17 December 2009

Copenhagen: as things start to hit the fan...

Just a few bits and pieces I've stumbled across today:

A Copenhagen glossary for beginners - Wall Street Journal [link]

Kyoto lives again:
"Negotiations have been deadlocked for a week as developing countries resisted efforts to replace or downgrade the 1997 protocol, which places legally binding commitments on rich – but not poor – nations... In a victory for the developing world, negotiators will now move forward on a two-track basis, one part of which maintains the integrity of Kyoto." - The Guardian [link]

The Guardian also reports that the US is pledging (string-attached) cash to help developing countries adapt...
"The US is prepared to work with other countries to jointly mobilise $100bn a year by 2020," [Hilary] Clinton told a press conference... But she said the funds would only flow if there was a deal – and that there would only be a deal if it met certain American conditions... America's demand that China and other rapidly emerging countries provide documentation of its efforts to cut emissions." [link]

Don't just focus on CO2 (not strictly COP15 related but hey):
An interesting Nature Geoscience paper I'm writing about for Science for Environment Policy points out that including methane and nitrous oxides in greenhouse gas balance changes the game, and has some interesting policy implications. "The comparison between the carbon and GHG balance of continental Europe shows that current land management reduces the terrestrial GHG sink, which could otherwise offset non-biological GHG emissions. The increasing trend towards more intensive agriculture and a vulnerable forest stock of timber leads to the conclusion that the balance is likely to tip... Introducing land management policies aimed at reducing the emission of greenhouse gases should thus be a priority. This should be possible because most of the N2O emissions are linked to excessive fertilizer applications in croplands." - Nature Geoscience

Good to see children's TV getting in on the action
- CBBC's Newsround [link]

Interesting tweets from Australian political journo @KarenMMiddleton...
...who appears to be tweeting from the conference itself. Inc:

"China lays cards on the table in spectacular fashion @ #cop15 declaring it won't hv anti-greenhouse efforts monitored. Sarkozy goes berserk" [
16:16 today]

"ln-joke of #cop15 so far. Tshirt slogan 'don't square bracket my future'." [17:20 ish yesterday]

16 December 2009

Copenhagen (again)

The latest...

The president of the talks has quit:

"Denmark's energy minister Connie Hedegaard has quit as president of the climate change conference in Copenhagen. The United Nations confirmed Ms Hedegaard had resigned and announced the Danish prime minister Lars Rasmussen will take her place." - Channel 4 News [link]

Some nice new climate change graphics from the BBC [link]

The Telegraph summarises the sticking points:
"While it was originally hoped that a signed, sealed and delivered legally-binding international treaty could be agreed by the end of the talks in Copenhagen – after two years of negotiations – that is no longer a possibility. Leaders are now working towards a ''political agreement'' with the legal treaty to come later..." - Telegraph [link]

Getting pernickity:
"Stern carries a brief from Obama to start the clock in 2005. ...he will repeat his offer to cut US emissions by 17 per cent between 2005 and 2020. The Europeans say that's pathetic. It will only get US emissions back to around 1990 levels... whereas Europeans are promising 20 per cent cuts from 1990 to 2020... Stern has a different perspective. Having cut its emissions by 7 per cent already, the European Union is only offering a 13 per cent cut relative to 2005 - four points less than Uncle Sam." - New Scientist [link]

Even Arnie's getting involved now
"I love giving speeches here, because I'm not the only one that has an accent." - You Tube [link]

And Prince Charles...
"...it would be wiser for Prince Charles to keep out of this debate." - The Spectator [link]

14 December 2009

Continuing Copenhagen

So the last few days I've been out of the loop again. Christmas + Copenhagen = a mess.

But just a few quick updates for today:

Talks in chaos, according to Huff Post earlier today:

"African countries have refused to continue negotiations unless talks on a second commitment period to the Kyoto Protocol are prioritized ahead of broader discussions... Australia, Japan and others have succeeded in stopping Kyoto Protocol discussions as a result. Of the two tracks of negotiations underway in Copenhagen the Kyoto Protocol is the only one which includes a mechanism for legally binding emissions reductions by rich countries." - Huffington Post [link]

Now an ambitious deal seems unlikely

"The UN and the chair of the conference, Denmark, tried hurriedly to repair the rifts as ministers began to arrive in Copenhagen for the high level political section of the talks. But after the talks were suspended for two hours, observers said that it looked increasingly unlikely that an ambitious deal would now be negotiated by Friday. - Guardian [link]

Perhaps Blair spoke to soon (from Sunday)

"Speaking in Copenhagen ahead of crucial talks between leaders this week: "There can be a deal at Copenhagen. There should be a deal. It will not be all that everyone wants. But it was never going to be. We should not make the best the enemy of the good.'" - HMGovernment website [link]

Twitter currently running at approx 4-6 #cop15 tweets per minute -TwitterSearch [link]

9 December 2009

Copenhagen Day 3

Okay, I'm back on the case today.

So, major splits appearing between developing and developed nations:

"Small island states and poor African nations vulnerable to climate impacts laid out demands for a legally-binding deal tougher than the Kyoto Protocol... Tuvalu's negotiator Ian Fry made clear that his country could accept nothing less than full discussion of its proposal for a new legal protocol, which was submitted to the UN climate convention six months ago... The call was backed by other members of the Association of Small Island States..." - BBC [link]

"...Fry demanded the meeting consider creating a legally binding Copenhagen Protocol that would enforce developing nation emission reductions and run alongside the Kyoto Protocol's demands on rich countries. China, India and Saudi Arabia opposed the move because they don't want to be legally bound to meet their emission reduction promises." - The Australian [link]

The EPA will regulate greenhouse gases without approval from congress:

"The EPA determined Monday that scientific evidence clearly shows they are endangering the health of Americans, and that the pollutants... should be regulated under the Clean Air Act. That means the EPA could regulate those gases without the approval of Congress. The EPA decision was welcomed by other nations in Copenhagen that have called on the U.S. to boost its efforts to cut greenhouse gas emissions, because it seemed President Barack Obama could act more quickly and bypass legislation slowly working through Congress." - Associated Press [link]

Denmark has a "Plan B":

"The Danish government is at the centre of a row over a draft document which some activists are claiming could be one of the default declarations for the Copenhagen summit... The Danish government have been discussing the draft, which it calls The Copenhagen Agreement, privately with a number of countries... It is Denmark's insurance policy - their Plan B - in case the main talks fail. Even so, some developing countries are angry it is being considered at all." - Channel 4 News [link]

China in row with US:

"President Obama's top climate change negotiator arrived in Copenhagen Wednesday swinging back at Chinese demands for the United States to increase its emission reduction goals... Chinese officials have said they will spring to action if the United States contributes significantly to a proposed $10 billion a year fund to help vulnerable countries adapt to climate change policies... Stern dismissed the idea that U.S. taxpayer money would eventually end up in China, which currently holds nearly $800 billion in U.S. debt." - FOXNews [link]

Copenhagen Day 2

Um. I've completely failed you. Already. But, hey, how about a picture of the recent zombie apocalypse in Bristol instead?

