Archive for the ‘Happenings’ Category

Comments Off Posted on Tuesday 6 July 2010 at 9:14 pm by Jacob Aron
In Happenings

Exciting news today: I’ve been shortlisted for the Association of British Science Writers Best Newcomer award. What’s more, I’m joined by my fellow Just A Theory blogger Colin Stuart, along with Helen Thomson, the biomedical news editor at New Scientist.

It’s a great honour to make the cut, and I’m really looking forward to the award ceremony on 23 July. I’ve been working as a freelance science and technology writer for nearly a year now, and I put at least part of my success down to the many hours spent working on this very blog.

Unfortunately posting levels have died down recently, but that’s because I’ve been very busy elsewhere. Here are some of my recent articles, if you haven’t already seen me spamming them on Twitter:

Proof at last for Boltzmann’s 140-year-old gas equation – New Scientist

Drinking coffee doesn’t make you more alert, caffeine study reveals – The Guardian

First replicating creature spawned in life simulator – New Scientist

Michael Grätzel: Give people access to cheap solar power – The Observer

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Comments Off Posted on Tuesday 8 September 2009 at 5:59 pm by Jacob Aron
In Happenings

The dissertation is nearly done, and normal service will be resuming very soon. I may even do a proper blog post tomorrow – fancy that!

If you just can’t wait until then, why not head over to the Science Online London 2009 website? We enjoyed they day’s sessions, and now you can too, as some have been put up in video form. Here is the session with Dave Munger beaming in from Second Life:

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Comments Off Posted on Tuesday 25 August 2009 at 5:28 pm by Jacob Aron
In Happenings

Last Saturday I got up nice and early and headed down to the Royal Institution for Science Online London 2009. Long time readers may remember I attended Science Blogging London 2008; this year the focus had been expanded from blogs to include the wide range of science communication taking place online.

I was slightly miffed to find out the “breakfast” promised by the programme was little more than coffee and biscuits, but was soon chatting to various science bloggers, including Just A Theory’s Sam and Colin. After a while we headed up to the RI’s famous Faraday Theatre for the first of the day’s sessions.

This was supposed to be a talk on the benefits of blogging, but due to technical difficulties it was switched with a discussion of the legal and ethical issues surrounding blogging. A slightly dry topic to cover so early in the morning, but speakers Petra Boynton and David Allen Green (aka Jack of Kent) were fairly informative. Although they did make me slightly concerned about being sued for libel…

As a lawyer, David was concerned people might rely on what he said for legal advice, and insisted we did not liveblog or tweet his advice. Of course, this lead to lots people tweeting along the lines of “in a session, but can’t talk about it!” As befits an conference on online matters, Twitter was out in full force throughout the day. Apple seem to do well amongst the science community, as the Faraday Theatre was lit up with the glow of Macbook icons and iPhones, for the most part. That did get a bit annoying later in the day when someone forgot to switch off their ringtone

The technology was kicked up another notch at the start of the next session, when we were joined by a gaggle of Second Lifers. If you’ve never heard of Second Life, it’s a sort of online virtual reality. Video from all of the sessions (besides the first, for the aforementioned legal reasons) was streamed to those who couldn’t actually attend in person.

This included one of the speakers, Dave Munger, who had to pull out at the last minute. Mark Henderson of The Times stepped in to replace him, but Dave was still able to join in through Second Life. Listening to his voice boom through the speakers was a bit strange, but allowed him to talk about his site Research Blogging, which we make use of here on Just A Theory. Other interesting nuggets came from Mark, who revealed the quality of comments on his blog posts was much higher than normal news stories, and Daniel MacArthur of Genetic Future who discussed the difficulties of managing your online and offline identities.

As tends to happen, my note taking became increasingly sloppy as the day went by, so I will refer you to the extensive online coverage for detailed analysis of the other sessions. These included the role of scientific institutions online, community management, citizen science, and more.

We were also treated to a live demo of Google Wave, the latest tool for collaboration from the web giant. Like many of the audience I didn’t quite “get it”, but some people were very excited about the possibilities for writing future science papers online. Anyone care to explain to me what it’s all about?

The day was naturally rounded off with a trip to the pub round the corner, where drink flowed and conversation continued. I finished the evening with a good natured but heated debate with Tim about the relevance of Second Life, and whether we’d all eventually be living in a virtual reality or an augmented one. We’ll have to wait and see what the future holds. I can’t imagine much will have changed by the time Science Online London 2010 swings round, but I’m sure I’ll be heading along next year for more interesting conversations.

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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!

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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!

