Friday 11 November 2016

Going Underground: Mole's Solution to Freight Chaos

A14 congestion
Hell personified - An Autumnal trip down the A14 to Cambridge, or for that matter, any peak hour trip on our overburdened roads. Particularly the main routes from the container ports on the coasts to the congested arteries into the cities do not just irritate delayed drivers. They impose a financial and logistical burden on businesses striving to get their produce into the shops so that we can buy them.

And it just takes one accident for everything to grind to a halt.

Whatever the era, optimistic futuristic films show shiny cities, with smoothly gliding transporters, efficiently delivering goods and people. How is it, we never seem to get there!?

Yet there is a solution NOW for transporting freight and goods into our cities. A solution that could take them straight off the roads and underground.

This weeks (11/11/16) Huntingdonshire Business Networking event was hosted by Mole Solutions who have an integrated solution for transporting freight, Mole freight pipelines. Stuart Prosser, Technical Director, brought us up to speed on the concept, supported by MD Dr Roger Miles, Development Director Bob Silverthorne and Finance Director Mike Steele.

Stuart Prosser, Mole Solutions
Freight is carried on driverless and motorless individual carts, designed to take either aggregate, pallets or containers. Yes, motorless. The system uses electrically powered linear motors seated between rails. They create an magnetic field that acts upon a plate on the underside of the cart, accelerating or braking as required. No moving parts apart from the wheels. A simple system that requires minimal maintenance.

Crucially, the vehicles travel underground in small tunnels with a small bore, for example about 2 m wide for 2-way tracks. Alternatively larger systems can run overland, for example in moving freight containers in major container ports.

The smaller bore of the tunnels for the Mole Solution makes them much more economical to drill, with less waste needing to be removed. They can not only be constructed under existing roads, they would also provide a convenient route for other underground infrastructure such as water and gas pipes, electric and fibre cabling.

HBNers at the talk
A proposal for Northampton could convert 5km of old railway track into a Mole freight pipeline underground and a new recreational/green path for walkers and cyclists above.

Mole Solutions have test vehicles (see below) and actually ran a test track at Alconbury Weald. A new track is being planned and constructed at another location on this rapidly growing new business site.

Mole freight solution showing vehicle on track

So why do we not have active mole freight pipelines under construction or even planned in the UK?

Well, first, there's the cost - it is an infrastructure project, even if a cost-effective one. Second, there is a reticence by potential clients in the UK to be the first.

There is interest in China and in the US for two major projects. It could therefore well be, that as so many times before, a great British idea is realised and creates benefits outside of its original home.

UK Investors, if you want a bite at the cherry to create a profitable local solution - contact the Mole Solutions team - their website is

In the meantime, I'll just have to watch those optimistic SciFi films.

Remembrance Day: Henry Petre, Aviation Pioneer and the 'Forgotton War' in Mesopotamia

Extracts about the 'Forgotten war' against the Turks in Mesopotamia, taken from "The Family that Flew" by Cambridge author Anne Petre, currently in the final stages of publication by Milton Contact Ltd.

Henry Petre (Formerly of East Anglia and founder of the AFC, later the Australian Air force) left Melbourne on April 14th, 1915 for the greatest adventure, so far, of an eventful life. From there he went to Basra at the head of the Persian Gulf.

The primary purpose of the ensuing campaign was to secure the security of the Anglo-Persian oil wells and the pipeline – all centred near Basra. Later it seems as if there was a secondary objective, to drive the Turks northwards to Baghdad and beyond. After the recent disaster of the Gallipoli landings, a decision was made to secure some success in Eastern Europe and restore confidence in the supremacy of the Western powers. There was a desire to impress the Arabs of the region and in the area between the Ottoman Empire and India. But the fight with the Turks in Mesopotamia was always seen as one of the ‘sideshows’ of World War One.

In Basra, Henry was joined by the rest of his unit and they were in battle five days later. The unit was small: 4 pilots and about 40 mechanics, some of whom were extremely skilful. They had two repair shops mounted on vehicles that were well equipped with lathes, drilling machines, welding plane benches and circular saws. The small force included a number of Indians.

In September 1915, General Townsend, the army commander, tricked the Turks by a brilliant manoeuvre and surrounded the town of Kut. On the junction of important waterways, Kut was of great strategic importance. The aircraft were particularly useful during this action with the pilots conveying intelligence between the different troop commanders. After the battle a new landing ground for aircraft was established at Kut. But the river here was very shallow and there were difficulties moving supplies as the boats were constantly stalling or being thrown into the bank by very strong winds and sometimes overturned. The local river boats were very picturesque but had not been designed as military carriers. There was an extraordinary mismatch between scenes redolent of biblical times and the conflict now taking place over the same desert and rivers with their interlocking waterways and infested marshes. The indigenous Arabs looked biblical.
In October, Henry Petre had several spells in a field hospital with bruises to his face and injury to his left foot. The cause of these injuries is not recorded.

