7 December 2010

Apparently I'm on the Guardian's list of female science bloggers

So apparently I'm on the "Guardian's" (Guardian? Never heard of it...) list of female science bloggers. Yeah, that exists.

Only took me three months to realise. Thanks to Mark Hahnel at Science 3.0 for pointing it out.

The point of the list, by the way, was to prove that girls are blogging - despite recent evidence to the contrary.

Martin Robbins goes on to ask why it is that more haven't broken through... My personal feeling is that women are too busy in the kitchen, or sewing curtains etc. Ahem.

25 November 2010

Crowdfunding sci comm

Times are hard. Competition for science communication funding is tough. And I know because I just sat on a funding panel. We received far more applications than we were expecting and reviewed some genuinely great applications that didn't even get as far as an interview.

So what to do?

Well, it looks like we're going to have to start thinking outside the box. There are other disciplines/industries where funds are just as scarce. Arts budgets aren't exactly doing well out of the current economic situation. And the music industry has been having to adapt to the digital world for quite some time.

Actually, it's all my dabblings in new music via the science-music phenomenon that is Geek Pop that have got me thinking about innovative funding schemes and how they might be adapted to suit science communicators' needs. In August this year, one of our Geek Pop 2010 artists, Martin Austwick (masquerading as his alter-ego The Sound of the Ladies), released his album We Went to the Bottom of the Ocean on Bandcamp. I'd already noticed other artists selling their wares on the site. But this was the first time I'd really appreciated its benefits. Artists sell their music directly to fans, retaining complete ownership over their material, and BandCamp only pinches 15% for itself (much less than iTunes, for example). Seems like an okay deal.

The interesting thing is that Martin was marketing his album as "pay-what-you-like", without a minimum spend - the album could effectively be downloaded for free. Now, I've exchanged a couple of emails with Martin on the subject and although, understandably, he didn't want me to divulge the exact figures on my blog, he's hinted that people stumped up enough cash to keep him in biscuits for a while.
"As an artist who doesn't live from their music, I would consider anybody listening to my music a minor success, anyone paying for my music an adequate success, the money I make covering costs a great success, and the money covering my time investment (or what I think it's worth) an incredible success. Let's just say I'm somewhere between "great" and "incredible", where I suspect most musicians are nowadays..."
He also sent me some rather geeky back-of-the-envelope statistics:
  • 20% of people paid
  • The average price paid (for those who paid at all) was £4.40, standard deviation £3
  • Including unpaid downloads, the average price paid was £1.20
BandCamp claims that on average people pay 50% more than the minimum spend (okay, quick bit of maths: 1.5 x 0 = 0 in Martin's case, but let's assume they're talking about people who actually set a minimum price).

What does all this tell us? Some people will pay/donate for music online, even if they can get the same music for free, but possibly Martin was undervaluing himself. Interestingly, people were very happy to pay a tenner for his limited edition physical albums, but it's perhaps understandable given that digital goods generally come without all the lovely artwork. And a download is never going to be quite as pleasing as adding a sparkly new CD to your shelf.

So that's music downloads. What about other digital wares? Well, publishers of online news sites are still very much testing the water when it comes to charging for content. We all know the Times paywall story but here's an update - it looks like subscriber figures have dropped by more than 90% with the introduction of paid content but more than 200,000 people are paying. But that's news, and it's news that you can only get by paying (unless, of course, you decide to go elsewhere). So how about a blog or, let's see, a podcast...

Well, as it happens, we've done our own little experiment where podcasts are concerned and whaddya know? It worked. We asked Geek Pop listeners for £107 to pay for our PRS podcasting licence, and they gave it to us. Just like that. I mean, I won't pretend it wasn't a bit scary. You're basically setting yourself up for rejection. "What if no one donates?" and "Are we kidding ourselves if we think people will actually pay for this?" were both thoughts that went through my head. As it turned out, people were more than happy not only to donate the odd pound here and there, but to donate in *double figures*. I nearly cried. So we are now officially "Geek Pop - Funded by You".

That, however, is nothing compared to what sci-rap star Baba Brinkman is trying to do. Bear in mind that Baba has already secured a sizeable grant from the Wellcome Trust to run this project:

which will produce a series of videos to accompany his Rap Guide to Evolution. Now he's trying to source another £10k (£10k!) to make them even better.
"I have partnered with a website called "Crowdfunder" to run a campaign to raise an additional £10,000 to increase the production value of these videos.  If we can hit our target in 60 days, the end result will be something amazing.  If we fail to hit the target, the money is all returned to the funders and we fall back on the Wellcome Trust grant, which will still be enough to complete a good finished product, just one with a lot less mojo."
Well, I thought, this is mighty ambitious! And he wants to give it back if he makes a penny less? Blimey. But people are donating - oh yes they are, and not in insubstantial amounts. After sending along a tenner yesterday, I did a double-take on the counter and it was up to £2,181 after just 74 donations, which - hang on, another quick bit of maths - means people are donating nearly £30 each on average. Go Baba!

