John Maddox Prize 2012

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Last night I was lucky to be at the Royal Pharmaceutical Society for the annual Sense About Science reception.

I am a member of Voice of Young Science, which is a network set up and supported by SAS that allows young scientists to get involved with pro-science activism. Through this group, we are able to participate in public-facing discourse about science and challenge common misconceptions. This takes the form of supporting campaigns (such as Libel Reform) and contributing to publications. For example, I picked up a copy of Peer Review: the nuts and bolts last night because I joined discussions about its content and aims. Anyone young scientists who’d like to, definitely sign up!

Many of us London-based VOYS members went along last night to show our support for SAS and the RPS, and to find out who won the first John Maddox Prize for Standing up for Science. Sir John Maddox was a long-term editor of Nature and helped expand Sense About Science as a charity, supporting and encouraging its work, as well as helping to establish programmes like VOYS.

Two prizes were awarded this year:

Shi-min Fang

Many of us are aware that China is plagued by superstition and dangerous “traditional” cures in the medical field, which costs many lives needlessly. Shi-min Fang has worked tirelessly to expose clinics that take advantage of people by selling unproven treatments, and to help the public understand the importance of evidence. He is a freelance journalist and has endured threats to his life and physical assaults because of his work. His acceptance video was moving, including:

I consider this award as an acknowledgment of our efforts from the international science community and I deeply appreciate it

Here’s some more on his homepage. Shi-min is clearly deserving of the prize given the scale of what he has undertaken and what he has suffered through standing up for his principles, and for scientific evidence, trying to help others and improve healthcare in his country. Edit: here’s an interview with him on New Scientist about exposing fraud in Chinese research.

Professor Simon Wessely

Professor Wessely has worked for many years on ME (chronic fatigue syndrome) and Gulf War syndrome. ME has been a disease surrounded by controversy, with some people disparaging sufferers as “fakers”, and some patients completely reluctant to consider the condition as anything like a mental health disorder, preferring to insist it is due to an as-yet-undiscovered virus, for example. While those such as Professor Wessely try to help patients through research, and have indeed challenged the misconceptions surrounding ME sufferers, they are also targeted by people who are angry that they are not doing the “right kind of research”.

Wessely has, as a result, been the target of threats and campaigns to discredit him and his colleagues. Wessely acknowledged these colleagues with his acceptance:

I have been helped and sustained by the support of so many other wonderful clinicians and scientists who work in the same field and have had similar experiences to me over the years, any one of whom would have been equally worthy of this honour

See here for a discussion of some of the early work on these conditions, and here for an interview with Wessely from 2006 that goes over the whole story. Edit: following lengthy discussion below and some posts elsewhere about the prize, the Independent has an article on the controversy, too.

All in all it was a lovely evening with many friendly faces and some inspiring words from people doing fantastic things for science. Then some fun times in the pub! Perfect, really. Some video of the winners here, New Scientist also has a piece about the event, and here’s Nature’s editorial.

Keep an eye on Sense About Science‘s activities and do get involved!

Science is Vital 2012

Last night I attended the first Science is Vital AGM!

It was a great evening with loads of friendly folks (including more than 10 who weren’t from London!!) throwing out ideas on how we can keep Science is Vital going and achieve our goal of convincing the government that, well, science is vital! Secure more funding, protect and encourage UK science and stimulate our economy. In a nutshell. See here for the SiV key messages.

Something sobering to think about is the fact that almost a third of all people die because of a form of cancer. It is the best-funded disease type, but in fact only £10 per person per year is spent on cancer research (govt funding + charity money). If you’re so likely to suffer from something, would you not prefer a bit more money going to it? But on to proceedings…

Jenny Rohn

Jenny welcomed us to the meeting, exactly 2 years after the very first pub meeting in 2010 that spawned the SiV campaign and rally. There’s still a lot of work to be done, partly because the economy has not recovered as was predicted/hoped. What the campaign showed us was that scientists still (apparently!) command power and respect; we were not ignored. Can we use this to increase the science spend come the next review..?

Colin Blakemore

Colin gave the first address, which recapped the 2010 activities of SiV.

If we consider the predictions made before the last spending review, that science would suffer cuts of up to 40% – that would have destroyed UK science and screwed the economy.

SiV engendered respect for science in the government – it wasn’t a selfish motivation, but concern, and we need to keep this in the campaign.

At the demo on the Saturday before the review announcement (I highly recommend Della’s personal account of her SiV experience), strong arguments were put forward outside the treasury for all to hear, and there was an audience with David Willetts, the then-Minister of State for Universities and Science.

2 days before the review, the prediction was still up to 20-30% cuts. The final announcement of a “freeze” on the science budget was gratefully received under the circumstances. But, with time, the real-terms cuts have still bitten due to inflation etc.

