3 Fascinating Things We Learnt From London Lectures Last Week

Laurence Scales
By Laurence Scales Last edited 39 months ago
3 Fascinating Things We Learnt From London Lectures Last Week

We've been doing the geeky lecture circuit in London so you don't have to (although of course we recommend you get out there too). This time we've learned about ancient antibiotics, nanotechnology and cabinets of curiosity.

What is ‘cropleac’? This is the nearest we can get

Ancient antibiotics

Tu Youyou just won a Nobel Prize in medicine for her work on a treatment for malaria that started with studying ancient Chinese medicine. Meanwhile, in England…

A nine days wonder

We were at King’s College London’s Arts and Humanities Festival last week. When medievalist Dr Christina Lee listed the ingredients of her ancient salve — with wine, onion and garlic — it sounded like a recipe for a tasty marinade. Until she added the ox gall that is.

Now we all know that early medicine was full of newt’s eyes and frog’s toes (or so we understand from Shakespeare). Nicolas Culpeper, who knew a lot more than the Bard about this kind of thing, mentions using white dog’s turds. And the further you go back the worse it gets, right?

A page from Bald's Leechbook

Not so, it seems. A recipe for eye salve from Bald’s Leechbook — a thousand year old tome held at the British Library — actually seems to work well on certain infections. The biologist working on this experiment, Dr Freya Harrison, was quick to point out that killing germs is easy. Fire or Domestos do a good job, but you would not to get either of these in your eye. And just applying each ingredient on its own is not effective.

We don’t know our onions

The right type of onion is hard to know from the text. The Old English word, all they have to go on, is ‘cropleac’ which might in fact be a leek. If you really know what it is, get in touch. At the moment the antibiotic effect is more than just an interesting result; there’s enough promising data to think about the next stage of research.

Norse liniment

It all came about because a biologist thought it would be fun to read some Old Norse, and a medievalist (who already knew it) thought that the writers back then were more precise in their medical observations than they had been given credit for.


Diamond and graphite are both 100% carbon but they have entirely different uses. Only the structure is different. Nanotechnologists make designer particles. They can be made of normal stuff such as carbon atoms but put together in novel arrangements such as ‘nanotubes’, which give them strange properties. American professor Michael Meador blew into London last week, visiting the Royal Institution to expand.

Michael Faraday’s colloid, a suspension of gold nanoparticles in a liquid. Image: Paul Wilkinson/Royal Institution

‘Come down off the ceiling now!’

You can put nanoparticles into yarn so that it sheds dirt or water, or into fine wires that save weight in aircraft, or into gloves that stick you to the ceiling like a gecko. They are the same sort of size (below 300 billionths of a metre) as those darned particulates we inhale from taxi fumes. Therein lies a possible health concern but only if the particles are likely to get into the wind. Often they will be part of something solid you could stub your toe on.

The Lycurgus Cup. Photo by Andrea Liu

In the same building there is a bottle containing a minute quantity of gold — nanoparticles that Michael Faraday suspended in a liquid 150 years ago. It looks like a bottle of wee after you have been eating beetroot. In all that time the gold has never settled to the bottom and no one has ever found how Faraday did it. But nanoparticles go back even further than that. The 1,700 year old Lycurgus Cup in the British Museum changes colour depending how the light falls on it, and that’s down to nanoparticles in the glass.

You don’t make nanoparticles with a sharp knife and tweezers but they can often be made by surprisingly normal processes. Even water can be a nanoparticle if you design a spray nozzle just right. Nanowater has amazing cleaning properties.

Cabinets of curiosity

These have been a hot topic in London recently with the recent Joseph Cornell exhibition at the Royal Academy and now a lecture at the British Museum, in which Dr Tim Knox rushed us round the country in search of the best.

Every home should have a cabinet of curiosities. In our case it’s a motorcycle made of a fly spray tin, a fossilised whelk and a tube map from 1963. In the Enlightenment period, collecting was a prelude for trying to classify and understand creation. The stately homes of England were the original museums and even the yokels might get a look inside once a year. A glorious mixture of stuff there was too — tat from your Grand Tour to Italy, fossils from the local quarry and the ultimate prize, a stuffed crocodile nailed to the ceiling because it was too big to go anywhere else. A lot has now found its way into museums where perhaps the joy of the random assortment has been lost.

Curiosities at the Last Tuesday Society. Photo by Dariusz in the London Flickr pool

Beetle mania

Dame Jane Wilson (1749–1818) of Charlton House was fanatical about beetles and her carriage rattled all over the country. Her curiosities went to her daughter in Northumberland. But London has not done too badly. The collections of Sir Hans Sloane started off the British Museum, the British Library and the Natural History Museum. Both John Hunter and Sir John Soane have their collections in museums named after them still.

Last Updated 26 October 2015