Clearly, this super-ambitious level of crowdfunding is not going to work for all of us. Would people pay for a blog, for example? I don't know - maybe if they believed they couldn't get that content anywhere else. (I would definitely pay for this or this, for instance, but they're not exactly filled to the brim with science. They're just nuts.) And it goes without saying that you can't just set up an online donations page and expect people to throw money at you for any old rubbish. Baba's got some considerable credits to his name, and Geek Pop has been churning out podcasts for over a year, so people know - approximately - what they're paying for.

And as we've seen, people will pay for what they believe to be good content. The obvious difficulty is that if every blog, podcast and science communication project under the sun starts asking its fans to put their hands in their pockets "pay-what-you-can" could very swiftly become tiresome. But for now, it's at least an option to explore.

Anyway, I'm certainly no expert on all of this, but from what I've learned so far, these are some things to think about when considering crowdfunding:
  • Give something in exchange: pay-what-you-can works for BandCamp because fans are getting an album or a single that they've probably already heard via streaming. Paying for a podcast or a future sci comm project is slightly different in that you're asking to pay people for something that hasn't happened yet... and might be crap. So give something back immediately. We gave some unheard excerpts from the podcast; not much, but a gesture. Baba has a clever tiered strategy of offering digital downloads, physical DVDs, or even inclusion in his videos, depending on how much you donate.
  • Set a target and show your progress: you need to show people that others are already donating. Plus, who'd be cruel enough to leave you dangling at 95% if you only had a fiver left to go? We saw donations to our podcasting fund flood in after we reached the half-way point, perhaps because our fans saw that the finish line was in sight and wanted to help us get there.
  • Be grateful! Always remember to say thank you - it's only polite!
Oh, and I'd love to hear about other people's experiences of crowdfunding, if they have any.

16 November 2010

Science and the arts: Geek Crafters

The Geek Revolution, it seems, is coming. We've been banging on about it at Geek Pop for ages, but now that it's actually happening and the likes of Jonathan Ross and Daniel Radcliffe are standing up for all things geeky and sciencey, it's a bit overwhelming.

Oh, everyone is a geek these days. You can't walk down the street without bumping into someone with thick-rimmed glasses and a side-parting.

So what now to stand out from the geek masses? To separate yourself from the students, the celebrities, the geek fashionistas? What now must the true geek do to demonstrate her devotion to the pursuit of nerdery? To show that she knows geekdom is not just a hairstyle or a cardigan fetish, but a way of life.

Er, well. For my part, I've bought a sewing machine.

Oooh, shiny, shiny...

Ahem. Right, so what's this got to do with geekery? Well, I have to admit that the reason I bought a sewing machine was to make my own curtains and cushion covers. A little nerdy in itself perhaps, but nothing out of the ordinary. In fact, I thought some arts and crafts would provide some light relief from all the hardcore science I have deal with on a daily basis.

Then I discovered THIS.

Okay, for those of you who can never be bothered to click on links, let's try that again. THIS.

Spoonflower.com Amazing. It's nothing to do with spoons, or flowers, but it is AWESOME. The idea is: you design your own (nerd) fabric, upload it, and then they digitally print it for you, post it to you, and you make cushion covers/tea towels/pants*/whatever out of it. Or if you're lazy like me, you just pay to use other people's nerd designs. Needless to say, everyone I know is getting tea towels for Christmas this year. I just have to decide whether to make them out of this:

Or this:

And, well, I can't pretend I haven't considered this:

But what's struck me since I purchased my Singer is that the whole "geek craft" scene is huge. Perhaps it all started with those giant microbe plushies everyone was into a while back. Someone thought: I can make one of those. I'll just sew a couple of eyes onto a purple blob and hey presto! It's Epstein Barr! And lo, geek craft was born.

It's not just sewing though. A few years ago, I did an interview with a biologist/artist who was making and mailing out jewellery based on the structures of molecules. And if I've seen one science-themed cupcake, I've seen a hundred.

This is devotion to the cause indeed. Of course, some people - like the molecular jewellery lady - are actually making decent money out of their geek crafts. But most are just doing it for the hell of it. I like that level of dedication in a person. And it reeks of geek.

So perhaps this is what it takes these days to prove that you're not just a fleeting nerd. Maybe artistic expression of one's love for science/geekery is the ultimate demonstration of what it is to be a geek.

And P.S. I'm getting married in May. Any suggestions for geek items that I can craft from some of those Spoonflower fabrics? Bacteria bunting? Tardis chair ties? Yeah, I don't know what the point of chair ties is either, scratch that.

*Just for the Americans, I do mean "pants" (underwear) and not trousers, which aren't quite as silly.

28 September 2010

They don't write 'em like they used to

Tut. Papers, eh? They don't write 'em like they used to. I've been trawling through 1940s papers on hormones, and found myself quite taken with this paragraph from an old British Medical Journal article about the chemistry of the oestrogens.
“A few years ago a large number of doctors faced with such chemical terms would have risen in wrath - such wrath perhaps as that shown by the first audiences of Stravinsky. But Stravinsky has now signed a contract with Walt Disney and may soon become a part of the culture of the common people. Similarly we feel that the medical profession of tomorrow will be acclimatized to what are today regarded as the esoteric mysteries of the chemist.”
Stravinsky? What? It's like Jay-Z turning up in the BMJ today. (I've checked, by the way, and he's not there).

