Saturday, 18 May 2019

The kids who smuggled out an East German defector

It's not often that you get to revisit your little hometown, speak to a group of people who grew up around you, and stumble across a story involving a Stasi file, a bugged Trabant, an East German defector and a bunch of teenagers on a school trip. And then have someone make it into a podcast with brilliant 1980s tunes.

This feature for the Guardian took me back to the 1980s, and stirred up memories of my own childhood in the divided Germany. It made me look at my hometown in a different light, and led to lots of conversations about family, politics, belonging - and how hard it can be to do the right thing when the world around you is wrong.

One thing that struck me was the timeliness of this story. It's about young people challenging conditions that the older generation has accepted as the norm. Today, as children are separated from their parents at borders around the world, teenagers are taking to the streets to urge action on the climate crisis, and refugees are risking their lives to cross the sea to Europe, it's a good reminder that we do have the power to help.

Wednesday, 20 March 2019

Teach yourself to echolocate

Awakening your hidden senses can be a life-changing experience. It can help you compensate for the loss of other senses (like vision), improve your confidence and everyday safety, or even just enrich your experience of the world. Researching and writing this feature for BBC Future on the power of our hidden senses really made me appreciate the untapped resources that lie within all of us.

And also, I now know what "bimodal precision advantage" means and why it's crucial to something as simple as safely crossing the road.

Wednesday, 27 February 2019

"Like ear wax": On language and the senses

My latest for BBC Future, on how the language you speak reflects the senses you use. It was a really fun piece to report and write, but one thing left me baffled: apparently, English speakers (but not speakers of other languages!) consistently confuse sour, salty and bitter. First question: Why? And also, what about multi-heritage, multi-lingual English speakers? And also: "like ear wax"??

"When offered bitter-flavoured water, all Farsi speakers in the study described it as “talkh”, the Farsi word for bitter." 
This was not the case with English speakers. When offered the same bitter-flavoured water, “English speakers said everything from bitter, to salty, sour, not bad, plain, mint, like ear wax, medicinal and so forth”, says Majid. 
She says this kind of taste confusion consistently happens to English speakers in lab tests: “They describe bitter as being salty and sour, they describe sour as being bitter, they describe salt as being sour. So even though we’ve got the vocabulary, there seems to be some confusion in people’s minds over how to map their taste experience onto language."

Saturday, 15 December 2018

Saving the fertility of children with cancer

This feature for the Guardian Weekend magazine feels like a fitting article to end the year on. Fertility preservation is about the future, about uncertainty, about hope - and about the belief that given enough time and resources, scientists can find solutions to problems that may seem unsurmountable right now. Here's to a happy and healthy 2019.

Young cancer patients face uncertainty, aggressive treatment – and a risk to their future fertility. Can a cutting-edge procedure offer a solution?

Friday, 14 December 2018

Unlocking the secrets of the ancient world

Can machines help us translate the world's oldest written language? Ancient Mesopotamia has left us more texts than ancient Rome, Egypt and Greece combined, some say. About half a million Mesopotamian clay tablets carrying cuneiform script, the world's oldest writing system, have been excavated, detailing life at the dawn of history. But relatively few can read this script and the languages (Sumerian and Akkadian) it records. Here's how algorithms might help us crack the secrets of the past - and spark new research into our earliest civilisations. 

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.”