Archive for the ‘life’ Category

The autobiography of Andrew Carnegie

November 4, 2022

The last post made some statements about Andrew Carnegie, with my main source of information about him being his autobiography, which was published posthumously. I just finished reading that book for the second time and here I want to mention some further things about him which I find interesting. Carnegie’s life after he arrived in the US is an exemplary rags to riches story corresponding to the American dream. His first job in a factory was for one dollar and 25 cents a week, working long hours. He writes that his first week’s earnings made him happier than any of the millions he made later, for they meant that he was contributing to the subsistence of his family. He was thirteen years old. After this he moved to a job which was even harder but it already brought him two dollars a week and after that his income rose steadily. He became a messenger boy and used this to start to build up a network of contacts. He was always ready to grab any opportunity that came along and to make any efforts which he thought might help him to improve his situation in life. He made himself useful in the office and managed to get a position as a telegraph operator. With the contacts he made there he was able to move to a job as clerk and telegraph operator to an important railway employee, Thomas Scott. At this time a serious incident took place. Carnegie had the duty of fetching the pay for the employees working under Scott. Once he was bringing it, travelling by train. It was quite a new thing at that time and he travelled on the engine because he found it exciting. While he was not paying attention the packet containing the pay, which he had under his jacket, fell out of the train. Some time later he noticed the loss. It could have meant losing his job and suddenly having huge debts. He was able to persuade his companions to drive the train back and eventually saw the packet lying on the bank of a river. If it had rolled a little further it would have ended in the river and been lost. In fact it stopped soon enough, he found it and the disaster was averted. The fact that Carnegie was so successful in his life no doubt had a lot to do with luck, with this being a notable example. What would have happened if the packet had landed in the river? It would have been a big setback for him but I think he would soon have overcome it. He certainly had luck but I think that played much less of a role in his success than his character.

A big step forward in Carnegie’s career involved taking a big risk. His boss was responsible for organizing the railway traffic in a big network. In particular, if there was some problem such as an accident (and these were not so rare) he was the one who had to sort it out and get the trains running again. For this purpose he prepared telegraph messages and Carnegie sent them out. In this way he learned how Scott carried out these tasks. One morning many trains were standing still due to previous problems. The situation was such that they could have started running again and this would have been beneficial for the company. Scott was not in the office. He decided to take the decisions needed to start up traffic again and send them out in Scott’s name. Of course he had no authority to do that. When Scott came back Carnegie was very apprehensive but immediately said what he had done. Scott looked through the documentation of the measures taken and then simply returned to his desk without a word. Carnegie’s explanation for this behaviour was as follows. Scott could not praise him for what he had done since he had broken all the rules. On the other hand he could not scold him since he had done everything right. So he just said nothing. Now Carnegie could relax concerning the consequences of that incident but he almost decided to never do such a thing again. Then he heard from an acquaintance how Scott had talked to someone else about the matter and this allowed him to judge the impression his daring action had made on Scott. After that he had no hesitation about carrying out such actions. Since Scott liked coming in late he had plenty of opportunities for that. Eventually this put Carnegie in the position to take over the job of his boss and thus take a big step to a higher level of status and pay.

Carnegie later got involved in the production of iron and things constructed out of it, such as rails and bridges. He got an advantage over his competitors by employing a chemist. The iron ore from some mines was unpopular and correspondingly relatively cheap. There had been problems with smelting it. A chemical analysis revealed the source of the problem – that ore contained too much iron for the smelting process to work well. The solution was to modify the process (with the help of scientific considerations) and then it was possible to buy the high quality ore at a cheap price while others continued to buy low quality ore at a high price. Previously nobody really knew what they were buying. Carnegie believed in the value of real knowledge. Carnegie did not like the stock exchange and emphasized that except for once at the beginning of his career he never speculated. It was always his policy to buy and sell things on the basis of their real value. Carnegie was no friend of unions and often fought them hard. On the other hand he was, or claimed to be, a friend of the working man. His idea was not to give people money just like that but to give them the opportunity to improve their own situation. In later years he gave a huge amount of money, about 300 million dollars in total for various causes. He gave money for libraries (more than two hundred), for scientific research, for church organs and of course for the Carnegie Hall. These were all things which he believed would do people good.

Carnegie was committed to the goal of world peace. He had a lot of influence with powerful politicians and it seems that in at least one case he used it to prevent the US becoming involved in a war. He got into contact with Kaiser Wilhelm II. It turned out that both of them were admirers of Robert the Bruce. He had great hopes for the Kaiser as someone who could help to bring peace and he must have been bitterly disappointed in 1914 when things went a very different way. Then he transferred his hopes to President Wilson. At that point his autobiography breaks off. Here I have only been able to present a few selected things from a fascinating book which I thoroughly recommend. I find Carnegie an admirable character.