After the capture of Kut, the air reconnaissance was ordered to go in three directions. Reilly in a Martinsyde observed the Turkish forces at Ctesiphon, which was only ten miles south of Baghdad. In what may now be seen as an ill-judged move, in December an advance was made by our forces on Ctesiphon. The force was inadequate; the Turkish kept on sending in reinforcements and the British troops had to retreat and fall back on Kut.

The troops were exhausted when they arrived back at Kut. The Turks surrounded the town and laid siege to it. The air force was based about 80 miles south west at Ali Gharbi. Henry was aided by the air mechanics, who worked unceasingly to keep him airborne in his reliable Martinsyde machine. He made many missions to drop sacks of grain and flour to the beleaguered soldiers. Amazingly, he also dropped some grinding stones for the grain. It was reckoned that in all he dropped 5 tons of flour and some medical supplies. Two Fokker planes with German pilots appeared from the enemy side and tried to interfere with these missions. It must have been a multi-tasked situation to single-handedly pilot the machine, watch out for attacks, and heave sacks of flour and grinding stones from the cockpit to the desperate troops below. He then had to return safely to Ali Gharbi.

Cutlack describes the kind of aeroplane best suited for reconnaissance and for use in the Kut relief missions. He calls it a ‘flying scout’ and says it was best if it was small, a single-seater with high speed and rapid manoeuvrability. (3) However, when such a machine was first fitted with a machine gun, operated by the pilot, there were problems with firing through the propeller. 

Cutlack goes on to describe the qualities needed in airmen as being: ‘Youth, sound sense and good nerve’. He felt that good horsemen had an ability to react very quickly and maintain a sense of control. It was found that men from cavalry units often made good pilots. He also felt that a safe pilot was not necessarily a good fighting airman:

‘He needed to be a bit of a devil but not reckless, with nice judgment of the moment’s risks while flying and fighting, sustained courage and determination without hot headedness, unruffled confidence gained from knowledge of one’s machine’s capacity and the enemy’s ability.’

Henry probably possessed most of these qualities but could never have been described as ‘a bit of a devil’. That sounds more like a description of Edward or Jack. Henry’s two aviator brothers were both excellent pilots but both crashed and died instantaneously from a broken neck. Was there something about Henry’s temperament – an element of caution – that contributed to his long life despite being a courageous airman?

The battle to capture and to hold onto Kut seems central to the Turkish campaign. The loss of machines and fliers meant that for a short time in November 1915 Henry was the only pilot left of the original unit. Henry had a very tough time in Mesopotamia and the citations he received were hard won. Twice he had to have sick leave for attacks of dysentery.

On April 29th, 1916, the British surrendered Kut with its garrison of 9,000 British and Indian troops. A total of 24,000 casualties had been sustained in the battle to hold Kut. A number of men from Henry’s small force had been holed up and became prisoners. Appalling suffering followed for the prisoners of war who were marched by the Turks 700 miles north to Anatolia. Several months later, a Royal Commission found the whole undertaking to capture and hold onto Kut had been a disaster due to lack of adequate forces and proper medical provision.

Henry Petre, Aviation pioneer and founder of the Australian Flying Corps was an outstandingly courageous fighter, as was proved by his being mentioned five times in dispatches, as well as being awarded the D.S.O. and M.C. for his role in the siege of Kut. His brother, Jack Petre was a flying ace fighting in France at the same time. Look out for Ann Petre's 'The Family that Flew' coming soon.

Thursday 10 November 2016

The Apposite 'Addressing Millionaires', by Erich Kaestner, around 1930

First the shock of Brexit, then the rebellion of the ignored blue collar workers in the US. It all reminds me of a brilliant political poem by Erich Kästner (of Emil and the Detectives fame), written around 1930, Ansprache an Millionäre. I've roughly translated it  - I'm sure others could do better. Here it is:

Why is it that you are waiting,
Till they give your painted wives
And you, and the painted floozies,
A hefty blow upon your skulls.

Why don't you want to better yourselves?
Soon they'll be storming the outside stairs
And with kitchen knives they'll stab you
And hang you from the window sills.

They will chase you into the rivers.
Cries and prayers will be in vain.
They will knock your very heads off.
Then it will be all too late.

Then the fountain jets will redden.
Your backs against the garden walls,
They will come in silence, killing
And no-one else for you will mourn.

How long will you still gather riches.
How long do you want to amass the hoards
Of bars, rolls, stacks of gold and papers,
'Cos you are going to lose them all.

You are the masters of machines and countries.
You took the money and the power.
Why don't you want to change the world
Before they’re knocking at your door?

You don't have to act from kindness.
You're not good and nor are they.
It's not you, the world needs changing.
That’s your duty, your task today.

Man is bad and will remain so.
You don't have to put on wings,
Need not be good, instead be rational,
We are talking about business things.

Your assistance, if provided,
Doesn't help just you alone.
Even when you give to others,
A reward is earned that is your own.

