Monthly Archives: May 2012

Midnight visitor

Last night, while I was having a good old sleep, no doubt dreaming of some fascinating science I’d read about (‘cus that’s all I should be dreaming about now, right?), I dreamily began to suspect that someone was in my room.

There was. A Burglar.

Except mine didn’t get to take anything….

Though that’s not what I thought of initially. At first, I thought maybe it was a housemate, somehow taking a wrong turn as they’d come down the stairs.

Slowly, through the warm fuzzy blanket of sleep I began to realise I was actually awake and not dreaming this.

My brain did it’s quick preflight check:

  • Number of arms: 2 – “check”
  • Number of legs: 2 – “check”
  • Head – present, booting up – “check”
  • Existential dread: 11 – hmm, lower than normal, but, “Check”
  • Expected number of people in room:1
  • Sense of disappointment at expected number of people in room: “Check”
  • Actual number of people in room: 2

And so, I sat bolt upright. I probably said something like: “Wha’ya Ergler cnut!”

What I actually said is lost in the mists of time now, and was probably less coherent anyway.

What I saw was the sodium lamp lit silhouette of a fairly slender man jumping off my windowsill and on to the drive. Where he proceeded to “cheese it” down the road. Continue reading

When you’re a scientist, sometimes, you’re all scientists…

My housemate had a friend over last night. He was a physicist from Oxford uni.

Being of a sophisticated nature I asked what type “think-y or experiment-y?”

This got me thinking. When you’re talking to someone who doesn’t know what you do, and you say you’re a scientist, sometimes, you’re all scientists. At least to some people. And it’s worth keeping this in mind.

At least when you’re speaking to someone who isn’t familiar with science, or the different sciences. It’s not a bad thing, but you have to be careful not to mislead. If you’re really going to “be a scientist” then you need to let people know when you don’t know something, or how certain you are about something.

Specifically I’m a biochemist, but, for example my family and sometimes my friends, would ask me about black holes, lagrangian points, string theory, how deep is the ocean or, memorably from my 6 year old niece, “how much does the world weigh, and how do you find out?”.

The ability to simultaneously demonstrate wonder at something whilst making you realise how little you actually know is a unique gift possessed by young children that you seem to shed as you get older.

(I presume it’s related to their ability to immediately identify weak points and innocently ask devastating questions of people. Ones that make their parents eyes shoot open in sudden horror: “Why do your eyes look in different directions? How did you get that massive spot? Why is your face wonky?”*)

I digress.

Fortunately, I’m a massive science nerd, and can give a reasonable answer to most things people ask me, and, importantly, how sure I am about it, and encourage them to find out for themselves. The nerdism  helps me point them in the direction of where they could probably find out; someone on twitter, or a good blog etc.

One of my favorite scientists, Richard Feynman, once said:

“I have approximate answers and possible beliefs in different degrees of certainty about different things, but I’m not absolutely sure of anything, and of many things I don’t know anything about, but I don’t have to know an answer. I don’t feel frightened by not knowing things, by being lost in the mysterious universe without having any purpose which is the way it really is as far as I can tell.”

And I think this is the important thing to keep in mind, not just when you’re talking to someone about some kind of science, but especially when you’re writing about science. If you can communicate what was found, what it means, how it was found, how certain you are about this – without over doing it – , and the unknowns and let people enjoy realising they didn’t know something, finding something new out, you’re doing well.

Science writing shouldn’t be just “Hey! Check out this awesome new fact/thing we found out!”. That’s something different. Science is a process, and so, I think, you should always be careful to try to convey that too in science writing. Which is good, because it lends itself to a narrative.

Putting this narrative together is something some of my favourite science writers (Ed Yong and Carl Zimmer, among others) seem to do with ease. Thye are great story tellers.

Things change. Especially at the frontiers of science. Theories get updated, some stuff is just wrong, but was our best guess at the time. So if you put your words down too definitively you could end up looking foolish. But if you do it right, you can write a follow up piece, an update, and move the story along with your readers.


Oh, and my house-mates friend was a “think-y” physicist by the way. String theory.

*I should add, none of these questions apply to me…

Coffee shops, science and interviews

It’s odd.

Not quite real yet.

I feel like it’s the weekend, not like some “new era” in my life.

