Nerds – We All Are Really

Nerds and being “uncool”. Pairings such as this seem perfectly natural, like bread and butter, gin and tonic, and the internet and complete security of my information* but as ever, this stereotype is lazy, out of date, and does no justice to those casually dismissed as a result. I am reliably informed by a certain web-based encyclopaedia that the word “nerd” had its origins on the streets of Detroit as a synonym for square in the 1950s, setting it up as a denouncement of anyone who didn’t fit comfortably into a social group in their own right. 

And somehow along the way, many more defining characteristics were incorporated into the nerd archetype, including a passion for science and technology, a lack of confidence when it came to the emotional omnishambles that is Finding A Partner, and an infatuation with the fantastical, be it futuristic worlds or a fictional universe of elves and warlocks. Even ignoring the number of childhoods made miserable by the social exclusion that came with being a nerd, that this stereotype still exists is a terrible shame. The point is missed, by a country mile that, on some level, we’re all nerds.

Worth writing off online RPG World of Warcraft’s 8 million subscribers?

Take the tired cliché that someone must be “uncool” to be fascinated by science; that being able to, say, derive Einstein’s field equations of general relativity is necessarily paired with an introverted personality; this is simply not the case. From the six million people following the I Fucking Love Science page on Facebook, to the worldwide reportage of the Higgs Boson discovery at CERN last year, scientific literacy and enthusiasm is increasing all the time. People have never been more excited about progressions in science and technology, with new medical techniques that could save lives at a fraction of the cost or astounding plans to colonise other planets consistently being big news stories. The only thing that an interest in science indicates is a curiosity about why things work the way they do in the world around us, which can hardly be described as a negative quality. As for the mild trauma associated with working out whether someone likes you enough to do the whole “sex” thing, anyone arguing that this is only a problem for nerds is either a cretin or taking the piss.

Another much-generalised area of life that tends to go hand in hand with the nerd stereotype is the science-fiction and fantasy genre. Even the briefest glances at box office profits and TV viewings will confirm that this it is nothing if not mainstream; of the ten top grossing films worldwide, seven come under the sci-fi/fantasy banner. And if you haven’t heard someone in your social circles discussing that episode in Game of Thrones, then its because you’re probably still reeling from the shock after watching it and haven’t managed to leave your room yet.

As soon as you finish your first Discworld novel, or sit through 2001: A Space Odyssey you begin to realise how these works are about so much more than space ships and special effects; more often than not, you’ll find an entire philosophy neatly packaged within. The consequences of the increasing rate of technological progression; the moral ambiguities that arise if artificial intelligence is realised; the politics of a world where drugs are vital to the running of the entire economy – these can all be found within the sci-fi and fantasy genre because it allows a complete removal from our normal experience. It allows the “what if?” questions to be asked, answered and conveyed through an easily-accessible medium . These departures into sci-fi often don’t qualify as fully-fledged philosophical thought-experiments, but they tend to take on very deep themes and can be much more insightful than they are given credit for. Any post-apocalyptic landscape presented is an exploration of various routes humanity could take if it all but wiped itself out, while nightmarish police states question the ultimate end-point of modern politics. Too much is lost in the assumption that graphic novels or Comic-Con are solely for puerile adults unwilling to commit to “real life”, rather than understanding that the passions often come from a connection with material that has moved someone emotionally.

Comic-Con draws the crowds in San Diego in 2012

Regardless, whether you decide to write people – or a group of people – off because they’re a bit too much like someone out of the The Big Bang Theory†, or they seem a bit too interested in an obscure collection of Lego Star Wars figurines, you’re getting something fundamentally wrong and, more importantly, you’re missing out.

*Got to work hard to keep the NSA happy these days.

†The author neither condones nor finds funny said television program, and the reference was made purely to illustrate a point.

Adventuring in Switzerland

Let me begin this blog with a list of some things which it is not:

  • It is not a description of my infatuation with science-fiction and how this links to my interest in science itself.
  • It is not a defence of sci-fi or an attempt to blow away the stale stereotypes that are wheeled out when the limelight is thrust upon it.
  • It is not a slightly distracted amble into feminist territory as I get carried away with myself and how far-reaching my generalisations go.

