a sense of immediacy and urgency to our actions. Sadly, she, like Trump, seems no longer relevant. The prickle of conscience in 2019 was swept away in the viral terror of 2020. Greta’s message is as clear as ever. But nobody is listening. We have become obsessed with our own homes, our micro environment, that the world and its issues seem more remote.

In the 1970s, to initially only polite interest, James Lovelock began to expound his theory of Gaia. Named after the Greek goddess and conceptual embodiment of the earth, the Gaia hypothesis postulated that the entire planet’s biosphere was essentially a large symbiotic organism of infinite complexity, capable of autoregulating its own environment. In essence it responds to challenges to its own existence with appropriate correctional strategies. If a species brings value to the Gaia biosphere, conditions will provide succour. If on the other hand a species threatens the integrity of the whole, Gaia responds accordingly.

And how might Gaia respond to a species that has created all this damage? A virus perhaps that might endanger human life? Maybe coronavirus was merely Gaia’s warning. An indication of what mother Earth is capable of. Maybe explosive global warming will be her definitive response to man’s intervention. The notion of Gaia has no place, or at least no special place, for humanity. We are merely one of a great, but rapidly dwindling, number of species. It cannot have escaped Gaia’s notice that we are, in planetary terms, a bit of a problem. Maybe she’s decided to act.

Everywhere in the world, weather seems more extreme. The benign bountiful earth of Constable replaced by the violent elemental malevolence of Turner. The forests burn, the seas boil, the icecaps melt. This is not the future, this is now.

Gaia has had enough.

DBS Diary 03: Drug-crazed double glazing salesman

DBS Diary 03: more questions than answers. Fundamentally I had made my decision upon leaving the hospital after the meeting. I would go ahead with DBS. There really isn’t much else in the way of choice. Yes it could all go horribly wrong but the likelihood of that is very low. Yes it could abolish my tremor and help make me less stiff and more mobile. The likelihood of that, by comparison, is very high. And so on. In simple terms I’m balancing the high likelihood of major physiological improvement against the low probability that I could have a stroke or die on the operating table. It’s a numbers game, nothing more more nor less, with a very wide range of potential outcomes, mostly good. I don’t plan to dwell on the extremely bad outcome scenarios mainly because I have little to say of them. And in the case of the worst possible outcome, obviously I will have nothing to say. But I will be in the hands of men and women who do this every day. I am as comfortable with my decisions as I hope they are with their incisions.

Of course I should have done this first but, over the course of the last seven days, I have been speaking to many of those who have had DBS previously and their stories are illuminating. Not universal certainly, but personal and therefore all the more valid. Some have been reticent, others vocal and in the vast majority of cases, their information has been helpful in making my decision (neglecting for one moment that I had already made the decision). I tried as much as possible to get a random sample of the experience of DBS. I didn’t simply pick the zealots or doomsayers. In the end I think I got a good range of opinion from DAJ, DS, CHH, BC, BL, DP, VA, RB, BS, HK and BT. Among others. Apart from one or two who had a handful of what might best be described as cold feet or post-operative misgivings, the response was universally positive.

To be honest, I was a little sceptical initially. It felt as though they were all reading from the same script, all coerced into speaking the same lines. And were these people I did not know that view might have persisted. But these are all friends, fellow Samurai on the same path of enlightenment. Their views left me wondering what might have happened if I had summoned up the same courage say five years ago.

It’s academic of course. Five years ago I was at a different point on my Parkinson’s trajectory, a more positive point with sunlit scenery. Five years later, there are clouds in the sky and the feeling of rain on the horizon. So it’s impossible to compare directly. Five years ago I did not feel I needed DBS. I felt the drugs could manage the condition. Five years on, I don’t feel the drugs are doing the job. So it’s time for DBS.

When I say time, I do mean actual chronological time. DBS works best in patients who get a good response from the drugs. It is less successful later in the treatment sequence. Put simply, if the drugs aren’t working, don’t expect as much from DBS either. Five years ago I wasn’t ready for DBS. Now I am at that point of acceptance. The irony is that, had I been ready to accept it five years ago, I would have had a better response in all probability. Catch-22.

