Tag Archives: Science

Nazneen Rahman: ‘Science and music are mediums in which I create’

I’ve had an exciting and unusual few weeks. My group published a scientific paper revealing a new genetic cause of a childhood kidney cancer called Wilms’ tumour. This discovery has been of immediate benefit to families, providing an explanation for why their child got cancer, and information about cancer risks for other family members. During the same period, I also released my second album of original songs, called Answers No Questions. On one day, I found myself singing live on Radio London in the morning and talking genetics to the World Service in the evening.

Over the past few weeks, I have found it increasingly difficult to know quite how to answer the ubiquitous question – what do you do?

For most of my adult life, I have replied: “I’m a scientist and a doctor.” It is an accurate description. I am professor of human genetics at the Institute of Cancer Research, London, and head of cancer genetics at the Royal Marsden Hospital. For 20 years, my work has focused on identifying gene mutations that predispose us to getting cancer and then using that information to help patients and their families.

But I am also a singer-songwriter. This is a smaller activity than my science, but far more than hobby. I release music that people pay good money to experience.

As my music has become better known, more and more people have asked me about my unusual career combination. Dubiously, admiringly, wistfully, jealously, but most often simply because they are intrigued by the motivations and the practicalities.

This has forced me to consider how, if at all, these parts of my life are related. At first, I was adamant they were distinct facets of my character. I railed against modern society’s pervasive need to simplify and pigeon-hole the human spirit. Most people have multiple passions and drivers. I am fascinated by these subterranean pursuits. One of the joys of sharing my previously secret musical existence (it’s not been all joy – but that’s another column) is that many scientists now share their secret passions with me – pot throwing, flugel playing, novelty cakemaking, fire eating – scientists are as wondrously idiosyncratic in their appetites as the rest of society.

Nazneen Rahman on stage


Nazneen Rahman on stage

I also rail against the cliche that people are drawn to science and music because they both have a mathematical basis. It may be true for some, but it has no relevance to my passion for music. I was singing complex harmonies to pop songs long before I learned the theory of music. I am an intuitive, emotional, spontaneous songwriter with little idea of the key, notes or time I am composing in – until I have to write it down. There is little science in my music, but I have come to believe there may be music in my science. There is a kinship in how I do science and how I make music that flouts the division of science and the arts that our education system promotes.

My branch of science is genetics. Genetics is underpinned by a simple four-letter DNA code (designated by A, C, G, T). This code dictates how our bodies work. And how they can fail. This beautiful code is framed, shaped, constrained and enhanced by a multitudinous orchestra of associates that determine when, how, where, how long and how strong different parts of the code are played in each of our 30tn cells. DNA is also extraordinary in being able to copy itself with unbelievable accuracy while retaining the ability to mutate and evolve. The sophisticated controls and balances are breathtaking in their elegance. Our recent childhood cancer gene discovery revealed some insights into these control mechanisms and how cancer can occur if they go wrong. Studying genetics provides an endless variety of patterns to unravel, problems to solve, questions to answer. Gratifyingly, it also provides endless opportunities to bring benefits to humanity. In a hundred lifetimes I would not run out of genetic questions that excite me.

Music is underpinned by a simple 12-letter note code (designated by C, C#, D, D#, E, F, F#, G, G#, A, A#, B). These notes can be layered in almost infinite ways to produce music. In a hundred lifetimes I would not run out of music to write. My challenge has never been about finding the time to write songs, it has always been about finding the time to not lose songs. Snippets of music and lyrics are my constant companions. Most disappear into the clouds like lost balloons. But every now and again, I reach up, grab a string and tie one down, just before it is lost for ever.

Science and music make me feel like I’m swimming in infinity pools of possibility, but within structures that keep me from drowning. The potential and expectation to keep delivering new things can be daunting to scientists and artists. The DNA code in genetics and the note code in music are my lifelines. They let me be audacious and unfettered. They give me confidence to dive in, even when I can’t see the shore on the other side.

And the practicalities of delivering science and music are quite similar for me. Science is typically funded as three- to five-year projects. For example, I am currently leading a £4m collaborative programme, called the Transforming Genetic Medicine Initiative, which is building the knowledge base, tools and processes needed to deliver genetic medicine. To get science funding, you need to present, in great detail, a persuasive, innovative concept that seems worthwhile and feasible. But once you receive the funding there is considerable creative licence to alter the project, within the overall concept, because science is fast moving. You cannot predict everything you will do at the cutting-edge of knowledge, five years in advance.

My albums have also had three-year lifespans, though I didn’t plan it that way. I don’t plan them at all. My songs tend to be stories about the complexities of everyday life, inspired by words, subjects or images that briefly, randomly, ensnare me. I don’t know what the songs will be about before I write them. There is no overall concept for the albums, at least not consciously. And yet I see now that each album had a central theme that wasn’t apparent to me when I was writing them. Can’t Clip My Wings, which I released in 2014, includes songs about how we adapt to loss. Lost loves, lost lives, lost dreams. My new album, Answers No Questions, includes songs about choice – the complexities, burdens, excitement, pain and joys of making choices.

[embedded content]
Watch the video for Everything Must Change by Nazneen Rahman.

As I am writing this, I wonder if I am forcing these connections, if they are a post-hoc construct that allows me to give a more pleasing answer to why I am both scientist and songwriter. But I have truly come to believe that, in me, science and music are different manifestations of the same need. A central deep desire to create new things – elegant, beautiful, new things. It doesn’t much matter if it’s a scientific discovery, a clinic protocol that makes things easier for patients or a song that tells a human story from a fresh perspective. When it works it feels amazing. Even when it doesn’t work, the journey is always paved with nuggets of enlightenment that feed into future creations.

So what do I do?

I think, at my core, I am a creative, though it would be perplexing to many if I started to describe myself this way. Science and music are the mediums in which I happen to create, undoubtedly an unusual combination. But maybe only because we are relentlessly conditioned, from an early age, to believe we must choose whether we are in the science or the arts camp. People from the “arts camp” routinely tell me they were hopeless at science, sometimes apologetically, sometimes as a badge of honour, a mark of their creativity. Likewise, scientists worry that any proficiency in creativity might be interpreted as a deficiency in objectivity, the bedrock of science. It seems our society has lapsed into considering activity in the sciences and the arts a zero-sum game. It is not.

