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[Me]

Touring Britain bit by bit with a pair of boots, a few bicycles, a lot of trains and a bag of lenses. I take pictures and then I write about them.

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Mon, 11 Oct 2010

Science Is Vital!

Science Is Vital!

Yesterday, a couple of thousand nerds got together outside the British Treasury to preemptively protest the cuts to publicly funded research that are expected to be announced in next week's "comprehensive spending review". The rally was part of the Science Is Vital! campaign organised by Jenny Rohn, The Campaign for Science & Engineering, and a bunch of others.

Super-strings not shoe strings Down with this sort of thing.

It was another fun day out, with fancy dress, singing and dancing, models of the planets, chemistry kits, and some fabulously nerdy puns on placards. Not the sort of protest that scientists are well known for.

Science Is Vital!
Science Is Vital!

The scientists had been shocked into leaving their labs by the across-the-board cuts that our young government likes to remind us at every opportunity are absolutely necessary to save the economy and civilisation in general. Lib-Dem business secretary Vince Cable, whose department and budget (for reasons not obvious) include responsibility for most of the country's public research funding, had previously accused British scientists of the crime of producing work that was not excellent (merely "significant"), and warned science that under his leadership it would have to produce "more for less".

Ben Petra Boynton

So in part, the protesters motives were (understandably) selfish. They had their (poorly paid) jobs and (difficult) careers to worry about. Science isn't an industry that's easy to mothball, even for just three years, and expect to be able to switch it back on exactly as it was before once the economy has recovered. Research is about projects that take years to complete. With research in Germany and China rapidly growing, and with those countries seeking the expertise of ready-trained foreign scientists, our scientists could just go to another country. And with the private-sector always in need of the skills that scientists have, they could instead go and seek better paid and easier jobs in another industry. They don't want to leave the country or leave science, but they will. And once they go, they can't come back.

Colin Blakemore

And in part the protesters were here to highlight science's achievements: why the voting public trust and value science -- the cures for cancer and the internets and the time machines. If I've counted correctly, 32 Britons have won the Nobel Prize for physiology or medicine -- between them their discoveries have saved countless millions of lives and immeasurably improved the quality of our lives. Everybody in the country knows or has known somebody suffering from a horrific disease -- a cancer or dementia -- and they won't look kindly on the man who cuts the hope of a cure.

Timandra Harkness Feed The World!

But mostly, the scientists were here to highlight the sheer absurdity of the idea that cutting research spending will help the national economy. When our best researchers are forced to go abroad to continue their work, they will take with them all of the knowledge that they would have shared with our students and businesses; they will take with them their patents and start-up companies; and they will take with them the overseas students that our universities increasingly rely on. The harm that this will do to our high-tech economy will be much deeper and much longer lasting than any beneficial effect from science's share of any spending cuts (leaving us yet more dependent on our erratic, inefficient and untrustworthy banking economy). This was a plea for evidence-based policy making to a government that has so far announced a whole lot of rash and irrational policy -- something that everybody in the country is going to want to join in with as the Tories get happy with the slashing over the coming months.

Pig Headed

More photos of the protest.


[Tag] Tags: budget cuts, events, london, politics, protests, science, uk, westminster


Mon, 28 Dec 2009

Extract

Here are a couple of short extracts from a piece I started writing in the summer on the subject of research fraud. One day I will find the time to pick up work on it again. By this stage in the story is has been established that the narrator is a European student, the setting is the Midwestern United States, and "Jeff" is the narrator's boss, an Assistant Professor.

It is a banal coincidence that Sabriena and I celebrate the anniversary of our birthdays on the same day of the year.  The day happens to fall in the second week of August, nine days after Kate and my arrival.  Aside from Sabrina herself, the only person who wished me a happy birthday on that occasion was the large bored desk clerk at the Social Security Administration.  Kate and I had taken the afternoon off and the bus downtown to queue up for an hour in order to receive the magic number that opens up the exciting possibilities of bank accounts, pensions, and legitimate salaries.

And so I turned twenty standing in a queue just so that a clerk could fill in some forms on my behalf.  Afterwards, Kate went out to spend the evening exploring the downtown area of the city; for me, however, finding out just how soulless and depressing that city centre is would have to wait for another day.  I had to ride the bus back up the hill to the university.  I had been asked to.  Well, not exactly asked to.  It was simply assumed that I would.  Jeff had already given me the work to do.

