23 April 2009

Black Sheep: GM scaremongering to the extreme, but quite funny

If you know me at all, you'll know that a film about GM sheep that turn evil and start eating people isn't likely to go down well. I'm a scientist, and science communicator, which means I'm very wary about plots that centre around genetically modified anything. We had enough trouble in the media with GM crops; let's not even start with the GM (flesh-eating) sheep...

Funnily enough, though, I thought Black Sheep was actually quite humorous. Once you get past the ridiculous premise that scientists could ever modify sheep to be man-hunters - and the even more ridiculous premise that a bite from one of these things could turn you into a giant sheep - it all turns out to be, dare I say it, pretty hilarious.

I did cringe repeatedly at overly blatant scientific stereotypes/misdemeanours, including the female scientist (ice queen with hair in tight bun displaying complete absence of human emotion) and torture of innocent animals (sheep hanging skinned and still alive from the ceiling of a lab). But it was all so overblown as to be laughable. At least, that's what you have to hope, don't you?

Mash-up below. Watch the whole thing for full cringe worthy effect and assaults on scientific expertise.

Finding an independent expert

Here's one for anybody who regularly writes about scientific research: how do you find your independent experts? And how do you persuade them to talk to you?

A recent discussion on the ABSW email forum has made me think a bit more deeply about this - the difficulties associated with finding a suitable/willing expert and the pitfalls of various approaches. There seems to be a lack of Googlable advice, so below are a few thoughts. If anyone has anything to add, this might make a useful resource for virgin writers feeling unsure as to how they should go about it. I should point out that I'm no wizened old owl, so comments from those who have been in the business for decades would be welcomed.

The first thing to say, of course, is that you're essentially asking someone to do you a favour. Getting independent comments is completely different to getting comments from the person whose research you're covering (only one author has ever refused to talk to me and it's worth pointing out that they worked for DARPA), simply because a scientist has less of an incentive to talk to you if it's not their work. For this reason, it's important to be VERY GRATEFUL in all your correspondence.

Next thing: start looking straight away and be picky. You don't want to get to the morning of the deadline - which may only be two days away - and realise you've contacted ten people and the one person who was good enough to respond, bless them, doesn't know a thing about buckyballs/microchips/Japanese herbal medicine.

I generally find suitable targets by Googling, but you've got to be thorough in your research to make sure you're choosing the right people. A good 'Bio or 'Research interests' on a university website will usually tell you what you need to know, but failing that, have a look through their list of publications. Of course, you might be looking for someone in industry, in which case, it might be easier to simply ring the company's press office to see if anyone with suitable expertise is available. Usually, I'll contact two people for every one I need to talk to. This way, I rarely get caught out and often manage to cram in the extra quotes if both get back to me.

Our discussion on the ABSW centred around the various pools or lists of scientific expertise, which were considered - and I would agree - to be fairly unhelpful unless you're looking for, say, a general "nanotechnologist" rather than an expert in some specific aspect of buckyballs. The problem with these lists is that there are simply not enough scientists signed up to them, or actively using them, and you won't be able to contact an expert directly, so the time lag is going to be greater.

Now, there are a number of issues surrounding how you should approach people. I'm sure not everyone will agree, but I find I get better results by making the initial contact via email. Scientists don't respond particularly well to being called up out of the blue. Don't forget, you're asking them to do you a favour, so journalistic cold calling probably isn't going to go down well. On the other hand, if you're in a hurry this may be the only option available to you.

I always start with a formal address i.e. "Dear Professor Whatsit" rather than "Hi Bob". Even if you're looking for independent experts all the time, making a template email isn't a good idea - you should probably include something in your message of what you intend to ask them. So you could say, "I just wanted to ask you what you think about the medicinal applications," or similar. This way, they're more likely to think, "Oh, that sounds like something I could easily and safely answer," rather than, "This hack is going to give me a good grilling and then twist everything I've said to make me sound like a moron." Which, by the way, is not - if any scientists happen to be reading - what I ever, ever intend to do.

Personally, I prefer to ask questions of an independent expert over the phone, but media-phobic scientists tend to prefer answering them by email so they can't be misquoted. Therefore, you may give yourself a better chance of getting some comments if you give them that option. Some thoughts on email vs phone comments:

Problems with email:
  • Loss of spontaneity - they may omit the interesting comments you would get via phone
  • Loss of "naturalness" in speech - your quotes may sound like they were written rather than spoken
  • There's no guarantee they will send them in time for your deadline (athough most will)
Problems with phone:
  • Scientists may ask you to send quotes back to them before publishing, significantly reducing your time and meaning they may edit out everything you stood to gain by doing the interview over the phone i.e. spontaneity and naturalness
  • You'll need to transcribe the interview or at least type up the relevant bits
  • You may end up with misleading comments/inaccuracies if the scientist is better at articulating him/herself via written word
And finally, scientists are busy people too. You can't expect them to read a paper at a moment's notice and get back to you within the hour. Which is why you should start early and give as much time as possible if asking for an interview or comments. You may be able to get on with writing up the more explanatory bits of the copy and incorporate the independent comments nearer the end. Of course, if it's an analytical piece, this may be more difficult.

One further point that has less to do with the actual process and more to do with good journalistic practice is that you probably shouldn't keep returning to old sources. If I already have a contact who I know has absolutely the right scope of expertise and I'm really pushed for time then I may ask them, but I don't like asking the same people more than a couple of times - if every time I wrote an article about nanotubes I used the same independent expert it would make for a very one-sided view of the field.

3 April 2009

Prime numbers are probably the root of all evil

Did anyone see the Horizon programme on Wednesday with Alan Davies and Marcus Du Sautoy?


For the first five minutes I thought it was going to be one of those oooh look how exciting maths is, er, but actually it's really boring-type programmes. "I know loads of people that hate maths and think it's really boring, but I want to show Alan, show everyone in fact, that it's a wonderful, exciting subject," said Du Sautoy, about 30 seconds in. Which made me terribly suspicious.

And honestly, despite being a scientist and self-confessed geek, maths is not something that has ever pushed my buttons. (I wasn't one of those people who did maths A-Level for fun; I did it because it went with biology and chemistry quite well - and I wasn't really thinking when I handed in the form. I was 16 for Christ's sake).

Anyway, after 15 minutes, Mr Hayley and I were absolutely hooked. The pairing of cynical Davies with the bouncy, infectiously enthusiastic and ever-so-slightly camp Du Sautoy was genius. But what really sealed the deal was the prime numbers...

Oh those prime numbers. They'll be the end of us.

So this German guy called Bernhard Riemann apparently made a graph of prime numbers. It looks a bit like this:

Which makes sense (hoorah!) 'cause there are loads of small prime numbers (on the left - 2, 3, 5, 7, 11, etc etc) and they occur less often as you go higher.

BUT, the really freaky thing is this... according to Du Sautoy, the same distribution pattern has popped up all over the place, including in the distribution of electrons in uranium, in bus arrival times in a little known Mexican city and - wait for it - the distribution of parked cars in modern day London. And it was at this point that Mr Hayley and I practically jumped out of our seats. "WHAT?"

And THEN, Du Sautoy proceeded to show that if you take a quartz sphere hooked up to an oscilloscope and hit it with a ball bearing, the electrical signal you get also matches this pattern. Sorry, but. No way.

Does everyone know this? Why aren't we all running around looking for the solution? Surely this makes prime numbers the answer to life, the universe and everything? Wait, no, that's 42. >> 19 days left to watch on iPlayer - do it!