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Comments Off Posted on Monday 29 June 2009 at 11:45 pm by Seth Bell
In Happenings, Health & Medicine

Last week I had a cold. It was one of those ones you get after you haven’t slept properly for a few nights (and in my case, because I’d been pushing myself to work hard for once).  I felt terrible, but being British, a man, and generally lazy I made no effort to go to the doctor. And, of course, I had no Lemsips, Beechams or any kind of medicine at all in my flat.

Why am I telling you this? Well, it’s because my Chinese flatmate Will gave me some medicine. When he first offered me some I half expected a herbal remedy. But no, he produced a packet of tablets which consisted of two types: white tablets for the day time and black tablets for the night time.

I’m the kind of person who always reads the label on medicines. Not because I understand the technical jargon you find on them, I just find it reassuring to pretend I’m capable of deciding what the tablets might do to me. In this case though my knowledge of the Chinese language (i.e. none) prevented me from undergoing this ritual.

As a result I was apprehensive about taking the tablets. Which I found worrying in itself, because I completely trust my flatmate and know he wouldn’t give me anything dangerous. So why was I afraid, and what was I even afraid of? What’s more, I was more apprehensive about taking the black tablets than the white tablets. I thinks it’s probably because I’ve never taken (or even seen) a black tablet before.

In the end I just took both the tablets anyway, after realising that a) I was being irrational, and b) I felt so crappy that I was prepared to try anything. But because I couldn’t read the ingredients I wasn’t really convinced they would work, and instead thought ‘at the very least the placebo effect might kick in and make me feel better.’

When I told Colin this story we both got a bit unsure of whether the placebo effect can take place if you’ve already considered that the thing you are taking might work as a placebo. I’ve had a similar thought before about headache tablets. If I have a headache and take two headache tablets I always start to feel better about 20 minutes later (the only exception being when I’m hung-over).  But, I always ponder, is this simply because I assume they will work, stop worrying about my headache and get on with things. Or is it because the paracetemol, caffeine and so on in headache tablets actually works on me. I imagine it’s mainly the latter, but live in fear that if I ever lose my confidence in headache tablets that they will no longer work on me.

In the case of the Chinese flu tablets, I did feel better the next day. It might be because of the stuff in them, or it might be because of some placebo effect. Or it might be that I had a good nights sleep for once. But I still decided to not take any more, and left it up to time and nature to get me better.

So what is the point of this rambling parable? Well, I feel like I learned a few things. First, being able to read labels makes me feel much happier about taking medicine. Second, black tablets are slightly intimidating. Third,I don’t care if its a placebo effect thats getting me better as long as I feel better. Finally, I should buy medicine before I get sick.

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2 Comments » Posted on Monday 29 June 2009 at 10:11 pm by Jacob Aron
In Happenings

I will be spending all this week helping out at World Conference of Science Journalists at Central Hall Westminster, so you can expect nightly blog posts on my activities that day. This morning, I headed down to Westminster at noon to begin setting up at the conference. This mostly involved boxes. Lots of boxes.

A quirk of architecture – a flight of five stairs – made moving said boxes an almost farcical affair. To get everything to the exhibition hall, we had to take the goods lift from the ground floor to the third floor. A short circuit of the building later to a regular lift, it was down from there to the first floor. Repeat as necessary.

Besides the various materials needed for the exhibition stands, we also had to put together around 800 delegate bags. This required an assembly line of various leaflets, but when the bags were ready they had to be taken to the reception area. Whilst everyone else toiled away stuffing bits of paper together, the job of shifting them all fell to me. So if you’re attending the WCSJ, when you pick up your nicely packed delegate bag, remember that I personally lugged around every single one of them!

Not much in the way of science then, and I unfortunately had to miss the conference reception at the Science Museum. It’ll be an early start tomorrow, but I’m hoping to blag my way into at least a few sessions. All will be reported in the evening.

Comments Off Posted on Wednesday 17 June 2009 at 5:38 pm by Jacob Aron
In Happenings

Yesterday the Mission Impossible team were once again in the studio for another science-packed hour of radio. As always, you can stream it online if you missed it. This week we have:

  • Run-down of the latest science news
  • A look at the weird world of string theory
  • The always fantastic Call My Scientific Bluff
  • Interview with Andrew Maynard about nanotechnology
  • Discussion with our studio guest of the week, Stuart Clark about astronomy and his latest book, The Sun Kings
  • And a roundup of the latest Web2.0 news

Next week will be the final edition of Mission Impossible, so be sure to listen online, Tuesday 1pm at ICRadio.

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Comments Off Posted on Thursday 4 June 2009 at 10:52 am by Jacob Aron
In Happenings, Inventions & Technology, Just A Review

This review originally appeared in the most recent issue of Imperial College’s science magazine I, Science.