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Andrew Carnegie and me

October 10, 2022

At the moment I am rereading the autobiography of Andrew Carnegie. For me he is a leading example of a ‘good capitalist’. I see some parallels between my early life and that of Carnegie and I have been thinking about similarities and differences. We were both born in Scotland to parents who were not rich. His father was a weaver. At some stage advances in technology meant that his form of industry was no longer viable. The family had difficulty earning their living and decided to emigrate to America. While still in Scotland Carnegie’s mother started a business to supplement the income of her husband.

My father was a farmer. When he began the size of the farm (70 acres) was sufficient. (I recently noticed the coincidence that the father of Robert Burns, Scotland’s national poet, also had a farm of 70 acres.) Later there was a trend where the size of farms increased and the machinery used to work them became more advanced. In order to do this the farmers, who were mostly not rich, had to borrow money to buy more land and better machines. The banks were eager to lend them that money. Of course this meant a certain risk but many of the people concerned were prepared to take that risk. My father, on the other hand, never borrowed any money in his life and so he missed taking part in this development. This meant that under the new conditions the farm was too small (and in fact some of it was not very good land – it was too wet) to support our family (my parents, my grandmother and myself) very easily. My mother did everything she could to supplement the income of my father. In particular she took in bed and breakfast guests during the summer. I should point out that we were not poor. We did not lack anything essential, living in part from our own produce such as milk, butter, cheese, eggs, potatoes and meat. My grandmother kept a pig and hens. The school I attended, Kirkwall Grammar School, was the school for all children in the area – there was no alternative. The parents of many of the other children I went to school with were better off financially than my parents. As a sign of this, I mention an exchange between our school and one in Canada. Many of the other pupils took part in that. My parents could not afford to finance it for me. At a time when many people were getting their first colour TV we still had a very old black and white device where with time ‘black’ and ‘white’ were becoming ever more similar. I did not feel disadvantaged but I just mention these things to avoid anyone claiming that I grew up in particularly fortunate economic circumstances.

Both Carnegie and I benefitted from the good educational system in Scotland. School was already free and compulsory in his time. My university education was mostly financed by the state, although I did win a couple of bursaries in competitions which helped to make my life more comfortable. In my time parents had to pay a part of the expenses for their childrens’ university education, depending on their incomes. My parents did not have to pay anything. Some of the people I studied with should have got a contribution from their parents but did not get as much as they should have. Thus I actually had an advantage compared to them. Carnegie’s father was involved in politics and had quite a few connections. My parents had nothing like that. It might be thought that since my parents did not have very much money or connections and since there were very few books in our house I started life with some major disadvantages. I would never make this complaint since I know that my parents gave me some things which were much more important than that and which helped me to build a good life. I grew up in a family where I felt secure. My parents taught me to behave in certain ways, not by command but by their example. They taught me the qualities of honesty, reliability, hard work and humility. Carnegie received the same gifts from his parents.

Let me now come back to the question of books. As a child I was hungry for them. We had a good school library which included some unusual things which I suppose not all parents would have been happy about if they had known the library as well as I did. For instance there was a copy of the ‘Malleus Maleficarum’. What was important for my future was that there were current and back issues of Scientific American and New Scientist. There was also a public library from which I benefitted a lot. Apparently this was the first public library in Scotland, founded in 1683. In the beginning it was by subscription. It became free due to a gift of money from Andrew Carnegie in 1889. He spent a huge amount of time and effort in supporting public libraries in many places. In 1903 Carnegie also gave the money to construct a building for the library and that is the building it was still in when I was using it. He visited Kirkwall to open the library in 1909. Thus it can be said that I personally received a gift of huge value from Carnegie, the privilege of using that library. His activity in this area was his way of returning the gift which he received as a young boy when someone in Pittsburgh opened his private library to working boys.

Is mathematics being driven out by computers?