What would happen if we stopped constraining ourselves and our children in this way? If we embraced and fostered fluid boundaries between the sciences and the arts? If many more people were able to cross freely in and out of both worlds, successfully and unapologetically?

I believe science, art, individuals and society would reap countless benefits.

Answers No Questions is out now; nazneenrahman.com

Nazneen Rahman: ‘Science and music are mediums in which I create’

I’ve had an exciting and unusual few weeks. My group published a scientific paper revealing a new genetic cause of a childhood kidney cancer called Wilms’ tumour. This discovery has been of immediate benefit to families, providing an explanation for why their child got cancer, and information about cancer risks for other family members. During the same period, I also released my second album of original songs, called Answers No Questions. On one day, I found myself singing live on Radio London in the morning and talking genetics to the World Service in the evening.

Over the past few weeks, I have found it increasingly difficult to know quite how to answer the ubiquitous question – what do you do?

For most of my adult life, I have replied: “I’m a scientist and a doctor.” It is an accurate description. I am professor of human genetics at the Institute of Cancer Research, London, and head of cancer genetics at the Royal Marsden Hospital. For 20 years, my work has focused on identifying gene mutations that predispose us to getting cancer and then using that information to help patients and their families.

But I am also a singer-songwriter. This is a smaller activity than my science, but far more than hobby. I release music that people pay good money to experience.

As my music has become better known, more and more people have asked me about my unusual career combination. Dubiously, admiringly, wistfully, jealously, but most often simply because they are intrigued by the motivations and the practicalities.

This has forced me to consider how, if at all, these parts of my life are related. At first, I was adamant they were distinct facets of my character. I railed against modern society’s pervasive need to simplify and pigeon-hole the human spirit. Most people have multiple passions and drivers. I am fascinated by these subterranean pursuits. One of the joys of sharing my previously secret musical existence (it’s not been all joy – but that’s another column) is that many scientists now share their secret passions with me – pot throwing, flugel playing, novelty cakemaking, fire eating – scientists are as wondrously idiosyncratic in their appetites as the rest of society.

Nazneen Rahman on stage


Nazneen Rahman on stage

I also rail against the cliche that people are drawn to science and music because they both have a mathematical basis. It may be true for some, but it has no relevance to my passion for music. I was singing complex harmonies to pop songs long before I learned the theory of music. I am an intuitive, emotional, spontaneous songwriter with little idea of the key, notes or time I am composing in – until I have to write it down. There is little science in my music, but I have come to believe there may be music in my science. There is a kinship in how I do science and how I make music that flouts the division of science and the arts that our education system promotes.

My branch of science is genetics. Genetics is underpinned by a simple four-letter DNA code (designated by A, C, G, T). This code dictates how our bodies work. And how they can fail. This beautiful code is framed, shaped, constrained and enhanced by a multitudinous orchestra of associates that determine when, how, where, how long and how strong different parts of the code are played in each of our 30tn cells. DNA is also extraordinary in being able to copy itself with unbelievable accuracy while retaining the ability to mutate and evolve. The sophisticated controls and balances are breathtaking in their elegance. Our recent childhood cancer gene discovery revealed some insights into these control mechanisms and how cancer can occur if they go wrong. Studying genetics provides an endless variety of patterns to unravel, problems to solve, questions to answer. Gratifyingly, it also provides endless opportunities to bring benefits to humanity. In a hundred lifetimes I would not run out of genetic questions that excite me.

Music is underpinned by a simple 12-letter note code (designated by C, C#, D, D#, E, F, F#, G, G#, A, A#, B). These notes can be layered in almost infinite ways to produce music. In a hundred lifetimes I would not run out of music to write. My challenge has never been about finding the time to write songs, it has always been about finding the time to not lose songs. Snippets of music and lyrics are my constant companions. Most disappear into the clouds like lost balloons. But every now and again, I reach up, grab a string and tie one down, just before it is lost for ever.

Science and music make me feel like I’m swimming in infinity pools of possibility, but within structures that keep me from drowning. The potential and expectation to keep delivering new things can be daunting to scientists and artists. The DNA code in genetics and the note code in music are my lifelines. They let me be audacious and unfettered. They give me confidence to dive in, even when I can’t see the shore on the other side.

And the practicalities of delivering science and music are quite similar for me. Science is typically funded as three- to five-year projects. For example, I am currently leading a £4m collaborative programme, called the Transforming Genetic Medicine Initiative, which is building the knowledge base, tools and processes needed to deliver genetic medicine. To get science funding, you need to present, in great detail, a persuasive, innovative concept that seems worthwhile and feasible. But once you receive the funding there is considerable creative licence to alter the project, within the overall concept, because science is fast moving. You cannot predict everything you will do at the cutting-edge of knowledge, five years in advance.

My albums have also had three-year lifespans, though I didn’t plan it that way. I don’t plan them at all. My songs tend to be stories about the complexities of everyday life, inspired by words, subjects or images that briefly, randomly, ensnare me. I don’t know what the songs will be about before I write them. There is no overall concept for the albums, at least not consciously. And yet I see now that each album had a central theme that wasn’t apparent to me when I was writing them. Can’t Clip My Wings, which I released in 2014, includes songs about how we adapt to loss. Lost loves, lost lives, lost dreams. My new album, Answers No Questions, includes songs about choice – the complexities, burdens, excitement, pain and joys of making choices.

[embedded content]
Watch the video for Everything Must Change by Nazneen Rahman.

As I am writing this, I wonder if I am forcing these connections, if they are a post-hoc construct that allows me to give a more pleasing answer to why I am both scientist and songwriter. But I have truly come to believe that, in me, science and music are different manifestations of the same need. A central deep desire to create new things – elegant, beautiful, new things. It doesn’t much matter if it’s a scientific discovery, a clinic protocol that makes things easier for patients or a song that tells a human story from a fresh perspective. When it works it feels amazing. Even when it doesn’t work, the journey is always paved with nuggets of enlightenment that feed into future creations.

So what do I do?

