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!

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.