September 28, 2022

In the past two weeks I attended two conferences. The first was the annual meeting of the Deutsche Mathematikervereinigung (DMV, the German mathematical society) in Berlin. The second was the joint annual meeting of the ESMTB (European Society for Mathematical and Theoretical Biology) and the SMB (Society for Mathematical Biology) in Heidelberg. I had the impression that the participation of the SMB was relatively small compared to previous years. (Was this mainly due to the pandemic or due to other problems in international travel?) There were about 500 participants in total who were present in person and about another 100 online. I was disappointed with the plenary talks at both conferences. The only one which I found reasonably good was that of Benoit Perthame. One reason I did not like them was the dominance of topics like machine learning and artificial intelligence. This brings me to the title of this post. I have the impression that mathematics (at least in applied areas) is becoming ever weaker and being replaced by the procedure of developing computer programmes which could be applied (and sometimes are) to the masses of data which our society produces these days. This was very noticeable in these two conferences. I would prefer if we human beings would continue to learn something and not just leave it to the machines. The idea that some day the work of mathematicians might be replaced by computers is an old one. Perhaps it is now happening, but in a different way from that which I would have expected. Computers are replacing humans but not because they are doing everything better. There is no doubt there are some things they can do better but I think there are many things which they cannot. The plenary talks at the DMV conference on topics of this kind were partly critical. There occurred examples of a type I had not encountered before. A computer is presented with a picture of a pig and recognizes it as a pig. Then the picture is changed in a very specific way. The change is quantitatively small and is hardly noticeable to the human eye. The computer identifies the modified picture as an aeroplane. In another similar example the starting picture is easily recognizable as a somewhat irregular seven and is recognized by the computer as such. After modification the computer recognizes it as an eight. This seems to provide a huge potential for mistakes and wonderful opportunities for criminals. I feel that the trend to machine learning and related topics in mathematics is driven by fashion. It reminds me a little of the ‘successes’ of string theory in physics some years ago. Another aspect of the plenary talks at these conferences I did not like was that the speakers seemed to be showing off with how much they had done instead of presenting something simple and fascinating. At the conference in Heidelberg there were three talks by young prizewinners which were shorter than the plenaries. I found that they were on average of better quality and I know that I was not the only one who was of that opinion.

In the end there were not many talks at these conferences I liked much but let me now mention some that I did. Amber Smith gave a talk on the behaviour of the immune system in situations where bacterial infections of the lung arise during influenza. In that talk I really enjoyed how connections were made all the way from simple mathematical models to insights for clinical practise. This is mathematical biology of the kind I love. In a similar vein Stanca Ciupe gave a talk about aspects of COVID-19 beyond those which are common knowledge. In particular she discussed experiments on hamsters which can be used to study the infectiousness of droplets in the air. A talk of Harsh Chhajer gave me a new perspective on the intracellular machinery for virus production used by hepatitis C, which is of relevance to my research. I saw this as something which is special for HCV and what I learned is that it is a feature of many positive strand RNA viruses. I obtained another useful insight on in-host models for virus dynamics from a talk of James Watmough.

Returning to the issue of mathematics and computers another aspect I want to mention is arXiv. For many years I have put copies of all my papers in preprint form on that online archive and I have monitored the parts of it which are relevant for my research interests for papers by other people. When I was working on gravitational physics it was gr-qc and since I have been working on mathematical biology it has been q-bio (quantitative biology) which I saw as the natural place for papers in that area. q-bio stands for ‘quantitative biology’ and I interpreted the word ‘quantitative’ as relating to mathematics. Now the nature of the papers on that archive has changed and it is also dominated by topics strongly related to computers such as machine learning. I no longer feel at home there. (To be fair I should say there are still quite a lot of papers there which are on stochastic topics which are mathematics in the classical sense, just in a part of mathematics which is not my speciality.) In the past I often cross-listed my papers to dynamical systems and maybe I should exchange the roles of these two in future – post to dynamical systems and cross-list to q-bio. If I succeed in moving further towards biology in my research, which I would like to I might consider sending things to bioRxiv instead of arXiv.

In this post I have written a lot which is negative. I feel the danger of falling into the role of a ‘grumpy old man’. Nevertheless I think it is good that I have done so. Talking openly about what you are unsatisfied with is a good starting point for going out and starting in new positive directions.

Trip to Scotland with some obstacles

August 21, 2022

Recently Eva and I travelled to Scotland. It was an organized tourist trip although I was also able to meet my sister and some other family for dinner on one evening. We flew from Frankfurt to Edinburgh via Brussels. We had heard a lot about chaos at airports in the recent past and were pleasantly surprised when everything went smoothly in Frankfurt. This did not last long. Our flight to Brussels was late and we had to run as fast as we could and jump the queue for immigration to just get to the gate in time for boarding. Our luggage was not so successful as we were. When we arrived in Edinburgh we waited a long time for our luggage to come and it did not. There was no information on the display and the information office was closed. There were no airport employees visible. Eventually we had no choice but to leave the baggage area and file a lost baggage claim. During the trip we were moving from one hotel to another and it was not possible to leave more than one forwarding address. We had to make several calls about this matter in the days that followed and often got the information that the person we were calling was not responsible and that we should call another number. The people I talked to often had strong Indian accents and I suppose that they were all sitting in call centres in India. We arrived in Edinburgh on a Sunday and in the end we got a message the following Saturday that our luggage would be delivered to our hotel in Aberdeen that day at a certain time. This was later revised to say that it would arrive on the Sunday between 00.02 and 02.22. It did arrive and was received by the hotel. Of course we had to buy various things during the week to replace those sitting in our suitcases. This whole business cost us a lot of time and nerves. On the way back we had to cross the EU border in Brussels.The only problem was that there was nobody there, only a written message that it was not possible to call anyone. In the end, fearing that we would miss our flight I spoke to a security guard who was buying a sandwich. He was very helpful. He made several phone calls. Then he took us through a security gate and passed us on to an immigration official who checked our passports. Again we just managed to reach the gate in time. In fact the flight was late so that we would have had a bit more time. The flight was almost empty. In Frankfurt there was a message that the luggage would arrive in thirty minutes. Then thirty suddenly changed to eight and the luggage came even faster than that. Thus positive surprises are also possible.