Make the world a better place
Whilst benefiting yourself too.
This is truly, think about it,
Something worth aspiring to.

Make plains fertile, lead, lay tracks.
Organise the world's rebuild.
Oh, were there just a dozen sages
With the means, the cash, the gilts.

But you're not bright, still hesitating.
We're sorry, this you will regret.
Send us a postcard when you're in heaven,
Looking forward to receiving it!

Thursday 3 November 2016

Chris's Life Story from 'Go For It: Sixteen SME Leaders Share Their Stories'

I was born in Sheffield in 1956 and then destined to spend most of my youth abroad. True love had broken the divide between the post-war occupiers in Germany when my father, a young corporal with a sense of humour, married my mother, an unfailingly sunny young German gym teacher. The army moved us from posting to posting and I left Yorkshire at the age of two, my sister was born in France, and I did not return to living in the UK till I was eighteen. We might not have been wealthy financially, but we were rich in love and laughter.

The most important life lesson I learnt was, that people are people, wherever they are. The second lesson was, that people will pigeonhole you to match their preconceptions! As a child I was classed as typically German in an English environment, and quintessentially English in a German one.

The warmest childhood memories came from our years in Singapore. My mother insisted that we didn’t simply live in the army camp but out in the real world. We moved to a bungalow by the beach on the boundary between a Chinese and a Malay village (or Kampongs as they were then known).

This was still a rustic environment, where you could wander past the offerings to the spirits in our banana tree and roam amongst palm leaf thatched huts. You might hear the clicking sound of ma-jong pieces from a current game amongst the men. If the Chinese theatre was visiting, you could squat on the temporary seating with a stick or two of sugarcane to chew, as you watched the masked and marvellously dressed actors whirl through a play, accompanied by strings and cymbals.

“If the tide was out, there would be mudskippers ogling you with their bulging eyes, before skipping away to safety.”

It was here that I first remember an interest in living things. Wandering under a searing blue sky along the beach you might find large horseshoe crabs, living fossil survivors from the Ordovician 450 million years ago. If the tide was out, there would be mudskippers ogling you with their bulging eyes, before skipping away to safety. Above all, there was the shell mountain at the nearby lime works. You could climb – crunch, crunch – this schoolboy collector’s dream and never tire of finding the next most beautiful seashell, only to discard it for an even more precious one.

Posted back to Germany, the first years in the comprehensive BFES Kent School were marred by bullying, an inevitable consequence of being an outsider who actually liked to learn. I also spent some time in the German education system, which by contrast was competitive and results driven, and challenging in a different way.

Lacking Latin, I could not advance to a higher German school after achieving the German ‘O’ level equivalent. Instead, I went to a Waldorf School, based on the anthroposophical principles of Rudolf Steiner. A great and holistic experience. Once scared of maths, I learnt trigonometry here without difficulty. We spent a week mapping one of the small North Frisian Halligen islands. There, in the evenings, we sat in a circle, reading out or telling ghost stories as there was no TV or radio in the youth hostel where we slept. It was said that in times of storms and high tides, the people on one island would pray that the dykes on neighbouring Halligen would fail, so the sea level would drop and their island would be spared flooding.

I returned to forces education at BFES Queen’s School, Rheindahlen, to do my ‘A’ levels in the three sciences. Those years attracted a more eclectic group of students with, for some reason, a fascination and enjoyment of the Goon Show. We promptly renamed ourselves and one class had three Neddy Seagoons, differentiated as Mk I, Mk II etc.

We had an enthusiastic Welsh biology teacher with the slight impediment that the sight of blood made him faint. We only discovered in a practical on blood group testing. My friend (Neddy Mk I) pricked his finger and only then remembered that he was a haemophiliac. All the while he produced a gentle but steady stream of blood drops. Desperately trying not to faint, our teacher had to tell us what to do from a distance.

The decision loomed on what to do next, after my ‘A’ Levels. I found myself trying to choose universities in a country that I had not lived in since the age of two. Our biology teacher was so enthusiastic about ‘The Mountains, the Sea and the Daffodils’ that I put down Aberystwyth as one of my choices.

Coming to live in the UK, and Wales in particular, was a bit of a culture shock. Apparently, the world was not divided into Officers & kin and Lower Ranks & kin (to which I belonged). There were apparently still strong tribal groupings known as the English, Scots, Irish and of course, the Welsh. In 1976, I had landed in Aberystwyth on the border between North and South Wales – Diolch Yn Fawr! It was said that you either loved or hated the place as a student and that a good 30% departed during the bleak winter days.

I loved Aberystwyth. When not studying, you could go down the hill to the windswept promenade. On really stormy days, the crashing waves would break upon the sea wall and throw pebbles over the top of the three storey Alexandra Hall into the street behind. On calm days, you could wander along the cliffs. A good friend David, a mature law student from Blaenau Ffestiniog, introduced me to the Welsh hills and the graveyards where his stonemason father and grandfather had work on display. Having learnt the art of working stone by hand too, he would proudly comment with a grin, “I helped on that one”.