Wallace & Gromit, the nation’s most beloved plasticine duo, have arrived at the Science Museum. I went along with I,Science editor Mico Tatalovic to check out the new exhibition, Wallace & Gromit present A World of Cracking Ideas.

The duo are known for their crazy inventions that inevitably go horribly wrong, and it seemed that the Science Museum’s lifts were getting in to the spirit of things. As we waited for a ride to the exhibition floor one of the Museum’s sleek glass lifts arrived, but refused to open its doors before shooting off again. It eventually returned and we step aboard, only to find ourselves stuck between floors. “Perhaps we’ll get the stairs next time,” I said to Mico. Thankfully we were not trapped for long and, for the rest of the morning at least, the inventions on display behaved themselves.

Working in collaboration with Wallace & Gromit creators Aardman Animation, the Science Museum have recreated their home, 62 West Wallaby Street, and stuffed it full of things to see and do. With funding from the Intellectual Property Office, the £2m exhibition is designed to inspire the nation’s creativity and get us all inventing.

Visitors will find “Idea Stations” in each room of the house where they can scribble down their new creations, before sending them off to Wallace & Gromit through a suitably wacky delivery process, the Eureka Brainwave. This overhead conveyer belt channels ideas through the exhibition to the Thinking Cap Machine, which…turns them into paper hats. A bit of a let-down if you have just submitted your idea for the next iPod killer, but kids will love it.

As well as coming up with your own ideas, you can play around with Wallace & Gromit’s. In the living room you’ll find the Tellyscope, their answer to the television remote. After throwing enough balls at a target (both myself and Mico were hopeless throws), a television will move towards a massive sofa. Take a seat, and a series of levers move a gloved hand to select the button of your choice, which will play a short video clip. Very silly, very Wallace & Gromit. Other fun things include a slide down the plughole from the bathroom to the garden, where you’ll be to take part in a modelling clay activity.

It’s not just Wallace & Gromit’s inventions on display though. The Science Museum have dug through their extensive catalogue to find examples of weird and wonderful inventions from the real world. Displays range from an early electric kettle to 1960’s food packaging. You can also track the development of inventions like the telephone, from Alexander Graham Bell’s original to the latest shape-shifting Nokia prototype – unfortunately a model, and not the real thing just yet!

If old inventions aren’t your thing, there’s still a lot on show for Wallace & Gromit and fans. Sets from the films are lovingly displayed, and simply walking through the house really feels like you’re taking part in one of their crazy adventures. It would be very easy to spend almost two hours taking in everything the exhibition has to offer.

I have just one very minor criticism, of an ideological nature. A message throughout the exhibit is the importance of protecting your intellectual property by registering inventions with the Intellectual Property Office, and I have no qualms with that. Up in the bathroom, in a display all about music, was a poster that left me feeling rather different.

Nestled in a corner, away from the karaoke disco in the shower and a charming vinyl jukebox, it said that the music industry is the only way for artists could “avoid losing out to copycats” and “benefit from hitting all the right notes”. In other words, sign a record deal or go broke. In a world where internet exposure and digital distribution is making the music industry increasingly irrelevant, it struck me as nothing more than an out-of-place attempt at propaganda. I’m sure though that kids will just run past without a second glance as they head for something fun to do, so perhaps it doesn’t matter.

My woolly liberal sensibilities aside, Wallace & Gromit present A World of Cracking Ideas is well worth a visit. You might not learn anything as such, but you’ll be too busy having fun with all the crazy contraptions to care. The exhibition will run until 1st November 2009, and the usual fees apply: Adults £9, Concessions £7, with extra deals for families. Cracking good time, Gromit.

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1 Comment » Posted on Thursday 4 June 2009 at 12:46 am by Jacob Aron
In Happenings

With the Euoprean Parliament elections tomorrow (or rather later today, as I’m a little late in posting this) I had planned to take a look at where all the major parties fielding candidates stand on science. Fellow bloggers Frank Swain of SciencePunk and Martin Robbins of Lay Scientist have gone one better though, and submitted nine questions to UKIP, Labour, the Conservatives, the Liberal Democrats, and the Green Party. They also have an editorial in the Guardian. You can check out their sites for the full details, but I thought I’d pick out some interesting points.

The questions cover a range of topics, from the obvious (climate change) to the more politically niche (open access). The three main parties gave predictable, fairly non-committal answers to many questions, but also failed completely to answer some. Perhaps more interesting was the response from the smaller Green and UKIP parties. Polls suggest that many people are thinking of casting their lot in with these parties as a protest vote, both their approach to science is quite worrying.

