Is that right? How do we know?

Posted September 24, 2011 by sciencecarol
Categories: Politics

Tags: , , ,

Yesterday a story suggesting that “Einstein may be wrong” hit the headlines. Apparently scientists at CERN have done some experiments whose results can only be explained by relativity theory being incorrect. Or by their experiments/interpretation/understanding of results being incorrect/flawed. But they’ve repeated the experiments many times and now they don’t know what to make of it all.

Presumably, being world-class scientists employed at a reputable institution, they’ve tried to find every other possible explanation apart from the one now hitting the headlines, and this is why they’ve opened their results up for debate by the wider community. Saying that one of the kings of physics may have been wrong is one thing, but contradicting a theory that explains almost all that we “understand” of physics is another. Apart from anything else, how embarrassing if they are wrong!

Some people have suggested that of course the CERN scientists must be wrong. But this is hardly a scientific viewpoint, rather, to me, it smacks of the kind of inviolable faith that we see normally in religion; belief despite the evidence or lack of it. I’m not going to talk about science and religion today except to say that when discussing science we should look at it in a scientific way, not a faith-based one.

I certainly don’t know if the experiments concerned are flawed or not, and I never really understood relativity theory anyway. But part of me hopes that their findings cannot be explained by using current theories, and that this is not due to any flaws. After all, this is how theories are improved and science is advanced.

When I was in school, I learned that scientific method consists of first observing, and recording accurately what you observe. You must then try to make inferences about what is occuring based on your observations and then form a hypothesis which can be tested. If your hypothesis stands up to experiment then your theory can be considered adequate, until a new set of observations which do not fit with the theory. Therefore, I’d argue that the only ways in which you can be wrong in science is to incorrectly record something or to hold blindly to a theory which does not fit the observed results.

This discussion is also pertinent to a group of Italian vulcanologists currently being sued for negligence because they failed to correctly predict a catastrophic event in which people died. If you think about it, they are being sued because their theory was incorrect. But if it was based on the best available evidence at the time, then how is this fair? They were surely only negligent if they failed to take into account information that could have been relevant and even then, it would have to have been evident to a third-party expert that the information was relevant as it’s often necessary to exclude outliers and noise in order to formulate an initial theory effectively.

It seems that people expect science to provide black and white answers, whereas in fact all we can ever do is give our best current opinion based on the available evidence. It may be that this fact is not adequately conveyed to the public, in schools, etc. Learning science is not like history, where you learn a set of known events and dates, nor like a language, in which lists of vocabulary and grammatical rules can be learned, along with the exceptions to those rules. Rather it is a way of thinking and understanding things.


A Wild Night Out – Uncaged Monkeys in Cambridge

Posted May 17, 2011 by sciencecarol
Categories: Events, Reviews

Tags: , ,

I can’t remember where I first heard about Uncaged Monkeys and their visit to Cambridge. I do remember that I had never heard of the Radio 4 comedy Infinite Monkey Cage on which this live show is based. And a good job too – generally I don’t like R4 comedy so this might have put me off.  I just saw the announcement of the line-up headliners: Ben Goldacre, Simon Singh, and Brian Cox, and thought that this muct be a fantastic opportunity to see three top speakers locally and in a great venue (I love the Cambridge Corn Exchange and its odd-shaped roof which invokes so much history). My husband had even less idea than I did what I was dragging him along to, not having bothered to read past “Science show”. I can safely say that we were both pleasantly surprised by what we saw.

Robin Ince was the host and warm-up act for the evening. He is also the main presenter of the radio programme but this meant nothing to me at the time. His comedy was focussed largely on his small child’s understanding of the world and other, less scientific jokes. As a warm-up act he worked well, though I would not go and see a show that sold itself purely on his humour.

