Tuesday, 7 June 2011

An Echo of the Echo of Creation

A few weeks ago, Andrew Pontzen and I made a little teaser video for his Cheltenham Science Festival show "Echo of Creation" (10am, Saturday 11th June, tickets available here). If you haven't seen the video, here it is:

There's bit of a "behind the video" post on the Times Online site, but if you can't get behind the paywall: the echo of the Big Bang (the Cosmic Microwave Background, or CMB) makes up about 1 percent of static you see on an untuned television. We thought it would be clever to have clips of Andrew talking about the CMB in the style of science documentaries from major milestones in the CMB's history, culminating in a "Wonders of the Universe"-style discussion of the Planck mission and what you could expect from the talk itself. We thought it would be pretty clever to build on the "Tree of Physics" drawing meme and have the clips play on television sets from each era scribbled on an "interactive blackboard". We were so clever we even made the backing music too loud in the final insert.

Well, it turns out that the Universe is even clevererer than us. To cut a long story short, everyone important in physics was busy yesterday and Sky News needed someone to explain why the storage of anti-matter for 16 minutes was so pant-wettingly exciting (which, to be fair, it is). So, after throwing on the only clean, smartish clothes I had to hand after the weekend's stag party-based activities, off I popped to the Clanfield Observatory near Petersfield, home of the Hampshire Astronomical Group, to give the old science hands bit of an airing. The clip appeared on the 5pm and 6pm bulletins, and I took the following picture for posterity.

Of course, it took uploading to Facebook and a single-word comment from the peerless Alice Bell to make me realise that, having made a film featuring Andrew talking about science in a spoof documentary on a fake television set, I now had a photo of me talking about science on a real news programme on a real television set.

Wearing exactly the same clothes.

Well played, Universe. Well played.

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Thursday, 24 March 2011

Please, sir, I want some more SCIENCE!

UK SCIENCE MINISTER David Willetts MP famously once said, "there are three things that get kids into science: space, dinosaurs and musical theatre". How right he was. The mighty Geek Pop have long been tapping into a rich seam of musical science -- Jonny Berliner's "DNA (The Genetics Calypso)" being the stand-out example from their latest release -- but as anyone with a MSci in Science Communication will tell you, nothing can get across the wonder of Nature's rich tapestry quite like a young, bouncy cast who burst into song at the drop of a neutron.

Yet, paradoxically, experts in the field have noted an apparent dearth of high-quality science communication in musical form. An industry insider, who preferred not to be named, told TANS, "It's simply not enough anymore to say 'we're putting on an all-singing, all-dancing science show'. Good science engagement has to literally be all-singing and all-dancing to cut it with today's General Public." Another added (without being asked), "There's so much more to it than the dialogue, darling. You have to have chorus numbers, heart-rending protagonist duets and Glee-esque levels of choreography to break up what we in the business call the 'boring talky bits'."

With this in mind, TANS did what any reasonable blogging entity would do in the face of such a crisis, and created a hashtag on Twitter. Before you could say, "trending in South Kensington" #sciencemusicals had captured the imagination of tens of people across the Twittersphere. Below are a some of the best suggestions; TANS has taken the liberty of fleshing out some of the more obvious plotlines where appropriate. Enjoy!

  • 10) Flame!: A group of vibrant, multi-ethnic, multi-cultural, energetic young people gather to audition to study for Imperial College London's Masters in Science Communication. But little do they realise that it takes far more than "dreams" to succeed in a cut-throat industry littered with the (metaphorical) corpses of former-nineties-popgroup-keyboard-players-turned-academics. Who will "make it"? Who will fall by the wayside? Who will succumb to a high-profile Arnica overdose? Drama, bunsen burners, and leg-warmers guaranteed. Not to be missed.

  • 9) Avenue Q=2x+y: Hand-operated puppets stand around on stage listing their favourite equations, with a few swears thrown in for good measure. It's about as funny as it sounds. Brought to you by the constants π, e and the operator ⊕.

