[2013] time to start working on a nerdy little Xmas

Long time no blog. It’s December 1st and I’m starting to think about this year’s nerdy Xmas cards. Last year’s had some very bad cartoons, such as:



Text: Charles wondered if Mrs. Darwin's Christmas wishlist wasn't a bit of a wind-up.

Text: Charles wondered if Mrs. Darwin’s Christmas wishlist wasn’t a bit of a wind-up.

I also made my then-bf a Higgs Boson tree ornament.

See, it's a Higgs Boson...

See, it’s a Higgs Boson…

... but sometimes he's a bit publicity-shy.

… but sometimes he’s a bit publicity-shy.

And now for some form of inspiration to strike…


Science Grrl!

Last week I asked on Twitter if there would be interest in setting up a Dublin chapter of Science Grrl. I got a fantastic response! I’m just jotting down a quick blog post to serve as a brief introduction and statement of intent to those who’ve expressed interest, or those who are coming on this for the first time. Do feel free to get in touch!

Feminists, scientists, educators, geeks: your attention, please.

The UK-based Science Grrl organisation is about to have its first birthday, and it’s high time we had a chapter here in Dublin. Science Grrl is a volunteer-based organisation that promotes engagement in (and enjoyment of) the sciences to young women. It’s led by Dr Heather Williams and her committee, and has hundreds of members across the UK.

They’ve participated in lots of campaigns and events in the past year, including lectures, festivals, fundraisers, sponsorships, work with educators, and online events like Ada Lovelace Day. Their website has a great blog section where members write about the events in which they’ve been involved, and I’d recommend you poke around the site a bit if you want a good sense of what they do.

Currently, membership costs £5 – it’s not essential that you be a member to take part in a chapter’s activities, but it is a good way to support the organisation. I believe there are plans afoot for a shop too! If you do join and mention that you’d like to be part of the Dublin group, Liz will put you in touch with me via email.

Setting a local chapter up in Dublin would firstly involve a group of us getting together to discuss ways in which we could engage with the Irish scientific community and with young people. I say Dublin in particular because it’s my closest city, and has lots of events that we could play a part in. Obviously, if there’s interest it would be great to have other Irish groups! I’d like to try to arrange a meeting at some point in the next couple of weeks to gauge interest and start getting some ideas moving. I was thinking one evening, in the city (possibly in the Science Gallery? It’d be fitting!), and would love to hear from you if you’re interested. It would also be lovely to get some entries for Ada Lovelace Day stories from Irish people.

Get in touch! I’m on here, or over on Twitter as @pingulette.

talk: Jocelyn Bell Burnell at @WITSIreland

Science, art, feminism, activism, and a cup of tea. I’ve had worse lunchtimes.

Okay, confession: I’m not a scientist myself. I just play one on the internet sometimes.

Nevertheless, this Thursday, I was thrilled to don my hobbyist science-geek hat, and attend an event organised by Women in Technology and Science Ireland (WITS) in honour of Professor Jocelyn Bell Burnell. Bringing us together was the presentation of a painting by artist Margarita Cimadevila, inspired by Professor Bell Burnell’s discovery of pulsars.

Margarita Cimadevila – Pulsares.

Ms Cimadevila – a chemist by training and a teacher by profession – based a series of paintings on the work of women scientists whose brilliance was underrecognised. Ciencia Ex Aequo includes tributes to, among others, Annie Cannon, Cecilia Payne, Chien-Shiung Wu, Emmy Noether, and Lise Meitner. Quite apart from the richness of the art itself (and the photo above does this piece no justice), there is something fittingly lovely about seeing the lives and work of these women celebrated vividly and beautifully on canvas. They deserve the honour; deserve their names writ large and illuminated. I really do recommend looking at the Ciencia Ex Aequo catalogue linked above – I wish I could have seen all twelve.

Next up, some of the spotlight was handed over to a gentleman for a few minutes (but only a few). Minister of State for Research and Innovation, Seán Sherlock, spoke about the importance of the sciences sector for industry and progress in Ireland. In particular, he pointed out that women in the sciences were carrying a lot of the weight of the work, but were entirely underrepresented in the power structures of academia and training. Promoting the importance of women’s voices and representation should be a priority for anyone looking to shore up Ireland’s scientific stock, particularly as we heard this week that Nature considers Ireland one of the up-and-coming countries to watch in high-level research.

Professor Bell Burnell’s talk came in two parts – a presentation about her work with Tapping All Our Talents: Women in STEM, a project of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, and an interview about her life and career, conducted by science journalist Claire O’Connell. Having never seen her speak before, I was expecting an interesting talk, but was still pleasantly surprised at how warm and engaging Professor Bell Burnell is as a speaker.