I think, at my core, I am a creative, though it would be perplexing to many if I started to describe myself this way. Science and music are the mediums in which I happen to create, undoubtedly an unusual combination. But maybe only because we are relentlessly conditioned, from an early age, to believe we must choose whether we are in the science or the arts camp. People from the “arts camp” routinely tell me they were hopeless at science, sometimes apologetically, sometimes as a badge of honour, a mark of their creativity. Likewise, scientists worry that any proficiency in creativity might be interpreted as a deficiency in objectivity, the bedrock of science. It seems our society has lapsed into considering activity in the sciences and the arts a zero-sum game. It is not.

What would happen if we stopped constraining ourselves and our children in this way? If we embraced and fostered fluid boundaries between the sciences and the arts? If many more people were able to cross freely in and out of both worlds, successfully and unapologetically?

I believe science, art, individuals and society would reap countless benefits.

Answers No Questions is out now; nazneenrahman.com

Nazneen Rahman: ‘Science and music are mediums in which I create’

I’ve had an exciting and unusual few weeks. My group published a scientific paper revealing a new genetic cause of a childhood kidney cancer called Wilms’ tumour. This discovery has been of immediate benefit to families, providing an explanation for why their child got cancer, and information about cancer risks for other family members. During the same period, I also released my second album of original songs, called Answers No Questions. On one day, I found myself singing live on Radio London in the morning and talking genetics to the World Service in the evening.

Over the past few weeks, I have found it increasingly difficult to know quite how to answer the ubiquitous question – what do you do?

For most of my adult life, I have replied: “I’m a scientist and a doctor.” It is an accurate description. I am professor of human genetics at the Institute of Cancer Research, London, and head of cancer genetics at the Royal Marsden Hospital. For 20 years, my work has focused on identifying gene mutations that predispose us to getting cancer and then using that information to help patients and their families.

But I am also a singer-songwriter. This is a smaller activity than my science, but far more than hobby. I release music that people pay good money to experience.

As my music has become better known, more and more people have asked me about my unusual career combination. Dubiously, admiringly, wistfully, jealously, but most often simply because they are intrigued by the motivations and the practicalities.

This has forced me to consider how, if at all, these parts of my life are related. At first, I was adamant they were distinct facets of my character. I railed against modern society’s pervasive need to simplify and pigeon-hole the human spirit. Most people have multiple passions and drivers. I am fascinated by these subterranean pursuits. One of the joys of sharing my previously secret musical existence (it’s not been all joy – but that’s another column) is that many scientists now share their secret passions with me – pot throwing, flugel playing, novelty cakemaking, fire eating – scientists are as wondrously idiosyncratic in their appetites as the rest of society.

Nazneen Rahman on stage


Nazneen Rahman on stage

I also rail against the cliche that people are drawn to science and music because they both have a mathematical basis. It may be true for some, but it has no relevance to my passion for music. I was singing complex harmonies to pop songs long before I learned the theory of music. I am an intuitive, emotional, spontaneous songwriter with little idea of the key, notes or time I am composing in – until I have to write it down. There is little science in my music, but I have come to believe there may be music in my science. There is a kinship in how I do science and how I make music that flouts the division of science and the arts that our education system promotes.

My branch of science is genetics. Genetics is underpinned by a simple four-letter DNA code (designated by A, C, G, T). This code dictates how our bodies work. And how they can fail. This beautiful code is framed, shaped, constrained and enhanced by a multitudinous orchestra of associates that determine when, how, where, how long and how strong different parts of the code are played in each of our 30tn cells. DNA is also extraordinary in being able to copy itself with unbelievable accuracy while retaining the ability to mutate and evolve. The sophisticated controls and balances are breathtaking in their elegance. Our recent childhood cancer gene discovery revealed some insights into these control mechanisms and how cancer can occur if they go wrong. Studying genetics provides an endless variety of patterns to unravel, problems to solve, questions to answer. Gratifyingly, it also provides endless opportunities to bring benefits to humanity. In a hundred lifetimes I would not run out of genetic questions that excite me.

Music is underpinned by a simple 12-letter note code (designated by C, C#, D, D#, E, F, F#, G, G#, A, A#, B). These notes can be layered in almost infinite ways to produce music. In a hundred lifetimes I would not run out of music to write. My challenge has never been about finding the time to write songs, it has always been about finding the time to not lose songs. Snippets of music and lyrics are my constant companions. Most disappear into the clouds like lost balloons. But every now and again, I reach up, grab a string and tie one down, just before it is lost for ever.

Science and music make me feel like I’m swimming in infinity pools of possibility, but within structures that keep me from drowning. The potential and expectation to keep delivering new things can be daunting to scientists and artists. The DNA code in genetics and the note code in music are my lifelines. They let me be audacious and unfettered. They give me confidence to dive in, even when I can’t see the shore on the other side.

And the practicalities of delivering science and music are quite similar for me. Science is typically funded as three- to five-year projects. For example, I am currently leading a £4m collaborative programme, called the Transforming Genetic Medicine Initiative, which is building the knowledge base, tools and processes needed to deliver genetic medicine. To get science funding, you need to present, in great detail, a persuasive, innovative concept that seems worthwhile and feasible. But once you receive the funding there is considerable creative licence to alter the project, within the overall concept, because science is fast moving. You cannot predict everything you will do at the cutting-edge of knowledge, five years in advance.

My albums have also had three-year lifespans, though I didn’t plan it that way. I don’t plan them at all. My songs tend to be stories about the complexities of everyday life, inspired by words, subjects or images that briefly, randomly, ensnare me. I don’t know what the songs will be about before I write them. There is no overall concept for the albums, at least not consciously. And yet I see now that each album had a central theme that wasn’t apparent to me when I was writing them. Can’t Clip My Wings, which I released in 2014, includes songs about how we adapt to loss. Lost loves, lost lives, lost dreams. My new album, Answers No Questions, includes songs about choice – the complexities, burdens, excitement, pain and joys of making choices.

[embedded content]
Watch the video for Everything Must Change by Nazneen Rahman.

As I am writing this, I wonder if I am forcing these connections, if they are a post-hoc construct that allows me to give a more pleasing answer to why I am both scientist and songwriter. But I have truly come to believe that, in me, science and music are different manifestations of the same need. A central deep desire to create new things – elegant, beautiful, new things. It doesn’t much matter if it’s a scientific discovery, a clinic protocol that makes things easier for patients or a song that tells a human story from a fresh perspective. When it works it feels amazing. Even when it doesn’t work, the journey is always paved with nuggets of enlightenment that feed into future creations.

