29 April 2010

Thinking beauty

I spent last night at the Science Museum in London, pondering the question of beauty. Why is it important to us? How do we know who's beautiful or not? The cosmetics company L'Oreal had organised an evening of talks and exhibits exploring these types of questions, including a debate entitled, Does Beauty Matter? Of course, humans have tried to beautify themselves for millennia, with dyes and paints, combs and brushes, oils and soaps etc, and there is lots of research that suggests that the reasons we do all this is to make ourselves appear healthier and more attractive to potential mates, as well as giving the impression that we belong at the top of the tribe.

One interesting point that did come up, however, was whether intelligent women find beauty as important as other women. One of the editors at Marie Claire, which the moderator described as the "thinking woman's glossy magazine" insisted that they did. Certainly, all my successful and clever female friends care quite a bit about their clothes and makeup. What we do feel, however, is that the less we appear to care, the more intelligent people think we are. It's an issue that I explored in an earlier blog post: Are women under pressure to look less beautiful in order to be taken more seriously?

For years, people have thought there might be an inverse relationship between beauty and intelligence, but in fact a piece of research a few years ago suggested that the opposite could be true... A pair of sociologists claimed that brainy people tend to earn a higher status in society, which wins them better-looking mates, which in turn produces both brainy and attractive offspring. It makes sense, but it still doesn't answer the question of whether brainier people also take more time and care over their looks. It is something that brands like L'Oreal and magazines like Marie Claire no doubt struggle with. What do thinking women want?

12 April 2010

The geek Venn diagram

I should have anticipated it, but I didn't... When I was travelling around India researching Geek Nation, I assumed that everybody knew what a geek was. Sadly, a few people didn't. Not only that, some actually thought it was a derogatory term (I mean, being a geek is chic now)! The founder of the technology giant Infosys, Narayana Murthy, who is perhaps the geekiest man I have ever met, only reluctantly admitted to me that he might be one.

To be fair, 'geek' is a difficult term to define. Is it the same as nerd? Or dork? It means different things to different people, but surfing the Great White Snark blog, I have finally stumbled upon a Venn diagram that explains the differences, and places geeks exactly where they belong in the social map:


As you can see from the intersection of intelligence and obsession, geeks have two useful qualities that nerds, dweebs and dorks also share, but without the negative quality of being socially inept. It's a good thing. I hope that's clear.

6 April 2010

Vote for science and engineering

And they're off! Gordon Brown has launched the 2010 UK General Election train. I don't care what people say about British politics being dull... I worked as a TV producer at Millbank a few years ago, and quickly learned that Westminster is the strangest, wackiest place on earth. Power makes people weird, and it is also what makes election time the one time that we ordinary folk can really twist the arms of our politicians to get what we want. With science and engineering having slipped way down the list of government priorities, elections are an opportunity to get those power-hungry parliamentary candidates to do our bidding and change things.

So as well as of course voting, please do check out some of the wonderful campaigns that science bodies are running. The Royal Society of Chemistry has put together 8 questions for you to ask your prospective MP, and the Royal Society has called for the government to fund science to save the economy. Lots of universities and research bodies have also got together to found CaSE, the Campaign for Science and Engineering in the UK, which is stepping up is lobbying efforts now.

2 April 2010

Being a better journalist

I am linking to this post very late (three months late in fact), but I was reading through the excellent blog of Adam Westbrook today - a journalist who embraces media in all its forms - and he gave some great advice on New Year's Day about how to be a better journalist in 2010. I've been freelancing for exactly a year and a half now, and based on my experiences, I completely agree with him. His main points are to keep yourself in the game by updating your skills, keeping yourself constantly busy with new projects, and setting new targets, however audacious. I would also add that new skills in themselves are not useful unless you practice and master them. Nobody is going to commission you to produce a film just because you took a course but then never bothered making a few films for yourself. And nobody will ask you to design their website if you learn only the bare bones of HTML and Javascript.

On the bookshelf in my study is a framed quote, commonly attributed to Goethe: 'Whatever you can do or dream you can do, you can. Boldness has genius, power and magic in it.' Now that isn't to say that you can be like Einstein or Mozart, but with enough practice and hard work, there's little reason why most of us can't do most things. So don't bemoan the journalism industry downturn... Be brave, and make the most of the new world out there.