UKIP dismissed the importance of action on climate change, say that we already do enough already in terms of GDP spending. The Greens are of course very environmentally friendly, but would seek an EU wide ban on embryonic stem cell research whilst also supporting alternative medicine like homoeopathy. Bizarrely, they also want to make zoos illegal.

Clearly, science is just one of many issues that you should consider at the ballot box tomorrow, and with expenses claims and the future of the European Union at the front of most voter’s minds it would be easy to ignore science all together. If you are considering a protest vote with one of the smaller parties though, I would urge caution and to read the manifesto small print. If you care about science, you might regret your vote.

Comments Off Posted on Wednesday 3 June 2009 at 10:44 am by Jessica Bland
In Happenings, Science Policy

Over the last two days, London’s Royal Society hosted a discussion meeting on new frontiers in science diplomacy.  Participants represented everything from Big science in the Middle East through to the Japanese diplomatic core. And they each brought different ideas and suggestions for the interaction between international politics and science.

My original post was a run-down of the meeting’s uncomfortable moments – the points where even an outsider could sense the tension between different points of view. But worries about confidentiality moved me towards a more thematic discussion. SciDev.Net’s editor was blogging from the conference, with full permission from the speakers. And so, for a more detailed account of what went on, check out it out here.

The final SciDev post outlines three messages that came over across both days. I want to pick up on the second of them: that ‘science diplomacy’ is an unhelpful umbrella term for several activities that need to be separated.

The most helpful codification of these activities came early on Monday from the director of the International Science Cooperation Division of Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Jun Yangi divided science diplomacy into four dimensions. First, there is science used for diplomatic purposes; second, there is diplomacy for science and technology; there can also be diplomacy based on science; and finally, science and technology is a source of soft, attractive power.

Other speakers would have done well to pick up on these distinctions more explicitly. In many cases  the content of a talk was not contentious, but the implied definition of science diplomacy was not one that even the next person on the platform would have agreed with.

The introductory speeches provided a marked example of this. The UK’s Chief Scientific Advisor, John Beddington pointed to the danger of science used for political ends – the first of the four Japanese dimensions.

Immediately following him was Nina Fedoroff, Science and Technology Advisor to the US Secretary of State. She started her address by distinguishing science diplomacy from the use of science in diplomacy. It seemed like she was drawing a similar line to Beddington between the first and the latter three dimension. Except, that her examples of science diplomacy were not really in the same vein. Building an Iraqi virtual science library to replace the books destroyed during the war has as much political as scientific colour.

Fedoroff advocated the incorporation of more scientists  into the heart of government. Whilst Beddington favoured a depoliticization of scientists and scientific discussion. A tighter definition of scientific diplomacy from the start might have forced them into a head to head discussion of this tension.

This definitional problem appeared on the second day as well. One particularly obvious instance was when the British Council representative distinguished science diplomacy and international science relations. Fifteen minutes later, his colleague, Professor Mohamed Hassan from the Academy of Sciences for the Developing World defined science diplomacy as exactly those collaborative relations the Council member distinguished it from.

Perhaps the definitional difference here was not a problem. Both contributors wanted to discuss relations; one distinguished them from diplomacy, the other did not.

It was, however, symptomatic of the same issue that divided Beddington and Fedoroff: the depth to which scientists should penetrate the political sphere. If Professor Hassan believes collaboration is diplomacy, then that is their implied diplomatic limit. He is more cautious – more like Beddington.  However, if the British Council want a separate category for science diplomacy, one that is closer to traditional diplomacy, then they are allowing scientists right into the centre of politics and offering a position closer to Fedoroff’s.

Defining science diplomacy is not just an academic debate. Different definitions map onto different national attitudes to scientists’ position in government and in politically sensitive international research. It might have been more diplomatic to sidestep the issue of an explicit definition in this conference. But a definition might be necessary in order to avoid creating rather than helping diplomatic issues in the future.

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Comments Off Posted on Tuesday 2 June 2009 at 9:57 pm by Jacob Aron
In Happenings

Earlier today Colin and Sam joined me in broadcasting another episode of Mission Impossible, the official sci-comm radio show on IC Radio. If you missed it, you can listen again here. This week, Colin and I were presenting. I was a little nervous as it was my first time presenting, but I think it went ok. In the episode we have:

  • Run-down of the latest science news
  • Discussion with our studio guest of the week, Dr Tara La Force
  • Interview with Professor Mike Hulme about his latest book, Why We Disagree About Climate Change
  • Everyone’s favourite Call My Scientific Bluff
  • Interview with some of Imperial’s engineering students about their entry in to the Isle of Man motorbike race
  • A roundup of the latest Web2.0 news
  • And an interview with astrobiologst Dr Lewis Dartnell

Enjoy the show!