The main argument that won (in a sense) was Adrian Smith’s work to demonstrate that UK science is amazing with respect to output (we produce around 12% of global citations with around 1% of the population; 3rd in the world in terms of citations per researcher and 1st in terms of papers produced per proportion of GDP!), efficiency and impact. Per £1 spent, we are 2x as productive as any competing nation.

So, UK science is fantastic value for money. Why cut the budget?! It works, so it only makes sense to increase investment, to positively feed back into the economy.

We’re now seeing a failure of the government to have any clear plan for science (think also of the immigration block plans, for example, that were also a serious threat to UK science; very short-sighted).

The consequences of emphasising translation, application and production at the expense of “basic science” that underpins all of these things are being realised. Without the research that makes fundamental discoveries, we cannot have the same level of innovation.

Science needs a structure to flourish in and we have nothing else to go on with to build our economy! Finance, tourism, trade… none of these are sustainable.

The only key to the future is making things, designing things, discovering things

The government’s attitude has been uniformly negative and conservative, but we must invest in priorities for the future. Science must be in the middle, if not top, of the list. It has never been more relevant than it is now.

Imran Khan

Imran is director of CaSE (the Campaign for Science and Engineering – you can support them for £2.50/month!) and continued the story, following on from the budget “freeze” announced in the spending review of October 20th 2010.

The government wanted us to know they had “protected” science with the cash freeze. The night before it was all announced, news of the freeze was leaked to the BBC and the Times. In real terms, this still meant a cut to the budget, and what the government did to make themselves look even better was (unsurprisingly) sneaky.
They redefined what “science budget” actually meant. Previously, it was all the funds that went to the Research Councils. Then, it became research allocation (day-to-day stuff like grad salaries etc.) excluding capital – which was cut by 50% or £1.7bn.

We much now challenge this idea of “protection” – we’re not happy with what happened. Public goodwill is in fact protecting the government from due criticism, because of the coverage of the freeze as such, ignoring the negative impact it’s really having.

While capital includes long-term investments like buildings, large equipment, it’s also standard stuff (such as smaller equipment; PCR machines, electron microscopes…) and the cut has been very restrictive on the research base.

Since then? Two key things: people believe science got a good deal in the budget, and the economy is worse than expected now.

The freeze was the ‘best possible scenario’ last time, but the next budget will come at the end of 4 years’ deficit in science because of it. We must campaign for an increase now. Take a look at Germany: they increased their research spending approximately 20% for the last 3 years despite the state of the economy generally, because they realise that future growth needs science and research. Some investments have happened; around £50m to the graphene institute, and similar to Pirbright. But not a lot really.

via @Ananyo and @sciencecampaign

So what are we pitching for now? The next review is likely to be… well, we don’t know. Could be end of 2013, even 2014. It depends on the coalition (!).

CaSE is working on the evidence base: why did the treasury not invest? How much have we lost in terms of private sector investment because the UK is not seen to be science-friendly now? There’s also political engagements: which MPs will be affected due to their constituents’ reliance on science & technology?

CaSE is showing how our politics and funding does not reflect the importance of science here and globally. They’re also pushing for 4G for growth, an education manifesto, and highlighting how public funding has enabled technological developments. Think of Marconi, sponsored by the Post Office to develop wireless communication. Tim Berners-Lee developed the world-wide web in the public-funded sector. Will the government not open their eyes??

There were a few questions for Imran:

Since Adrian Smith is standing down and was a friend of science – what now? Imran points out he was a former Queen Mary University vice-chancellor, so it would be good to have another non-civil service person. That’s the main hope, to keep the rapport going between the two sectors.

Vince Cable’s industrial strategy speech was leaked. In it was the telling statement “we don’t appear to have a strategy…” ! Imran points out that supporting winning sectors and not individual companies may be key; integrating industry support and the research base.

How’s the reshuffle looking for us? Funding (from BIS) unchanged, Osborne and Cameron are still there… but research specifically: the Ministry of Defence spends about £2bn/year on Research & Development. The Department of Health spends about half of that, and we now have Hunt and his shadow Burnham, who both seem to believe in homeopathy… make of that what you will. Then DEFRA spends around £250m/year, and so on. In terms of the Department for Education, they are seeing some changes in the ideas of “freedom” in education and curriculum changes. Primary curricula have become very rigid, though there may be moves away from teaching only facts at the expense of scientific thinking as a worldview..?

Following some campaign business like electing lovely new members and things, we had a bit of a brainstorming session on Where to go, What to do and How to do it?

Some goals are: expand outside of London; increase London support; increase membership and donations; build on the evidence base; raise awareness of the political cost of ignoring science; correct the “science protection” historical view of the freeze; ask for more money!

