Category Archives: Science in the Public Eye

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butter, gin and tonic, and the internet and complete security of my information* but as ever, this stereotype is lazy, out of date, and does no justice to those casually dismissed as a result.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/