So what do I do?

I think, at my core, I am a creative, though it would be perplexing to many if I started to describe myself this way. Science and music are the mediums in which I happen to create, undoubtedly an unusual combination. But maybe only because we are relentlessly conditioned, from an early age, to believe we must choose whether we are in the science or the arts camp. People from the “arts camp” routinely tell me they were hopeless at science, sometimes apologetically, sometimes as a badge of honour, a mark of their creativity. Likewise, scientists worry that any proficiency in creativity might be interpreted as a deficiency in objectivity, the bedrock of science. It seems our society has lapsed into considering activity in the sciences and the arts a zero-sum game. It is not.

What would happen if we stopped constraining ourselves and our children in this way? If we embraced and fostered fluid boundaries between the sciences and the arts? If many more people were able to cross freely in and out of both worlds, successfully and unapologetically?

I believe science, art, individuals and society would reap countless benefits.

Answers No Questions is out now; nazneenrahman.com

Nazneen Rahman: ‘Science and music are mediums in which I create’

I’ve had an exciting and unusual few weeks. My group published a scientific paper revealing a new genetic cause of a childhood kidney cancer called Wilms’ tumour. This discovery has been of immediate benefit to families, providing an explanation for why their child got cancer, and information about cancer risks for other family members. During the same period, I also released my second album of original songs, called Answers No Questions. On one day, I found myself singing live on Radio London in the morning and talking genetics to the World Service in the evening.

Over the past few weeks, I have found it increasingly difficult to know quite how to answer the ubiquitous question – what do you do?

For most of my adult life, I have replied: “I’m a scientist and a doctor.” It is an accurate description. I am professor of human genetics at the Institute of Cancer Research, London, and head of cancer genetics at the Royal Marsden Hospital. For 20 years, my work has focused on identifying gene mutations that predispose us to getting cancer and then using that information to help patients and their families.

But I am also a singer-songwriter. This is a smaller activity than my science, but far more than hobby. I release music that people pay good money to experience.

As my music has become better known, more and more people have asked me about my unusual career combination. Dubiously, admiringly, wistfully, jealously, but most often simply because they are intrigued by the motivations and the practicalities.

This has forced me to consider how, if at all, these parts of my life are related. At first, I was adamant they were distinct facets of my character. I railed against modern society’s pervasive need to simplify and pigeon-hole the human spirit. Most people have multiple passions and drivers. I am fascinated by these subterranean pursuits. One of the joys of sharing my previously secret musical existence (it’s not been all joy – but that’s another column) is that many scientists now share their secret passions with me – pot throwing, flugel playing, novelty cakemaking, fire eating – scientists are as wondrously idiosyncratic in their appetites as the rest of society.

Nazneen Rahman on stage


Nazneen Rahman on stage

I also rail against the cliche that people are drawn to science and music because they both have a mathematical basis. It may be true for some, but it has no relevance to my passion for music. I was singing complex harmonies to pop songs long before I learned the theory of music. I am an intuitive, emotional, spontaneous songwriter with little idea of the key, notes or time I am composing in – until I have to write it down. There is little science in my music, but I have come to believe there may be music in my science. There is a kinship in how I do science and how I make music that flouts the division of science and the arts that our education system promotes.

My branch of science is genetics. Genetics is underpinned by a simple four-letter DNA code (designated by A, C, G, T). This code dictates how our bodies work. And how they can fail. This beautiful code is framed, shaped, constrained and enhanced by a multitudinous orchestra of associates that determine when, how, where, how long and how strong different parts of the code are played in each of our 30tn cells. DNA is also extraordinary in being able to copy itself with unbelievable accuracy while retaining the ability to mutate and evolve. The sophisticated controls and balances are breathtaking in their elegance. Our recent childhood cancer gene discovery revealed some insights into these control mechanisms and how cancer can occur if they go wrong. Studying genetics provides an endless variety of patterns to unravel, problems to solve, questions to answer. Gratifyingly, it also provides endless opportunities to bring benefits to humanity. In a hundred lifetimes I would not run out of genetic questions that excite me.

Music is underpinned by a simple 12-letter note code (designated by C, C#, D, D#, E, F, F#, G, G#, A, A#, B). These notes can be layered in almost infinite ways to produce music. In a hundred lifetimes I would not run out of music to write. My challenge has never been about finding the time to write songs, it has always been about finding the time to not lose songs. Snippets of music and lyrics are my constant companions. Most disappear into the clouds like lost balloons. But every now and again, I reach up, grab a string and tie one down, just before it is lost for ever.

Science and music make me feel like I’m swimming in infinity pools of possibility, but within structures that keep me from drowning. The potential and expectation to keep delivering new things can be daunting to scientists and artists. The DNA code in genetics and the note code in music are my lifelines. They let me be audacious and unfettered. They give me confidence to dive in, even when I can’t see the shore on the other side.

And the practicalities of delivering science and music are quite similar for me. Science is typically funded as three- to five-year projects. For example, I am currently leading a £4m collaborative programme, called the Transforming Genetic Medicine Initiative, which is building the knowledge base, tools and processes needed to deliver genetic medicine. To get science funding, you need to present, in great detail, a persuasive, innovative concept that seems worthwhile and feasible. But once you receive the funding there is considerable creative licence to alter the project, within the overall concept, because science is fast moving. You cannot predict everything you will do at the cutting-edge of knowledge, five years in advance.

My albums have also had three-year lifespans, though I didn’t plan it that way. I don’t plan them at all. My songs tend to be stories about the complexities of everyday life, inspired by words, subjects or images that briefly, randomly, ensnare me. I don’t know what the songs will be about before I write them. There is no overall concept for the albums, at least not consciously. And yet I see now that each album had a central theme that wasn’t apparent to me when I was writing them. Can’t Clip My Wings, which I released in 2014, includes songs about how we adapt to loss. Lost loves, lost lives, lost dreams. My new album, Answers No Questions, includes songs about choice – the complexities, burdens, excitement, pain and joys of making choices.

[embedded content]
Watch the video for Everything Must Change by Nazneen Rahman.