P.S. This is possibly more relevant than any of us know. There's just no accounting for what will happen if we go over the 2C barrier.

7 December 2009

Copenhagen Day 1

Right. I'm going to be writing a feature on the Copenhagen climate talks over the Christmas break and will be doing my best to keep abreast of events over the next couple of weeks. So this is what I'm going to do: each evening, I will post any useful links I've found to the day's highlights on this blog. This way, I can keep track of what's happened and you lot can access a nice simple daily digest.

In return, it'd be good if people would post links to the most useful and interesting sources they have come across on their travels around the interwebs.

Day One:

(Including some more general resources to get us started).

Day one reflections from the HMGovernment website:

"The White House said that the President would arrive for the final day of official negotiations on 18 December rather this Wednesday, 9 December, as originally planned.

The Financial Times said the news had 'dramatically raised' the prospects of a global deal on climate change...

The Economic Times of India said that Mr Obama's decision showed 'commitment' by the US." [link]

"The [UK] Prime Minister said that Copenhagen must achieve a comprehensive and global agreement that is then converted to an internationally legally binding treaty 'in no more than six months'." [link]

From the BBC:

"...on the first day of the summit, divisions were evident between various blocs, with small island states indicating they would not accept anything less than a legally binding deal including deep cuts in emissions.

In July, the G8 bloc of industrialised countries and some major developing countries adopted a target of keeping the global average temperature rise since pre-industrial times to 2C.

However, small island states think this would cause serious climate impacts from rising sea levels, and have been arguing for a lower target of 1.5C. A number of African nations also back the lower target." [link]

From the Guardian:

A whole section devoted to Copenhagen [link]

An interactive guide to Copenhagen [link]


"Individuals should not wait for world leaders to agree on measures to fight climate change, but should start taking actions themselves, the winner of this year's Nobel Prize for economics said on Monday." [link]

From the UNFCCC website:

A speeches archive, including opening address from Denmark's PM [link]

Live webcasts of proceedings [link]


The Guardian's list of important Copenhagen tweeters [link]

#cop15 (currently about 1 tweet every 2-3 seconds when I last looked) [link]

So those are my links as of 19:46 on Day One. Let me know what else you find!

3 November 2009

I forgot: I interviewed a Nobel Prize winner!

I managed to forget completely about this, but early in the year I did an interview with Peter Agre, a lovely man who also happens to be a Nobel Prize winner. (Oh, and the President of the AAAS).

Agre picked up the award in 2003 for his "serendipitous" discovery of aquaporins - water channel proteins in cells - which had far-reaching implications for neuroscience.

Unfortunately, it looks like I don't get a byline (boo!) but here's the pdf - the quality's not the best, mind.

What an honour.

2 November 2009

Peaches Geldof's shaky grasp of science

Well done Marina Hyde for picking up on Peaches Geldof's shaky grasp of science in the Guardian last week. Not only did Ms Geldof manage to equate quantum physics and the Big Bang with scientology, as Hyde points out, she also claimed that at the Large Hadron Collider "they" (being "the scientists", I guess) are "trying to make a black hole".

Um. I'm not a physicist, but I don't think they're actually trying to make a black hole - or at least, that's not the main aim. The main aim, as Geek Dad rightly points out, is to find the Higg's boson - the subatomic particle, that, if identified, would help fill in the gaps in the Standard Model of the atom.

Unfortunately, presenter Fearne Cotton wasn't equipped to point out her mistakes. Which is fair enough, being a TV presenter and all.

I'm not saying you can't be interested in this stuff if you're not a scientist. But it did seem as though Peaches was far too concerned with showing off her "weird" personality and, presumably, "weird" interests - oh it's so weird to be interested in physics - that she forgot to look up the details.

Given the influence of celebrity, it's vaguely worrying.

28 October 2009

All star turn out (briefly)

Amazing. We (at Sounds of Science) planned a “Night Under the Stars” and, unbelievably, got a clear, dry night – at least until about 9.30pm. Luckily, by this time, most people had managed to get a quick peep through the telescope at the Moon and Jupiter. And thanks to ExplorerDome, we had already been able to entertain our crowd in something resembling a giant womb – check out the picture below. (Actually an inflatable planetarium).

It was good to see so many people turn up who had no prior knowledge of astronomy. And that Jim’s 6am slot on Original 106.5 (there’s a clip here) wasn’t wasted… the one man it attracted said he thoroughly enjoyed himself.

Thanks to IOP for providing the great star guide leaflets, and some rather lovely pin badges, which proved particularly popular. And well done to presenter Matina for successfully creating a comet in her hands-on science demonstration – here’s everyone crowding round to look.

Unfortunately, given the prerequisite of it being dark for the outdoor star spotting, there are no pictures of us all enjoying this part of the show.

Anyone who’s reading this after attending the show should definitely check out the International Year of Astronomy web pages for further info. And if you’re keen to hear more from Jim geeking out about space, he can normally be found doing this at least once a month on the Geek Pop podcast, which straddles science and music, usually with quite a heavy space bias (Pink Floyd’s ‘Eclipse’ etc etc). Or if you want something specifically astronomy based, we recommend the US podcast Astronomy Cast.

16 October 2009

Fringe: minor quibbles

Yeah, so I discovered Fringe, recently... It's not the most scientifically accurate of programmes is it? Nevertheless, I've managed to get ever so slightly hooked.