My knowledge of Britain grew gradually. I began with a line from Dover to London to Birmingham to Shrewsbury to Aberystwyth – the route to and from Aber’ from Germany. Over time, new places were then mentally slotted in – north or south of the line.

Time flew. In the final year I met my future wife, Jane, and also had to come to a decision on what to do next. I enjoyed researching for my Biology degree final year and began looking around for possible PhD studentships. In 1979, an Aberystwyth offer came through first, so I reluctantly forewent the opportunity of a Zoology PhD and living in the red-light district of Southampton (where the cheapest student digs were, apparently).

Professor Mike Hall ran a group researching plant hormones, in particular, ethylene. Ethylene (a gas) is the hormone plants use to stimulate DEATH. A bit drastic you might think, but very important. For example, a row of cells at the base of a leaf is programmed to DIE to help the leaf cut itself off from the rest of the tree and fall in autumn.

Science at the time thought, that if there is a hormone, there has to be a receptor molecule within the plant to which the hormone binds. I was part of a team trying to characterise and isolate this ethylene receptor. My first important lesson was to learn about beans and bean plants. Beans bind ethylene. If you want to know if a plant is a bean plant – I’m the man to ask. (Ethylene also ripens fruit. I can now safely identify a banana).

By the end of my PhD, I had convincingly described an elongated molecule that bound ethylene. The next PhD generation could take up the reins.

My first postdoc position was at the former National Vegetable Research Station in Wellesbourne, near Stratford upon Avon. Here I worked on bigger molecules, plant viruses, as part of a team run by Dr Ron Fraser.

This was the dawn of genetic engineering in plants. Our aim was to isolate and sequence the DNA of a particular plant virus; one that actually made plants resistant to serious virus attack. We were pipped to the post by researchers at the John Innes Centre if I remember correctly. However, in addition to bean plants (and bananas), I could now identify tobacco and tomato plants.

The experience did win me a permanent post at Twyford Plant Laboratories (TPL), in Somerset. I joined a team as a Senior Research Scientist looking at different ways to make plants resistant to viruses. Jane and I lived under the shadow of Glastonbury Tor and possibly on a ley-line. One of my memories is cycling to work across snowy country lanes, having to stop every 20 metres or so to remove the snow that had clogged up the wheels to immobility.

TPL was a commercial company and I successfully survived two cycles of redundancy before joining the part of the company that was bought out and transplanted to Cambridge. At the new opening we asked our new owners why they had bought us. “Well, it was either buy you or pay for a week’s advertising campaign in a major newspaper!” That put us in our place.

I worked on a number of projects, the most important of which was trying to make potatoes resistant to potato cyst nematodes – a century old epidemic still haunting our fields. My team collaborated with Leeds and York Universities. The company ran GM trials, so we had days out of the lab planting potatoes in cold April mud and harvesting under searing summer sun. I now know a potato plant too when I see one!

At the end of 2003, the parent company decided to direct its efforts elsewhere and I was part of redundancy round III, after 20 years in research. In a sense it was a relief. I enjoyed the lab work, but now it was all project management, whilst others did the fun lab stuff.

I had learnt all about DNA, cloning and sequencing, GMOs etc. I could now identify beans, tomatoes, tobacco, potatoes and Arabidopsis (a weed important in plant science) and of course, bananas.

What could I do next?

Time for something totally different! I set up my own company, Milton Contact Ltd. My aim: To help UK businesses enter the German Market, using my intercultural skills.

Now – I run a publishing company, but that’s another story!

What would I say to others wanting to set up their own business?

If you are thinking about setting up your own business, do your research, seek advice and Go For It! If you don’t try you can’t succeed.

There are many free or low-cost courses for business start-ups. It’s a good way to learn and meet others in the same boat.

I would also recommend you look around for a friendly business network. The support, information and experience that is shared is invaluable – and you make good friends too. I’ve been a member of the Huntingdonshire Business Network (HBN) for 12 years.

What's Chris doing now?

Chris is Director of Milton Contact Ltd and says: We turn your dream of a book into a reality. Reading your manuscript for the first time is always exciting. We do so in confidence and give you constructive feedback on its strengths, offering suggestions to make it even better where appropriate. 

You can have as much or as little help as you want. Together, we format and set your text and pictures, and offer advice on book size, font designs and choice of colour or monochrome. We can add flourishes such as drop- or illuminated capitals and additional artwork. We also design book covers and can help you with the all-important teaser text on the back of the book. We then find a suitable and cost-effective printer for you. Alternatively, we can create an e-book. 

The book is registered through its ISBN and 6 archival copies are deposited with the British Library and the Agency for the Legal Deposit Libraries. All income from book sales is yours. You retain the book content copyright.

Go for it contains 16 stories that show, whatever your beginnings, you always have the choice to follow a new path.

Whether you are in business yourself, a new start-up, thinking of changing your job, or a school leaver taking the first steps into work, we hope this book will encourage you to build YOUR new future: Go For It!

