Archive for the ‘Musings’ Category

6 Comments » Posted on Tuesday 13 September 2011 at 7:14 pm by Jacob Aron
In Inventions & Technology, Musings

I’ve been thinking about learning to program and thought I’d blog about it in the hope of soliciting some tips or advice.

First off, why do you want to learn programming?

Almost every day I write about people doing cool things with computers. I’d like to do some of those cool things. I also don’t get to do very much abstract problem-solving during my day job, of the type I did during my maths degree. Writing programs seems like a good way to come up with puzzles to solve.

There are also some practical reasons – I often get annoyed that software can’t do exactly what I want it to do. If I learn to program, I could maybe write software that meets my needs. And finally, I’ve got this vague idea that journalists of the future should know much more about making a computer do things than I currently do.

So what DO you know?

I’m not coming at this as a complete novice. I played with BASIC as a child, took courses in Python during university and dabbled with SQL in a former job, so I know about a bunch of the building blocks of programming such as variables and loops. I’m a bit more fuzzy on other concepts – I’ve heard of object-oriented programming, for example, but I don’t really know what it is.

How can I help you?

There are so many resources out there that I don’t really know where to begin. Ideally I’d like a single solid resource I can come back to, be it a website or a book. I had fun playing with Codecademy, an interactive Javascript tutorial, but as a start-up it’s fairly limited – are there more established alternatives out there?

I also don’t know if I should pick a particular programming language, and if so, which one? I’ve got a vague idea that I’d like to learn Java, with the aim of one day writing an Android app, but perhaps I should learn to crawl before I sprint.

Any and all advice would be appreciated. Also, if anyone else is in the same position and fancies learning to program together, perhaps we could berate/encourage each other – just let me know in the comments.

Comments Off Posted on Sunday 12 June 2011 at 10:45 am by Jacob Aron
In Inventions & Technology, Musings

Jonathan Coulton at the Guthrie Theater, Minneapolis (Image: abiodork)

Last night I went to see Jonathan Coulton, an American musician who writes songs about all things geek. During the gig, it struck me just how much the event was both reliant on and improved by technology.

I first heard of Coulton on the internet – I don’t remember where exactly, perhaps a YouTube video of one of his songs – but he really rose to prominence in 2007 with the release of Still Alive, the song which plays during the credits of the video game Portal.

Coulton also wrote a song for the game’s sequel, Portal 2. It was released this year and when he asked how many people had played the game to completion, I’d say over 90% of the audience put their hands up, me included.

If Coulton’s popularity is based on technology, so is his marketing.  I only heard about the gig because I saw a friend tweet that he was going to the Manchester leg of the tour. This isn’t a guy who runs massive advertising campaigns, but he was able to fill Union Chapel with a good few hundred people.

Twitter was also incredibly useful on the night of the gig itself. We got to the venue at 7pm to find a massive queue of Portal tshirt-wearing fans stretching down the street. Rather than join the long wait, we went for dinner at a nearby fish and chip place, and I used my phone to monitor the tweets of the people in the queue by searching for “Union Chapel” and “Jonathan Coulton”.

After about half an hour I saw people tweeting that they’d got inside, but some were still queuing, so I knew there was no rush for us to leave. We finished our meal at 8pm and joined the now much shorter queue, waiting for just a few minutes. Naturally, I used my phone to show our ticket confirmation, since I hadn’t thought to print it out.

While monitoring tweets I’d also seen that Jonathan Ross was attending the gig. Sure enough, I spotted him in the front row. Very few people approached him, but he did get a lot of hellos on Twitter. Technology also made its way in to the actual performance, with Coulton using an iPhone to control his laptop, triggering samples and adding vocal harmonies.

None of this technology is particularly novel, in the sense that it’s all been around for a number of years now, but it struck me how different the experience was from the first time I went to a gig, seeing System of a Down at the Brixton Academy in 2002.

It’s more than just my musical tastes that have changed. I probably also bought the tickets for that gig online but I would’ve found out about it from a listings magazine, not Twitter. While waiting in the queue, I would’ve had no knowledge of the thoughts and actions of the people around me, unless I actually spoke to them.

And with the camera phone barely taking hold back then, let alone the smartphone, there would’ve been no sea of screens recording and sharing the event online, though I imagine some people did risk their digital (or even film) camera  in the mosh pit. In comparison, I can search Twitter this morning and immediately find a picture of the gig from someone I’ve never met.

People often bash Twitter as pointless, full of inane people sharing what they had for breakfast, but by concentrating on the social networking element they miss the really useful part: Twitter turns the internet into a real-time stream of conciousness.

Smartphones take that concept a step further, focusing those thoughts locally at certain areas or events. What’s the next step, I wonder? Augmented reality is clunky, but I think there is some value in bringing the internet back into real space. For it to really work though, I think it has to be seamless – a heads up display in digital glasses, perhaps. As Coulton sings, it’s gonna be the future soon.

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6 Comments » Posted on Wednesday 24 March 2010 at 11:53 pm by Colin Stuart
In Getting It Wrong, Health & Medicine, Inventions & Technology, Musings

Anyone who knows me will attest to my often unwavering love of science. I pay my rent talking about science; not a day goes by when I’m not entrenched in the latest scientific discoveries. But it has to be said, sometimes science is a twat.

Science is often applauded as a discipline of progress, the great giver of development and improvement to life. And yet science has deprived a forgotten generation, a generation who suffer the indignity of progress and yet reap very few of the benefits.

My great aunt, simply known by everyone as Auntie, is very nearly 89 years old. Born in 1921 she is basically all my grandparents rolled into one. All my natural grandparents were gone by the time I was seven and so she had to bear the brunt of surrogate grandparenthood. And I wasn’t the easiest of surrogate grandchildren. Being a science geek, and being perpetually unpopular, meant that I won several academic awards during my high school years. Whilst these awards were mostly for science, I did win the Year 8 award for French.

However, what has to be said is that these awards ceremonies were as about as enlightening as a Gordon Brown YouTube video. And yet she sat diligently through several mind-numbingly tedious and over-bureaucratic awards ceremonies.

Despite her willingness to suffer such torture, science, the subject that enforced her to endure such an ordeal, hasn’t been kind to her. Scientific progress has meant that she now lives in a world where it is commonplace for people to reach her age. And yet the human body is simply not designed to last that long.

Our younger generation laud science as the bringer of technology. Science gave us the internet, the iPhone and HD TV. Yet she was born between world wars, in a time when such ideas were fanciful. What has science done for her? It has extended her life so that she now has to deal with dementia, her body wearing out under the strain of scientific progress. Last week she sneezed and fractured a vertebra. A woman who served in WW2 as part of the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF) now needs four care visitors a day just to help her stay in her home.

If, as she will soon surely need, she has to move into a care home, it will cost around £1000 per week. The travesty is that if she hadn’t worked hard all her life and had no savings then care would be provided. But my point isn’t a political one.

Is the subject that I love causing such problems? On our exponential march into the future are we leaving behind those that don’t reap the benefits? Those of a religious persuasion are sometimes shaken in their convictions by a lack of faith. Just sometimes I wonder whether a world without science would be kinder….

1 Comment » Posted on Tuesday 23 February 2010 at 4:05 pm by Jacob Aron
In Inventions & Technology, Musings

In a crossover of my two main interests, I’ve written an article about science and video games:

Video games have always been children of science. The earliest games were written on punch cards in university laboratories and played on enormous computer mainframes only available to researchers. Now the entire video game industry is dependent on technological breakthroughs brought about by unfaltering scientific progress. But what have video games given science in return?

Take the world’s most famous video game scientist, Dr. Gordon Freeman. Despite holding a Ph.D. in theoretical physics, he’s no more a scientist than Mario is a plumber; as the silent protagonist of a first-person shooter, Freeman is essentially just a gun on a stick. His Half-Life colleagues don’t win any Nobel Prizes for personality, either. The game’s late-’90s graphical limitations meant its scientists are based on only four different character models, all wearing an identical uniform of a lab coat and tie.

Read the rest at The Escapist.

1 Comment » Posted on Friday 7 August 2009 at 3:20 pm by Jacob Aron
In Musings

The science news reported by the mainstream media makes up just a small fraction of research being done. Every day, scientists publish their work in a multitude of journals, but science journalists only really pay attention to the big ones: Nature, Science and so on.

Why? Simply because these journals often publish the best and most interesting research around. It’s not just journalists who think so; scientists agree as well. There is even a measure of a journal’s importance, known as the impact factor, which is based on the number of citations a journal receives. Nature and Science bath have high impact factors.

What about all those other journals? Are they not worth reading? Two scientists from Finland did some research to find out, publishing their paper today in PLoS One. They found that whilst the big journals are often the first to publish breakthrough research, work in smaller journals still contributes to scientific knowledge.

When ranked by their importance, it turns out scientific journals follow a distribution known as the long tail. This means only a very small number have a high impact, with the rest tailing off to not very much. You may have heard of the long tail in the context of online retailers such as Amazon. Though it may stock millions of items, most of Amazon’s profit comes from a small percentage of top products.

The researchers looked at over 15,000 journals using the SCImago journal rank, which is based on Google’s ranking technology. Anything with a rank of 1 or more is considered a top journal, but only 1.6% achieved this. Interestingly, these top journals produced nearly one tenth of all scientific articles.

