Archive for July 2009

Comments Off Posted on Friday 31 July 2009 at 8:33 am by Jacob Aron
In Climate Change & Environment, Science Policy

Earlier this month around 1,500 young people descended on Sydney for Power Shift Australia, an event organised by the Australian Youth Climate Coalition to empower youth action on climate change. It featured talks by climate campaigners like Dr Tim Flannery, a video message by Al Gore, and culminated in a 500-strong flashmob dancing outside the Sydney Opera House.

Former US Vice-President Gore encouraged the young Australians to put pressure on their leaders in the run-up to the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen. “Together we must encourage leaders throughout the globe to speak on our behalf at the Copenhagen negotiations this December,” he said. “Each of you here has a crucial role to play in order to get this done.”

The conference was modelled after a similar event that took place in the United States earlier this February. Organised by and for young people, it saw 12,000 teens and 20-somethings visit Washington to attend the biggest youth climate event ever. The delegates met members of the Obama cabinet in addition to civil rights activist Marshall Ganz.

The Power Shift ideals are now spreading further, and the next conference is to be held in the UK this October. Kate Shayler of the UK Youth Climate Coalition is coordinating the event, which she says is not just about getting the “usual suspects” of environmental campaigning involved. Instead, Shayler expects to have 1000 young people of diverse backgrounds in attendance. “We see climate change as a youth issue, not a minority middle-class issue, because it is going to affect all our futures,” she says.

Delegates will receive communications training adapted from the Obama campaign team and attend workshops designed to foster a sense of unity around climate change. The UKYCC hope that Power Shift UK can be the start of a larger climate movement, as called for by the British Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, Ed Milliband.

“We want to show young people in the UK that it’s happening all over the world, they’re not on their own, and young people around the world are being active and stepping up to fight climate change,” says Shayler.

Comments Off

1 Comment » Posted on Wednesday 29 July 2009 at 8:49 am by Jacob Aron
In Just A Review

Monday night saw the première of Bang Goes The Theory, the BBC’s new flagship science show in the vein of Tomorrow’s World. I’ve been anticipating the first episode for some time now, wondering whether it would be any good.

Sitting down to watch, my first impressions can be summarised in two words: “oh dear”. The CBeebies style intro and open-plan set immediatly made me think of Blue Peter, and a four minute section on dodging CCTV cameras left me wondering whether we’d get any science at all.

Eventually they got to the point: new technology has been developed to identify people on CCTV from the way they walk. Two of the presenters, Liz and Dallas, demonstrated the capabilities of the system, but when Dallas decided to do a John Cleese-style silly walk in an effort to fool the system, we weren’t told whether he succeeded or not. “Oh that’s really annoying, we had to cut that bit out,” he said back in the studio. Yes, it was really annoying!

I was ready to give up at this point, but the next section hooked my interest. Cribbing from both Top Gear and Mythbusters, presenter and special effects guy Jem introduced us to the vortex cannon. This contraption forms a concentrated ring of air that can travel long distances, and with the addition of explosive gas it can pack quite a punch. Pretty cool stuff:

Other segments included an interview with geneticist Craig Venter, who is attempting to create artificial life. I cringed when they used the word “Frankenstein” in what seemed like a persistent effort to introduce “controversy”. There was also a rather nice science-as-street-magic from Dr Yan Wong, Bang Goes The Theory’s genuine scientist. He demonstrated how to cook an egg using a paper frying pan, and his street audience were clearly impressed.

It was a nice bit of TV, but it worried me. The promotional material implied that all four presenters would work as a team, but Wong appeared only briefly, and didn’t interact with the other three. His official bio is also a bit “ooh, what a boffin”. I’m concerned that the guy on the show with the most scientific knowledge is being somewhat ghettoised.

Overall, the first episode of Bang Goes The Theory was decidedly average. I really liked the vortex cannon, so I’m hoping we’ll see more segments in the same vein. I’ll definitely be watching the second episode, but I have a vested interest. My girlfriend, who is of the non-sci comm persuasion, wasn’t so sure she’d be tuning in, making me wonder how the programme faired amongst the general public. I guess we’ll have to wait and see.

3 Comments » Posted on Monday 27 July 2009 at 8:03 pm by Jacob Aron
In About Just A Theory

It doesn’t seem possible, but somehow I have been writing on Just A Theory for an entire year. Yes, on 27 July 2008 I introduced myself to the internet, and I’ve been posting daily ever since.

The site has grown from having a readership I could count on one hand, to getting thousands of visitors a month. Along the way I’ve been joined by friends from the science communication course at Imperial College; thank you Seth, Jess, Thom, Emma, Colin and Sam for everything you have added to the site.

Starting this blog is one of the best things I ever did. It’s opened a lot of doors for me – when people asking for writing samples, I can offer 365. I’ve written so much that the WordPress word count plugin actually broke – it ran out of memory. At last count, the blog was pushing close to 200,000 words.

People always ask how I manage to write every single day. The answer is simple: to be a science writer, you have to write about science. Posting something every day has definitely improved the quality of my writing, and for the most part I’ve enjoyed it. Even on those days when writing seemed like a chore, I often found myself having fun by the time I hit “Publish”.

Unfortunately, I’ve reached a point where blogging every day is no longer possible. I’ve still got another week to go at the Guardian, and my final dissertation date is looming with precisely zero of 10,000 words written. Rather than produce a token post every day to keep up with the quota, I’ve decided to go for quality over quantity.

I haven’t quite worked out a new schedule yet, but I’m thinking Monday, Wednesday, Friday with the obligatory Sunday roundup could work quite well. I’m hoping that there will still be something new on Just A Theory every day from one of the other six contributors, but they’ve also got work placements and dissertations to contend with!

So, things will change around here, but I think that’s inevitable as I make the transition from “science communication student” to “professional science writer”. I’ve still not got used to calling myself that, but I guess I probably should. And whilst I may be updating Just A Theory less, I hope that you’ll see my writing cropping up in other places as well.

All that’s left to be said is thanks to everyone who has read and commented on the site in this past year. Your suggestions, criticisms, and maybe even praise are all welcome at any time. I look forward to what the next year holds.

Comments Off Posted on Monday 27 July 2009 at 11:41 am by Colin Stuart
In Science Policy

As regular Just a Theory readers will know I have been more than a little critical of our new Department of Business, Innovation and Skills. However it seems that, although somewhat overdue, the growing voice of concern amongst us is starting to make a difference. The right words are starting to flow from the lips of our First Minister of State. About time too.

In a speech given this morning at Birkbeck College in London, Lord Mandleson had reassuring words to say to those of us who are scared that pure science would be bullied and beaten by its bigger and uglier brother of applied science. It seems BIS are now publicly reacting to our growing voice of concern. An obvious change of tone to a speech Lord Mandleson gave in June, claiming that universities were ‘delighted’ by the merger than spawned BIS, this is what Mandy had to say this morning:

“I recognise that bringing university policy into a department with ‘business’ in its title has not thrilled everyone in the university world. But it really puts universities at the heart of policy on our future growth and prosperity.

“I need to be clear that I do not believe that the function of a university is limited to – or even primarily about – economic outcomes. They are not factories for producing workers. Defining the skills that directly underwrite many skilled jobs in the UK is not the same as defining useful and necessary knowledge. The case for a higher education system that invests in everything from Classics to quantum physics is a compelling one.

“I say this not just because the utility in knowledge is often impossible to predict. It is because knowledge is an end in itself; because historical awareness and critical thinking are part of the inventory of a rounded human being.”

I for one am glad to hear these words, as it is the message I have been arguing since BIS was introduced back in early June. However, as always actions speak louder than words, and I wait to see whether Mandy is just paying us grumblers lip service or whether he really means it.

To see more of what Lord Mandelson had to say read Phil Baty’s article over at Times Higher Education.

Comments Off

Comments Off Posted on Sunday 26 July 2009 at 8:29 pm by Jacob Aron
In Space & Astronomy, Weekly Roundup

I,Science is now online

Many contributors to Just A Theory also worked on this year’s editions of I,Science, the Imperial College science magazine. Until now, the only way to get a copy of this esteemed publication was to pick it up around campus, but the I,Science website has now been updated for all to read.

For some reason only the first two editions of this year are up on the site. Perhaps the summer term issue, which featured a scratch-n-sniff cover, could not be so easily digitised.

How to read a scientific paper

Reading scientific papers can be intimidating if you’ve never tried, but much of the literature is fairly accessible if you’re prepared to give it a go. offers some advice on where to start.

Tips include not reading from beginning to end – the dull methods section will bog you down. Instead, skim the abstract then jump to the discussion section, before moving on to the conclusion. Worth a read.

Is it me, or is it getting dark?

Wednesday this week saw the longest solar eclipse of the 21st century. If you missed it, which you probably did because it didn’t effect the UK or US, check out this image capture by a Japanese satellite:

Comments Off

Comments Off Posted on Saturday 25 July 2009 at 5:17 pm by Jacob Aron
In Space & Astronomy

Sometimes a picture is all you need:

The Soap Bubble Nebula
The Soap Bubble Nebula

But for the full details, see the Guardian.

Comments Off

Comments Off Posted on Friday 24 July 2009 at 7:11 pm by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Inventions & Technology, Mathematics, Yes, But When?

I guess it’s fitting that I should write a story about bacteria whilst feeling ill:

Computers are evolving – literally. While the tech world argues netbooks vs notebooks, synthetic biologists are leaving traditional computers behind altogether. A team of US scientists have engineered bacteria that can solve complex mathematical problems faster than anything made from silicon.

The research, published today in the Journal of Biological Engineering, proves that bacteria can be used to solve a puzzle known as the Hamiltonian Path Problem. Imagine you want to tour the 10 biggest cities in the UK, starting in London (number 1) and finishing in Bristol (number 10). The solution to the Hamiltonian Path Problem is the the shortest possible route you can take.