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Comments Off Posted on Tuesday 19 May 2009 at 8:19 pm by Jacob Aron
In Happenings

Today marked my first appearance on Imperial College radio, on Mission Impossible, the official sci-comm radio show. Joining me from the blog was Sam, and the role of producer lay in Colin’s capable hands. If you’d like to have a listen, you can stream the show here – it actually begins about 4 minutes in, after some music. Presenting this week are Tim and Felicity, with Adam on the mixing desk. The show consists of:

  • A run-down of the latest science news.
  • Discussion with our studio guest of the week, PhD student Christina.
  • Report from the British Association of Planetaria conference
  • Scientific version of Call My Bluff.
  • Interview with Professor Wendy Barclay about her recent bird flu research.
  • Preview of Emergency in the Womb, a documentary on Channel 4 later this week.
  • Interview with P.D. Smith, author of the book Doomsday Men.
  • And finally, a roundup of the latest Web2.0 news.

Mission Impossible is broadcast every week, although myself, Colin and Sam will only be on fortnightly. The other weeks are handled by another team, including Seth and Jess. If you want to check out their first show from last week, you can stream it here.

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2 Comments » Posted on Wednesday 6 May 2009 at 6:23 pm by Jessica Bland
In Education, Happenings, Musings

CP Snow’s proclamation of a rift between the two cultures of arts and science is fifty years old this week. His Rede lecture in 1959 caused a global response in both the media and academic circles. Last night, The Royal Society in London held a public debate assessing the relevance of Snow’s comments to today’s cultural landscape. The debate was recorded and is available online here.

I was lucky enough to attend in person, quite a thrill for a science communication geek; Melvin Bragg was chairing, and Marcus du Sautoy, John Denham, Sian Ede and Stefan Collini sat on the stage with him. The directors of The Science Museum, Natural History Museum and South Bank Centre spoke from the floor.

But, from the opening speeches, it was clear that each of them had interpreted the theme of the evening quite differently. This does not have to be a problem in a debate, but it was in this one. We spent an hour arguing about culture, but the notion of what a culture is seemed to be different for almost everyone. And so, or as well, why science might be distinguished from the arts also seemed to be different for everyone. Why this is might have made for an interesting discussion. Instead, we ended up with some cross-purpose interchanges, which achieved very little. Stefan Collini summed this up well, saying that the topic of two cultures is just a vehicle for whatever particular grievance people have about science.

What Snow meant by two cultures was very specific. He argued that the academics in science and literature occupy separate spheres with very little interaction. Moreover, in England, the scientific sphere was seen as inferior to the literary sphere. This was, according to Snow, due to the stubborn remnants of the prevailing attitude of a previous age; a clever boy would go to Oxford to study Classics. A slightly less clever boy would move into the sciences.

Snow saw science as providing his country with a secure and prosperous future. But if science continued to be stigmatised with intellectual inferiority, this future would not be possible. New science and technology would be developed elsewhere. Leaving England with Shakespeare scholars, but little else. The Times reviewed his lecture the day after its first presentation. Their argument backs up this interpretation of Snow’s position. At that moment, Britain’s fall from empire to island was of huge public concern. Any way to aid a graceful fall was of interest. The Times article points to science and technology as just such aids. It argues that Britain should bolster funding in science education and research. The country should fight to retain its position as world leaders in this field, fending off the threat from the new planned economies in Russia and China.

In ‘The Two Cultures’, Snow demarcated science from literature as a device for promoting science: for promoting a certain kind of academic pursuit that he felt was dangerously overlooked. The cultural division, even the very mention of culture is slightly beside the point. It is a vehicle for Snow’s complaints about science’s funding, science education and society’s appreciation of science.

In this way, the discussion yesterday at the Royal Society echoes Snow’s original point. Admittedly, it explored how science and literature are professional cultures, how they are perhaps one joint culture of human curiosity and why science is not part of our current definition of ‘culture’. But these uses ideas about culture were mainly frames for complaints about the status of science funding, science education and society’s appreciation of science.

Although these complaints followed similar themes to Snow’s, their content had moved on. Today, some scientists are accorded higher social status than classicists. But state-funding of science is more widely questioned. School education now addresses scientific controversy and concentrates on creating citizens who are aware of the processes and practices of science. And there is wider access to university science courses. Yet, science numbers at A-level are still dropping. Questions at the debate did not centre on whether everyone can recite the second law of thermodynamics – Snow’s example of the lack of scientific literacy he found amongst his peers. They were instead concerned with our current buzz phrases: dialogue between scientists and the public and deliberative models of science policy making.

