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.

say it out loud: feminism and equality

‘I’m not a feminist,’ says Laura Waters, in her Guardian column about women in science. ‘I’m an ‘equalist’.’

In doing so, she resurrects a tedious semantic argument, and one that’s been fought on many shores before now. Waters contends that she is “fully devoted to promoting science to women as a great career choice and [that she] honestly believe[s] we need more women at all levels in science.” She wants to “ensur[e] women actively choose to stay in science and climb the promotional ladder.” She mentions positively the Athena SWAN programme – which gives praise and status to institutions that actively work to promote equal treatment for women in academia.

I’m sorry to break it to her, but that’s a feminist viewpoint. That’s an entirely feminist argument. If she wants it from a better source than me – it’s exactly the feminist argument I heard Jocelyn Bell Burnell give at WITS a couple of weeks ago.

I have no problems with Waters’ viewpoint. It’s one I espouse myself (any reader of this blog will know that). My problem is with her denial of feminism.

I’m a feminist because I believe in equality. Equality is – for the most part – the primary role of practical feminism. Currently society does not view women as being the equals of men. There’s a gap there that needs filling, and feminism works to boost women’s role in society to fill that gap. It’s not inherently anti-men to be pro-women; it’s not anti-equality to say that one group needs more support.

Imagine a bar chart of the gender pay gap. For every euro Irish men earn, Irish women earn 13.9% less (Irish Examiner, Feb 2013). Parity in the hourly wage – the value of an hour’s work – would have men with 100%, and women with 100%. At the minute, men have 100%, and women have just over 86%. Clearly that’s inequal. To make it equal, you have to close that gap – and you do that by helping women, because women are the group that’s worse off in that situation.

Equalism? Sure. Through feminism.

Waters wants academia to be fairer to women. Women need more help than men do to fulfil their academic potential, because currently the power bias in the institutions of academia swings heavily toward men. What do we do? Make things fairer for women. Use Athena SWAN to reward institutions that reward women. Understand that family structures still involve more women than men doing part-time or awkward hours in order to be around for the kids, and accommodate that. Give positive female role models to young women in STEM careers.

I’m almost reciting Waters’ points here, which is actually the key to what I’m saying: this is a feminist argument.

Why disavow feminism? It feels like internalised misogyny to me**. It’s not lesser to be a woman, and it’s not lesser to be a feminist. Throwing your lot in with the boys may get you approval at the time, but in reality you’re cheerily standing over the status quo while inequality happens all around you.

Feminism is the reason you have a job in academia. Feminism is the reason you get to have an opinion and have it out loud. Feminism is the reason programmes like Athena SWAN happen, and feminism is the reason that it’s recognised that the sciences should be more welcoming to women. We are where we are because of feminists, and sniffily casting that aside and pretending you’re more advanced, somehow, is disrespectful to their work and their sacrifices.

No-one is saying that scientific output should be judged separately depending on its author’s gender. No-one is saying that an institution should seek a candidate of a particular gender rather than a candidate who’s best for the job. What feminism asks is that a women who reads the jobs posting should feel as able as a man to apply, or that a woman offered a job should feel comfortable and respected in accepting the place.

I believe in equality. I think a just society would offer the same chance to everyone. Feminism wants that full and fair chance for women.

Be proud to be a feminist! Feminism is the path to equality. We have lots of work to do.

** please note that I say this in reference to mainstream feminism, and women who disavow the label totally. I’m not referring to women who choose to use a different term for ‘believes in women’s rights’, like ‘womanist’, because of minority status or perceived disrespect by mainstream feminism. That’s a matter beyond the scope of this post.

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.

that’s here. that’s home. that’s us.

There is the horizon, and there is a shield of light. It drops away to an inky, cobalt blue, and fades almost regretfully into the deepest black night.

For the first time in my life I saw the horizon as a curved line. It was accentuated by a thin seam of dark blue light—our atmosphere. Obviously this was not the ocean of air I had been told it was so many times in my life. I was terrified by its fragile appearance. – Ulf Merbold

In a tiny silver speck orbiting tirelessly around this spinning planet, Chris Hadfield switches off his camera and turns in for the night.

Hadfield is Mission Commander on board the International Space Station. His day job is conducting experiments and operating the Canadarm2 robotic device that functions as part of the ISS infrastructure. In his downtime, he catches up with ice hockey, gives talks to schools, makes videos on the oddities of ISS life, and takes some of the most compelling photos of our beautiful planet yet in existence.