When I arrived back, shortly after five, Sabrina was still working too.  Working rapidly but with great skill.  Transferring micro-quantities of liquids between millilitre Eppendorf tubes with a speed and accuracy that was thrilling to watch -- a skill that I would soon acquire myself.  Sabrina had two young children and a birthday dinner appointment that she couldn't miss.

I had no such excuses.  That would be the first day that I would work through to eight, and it would not take long for this to become normal.  Jeff seemed like a nice enough guy, just a little hard working, hard driving, and ambitious.  I was fine with that; I might have to learn to say "no" if ever I found myself with other things to do, I thought, but otherwise I didn't mind the work.  And he was friendly and jolly with everybody.  He shared jokes about the latest publications with the professor emeritus who sometimes toured the building in his wheelchair.  He shared jokes about last night's basketball with the cleaner.  The kind of person who, when he asks you how you are, you don't even notice that he couldn't care less.

So I found myself spending an evening in the cramped and crowded culture room, one of several small rooms that doubled as a partition between our half of the wing and our neighbouring lab.  This room, ten feet by eight, was stuffed with two incubators, similar in size and design to the standard upright fridge-freezer, and two great laminar flow cabinets. These latter devices provide a a metre by half-metre working space with a glass screen and aperture to insert one's arms, surrounded by an array of bulky nineteen-eighties machinery for maintaining the correct pressure and airflow for sterile technique.

I wasn't alone, of course.  Often I would find myself last to leave the laboratory, but as often there would be somebody still to bid goodnight to at seven, eight, nine o'clock.  On this occasion it was the post-doc Earl.  He was occupying one of the cabinets, processing fresh surgical explants ready for his experiments.  I silently gave thanks to be working with a long immortalised population of cells, happily growing suspended in nutrients in a jar, free from the grisly details of life in a complex multicellular organism.  I settled down where the fresh flesh -- the bloody fatty cancerous lump -- would be out of sight.

Over those three hours or so of repetitive mixing of liquids, swirling of dishes, counting of cells and centrifuging of tubes, Earl and I chatted.  About our projects and our governments, the places and the people that we knew.  He was a proper American, from Biloxi Mississippi.  Wide and freckled, bald and bearded and southern-accented.  An educated liberal, of course – everyone was.

And we talked about the lab and its people, past and present.  We talked about the prof, Adam, who had been born Adolf in 1930s Germany; the other post-doc, John, from Oregon, who rose at four each morning to ensure that he could always be home for dinner with his daughters; the students, Sabriena and Tanya, and Kara and Billy who had married in Vegas; Pam the laboratory manager; and Jeff.  It wasn't the first time that I had heard stories about Jeff.  But up until then the advice had been vague, delivered with a smile and a wink.

Earl took no such trouble.  He was never rude to Jeff, but he was the only person I had seen return Jeff's charm with a blank face that asked "why the fuck is this guy still talking to me?” Jeff and Earl talked about politics in exchanges that would be described as "robust".  As a reaction to his Chinese upbringing, Jeff had fallen to the opposite extreme of American libertarianism, and he was probably the only academic in the building who had supported the war.  But Earl didn't hate Jeff for his politics.  He could handle robust exchanges.

It was hypocrisy and shallow charm that Earl hated.  The way Jeff talked to Sabrina when an experiment failed.  The pressure that he put on her to work late and not see her children, when he was driving home to his own.  And it was the loss of the previous laboratory manager, Joannie, who had been under Jeff's management.  She had quit without giving notice after only a few months of it, and nobody ever found out the exact reason.  A straw just broke the camel's back, they supposed.  Despite his distance from those events, Adam had at least had the sense to take direct responsibility for Pam when she was hired in Joannie's place. "Don't let him bully you," Earl said.

--

By the end of August, I was largely left to manage experiments and get on with them myself.  I had been taught all of the basic procedures and scribbled notes in a file labeled “Joannie's Protocols”, so Jeff disappeared to his office.  He would occasionally come down to the lab to look at some results, declare them unsatisfactory, and give orders for a repeat experiment, or some variation with a different drug or concentration.  Cell culture experiments take some time.  Not because the procedures are complicated and intensive -- though they can be -- but because cells need to be grown for several days, exposed to drugs for hours and given a day or more for the effect of the chemicals to become apparent; proteins separated on paper need to be incubated with antibodies overnight; photographic films left for hours to pick up faint sources of luminescence; and stocks of cells need feeding at three day intervals – no more, and no less.

