Music and the Mind: “can’t get it” and “can’t get it out of my head”

MusicWhen I was at the Science Museum Lates event this week, I attended a talk on the perception of music by researchers from the Music, Mind and the Brain group at Goldsmiths, University of London.

The first half of the talk was by Lauren Stewart, a cognitive neuroscientist, who outlined how the brain understands music.

Music is entirely a construct of the mind, she pointed out, because sound waves are simply vibrating air molecules, nothing more.  What is remarkable is not just that the brain understands how to interpret these sequences of molecules, but that we can also understand composites of several different strings of molecules interwoven together; i.e. the different musical elements – for example, guitarist, bass, drums, singer – that make up a song.

Activity of the brain when music is heardBut how did the brain evolve this ability?  One possibility is that music is a super stimulus for pleasure, said Dr Stewart.  The brain, she said, is adapted to recognise patterns. The process of hearing a song and predicting what comes next sets off the neurotransmitter dopamine in areas of the brain associated with other pleasure stimuli, like sex and drugs – suddenly the old adage “sex, drugs and rock’n’roll” makes more sense!  The “musical chills” that you experience when you hear a song you really like is a good example of this process in action.

Dr Stewart studies the disorder amusia, which is a lifelong failure to recognise familiar tunes or tell one tune from another. Sufferers frequently complain that music sounds like a “din” and often avoid social situations in which music plays a crucial role. Such individuals are unable to understand the up and down pitch of music, but have no problems with the pitch changes in speech, like rhythm, stress, and intonation.

Some people develop this problem after significant brain trauma, like a car accident, whereas others are born with it. Dr Stewart describes the genetic component of amusia, “congential amusia,” by highlighting a family of eight siblings from Northern Ireland, four of whom have amusia and four of whom hear music fine. In fact, a study of nine families with some amusic members and ten normal families found that 39% of first-degree relatives of amusic people have the same cognitive disorder, whereas only 3% have it in the control families.

By studying a “broken system,” Dr Stewart hopes to find out more about the “correct” cognitive architecture of music, and its relation to other cognitive skills such as language and spatial awareness. Her present research aims to elucidate exactly which perceptual and cognitive mechanisms are at fault in amusia, whether disordered musical processing has implications for language, and the extent to which such difficulties can impact upon sociocultural functioning.

The second half of the talk was by Daniel Müllensiefen, a computational scientist, who studies involuntary musical imagery, or “earworms.”

Prevalence of earmwormsAn earworm, a direct translation of the German word “ohrwurm,” is a portion of a song or other music that repeats compulsively within one’s mind – “I’ve got a song stuck in my head.” Earworms are related to voluntary musical imagery – earworm activate the same areas of the brain as when you’re listening to music.

Apparently, as many as 90% of people experience an earworm at least once a week, whereas about 50% have one everyday.  The average length an earworm is on repear is 27 minutes, and between 15% and 33% of people find these “cognitively infectious musical agents” unpleasant or disturbing.

Dr Müllensiefen is using computational analysis of music to determine what it is about a song that makes it stick in our heads and become an earworm. He and his team have broken down the melodies over 14,000 pop songs from the 1950s to the present day into sequences of 0s and 1s that computers can deal with.

They have then analysed the statistical distributions and regularities in the data from commercially successful songs to determine what elements make a song a hit. Apparently, what you need is a chorus melody that has a large range and uses only few pitches much more frequently than the majority of its pitches.  Which looks like this:Hit song equation

This talk was a great introduction to how the brain deals with music – both in instances where people can’t get a grip on music and in cases where they can’t get it to go away.

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After hours in the Science Museum

Science Museum DJThis evening my friends and I went to the Science of Music event at the Science Museum in South Kensington. The evening was part of Science Museum Lates, a monthly adults only event where the museum is open until 10pm and special talks and displays are laid on.

The place was pretty packed out with a surprisingly young and trendy crowd. Four of the museum’s seven floors were open, and each handily had several bars and DJs, surely a prerequisite for an event about music. There was even a silent disco, somewhat incongruously located among the satellites and rockets in the Exploring Space gallery.

