Saturday, 27 October 2018

What's the best age to learn a language?

Can you lose your native language? And what's the best age to learn a second (or third, or fourth) language? Here are two features I wrote for BBC Future about languages and language-learning.

Interestingly, the feature on losing your mother tongue seemed to resonate with a lot of people - I've had fascinating exchanges with rusty native speakers from around the world. But I also enjoyed researching the one on age and language. As one of the experts says: “Not everything goes downhill with age." Our attention span increases, for example. Our study skills improve. And we can read books! Which has definitely been a huge factor in my own language learning. What's your favourite learning strategy?

Thursday, 19 April 2018

Basel: A trip to LSD's birthplace

For the Guardian - a city profile of Basel for the 75th anniversary of Albert Hofmann's accidental discovery of LSD. Hofmann was a chemist researching the effects of a fungus that had been used for a variety of medicinal purposes since medieval times, for example to bring on labour (and also for abortions). Hofmann was trying to find a drug to treat fatigue, but then... well, read the article!

One thing I really enjoyed during my research for this piece was hearing about the interplay between science and the arts, both of which are big themes in Basel's history. The two are sometimes treated as polar opposites, especially in the educational system, which is such a shame - all the best scientists are incredibly creative. As Matthias Liechti, a pharmacologist currently researching LSD at University Hospital Basel, told me: “Hofmann was an example of scientific professionalism, but on the other hand he was also spiritually open. That’s a nice mix.”

Wednesday, 28 March 2018

The secret world of babies

My son's first assignment! We visited the Babylab at Birkbeck and found out about their latest research for BBC Future.

Wednesday, 28 February 2018

How you talk to your child changes their brain

Most parents know that talking to their child is important. But a new study has revealed that it’s how you talk to your child that really matters for their brain growth. Read more about chatting and cognitive development in my latest story for the World Economic Forum.

Tuesday, 6 February 2018

Why speaking more than one language can boost economic growth

My latest piece for the World Economic Forum: multilingualism is good for the economy, researchers have found. Countries that actively nurture different languages reap a range of rewards, from more successful exports to a more innovative workforce. (And speaking more than one language actually boosts your earning power, as one study showed - even if you don't need your additional language on the job).

Friday, 26 May 2017

Charlotte Salomon Centenary

This year marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of Charlotte Salomon, the Berliner artist who created Leben? Oder Theater? ('Life? Or Theatre?') - a painted memoir that tells the story of her life in more than a thousand gouaches.

Salomon painted the wonderfully strange, moving and beautiful work in her early twenties, while she was hiding from the Nazis in southern France. Not long after its completion, she was arrested and deported to Auschwitz, where she was killed at the age of twenty-six. A friend saved the gouaches and handed them to Salomon's father and stepmother after the war. A selection was published as a 'diary in pictures' in the 1960s. But it was not until the late 20th century that Salomon found proper recognition.

A (more or less) complete version of Leben? Oder Theater? was only published in 1981, and in 1994 a meticulously researched biography by Mary Felstiner, an American scholar, drew global attention to Salomon and her work (To Paint Her Life: Charlotte Salomon in the Nazi Era; HarperCollins). Since then, Salomon has inspired researchers, writers and artists around the world. Her bold exploration of female identity, family secrets, mental illness and the quest for artistic fulfilment seems to have finally found the appreciative audience it deserves.

Earlier this month I spoke about different aspects of Leben? Oder Theater? at a Charlotte Salomon study day at Goldsmiths College. I focused on Salomon's depiction of motherhood and childhood ("This Cosy Family Life": A Literary Perspective on Motherhood and Childhood in Charlotte Salomon's Leben? Oder Theater?). Unfortunately I was only able to catch a small section of the study day, but I'm hoping that there'll be many more events around Salomon and her work this year.

A small (free!) exhibition on Salomon will be on for a few more days at the Women's Art Library at Goldsmiths, and is definitely worth visiting. I would also strongly recommend Astrid Schmetterling's book 'Charlotte Salomon: Bilder eines Lebens'. Astrid co-organised the study day and has written extensively on Salomon, and the book is a really thoughtful and interesting investigation into her life and work.

Wednesday, 22 March 2017

Why Constable's Rainbow May Carry a Hidden Message

A mystery surrounding one of John Constable's most emotionally-charged landscapes may finally have been solved – by a meteorologist.

I always enjoy writing about art and science, and this feature for BBC Britain was particularly fun. Who knew that Constable was really into rainbow science? That rainbows are a bit like sun dials? And that Constable was plagued by self-doubt and never felt anything he painted was quite good enough?

I also liked this quote from Professor Thornes, the meteorologist, on Constable's passion for science, which will probably resonate with a lot of artists (and scientists):

“Constable said we see nothing truly until we understand it. And the rainbow is a case in point. You don't see a rainbow properly until you understand how it's formed."