Developing world science journalists lose out

The organising committee of the upcoming global gathering of science journalists has made sudden changes to the programme last month, cutting several sessions that focused on developing country issues and leaving journalists disappointed. In recent years the World Conference of Science Journalists has attracted up to half its attendees from the developing world. That seems unlikely now.

Developing-world sessions purged from WCSJ2013 programme,  SciDev.Net, 2 April 2013.

 

I want to be an astronaut

Review of Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog at the Night-time, as part of my #100bookschallenge.

During my time as a demonstrator in Oxford’s historic Dyson Perrins lab, I had the opportunity of supervising a student with Asperger’s syndrome. His name is Edward (name changed), and he is one of the smartest and weirdest student I’ve ever taught. Reading Mark Haddon’s book made me realise for the first time what was going through Edward’s mind in all those hours that we spent setting up reactions, distilling compounds and taking various measurements.

Haddon’s book is a strange but wonderful read. It draws you in by starting with a murder of a dog that is being investigated by a 15-year old, Christopher Boone, who suffers from (although it is not stated) Asperger’s syndrome. Written in first person, it gives you a deep insight into what it is to suffer from an autism spectrum disorder. The book has received rave reviews, and, from what I understand, it does a remarkably good job of portraying Christopher’s challenges.

Somewhere in the middle of the book, the storyline becomes predictable. But that is no bad thing. By that time I found myself so engrossed in Christopher’s world that I wanted to know how he experiences the rest of the story.

There are some truths about our human existence that we normal people are too scared to admit. But Christopher’s disability doesn’t stop him from seeing through them and thinking how stupid everyone can be. That constant reminder throughout the books is very humbling.

The book is also, in many ways, a really good example of science communication. Throughout the book Christopher talks about wanting to be an astronaut. For his age, he also shows a remarkable grasp of science and maths, and discusses ideas from relativity to algebra with ease and clarity.

There are many quotes from the book that I’ve marked, but one that struck me the most was: I think prime numbers are like life. They are very logical but you could never work out the rules, even if you spent all your time thinking about them.

PS: This was my first fiction book in a long time and it was over in a flash. I’m considering tweaking my non-fiction to fiction ration after this reading!

My PhD described using the 1000 most used words

Challenge set by XKCD’s Up Goer Five:

At the big boys’ school I worked on making really, really tiny things that can help many people not be sick. To do that we spent days reading books and learning how to add smaller bits together, one by one, to make the whole tiny thing. All the things around us are made of these tiny bits held together in different ways. But because these bits can not be held in hands, or seen by eyes, we had to do work with them in ways that would allow us to understand if we were doing it right.

The tiny thing I was making was hard to make. So I had two other people working on it with me. We talked and helped each other to come up with a way to make the tiny thing after three years of trying very hard. We made most of it, but some bits remain on which one person is still working.

After my work was done I wrote a book on it. Now the big boys have read the book and they will ask me hard questions. If I answer them then they will give me a note which will help me go out in the world and get a job that will pay me money and let me do what I want to do.

What drove Steve Jobs?

In 1995 in the Lost Interview, Steve Jobs said that an article in Scientific American sparked his passion for building tools for humanity:

I read an article when I was very young, in Scientific American, and in it researchers measured the efficiency of locomotion for various species on Earth. So, you know, bears, chimpanzees, racoons, fish…and humans were measured too.

How many kilocalories per kilometer did they spend to move?

The condor won. It was the most efficient. And mankind, the crown of creation, came with a rather unimpressive showing about a third of the way down the list. But someone there had the brilliance of measuring a human riding a bicycle. Blew away the condor. All the way up the charts.

And I remember that this really had an impact on me. Humans are tool builders, and we build tools that can dramatically amplify our innate human abilities.

That’s why we ran an ad in the early days at Apple: the personal computer was the bicycle of the mind. I believe that with every bone in my body. The computer will, as history unfolds and we look back, rank at the top among all human inventions.

Despite this, people still doubt the value of science and science magazines. 

The Over-simplification Conundrum

I believe that those of us involved in science communication have at some point wrestled with this issue: In being able to effectively communicate the science as we know it, we are often blamed for over-simplification to reach the masses or going into too much detail to ending up not reaching the masses.

Not losing your audience’s interest is the goal of any communicator. But when it comes to writing about scientific issues, we scientists have a tendency to try to get the facts straight and be as clear about what we know and what we don’t know. And rightly so, we’ve been trained to pay attention to detail that is part of our jobs. But a friend recently said to me, ‘We scientists pay so much attention to details sometimes, that we fail to recognize the peril in it!’

The conversation began because someone shared the image above. It’s part of advertisements made for Mercedes-Benz. I had read about the left-right brain myth and kindly pointed it out to my friend, when he came back with that retort. Although I appreciate the artistic beauty of the image and that the over-simplification done in this case causes no ‘real’ harm to the society, I am against over-simplifying just to be able to make something popular.

