Some comments after the Interscience symposium

On Thursday and Friday I was lucky enough to attend the Interscience symposium held at the University of Vienna and hosted by the Vienna Doctoral Schools. The idea was partly to show off the new doctoral schools that were supposed to join students together and partly to encourage interdisciplinary communication. There were four invited speakers with the rest being PhD students from the fields of maths, physics, biology and psychology.

Overall, it was a great experience and I got to see things that I ordinarily would not. I can’t say I followed everything (especially the maths) but many of the speakers were nice and clear and I got a better understanding of many different topics. I probably should’ve taken notes during the talks but I do remember two things that came up which I do want to mention.

First, one of the speakers was giving an idea of the sense of scale of various objects and mentioned the size of a “virus cell.” Viruses are not/do not have cells. They exist as viral particles or virions which are small protein structures that surround their genetic material. Those particles can then infect host cells which the virus uses to reproduce. As I recall, it was a physicist that made that mistake so it’s easily forgivable.

The next problem was slightly less forgivable as the speaker was an assistant professor although it is also so widespread a mistake that many accept the error as not being an error. The problem was that she displayed this as the symbol for medicine.

170px-Caduceus.svgThat symbol is called the Caduceus and, despite what you may think, it is not the symbol for medicine. It is the staff of the messenger god Hermes and represents thieves, merchants and messengers. The correct symbol for medicine is the Rod of Asclepius; a plain staff with just a single snake curled around it.

Most professional medical associations do use the correct symbol with the incorrect one seeming to have originated due to a mistake made by the US army in the early 1900’s. Unfortunately, UCT”s Faculty of Health Sciences used the incorrect symbol on their centenary tie (which I have) and that’s just a little sad. You can read about the two symbols in more detail in this article in the Journal of Pharmacy & BioAllied Sciences or this blog post by Dr Keith Blayney.

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