  • 8) The Wizard of Osmosis: A young girl and her dog are whisked away to a magical world ruled by witches who have semi-permeable membranes for skin. Do I have to fill in the blanks for you? No? Good.

  • 7) Singing in the Brain: Basically, this is that episode of Scrubs where the fairly attractive lady patient has a neurological condition that provides the premise for the "it's about time we did the musical episode" episode, but on stage. I liked that episode. Zach Braff has a good voice. What's he even up to these days? I miss him.

  • 6) Chitty Chitty Big Bang: A "madcap" inventor played by the ever-lovable Dick van Dyke successfully creates a small Universe in his garden shed. Rather than using it to answer some of the great questions of cosmology, however, he attaches some wheels and some wings to it, gives it a funny paint-job and embarks on some "zany" storyline involving sweets, castles and children (I couldn't stomach the Wikipedia entry, frankly, and I haven't seen the film. I know!). By the end, though, we all learn about the importance of the scientific method, love, and that the cosmological constant was originally invented by physicists to scare their children into making sure their equations balanced.

  • 5) The Prion King: Look, I don't know enough about biology to do this one justice, but I'm sure there's a Broadway smash about badly-folded proteins just waiting to be written. Needless to say, "Circle of Life" sung by the "Mad Cow Chorus" will be in there somewhere.

  • 4) We Will Shock You: FINALLY, the Edison-Tesla rivalry is brought to life with an all-star cast. Young Nikola Tesla (Oscar-winning Christian Bale in his first Broadway role) takes on the might of Thomas Edison (Oscar-nominated Geoffrey Rush) -- who will win the "War of Currents"? Featuring the world's largest functioning Tesla coil, this ground-breaking production will have the hairs on the back of your neck standing on end. Contains some elements of audience participation.

  • 3) Mamma Glia: This one is actually bit of a cheat; it's still the songs of Abba tenuously threaded together into a show, but the cast sing "Glia!" instead of "Mia!". Interestingly, research has shown that this actually makes it 12.4% better as a musical.

  • 2) Schrödinger's CATS: As well as being a quantum physicist, Erwin Schrödinger was also a poet. Unfortunately, his poems were terrible. This musical sets a selection of them to equally awful music; audience members are given a small vial of poison as they take their seats, and are technically both dead and alive until the ushers open the theatre doors at the end of the performance.

  • 1) Joseph and his Amazing Technicolour Lab Coat: From the people who brought you "Brian Cox: Neutron Star" comes the epic tale you've all been waiting for. Joseph, a lowly technician at the UK National Physical Laboratory, is a dreamer. Unfortunately, he manages to irritate his colleagues with visions of achieving academic glory and non-industry-standard laboratory apparel. They engineer a career-move for Joseph to the soon-to-be-closed physics department of a former polytechnic, leaving them free to undergo their REF assessment in relative peace. Feeling dejected, Joseph soon discovers that his dreams allow him to predict the outcome of research projects before the research has actually been carried out. With this ability to "pick winners", he is soon the toast of the UK scientific community, with research councils lining up to ask which projects they should fund, which spin-offs they should invest in, and which individuals will go on to achieve great things in the world of science. In one the more bizarre songs in the production, Joseph successfully defines and quantifies the term "impact". Inevitably, Joseph's NPL colleagues submit a funding application that he initially identifies as a "turkey"; spurned by the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills, the laboratory is threatened with closure. In the end, though, Joseph shows mercy and persuades the Government to quadruple the science budget (including capital expenditure). UK science is saved, and Joseph is presented with his "Amazing Technicolour Lab Coat". The entire cast then break into a catchy disco-soul number about how the peer-review process has its pitfalls, but is ultimately the best system we have for "doing science". Make no mistake, this show has solid gold Tony Award written all over it. Solid gold.

As you can see, there's hope for science communication yet. Thanks to @alomshaha, @jjsanderson, @apontzen, @geekpop, @roobina (and the whole Nature team, by the sounds of it!), @lulucrumble, @JimFraeErskine, @AlexSiddle, @nervaryar, @annalewcock and everyone who joined in with #sciencemusicals that I couldn't string a plot together for (though please add any in the comments!). And for actual science-based musicals, check out this (via @annastarkey) or wait for this (via @alicebell).