For more information or to order a physical paperback copy, please contact: Alternatively, you can get the Kindle version here:

Wednesday 5 October 2016

Steve Lockwood – Between the Tracks: Music Review

Steve Lockwood: Between the Tracks
Settling down for an afternoon’s book editing of a new publication, I thought I would play the CD by world renowned Harmonica virtuoso Steve Lockwood - Between the Tracks (2011) - as a cheerful background. What better, I mistakenly thought, than having a bouncy harmonica and vocals to while away the paragraphs scrolling before me.

It was all going swimmingly well, till track 6, Milonga. This rendition of Astor Piazolla’s original composition was transformed by Steve Lockwood and Demmy James into a haunting melody that immediately grabbed my ears by ears and shook my head to gain full undivided attention. The Harmonica sings above a base rhythm and a piano accompaniment that preys upon your mind with unexpected dissonances.

Track 8 is a beautiful harmonica acoustic rendition of George Gershwin’s Summertime. The ¾ time base and accompaniment give an additional pulse, lending an edginess or feeling of portent – a great interpretation. Again a production with Demmy James.

My concentration was again diverted to give full attention to the short acoustic guitar and harmonica duet simply called Intro 414 – one of Steve’s own compositions. Guitarist Chris Newman and Steve weave in and around each other in what I found simply a beautiful piece of music.

Musical taste is a highly individual thing – I am glad I bought the album, after my Harmonica Workshop with Steve Lockwood last weekend in St Ives, just for those three tracks, even if it reduced my work efficiency for this afternoon! Oh – the rest of the Album ain’t half bad either. In particular look out for the other collaborations with both Demmy James and Chris Newman.

You can sample all the tracks on the album Steve Lockwood: Between the Tracks and make up your own mind here:

Wednesday 31 August 2016

Spotted Wing Drosophila present in Milton, Cambridgeshire

The soft fruit pest, Spotted Wing Drosophila (SWD, Drosophila suzukii) has become established in the UK since my article back in 2012 High resolution views of a male and female SWD were created from two specimens captured from my garden in Milton, Cambridge.


This August, I set a fruit fly trap in my garden in Milton, Cambridgeshire, UK and captured my first Spotted Wing Drosophila. I found one male and two female SWD. In total the trap captured 39 insects, of which 36 were drosophila (fruit fly) species, three of which were SWD. High resolution views of a male and female SWD were created.

Male Spotted Wing Drosophila (SWD)

Dorsal view: Male Spotted Wing Drosophila (SWD, Drosophila suzukii)
Ventral view: Male Spotted Wing Drosophila (SWD, Drosophila suzukii)
Ventral view: Male Spotted Wing Drosophila (SWD, Drosophila suzukii)
Lateral view: Male Spotted Wing Drosophila (SWD, Drosophila suzukii)
Lateral view: Male Spotted Wing Drosophila (SWD, Drosophila suzukii)

Female Spotted Wing Drosophila

Dorsal view: Female Spotted Wing Drosophila (SWD, Drosophila suzukii)
Dorsal view: Female Spotted Wing Drosophila (SWD, Drosophila suzukii)
Lateral view: Female Spotted Wing Drosophila (SWD, Drosophila suzukii)
Lateral view: Female Spotted Wing Drosophila (SWD, Drosophila suzukii)
Detail with serrated ovipositor: Female Spotted Wing Drosophila (SWD, Drosophila suzukii)
Detail with serrated ovipositor: Female Spotted Wing Drosophila (SWD, Drosophila suzukii)


This August, I set a fruit fly trap in my garden in Milton, Cambridgeshire, UK and captured my first Spotted Wing Drosophila. I found one male and two female SWD. In total the trap captured 39 insects, of which 36 were drosophila (fruit fly) species, three of which were SWD. High resolution views of a male and female SWD were created.
The insects had been trapped in an apple juice/white vinegar mixture, spiked with a few drops of fairy liquid to kill the insects. The mixture was in a sealed plastic bottle, pierced with about 3 mm diameter holes. The bottle was suspended from an apple tree for a week from 22 August.

The insects were rinsed with water in a sieve and then stored in water with some white vinegar and 10% isopropanol overnight.

Individual flies were floated in a home made cavity slide (o-rings adhered to a microscope slide with paraffin wax), oriented just under the surface meniscus (dorsal side up/ventral side up/lateral view) and covered with a cover slip.

A series of between 130 to 190 photographs were taken through the focus from the base of the insect to the closest surface, using a Reichert Zetopan microscope with a 4x objective, 5x eyepiece and a mounted Nikon SLR. The images were used to create focus stacks with Heliconfocus software. Images were edited for contrast and colour balance an sharpened.

Tuesday 23 August 2016

Films and fussy eaters at the University of Duisburg-Essen

Films and fussy eaters at the University of Duisburg-Essen Biofilm Centre. Impressions from a tour of their laboratories with Isabelle Heker and interesting conversations along the way. The department specialises in working on aquatic micro-organisms, which can range from pathogens to bugs that can clean up the environment. One of the features of many aquatic micro-organisms is that they live in Biofilms, strange and complex environments that can dramatically alter the properties of the organisms within them.