First off we went to to the Launchpad area, an interactive hands on gallery that is usually packed with kids on a daytime visit to the museum. Instead we had the gallery to ourselves and got to have a proper play with things like electromagnets, generators, and circuit boards.

We then tried to catch the break dance demonstrations in the flight gallery. Alas we only made it for the tail end, but we did find out how angular momentum affects how fast a break dancer can spin on their head: arms out, they slow down; arms flat against their body, they speed up.

Materials man close upMaterials in the bodyWe were unexpectedly quite fascinated by the Plasticity exhibition, which showcases 100 years of plastics. I was particularly interested in the US Olympic ski suit, which had foam pads on areas like the shoulders and forearms that are soft when racing but instantly turn hard impact to absorb shock energy.

While we’re on the subject of materials, another of my favourite exhibits in the that I saw this evening was this “materials man,” who shows the anatomical location and real size of a selection the medical materials and devices that are currently in use.

In the close up, you can see a silicone artificial larynx, a carbon fibre bone plate, a titanium and silicone cardiac pacemaker, and a polytetrafluoroethene methanical aortic valve.  Dentures and a glass eye are in there as well.

All in all, the event was a great chance to have a look around the museum in a laid back atmosphere without hundreds of kids tearing around the place. Oh, and with a beer in my hand, always a bonus!

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Robo-doc: Sci-Fi Surgery at the Royal College of Surgeons

Would you let a completely unmanned robot operate on you?  Or what about one manned by a surgeon thousands of miles away?  Sounds out of the question, the stuff of science fiction. But you’d be wrong, robotic surgery is here and has huge implications for medical efficiency and safety, as the Sci-Fi Surgery: Medical Robots exhibition at the Royal College of Surgeons aptly demonstrates.

A robot is “a machine – usually computer controlled – that is capable of movement and interaction with its environment”.  Robots have been used to do manual or tedious tasks in industry for almost 50 years, and now they’re being used for the same purposes in medicine – to support busy nursing staff, for example.

ProbotIn addition, robots are more accurate and have better dexterity than humans.  The reduction in incisions and trauma that can be achieved using surgical machines means a quicker recovery for patients, faster discharge from hospital and a better quality of life after surgery.  Robots also produce consistent results and produce few mistakes, if any.

The first surgical robot was the industrial machine Puma 560, which was used by surgeons in 1985 to position a needle during a brain biopsy.  Fast forward to 1991 and the PROBOT made its appearance on the scene.  The PROBOT is an autonomous device used to remove an enlarged prostate gland in a procedure called transurethral resection of the prostate.  Unsurprisingly, neither surgeons nor patients are happy using a completely “hands off” device like the PROBOT, so newer robots tend to use a “shared control” approach.

Rob017_largeAnother interesting type of robot that was developed in the 1980s is “master-slave” robots.  These robots are used to do remote surgery – that is, to perform procedures when the surgeon and the patient are in different physical locations.  The first master-slave robot was called da Vinci Surgical System and was developed by the US army for use in the field, but is now commonly used to remove prostates.  Another telemanipulator, Zeus, was first used by a surgeon in New York to remove a gallbladder from a patient in France.

I was particularly interested in the flash new capsule endoscopes on display at the exhibition.  Capsule endoscopes are pill sized cameras that are used to record images of the gastrointestinal tract in patients suspected of having diseases like colon cancer.  The patient swallows the endoscope and the doctor can view on a screen the whole of their digestive tract.  This approach is considerably more comfortable for patients than normal endoscopy, where a camera on the end of a tube is inserted either in the anus or mouth.

ARESOne problem with capsule endoscopy at the moment is that the endoscope flies down the patient’s digestive tract and the doctor has no control over its speed or where its pointing.  A doctor could spot a dodgy looking region of the gut but won’t be able to go back and get a good look at it because the endoscope is still heading down and out.