As I am writing this, I wonder if I am forcing these connections, if they are a post-hoc construct that allows me to give a more pleasing answer to why I am both scientist and songwriter. But I have truly come to believe that, in me, science and music are different manifestations of the same need. A central deep desire to create new things – elegant, beautiful, new things. It doesn’t much matter if it’s a scientific discovery, a clinic protocol that makes things easier for patients or a song that tells a human story from a fresh perspective. When it works it feels amazing. Even when it doesn’t work, the journey is always paved with nuggets of enlightenment that feed into future creations.

So what do I do?

I think, at my core, I am a creative, though it would be perplexing to many if I started to describe myself this way. Science and music are the mediums in which I happen to create, undoubtedly an unusual combination. But maybe only because we are relentlessly conditioned, from an early age, to believe we must choose whether we are in the science or the arts camp. People from the “arts camp” routinely tell me they were hopeless at science, sometimes apologetically, sometimes as a badge of honour, a mark of their creativity. Likewise, scientists worry that any proficiency in creativity might be interpreted as a deficiency in objectivity, the bedrock of science. It seems our society has lapsed into considering activity in the sciences and the arts a zero-sum game. It is not.

What would happen if we stopped constraining ourselves and our children in this way? If we embraced and fostered fluid boundaries between the sciences and the arts? If many more people were able to cross freely in and out of both worlds, successfully and unapologetically?

I believe science, art, individuals and society would reap countless benefits.

Answers No Questions is out now; nazneenrahman.com

Nazneen Rahman: ‘Science and music are mediums in which I create’

I’ve had an exciting and unusual few weeks. My group published a scientific paper revealing a new genetic cause of a childhood kidney cancer called Wilms’ tumour. This discovery has been of immediate benefit to families, providing an explanation for why their child got cancer, and information about cancer risks for other family members. During the same period, I also released my second album of original songs, called Answers No Questions. On one day, I found myself singing live on Radio London in the morning and talking genetics to the World Service in the evening.

Over the past few weeks, I have found it increasingly difficult to know quite how to answer the ubiquitous question – what do you do?

For most of my adult life, I have replied: “I’m a scientist and a doctor.” It is an accurate description. I am professor of human genetics at the Institute of Cancer Research, London, and head of cancer genetics at the Royal Marsden Hospital. For 20 years, my work has focused on identifying gene mutations that predispose us to getting cancer and then using that information to help patients and their families.

But I am also a singer-songwriter. This is a smaller activity than my science, but far more than hobby. I release music that people pay good money to experience.

As my music has become better known, more and more people have asked me about my unusual career combination. Dubiously, admiringly, wistfully, jealously, but most often simply because they are intrigued by the motivations and the practicalities.

This has forced me to consider how, if at all, these parts of my life are related. At first, I was adamant they were distinct facets of my character. I railed against modern society’s pervasive need to simplify and pigeon-hole the human spirit. Most people have multiple passions and drivers. I am fascinated by these subterranean pursuits. One of the joys of sharing my previously secret musical existence (it’s not been all joy – but that’s another column) is that many scientists now share their secret passions with me – pot throwing, flugel playing, novelty cakemaking, fire eating – scientists are as wondrously idiosyncratic in their appetites as the rest of society.

Nazneen Rahman on stage


Nazneen Rahman on stage

I also rail against the cliche that people are drawn to science and music because they both have a mathematical basis. It may be true for some, but it has no relevance to my passion for music. I was singing complex harmonies to pop songs long before I learned the theory of music. I am an intuitive, emotional, spontaneous songwriter with little idea of the key, notes or time I am composing in – until I have to write it down. There is little science in my music, but I have come to believe there may be music in my science. There is a kinship in how I do science and how I make music that flouts the division of science and the arts that our education system promotes.

My branch of science is genetics. Genetics is underpinned by a simple four-letter DNA code (designated by A, C, G, T). This code dictates how our bodies work. And how they can fail. This beautiful code is framed, shaped, constrained and enhanced by a multitudinous orchestra of associates that determine when, how, where, how long and how strong different parts of the code are played in each of our 30tn cells. DNA is also extraordinary in being able to copy itself with unbelievable accuracy while retaining the ability to mutate and evolve. The sophisticated controls and balances are breathtaking in their elegance. Our recent childhood cancer gene discovery revealed some insights into these control mechanisms and how cancer can occur if they go wrong. Studying genetics provides an endless variety of patterns to unravel, problems to solve, questions to answer. Gratifyingly, it also provides endless opportunities to bring benefits to humanity. In a hundred lifetimes I would not run out of genetic questions that excite me.

Music is underpinned by a simple 12-letter note code (designated by C, C#, D, D#, E, F, F#, G, G#, A, A#, B). These notes can be layered in almost infinite ways to produce music. In a hundred lifetimes I would not run out of music to write. My challenge has never been about finding the time to write songs, it has always been about finding the time to not lose songs. Snippets of music and lyrics are my constant companions. Most disappear into the clouds like lost balloons. But every now and again, I reach up, grab a string and tie one down, just before it is lost for ever.

Science and music make me feel like I’m swimming in infinity pools of possibility, but within structures that keep me from drowning. The potential and expectation to keep delivering new things can be daunting to scientists and artists. The DNA code in genetics and the note code in music are my lifelines. They let me be audacious and unfettered. They give me confidence to dive in, even when I can’t see the shore on the other side.

And the practicalities of delivering science and music are quite similar for me. Science is typically funded as three- to five-year projects. For example, I am currently leading a £4m collaborative programme, called the Transforming Genetic Medicine Initiative, which is building the knowledge base, tools and processes needed to deliver genetic medicine. To get science funding, you need to present, in great detail, a persuasive, innovative concept that seems worthwhile and feasible. But once you receive the funding there is considerable creative licence to alter the project, within the overall concept, because science is fast moving. You cannot predict everything you will do at the cutting-edge of knowledge, five years in advance.

My albums have also had three-year lifespans, though I didn’t plan it that way. I don’t plan them at all. My songs tend to be stories about the complexities of everyday life, inspired by words, subjects or images that briefly, randomly, ensnare me. I don’t know what the songs will be about before I write them. There is no overall concept for the albums, at least not consciously. And yet I see now that each album had a central theme that wasn’t apparent to me when I was writing them. Can’t Clip My Wings, which I released in 2014, includes songs about how we adapt to loss. Lost loves, lost lives, lost dreams. My new album, Answers No Questions, includes songs about choice – the complexities, burdens, excitement, pain and joys of making choices.