Yesterday, after waking up wondering what day it is and setting this blog up, I decided I’d go and join the ranks of people who hang about in Starbucks with their laptops out doing important stuff.

It seemed like a reasonable idea at the time.

I discovered 5 things:

  1. In Oxford it’s wall to wall students. They are pretending to work. Really it’s the 21st centuries equivalent of hiding a comic in a text book. You give off an air of busyness, but really they’re all just procrasti-facebooking
  2. Coffee goes colder quicker than you’d think when you’re trying to work. I hate cold coffee
  3. I feel guilty if I don’t get a new coffee within 10 min of finishing the last. This may be my own unique brand of stupidity, or just one of the many socially crippling effects of being English. I’m not sure.
  4. Constantly buying coffee at £2.50 is a good way to bankrupt yourself
  5. Despite the cost and people, you can actually get some work done

Straight after this I went to the Oxford SciBar, a monthly event I help organise where we get a scientist (or similar) in to do a 30min chat for the general public about whatever interesting science they’re up to at the moment, at the pub. It’s great, we get people ranging from window cleaners and graphic designers to retirees and they all get a chance to ask questions in an informal atmosphere. Chatting to them afterwards is always fun too, to get thier perspective and questions.

This month it was a guy calle Jan De Neve from University College London, an economist and behavioural scientist. The topic? Happiness: Causes and consequences. It was great, and packed out the pub.

I also had to interview Jan afterwards. And at short notice introduce him to crowd, which I wasn’t exactly prepared for, and as usual, was shaking afterwards. Most odd and unpleasant. Was more nervous than when I’ve stood up to speak in front of whole conferences, or in “important meetings” with clients or senior staff at work.

It was far better when I did the “thankyou’s” stuff at the end when I’d had more time to prepare and think about it.

As for the interview, well, I was also a little anxious about doing this, as I want to ask sensible intelligent questions and not sound like a douche, but, well judge for yourself, here it is (~8 min long):

Once again, I was talking too fast, occasionally going”eeeerm”, “hmm”, “mmm” and “hahaha”, which is all fine for a chat, but bloody annoying when you’re recording it and want it to sound good. Fortunatly, i get to do some “de-umming” when I edit it, but, well, let me know what you think below. As for me, c’est la vie…

*add to list of things to improve on*

And the whole talk and interview can be found here (for May ~60min):

He also has a very similar TEDx talk here:

He was a really good speaker, and everyone seemed to enjoy it, so check it out yourself.

I think this could also be my first “feature” to write about all the various bits of science of happiness there is, so I’ve started digging a little deeper into it. Would be nice to come up with some practicals tips for people maybe?

I dunno.

What I do know is that the few pints of beer I had left me feeling an bit “wooly” this morning, not hungover, just a bit slow. So maybe I should be avoiding doing that.

It is quite nice though…

One month and one day…

One month and one day…

Exactly one month and one day ago I resigned from my job as a fairly well paid scientist in industry.

I have no other job lined up.

I do however have the, possibly misguided, idea that I’d like to be a “science writer” or communicator in some way.
And so, I counted up all of my pennies and decided I can afford to have a bash at this for a good few months before I’ll have to go begging for my old job back… but I’m fairly confident I wont do that…fairly…
Is it a stupid idea? Well, quite possibly. Buggered if I know right now. I’ll get back to you on that.
This blog is not where all this wonderful science writing and stuff will be. I will link to it when there is some up, but this is more a place to document my ideas, worries, fears and generally sound like a moaning pre-pubescent Twilight reading teenager. (I’m 32  btw)My current plans are:

  • Build and set up a website that’s part online CV, part blog, part showcase for anything interesting I might actually do
  • Start this blog to document my misadventures in science writing/communication (and vent/rant a bit too I assume)
  • Write one news article/week and one feature type article/2 weeks
  • Accompany these with my own spoken voice, a “science writing for the blind / busy person” type idea… my accent may not help (yay, Norfolk…)
  • Work on my contacts in the various nearby universities and start interviewing them about what they’re doing
  • Maybe try and write something science for the local rag
  • Try and find a “voice” for my writing
  • Write, write and write (i.e. try like hell to get better…)

I’m filled with an odd sense of both anxiety and relief…