Monday, 28 February 2011

Why science policy needs science education

During the build-up to last year's election, I vaguely remember thinking about why science education wasn't being talked about more. Alom Shaha, as ever, made some good points about how it's easy for politicians representing science (education) to dismiss "science education" as a problem to be dealt with by their colleagues representing education (science). To be fair, there were (and still are) some very pressing issues in the #scipolicy arena: ensuring that there's funding to do any science is bit of a "biggie". But my gut feeling at the time was that science education should be a key part of the debate. I just couldn't put my finger on why.

Cue Alice Bell's excellent post from earlier today. In it, the age-old debate of depth-versus-breadth was discussed, triggered (I guess) by the Royal Society's recent call for a wider range of subjects to be taught at 16-19 so that more could pursue science for longer*. If I've grasped the right end of the proverbial stick, aiming for "depth" results in students who are well prepared for further study/careers in science. This is great for universities, who then don't have to spend as much time getting students "up to speed". But -- and here's the rub -- this specialisation comes at a cost. Those not specialising in science won't study any science at all, and those who do will only be taught the "content" demanded by universities.

What's wrong with this situation, if anything? Well, from what I've gathered of the #scipolicy movement, the goal is to have an electorate that understands the value of evidence-based policy, appreciates the value of science and technology to the economy, and, above all, appreciates that science, wonder and discovery are at the heart of everything that ultimately makes humanity tick. If you've (albeit unintentionally) isolated the vast majority of the electorate at school age, the only time you have everyone in one place, you're left with only the "scientists" fighting science's corner in the political ring. And while they're certainly starting to find their voice, it'd probably be better to have everyone on your side from the start, no?

And this is what Alice's post brought home to me. Universities won't be campaigning for a non-specialist "citizen scientist" curriculum. Which, from a #scipolicy perspective, is a Bad Thing. So who will be? Who should be? This is what I couldn't put my finger on back in April. It's great that the Royal Society has taken a step towards bringing attention to the issues surrounding citizen science -- even if this wasn't quite their intention -- but, for me at least, the issue of providing a "science education for all" really should be an intrinsic part of any campaign seeking to make science a permanent feature of the political landscape.

* Though I think the post had been brewing for a while :-)

UPDATE (31/3/2011): I attended the Science Question Time: Education last night. It wasn't quite the place to bring up discuss the points raised above -- the chair and the panel wisely (in my opinion) focussed on the challenges facing science teachers, and CaSE will have been listening carefully -- but as someone who "does science" with a passing interest in policy, the evening reinforced one major take-home point for me: science teachers work tremendously hard every day to actually teach science, converting the enthusiasm/wonder generated by science into something solid, and that we need to do all that we can to support them in doing this. I'd like to think that last night was an acknowledgement of that, so thanks again to all of the organisers, the panel, the chair and everyone who came along.

Sunday, 3 October 2010

What can we learn from Ultrasaurus?

Worry not, Brian Switek, I'm not muscling in on your territory. No, the Ultrasaurus* I'm referring to is the 53-foot tall model that was erected on Southsea Common in the summer. Here it is:

The Southsea Ultrasaurus, 1st August 2010

I have to say, when the Daily Mail described Southsea Common as "sleepy", my eyebrow raised a little. I obviously wouldn't want to question the Mail's journalistic standards, but a short visit on a sunny Saturday afternoon/evening would show even the laziest, jaded hack that to label Southsea Common "sleepy" would be an adjective fail on the scale of describing David Cameron as "middle class". A good PR company might use the word "vibrant"; I'd say if you enjoy the heady combination of cheap lager, disposable barbeques and misspelt tattoos, you've missed your fill for 2010. But I digress. While it's an important and actually rather lovely community spot, I did question the wisdom of making it home for the first stop of the "Luna Park" exhibition. My (not-always-so-) inner-cynic asked, "how long will something like this last?".