Even this fraction of new papers is too much for any one scientist to keep up with. The researchers point out that it is “physically impossible” to keep up with the latest research in say, cancer. That would require reading over 11,000 papers every month!

Are there just too many journals then? Surprisingly, no. Only 6% of the journals investigated received zero citations during 2007, the year they examined. It’s true that roughly 40% of citations come from the top 2,000 journals, but that leaves 60% for the other 13,000 plus. Clearly, someone must be reading them.

The media will always go for the big journals. That’s where you get the breakthroughs, the new discoveries, the superstars of science. Next time you read a story from Nature or Science however, spare a though for those scientists working away in the long tail. It may not be glamorous, but it’s certainly useful science.

Michon, F., & Tummers, M. (2009). The Dynamic Interest in Topics within the Biomedical Scientific Community PLoS ONE, 4 (8) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0006544

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 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.

2 Comments » Posted on Saturday 27 June 2009 at 5:49 pm by Jacob Aron
In Health & Medicine, Musings

It’s quite likely that a number of people reading this went out for a drink last night. After all, it was Friday and that’s what people do. I went to a rather enjoyable end-of-term party, and of course had a few beers. Alcohol consumption is such a normal component of our society that when you’re knocking a few back it’s difficult to remember it can actually be very harmful.

A series of papers published in The Lancet this week brings the message home. The first reports that 3.8%, or roughly one in 25, of all deaths worldwide are caused in some way by alcohol. This is about half the number caused by tobacco. Alcohol also contributes to 5% of years spent with disease or disability. Because of this, the authors recommend that the consumption of alcohol for certain health benefits should not be encouraged, as the harm far outweighs the gain.

These figures hide the details however. Due to gender differences in alcohol consumption, one in 16 men die from alcohol related causes, compared to just one in 90 women. This is changing as the number of women drinking increase.

Although these statistics are worldwide, alcohol consumption is not the same across the globe. The average adult drinks around 12 units per week, but in Europe this nearly doubles to around 23 units per week. The UK Government recommend a maximum of 14 units for women and 21 for men per week.

Whilst consumption may be high for Europe, it is in Russia where alcohol use takes the worst toll. A study of over 48,000 Russian deaths found that alcohol was responsible for more than half in those aged 15 to 54. Perhaps unsurprising, in a nation where some industrial workers drink one bottle of vodka per day.

It’s not just the health costs of alcohol that are high. In a paper calling for action on alcohol, the authors estimate that high- and middle-income countries spend more than 1% of GDP on economic costs related to alcohol. You may remember 1% of global GDP as the figure proposed by the Stern report for tackling climate change.

In the same paper, the authors question why alcohol is not higher on the global health agenda compared to tobacco and illegal drugs, considering the harm it can cause. They blame well-organised alcohol lobbyists for blocking action to curb consumption, saying that this must be combated.

This series makes for difficult reading. As a non-smoker, I celebrated when the UK ban came in and allowed me to go to the pub without smelling like a chimney. Discussions of implementing a minimum cost for alcohol however, as these reports suggest, set me protesting. Perhaps more expensive alcohol would be small price to pay however, considering the health benefits to be gained.

Rehm, J., Mathers, C., Popova, S., Thavorncharoensap, M., Teerawattananon, Y., & Patra, J. (2009). Global burden of disease and injury and economic cost attributable to alcohol use and alcohol-use disorders The Lancet, 373 (9682), 2223-2233 DOI: 10.1016/S0140-6736(09)60746-7

Zaridze, D., Brennan, P., Boreham, J., Boroda, A., Karpov, R., Lazarev, A., Konobeevskaya, I., Igitov, V., Terechova, T., & Boffetta, P. (2009). Alcohol and cause-specific mortality in Russia: a retrospective case–control study of 48 557 adult deaths The Lancet, 373 (9682), 2201-2214 DOI: 10.1016/S0140-6736(09)61034-5

Casswell, S., & Thamarangsi, T. (2009). Reducing harm from alcohol: call to action The Lancet, 373 (9682), 2247-2257 DOI: 10.1016/S0140-6736(09)60745-5

2 Comments » Posted on Wednesday 17 June 2009 at 10:39 am by Jessica Bland
In Health & Medicine, Musings, Psychology

New Scientist this week reported the findings of an Australian study, which shows that the figure most men find attractive corresponds to the average UK size 14.

Looking at outline sketches of  different female torsos,  a 100 students from New South Wales were asked which they were most attracted to. Their preference for the fuller figure surprised researchers. Previous research  showed  that a 0.7 waist-to-hip ratio is most attractive irrespective of the woman’s size.

This is brilliant. I can eat as many ice creams as I like this summer, and I will only become more rather than less attractive. My stomach flab will start to roll; my thighs will wobble in places where they don’t normally have any jelly. But, apparently, none of that will matter to the boys.

Or will it. Put that body in skinny jeans and white t-shirt and it might not have scored so highly. Put it in a leopard print bikini, a tight short skirt or a strapless dress and it would probably do even worse.

Fashion is not, on the whole, created for the fuller figure. Whilst the naked silhouette of a size 14 might be more attractive, the same body but dressed often suffers from unflattering and uncomfortable lines.

So I can only roll my eyes when The Daily Mail report on this study is accompanied by pictures of curvier celebrities. There is a giant leap between what is most attractive in line drawing and what looks better in skin tight leather.

And mankind, or at least one of them, is inclined to agree. I find myself making the same point as Tom Sykes – Daily Mail journalist and resident irritant. Instead of arguing about why we don’t see size fourteen on the catwalk, he goes for the Playboy angle. Size fourteen girls aren’t the fantasy. The fantasy is the Playboy centrefold because that’s what sells.

I don’t really agree with that: couldn’t the fantasy be constructed by the magazines rather than the other way round? Isn’t a young boy who buys Playboy being influenced by those images of glamour more than the images are pandering to his tastes?

Perhaps. But that’s not the point here.

What is interesting is that both Tom and myself  looked to ways to belittle the research. Before someone showed me his comments, I had already written that it was “a 100 students from New South Wales” that were surveyed and that only line drawings were used. He went a little further:

What it actually shows is that the 100 male students surveyed at the University of New South Wales are pathetic wimps, desperate for a quiet life and terrified of offending anyone.

But the sentiment is the same. The research’s results didn’t fit with the way we see things. And so we tried to find holes in it.

I can’t imagine Ronaldo making me his next trophy. But his and Paris Hilton’s romp in LA last week was no surprise. That’s how the world works. At least, that’s how the world I live in works.  And it’s a little painful to realise that even I am willing to dismiss science if it doesn’t fit.

3 Comments » Posted on Wednesday 10 June 2009 at 12:56 pm by Jessica Bland
In Musings, Science Policy

On Friday, the UK government department that represented science for the last couple of years, the Department for Innovation, Universities & Skills (DIUS), was disbanded. In addition, Lord Drayson changed his title from Minister of Science & Innovation to Minister of Science & Defence.

The obvious response from those with a stake in science’s political profile is to complain. And perhaps rightly so; a press release from the Chairman of the Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Committee (IUSS), Phil Willis, showed that even he felt that science had been let down:

“The real casualty of this ill-thought out re-organisation is the nation’s strategic science base.”

But I disagree. Although we are right to complain about expensive reshuffles (according to the FT, £7 million was spent on setting up DIUS for it to last only 20 months), I don’t think that science has much to worry about.

Control of science-related policy is now with Lord Mandelson in his new Department for Business, Innovation & Skills (DBIS). This initially felt like the next in quick succession of steps by government to commercialise science. First, politicians asked scientists to outline the commercial potential of their work in all new grant proposals. Then, they skimmed off research council money to be used only for projects with clear economic potential. As I mentioned in a blog entry in May, this has already caused a public fight between George Monbiot at the Guardian and Lord Drayson. Other science community publications have picked up on it as well: “The Economic Impact Fallacy” by Philip Moriarty in Physicsworld this month provides a forceful argument against these new economic shackles for science.

But Lord Drayson has promised to keep the science budget separate from the rest of DBIS. So, despite the other, recent disappointing changes to the structure of science funding, not much has changed this time.

Moreover, as was set out in an email dialogue-cum-blog from The Times’s science correspondents, there are some palpable advantages to the move:

1) Having two Lords and Cabinet Ministers, Mandelson and Drayson, behind science is not a bad thing. Particularly given Mandelson’s healthy relationship with No. 10.

2) Phil Willis has used the disbandment of IUSS as an opportunity to ask for a new Committee on Science & Engineering. Given that the previous committee was shared with innovation and universities, this move would be upping rather than diluting government’s science dosage.

There is one niggling doubt though. Lord Drayson has swapped Innovation for Defence in his shared role with Science. And as much as scientists are worried about becoming economic pawns, there is a much greater threat in getting too close to the military.

To be fair, Drayson did well defending his move yesterday on twitter (a useful rundown of which is here). He stated clearly that the two roles are completely seperate. And as my colleague Colin Stuart (@skyponderer) tweeted,

“Hats off for the chance for dialogue. Very impressed we can all chat to the Minister for Science about such key issues.”

At least Drayson is willingto engage openly on the subject. More hope came this morning when Lord Mandelson said:

“Lord Drayson will give the overwhelming bulk of his time, to science, innovation, and technology.”

