Science in writing: discovery vs. debate

November 4, 2012

Phases of the moon – by Galileo, who enjoyed a lively debate.

I love words. I also love science. So anything that sits in the overlap of my nerdy Venn diagram makes me rather excited – just as well I get to write about science for my job! But although I spend a lot of time thinking about how to express a particular concept, or explain something in a new and creative way, I don’t often get the chance to step back and get a bit meta.

So when I found this article by Daniel M. Wegner on Twitter (thanks @ivanoransky) I had a little nerdgasm – writing about science writing, fun! It’s all about the language of science, and it’s a really interesting take on what science communication is all about. The author sets up two conflicting ways of communicating science – the language of discovery vs. the language of debate. Read the rest of this entry »


Why do people believe crazy stuff?

October 13, 2012
Black cat

A black cat – lucky, unlucky, or just a cat?

We all like to think of ourselves as rational beings. Trouble is, this immediately sets up a paradox. If we are rational, we should be swayed by convincing evidence. And convincing evidence shows that human beings are very often not rational at all – we play the lottery, we are superstitious, and we ‘go with our gut’.

That’s why the beautiful concept of ‘rational thought’ will nearly always be a goal we can only strive to achieve. I have to remind myself of this every time I think ‘why would anyone sensible believe in homeopathy/conspiracy theories/creationism/hell/delete as appropriate’. It’s easy to tell yourself that these people must be stupid and irrational. But that’s not what the evidence really shows. Read the rest of this entry »

Time to shout about animal research?

October 2, 2012
Lab rat

Lab rat (credit: Understanding Animal Research)

Last week, the University of Leicester announced the opening of its new Central Research Facility. If you think this sounds like one of those rather boring press occasions with a ribbon to cut, then you’d be half right. But look closer – a surprise is lurking in the second paragraph of the press release. The Central Research Facility is actually a new building for animal research.

And amazingly, the University press office are shouting about it – good on them! Paragraph three gets straight to the point: ‘Medical research done at the University of Leicester involving animals has a direct relationship with the treatment of patients in hospitals locally and beyond.’ Yes, that’s right. Animal research saves lives. It shouldn’t be a newsflash, but for too many people this still isn’t common knowledge. And without more bold steps like this publicity, this fact will carry on being ignored. Read the rest of this entry »

What’s in a name?

September 8, 2012
Pale tussock moth caterpillar

Hello there!

I met a new friend in the park today. He’s a fellow vegetarian, even shorter than me, with spiky hair and stumpy legs. Unfortunately I think I scared him – he took one look at me and froze. I had to leave him under the tree where I found him.

As you might have guessed from the picture, my small hairy friend is a caterpillar. I was delighted to see him (not only because I was looking for something to distract me from some work I was meant to be doing). I LOVE caterpillars – they’re small, colourful, comical and really cute. But after a squeal of ‘awww!’ my second response was, ‘what’s your name?’ Read the rest of this entry »

Animal consciousness – no evidence of absence?

August 24, 2012

What is it like to be a bat?

Animal behaviour is a strange area of science. Although research into genetics and evolution has shown that we are just another species of mammal, there’s still reluctance to give other animals the benefit of the doubt when it comes to things like consciousness. Of course, consciousness is incredibly hard to study (especially because it’s pretty much impossible to define) – but it’s always seemed logical to me to assume that animals similar to humans are likely to have similar types of consciousness.

Scientists aren’t in the business of relying on assumptions. But in the past many have seemed willing to assume that animals are guilty of unconsciousness until proven otherwise. Why that way round, and not vice versa? Why struggle for tortuous explanations of how some animals can make tools to solve complex problems, without being conscious of what they’re doing?

So I was excited to see that a group of neuroscientists have declared their belief that consciousness is unlikely to be unique to humans, at the first Francis Crick Memorial Conference. As the website explains (rather poetically) ‘Until animals have their own storytellers, humans will always have the most glorious part of the story, and with this proverbial concept in mind, the symposium will address the notion that humans do not alone possess the neurological faculties that constitute consciousness as it is presently understood.’ Read the rest of this entry »

Should ‘boffins’ be banned?

July 10, 2012

Is ‘boffin‘ a bad word? That depends on whether you’re a scientist or not. The average researcher would probably cringe if this word was used to describe them. It evokes a rather faded image of a 1950s professor, closeted in his (NOT her) ivory tower, out of touch with the great unwashed.

