[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:

curiosityfinal

and

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…

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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.

the skeptic, the witch, and the tarot: in search of narrativium

I turn the cards. The Moon – writing, dreams, foreshadowing. The Five of Swords – depression, defeat. The Knave of Pentacles – obstinacy, but financial smarts. I’m connecting the images, trying to pull out the thread linking them. My friend is watching me, trying not to let emotions play across her face. She’s not doing well. I turn another card. The Three of Wands – sucess through hard work. Story time.

Here are some facts: tarot is cold-reading in the vein of psychics. It’s beautiful symbolism, but it’s all an act.

Some other, less obvious facts: I read tarot. I learned from a friend several years ago. I adore tarot art, and the meanings behind the cards. I love surprising people with it.

I’m an endlessly thwarted writer of fiction, and a fairly scrappy writer of non-fiction, but there’s something in the idea of bringing together links, symbols, and art to produce a narrative that I find irresistable. Add in the cold-reading and you keep yourself on the hop, but that’s not the point. The point is the story.

In Terry Pratchett’s Discworld universe, Narrativium is a natural element in the vein of earth and fire. It ensures that the world works as a story. It lies where choice turns into inevitability; lies counter to free will even as those inside the narrative imagine themselves to be acting freely. Narrativium enters both deep magic and prosaic human interactions.

Narrativium is not an element in the accepted sense. It is an attribute of every other element, thus turning them into, in an occult sense, molecules. Iron contains not just iron, but also the story of iron, the history of iron, the part of iron that ensures that it will continue to be iron and has an iron-like job to do, and is not for example, cheese. Without narrativium, the cosmos has no story, no purpose, no destination.

Isn’t that a marvellous concept? Free-flowing story. Story in the air, in the ground, in ourselves. Story functioning alone, with no purpose other than its own completion. Impassable, like evolution and the earth’s rotation.

Philip Pullman uses a similar concept in his His Dark Materials trilogy, with an elementary particle called Dust that appears when lifeforms become sentient, and inspires knowledge and consciousness. Dust we have, and unto Dust we return the lifegiving force of thought. Sentient beings inspired by the universe, and needed by that same universe. It’s a beautiful idea which taps into the intense desire our species has to feel a connection to our physical and mental places.

We have always had a drive to paint stories on to the Universe. When humans first looked at the stars, which are great flaming suns an unimaginable distance away, they saw in amongst them giant bulls, dragons, and local heroes. This human trait doesn’t affect what the rules say — not much, anyway — but it does determine which rules we are willing to contemplate in the first place. Moreover, the rules of the universe have to be able to produce everything that we humans observe, which introduce a kind of narrative imperative into science, too. Humans think in stories…

We do. We can see streaks of victory and loss in the results of a coin toss; we cheer for the gazelle or the leopard in an Attenborough documentary. Even the Higgs Boson stories from last year were written as if the universe somehow worked to produce us. We don’t like to believe we’re a blip on the record, and to stop ourselves falling into the Total Perspective Vortex of the infinite, we tell each other stories about a big man who lives in, and yet not in, the sky, or twins raised by wolves who founded a city, or cycles of reincarnation that mean our own story will go on after this life ends.

Ian Stewart and Jack Cohen, who co-write the Science of Discworld books, refer to humans as Pan narrans – the story-telling ape. Far from the ‘wise man’ label of Homo sapiens, it is not our intelligence that marks us as different from the other branches of our evolutionary tree. It’s our imagination.

And so back to the tarot. Tarot deals with the big questions – life, love, people. There are different layouts used for various purposes, ranging from a simple one-/two-card draw on an immediate dilemma, to a full spread of past-present-future including influences and inner thoughts. You learn the meanings, you deal the cards, you watch your questioner very carefully, and you start to talk. Talking around the topic is the easiest thing to do – so you get, say, a Knave card, and you mention something about a young man. Get a Swords card next to him, and you ask if they’ve had a problem or a bad experience with a young man. Speak in generalities, and then when you see something register on your questioner’s behaviour, grab that thread and run with it.

The story is open-ended. Oh, we have banal things in common (find me someone who hasn’t had trouble with or about a young man), but we each have our incredibly disparate paths to walk. Story guides us. We live in a pattern of stories, led and gently pushed into place by the part of our brains that’s absorbed the patterns of narrative in the media we’ve consumed. The brain wants stories, wants order. The brain would dearly love to encounter some narrativium instead of just feeling like it should be there. We build ourselves castles of happily-ever-after, or models of justice in which good guys are vindicated and bad guys are punished. In a world so unpredictable, we crave certainty.

