Ad astra

Neil Armstrong died on August 25th 2012, aged 82.

A good innings, but we’re still shocked and saddened. Why? It’s always sad when people, amazing or no, pass away. But there’s more to this than simply the ending of a life.

His footprints will be on the moon for around 10 million years. Footprints of an Earth-born great ape on our planet’s satellite, 384,400 kilometers (238,855 miles) away from us. An astounding achievement, whether you think space exploration is “worth it” or not. I had never even disconnected myself from the planet for more than a jump until I was 24 and I got on a plane to Russia. People have left the planet altogether and looked back at it.

I never knew Mr Armstrong, obviously. His family did. His friends did. I could not and would not attempt to write any kind of fitting tribute. I wasn’t even born when the moon landing happened, but of course I’ve seen it and when I recently watched a long version at the Winchester Science Festival, I really teared up. It’s a genuinely awesome and inspiring feat.

Last night I, and many others, found myself a lot more saddened than expected. I’ve listened to lots of introspective music, I’ve read many tributes, and my mind is wandering. So I’d like to share some of that. Sorry it’s a bit disjointed.

I grew up watching Star Trek. The plot revolves around the Federation, a truce between different sentient species, whose aim is to explore and learn. When the first extra-terrestrial race, the Vulcans, came to Earth, everything changed for us; people stopped fighting because we knew we were not alone and there was so much more. The economy as we know it dissolved and we moved on to a different way of life. We went to explore the stars.

I like to think this could happen for us one day. Unfortunately, even seeing our planet suspended in the pitch black canvas of space hasn’t made us wake up. We’re still fighting over pathetic, trivial things.

I’ve recently mused on what it means to try to be a better person. I’ve never had a religion, I’ve never thought it would be useful to me, I’ve never understood it or how its benefits outweigh its damages. I am generally of the view that knowing this one life is all we have should inspire us to make the best of it – and knowing that it’s the same for others should spur you to be considerate of them, too.

Happiness can seem like an unattainable goal, especially if it doesn’t come naturally or easily, but I think it’s a worthwhile one for a lifetime. Life’s not “too short” for anything, if you enjoy it – life is the longest thing any of us will ever know.

This is also, currently, the only planet we have. We don’t treat it well enough. We share it with lots of other kinds of life – what is here could be the only life in the entire universe, in billions of galaxies. Or we could be one group of many. We don’t know yet. But what we should know is that it’s amazing and appreciate it.

I’m sure everyone’s adding this video to their blogpost, but it’s so important.

Earlier I watched some of a fantastic BBC1 programme, Ocean’s Giants. At the end they discussed findings that show dolphins and whales, as well as the great apes and elephants, can be self-aware. At the same time as human babies develop self-awareness, they also develop empathy; emotional intelligence, the ability to interpret and consider the feelings of others. And whales can even do it for a completely different species; for us. It sets us apart from other life forms, but it hasn’t stopped us bringing destruction to them, and to each other, just yet.

We’re all individuals. We will only ever truly know our own experience from our own perspective – and even then it can be very hard to get our heads around that. Sometimes we can get close to other people (and animals) and almost see through another’s eyes. Or into them more deeply than a conversation or simple physical contact would allow. That’s a profound experience that can change you as a person.

If we can’t connect with other people somehow (even if not eye-to-eye, it’s not the only way by any means) then I think we’re missing something. Ignoring our propensity for this special intelligence, a possible means of the universe understanding itself.

Found this a while after originally posting, perfect.

Maybe the only way we can get to that point where we live for the sake of living and learning and improving is to explore our cosmic surroundings more. Or maybe not. All I know at this point is that sometimes things remind us of what we are and that’s no bad thing, because if we can really remember that… perhaps we can be better.

I don’t know if I made much of a point with this post, but I wanted to join in with everyone else because I think it’s only fitting. Hattip to my friend @medtek for improving the title over my original choice of ad infinitum, too.

“For those who may ask what they can do to honor Neil, we have a simple request.

Honor his example of service, accomplishment and modesty, and the next time you walk outside on a clear night and see the moon smiling down at you, think of Neil Armstrong and give him a wink.”

Edit: this video came to my attention today and I think it belongs here. It’s long (17 mins or so) but well worth a watch.

Government, Science and Society

Well, sorry for this ridiculous delay in relaying the last chunk of the Science Communication Conference! Have been busy and distracted – have to say, there will probably be a much slower output for a while. There’s actually still more but need to leave it at this for now!