[embedded content]
Watch the video for Everything Must Change by Nazneen Rahman.

As I am writing this, I wonder if I am forcing these connections, if they are a post-hoc construct that allows me to give a more pleasing answer to why I am both scientist and songwriter. But I have truly come to believe that, in me, science and music are different manifestations of the same need. A central deep desire to create new things – elegant, beautiful, new things. It doesn’t much matter if it’s a scientific discovery, a clinic protocol that makes things easier for patients or a song that tells a human story from a fresh perspective. When it works it feels amazing. Even when it doesn’t work, the journey is always paved with nuggets of enlightenment that feed into future creations.

So what do I do?

I think, at my core, I am a creative, though it would be perplexing to many if I started to describe myself this way. Science and music are the mediums in which I happen to create, undoubtedly an unusual combination. But maybe only because we are relentlessly conditioned, from an early age, to believe we must choose whether we are in the science or the arts camp. People from the “arts camp” routinely tell me they were hopeless at science, sometimes apologetically, sometimes as a badge of honour, a mark of their creativity. Likewise, scientists worry that any proficiency in creativity might be interpreted as a deficiency in objectivity, the bedrock of science. It seems our society has lapsed into considering activity in the sciences and the arts a zero-sum game. It is not.

What would happen if we stopped constraining ourselves and our children in this way? If we embraced and fostered fluid boundaries between the sciences and the arts? If many more people were able to cross freely in and out of both worlds, successfully and unapologetically?

I believe science, art, individuals and society would reap countless benefits.

Answers No Questions is out now; nazneenrahman.com

Nazneen Rahman: ‘Science and music are mediums in which I create’

I’ve had an exciting and unusual few weeks. My group published a scientific paper revealing a new genetic cause of a childhood kidney cancer called Wilms’ tumour. This discovery has been of immediate benefit to families, providing an explanation for why their child got cancer, and information about cancer risks for other family members. During the same period, I also released my second album of original songs, called Answers No Questions. On one day, I found myself singing live on Radio London in the morning and talking genetics to the World Service in the evening.

Over the past few weeks, I have found it increasingly difficult to know quite how to answer the ubiquitous question – what do you do?

For most of my adult life, I have replied: “I’m a scientist and a doctor.” It is an accurate description. I am professor of human genetics at the Institute of Cancer Research, London, and head of cancer genetics at the Royal Marsden Hospital. For 20 years, my work has focused on identifying gene mutations that predispose us to getting cancer and then using that information to help patients and their families.

But I am also a singer-songwriter. This is a smaller activity than my science, but far more than hobby. I release music that people pay good money to experience.

As my music has become better known, more and more people have asked me about my unusual career combination. Dubiously, admiringly, wistfully, jealously, but most often simply because they are intrigued by the motivations and the practicalities.

This has forced me to consider how, if at all, these parts of my life are related. At first, I was adamant they were distinct facets of my character. I railed against modern society’s pervasive need to simplify and pigeon-hole the human spirit. Most people have multiple passions and drivers. I am fascinated by these subterranean pursuits. One of the joys of sharing my previously secret musical existence (it’s not been all joy – but that’s another column) is that many scientists now share their secret passions with me – pot throwing, flugel playing, novelty cakemaking, fire eating – scientists are as wondrously idiosyncratic in their appetites as the rest of society.

Nazneen Rahman on stage


Nazneen Rahman on stage

I also rail against the cliche that people are drawn to science and music because they both have a mathematical basis. It may be true for some, but it has no relevance to my passion for music. I was singing complex harmonies to pop songs long before I learned the theory of music. I am an intuitive, emotional, spontaneous songwriter with little idea of the key, notes or time I am composing in – until I have to write it down. There is little science in my music, but I have come to believe there may be music in my science. There is a kinship in how I do science and how I make music that flouts the division of science and the arts that our education system promotes.

My branch of science is genetics. Genetics is underpinned by a simple four-letter DNA code (designated by A, C, G, T). This code dictates how our bodies work. And how they can fail. This beautiful code is framed, shaped, constrained and enhanced by a multitudinous orchestra of associates that determine when, how, where, how long and how strong different parts of the code are played in each of our 30tn cells. DNA is also extraordinary in being able to copy itself with unbelievable accuracy while retaining the ability to mutate and evolve. The sophisticated controls and balances are breathtaking in their elegance. Our recent childhood cancer gene discovery revealed some insights into these control mechanisms and how cancer can occur if they go wrong. Studying genetics provides an endless variety of patterns to unravel, problems to solve, questions to answer. Gratifyingly, it also provides endless opportunities to bring benefits to humanity. In a hundred lifetimes I would not run out of genetic questions that excite me.

Music is underpinned by a simple 12-letter note code (designated by C, C#, D, D#, E, F, F#, G, G#, A, A#, B). These notes can be layered in almost infinite ways to produce music. In a hundred lifetimes I would not run out of music to write. My challenge has never been about finding the time to write songs, it has always been about finding the time to not lose songs. Snippets of music and lyrics are my constant companions. Most disappear into the clouds like lost balloons. But every now and again, I reach up, grab a string and tie one down, just before it is lost for ever.

Science and music make me feel like I’m swimming in infinity pools of possibility, but within structures that keep me from drowning. The potential and expectation to keep delivering new things can be daunting to scientists and artists. The DNA code in genetics and the note code in music are my lifelines. They let me be audacious and unfettered. They give me confidence to dive in, even when I can’t see the shore on the other side.

And the practicalities of delivering science and music are quite similar for me. Science is typically funded as three- to five-year projects. For example, I am currently leading a £4m collaborative programme, called the Transforming Genetic Medicine Initiative, which is building the knowledge base, tools and processes needed to deliver genetic medicine. To get science funding, you need to present, in great detail, a persuasive, innovative concept that seems worthwhile and feasible. But once you receive the funding there is considerable creative licence to alter the project, within the overall concept, because science is fast moving. You cannot predict everything you will do at the cutting-edge of knowledge, five years in advance.