Read the rest at the Guardian

Comments Off

Comments Off Posted on Friday 24 July 2009 at 4:29 pm by Sam Wong
In Biology

A statement by the campaign group Equal Rights for Skin Cells

Scientists have for the first time successfully cloned a mouse from skin cells reprogrammed to an embryo-like state. In a paper published online in Nature this week, Chinese scientists described a procedure in which adult mouse skin cells were genetically manipulated to turn them into induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells. These iPS cells were then injected into a tetraploid embryo – created by fusing two embryonic mouse cells but only capable of forming placental tissue. In this environment, the iPS cells developed into a fully-fledged embryo, which was implanted into a surrogate mother. Twenty days later, the mother gave birth to a mouse that was genetically identical to the mouse from which the skin cells were taken.

This study has shown for the first time that stem cells derived from skin cells can be used to create a living creature. It surely follows that skin cells are equal in status to embryos – both can give rise to life. Just as an embryo is a human being who has not yet been born, a skin cell is a human being who has not yet been reprogrammed, injected into a tetraploid embryo, implanted into a surrogate mother and born.

Equal Rights for Skin Cells (ERSC) has been set up by those of us who believe that skin cells deserve to be recognised as human beings, just like embryos. We affirm that the government must protect the basic rights of skin cells, for each one of them could be made into a person if only a scientist took the trouble. Billions of skin cells are lost from every person every day. This means that quadrillions of potential human beings are dying every day, and the government doesn’t seem to care. Join us in our fight to put an end to this senseless loss of life.

Comments Off

Comments Off Posted on Friday 24 July 2009 at 2:50 pm by Emma Stokes
In Biology, Health & Medicine

Researchers have used mice to pinpoint what goes wrong in aneuploidy. Aneuploidy describes genetic disorders affecting chromosomes, usually resulting in an extra chromosome. Such disorders include Down syndrome and Edwards syndrome, and often cause pregnancy loss.

The researchers were looking at mutations of a particular gene in mice, to determine its role in colon cancer development. However, during the study they noticed that the mice carrying one copy of a mutation in the Bub1 gene had fewer offspring.

Further studies found that this effect was confined to female mice. If a mother’s egg had a mutation in one of the copies of Bub1 then she was more likely to have fewer offspring that survived until birth. They also found that the mutation was more harmful the older the mice were, which is the same for aneuploidy in humans.

Bub-1 works as a checkpoint in cell division, controlling the spindles which pull the chromosomes apart during cell division. It is likely that the mutation disrupts this process, resulting in extra chromosomes in the egg cells. Further tests will study the mutation in more detail to see if this is the case, and whether the mutation is present in humans.

For more information on animal testing, and this story, see the Understanding Animal Research site.

Comments Off

Comments Off Posted on Friday 24 July 2009 at 2:45 pm by Emma Stokes
In Biology, Health & Medicine

Using mice, scientists have pinpointed the molecule which is responsible for making allergic reactions more severe.

The team studied patients who had experienced anaphylaxis (a severe allergic reaction) during surgery. They found that these patients had very high levels of the hormone IL-33. Further studies using mice showed that this hormone significantly increases inflammation.

Inflammation is triggered during anaphylactic shock. This reaction is often so severe that constricts the airway, leading to breathing difficulties and even death. By blocking the IL-33 hormone in mice the researchers were able to reduce the inflammation to non threatening levels.

The next stage is to study the hormone in more detail to better understand why it causes such severe inflammation. In the future, IL-33 inhibitors could change the way we treat anaphylaxis and could save many lives.

For more information on animal testing, and this story, see the Understanding Animal Research site.

Comments Off

2 Comments » Posted on Thursday 23 July 2009 at 5:13 pm by Jacob Aron
In Biology

Just a quick post today, as I’ve been struck down with some sort of illness. Thankfully it isn’t swine flu, as my temperature remain normal, but it’s still pretty unpleasant. Nevermind that though, you’ve got a cool science video to be watching:

Watching this video is the first time I’ve ever heard of a helicase, which is the amazing little biological machine that splits up a strand of DNA and copies it. As you can see, it actually works like a tiny motor, pulling the DNA apart and sticking it back together. Amazing.

Comments Off Posted on Thursday 23 July 2009 at 11:19 am by Sam Wong
In Health & Medicine

Hong Kong was badly shaken by the outbreak of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (Sars) in 2003. 1,755 people were infected in the city, and 299 died.

The effect that Sars had on public attitudes to hygiene was profound. The restaurant business took months to recover as customers opted to stay at home. When they did return they found that restaurants had begun providing designated serving chopsticks, often a different colour to the others, so that people did not contaminate communal dishes with chopsticks that had been in their mouths.

It became common to see signs in lifts proclaiming that they were disinfected every hour. To be on the safe side, many citizens started pressing buttons with their keys.

Thermal imaging was introduced for monitoring incoming passengers at the international airport, one of the world’s busiest. It’s not uncommon to see people wearing surgical masks, even when the world isn’t gripped by a pandemic.

It is this heightened awareness of basic hygiene in the city that doctors are crediting with the remarkable finding that swine flu is spreading in Hong Kong at half the global rate. The secondary attack rate, a measure of the frequency of new cases of a disease among the contacts of known cases, is estimated at around 29 per cent globally (compared with 5-15 per cent for seasonal flu). According to a study by the University of Hong Kong, the secondary attack rate there is just 14 per cent. This despite the fact that Hong Kong is one of the most densely populated cities in the world.

Hong Kong’s example shows the importance of providing good information on simple measures that can be taken to curb the spread of swine flu. Of course we don’t want to panic anyone unduly. But warning the public of the dangers and informing people about how to minimise their risk of catching flu can make a real difference. Articles like Simon Jenkins’s in the Guardian yesterday are particularly unhelpful. A study published in the BMJ found that believing the outbreak had been exaggerated was associated with a lower likelihood of making the recommended changes in behaviour. Interestingly, people from ethnic minority groups were much more likely to follow advice about how to avoid swine flu.

“Many people might indeed die of flu,” Jenkins writes, “but they might also die of a nuclear attack, an asteroid strike or a dozen other diseases and accidents now receiving lower priority.” Yes, what a scandal it is that resources are being diverted from the NHS Asteroid Strike Service to fight a highly infectious and potentially lethal disease. True, the vast majority of swine flu cases will get better in a few days. But for a virus so infectious, the mortality rate doesn’t have to be high to mean many deaths and an overwhelmed health service. Unqualified columnists should refrain from disputing professional medical advice: misinformation about health can kill.

Comments Off

Comments Off Posted on Wednesday 22 July 2009 at 8:16 pm by Thom Hoffman
In Inventions & Technology, Psychology

‘Never write anything in an email that you wouldn’t want your mother to read’. The idea behind the saying is that nothing on the internet ever dies, and could one day come back to haunt you. Unfortunately roughly 85% of the emails I send I would rather not have read by my immediate family.

Realistically a throwaway email or Facebook message never truly gets thrown away. Recent cases of information interception, specifically tabloid phone-tapping, have featured prominently in the news. It seems reasonable to assume that emails are an even easier target. You can only guess what Damian McBride would have given for those emails he sent to Derek Draper to stay private.

Researchers at the University of Washington have released a paper and an open source beta version of a piece of software that aims to change the way sensitive messages are sent over the internet. Other encryption services are available but they usually require some element of trust in a third party or some additional key which may be retrieved retrospectively.

The team in Washington have created Vanish, a piece of software which takes a body of text from an email or online message; encrypts it with a key, which never gets revealed to the user, destroys the local key copy and sends it in fragments via peer to peer sharing (such as bit torrent).

Peer to peer systems are also known as Distributed Hash Tables (DHT). The fragmented data sent is lost as the DHT’s evolve. DHT nodes carrying information cleanse themselves over time, a process known as ‘churning’.

The receiver uses the same software to convert the encryption. After 8 hours (or multiples thereof) the message then becomes purely the random encryption. The original message is rendered inaccessible by either party (or by any third party) forever. The software takes only seconds to work for normal sized emails and messages. Watch a cool demonstration video here.

The reality is that many social networking sites and ISP’s archive data for long periods of time. Some of which you may want to keep private. Sure it’s great to look back at old emails you sent and had completely forgotten about. It is fascinating to revisit the mistakes of your life which you have invariably forgotten, repeated, forgotten, repeated and forgotten again. Or is that just me? Either way there are certainly some messages which need not linger in the aether forever.

The debate about this type of technology is incredibly interesting. It seems that this type of software will benefit the Damian McBrides of this world but more worryingly the criminals and terrorists. Some may argue that ordinary, law-abiding people have nothing to fear by having all their messages stored. Something about this perspective worries me a lot.

There will, most likely, be governmental objections to this type of software. If it, or some other software, takes off and becomes ubiquitous, the culture change will be pronounced. Is it important that we can send all data privately; or should we just accept that there is no such thing as true privacy on the net? Are consequences for what you put out into cyberspace fair enough?

Should we safely assume that ‘the man’ does not care about your membership to Nipple-Tasslers Anonymous or that you got off with your boyfriend’s best mate last weekend?

One of the most popular email providers Gmail; already scans your email to offer targeted marketing based on the content of your message. This is pretty obvious to anyone reading emails, especially when your spam folder has adverts for SPAM alongside. This seems neither particularly malevolent or sophisticated.

Are the desirable interceptions and consequences of data monitoring enough for us to relinquish our everyday privacy concerns?

The internet and cloud-computing in particular, are becoming more prominent in our lives. As we give more of ourselves away publicly, it seems vital, to me, to be able to keep some things genuinely private.  We just have to make sure we find out about those hidden terror plots somehow too…

There are complex debates to be had but I think the answer can simply be summarised  like this :

7²rþpÐåhT5bfE©‡\[%ùx‹mž€ÉÐôÏ™v¢²aZeƒ#€Êȁú\sdßae×—O†eEoÂÕÃØ,‹ìÉŽsF Á^B³ þ¯Ä±°Egžˆ ¹é£ÜºÕ<ÑQ—_1qË®S±¹wÒRéÍ(+ŠÐû$Ý&iš8mfI÷ÔÅŸçÉé ™ä1‘©ÿml”VMÚ¦Yð`¿z°­R«N3*cd Eä ôó#ö÷þ>p= 1XÍÐL”jlH^5¼ˆ„JèÌFˆ tï½aP°£¡~þ¤y,«7±§zCIé( R?Îp¥?GA…è YÈ@šÚ ó$M€d…Q˜nø MÅqžø`~@펉G( G„îQÙ =Ö¤Q·,æTg}a


I’m amazed we didn’t think of it before.