Points that were discussed included:

  • let’s hook up with some economists?
  • Imperial are hoping to get MPs engaged by inviting them to come and have audiences at the university to showcase what amazing science stuff is going on.
  • the petition (>37,000 signatures) has many non-scientists, which helps to demonstrate that we’re not just fighting for jobs, but for the whole country’s wellbeing – we should keep this going.
  • Can we do a publicity stunt to get some press interest?
  • Engage with the charities and their supporters (e.g. CRUK, Alzheimer’s Society etc.) because the patients are affected by these cuts, ultimately
  • Join up with the Science Museum? Depending on meetings.
  • Definitely go UK-wide, because the cuts are affecting research all over.
  • SiV is doing a good job of adding a human impact angle to the debate; CaSE are doing stats
  • Julian Huppert actually argued for 3% increases for 15 years. LibDem Conference is discussing the motion on Sept 24th at 9am-9:45 so tune into BBC Parliament! (Full policy paper here. Thanks, Prateek!)
  • TELL YOUR MP what you think! Letters are ok, they boost numbers they can use to show that people care about issues. Personalised letters are better than copy-pasted ones. Meeting in person is better than a letter. Do whatever you can, but something is always better than nothing.
  • Should we diversify into other issues? Open Access might be a bit niche and mostly known in the scientific community, it might dilute the SiV message. Science careers, however, are relevant to funding and UK scientific (in)efficiency.
  • why don’t MPs get it yet?

So, please support Science is Vitalbecome a member! Soon you’ll also be able to make a donation without joining up, so do then tell your friends and families! Science, research and development affects our quality of life and the government needs to hear our voices calling for more support.

Links:

I’ve written about Jenny’s talks before, both at the Dana Centre and Winchester Science Festival. Here’s a storify page of the evening’s tweets put together by @protohedgehog.

Let me know if you’d like something added here, or leave a comment below. Thanks!

The Future of Science?

Yesterday I went to the Dana Centre, attached to the Science Museum, where we were challenged to listen to a series of presentations and decide to whom we would entrust our scientific future. Or something to that effect! Apparently it was to be like speed-dating, without the dating bit, unless you actually got those signals from someone…

The presentation format, called Pecha Kucha, involves 20-slide presentations from each participant and they’re allowed to spend 20 seconds on each slide. This makes for a fast-paced, info-packed session, particularly good for those of us who tend to tune out when talked at for too long.

I loved it and highly recommend future events to everyone.

I’ll go through the presenters’ content a bit as there was some fascinating stuff, some links worth checking out, and lots of funny and important ideas that deserve to go beyond that room.

Should anyone who spoke see something I’ve got entirely wrong/an important link I’ve missed, do let me know. That was a lot of stuff to take in in such a short time!

—-

1. Andrew Pontzen, Institute of Astronomy, University of Cambridge

Andrew asked: Is Cosmology Science?

Traditionally ‘science’ means having ideas that lead to experiments, revision of ideas, new experiments and so on.

There are very few actual experiments you can do in terms of cosmology, the LHC being an obvious example.

But the kind of energy levels cosmologists are thinking about, during the time directly after the big bang called inflation, are far higher than those experimentally studied with the LHC; by a factor of 1 x 10^12 (or a thousand billion: 1,000,000,000,000!).

He walks among us, unseen…

The only evidence we have for this kind of energy is in the cosmic background radiation and cosmologists can predict only the likelihood of these patterns relative to others, rather than abolute predictions about their (non-)existence.

Inflation cannot be disproved; a bit like Russell’s teapot, as I understand it. Or, as Andrew theorised – the concept of a magical hedgehog creating the universe! I’ll refer to it as ‘magic hedgehog theory’ or MHT.

Recently a legal ruling in the US established that creationism is not science for this very reason; you cannot disprove it. Can evolution be disproved? Fairly sure most evolutionary biologists would say yes; the discovery of an organism that simply didn’t fit, for example. I should look into this more, but feel free to leave a comment, my more evolutionarily-literate friends.

Is there another way to think of such theories?

Laws and phenomena. MHT has no ‘rules’ associated with it; it’s just a case of going around and saying this and that was created by the great Magic Hedgehog himself (here I think of Eddie…) – based on nothing but the fact that they exist, so it’s not scientific.

Is science just taking big ideas and squashing them down into smaller bite-sized chunks, based on these laws and rules that hold true for everything, as far as we know? The question here is then:

Why should Nature be so compressable?

2. Tania Hershman, writer

Tania’s presentation was fantastic, but not one I can relay here; she’s a writer, inspired by science and scientific news. Her short story involved a physicist meeting with a painter and they discussed abstract ideas around colour and the nature of facts. I recommend checking out her stuff!