What conclusions do I draw from this? Firstly, I do not believe that we had specially bad luck but rather that this is the usual state of affairs at the moment. (The luggage of several other members of our group, arriving from different airports with different airlines, also took many days to arrive, in one case even a day longer than ours.) We also experienced a number of other things while in Scotland, such as lifts or coffee machines in hotels which were not working and had been waiting for months to be repaired. Many hotels in Scotland, especially in rural areas, have closed, at least for the season and maybe for ever. For these reasons we had to stay in some cases at hotels much further away from the points we wanted to visit than planned and there were long drives. The situation with logistics is dire. We were not organizing the trip alone. The organization was being done by a company which has many years of experience organizing trips of this kind in Scotland and all over the world. We know from previous experience that this company is very good. Thus things are very difficult even for the experts. If things do not change quickly this type of tourism is threatened. In future I will think very carefully about flying anywhere. This has nothing to do with the frequently discussed environmental issues but simply with the doubt that I will arrive successfully with my luggage and without an excessive amount of stress. If I do fly anywhere then I will be prepared to pay a higher price to get a direct flight. This is then the analogue of my present practise with train trips where I try to minimize the number of connections which have to be reached since the trains cannot be expected to be on time. It seems that these days the most reasonable thing is to expect that everything that can go wrong will go wrong. Travelling has become an adventure again. Will this change soon? I do not expect it will.

We arrived in Edinburgh in the midst of the Festival. The streets were full of people and the atmosphere good. On the evening of the second day we went to the Edinburgh Military Tattoo. The spectacle was impressive as was the way the arrival and departure of the mass of spectators was coordinated. The weather was dry and not too cold and so we were in luck. We heard that at the corresponding performance one week later it rained the whole time. Since almost all the spectators are sitting out in the open the weather makes a big difference. After leaving Edinburgh we crossed into Fife over the old road bridge which was only open for buses due to repairs. We briefly visited St. Andrews where I had not been before and then continued to Pitlochry where we spent a couple of nights. While there we had an excursion to visit the house of Walter Scott. I am not an admirer of Scott. One time years ago I felt the duty to read at least something by him and I read ‘Heart of Midlothian’. It did not leave a lasting impression on me. The main thing I remember about Scott is how the father in ‘To the Lighthouse’ often talks about his novels. From Pitlochry we drove to Braemar and then down Deeside to Aberdeen. We also made an extra little excursion to Dunnottar Castle. I had never been there before although it is so close to Aberdeen where I lived for seven years. The excursions I made from there were generally to the north or to the west. In Aberdeen we had a guided tour from a local which was quite entertaining.We then went into the Machar Bar (a place where I spent many hours as a student), ate stovies (which I had forgotten about for many years) and drank whisky. The guide recited some Burns and we did some singing. Together with him I sang ‘The Northern Lights of Old Aberdeen’. Up to that time we had almost only warm weather and sun (apart from a little coastal fog). After that we crossed over to the west coast. A rear view mirror of our bus was destroyed by another passing bus and this lead to some delays. In the end we took the most direct route from Inverness to Gairloch where our next hotel was. Perhaps we actually profited from the accident since the landscape on that route was spectacular. After the stress with our luggage I felt a great relaxation in Gairloch. The impression it made on me was of somewhere which is really far away and isolated from my usual everyday world. From our hotel room we could see Gannets fishing in the bay and in the night I heard Ringed Plovers calling on the beach. This is nature in the form I appreciate it most. The next day we crossed to Skye. It was rather foggy but what else can be expected from Skye? Our next hotel was in Tyndrum. From there we made a day trip to Iona via Oban and Mull. The general impression of the participants (and it was also my impression) was that the day was too hectic in order to enjoy it properly. For reasons already indicated the hotel was too far away and as a consequence the time was too short. I did not really get a feeling about what it might have been like for St. Columba to arrive on Iona and do what he did there. Another religious figure I would like to know more about after this trip is John Knox. Knowing very little about him I had the feeling that he was a bigot and an extremist. Now I wonder if he might not be responsible for some of most positive aspects of Scottish culture, aspects which I have profited from in my life. We spent our last night in Stirling, where we visited the castle.