Comments Off

Comments Off Posted on Wednesday 22 July 2009 at 7:07 pm by Jacob Aron
In Inventions & Technology

I created this radio package on vinyl records for an assignment in the final term of the science communication course. Speaking to jazz critic John Fordham, UK bass producer Joe and Dr Patrick Naylor of Imperial College, I learn about why vinyl is still popular, its history and its future. Click the player below to have a listen.

A Brief History of Vinyl

Comments Off

3 Comments » Posted on Wednesday 22 July 2009 at 11:14 am by Colin Stuart
In Getting It Right, Health & Medicine, Musings

This week has seen a once in a lifetime event. As the spectacle unfolded those who were lucky enough to witness it were turning to those around them whispering of how, in years to come, they would tell the story that they were here. As this epic event reached its climax the spectators spontaneously rose in religious fervour and burst into rapturous applause.

I am not, however, talking about the Moon gliding across the Sun and entrenching those huddled on the ancient banks of the Ganges into more than 6 minutes of mid-day darkness. Rather I refer to the unforgettable events that unfolded on Monday morning in North West London.

After four days of epic Ashes cricket, England had negotiated themselves into a position to achieve the unthinkable; victory over that most ultimate of enemies, at the home of cricket, for the first time in 75 years. However, a massive stand between two typically resilient Aussie batsmen on Sunday night had given the visitors the faintest sniff of victory and seriously threatened the finger nails of England supporters.

In times of need there was nothing else for it; give Andrew ‘Freddie’ Flintoff the ball. No matter that his knee is as crocked as Gordon Brown’s smile and about as stable as the flagging economies of the world, for this was Freddie’s hour. Retiring at the end of this series due to the knee problems that have plagued him throughout his career, he stood defiant against the Aussie onslaught, determined to lay into them one last time.

Flintoff hurtles in and roughs up the Aussies despite needing injections in his right knee

From the outset of that final morning, he pounded down the hallowed turf of Lord’s, slamming his arthritic knee into the ground and hurling that red cherry at 90mph straight at the Aussie batsmen. During an unforgettable 10 over spell, he broke a bat, hit Clarke on the helmet, and provided us with that most joyous of sights, scattered Aussie stumps. By the end of the game he had achieved his first (and sadly last) 5 wicket haul at Lord’s, becoming only the 6th player in over 125 years to have achieved that feat as well as notching up a hundred runs on the ground.

Now that you have indulged my boyish excitement, for there is nothing I enjoy more than watching the Aussie’s squirm, it’s about time I brought in the science. Despite the sheer defiant grit and determination of a cocky Lancashire lad, he had a little help from a very unlikely source; the intestines of horses.

After years of serving England and Lancashire his right knee might as well belong to an octogenarian. In order to play he has to have constant injections in the joint to reduce the inflammation that bowling so intensely summons. The England medical team inject him with Ostenil, which is effectively a lubricating liquid, made by purifying bacteria that is originally found in horse entrails.

Ostenil is a safer alternative to steroids, which normally pose a risk of more permanent damage to the muscles and ligaments they are trying to protect. Ostenil is basically a form of Hyaluronic Acid, you know that stuff beauty adverts are always trying to palm off on us. However, scientists make this stuff in the lab, based on the original bacteria from horse gut. Results of studies show that Ostenil is just as effective as steroids and pain levels are kept low for two days after the jab; perfect for Freddie to skittle the Aussies and put England into a 1-0 lead in the Ashes.

If England win the series and that little urn returns to English hands, no doubt it will be down to King Freddie, his buggered knee, and those horse gut injections that allow him his final swansong as a Test cricketer.

2 Comments » Posted on Tuesday 21 July 2009 at 2:35 pm by Colin Stuart
In Science Policy

Regular Just a Theory readers will remember our coverage of the furore surrounding Lord Drayson’s new jobs following the cabinet reshuffle last month. In her (very good!) article on the subject Jess Bland alluded to a debate between me and Lord Drayson on Twitter.

Jacob has asked me to bring you up to date with the story since then.

To recap, back in June 2009, the current UK government had a cabinet re-shuffle. One of the consequences of this re-shuffle was that Lord Drayson became simultaneously Minister of State for Science and Minister of State for Defence.

It struck me that this was perhaps an appointment that needed to be questioned, not on the grounds of Drayson’s abilities, but firstly on the matter of science being so closely politically twinned with defence, but moreover, science having only a part-time minister.

To this end I asked the question on social networking site Twitter:

“Anyone else worried that science and defence are now inextricably politically linked? with @lorddrayson doing both jobs!?”

From there several of my colleagues joined a discussion which eventually drew in Lord Drayson himself. Dr Stuart Lowe, an astronomer at The University of Manchester, has kindly aggregated the debate so you can see a tweet by tweet account of what went on.

During this debate UK magazine Times Higher Education (THE) asked Lord Drayson, via Twitter, whether he would be interested in penning an opinion piece in their pages justifying his position and countering our concerns. He duly obliged and you can read his article here.

Having sparked the debate in the first place I was anxious that my objections to Lord Drayson’s appointment, and subsequent policy announcements regarding pure science research, were also put to the readers of THE. I sent a speculative tweet to the magazine and they gave me 700 words to argue my corner the following week.

Following the publication of that piece on 9th July Lord Drayson got in touch with me, again via Twitter, and this is what he had to say:

@skyponderer Fair & good points u make. How do we continue the conversation now? Want to invite me to a live debate? Or stay tweeting?

How could I refuse!? The chance to grapple with one of the cabinet is surely a chance not to be missed.

So that is the current state of the Drayson debate. THE have offered to host our debate and are currently in contact with Lord Drayson’s people to make it happen.

I am busy collecting people’s views on the subject as I am very keen to use this chance to be a mouthpiece for the views of a wider community. It is not everyday we get a chance to debate the science minister in person, so I have setup a way you can let me know what you think.

Read the background articles above and whether you agree with Lord Drayson, or you agree with me, or you disagree with both of us, please visit my website and you’ll find a form where you can tell me what you think. I will be picking the best comments and putting them to the Lord himself when the time comes!

In addition, I hope to syndicate the debate right here on Just a Theory so watch this space!

Comments Off Posted on Tuesday 21 July 2009 at 12:44 pm by Colin Stuart
In About Just A Theory, Space & Astronomy

As you have been hearing from the Just a Theory team, this week has been a special one for everyone and particularly those of us involved with astronomy and space science.

With Jacob pipping me to writing stories both about the moon landings and Lord Drayson’s announcement that the UK will once again fund UK astronauts, you can hear my take on it, as well as a shameless plug for Just a Theory on this week’s BBC 5Live Pods and Blogs podcast.

Head on over to the BBC website to check it out (21st July episode, I’m first up)

More to come from me on tomorrow’s solar eclipse soon!

Comments Off

Comments Off Posted on Tuesday 21 July 2009 at 9:52 am by Jacob Aron
In Science Policy, Space & Astronomy

I really must stop with that headline, but I just can’t help myself. Last weekend, science minister Lord Drayson announced that Britain is to officially support human space-flight. In the reversal of a decades-old government policy, British citizens will now receive funding to become astronauts. Speaking to The Sunday Times, Drayson said:

“Britain should be playing a full role in space exploration. There was a special fund for training astronauts and we did not contribute, but that is now changed. There are important benefits that come from manned space-flight and we have dropped our opposition. We have an astronaut entering training soon and I hope he will be the first of many.”

Army test pilot Tim Peake became the first European Space Agency astronaut earlier this year, and it is thought that Drayson used Peake’s appointment as leverage for the policy change.

Drayson has always been in favour of human space-flight, and is also considering the expansion of the British National Space Centre from just 30 civil servants into a full-blown space agency. However, The Observer reports that there will be no extra money for this “British NASA”, making me wonder how this expansion might actually happen. He said:

“We spend around £250m a year of public money on space projects, and that generates more than £6bn for the economy in terms of contracts for the manufacture of satellites, robotics and other industrial work. We get a tremendous bang for the buck when it comes to space, but we have to ask if there is a better way to do it.”

If the current return on investment is 2400%, surely a small increase of cash would be worth it? Either way, it seems we can expect more Brits heading to space in the coming years.

Comments Off

Comments Off Posted on Monday 20 July 2009 at 7:56 pm by Jacob Aron
In Inventions & Technology, Space & Astronomy

To mark the anniversary of Apollo 11 touching down on the lunar surface, Google have decided to release an updated version of their Google Earth software, featuring detailed maps of the Moon:

On 20 July 1969, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin took their first small steps on to the surface of the moon. Forty years later you can join them, thanks to a new release from Google. Moon in Google Earth brings the lunar landscape to your desktop, complete with photos, video and guided tours provided by the astronauts themselves.

Downloading the new Google Earth software allows users to roam the moon in full 3D for the first time. You can visit the historic Apollo landing sites to see the astronauts at work, or fly above the surface hunting for your favourite crater.

Read the rest at the Guardian

Comments Off

4 Comments » Posted on Sunday 19 July 2009 at 9:47 am by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Health & Medicine, Inventions & Technology, Mathematics, Weekly Roundup

Travelating in slow motion

The moving walkways used in airports actually slow you down, according to scientists in America. Research has found that people reduce their speed when stepping on to a travelator, making the human conveyor belts only marginally faster than walking. This is only true on an empty walkway however, as any congestion will drop your speed to less than a normal walking pace.

Manoj Srinivasan of Princeton University created a mathematical model to investigate the problem. Publishing in the journal Chaos, he found that the conflict between what your eyes see and your legs feel is responsible for the reduction in speed.

Visual cues tell the brain you are travelling faster than your legs are walking, so in order to conserve energy you slow down. This means that using an empty travelator will only save you about 11 seconds for every 100-metre stretch, compared to walking on regular ground.