My albums have also had three-year lifespans, though I didn’t plan it that way. I don’t plan them at all. My songs tend to be stories about the complexities of everyday life, inspired by words, subjects or images that briefly, randomly, ensnare me. I don’t know what the songs will be about before I write them. There is no overall concept for the albums, at least not consciously. And yet I see now that each album had a central theme that wasn’t apparent to me when I was writing them. Can’t Clip My Wings, which I released in 2014, includes songs about how we adapt to loss. Lost loves, lost lives, lost dreams. My new album, Answers No Questions, includes songs about choice – the complexities, burdens, excitement, pain and joys of making choices.

[embedded content]
Watch the video for Everything Must Change by Nazneen Rahman.

As I am writing this, I wonder if I am forcing these connections, if they are a post-hoc construct that allows me to give a more pleasing answer to why I am both scientist and songwriter. But I have truly come to believe that, in me, science and music are different manifestations of the same need. A central deep desire to create new things – elegant, beautiful, new things. It doesn’t much matter if it’s a scientific discovery, a clinic protocol that makes things easier for patients or a song that tells a human story from a fresh perspective. When it works it feels amazing. Even when it doesn’t work, the journey is always paved with nuggets of enlightenment that feed into future creations.

So what do I do?

I think, at my core, I am a creative, though it would be perplexing to many if I started to describe myself this way. Science and music are the mediums in which I happen to create, undoubtedly an unusual combination. But maybe only because we are relentlessly conditioned, from an early age, to believe we must choose whether we are in the science or the arts camp. People from the “arts camp” routinely tell me they were hopeless at science, sometimes apologetically, sometimes as a badge of honour, a mark of their creativity. Likewise, scientists worry that any proficiency in creativity might be interpreted as a deficiency in objectivity, the bedrock of science. It seems our society has lapsed into considering activity in the sciences and the arts a zero-sum game. It is not.

What would happen if we stopped constraining ourselves and our children in this way? If we embraced and fostered fluid boundaries between the sciences and the arts? If many more people were able to cross freely in and out of both worlds, successfully and unapologetically?

I believe science, art, individuals and society would reap countless benefits.

Answers No Questions is out now; nazneenrahman.com

Is it really possible to live until you’re 146? The science of ageing

The grim reaper comes for everyone in the end, but sometimes he is in less of a rush. This was certainly true for Sodimedjo, an Indonesian man who died on Sunday, but whether he was the full 146 years he claimed remains doubtful – not least because his purported birthdate is 30 years before local birth records began.

Scientists have their own reasons to be sceptical. A study published last year pointed to the existence of an upper ceiling on the natural human lifespan.

While the average life expectancy has steadily increased since the 19th century, data from the International Database on Longevity showed that the age of the very oldest people on the planet appeared to plateau in the mid-1990s – at a mere 114.9 years. Since the apparent plateau happened at a time when the reservoir of healthy centenarians was expanding, scientists concluded that an intrinsic biological limit had been reached: even if you evade accidents and disease, your body will still steadily decline until it passes the point of no return, the data appeared to suggest.

Jan Vijg, a geneticist at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York City, who led this research, said: “We simply provided evidence that humans do indeed have a ceiling that they really cannot go beyond. That’s part of being human.”

There will be the occasional outlier – the French supercentenarian and oldest woman to have lived, Jeanne Calment, was 122 when she died in 1997, but most of us have a shorter intrinsic “shelf life”. The probability of someone living to 146 is infinitesimal, Vijg said. “If somebody told you that they saw a UFO yesterday but it’s gone now, you’d probably be polite, but you wouldn’t believe it,” said Vijg. “That’s my reaction with this story.”

Before resigning yourself to the knowledge that you will almost certainly expire by the time you reach 115 years, it is worth noting that this ceiling could be moveable in the future.

Richard Faragher, professor of biogerontology at the University of Brighton, puts it this way: How long can a human live if you don’t do anything to them? Probably around 120. But there is a separate question, how long do people last if you can do something to them?”

Until now, the steady increase in average life expectancy (as distinct from lifespan) has been driven by fewer people smoking, better nutrition and antibiotics. Drugs and surgery for heart disease and cancer have also played a part.

However, scientists are only just beginning to explore the possibility of therapies designed to target the process of ageing itself, as well as the illnesses that come with advancing years. This field has recently taken an intriguing twist, as evidence has emerged that ageing is not simply the manifestation of environmental wear and tear. Instead, the latest work suggests that ageing is at least partly driven by an internal genetic clock that actively causes our cells and organs to grind to a halt.

This raises the intriguing possibility that ageing could be slowed or even reversed, and some animal studies have already claimed to do just this.

“I wouldn’t argue that the ceiling is unmoveable,” said Vijg. “But trying to say what the age limit is, science can’t yet say, it’s predicting the future.”

Wellcome science book prize goes to story of a heart transplant

A novel that “illustrates what it is to be human” has become the first translated book to win the Wellcome prize for science writing.

Maylis de Kerangal’s Mend the Living, which tracks the journey of a heart from donor to recipient over 24 hours, is only the second novel ever to scoop the £30,000 prize, which is awarded to a work of fiction or nonfiction that engages with health and medicine.

Announcing the winner, chair of judges Val McDermid said: “Sometimes you read a memoir and it is just one person’s tragedy, but this is about the tragedy and hope that comes from loss that could affect every single one of us.” She said the judges “felt very strongly” that the book had the potential to change the lives of readers and called it “compelling, original and ambitious”.

De Kerangal’s novel was translated from French by Jessica Moore, who was awarded £10,000. McDermid praised the translation, which she told the Guardian pulled off the difficult trick of shaping a book into a second language without undermining the intention or voice of the original.

Describing herself as a “long-time advocate” of translated fiction, McDermid, a bestselling crime writer, said: “Publishers have very slowly woken up to the importance to readers of translated fiction as a way of understanding a globalised world … The English language doesn’t have a monopoly on terrific writing and I am very happy to be one of the judges who chose this book.”

Mend the Living begins with vibrant young surfer Simon Limbeau suffering catastrophic injuries in a road traffic accident. Faced with a son who has been left brain dead, his parents are forced to decide whether to turn off his life support and donate his heart. The story then follows Limbeau’s heart on its way to a donor recipient and explores how people recover hope in tragic circumstances.

The novel, which was also longlisted for the 2016 Man Booker international prize, has also been adapted to film. Directed by Katell Quillévéré and renamed Heal the Living (Réparer les vivants), it stars Tahar Rahim, Emmanuelle Seigner and Anne Dorval and is set for a UK release at the end of April.