3. Jon Butterworth, University College London / Atlas experiment, CERN

Jon did his best to squeeze in a lot of technical details on the current aims of the largest collider in existence and what kind of machines we might see in the future.

Anyone with an interest in racing, skating etc. knows that whenever you bring corners into play, speed is lost. We’re always coming up with ways of getting around that, whether it’s in the tyres, working on your cross-overs or any other speed-conserving tactic. With this in mind, would it be sensible to make a linear collider to stop particles losing energy as they round corners (the LHC being composed of giant circles)?

Not really, as that would be horrifically expensive.

Going back to the racing analogy (Mario Kart Wii/NASCAR fans take note!), there’s drafting; like the reason geese fly in their V-formation. You can also make use of that effect in these kinds of experiments, by firing particles through a plasma (super-heated gas). I won’t pretend to understand any more about how that would work, but I hope you get the general idea.

Perhaps we could also go for a Muon collider, plans for which are in place in Chicago. Muons are heavier than electrons, so considering E=mc^2, you can achieve higher energies with them. The upshot of this is you produce lots of neutrinos so can study those too.

Is the future of science bigger colliders, particles going faster, looking at greater and greater energy levels? The LHC won’t make a black hole, (apart from possibly really tiny ones that only exist for a teeny fraction of a second and won’t destroy anything!) but perhaps we will at some point… ?

4. Chris Binny and Sara

This was a pleasant surprise for me as I used to work with Chris and didn’t know he’d be presenting!

For the non-biologists in the audience, Chris explained the central dogma. DNA makes RNA makes proteins and the proteins do all the work in life, they’re (arguably, says my inner geneticist!) the most interesting molecules.

Cloning technology (that’s making copies of bits of DNA, not people!) has come on leaps and bounds since we discovered DNA; it’s relatively simple to do now and companies have made affordable, effective kits to help us out in the lab.

Now there is the phenomenon of hobbyist labs – news to me – and there are even some in London. People getting together for DIY science.

Chris’ co-presenter Sara described how DIY Bio is making biology accessible to people; you can buy equipment on ebay and there are some entrepeneurial ventures that provide it.

For example, pearlbiotech.com (agarose gel tanks for $200), openpcr.org (PCR machines for $500), lava-amp.com and my personal favourite, biocurious.org (I lol’d at that one).

Check out the London Hackspace if you’re interested!

5. Ralph Cordey, EADS Astrium

We are so much more familiar with our planet now; we’re used to seeing it from space whether as satellite images, weather maps or simulations. We recognise it as our home and have come to think of this as our solar system.

What if we discovered other life? Scientists may be emotionally prepared for this, but are we?

This is not science fiction. Alien ‘bugs’ are a real possibility. Probability, even.

We’re discovering planets around other stars – it made sense that there would be many but until recently we had no proof. Now we do, and there are loads of them.

Perhaps we even think of this galaxy as our Milky Way – but is it? Are we alone? I’m inclined (and excited) to say probably not.

6. Rachael Pearson, University College London

Rachael talked about blindness; whether it’s hereditary (retinitis pigmentosa) or age-related (macular degeneration; AMD), it affects many people and it has long been a goal of medical science to reverse it.

Photoreceptors (the cells in the retina at the back of the eye that detect light) and/or their supporting cells die during retinal degeneration.

Newts and frogs have the ability to regenerate the eye (we can’t, having lost the ability during evolution as our genes have changed from those of our common ancestor with amphibians) so clearly through studying them we hope to understand how they do it and hopefully develop therapies using that knowledge.

Lovely newts

One strategy is transplantation; can these photoreceptor cells be transplanted successfully? So far, in mouse models we’ve seen that the transplanted cells can move into the retina and seem to take hold. But do they work? The pupil reflex was restored so that’s encouraging; but this was only using rod cells, the ones we use to see in low light.

What about cones? The cells we use to see colours in good light. These were also successfully transplanted but we don’t yet know if they work; it’s just a mouse model so far but definitely a promising one.

There is one particularly important consideration; the time at which the donor cells are harvested. They must be at just the right stage of differentiation; a path of cell development from when a cell can ‘decide’ to do any function out of approximately 200 available in the body (pluripotency), through committing to becoming one particular cell type until finally it is fully differentiated and has only that one function.

The stage at which these eye cells are ready to be transplanted occurs in embryos. Obviously this is not ideal due to the controversial nature of embryonic stem cell research (ESCR, as I’ve written about before) and possibility of rejection due to the cells coming from a foreign body (a risk with any such transplant procedure).