But as any regular fliers know, airport travelators are rarely empty. Another study by Seth Young of Ohio State University found that delays due to other travellers getting in the way occur so often that you are better off avoiding the walkway all together. “Moving walkways are the only form of transportation that actually slow people down,” said Young, speaking to New Scientist.

Wii-ly good for you

Active video games like Wii Sports can be a good alternative to moderate exercise for children, according to a study published in the journal Pediatrics.

While not a replacement for more intensive sporting activities, scientists at the University of Oklahoma found they were comparably to a moderate walk. Children aged 10-13 were monitored as they watched television, played the Wii and walked on a treadmill. Both gaming and walking increased the number of calories burned by two to three times. As such, the researchers suggest encouraging kids to play active games instead of more passive ones.

Facebook for scientists

UK researchers have created myExperiment, a social networking site for scientists. Intended to challenge traditional models of academic publishing, it allows scientists to share “Research Objects”.

Rather than just publishing a paper, myExperiment lets users share data, files, and other information required to understand and reuse research. The site also allows the usual social networking interactions, such as messaging and groups.

Comments Off Posted on Saturday 18 July 2009 at 10:23 pm by Sam Wong
In Biology, Health & Medicine

How can you tell that a cell is a stem cell? It’s really quite difficult. You can only really know by seeing whether they can regenerate tissue after being implanted into another animal. Either that or by showing that a single cell in culture can generate a line of genetically identical cells that then develop into a range of mature cell types.

In practice, scientists tend to infer that a cell is a stem cell if it tests positive for particular protein markers that are thought to be indicative of a specific type of cell. But according to new research, some of these tests are not very reliable.

Endothelial progenitor cells, or EPCs for short, are a type of stem cell that gives rise to the endothelial cells that line the walls of our blood vessels. They originate in the bone marrow and circulate in the bloodstream. Many scientists hope that EPCs can be used in new therapies to repair heart tissue, and they have already been used in clinical trials, but with limited success. A paper published in the journal Blood this week suggested that this could be because the EPCs they used were not EPCs at all.

Marianna Prokopi and colleagues at the British Heart Foundation Centre of Research Excellence at King’s College London discovered that the normal methods used to isolate EPCs in fact produce samples that are contaminated with platelets, a constituent of the blood. This is a problem because the protein markers used to identify EPCs are abundant in platelets. Platelets themselves are pretty difficult to confuse with other types of cell since they’re small and don’t have a nucleus. But it seems that proteins can be transferred from platelets into other cells.

Platelets readily disintegrate into “microparticles”, which get swallowed up by the bone marrow mononuclear cells that researchers are hoping to grow into EPCs. Thus the mononuclear cells acquire proteins from the platelets that make them look like EPCs.

Team leader Dr Manuel Mayr said: “Our results suggest that cells used in some clinical trials may have been masquerading as EPCs, but were actually a different type of cell. We need to develop new ways of purifying EPCs and new markers to identify them that are unique to these cells. This will help us understand the properties of the cells themselves and whether EPCs are actually able to contribute to the repair of heart tissue before they are tested in trials on people. Otherwise, we cannot be certain whether potential benefits or side effects are due to stem cells or contaminating platelets.”

Comments Off

Comments Off Posted on Saturday 18 July 2009 at 10:18 am by Jacob Aron
In Space & Astronomy

I quite enjoyed putting this story together, as it involved looking through the auction catalogue to see all the cool space stuff on offer:

Artefacts from the history of space exploration went under the hammer yesterday at an auction in New York. Auctioneers Bonhams presented nearly 400 lots, including many that were used on the surface of the moon.

The auction coincided with the 40th anniversary of the Apollo 11 launch, with over 50 items from that mission on sale. These included the star chart used by Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin to determine their position on the lunar surface, which went for $218,000. The chart comprises two rotating plastic discs 9 inches across, and a velcro patch on the back containing traces of lunar dust.

In a letter accompanying the chart, Aldrin called it “the single most critical navigational device we used while on the moon.”

Read the rest at the Guardian.

Comments Off

Comments Off Posted on Friday 17 July 2009 at 6:47 pm by Jacob Aron
In Chemistry, Climate Change & Environment

Two articles on the Guardian site today. First, a post on for science blog about the proposed name for element 112:

The periodic table gained a new element last month. It’s currently known as ununbium or simply element 112, but now the scientists who discovered it have proposed a name: copernicium. Sigurd Hofmann and his team at the Center for Heavy Ion Research (GSI) in Germany chose the name to honour 15th century scientist and astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus.

As the first man to realise that the Earth orbits the sun, Copernicus was vilified by the Catholic Church for removing mankind from the centre of creation. His discovery changed the way we looked at the stars and led to the realisation that the universe is a very, very big place. Star-gazers currently celebrating the International Year of Astronomy will agree that copernicium is a fitting legacy.

Read the rest at the Guardian.

Next, in the Environment section, how radar could be used to protect bats from wind turbines:

Radar beams that irritate bats could be used to prevent the animals from being diced by the spinning blades of wind turbines, according to a study of how the animals react to radar signals. The researchers discovered that a stationary beam reduced bat activity near the turbines by almost 40%.

Bat and bird populations can be significantly effected by collisions with turbines. A six-week study at two wind farms in the US recorded more than 4,500 bat deaths and the Peñascal wind farm in southern Texas is currently using radar to prevent migrating birds from flying into it.

Read the rest at the Guardian.

Comments Off

Comments Off Posted on Friday 17 July 2009 at 3:08 pm by Emma Stokes
In Biology, Health & Medicine

Scientists have produced an artificial hormone that causes rapid weight loss in mice. Previous studies have suggested that single treatments for obesity cannot reduce weight by more than 5-10%. While surgery remains the closest thing we have to a cure, this is very invasive. So many studies are looking at ways of using hormones to reduce weight.

Researchers combined the sequences of two hormones (glucagon and glucagon-like peptide-1) to produce a synthetic molecule that activates multiple receptors. The two hormones are similar in structure, but have different functions. Their potential is the subject of current obesity research after scientists showed they can increase the use of calories by the body.

After just a week on the new hormone, the mice lost a quarter of their weight and their fat mass reduced by over a third. Follow-up tests after a month showed even greater loss – reductions of nearly a third and over two thirds respectively.

The technique of activating multiple receptors in a single treatment could prove to be a more potent treatment, opening up a whole new way of thinking about the way we treat of obesity.

For more information on animal research and this story, please see the Understanding Animal Research site.

Comments Off

Comments Off Posted on Thursday 16 July 2009 at 8:19 pm by Jacob Aron
In Getting It Right, Space & Astronomy

The piece I wrote for the Guardian today hasn’t gone up yet, so instead of linking to that I’ll write briefly about something else that happened today – albeit, 40 years in the past. On 16 July 1969, Apollo 11 blasted off in to space. Today marks the 40th anniversary of what would be humanity’s first journey to another world.

It’s amazing to think that nearly two decades before I was even born, men walked upon the surface of the Moon. Sometimes that seems so unlikely, it’s hard to get your head around the fact that it actually happened.

NASA has released restored video of the landing to celebrate. Whenever I watch the famous footage, I can’t help but imagine what a modern day landing would look like. I hope that it isn’t too many years until we can find out.

For now, you will have to settle for the past. We Choose The Moon allows you to follow Apollo 11 in “real time”. As I write this, the mission has entered stage 6, with the ignition of the command service module.

Occasionally the voices of the crew crackle through on the radio, communicating with mission control. These are recordings of the actual conversations the astronauts had on their way to the Moon. It’s incredibly well done, and I feel as if I’ve been transported back to 1969, awaiting the landing in just under four days time. Great stuff.

Comments Off

Comments Off Posted on Thursday 16 July 2009 at 12:57 pm by Seth Bell
In Getting It Right, Just A Review, Psychology

Why do we demolish evil houses? Could you wear a Killer’s cardigan? Would you let your wife sleep with Robert Redford? The psychologist Bruce Hood poses these questions in Supersense and offers an intriguing explanation for our answers.

The central argument of the book goes like this. Most people hold some kind of supernatural belief, ideas which defy natural laws. Hood thinks that supernatural thinking is in fact a perfectly natural mechanism which develops in childhood and often persists into adulthood, even in otherwise perfectly rational people. According to Hood, supernatural thinking is an intuitive process and is not dissimilar to common sense; hence he terms it ‘supersense’.

Hood blends together anecdotes, psychological experiments, argument, popular culture and hints of philosophy exceptionally well, making Supersense a fantastically engaging book. I read so much of it on the tube that I actually began to look forward to tube journeys, which is about as much praise as I can give.

One of the particular strengths of the book is the range of supernatural thoughts it covers. Going beyond the well-trodden ground of religion and the paranormal, Hood draws our attention to all sorts of supernatural beliefs – sentimentality, mind-body dualism, the superstitions of tennis players and the idea of transferring essences to objects like cardigans.

The science is interesting and well explained, but not too dense. The experiments about childhood thinking are intriguing and prompt the reader to examine their current beliefs in relation to their childhood beliefs. Musings about the psychological implications of disgust permeate throughout the book and keep your attention. And even though Hood is a scientist and explains a lot of science very well, you never get the feeling you are reading book about science – which for me, on the whole, is a good thing.

At times Hood labours his central argument a little too much, but he acknowledges this himself and the surrounding material more than makes up for it. I think the reason he works so hard to relate the material to it is because he strongly believes that what he calls our supersense is natural and fundamentally embedded into the way we reason, and that it is unlikely that we will ever be rid of it.

This conclusion is bad news for the likes of Richard Dawkins, but for Hood our supersense allows us justify our sacred values – our morals, our ideas about interconnectedness, our sense our self and our attachment to objects.  This is enough to make them rational and even desirable on some level.  Whether you agree with this ultimate conclusion or not Supersense makes for a highly entertaining read and makes you think. So read it.