This is really just to get a few minor annoyances out of the way.

1) Words in title sequence include "nanotechnology". Really? Fringe science? Actually, I'd say nanotech was firmly in the middle of the carpet, but anyhoo.

2) Exactly what is Walter I-Spent-17-Years-In-A-Psychiatric-Hospital-But-Can-Still-Remember-Where-I-Put-My-Magnetic-Neurostimulator-Which-Incidentally-Still-Works Bishop's area of expertise? "Ah, this reminds me of an experiment I was working on in 1977." Every time. Amazing.

3) Astrid.

4) Um, sorry to get all feminist. BUT. FBI Agent Olivia Dunham climbing "naked" (actually, she wears functional but mildly alluring black underwear) into a tank of... oh, I don't know... so she can "sync" her brain with her dead boyfriend?

So, those (and a few other things) aside, I'm quite enjoying it. Even with Pacey from Dawson's Creek in it.

6 October 2009

NanoMed: hype and healthy imagination

So, this was the scene for the second working group meeting on Communication for the NanoMed project I've been involved in. Idyllic, isn't it?

By way of explanation, a group of about 15 of us arrived in Garmisch-Partenkirchen in Germany last week to discuss a set of recommendations for communicating about nanomedicine. The aim is to produce a document, by the end of October, that will inform policymaking in the EU. Our group is one of five - the others are Patient Needs, Ethics and Societal Impact, Economic Impact and Regulation.

Despite the distractions of mountain and lake, we were remarkably productive and have now managed to put together an outline of our recommendations ahead of the final meeting in November. Since they are far from set in stone, I won't hint at what these might be, but something quite interesting that arose from the meeting was the recognition of a kind of tension between hype and healthy imagination surrounding new technologies.

One of the case studies we looked at included a film featuring futuristic notions about nanomedicine applications - in particular, a kind of in-body monitoring system operated by a touchscreen on the back of the user's hand. According to the film, such a system would employ nanotechnology to diagnose and monitor disease and could, for instance, help diabetics to keep tabs on their blood sugar levels.

Whilst the idea generated some degree of merriment and scepticism around the table, there was also very real concern about giving patients false hope. This was countered by two arguments: first, that hope is an important aspect of patient psychology, and secondly, that imagination and creativity are what drive advances in science and technology. (Support for this second argument can be seen in the development of technologies inspired by Star Trek).

Personally, I think it's important to dream, but then I would say that - I'm a "creative". We can't stop people creating these kinds of fantastic visions - how boring would the world of science communication (and the world in general) be if we did? At the same time, it's obviously important to take a measured approach and help people to understand how close to reality these visions actually are. In the end, we all had to agree to disagree and, in fact, I think this is probably the right outcome.

25 August 2009

All greenwashed out

Last weekend I got a phone call that somehow resulted in me agreeing to organise a science/comedy panel show about greenwashing at Green Man Festival - the following weekend. This'll be okay, I thought. I'm a writer. I know about environmental stuff. So I'll just write a bunch of questions, get some comedians along and Bob's your uncle - one science/comedy panel show.


Thing is, greenwashing isn't innately that funny. If you haven't come across the term, it basically refers to organisations pretending to be green for some sort of benefit, such as more customers, more voters etc. One example that eventually made it into the quiz was the stationer Ryman and its "carbon-neutral paper". Actually, the paper is grown on monoculture eucalyptus plantations on the edge of the Amazon and isn't recycled in any way. (Thanks Fred Pearce of the Guardian). So it's not what you'd call a cheap joke. Which is why co-host Jim and I decided to insert some real cheap jokes. Hoorah!

Yep. Faced with the prospect of a science/comedy panel show containing zero comedy, we resorted to toilet humour. We dreamed up some imaginary companies - so as to avoid getting sued - and fashioned some crude props, resulting in the Green Spin round, in which up-and-coming nerd comedian Chris Dunford was forced to sell giant tissues on the basis of their environmental credentials. So where's the toilet humour? Er. These were Man Sized Tissues... made by the Wan Corporation. Still not getting it? Ask Jim to explain it to you because I'm too polite.

To his credit, Chris' sales pitch was one of the funniest things I've seen in a while, only surpassed by his ad-libbed stand-up routine later that evening, whilst the man from Winter North Atlantic took an extraordinarily long time setting up what was essentially a keyboard.

But what's my point? I guess it comes back to an issue that I touched on in an earlier post. It's difficult to make jokes about science because if they're truly going to be jokes about science you risk alienating half your audience with ideas and terminology they're unfamiliar with. I guess greenwashing isn't such a hard concept to grasp, but some of the bits that made me laugh the hardest weren't exactly grounded in science e.g. comedy poet Nathan Filer in the "Complete the Slogan" round. Question: ______-friendly to ______-free (General Motors). Nathan's answer: "Is it 'Be Friendly to Jeff-free?'" (Real answer: Gas-friendly to gas-free).

All in all, we were pretty happy with how it went. It was like a poorly edited Mock the Week with more obvious cheating. (That sounds like a bad thing, but it's a good thing, I think.) And the audience seemed to enjoy it. I think you just have to realise that you can't crowbar in the science to these things. You have to let everyone do what they do best and if your main aim is comedy then you have to get the best comedians you can find and let them go wild. Any science that stays in is a bonus.

8 August 2009

Why I'm a writer, not a scientist

A scientist told me recently that nothing would ever convince him to leave science - it is, he claimed, the most exciting job in the world. He couldn't understand why, having completed undergraduate studies in biological sciences, I would have wanted to do anything else. When I admitted I had spent a brief spell in a lab and decided it wasn't for me - I quickly turned from research to reporting on it - it filled him with nothing but grief.

It's not that I don't find science interesting (obviously), it's that I find too much of it interesting. Whereas some people get their kicks from learning as much as they can about one particular thing, I get mine from learning as much as I can about lots of different things. Neither is better. I'm just saying: I like writing because I get to explore widely different areas of science.

I'm sure there are plenty of scientists who can't understand the need for science journalists or science communicators at all, who think that scientists themselves would do a better job. Let's get it straight. Science journalists don't necessarily think that they can explain a piece of research better than the scientist who did the research, although in some cases that may be true. Rather, they have (hopefully) an unbiased perspective and an understanding of their audience.