Professor Brian Cox was pretty good. I have to confess here to having a personal and irrational  dislike of him, though I do think think that a lot of what he does it good science communication. And he didn’t flick at his hair once during this show, so perhaps someone has told him how annoying that habit was! But he was funny and covered some really hard-core science which almost had me believing that it is worthwhile spending money on the LHC (just not such a big proportion of the science budget) to allow us to find out more, not only about how the universe started, but how this might apply to and affect our everyday lives now.

Dr Ben Goldacre I’ve heard speak before, and read his Bad Science book. While he’d obviously modified his talk for this event, it did not contain a lot that was new to me. I did learn, however, that he started life as an epidemiologist, which perhaps explains his love and deep understanding of statistics. I am a fan and regularly read his column in the Guardian/blog etc. However I do wonder if it is really so well named. At the risk of being pilloried for quoting Bon Jovi songs, Bad Medicine might be a better name for his work as most of it is medical or health-related. Which is fine, he is a doctor and should talk about what he knows. But it would be nice to see someone else covering the rest of science – maybe he could bring in some guest writers.

Simon Singh probably needs no introduction either to anyone reading this. For me personally, his talk was probably the highlight of the show, though I did enjoy all of it. He concentrated on codes and codebreaking, as per an early book of his. However he clearly knows a lot about a lot of things, as seen in the Q&A session. If you’d read his book I suspect you wouldn’t have gained too much from what he said, but I had not. He started his show by busting the myth about music played backwards having secret messages in it, in this case “Stairway to Heaven”, and continued by pointing out that people who find hidden messages in e.g. the Bible are just finding what they already know and want to believe. All good points, and fairly obvious really when you think about it. I am not sure that he would have convinced the message-finders though, as they will believe what they want anyway.

Helen Arney is a self-styled geek rocker, the musical interlude of the evening. Her songs mostly contained jokes for scientists rather than science. I don’t know how much she will be able to sell as I felt that once I’d heard and laughed at the songs once, I wouldn’t need to do so again. But as a slot in this show she was a welcome change of pace and fitted in well with the mood of the evening.

Adam Rutherford is apparently also a TV presenter, amongst other things. I’d never heard of him and was amazed at how young he appeared. His show was entertaining and educational and covered genetics but it seemed unnecessary to poke fun at people from Norfolk in order to get laughs.

Professor Steve Jones  was the “guest” speaker of the evening. As Rutherford admitted that Jones was his ex-supervisor I was not clear why both of them were invited to talk. Jones seemed to be the epitome of a slightly absentminded scientist although he’s clearly spoken in many prestigious quarters and now appears to have taken up broadcasting too. His delivery was more scientific and less comedic than Rutherford’s, which for me personally provided some balance to the evening.
The Q&A session part way through was probably unnecessary. It was in any case only applicable to those on Twitter as this was how questions were posed. And given the mixture of people in the audience I’d say that less than half the audience was Twitter-enabled. The questions were mixed and although it provided some humour, most of it wasn’t of a very high level. Cox was the only one of the questionees to take a very simple question and inject some deep fundamentals as well as clear explanation into his answer.

I may be biased, though I felt that the range of science covered could have been more comprehensive. We had a lot of biology (Jones, Rutherford, Arney), physics (Cox and Ince), maths (Singh) and medicine (Goldacre). But what about chemistry? Perhaps there are no chemical comedians…
Overall I would highly recommend this tour to anyone who has not yet been. Beg, borrow, or steal tickets wherever you can. Individually the speakers would also be worth seeing, but the chance to catch all of them at once should not be missed. I will also be tuning in to the Infinite Monkey Cage in the future, at least to see if it is better than traditional R4 comedy.

Who do you trust? And why?

Posted March 21, 2011 by sciencecarol
Categories: Politics

Tags: , ,

“In God we trust”, or so they say. Nice, if you truly believe that there is some kind of all-knowing, all-powerful being out there who has your best interests at heart, and who can send you signs telling you what is going on. If you don’t believe any of this (and I don’t), then who can you trust? And where can you go to get information that you know is accurate?

