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I’m a Moderator, Get Me Out of Here!

23 Mar

Over the past couple of weeks I’ve been helping out with I’m a Scientist, Get Me Out of Here – a science engagement project that takes place via the magical medium of the internet.

The two-week event sees scientists being grilled by hundreds of schoolchildren around the country. The students are assigned to a zone (e.g. “Space Zone”, “Quantum Zone”, “Energy Zone”) in which they can send questions to five scientists, as well as taking part in live chats. During the second week, one scientist is voted off each day, and each zone’s winner receives 500 shiny pounds to spend on a science engagement project of their choice.

My job as moderator was to help manage the questions and make sure the live chats ran smoothly (at least, as smoothly as you’d expect when a class full of hyperactive schoolkids is let loose on the internet). For this event, there were eight zones, plus another six zones in a sister project running for the first time (I’m An Engineer…). This meant A LOT of questions and live chats. In fact, working on the questions was sometimes like painting the Forth Bridge – you’d put a batch through only for the students to send through 50 more.

But the sheer brilliance of the questions prevented this from ever getting boring. There were questions about flying pigs, questions about ethics, questions about juggling, questions about Super Mario, and lots of questions about bodily fluids. There were questions about whether or not the world is going to end (general verdict: probably not anytime soon), and questions about whether or not aliens exist (general verdict: possibly, but the universe is so big that we might never meet them).

And there were also some brilliantly unique questions that only kids could come up with – the sorts of questions that are simple and profound at the same time. Here are some of my favourites from the past two weeks (click on the images to read the scientists’ answers):

Is there a gene for liking or disliking marmite?

Where does time go?

Is it true you can die from a broken heart?

If a turtle loses his shell is he homeless or naked?

For more great questions, read this lovely blog post by Adam Stevens, winning scientist in the Space Zone and one half of the legendary Team Tash.


‘Out of this World’ at the British Library

21 May

A science fiction exhibition opened yesterday at London’s British Library: ‘Out of this World: Science Fiction, but not as you know it’. I’ve not been yet, but some of the items on display sound rather intriguing, such as the Codex Seraphinianus book – a visual encyclopedia for a fictional world, written in an (as yet) undeciphered language. The illustrations are legendary. With copies of the book very hard to come by, I was chuffed to find the entire thing online – praise be to internet citizens for their unfailing industriousness!

A drawing from Luigi Serafini's 'Codex Seraphinianus' book (1976-1978)

Here are a couple other favourites from the exhibition website

The Martians from H G Wells’ 'The War of the Worlds', illustrated by Henrique Alvim Corrêa for the Belgian edition (1906)

A Tony Roberts illustration for 'Spellsinger', a series of fantasy novels written by Alan Dean Foster

‘Out of this World’ runs until September 25th 2011, and entry is free.

Screen Culture

10 May

I just finished watching this webcast of a très interesting talk given at the Oxford Internet Institute last month by Susan Greenfield, entitled ‘Does the Mind Have a Future?’.

Susan Greenfield at the Oxford Internet Institute, April 2011

The story is that by spending more and more time interacting with screens, rather than other human beings, our brains may be adapting in new ways. Greenfield picks up on one positive effect (higher IQ), and a whole load of negatives (e.g. shorter attention span, less empathy, lower sense of identity).

I don’t know enough about psychology or neuroscience to make an educated comment, but it seems a no-brainer than someone who spends every day reporting their life on Facebook / Twitter is going to miss out on some pretty important features of human interaction (body language, physical contact, eye contact, etc.). On the other hand, I doubt a quick blast on FIFA 2011 or Call of Duty could do too much harm.

When Stephen Fry gave his thoughts on social networking, I loved his comment that certain people were worried when the postbox first came along, because a daughter could send love letters to her sweetheart(s) for the first time without having to pass by her father. Maybe all these fears about information technology’s long-term impacts will prove to be similarly unfounded. Or maybe not. In any case, Susan Greenfield’s talk is really thought-provoking. Right…better finish this blog post before another brain cell dies!

[Webcast] Baroness Susan Greenfield – Does the Mind Have a Future?

Review: Uncaged Monkeys in Birmingham

6 May

This week saw the start of the Uncaged Monkeys tour – the first ever national science tour to be let loose on the British public. Robin Ince (co-presenter of Radio 4’s ‘Infinite Monkey Cage’) is the host, and he’s joined by Simon Singh, Ben Goldacre, Helen Arney, the ‘Peter Andre of particle physics’, Brian Cox, and a smattering of other sciencey people over the different dates.

A tribe of monkeys (photo: Richard Freeman at Glasgow Comedy Festival)

I watched the Birmingham leg last night at the Alexandra Theatre, a curious, timeworn place where you expect Ken Dodd to jump out from behind a curtain at any minute, waving his feather duster. The theatre was completely sold out and busier than Berlusconi’s bedroom. Maybe it’s the Brian Cox effect – two girls sitting behind me were discussing whether to hire the binoculars when he came onstage. Either way, it felt a long way from my undergraduate physics days.

The Uncaged Monkeys in cardboard cutout form (

The master of ceremonies, Robin Ince, is a very, very funny man. I’d quite happily pay to see him perform his own stand-up show. But last night was all about the science, so on with the boffins. First up was Ben Goldacre, who gave a talk based on his ‘Bad Science’ book about medical scandals, drug trial farces and Daily Mail scare stories. A lot more fun than it sounds, especially when he laid into TV nutritionist ‘Dr’ Gillian McKeith and talked about signing up his dead cat, Hettie, for the American Association of Nutritional Consultants.