More to the point though: we like doing it. For a scientist trying to juggle research with writing academic papers and supervising PhD students, writing newspaper and magazine articles on the side isn't going to be a lot of fun. (There are some mad people who try to do both and claim to enjoy it, but I can't believe it. Or, at least, something's going to have to give eventually.) But we do it because it's our job and - need I say it again? - we like it. That's not to say anyone who likes writing about science will make a good science writer, but it's pretty much a condition of being one. Because not many of us make our millions this way.

There seems to be a school of thought that says that the best science communicators are scientists - real, in-the-lab, doing experiments, writing academic papers-type scientists. Maybe it's true. But, crucially, not all scientists are great communicators, or even half-decent communicators. And not all scientists want to communicate about their science, however exciting it may be. Most of them probably just want to go down the pub at the end of the day. (See, we do have something in common). Thus, there's an awful lot of science that wouldn't get communicated if someone else didn't do it.

And who's to say that you need to have spent a decade in a lab to make a good science writer? What's wrong with a little perspective? A good grasp on what society thinks is important? The ability to make connections between different areas of research and between different disciplines entirely? All just as important as understanding the scientific process.

Of course, scientists should be wary of bad journalists who don't do their research and twist what has been said, but there are also a lot of good journalists, especially among specialist science writers. And having claimed - very speculatively - that some scientists don't see the point of science writers, most scientists I speak to are very respectful of what I do. That said, for the most part, neither of us would rather be doing the other one's job.

Incidentally, whether or not it's more important to actually do the science or report on it is, I think, a moot point. We each have to do the things that we enjoy, don't we? And no matter how important the science itself may be, it's got to be reported, right? Unless we're living in some sort of crazy-ass society where we put billions of pounds/dollars/[repeat for every currency so as not to offend] into research that nobody ever gets to hear about, I'd say "yes".

I must point out that I'm not trying to drive any sort of a wedge between scientists and the media - as if there wasn't a huge, great doorstep-sized wedge there already - I'm just trying to say that I think we sometimes misunderstand each other. Science writers don't write about science because they're failed scientists. They do it because it's fascinating, because it gives them something different to think about each day, because they get a buzz out of learning something new and telling people about it. Or am I only speaking for myself?

So, in a round about sort of way, I'm trying to explain that I won't be leaving science writing for science - ever. As far as I'm concerned, it's the most exciting job in the world.

17 July 2009

The quest for The Ultimate Button (not the sort you wear, the sort you click)

A friend of mine, who may be found under the guise of @LovelyButtons on Twitter, is desperately seeking The Ultimate Button - or set of. As I have known this friend for many years (more than 20, actually), I have decided to do my best to help her in her quest. These (click) rather sleek-looking Apple Mac keyboard buttons are some of @LovelyButtons' most wanted, but are they really The Ultimate Buttons? Hmmm.

It all started with cash registers. As a child, @LovelyButtons had grand aspirations of becoming a shop assistant one day, so she could take charge of one of these glorious button machines. As it happened, @LovelyButtons turned out to be something of a maths whizz and is currently en route to a career as an accountant. This is not surprising - I suspect it might not be unrelated to her love of calculator buttons, in fact.

Anyway, to cut a long story short, the best part of last night was spent drawing up plans for a fantastic button experiment, which would determine once and for all the nature of The Ultimate Button. Of course, what with me being of a scientific mind, it couldn't just be a simple "Do you like this button? No? What about this one?" type of experiment...

We have so far determined a number of possible variables that could be important in button pressability:
  • Surface feel/material e.g. plastic, rubbery
  • Surface shape e.g. concave, flat
  • Force required to completely depress button
  • Height of button
  • Button-pressing noise
  • Button use history/current status of presser e.g. have they always used/are they currently using a keyboard with outrageously clicky buttons?
We've explored the possibilities for measuring button-pressing noise (microphone and soundwave analysis) and force required to depress button. The latter, we think, requires something resembling a school newton or force meter. These come in a rather fetching array of colours (as below), although if you wanted a really top notch piece of equipment, it's surprising how much you could pay.

@LovelyButtons was content to be the chief button presser in all of this, but, sticking to my scientific guns, I pointed out that we would need a fairly large sample size if we were going to create some half-decent graphs. The only problem being, of course, that all of these button pressers could have different button use histories - we would have to segment the population into plastic button users, rubber button users, and so on...

Finally it dawned on us that all of this button pressing experimentation was going to take years of work and at the end of it what would we have gained? Even if you were presented with a button purporting to be The Ultimate Button, I asked @LovelyButtons, how would you truly know that it was? Mmm? Wouldn't you wonder if, somewhere out there, a better button existed?

And yet again, here I am posting useless rubbish when I probably should be doing something far more important. But if anyone does happen to have any button-depressing measurement-type equipment, or the patience to carry out several years worth of scientific experiments involving keyboards, do let me know. Or maybe you'd like to post pictures of your favourite buttons below. Probably just as useful.

10 July 2009

Torchwood co-blog: part V, in which there are no jokes or smutty remarks

FYI, this has been a collaborative blogging effort bought to you by @Captain_Doug and @gingerbreadlady (me).

Part I (by me)
Part II (by Doug)
Part III (by me)
Part IV (by Doug)


If there are witty remarks to be made about this episode, I'm sure I don't know what they are. Words that spring immediately to mind are: dark, harrowing, bleak, depressing...

To recap, at the end of Episode III, planet Earth was ordered to surrender 10% of its children to an alien race. (Or all would perish.) We didn't know what, exactly, they were intending to do to them, but we knew it wasn't going to be all candy bars and dominoes. Today, we learn that the kids are to be kept alive to produce chemicals that make the aliens "feel good" - drugs.

So, to cut a long story short, the Government caves in and agrees to do the aliens' bidding, covering up the whole miserable affair with a rubbish and unforgivable lie about the kids being taken to have inoculations that will stop them doing the evil, scary chanting thing.

There's about three seconds when we think (hope) everything's going to fine and dandy - ten minutes from the end, when Captain Jack rips off his coat and proclaims, "Let's get to work." Then everything gets much, much darker.