If you could see the earth illuminated when you were in a place as dark as night, it would look to you more splendid than the moon. – Galileo

These photos are beautiful. They are stark, or verdant; they are recognisable, and alien. Written on the Earth is a record of our past, the battle-scars of a species making its mark on its home.

People leave marks wherever they go. We build, we create, and inevitably we destroy. To look across the globe is to understand our compulsion to etch our fleeting presence on our world, and to understand how very tiny those machinations are to which we cling most tightly. One of my favourite quotes on this is from Edgar Mitchell, an Apollo 14 astronaut, who said of spaceflight: “You develop an instant global consciousness, a people orientation, an intense dissatisfaction with the state of the world, and a compulsion to do something about it. From out there on the moon, international politics look so petty. You want to grab a politician by the scruff of the neck and drag him a quarter of a million miles out and say, “Look at that, you son of a bitch.”

The crew of the ISS are the furthest humans from our planet. Their lonely viewpoint allows them to see – and allows us to experience, vicariously – our pale blue dot, as it appears in macro.

There is a fascination to that solitude. Space flight is something that has never lost its wonder, from the time we first sent brave pioneers into orbit and had them return to a hero’s welcome. Space travel is so far beyond the reach of the everyman, even now, that we retain a childlike awe at the  very thought. We are limitless, we story-telling apes, in our imagination. We want that experience. We want to be lifted above our lives, to be able to look down at everyone alive in the world, and to say yes, that is ours. That is our home.

Once a photograph of the Earth, taken from outside, is available… a new idea as powerful as any in history will be let loose. -Fred Hoyle

This, then, is one facet of the appeal of Hadfield’s photography: it marries an alien perspective with a familiar subject. There is a thrill to finding a photo of your city and reading the streetlights to find your way around. In photographs from space, we experience a double consciousness. We are the painter, and the sitter. We experience art; we make art; we are art.

For all our faults, we are still so beautiful.

Dublin’s fair city.

Those of us who enjoy astronomy revel in viewing the photographs the Curiosity Rover sends back from Mars. Interpreting the geography of an alien planet is fascinating; we are explorers, readers, inwardly running our hands over rocks we will never touch in reality, piecing together the history of its mountains and plains. It’s easy to forget that we live on just such a planet ourselves – constitutionally different, of course, but equally as amazing, equally as strange. We live in a microcosm, all of us. We spend so much of our time on so little an area of land that the disconnect involved in contemplating the whole is startling. There are beauties you will never see, entire continents you may never visit.

And this is thrilling!

There are seven billion of us down here, and that is what we share – the love and stewardship of this planet of ours. Alone, each of us is so insignificant in the wider scheme of things. Collectively, we can send people into space to reflect our lives back at us through beautiful photographs.

Carl Sagan was right to observe that exploration is in our nature. We began as wanderers, and we are wanderers still. I hope within our lifetimes we have the chance to experience that wonder for ourselves. For now, it’s a privilege to experience the visual story of our existence from the perspective of our most adventurous wanderers.

In Jostein Gaarder’s Sophie’s World, the philosopher Albert sends Sophie a letter asking her if she has ever thought about meeting a little man from Mars while she is out walking. “What would you think?” he asks. “Never mind, it’s not important. But have you ever given any thought to the fact that you are a Martian yourself? It is obviously unlikely that you will ever stumble upon a creature from another planet. We do not even know that there is life on other planets. But you might stumble upon yourself one day. You might suddenly stop short and see yourself in a completely new light. On just such a walk in the woods. I am an extraordinary being, you think. I am a mysterious creature.”

(Thank you, Commander Hadfield, and safe home.)

questions on a grand scale

It is sometimes said that scientists are unromantic, that their passion to figure out robs the world of beauty and mystery. But is it not stirring to understand how the world actually works — that white light is made of colors, that color is the way we perceive the wavelengths of light, that transparent air reflects light, that in so doing it discriminates among the waves, and that the sky is blue for the same reason that the sunset is red? It does no harm to the romance of the sunset to know a little bit about it.

— Carl Sagan

There is certainly something to be said for perspective.