New prototype endoscopes on display at the Sci-Fi Surgery exhibition hope to solve this issue.  The Scuola Superiore Sant’ Anna in Pisa, Italy, has developed a remote control endoscope that has “legs” it can use to propel itself through a patient’s gastrointestinal tract.  The design of this particular robot is based on the motion of worms and insects.  Dr Arianna Menciassi, Associate Professor of Biomedical Robotics at Scuola Superiore Sant’Anna, Italy, explains: “We turned to biological inspiration because worms have locomotion systems suited to unstructured, slippery environments and are ideally suited for use in the human body.”

The Scuola Superiore Sant’ Anna has also developed a reconfigurable robot that researchers hope can be swallowed in separate segments that will assemble themselves in the gut into a larger device capable of carrying out surgical procedures.


By far the most disconcerting robot as far as I was concerned was the Bloodbot.  Developed by researchers at Imperial College London, the Bloodbot is designed to help doctors find a vein when taking blood samples.  A probe presses down on the patient’s arm to sense a vein, then inserts a needle under force control.  I don’t know about you, but I’m not keen on having an inanimate object sticking needles in my arm!

With processes in all industries becoming more automated, it was only a matter of time before surgery followed suit.  This little exhibition provides a great primer on the use of machines in medicine.

  • Sci-Fi Surgery: Medical Robots is running at the Qvist gallery in the Hunterian Museum of the Royal College of Surgeons until Wednesday 23rd December 2009. The museum is free and is open Tuesday – Saturday 10.00am – 5.00pm.
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Visiting the Natural History Museum Darwin Centre

Today my friends and I went to see the Darwin Centre at the Natural History Museum, and it was AMAZING!

Cocoon 1The aim of this shiny new wing is to show visitors “the hidden world of museum science”.

The Natural History Museum is rightly most famous for it’s natural history collection, which comprises more than 70 million specimens amassed over the past 400 years. However, the museum is also an active research centre that covers biodiversity, disease, climate change and environmental science.

The striking Cocoon building at the Darwin Centre combines these two arms of the museum’s mission, housing over 200 working scientific experts and also a significant proportion of the museum’s specimens.

The specimens are in storerooms on the lower five floors in a controlled environment behind 4cm glass windows.  And the scientists?  They’re also on display behind glass windows, allowing guests to get a glimpse of science in action; for example, the preparation of specimens for cataloging or the extraction of DNA for sequencing.

GScientists as lab ratsiven my geeky tendencies, I particularly enjoyed the Decoding DNA area. This spot explained how and why scientists unravel DNA, and included a funky animation of PCR. One of the things I really liked about the whole Darwin Centre was that it explained the practicalities of what scientists do, and the clear explanation the rather complicated process of DNA sequencing was a great example.

Malaria gameThe Decoding DNA area also had a cool game about sequencing the DNA of various disease carrying mosquitoes.  You first had to catch enough mosquitoes to fill your quota of PCR tubes, then run them on your virtual electrophoresis gel to get a look at the variation among different types of mosquitoes.  Once you knew what the different types were, you were given a list of their characteristics and asked how you think they should be controlled.

We suggested that our drug resistant Anopheles species of mosquito should be controlled with nets rather than drugs, and totally won the game.  Curing malaria isn’t bad for a morning’s work!

The Cocoon has more than 40 high-tech installations and hands-on interactive activities like this.  Some of my other favourites included a video about peer review and publishing research (predictable? me?!) and a collection of videos of scientists on field expeditions.  More great info on the day to day lives of Britain’s scientists.

Nature plus

Dotted around the exhibition are various barcode scanners for the museum’s NaturePlus scheme.  Each visitor is given a card with a unique barcode that they can scan at exhibits they find particularly interesting and save content to view later online.

I imagine this service is really helpful for school children who are working on a project about taxonomy, for example.  The kids can find out the basics about classification of organisms on their trip to the museum, then do further research about Linnaeus and co when they get home.