Whether Jack's twisted plan makes any scientific sense, I've no idea, but I've stopped paying any attention to the physics by this point. The Captain channels a "constructive wave" (a genuine scientific term, by the seem of it, but who cares?) through his grandson, cycling the aliens' death wavelength back at them and killing his own flesh and blood in the process.

It's an extremely hard-to-watch finale, particularly as we know Jack is fully aware of what will happen. Even Mr Hayley, who never flinches at this sort of thing, is fidgety throughout.

Well, it does the trick alright - the aliens beat a hasty retreat - but we're left with a bitter taste in our mouths. And worst of all, the hateful Prime Minister seems to think it's all been a bit of a lark. He feels "lucky", apparently.

I have to say, it did make me wonder (seriously) what the Government would actually do if we were invaded by child-chemical dependent aliens... blimey, must be good storytelling.

I suppose I should take back everything I said before about predictable endings, particularly with regard to Jack's redemption. In the final scene, with only one member of the Torchwood team left alive to see him on his way, he exits Earth for a "cold fusion carrier" somewhere out in space and we're left wondering: is this the end for Torchwood? Surely not...

8 July 2009

Torchwood co-blog: part III, in which it all kicks off... a bit more

FYI, this is a collaborative blogging effort bought to you by @Captain_Doug and @gingerbreadlady (me). Check out Doug's blog tomorrow for the penultimate installment...

Part I (by me)
Part II (by Doug)

Well, there's one thing to be glad about after Episode III - no more scary chanting children. The aliens (the "456") have finally arrived and agreed to stop using them as communication tools. Goody.

Oh, but they want some kids giftwrapped to take home with them - 10%, in fact. How rude. We build them a nice, comfy little glass box full of poisonous gases to land in and how do they repay us? Make off with our children. Tuh.

Actually, this leads quite well into a discussion of overpopulation issues, which I won't go into in detail here, but as population control measures go, mass alien abduction ain't a bad solution. Depending on the motives of the particular aliens in question, it could be preferable to, say, a horrible flesh-eating infectious disease or some sort of Logan's Run type scenario. At least you get to see space before you die.

But forget the serious issues for a minute... GADGETS! Yay! The BBC, which has obviously spared no expense in creating its aliens (glass box full of smoke and the occasional squelchy sound/Jurassic Park-style screech or splatter of vomit-like liquid), is really spoiling us with its lip-reading software and high-tech contact lenses. Weeeeell, the lenses are kind of cool, I suppose - basically, they give the wearer cameras for eyes, allowing them to transmit pictures of aliens back to Torchwood HQ. Although they come in fairly disappointing white plastic cases, like normal contact lenses.

Where was I? Ah, yes. 10% of the children. Now, as we've known since Episode I, these aliens have a taste for kids. (Just a thought, but perhaps they're actually eating them? Or do we need a more sophisticated reason for monsters stealing children these days?) A few were harvested when the 456 showed up back in the sixties.

But. Shock! Horror! Guess who handed them over before? Why, none other than our hero Captain Jack Harkness! My, what a lot of gasping this caused on Twitter. Come on guys, he only gave them 12 - not so much of a sacrifice really. Especially compared to 10% of all the kids. Luckily, @Blue_Chameleon has a solution: "Easy. Send the dumbest, chavviest 10%." (And, adds @duckorange, "They can have my two if it helps.")

So, what next? Round up all the poor numpties no one wants and wave them off... or... two days of alien ass-kicking punctuated by smutty references to what Captain Jack and Ianto get up to in their tea breaks, a "surprise" late arrival by UNIT's Dr Martha Jones, some tears over Gwen's (probably alien) baby, Jack's absolution for his prior sins and the safe return of all the children to Earth. I dunno, it's a close call.

And it's back to you, Doug.

6 July 2009

Torchwood co-blog: on the first day...

FYI, this is a collaborative blogging effort bought to you by @Captain_Doug and @gingerbreadlady (me). Check out Doug's blog tomorrow for the next installment...

I'm, like, so unprepared for this.

The other day someone casually said, "Isn't Torchwood back on soon?"

As it happens it's on NOW. For five days. In a row.

How did I not know about this?

So this morning I watch the trailer (see below) and it turns out this new series is based around the one thing that freaks me out more than anything else: scary children. Honestly, I still have nightmares about Sixth Sense and, I swear, no one will ever get me to watch The Orphanage, much less The Exorcist. See - I can't even link to them.

Against my better judgement, then, I sit down to watch the first episode with pretentions of writing a science (fiction) communication blog in the same vein as past posts. In reality, it's just an excuse to hide from the scary children behind note-taking.

The premise is this: back in the sixties, a load of kids disappeared. Nobody noticed except for one guy - now a gibbering wreck with an uncanny knack for sniffing out aliens (and ex-police officer turned alien hunter Gwen's unborn child, apparently) - who got left behind. But we don't find out about him until later.

In the present day, every kid in Britain stops dead and starts chanting "We are coming" in the kind of creepy way that is going to have me sitting bolt upright in bed at 3 o'clock tomorrow morning, sweating buckets.

So what does Gwen do? Why, she goes to the amazing super-duper Torchwood computer and types in "children", of course. Thankfully, Torchwood's super-duper computer interprets her request correctly and churns out creepy-children stats for every country in the world. And whadd'ya know? They're all doing it. Dang.

Anyway, cut to the chase. It's aliens. Of course it is. The Government turns a blind eye and issues an (emailed) death warrant for Torchwood-boss Captain Jack, presumably to stop him meddling. (But as @JonathanEx points out: "Who sends death warrants by email? Nowadays I would have thought it'd be a DM [direct message] on Twitter.")

Gwen finds the Guy Who Got Left Behind and spends what seems like half an hour impressing him with flashy gizmos and getting him to tell her his real name. All very well and good, Gwen, but meanwhile Jack is getting killed. Twice. (Yes, we all know he can't die but more to the point, notes @MarkSTaylor, he "must have a hard time sourcing a new coat for every time he gets shot.").

It turns out they put a bomb in Captain Jack's stomach while he was sleeping/dead. KABOOM! Torchwood blows to smithereens whilst tea boy Ianto escapes dramatically but painfully slowly via the lift. Predictably cliffhanger-ish.