Mend the Living was chosen from a strong shortlist of six books that included two novels, the other being Tidal Zone by Sarah Moss, about a family navigating the NHS as they come to terms with a child’s unexpected illness.

Ed Yong’s I Contain Multitudes, which examines how the 40tn microbes in the human body affect us, was the only debut on the shortlist. The other three books interweaved science with personal experience. Neurosurgeon Paul Kalanithi was the first author to be in contention for the prize posthumously, with his memoir When Breath Becomes Air recounting his final months of life with terminal lung cancer. Siddhartha Mukherjee’s The Gene blends a narrative about genetics with the story of reoccurring mental illness in his family, while David France, a gay man and an eyewitness to the Aids epidemic, wrote of the struggle faced by HIV/Aids activists during the 1980s in How to Survive a Plague.

McDermid chaired a panel of judges that mixed broadcasters and writers with scientists. Cambridge professors Simon Baron-Cohen and Tim Lewens joined the Wire in the Blood author on a panel completed by broadcaster Gemma Cairney and radio producer Di Speirs.

Cryogenic preservation: from single cells to whole organs – Science Weekly podcast

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Last year, around 3,500 organs were transplanted into patients in the UK alone. That said, a large number of organs were also discarded because the moment a donor dies, doctors have only eight or so hours to find a patient on the organ register who is a match and can be almost immediately ready for surgery. One recent estimate suggested that as many as 60% of the hearts and lungs donated for transplantation are discarded each year. But a new technology could be about to change this: whole-organ cryopreservation.

This week, Hannah Devlin looks at the past, present, and future of these technologies with University College London’s Professor Barry Fuller. We also hear from Newcastle University bioethicist Dr Simon Woods about some of the ethical issues that arise with any biotechnology, including cryopreservation.

Brexit, gun control and feminist science fiction on 2017 Orwell prize longlist

Naomi Alderman is the only novelist to make it on to the longlist for the 2017 Orwell prize for outstanding political writing, in a year when George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four is once again troubling the bestseller lists.

Alderman’s The Power heads a 14-strong list of books that span anthropology, politics, memoir and history for an accolade considered Britain’s most prestigious for political writing, which comes with a cash award of £3,000. Described as The Hunger Games crossed with The Handmaid’s Tale, Alderman’s dystopian novel examines the roots and impact of misogyny by reversing the gender roles in a future society ruled by women. The novel has also been longlisted for the 2017 Bailey’s prize for women’s fiction, and shortlisted for the Wellcome Trust science writing prize.

No overall theme emerges from the longlist, which includes four books by women. Helen Pearson, whose The Life Project is an account of the UK’s pioneering cohort studies run since 1946, is listed beside Somali FGM campaigner Hibo Wardere for her memoir Cut, co-written with Anna Wharton. Irish revisionist historian Ruth Dudley Edwards is longlisted for The Seven, one of four of history books on the list. It tells the story of the seven founding fathers of the Irish state.

FGM campaigner … Hibo Wardere, co-author of Cut with Anna Wharton.


FGM campaigner … Hibo Wardere, co-author of Cut with Anna Wharton. Photograph: Alicia Canter for the Guardian

Other history books on the list are Easternisation, by the chief foreign affairs commentator of the Financial Times, Gideon Rachman – the winner of the Orwell prize for political journalism last year – who documents the shift of global power to Asia; John Bew’s biography of the postwar Labour prime minister Clement Attlee, Citizen Clem; along with And The Sun Shines Now, a vivid account by Hillsborough survivor Adrian Tempany of the football disaster’s impact on the game and wider society.

Joining them on the longlist is Black and British: A Forgotten History, David Olusoga’s landmark history of Britain’s black community, which has also been shortlisted for the inaugural Jhalak prize for writers of colour.

Fellow Jhalak nominee and Guardian editor-at-large Gary Younge is also longlisted for Another Day in the Death of America, which documents the lives of 10 people killed by guns in the US on 23 November 2013. Author Gillian Slovo described the book as “a gripping account of the conditions that turn so many of America’s powerless into victims”.

Hisham Matar, the Libyan writer who was shortlisted for the Baillie Gifford prize for non-fiction, is again nominated with The Return, his account of his father’s kidnapping at the hands of Muammar Gaddafi’s government.

Tour de force … nominee Rory Stewart beside Hadrian’s Wall.


Tour de force … nominee Rory Stewart beside Hadrian’s Wall. Photograph: Murdo MacLeod for the Guardian

More recent politics is also documented in the books All Out War, Tim Shipman’s account of the 2016 EU referendum; Island Story, Londoner JD Taylor’s story of biking around Britain to discover other sides to UK identity; Enough Said, a look at the evolution of political language by the former BBC director-general Mark Thompson; and The Marches by Rory Stewart, Tory MP and son of a spy, who reflects on his relationship with his father and its political contexts as he walks along Hadrian’s Wall.

Announcing the longlist, the judges – Financial Times comment editor Jonathan Derbyshire, playwright and author Bonnie Greer, writer and broadcaster Mark Lawson and critic Erica Wagner – praised the list for offering “a clear and calm perspective on Britain and its place in the world”.

“The books reflect many aspects of Orwell’s literary character and interests: fiction, journalism, football, language and landscape,” the judges added.

The shortlist will be announced on 15 May, with a winner revealed at a ceremony during University College London’s festival of culture on 8 June.

The Orwell Prize for Books 2017 longlist

The Power by Naomi Alderman (Viking)

Citizen Clem by John Bew (Quercus)

The Seven by Ruth Dudley Edwards (Oneworld)

The Return by Hisham Matar (Viking)

Black and British by David Olusoga (Macmillan)

The Life Project by Helen Pearson (Allen Lane)

Easternisation by Gideon Rachman (The Bodley Head)

All Out War by Tim Shipman (HarperCollins UK)

The Marches by Rory Stewart (Vintage, Jonathan Cape)

Island Story by JD Taylor (Repeater)

And the Sun Shines Now by Adrian Tempany (Faber & Faber)

Enough Said by Mark Thompson (The Bodley Head)

Cut by Hibo Wardere, in collaboration with Anna Wharton (Simon & Schuster)

Another Day in the Death of America by Gary Younge (Guardian Faber)