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.