What have we learnt from all of this then? You can't trust the Government. Adult hormones interfere with alien transmission signals. So they can't get us - phew. And very little about science. More for us to tear apart tomorrow? Or should I have laid into the alien/pregancy sniffing storyline a bit more? Ah HA-AAA! Gwen's baby IS an alien, perhaps?

And what of the scary children? Well, that was just about as much as I can take. If it gets any worse, I'm going to have to refer to Twitter/Doug's blog posts instead of actually watching it. What is it that makes kids so damn scary?

3 July 2009

Death, Death, Elitism & Death

I've spent the last three days at the World Conference of Science Journalists (WCSJ), where much of the debate focused on Death - mostly of traditional media/science journalism, but also as a result of climate change. I'll be addressing some of this Death in the following post, as well as giving some thought to elitism and, maybe, how it relates to Death (not quite sure how that will go yet).

Perhaps, to avoid instigating a suicide pact among science journalists, I'll preface the Death stuff with science blogger @EdYong's opinion on yesterday's "Future of Science Journalism" talk. He said to me, and I hope he won't mind me quoting him, "It was good to hear that it was all quite optimistic." Maybe though, this optimism was just a thinly veiled attempt to conceal our impending fate at the hands of bloggers and the Metro, as outlined in a few of the earlier sessions...

To elaborate, at least of couple of talks featured speeches by editors - notably John Rennie, formerly of Scientific American, and Wired UK's Ben Hammersley - arguing that science journalists are soon to be subjected to some sort of mass extinction. In the coming media apocalypse, it seems, only the journalists with the biggest pencils and flippiest notepads will survive.

Mediocre science coverage on blogs and in non-specialist publications, it is predicted, will cause this future extinction event. In light of this, bloggers got the sharp end of a few tongues, but some, including Yong, argued convincingly that good bloggers often do a better job than "proper" science reporters.

Meanwhile, we were warned, climate change will be wreaking global havoc e.g. intensifying heat waves similar to the one we're currently experiencing and adding substantially to the global Death toll. One delegate pointed out that we should be highlighting these sorts of climate-related catastrophes in our articles to try to drum up interest in renewable energies. I'm not so sure... I agree with the guy who said we should be highlighting all the good stuff instead - increased energy and food security, improved air quality and so on.

Possibly just as unnerving as the stench of Death was the faint whiff of elitism lingering around a couple of talks. On one occasion, Hammersley expressed a surprising degree of disgust for readers of the Metro free newspaper, available, as most of my readers will know, on any London tube train. I can't recall the exact phrase but it was tantamount to saying that anyone who reads that particular publication was a lost cause and would probably be incapable of understanding a decent science article. Yet several distinguished science journalists I spoke to later admitted to some regular underground-related Metro action. Anyone else dare to confess? I'm not sticking up for the Metro exactly, but the people who read it are not a bunch of idiots. And even if they were, why should we stop trying to engage with them?

The following day, whilst outlining the failings of the British press, Professor John Martin insinuated something along the same lines. Having described how he likes to spend his mornings breakfasting over high brow German newspapers, he went on to suggest that all science coverage should fit into the same mould. I winced as he invoked something vaguely reminiscent of science communication's arch nemesis - one-way communication - in saying that the public "needed to be educated". (For anyone unfamiliar with sci comm theory, the en vogue phrase is "engagement", not "education", which, in the eyes of the sci comm community, is pretty much like saying the public is stupid). Shortly afterwards, he complained about how the high level of media attention paid to animal rights campaigners had left scientists in a bad light. He then confessed that this had, in part, been due to his own and his colleagues' refusal to talk to journalists during the debate. Sigh.

Perhaps I'm being presumptuous, but I'm pretty sure it doesn't help our case in avoiding the aforementioned journalistic cull if leading scientists and magazine editors continue to view the public as cretins. And that's, I suppose, how elitism relates to Death.

Depressing, eh? The free champagne was good though.

9 June 2009

Cheltenham Science Festival 2009

So, quickly and in no particular order - it's my birthday and I'm not really supposed to be working - some highlights from The Times Cheltenham Science Festival last week...

As editor of the festival newsletter, I was proud to sign off a stomache-achingly silly caption for a Carol Vorderman image advertising her event 'Magic Numbers'. The caption was - wait for it - 'Counting down to number fun'. We pointed it out to her but she wasn't overly impressed.

On Saturday, I interviewed a very tired and slightly grumpy Dara O'Briain. I think he may have been annoyed by the hoards of loud and excitable kids in the Discover Zone. The whole thing was completely unplanned; I wasn't too keen on doing it at all, but I'd been badgered into it by two photographers desperate to take his picture. (Their other suggestion was for me to interview Dara and Ben Goldacre both at the same time. This, I flatly refused - I would have crumbled under the weight of their collective wit.)

Anyway, I raced quickly to the end of the Dara interview, having asked the three questions I'd prepared in the 10 seconds I had to spare beforehand - who knew, by the way, that he studied for a degree in theoretical physics? - and said, "Well, I won't keep you any longer." Dara, being on the ball despite his tiredness, saw through my niceties: "You just haven't got any more questions, have you?" To which I answered, "No, I've got better things to do, to be honest." I think I won him over...

That night, still looking tired and grumpy, Dara took to the stage for 'Not Rocket Science' - a scientific panel game hosted by Timandra Harkness. I wouldn't want to say he was upstaged, but... well, he was upstaged by FameLab Coordinator Chris Dunford posing as the score-keeping nerd. It wouldn't do Chris justice to post his quips here, but the look on his face during the body part identification round, when Vivienne Parry unzipped his flies and tried to stick a label on his... well, you know, was priceless.

Chris, by the way, has already been booked for our new Comical Flask stage/tent for Geek Pop '10. And now I've published that, he's not getting out of it.

There are honestly too many great moments to recall in one blog post (e.g. the moment I spotted a mound of carrot cake in the green room on Sunday afternoon, the moment sexy scientist Alice Roberts dropped all her paintbrushes and Chris swooped in to pick them all up like a fumbling school kid) but I'll just put in a more serious mention for Fenner Curtis and the press team who did a grand job "getting the Twitter ball rolling". Having convinced them that Twitter was the new Facebook, they diligently tweeted, retweeted and hashtagged all week, stimulating a stream of Cheltenham-based sciencey goodness.