3 Comments » Posted on Thursday 28 May 2009 at 3:18 pm by Jacob Aron
In Inventions & Technology, Musings

Saw this on the Twitterverse and thought I’d share. Channel 4 have commissioned a piece of research into the young peoples’ relationship with technology, and I found the results quite interesting. Obviously I haven’t seen the full report, amusingly entitled A Beta Life, but here are some stats on the average 12-24 year old.

  • They personally own 8 devices (including MP3 player, PC, TV, DVD player, mobile phone, stereo, games console, and digital camera)
  • They frequently conduct over 5 activities whilst watching TV
  • 25% of them agree that “I’d rather stay at home than go on a holiday with no internet or phone access”
  • A quarter of young people interviewed text or IM (instant message) friends they are physically with at the time
  • They have on average 123 friends on their social network spaces
  • And the first thing the majority of them do when they get home is turn on their PC

I was surprised to realise that the majority of these apply to me:

  • I’m scared to even count the number of “devices” I have, but it’s certainly closer to 18 than 8.
  • Geeky as it is, I’m not a huge fan of going on holiday, and lack of web access is a factor. Thank you, inventor of the internet cafe.
  • Who hasn’t texted their friend in the pub?
  • I’ve got 113 friends on Facebook and 61 followers on Twitter. There is certainly some overlap, so I can’t be much over 123
  • The first thing I do when I get up is turn on my PC. It’s already on by the time I get home again in the evening.

The only thing I can’t fathom is conducting five activities whilst watching TV. What are these activities? All I can think of is watching TV whilst perhaps surfing/IMing on a laptop, and texting on a phone. That’s just four. Any hardcore multitaskers care to enlighten me? My personal favourite is playing video games whilst on the exercise bike, listening to podcasts. If there is some super multitasking combo out there, I’m yet to discover it.

What will the effects of this increasingly connected generation be? It doesn’t seem to be a decrease in the amount of time spent physically with others. The research found that hanging out with friends and watching TV still take up most of young adults free time. It’s just that phones, Facebook, etc allow me and my contemporaries to stay in contact even when we’re apart.

Earlier this month Seth wondered Can web 2.0 technology change our nature? and I pretty much agree with his conclusion. Whilst I doubt Facebook gives you cancer, constant connectivity is certain to change our social structures and the way we lead our lives. After all, I probably wouldn’t have even written this if it weren’t for Twitter!

Comments Off Posted on Friday 22 May 2009 at 7:07 pm by Jacob Aron
In Musings

Scientists can act as advisers to the public, but advice must be framed in such a way that the public will want to receive it. So when I read the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) advice on teenage drinking, I couldn’t help but think You’re Doing It Wrong.

The AAAS, as part of their Science Inside Alcohol Project, offer parents and their teenage children five reasons why drinking at your high school prom may not be a good idea:

  1. You might not remember the night.
  2. You might do something you don’t want to.
  3. You might get in to a fight.
  4. You might be sick.
  5. You might get a hangover.

Along with each reason is a scientific explanation as to why alcohol has these effects. For example, the hippocampus, the area of the brain responsible for storing memory, is not yet fully developed in teens. Thus, say the AAAS, even a small amount of alcohol can cause teens to forget the previous night or even black-out completely.

Well yeah. But these things don’t just happen to under-age drinkers – anyone who has drunk more than they should has probably experience at least one or two of the things from the list. As such, it comes off as a little patronising.

I’m not suggesting that teenagers, or indeed anyone, need to drink alcohol in order to have a good time. Teenagers will drink though, especially if drinking is seen as a dark and forbidden activity. Simple spouting “alcohol is bad, m’kay?” like South Park’s Mr Garrison is not the way to promote responsible drinking.

Much better would be encouraging parents to introduce their teenagers to alcohol in a safe and controlled environment – wine with a meal, for example. This is just my own opinion of course, as after a bit of time searching I’ve failed to find any studies that support my viewpoint. Part of the problem is that Googling anything about under-age drinking brings up so much anti-drinking propaganda that it’s hard to find a balanced and reasonable approach.

Alcohol is a drug that can have dangerous and even lethal effects. It’s also enjoyed responsibly by many adults and even some teenagers. The US’s puritanical approach to alcohol is far too extreme – how a drinking age of 21 but a voting age of 18 is in anyway justifiable, I’ll never understand. It seems that the AAAS hasn’t really considered the usefulness of its advice, instead choosing to play it safe with “Just Say No”. Which always works so well.

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Comments Off Posted on Monday 18 May 2009 at 6:18 pm by Seth Bell
In Getting It Wrong, Inventions & Technology, Musings

The other day Jacob wrote about Susan Greenfield’s claim that Facebook can make you fat. There doesn’t seem to be any evidence that the Internet can change the structure of your brain. However, it seems fairly self-evident to me that web 2.0 technology is offering us ways to change how we live and think.

We have greater freedom to express our thoughts and opinions to both friends and strangers through Twitter, Facebook, comment forums and blogs like this. Even Gordon Brown has got in on the action by broadcasting on YouTube.

The Internet offers better medium for dialogue than traditional print or broadcast media. Do web 2.0 technologies have the potential to change the fundamental structure of our society?

Brian Appleyard, writing for the Sunday Times, doesn’t think so. He argues that it is historically ignorant to believe that technology can fundamentally change society:

“”The internet”, says David Edgerton, professor of the history of technology at Imperial College London and author of The Shock of the Old: Technology and Global History since 1900, “is rather passé . . . It’s just a means of communication, like television, radio or newspapers.”

Edgerton is the world expert in tech dead ends. Fifty years ago, he points out, nuclear power was about to change the world; then there was supersonic passenger flight, then space travel. The wheel, he concedes, did change the world, as did steam power. The web is not in that league.”

I’m not really convinced by this argument. I agree that there are a plethora of ‘revolutionary’ technologies which failed to change the world, but communication technologies (like television, radio or newspapers) did change the very structure our society. The extent to which they did is difficult to articulate because of the difficulty for us to imagine our lives without them.

Similarly, I don’t think that blogging, twittering and the like are an optional fad which will simply be incorporated into our existing cultural framework. In western society we live a culture intensely interested in celebrity. Web 2.0 technology offers a way for people to express their need to be recognised and acknowledged by a wider audience than just the people they see in the pub.

I recently attended a talk at the dana centre (Dinner@Dana: Social Surveillance) which questioned whether sites like Facebook endanger our privacy. I don’t think this is the question we need to be asking. We should instead be asking how new technologies will change the way we think about privacy itself. If new generations grow up micro-broadcasting and making their lives public to others it seems likely that our current notions of ‘privacy’ will gradually be replaced by a very different animal.

So, whilst I don’t think the Internet has the potential to change our brains, I think it does have the potential to change the way we think.

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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.

3 Comments » Posted on Saturday 2 May 2009 at 6:30 pm by Jacob Aron
In Health & Medicine, Musings

This past week, I’ve been struggling to come up with something interesting to say about swine flu. Sam wrote yesterday about The Daily Mail’s approach to the risk posed by the virus, and whilst I agree with him that we shouldn’t dismiss swine flu as a media scare story, I think the issue is a bit more complex.

With the threat of pandemic looming, the important responses come from scientists and politicians. The scientists must act fast to track the virus as it spreads, and work to create a vaccine. The politicians must make decisions regarding border controls and the distribution of healthcare. So far, this seems to be happening.

What about the media and the public? The media have a responsibility to report accurately and to avoid sensationalism. For the most part this has been the case, despite as Sam says, the prominence given to possible death tolls.

That leaves the public. What can you or I do to avoid catching and spreading swine flu? Staying indoors and away from anyone else would work, but the country would grind to a halt. Personal hygiene is important, but if people are too lazy to regularly wash their hands then leaflets telling them to will probably have little effect. And face masks are pointless.

All this means that I’m happy to basically ignore the risk of swine flu. I have little-to-no power to avoid an infection, so fretting about it makes as much sense as worrying about being knocked down by car and killed. The World Health Organisation report 1.2 million deaths every year due to road traffic accidents, but we don’t spend our lives thinking about it.

Swine flu is a problem, and even if the latest news suggests that we’re not headed for pandemic, it is still important that scientists and politicians work to contain it. It’s just not something that you or I should be scared of. And don’t even get me stared on some of the crazy theories out there.

Comments Off Posted on Friday 1 May 2009 at 1:04 pm by Jacob Aron
In Musings, Psychology

A paper in this week’s Science describing research in to parts of the brain related to self-control reports that two regions come into play when making such decisions.

The research team offered participants a variety of foods, and asked them to rate the food for taste and health benefits. These ratings were used to pick an “index food” for each person, with average taste and healthiness. Participants were then asked to pick between eating this index food or another of their choice.

Activity in a region of the brain called the ventral medial prefrontal cortex (vmPFC) has previously been shown to relate to value-based decision, such as what food to eat. If activity goes down when choosing a food item, the person is likely to say no, whilst if it goes up they probably want to eat it.

This study found that in people with good self-control – those able to pick healthy food over tasty – another brain region comes in to play. Activity in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC) increases when exercising self-control, influencing the vmPFC to incorporate health benefits into decision making.

That’s the science. But it’s not quite how it was reported by The Telegraph, The Daily Mail and The Sun. All three papers ran stories about the “angel” and “devil” parts of the brain, no doubt to invoke the classic image of the sort on the left.