Also, check out the hand-drawn structures... cuuuute:

24 September 2010

What happens if you replace all the science in a science story with giant rabbits?*

Giant, baby-eating bunny rabbits have been discovered by US scientists. The pointy-eared child munchers may have applications in reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

Until recently, it was thought that giant, baby-eating bunny rabbits only existed in my mind. But now Professor Oogie and colleagues at the University of Boogie have proved the rabbits, which are about the size of buses, are happily munching their way through the nursery schools of New York.

Oogie's team used a giant, baby-eating bunny rabbit spotting machine to track down the animals. They combined 40,000 pictures taken using the extremely expensive machine with baby-eating statistics from the New York Nursery Database and concluded that 75% of babies that had been eaten in the last five years had in fact been eaten by giant, baby-eating bunny rabbits.

"It was a complete surprise when we realised where the babies were going," said Oogie. "But we hope to be able to put the giant, baby-eating bunny rabbits to good use."

The researchers have already installed giant, baby-eating bunny rabbits in several other US cities. If 75% of all babies could be eaten, they say, greenhouse gas emissions could be reduced by quite a lot.

*Purely for my own amusement. Done without a thought or a care at the end of a very frustrating Friday. Sorry.

5 September 2010

Simplistic stereotypes: under the lab coat

My significant other is an archaeologist. If you had to draw an archaeologist, you'd probably be tempted to draw someone who looks a bit like Indiana Jones. (Come on, wouldn't you?) Archaeologists are very aware of this. In the pub last weekend, I watched three archaeologists claim - dead pan - to own whips and Indy hats. One of them recalled an incident where he had had to scramble out of a snake pit. No one seriously believed him, of course. Although I've seen more than one person genuinely disappointed on hearing that Mr Hayley doesn't own a brush for dusting off bones.

The reason I'm telling you this is because I've been mulling over some things that were said about stereotypes at the Science Online conference this weekend - scientific stereotypes in particular. It was all the usual stuff about beardy old white men with mad hair. But what really got me thinking was one particular project that was mentioned - one in which children were asked to draw a scientist. Lots of them, unsurprisingly, drew men in lab coats with glasses on.

Now, if someone asked me to draw a scientist, I'd *think* what they were asking is for me to draw someone who would be recognisable as a scientist. Otherwise, how are they going to know it's a scientist? It's like asking me to draw a caricature. As a visual prop, a lab coat is brilliant because it's big, easy to draw and well known to be associated with the profession. I might also add some goggles/glasses and, who knows, a beard. (I like beards.) What I'm getting at is that the fact that people draw these things doesn't necessarily mean they believe them.

Another example: if someone asks you to draw a cat, what do you draw? This is what I'd draw:

Okay, this is probably over simplified (I'm not a fantastic artist). But the point is: you know what it is. How? Well, it has triangles for ears, whiskers, and a tail. Those are the three essential components for drawing a cat. It doesn't even have legs, for crying out loud. But you still know what it is. It doesn't mean for a moment you believe that cats are basically snowmen with whiskers.

The difference for archaeologists, I suppose, is that they probably don't mind being portrayed as Harrison Ford. Plenty of scientists, on the other hand, may object to being thought of as 60 year old men with beards... Thinking about it though: isn't it a bit harsh on 60-year-olds (and beards) that we consider them negative stereotypes?

Regarding the other aspects of the stereotype, the terribly confusing thing is that plenty of scientists do wear lab coats and have mad hair like the Doc in Back to the Future. I was in a chemistry lab at the University of Bristol only last week. Everyone in the lab was wearing lab coats and goggles - it's THE RULES. And you've only got to browse through the web pages of your local university's science department to track down some wild haired-looking fellows.

I'm playing devil's advocate a bit here. The trouble is that while people see cats all the time, they don't see scientists and archaeologists all the time. So perhaps they don't know whether the caricatures bear any resemblance to the real thing. They wouldn't have a clue whether scientists really have big beards and wear lab coats any more than if they have frying pans for faces. Or triangles for ears, for that matter.

But when it comes to this drawing a scientist thing, I'm not convinced it's exactly a fair test. There's one particular project circulating online - and it may or may not be the same one mentioned yesterday - in which some children were asked to draw "a scientist" before and after meeting some real-life researchers at FermiLab. It appears that the children changed their perceptions of scientists after meeting them, with a few more drawing women and many failing to include the obligatory lab coat in the second picture.

Now, first of all, there were only 31 kids and this wasn't published in any sort of a peer-reviewed journal, so we have to be very careful about what we extract from this study, but it's caught quite a bit of attention and so I'd be interested to know more about how it was done. From what I can tell, these kids were just trying to get the right answer - in both cases. (And I think it's worth pointing out that this "right answer" syndrome is also a concern for those surveying adults). They were asked to draw a scientist, so they tried to draw something they thought would look like a scientist to someone else. After they met some scientists at FermiLab, they had been "taught" that scientists were "fun" and "normal" - this is obvious from some of the comments the kids added to their drawings - so they tried to incorporate these aspects.