She noted that Scotland is a close analogue for Ireland when it comes to size, character, and economic status, and therefore the results garnered from the Royal Society report would equally serve as good guidelines for the Irish scientific sector. Foremost among her concerns: the ‘leaky pipeline’ effect – whereby, even though school and undergraduate degrees are seeing many women and girls opt for science subjects, the number of those women remaining in the sciences at each subsequent level (bachelors, postgraduate, researcher, lecturer, professor) falls away steeply. For example, while 70% of candidates for school exams in biology are female, only 15% of professors of biology are women. The situation is worse still in chemistry, physics, and maths, where girls start out as a minority at secondary school level and remain starkly so right up the ranks. This echoes what Minister Sherlock had said about women in power structures – there is no reason why women shouldn’t have the same impact as men trained to an equivalent level, and yet we don’t get our voices heard nearly as much. Fewer women at professorial level means fewer women directing research and fewer role models for the girls making it to university lectures.

This is institutional sexism at play, both on a conscious (well, science is a boys’ club, isn’t it) and an unconscious level. ‘How many of you have had to fill out a form where you declared your gender by ticking a box?’ she asked us. ‘And which one of those boxes came first?’ It’s a simplistic example, but one that resonated with the audience. This unconscious bias comes into play even as far as the language used to describe job postings in the sciences, which can often use language typified as ‘male’ (strong, dynamic, etc – adjectives which, for better or for worse, are filed under the M box for cultural gender).

In an employment culture where 73% of female STEM graduates leave the field once they start employment, incentives must be given to institutions to promote their ‘women-friendliness’. The Tapping All Our Talents group recommended that universities be given research grants condititional on reaching a Silver Athena SWAN level, and that employers pay special attention to the conditions offered to female employees and potential hires (diversity and equality in recruitment, positive part-time hours and benefits for working mothers, cultural change and anti-discrimination policies in the business).

A quick aside: a question from the floor raised the question of visible female role models for young scientists. In her reply the Professor mentioned the popularity of Chris Hadfield’s reports from aboard the ISS – currently, one of the ISS astronauts is a woman named Karen Nyberg, who tweets updates and photos as @AstroKarenN. If lady role models aren’t as visible as the men, there’s only one thing we can do about that – make them so.

The tone got lighter after the formal section of the talk was over, and the interview began. I think most of us could relate to the young not-yet-Professor, arguing with her schoolteachers to be accorded equality with the boys in her choice of subjects! You have to be tough to get ahead, it seems, even in school uniform. More seriously,  it was reassuring to hear her talk about experiencing impostor syndrome while a postgrad student – it sometimes feels like people who are successful were created that way, and have never doubted themselves. She discussed the lead-up to identifying the pulsar and its strange pattern of data: how she was convinced, as was her supervisor, that the signal had to be an error or interference on the radio receiver, and how they performed a differential diagnosis until they were left with no choice but to accept the data and find an explanation for them. It’s understandable! A pulsar is such a strange object that if there wasn’t such strong evidence for its existence, it really would seem like a product of a creative imagination.

It was a thoroughly enjoyable afternoon overall, but if I’m to sum up the good humour and amusement present throughout the event, I’ll do so like this. Several times in the opening speeches, allusion was made to Professor Bell Burnell’s PhD supervisor being awarded the Nobel Prize for the discovery of pulsars – even though it had been her data and her insistence, despite his scepticism, that led to the discovery being made. I wondered if that wasn’t something that would sit uncomfortably, given that much of her career has been clouded under this one big oversight. Do you ever really get past being the person who didn’t get the Nobel?

Ms O’Connell brought it up in her interview, asking how it felt to see the supervisor get given the nod.

“I was pleased to see it go to an astronomer, seeing as there is no Nobel Prize for astronomy – it has been given to quite a few, since, but pulsars were the first to be honoured in that way.’

Yes, but how did she feel about it?

“I think I’ve done pretty well out of it,” replied the Professor, laughing. “If you don’t get the Nobel Prize, they give you every other prize that’s going!”

Whoever said that you shouldn’t meet your heroes clearly required better taste in role models.

please don’t watch the Grand National

Nothing clever here today, just an honest plea: don’t watch the Grand National this Saturday.

The Grand National is the toughest and longest National Hunt race in Britain. It’s four miles and four furlongs long, and it has thirty jumps. A field of up to forty horses can enter, and most years thirty-five to forty go to post. All fences are four feet, six inches, up to five feet plus.