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie

May 30, 2022

The novel ‘The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie’ by Muriel Spark has been on my bookshelf at home for many years. I bought it and read it when I was a student. I suppose I did so because I heard friends of mine who were studying English (including Ali Smith – see here for my relations with her) praising it. I do not know how much I liked it at the time. Now, for reasons not worth relating here, I took it off the shelf and opened it. I started reading a little and then could not stop until I had finished it. I had the strange impression that I liked the book much better and laughed a lot more than than the first time. Is this true or is it just my memory failing with increasing age? Now I am considering the possibility that among all novels by Scottish writers it is the one I like the best. What are other possible contenders for this role? The one which occurs to me is ‘Lanark’ by Alasdair Gray. I read it with admiration as a student. In a way Gray is to Glasgow as Joyce is to Dublin although I would not think of regarding Gray as being on the same level as Joyce. I once met Gray personally. The Aberdeen University Creative Writing Group invited him and Jim Kelman (who years later won the Booker Prize) to Aberdeen to give a reading. They came on the train from Glasgow and presumably consumed alcohol continuously during the whole journey. At any rate they were both very drunk when they arrived, whereby Gray appeared a bit less intoxicated than Kelman. I had no particular interest in Kelman; Gray was the one who interested me. I cannot remember much about our conversation, except that he pronounced ‘Proust’ incorrectly. I am not sure if that was ignorance or provocation. It was probably the latter. I have not read Lanark again since then and I think my copy did not survive my moves since then. I do not know what my impression would be if I started reading Lanark again but my intuition tells me that it would not captivate me like Miss Jean Brodie. This is because of the way I have changed over the past almost forty years.

As the title suggests the novel ‘The prime of Miss Jean Brodie’ is dominated by one character. She is strong and fascinating but it is wise to be cautious of having too much admiration for her. This is made clear at the latest by her professed admiration for Mussolini. (The novel is set in the years leading up to the Second World War.) She is a teacher at a private school, her pupils being girls of under the age of twelve. A group of these girls from one year come together to form ‘the Brodie set’. They are brought together not by any similarities between them but by their bond to Jean Brodie. This also keeps them together for the rest of their time at school. She is regarded by most of the teachers at the conventional school as too progressive and the headmistress is keen to find a reason to get rid of her. Eventually she succeeds in doing so. I cannot see Jean Brodie as a model for a teacher. She hatches out schemes to allow her pupils to avoid the work they should be doing and to listen to the stories she tells them. She has very definite ideas, for instance as to the relative importance of subjects: art first, philosophy second, science third. My ordering would be: science first, art second, philosophy third. The book is often very funny but I think there is also a lot in it which is very serious. Apart from the content, the use of language is very impressive. I enjoyed trying to imagine what it means for a jersey to be ‘a dark forbidding green’. There is even a little mathematics, although that is a subject which Jean Brodie has little liking for. Concerning the conflict of Miss Brodie with the Kerr sisters we read, ‘Miss Brodie was easily the equal of both sisters together, she was the square on the hypotenuse of a right-angled triangle and they were only the squares on the other two sides’. For me this is one of those few books which is able to bring some movement into my usual routine. I watched a documentary about Muriel Spark herself, which is also very interesting. Maybe I will soon read another of her novels. ‘Aiding and Abetting’ has also found its way from my distant past onto my bookshelf but I am not sure it will be the next one I read.

Advances in the treatment of lung cancer

May 1, 2022

I enjoy going to meetings of the Mainzer Medizinische Gesellschaft [Mainz Medical Society] but they have have been in digital form for a long time now due to the pandemic. Recently I attended one of these (digital) events on the subject of the development of the treatment of lung cancer. There was a talk by Roland Buhl about general aspects of the treatment of lung cancer and one by Eric Roessner on surgery in lung cancer. Before going further I want to say something about my own relation to cancer. When I was a schoolchild my mother got cancer. In Orkney, where we lived, there was no specialist care available and for that reason my mother spent a lot of time in the nearest larger hospital, Foresterhill in Aberdeen. During my first year as a student in Aberdeen there was an extended period where I visited my mother in hospital once a week. I was not intellectually engaged in this issue and I do not even know what type of cancer my mother had. I seem to remember that at one point her spleen was removed, which suggests to me that it was a cancer of the immune system, lymphoma or leukemia. After some months my mother had reached the point where no useful further therapy was possible. She returned to Orkney and died a few months later. I must admit that at that time I was also not very emotionally involved and that I was not a big help to my mother in those troubled times for her. While I was a student I was friends with two other students, Lynn Drever and Sheila Noble. At one time I frequently heard them talking about a book called the ‘The Women’s Room’ by Marilyn French. I was curious to find out more but they did not seem keen to talk about the book. After the end of my studies I read the book myself. It is a feminist book and I think a good and interesting one. The reason I mention Marilyn French here is another good and interesting book she wrote. It is called ‘A Season in Hell’, which is a translation of the Rimbaud title ‘Une saison en enfer’. In the book she gives a vivid inside view of her own fight with a cancer of the oesophagus. After very aggressive treatments she was eventually cured of her cancer but the side effects had caused extensive damage to her body (collapse of the spine, kidney failure etc.). Parallel to the story of her own illness she portrays that of a friend who had lung cancer and died from it quite quickly. This book gave me essential insights into what cancer means, objectively and subjectively, and what lung cancer means. My own most intensive contact with cancer was in 2013 when my wife was diagnosed with colon cancer. I do not want to give any details here except the essential fact that she was cured by an operation and that the disease has shown no signs of returning. Motivated by this history I recently did something which I would probably otherwise not have done, namely to have a coloscopy. I believe that this is really a valuable examination for identifying and preventing colon cancer and that it was my responsibility to do it, although I was anxious about how it would be. In fact I found the examination and the preparations for it less unpleasant than I expected and it was nice to have a positive result. It is also nice to know that according to present recommendations I only need to repeat the examination ten years from now. A few years ago in the month of November my then secretary got a persistent cough. After some time she went to the doctor and was very soon diagnosed with lung cancer. She only survived until February. I attended a small meeting organised by her family in her memory and there I learned some more details of the way her disease progressed.

