10 November 2015

Needless to say, I'm thrilled

The winners of the American Association for the Advancement of Science Kavli Science Journalism awards were announced today, and I'm delighted that myself and my producer at BBC Radio 4, Rami Tzabar, have won the gold prize in the radio category for the documentary we made this summer about birdsong and human language. I was very proud of this piece of work, partly because it took me years to get it commissioned, but also because we didn't shy away from including some of the more arcane (but hugely interesting) explanations of linguistics. Also, my young son Aneurin features at the start of the programme (his radio debut, which just goes to show that he's already outdoing me).

Many thanks to the folks at AAAS. Look forward to meeting the the other winners at the award ceremony in Washington next year!

4 November 2015

A new book is on its way

Quick, straighten out the living room and put the kettle on. A new book is coming! Actually, hold on, it won't be here until 2017.

It's been four years since Geek Nation was published (for those of you who've asked me what I've been up to and why I haven't written another one sooner, I've been raising a baby, presenting some radio shows, and whiling away some time at MIT. No excuse, really). But now I have finally started work on my next book. It's been commissioned by the lovely folk at Harper Collins and tentatively titled The Rediscovered Woman. As this suggests, it's all about women. More specifically, it's about how science has got so much wrong when it comes to women and how that imbalance is now being redressed, giving us a fresh portrait of women. I'm around a third of the way through it now, but it won't be finished until the end of next year, so you can expect to see it in early 2017 (just a year ahead of the centenary of women being granted the vote in the UK).

Like Geek Nation, writing The Rediscovered Woman is turning out to be a personal and illuminating journey for me. I bathed happily in the assumption, for many years, that science was objective. Think again. In fact I've been shocked by the bias I've seen, not just in historic scientific texts, but right up to the present day. Equally enlightening has been the newer work shedding light on women's actual biology and evolutionary history. Researching this book has utterly transformed the way I think about myself and other women (and men), and I hope I can do the topic some justice by getting you to the feel the same way.

I'll occasionally be popping some postcards from my research along the way, here on my blog.

12 May 2015

What songbirds can tell us about language

When I was doing my Knight fellowship at MIT, I met a fascinating man called Shigeru Miyagawa. I was sitting in on his class on Japanese culture, but I learned later that his day job is actually as a professor of linguistics. MIT has some of the world's leading linguists (most famously, of course, Noam Chomsky) and at the time we met, Miyagawa happened to be working on a new idea that promised to shake up the field: that human language evolved from two different layers that pre-exist in nature. One layer comprises simple, grunt-type utterances, or words, which have meaning (like we see in our fellow primates) and the other layer is more melodic and expressive but not really meaningful in itself (like birdsong). He calls this radical idea the integration hypothesis.

My BBC Radio 4 documentary, produced by Rami Tzabar, about his work and the more general idea that birds might help explain the origins of human language aired this morning (incidentally, the baby babbling at the start of the documentary is my son, Aneurin. I dare you not to be utterly charmed). You can catch it online on BBC iPlayer if you missed it, or you can hear it on the BBC World Service in a couple of weeks. If radio is not your bag (what?) then I've written a BBC Earth feature to accompany the story.

Since I met Miyagawa, he's published a few papers on the topic and produced a very informative MOOC for students, which covers the basics of human language as well as the integration hypothesis in more detail. They're all hugely interesting, as is he.

Zebra finch photo above by Maurice van Bruggen.

27 January 2015

Flights of fancy

The Indian Science Congress (if you're not familiar with it) is an annual, general-topic, massive meetup that brings together all sorts of researchers and students across India, often with the Prime Minister or President taking top billing. As I wrote in Geek Nation, this kind of gathering naturally attracts a few crackpots and pseudoscientists, but the Congress very rarely gives them any prominence.

However, a strange thing happened at the Indian Science Congress this year... one of the presentations was about "Ancient Indian Aviation Technology." If you're wondering what this means, it's the mythical belief that ancient Indians flew around in airplanes, perhaps even to other planets (I know, I know...). As amusing as the world press found this, it was a topic I was already uncomfortably close to. In one chapter of my book I went to visit the academy where research into this "aviation technology" takes place. Caravan magazine ran an excerpt for this chapter over the weekend in case you'd like to take a look.

What I found at this academy, predictably, was a bit nutty. The motivation behind it, however, is sinister. To me at least, attempts to appropriate science by religious groups (in this case, Hindus) never end well. The latest resurgence of interest in ancient airplanes, along with ancient plastic surgery and goodness knows what other bonkers myths, are driven by a desire to elevate Hinduism by proving that all knowledge belongs to the religion. These people aren't deluded (well, at least some of them aren't), they're manipulative. They're doing nothing less than trying to whip up nationalism using fake history.

Of course unsubstantiated ideas like these have no place at a scientific conference, but I do hope the derision that followed the Indian Science Congress does at least stop people from trying to force them into schools or universities. More urgently, I hope we start to see these seemingly little acts for what they are: subversive attempts to turn Indian away from secularism.

8 September 2014

Nature, nurture and the other thing

It's very often that I will write a story in which one of my interviewees will have a problem with the others. Contrary to what many people believe, scientists disagree with each other a lot. But when I started writing a feature about epigenetics for The Observer newspaper, I rapidly realised that every single researcher I was interviewing had a different theory or perspective on the subject... some of them so fervently opposed each other as to completely dismiss another's work.

Epigenetics is an intriguing new area of science, looking at how our genes get "switched on" and "off" throughout our lives, producing different impacts on our bodies. A controversial sub-phenomenon, known as epigenetic inheritance, suggests that the epigenetic changes we experience (and may also be responsible for, by smoking or by becoming obese, for instance) may even get passed onto our offspring, their offspring, and possibly generations beyond that. In essence, epigenetic inheritance could constitute a Lamarckian third element beyond traditional genetics (what we think of as "nature") and nurture.

It is a field in its very early days, with exciting possibilities but also an incredible amount of hype. Researcher after researcher has told me that this frenzy has been created by the media (a line I hear almost daily), but in this case I really do believe that scientists, journal editors and funding bodies are themselves largely to blame. Epigenetic inheritance, like genetics, nanotechnology and brain scanning, has become fashionable. That's not to say there's no substance there, but when most of your evidence is in lab mice and you don't have a proven mechanism to explain how something is happening, then I think it's fair to say that people may be jumping the gun. Anyway, it will be very interesting to see how it all pans out.

To read the story for yourself and find out what all the fuss is about, you can go back in time and buy yesterday's Observer, or read it online.

The beautiful photo above is by Melissa Fong.

22 June 2014

What killers can tell us about animals

As data journalists will tell you, one of the exciting things about statistics is that occasionally they will throw up unusual and unexpected correlations. One of the strangest I've come across is covered in my feature in this week's New Scientist. A biologist at Queen Mary University of London, Steven Le Comber, and others have found that criminal profiling software, of the kind sometimes used to track down where serial killers live based on the locations of their crimes, also provides a surprisingly tight match when trying to find animal roosting sites based on where they forage, and hunting animals based on where they've killed. It's a relationship that works across infectious diseases, invasive plant species (and goodness knows what else) as well. Weird, right? I dare not speculate what this tells us about the criminal mind.

(Photo by Fallows C, Gallagher AJ, Hammerschlag N (2013) [CC-BY-2.5 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.5)], via Wikimedia Commons)