By 9th May 2023Cairn News, News, Uncategorised


(With apologies to Sting!

A well known structure seen from the roof of the Paris labs

So yes, Martin is now a fully fledged member of the European Union once again, as he finally has the Irish passport to go with the citizenship that he was granted last year, and the background to which you can read about here  And it has been a particular privilege to use it to come over to Paris for this year’s Paris Neuro meeting during the very week that the UK’s new monarch is being crowned (and indeed anointed, whatever that may mean or entail), not to mention being able to proudly wave it at all the fellow Europeans who came along to his talk on light sources!  This ensured that the entire room was with me from the start.  (At this point I should advertise that Cairn’s CEO Jez Graham is also here with a whole team of collaborators, but that is going to deserve a report of its own.)    So thanks to this fortunate accident of ancestry (I had an Irish grandmother) I have now been able to become truly European once again, rather than being just a subject of the British Crown, as whatever apologises for its government has now condemned most of its residents to be.  But enough about that particular car crash, in spite of all its negative effects on Cairn (although we are nevertheless surviving them), so let’s swiftly move on to other matters!

"Plymouth Cell Physiology Workshop will be running once again this September! "

Those other matters include both some good news and some sad news.  The good news is that the Plymouth Cell Physiology Workshop will be running once again this September!  However, this is being made possible by the funding left over from previous courses, rather than by any new sponsorship, so it’s no guarantee for the future.  The course was last properly run in 2019, and then Covid put paid to 2020.  A virtual version ran in 2021, but it just wasn’t the same, and then there was the sudden loss of its organisational mainstay David Ogden just a few weeks later.  And then 2022 was ruled out by extensive rebuilding works at the MBA labs, so only now are we able to run it once again for what will be the 38th time in 2023.  But that’s quite a track record!

As a quick recap, the course first ran in 1984, which I was able to attend as a guest lecturer during my period of scientific purgatory at those dreadful old Shell labs but once I escaped from there in 1989 I was able to return that year, and indeed for every course since!  To put this into historical perspective, the reason for holding the course in Plymouth was in recognition of the pioneering work on neuronal conduction done there by Hodgkin, Huxley, Keynes and others in the 1940s and 1950s, and which continued there for many years after that.  So the earlier Plymouths weren’t so far remote from those times, whereas we are now four decades further on!  Also nobody does “that sort of work” at Plymouth any more, and indeed science itself has massively moved on into areas that could only have been dreamed of in those days, such as genetically encoded optical indicators, so maybe this year’s course will indeed be the last, at least in its current form.  However, the need for the type of tuition that the course has provided on basic electrophysiological and optical recording techniques remains as great as ever, and it has always been significantly oversubscribed (this time too!), so we’ll just have to see what happens for the future.  But meanwhile the Paris Neuro course, which covers similar areas, looks to have a more certain future, and which Cairn will naturally continue to support.

Larry Cohen

The sad news has been the sudden loss of Larry Cohen just a few days previously.  We at Cairn had got to know him very well over the years, both from his academic work and his founding of the Redshirt Imaging company, whose products we have been pleased to distribute.  Larry had been seen in both Plymouth and Paris from time to time, although his Plymouth appearances had been in support of the “other” Plymouth course, namely the imaging/microscopy one, but sadly that course is now definitely over.  I’d already known him for many years before that, our paths having first converged during my postdoc at Boston University in the late 1970’s, and which I’ve already written about here

For those readers who may not already know, Larry’s research interest was in optical indicators of membrane potential, which amongst much other work included his personal testing of literally thousands of candidate molecules on the squid giant axon.  He had begun his research career working with Richard Keynes in Cambridge, which included working on that very same preparation, so in the scientific sense he also had a close connection with Hodgkin, Huxley and the other “giant axon” physiologists of that era.  Many of those people had significant interfamily connections, so in his talks Larry would sometimes like to show this in a “family tree” which would include other leading British scientists such as the Darwin family (to whom Keynes was related).   He would then contrast this by showing another slide to show his own scientific lineage, which consisted of …. just Larry Cohen!

The point is that those connections could inspire a certain amount of awe amongst the younger and less affiliated members of the scientific community, and although I couldn’t speak personally about anyone in that group, then at least some people of that generation did certainly act as if they were on a rather higher plane than the rest of us.  As what I recall in retrospect to be a particularly amusing example, my thoughts about Larry in this connection prompted me to remember a particular “nonencounter” in my student days with someone who had made his name in another field, namely insect physiology.  The person in question was Professor Sir Vincent Wigglesworth FRS, and one day there was a meeting for which my attendance was for some reason required, as my PhD research project at the Department of Zoology in Cambridge involved one aspect of this particular subject.  The poor man could bring himself to referring to me only indirectly, by asking “So this is the student?”, as if it were embarrassing for him even to be in the same room as me – which perhaps it was!

