Science on Sunday

4823926748_704b8f5f51_bTales from the Frontline: Rationale

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 Good:
Bad Science
Bad Pharma
The Double Helix

The Bad:
The Virus Hunters

The Ugly:
Farmer Buckley’s Exploding Trousers

Back on the Road Again

Distance: 3.25k
Time: 27min 17sec
Pace: 8:25min/k
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!

This Week in Books

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:

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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.

The Anti-Valentine

IMG_1454A 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’.

The Philematologist

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.

The Landscape of Literature

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In wild places, I find it easier to breathe.  For some people the warmth of city concrete, sustained by the energy of a thousand footfalls, feeds their needs but for me it is wild places.  I can write in wild places.  It gives me the space to hear my thoughts without competition from life.  I think this is why I am so attracted to literature where landscape is brought alive and allowed to sing.

Two of my favourite books are ones where landscape plays a strong role in defining the atmosphere of the story.  A River Runs Through It and Other Stories (reviewed here) is Norman Maclean’s retelling of the events of the summer of 1937, the last summer his family spends together intact before a tragic event that forever marks them.  I grew up in rural England, among boys who fished so I have an affinity for those who treat it like a religion, although all I remember of it was the odd dingy afternoon alongside an English canal, spent with little enthusiasm for the task at hand.  I can imagine, though, how different it would be in the wilds of Montana in a bygone age.  This is eased by Maclean’s beautiful prose.  Whilst the story is very much centred on the family themselves, the landscape they live in is inseparable and this is conveyed so well.

The second novel, A Land More Kind Than Home by Wiley Cash (reviewed here) is a contemporary novel but one that has an equally well-envisaged landscape – this time small community life in the mountains of North Carolina.  Cash, much like Maclean, manages to effortlessly recreate the landscape of his home region and in it, finds a home for the cast of characters who seem to have lived there for generations although we only enter their world for a short time.  The similarities to Maclean’s work are not obvious but they are there nonetheless.  Both these novels deal with issues of religion but in completely different ways.  As an agnostic scientist who borders on atheist but for the fact that I apply scientific method and norms even to my non-belief, I wonder why so often religion in literature pairs so well with landscape.  Certainly, it is tempting to marry internal and external landscapes in a novel and wild places have a grandeur that lends itself to religious comparison.  The wild can bring a sense of peace.  I don’t link this with religious serenity but I can understand that others may and this could explain the subconscious linkage that occurs so often in writing.

Finding a really well-written landscape in a novel is a rarity.  Finding a novelist whose connection with a place is so strong that it enables them to bring it to life without artifice in a text is like discovering diamonds in a kimberlite deposit; a first novel like A Land More Kind Than Home has marked Wiley Cash as a rich vein of language that I want to mine deeper.  For Maclean, unfortunately, the stock of writing is finite – he died in 1990 leaving  very little more than the pieces in A River Runs Through It and Other Stories.  I think to truly write a landscape, to paint with your pen that which others craft with oils and brushes on canvas, an author has to love the landscape unconditionally.  Much like a parent and child, a strong connection with the land can be an unconditional bond that nourishes and supports you.  Those that understand that have the ability to see beyond the conventional wisdoms of society, freeing them to use language inventively to express this to readers.  Often there is a musicality about the language of landscape – a balance and sense of rightness that defies criticism.  These authors frequently translate this ability to vivid descriptions of the internal landscape of their characters, bringing them alive with great skill.

Finding wild places isn’t always easy.  They disappear between the demands of a working life and it is all too easy to forget to take the time to rediscover them – hidden, sometimes, in the overgrown corner of a village garden or flying with a pair of kites over an exposed ridge on a crisp autumn morning with a frost on the air.  I will always be grateful to the Landscape of Literature for reminding me they are there.

‘In Memory of the Children of the Ghetto’

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I’ve added this week’s Featured Story,In Memory of the Children of the Ghetto and I wanted to share some of the inspiration behind the story.

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The Lodz ghetto was a very real, very brutal place.  If you are interested in the history of the ghetto, I strongly suggest that you Google it as there are sites that can fill you in on the history of the place with far more skill and detail than I can.  I love Lodz.  I lived there for a number of years and we have family that still live there so we return as often as time and money allows.  The station in the story is a very real memorial place.  It is nestled in the centre of a functional city area and has been made into a very moving memorial museum.  It steals up on you because you’re lulled by the pedestrian nature of the surrounding buildings.  Suddenly the enormity of what happened here during WWII is so apparent because these atrocities were also exacted in a pedestrian background of wartime ‘normality’.

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The branch track is abandoned now and the last time I visited, it was thick with summer flowers.  I am always struck by the loneliness of railway tracks but these tracks seem more isolated, despite the yellow and white blooms between the wooden sleepers.  It’s as if the thousands of names that are listed in the original transport rosters in the small museum are standing guard, unwilling to permit these tracks to reconnect with the modern city.