Not this blog, that’s for sure.

Not that I would intentionally lie to you, I want to make that clear. But this blog gives my opinion, and those of others who comment on it. Some of this will be backed up by fact. But if you want real, true, hard facts, a blog is the wrong place to go looking for them.

Ok, so you don’t go to a blog. But maybe you look for the answer on the internet? Use a famous search engine or ask a question in a forum. Maybe you look up the answer in a book, or ask a friend. You could ask a teacher, a doctor, a librarian, a scientist or other expert, depending on what your question is about. You could watch a TV programme about it. Or stop someone on the street and ask them.

What I am trying to get at is that obviously there are very many places you could go to get answers to your question. Some of these are probably more trustworthy that others – would you take the answer given to you by a passer-by over that of a teacher? Probably not. But most people would tend to believe their friend over a random stranger. Even if, unbeknownst to them, the random stranger might actually be a top expert in that very subject, whereas their drinking pal is not. It’s probably human nature, we spend time with people we like, we trust them more. We surround ourselves with people who we like and who have similar backgrounds, training, and beliefs to ourselves. And we trust these people over strangers. Which in the end means we trust our own judgement over that of others.

I’ve had countless conversations about various “non-scientific” groups such as climate change deniers and religious groups. Some members of these groups claim that belief is more important than what you can tell from the evidence. This is an inherently unscientific claim as all good scientists know that your hypothesis must be testable and you arrive at it by making educated guesses (inferences) based on your observations. If there is no evidence there is no  inference and no hypothesis to test. But it is not necessarily wrong – there may be things happening in the world for which we (currently) have no reliable evidence. Personally though, I would tend to regard ideas for which there is evidence as being more likely to be correct than beliefs for which there is no evidence.  

Another important side of this is whether you can or should believe someone when they tell you something. Governments tell their people something and expect them to believe and obey – like the Japanese government right now telling the people it is all safe and not to panic. Advertisers tell you that their product is best. Scientists tell you not to believe in ghosts. Your doctor tells you to cut down on fat. Your friend tells you it’s all a big consipracy and not to believe any of them. So who do you believe, and why?

Some people or agencies have earned our respect previously, by doing good work or by making pronouncements that have subsequently been proven to be truthful (particular charities). Some have a more mixed history (governments). Some we just want to believe because the alternative is too awful (climate change deniers).

As a scientist I want to engender trust in science and other scientists. I believe that, in general, what is peer-reviewed and published represents the best of our knowledge about a subject. (I say in general because, as many of us know, peer review and publication do not guarantee trustworthiness – think cold fusion, etc). I put my trust in the community-based checking mechanisms that ensure that only the truth is put out there. If I see a news story about science, I ask “where has this come from, where are the papers published?” and until I know the answer, I reserve judgement. Well mainly, anyway. As a human, if I see a story I want to believe, and think is likely, I will probably believe it anyway, especially if it comes from a source I trust. Except the BBC on April Fool’s Day.

Chickens and eggs

Posted March 4, 2011 by sciencecarol
Categories: Uncategorized

Tags: , , ,

Which comes first, the love of science or the understanding of it? In my opinion this is a bit of a chicken and egg situation. If you do not appreciate and understand how amazing science is, why would you want to learn more about it? And if you do not learn about it, how can you appreciate its true wonders?

I recently had a discussion in which I defended the importance of scientists going into teaching. I’ve also been doing quite a bit more in the way of public engagement type activity, as some of you may have noticed from my last post about the British Science Association event. I started this because I think it is important to ensure scientific literacy and appreciation in everyone, kids and adults alike. My experience and observations doing it have been great, and they have been thought-provoking.