I had planned to ramble on about these topics (with an appropriate amount of witty anecdotes), but I somehow found myself taking an impromptu trip to Switzerland this weekend and haven’t yet been able to give the subjects the time they deserve.

However, feeling that I needed to cling to some sort of scientific credibility, I did manage to visit the European Organisation for Nuclear research, better known as CERN. Tours around its 27 km-long particle accelerator, the Large Hadron Collider, were fully booked for months in advance but there were two free, permanent exhibitions on show that did credit to the institution’s ability to communicate very abstract topics in an entertaining manner.

The Universe of Particles and CERN showing off its piping

The Universe of Particles and CERN showing off its piping

The Universe of Particles was first: housed in an appropriately futuristic sphere, my first impression was both one of wonder and a sense of “Fear and Loathing”-style trippyness. A darkened room with only neon globes to light the way, it quickly excited my inner child and I found myself running from sphere to sphere to see what they had to offer. Each one displayed facts¹ about the organisation, explaining a little about the different areas that were investigated in Geneva. A few had cushions inside that you could curl up in and listen someone explaining the wonders of the universe. All very immersive stuff.  I was pleasantly surprised to find that the exhibition didn’t focus entirely on the media-friendly Higgs Boson, but also mentioned CERN’s less publicised work. This included dark matter – the invisible, undetectable stuff that theoretically accounts for the fact that we can’t find about 95.1% of the universe’s mass – and the imbalance between matter and antimatter² at the beginning of time that allowed stars and planets to condense from the Big Bang.

My younger self was screaming incoherently at this point.

Suddenly, the lights dimmed even further and five screens appeared on the walls and floor. What followed was six minutes of intense music, weird CGI-d images of fundamental particles zipping across the room and a female voice-over that sounded very similar to that scene in The Lord of the Rings. Needless to say, I felt exhausted afterwards.

Microcosm was next. This was a more conventional look at the evolution of CERN over the years, with a few areas disappointingly out of bounds for renewal. Nevertheless, it was very impressive, highlighting how incredible leaps forward in computing power have occurred there due to the sheer volume of data necessary to process. There were also mentions of the fact that the internet was actually created at CERN by Tim Berners-Lee which is pretty damn impressive. Well done Tim. After that, a few obligatory appearances from Brian Cox in the short films on show there and were all that were needed to satisfy my physics needs for the day.

There is, of course, more to Switzerland than just CERN, but I have very little understanding of anything of a geographical nature so it might be best to end there. More elaborate adventures (from less exotic locations) next time.

¹Never factoids. What the hell is a factoid? Is is somehow not quite valid enough to justify the “fact” moniker? Is it too inconsequential to regard it as a truth? Please justify yourselves! My spellchecker recognises it and it doesn’t even recognise “spellchecker”. Ho hum.

²For every normal particle, there is an antiparticle with the opposite charge that will annihilate with its partner producing a flash of energy. That bit of energy could have been you, if the laws of physics had been different.

DNA: You’re Doing It Right

Or: wrapping up salmon semen

When I started out, I justified this blog’s creation by imagining that I would try to make the process of science a bit clearer. This would involve describing what actually happens in that murky void between some clever sod having an idea and the media wildly exaggerating them. In my head, this was inevitably accompanied by self-aggrandising metaphors: imagine beacons lighting the way for lost souls desperate for enlightenment and you’re in the right ball park. All I appear to have produced, however, are a few introspective musings, perhaps better described as sputtering gas flames when it comes to how illuminating and insightful they are. To remedy this, I thought it would be useful to explain what I am doing in Grenoble, as this might just constitute something worth reading.

Ludicrous dreams and badly-thought-out metaphors

My position at the Institute Laue-Langevin (ILL) is a stagiaire – which I am reliably informed is equivalent to an intern, except for the fact that in France they must legally draw a salary. Thus France gains a green tick in my Big Book of Everything and, as my supervisor quipped, “score one for socialism.”