Now let me come back to the lectures. The first important message is nothing new: most cases of lung cancer are caused by smoking. Incidentally, the secretary I mentioned above smoked a lot when she was young but gave up smoking very many years ago. The message is: if you smoke then from the point of view of lung cancer it is good to stop. However it may not be enough. In the first lecture it was emphasized that the first step these days when treating lung cancer is to do a genetic analysis to look for particular mutations since this can help to decide what treatments have a chance of success. In the case of the secretary the doctors did look for mutations but unfortunately she belonged to the majority where there were no mutations which would have been favourable for her prognosis under a suitable treatment. In the most favourable cases there are possibilities available such as targeted therapies (e.g. kinase inhibitors) and immunotherapies. These lectures are intended to be kept understandable for a general audience and accordingly the speaker did not provide many details. This means that since I have spent time on these things in the past I did not learn very much from that lecture. The contents of the second lecture, on surgical techniques, were quite unfamiliar to me. The main theme was minimally invasive surgery which is used in about 30% of operations for lung cancer in Germany. It is rather restricted to specialized centres due to the special expertise and sophisticated technical equipment required. It was explained how a small potential tumour in the lung can be examined and removed. In general the tumour will be found by imaging techniques and the big problem in a operation is to find it physically. We saw a film where an anaesthetised patient is lying on an operating table while the huge arms of a mobile imaging device do a kind of dance around them. The whole thing looks very futuristic. After this dance the device knows where the tumour is. It then computes the path to be taken by a needle to reach the tumour from outside. A laser projects a red point on the skin where the needle is to be inserted. The surgeon puts the point of the needle there and then rotates it until another red point coincides with the other end. This fixes the correct direction and he can then insert the needle. At the end of the needle there is a microsurgical device which can be steered from a computer. Of course there is also a camera which provides a picture of the situation on the computer screen. The movements of the surgeon’s hands are translated into movements of the device at the end of the needle. These are scaled but also subject to noise filtering. In other words, if the surgeon’s hands shake the computer will filter it out. There is also a further refinement of this where a robot arm connected to the imagining device automatically inserts the needle in the right way. The result of all this technology is that, for instance, a single small metastasis in the lung can be removed very effectively. One of the most interesting things the surgeon said concerned the effects of the pandemic. One effect has been that people have been more reluctant to go to the doctor and that it has taken longer than it otherwise would have for lung cancer patients to go into hospital. The concrete effect of this on the work of the surgeon is that he sees that the tumours he has to treat are on average in a more advanced state than they were than before the pandemic. Putting this together with other facts leads to the following stark conclusion which it is worth to state clearly, even if it is sufficiently well known to anyone who is wiling to listen. The reluctance of people to get vaccinated against COVID-19 has led to a considerable increase in the number of people dying of cancer.

