Annabel Ferriman: Of magnetricity, hand dryers, and levitating frogs

Annabel FerrimanIt is not often you get to swig champagne with a swarm of superior British scientists at the Science Museum but on Tuesday I did just that. I was substituting for our editor Fiona Godlee at a party thrown by the Times newspaper to celebrate the first anniversary of its science magazine, Eureka.

The magazine had compiled a (rather unscientific) list of the 100 most important people in British science and engineering, and Fi Godlee, dubbed “Doctor of the evidence,” appeared at No 80. No-one was made to wear a badge revealing their ranking, however, and the waitresses did not appear to distinguish between the scientist at No 1 (Sir Paul Nurse) and the infectious disease expert at No 100 (Professor Roy Anderson).

The party was attended by David (two brains) Willetts, the minister for universities and science, as well as about 80 of the scientific luminaries. The mood was made jollier by the leak, half way through the evening, that the science budget would not be affected by the cuts, due to be announced on the following day.

There was no sign of the chef Heston Blumenthal (No 73) at the event (boo hoo) or of Prince Charles (No 94), though the non-appearance of the prince was possibly a good thing, since a number of the people did not consider his influence on science was a benign one. And I did not spot what the magazine called the top 3 science beards, belonging to Aubrey de Grey (an expert in ageing), Professor Robert Watson (chief scientist at Defra) or Professor John Beddington (government chief scientist).

But I did notice that the hand dryer in the Ladies was made by James Dyson, which was particularly appropriate since he appeared in the list at No 21.

And, as I was queuing up to leave my coat, I discovered that the man standing next to me was No 39, and had recently been quoted in the BMJ. He was the stem cell pioneer Anthony Hollander, from Bristol University, whose work had been crucial to the first windpipe transplant, to Claudio Castillo in Spain 2008. The organ had been built from a donor trachea, which provided the scaffold, and the patient’s own stem cells. Hollander was quoted in the BMJ in March when he commented on the third operation of the same sort which took place in London this year (read more). He is now working on the use of stem cells in osteoarthritis.

Later at the party, Steven Cowley, head of the Culham Centre for Fusion Energy, outside Oxford (no 58), tried to explain fusion to me, but I didn’t completely master the concept (the champagne might have contributed) and Lord John Krebs, former chairman of the Food Stands Agency (No71), told me about the inquiry being undertaken by the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee, of which he is chair. The committee is looking into “behaviour change” and how it can be influenced by education, legislation, and financial levers, such as taxation or incentives.

I also met the man who came in at No 99, Steve Bramwell from University College London, who invented magnetricity (don’t ask), but was sad not to see Professor Iain Chalmers, founder of the Cochrane Collaboration, because he came in at No 109.

James Harding, editor of the Times, gave a rather self-deprecating speech in which he admitted that he had had to ask the compilers of the list who Andre Geim was, just a few days before the physicist from Manchester was awarded this year’s Nobel Prize for Physics. Geim had been able to add a real Nobel prize to the IgNobel prize he has won in 2000 for levitating a frog. But Harding did feel that the awarding of the prize by the Nobel committee confirmed the compilers’ good judgment in putting him at No 9 on the list.

The Times, in association with the Wellcome Collection, is holding a debate to discuss the list. The list compilers know that it will prompt some debate. Why are there only 12 women on the list, for example? Who are the next generation of technology entrepreneurs? It has called the debate “Eureka Live,” and it is taking place, with some of the judges present to answer questions on how they ranked the people, at the Wellcome Collection, London NW1, on Thursday, 4 November. For tickets go to

Annabel Ferriman is the news editor of the BMJ.