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.