It’s a nice concept, but I find it strange that all three papers that covered the story used the same angle. Where did it come from? My first assumption was an enterprising press officer had come up with the analogy to help get the story printed, but the press release shows no sign. I haven’t read the original paper (stupid access problems as always) but I’m assuming such an embellished metaphor doesn’t feature, as such language is typically frowned upon in journals.

It could be that all three reporters just happened to invent the analogy independently. I’m pretty sure however that they all come from one source. Contrast the phrasing in these two passages from The Telegraph and The Daily Mail respectively:

Participants with strong self control signals were able to balance health and taste in their minds and opt for healthier foods. Those whose “angels” did not speak loudly enough chose the tastier foods, regardless of nutritional value.

Participants with strong self-control signals were able to balance health and taste in their minds and opt for healthier foods, the journal Science reports.

But those whose ‘angels’ did not speak loudly enough chose the tastier foods, regardless of nutritional value.

I guess Science could have sent their own press release to the newspapers, but the story isn’t highlighted on their website. If Science doesn’t view it as important enough to pick out on their own, why would they go to the trouble of getting the mainstream media to?

I’m not suggesting there is some vast media conspiracy going on here, I just find it interesting to figure out the way in which our news is constructed. Anyone else got an idea for the origin of the devil/angel take on this research?

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1 Comment » Posted on Monday 20 April 2009 at 3:22 pm by Seth Bell
In Musings, Psychology

Are you living in fear? According to In the Face of Fear (a title worthy of a Hollywood Blockbuster), a survey of 2246 British adults commissioned by the Mental Health Foundation, we are more fearful than we used to be. The results suggest that about 77% of us think the world is a more frightening place than it was ten years ago. When asked why people are more afraid, 63% of people thought that the current economic situation is partly to blame whilst 60% think terrorism is one of the factors which contribute to it. Also, 60% of people think the media frightens people.

It’s difficult to accurately evaluate how ‘generally afraid’ we are and why (and even harder to judge why other people are afraid), so these results are certainly questionable. However, at the very least they do show us that people think we are more afraid, so perhaps the findings in themselves are a manifestation of our collective fear. Or perhaps I’ve been revising too much philosophy. In any case, it’s inspired me to pose the following question: can science help save us from fear?

Well, the rector of Imperial College Professor Roy Anderson thinks that science can certainly help with our economic troubles. Last week he criticised the Mervyn King, governor of the Bank of England, for cautioning against the proposed one billion pound science-spending package, saying:

“I can understand his caution, however I’d still argue with him that in essence how are we going to position the UK economy coming out of the recession? I’d argue that science and technology is one of our few options and it’s a good time to provide that stimulus.” 

The proposed spending increase is part of an overall stimulus package which the government is considering. Professor Anderson believes that science is part of the solution to the credit crunch, arguing that science spending it on of the few ways we have left to kick-start the economy.

So perhaps science can help us reduce our fear in the current economic climate, but what about terrorism? Well maybe it has a role here as well. Last week the BBC reported that MI5 is recruiting a chief scientific adviser, whose role will apparently involve work on counter-terrorism as well as offering scientific advice to agents in the field. Sounds like a very cool job to me, offering a chance for science and scientists to enter the frontline on the ‘war on terror’.  So it seems science have a part to play in reducing our fear of terrorism as far MI5 are concerned.

So that’s a start. Can science help stop the media frightening people? Well, science journalists are part of the media so the fewer stories about particle accelerators ending the world the better. In addition, science news may help reduce our fear by providing us with distracting fun stories – like the news that red pandas like artificial sweeteners! Not a finding with immediate relevance, but it makes me forget my troubles. I wonder how long until Coca Cola use this finding as a marketing strategy for Diet Coke…

1 Comment » Posted on Wednesday 1 April 2009 at 6:05 pm by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Musings

Today is of course April Fool’s Day, and both the media and internet in general just love to get involved. The Guardian claims to be switching from print to Twitter, whilst Youtube have flipped all their videos upside down.

During my daily science news read, I was sure to be on the look out for any potential shenanigans. When I came across a BBC story headlined “Baby chicks do basic arithmetic” I was certain I’d found a Fool, but after further digging I’m not so sure.

The story, which was also reported by The Telegraph, The Guardian and others, says that Italian scientists have show that newborn chicks can do basic sums.

Chicks are known to try and stay close to objects they are reared with, and will go towards groups that contain the most familiar objects. Exploiting this trait, known as imprinting, Prof. Lucia Regolin and Rosa Rugani designed an experiment to see if the chicks could count. I’m linking to their university pages to prove that they actually exist, and seem to have done research in this area in the past.

Using the little plastic containers found in Kinder eggs, which do bear some resemblance to chicks, the team hid differing numbers of containers behind a screen whilst the chick was held watching in a transparent box. Once released, the chick headed for the screen that hid three objects as opposed to two.

Even moving objects from one screen to another didn’t phase the chicks. They were able to count the difference as the containers were moved, and still pick the screen with the largest amount.

Is there any doubt then that this is real research? It would be quite unusual for multiple outlets to run the same April Fool’s Story, unless they themselves had been duped. My only concern is that the findings were supposedly published in Proceedings of the Royal Society B, and yet the journal webpage makes no mention of the work. It could be that they’re just slow to update.

Let this be a lesson to scientists: if you’ve spent a long time working on something that seems even slightly wacky, perhaps it’s best not to announced it until April 2nd?

3 Comments » Posted on Saturday 28 March 2009 at 8:30 pm by Jacob Aron
In Climate Change & Environment, Getting It Wrong, Musings

This post has been written to coincide with the start of Earth Hour in the UK. The event, initiated by the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), asks people around the world to spend an hour in darkness to support action against climate change. With a worldwide rolling start at 8.30pm local time, the WWF are hoping that a billion people will join together in switching off their lights.

Perhaps you’re already sitting in darkness as you read this post, but I’m not. I disagree with large scale events like Earth Hour, because they actually allow people to ignore the issues. “If I switch my lights off for an hour, I’m saving the planet!” they think, whilst tucking into a processed microwave dinner that they brought back from the supermarket in their gas-guzzling 4×4.

I’m generalising of course, and many of the participants in Earth Hour will already be hardcore eco-warriors. The trouble is, combating climate change will not be solved by large scale gimmicks like this. Everyone must make small and boring changes to their lives which are hard to market with a simple slogan or event, but will collectively make a difference

We must reduce our use of energy in a drastic way, and not just for 60 minutes in a year. You may switch your lights off this evening, but what about the rest of the time? How many people leave unoccupied rooms needlessly lit throughout the year, simply because they forget to flick the switch when they leave? I’m not claiming to be perfect as I sometimes do it myself, but I do make a conscious effort to turn off the lights each and every time I leave the room.

It’s not just lights we need to worry about, as changes must be made in every aspect of our lives. Transport, food, manufacturing – they all need overhauling. Whilst I appreciate that the WWF are using Earth Hour to get people talking about these issues, I worry that many people will simply enjoy an hour in the dark and then get on with their lives, using just as much energy and pumping out just as much carbon as before.

Comments Off Posted on Wednesday 25 March 2009 at 10:06 pm by Jacob Aron
In Chemistry, Musings

Scientists who submit too many unsuccesful reasearch proposals could be blacklisted by Britain’s largest research council. The Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council’s new rules state that researchers who have submitted three or more bids for funding that are ranked “low” by the review panel will not be allowed any further applications for one year. The same will apply to those with a 25% or less success rate at applying for grants.

The EPSRC say the move will help manage demand for research grants when resources are limited, but scientists aren’t happy – particularly chemists. A statement from the Royal Society of Chemistry laid out their fears:

“The Royal Society of Chemistry is concerned about the way that the UK’s primary science funding body for chemistry is introducing new measures which have resulted in anger in parts of the chemistry community.

The RSC said that chemists in the UK could find it difficult to continue with research, and that young up-and-coming scientists may find it difficult to establish their research careers.

University departments could have to close as a result of the EPSRC’s decision, says organic chemist Karl Hale. If universities find that a significant number of their scientists have been blacklisted, they will effectively have to shut down due to lack of funding.

David Reid, head of communications at the EPSRC, responded to the critics:

“We’re facing a 3% to 5% shortfall in funding available for blue-skies research.

“A small number of people put a disproportionate burden on the peer-review system. We’re talking about weeding out consistently low-quality proposals.

“Chemists have a culture of putting in lots of short, small proposals to us. We would like to see chemists be more ambitious in their proposals and work hard on one or two bigger proposals in a year.”

In other words, grant money is tight in our credit-crunched age, and the EPSRC staff have had enough of being tied up processing all the applications they get. I don’t think this is the solution to their problem though, as it will only serve to hurt science.

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Comments Off Posted on Monday 23 March 2009 at 5:05 pm by Jacob Aron
In Musings, Science Policy

Nobel Prize winner Dr. Steven Chu is the US’s new energy secretary, appointed by President Obama earlier this year. This NYT article on his transition from physicist to policy maker makes for interesting reading.

Dr. Chu is finding his move from Stanford’s physics department to Washington like being “dumped in the deep end of the pool”. He says “I didn’t appreciate how much of a public figure you become,” as he struggles with no longer being able to speak his mind:

“I’m constantly being told that I have to be careful what I say to the press and in public. I can’t speculate out loud anymore. Everything I say is taken with total seriousness.”

