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Steve Connor: Science Notebook

The night I fixed drinks for Sir John

Sir John Maddox, the former editor of the scientific journal Nature and towering figure of science journalism, died last week at the age of 83. It is said that he was one of the last great polymaths and that there was barely a dusty corner of science he had not inspected at some time or other.

Everyone has a story about John. His chain-smoking, his brinkmanship with print deadlines, his erudite knowledge and his mischievous conversation. Mine is the time when he uttered his very first words to me: "A glass of red wine, please."

It was the mid-1980s and we were both attending a science writers' awards ceremony at some posh Park Lane hotel, which had laid on a complimentary bar. The hotel's barman had stepped away for a while and told me to help myself, which I duly did.

I can only guess that when John arrived a minute or so later he took the young man behind the bar dressed in an ill-fitting dark jacket, black tie and white shirt as a hotel employee, hence the request for a glass of red wine. I knew who he was of course, but I was too timid to do anything other than offer him what he requested.

I never did get round to asking him in later years whether he recalled our first meeting. Or what he had thought later that evening of a hotel barman walking away with one of the science writer's awards.

Smile, it's a recession

The recession appears to be good for dentists, at least those who are experts in the science of restorative dentistry. Many people, it seems, feel that it is more important than ever to put on a brilliantine smile when every economic indicator is pointing to an exceedingly glum outlook.

Keith Cohen, a Harley Street dentist who specialises in fixing wonky smiles, tells me that many people come to him to whiten or straighten their teeth because they feel it gives them confidence before an important job interview. Teeth-whitening has become a bit of a fashion must-have in some circles – as soon as a critical mass of people go for bleached teeth, he says everyone's got to have it done.

Another trend is to straighten teeth using a series of clear-plastic braces that are gradually altered by computer over the course of 12 months to pull teeth into the required alignment while you sleep. The idea comes from America, where it is sold as a treatment for "English mouth".

Doomed to more gloom

Another newspaper is predicting that solar Armageddon will arrive one evening in late September 2012. A solar superstorm caused by "50,000 mile-wide eddies of boiling hydrogen plasma" will eject "a billion-tone, malevolent blob of crackling-charged gas" our way, causing a meltdown of the power grid and the biggest economic catastrophe in history. So not much to smile about there.