These are the same complaints we hear at philosophical, political and media-related discussions of science. They were just framed around a notion of culture. And this framing confused the conversation. The mutual rhetoric tangled together distinct issues so that questions and answers missed each other’s points. And Denham, as the politician in the corner, was even able to squeeze in a speech from his swine flu-related soap box.

It was a shame that the hype surrounding the anniversary of Snow’s lecture did not lead to anything new. But then his lecture was not, at its time, about anything new. It was a vehicle for his insightful analysis of problems faced by British science. Last night, unfortunately, the idea of culture was again just such a vehicle.

Comments Off Posted on Thursday 2 April 2009 at 10:35 am by Jacob Aron
In Happenings

Last week was the end of term at Imperial, and we had to present the results of our group project work. The brief for the project was basically an incredibly vague “make something”, with the added proviso that it should make use of ideas discussed in the previous term.

After some discussion my group decided to explore common language and symbolism between religion and science, in particular the use of the word “epiphany” to describe the moment of scientific insight. This idea eventually took shape as an altarpiece, featuring yours truly as both a scientist and a priest.

The finished piece.
The finished piece.

We wanted to depict the various stages in a scientist’s career and compare them to the life of a priest. I’ve uploaded full size photos of each section, so click on them for a larger view.

Learning the Paradigm.
Learning the Paradigm.

A young man decides to become a scientist, and must learn the rules and customs.

Coming of Age.
Coming of Age.

The man undergoes a right of passage by getting his PhD and becoming a scientist.


Working in the lab, the scientist has a flash of inspiration.

Resisting Temptation.
Resisting Temptation.

He must resist the lure of big business and continue with his work.

Life After Death.
Life After Death.

Having died, he lives on through his theories.

Not being remotely artistic I left the actual crafting to others, so most of my work was done in Photoshop. I had to combine the various photos we took, add objects and sometimes change scenes entirely. I also applied various filters to make the images look more like paintings. I’ve also uploaded my original Photoshop work to give a clearer idea of the images – we intentionally made them look worn for the actual altarpiece. Once again, watch out for large files!

So, that’s what I’ve been spending much of my time on in the past few weeks. I’m not completely satisfied with the final result as some of my Photoshop work could have been a bit better – particularly the rather dodgy beards – but I think it’s pretty good, and I enjoyed working on it. Now I just have to wait and see what mark it gets…

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Comments Off Posted on Friday 6 March 2009 at 6:08 pm by Jacob Aron
In Education, Happenings

It doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue, which is no doubt why the British Science Association’s website for National Science and Engineering Week announces, without a hint of irony:

National Science and Engineering Week (NSEW) is a ten day celebration of science, engineering and technology which will run from the 6 – 15 March 2009.

Emphasis mine, of course. Joking aside, there’s all sorts of sci-comm events to be had. You can join the Save our Bees campaign, discuss your thoughts with scientists and engineers at the Change Exchange, or check out one of the many other events in this comprehensive database. There are also science festivals in Cambridge, York, Newcastle and Oxfordshire.

Unfortunately, it couldn’t have come at a worse time for me. Smack bang in the middle of essaymania, it looks like I’ll be missing out. Well, time to get back to it…

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Comments Off Posted on Monday 16 February 2009 at 8:39 am by Jacob Aron
In Happenings

It occurs to me that I haven’t really spoken about the course at Imperial that much recently, and today seems like a good time to rectify that.

This term is split into two, with four of the optional modules finishing last week and the other four starting from today. Of course being the fool that I am, the three modules that I have chosen to take are all in this half of the term, meaning I’m going to be pretty busy from now on.

I’ll be studying international science policy, science and fiction (not quite the same as science fiction!) and radio. Three quite distinct options, but my interests are rather broad!

In addition, work is progressing on the group project we have been assigned: produce a piece of sci-art. My group has chosen to explore the use of religious language by scientists, in the form of a pentaptych – five scenes from the life of a professor, in the way that a saint might be portrayed. I’ll be playing the professor in the photos that will make up the final image, which should be…interesting. I’ll probably post some pictures once it’s done.

Finally, we’ve been asked to start considering our dissertation topic. I’m tentatively exploring “The Portrayal of Science in Video Games” as a title – not, as you might be thinking, so I can play games instead of working. Rather, I view games as an increasingly important part of our culture, and I’m interested in the effect this might have on people’s perception of science. From the bio-hazards of Resident Evil to the gun-toting physicists of Half-Life, there’s definitely some interesting work to be done – and as far as I know, no-one has ever looked at it before.

