Archive for the ‘Events’ category

A Wild Night Out – Uncaged Monkeys in Cambridge

May 17, 2011

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.

A quick update of what I have been up to

February 25, 2011

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!