His difficulty in adjusting highlights the difference between scientists and politicians. The scientist will do a lot of thinking, explore different possibilities and generally take their time. In contrast, the politician is expected to have all the answers at their fingertips and never put a foot wrong.

Dan Leistikow, the Energy Department’s director of public affairs, thinks we should allow Dr. Chu time to make the change. “A Nobel scientist is more likely to figure out Washington than a career politician is to figure out how to deal with carbon sequestration,” he said.

It seems though that politics really is a different world for Dr. Chu, as he finds that even Newton’s first law of motion doesn’t apply. Newton said that any object in motion will remain in motion, without the need for an external force. Not so in Washington. “In a bureaucracy, if you start something in motion, it either stops or gets derailed,” said Dr. Chu. “You have to keep applying force.”

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Comments Off Posted on Thursday 19 March 2009 at 1:51 pm by Jacob Aron
In Musings

Seems that I’m having a bit of a Beeb week. Having just finished the “Science and Fiction” module of my course, I was interested to read this BBC news article on four science fictions authors and their relationship with science fact.

Ken MacLeod, author of the Fall Revolution and Engine of Light books, says that scientific accuracy in sci-fi is important, but only up to a point. Get a well-known scientific principle wrong and readers will view you as incompetent, but focus on scientific minutiae and you risk being incomprehensible.

Paul Cornell has written many Doctor Who novels in addition to working on the TV series. He views science fiction as a form of satire, and currently in crisis. The shared view of a future with bases on the Moon and robots in every home has failed to emerge, whilst technologies like artificial intelligence and faster than light travel may never happen. Writers should instead concentrate on examining what happens when the human race exhausts an Earth with limited resources.

Iain Banks writes both sci-fi novels and mainstream fiction. He likes to stay informed on the latest science news, reading New Scientist and Scientific American, and will sometimes incorporate ideas from real world developments into his books. On the other hand, he likes to break as many laws as he can – especially faster than light travel. Ultimately, he approaches science fiction with a “general respect for science”.

Lastly there’s Ian Watson, who has written a great manner sci-fi books. He thinks that “zaniness” is very important in science fiction, and just sticking to the facts leads to boring stories. He also wonders whether, if we ever do meet aliens, will they have science fiction writers?

At the moment my favourite piece of science fiction is probably Battlestar Galactica, a television series in which humanity is reduced to a rag-tag fleet of spaceships, struggling to survive extermination at the hands of their own creation. The Cylons, originally metallic robots designed to serve the humans, have since “evolved” to appear human themselves, and they’re determined to destroy their makers.

There series features FTL drives, space battles and the aforementioned robots, but it’s really a show about people, politics and religion. If you’re interested in finding out mroe, the Guardian have an article today singing its praises. Well worth a watch.

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Comments Off Posted on Wednesday 18 March 2009 at 12:48 pm by Jacob Aron
In Health & Medicine, Musings

The BBC have a very thought provoking article on vaccines from Adam Finn, professor of paediatrics at the University of Bristol. He talks about our society’s need to classify things as “good” or “bad, “natural” or “unnatural” – vaccines often falling in the latter category. What exactly is “natural” though? Finn presents the following list and asks us to decide which is natural:

  • 1 – toilet rolls made from recycled paper
  • 2 – supermarket plastic bags you chuck away after one use
  • 3 – flying first class to New York to go shopping
  • 4 – walking to the top of a Welsh mountain
  • 5 – eating an apple you just picked in your garden
  • 6 – eating a microwaved preprepared dinner

He expects that we would pick options 1, 4 and 5. I might quibble about 1 – toilet paper seems very “unnatural” to me, even if it is recycled – but 4 and 5 fit my personal definition. He then argues that if we take natural to mean “the way it used to be before modern civilisation came along”, none of these things fit the definition. I’ll agree that the cultivation of apples has been changed by modern civilisation, but walking to the top of mountain? Not sure how that has changed, which does weaken his argument slightly.

Ultimately, I think it’s a pretty pointless distinction to make. “Natural” is not that far removed from “the way God intended”, which is certainly not an argument I want to get into. Much of the rest of the article is devoted to explaining why vaccines could be considered more “natural” than prescribing pills or performing surgery, but it is the very end that really got me thinking:

Look around any room crowded with young and middle-aged adults – next time you go to see a film for example – and imagine scores of empty seats that would be there if all those whose lives had been saved by vaccines were suddenly to vanish.

Imagine all your family and friends and then, arbitrarily, remove or cripple one in 20.

This image instantly hit me. I could picture sitting in a cinema and watching 5% of the people around me fading away. At a very rough estimate, using a population figure of 40 million aged 15-64, 2 million people are alive and healthy today because of vaccination – in other words, twice the population of Birmingham. If that’s not a convincing argument for vaccination, I’m not sure what is.

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Comments Off Posted on Tuesday 17 March 2009 at 5:56 pm by Jacob Aron
In Musings, Science Policy

The Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills (Dius) is pressing the Treasury to follow in President Obama’s footsteps and promise more money for science. Dius wants an extra £1 billion to be pumped into scientific research, compared to the $21 billion (£15 billion) spent in the US economic stimulus package.

It may be small change compared to the banker’s bailouts, but ministers say without the money Britain will be left behind when it comes to scientific advances as scientists move abroad to countries with better funding. The money would be spent on new research centres, funding more young scientists, and developing new technologies for use in industry.

Various scientific funding bodies have supported the move. Speaking to BBC News, Nick Dusic of the Campaign for Science and Engineering said:

“President Obama has led the way by making investment in science and engineering central to US’s economic recovery and future prosperity.

“If there is going to be an economic stimulus package in the spring budget, science and engineering needs to be a central part of it.”

More money for science is always going to be a good thing in my book, but can we afford it? Well, we’ve spent almost £150 billion bailing out the banks – a fifth of Britain’s GDP. In this new financial landscape £1 billion seems like nothing, and the potential benefits to the economy mean it could pay for itself. New laboratories mean new buildings, new jobs and new opportunities for lucrative technologies.

“Investing in science and engineering would help address the government’s ambition to rebalance the economy,” Mr Dusic said.

“The government could complement boosting the supply of scientists with priming demand for it by facilitating investment in infrastructure projects and venture capital.”

So, will the Chancellor cough up the cash? We’ll have to wait see, as negotiations are ongoing.

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1 Comment » Posted on Tuesday 3 March 2009 at 3:47 pm by Jacob Aron
In Musings

Yesterday saw the Guardian announce four new columnists with a twist – they’re all scientists. Well, sort of.

Simon Singh holds a PhD in particle physics (and is a personal hero of mine), but in his own words he is an author, journalist and TV producer. I hope Simon will forgive me if I’m underselling him, but I think he’s firmly in the “science communicator” camp, rather than a practising scientist. Not that it really matters anyway, as he kicks off the column with an article on football fans who happen to also be mathematicians.

Next up we have Chris French, who I’m afraid I’ve not heard of. He’s professor of psychology at Goldsmith’s, University of London and in charge of the Anomalistic Psychology Research Unit. It’s sort of like the X-Files, if Scully were always right.

Third is Andy Miah, professor of ethics and emerging technologies at the University of the West of Scotland and another new face for me. Amongst other things, he’s interested in the effect of the internet on people’s perceptions of health and disease – perhaps he has something to say about Facebook’s ability to cause cancer.

Rounding out the quartet is PZ Myers of (in the Guardian’s words) “the ever-amazing Pharyngula blog“. Though I think it might be heresy to admit, I find Pharyngula incredibly dull. Perhaps it’s just that my tongue falls out if I attempt to pronounce the name, but if I wanted to read a blog on an atheist’s battle with religion, I would – and I probably wouldn’t look at a website called ScienceBlogs.

Small rant aside, I’m looking forward to what the new columnists have to say. It seems that the Guardian is following their own Ben Goldacre’s advice: less science writers, but more science editors, and let the scientists speak for themselves.

1 Comment » Posted on Thursday 12 February 2009 at 11:40 am by Jacob Aron
In Evolution, Musings

Dear Charles,

I do hope hope you don’t mind me calling you Charles, but “Mr Darwin” feels far too formal. I’m writing to you today, on February 12th 2009, to celebrate your birth 200 years ago. I’m sure you will have received many other such letters and accolades today, so I’ll try to keep it short.

I know that you feared the effect your work would have on humanity, but I wonder how you would have felt if you knew the controversy that still surrounds it, 150 years on. The two sides of the argument are often presented as science versus religion – or worse, atheism versus Christianity. It is an argument that I believe need not exist, and the ever-raging battle saddens me.

Like yourself I am not religious, although my atheism/apatheism goes further than your agnosticism. Many atheists other than myself will use this opportunity to commend Charles Darwin, Champion of the God-less. Equally, some religious people will vilify Charles Darwin, Heathen and Sinner.

I would like to celebrate Charles Darwin, Scientist. Your work on natural selection is a marvel; an idea so simple that a child can grasp it, but so powerful that it forms the basis for the existence of every single life-form on this planet. Very few scientists can claim such an achievement.

This blog was named in criticism of those who would dismiss evolution as “just” a theory. It’s not “just” anything, it is a theory, and it’s a bloody good one.

I close with an apology – I’ve never read On the Origin of Species. I think today is the time to rectify this, so I’ve placed an order for the book as a birthday present. I’ll let you know what I think.