My favourite tweet from @Cheltfestivals: Cool Pfizer robot in the festival foyer: "What do you think robots eat?" Small child: "Humans!!"

12 May 2009

May: "Do More Stuff" month

I am declaring May "Do More Stuff" month. This means getting out of the office, leaving my email to overflow for days at a time and generally experiencing the wonder of The Outside World. And I shall be encouraging everyone else to follow suit - go on, unchain yourself from your desk for a couple of hours, leave your Twitter account to stagnate and make contact with reality.

This might seem a bit rich, I guess, coming from someone who barely leaves the house/office from one week to the next and, in fact, has created an entire virtual music festival in order to avoid doing so. But doesn't that make me something of an inspiration? If I can do it, so can you!

Apart from improving the circulation in our lower limbs and getting some fresh air in our lungs, who knows what may happen if we go out and Do More Stuff... The Outside World is an exciting place. We could meet people - you know, real people with noses and talky round holes (mouths, if you're not a Mighty Boosh fan). Seriously though, it could be useful - for business contacts, artistic inspiration or just relief from almighty boredom.

So, what kinds of things am I pledging to do during "Do More Stuff" month? Well, here are some ideas. Do feel free to join me.
Well, that's enough for starters. But I will be accepting invitations... so send 'em along. Together, we can all Do More Stuff. Oh, and I've created a logo - feel free to pilfer and take part.

23 April 2009

Black Sheep: GM scaremongering to the extreme, but quite funny

If you know me at all, you'll know that a film about GM sheep that turn evil and start eating people isn't likely to go down well. I'm a scientist, and science communicator, which means I'm very wary about plots that centre around genetically modified anything. We had enough trouble in the media with GM crops; let's not even start with the GM (flesh-eating) sheep...

Funnily enough, though, I thought Black Sheep was actually quite humorous. Once you get past the ridiculous premise that scientists could ever modify sheep to be man-hunters - and the even more ridiculous premise that a bite from one of these things could turn you into a giant sheep - it all turns out to be, dare I say it, pretty hilarious.

I did cringe repeatedly at overly blatant scientific stereotypes/misdemeanours, including the female scientist (ice queen with hair in tight bun displaying complete absence of human emotion) and torture of innocent animals (sheep hanging skinned and still alive from the ceiling of a lab). But it was all so overblown as to be laughable. At least, that's what you have to hope, don't you?

Mash-up below. Watch the whole thing for full cringe worthy effect and assaults on scientific expertise.

Finding an independent expert

Here's one for anybody who regularly writes about scientific research: how do you find your independent experts? And how do you persuade them to talk to you?

A recent discussion on the ABSW email forum has made me think a bit more deeply about this - the difficulties associated with finding a suitable/willing expert and the pitfalls of various approaches. There seems to be a lack of Googlable advice, so below are a few thoughts. If anyone has anything to add, this might make a useful resource for virgin writers feeling unsure as to how they should go about it. I should point out that I'm no wizened old owl, so comments from those who have been in the business for decades would be welcomed.

The first thing to say, of course, is that you're essentially asking someone to do you a favour. Getting independent comments is completely different to getting comments from the person whose research you're covering (only one author has ever refused to talk to me and it's worth pointing out that they worked for DARPA), simply because a scientist has less of an incentive to talk to you if it's not their work. For this reason, it's important to be VERY GRATEFUL in all your correspondence.

Next thing: start looking straight away and be picky. You don't want to get to the morning of the deadline - which may only be two days away - and realise you've contacted ten people and the one person who was good enough to respond, bless them, doesn't know a thing about buckyballs/microchips/Japanese herbal medicine.

I generally find suitable targets by Googling, but you've got to be thorough in your research to make sure you're choosing the right people. A good 'Bio or 'Research interests' on a university website will usually tell you what you need to know, but failing that, have a look through their list of publications. Of course, you might be looking for someone in industry, in which case, it might be easier to simply ring the company's press office to see if anyone with suitable expertise is available. Usually, I'll contact two people for every one I need to talk to. This way, I rarely get caught out and often manage to cram in the extra quotes if both get back to me.

Our discussion on the ABSW centred around the various pools or lists of scientific expertise, which were considered - and I would agree - to be fairly unhelpful unless you're looking for, say, a general "nanotechnologist" rather than an expert in some specific aspect of buckyballs. The problem with these lists is that there are simply not enough scientists signed up to them, or actively using them, and you won't be able to contact an expert directly, so the time lag is going to be greater.

Now, there are a number of issues surrounding how you should approach people. I'm sure not everyone will agree, but I find I get better results by making the initial contact via email. Scientists don't respond particularly well to being called up out of the blue. Don't forget, you're asking them to do you a favour, so journalistic cold calling probably isn't going to go down well. On the other hand, if you're in a hurry this may be the only option available to you.

I always start with a formal address i.e. "Dear Professor Whatsit" rather than "Hi Bob". Even if you're looking for independent experts all the time, making a template email isn't a good idea - you should probably include something in your message of what you intend to ask them. So you could say, "I just wanted to ask you what you think about the medicinal applications," or similar. This way, they're more likely to think, "Oh, that sounds like something I could easily and safely answer," rather than, "This hack is going to give me a good grilling and then twist everything I've said to make me sound like a moron." Which, by the way, is not - if any scientists happen to be reading - what I ever, ever intend to do.

Personally, I prefer to ask questions of an independent expert over the phone, but media-phobic scientists tend to prefer answering them by email so they can't be misquoted. Therefore, you may give yourself a better chance of getting some comments if you give them that option. Some thoughts on email vs phone comments:

Problems with email:
  • Loss of spontaneity - they may omit the interesting comments you would get via phone
  • Loss of "naturalness" in speech - your quotes may sound like they were written rather than spoken
  • There's no guarantee they will send them in time for your deadline (athough most will)
Problems with phone:
  • Scientists may ask you to send quotes back to them before publishing, significantly reducing your time and meaning they may edit out everything you stood to gain by doing the interview over the phone i.e. spontaneity and naturalness
  • You'll need to transcribe the interview or at least type up the relevant bits
  • You may end up with misleading comments/inaccuracies if the scientist is better at articulating him/herself via written word
And finally, scientists are busy people too. You can't expect them to read a paper at a moment's notice and get back to you within the hour. Which is why you should start early and give as much time as possible if asking for an interview or comments. You may be able to get on with writing up the more explanatory bits of the copy and incorporate the independent comments nearer the end. Of course, if it's an analytical piece, this may be more difficult.