I have a long-suffering  post-graduate on an Erasmus Mundus masters course looking after me and for the past three weeks, her glorious role has consisted of patiently answering my simple questions and coping with my constant lack of understanding. Eventually though, the mists parted and the gist of the experiment slowly permeated into my consciousness.

The institute has a nuclear reactor which produces neutrons, particles that, along with protons, lie at the heart of atoms. These can be focused into beams that are used to investigate certain properties of materials. The principle of this is relatively straightforward: by looking (closely, with a really big lens, if you’d like a nice idea of what isn’t happening) at how the neutrons bounce off the  nuclei of a material, you can infer a lot about its structure and how it behaves. The actual process involves complex quantum-mechanical treatments of the neutron  and target but, thankfully, that’s a story for another day.

A different sort of Neutron

My supervisor, the masters student and myself are looking into DNA (hence the excitement about it in my last post) and its different forms. Although still essentially the same ol’ double helix, it can exist as  A, B, and Z-DNA. The first two are identical aside from the former being slightly more compact, whereas the Z form’s “ladder” twists in a different direction. The plan is to put some samples in front of a beam of neutrons and see whether we can force the molecules to change between the forms by exerting different pressures.

My first reaction was slightly-less-than-perceptive: “This is pretty fucking cool.” We’re investigating the behaviour of the molecule that codes for every single bit of our bodies. This collection of nucleotides is the reason that life is still hanging on here about four billion years after it started out and what allows you to spend about half of your time awake looking at what other people are doing on the internet; it’s pretty fundamental stuff.

Salmon sperm is a very plentiful source of DNA, so large quantities of this are necessary for the experiment (hence the admittedly attention-seeking subtitle) and it all must be aligned in the same way in order for the neutron scattering to reveal anything useful. It is then necessary to catch these DNA threads on a rotating cylinder in order to fix a large amount of it. While being an interesting mechanical process in itself, it literally takes hours to complete and must be meticulously observed in order for the samples to produce results that we can analyse. When sharing my woes with a friend at the ILL, he nodded sagely,  remarking that about 70% of his time was spent cleaning his apparatus. I clearly have a long way to go with understanding the life of a chemist.

Thanks guys!

After a few weeks of this, my enthusiasm has faltered slightly, especially due to my incompetence when it comes to any manual tasks. The noticeable absence of equations from the work also makes me slightly uneasy, as I’ve developed a habit of fleeing to numbers and data whenever I’m uncertain about something. This is tricky when your day’s work involves trying to catch minuscule white threads with a glass rod while swearing as loudly as possible.

However, we have been granted some elusive beam time, which means an end to the production of DNA samples and experimenting with neutron diffraction for up to 48 hours. Expect posts in the coming weeks to contain a hint feverish excitement with tinges of narcolepsy-induced bitterness.

Continue reading

Tribalism and Blurring Boundaries

As the impending doom of real life draws closer and the prospect of a working week fills myself and my friends’ boots with terror, it’s interesting to watch the way people pigeon-hole themselves, attempting to categorise the type of person they are, or want to become. At university, this results, perfectly naturally, in identifying with people studying the same subject, but tribalism among students is only getting worse. From philosophers arguing that no other subject can bestow the virtues of a critical mind quite like theirs, to business students convinced that market knowledge is all you need in the world, baiting other courses is an enjoyable pass-time. Being no stranger to this myself and all too frequently venting my true feelings on the world’s inadequacies, I thought the phenomenon deserved a few words.

Not an actual tribe, Bruce Parry!

For me, there has been segregation between the sciences for as long as I can remember. Even in the glory days of year seven, when no-one knew precisely what girls were and shocking news consisted of who was Sitting Next to Each Other On the Bus, physics, chemistry and biology were taken separately. This makes a lot of sense at a twelve-year-old’s level; most of the concepts covered tend to be easily defined by one of the three subjects (or, alternatively, the two subjects PHYSICS and STAMP-COLLECTING if you happen to be Ernest Rutherford). As more is understood about the sciences, this simple picture of three discrete disciplines is no longer relevant. DNA is a good place to look at this blurring of boundaries. Due to its role in the evolution of living creatures, it seems to obviously belong in the realm of biology, but describing its molecular nature and properties requires chemistry and its helical structure was discovered by physicists.