Overall I think the Darwin Centre is a great resource for teaching the general public, especially kids, about what it means to be a scientist.  Certainly when I was at school we learnt about DNA, photosynthesis, and so on, but were taught little about how this information was acquired bar the stories of big names like Darwin and Mendel.  The great “how to do biology” exhibition in the Darwin Centre would have no doubt filled the gaps in my schoolgirl knowledge and given me a clear idea of what further studies in science might eventually lead to.

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“Fame? I want to be a scientist!”

diversityNot my words, but those of the choreographer for Britain’s Got Talent winners Diversity.

If you’ve been in the UK at all in the past month you can’t help but have read about the Britain’s Got Talent TV show.  In this nationwide talent contest, people from all walks of life with talents ranging from the bizarre to the extraordinary do their best to impress the cynical judges in a bid to win £100,000 and the chance to perform their act for Prince Charles at the Royal Variety Show.

Eleven-piece street dance troupe Diversity trumped the tabloid punchbag ‘hairy angel’ Susan Boyle, but group choreographer Ashley Banjo isn’t going to let fame go to his head.

Banjo wants to make time to study for his masters degree in physics and biology, he told the Daily Mail, as the career prospects for a scientist seem better to him than those of a nationally famous dancer.

“I’m not going to be spinning on my head when I’m 50, but as a qualified scientist I can always earn a living”, he told a press conference today.

What would you prefer, a UK tour or a career in science?  Given the limited success of previous Britain’s Got Talent winners, Ashley Banjo is probably making a smart choice…

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Government to tackle obesity with Change4Life campaign

Change 4 LifeI recently blogged about the alarming rates of obesity among children in England, with one in four 4-5 year old children and one in three 10-11 year olds in this country obese or overweight. The Foresight report, published in 2007, ominously predicts that by 2050 90% of British children will be overweight or obese.

The British Government has now responded to this issue by launching a huge campaign to persuade the population to switch to a healthier lifestyle. The Change4Life strategy will promote the message “eat well, move more, live longer” on TV, in the press, on billboards and online initially for 3 months, and will continue over 3 years.  The initiative will be supported by £200m of advertising and marketing donated by food companies such as Tesco, Mars, Nestlé and Flora.

Dawn Primarolo, minister for public health, said today: “We are trying to create a lifestyle revolution on a grand scale. There are very serious health consequences with allowing dangerous quantities of fat to build up in our bodies. This is not just an ad campaign – we are calling it a lifestyle revolution – it is a long-running concerted effort to change behavior.”

The television campaign launches on Saturday 3rd January with adverts designed by Aardman Animations, the people behind the much loved plasticine duo Wallace and Gromit.  The engaging clip is designed to warn viewers of the health risks associated with being overweight and is targeted at helping young families change their lifestyle for good.

Change4Life is the biggest Government campaign ever launched and is expected to follow in the success of similar cross-media anti-smoking initiatives.  Unlike anti-smoking public awareness strategies though, this campaign steers away from shock tactics and instead offers practical advice.

Critics have been quick to point out that the involvement of food companies in the campaign is a way for such corporations to cast their brand in a healthy light without actually changing the salt or fat content of their food.  Tam Fry of the National Obesity Forum warned that junk food companies were donating millions to the campaign as a way of heading off the “regulation they fear”.

The Telegraph notes that “neither the leaflets nor the screen advertisements use the word obesity”, preferring instead to state that children could grow up to have “dangerous levels of fat in their body”.  The campaign is designed to avoid pointing the finger at any one group, however, specifically avoiding talking about ‘fat bodies’ and blaming modern life rather than parents.

Let’s hope that the more kindly, blame-free approach of Change4Life gets the people of the UK off the sofa and helps to avert our obesity timebomb.