Many of the comments we’ve received during the science-busking events we’ve done have gone along the lines of “Better than science in school”, “I’m really into science and this is great”, “Why don’t we learn about this in school?” Many adults assumed that the event was aimed at their kids and not for them, because “Science is for kids, it’s something you learn in school”, which is a shame because what we are trying to show is how vital science is for everything that you do, it surrounds us and is integral to our lives. Now you can argue that the busking is not the best way to reach the adults, and this may be right, but the attitude still persists and must, I feel, be addressed.

Science teaching is really important because it contains the message about the significance of science in everything. But the way that science is taught in many schools (especially due to over-zealous health and safety concerns) means that the wonder and amazement is difficult to convey. I’m not an expert in education and I don’t have direct answers to this, but I am sure that is would help if impressionable minds could be impressed with amazing things that science can do. It would also help if parents believed that science was important and conveyed this attitude to their children. It might help if science was not just one lesson in a list of english, maths, french, science, PE, etc. Science comes into all of these subjects and could be demonstrated in all of the lessons rather than as a rather abstract thing to be  learned by rote. There have been various attempts to do this and I am sure that some of them are successful. As I said, I’m not an expert. But you can tell by the state of society today and the media in particular, that many people have no interest in or understanding of science. So what’s going wrong?

Instead of targeting the kids, we could start with the people in charge, those with the power to make a difference. Ask them to promote the importance of science, and the importance of having a future generation as well as a current generation of scientifically literate people. They don’t all need to be scientists, but understanding the scientific method will help in so many ways in different parts of society. But if science continues to be taught in a way that makes it difficult to be enthusiastic about it, none of this will have much effect. We will just be imposing dull lessons on our kids, who will probably then hate science forever.

And how do you convince the policymakers etc. of the importance of something that they have hated since childhood and that only a minority wants to study?

As ever I would love to hear what you think – do we aim to start with the chicken or the egg? Or something entirely different? And what is the most effective way for one person to make a difference in this regard – should I write to my MP (who seems most uninterested in scientific questions in general) or go into teaching? (this is not a serious career-change question as I would make a terrible teacher but as a means to make a difference it certainly has potential).

A quick update of what I have been up to

Posted February 25, 2011 by sciencecarol
Categories: Events, Portfolio

Tags: , , , ,

First of all, I’d like to apologise to my readers for the ridiculously long absence. I have been busy – honest. A lot of what I have been doing involved helping to organise things for the British Science Association National Science and Engineering Week – this event that we are running in the Grafton Centre, Cambridge should be very exciting. We have lots of new (to us) experiments on the (loose) theme of communication. Do stop by and see what we are up to if you are in the area.

It being the start of spring, I’ve also been busy in the garden. Sort of science, sort of muddy fun….

And finally, I have written and published several nice stories on various topics (but mainly graphene):

How to spot monolayers – Question: how can you tell if your boron nitride layer is a monolayer or two or three layers overlaid? Answer: with this easy Raman technique developed by graphene kings Andre Geim and Kostya Novoselov’s group.

Gold nanoparticle network growth – metal nanoparticle systems are being used extensively and increasingly in biological, chemical and physical studies, so understanding what makes them tick is really important.

Bionanoelectronics – no Frankenstein –  a neat summary of how bioelectronics is being used today and how it will/could/should revolutionise the world tomorrow.

Graphene tracks for aluminum trains – I thought this was cool. Basically a graphene surface was modified with electronic contacts such that a cluster of Al can be moved along it and even made to turn corners on it. (And an apology for the spelling of aluminium here – Wiley require US spellings so that is what I used – but I particularly dislike this one!)

Speed dating for pharmaceuticals – a computational study that could be really handy for those med chemists trying to find the best way to deliver drugs (or ways to repatent old ones) – it calculates the strength of all hydrogen bonds in the crystal of an active component and a co-crystal partner and comes up with what would make the most likely partners.

Hope you like these, enjoy!