We are so curious, too. We want to know what lies ahead for us, and what’s currently going on in the minds of our peers. We consume the lives of others, real or fictional, in a voracious desire for insight. Then we play the game with ourselves: will I ever know what’s going to happen to me? Small wonder that so many people end up consulting fake fortune-tellers for a window into the future.

In another Discworld book, the old witch Granny Weatherwax disapproves of displays of magic and occult paraphernalia as being ‘myffic’. The myffic, in Granny’s estimation, includes any airy-fairy claims to, and ways of practicing, magic. Granny knows that magic exists – she is a witch, after all – but she understands that most of what people think of as magic is really ‘headology’. The trappings of magic don’t matter as much as belief.

The human brain is an amazing machine. Our need for belief and creativity (and either and both) is a deeply-rooted part of our consciousness. We’re drawn to expressions of those traits, and when we reach a point where knowledge is impossible – like predicting the future – we turn to each other to provide answers. Tarot cards are a visual language with symbolic meaning, but they’re not where the power lies. The power is in the human connection between reader and listener.

It always is.

Some interesting links about storytelling and the brain out of this article on Lifehacker.

Quotes are from The Science of Discworld books, by Terry Pratchett, Ian Stewart, and Jack Cohen. I recommend His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman as well. Granny Weatherwax appears as herself. SHE ATEN’T DEAD.

through the lens

When I make a photograph, I am literally cropping out the rest of existence — its tension, its chaos, its hunger, its pain. For one small moment, I wall myself into a world of my own creation; a world where things may not make immediate narrative or logical sense, but where everything is in balance. Thin, almost pencil-drawn lines offset wide, flat spaces. The smooth hardness of glass acts as counterweight to the fine hairs of a polyester wig. I don’t have any pretensions of long-term escape. I know when I put the camera down, when I step back from the print, there will be something like an avalanche of smells and voices, car alarms and newspaper headlines, legal obligations and biological concerns.

I will be a part of things again over which I have no control. But for a moment, I have hidden long enough to take a breath.

Tim Lisko

I love this quote. He sums up the act of photography, for me. I’m not a professional, and I’m not even all that comfortable calling myself a photographer. I just love to make pictures. There’s a simplicity to viewing the world through an internal lens. There’s a real beauty to framing a scene just so; to understand the elements of a picture and work out how best to reveal that vision through my camera is a process less technical than instinctual for me.

I get asked sometimes whether photographing an event distracts me from what’s happening at the time. I don’t think it does – I actually think, sometimes, that a camera makes me more mindful of what’s going on in front of me. I recall events not as two-dimensional tableaux, but as dynamic, fired with movement, full of all the senses. A sidelong grin, a hand gesture, the colours of lights. I seal the moment in its entirely into my mind; I access it again through my images. Is it work shooting events? Sure it is. Is it a disadvantage to my overall experience? Absolutely not.

Getting that one great shot is a constant challenge. I take many more frames than I’ll ever need to use, but that one, that perfect one, is elusive. Iconic photos stay in the mind like constant zeitgeistish scenery, and you aim for one. Of course you do. You feel that Corbijn or Cartier-Bresson or Leibovitz looked at their most famous shots and thought, yep, that’s one for the record books. You can’t know either way. Do images stay iconic because they have a higher intrinsic quality than their peers, or do we self-perpetuate images as iconic?

I will probably never know that an image is the one, the most important, the absolute best it could be. Most of us will never be Carter in Rwanda; most of us will never see something that absolutely needs recording, needs to be seen. We just work on and hope that we stumble over that wily quarry at some point in our lives.

I love taking photos. I have that love that Lisko enthuses over in his artist’s statement – grabbing a moment’s peace out of chaos, finding at least one rectangle of world that is your vision and only yours. I love the instinct and the certainty of framing an image. With words, I self-edit and second-guess. With a photo, I’ll only try to change it for the better. It’s a freedom of expression granted by control – I can give of myself in photographs more than in words, because photos are, at the same time, intensely personal and entirely objective. It’s a beautiful contradiction, a beautiful balance. It’s just beautiful.

My photos live here. I’m definitely no Annie Leibovitz.

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.

Dear Science: it’s not you, it’s me.