The initial intention was to visit my friends, the Hekers, for a bit of photography for an afternoon. Daughter Isabelle Heker invited me to come along and see the work that she and others were conducting at the labs in the University of Duisburg-Essen Biofilm Centre.

The obligatory safety talk with Dr Jost Wingender, Head of the Department of Pathogens in Biofilms, brought back memories of when I was a Biological Safety Officer for a biotech company! Inevitably, it segued into conversations about Dr Wingender’s work. One of his interests is viruses that attack bacteria, also known as phages, and their behaviour in biofilms.

An iridescent biofilm on the surface of a fish tank (Wikipedia)
Many micro-organisms, including bacteria, live in biofilms, making rocks slippery, furring the leaves of water plants or coating your teeth with plaque.

They are often surrounded by a slime, whose composition can vary according to the species and the substrate they are on. The scientific term for this slime is EPS, short for extracellular polymeric substances.

Just like there is a whole ecology and range of environments in a forest, that changes from the soil to the tops of the tree canopy, there is considerable variation in the EPS from its external interface with water to the bottom layer, adhering to a substrate. There are gradients of oxygen, nutrients and acidity.

In the wild, the ecosystems within the EPS are created by different microscopic species either helping each other by producing complementary nutrients or degrading toxins and natural antibiotics – or they can be in competition for food and resources.

Back to phages and viruses. The EPS also binds contaminants and viruses, concentrating them. As this can happen with human pathogens, it means that biofilms could be far more infectious than the more diluted pathogens free-floating in water. Suddenly, Dr Wingender’s work is a lot more relevant to us.

S.aureus biofilm on an indwelling catheter (Wikipedia)
On to the lab tour. Dr Martin Mackowiak led and also talked a bit about his work. Knowing what species of micro-organisms are present in a biofilm and how many there are is not that easy. Furthermore, the populations can change with age. Imagine being in a rocket up in space looking down on to the world below. With a high powered telescope you might just about make out moving shapes as tiny dots, it is hard to distinguish between say the people, pigeons and pets out in a city or between different farm animals out in the fields.

Fortunately, micro-organisms contain DNA. What’s more, the EPS, the slime also contains fragments of DNA, from dying cells or even deliberately secreted. The DNA will be present in very small quantities. However, using a method familiar from my lab days, quantitative PCR, you can get a good measure of how many of the scant DNA molecules from different species are present. Martin had just harvested a batch of biofilm he’d cultured over weeks in readiness for analysis. It was also fun to see equipment gathering dust that in my day we would have drooled over, like the Pulsed Field Gel Electrophoresis kit, and machines that were still very familiar to me in current use.

Most importantly, Isabelle was able to tell me about her graduate project. Of the myriads of species of bacteria in water, there are many fussy eaters, of which some are able to degrade pollutants, such as hydrocarbons. It’s vital to understand how they do this before scaling up any method. Isabelle’s project was to identify some of the breakdown products from one pollutant.

First, she had to purify and separate the different breakdown products by size and chemical properties using liquid chromatography – the basic principle is similar to separating the colours out of different felt-tip pens on tissue paper.

Image on left is an example of different leaf pigments separated by chromatography on a plate, CC Flo~commonswiki. Isabelle was using special columns in her work.

The mass of each separated breakdown product was then determined using a mass spectrometer. Each molecule is vaporised, ionised to give it an electric charge and then accelerated toward a detector through a magnetic field. The charged molecules get separated by charge and weight during their flight through the magnetic field and then hit the detector. You can very accurately determine how heavy a molecule is. Isabelle was now at the interesting stage of knowing what sizes of products she is getting.

The puzzle to be solved now is: WHICH is the most likely chemical formula of a breakdown product where there are several with the same mass? This requires a good knowledge of chemistry and logical problem solving. Fortunately, Isabelle is enjoying the challenge and hopes to go on to do a masters in the same department.

This was a thoroughly enjoyable couple of hours catching up with the new field of water and biofilm biologies. Thank you to Isabelle and all at the University of Duisburg-Essen Biofilm Centre for sharing their time and interests.

Now it was time to go off to meet the others for a glorious walk along the beautiful transformed River Ruhr - full of aquatic life and, of course, Biofilms.

Sunday 31 July 2016

Nicholas Alkemade and his Amazing Escape after jumping without a parachute

Sergeant Joe Cleary meeting Lieutenant H. Rokker, who shot down the Lancaster on that fateful night

Congratulations to Luke Aikins for his successful no-parachute jump. What follows is the tale of  Nicholas Alkemade who also survived jumping without a parachute, from a burning plane in 1944!