So can we make use of adult stem cell (ASC) technology here? Can we de-differentiate already committed cells, make them go backwards in their development, restore their potential to become many other types of cells, and force them down the path to becoming an eye cell?

Personally I’d advocate for the ESC approach at present, but if it’s a possibility that ASCs could be used in this case, it’s certainly worth pursuing.

7. Jenny Rohn, scientist and blogger

Jenny wanted to convince the audience that science needs our help; the way it is perceived by the public and, probably more importantly, politicians, must improve if we’re going to see a future worth having.

Looking back to the thousands of bodies lined up in 1918, the fatalities of that year’s flu pandemic, compared to the ability to walk into our GPs and get a vaccination now – who would not be impressed by the power of science to change the way we live our lives?

It’s taken less than 100 years to reach that point. What about climate change, feeding our growing population (which we’re currently failing at spectacularly),

all the other problems we face, which scientific research could help us with?

Fund the blue-sky research too!

Jenny argues that the creativity of scientists should not be stifled. This is what policy-makers seem to want to do, though, by wishing to fund only “commercially-useful” science. What is that? This kind of attitude does not work.

Tim Berners-Lee did not set out to invent the internet when he was tinkering with ideas to make life easier for himself and his colleagues at CERN. But now look at what we have.

Consider from the time when antibodies were discovered to the present, when many therapies use antibodies, including one close to my own work; Avastin (or bevacizumab), an anti-blood-vessel drug used to treat cancer (and other diseases).

You never know when, from who or where the next breakthrough will come – it’s impossible to know. Often it takes decades to realise the potential and significance of discoveries. Science does not work the way politicians would like and they must realise this or our scientific future will remain bleak.

Paul Nurse is a fantastic scientist with an impressive career, but he’s wrong in his desire to focus funding on ‘excellent individuals’ – who are these people, how are they identified exactly? Looking at his own initial publications, you’d not single him out as a future Nobel laureate. You can’t tell who’s going to be the next big thing; the whole idea is inherently flawed.

Jenny started the Science is Vital campaign, which seems to have had a huge impact on our politicians’ views already – from threatened 25% funding cuts we’ve been promoted to a freeze (still a cut in real-terms, but it’s far better than we thought it was going to be).

Still, considering other countries are increasing science funding, because they know how important it is for the economy and their ability to compete in the global market, we should be ashamed of this. Our science is world-class, despite our tiny budget.

Think what the future of British science would be if we could convince the government to give it the support it needs and deserves.

8. Sophie Scott, Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience

MRI scans have revolutionised our ability to the study the brain.

Sophie explained how our brains are ‘plastic’ with respect to sound; for example, every time we hear a new person speak, we adjust to their particular voice and apply what we know about language to their sounds in order to understand them.

Cochlear implants have been used since the 70s to improve people’s sense of hearing, to varying degrees.

The changes in the brain associated with adult hearing loss and stroke are very different from those in children born deaf. We don’t yet fully understand how the brain works in these various cases, but work is ongoing to do so so that effective hearing restoration therapy can be developed.

Interesting observed phenomena can give us clues to the causes and effects of neural damage and how these affect hearing. There are visible differences between the brains of people who perceive sounds very precisely, for example, such as those who have exceptional ability to recognise and reproduce accents.

Sophie left us with a very intriguing final thought; considering we are social primates, with others in our order using social grooming to bond and communicate and we no longer really do so – have we replaced grooming with language?

8. Anders Sandberg, Future of Humanity Institute

While it may be the case that:

All science is either physics or stamp collecting.

- Ernest Rutherford

Stamp-collecting in science is important!

Anders asks, will the scientists of the future be cyborgs? Not necessarily in terms of implants, but the tools we use. I’d be inclined to say that it’s already the case; we can’t do much of what we do without our beloved machines!

Papers and patents are not the only factors; we are a collective.

Locutus of Borg

(Are we the borg?!)

We make great use of non-scientists too now; I notice, for example, how many wiki pages I’m linking to in this (a record number, I think!) to give quick and easy access to some background where needed.

Marvellous projects such as Galaxy Zoo and Polymaths were mentioned. Computers are indispensable to us.

Artificial Intelligence may not necessarily journey into the philosophy of life, but it is developing nonetheless.

Better artificial brains could improve our own brains! Or, I wonder, will we end up with that most loved/hated of sci-fi concepts; our Butlerian Jihad, Rise of the Machines, a Matrix? I’ll opt for probably not at the moment.

Anders finished with a great quotation, perfect as an end to the evening – and this post:

Our future is greater than our past.

- Ben Okri

Science Only Adds; Don’t Cut the Budget!

Judge of a man by his questions rather than by his answers.