I do truly believe that going to FermiLab was a great experience for these kids. I'm sure it changed how they felt about scientists. But I'm just saying that you have to look a little bit closer than the obvious and try not to make sweeping conclusions. For instance, some of the kids in this "study" wrote very positive things about their perceptions of scientists in the first place. From a kid called Ryan (before the visit): "I think a scientist is smart and logical. I think scientists are wanting to discover new things. They want to investigate and to make a theory. They want to see if their theory is correct." Sweet, huh? It's not a negative description. And I wouldn't argue with it.

I'm not disputing that the stereotype of all scientists as white and male and old is a bad thing. Clearly, it would be beneficial to encourage people of other descriptions into the field. But it's a bit simplistic to say that everyone believes this stereotype through and through. Also though: we want kids to take up science, but do we really want them to believe that all scientists are funky-haired, Superdry-sporting hipsters? Do we want them to think all the stuff about chemicals and studying hard and needing to be unbiased is a myth and that science is really a right lark? Surely that would be misleading. Science is difficult and often boring. As is being an archaeologist.

I guess all I'm trying to point out is that both are misconceptions. All stereotypes are. Of course, it's important that people meet scientists and understand more about what they do and that they're not emotionless nerds or whatever, but people aren't as stupid as we sometimes make out. I'm sure if you probed further and asked what they thought scientists did at the end of the day after leaving the lab, they'd tell you they probably went home and sat in front of the telly or to the pub like the rest of us.

11 August 2010

Massive caterpillar

Just to prove that I'm not a complete animal-hater (as recent Geek Pop podcasts might suggest), and as a nod to Sounds of Science colleague Jim's new bug blog, I'm posting pics of a MASSIVE green caterpillar found by holiday buddies in Ontario, Canada.

We watched Monarch butterflies sunning themselves on the decking at our cottage by the lake in Haliburton and were curious as to whether these caterpillars might eventually BE Monarchs. Perhaps Jim, or someone else, can tell me?

Photos courtesy of Megzy-Pegzy

26 July 2010

Thoughts on social media piety

Having attended rather a lot of multimedia/multiplatform sessions at various conferences and events over the past two or three years, I was somewhat sceptical as to what the UKCSJ's "Multiplatform Working" session could offer me. To be honest, my main reason for attending was that it was in the same room as the Creative Feature Writing session I'd just sat through, and I couldn't much be bothered to move for the alternative, which promised to be another variation on the theme of Death, Death and More Death (of traditional media).

I do appreciate that it's difficult to avoid repetition at these sorts of events, especially where social media are concerned. Perhaps, I thought as I was sitting there, it's because the folks who do all the scoffing at the mention of the word "Twitter" never actually make the effort to check it out and consider it for its merits. Consequently, they end up in the next multiplatform session scoffing at the mention of the word Twitter while some poor, weary soul tries to espouse its merits. And you can't attend one of these sessions without a mention of the transition from "push" to "pull" media (broadcast is "push", social media is "pull", read Anderson for the difference). It can get tiresome - thus @ayasawada and I exchanged some knowing looks...

That said, the whole hour-long session was worth it just for Christian Payne's five-minute slot, which was, itself, a perfect metaphor for social media - fast, fun and fascinating to everyone who knows anything about it, and (I guess) completely baffling to everyone else. This guy is literally unable to contain his enthusiasm for social media, and it's infectious. He told several anecdotes about stories he'd broken via live streaming or uploading and sharing online, which within minutes had been Tweeted and Facebooked around the world and caught the attention of major national and international media. It was thoroughly entertaining, even inspiring, to those of us who are regular social media users. What the scoffers thought of it, I can't imagine.

It got me thinking though. I've recently finished writing a chapter on social media in science communication for a Cambridge University Press book. This was a guide for scientists, so I had to be very careful not to assume too much knowledge (a weird role reversal considering my experiences as a science writer). Thus, I've been worrying that the chapter may seem too basic for some. It seems that in the science communication world - probably much as in the general population - there's a huge deficit between those who are permanently plugged into the networks and those who wouldn't know a Facebook status if it hit them in the... face.

And what does our science communication teaching tell us about knowledge deficits...? BAD! WRONG! They must never be mentioned! (See Alice Bell's reflections on the deficit model as a big old pile of poo for discussion of this). Okay, so perhaps compared to knowing about science, it's not so imperative for everyone to know about social media. BUT, it does suggest a different approach for those so keen to extol the benefits of Facebook, You Tube, AudioBoo et al. And considering this, I've started to feel a little guilty about my gleeful mocking of those who scoff at Twitter, and those knowing looks.

Much like science communicators, perhaps enthusiastic, intravenous drip-type social media users need to try "engaging" uninterested parties rather than rolling their eyes at them - generating excitement about what it can do (like Payne) but also listening to what those parties have to say about it, and taking it on board. (Perhaps every social media panel we assemble needs a technophobe...) Also, as with science, you could make an argument that social media is not for everyone. Is it a case of saying that if you explain the benefits well enough, people will be interested? Or do we have to understand that some people just aren't, and respect that?

Ooh, also, more than anything else so that I can find it again, here's the Twitter transcript for #ukcsj.