More Nano-News and a Merry Xmas to all

Posted December 23, 2010 by sciencecarol
Categories: Portfolio

Tags: ,

A round-up of some more stories I wrote for Materials Views recently:

DNA Fragments Throw Light on Nuclease Activity A neat use of carbon nanotubes. Not sure how widely useful it will be but I liked the simplicity for this system. It’s always more appealing to have a visible change in detecting something invisible to the naked eye.

Nano is Super: How to Make Supercapacitors from Nanomaterials New approaches to energy storage and transport are definitely required if we are going to solve the energy crisis. Instead of thinking how we can solve problems using small improvements to existing methods, it can be more useful to think of new ways to approach the same problem, which is what these guys have done.

Nontoxic Nanoparticles yet another blow for those who side with Prince Charles and believe that nanotechnology will kill us all.

I want to thank all the readers of my blog over the past year for taking the time to look in and see what’s going on. I’m especially grateful for any comments or feedback. It’s nice to see that there are others interested in the view from the Giant’s shoulders, and I haven’t fallen off yet either! Merry Christmas and all the best for 2011. May it bring lots of good science and even more good communication of that science.

Is Chemistry the Key to Sustainable Living? – A Review

Posted November 28, 2010 by sciencecarol
Categories: Politics, Reviews

Tags: , , ,

This was a debate held by the Royal Society of Chemistry at the flash, newly renovated Chemistry Centre in Burlington House, Piccadilly.

The main speaker was Dr Mike Pitts from the Chemistry Innovation Knowledge Transfer Network, with Professor Tom Welton (Imperial College) and Bob Crawford (Unilever) backing him up in the subsequent debate.

Obviously his answer to the title question was yes, as Pitts admitted straightaway, otherwise the whole thing would have been rather pointless.

Pitts was a striking speaker, perhaps surprisingly for a scientist; he really knows how to communicate in non-scientific terms,which is just as well as this event was billed as a policy event and hoped to attract a broad audience. In the end, though the Chair of the House of Commons Select Committee on Science and Technology was present, there did not seem to be many other notable individuals present, and the audience mainly consisted of RSC staff, interested members and students, and the odd visitor from another learned society. I realise that the RSC deliberately kept the invite list small but the room was half empty in the end and it seemed that the event could have been more widely promoted.

I didn’t learn much new from the talk itself, which went along the lines of “here’s the doom and gloom” then “here are some generic ways in which we can change the way we think about chemistry to solve the doom and gloom”. Pitts focussed on the scarce natural resurces aspect of things; rare earth metals and carbon and other “poorly managed elments”, but also covered water and biodiversity (no explanation of how chemistry can help with the latter, though).

His solution, in general, was an interesting one that will, however require a great deal of change in the way society behaves. He proposed that we should not think so much about individual products and think instead about their overall life cycle. This was not just in terms of those designing them, though he was keen for designers and chemists to collaborate more together, but in terms of what we as society buy. He believes that in the future we will buy a service rather than a product, for example, for the experience of using a washing machine, rather than simply buying and owning a washing machine. This service would then cover “cradle to grave” of the machine rather than the current situation which covers cradle to point of disposal.

Such a way of viewing things would certainly enable and indeed encourage service providers to think more about the way they design products to make them recyclable etc. For the user, such a usage scheme could mean a seamless service even when things go wrong (and encourage longer-lasting products in the first place). But the fundamental tenet of this view is that the users would not be the owners of the “things”, simply the users. It would be like renting your TV in years gone by. As much as I like this idea personally, I am not sure that our highly capitalist, keeping-up-with-the-Joneses society is ready to own less. I’d be interested to see how this could be put to the man on the street in a way that would actually make him buy it.

Chemistry can certainly help to achieve this goal but it is going to take a lot more than chemistry to make it viable. Psychology, marketing, and probably policy decisions in parliament too. Scientists have been trying to change people’s behaviour for years with the dire warnings about global warming etc. It is going to take more than that to get us to alter our comfortable lifestyle in which we own houses, cars, furniture, white goods, etc.