5 April 2014

Events this summer

Last year, my fellowship commitments and impending baby meant that I had to turn down speaking engagements for a while. This was horrible, because I love to talk. Luckily (for me, not you), I am back in action this year. You can catch me first at the wonderful How The Light Gets In Festival in Hay-on-Wye on 30th May, talking about big data with the fabulous Kenneth Cukier and John Horgan. Better still, this event will be moderated by Laurie Taylor, whose Radio 4 Thinking Allowed podcast is one of the nicest things on my iPod. At 5pm the same day I'll be hosting an afternoon tea, for a bargain seven quid (cake and drinks included), where you can continue the debate. Tickets are available on the festival website.

I've also helped organise this year's UK Conference of Science Journalists, which will be on 18th June at the Royal Society in London. The two sessions I'm involved in there are on creative broadcasting (with the fabulous Sue Nelson, Brady Haran, and Mohit Bakaya) and another on successful freelancing. It will be a great networking opportunity as well as a learning experience, so please do register online. There are scholarships available to students.

If you've ever wanted to dip your own toes in the world of popular science writing, like I have (join me, the water's lovely!), then for a mere 99 quid you can learn all about it. The successful and prolific popular science writer Brian Clegg is heading up a science writing masterclass for The Guardian on 25th May. I'll be offering my own two cents, too, along with writer and former publisher Simon Flynn. You can book your place on the Guardian website.

In the meantime, next Saturday I'll be at QED Con in Manchester with a shedload of skeptics. Hope to see you there!

30 March 2014

Why do we have the menopause?

When my editor at The Observer suggested I do a story about the menopause, I'll admit, I didn't know what to say. To my shame, it's not something I'd ever thought about. That in itself, I learned, is part of the problem. There is very little menopause research out there because it's a question so few scientists think about. And yet it is one of the most fascinating mysteries in biology. Here we are, the product of millennia of penny-pinching evolution that has ruthlessly left us with little in our bodies that we don't need... and yet women across the globe live forty or fifty years past childbearing age. Why? To learn more about the debate, you can read my story in today's paper, or for free online.

3 March 2014

Geek Nation, now out in simplified Chinese

Should you ever find yourself wanting to read my book in Chinese, then you now have two options. A Taiwanese publisher translated it a couple of years ago, and now there is a new second version out, in simplified Chinese. And it has what I think is a strong a contender for most entertaining book cover in the world (who is that guy in the turban in between Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg? He just looks so mysterious…). It's worth it, for that alone. As yet, I have no idea where you would go to get a copy, but I'm sure you can find it in all good Chinese bookshops, Alternatively, send me all your money and I'll post you one of mine.

8 December 2013

How smart are babies, really?

The baby scene at the end of 2001: A Space Odyssey. This is what it feels like to be a parent.

One thing nobody can explain to you when you're expecting your first child is just how earth-shatteringly miraculous babies are. My son is now five months old and not a day passes when I'm not overwhelmed by the fact that an organism that didn't even exist fourteen months ago has been able to develop into such a complex, animated person. It feels impossible that the meaning to the universe doesn't lie in his little head.

So, it beggars belief that scientists have been so slow to turn to babies when trying to understand humans in general. For my latest feature in The Observer, I've been looking at baby research (inspired by a visit to the wonderful Babylab at University College London, which you should also sign up for if you happen to be a parent of a young one). And what has surprised me the most is just how new the whole field is. Until as late as the 1960s many people assumed that babies were just very stupid adults. We now know that's far from the truth. In fact, some researchers think that they hold the key to understand intelligence.

To find out more, please do pick up this Sunday's Observer. And, as always, please do let me know what you think.

5 October 2013

No, you can't approve my copy

Prompted by a comment on the last blogpost, I felt the need to write a quick explanation for scientists of why it is not OK to ask to see articles before they're published.

About a year ago, I was on a train when I received a fairly nasty call from a scientist who I was profiling for a magazine, asking why I wouldn't allow him to check my copy before I sent it off to the editors. "It's my article," he told me on the phone. "No, it's not," I replied, much to his surprise. What he failed to understand was that an article about him, that included his thoughts, didn't actually belong to him. For him to read it and have approval would mean I'd be unable to criticise him or his work (whether I wanted to or not). See, that's journalism.

Yes, I know much science journalism merely explains a piece of research, a discovery or an idea, so I can understand researchers' desperation to make sure their thoughts are accurately expressed... but fact-checking stories can easily slide into censorship. Which is why I personally believe it is unethical to give copy approval, and why it is unfair for interviewees to ask for it. Incidentally, the above scientist later apologised, after he checked with his colleagues and they confirmed that he was in the wrong.

2 October 2013

Scientists vs science journalists

The difference between science journalists and communicators? Journalists don't smile.

I had a fun evening last night at a debating festival called the Battle of Ideas, as one segment of a roundtable discussion on science and society, with a distinguished panel of writers, journalists and thinkers. I don't know how the organisers do it, but they always manage to pick the ideal mix of participants to get a heated argument going. And last night, ours revolved around whether the public can trust science. As usual, when this topic rolls around, the media got a good ole bashing (it's not scientists' fault that we're misinformed, it's the media's!). I take great exception to this. Having met and interviewed my fair share of researchers, I can tell you, they can be as manipulative, money-grubbing and dishonest as the rest of us. I'm not sure why we would expect them to be anything else. Those hyped-up press releases that get sent out by universities aren't pulled out of thin air.

One problem is that science journalism and science communication are conflated. Communicators (TV and radio stars like Brian Cox, Jim Al-Khaili and Alice Roberts, for instance) are a friendly conduit between scientists and the public, essentially working on behalf of researchers (and often from within the scientific establishment) to help people understand science better. Journalists are supposed to be more adversarial, interrogating scientists' claims and motives, and any policy responses, with the aim of finding truth and clarity. Sometimes, as the Association of British Science Writers' Connie St Louis has pointed out many times, the press and broadcasters are so busy communicating, they lose the point. We science journalists should be no more on the side of scientists than political journalists are on the side of politicians.

The merry band of science communicators, bloggers and skeptics who cheerlead for science don't always understand that scientific truths are provisional, and that they're only alienating the public by bolstering divisions between science and the rest. When researchers turn out to be wrong (Andrew Wakefield, who started the MMR vaccine controversy, for example), they're dismissed in hindsight as "bad scientists". Well then, how is the public to know who the good ones are? It's easy to think of the scientific method as perfect. It is, after all, the best system we have for understanding the universe. But so long as humans are the ones practising it, it never will be. Scientists do deserve our respect, but they also require us to constantly challenge them. That's my job, and I really do wish it was more valued.