Well, we know now. It lasted until 2:40am on Friday. Somebody "burned the dinosaur". In a poetic turn of events, all that we can know about this particular Ultrasaurus must be derived from its (also artificially constructed) skeletal remains:

The Southsea Ultrasaurus, Sunday 3rd October 2010

At first I wasn't too bothered by it -- like I say, I was expecting this to happen and to be frank I was actually rather pleased that we able to enjoy it for so long. So, like any "scientist" worth his salt, I thought it might be worth trying to analyse the situation and think about what we might learn from it. So here goes:

1) People in Portsmouth loved it: It was great seeing the locals (and the tourists) gather around it, take photos of it, and bring their kids along to see it (obviously, to get them into science). Portsmouth wanted it to return and set up shop permanently, and I don't blame them. It's probably been said before, but there really is nothing that quite captures the imagination like a 16-metre tall steel and polyester model of a non-existent dinosaur.

2) Artists are either very canny or very uncanny: If I was feeling cynical I might question the wisdom of placing what turned out to be a very flammable structure in the middle of a grassy open space (which made life difficult for the fire crews, apparently). Maybe "Health and Safety" risk assessments aren't so silly after all. One might flippantly argue that there was quite a powerful artistic statement made by the destruction of something so beautiful and popular by those who didn't know better (*ahem* cuts etc.). But that would probably miss the point. It was a brave decision from both the artists and the authorities (it was also clever to play the "temporary/touring" angle to gauge the "not in my backyard" response) and even with the way it has ended there are still a lot of positives to take away.

3) I now know why non-students used to say "bloody students": When I was a student, I was often bemused by the attitude of the townsfolk towards students. Seeing it from the other side, it's not difficult to appreciate how it can look like your town is being invaded by a swarm of gangly yet perplexingly overconfident dickheads. I'm probably just getting old. However, some are inevitably pointing their fingers at Freshers Week revellers, and it's not difficult to understand why. The timing is indeed interesting, but I like good criminal investigations to be like good policy: evidence-based. We'll see how it pans out, but the group of camera-phone wielding students reported at the scene hasn't done the reputation of students any favours. Maybe they'd think more carefully about what they were doing if they were paying £10k a year to be here. Who knows.

And so on and so forth. It's easy and sort of fun to discuss these things in a detached manner -- especially when you're a scientist. Then I went for a jog this morning (yeah, that's right - a jog. Get me!). Naturally, I wanted to see the wreck for myself, and maybe take some pictures with my iPhone (yeah, that's right - an iPhone! Get me!). Which was all fine. And then I saw this:

It's the sign describing the exhibition. And people have left flowers by it.

Let's take a second to evaluate that.

People have left flowers by it.

A few people have taken the time to buy flowers and leave them at charred, twisted remains of a model dinosaur. It wasn't a real corpse; it wasn't even a real creature. But these people saw fit to express their grief at the passing of this terrible lizard with some trademark homo sapiens ritualistic behaviour. There's a war memorial 30-or-so metres away; perhaps they had some flowers left over. I don't know. But that's when it hit me -- this actually mattered. This was a big deal. And I don't think the flowers were left by someone taking the piss: going against every scientist instinct in me, on the milk run I sparked a conversation with the guy behind the cornershop counter about it. He agreed - everyone is actually pretty devastated by the burning of the dinosaur.

So amidst all this talk of budget cuts, of economic benefits, of irreplaceable talent and/or infrastructure, I think it's important to take a moment to think about what really matters -- how what we're defending affects the lives of others. Did the residents of Southsea appreciate the science of prehistoric creatures? The artistic impact of the structure on the wider community space? Or did they just think it was cool to have a freakin' dinosaur by the seaside? I'm not sure, but I think it's fair to say that this particular expression of all that makes us proud to be human beings touched people, and it's a shame that it took such a destructive act to make us realise that.

Let's hope that similar conclusions aren't being drawn after the decisions have been made on the 20th of October.

Science Is Vital
I Value The Arts

* Or is it Ultrasauros? If you've got the time to ask, also ask yourself why it is you've got the time to ask that.