1 July 2010

The Lacks book

Just to say I finished the Lacks book mentioned in my last post ages ago. I haven't been able to stop thinking about it ever since. Not just the story, but the STORY. I mean, the fact that this is a science book that actually has a story. A real one. I won't spoil anyone's enjoyment except to say that it's very, very good. And you should all read it.

Also, I'm very, very jealous that I haven't come across such a story thus far in my science writing career. Must try harder.

14 June 2010

Back at #cheltscifest

So, we were back at Cheltenham Science Festival again this year to edit the festival newsletter, the Litmus Paper. And not just back; back in style. We were given the full run of the press room this year, which had, to our amazement, a KETTLE, POT PLANTS and - wait for it - WINDOWS. Wonders will never cease.

Anyway, I was glad to see that the hashtag #cheltscifest for Cheltenham Science Festival had really taken off this year, resulting in hundreds of tweets for us to choose from for our Festival Feed section - instead of us having to use boring comments about the weather and train delays. All the tweets, and the rest of the Litmus, by the way, can be found in the Litmus archives for 2010.

It being the first week of the World Cup, we managed to crowbar in some football science, under the yawnworthy title of You Must Be Kicking (see right). Unfortunately, as we all know, England's competition campaign was more akin to the original title of the column i.e. You Must Be Kidding.

My highlight of the week - okay, the ONLY thing I got to go and see at all what with the kerfuffle of editing a daily paper - was Rebecca Skloot in Saturday afternoon's science writing talk. I've already ordered her book on Amazon. It's about Henrietta Lacks, the lady whose cells were used to create the immortal HeLa cell line - HeLa has made incredibly important contributions to science but never earned Henrietta, who died of cervical cancer, a penny.

And after all the anticipation of the arrival of guest director Brian Cox (Brian Cox OBE - announced on the day of his visit), the man couldn't be persuaded to speak to "anyone" in the media. Especially not the likes of us. (Although I notice he managed to find a couple of minutes for the Times...)

Finally, and most importantly, it was my birthday, so we consumed an extraordinary amount of cake, including this one (below). Thanks to my friend Cielle, who baked it and stuck all the Smarties on it.
Oooh, and a quick thanks to all the volunteers, who were brilliant this year (they did, by the way, write the whole damn thing) and never missed a deadline.

20 May 2010

Modern Masters

This has less to do with science and the arts than with just arts, but I'm a great believer in expanding my horizons, so...

I've been watching Modern Masters with Alistair Sooke. For want of a better word it is BRILLIANT. To be honest, I've never known much about modern art. I know I like Dali, especially those ones with the really tall elephants. And I know I hate that 'Squares with Concentric Rings' painting by Kandinsky that turned up on the wall of every house I ever rented.

But having watched two episodes of Modern Masters - on Matisse and Picasso - I'm absolutely itching to get to a modern art museum. (As it turns out the Museum of Modern Art in Paris has today been burgled so I'll bear that in mind before embarking on any sort of art expedition).

What's interesting though is that it's Sooke who has really sparked this sudden need to know more. He's engaging, energetic, frequently makes connections between art and its influence on other aspects of culture (fashion, architecture) and, crucially, not some old fuddy-duddy standing in front of a painting talking about light and perspective. Okay. He does do some standing in front of paintings, but it's much more vigorous than any art critics I've seen...

Anyway, the point is: it's the communication that's the key, as always. I feel like the modern art skeptic who's been converted overnight into an enthusiastic amateur. If this was science communication, I'd be a myth, surely? Let's all take a lesson from Sooke.

And watch the programme. Honestly, you won't regret it.

26 April 2010

Science and the arts (III): Sci-screen

Science in films and on the telly has long been a pet topic on this blog - mostly in thinly veiled attempts to crowbar in reviews of Doctor Who and Torchwood, yes, but a pet topic all the same. So it's pleasing to me to see that science on screen is starting to become "a thing". Check this out:

That's the current programme for Reading SciScreen, a series of film showings, each of which includes "a chat with a scientist in the know". It's supported by the British Science Association.

Now, first let me make clear that I'm not sure how I personally feel about post-show discussions. I once saw a terrible student play at Warwick Arts Centre, after which the audience was invited to comment on the performance and suggest alternative storylines. No one, of course, mentioned the embarrassing over-acting and the only people who spoke up had posh accents and pointless quibbles with the script - show-offs, I thought. I also had the distinct impression that half of the audience (myself included) had failed to realise that this was one of those "interactive" events where we were expected to make a contribution, and really just wanted to leave as quickly and as painlessly as possible.

I do, however, think that SciScreen is an interesting initiative. Besides the fact that the lure of a good science fiction film (Back to the Future!!!) might just be strong enough to entice some "lay" folks into the theatre to discuss science, I think it's kind of wonderful when science meets the realms of fantasy. For where do all the great ideas and hotly pursued dreams in science (invisibility, teleportation, time travel, immortality) come from if not from fiction?

Oh, you will still get the show-offs, and there will the odd nit-picker who wants to see scientists and science faithfully portrayed on screen - the sort of people for whom Fringe and Black Sheep can hold absolutely no enjoyment - but they should only serve to make the whole experience more enlightening. From a science communication perspective, you get discussion of the real science behind the fantasies, as well as discussion of the representation of science in the media/scientific stereotypes. Bonus.