I just thought I should write and apologise. It’s not you, it’s me. Apparently. I’m interested, and I always have been, but that’s not enough any more. I’m from the wrong side of the tracks – the arts and humanities side. I thought it was okay, you know? But now I’ve been told that I’m part of a detrimental Movement, and I’m just not up for that. I’m sorry, Science. If that’s how you feel, I’ll stay away.

Alright, I’m taking the piss. Sort of.

I actually am a bit more nettled than I thought by this geek-related kerfuffle. I’ve been waffling on whether I should bother writing about it, but then again – I am the Jo Soap being talked about here. I’m an atheist. I read pop sci books. I’m the audience for the Infinite Monkey Cage. I’m a geek, certainly, and I mean that both in the teenage perjorative sense, and the adult descriptor sense. And I’m not a scientist. I just find it interesting. So I’m either the best or worst person to do so. Let’s go.

This concept of ‘the Geek movement‘* is, to be frank, complete bunk. A movement is a coherent group of people, most likely with a leader, and with some idea of what their common aim is. You could call skepticism a sort of movement, I guess, but you’d be stretching a bit even there. Geekdom is less a movement than it is a meander.

To me, the word ‘geek’ describes someone who loves learning, whose curiosity is constantly piqued by new ideas, and who delights in the intricacies of their particular interest. I know people I’d describe as ‘geeky’ who are scientists, certainly, but also lawyers, sociologists, techies, writers, historians, philosophers – and so on. Some of them are atheists, some aren’t. Women and men and some who identify as neither. Some of them have an interest in politics, some couldn’t care less. Almost all are intelligent, questioning minds, and great conversationalists.

So it’s a bit jarring to be characterised as a socially awkward, belligerent, superiority-complexed man.

I mean, at least one of those attributes is totally untrue.

Yes, there are people who fit somewhere on the Venn diagram of {geek}, {skeptic}, {atheist}, {argumentative}, who are absolute fuckwits**. Sometimes they’re very loud fuckwits. But they’re not the majority, and they’re not somehow in charge of this very nebulous crowd of people. That’s a complete misrepresentation with no goal except scoring rhetoric points.

It’s also odd that this post was spawned by a bit of a fracas over this New Statesman editorial by (two of) the Infinite Monkeys themselves, which basically says ‘science does good things for society, don’t forget that, and we should probably depend more on scientific evidence than unverified opinions in areas of science-related policy.’ To which I can only add: and so say all of us. I have absolutely no idea where people got a desire for technocracy, or scientism, or a superiority complex, or a self-nomination as the adjudicators of Where Science Should Go, out of the article. You have one scientist and one writer/presenter/comedian, writing in a mostly political magazine for a mostly non-scientist audience, and their task is to make their point without alienating people who may not read a science-based book from one end of the year to another. Is that really the arena for a searching inventory of the people populating the scientific professions?

Here’s the thing: science is important. Scientists are important. Public engagement with science is also important. Getting people to vaccinate their kids or reduce their energy consumption or write to their representatives to encourage them to pursue science-based policy is important, and the only way to do that is for those in the know to instruct the rest of us in best practice.

I’m a little gobsmacked at this reaction in particular because I think The Infinite Monkey Cage is a great show, whose strength lies in its collaboration between a scientist and a non-science professional. Robin is the audience avatar: he’s a well-read enthusiast, not a working scientist. Brian provides the scientific background. They’re both fluent storytellers and generally funny writers, and they bring the best out of their guests. However, they do understand that speaking to the general public as opposed to a scientist-only audience means drawing a careful balance between the need for nuanced scientific discussion, and the need to engage and retain the interest of their listeners.

And so it is, I think, with the editorial – and not a lot of people have pointed that out. It’s interesting to me that the backlash seems to have come mostly from communications fields – I haven’t seen many scientists who’ve spoken against it. Perhaps most scientists understand that the detailed nature of their work is not immediately transmissable to the public, and know that sometimes you have to blunt the edge a bit.

I’d be sad if this row turned lay-people off enjoying science for fear of being characterised as a brash, shouty, atheism-pushing know-all. I’d be sad if science writers were less likely to appeal to the public because they might suffer an evisceration from sci-comms colleagues. Sometimes the arena of internet arguments is a dodgy place to tread.

Keep the geek flag flying high, friends. Or don’t. I’m not the boss of you, either.

* please see here for an excellent piece-by-piece skewering of that post by MJ Robbins.

** a very technical term, do excuse me.

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.