  • If you’re skeptical, the Big Question in The Independent casts a critical eye over the Change4Life campaign, asking whether the Government can really make us eat less.
  • On the other hand, it you want to get serious about improving your lifestyle there is stacks of information on how to eat better, move more and live longer on the Change4Life website.
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World AIDS Day roundup

Today December 1st is World AIDS Day. As many as 33 million people worldwide are living with HIV, and there are 80,000 people with HIV in the UK. The aim of World AIDS Day is to raise awareness of the challenges and consequences of the epidemic – ultimately halting the spread of the HIV virus and improving the lives of people living with infection.

The UK theme for World AIDS Day 2008 is “Respect & Protect“. Many people living with HIV face discrimination – this year’s campaign hopes to highlight the responsibility everyone has to transform attitudes to HIV and encourage actions that stop its spread. You can show your support for the campaign by wearing a red ribbon, which you can get your hands on in Gap, H&M, Selfridges and Levi’s stores around the UK, as well as in Red Cross charity shops.

There is a whole selection of events and promotions worldwide to mark World AIDS day. For example, this weekend a flash mob descended on Glasgow town centre, “freezing” while handing each another red ribbons and condoms in the event organized by the British Red Cross.

South Africa is poised to grind to a halt for 15 minutes to talk about AIDS. This weekend the country received £15 million worth of support from the UK to tackle the HIV epidemic. In South Africa, 20–30% of the population is HIV positive and as many as 365,000 people have died unnecessarily thanks to the AIDS denialism of former president Thabo Mbeki.

Online, has launched the “Facing AIDS for World AIDS Day” campaign. Participants are invited to take a photo of themselves wearing a red ribbon and, on World AIDS Day, put the photo on their social networking site, blog, Twitter page, or website. There is also a Flickr group and a Facebook group where supporters can upload their pictures.

Digital magazine (RED)Wire by Product (RED), the charity run by Bono to engage the private sector in AIDS programmes, launched today. For a monthly subscription fee of £4, half of which will go to the Global Fund to help people in Africa with HIV and AIDS, users can get world premieres of exclusive tracks from the likes of Elton John, Jay-Z and Coldplay.

Bloggers Unite, a movement that aims to “harness the power of the blogosphere to make the world a better place”, has invited bloggers to dedicate their blog posts today to issues related to HIV/AIDS, with the aim of reminding people that HIV/AIDS is still a critical issue and to promote HIV testing. You can follow World AIDS day on Twitter with the tag #WAD08.

There is also a World AIDS day Musical Festival in Second Life, which will feature HIV/AIDS presentations and displays, tours, writing workshops, and virtual red ribbons and t-shirts.

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November 14th is World Diabetes Day

Tomorrow the International Diabetes Federation (IDF) is leading World Diabetes Day, the primary global awareness campaign of the diabetes world.

World Diabetes Day is celebrated annually November 14th, the birthday of Frederick Banting, who in 1922, along with Charles Best, conceived the idea that led to the discovery of insulin.

The theme for this year and for 2007 is ‘Diabetes in Children and Adolescents’. The incidence of type 1 diabetes in children is increasing at a rate of 3% each year and is increasing fastest in preschool children (a rate of 5% per year). Type 2 diabetes has been reported in children as young as 8 years old. Over half of all children with diabetes develop complications – such as heart disease and blindness – within 15 years.

The World Diabetes Day 2007-2008 campaign aims to:
• Increase the number of children supported by the IDF Life for Child Program, a international aid endeavor that provides life-saving medication to children with diabetes in developing countries.
• Raise awareness of the warning signs of diabetes.
• Encourage initiatives to reduce diabetic ketoacidosis.
• Promote healthy lifestyles to help prevent type 2 diabetes in children.

One of the key events of is the lighting of buildings and monuments in blue – the colour of the diabetes circle. In 2008, the aim is to encourage a total of 500 monuments and iconic buildings to light up to mark World Diabetes Day. The owners of the London Eye have already pledged to light up their monument; the Sears Tower in Chicago, Niagara Falls on the US/Canada border and the Alamo in Texas are also going blue. You can see pictures of buildings that were lit up in 2007 on the IDF Flickr page.