I am not a scientist. I read and watch a lot of popular science because it fascinates me. I want to learn and understand everything I can about the world in which I live and the laws by which it functions. I am aware that this knowledge only just about allows me know how very little I will ever know, but science is a heady drug. And I’ve definitely gained a lot of perspective.

Being reminded every so often that you are the result of millions of years of evolution – a mid-stage example of your species, by all accounts – and that you reside on a rock hurtling around one of an unfathomably large number of stars in an ever-expanding universe will do that to you.

Oh, did you mean perspective in the ‘expect the mundane’ sense? Sorry. I heard it in the Douglas Adams sense.

Coming to hobbyist science reading as an adult is a strange experience. I studied general science up until Junior Cert level (that’s GCSE equivalent). Then I looked at my overall aptitudes and decided that, although I’m sure I would’ve made an adequate scientist, I would rather be an excellent humanities student. I ditched science, hopped into the modern languages driving seat, and left behind me only dust.

Of course, it didn’t help that up until then, I had never encountered any science education that had grabbed me. Biology was a collection of sets of diagrams to label and memorise. Physics, as explained through pictures with little arrows showing vectors but no real-life examples, looked stultifying dull. Chemistry was an unending series of covalent bonds – although, no, I’m being unfair to chemistry here. It provided the only specific memory I have of that class: one day our teacher wanted to show us the reactive qualities of sodium in water. Unfortunately, she used slightly too much of the sodium, and it displayed its reactive qualities very nicely. No-one ever painted over the scorch marks, though.

There’s nothing more dulling to a child’s enthusiasm and capability for awe than a textbook that gives you the basics but leaves out the bigger picture. It’s very important to know the fundamentals, certainly – I would argue that a knowledge of basic human biology is a necessity for everyone, considering you own and live in a body, and Newtonian physics gives you the physical laws within which you work (until you take up lightspeed travel as a hobby). It is fairly soporific, though, if you don’t understand why you’re learning all of this.

If, on my first day of secondary school, someone had Total Perspective Vortex-ed me (“Hello! You are the universe understanding itself! You’re made of stuff from the hearts of stars! You’re an astonishingly complicated evolved mechanism! Now you’d better get to work on figuring out HOW!”), I’m guessing I would’ve dug in with a bit more relish.

This is the balancing act that popular science must perform, then: educate, entertain, and arouse curiosity. Good popsci should leave you, at the end of the book/programme, standing at a crossroads: do you want to leave this topic where you are and just enjoy what you have experienced, or do you want to learn more in-depth? That accessibility is the key, in my opinion. You let down your audience both by overloading them with the nitty-gritty, and by failing to render the reader able to own the topic and relate it to herself.

I started this post with Carl Sagan; there is a reason he’s known as the foremost ambassador of popular science. Reading Sagan is like being spoken to by a warm, knowledgeable friend. He understood that education is important, but that inspiration to learn only comes from the ability to retain a sense of wonder. He, and your Feynmans, Attenboroughs, Moores, and the rest, became or have become in their lifetimes the doyens of gentle guidance into science education. It’s a fine line to walk between show and tell.  Both facets should leave a little to the imagination.

Certainly no-one should think that every day in the life of a working scientist is a spot of proton collision in the morning, driving Curiosity around in the afternoon, and dinner at Stephen Hawking’s place. Every job has its day-to-day requirements and its frankly boring sides.

I just don’t know any doctors who chose their profession because of all the paperwork.

If science writing doesn’t make you feel you are in touch with something greater than yourself, it’s bad science writing.

Oh, I don’t mean God, or a god or gods. I’ve had more than enough of gods and religion to do me a lifetime. I’m talking about matter and about history. I’m talking about that which drives us to wonder about the world, which makes us the most inquisitive and self-aware of creatures. That which lies beyond our tiny, transient lives. It is a fundamental ingredient in the human condition that we feel this wonder and seek to understand it. Some people find their answers in religion. Some people find their answers in science. These are not mutally exclusive – I have friends who are empirical, logical thinkers when it comes to questions of the tangible world, but who retain their faith in God.

If you think that scientists are trying to keep people in unseeing ignorance by trying to make a religion out of science, you are either misguided or wilfully misunderstanding. This is one of the most beautiful things about communicated science: the writer isn’t a minister, isn’t imbued with special supernatural powers, isn’t infallible. They are a person with an aptitude for science who has chosen to share their work. You or I could have the same knowledge with a bit of luck and a lot of hard graft.