As expected, Brian Cox did the wide-eyed ‘Wonders of the Universe’ thing that he could probably do in his sleep by now. This man seems to have a superhuman ability for memorising long numbers, and all credit to someone who can explain both relativity and the Standard Model in five minutes without batting an eyelid. He also played this clip of Carl Sagan describing the ‘Pale Blue Dot’ image, taken by Voyager 1 as it looked back towards the distant Earth – really beautiful, humbling stuff.

Simon Singh kept on the astronomy/cosmology theme with his Big Bang talk, as did Helen Keen with her irreverent overview of the Space Race (conclusion: we owe our space successes to Nazis and Satanists). The other Helen, of the Arney variety, provided an awesome musical interlude in the form of ukulele songs about animal sex rituals and Countdown presenter envy. Just a normal night at the theatre, then.

Simon Singh and the glowing gherkin (photo: Richard Freeman at Glasgow Comedy Festival)

Science in a theatre worked surprisingly well. OK, so the production values were virtually non-existent (the nearest we got to special effects was Simon Singh electrifying a gherkin), but the presenters and their Powerpoints were alone enough to captivate the audience for the full three hours. Bells and whistles obviously aren’t needed when the subject matter is this mind-blowing. Or maybe that was just the effect of Prof Cox’s velvety tones…

Celestial Music

13 Mar

It’s easy to forget that our bodies are constantly being breached by extraterrestrial particles. Luckily for us, these particles are tiny and have the same kind of effect as raspberries being thrown at Jupiter. Our invisible invaders result from high-energy cosmic rays, created by stars (including our Sun) and other lesser-understood sources outside the Solar System. On meeting the Earth’s atmosphere, these cosmic rays collide with atmospheric molecules to generate showers of particles (‘secondary cosmic rays’) that can travel to the Earth’s surface. If we happen to be standing in their way, the particles zip through us before continuing on their immense journey across the universe.

Cosmic Ray's in Futurama (Wikipedia fact of the day: in the non-fictional New York City, there are over 40 independent Ray's Pizzas. One pizzeria owner was so fed up with this omnipresence that he established 'Not Ray's Pizzeria'.)

Over the past few years, Charlie Hooker, a professor of sculpture at the University of Brighton, has been using cosmic rays as an unlikely source of inspiration for his installations. The video below describes his ‘Timeline’ exhibit, an audio-visual installation featuring two drums being ‘played’ when hit by cosmic rays. Inside each drum, a Geiger counter triggers a sound sample every time a radioactive particle is detected.

More recently, Charlie Hooker has adapted this idea to other instruments. His ‘Audio Accompaniment’ installation, part of an upcoming John Cage exhibition at the De La Warr Pavilion (see the flyer below), uses a MIDI-controlled piano. The keys of the piano move in a ghostly way to produce sound each time a cosmic ray is detected, creating unpredictable flurries of random notes and harmonies.

John Cage: 'Every Day is a Good Day' exhibition, at the De La Warr Pavilion (April 16th - June 5th)

In theory, any electronic instrument could be triggered using a similar method. The possibilities are endless…maybe it won’t be long before we see an entire orchestra conducted by cosmic rays.


24 Jan

Beginning tomorrow (25th January) at London’s National Theatre is a new play, ‘Greenland’, that explores the issues around climate change. According to the website blurb, the production “draws together several separate but connected stories into a fast-paced and provocative new play.” The play was co-written by Moira Buffini, Matt Charman, Penelope Skinner and Jack Thorne, who spent six months researching the topic in the worlds of  science, politics, business and philosophy. A series of events have also been organised in tandem with the production.

Recently, climate change-related art and media projects have been cropping up all over the place – the Nordic RETHINK and British Cape Farewell initiatives are two examples. ‘Climate change theatre’, however, has seemed slow to get going. I guess it can’t be easy to create dramatic tension when the subject of the play is essentially a statistical trend that evolves on (at least) decadal timescales. Nevertheless, this article highlighted a recent spate of green plays that received a good critical response, so maybe it won’t be too long before we see a certain Lloyd Webber soundtracking the collapse of Larsen B.

Projects such as ‘Greenland’ open up new audiences to the big climate debate, and that can only be a good thing. Climate change is probably the area of science that stirs up the most controversy in the public domain. Ironically, it is also one of the topics that scientists most agree on…a study by Anderegg et al. (2010) found that “97–98% of the climate researchers most actively publishing in the field support the tenets of ACC (Anthropogenic Climate Change) outlined by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.”

This gap between scientific agreement and societal bewilderment is complex (maybe a question for psychologists?). However, scientists are increasingly being encouraged to come down from their ivory towers and communicate their results. After all, the general public’s understanding of climate change is formed by the media, not by specialist studies in scientific journals. Climate controversies such as the ‘Climategate‘ hullabaloo at the University of East Anglia demonstrate how the media can influence the public perception of scientists (and their work).

So hopefully this new play at the National Theatre will get people excited, help switch focus back to the important issues, and ignite some interesting debates. And hopefully the real life climate change drama won’t end up as a tragedy. Performances of ‘Greenland’ run from January 25th – April 2nd 2011.

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