One further point that has less to do with the actual process and more to do with good journalistic practice is that you probably shouldn't keep returning to old sources. If I already have a contact who I know has absolutely the right scope of expertise and I'm really pushed for time then I may ask them, but I don't like asking the same people more than a couple of times - if every time I wrote an article about nanotubes I used the same independent expert it would make for a very one-sided view of the field.

3 April 2009

Prime numbers are probably the root of all evil

Did anyone see the Horizon programme on Wednesday with Alan Davies and Marcus Du Sautoy?


For the first five minutes I thought it was going to be one of those oooh look how exciting maths is, er, but actually it's really boring-type programmes. "I know loads of people that hate maths and think it's really boring, but I want to show Alan, show everyone in fact, that it's a wonderful, exciting subject," said Du Sautoy, about 30 seconds in. Which made me terribly suspicious.

And honestly, despite being a scientist and self-confessed geek, maths is not something that has ever pushed my buttons. (I wasn't one of those people who did maths A-Level for fun; I did it because it went with biology and chemistry quite well - and I wasn't really thinking when I handed in the form. I was 16 for Christ's sake).

Anyway, after 15 minutes, Mr Hayley and I were absolutely hooked. The pairing of cynical Davies with the bouncy, infectiously enthusiastic and ever-so-slightly camp Du Sautoy was genius. But what really sealed the deal was the prime numbers...

Oh those prime numbers. They'll be the end of us.

So this German guy called Bernhard Riemann apparently made a graph of prime numbers. It looks a bit like this:

Which makes sense (hoorah!) 'cause there are loads of small prime numbers (on the left - 2, 3, 5, 7, 11, etc etc) and they occur less often as you go higher.

BUT, the really freaky thing is this... according to Du Sautoy, the same distribution pattern has popped up all over the place, including in the distribution of electrons in uranium, in bus arrival times in a little known Mexican city and - wait for it - the distribution of parked cars in modern day London. And it was at this point that Mr Hayley and I practically jumped out of our seats. "WHAT?"

And THEN, Du Sautoy proceeded to show that if you take a quartz sphere hooked up to an oscilloscope and hit it with a ball bearing, the electrical signal you get also matches this pattern. Sorry, but. No way.

Does everyone know this? Why aren't we all running around looking for the solution? Surely this makes prime numbers the answer to life, the universe and everything? Wait, no, that's 42. >> 19 days left to watch on iPlayer - do it!

23 February 2009

Rapidly turning into a film blog but...

Must just congratulate James Marsh on his Oscar for Man On Wire - one of the most fantastic pieces of storytelling I've ever seen.

Well done.

And poor ol' Benjamin Button walks away with a measly 3/13, "all in the technical categories".

9 February 2009

Curious face of Benjamin Button

I went to see the much revered Curious Case of Benjamin Button last night.

[Plot synopsis: Brad Pitt is Benjamin, a boy born with a strange condition that makes him grow progressively younger. Cue collective sigh as Pitt recalls Detective David Mills in Se7en and J.D. in Thelma and Louise, all in one film.]

I must admit that I spent a lot of time gaping at the awesome special effects (hold on for the science bit), but in no way did this spoil my enjoyment - after Pitt put on a pair of shades and jumped on a motorbike, I barely gave the technology a second thought.

So, some rather clever sciencey types must have contributed to the camera trickery on this one. According to fx, the real life Pitt doesn’t even feature until 52 minutes in. So how did they do it? Good question.

There are some videos here that explain the whole process but essentially it involves getting your face painted green and standing under flashy lights. Well, actually it's a bit more complicated than that...

1) Cover face in make up containing phosphor.

2) Film under very fast flashing lights - on camera, the audience sees only light.

3) In the dark intervals, the camera picks up the green glow from the phosphor.

4) Use computer jiggery-pokery to capture shape of glow.

5) Use more computer jiggery-pokery to edit shape of face, making it look older/younger.

The important bit is that the powder covers the entire face. So, for comparison, to create Gollum in the Hobbit, the graphics people made a model of his head and stuck around 1,000 "control points" to it that would enable them to track its movements and recreate them on a computer. And if you think of all those "making of" programmes where people walk around in black leotards with big white bobbles stuck to them, that's the general idea. Except, using powder means you create a lot more points - 10,000 in fact - without feeling like you've just walked out of an alternative therapy procedure. So you get better resolution and, no doubt, better performances.

23 January 2009

Obama's blog

Obama has a blog... so if his policy on new media is anything to go by, I'm pretty hopeful. Although I'm still waiting to read his first post - it seems minions have been directed to keep the thing up-to-date for the moment. (I guess he's probably got better things to do).

Come on Mr President! Where's your top ten favourite types of biscuit? Where's the You Tube video that had you in tears of mirth over mid-morning coffee?

Also: this Studio 360 podcast features some great conversation about Obama-mania ("he's just a man!") and messages left on Obama's voicemail. I particularly liked "Well, bye then Barack! Love you!"

22 January 2009

Geek Pop

So I guess it's about time I blogged something about Geek Pop. Media enquiries have been flooding in and I can barely keep up, what with conference reports and articles to write in the mean time.

Well, what is there to say? It's all happening again, just bigger and better - mostly due to the fact that we got ourselves organised in September this year instead of... oooh, er... about two weeks before the festival. Which means we've had time not only to put together a fantastic line-up, but also to arrange 'green room' interviews with some of our artists and even set up a festival merchandise stall, where festival-goers can find pin badges and 'Science Rocks' mugs - I should point out that we're not doing this to make a profit (Ha! If only!), just to put some money in the kitty for Geek Pop '10. Well, and also... we wanted our own pin badges. Mine arrived yesterday and I have to say: they're pretty awesome.

Anyway, Geek Pop is taking up most of my spare time at the moment, even with a team of three of us on the case. So if anyone wants to help out, just send us an email: crew@geekpop.co.uk We're in dire need of some CSS help - if you don't know what that means, you probably can't help, I'm afraid.

And finally, some of the ways you can interact with Geek Pop...