In contrast, Larry had no time for such pretentious nonsense, so for someone of my particular scientific upbringing it was somewhat disconcerting to be treated as an equal from the start.  But one nevertheless had to be careful!  His laid-back manner hid a particularly deep intellect, in which an apparently casual question from him would get right to the heart of whatever matter was being discussed.  And in social company, he was a pretty inexhaustible reservoir of jokes, not all of which would be suitable for retelling here!  Sir Vincent would most definitely NOT have been amused by them, but that would equally definitely have been his problem rather than mine.


These thoughts couldn’t help but remind me of my general place in the scheme of things at the time.  To be honest, I just wanted to get a PhD so that I could call myself “Doctor”, so the fact that I was not one of the students who was in any way being groomed for a glittering scientific career was of absolutely no consequence to me.  Instead, as long as I was seen to be getting on with what I considered to be a safe but boring project (and not one of my choosing), I was pretty much left to my own devices.  Very literally in fact, since as already related I used my time to design and build all sorts of devices, only some of which were in any way connected to the project in hand.  The fact that this so perfectly prepared me for my postdoctoral research work at Boston University was, at least from my own perspective, completely accidental.  Nor was my even going to Boston actually planned, but again as already related, the possibility appeared at short notice, and I expressed my interest more in a spirit of adventure than anything else.  But once I got the reply to please come as soon as possible, my curiosity got the better of me, so off I went!

From there on the “problem” was that my approach to doing research was much more attuned to the American way of doing things than what at least in those days seemed to be the British one.  Unlike my Cambridge experiences (which I nevertheless greatly enjoyed) It seemed to me that nobody there had a particular “place” in the scheme of things, so it was just up to you where you were going to get.  This was all rather disconcerting, and Larry’s attitude was at least in some respects part of that bigger picture.  A very competitive environment for sure, but you were on a much more level playing field.  In fact, only in retrospect did I appreciate just how “political” the Cambridge environment was.  I guess it always had been, and no doubt always will be, but unlike current Westminster politics, it was and presumably still is being conducted by people with a certain degree of intelligence!

But although the American environment suited my research style so much better, for a whole variety of other reasons I didn’t want to make my life there, which is why I decided to return to the UK and take my chances there once again.  However, as I have again related before my attempts to do research in a more commercial type of environment were spectacularly unsuccessful, so I then started to “do” Cairn with considerable relief as well as excitement, and it has stood me in very good stead ever since

"If only I could say the same about the UK!"

If only I could say the same about the UK!  I got back just in time to experience the start of the Thatcher era, and although I can’t pretend that everything that went before was perfect, I was nevertheless aware from the start that a lot of good things were being lost along the way.  No need to go into detail though, as by now this should be all too clear to everyone!  These changes made me feel rather more aware of a European type of identity than a merely British one, so Brexit (sorry, I do have to mention it more than once after all) was accordingly an even greater personal disappointment.  Hence my embracing the Irish component of my ancestry with correspondingly greater fervour, and my being correspondingly more appreciative of being able to do so.  But what a crazy situation!

Of course I’m looking forward to visiting those old ancestral haunts as a fellow citizen before too long (most likely soon after Plymouth).  Sadly the closest relative I can find there is at the third cousin level, as so many others have dispersed, but that’s close enough, and we’ve already agreed to have a few beers together when I’m over. 

50mm filter wheel!??

Three filter wheels

But meanwhile there is much to keep me busy at Cairn, and here is a photo of just one example.  Yes, it’s going to be an even bigger Optospin!  The wheel itself, which takes 50mm filters, is shown alongside its 25mm and 32mm brethren for comparison.  But up at this size, it can take more than just filters.  The thread size is actually the 2” SM2 standard, so it can take other accessories too, most notably lenses or even lens assemblies.  While it’s not going to be quite as fast as the other two, it should still be pretty nippy for any wheel of this sort of size, and it will still be able to run from the same controller as the other two.  But as you can see from the bigger central hole, it will take a correspondingly larger motor.  This has been a very straightforward further development because the motors we use are members of a family that are primarily intended for electric model flight, but the high power-to-weight ratio that this application requires also makes them perfect for the filter wheel application.  The model flight application requires a range of motors of different powers and sizes, hence we can do the same for filter wheels.  In fact there are even bigger ones out there, but maybe 50mm will be enough for us now!