A visitor to our pond the summer before last. Reminds me of hot weather and cold beer.
(Click on image to embiggen)
A couple of new reviews up in the Book Reviews section, both of which I can highly recommend.
If you are interested in Young Adult fiction and want a truly intelligent read that is unafraid of experimenting with form and narrative, I strongly suggest you check out ‘The Weight of Water’ by Sarah Crossan. Click the image below for a link to the full review.
One of the best books I’ve read this year, ‘This Magnificent Desolation’ by Thomas O’Malley deserves to be read. It’s wonderfully atmospheric fiction. Again, click the link below for a full review.
What makes a scientist? On the surface, it seems like a simple question. I imagine a lot of people, in and out of the scientific field, think that good postgraduate scientists come up through the traditional path of school specialisation, degrees and not much deviation from the well-trodden route. When you’re on the outside, graduate science can seem like an impentrable field that ‘other people’ do but that is inaccessible to ‘people like you’. It’s an easy trap to fall into. If you come from a background devoid of PhDs, with nary a Dr in sight, then academic science can appear to be a foreign country with strict visa regulations. It would certainly have changed my whole academic path, had I had educators when I was younger who made it clear how accessible postgraduate study was. I have a sneaking suspicion, though, that they themselves weren’t privy to the inside view on this kind of life. I have a strong belief that higher education should be accessible to all who have the ability, regardless of background. It’s an easy thing to write but a harder goal to achieve. PhDs can seem so lofty from the outside that many potentially good candidates don’t regard themselves as such because they have an unrealistic view of what is required to complete one. I’m not implying that PhDs are something everyone can or should do but I want everyone to be able to consider them as a potential option, to be dismissed for real reasons, rather than to never consider them at all because they seem like something other people do. I know that real stories of lab work and of the path that people took into science bore the responsibility for setting me on the road I’m still working on. I know that once I made it past the invisible barrier and into the lab, the barriers to higher study seemed to disappear because it became evident I could do it equally as well as many people I worked alongside as a technician. So, in the hope of dispelling the myths of separation that science sometimes upholds, I am going to use this weekly spot to tell you some of my scientific history and a little bit of what I do every day in the lab. I hope that someone might read this and think, ‘You know what? I can do that too.’
The Press Box: MMR
So, this week’s news is all about MMR again. I’m a parent. I’m a scientist. I vaccinate. When the media start to tell me I shouldn’t, I go to the academic source papers and I read the actual experimental reports before deciding how much I should trust that advice. That means I was likely one of the few people outside of the direct medical community that read the original Wakefield paper that caused this situation in the first place. I was unimpressed, either with his credentials or with the science that was described there, for many reasons. Most of these failings of the work, alongside Wakefield’s conflict of interest, have been discussed now (better late than never) elsewhere and I’m not going to rehash them here. What did surprise me is that the science journalists who originally reported the spurious linkage between vaccinations and autism, the people on whom the general public were reliant when it came to dissemination of data, appeared either to have bypassed reading the original paper, taking instead the Wakefield tainted press release as a basis for their story, or to have completely misunderstood the fairly glaring failings of the work presented there. Again though, the quality of front page science journalism is most eloquently taken to task by others and it is not my aim to make war on that here.
What I have noticed though, is the tendency to demonise the parents who chose not to vaccinate their children, to imply they are deficient or rather dumb for making a decision that many people who understand the science realise is wrong. In a case of mea culpa, I sometimes have to stop myself from getting angry with them too, after all, when vaccinations do not always induce immunity, the herd immunity of the population that these non-vaccinating parents are endangering also endangers my child or future children should measles become prevalent again. Then I take a step back and give myself a strong talking-to. What I’ve learnt from parenthood is that you spend an awful lot of your time in a state of fear and anxiety over the health of your offspring. We are not a rational bunch. Being a scientist and in possession of a library e-journal collection, I channel that into research about potential dangers. I wouldn’t expect other people to do that. I had measles as a child and having suffered it and studied it as a disease, I’m fully aware of the dangers it poses. For many parents with no memory of it as a common condition, it seems no more dangerous than a case of chicken pox. Combine that with irresponsible press reportage and you have an anxiety time bomb. I don’t think that we can blame parents for believing the stories that papers print. Maybe not now, after this MMR scare has seen the light of day, but certainly before then, science journalism was seen as wielding authority, I think. It’s not a fair assessment to blame parents for not questioning the headlines they read coming from people who, I’m sure, they thought were more qualified than they were to comment on this subject. It is fair to blame the editors who hire these journalists and pass their work for publication for not questioning the headlines but instead launching them onto front page news space. There are a lot of exceptional science journalists out there but MMR shows that often the voice of science is not the exceptional but the most headline-grabbing. In a week when a respected broadsheet, The Independent, actually gave Wakefield the front page again, treating him as if he had a valid opinion on this and was not the discredited, ethically-tainted individual he really is, I think it is a good time to remind the mainstream news media that they have a responsibility to accurately and critically report science rather than to sensationalise it for front page headlines. The news media didn’t cause the MMR debacle. It was a perfect storm of events. It did fan the waves and make them higher and it cannot be absolved of this responsibility if we are to prevent another ‘MMR’.