Think of sitting in a university lecture and fuming that the professor is trying to make him/herself seem like the possessor of esoteric knowledge by detailing the import in the world of the subject as a whole. Ludicrous.

Two childhood scenes:

1) I am about 8 and still very, fearfully Catholic. My grandmother has given me a book about guardian angels. The book assures me that my guardian angel sits at the end of my bed at night and watches over me. There is no further explanation offered. I read to the end of the book and am still without an explanation of this stranger who turns up invisibly and hangs around in my room all night. I don’t ask questions, though. If I do, God might think I’m being cheeky. I put away the book.

2) I am still about 8. I get an encyclopaedia for my birthday and start reading about the solar system. It is incredible; I am incredulous. How do they know all of this? Why can’t I see the planets and moons when I look in the sky? I turn the page. I learn about Voyager and Hubble and Mir. I think this is brilliant. I have questions and I get answers. No-one tells me I’m wrong for asking questions.

A seed is sown.

Poets say science takes away from the beauty of the stars – mere globs of gas atoms. I too can see the stars on a desert night, and feel them. But do I see less or more? The vastness of the heavens stretches my imagination – stuck on this carousel my little eye can catch one-million-year-old light. A vast pattern – of which I am a part… What is the pattern, or the meaning, or the why? It does not do harm to the mystery to know a little about it. For far more marvelous is the truth than any artists of the past imagined it. — Richard Feynman

remember that thou art dust: Ash Wednesday through atheist eyes

Remember that thou art dust, and to dust thou shalt return. — Genesis 3:19

Ash Wednesday is a difficult one to contemplate from the viewpoint of a retired/ex-/’let me out,  please’ -Catholic.

Firstly, there’s this reminder to think about mortality and the ephemeral nature of one’s being. I believe firmly that I am dust and unto dust I shall return, but I believe that said dust is the mess of carbon and other elements present in my physical body. I’m only borrowing these atoms for a few decades, and they’ll go on without me when I’m done. I am made from material forged in the heart of a star, material present from Big Bang to heat death of the universe – an idea that inspires in me an entirely indescribable sense of what ‘eternity’ means.

In that way I understand what people mean when they contemplate a deity or deities – the universe is so immense, so utterly incomprehensible on a human scale that they feel there must be a greater power to give our tiny presence meaning. An atheistic view of one fleeting human lifespan still gives me momentary existential vertigo.

And yet here I am. Teetering over that precipitous edge. Contemplating, or trying to, with no divine safety net.

The other bit of Ash Wednesday, though, is guilt and sin and ‘repent and believe in the Gospel’. Here, I am firmly back on my areligious horse. Catholic guilt is a hell of a drug and a bloody tricky mentality to discard. I don’t know what it means that I’ve spent about a decade physically and mentally checked out of religion and its trappings, and I still find myself tripping over the remnants of guilt and the idea that I am a fundamentally immoral being. Probably it just means that the early childhood lessons are buried pretty deep.

They certainly were at the time. Lent is one of those things you just don’t understand as a child, even as you go along with it. The first year I went to Mass on Good Friday, post-atheism, I came home wide-eyed and traumatised at the crucifixion story. Once you discard the divine nature of Jesus and the redemptive ending that comes with resurrection, you’re left with this terrible story of the torture and execution of an innocent man – and I never really heard that, before. That sounds stupid, but that’s the only way I can put it. Taking the elements of Lenten/Holy Week liturgy out of the frame of the overall narrative and looking at them separately and objectively is a truly eye-opening experience. All that horror, and you’re being told from your first days of primary school that this happened for you. This happened because people are sinners and Jesus died to save us and God sent his son to a horrific fate because people are sinners, this means you, stop being sinful.

Which is a lot to take in, for the under-tens set.

Ash Wednesday, though, is the start of it, and was the start of my being open about my atheism also. As a kid I used to dread it. You’d have to get up early to go to Mass, or at least the blessing and handing out of ashes, before school. The dust you are, dust you will be message I used to hear as we’re all going to die! Eventually! Everyone! Oh, and you can’t eat sweets for six weeks. Good luck with that. Why hast thou forsaken me, indeed.

