South of the River – Town and Gown

Compass-SouthI struggled through the snow into the city centre on Saturday for a Science Fair at the City Museum. I don’t know how long this has been going on but the organisers date back to 1819. There’s something rather wonderful in the fact that the Leeds Philosophical and Literary Society is still going. What’s more it is still doing good things like the science fair.

The “Phil & Lit” as I hear they’re called, popped up again in an article by Martin Wainwright on the Guardian Northerner blog. They have just republished a guide to the architectural treasures of the Leeds University campus called “Walks Round Red Brick” by Prof Maurice Beresford.

I remember a consultation about a proposed Student Village in Holbeck some years ago. By the way, why does Holbeck, the prototype urban industrial district attract so many “Village” regeneration schemes?

Anyway, the people behind this scheme said never mind the, was it 3,000? students and the loss of Holbeck Moor, you’ll all be able to come and use the fantastic sports facilities that we’ll build for the students. I pointed out that local people would not venture onto this “campus” no matter how good the facilities were. The Leeds University campus is criss-crossed with public streets, but you don’t see many non-students cutting through. It’s not our territory so we go around the edge. To be fair the developers took this point, but it hadn’t crossed their mind until I raised it.

I’m lucky enough to have studied at Leeds University. I wasted my opportunity and dropped out, but that’s a story for another day. I only ever go on campus on the odd occasions I have to visit someone there, or go to a gig. And when I’m on campus I feel like I don’t belong.

Anyway, I started by talking about the science fair. As well as the Leeds Astronomical Society who look at very big things in sky and the Leeds Microscopical Society who look at very small things (mostly rather beautiful varieties of algae judging from their display) I met a PhD student from the University who spends her day working with an electron microscope.

She explained that that research she is involved with is looking at the tiny “machines” that work within the cells of our body to turn food into energy the cell can use. With her Electron Microscope, which is much more powerful than a desk microscope that you may have used in school (and I imagine belongs to the University rather than being hers personally) she can establish the shape of the “machine”. But it is made up of even smaller structures, molecules. Rather like the parts of a car, these are all shapes and sizes but fit together to make the “machine”.

To see exactly how the molecules are made up, they turn them into crystals and use a technique called X-Ray Crystalography. Now those of you who have been paying attention will remember that:

a)  X-Ray Crystalography was developed at Leeds University by the Braggs a hundred years ago


b)  It was used to understand the structure of DNA sixty years ago

Good. Next they have to do a 3-D jigsaw puzzle to work out how the parts fit together to make the shape of the “machine” that they’ve already discovered.

Again going back to a previous discussion, this is pure science. They are just trying to understand how these things work, but it will have practical applications in due course. Technologists are already mimicking some of these tiny “machines”. The student explained that the natural structures they are looking at are too “squidgy” (she did use that word). They can only exist in the environment of a cell, at a temperature of 37oC, which isn’t very practical for say industrial applications.

She finished by saying that it was a shame she couldn’t bring the electron microscope to the fair, but this was impractical as it took up an entire room in the University. I suggested her department should have an open day and show us all round.

It seems a long way up to the University, across that river, from south Leeds. I think it’s an even greater distance psychologically. But I think the University belongs to the city, the whole city. Even Holbeck and its villages.

Jeremy MortonSo if they do have an open day and offer trips to see the electron microscope and all the other interesting things they’ve got up there, we must take them up on it.  We must gird our loins and get on the No 1 bus and go and see what they’re doing.

I’ll be back next week with more of my views from South of the River. If you’re on Twitter, you can follow me: @BeestonJeremy.