The job of the cell biologist is therefore not a nine to five monday to friday affair.  Working at weekends -- just the essential tasks as part of ongoing projects -- is normal.  Everybody does it sometimes.  It was the last saturday in august that I got on my new bicycle and rode off into the heatwave at ten in the morning.  There was an hour of essential tasks to see to, and perhaps some less essential ones, which could really wait until monday, but which involved results that people were very keen to see.

When I wondered in, Adam was making a rare visit to the shop floor.  He stood at the edge of a very large puddle almost shouting at the man in the sleeveless shirt and tool belt who stood beside him staring at the water.  Jeff and Earl were moving soggy cardboard boxes up onto shelves.  Billy had headphones on and was standing in the puddle working and ignoring everything that was happening around him.  Ten minutes later Adam and the facilities guy were joined by Karen, head of the neighbouring lab, who had come to collect her barrel of distilled water from the water distillery that we shared with the rest of the wing.

It transpired that the second-year undergraduate student who did odd-jobs in Karen's lab several evenings each week had set the distillery running the previous evening.  Only that day returned from the summer break, by the time he had completed his other chores he had forgotten about the machine and went home.  Overnight, a gallon of water each hour bubbled over the top of the barrel, tumbled down the sides of its trolley, and slowly spread across the watertight black linoleum floor.  Most of it had accumulated in the little tissue culture room, whose wooden furniture would still be damp and beginning to smell on Monday.

On the Monday morning I saw that undergraduate for the first time. Karen led him in to make an apology to Adam.  Short and shy, he was trying to disappear behind her, but she pushed him out to stand in front of everybody and speak.  I didn't care what damage his flood might have done.  I was far too distracted by his blue eyes, scruffy hair, hint of beard, and the nerdy pun on his t-shirt.  I lent on a bench and tipped a jar crashing over the floor before he could finish his apology. But by then nobody else really cared what damage his flood might have done either.  Reports of the first levee breaches were on the radio and eastern New Orleans was already under water.

Hurricane Katrina destroyed Biloxi Mississippi, and the fungal contamination that grew in the damp tissue culture room destroyed hundreds of hours of carefully prepared surgical explants.  Three days later, while Earl threw piles of flasks and dishes into a biohazard bag, Jeff stood in the doorway of the tissue culture room complaining about the sudden rise in gas prices.  Earl broke his nose, walked out, and never came back.


[Tag] Tags: biology, cell biology, fiction, science, short stories, sociology of science


Mon, 2 Nov 2009

Open doors other side

Charles Quackenbush stands at the far end of the platform, away from the crowds around the shelter at the platform steps; positioned well over the tactile paving and the yellow line.

"The train now approaching platform... one... is the... oh nine... oh four... service to... London Victoria... calling at... Herne Hill... Brixton... and... London Victoria."

The rails begin to sing their high-pitched wail. Charles takes a deep breath and closes his eyes. The rain rolls down his cheeks.

And the train pulls up, beside him, past him, coming to a stop twenty seconds later with Charles stood, eyes still closed, beside the final set of doors. The doors open, and the eyes open, and Charles doesn't really have much choice but to step on board. He'll just have to get off at the next stop and try again.

"Any unchecked tickets please," comes an abrupt shout. "Good morning, sir, could I see your ticket, please?" Charles, of course, has not purchased a ticket. His intention had not been to go anywhere today. At least, not via Herne Hill. He pays the penalty fare and is given his ticket.

Charles steps off the train with the few dozen passengers changing to the Blackfriars line, and casually wonders across the platform as the Victoria train continues on its way. On the Blackfriars platform, the electronic display scrolls a long list of destinations for the train through to Bedford, the reflected lights creating a psychedelic show on a warped and battered advertising display case.

"I'm sorry to announce that the... oh nine... twelve... service to... Bedford... is delayed by approximately... nine... minutes."

Two empty paper coffee cups are caught by the wind. They roll around in circles, catch on the corner and break dance through the eddies, colliding, bouncing violently apart, and hurl themselves from the platform edge. Charles sits on a cold metal bench and stares through the rain, across the track, over the scruffy scrub of the embankment, and out to the twin beige concrete tower blocks looming over them from across the road. "Open doors other side," reads a helpful sign placed high on the chain-link fence between the tracks and bank.