So I was pleasantly surprised to see that ‘boffin’ is on the Telegraph’s list of banned words, deemed too cliched, offensive or just grammatically unpleasant to be seen in the paper. But never fear. Boffins are alive and well in the pages of The Sun, doing useful thinks like creating e-fit images of Christian Grey, fictional star of Fifty Shades of Grey. Read the rest of this entry »

Science doesn’t need lipstick

June 22, 2012

Lipstick: not necessary for science (image by Riley)

Twitter nerds were finding it hard to control their outrage today over a bizarre video produced by the EU Commission for a campaign that’s aiming to encourage girls to study science. The video for ‘Science: it’s a girl thing’ (eww) has now been removed from YouTube and the campaign’s Facebook page and main website, after the amazingly negative response – but you can still see it here.

Obviously I’m not part of this campaign’s target audience (I can’t wear shoes that high, for starters). But would girls in school actually ever find this type of video encouraging? I really hope whoever put this together has done their homework and knows their audience – but to me it looks like something out of a timewarp, conceived by people who are out of touch with women, girls, science and scientists. Read the rest of this entry »

Voyager 1: boldly going where nothing has gone before

June 17, 2012
Voyager Golden Record

The Voyager ‘Golden Record’

This Friday, NASA reported that they believe the Voyager 1 space probe has reached the edge of our solar system. I’m really not sure why I only just discovered this (thanks Facebook nerds) – surely the fact that a man-made object has for the first time gone beyond the boundaries of our solar system should be big news?? As a friend of mine put it – ‘does this make us an interstellar species?’ I think it does… Wow.

It’s big news to me. The Voyager 1 and 2 probes were launched in 1977 – meaning they’ve been travelling for about the same length of time that my parents have been married (awww). In that time, Voyager 1 has reached a distance of 18 billion kilometres from the Sun, with its twin Voyager 2 (relatively) close behind at 15 billion kilometres. You can watch those kilometres flick by at about 17 per second on the Voyager mission’s official site.

The sensors on Voyager 1 have been showing a marked increase in charged particles thought to come from beyond the solar system – a sign that the probe has reached the edge of our little corner of the universe. As NASA rather beautifully put it, ‘Voyager scientists looking at this rapid rise draw closer to an inevitable but historic conclusion – that humanity’s first emissary to interstellar space is on the edge of our solar system,’ – weighty words for a genuinely awe-inspiring occasion (take that, Queen’s Jubilee). Read the rest of this entry »

I am not a number – I’m a statistic

May 29, 2012
Number nine

Today’s post is brought to you by the number 9 (it’s my favourite)

It’s very annoying being treated impersonally, as ‘call number 18 in a queue’, or as a poorly defined Amazon customer (no I don’t want more baby toys, I only bought one for my friend). But we all exist as impersonal datapoints on many, many spreadsheets all over the place.

I’ve ranted with my friends about the strange decisions taken by insurance companies: why is insuring my car against fire and theft MORE expensive than comprehensive cover?? How is Catford classified as a flood plain?

But gradually I achieved (for me) a zen-like level of calm – I remembered that really I’m just a statistic. In this particular case, a woman in her twenties with a very old Ford Fiesta. And my friend is simply a Catford resident whose neighbours have made several claims for flooding (probably burst pipes, rather than Biblical inundations of south London). We’re all statistics. Read the rest of this entry »

Imagine what you’ll know tomorrow

May 21, 2012
UFO galaxy - image from Hubble Space Telescope

The UFO galaxy (NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope)

I’m soooo looking forward to seeing Prometheus, the new Alien (it’s definitely not a) prequel. I’m expecting a beautiful, scary, portentous film about the idea of human life being seeded by an alien race – I can’t wait!

But I stumbled across Men in Black on TV this weekend and I realised that some of my favourite science fiction moments come from a rather silly comedy featuring giant cockroaches and Will Smith.

Take this beautiful exchange between James Edwards (Will Smith) and Kay (Tommy Lee Jones), as Kay explains how the Men in Black exist to police the many unnoticed aliens who make Earth their home.

Edwards: Why the big secret? People are smart. They can handle it.
Kay: A person is smart. People are dumb, panicky dangerous animals and you know it. Fifteen hundred years ago, everybody knew the Earth was the center of the universe. Five hundred years ago, everybody knew the Earth was flat, and fifteen minutes ago, you knew that humans were alone on this planet. Imagine what you’ll know tomorrow.

I can’t convey the way Tommy Lee Jones delivers this onscreen, with his world-weary, cynical and yet wondering tone (watch it here). But what a great quote! “Imagine what you’ll know tomorrow” should be the tagline for the whole of science. Read the rest of this entry »