Comments Off Posted on Wednesday 4 February 2009 at 12:05 pm by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Evolution, Musings

It’s not quite Jurassic Park, but Spanish scientists have succeed in bringing an extinct species back to life – if only for seven minutes.

A Spanish ibex.
A Spanish ibex.

The Pyrenean ibex is a subspecies of the Spanish ibex (shown above), a type of wild mountain goat. The ibex, also known as a bucardo, was declared extinct in 2000 when the last-known survivor died in northern Spain.

Forward thinking scientists preserved DNA from the animal in the form of skin samples frozen in liquid nitrogen. Now, scientists at he Centre of Food Technology and Research of Aragon, in Zaragoza, northern Spain and the National Research Institute of Agriculture and Food in Madrid have used this DNA to cloned the extinct bucardo – the first time an extinct species has been resurrected.

Unfortunately, the ibex kid died seven minutes after birth due to lung defects – an affliction seen in other cloned animals, such as sheep.

Dr Jose Folch lead the research team, who used a cloning technique known as nuclear transfer, in which DNA is removed from the egg of a host species and replaced with the DNA of the animal to be cloned.

“The delivered kid was genetically identical to the bucardo. In species such as bucardo, cloning is the only possibility to avoid its complete disappearance.” said Dr Folch.

The team created 439 embryos, implanting 57 into domestic goats which served as surrogate mothers. Of these only seven resulted in pregnancy, with just one goat giving birth to the short-lived bucardo.

I’m always torn over attempts to resurrect extinct animals. On the one hand, it’s an undeniable fact that human beings play an active part in reducing biodiversity by wiping entire species off the planet. As I quoted David Attenborough yesterday, Darwin showed us that we do not have dominion over the animal kingdom, and unnecessary destruction of wildlife should not occur. Perhaps resurrection allows us to atone for our sins.

Darwin can also be used to argue for the other side. A common statistic thrown about is that 99.9% of all species that have ever lived are now extinct. Despite extensive Googling I have been unable to verify a source for this number, but let’s assume it is correct. After all, the principle of natural selection tells us that the weakest will not survive, and whether it be through predatory, environmental or simply disaster factors, species do not survive.

Some say that human evolution has already begun to stagnate, as our improvements in diet and healthcare even out the evolutionary footing. By restoring extinct species, are we not also at risk of bringing back animals that have, in a sense, failed?

One anthropocentric argument for encouraging biodiversity is that by eliminating species, we could be robbing ourselves of future benefits that they could provide – new types of drugs as a result of some unknown plant, for example. It strikes me that this argument could be turned on its head – that by allowing failed species to return (a sort of evolutionary bail-out package) we could deny future generations the opportunity to make use of emerging species.

It’s a complicated issue, and I’m still not sure on which side I fall. I’m once again reminded of Jurassic Park, with this quote from Jeff Goldblum as Dr. Ian Malcolm:

“Yeah, but your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should.”

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4 Comments » Posted on Friday 30 January 2009 at 3:19 pm by Jacob Aron
In Musings, Science Policy

This week saw the launch of a new government campaign designed to reduce the perception that science is “elitist” by promoting the ways scientific advances enrich our everyday lives.

Run by the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills (DIUS), Science [So What? So Everything] has a swanky looking website complete with Web2.0 curved corners, and you can even follow the campaign on Twitter.

An advert from the campaign
An advert from the campaign.

The adverts all follow a similar theme, illustrating various things that science offers people such as healthier diets for babies, laser eye surgery, and of course Facebook. The government hopes that campaign will help build a more science-literate society, after a government survey last year found that more than half of respondents felt science was too difficult for most people to understand.

Science Minister Lord Drayson met with celebrities including Terry Pratchett (the sci-fi author who is now searching for a cure for his Alzheimer’s) and Heston Blumenthal (celebrity chef with a taste for molecular gastronomy) in Downing Street to launch the campaign on Wednesday.

He praised Britain for being a world-leader in science, second only to the US, and stressed that as maintaining this standard will be vital for our future, the public perception of a scientific elite needs to change:

“We must challenge myths like these if we are to build a prosperous, science-literate society, able to tackle the difficult issues that modern science presents and work them through to create the jobs and growth of the future.

“Science is going to be an important tool for getting us out of this downturn. We all need to be aware of the impact of science on our lives. We also need more trained scientists and engineers to help build the Britain of the future in key areas such as earth and life sciences.

“My job is to make sure these messages are understood.”

The trouble is, I’m not sure these adverts actually do challenge the perception of science as “elitist”. In essence, they boil down to the government saying “Look you, sit down and listen. Science has done all these things for you, so you’d better be bloody grateful for once.”

Ironically, given my thoughts on the service earlier this week, I think it’s actually the Twitter account that is the most interesting part of this campaign. Following the discussion there, it seems like some actual two-way conversation on science between the people and the government is taking place. The rest – the website, the adverts – is just the usual stuff dressed up in a bunch of [square brackets] to make it look hip and modern.

Perhaps our government should take a look across the pond at how President Obama’s administration is using new technology to talk to it’s citizens. Maybe the campaign slogan should be revised: Science: [So What? So Twitter]…

Comments Off Posted on Wednesday 21 January 2009 at 7:32 pm by Jacob Aron
In Musings

Had a very busy day today, so this short post will just congratulate President Obama on his inauguration yesterday. I managed to catch some of it on a TV in the department, huddled round the small set with a bunch of others. Very nice, and of course we were happy to see science get a mention:

“We will restore science to its rightful place, and wield technology’s wonders to raise health care’s quality and lower its cost. We will harness the sun and the winds and the soil to fuel our cars and run our factories. And we will transform our schools and colleges and universities to meet the demands of a new age. All this we can do. All this we will do.”

I also found this rather nice image of the event, which was taken from Google’s satellite. It’s a bit slow to load, but worth it just to see the extent of crowd. Go Obama!

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Comments Off Posted on Saturday 3 January 2009 at 7:31 pm by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Evolution, Musings

I’ve just read a piece by Richard Dawkins about the possibility of a “hybridisation between a human and a chimpanzee”, and how such a creation could effect our world. It was originally published on as part of their What will change everything? series. I saw it on the Guardian, where you’ll also find some other comments. Here are mine:

Dawkins makes the very true point that, currently at least, the division between humans and animals is an absolute. He uses the example of pro-lifers, who in actuality are pro-human-life – after all, “Abortion clinic bombers are not known for their veganism”. In some way, humans are seen as completely separate from other animals, perhaps simply because we are the ones making the distinction.

This idea, however, runs completely counter to evolutionary theory. Go back far enough in the evolutionary chain, and you will find a female who was mother to two offspring. One would eventually lead to humans like you and me, and the other to modern day chimps.

Dawkins thinks that a “practical demonstration” would change everything, and presents four possible scenarios that would challenge the status quo:

  1. The discovery of a long lost tribe of Homo erectus. Unlikely, given our extensive knowledge of the world.
  2. Successful hybridisation between a human and a chimpanzee, described by “a distinguished biologist” as “the most immoral scientific experiment he could imagine”.
  3. A chimera, creating in a lab and consisting of an equal number of human and chimp cells. Chimeras, named for the mythical creature, are made by physically mixing the cells of two different species. Human/mouse chimeras are already being created as part of normal genetics research, but are destroyed long before they develop beyond a bundle of cells
  4. We know the full human and chimpanzee genomes. It wouldn’t be too difficult to look at the two and create a sort of “average” genome, though using this genome to create a living organism would be much more difficult. Dawkins believes it will be possible during the lifetimes of those alive today.

Dawkins doesn’t make it clear either way if he would support any of these endeavours, merely stating that it “would require further thought”. For myself, although I find the concept of such a hybrid to be inescapably interesting, I hope never to see such a being created.

The reason is simple: the feelings of the poor creature itself, if it were capable of human emotion. A hybrid would either spend its entire life in secret captivity, doomed to a lab-bound existence, or else if exposed to the world it would be subject to an endless media frenzy and calls for its destruction. Either would sheer misery.

Science can give us wonderful solutions to seemingly impossible questions about the world, but there are some questions that should not be answered. I feel that this is one of them.

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Comments Off Posted on Tuesday 23 December 2008 at 12:44 pm by Jacob Aron
In Musings

For today’s post you’ll have to head over to Alom Shaha’s “Why is science important?” blog. Alom kindly asked me to contribute, along with many other scientists and science communicators. Apologies for the utter pretentiousness of my photo – I didn’t realise Alom was going to ask me for one, so I took a bunch of self portraits and it was either that or a horrible gurn!

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Comments Off Posted on Tuesday 16 December 2008 at 12:02 pm by Jacob Aron
In Musings

I was wondering when the first “science-of-Santa” story would appear this year, and the only one I’ve spotted so far is this university press release. It’s the usual fare: a mix of special relativity and nanotechnology with a bit of genetic engineering.

...because he's coming soon.
...because he's coming soon.

Larry Silverberg, a professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering at North Carolina State University, told the news agency that Father Christmas “exploits the space-time continuum,” in order to visit millions of homes in just one night.

In a new twist, it turns out that FC doesn’t actually carry any presents on his sleigh – rather, he uses nanotechnology to reorganise the molecules of snow and soot in order to construct gifts for girls and boys. Neat trick.