As Flight Sergeant Newman approached Berlin they could see the searchlights probing the sky. Soon they saw the red and green markers dropped by the Pathfinders and made their run-in to drop their 4,000lb ‘cookie’ and incendiaries. Turning for home through the searchlights, the crew kept a sharp look out for night fighters. The crew could see other Lancasters under attack and some going down in a great ball of fire. They were somewhere over the Ruhr when a series of shuddering crashes hit the Lancaster from nose to tail. Two cannon shells exploded on the ring mounting of the rear turret, shattering the plexiglass and sending a large piece slicing into Sergeant Alkemade`s right leg. Quickly he depresses his guns and saw not fifty yards astern, a JU 88 blazing away at the Lancaster. Sergeant Alkemade fired at the enemy aircraft and it peeled away trailing flame. It was now that he realised that flaming fuel was running past him, and he started to report to his skipper that the tail was on fire, but he was cut short when Flight Sergeant Newman said, "I can’t hold her lads, bale out! Bale out!" Alkemade flicked the turret doors behind him open with his elbows and turned to open the fuselage door beyond. There before him was a giant ball of fire. Flame and smoke came towards him and he pulled back into his turret coughing and blinded by smoke. Nicholas desperately needed to get to his parachute, which was always stowed in the fuselage, a few feet inside the second door. He opened the door again, but it was too late as the case had been burnt off and the silk was coming out in folds and disappearing in puffs of flame. It was decision time, the oil from the rear turret’s hydraulic system was now on fire and flames were now burning his hands and face, and it was only time before the plane would explode. He decided it would be better to die a quick death by jumping out, than die being roasted alive. Quickly he rotated the turret, flipped open the doors and in pain and desperation fell backwards into the night. His last recollection was the relief of being away from the searing heat, and the cold air on his face. Nicholas had no feeling of falling but could see the stars below his feet, so he knew he was falling head first. If this was dying, he thought to himself, it was nothing to be afraid of. His only regret was not being able to say goodbye to his friends and girlfriend Pearl, then he blacked out.

Slowly, Sergeant Nicholas Alkemade regained his senses. Above him he could see a patch of starlit sky. Slowly, the dark patch framing the area of sky turned into a hole in a thick group of fir trees. As he gained more of his senses, he realised he was laying on a deep mound of under bush covered in snow. He was very cold and his head and back throbbed with terrible pain, but he was all in one piece, and a feeling of total wonderment fell upon him when he began to realise that he had fallen over three miles, had his fall broken by fir trees and a snow drift and survived. He tried to sit up, but the pain was too much. Looking around, he found that his flying boots were gone and his uniform was scorched and torn. In his pocket he found a badly burnt tin in which he kept his cigarettes and lighter. He lit up a cigarette and looked at his watch; it was still going and the luminous hands showed 3.20am. It had been near midnight when the aircraft was hit.

Nicholas removed the whistle from his collar and from time to time gave it a blow. After what seemed hours, he heard a far off "Hulloo". He kept blowing the whistle and then saw flashlights approaching. Soon some men and boys appeared and ordered him to get up. When they saw he could not, they put him on a tarpaulin and dragged him across the frozen ground to a cottage where an old lady gave him a warm drink. Soon a car arrived and two men came in, dressed in plain clothes. Totally oblivious to his pain, they pulled him up and took him to their car and on to hospital. After coming out of the operating theatre, he learned that he had burnt legs, twisted right knee, a deep splinter wound in the thigh, strained back, slight concussion and a deep scalp wound, first-second and third degree burns on his face and hands, most of which had been received before he jumped from the aircraft. Cleaned up and installed in a clean bed, he was visited by a member of the Wehrmacht. Through an interpreter, Nicholas was asked the usual questions. "What was your target?" "Where is your base?" "How many aircraft are there?" Answering name, rank and number he said that he was not allowed to answer the other questions. The questioning then turned to his parachute. "Where is your parachute?" "Where did you bury it?" When Sergeant Alkemade replied, "I did not use one", the German officer nearly burst with rage, turned on his heels and stormed out. After three weeks, Sergeant Alkemade’s wounds were almost healed and he was taken to Dulag Luft near Frankfurt, and put into solitary confinement.

 A week later a young Luftwaffe Lieutenant led him into Kommandant’s Office. "We have to congratulate you, I believe, Sergeant", said the Kommandant in English, and asked Sergeant Alkemade to tell his story once again. After listening to the explanation, he said, "A very tall story I think Sergeant". Sergeant Alkemade said that the story could be proved if the wreckage of the aircraft was found, for the remnants of the parachute pack would still be there, just forward of the rear fuselage door, and also the parachute harness could be examined to prove that it had never been used. The Kommandant, who had listened to the story in silence said, "A really remarkable story, and I have heard many". He then gave the Lieutenant some orders, who then saluted and left. Fifteen minutes later the Lieutenant returned waving Sergeant Alkemade`s parachute harness, accompanied by three other officers, all shouting excitedly in German. The Lieutenant put the harness on the desk and pointed to the snap hooks that were still in their clips, and the lift web still fastened down on the chest straps. The Kommandant leaned back in his chair, studied each of them in turn and said, "Gentlemen, a miracle – no less". He then rose and offered his hand to Sergeant Alkemade and said, " Congratulations my boy, on being alive. Tomorrow I promise your Comrades will be told how you became POW.