Look at a group of science undergraduates though, and you wouldn’t believe there was such a smooth mixing of the subjects. Despite many of my friends being natural scientists (meaning they can drift between different science modules throughout their degree), there is still an overwhelming sense that they belong to one of the major streams and as such, it’s still common to overhear complaints of biologists’ lack of work or the arrogance of physicists when they talk about how important their work is.

While this is usually just harmless chat (or harmless cat, in this case), in the long term, it is detrimental, both to science itself and its audience. In a time where the boundaries of neuroscience are giving us glimpses of an astounding future for the human race and physicists just keep on threatening to come up with grand unifying theories*, cooperation is the only way we’re actually going to progress on, and maybe off, this watery rock. Some of the most exciting advancements in science and technology are appearing at the boundaries and it would be a terrible loss if these were to be neglected due to squabbling and infighting. Additionally, it’s hard to see how scientists wouldn’t lose favour with the public if they were solely seen to bicker amongst themselves. It must be remembered how much research is dependent on the public’s purse and how quickly funding could dry up if pushed.

When I discovered the level of mixing between disciplines at the ILL, and in fact between all the scientific groups at the Polygone Scientifique in Grenoble, I was very happy but not a little intimidated; acorns have grown into huge oak trees, mountains have been worn down to sand (etc., etc.) since I last looked at a  textbook that wasn’t related to physics. Yet I found myself working with a mathematician, in a building with biologists trying to produce samples of DNA using what looks awfully like a chemistry set-up.

This apparatus has been my life for the past seven days.

Got into full scientist mode (w/lab coat + rubber gloves) for this machine

A more in depth explanation of just what the hell I’m doing at the institute will appear in the near future, but for now, suffice to say that I’ve sat and watched a cylinder rotating for far too many hours on a regular basis.

While this integration hasn’t yet led me to flee from the warm embrace of physics, it has given me a much-needed perspective on how science operates en masse as well as an appreciation of those who do this for a living.

*This is often followed by scientists in varying degrees of irritation explaining exactly why said theory will not live up to expectations. An excellent dissection of the last attempt can be found here: http://telescoper.wordpress.com/2013/05/29/the-curious-case-of-weinsteins-theory/

Science in Europe

So, after a few weeks of panicking and a jaunt to Paris to prepare for life in France, I’ve arrived in Grenoble, my home for the next two months. Aside from the sad realisation that I could remember next-to-nothing of my GCSE French (even with my best Del-Boy accent), it’s hard to overstate how simple this transition has been made for me. The process of confirming my place at the Institut Laue-Langevin consisted of a few emails expressing my interest in studying there, and finding accommodation for the time I was there was equally straightforward. It struck me that this needn’t be the case. Given the amount of paperwork which there must have been, I expected there to be a lot more hassle involved with confirming who I was, or even whether or not I was eligible to be accepted. It’s to the credit of both my university and the institute that the process was so uncomplicated. It’s also exceptionally lucky for me, as I sometimes struggle to find my way back home, never mind organise a few months’ stay in Europe.

Two months of thinking I live near the Misty Mountains

This level of connectivity is useful when it comes to any international collaboration, but it is vital in science. In order for research to be conducted efficiently, it must be as easy as possible for scientists to be able to cross borders, whether geographical or political. Otherwise, the variety of perspectives on a problem and disciplines with which it can be solved are instantly lost. The hugely international nature of such institutes as the ILL is reflected in their list of member states and also partly in the advice given to my Russian housemate that he would do well to learn German, French and Spanish, on top of  his flawless English. I was left feeling a bit short of the mark when I realised that j’ai un chat blanc* reflects my current ability with languages.