Finally, his reindeer are “genetically bred” in order to fly (without wings, mind – are they perhaps gas powered?), stand on rooftops, and see in the dark. Presumably a genetic marker similar to the Nobel winning green fluorescent protein is also used to make their noses glow red.

“This is our vision of Santa’s delivery method, given the human, physical and engineering constraints we face today,” Silverberg says.

“Children shouldn’t put too much credence in the opinions of those who say it’s not possible to deliver presents all over the world in one night. It is possible, and it’s based on plausible science.”

I’m not sure how I feel about these types of stories. Yes, its silly Christmas-themed fun, but should Father Christmas really be explained in terms of science? You never see press releases about the gene-splicing involved to allow the Easter Bunny to lay chocolate eggs – pre-wrapped in foil, no less. Yet, the “science-of-Santa” makes an annual appearance in the media.

It’s the quote at the end that I find particularly troubling. It might be “plausible science”, but it’s not really “science”. Stories such as these dilute the public impression of what science really is, as much as those bloody formula stories I was ranting on last week. Perhaps, however, I should just bite down on my Humbug and enjoy the festivities.

Oh, and I’m not in any way saying Father Christmas doesn’t exist. He does. And he’s watching.

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Comments Off Posted on Friday 5 December 2008 at 5:15 pm by Jacob Aron
In Getting It Wrong, Musings

It seems that CNN has decided to completely axe their science, space, environment and technology unit – for editorial, not economic reasons, apparently. CNN argue that it’s no longer needed:

“Now that the bulk of our environmental coverage is offered through the Planet in Peril franchise, which is part of the AC360 program, there is no need for a separate unit,” said CNN spokesperson Christa Robinson.

Environmental issues being the only news covered by a science, space, environment and technology unit, hmm…

CNN are really dropping the ball here. Yes, science is increasingly entering into other parts of the news: politics, business, and so on. It’s important to see these aspects covered as part of the main story, but for dedicated science stories you really need a dedicated science unit. Now of course, I would say that, but would you axe the sports unit and let general journalists comment on football scores? Of course not.

I don’t watch CNN, and I very rarely visit their website, but now I probably never will again. What’s the point? They clearly don’t care about covering the news accurately and in detail, so I’ll be steering clear in the future. As Tim said on the Sci Comm Facebook group: “In case you were thinking of working at CNN……don’t bother”!

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Comments Off Posted on Tuesday 2 December 2008 at 8:52 pm by Jacob Aron
In Musings

What do you think we spend on science? Not just in the UK, but the whole world. People often complain about scientific expenditure, especially on grand projects such as the Large Hadron Collider and the International Space Station, asking whether the money could be better spent elsewhere.

It turns out that science actually costs very little, especially when you consider how much it contributes to our everyday lives. According to an article in Seed magazine, the world’s nations spend only an average 2.3% of their GDP on scientific research.

The exact figure is $994,424,038,000, or roughly one trillion dollars (no Dr. Evil jokes, please) per year worldwide. Unsurprisingly, the US contributes the most with $343,747,500,000, whilst the country that spends the largest percentage of GDP is Sweden – and even that is only 3.82%.

Now, one trillion dollars might sound like a lot to you and me, but let’s but that into perspective. To date, the Iraq War has cost the US around $576,262,000,000. We’re about 5 years in now, so it seems that America spends the equivalent of a third of its yearly science budget on just one conflict. And of course, who can forget the recent $700,000,000,000 bailout paid to US bankers – that’s nearly three-quarters of year’s worth of worldwide science!

If we calculate the cost per head, it works out around $150 a year for every person on the planet. Obviously this is quite a large sum for many people in the world, and I don’t mean to imply that this money is being taken from those less fortunate – clearly the economic cost is shared mostly by the more affluent nations. Using the figure as an illustration however, $150 a year is about 41 cents a day.

I’d say that is an absolute bargain price for everything science provides for us. So, the next time someone complains about expensive science, remind them that they’re actually getting quite a good deal!

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1 Comment » Posted on Thursday 20 November 2008 at 7:22 pm by Jacob Aron
In Getting It Wrong, Musings, Science Policy

So, I had been planning to write about Paul Drayson, the new UK science minister, and his recent comments about having a “sixth sense”, but it appears that my course mate Tim has beaten me to the punch in saying most of what I was going to. I guess I could use a sixth sense of my own…

Nevertheless, I still have a few comments to make about the propogation of Drayson’s comments through the media. If you haven’t seen the story, here’s the Daily Mail’s offering: “Science Minister has sixth sense“.

What did he actually say? Well, the quote arose from an interview in the Sunday Times, under the headline “Paul Drayson: He’s Buzz Lightyear of the cabinet“. Its a long interview, that ranges on topics from his policies to his private life.

Near, the end, talk turns to his personal belief in God, which leads on to a discussion about intuition. Drayson relays his thoughts on a book on the subject – Blink by Malcom Gladwell – and says “This struck a chord with me because in my life there have been some things that I’ve known and I don’t know why.”

Now, here’s the important bit. It is the interviewer Isabel Oakeshott that uses the phrase “sixth sense”, and she does so “half in jest”. Drayson replies: “Yes, like a sixth sense,” and that he believes “there’s a lot we don’t understand about human capability.”

Arguably, Drayson should choose his words more carefully. If he had spoken directly of “intuition” for example, rather than picking up on Oakeshott’s “sixth sense” phrase, the story probably would never have arisen. If you’re the government’s representative on science, referring to supernatural idea is going to be too hard for your typical journo to resist, and that was the case here. On the same day, the section of the interview was spun out into another article by Oakeshott: “I saw it coming, says minister of sixth sense Lord Drayson“, which is where all these other stories presumably arise from.

These stories include the Telegraph’s “‘I have a sixth sense’ claims science minister Lord Drayson“. The quote in the headline is, of course, incorrect.

Now it has to be said, I don’t think science or scientists are being directly harmed by this reporting. It’s Drayson (and by extension the Labour government) who are made to appear foolish, but on the other hand foreign scientists who read the story might be left with a bad impression of the UK. After all, if we’ve got a guy who can predict the future as UK science minister, what must UK scientists be like? Hopefully Drayson will learn from the incident, and think a bit more about just who he represents!

Comments Off Posted on Saturday 15 November 2008 at 12:55 pm by Jacob Aron
In Musings

You may have seen a story last week about a link between rainfall and cases of autism – but not on Just A Theory. I had considered writing a full post on the story, before shunting it to the Weekly Roundup and then eventually dropping it all together. The link seemed so unlikely to me that I wanted to do a decent amount of background reading before posting anything, and unfortunately I didn’t have the time last week.

I’ve still not got around to it (between the course, blog research, and recreational, there is only so much reading I can do in a day!) but a course-mate did point me towards a comment piece in New Scientist.

The author, Ewen Callaway, analyses some of the media responses. Many outlets were eager to play up the idea that rain could increase autism rates, despite the Cornell University scientists’ paper (which, as I said above, I haven’t read) being extremely cautious in their analysis. Callaway argues that the mainstream media should never have reported the story:

It offers nothing useful for the general public, parents, and even physicians. And press reports, blogs and other accounts of the study could even mislead the public.

Adding later:

I can see worried parents hearing about the rain association, second- or third-hand, and keeping their kids in on showery days, or forcing them to play in the rain, or whatever “news you can use” suggestion gets tagged on to these stories.

Autism in the press remains a hot issue amongst scientists, after the handling of the MMR vaccine issue. On my course we recently discussed whether newspapers were right in running the initial story on Andrew Wakefield’s announcement that the vaccine was unsafe. Despite knowing with hindsight the saga that followed, the majority agreed that the story should be run.

Here, the issue is different. I would contest Callaway’s point that the story offers “nothing” to the public; it can be used as an interesting example of the uncertainty of statistical studies – but that hardly makes for an interesting news story.

Unlike MMR, in which a (back then, at least) respected scientist stood up and said that the vaccine should not be used, there isn’t really any news here. The media had to report on Wakefield’s announcement, even if the actual science was tenuous. Contrastingly, no one is calling for parents to keep their children indoors and out of the rain. Without this type of controversy, all that is left is a possible statistical anomaly – not news.

It seems that some outlets agreed with Callaway and myself – I cannot find any mention of the story in The Guardian, for example. Hopefully others will be less keen to jump on autism “stories” in the future

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Comments Off Posted on Tuesday 11 November 2008 at 12:16 pm by Jacob Aron
In Education, Musings

The credit crunch. Will it ever end? Everything costs more, we’re lending banks money so that they can lend it back to us, and I’m even beginning to tire of breakfast cereal jokes and Robert Peston impressions. Still, it appears that the dreaded crunch could be good news for science according to the news agency AFP.

Back in the heady days of the pre-crunch era, science graduates were often taken in by the high life and high pay a City job could offer. I certainly remember as an undergraduate the likes of Deloitte and KPMG throwing money all over the university campus in an effort to recruit.

Now that times are tougher, and firms are more likely to be firing than hiring, a number of people are leading the call for science over salary.

“The glamour of the Wall Street jobs is gone, and that leaves more room for science and technology,” said Georges Haour, a professor of technology and innovation management at the IMD business school in Lausanne, Switzerland.

“Although the salaries are not the same, the salaries (in finance) are zero because people are being fired,” he told AFP.

Haour has also noted that universities around the world are seeing an increase in the number of applications to study science. Institutions such as the University of Tokyo have seen a “big surge” in both engineering and science.