Comments Off

Comments Off Posted on Wednesday 15 July 2009 at 8:45 pm by Jacob Aron
In Getting It Right, Just A Review, Mathematics

Those of you expecting The Tiger That Isn’t to be a book on the evolution of the big cat family, prepare to be disappointed. The book’s subtitle, “Seeing through a world of numbers”, gives the game away – it’s about maths. More specifically, The Tiger That Isn’t exposes the common misuse and abuse of numbers by politicians, government institutions and the media.

Don’t be too downhearted though, because Blastland and Dilnot, the creator and former presenter of Radio 4′s excellent More Or Less programme on statistics, have written a fantastically interesting book based on their knowledge from the show.

The unusual title refers to the human capacity for pattern recognition. We have evolved the powerful ability to identify patterns, and to notice deviations from those patterns. This important skill allowed our ancestors to see, for example, the distinctive stripes of a tiger in the jungle and run away to safety.

Pattern recognition comes at a cost however. Sometimes our over-active brains will see the tiger that isn’t – a chance occurrence of light shining through the long grass that gives the impression of a non-existence tiger.

This downside is reflected in modern life by our need to enforce order on a random world. We forget that correlation does not imply causation and find tigers where there are none.

The Tiger That Isn’t guides readers through common mistakes in the use of statistics with examples plucked from the headlines. An NHS deficit of £1bn sounds immense, but it works out as less than 1% of the total NHS budget, and just £16 per head. League tables are revealed as effectively useless, with schools shooting up and down based on little more than random chance. And as we already know, the media is notoriously bad at reporting health risks.

If you’ve ever enjoyed an episode of More or Less, read a newspaper and wondered where all the numbers come from, or even just uttered the phrase “lies, damned lies and statistics,” this is a book you will enjoy. In addition to being entertained, you’ll finish The Tiger That Isn’t with a much better understanding of what numbers can and can’t tell you. Read it.

Comments Off

Comments Off Posted on Tuesday 14 July 2009 at 7:13 pm by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Health & Medicine

Over the next few weeks I will be doing some work at the Guardian, mostly on their science blog. Whilst I hope to still have some original Just A Theory content, I’ll also be linking to my posts over there. Here is the first, on yet another study into calorie restriction as a means of holding back the years:

The idea that severely reducing your calorie intake will help you live longer may not be as straightforward as reports last week suggested. Eating a radically restricted diet may weaken the immune system and actually shorten life.

While eating less has been shown to slow the ageing process in a variety of animals, these tests are normally conducted in artificial conditions with little or no exposure to potentially life-shortening diseases. Hence the apparent contradiction.

Research into slowing the ageing process through dieting began as early as 1934 when researchers at Cornell University discovered that rats given a restricted diet could live nearly twice as long as normal. Calorie restriction as a route to longer life has now been confirmed in fruit flies, roundworms, and most recently monkeys, but all of these studies kept the animals in unnaturally clean surroundings.

Read the rest at the Guardian.

Comments Off

2 Comments » Posted on Monday 13 July 2009 at 9:23 pm by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Psychology

You grip the nail tightly in one hand, a hammer ready to swing in the other. Lift it up – and bam! You’ve just hit own thumb and are now turning the air blue. Swearing is a common reaction to pain, and a new study published in the journal NeuroReport suggests it can actually help reduce the effect.

Richard Stephens, John Atkins and Andrew Kingston of Keele University investigated the science of swearing by asking 67 volunteers to submerge their hand in a bowl of ice-cold water for a maximum of five minutes. The volunteers had to repeat the swear word of their choice until they couldn’t stand the pain. As a control, they were also asked to do the same procedure whilst repeating a word used “to describe a table”.

One person had to be removed from the study because they couldn’t think of a swear word, but the rest managed just fine. The results showed that on average, men could suffer the pain for around 45 seconds longer when swearing, whilst women managed an additional 37 seconds.

Both sexes also demonstrated a reduction on the Perceived Pain Scale, which measures how much people feel pain. This is in contrast to the scientists’ initial hypothesis that swearing would actually increase feelings of pain.

It isn’t clear why swearing has this effect, though in the paper the researchers suggest swearing could induce a fight-or-flight response and nullifies the link between fear of pain and the perception of pain. All participants registered an increase in heart rate whilst swearing, which supports this theory.

As an aside, the research has unsurprisingly been picked up by various media outlets including the BBC and Daily Mail. Both reports make reference to Rohan Byrt of the Casual Swearing Appreciation Society. Intrigued as to the nature of such an austere society, I was puzzled when a Google search showed no obvious results.

It seems that the “society” is actually nothing more then a Facebook group, and Mr Byrt is the self-appointed “Sir Saysfuckalot”. If this shoddy journalism pains you, I suggest you make use of the four-letter word of your choice.

Stephens, R., Atkins, J., & Kingston, A. (2009). Swearing as a response to pain NeuroReport, 20 (12), 1056-1060 DOI: 10.1097/WNR.0b013e32832e64b1

Comments Off Posted on Sunday 12 July 2009 at 9:24 am by Jacob Aron
In Getting It Right, Inventions & Technology, Science Policy, Space & Astronomy, Weekly Roundup

Drayson vs Stuart, round two

Our very own Colin Stuart had an article in the Times Higher Education supplement this week, in a continuation of his Twitter debate with science minister Lord Drayson. In it, he criticises the decision to merge science with business, fearing it will result in pure science losing out as applied science is brought to the fore.

The internet…in space!

A headline I never get tired of, because it always sums up a story beautifully. The internet now has a permanent connection to space, aboard the International Space Station.

The space internet differers slightly from our Earth-bound version. The regular internet uses TCP/IP connections, which repeatedly sends information until the computer knows they have got through. This wouldn’t work in space due to bandwidth issues, so the computer aboard the ISS uses delay-tolerant networking, which holds on to information at each step in the communication chain until it has been received.

Citizen science exposes false vegan restaurants

This is pretty neat. Vegan food blog were worried about imported vegan foods being served in a number of restaurants in Los Angeles, so decided to run some tests.

Using industrial food testing tools, they examined meals from 17 establishments for traces of egg, cheese and shellfish – all foods which are not compatible with a vegan diet. The found evidence of these foods in all of the meals, suggesting that the common source of production, Taiwan, has not been enforcing strict vegan regulations.

What I like about this is the way their investigation is presented in a very scientific manner. Hypothesis, methods, results and discussion are all laid out in such a way that anyone wishing to dispute or replicate their results can do so. In fact, that’s exactly what happened, with many of the restaurants contacting the blog to say they would conduct tests of their own. It just goes to show, you don’t have to be a scientist to follow the scientific method.

Comments Off

Comments Off Posted on Saturday 11 July 2009 at 4:26 pm by Jacob Aron
In Science Policy

A study on public attitudes to science has found that the majority of Americans think that science has a mostly positive effect on society, and scientist’s contribution to society is second only to that of the military and teachers.

The survey, conducted by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press in collaboration with the American Association for the Advancement of Science, also asked about the nation’s greatest achievement those surveyed were less enthusiastic. Only 27% respondents chose developments in science, medicine and technology, down from 27% in 1999. Instead, the most popular answer with 33% was “nothing/don’t know”.

Perhaps it is unsurprising then that 49% of scientists think the public have unrealistic expectations for the speed of scientific progress, and a massive 85% view the public’s lack of scientific knowledge as a major problem.

Many scientists blame the media for doing a poor job informing the public about science, with 76% saying the media doesn’t properly distinguish between well-founded findings and those that are not. Scientists were split on the media simplification of science; roughly half believe it be a major problem but the rest view it as minor or not a problem at all. Scientists also complained about the lack of funding for basic research, with 87% viewing it as serious or very serious.

It’s not all moaning however. Just over half of both the public and scientists named advances in medicine as the most important achievement in science during the last 20 years. The two groups also agreed on the importance of government funding science; 60% of the public believe that it is essential for progress, and 84% of scientists list a government body as a funding source.

I’d be interested to see a similar survey in the UK. As far as I know (and I admit to not looking very hard) the last big science and society report was the House of Lords one nearly a decade ago. Anyone know of an update?

Comments Off

Comments Off Posted on Friday 10 July 2009 at 12:01 pm by Jacob Aron
In Chemistry, Climate Change & Environment, Yes, But When?

Many alternative energy sources have been suggested as a replacement for oil; wind, solar or biofuel just to name a few. Now another can be added to the list: urine.

Whilst abundant worldwide, this waste liquid is not the most obvious choice for weaning the world off oil. To extract urine’s energy Gerardine Botte of Ohio University employed a process called electrolysis which uses an electric current to break up molecules. The resulting hydrogen can then be put to work as a clean source of energy.

Electrolysis has already been used to create hydrogen from water, but this requires quite a lot of energy. Botte turned to urine as a way of improving efficiency. Although urine is 95% water much of the remaining 5% is urea, a chemical compound which has four hydrogen atoms per molecule. This is twice the number found in water molecules, and the atoms are less tightly bonded so extracting the hydrogen from urea instead of water requires about a third of the energy.

Originally the research team used “synthetic” urine made by dissolving urea in water, but the process works equally as well with the genuine article. Working with human urine requires special clearance, which held up the publication of their research, says Botte.

The team are now looking at the long-term feasibility of urine hydrolysis, as well as the potential for scaling it up to industrial levels. Botte believes that existing sewage plants could be put to work generating energy, as well as cleaning up waste. “We do not need to reinvent the wheel as there are already electrolysers being used in different applications,” she says.

Comments Off

2 Comments » Posted on Thursday 9 July 2009 at 3:00 pm by Jacob Aron
In Musings

A number of people thanked me for my coverage on the World Conference of Science Journalists, saying it was useful to have a summary for those who couldn’t make it. I’m not the only one who blogged the conference – see here for a more extensive list.

All wonderfully Web2.0 then, but whilst journalists want people to hear about their work, scientists sometimes don’t. An editorial in this week’s Nature asks whether the closed scientific conference can survive in the face of blogs and Twitter.

Traditionally conferences allowed scientists an arena to share incomplete work with colleagues, with the understanding it would not be further disseminated. Work could be discussed without fear of being scooped, or finding themselves unable to publish because the journals see it as old news. With the rise of blogging scientists this has changed, and Nature describe a clash of cultures between the online and the offline.