- Voltaire

Yesterday evening I attended the 2010 Voltaire Lecture at Conway Hall, a venue that hosts events, discussions and talks on ethical principles and education. Firstly, apologies to physicists for whatever horrible mistakes I may make; feel free to correct me/add necessary info in comments!! My particle physics is limited to 1st yr undergrad chemistry, much of which is now very vague…

This year the speaker was Prof. Brian Cox, winner of the BHA’s 2006 Lord Kelvin award and I can recommend his TED talk as a kind of mini-version. Before he started I was both amused and disappointed upon hearing a remark from behind me to the tune of:

I probably wouldn’t have come if it weren’t a guy off the telly… I liked the programmes, the science is interesting

- bloke in the audience.

Amused by ‘guy off the telly’, encouraged that the work of Brian and others like him are turning the public on to various aspects of science where they may have previously ignored it entirely – but also disappointed that the only reason he would have considered such a talk was due to the TV/celeb aspect. Still, the purpose of the programmes is to inspire so in that sense it’s all good.People often wrongly think that science is just for the exceptionally clever. The Prof. himself only got a D in A level maths! Anyone can do it as long as you have the desire and hopefully more people will as science communication does its job.

Considering the 3 absolutely huge rounds of applause this lecture was given, I think it can safely be described as inspirational too.

Entitled:

The Value of Big Science

Brian started with the issue of the science vote (or #scivote for Tweeps) – our politicians undervalue the contribution that science makes; to the economy, to our lives in general. Popular opinion often seems to be similarly anti-science. I’ve asked this before, but why ARE people more ready to trust crazy quacks than those who know what they’re talking about, for example? There’s a general feeling that science is ‘too clinical’ and ‘lacking emotion’.

It is a huge misconception that science cannot show beauty and this leads people to fill an emotional void with the imaginary.

Brian uses the incredibly apt words of Richard Feynman

I have a friend who’s an artist, and he sometimes takes a view which I don’t agree with. He’ll hold up a flower and say, “Look how beautiful it is,” and I’ll agree. But then he’ll say, “I, as an artist, can see how beautiful a flower is. But you, as a scientist, take it all apart and it becomes dull.” I think he’s kind of nutty. [...] There are all kinds of interesting questions that come from a knowledge of science, which only adds to the excitement and mystery and awe of a flower. It only adds. I don’t understand how it subtracts.

Then we move on to the mysteries of the observable universe. Brian shows a picture of a “common or garden sombrero galaxy” (! below, from Hubble) and the famous Deep Field Image; a tiny ‘blank’ section of the sky as we look at it from Earth that, with a long enough exposure and zoom, can be seen to contain  at least 10,000 galaxies – a fraction of the 100 billion present in the observable universe.

From these and other mind-boggling data it’s been established that the universe is (approx.) 13.7 billion years old. So, when he’s not off  ‘messing about making telly programmes’, Brian works at the LHC at CERN.

What’s the LHC supposed to tell us?

The point of the LHC is to find out what was going on less than 1 billionth of a second after the big bang; the beginning of everything we observe (and hypothesise!*) to exist now.

Brian uses the snowflake as an analogy;  wonderful, fascinating and beautiful natural phenomenon but made only of H2O (water, as if you didn’t know) – and we can see this simply by observing it as it warms on our skin. So, the LHC aims to expose the simplicity of the universe, behind the complexity of what we see now – like seeing the liquid water that forms snowflakes.

Technically, the giant machine accelerates beams of protons (positively-charged nuclear particles) to 99.999999% the speed of light (that’s c in E = mc^2). The beams collide at a rate of 600 million collisions per second at just 1.9 degrees Celsius above absolute zero.

Prof. Cox’s work is in at the ATLAS detector, one of 4 around the machine. It’s 44 metres wide, 22 deep and is 7000 tonnes. It’s big. The LHC has been running at half the maximum capacity, data has already been generated and it’ll continue running as it is now (provided no problems…) for 18-24 months, then the power will be ramped up after it’s had a rest. So, to answer the title question above with yet another question (hence the opening quotation):  the LHC should reveal the answer to…

 

Why do things have mass?

What’s mass? It’s… stuff. We’re not entirely sure. Everything we see (and a lot of stuff we can’t) has mass. The universe is made of teeny tiny things we can’t see, these are represented in the table of elementary particles; that’s the ‘stuff’ we know about (see the pretty table). Gravity particles (‘gravitons’) aren’t in there because gravity is SO weak we can’t really detect it (yes, it’s clearly there, though) but that’s another story for another time, perhaps.

So these things are all of the ‘stuff’ (plus the massless force carriers; photons and gluons) that we know about at the moment. It was just the leftmost four (generation I) for quite some time, until the next two were somewhat stumbled upon (hence ‘strange’, and the exclamation of Isidor Rabi upon the muon’s discovery:

Who ordered that?!