Another conference on biological oscillators at EMBL in Heidelberg

March 11, 2022

I recently attended a conference at EMBL in Heidelberg and I very much enjoyed experiencing a live conference for the first time in a couple of years. I heard similar sentiments expressed by many of the other participants at the meeting. This conference at EMBL was a sequel to one which I previously wrote about here. The present event was in hybrid form with many of the speakers remote. There were nevertheless more than a hundred people attending on site. The conference started with a presymposium. This was intended to teach some mathematics to biologists. I attended it since I saw it as an opportunity to learn more about what kind of mathematics is really of interest to biologists. Among the main themes discussed were the relationships between positive feedback and multistability and between negative feedback and oscillations. First there was a one-hour talk by Hanspeter Herzel. Then there was a practical part where we were supposed to play with a computer programme. I had downloaded the necessary programmes (R and RStudio) as recommended but this part of the event was a failure for me. I am simply lacking in basic computer competence. It was not explained to us how to begin using the programme and I was not able to supply this missing information on my own. The first part, the lecture, was more interesting for me. The speaker mentioned a paper which he wrote with others about circadian oscillations in the number of lymphocytes in different tissues (D. Druzd et al., Immunity 46, 120). I had previously wondered about the possible roles of oscillations in immunology but I never thought of that direction. I spoke to Herzel about this in a coffee break. This demonstrates a huge advantage of live versus online conferences. I am sure that the information he and I exchanged over coffee would never have been communicated if the conference had been only online. There is a standard picture in immunology in which antigen is being continuously transported to lymph nodes, where it can activate lymphocytes. A key point of the paper is that this does not happen at a constant rate. Instead the process is highly oscillatory. Lymphocytes reach their highest level in the lymph nodes mainly at the beginning of the active phase  (i.e. the beginning of the dark phase in the mice in which these observations were carried out). This means that the effectiveness of a vaccination or another chemical intervention may depend strongly on the time at which it is administered. Herzel told me about an example where this has been seen in practise in cancer immunotherapy. I decided that I wanted to investigate this more closely. Before I could do that I heard the talk of Francis Levi, which was exactly on this topic. Returning to the paper quoted above, according to Herzel the mathematical content was very elementary, using a linear model. I am happy that simple mathematical models and ideas can lead to useful biological insights. What I do not find so good is that the information on the mathematics presented in the paper is so minimal, even in the supplementary material. There is one aspect of this story which is unclear to me. It is important for the functioning of the immune system that a given T cell visits many lymph nodes in a day. Thus the delays to the entrance or exit from lymph nodes which are supposed to implement the rhythm must act in some kind of averaged sense.

I also had a chance to talk to Levi over coffee and get some additional insights about some aspects of his lecture. He has been working on chronotherapy in oncology for many years. This means the idea that the effectiveness of a cancer therapy can be very dependent on the time of day it is administered. He has applied these ideas in practise but the ideas have not gained wide acceptance in the community of oncologists. There is a chance that this may change soon due to the appearance of two papers on this subject in the prestigious journal ‘The Lancet Oncology’ in November 2021. One of the papers (22, 1648) is by Levi, the other (22, 1777) by Qian et al.

Now let me mention a couple of the other contributions I liked best. On Monday there was a (remote) talk by Albert Goldbeter on the coupling between the cell cycle and the circadian clock. Here, as elsewhere in this conference, entrainment was a central theme. There was a discussion of the role of multiple limit cycles in these models. There was also a (remote) talk by Jim Ferrell. His subject was cataloguing certain aspects of an organism called the mouse lemur. The idea was to have a list of cell types and hormones and to know which cell types produce and are affected by which hormones. There is a preprint on this subject on BioRxiv. One feature of these primates which I found striking is the following. They are much fatter in winter than in summer and this is related to a huge difference in thyroid hormones. If I remember correctly it is a factor of ten. For comparison, in humans thyroid hormones also vary with the time of year but only on the scale of a couple of per cent. In a talk by Susan Golden (live) on the Kai system in cyanobacteria I was able to experience one of the pioneers in that field.

Looking for a good read

January 9, 2022

In the recent past my reading has mostly been limited to mathematics and other scientific subjects. I have harldly found time to read literature. I have also tended to read only authors I already knew I liked. A few weeks ago I was in a second hand book shop and tried to do something against these tendencies. One of the things I did was to buy a book called ’50 Great Short Stories’ edited by Milton Crane. My motivation was less a desire to read short stories than to get to know authors I might like to read more of. Of course it was clear to me that reading a short story by an author may not give a very useful impression of what a novel by that author might be like. I was disappointed to find that there were few of the short stories in the book I liked very much. Those I did not appreciate much included ones by a number of authors who have written books I like very much, for instance E. M. Forster, Henry James, Guy de Maupassant, James Joyce, and Virginia Woolf. I long time ago I was keen on Aldous Huxley and read most of his books. This collection contains a short story by him ‘The Gioconda Smile’, which I am sure I had read before. I was not very enthusiastic about it this time but at least I did find it good. In the end there were only two stories in the collection which were by authors I had not previously read and which I liked enough so as to want to read more. The first is ‘The Other Two’ by Edith Wharton and I found the psychological subtlety of the writing attractive. I read a little about the author, who I found out has often been compared with Henry James. My superficial reading on this subject indicates to me that Wharton might have some of those qualities of James which I like while lacking some of those I dislike. Thus I am now motivated to read more of Wharton. The other story which made a very positive impression on me was ‘A Good Man is Hard to Find’ by Flannery O’Connor. I find it difficult to pin down what it was that I liked so much about it. In fact I think both aspects of the form and content were involved. I think a part of it was the impression of reading ‘something very different’. Here again I want to read more.

The other book I bought on that day was a collection of writings of Jean Paul, ‘Die wunderbare Gesellschaft in der Neujahrsnacht’. Unfortunately I found it completely inaccessible for me and I only read a small part of it.