The global diabetes community is organizing a range of activities, including radio and television programmes, public information meetings, poster and leaflet campaigns, newspaper and magazine articles, events for kids, and walks, runs, and bicycle races.

Members of the public encouraged to show their support of diabetes awareness by lighting blue World Diabetes candles; a percentage of the sales of these candles will go to support children with diabetes on the Life for a Child Program.

The World Diabetes Day website includes lists of activities in various cities worldwide, so check it out and get involved!

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The Nature Debate: Enhancing the Body

This evening I attended The Nature Debate: Enhancing the Body at King’s Place in King’s Cross, north London.

Today’s discussion is the second of two panel events on “the risks, benefits and extent of how far research can extend our mental and physical abilities”. Chaired by Kerri Smith, Nature Podcast Editor and presenter of Nature Neuroscience’s NeuroPod, the panel comprised:

Kevin Warwick, Professor of Cybernetics at the University of Reading and wannabe cyborg.
Andy Miah, Reader in New Media & Bioethics at the University of the West of Scotland, Fellow of the Foundation for Art and Creative Technology and dapper dresser.
Aubrey de Grey, Chairman of The Methuselah Foundation, an organization committed to accelerating progress toward a cure for age-related disease, and owner of a magnificent beard.

After a brief introduction and tongue in cheek incitement to “get physical” from Nature Managing Editor Nick Campbell, the panel members lay down their views on the subject of physical enhancement.

Aubrey de Grey begins by pointing out that all three panel members are advocates for physical enhancement and questions whether the discussion will really be a debate at all, then lays down his case, arguing that being against the concept of physical enhancement is “incoherent”. Citing examples such as the beneficial effects of antibiotics and vaccines on the immune system, he illustrates that we humans have already taken measures to enhance ourselves physically.

Next up is Kevin Warwick, who compares humans to computers in order to demonstrate the limitations of our mental capacities. He cites a professor at MIT who claimed that all the memories of a 100-year-old person could fit on a single CD and states that machines can sense spectra like ultraviolet and X-rays, finally suggesting that by harnessing the power of computers in these areas we can enhance mental powers such as memory capacity and sensory perception. Warwick’s most famous experiments represent the first steps along this path – in 1998 he implanted a chip under his skin and was able to open and shut doors via a computer, then in 2002 a new chip that interfaced directly onto his median nerve permitted him to move a robot arm in synchrony with his own actions.

The third panel member, Andy Miah, spoke about the value of human enhancement in elite sports. An asthmatic, he only recently began regularly using his inhaler and feels that his running capability has increased tremendously – where do these kind of measures fall in the debate about physical enhancement? Miah also discusses the case of the South African runner Oscar Pistorius, who is a double amputee and the proud owner of very high-tech carbon fibre transtibial artificial limbs. Pistorius successfully campaigned to compete with able-bodied athletes in the 2008 Beijing Olympics. His case raises interesting questions about the perception of disability and the purpose of enhancements.

Chair Kerri Smith picks up on this theme and asks the panel whether there is a difference between enhancing the physical capabilities of a disabled person in order to bring them up to the the capacity of a ‘normal’ individual, and physically enhancing a healthy person to give them abilities above the norm. Harking back to the case of Oscar Pistorius, Andy Miah opines that the definition of a ‘normal’ human and, therefore, what constitutes a physical enhancement is particularly difficult, especially in the paralympics. This issue then leads into a discussion of what constitutes an acceptable physical enhancement, with Aubrey de Grey suggesting that elite sport is ‘the canary in the coalmine’ of physical enhancement and may well prove to be the litmus test of what society considers acceptable.