The whole idea of viewing science as a part of culture is, in fact, one that I'm a great supporter of. I doubt, to be honest, you will see me itching to make a point in one of these post-show discussions; just as after the terrible, audience interactive play, I'd rather keep my head down. But I'm in favour in general of making science as much a part of this arguably loathsome tradition as anything else. Bring me the popcorn! I will just sit and silently snigger at everyone else...

  • The Bristol Branch of the British Science Association (of which I am a committee member) is seeking a volunteer to set up a programme of SciScreen events locally. Anyone?
  • The same sort of thing goes on in Cardiff, Edinburgh (I'm told) and Boston (huh).
  • Some thoughts from Iain Morland, one of the experts on a panel at a recent showing of 'A Single Man' at a SciScreen event in Cardiff.

16 April 2010

My ugly appendix

Oh good GRIEF. I have just come across this monster.

This, it seems, is what my giant, dangerously inflamed appendix would have looked like before it so spectacularly burst the other week, apparently flinging bits of gangrenous appendix left, right and centre around my otherwise "nicely peristalsing"* gut.

I've discovered one good thing about having your appendix removed though. When bits of you, like your appendix or fallopian tubes - apparently the ultrasound people aren't too good at telling the difference - get infected, they start accumulating a sort of fat wrapping, which protects the inflamed area. Which must mean that when they take it out, all the fat accumulated from elsewhere comes with it.** Ta-da: liposuction on the NHS!

*As the ultrasound lady noted several times during an hour-long examination of my achy, post-burst belly. It involved much prodding. Which hurt.
**Not scientifically verified, but here's hoping.

22 March 2010

See Further

Just quickly, it's good to see the Royal Society supporting creativity around science. I was pleasantly surprised to learn that they are celebrating their 350th anniversary with ten days of science and the arts events in collaboration with the Southbank Centre. And I tell you what, See Further festival in June promises to be quite something. Ten days?! This is unprecedented!

Obviously, being the sci-pop junkie that I am, I'm most interested in the music events and lo and behold, who should be playing but They Might Be Giants! Twice! I'm there.

15 March 2010

Science and the arts (II): Passion for the project

In which I get a bit emotional about last Thursday. And lament the lack of sci comm funding for creative projects.

I've resisted posting too much about Geek Pop on this blog, because most of you who know me know that for the past year every spare minute of my life has been consumed by this project, and are probably sick to the back teeth of hearing about it. (Some of you have been suffering my absence for it too, including the man now to be my husband :) - apologies). But I do just want to post a few musings on last week's Bristol gig, from a science communication perspective. In fact, *thinking aloud*, I might as well go right ahead and make this the first post in my much belated Science and the Arts series. (Mainly belated because of Geek Pop).

As others have recently noted, it's not easy finding funding for science communication projects full stop. And what I've learned is that it's even harder to find funding for something that is a bit outside the box. Or at least, doesn't tick many of the boxes on the forms of the usual sci comm funders. So I guess this is a post less about the intersection of science and the arts, and more about the practicalities and financial hazards of intersecting them - if you get my drift.

It's at this point that I should probably explain to anyone who doesn't know: Geek Pop started out as an online-only (virtual) music festival, featuring artists inspired by science. Not exactly the boxiest thing you've ever heard of, right? Which is why in the last year we've branched out into live science-inspired music events. And as terrifying as the idea was when we first had it - or when On Rails et al had it - it's proved to be one of the most enlightening and, finally, satisfying experiences in my science communication career so far. Perhaps I shouldn't speak too soon though, because we've got another gig coming up this Thursday...

So, faced with the task of finding sponsorship for these events, I went directly to the local geek community. Actually, given the small amount of time we were able to devote to securing sponsors for these things, we've been relatively successful - and will be eternally grateful to the British Science Association and Computer Geeks for their belief and support. I did also put in an application for Awards for All funding but was informed that our project was too arts-based - which I have to admit I kind of took as a compliment.

Still, everything we've done with Geek Pop this year has been done on what can only be described as a shoestring. We've called in favours from just about everyone we could think of... as well as plenty of people we couldn't - a prime example being the girl from the music department at Oxford (dragged in to help by a friend of the crew) who was good enough to bake 50 cupcakes and decorate them, beautifully, with various geek/music symbols including tiny computers and E=MC squareds.

Our focus has always been on up-and-coming and lesser known artists, who, fortunately enough for us, are much easier to persuade to play for you for nothing but a cupcake and a train ticket. But it's something I really dislike doing. I recently had to fight my own corner to get a higher fee for a writing project I am involved with, so it feels really hypocritical to ask someone else to work for free. I was saying exactly this, in fact, to Jonny Berliner and Matt Baker in the bar after the gig. Matt's immediate response was that his is the easiest job in the world - from his point of view, he just has to rock up, get on stage for half an hour and then enjoy the rest of the show. My job as funding co-ordinator/organiser/promoter/stage manager, on the other hand, is more of an all-year-round service. Which, incidentally, I'm also providing for free. Still, I figure it's my project, so I have to take the hit.