But what determines readiness? I’m ready, or at least I believe I’m ready now. And I base that on a number of factors. Parkinson’s is a neurodegenerative disease. In other words I’m getting worse. Today was not as good a day as yesterday. Tomorrow will not be as good as today. And so on. Neurodegeneration focuses the mind somewhat. Rather like those people come to the door offering double glazing at a spectacular discount but only if you sign up on the spot. That’s neurodegeneration. So, in a manner of speaking, my brain is coercing me into reluctant surgery. But surely, it’s still the same ‘me’ making the decision whether it be today or five years ago. Well, actually no. It isn’t. Because today me is taking rather more in the way of mind altering drugs (prescription I mean) than five years ago. So now my decision is being forced by a drug crazed double glazing salesman of a brain. Not surprisingly, my mind is bullied into submission. I choose the DBS. What else can I do?

Who are you?

I often wonder what kind of person reads my blog. I can make guesses but generally I’m in the dark. I don’t keep metrics on my website, I don’t know how many people like, dislike, subscribe, click or whatever. I have no notion of what smileys they would use in their response or anything like that. There is no convenient little form on the website that people may complete out in order to ask me questions. My address is on the website and, with a little hunting, can be found. I don’t list the email address in the actual form it would be used – this is in an effort to minimise the number of robotic comments that would otherwise drown the website in a tsunami of spam, a deluge of defamation or an avalanche of antipathy. But if you want to send me a message, and please do, you can find the email address under the “Me” tab on the menu bar.

Why do people visit my website (if indeed they do)? Although some people may read posts and disagree profoundly, I guess that this is a minority. Very few of us will buy a newspaper with opinions diametrically opposed to our own. We might do it every once in a while to get something approaching balance on reporting but it’s unlikely that we will persist with this self-flagellation. On the whole, people buy newspapers that agree with their outlook on life. I think blogs are much the same. People do not generally continue to read a blog if its views are consistently different from one’s own. I certainly wouldn’t. Life is too short.

So this leads me to the obvious conclusion – that your public preferences, interests and private predilections are similar to mine. Perhaps not similar overall but close enough, some of the time, to find it worth returning. I only mention this because I would like to know something of your preferences. On the whole, you and I must have something in common or else you would not have read this piece or the many others on the website.

Eventually I begin to form a picture of you as you probably do of me. I think you probably have a dry sense of humour and a sceptical view of novelty. I guess you enjoy good food and can tell your foie gras from your liver and bacon. I’m suggesting you prefer French reds to Californian whites, British bitter to continental lager, Jags to Beemers. I think you would rather have a small dinner party than a huge disco, stimulating conversation to deafening shouts, malt whisky to Bailey’s, a weapons-grade espresso to a bland Americano. Perhaps you even like Wagner, although I struggle to believe that there is many more than one person out there who does, other than myself.

I would like to believe that you enjoy my writing, not just my opinions. I like word games, alliteration and hyperbole. Sometimes I choose words with studious care, like an engagement ring. At other times I grab a handful and throw them, Jackson Pollock style, onto the page. I like to keep dying words alive – like outwith, so rarely heard south of Kelso. I like making words sing and dance or stand, like a guard of honour, in unflexing line. Do you feel the same?

Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe you are nothing like me. Perhaps you prefer skeleton dry clarity to the well fleshed verbiage of circumlocution? Maybe you merely tolerate these lexicological longueurs in the vain hope that I will eventually get to the point.

Maybe you know me. Maybe you don’t. Maybe you have a picture of me in your mind, quill in hand, writing, after midnight, by flickering candlelight. Or perhaps you see me dictating into my computer in the bright morning sunshine, sips of coffee bringing words to mind, blinking in the light.

When you write a blog, or anything really, you invite opinion, agreement, disagreement, anger, laughter and a whole bundle of other stuff. On the rare occasions that I do receive direct feedback, it is usually pertinent, well-written and unambiguous. Mostly it is to agree, in general, with something I’ve written but to question detail. Sometimes it is to argue a counter position, forcibly and directly. Most people don’t write to me if their experience is neutral.

At the end of the day I can only guess why you read my blog. What do you get from it? Will you return? Did you return even? I would love to know your thoughts.