Some institutions are now explicitly warning bloggers, with Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in New York announcing that anyone wishing to publicise a session should ask permission first. Another proposal is for speakers to place a “not for publication” logo on their presentation slides.

It’s a difficult issue. When people see something interesting at a conference, they are going to want to write about it. If the speaker doesn’t want that information shared, then why are they talking about it in what is essentially the public sphere? Perhaps scientists with preliminary results should also go online, but discuss their work in private, password-protected forums. I’m not sure that is an approach that will take off!

Scientists should be able to share ideas freely without worrying about where they might end up, but Nature’s answer of separating conferences in to “open” and “closed” just won’t work. Someone will always bend the rules, thinking perhaps one small Tweet won’t hurt, and then the information is out on the internet forever. Unfortunately I don’t have an alternative solution, so for now scientists will just have to trust their blogging colleagues to know when to keep quiet.

Comments Off Posted on Wednesday 8 July 2009 at 3:17 pm by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Getting It Wrong, Health & Medicine

Scientists at Newcastle University claim to have created human sperm from embryonic stem cells for the first time. Professor Karim Nayernia who led the team says their research could be used to study male infertility, but the tabloids drew slightly different conclusions.

Ethical storm flares as British scientists create artificial sperm from human stem cells‘ and ‘Are we on the brink of a society without any need for men?‘ – Daily Mail

The end of men? Scientists create sperm in the lab out of stem cells‘ – The Mirror

Chaps doomed as lab grows sperm‘ – The Sun

I can’t access the paper thus only have the press release to go on, but even without an in-depth look at the science I can safely say that these headlines are a bit alarmist.

Theoretically, these artificial sperm could be used to fertilise an egg and produce a viable embryo, though such a procedure is currently banned in the UK by the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 2008. Laws do change however, and Professor Nayernia and his team have already used the technique to impregnate mice, though the resulting offspring died soon after birth due to abnormalities.

It’s still a huge leap to go from creating sperm to eliminating men all together. For one thing, surely half of all babies born through this method would be male? Even if this weren’t the case, the researchers were not able to produce viable sperm from female stem cells. It seems that men will need to stick around, if only for their Y chromosome.

Ultimately I think that the furthest this research will go is to generate artificial sperm from the stem cells of men who can’t produce their own. We’re not even close to that yet though, and many media reports mention rival scientists questioning whether the team at Newcastle have even created sperm at all. Dr Allan Pacey of the University of Sheffield and Secretary of the British Fertility Society told the Guardian:

“As a sperm biologist of 20 years’ experience, I am unconvinced from the data presented in this paper that the cells … produced by Professor Nayernia’s group can be accurately called ‘spermatozoa’”

Whilst it is important that we have a debate about the implications of this research and create legislation reflecting the realities of science, I don’t think these headlines can be taken seriously. A dose of common sense will tell you that the majority of couples will choose to conceive in the same way as they have always done, men included, and this new technique will just be another addition to the IVF toolkit.

Comments Off

Comments Off Posted on Wednesday 8 July 2009 at 1:32 pm by Thom Hoffman
In Climate Change & Environment, Psychology, Science Policy

Last night I attended a fascinating debate entitled ‘Whose landscape is it anyway?’. The panel was chaired unobtrusively by the BBC’s environment correspondent Sarah Mukherjee and featured distinguished guests: economist Nicholas Stern, writer Tahmima Anam, historian Ramachandra Guha, and environmental scientist Debal Deb.

The format was unusual and its brevity was both its strength and its weakness but I think it was an extremely useful discussion. Each panellist initially spoke for around 5 minutes concerning the topic of land ownership and its consequences for the environment.

The hugely diverse panel led to a wide range of subjects being highlighted and after this a between-panel discussion ensued. The most optimistic panellist seemed a surprising candidate in Nicholas Stern, the economist and writer of the Stern Review into climate change.

Whenever I think deeply about climate change I struggle to be optimistic but when asked about why he holds such a perspective, Professor Stern replied ‘because I am sick of being pessimistic’. He stated that if you are hopelessly pessimistic you should ‘get a hat and write a letter of apology to your grandchildren’.

I am always cautious about these approaches to engaging people with climate change. There is a notion that doom-mongering and pessimism does result in ambivalence and plans for future apologies rather than direct action. If you do not believe that advocates of optimism are genuine, that instead they are trying to patronize, then this approach is just as unsatisfactory.

Stern does seem to be genuine with his hope, and alluded to the role of undeveloped technology as a genuine source of optimism. After the panel discussion, questions were invited from the audience. A Doctor who works for the Millennium Seedbank at Kew Gardens highlighted how many citrus trees are being planted in places where the efficiency of their water use is wildly inappropriate. There are indigenous sources of vitamin C which have much lower-impact irrigation. Rather than magical technofix solutions, these are the kind of practical actionable things that must be rectified now, and I believe this is what Professor Stern was angling toward.

Debal Deb articulated his frustration with the consumerist ethic and, aside from Professor Stern’s book plug toward the end of the debate, everyone seemed to agree. At one point an audience member questioned Stern’s reluctance to call for the end of capitalism. Earlier Stern had argued that growth will have to continue for 60 to 70 years. ‘To tell all nations with growth aspirations, which is virtually all of us, to stop growth now is the most impractical politics of all.’ Discussion of poverty, which had been so high on the agenda, highlighted the massive need for growth in huge parts of the world.

A gentleman at the back of the audience seemed frustrated that the panel where not making enough suggestions for what we should do. Tahmima Anam suggested that it is not for the panel to make these decisions and that the front line workers are the future solution-providers. She suggested that decentralised governance is extremely important, and the role of the state recurred frequently through the debate.

I was fascinated to hear Stern’s thoughts but Ramachandra Guha was probably my favourite contributor. He argued that the idea of capitalism vs communism or conservatism vs socialism are anachronistic dichotomies that will not navigate us through these major challenges. He invoked Kolakowski’s call for us to be conservative liberal socialists, borrowing appropriate ideas from each strand. Post duck-housegate we look at the public desire for ‘new politics’ and this gives me hope that partnership through shared ideals is the way forward.

Former American Defence Secretary and later President of World Bank Robert McNamara died this week and a quote of his reminds me of the importance of collaboration: ‘I don’t believe we should ever apply our power unilaterally. If we can’t persuade nations with similar values, we’d better re-examine our reasoning.’

Tahmima Anam argued that the solutions must be as big as the problems and here her argument for decentralisation becomes slightly weaker. I think that everyone can agree that centralised governments are responsible for much of what has happened but these governments are made up of individuals and they chased the growth aspirations of individuals too. If you think that governments are a big part of the problem then I fail to see how they cannot be a big part of the solution.

Whether they will arrive at that solution remains to be seen. Professor Stern highlighted how water is being drilled like oil which is massively disturbing the surrounding water table and no-one has ownership of this water, if you can get it, it is yours. Tahmima Anam described how Bangladeshis are creating floating gardens to cope with the influx of saltwater onto their land, and that they must spend all day searching for freshwater.

Water shortage is the next big global crisis and who owns this water was a question that was never going to be addressed in 90 minutes but these types of debates are important. A 5 hour long debate achieving equally few solutions would only serve to turn people off more.

Succinct and frequent debates with such high calibre guests will hopefully put these issues on the map, and stop people from giving up and buying hats when their voices, interest, support and dissent are badly needed.

Comments Off

3 Comments » Posted on Tuesday 7 July 2009 at 9:51 pm by Jacob Aron
In Biology

A common trope in science fiction: the hero is presented with two people of identical appearance, one a loyal ally and the other a dastardly villain. “Shoot him!” they both cry, “I’m the real one!”

It seems that this scenario is also played out in the natural world. A species of orb spider called Cyclosa mulmeinensis constructs decoy models of itself, in an effort to confuse predators. Ling Tseng and I-Min Tso of Tunghai University in Taiwan decided to investigate this behaviour, which they call a “Darwinian puzzle”, in a paper published in the journal Animal Behaviour.

For some animals, drawing attention to yourself works a defence, as long as you have the muscle to back it up. Wasps, the natural predator of the orb spider, advertise their stinger through their distinctive yellow and black markings. Anything that wants to feed on them know not to get involved, unless they want a nasty jab.

This explanation doesn’t make sense for C. mulmeinensis though, because it has no defences. Why encourage predator attention by offering the prospect of multiple meals if you can’t fight off an attack?

The obvious answer is that whilst having decoys increases the number of attacks on a spider’s web, less of them end up directed towards the actual spider itself. Biologists suspect this to be the case, but until now no-one had verified it in the wild. In July and August of 2003, 2004 and 2005 Tseng and Tso went to Orchid Island, 90km off the coast of Taiwan, to do just that.

C. mulmeinensis are found in abundance on the island. They build their webs hanging vertically, using webbing, eggsacs and remains of their prey to create decoy models of themselves. The image to the left shows decoys made from a) prey remains and b) eggsacs, with the spider marked by an arrow.

The researchers found the size of the decoys to be very closely related to the length of the spider who made them, implying that they were intentionally built to confuse predators. To investigate this further, they also looked at how light is reflected by both the spiders and their decoys. The results were surprisingly similar, so to the limited visual systems of the predatory wasps the decoys appear almost indistinguishable to the spiders.

Both spider and decoys show up in sharp contrast to background vegetation however, making them an easy target for the wasps. The scientists set up video cameras and found that the number of attacks on webs with two or more decoys was twice that of webs with one or no decoy.

This might make decoys sound like a poor strategy as they led to increased attacks, but most of these were made against the decoys and not the spider. Whilst the arachnid might be attracting more attention, it can often redirect it and escape without harm, leaving the unfortunate wasp empty-handed and with an empty stomach.

Tseng, L., & I-Min Tso, . (2009). A risky defence by a spider using conspicuous decoys resembling itself in appearance Animal Behaviour DOI: 10.1016/j.anbehav.2009.05.017

3 Comments » Posted on Tuesday 7 July 2009 at 7:17 pm by Sam Wong
In Biology

As many newspapers reported last Friday, a study by Professor Ian Coulson of Imperial College has suggested that climate change is to blame for a decrease in the size of wild sheep in the Outer Hebrides.