My COVID-19 vaccination, part 3

December 31, 2021

Since my last post on this subject there have been further changes. In Germany 71% of people are now fully vaccinated against COVID-19 (two doses) which is good news. The precentage is higher than it was when I wrote about this the last time (53% at that time) but given that it has been about four months since then the rate of increase looks more like a trickle. A new focus of attention in now the booster and in that area there has been more dynamics. At the moment 38.5% of Germans have had the booster. Yesterday my wife and I had our third vaccination. This time it was with the vaccine of Moderna, which means that we have now tried all the usual flavours of the vaccination available here. The reason for our choice is similar to that for choosing AstraZeneca the first time. At the moment Moderna is unpopular compared to Biontech among many people and this has has led to differences in availability. We had an appointment in February but given the possible threat of the omicron variant and a change in the recommendations we decided to try to get vaccinated earlier. In terms of efficacy and safety we did not see a big difference between the Biontech and Moderna vaccines. The way to fulfilling the desire of an earlier appointment came through the local newspaper we subscribe to, the Allgemeine Zeitung. A lot of the news items I see there are old for me, since I have already read about the themes online. What the paper is useful for is local news. There I read about the initiative of Mathias Umlauf, a young doctor who has set up a private vaccination centre in Hechtsheim, a part of Mainz which is not far from where we live. It was easy to get an appointment there and we could choose the time freely. There only the vaccine of Moderna is used, due to its easy availability. The vaccination does not cost the patient anything. The whole process is very well organized and involves very little bureaucracy or waiting time. According to the information on the web page over 36000 vaccinations have been carried out there, which amounts to 16,9% of the population of Mainz. I am very impressed by what has been achieved there, especially in comparison with the official vaccination centre in Mainz, which does not seem to have been so dynamic. So let me say at this point: thank you Dr. Umlauf. Concerning side effects the only thing I noticed was a slight sensitivity of the arm to pressure during the night but it was really slight, significantly less than I experienced with the last vaccination and even that was a minor effect. Neither my wife nor I have experienced any other negative effects. We are happy to have reached this stage. Of course nobody knows what the further development of the pandemic will be but we are happy in the knowledge that we have done everything in our power to protect ourselves and to contribute to protecting others around us.

My COVID-19 vaccination, part 2

August 5, 2021

Since my last post on this subject a few things have changed. In Germany 53% of people are fully vaccinated against COVID-19, which is good news. We are now in a situation where in this country any adult who wants the vaccination can get it. Of course this percentage is still a lot lower than what is desirable and the number of people being vaccinated per day has dropped to less than half what it was in mid June. I find it sad, and at the same time difficult to understand, that there are so many people who are not motivated enough to go out and get the vaccination.

Yesterday my wife and I got our second vaccination. In the meantime the relevant authority (STIKO) has recommended that those vaccinated once with the product of AstraZeneca should get an mRNA vaccine the second time. The fact that we waited the rather long time suggested to get our second injection meant that the new recommendation had already come out and we were able to get the vaccine of Biontech the second time around. There have not been many studies of the combination vaccination but as far as I have seen those that there are gave very positive results. So we are happy that it turned out this way. This time the arm where I got the injection was sensitive to pressure during the night but this effect was almost gone by this morning. The only other side effect I noticed was an increased production of endorphins. In other words, I was very happy to have reached this point although I know that it takes a couple of weeks before the maximal protection is there.

Every second year there is an event in Mainz devoted to the popularization of science called the Wissenschaftsmarkt. It has been taking place for the last twenty years. Normally it is in the centre of town but due to the pandemic it will be largely digital this year. This year it is on 11th and 12th September and has the title ‘Mensch und Gesundheit’ [rough translation: human beings and their health]. I will contribute a video with the title ‘Gegen COVID-19 mit Mathematik’ [against COVID-19 with mathematics]. The aim of this video is to explain to non-scientists the importance of mathematics in fighting infectious diseases. I talk about what mathematical models can contribute in this domain but also, which is just as important, about what they cannot do. If the public is to trust statements by scientists it is important to take measures against creating false expectations. I do not go into too much detail about COVID-19 itself since at the moment there is too little information available and too much public controversy. Instead I concentrate on an example from long ago where it is easier to see clearly. It also happens to be the example where the basic reproductive number was discovered. This is the work of Ronald Ross on the control of malaria. Ross was the one who demonstrated that malaria is transmitted by mosquito bites and he was rewarded for that discovery with a Nobel Prize in 1902. After that he studied ways of controlling the disease. This was for instance important in the context of the construction of the Panama Canal. There the first attempt failed because so many workers died of infectious diseases, mainly malaria and yellow fever, both transmitted by mosquitos. The question came up, whether killing a certain percentage of mosquitos could lead to a long-term elimination of malaria or whether the disease would simply come back. Ross, a man of many talents, set up a simple mathematical model and used it to show that elimination is possible and was even able to estimate the percentage necessary. This provided him with a powerful argument which he could use against the many people who were sceptical about the idea.