Tag Archives: science

Communication Woes: Every young couple in love… on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.

The other day a friend asked me what my favourite picture was.

I had to think for a few minutes. Hmm.

I have beef with some art. Sometimes I just don’t get it.

I once stood in the national portrait gallery looking at something abstract. I was trying to see the merit of it, to see if I could “get it”. I really was trying. But I found myself saying out loud, “Well, this is bollocks”.

I was more surprised when an older aristocratic looking lady standing nearby me, wearing a wide brimmed hat and matching dress, suddenly said “Yes. Yes, I think you’re right.” and walked off.

Aaanyway, that’s not really my point.

What I actually answered with was: The pale blue dot.

Now, if you’re a (big?) popular science fan, you probably already know what the pale blue dot is. But if you don’t “The pale blue dot” is a picture taken by Voyager-1 in 1990, when it was almost 4 billion miles from Earth. That’s it, just there on the right.

See that little bluish-white speck about half way up the brownish stripe?

That’s us. Everyone.

I’m thinking this picture is my test. But before I say more about that, let me quote the late Carl Sagan, who convinced NASA to take the picture. His words describe what this means far better than mine ever would. Continue reading

The Infinite Monkey

Physics professors having comedic breakdowns trying to say a name, anxious producers, engineers of the tiny and general mirth.

That pretty much describes my Monday at the recording of the Infinite Monkey Cage.

Aside from the usual hosts of Brian Cox and Robin Ince (who it was generally agreed wasn’t angry enough… but was still very funny) we were joined by engineer and materials scientist Mark Miodownik, and the engineer Eleanor Stride. The third guest was an excellent bonus, in the form of the screen writer, director and comedian Andy Hamilton.

A moment of anxiety was enjoyed by all when I realised my blasé attitude – having been once before – meant that the queue I didn’t think was forming was indeed forming, but just round the corner …

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: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Po_YJZW7VJs&feature=player_embedded

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…