The average weight of Soay sheep on the island of Hirta has fallen by about 5 per cent in the last 24 years. After studying a wealth of data on the body sizes and life histories of the sheep, the researchers concluded that global warming is the culprit. According to Prof Coulson, smaller lambs that normally struggle to survive through winter now have a better chance of making it to spring as conditions have been getting milder. Consequently, a greater number of small sheep are reproducing, and propagating their genes for small bodies.

I haven’t been able to access the paper (published in Science Express), so the best description I have of how the authors reached this conclusion comes from  the BBC:

They used a formula called the “Price equation”, which was designed by evolutionary theorist George Price to predict how a physical trait, such as body size, will change from one generation to the next.

With all of this data, the team was able to “rearrange the equation” and use it to work out how much of a contribution each driver made to the sheep’s body size.

They found that the local environment had a stronger effect on the animals than the evolutionary pressure to grow larger.

A press release put out by Imperial College reads:

Their results suggest that the decrease in average body size seen in Hirta’s sheep is primarily an ecological response to environmental changes over the last 25 years; evolutionary change has contributed relatively little.

This statement seems to underlie a bit of confusion in the press about what sort of effect we’re looking at here. If we accept Prof Coulson’s conclusion, then clearly the decrease in body size is an ecological response to environmental changes. But is it not an evolutionary change as well? Evolution boils down to a change in allele frequencies in a population (alleles being the different variants of a particular gene). If a larger number of smaller lambs are reaching reproductive maturity and passing on their genes for small bodies, then what we’re seeing is a weakening of the selection pressure in favour of larger bodies, leading to genes for small bodies becoming more numerous in the population.

Yet many reports implied that natural selection is not at play here. The Times said this:

The scientists attributed the change to short-term changes in climate rather than to the long-term pressures of natural selection, which would favour a larger — not a smaller — body size.

The Independent went as far as to publish a subtitle heralding ‘Darwinism turned on its head’.

The Telegraph led with a strong contender for 2009′s worst opening sentence in a science article (I welcome further nominations in the comment thread).

Survival of the fittest and natural selection usually means that species grow bigger as they evolve

It really doesn’t bode well when the article starts with a howler like that.

These misinterpretations notwithstanding, the Soay sheep study has elucidated a fairly benign effect of climate change on ecology. But the rate at which the planet is heating up means that many animals may not be able to evolve quickly enough to cope with the changes in their environment. According to the IPCC, between a fifth and a third of all species could be at risk of extinction by the end of the century as a result of global warming.

We can expect to read more stories about climate change shaping evolution in the coming years, no doubt including some that elements of the media construe as anti-Darwinian. But the likelihood is that these will be outnumbered by sad tales of species disappearing altogether.

Comments Off Posted on Monday 6 July 2009 at 4:48 pm by Thom Hoffman
In Psychology

Researchers at the University of Michigan published a novel study this week, called ‘Social Influence and the Diffusion of User Created Content’ looking at how social influence works through social networking. The study was funded by the National Science Foundation and looked to take advantage of the new cyber trail that our online transactions leave behind.

They looked at Second Life, the virtual-world social network which has the capacity for users to share and adopt each others gestures and behaviours. The researchers looked only at gestures (otherwise known as assets) which are simple to produce, freely available and widely distributed. These assets may include dance moves, laughs and claps that the virtual you can perform. Overall they studied data concerning 100,229 users and 106,499 assets, between September 2008 and January 2009.

It is possible for users to buy such assets from online stores but the researchers found that 48% of assets transferred were distributed between ’friends’. Friends are described as ‘users with a reciprocated permission to see each others online status’, though I don’t think this definition of friendship will make it into any greetings cards.

It almost goes without saying that everyone should be extremely cautious about extrapolating this study but there is something undeniably fascinating about the level of detail that the researchers could investigate. They had precise information about when and where each asset was transferred; something almost impossible to pin down in the real world.

The researchers suggest that early adopters of assets are not the same as influencers – people responsible for passing on a lot of assets. They also report that the number of ’friends’ one has is not a significant predictor of adoption influence. Now these are not revolutionary findings and are fairly intuitive but what intrigues me is how we, and marketing strategists, look at the distribution of behaviours.

On your homepage, Facebook details the things your friends are signing up to and becoming fans of. This seems to be a reaction to this type of research and something that will evolve and increase as the data trail becomes more explicit. To understand further how a cat puppet playing a keyboard becomes an internet sensation or a phrase becomes a meme, this type of social research is important.

The frustration implicit in translating online research to the ‘real world’ is placated by our ability to see unprecedented details about how these things are transferred. The researchers in this paper sometimes described the distribution of behaviours as analogous to the spread of a virus and whilst this is not something anyone will be rushing to cure, studying it will shape the viral pathways of the future.

Comments Off

Comments Off Posted on Monday 6 July 2009 at 3:29 pm by Jacob Aron
In About Just A Theory

By which I mean Thom Hoffman, another friend of mine from Imperial College. Having studied psychology at Southampton for three years he decided to join the science communication course and study the media as well.

He’s also the other half of the Papercuts podcast, a weekly topical news show that he does with our very own Sam. Look out for posts by Thom soon.

In the meantime, perhaps you would like to enter this competition to have your radio message bounced off the Moon. Simply come up with something better than Neil Armstrong’s immortal words: “That’s one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind.” Any suggestions?

Comments Off

Comments Off Posted on Monday 6 July 2009 at 7:54 am by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Evolution, Getting It Wrong, Inventions & Technology, Psychology, Space & Astronomy, Weekly Roundup

Whoops. Wrote this yesterday but somehow failed to put it on the site. Warning: incoming link dump. I’ve still got loads of interesting stuff left, so I thought I’d burn it all off at once.

Honours for UK astronauts

The British Interplanetary Society (BIS) have created an award for people from the UK who have flown in to to space – all five of them.

The silver pins were give to Helen Sharman and Richard Garriott, who were backed by private funds, and Michael Foale, Nicholas Patrick and Piers Sellers who all became US citizens to fly with NASA.

Despite UK government resistance to human spaceflight, the BIS have made up another five pins that they hope to give to future UK astronauts.

One quarter of Londoners believe in creationism

The figure falls to one in seven nationwide, which is still fairly concerning. Worse though are the one in five Londoners who have never even heard of Darwin – you don’t have to believe the guy, but at least know his name!

US Navy is building electromagnetic plane guns

As in, guns that fire planes. Well not quite, but the Pentagon has spent half a billion dollars on building a new launch system for aircraft carriers.

Currently, they use “steam catapults” to launch planes off the short carrier runways – which is pretty much what it sounds like. The new Electromagnetic Aircraft Launch System will instead use an electric linear motor to shoot the planes off in to the sky.

Self-help books don’t

A psychological study has found that self-help books can actually have the opposite effect to that intended. The research showed that people with low self-esteem actually feel worse about themselves after repeating typical self-help statements like “I am a lovable person”.

Monkeys barter and trade on a simian stock market

Instead of pounds or dollars, non-human primates use grooming as currency. Scientists from the University of Strasbourg in France examined monkey exchange rates by placing food in a box that only one female was trained to open.

An hour after she did, the other members of the group rewarded her with longer and more frequent grooming, and she reciprocated less.

Her new-found wealth wasn’t to last however. When the scientists introduced another trained monkey, the first female’s grooming “stock value” decreased as the second female’s rose. Eventually the “market” equalised and they were both groomed for the same amount of time.

Comments Off

Comments Off Posted on Saturday 4 July 2009 at 6:00 pm by Jacob Aron
In Climate Change & Environment, Evolution, Space & Astronomy, Weekly Roundup

Darwin’s children’s drawings on display

Charles Darwin used sheet after sheet of paper when writing On the Origin of Species, since redrafting before the days of Microsoft Word meant writing the whole thing out again. Only a handful of these draft papers have survived, mostly because Darwin gave his used sheets to his children for use as drawing paper.

Battle of the Vegetables
Battle of the Vegetables

Next week one such sheet will go on display in a new exhibition at Cambridge University Library. Named “Battle of the Vegetables” by Library staff, it depicts a battle between one man riding a carrot and another on what could possibly be a stale potato.

Did Michael Jackson’s death contribute to climate change?

Duncan Graham-Rowe of the Guardian asks whether we should consider the carbon cost of all the increased web activity following the singer’s death. I’ve discussed the carbon cost of Googling before – 0.2g per search, according to the company’s own figures.

As one commenter points out, if you added up the tiny contributions of all the tributary Tweets and YouTubes they probably wouldn’t exceed the Jackson’s personal carbon footprint, considering the lavish life he led.

The Guardian’s James Randerson also chimes in to say the point of the article isn’t really the carbon cost of Jackson’s death, but to highlight the issue of unsustainable internet growth. Whilst this is a problem, I can’t imagine that alternative methods of information distribution are any greener. As with many climate change conundrums, the answer is far from clear.

What’s on alien TV?

Webcomic Abstruse Goose has this rather nice image of what aliens might be watching on TV. When TV signals are broadcast some of them radiate out from the Earth, and could be picked up by any extraterrestrials out there. Like all electromagnetic radiation, the signals travel at the speed of light, so depending on how far from Earth the aliens are it’s going to take them a while to receive our latest programmes.

Whilst inhabitants of the relatively near Sirius system might have been enjoying episodes of Family Guy and The Sopranos for the past few years, everyone out in Aldebaran is still waiting for coverage of World War II to arrive. I just hope any aliens out there will forgive us for polluting space with broadcasts of Big Brother…

Comments Off

5 Comments » Posted on Friday 3 July 2009 at 6:31 pm by Jacob Aron
In Getting It Wrong, Health & Medicine, Weekly Roundup

With all the World Conference of Science Journalists fun, there’s obviously been a lot of news this week that I’ve had to ignore. Rather than letting it slip away without comment, I thought I’d once again abuse the Weekly Roundup category for the next few days. A bit longer than my usual Roundup format today, because I’m basically cramming two blog posts in to one:

Electro-hypersensitivity: because when you make up a medical condition, it becomes real

Maybe it’s just because I own more electronic doo-dads than anyone really needs, but when ever I see people complaining that electricity/wifi makes them ill, I get annoyed. The Daily Mail published just such an account, from Sarah Dacre, who suffered from unexplained headaches and digestive problems for seven years.

