Monthly Archives: May 2013

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?