All of this means I’ll be nice and busy over the next month – I pretty much have a major deadline every single week of March! There will be no rest for the wicked either, as revision will occupy most of the Easter break before exams on the first day of the summer term.

Still, the plan is to keep on blogging as much as possible. I’m hoping the daily schedule won’t slip (I’m nearly up to 7 months after all!) but I guess we shall see how it goes…

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Comments Off Posted on Monday 2 February 2009 at 4:12 pm by Jacob Aron
In Climate Change & Environment, Happenings

I was planning on reviewing David Attenborough’s new show, broadcast last night, but it’s hard not to pass comment on the snow. Britain seems to have ground to a halt after what feels like continuous snow fall since yesterday evening. Imperial have cancelled lectures both today and tomorrow, so it looks like I won’t be venturing outside for a while.

If you’re also “snowed in” (an absurd phrase for 10cm or so worth of snow!) perhaps this news from the Complutense University of Madrid will offer some hope: Europe is set for fewer days of extreme cold but more of extreme heat.

A study of 262 observatories analysing the minimum and maximum daily temperatures from 1955 to 1998 has found that days like today will be less frequent in the future. The average minimum temperature has risen from 0.5ºC to 1ºC, whilst the average maximum has moved from 0.5ºC to 2ºC. The study took place over 34 European countries, but the trends were particularly noticeable in Britain and Iceland.

Of course this research is actually intended to highlight the threat of global warming, and whilst a sudden outbreak of snow doesn’t mean that man-made climate change is no longer an issue, it’s hard to feel too worried on a day like today.

So, whether you prefer to stay inside, toasty, warm and releasing carbon dioxide with your central heating, or to brave the outside and enjoy the snow, just remember that this is not the answer:

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Comments Off Posted on Saturday 11 October 2008 at 12:43 pm by Jacob Aron
In Happenings

People say that university can change you, but I didn’t expect it to happen so soon. My first day at Imperial began with a trip to register at the ID card office, but when my details were punched in to the computer there was a problem: the photograph on the screen was not me. I hadn’t expected my transformation into a postgraduate student to be so dramatic. Thankfully it appeared my metamorphosis was only temporary; a quick photo later and I was fully registered Imperial Collegian.

I then went to the “drop-in information event”, wandering around aimlessly and picking up leaflets. People were milling, chatting, and drinking cups of tea, but I wasn’t sure whether to join them. A solitary sign on a noticeboard said “Humanities”, so I hovered in the hope of meeting fellow Science Communication students, but of course had no idea who out of the masses to approach.

Glancing at my watch, I decided to wander around campus until the welcome address for the Graduate School of Life Sciences and Medicine, of which I was now a member. I checked out the library and meandered along the walkways. As an undergraduate at Bristol I was used to roaming the city to get to various departments, so the concept of a campus was still alien to me.

Eventually 4pm rolled by, and an usher directed me into the Great Hall for the Rector’s address. “If you don’t have any friends waiting for you inside, could you please fill out the front rows?” A perfectly harmless request, but it highlighted the fact that I was yet to meet anyone. I wondered whether living an hours tube ride from South Kensington had been the best choice.

Sir Roy Anderson gave a speech leaving me with a vague sense of inspiration, and the other speakers were informative if perhaps not as uplifting. I returned home, deciding this afternoon didn’t really count: tomorrow was the first “proper” day of my time at Imperial.

Tuesday began with an introduction from the SciComm staff, and a register to confirm everyone had shown up. As usual, I was first on the list, the curse of a surname beginning with A. “Ah, Jacob, I remember your interview,” said Stephen Webster, department director. “The interview that took place in a car park, you mean?” I replied with a grin. A story for another time perhaps, but it got a laugh from the class and I felt more relaxed.

Later on in a group exercise we discussed why we applied for the course, and I realised I was definitely in the right place. These people who I had only just met seemed to think exactly the same way as me. Some common answers:

“I loved my undergraduate degree, but the focus became too narrow. I want to retain a broad scientific understanding.”

“I didn’t want to do the same thing every day forever. Science communication allows you to work with different people, in different mediums, and in different ways.”

“I think science is amazing, fascinating, and beautiful. I want to share it with the world.”

I ended the day with a smile on my face, anticipating the year ahead. The rest of the week brought (amongst other things) a visit to the Science Museum and a talk with chief curator Tim Boon, a treasure hunt around the library, and a party. I met many wonderful people and began thinking in interesting and challenging new ways. I’ve already got more reading to do than I probably ever did in three years of Maths, but roll on week two!