Book Reviews: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly
The Virus Hunters
Farmer Buckley’s Exploding Trousers
Time: 27min 17sec
Listening to: World War Z by Max Brooks
I should be running a marathon but I’m not going to think about that right now. If running teaches you anything in life, it’s the value of patience. Today was my first run back after an injury. There’s the patience. I want to fly, to get back to running for over an hour, to escape to the ‘happy running place’ for half a morning. Instead, I’m gently nursing my injured hip and taking satisfaction in the fact that it held up for over 3k. Even so, welcome back endorphins. I’ve missed you. We should catch up more.
I’m listening to the unabridged audiobook World War Z. I thoroughly enjoyed it in print and the audio is equally as good. This book lends itself to audio really well because of it’s multi-narrator perspective & ‘interview’ style presentation. It’s actually a very well thought out book, raising intelligent questions. I have a sneaking suspicion that the very plausibility of a zombie plague and the opportunity it provides to examine how a society breaks down and rebuilds is why we are so drawn to zombie mythology. Certainly makes you run faster!
I’ve had the plague this week. Well, potentially the plague. Or possibly a small case of the sniffles. Whatever the diagnosis, it was not conducive to a lot of reading or reviewing so I only managed to finish a couple of books and review them on the site:
Notes from a Coma was a Netgalley download – I wasn’t sure what to expect of this one but it neither entirely excited nor disappointed. Click on the image for the full review.
Them: Adventures with Extremists was one of my random audiobook shots in the dark. I am forever grateful to Jen at Devourer of Books for introducing me to audiobooks. I genuinely don’t know what I used to fill all those wasted hours of shopping, car journeys, lab work or housework with before I found audiobooks. Click on the image for a full review of my latest.
A day late but I offer up a character study in honour of the most pointlessly commercial day of the year. It stemmed from a tweet that Jonathan Carroll (@jscarroll) that mentioned the word ‘philematologist’ and I ran from there. If you’re interested in off-beat, interesting quotes, pictures and links, I can strongly recommend following Jonathan Carroll on Twitter. If you haven’t read any of his books, I suggest dipping in to ‘Land of Laughs’.
He called himself a philematologist and for years had moved from girl to girl, formalising his investigation into the power of a kiss. Tentative first touches that sneaked hesitantly towards each other, unsure of their reception, inhibited by over-analysis. Shy and unobtrusive, they hid from their full potential. Then there were embraces that obeyed the laws of physics, tumbling into each other like opposing forces and billowing upwards, a mushroom cloud demolishing everything in their way, toxic particles settling like dust to wreak destruction years from the moment. Kisses filled with warmth, the comforting scent of a freshly baked muffin on the air, a crisp surface which he gently broke with his lips to reveal a warm, fragrant interior. He studied kisses of the evening, fruity and tannin-filled. He chased down kisses of the morning, the scent of dew on crisp air, brief clouds of breath escaping. Winter trysts, diamond-like snow crystals forming a fragile crust which breaks under pressure to reveal a cold underbelly. His favourites were the kisses of spring – young and green, they grew like buds burgeoning and straining until they unfurled, fresh and new, untouched. The kisses of springtime held the potential, unrealised, of great passions and wild affairs. He called himself a philematologist but she just called him ‘husband’, flawed and damaged but her own cross to bear.