- Generations II and III were a total surprise and we still don’t know why they’re there. They’re the same as I but a tad heavier. This is clearly a pattern (looks like a little periodic table) but we don’t understand it… yet!

I won’t write about the functions of all of these as a) it’s quite hardcore physics, I want to give more of an overview here and b) I’d probably get it a bit wrong anyway ;)  This is probably where a plug for Brian’s book Why does E=mc^2 (And why should we care?) would come in!

All science is either physics or stamp collecting.

- Ernest Rutherford, British chemist & physicist (1871 – 1937) in J. B. Birks “Rutherford at Manchester” (1962)

That table is a stamp collection at the moment. We found some stuff, arranged it in a way that seems to make sense, but we don’t know why it makes sense yet. Now we need to do some more SCIENCE! to find out – that’s what the LHC is about.

The Standard Model - our current best explanation of all the ‘stuff’ – requires the existence of another particle we haven’t yet observed for the equation to work. The extra particle has been named the Higgs Boson and gives all the ‘stuff’ its mass (click on that link for the great Thatcher-enters-a-room-full-of-tories analogy!).

So, things without mass (like photons; light particles) pass through the universe unimpeded, at the speed of light. Massive particles, however, interact with something – *current hypothesis being Higgs particles – and this slows them down, giving them mass. At the end of the talk, a young lad asked, as Brian said, a fantastic question; how can something exist if it’s massless? It’s to do with momentum; you can be massless so long as you travel at c (again, better to read the book!); massive things can’t travel at the speed of light, massless things must.

The LHC will uncover whatever it is that causes mass because the conditions it creates mean the standard model becomes nonsense if no such particle exists. So whatever’s going on… it’ll be revealed.

This was the short and amusing bit devoted to ‘AMG BLACK HOLES!’ people.

Subtracting from Science

So, the economy’s a bit crap. Some politicians think ‘saving money’ by cutting the (already pitiful) science budget is a good idea. I previously reported why this is a bad idea (again as set out by Brian, Dr Evan Harris MP and Nick Dusic). Also uploaded my videos to YouTube now:

So, 40% of our GVA (GDP minus materials costs) comes from higher education-fuelled things; the ‘Knowledge-Intensive Services’. So cutting the Research Councils budget (that includes arts and humanities, non-science peeps) is a good way to cut deficits, why?? Precisely, it isn’t. This is what the fight for the #scivote is about – get politicians to realise the importance of funding science (and that public already has) and push it up the election agenda. I didn’t catch what it was Labour & tories are apparently saying but at this point Brian said

You don’t hear the Lib Dems say it, well, because Evan Harris is wonderful!

And right he is!! Evan is, as we speak, being the voice of reason and opposing the Digital Economy bill (look that up, anyone who likes being able to watch what you want on YouTube and share your photos). Very reassuring that not  *all* MPs are totally useless/corrupt/stupid/wastes of space.

Answering a question at the end re: what we could do to secure funding

It seems our current high ranking in world science is down to the legacy of our universities; the heritage of these great institutions. However, that legacy is quite like our oil reserves – we are living off the past and without new funding the fuel for our scientific output will run out.

So, back to the final part of the talk.

Understanding our place in the Universe

Surely it’s worth the time, the money, the effort of those dedicated enough to do the work? It’s one of the big questions (if not, argues Brian, THE big question) and big science can help us answer it and keep finding more to ask.

People CAN be inspired by science. Some of Brian’s favourite pictures; showing the Earth from various angles in the solar system: from the moon, from beyond Saturn (a tiny dot barely visible between the rings); showing the ice fountains erupting from the moon Enceladus – these elicited audible gasps from those in the audience who had not seen them before. People ARE excited by what’s out there, the beauty of it.

Carl Sagan’s Pale Blue Dot encapsulates all these ideas; why we should appreciate the Earth and its galactic environment and indeed each other. This science isn’t just about what we can’t see, but everything we can see, have ever seen, will ever see. It is not only ‘clinical’, not remote or irrelevant. Far, far from it.

To my mind, there is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly and compassionately with one another and to preserve and cherish that pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.

That iconic photo was taken by the Voyager craft, built in the 70s, recording data on tapes and running on 25 Watts of power, when it was turned around at the end of its journey out through our solar system to look back at the Earth, hanging in a sunbeam.

Humphry Davy supported research in the face of opposition back in the 1700s and his words, which Brian quotes to end, are just as relevant today – and highlight a common misconception about science, that in explaining the beautiful things we observe, it leaves us with no more mystery and wonder to appreciate. Not so.