The Grand National is also a lethally dangerous race for horses and riders. It’s not difficult to see why. The length exhausts the mounts. The fences are high and challenging, and with a forty-horse field, the smallest stumble can cause a pile-up, especially on the fastest, innermost line.

In the last decade, nine horses have died in the Grand National.

Aintree have improved the course over the past few years, following scathing criticism from animal rights groups. They’ve made the sightlines easier for the horses by adding to the orange board at the foot of the jumps, and tried to make the Canal Turn less dangerous. It’s not enough.

Animal Aid provide a diagram here (page seven) of Becher’s Brook, the most dangerous fence in the race. The horses make a left turn after this fence, so jockeys steer them toward the inside of the course. The course is lower on the landing side than the takeoff, meaning the jockeys have to compensate so the horse doesn’t stumble and they don’t get unseated – but again, forty-horse field, massive fence, drop landing. It’s hard to see how accidents could be avoided.

There are ditches on several fences, up to six feet wide, with one fence having its ditch on the landing side. I can’t overemphasise how dangerous that is in a massive field of runners. You can’t make mistakes, or you risk yourself and others. The fences are solid hedge, meaning the horse can’t see through them to realise there’s a huge hole on the landing side. If the horse can’t see the ditch, it can’t adjust its reach to cover it, and if your mount takes the fence too short, it can easily break a leg by landing wrongly or having another runner crash into you while you try to pull yourself together.

The course is built to be a daunting prospect for the runners and riders, but it’s just too dangerous.

There’s only one way to show the organisers that this isn’t fair: don’t watch it. Don’t bet on it. Voice your disapproval. Make it clear that you want nothing to do with the Grand National as it stands.

National Hunt racing done right is a fantastic sport. It’s thrilling, exhilarating, and dramatic. It doesn’t need to be fatal.

Saint Patrick was a Slytherin (and other stories)

1. Saint Patrick was a Slytherin.

Think about it. He could speak to and control snakes. He was ambitious and needful of converting everyone in the country to his viewpoint. He took orders from a Lord, but did everything he could to ingratiate himself with that boss – and then set up a hierarchy of his own within the country, because everybody needs minions. He’s always depicted wearing green – House colours.

Total Slytherin. Never trust a Parseltongue.

2. The snake thing.

Legend has it that Saint Patrick rid Ireland of our snake population by making them all jump into the sea (nsfw for language on picture). This sounds like rather unChristian behaviour toward harmless reptiles. They wouldn’t even have been venomous ones. It’s also funnier if you think of Paddy in his bishop’s mitre, standing on a chair like an arachnophobic sighting a spider. ‘I am NOT GOING BACK in that COUNTRY until THOSE SNAKES are GONE.’

In reality, we probably never had a snake population. Ireland was cut off from Europe at the end of the Ice Age, when it was still colder than O’Connell Street when the parade is late. Snakes are cold-blooded and need to warm their bodies through sunbathing – some chance of that here. I’m also very amused by this interview with the head of the Natural History Museum, which ends: “St Patrick never personally claimed credit for ridding Ireland of snakes, he added. “But when you’re selling a brand you don’t often bother with the detail.””

3. A Small Linguistic Observation

This one’s mainly for our friends across the pond.


Look. There are snakes. I don’t like it.

Patty is a rarely-used women’s name, or (if we’re feeling linguistically urbane) the meat bit of a hamburger. Men called Patrick are abbreviated to Pat or Paddy; Pádraig becomes Páidí. Saint Patty does not exist.

4. St. Patrick’s Day, The Phenomenon.

To put it bluntly, quite a lot of us here have no bloody idea what the rest of the world** is doing on St. Patrick’s Day. Yeah, it’s a festival here, and yeah, of course we drink on it. We have a day off with no instructions other than eat a big dinner, avoid going to Mass, have lots of drinks, and fill your children with sugar and let them loose on the funfair in Merrion Square.

(This was my favourite bit of the day when I was living near there. In absolutely no way.)

Really, Dublin just does its thing and mainly avoids the city centre after the parade, because it’s full of drunken tourists. People who’ve schlepped over here to celebrate some weird version of an Irish holiday by drinking imported beers in tourist pubs and not encountering an actual Dubliner from one end of the day to the other, save the unimpressed bar staff.

It’s somewhat embarrassing, to be honest. Ireland has a bit of an unfortunate history, what with the oppression and the plantations and the famine and the poverty and the Troubles, and historically we’ve had a lot of people who’ve self-medicated through all that unpleasantness by moving to other places in the world and drinking lots. As you would, if you were an emigrant working for a pittance somewhere that hated you and took that out on you by treating farm animals more humanely.