By the time I was a teenager, still in a very Catholic school, most people would call in to the church on the grounds to receive their ashes before class started. Apart from the few pupils of other religions, it was more or less expected that you would… until a few of us didn’t. Such a wonderful twist of rebellious feeling, that one little gesture.

The flick of people’s eyes upward to your empty forehead. ‘Have your ashes worn off already?’

‘No, I just didn’t go.’

I didn’t. That was ten years ago, and I haven’t, since. At first the news ‘I’m an atheist’ garnered us the look I’ve come to associate with my mother any time I say that out loud (it’s a look that says ‘would you mind not saying that in the house? If you get smote with a lightning bolt it’ll ruin the paint job.’). Then we started opting out of prayers, politely declining communion at compulsory school Masses. A few, and then a few more, until there was a whole pew of us willing to assert our position – ever politely, of course, and I still belong to the Don’t Be A Dick school of atheism: I don’t mind what you believe. This is what I believe.

I’m not repentant. I don’t believe in the Gospel. I am not a sinner and that is no longer my guilt.

But the other bit’s pretty good:

I am this piece of work, this quintessence of dust, and I am star stuff contemplating the stars. And unto the stars, I shall return.

Every atom in your body came from a star that exploded. And, the atoms in your left hand probably came from a different star than your right hand. It really is the most poetic thing I know about physics: You are all stardust. You couldn’t be here if stars hadn’t exploded, because the elements – the carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, iron, all the things that matter for evolution and for life – weren’t created at the beginning of time. They were created in the nuclear furnaces of stars, and the only way for them to get into your body is if those stars were kind enough to explode. So, forget Jesus. The stars died so that you could be here today.

– Lawrence Krauss

RIP Éamon de Buitléar: Ireland’s Attenborough

This week saw the passing of Éamon de Buitléar, the first and best of Ireland’s wildlife broadcasters, enthusiasts, champions.

It’s not a stretch to say that Éamon was the Irish equivalent of David Attenborough. He was a more locally concerned mind, certainly, but one charged with the same deep and empathic love of animals and the environment.

My mother and grandmother remember his first series, Amuigh Faoin Spéir (Out Beneath the Sky), not long after RTÉ launched in the 1960s. I remember sitting rapt at his discussion of birds and badgers and fluffy seal pups. In fifty years of work he reached three or four generations of Irish people and brought the beautiful wildlfe of the country into our homes, changing our perceptions of what we see around us.

Last year he donated his entire archives to NUI Galway. The following video is his explanation of that decision, and a recollection of his years of work. It’s in Irish, but I’ll summarise the main bits for you below.

Éamon worked on documentaries for fifty years, starting on RTÉ, but also for the BBC, ITV, Scottish and Welsh stations, and TG4. He had a strong connection with Irish culture: music, crafts, and heritage. He also made the first Irish-language cartoon for television (this is the odd bit with the tinwhistle-playing leprechaun in the video). He collaborated with Gerrit van Gelderen, a Dutch filmmaker, to make Amuigh Faoin Spéir, which became one of the longest-running shows on RTÉ. He also played and recorded traditional music with the renowned musician Seán Ó Riada and his band.

The beautiful illustrated book shown (which he says was a Christmas gift from his mother!), How to Recognise British Birds, was the spark for his interest in wild birds, and he wrote in all their names in Irish. He hoped that his documentaries would allow the Irish public to recognise and understand the birds portrayed therein – and also the wonderful wild animals of Ireland.

Unfortunately, the destruction of the environment and peril to the wildlife was plainly to be seen also. He believed that conservation and protection of the waterways is sorely needed in order to keep the environment healthy. Without clean water both humans and animals would be in danger. However, he did also see clean-up efforts on waterways, which he found very positive.

He hoped that donating his life’s work to the University would help to teach the public about nature and to keep alive tradition and heritage.

(Absolutely not a direct translation, but one written to make sense from one language to another, and first- to third-person!)

My abiding childhood memory of Éamon de Buitléar is seeing him sitting in a field, talking about foxes, while a fox hangs around nearby almost nodding in approval of every word being said.

I wasn’t sure if this was a conflation of several images – after all, he did make a lot of programmes – but clicking around the various tributes being paid to his memory, I was pleased and gratified to find this:

Ar dheis Dé go raibh a anam dílis.


Pictures from The Irish Times and The Irish Examiner. Video from NUI Galway via All credit goes to them. No foxes were harmed in the making of this post.