The Wellcome Trust, Depression, AT-AT’s and human locomotion

Sitting in Heathrow airport, just coming back from a meeting at the Wellcome Trust, which has been generous enough to funded my research over two fellowships and ten years. These meetings are designed to bring their funded fellows and investigators together. As the elements of the research I do (mathematical models, livestock diseases, social networks and infectious disease dynamics) each individually lie a bit on the edge of what the Trust funds, you can imagine that the combination of elements means I often feel slightly isolated in these meetings. Having said that, they do illustrate the diverse range of research funded by Wellcome, and you sometimes get a chance to see some really interesting stuff. We aren’t supposed to talk directly about the research we saw, as the intention is to have a free environment to discuss ongoing work. I can tell you about a couple of interesting people I met: Mark Williams is a clinical psychology professor from Oxford who works on depression and ways of alleviating it; one of the background points he made was that the proportion of years of work lost to depression, compared to other causes is very similar (and very high) across both developing and highly industrialised countries. I also met Jim Usherwood from the Royal Veterinary College, who works on various aspects of the mechanics of motion; he is very good at using lateral examples to illustrate his points, for example demonstrating how the movement of AT-AT’s atatin The Empire Strikes Back is unlike real motion; even crawling babies have moments of unstability as they wobble from stable point to stable point; in contrast, because the AT-AT scenes were done via the old magic of stop motion photography (rest in peace, Ray Harryhausen) and before CGI dominated movie-making, each position had to be stable. It really reminded me of how useful pop culture imagery can be to get your ideas across to your audience. Its all about connecting, without condescending. And maybe I’m not so isolated at Wellcome after all.

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One comment

  1. Joaquin said (in response to the previous post on Tanzania, though I think he meant in reply to this one) “I thought in all movements you go from stable to stable position through a quick unstable position. A funny video about a robot that “knows” how to go back to equilibrium (from my days in the robotics department).” This is true for us, and probably true for most animals that we can think of. However its not true for some – apparently (according to Jim Usherwood) crawling babies, for example, and tortoises – I believe he was saying they move directly from stable position to stable position. This is why the example of stop-motion photography is relevant; at each frame, the objection ‘in motion’ is actually ‘stopped’ so the motion never appears to be in the unstable position. Update – Joaquin, you were right – indeed as the revised post now shows, the point is that babies do have moments where they are not stable, and in this way the walkers in Star Wars are quite different – my apologies all around!

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