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2 Comments » Posted on Sunday 31 August 2008 at 5:09 pm by Jacob Aron
In Happenings

So, the Science Blogging Conference 2008 has been and gone. I managed to get to the Royal Institution, a place I have never been, without getting too lost. It’s a pretty impressive building, and recent renovation has made the interior seem like a cool place to visit.

Breakfast was on offer as the delegates arrived, but I had already eaten so partook in the usual milling about that tends to take place at these sorts of things. Amongst others I spoke to David Bradley from Sciencebase, although I didn’t manage to match the name to the site until I got home. Eventually we were called to the famous Faraday theatre, where lectures have been held since the early nineteenth century.

After an introduction by the Nature Network hosts, the first speaker was Ben Goldacre from Bad Science. As good a speaker as he is a writer, he talked about the concept of “microfame”, and how “everyone is famous for 15 people” (not 15 months, Mark Borkowski), by which he meant that feeling you get when you meet someone whose blog you really enjoy and go “oh wow, you’re so-and-so from!” He also called for fewer science writers, and more science editors – people to facilitate scientists talking about their own work, in their own words. Amusingly it was at this point he realised, mid-anecdote, that the proceedings were being filmed and so he quickly skipped over whatever it was he was about to say. Hope no one was insulted!

Next up was a panel with three bloggers who blog about what it is like to be a scientist. I was actually surprised how many people at the conference were scientists who blog, rather than those such as myself who blog about science. As such, there wasn’t much in the way of advice that I could take away from the session, but I did agree with the panellists that scientists blogging about themselves is a great way to show the public they aren’t all weirdos who talk in a strange, made-up language to confuse everybody else. They are in fact people, just like you and me – though I won’t deny there weren’t a few “mad scientist” hairstyles around.

After a short coffee pit-stop was the first of the “breakout” sessions, for which you had to choose one of three parallel talks. I went for “There’s a giraffe on my unicycle: Can blogging unlock your creativity?” Let’s be honest, I was mostly there for the title.

The session itself turned out to be more about creativity in general rather than blogging in particular, but there was an amusing exercise in which we were asked to come up a list of things you can’t use a coathanger for. Answers ranged from the obvious (drink it) to the meta (run a creativity workshop). In the end, the point was to teach us to challenge our assumptions – after all, no one said the coathanger was made out of metal, so why couldn’t you make an ice-coathanger, melt it, then drink it?

Pausing for a very tasty lunch (with smoked salmon, no less – thanks Nature!) I then had to pick my second breakout session. This time I chose the slightly less crazily titled “Communicating Primary Research Publicly”, in which I learnt about a concept called Open Notebook Science. Some scientists have taken blogging to the extreme, and put everything they do online. All daily lab reports, even the experiments that went wrong, are uploaded to the internet for all to see.

It seemed to be quite a firey topic, with some of the audience questioning how one could possibly conduct research under such conditions – couldn’t anyone just come along and scoop your results? Jean-Claude Bradley, one of the people leading the discussion and a strong advocate for Open Notebook Science, disagreed. He saw it as a really true form of science, in which everything is documented and open for anyone to dispute or verify. It’s definitely something I’m interested in finding out more about, so look out for future posts on the topic.

The final breakout sessions were “unconference” sessions. These were proposed and voted upon by the delegates, and not part of the pre-planned schedule. I can’t remember what the other two on offer were, but I went along to “Bored of blogging”. Now don’t worry, I’m not actually bored of blogging, however I do find myself less motivated than usual to write on some days. I thought the session would be a good opportunity to find out how others keep on the blogging track.

It was run by a guy named Scott Keir, who began by introducing himself Alcoholics Anonymous style – “Hi, I’m Scott, and I’m bored of blogging”. As it was a much smaller session that the others I had been to, this got much more audience participation, in a similar style. People admitted to having not blogged for two days, two weeks, or even two months! Truly, truly shocking. Nothing huge came out of it, but it was an enjoyable session.

The final panel wrapped up various topics that had come up throughout the course of the day. Open Notebook Science came up again, and the discussion was even more heated. If it had been on a blog it might even have descended into a flame war! I’ll definitely have to look into just how divided scientists are over ONS.

As the conference drew to a close, I decided to pass on the offer of post-conference drinks, and just head home. Truth be told, I was knackered – a long, hot day makes me want to go to sleep! All in all though, it was an enjoyable day and made me look forward even more to starting the course at Imperial (just over a month to go now!) I also realised that Nature Network is definitely the place to be when it comes to science blogging, so I’m going to spend some time checking out their blogs. Roll on Science Blogging Conference 2009!