10 June 2015

When smart people think stupid things

The last 24 hours have seen a phenomenon that occurs quite often in scientific circles: distinguished man of science reveals that he is actually quite sexist. In this case, it was Nobel Prize-winning, fellow of the Royal Society and biochemist Sir Tim Hunt. At first nobody quite believed that he would tell a roomful of female journalists, scientists and engineers at the World Conference of Science Journalists that women researchers so bothered him with their crying and romantic tendencies that he thought they should just be kept away in female-only labs of their own. But then he repeated his thoughts on the Today programme this morning on BBC Radio 4. Perhaps the most incredible part of his rambling comments was his fear that women in labs "fall in love with you".

Coincidentally I received a phonecall yesterday afternoon from a friend of mine who had been overlooked at work again in favour of a much-younger, less-experienced white male colleague (she is neither white nor male). On the verge of tears, she told me that she couldn't stand it any longer. This is what sexism and racism feel like, every single day. Tim Hunt, I imagine, can't possibly know the burning shame of realising that you are being held back by your sex or your race. It is soul-draggingly awful. In an instant, when you experience it, you learn to empathise with the legions who went before you in history and suffered the same injustice. All you wish, then, is that your own children never have to feel the same.

Also by coincidence, the Association of British Science Writers released its report yesterday on sexism in science, based on a survey of its members (including myself). Please do read it, if only to see that things are far worse than you may think. Kudos to City University science journalism lecturer Connie St Louis, who both highlighted Tim's comments and was a driving force behind this report. She has supported me in my career (and I'm sure countless others), and is a perfect example of someone who is not afraid to call smart people out when they think stupid things.

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)

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 20th July. 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!