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.