It is hard to explain the atmosphere of the place.  I think there is a memory of the people who passed through on their way to the death camps that somehow scars the air.  By far the most poignant of the many memorials that adorn the walls, is a black, rectangular plaque mounted on the side wall that simply says ‘In memory of the children of the ghetto‘.  Out of respect, the black stone is polished to mirror-like standard and as you look at the words that are carved there and think about what it really means, what the reality of those words was for the children who lived in Lodz at that time, they are superimposed on your reflection as if acknowledging that they have stamped their indelible mark on you.

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This is the place that has been trying to find its way into a story for a long while.  It took a simple prompt to open the path.

Neil Gaiman, a Calendar of Tales, Advertising and Inspiration

I’m about to commit a literary sin.  It may be the literary equivalent of swearing.  I’m going to mention money and writing in the same sentence.  I may mention advertising too.  Unheard of though it is, I may even say something positive about advertising so reader beware.

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Now I’m writing again regularly, I have entered that hyper-aware state where you are constantly looking for the next thing that inspires you to pick up a pen and run with an idea.  I studied a Creative Writing course for fun a few years back and one of the best habits I picked up was to keep a writer’s notebook full of any oddities that caught my eye, turns of phrase I liked, random ideas that enter my head at midnight after too much coffee.  So much good writing has come out of these books, often a long time after the original idea caught me.  Often the inspiration is just a small seed, from which a mighty oak can grow (well, in my case a slightly sickly sapling but you can see where I’m coming from).

Earlier this week, I was drawn into what, at first glance, could be described as an advertising event.  For those of you who know me less well, I must explain that this is akin to Richard Dawkins petitioning the Pope for a personal blessing.  I do not have an agreeable relationship with the advertising industry.  Neil Gaiman, author & Tweeter of great volume, was commissioned by a well-known mobile phone company to instigate and shepherd a creative event based around a series of prompt questions and the responses of the social web.  These will then serve as inspiration for a collection of tales, based around calendar months, to be written by the venerable Mr G.  On the surface, this seems like the sort of thing I wouldn’t like very much.  I love following authors on Twitter because many of them tend to be very interesting people.  I follow a lot of other people on Twitter.  They too are interesting.  Authors do not have the monopoly.  Nonetheless, I enjoy authors who tweet because it adds dimension to your interaction with the books they write but also because, for one reason or another and in diverse ways, it inspires me to write more and to write better.  I am often much like a grouchy pitbull on a bad day, when interaction moves over into advertising anywhere on my tweet feed.  I don’t mean promoting and talking about books – essentially, that’s why I’m there in the first place.  I mean out and out commercial promotion of products.  The Calendar of Tales won me over though, for several reasons.  Firstly, the questions were good questions.  They forced me to extract memories that set off a cascade of ideas which are still rolling around in my head waiting for a release.  So it won on the ‘inspiration’ side.  Secondly, inspiration breeds inspiration.  When you are bouncing ideas about in your own head, they gain momentum from the external collisions they have with others.  It’s what is so good about writing groups and creative workshops.  Part of the appeal of this creative stunt was the number of near-Earth rocks flying around on Twitter that night.  It was denser than the Kuiper Belt.  Writing is, by its nature, a solitary sport so these moments are rare.  Thirdly, and by no means least importantly, so what if someone is paid to do something creative.  I have no idea why that idea is so scorned by some.  Heavens, I want writers to make a lot of money writing.  It means they can write more.  It means they can eat and drive fast cars.  It means I can read more.  It is hard to write around the slog and grind of a daily job.  I have immense respect for the people who have managed to craft themselves a living from their pen whilst stealing time from their day-to-day.  I am still trying but each author that has succeeded gives me hope that one day I can.  John Scalzi wrote about this very subject most eloquently here and it was picked up by Maggie Stiefvater (@mstiefvater) on Twitter this week.

So, I feel no shame at all in taking a positive from what was essentially an ad promotion because it was a positive experience.  That is essentially what the last paragraph was saying (but it was longer, with more words in it).  I am, unfortunately, unlikely to buy the aforementioned mobile device so I guess I’m a loss for the ad company.  I am, however, going to write my own Calendar of Tales.  I’ve listed the prompts below so that you can see what my stories evolved from but I’m not sure right now where they will all end up.  I will likely try and  post a background blog for any of them that have an interesting history.  I’m interested in what you will think of the results.

Calendar of Tales Prompts (courtesy of @neilhimself)

Why is January so dangerous?

What’s the strangest thing that ever happened to you in February?

What historical figure does March remind you of?

What’s your happiest memory of April?

What’s the weirdest gift you’ve ever been given in May?

Where would you spend a perfect June?

What’s the most unusual thing you have ever seen in July?

If August could speak, what would it say?

Tell me something you lost in September that meant a lot to you?

What mythical creature would you like to meet in October?

What would you burn in November, if you could?

Who would you like to see again in December?