Elspeth Farrar, head of the careers service at my own Imperial College, also weighed in:

“Engineering companies who, in the past, have struggled to recruit the numbers they really want, this year might be a good year for them,” she said.

“Inevitably there are going to be fewer jobs directly in the finance and banking sector, so I think automatically that will mean more science and engineering students will be thinking about continuing in their sectors.”

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Comments Off Posted on Friday 7 November 2008 at 5:28 pm by Jacob Aron
In Getting It Wrong, Musings

I’m starting to worry about the Royal Society of Chemistry. Lately they’ve been acting a bit like an embarrassing school teacher – the kind who tries to be “down wid da kids”. Innit. Urgh.

Sorry. First of all, it was their competition a couple of months ago to suggest a new name for the Large Hadron Collider. They offered £500 to anyone who could come up with a better name than the current “contrived acronym”. The winner was “Halo” – in my opinion a far worse name than LHC, but there we go.

The point is, what was the RSC even doing running such a competition? Their own press release mentions that “Some reports say that the RSC is suffering from “professional jealousy”". I don’t think it’s that, but I’m stumped as to why the Royal Society of CHEMISTRY are getting involved with a particle physics experiment.

You might say that they were just jumping on the LHC bandwagon, hoping to ride the massive wave of publicity. It’s possible, but then how do you explain this latest development? The RSC are now “inviting the public to devise a successful ending to the greatest-ever cinema cliff-hanger to mark the 40th birthday next year of The Italian Job made in 1969.”

Sorry, what? The Italian Job? Sure, great film, no disagreement there. Fantastic ending, you’ll get no argument from me. But, and I say it again, why the Royal Society of C-H-E-M-I-S-T-R-Y? It turns out that 100 years before the film was the creation of the Periodic Table by Dmitri Mendeleyev.

Now, get ready for this.

There’s gold in The Italian Job. There’s also gold in the Periodic Table.

That’s it! That’s the link they’re going for! Bravo, RSC, on one of the most tenuous excuses I have ever seen. They’re trying to “draw attention to gold”, and by association, the Periodic Table. It must also be pointed out that the RSC “does not condone the fictional bullion heist and regards the competition only as a scientific and logical challenge.” (I like that they don’t condone fictional heists, presumably leaving the door open for real life ones.)

If you want to enter the competition (and aid the RSC in its descent to madness) the details are all in the link above. The prize is a three-night stay for two in Turin. Not a chemistry set in sight…

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Comments Off Posted on Wednesday 5 November 2008 at 2:49 pm by Jacob Aron
In Musings

Well yesterday I said I didn’t want this blog to get too political, but after staying up until 5:30am to watch America elect Barack Obama, I can’t help but comment. You may remember the Science Debate 2008 project, in which both Obama and McCain gave some promising answers about the future of science in America. Watching the President-Elect’s speech last night, I couldn’t help but be excited, particularly about this part in which he spoke of a 106-year-old woman and America’s past:

A man touched down on the moon, a wall came down in Berlin, a world was connected by our own science and imagination. And this year, in this election, she touched her finger to a screen, and cast her vote, because after 106 years in America, through the best of times and the darkest of hours, she knows how America can change. Yes we can.

Science and imagination. America is rich in both; let’s see it put to good use after 8 years of squandering. Go Obama!

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Comments Off Posted on Wednesday 29 October 2008 at 11:12 am by Jacob Aron
In Climate Change & Environment, Musings

And no, I don’t mean the falling sales of organic food in times of economic hardship.

In the past I’ve talked about the comparisons between the reporting of business and science, and discussed the economic effect of biodiversity loss. It seems that environmental campaigners are increasingly grasping hold of banking metaphors in order to engage with the public.

Today the WWF, in conjunction with the Zoological Society of London and the Global Footprint Network, published their Living Planet Report 2008 under the banner of an “ecological credit crunch”. The phrase, now so engrained in the public mind, instantly conveys a message: we’re in trouble.

The demand the human race now places on global resources exceeds the planet’s “natural capital” by about 30%. If this rate of growth continues, we will need the equivalent of two Earths to sustain our lifestyles. In other words, more than three quarters of the global population are now “ecological debtors” – we’ve borrowed from the Bank of Nature and can’t afford the repayments.

“Continued ecological deficit spending will have severe economic consequences,” said the Global Footprint Network Executive Director, Dr Mathis Wackernagel. “Resource limitations and ecosystem collapses would trigger massive stagflation with the value of investments plummeting, while food and energy costs skyrocket.”

America and the United Arab Emirates are the biggest borrowers, with the largest ecological footprint. The UK comes in at 15th, but still uses the same amount of natural resources as 33 African countries put together. That’s 33, folks.

Something needs to change. Capitalism is based on the concept of eternal growth; if we’re not moving forward, we’re moving backwards. As these figures show however, we’ve already grown too much. You can’t reach for infinity by using finite resources – yet we’ve blindly ignored this fact since the days of Adam Smith.

“We are acting ecologically in the same way as financial institutions have been behaving economically – seeking immediate gratification without due regard for the consequences,” said Zoological Society of London co-editor Jonathan Loh. “The consequences of a global ecological crisis are even graver than the current economic meltdown.”

The banks are semi-privatised. Climate change denial is no longer seen as valid point of view. In less than one week from now, the most powerful nation in the world will elect a new leader. We have the opportunity to changed the way we work, to move away from the days of eternal growth and in to a more sustainable model.

It won’t be easy, but it must be done. I have no idea how though. Capitalism, like its partner democracy, prevails because it is the least worst system compared to the rest of them. How can we move away from that? Ultimately, the answer must be an energy-based economy. I’ll trade you five hydrogen-bucks for a cup of ethically and sustainably produced coffee, buying a product for the actual cost of the energy used to make it. Can it be done? The WWF believes so.

David Norman, director of campaigns at WWF said: “We humans have been very good at creating problems – but we can be equally good at solving them. A sustainable world is not an unachievable goal. As the world looks to restore its economies we must build in long term environmental as well as economic sustainability.”

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Comments Off Posted on Tuesday 30 September 2008 at 4:10 pm by Jacob Aron
In Musings

Like many others I have been following the financial turmoil following the failure of the $700bn Wall Street bailout with a mix of horror over the sums involved, uncertainty about the future, and schadenfreude towards the “fat cats”.

It’s also got me thinking about the similarities between business reporting and science communication. I’d like to think I know a thing or two about science, but when it comes to the financial section my eyes are as likely to glaze over as the next person. This means that whilst I can tell you a great deal about mathematical derivatives, I’m pretty much in the dark about their financial namesake.

This lack of knowledge allows me to place myself in the shoes of those who believed stories about the Large Hadron Collider destroying the Earth. It is easy for me to see the current crisis as a group of mad scientists (bankers) who spent vast sums of money on an experiment (sub-prime mortgages) that even they didn’t really understand, and now that it has all gone wrong we are being sucked into a (financial) black hole. These mysterious bankers use jargon such as “leveraging” and “securitisation” that I don’t understand, so I turn to the media for explanation – and I find it lacking.

Where can $700bn be conjured from in a matter of weeks? Why aren’t the people who caused all this trouble being fined or thrown in jail? Why weren’t they stopped in the first place? These question aren’t being dealt with by the media, or if they are the answers aren’t easily accessible to the layperson such as myself.

How should I apply these thoughts to science communication, and my writing on Just a Theory? I think keeping in mind my misunderstanding and frustration towards business news can help me avoid those same feelings in readers wishing to learn more about science.

For example, it’s easy to make the mistake of assuming too much background knowledge on the part of a reader, and whilst it would be impossible (and frankly, boring) to explain every single detail from first principles, it’s important to consider the entry point for a typical member of the public.

This is especially true when dealing with high profile stories such as the LHC, where even people who might not normally read science stories become hungry for information. Normally I don’t really care if the FTSE or whatever is down a few points (because I don’t really know what that means), but if the government buy Northern Rock then I want to know about it, and I want to quickly be brought up to speed. The same goes for the general public, who hear that the world could be ending next Wednesday and want to know why.

Another thing to think about: the experts aren’t always right. For years the bankers have tinkered with their models and acted on their findings – often resulting in huge financial gains. Now, as it all comes crashing down, it turns out the models were wrong. The public want to know why these “experts” were so off the mark, but the truth is that to the best of their knowledge, the models worked.

The same goes with science. In the past I have called evolution a “fact” – but really, it isn’t. It’s our best model of how living creatures came to be, and if one day science comes up with a better model, evolution will be replaced by a new “fact”. I see this as a matter of semantics, because I will happily accept any alternative theory that falsifies evolution with its improved scientific reasoning – and no, intelligent design, that does not mean you. Until that happens, I’m happy to call evolution a fact.

This idea that “the model could be wrong” isn’t always well communicated to the public, many of whom see science as attempting to hand down absolute truths from on high. When scientists change their mind, or disagree with one another, people often draw the conclusion that science is worthless and lose confidence in the word of scientists – in the same way that the bankers’ broken models have lead to a loss of confidence on the stock market.

Apologies if you find this post a bit rambling compared to my usual style – hence the new category, “Musings” – but I’ve had these thoughts swimming around in my head for a while. They’re still not quite all joined up yet, but I think bashing them out on the keyboard has helped a bit. Don’t worry though, tomorrow will see a return to your regularly scheduled science blogging!

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