 Next morning back in the Kommandant’s office, Nicholas saw that the Luftwaffe had been busy, for there on the desk lay some pieces of scorched metal, including the D-handle of a parachute ripcord and a piece of wire that would be the ripcord itself. "The remains of your parachute pack", said the Kommandant. "We found it where you said it would be; to us this is the final proof". The crash site of the Lancaster lay twenty kilometres from where Nicholas had landed. The bodies of Pilot Flight Sergeant Newman, Flight Engineer Sergeant Warren, Bomb Aimer Sergeant Hilder and Mid Upper Gunner Sergeant McDonough had been found in the wreckage. They had been buried with full military honours in a cemetery near Meschede. Later Nicholas was to learn that Wireless Operator Sergeant Berwell and Navigator Sergeant Cleary had been blown clear and had also survived. 

Sergeant Nicholas Alkemade was marched into the compound by a German Officer and two N.C.O`s, where two hundred captured alied flyers were assembled and was directed to stand on a bench. The Officer then recounted the story to the assembled men. Sergeant Alkemade was then surrounded by Airmen of all nationalities, all wishing to shake his hand, and offering cigarettes or chocolates. Sergeant Alkemade was then presented with a paper, signed by the Senior British Officer, who had taken down the German authentication in writing and had it witnessed by two Senior British NCOs. It reads as follows:

It has been investigated and corroborated by the German authorities that the claim made by Sergeant Alkemade, 1431537 RAF is true in all respects, namely, that he made a descent from 18,000 feet without a parachute, having been on fire in the aircraft. He landed in deep snow among fir trees. Corroboration witnessed by:

Flight Lieutenant H.J. Moore, SeniorBritish Officer.

Flight Sergeant R.R. Lamb, 1339582.

Flight Sergeant T.A. Jones, 411 Senior British NCOs.

Date: 25/4/44

After the war Nicholas returned to England and married his girlfriend Pearl. Geoffrey Berwell was their Best Man. Nicholas died in 1987.

Extract from 'Memories of RAF Witchford' by Barry & Sue Aldridge, published by Milton Contact Ltd. Visit the RAF Witchford Display of Memorabilia

Sunday 24 July 2016

Tables made from 50,000 year old Ancient Kauri Wood

“You make tables from giant tree trunks and roots that are between 9,000 and 50,000 years old!?” was my astonished reply on the phone. Michael Beaupoil, a German master cabinetmaker had enquired if I could help with adapting his web pages for an English-speaking audience. How could I resist, with my nickname of ‘Mammoth Man” at the Norris Museum.
Table made from Anckent Kauri wood by Master Cabinetmaker Michael Beaupoil
Modern Kauri tree, indidual
 named Tāne Mahuta ('Lord of the Forest')
Stands of Kauri trees still grow to this day in New Zealand but are strictly protected ( The island has a unique range of tree species that encompasses not only the Kauri but also other members of the podocarp family, with evocative names such as Rimu, Kahikatea, Miro, Mataī and Tōtara ( Originating back to the era when New Zealand was part of the supercontinent of Gondwanaland, more than 500 million years ago, they have evolved to be a vital part of the native ecosystem. Many of these trees are giants and the Kauri is enormous, with trunk diameters of up to 5m and reaching heights of 50m. The largest trees can be over a thousand years old.

So how do you get ancient Kauri, more than 9,000 to 50, 000 years old? New Zealand is a geologically active country and, with an age of up to 1,000 years, Kauri trees do succumb to natural disasters such as storms or the last ice age! Some felled trees slid down mountainsides into wet moor and bogs. If they were fully submerged, the lack of oxygen would prevent decay and preserve the immersed tree roots and trunks, known as Swamp Kauri or Ancient Kauri (

There are bogs in New Zealand where several layers of such preserved tree trunks have been preserved. In certain circumstances, and with strict regulation, some of these giant Ancient Kauri tree trunks can be mined.

Due to its age, durability, fineness of grain and own distinctive golden iridescence, the timber from such trees is highly prized by craftsmen, cabinetmakers and wood-turners.

Master Cabinetmaker Michael Beaupoil is one such person that has dedicated his life and craft to lovingly reveal the inner beauty of Ancient Kauri wood in large tables. These grace the large conference rooms, office and homes of those who can afford them. They are also an investment as the Ancient Kauri Wood is a limited, high value resource.

As well as working on the text of Michael’s site (see, I was intrigued enough to send off for seeds of such ancient trees. Kauris take a long time to germinate – I’m a month in and it could be another one to two months till I can expect to see a seedling, if I’m lucky. However, I already have two Araucaria (Monkey Puzzle) seedlings and will be planting some Ginko tree seeds soon too.