I’ll be in Russia 23rd June – 6th July and will have tonnes to do when I get back, but hope to write about my experience there [Edit: and I did!] and some other things (skeptics meetings, interesting talks, and of course I’m A Scientist, Get Me Out Of Here!!)

BSA SciComms Conference Pt. 4

Having done the end of the second day, here’s the first bit!

First up we had Tim Smit (a cross between John Lithgow & Prof. Ian Hart, head of our institute!), an archaeologist and music producer but perhaps best known for founding the Eden Project (which I am still yet to visit, hint hint).

I didn’t take too many notes on his talk as it was very conversational, but he said a lot of things I agreed with.

We need to stop romanticising the past – now is pretty cool

I do get quite bored of people going on about how marvellous it was in the Golden Days of Yore.

I don’t buy it. At least I don’t have to worry about dying if I cut myself on something rusty in the grass, I don’t have 5 kids already having been married off to a bloke 3x my age whilst still in my teens and I’m actually allowed to work rather than spend all my time cleaning, washing and cooking.

Tim Smit

People can perfectly reasonably expect to see their 80s in pretty good health and we can see the far corners of the globe with relative ease. We have diverse cuisine, video games, cinema, international sport (if that floats your boat), the internet. Need I go on.

I wouldn’t want to trade all this for the sake of less traffic, the absence of X Factor (though it’s tempting) and other mildly irritating things about today’s world.

I don’t remember the context of this one (it may have been about people’s willingness to buy anti-ageing creams and other woo-doo), but he’s certainly right

The more you charge people, the better they think you are

Tim said that if we can overcome the fear (of whatever it is you want to do), you can quarter any risk just by doing it.

Science has “an anal desperation for facts” and he quite rightly observes that science-promoters would

much rather you gave people something they didn’t understand but other scientists know is absolutely true!

This is where I get annoyed at people moaning about the just-short-of-100% accuracy of successful science programmes etc. The detail isn’t what’s important; if you’re not lying about it or making it up but have simplified it to keep people’s interest (and done so successfully), then job done. Science communication is not simply about giving people a science lesson; it’s supposed to be inspiring and interesting too.

We have to find some way of making people realise we’re just talking about life

He feels (and I’m inclined to agree) that the sense of danger and being alive is missing from a lot of scicomms endeavours now; whether thinking of the often lacking wow-factor in science centres, on TV or elsewhere.

mystery and romance are almost alien concepts to science

He also mentioned the importance of cake, which I must agree with – regular cake appreciation sessions at work are indispensable.

People tend to “put on the clothes of opinion and debate” – we should be giving them the “weaponry to re-educate themselves”, similar to what was said in the mythbusting session.

Tim also talked about some outreach that Eden is involved in; ‘charismatic kids’, suggested by their peers, came from schools experiencing challenging behaviour. They were  “transformed” by their Eden visit (then went and made MPs cry!! Even better) – outreach needs to be about getting people hooked. They even seemed to retain their ‘cool kid’ status, despite having got their act together with regard to their schoolwork.

Is it time to take a Rain-Check on Climate Change?

Following Tim’s brilliant talk was a series of presentations on climate science and public perceptions – in a time where denialism has been spurred on by mistakes and bad press, what can be done?

First up:

Chris Rapley (Science Museum)

The Health & Safety culture is damaging the ‘fun’ of science

This is something many people agree with, as do I at times, but I don’t think it’s going away so I see little point in whining about it. I do put my goggles on when I stick a comb in an acrylamide gel, because I don’t want to go blind, but having to wear a labcoat in the microscope room takes the biscuit.

The level of understanding of subjects like climate change in people not only with opinions but also influence is very low – evidently a significant problem.

The Science Museum is opening a climate gallery in November, so do visit that!

Do we need to get emotion out of the debate?

High-profile supporters can be equally damaging to the cause (Gore, for example) as they often switch people off when they need to be engaged.

The IPCC is part of the scientific process! Removing imperfect work (no one’s is perfect) simply demonstrates the self-correcting nature of science – it doesn’t (or at least, it shouldn’t) undermine the validity of the data presented.

Language is very important. ‘Tribalising’ may not be useful; splitting people into denialists etc. – though I realise I’ve done this, but that’s quicker than saying people-who-deny-the-evidence-for-man-made-climate-change or similar.

Jacquie Burgess (University of East Anglia)

UEA was the epicentre of the ‘Climategate‘ (I do hate this current -gate obsession) episode and Jacquie’s weariness was apparent. I felt for her and having seen myself that people are still not up to speed with what happened, I can’t imagine things getting easier in the near future.