Her medical problems increased over the years, and it wasn’t until 2006 when she was diagnosed with electro-hypersensitivity (EHS) by a “specialist [she] found on the internet” that she was able to over them. She moved to a country house in Kent, and was miraculously cured.

It’s a good thing that, unlike the rest of the country, Kent isn’t bathed in radio waves. And doesn’t have mobile phone masts. Or electricity. Hmm.

There is no scientific evidence to show the existence of EHS. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. A meta-analysis of studies looking at the phenomenon found that those who claimed to suffer from the condition could not tell if the electromagnetic field they were being subjected to was real or not. I don’t know what caused Sarah Dacre’s medical problems, but this ain’t it.

Vegetarianism as a way of avoiding cancer? I’d rather eat a burger

Vegetarians ‘avoid more cancers’ says the BBC headline. A study published in the British Journal of Cancer looked at cancer rates in over 60,000 Brits, and found that those who were strictly veggie or only ate fish were at a much reduced relative risk of developing cancer.

Ah, cancer and relative risk – we’ve been here before. I’m not going to do a full look at the stats, but let’s take bladder cancer as an example. The research showed that compared to meat eaters, vegetarians have a relative risk of 0.47 for developing bladder cancer. In other words, cutting out meat more than halves your chance of developing the disease.

Halves it from what though? As always, I refer you to the excellent Cancer Research UK for some numbers. For every 100,000 people in the UK, each year 16.9 will develop bladder cancer. That means roughly 10,000 people each year over the entire population. If we all stopped eating meat – and only if we all did – around 5,000 a year would avoid the disease.

Maybe I’m just too attached to eating meat, but changing the eating habits of an entire country in order to effect such a small change doesn’t really seem worth it. Though, us all cutting out meat would effect other cancer rates as well, so it’s not just 5,000 who are being spared. Should we change our diet of the back of this study then? Lead author Professor Tim Key doesn’t think so:

“At the moment these findings are not strong enough to ask for particularly large changes in the diets of people following an average balanced diet.”

Now, don’t make the mistake of thinking I just ignore all health advice. Some risk factors are worth changing your habits for. Every year, around 35,000 people die as a result of lung cancer. Almost 90% of these are a result of smoking. Saving 31,500 lives a year by banning smoking seems a pretty obvious thing to do.

Smoking is also the major preventable risk factor for bladder cancer, which leads to about 5,000 deaths a year. Yes, roughly half of these could potentially be avoided if we all went veggie, but eradicating smoking seems like a much more effective, less costly and less disruptive way to cut cancer rates.

To look at it another way, you don’t see anyone suggesting we ban cars, which would save around 3,000 lives a year. It’s a fair comparison I think, since given the choice between a life of salads and cars, or sausages and trains, I know which I’d go for!

1 Comment » Posted on Thursday 2 July 2009 at 11:15 pm by Jacob Aron
In Happenings

It’s over! Whilst tomorrow will see many of the delegates going on a variety of trips, today was effectively the end of the WCSJ. It’s certainly been an interesting week, and today was no exception.

I began this morning with a session on the future of science journalism. Hosted by Robert Lee Hotz, science columnist for the Wall Street Journal, it was probably the highlight of the week for me. Discussing the issues were Laura Chang, science editor for the New York Times, editor of The Times James Harding, former editor-in-chief of Scientific American John Rennie, and Fran Unsworth, the BBC’s head of newsgathering.

Common themes were that the current problems of science journalism are shared by general journalism and the wider media. The combination of the internet and falling advertising revenues will bring about a “mass extinction” of media outlets, according to Rennie. Those that want to survive need to evolve.

Chang told us about the NYT’s efforts to become an information portal in addition to a news source. Information about health forms a big part of this, and page views for the NYT website Health section have tripled as a result.

It’s not just health that gets the hits however. Both Chang and Unsworth mentioned the Large Hadron Collider as a massive science story – indeed, the BBC’s coverage received so many views that their stats counter broke!

Whilst this is all good to hear, it’s unclear how it makes any money. Of course, as Unsworth pointed out the BBC don’t need to worry about this, but everyone else must come up with new business models. No one had any real answers – if they did they would be implementing them – so the future of science journalism still remains uncertain. Even so, it was great to see such excellent speakers speculating on what might happen.

After this it was back to the book stall for a bit before I went to steward a session on the coverage of climate change and it links science, policy and politics. Again, because I was working I couldn’t make very good notes. One of the speakers was Richard Black, environment correspondent for the BBC, who made a very good point about the real environmental story: us.

The growth of the world’s population leads to an increase in resource use and more and more expansion in to natural habitats. Climate change and other problems can be linked directly to this issue, but we rarely see articles calling for a slowdown in growth.

Next was my final stint on the book stand. Everything was reduced to £1 and I managed to shift all of the books, though eventually we did end up giving the last few away for free. These rather unpopular volumes still took a while to get rid of, despite not costing a penny!

The last event of the conference was the farewell party. For some unknown reason this was Wimbeldon themed, which meant us stewards had to change from our garish orange polo necks to white ones, and don a tennis visor. Slightly silly, but I guess that’s just how these things work.

I’ve had a great week. It’s been hard work, but good fun, and I got to witness and take part in many thought-provoking discussions. My whole body aches, I’m extremely sleep-deprived, but I’d definitely do it all again. The next conference is to be held in 2011 and hosted by Cairo. I’ve no idea what I’ll be doing then, but I hope I can attend!

Comments Off Posted on Thursday 2 July 2009 at 1:19 am by Jacob Aron
In Happenings

Another action-packed day at the WCSJ! I began this morning on the registration desks, welcoming delegates who had not yet registered and directing various lost looking people to where they needed to go. This was followed by another few hours roaring trade on the ABSW book stand, where various science books were now being sold for the low, low price of three quid.

After a brief – and I mean literally five minute – lunch, I went along to the ABSW’s session on how to publish a popular science book. Chaired by Sara Abdulla, Chief Commissioning Editor at Nature, and featuring the author John Gribbin, agent Peter Tallack and Penguin editor Will Goodlad, the session focussed on moving from an idea in your head to a published book, and all the steps in between.

All the panellists stressed the importance of writing a detailed outline that you can peddle to agents and publishing companies. This allows you to present your ideas in full without having to write the entire manuscript first! Anything that helps you stand out from the crowd is an advantage, especially in a world where, according to Abdulla, up to one million books are looking for an agent at any one time.

Part of the discussion revolved around books written by scientists versus those written by science journalists. Publishing companies like to have a “name” behind the book to increase marketability, and the book buying public supposedly like to hear about research directly from the scientists doing it. Having said that, there is still a place for journo’s who want write something more substitutional than a feature piece.

If they can’t find a publisher though, they could always do it themselves. On the topic of self-publishing, the panel were mixed. Goodlad thought it was a good idea – despite the questioner asking if it made him worry for his job – simply because there are so many books out there, and traditional publishers can’t put them all out. Gribbin meanwhile said he was “too lazy” to self-publish, and the general consensus was self-published books can’t achieve real commercial success.

Immediately following this session was another that asked “Is the growing influence of PR on science journalism in the public interest?” Ben Goldacre was there, along with Simon Denegri, Chief Executive of the Association of Medical Research Charities, Andrew Jack of The Financial Times, and John Clare, Managing Director of Lions Den Communications. It was chaired by Martin Moore, director of the Media Standards Trust.

I was actually working on this session as a steward thus I wasn’t able to make notes, so please forgive my lack of details. Goldacre gave his usual entertaining spiel, pointing out stories masquerading as science that had been manufactured by PR agencies, whilst Denegri and Jack were made slightly less inflammatory comments. Clare had a decent go at defending the PR industry, despite technical difficulties that left him without his Powerpoint presentation for a while, and me running about in search of a technician. I’m not sure how much of it I bought though.

The audience responses were interesting. The journalists complained that PR often won’t let them speak to the scientists they want to, especially if the story is bad news, and that their editors force them to write up the PR-produced stories as news, else it will be passed to a non-specialist and end up even worse! Also present were various press officers, who complained that they don’t like being tarred with the same brush as PR, and that “P” is badly defined anyway. It made for an interesting and heated session – not just because the room was sweltering!

After some more book selling and some general milling about I head off, along with everyone else, to the Gala Reception at the Natural History Museum. Whilst a very impressive location, the acoustics weren’t quite suited to the various speeches given, and it was hard to hear what was being said. The food however was excellent, including a mini fish and chip canapé!

Another enjoyable if lengthy day then. Tomorrow is the last proper day of the conference, and I’ll try to blog as much as I can. See you then!

Comments Off

Comments Off Posted on Wednesday 1 July 2009 at 12:38 am by Jacob Aron
In Happenings

Apologies for the lateness of this blog post, but I’ve only just got in from the post-WCSJ pub trip. I spent most of today on the Association of British Science Writers stand selling books – quite successfully I might add – but I did get to see some of the rest of the conference. As it’s late, I’ll resort to bullet points:

  • Science Minister Lord Drayson gave his and the government’s support to the WCSJ.
  • The BBC’s Pallab Ghosh believes that science journalism can change the world.
  • The panel discussing whether science journalism is in crisis concluded “yes”, “no” and “maybe”. They stressed that whilst traditional funding models (i.e. advertising) are drying up, “new media” offers new possibilities. How these possibilities are funded, I’m not quite clear.
  • Quentin Cooper of the BBC’s Material World gave entertaining introductions to conference sponsors, who were as exciting as you might expect.

That’s about all I managed to scribble down during my day’s escapades. I’ll try and come up with something a bit more substantial tomorrow!

Comments Off