However, arriving here did make me feel very proud of being part of the European Union (um, politics, right?). I have the luxury of being able to learn from people at the forefronts of their fields in science (and even get paid for doing it) in a country I’ve never been to for more than a few days and this would be hard to imagine if weren’t for the freedom of movement within the EU. Just so you know, voting and retiring here is also very easy for me. Brilliant.

No, I’m not being paid to say this. If I was I’d do a much better job.

This post is obviously lacking depth and/or any real point (I’m hoping to develop the latter sometime before my two months are up), but I thought it was worth reflecting on. As long as everyone steers clear of the cretins behind the “Science: It’s a Grrl Thing!” campaign, obviously.

Look on in amazement and despair.

P. S. All of you guys clamouring for a more concise, and generally better prepared reflection on this should jet on over to Jon Butterworth’s blog page about it. He also has the benefit of knowing what the hell he’s on about.

*I don’t even have a white cat.

Irritable Aside no.1

Being a calm, logical and objective person (as we all so obviously are), spontaneous ranting isn’t really my thing, unless, of course, I’m provoked by a certain three letter acronym beginning with N, ending with S and containing a shameful amount of privatisation in between. However, this is a specific occasion in which I feel my vitriol is justified, not least because it involves advice and practice that is simply dangerous.

Meal deal: newborn child with free advertising.

My brother and sister-in-law had their first son recently, hence becoming the proud recipients of millions of pounds’ worth of advertising intended to convince them to subscribe to various baby products, classes and lifestyles. This is hardly surprising; young parents will do anything if it endows their child with an advantage in what is an incredibly competitive meritocracy (of course success is only related to intellectual ability – that must be what the Bullingdon Club is for) . Thus they are the advertiser’s wet-dream, frantically seeking out advice on every aspect on their child’s upbringing, from which brand of nappies will provide the best absorbency:comfort ratio to the right type of music to play to stimulate brain development.

Unfortunately, due to the sacks of money thrown towards the advertising of such products, it’s rarely easy to find an unbiased, scientific perspective on what is  actually best for your child. This is usually not a problem, especially if it’s remembered that so many “scientifically proven” edicts are closer to fashion trends, with certain recommendations rising and falling out of favour again (see, for example, whether babies should sleep on their front or back, which seems to change as frequently as the Daily Mail’s recommendations on cancer.)

There are still far too many cases where opinions are given that at best have no empirical basis and at worst specifically target the neuroses of young parents in order to sell a particular ideology or, more commonly, product.

My sister-in-law had been invited to listen to a nutritionist give a talk on good eating habits for babies that needed to get accustomed to solids after being weaned. It’s worth noting at this point that, unlike “dietician”,  “nutritionist” is not a legally protected term in the UK, meaning that there is nothing to stop someone printing a certificate off themselves and deciding that this justifies their every word on the matter. At this point, Peep Show and Jez’s dubious Life Coach qualification springs to mind

Coaching your life for as long as you dare.

The nutritionist had come to the conclusion, presumably after a few days of theorising, that pasteurised milk should be avoided when weaning, it being much healthier to go straight to the source and drink raw milk.

The absolute inanity of this recommendation is hard to overemphasise. Pasteurisation, the process of heating milk to significantly reduce numbers of bacteria present, has been preventing food poisoning and disease ever since it was discovered in the 12th century that heating wine could increase its lifetime. Pasteurisation prevents diseases such as tuberculosis and diphtheria spreading and kills nasties such as salmonella, staphylococcus aureus and  escherichia coli (the bacteria your mum warned you about, not the elusive good bacteria that the European Food Safety Authority struggled to find in probiotic drinks). These are incredibly dangerous and when it comes to an infant who is only just beginning to encounter pathogens in the real world, every precaution must be taken.

The deluded notion that any processing of food must in some way make it less natural, removing it from the life-giving embrace of Mother Earth, is always to be avoided. The logic presented in these instances tends to refer to mysterious chemicals or general “goodness” that is lost or, worse, actively taken away by the meddling hands of science. This is generated by nothing more than a suspicion of unknown practices and a willingness to accept romanticised ideals of a more rural time. One thing that such nostalgics seemingly fail to remember is how high child mortality used to be, even a few hundred years ago, and how its current low levels probably are strongly related to not letting our food get contaminated with bacteria.