"Open doors other side," thinks Charles. The doors are open for the post-doc on the other side of the lab, whose experiments work, whose papers get published in Cell and Nature, whose smile charms committees and conference rooms. The doors were always open for the guy he lived with during his PhD, who, despite his obvious brilliance, never bothered looking for a post-doc position but within a year of graduating had already accumulated an MBA and a small but cool hi-tech company. Or his friends at Oxford -- the lawyers and bankers; and his friends from school, who had travelled the world, published novels, and were already sending children of their own to the same school. And here was Charles, at the end of a second post-doc, penniless -- personally and professionally -- and not a datum that any sane person would want to publish. His career was over. They would make him take the walk of shame.

"I'm sorry to announce that the... oh nine... twelve... service to... Bedford... is delayed by approximately... seventeen... minutes."

Charles sighs and sits back in the seat, folding his arms and tilting his head. And he sees it. The damp mouldy rope, hanging from the station canopy; one end tied securely around a beam, the other looped and slipknotted . Why? What purpose could such a thing serve? Charles stares at it for a few minutes, wondering how strong it might be. The estimated time of arrival on the electronic display revises itself. Charles hadn't considered this method. Hadn't done his research. It couldn't be a bad way, though, could it?

Charles stands purposefully, steps up onto the bench and balances with one foot on the arm rest. He reaches out and grabs at the rope. A few of the fifty-or-so people on the platform notice the performance, and wander quietly and casually away, so as not to see the finale. Charles places the loop around his neck, takes a deep breath, and steps onto nothing. He swings forward, out over the coffee cups and cracked tactile paving and faded yellow line. The rope creaks, the beam cracks, and Charles falls, pursued by the station canopy onto the tracks, knocking his head on the lip of the platform and rolling onto the dead third rail. Somebody on the platform looks up from their newspaper and screams. A distant voice rings out,

"I'm sorry to announce that the... oh nine... twelve... service to... Bedford... has been cancelled."

Charles lies on the track for a while, panting, while the stars fade. His eyes focus on a solitary white flower in the fence. Bind weed climbing the wire links. His phone rings, and he sits up with effort, loosening the rope that still hangs from his neck. There are some "yeses" and "of courses" and "thank yous" from Charles, and the occasional dizzy and vacant nod. An offer. Not science. Something about writing and publishing and online media; a startup doing something new, something interesting, perhaps. Not science, but an offer; an invitation to do the walk with purpose and a destination and his head held as high as a head could be. A fresh breeze blows down the tracks, drying his face. He nods to himself, and smiles.

Charles slowly rises to kneel, rubbing his neck and knees and brushing dirt from his damp clothes. He pulls himself up onto the crowded platform with some effort; the broken section of station canopy clattering after him. He stands there, staring blankly at the arrival of the oh-nine twenty-seven. Steps aboard, still lost in his thoughts, and squeezes himself in, with his feet awkwardly arranged around somebody's briefcase, and his face shoved into the armpit of a Metro-reading old man. Then he snaps back into the world as lightning strikes a concrete tower and thunder cracks. The train slows. "Apologies for this delay, ladies and gentlemen. Due to a broken train at Farringdon we are being held in a queue outside Elephant and Castle."

Charles takes a deep breath of armpit, turns around, and starts pounding on the doors.


[Tag] Tags: chuck quackenbush, fiction, flash-fiction, science, short stories


Tue, 3 Mar 2009

Creativity and science

Somebody said something rather odd the other day. It was in response to the observation that I know a great many scientists and mathematicians who are also amateur photographers. Their suggestion was that photography was a good way to express one's creative side.

Now, there are a few dozen photographs in my collection that I'm particularly happy with. They are technically competent and have a modicum of aesthetic value. But if they demonstrate creativity is is of the most trivial variety, and in pitiful quanta. That is not to say that photography can not be creative; only that amateur photographers rarely display any significant quantity of it. We create images that have been created before, follow formulas and fashions, and imitate each other's styles. And so what. Amateur anything -- painting, poetry, music and sport -- is about having fun, not about creating world changing work.

Science, on the other hand, has everything to do with creativity. A scientist's job is to replace a package of ignorance with a package of knowledge. Scientists do not create facts -- a task so simple that it is left to the science-fiction writers. Rather, the facts are already there, waiting to be discovered. The task of the scientist is to create the hypothesis -- to ask the question so out-there that nobody has ever thought to ask it before -- and to create the experiment that will test it.