But we’re not proud of that. We’re proud of the positive bits of the national character, the artistic and literary achievements of the country and the ability to habituate ourselves to new situations and people that’s eased by a gregarious nature. Not the alcoholism and violence end.

So the international marketing of St. Patrick’s Day is somewhere between ‘odd’ and ‘uncomfortable’ for me. It’s like if your neighbour threw a bigger party than you on your birthday, invited people who’d only met you briefly or not at all – but had met your parents or your grandparents and inaccurately informed their views on your personality thusly – and entertained everybody by playing games themed on all your least favourite of your personality flaws (pin the pint on the binge drinker! irresponsibility bingo! etc).

Odd. And uncomfortable. That’s about it. I’ll go back to being funny now.

** mostly the bit of the world between Canada and Mexico, let’s be honest.

5. The Backstory

Patrick wasn’t Irish, originally. He was Welsh, and he was sold into servitude in Ireland as a shepherd. It was during this time that he’s meant to have heard the voice of God telling him to go convert the Irish.

I only mention this because it’s amazing how often lonely sleep-deprived people who have to forage for interesting wild plants for food have religious visions.

6. Of Course, The Real Backstory

…is that he probably never existed. Or there were two of him, one called Palladius and the other, Patrick. Or he did exist, but he was never made a saint (which has to be done by a Pope, in which case, I know just the man). Or – look, here’s wikipedia. Go nuts.

7. Hail Glorious Saint Patrick, Dear Saint of Our Isle.

Anyone remember more than the first two lines of this? Been a long time since I was a choirgirl.

8. Have A Good One, All.

Avoid Temple Bar. Resist food dyed green with dodgy food colouring. Have an article about how the President’s a leprechaun. Mind yourselves, now.

Buy Irish, Buy Geeky: my contribution to #dorkmas shopping

So it’s a week out until the Big Man gets in his sleigh and sets off around the world (I’m putting skepticism on a hold for the Christmas season, go with it) and, like some bloggers I could name *ahem*, you may not have quite finished your shopping.

Excellent. Let’s go.

We’ll start close to home: Dublin, that is. designist is a Dublin-based producer of all things fabulous. Look at the This Is Dublin poster; the Grandfather and Cuckoo clocks; the gorgeous glow-in-the-dark Star Map; the sadly sold-out but worth waiting for Irish Mammy tea-towels. Wonderfully smart-arse and obviously revelling in their hometown, and sure, why wouldn’t you be?

designist’s Love Dublin tote bag is on sale at the Science Gallery, which is our next stop. This year’s geeky holiday card explains why we’ve never received visitors from the vicinity of Vega: clearly they think George Michael is the pinnacle of Earthling culture. Perhaps they’ll change their minds when Fairytale of New York gets there. Some more Science Gallery gems: the Morse Code torch and card for young spies; lots of experiment kits for the geeklings in your house (messy, yes, but at least they don’t need batteries and most of them are quiet); a box of Pantone postcards.

The Science Gallery also sells a lovely selection of books from every stop on the geeky spectrum. Turning to books in general – I’m trying to stay as close to ‘buy Irish’ as I can here, so anything I mention, even those whose creator is not Irish, should still be findable in an Irish shop. Science Ink is a beautiful photo book of science-based tattoos – a pleasure to flick through or to sit down and read. Caitlin Moran’s Moranthology, a collection of her Times columns, is the most enjoyable book I read this year. The Science Magpie looks like an engaging collection of anecdotes and stories for all ages. Ar Strae Beagán is a sweet story for Gaeilgeoirí beaga, as is Tomhais Méid Mo Ghrá Duit (the Irish-language translation of the perennial and adorable Guess How Much I Love You). Back to the grown-ups: Ben Goldacre’s Bad Pharma (a head-melting work of staggering WTF) won’t be the merriest book you’ll read this year, but may possibly be the most necessary. I am very much looking forward to reading Mary Robinson’s Everybody Matters. I wish I’d had The Young Atheist’s Handbook by Alom Shaha ten years ago.

Crafty Ireland is a collective of Irish-based Etsy shops – they’re new to me and they have far too many things to see all at once! BeeLicious crafts, based in Cork, has adorable crocheted creatures (I particularly like the axolotl and the narwhal) and Clockwork Child’s corvid prints appeal massively to my goth side.

I’m writing this on the 17th of December, and I can’t vouch for delivery dates for any of these business either inside or outside Ireland. You should still be in time to order internal delivery, but if in doubt, email and ask.

And last but not least: I plan on buying a set of these and hiding them around my friends’ houses next time I go to visit.

Merry Christmas. Don’t blink.