Wednesday, 11 August 2010

Derek the Spacedino #01

Following Julian Huppert's "The Now Show"-worthy thoughts on what MPs should know about science, a Twitter conversation between @alicebell and @markgfh (including the link to this) gave me the excuse to throw this together:

Obviously, the inspiration for this is Scott Adam's Dilbert creation, Bob the Dinosaur. Also, I should probably also make it clear that I think Julian Huppert MP is the best thing to happen to British politics since Blackadder's "Dish and Dishonesty".

UPDATE (7pm ish): Alice Bell has posted "The Myth of Scientific Literacy". As @edyong209 put it, "when you absolutely positively need an academic look at science communication, accept no substitutes". It's rather good, to put it mildly. I'd like to know what Julian Huppert thinks too - I don't think it would be a massive surprise if it was something along the lines of there's "knowing some politics", "knowing how politics works" and "knowing how politics really works" (though I guess that it's pretty much hinted at here anyway). I also like the point about how providing better scientific training may simply give rise to "a more extensive rhetoric". Imagine if Simon Jenkins actually knew how science (really) works. Imagine.

See also:

Monday, 28 June 2010

Ladies and Gentlemen, I give you: Lord Paul of Oberhausen FRS


I must admit I haven't been following the World Cup closely - despite the BBC cramming the already science-heavy airwaves with Alan Hansen's preachings on the importance of "heart" and "character" in "football". However, one story did happen to catch my eye. Apparently, an octopus called Paul (not Simon, unfortunately - a much better name) has been successfully predicting the outcomes of the German football team's matches in South Africa - including Sunday's game that I understand England (thankfully) lost.

This is, of course, in total contradiction to what "scientists" will tell you is possible. With their "degrees" and their "logic" and their so-called "evidence", these sceptical kill-joys will undoubtedly pour scorn onto this poor, talented creature, whose only mistake was somehow tap into forces far beyond the comprehension of the infallible keepers of knowledge. Even now I can hear "Dr" Ben Goldacre gathering his army of number trolls, issuing forth the rallying cry of "haha srsly, dude, 4 out of 6 correct predictions may occur by chance anyway", before unleashing a statistical hell on yet another misunderstood bearer of the Truth.

But to do so would be to obscure the serious - nay, fundamental - question that the aquarium's research begs: is this not exactly what Sir Paul Nurse, successor to Lord Rees (who I have already discussed at length) as President of the Royal Society, will ask us to do with with the hard-earned money that we are forced to pump relentlessly into "scientific research"?

In an interview with the Sunday Times, Rees's bauble-clad Anointed One hinted that he would identify "100 to 150 excellent scientists in all fields, who would get generous long-term support to pursue their interests". But how will you do this, Sir Paul? How will you "pick your winners"? Scientists have long been running scared from the notion that the value of their research can be quantified or measured, unlike the data they so joyfully harvest. They quake at the mere idea that they should be able to show how their scribblings and tinkerings have had any sort of "impact" on the world. "Science needs more blue sky thinking", they will cry.

"Blue sky thinking"? More like navel-gazing. Perhaps there genuinely is something interesting in their collective belly buttons - like this God-forsaken "God particle" they keep bleating about - but the Truth is this: scientists do not know - they cannot know - that their research will lead to something useful that benefits us all. When they ask us for yet another billion to build whatever flimsy contraption happens to take their fancy at the time, they are asking us to have faith - a word they so despise - in their abilities to make "progress". And more than that, they will soon be asking us to have faith in their ability to pick the right people to make said "progress". We citizens are being asked to put our faith in a colossal cephalopod of self-proclaimed certainty. For all of their so-called rationalism and calls for "evidence-based policy", science ultimately asks for us to take a leap of faith to better understand our world. If only they would admit it.

So may I suggest this, Sir Paul: If you truly believe in the power of science, make your octopus namesake a Fellow of your esteemed Royal Society. Ask him to "pick your winners". Hell, even ask him to award your precious research grants. Because even you know that by the laws laid down by your beloved "science", he has just as much chance of getting it right as you do.

Note: This was not actually written by Simon Jenkins. At least, I don't think it was.