The achievement of Watson and Crick -- determining the structure of DNA -- is often derided by those who rightly wish to celebrate the achievements of Rosalind Franklin. Franklin performed many of the difficult experiments whose results were crucial for determining the structure of DNA. According to some, Franklin was doing clever physics and chemistry while Watson and Crick were playing around with toy molecules. Watson and Crick did eventually get the structure by building a model, with a small amount of trial and error involved.

In reality, Watson and Crick got to the model by being creative. They created ideas and hypotheses from data such as x-ray crystallography and knowledge like nucleotide ratios and properties. They had the creative idea to have the toy molecules built and to cut out the tedious and time consuming experimental work that would be required to fill the remaining gaps by simply trying out variations until they found the one that worked.

Nobelist Harry Kroto does not feel like a great scientist because he doesn't know everything. He enjoys science, but thinks that all he is any good at is designing logos and posters. Harry: your designs are, ah... nice. But your science is where you are creative. And that is why you are a great scientist.

Bugger knowing everything. What fun would science be then?


[Tag] Tags: creativity, philosophy of science, photography, science


Sat, 19 Jan 2008

Experiment avoidance: a short history

I've been reading John Gribbin's In Search of Schrödinger's Cat. He casually mentions the atomic (or, rather, 'atomistic') theories of the ancients -- in particular Democritus. Gribbin accuses historians of science and popular writers of attributing too much to Democritus, whose ideas about the world do not resemble modern physics. I've been consuming quite a bit of history of science and pop-physics lately and can't say I've ever been given the impression that Democritus (or any ancient philosopher scientists) founded particle physics. The historians do credit the atomists -- notably Leucippus, Democritus and Epicurus -- with being unusually modern in their science. But science is not just a body of knowledge; it is a method for discovering how the world works. It is the atomists' approach to understanding the world that is unusually modern.

Rather than looking at the atomists in terms of modern particle physicists, compare them to the other ancient philosopher scientists. The Athenians generally shunned experimentation: though Aristotle is noted for his taxonomic observations, the Athenians were generally happiest with reason and rational thought, and were unaccomplished empiricists. Those in the Pythogorean tradition valued logic and mathematics, but they turned their study into a cult of mathematical superstitions in which the proles were defended from the subversive facts like irrational numbers and dodecahedrons. The approach to science taken by the atomists was one which valued both the rational (what Democritus called "legitimate thought") and the empirical -- though Democritus was aware of the limitations of the senses, and described the empirical as "bastard thought," noting that it must be applied with care. By advocating an empirical and a reductionist approach, the atomists are the intellectual ancestors of the most exciting and productive modern sciences.

This approach to understanding the world was to a large extent forgotten. The Romans picked over the remains of the Athenians, and they synthesised that with Christianity to produce the received wisdom of a millennium and a half. Religion ascended and the endarkenment closed in. The power of science was rediscovered, eventually, and began once again to free people from superstition. But as Carl Sagan asks: where might humankind be today had it never been forgotten?


[Tag] Tags: Aristotle, Carl Sagan, Democritus, Epicurus, Leucippus, Pythagoras, ancients, atomists, empiricism, epistemology, history of science, philosophy of science, religion, science


Wed, 3 Oct 2007

In which I predict death and revolution

From the cult of the amateur to the triumph of miscellanea, a revolution in how we interact with information is in its early stages. I don't use the term "revolution" lightly. You could be forgiven for thinking it hyperbolic, because traditional publishers have been slow on the uptake. If you still rely on traditional publishers for your information, you will not have seen much of a revolution. Sure, you can read the newspaper on the internet nowadays, and leave instant feedback on what you're reading. But "revolution" is a bit strong, surely? Well, indeed. But revolutions do not always happen overnight.

Lets go back to Stephen Fry on Room 101. He wants to consign critics to history. And it's happening, or at least, a shift in how criticism occurs is part of the revolution. Under the traditional model, what is good, what is important, and what is true, are largely dictated from on high. We have some experience of bottom up review -- bestseller charts, opinion polls, television ratings figures, and so on -- but it is usually secondary to the power of the critics. It is not my intention here to argue over the merits and pitfalls of the invisible hand of bottom-up criticism, except with regards to how it might be applied to academic publishing and the peer-review system. Because this revolution is happening, whether the publishers like it or not. And just as I believe the invisible hand of economics needs the occasional slap to keep it from making rude gestures, the invisible hand of criticism needs some discipline and manners if it is to be of any use to us. And thus concludes my tortured metaphor for today.

Continue reading under the fold...


[Tag] Tags: internet, media, peer review, publishing, science, technology


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