My friend interjects, ‘If you tell a common person that “Oh, this is all a myth. Everything is integrated to every other part of the brain” the common man soon looses interest and in the end does not get anything out of it. But if you can take one step at a time after talking about the left-right dichotomy, he may feel interested.’

As a matter of fact, the only thing a common man may get out knowing about the left-right brain is to pleasure of learning something new (because the ‘methods’ I know that have been ‘developed’ to help someone improve their left brain by doing left brain activities are bollocks). If the ‘something new’ you have taught the reader isn’t even right, and he discovers that later, then you have (or worse, science has) lost a loyal listener.

Make things as simple as possible, but not simpler. – Einstein’s Razor

Looking at the bigger picture, it is important to help people have the most accurate beliefs from the beginning. Thus, when communicating scientific matters, one must not sacrifice details for artistic/populist reasons. The solution, of course, is to give as accurate a picture as possible to anyone but do it in a manner that is attractive (may be by tailoring it to your audience or using audio-visual aids or consulting with experts who usually have a neat explanation). This is definitely one of the main reasons why science communication is hard but also why it is worth doing it.

What high schools did for us and what we can do for them

There is much that our high school education gives us. Our time in the school leaves indelible marks on our lives. It makes an impact on our future whether we appreciate it or not. The contribution that my school has made towards who I am is substantial. 

My school entrance (credit: Fravashi Academy)

High school is where the first impressions of our future professions are made. Whether we chose to be a scientist, an engineer, a doctor, an artist, a designer, a businessman or something else, the seeds get sown at this tender age of our lives. This is the age when our brains get ‘shaped’. Although it wasn’t obvious when I was there in Fravashi Academy that I will go on to do a PhD, I can connect the dots today.

It is the place where we make long-lasting friendships. These connections that are made with a pure heart and naive minds are amongst the best ones we will make in our lives. Of course holding onto them is easier today than it was when my Dad went to high school. But even if you haven’t stayed in touch for so many years, these are the people you can connect to almost instantaneously. My Dad’s high school reunion that happened last year stands as a testament to this fact. He met his high school friends after almost 35 years and boy, did have a good time.

Over the years since I graduated from Fravashi in 2002, we school friends have met many times. The number of people varies every time but there are many who come everytime. We remind ourselves of what fun things we did and what mischiefs we were up to. The tone of the conversations have changed only a little over the years but the content has remained same (with only more things getting added to the list ever year of course).

This year when I went back home, I visited my school. Unlike all the times when I visited the school after 2002, this time I had an aim to accomplish. I wanted to understand in what way could I give back to my school.

The school has grown since we left and new curricula have been introduced. Classes have gotten smaller in size and the uniforms are different. And yet there are so many things that are still the same. Two of those things are the ambitions of those at Fravashi and curiosity amongst them.

I had an opportunity to speak to the kids in an impromptu discussion. I told them the short story of what I did after I left Fravashi and what is it that I exactly do in my PhD. But more importantly I spoke about the importance of books and why science is such a fascinating subject to study. I was amazed by some of the questions I got asked after the discussion. And those discussions made it possible for me to understand what students think and on some more reflection, I knew what I could do to contribute to the school.

After discussions with the teachers in school, we decided to do hold an essay competition centred on a topic in science and technology.  The aim of the competition was to get the students to think about science and technology and to communicate those ideas to a wider audience.

In the first week of February, with the help of Kaumudi teacher and Neena teacher, the essay competition was held. The topic for the classes of 7th, 8th and 9th was ‘How will science and technology affect the future development of the society?’

It was a pleasure to read all the essays and it was fascinating to see what the students dreamt about as the future of our society. I think that there were lots of budding science fiction writers amongst the entries that I received. And as always, choosing a winner was a hard decision to  make.

The winners are being given popular science books with a hope that once they finish the book they will share it with their peers. This should spark some conversations and some new ideas amongst the young guns. The winners are listed as follows and their essays can be read by clicking on their name.

7th standard

  1. Pranjali Kulkarni
  2. Preksha Mandlecha

8th standard

  1. Mitali Suryawanshi
  2. Rupandey Parekh

9th standard

  1. Tanmayi Gidh
  2. Rucha Amale

The list of the books being given (in no particular order) are as follows:

  1. The curious incident of the dog in the night-time by Mark Haddon
  2. Can you feel the force? by Richard Hammond
  3. What Einstein told his cook by Robert Wolke
  4. What Einstein told his barber by Robert Wolke
  5. Really short history of nearly everything by Bill Bryson
  6. Why don’t Penguins feet freeze? by the New Scientist

I am hoping to hold this essay competition annually. And I also know I am going to run out of suggestions for the books that I will give as prizes so if there are any books that you would like to suggest please do by leaving a comment below.

This is what I think I can contribute to the school at the moment. I am hoping that whenever I go home, I will get a chance to speak to the students at the school and spark a few more interesting conversations. But I also think that if I start this early then I can surely build a habit of giving back to the places that have made me who I am.