Fortunately, my sister-in-law knew better than to take such advice, but the fact that people are still willing to take time out of their day to spout such rubbish is terrifying.

Introductions, Introductions…

Hello.

You are the internet. A gargantuan, frothing heap of constantly changing information, communication and cats. You document some of the greatest leaps in intellect since some slightly disorientated apes decided that walking didn’t seem such a bad idea after all, while ensuring that anyone can have the entire works of Shakespeare at the touch of a button (virtual or otherwise). You’ve also slowly taken over our lives, allowing us spark riots or condemn men after physically speaking to precisely no-one within a few decades. You are what makes us feel like we’re in the future. So this introduction is quite an important one, I feel.

I am a man (but don’t hold that against me), studying physics at undergraduate level in London. I occasionally attempt to contribute to other intelligent conversations in a bid to convince myself that I’m a Well-Rounded Person, but find myself starting to veer towards quantum information or 3D printing and hence, veering back towards the kitchen after a room’s worth of blank faces.

Science – as seen in Real Life™

This blog was quite a spontaneous decision that followed my flatmate’s proposal to write about her placement, but personally I think the narcissistic impulse to talk solely about myself for an extended period of time would have won me over sooner or later. The logic that led to this being created was a bit convoluted but essentially followed three simple steps.

  1. I know a bit about science
  2. I still don’t know what the hell “being a scientist” really consists of
  3. I would like someone to tell me what the hell “being a scientist” really consists of

1. I like science (yeah, this is going to come up a lot). It really is fantastic, from the historical um-ing and ah-ing of the natural philosophers, through the unfathomable leaps forward in almost every section of science during the renaissance and arriving at where we are today, paradigm-shifts and technological revolutions to boot. I like hearing people talk about it, whether it’s a new discovery that has popped up on someone’s news feed, or a new “moral issue” raised by a questionable publication that needs to be looked at rather more closely, it’s genuinely satisfying to listen to someone rambling on about something that interests them. And a huge part of why I got into it in the first place boils down to pictures like this:

*Only to be read in a mancunian accent

Oooh, look at the stars.

Either in spoken form, from my parents, or teachers or watching documentaries, this sort of imagery got me hooked. The “EVERYTHING YOU KNOW WAS BORN IN A STAR” talk, or the “YOUR BRAIN IS A BUNDLE OF NERVES AND CHEMICAL REACTIONS THAT CONJURES UP CONSCIOUSNESS” revelations – all in capslock. I was captivated and began to find out as much as I could about well, everything, subsequently become a massive pain to anyone who knew me.

2. This is obviously brilliant. The fact that there is a concerted effort to evoke strong enough reactions from children to get them into science for life is almost a wonder in itself (leaving the current disregard of the humanities aside – that deserves a hell of a lot more time spent on it than one self-centred blog). However, once I found myself Doing Science (in reality meaning as much as Doing Admin or Killing Time), I realised I still had very little idea about it. Aside from a few anecdotes in lectures, I had nothing more than the stereotypes of lab coated, glassware-wielding people looking intelligent to guide me as to what being a scientist actually involved. If I were to take television seriously, I would expect a lifetime striding across the continents, mingling with Brian Cox and David Attenborough as I stumbled across new wonders. I was unaware of even the process of becoming a scientist; of course I knew you needed a few letters here and there after you name but other than that, it was shrouded in mystery, and seemed far too much like the training of a terrible kung-fu B-movie protagonist.

On location, where else?

3. So, after (very fortunately) being allowed into France’s Institut Laue-Langevin (ILL) to follow real, live scientists around as they fire X-rays and neutrons at various objects, I decided to document my experiences, in the hope of, perhaps, making it more evident what a young scientist actually gets up to in this day and age. It might well have some actual reliable FACTS in it, but will also (hopefully) be interesting to see what life is like in these sorts of institutions.

Now, that wasn’t so hard, was it?