Finally, the panel are asked what sort of physical enhancements are possible at this moment in time and how long it will be before one of their pet projects comes to fruition. Aubrey de Grey says that the aim in his field is “to solve the problem of aging faster than it catches up with us” and that he hopes the discipline of regenerative medicine will reach this point in 25-30 years. Andy Miah thinks that the first genetically enhanced athletes might appear in the 2012 Olympic Games, and acknowledges that genetic modification is already possible in animals and it is only ethical and safety concerns that prevent such techniques being used in humans today. Kevin Warwick cites his most recent experiments – in which rat neurons are interfaced with robot ‘bodies’ – as examples that enhancing physical capabilities through computers is technologically possible at the moment, and purports that it could only be 12-18 months before scientists start doing similar experiments with the human nervous system. On the other hand, there are many concerns relating to surgery, infection, and the ethics of such undertakings, meaning that linking human brains to robot bodies – Steve Martin brain-in-a-jar style – might not happen for up to 10 years.

So what of Nature’s original question – “How should we respond to enhancement technologies?” The answer from the panel seems to be: “enthusiastically”. The last word goes to Aubrey de Grey, who states “It is intellectually bankrupt to say that any enhancement per se is wrong”.

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From homeopaths to psychopaths

To celebrate the launch of the book Medical London: City of diseases, city of cures, the Wellcome Collection is hosting a selection of events in the city. Written by Richard Barnett and Mike Jay, Medical London offers “a unique … view of the roles played by diseases, treatments and cures in London’s sprawling story”. Yesterday I took part one of the Wellcome events – a walk around west London titled From homeopaths to psychopaths.

We started out in Sloane Square, where leader Max Décharné, author of King’s Road, gave us a bit of background on the area. Throughout the 16th and 17th century, the Chelsea region served as a rural outpost of London, the clean air and clean water of the village a welcome reprieve for the visitors looking to recuperate from the filthy mêlée of the east end.

First stop was the statue of Hans Sloane, which stands outside of the Duke of York’s Headquarters (Photo: Matt from London on Flickr). Sloane, born in 1660, was physician to Queen Anne, George I and George II and was the first medical practitioner to receive a peerage, given the title Baron in 1716. In clinical practice, Sloane promoted innovations such as inoculation against smallpox and the use of quinine (a treatment for malaria). He was also a president of the Royal College of Physicians and succeeded Sir Isaac Newton as President of the Royal Society.

As well as being a proficient doctor, Sloane was an avid collector of pretty much anything and everything, and on his death his vast collection of natural history specimens and antiquities was sold to the nation at a knock-down price and housed in the newly created British Library, and later at the Natural History Museum.

We next passed through Chelsea Walk, which was originally built by William III and intended as a wide boulevard linking the newly-built Royal Chelsea Hospital with Kensington Palace, but actually only extends from the hospital to King’s Road.

The Royal Chelsea Hospital itself was commissioned by Charles II for the “succour and relief of veterans broken by age and war” (Photo: stevecadman on Flickr). Until the 17th century injured or elderly soldiers were not provided for in any way by the state. Many were kept on regimental rolls and still took part in duties so that they could continue to receive payment as there were no pension provisions. Charles II recognized that the state owed a debt to these soldiers, marking a shift from the tactic of previous kings who often left the poor and infirm to fend from themselves. The hospital was built by Sir Christopher Wren and completed in 1692, with the first 479 in-pensioners in residence by the end of the year. The hospital is still a home to elderly or injured British soldiers, and is also the site of the annual Chelsea Flower Show.

On the way to the hospital we passed Bram Stoker‘s house on St Leonard’s Terrace, who, despite writing rather morbid literature, has an interesting health connection. In 1882 Stoker was awarded a Royal Humane Society Bronze Medal for attempting to save the life of a man who had jumped into the River Thames.

At this point I sadly had to abandon the walk as I had been totally soaked through by the torrential rain. I was particularly disappointed to miss the trip to Chelsea Physic Garden, not least because for many years I thought it was called Chelsea Psychic Garden and was hoping for some horticultural glimpse into my future (incidentally, the word ‘physic’ refers to the science of healing, not the science of matter and forces. So much opportunity for confusion). The garden was founded in 1673 as a site to train apothecary apprentices in the art of identifying plants and still hosts the Garden of World Medicine, a special collection of plants used for medicinal purposes by different cultures around the world.

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