A big focus in science communication is sustainability, so what's the long term plan here? Well, to be honest, we can't count on anything at the moment. We're due to put in a couple more large grant applications in the next month or so, but if those come off, it's a bonus. The live gigs are only just about sustainable in their own right - with a bit of help, we can afford to hire the venues, pay the travel expenses and promote them, but not much else. And they're certainly not supporting all of our online endeavours. (Countless hours spent building websites; learning to use Photoshop, InDesign, Illustrator; recording and producing podcasts; Tweeting, Facebooking and MySpacing...) The ideal situation, of course, would be commercial sponsorship, and lots of it. But what we're doing is pretty niche, and still in its formative years. We probably need another successful year online and some more live events behind us before we can really go down that route.

So what it comes down to is passion. Do we love the project enough to keep plugging away at the expense of our sanity and weekends? Right after the Bristol gig I would have said emphatically "yes!", no question. Because the truth is, and I'm not exaggerating this, it was a genuine, roaring success. Everyone at that gig was transfixed. Matt and Jonny, and the rest, provided a rare kind of joy that night. I know, I know I'm biased, but it was at turns inspiring, intelligent, witty, endearing, stomach-achingly funny and heart-achingly beautiful. And it was, unashamedly, science - from the first chord of Jonny Berliner's awesome "Dark Matter" to the last lyric of Jon Chase's freestyle rap about photosynthesis... I've never felt as proud.

The high that comes with a success like that is, unsurprisingly, addictive. But once the dust settles and you realise you have to spend the whole year doing this all over again, possibly (probably, arguably) without payment, it's kind of soul-destroying. You start to wonder whether anyone really gets what you're trying to do. Sure, it's fun and it's entertaining, but there's a serious point - not one we're trying to ram down anyone's throat, but it's there all the same. This is a real, concerted attempt to embed science in culture; to show that we don't have to keep science and creativity apart, as if one might eat the other. Of course Geek Pop isn't going to single-handedly change the way we think about science, but on my thinking, some of us have got to start having a go.

I guess I'm in limbo then. On the one hand, I've got to get some perspective and realise there are more important things in my life than this project - and on the odd occasion I need reminding what those are (eating, sleeping, that sort of thing). But on the other hand, if I don't do it, who will?

9 March 2010

Woefully slow

Okay, I've been woefully slow at starting this whole science and the arts post thing. I will do it. I promise. There is, in fact, a post in progress. But for the moment, I'm sort of tied up organising a virtual science and music festival. Do check it out.

11 February 2010

Science and the arts (I): new post series

It is my intention, over the coming months, to start putting together a collection of posts about science at the intersection with the arts. I probably haven't thought this through carefully enough, but I'm going to try and publish one a week - we'll just have to see how that plan works out.

I've often thought if I was going to write a book it would be about science and creativity, but I've never really had the time to start exploring the subject properly. So what better place to begin than with a stream of randomly assimilated, half-informed blogs?

Seriously, though. These things will be properly researched and referenced, etc etc. Mostly. But, of course, I'll be saving all the best bits for my imaginary book. I mean, I wouldn't want to give away the really excellent stuff for free, would I? So what I guess I'm saying is this: if you want to read some possibly sub-standard science and the arts posts, but, crucially, without having to pay for them, you've come to the right place. Hooray!

Now, while I'm mulling over my first post, let me leave you with a snippet of my own science/arts project, Geek Pop festival, which merges science and music. Here's The Standards with the rather catchy 11 Dimensions, from last year.

29 January 2010

Right, podcast-phobes, listen up (part 2)

I'm repeatedly met with blank stares at the mention of the word "podcast". Even the techiest of techies can be at a loss when it comes to podcasts, it seems, so here is my attempt to demystify the whole business once and for all. In this post, I'm going to explain what a podcast is (and what it is not), how to use it, and what it's good for. There. Simple.

What a podcast is and what it is not...
A podcast is a piece of audio. Some publishers like to make video podcasts that they call vodcasts, but let's not concern ourselves with those for now. Like a television programme, the word "podcast" can refer to a series of audio shows, or just one audio file.

The clever thing about podcasts - talking now in the sense of a series - is that when you "subscribe", each new episode will be downloaded automatically and delivered to your computer without you having to go looking for it. (Just like if you have a favourite blog or news site and you add it to your Google homepage, new posts or articles will appear automatically... do the equivalent of sticking your fingers in your ears and going "la, la, la" if you've never heard of Google homepage).

A podcast is not something you would usually have to pay for. Although you can download it in the same way you would a music track in iTunes, it will usually be very clearly marked "Free". (Although there will be the odd exception). What's iTunes? We'll get to that...

So by subscribing you are not signing away your life or making yourself a target for a barrage of spam. In fact, podcast producers tend to know relatively little about their audiences, so unless you email to announce yourself, it's very unlikely they'll have a clue who you are.

How to use a podcast
Now this is the bit that seems to get everyone in a fluster. But honestly, it's not hard and I'm about to nurse you through it. First of all though, you need to decide how you want to listen to your podcasts. As far as I'm concerned, the big advantage over internet radio or listen again services is that you can take podcasts off your computer and carry them around with you on your iPod/other media player. And if this is what you want to do, you're going to need to find a way of doing it.