She stated that there has been no evidence of wrongdoing so far in 2 enquiries, with the 3rd ongoing.

Climate change has only been in the public sphere for 25 yrs but contains within it “powerful abstract emotional ideas (“apocalyptic discourse” around end-of-the-world-as-we-know-it type ideas)

Why We Disagree About Climate Change by Mike Hulme was recommended.

Jacqui revealed her shock at how aggressive the threats have been towards her colleagues.  She asks, what is the impact on individual scientists of certain public engagements? Is it worth the risk, is it worth such abuse? Our emails are public, easily accessed through our institutions.

Should we just leave the discourse alone, regroup and reconnect?

Bob Ward (Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment)

Bob took a rather different angle and advocated for a radical approach, considering (current trends continuing) that we have only 6 years until we reach 450 ppm greenhouse gases – the limit required to restrict the temperature rise to 2 degrees Celsius.

So there is no time to step back; the oft-touted consequences for future generations are going to become a reality.

The manner of research communication and loss of trust both need to be considered.

He feels that UEA was slow to respond and the denial of mistakes coupled with lack of leadership also contributed to the impact.

We cannot deal with damaged confidence in scientists by talking about science.

If people are reluctant to get up and speak; this comes across as “collective guilt” (to which Jacqui sadly shook her head).

With regard to climate change,

There shouldn’t be a question of is there an effect?, only what shall we do?

People are still in denial but this should not be the main issue – there shouldn’t be an uncertainty debate because the facts show that is not required. It is a risk argument; how do we manage it?

We must re-establish trust but this could take more than four years.

Appearing to be a campaigner undermines one’s authority (linking back to Chris’ point about high-profile supporters being damaging).

Questions

Someone gives there view:

It’s a social obligation for scientists to communicate

First, I’m not sure about this. In a general sense, I agree – a lot of public money goes into science, it’s not all a business, so people have a right to know what that money does. We all benefit from science, but it helps if people understand how.

Jackie: There’s a duty of care from university to staff. Attacks can come from anyone, anywhere (because of aforementioned public emails). Should people be forced out to talk? [Personally, I would say no, definitely not]. She disagrees with the politicisation of science [arguably, is this not the whole communication issue?]

Chris: sometimes grants have conditions stipulating that information must be relayed in addition to doing the science.

Regarding Twitter and blogs?

Jacqui: People are being restrained due to permanent record and fear of being in papers* [thought: criticism has always been around, people just didn’t hear it before and consequently went along thinking they were perfect!]

Bob: climate change is THE high profile area (it’s the future of our planet!!) – we should be winning debates because we have the facts, for example volcanoes do not produce more CO2 than people.

Audience comment: one Professor at Nottingham [my alma mater!] university has >250,000 Youtube hits; we should also be optimistic on social media! [A friend of a friend also runs this cool Notts-based sciencey video site]

Comment: Not everyone is good at communication and/or wants to do it. Proper training is required! You need to be comfortable and barrister skills are useful! E.g. in presenting/teaching/debating.

Can we divide the public into groups to engage effectively?

For example, when people become grandparents they tend to suddenly find the data more real – seeing the future generation there in front of them, being something they now actually care about.

Chris: oratorical tricks are coming too much into debate; we’re having fundamental difficulties due to being forced to become antithetical to ‘natural scientist’ tendencies.

Jackie: We’re in a Global Village now. We no longer know the status and authority of individuals [did we ever, though?]. Things move via gossip and rumour [again, I don't think this is a new thing]. She feels we’re in a “Culture of entrapment”

*Linking back to her comments on social media causing self-censorship: people say nothing because you can’t trust individuals.

An interesting point was made: during crises, a feeling of impotence stops people from doing things (for example the current oil spill) – it’s an overwhelming sensation and this can certainly be paralysing.

Bob:

There is a collective denial about how appalling scientists are at communication with their peers, let alone the public! There’s a  low expectation.

We should emphasise the skill involved – we need communication, a voice for research and views.

I have to agree with Bob here. All too often we fall asleep at conferences, during talks that could have truly fascinating subject matter, just delivered atrociously. It’s rude, you don’t want to, you just can’t help it. These people shouldn’t be forced out as the face of science! Only the able and willing, or not able but willing to learn.

Chris: Let’s have a call for optimism; there’s great value in communication. If you can’t explain to granny then you shouldn’t do it at all. Disasters are inevitable –  let’s be tolerant!  Communication generally is much better now than it was 20 years ago.

I suppose that’s true.

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