Nothing is so fatal to the progress of the human mind as to suppose that our views of science are ultimate; that there are no mysteries in nature; that our triumphs are complete, and that there are no new worlds to conquer.

And I will add:
Appreciation is a wonderful thing: It makes what is excellent in others belong to us as well.

- Voltaire

Libel Reform and Science Funding

Libel Reform Next Step

I officially have permission to attend the Mass Lobby at the Commons on Tuesday, hurrah.

If you’re in London and can be there 13:00-17:00, do e-mail your MP to notify them of your attendance and come along. We can get this done.

Big Libel Gig Epic Win

Sunday was the amazingly successful Big Libel Gig – many thanks to all of the organisers, I haven’t laughed so much in ages. Click the link for Skepchick’s audio and video coverage featuring interviews with the performers.

Fantastic photos from Robert Sharp of English Pen here.

Friend+co-nerd @GeekintheGambia and I are both very proud of contributing to Ariane Sherine’s Simon Singh-Song (rhyming ‘bogus’ and ‘locusts’! Well, sort of…). Comediennes by proxy, indeed.

Stephen Curry writes a great review here, recalling Ben Goldacre’s sombre account of his battle against Matthias Rath.

We’d had a good laugh earlier at the expense of chiropractic and homeopathic nutcases. But this was deadly serious. The point was, the point is: libel can be seriously deadly.

In the midst of all the comics, cracking us up completely, Ben reminded us of the human cost of unscrupulous quacks going unchallenged – it’s not just people who don’t know better wasting their money, it’s thousands of people dying unnecessarily.

Science Needs You!

Prof. Cox also did his bit to inspire us and reiterate that science is in desperate need of funding – what little we have now is in danger of being cut by the next government and we all need to make sure they rethink.

He gave a great talk on Monday at Westminster Skeptics, with Martin Robbins noting how much this depressing prospect managed to dampen Brian’s ever-present enthusiasm. Listen to the whole talk on the Pod Delusion.

Some key points from Brian:

  • of the £620bn public spend of 2008/2009, only ~£3.5bn went to the Research Councils and ~£7bn to universities. Compare this to the £109bn to the treasury, up nearly 50% on the previous year (due to bank bailouts)!
  • The UK is pitifully far down the list of top science-spenders, behind the USA, Germany, Canada, France and others, despite us producing about 8% of all papers and taking the most EU funding. The US has spent about $21bn on its science and is recruiting many foreign academics, particularly from the UK.
  • While our science spend has doubled in terms of £s, in real terms it has plateaued as the GDP must be taken into account (however, talking to an economist in our drinking circle, the GDP is an odd thing to look at anyway; paying a cleaner loads of money doesn’t necessarily mean more science gets done, and indeed may hamper it, considering a colleague’s tale of falling on a clean, shiny floor and smashing the precious sample he was carrying!)
  • 40-45% of the economy relies on the science spend (and 6.4% on physics specifically) in terms of educational output; the ‘knowledge-intensive services’ – cutting this budget will have no impact on the deficit but will have a profoundly negative impact on science and, consequently, the whole economy. University physics has faced 20-40% cuts.
  • ‘Impact’ is a difficult term to define and quantifying the benefits of science investment near impossible. However, CERN is responsible for the development of the World Wide Web for one thing and every hospital in the country runs services based on physics findings (MRI, PET, etc.). It costs the British taxpayer only ~£2/year to fund CERN; less than running a European university.

And from Dr. Evan Harris, MP – how to decipher politics-talk:

  • When listening to Mandelsson, remember: the budget is part of the spend. ‘Double the budget’ does not equal ‘double the science spend’.
  • Not increasing the budget will mean that we fall behind; a pause is equal to a cut.
  • “We have no plans” doesn’t mean there isn’t a plan to make cuts; it just means it hasn’t been announced yet.
  • “We are not looking to” does not mean “we are not going to”
  • Private investment can be boosted by increasing public investment
  • The media is critical because that’s the area in which politicians work

Why should science be an election issue?

Finally, Nick Dusic, the director of the Campaign for Science and Engineering points out:

We have to raise science as an election issue – bring politicians to the lab!

Show them what issues face us as researchers (well, mainly £££!).

Their blog is at: http://www.sciencecampaign.org.uk

So far it seems that this is a faceless problem, maybe we need a figurehead (like Simon).

A friend of mine, Andy Reeve (@andyreeve77) has set up the Science Needs You campaign so please look him up on Facebook/Twitter and go along to the event in Norwich on April 18th if you can.

Finally, again more for my amusement…

XDamgtimminchin!

Edit: Suzanne Moore has even taken this issue, following WSitP, to the ‘enemy camp’ of the Fail on Sunday! Comments are flooding in.

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