Thus, I introduce to you... iTunes! Or... Juice! (Other podcast downloading thingies are available). Look, they're not scary, there's no charge - unless you want to buy something, like music - all you have to do is press the download button and wait for it to arrive on your computer.

So just because I've always used iTunes, let's proceed along that route. It's very straightforward. Once you've downloaded iTunes, open it up. Now go to the iTunes store (click the little green thing on the left), choose Podcasts (top bar) and make your selection. When you've found one you want to listen to, just click "SUBSCRIBE" and the latest episode will start downloading into the "Podcasts" section of your library (see the little purple icon near the top left?). That's it. From now on, every time a new episode of that podcast is published it will just drop into your library. Ta da! (And if it turns out to be bilge, just right-click on the name of the podcast in your library and choose "Unsubscribe").

You can also search for a particular podcast in the "search" box (top right) or if you see an iTunes logo on someone's website, you can usually click on that to open their podcast page directly in iTunes.

Once you've downloaded the episode you want you can either play it right there and then or, if you have an iPod, listen to it in the same way you would a music file - just use your mouse to drag the file across to your iPod.

And if you just want to listen to podcasts on your computer, that's pretty simple, but you'll need to find them through the individual websites they are published on. Then it should be obvious how to listen online or download them as audio files.

What a podcast is good for
How much time have you got? Personally, I'm a fan of listening to podcasts while running - a really good talk show will take my mind off the uphills/burning in my lungs/gale force winds quite successfully.They're also excellent for filling a long journey or for carrying out some mindless task that requires very little concentration. Like cleaning the kitchen, I've been told.

There's also a podcast for just about every bizarre niche interest or, dare I say, fetish. You can stick to BBC radio comedy programmes if you like, but far more intriguing are the likes of "Answer Me This", "Creeping with Armstrong" and "Knitting History" (okay, I haven't actually listened to that last one, but it sounds fascinating, huh?).

Any questions, leave a comment - at the risk of spending the rest of my life answering questions about downloading podcasts...

Right, podcast-phobes, listen up (part 1)

The word "podcast" seems to have a polarising effect on people in almost every situation I choose to use it. There are those for whom it refers to a component of their everyday media consumption, and those for whom it conjures nothing but confusion and technophobia. Thus, while I have been greedily gobbling up everything the RSS feeds can throw at me, others remain oblivious to this endless audio feast.

I am out to change this. But first, let me tell you what my reasons are.

Actually, first, let me tell you what my reasons are NOT. My reasons are NOT that I am continually frustrated by having to explain a relatively simple piece of technology over and over again (maybe a little bit). They are also NOT that I want to promote my own interests as a podcaster (oops). No. My reasons are that a) everyone could be so much less bored if they would only give podcasts a try and b) it would prove that I'm not surrounded by luddites, as is becoming my creeping suspicion.

I realise I've probably not started out on the best footing here - referring to podcast-phobes as luddites isn't going to help matters. Therefore, I shall begin with a completely non-condescending explanation of podcasts in a sparkly clean new post... to be continued...

26 January 2010

Buster Keaton and the era of imagination

On the weekend, some friends and I went to watch a silent movie "play-a-long" - the 1924 film Sherlock Jr accompanied by a mini-orchestra, with sound effects by the audience.

It was honestly one of the best things I've seen in ages. The play-a-long idea was brilliant, yes, but I'd never watched a full length silent movie before. It was quite simply mesmerising; the sheer invention and imagination of the film makers breathtaking. You've just got to watch this clip, which is from the main chase sequence of the film. (Iggy Pop didn't feature in the original version but I'm quite a fan, so I'll let it go.)

What struck me most was how much the kids in the audience loved it. They were absolutely enthralled from the word go. So enthralled, in fact, that there was barely a shake of a bell or squeeze of a balloon from them all the way through - the orchestra had to compensate for them - and every so often one of them would pipe up, "Mummy, how did he do that?" It was wonderful to see that something from a completely different era could still captivate a young audience.

On the way home, we all remarked upon how well the comedy translated. The kids obviously hadn't thought twice about the fact that there was no colour, or 3D, or CGI - they were quite happy watching a funny man on a bike, even in post-Avatar era. As were we. It was all in the timing, and the brilliance of Buster Keaton.

I don't know what this has to do with science communication really, but I just thought I'd share it... Perhaps it's a lesson in keeping things simple... Not even simple really, but, I guess, using your imagination and creativity over expensive stunts and effects.

Blimey, I sound old. Watch the film though.

11 January 2010

Copenhagen etc

In case you were wondering, the Copenhagen piece I was putting together was published over at Chemistry World last week. You can read it here.

Meanwhile, it appears the UK has been turned into something out of the Chronicles of Narnia (see sos_jim's snow geek below). Weather men are shouting about "The Big Freeze" and my housemates have been panic-buying milk and tins of tuna. (It seems they plan to live as cats when the snow apocalypse comes). Undoubtedly people will be using all this as another reason why global warming isn't happening... NEWSFLASH: climate change isn't all about warming; it basically means "bonkers" weather for Britain - as Giles Coren puts it.

Incidentally, I swear the Chronicles of Narnia was on at least five times over Christmas, and unfortunately didn't improve with multiple viewings.

I will write something more sensible soon. Toodlepip.