Category Archives: science communication

Science and music festivals such as Latitude 2015 and some Guerilla Science

Science has been gaining prominence at music festivals in Britain if nowhere else. I wrote about the Glastonbury Festival’s foray into science in a July 12, 2011 posting which featured the Guerilla Science group tent and mentioned other of the festival’s science and technology efforts over the years. More recently, I noticed that Stephen Hawking was scheduled for the 2015 Glastonbury Festival (he had to cancel due to personal reasons).

The 2015 Latitude Festival seems to have more luck with its science-themed events. according to a July 22, 2015 posting by Suzi Gage for the Guardian’s science blogs,

Why do people go to music festivals? When I was 18 years old and heading to Reading festival the answer was very much ‘to listen to Pulp and Beck in a field while drinking overpriced beer and definitely not trying to sneak a hip flask on to the site’. But I’ve grown up since then, and so, it seems, have festivals.

At Latitude this weekend, I probably only watched a handful of bands. Not to say that the musical lineup wasn’t great, but there was so much more on offer that caught my attention. The Wellcome Trust funded a large number of talks, interactive sessions and demos that appeared both in their ‘hub’, a tiny tent on the outskirts of the festival, but also in the Literary Tent at the heart of the festival and at other locations across the site.

The programming of the science content was imaginative, often pairing a scientist with an author who had written on a similar topic. This was effective in that it allowed a discussion, but kept it from becoming too technical or full of jargon.

Dr Robin Carhart-Harris, an expert in psychedelics, was paired with Zoe Cormier, author of ‘Sex Drugs and Rock and Roll’ in the Literary Tent, to discuss the use of psychedelics as ‘medicine for the soul’. [emphasis mine] Robin was very measured in his description of the trials he has been involved with at Imperial College London, being clear that while preliminary findings about psilocybin in treatment-resistant depression might be exciting, there’s a long way to go in such research. Talking about drugs at a festival is always going to be a crowd pleaser, but both Robin and Zoe never sensationalized.

A highlight for me was a session organised by The Psychologist magazine, featuring Professor Sarah-Jayne Blakemore and Fiona Neil, author of The Good Girl. Entitled ‘Being Young Never Gets Old’, it claimed to ‘debunk’ teenagers. …

Gage’s piece is a good read and I find it interesting she makes no comment about a literary tent at a music festival. I don’t know of a music festival in Canada that would feature literature or literature and science together.

Guerilla Science

I highlighted Zoe Cormier’s name as a participant (born in Canada and living in London, England) as she is a founder of Guerilla Science, the group I mentioned earlier with regard to the Glastonbury Festival. A science communicator with some fairly outrageous events under her belt, her and her co-founder’s ‘guerilla’ approach to science is exciting. I mentioned their annual Secret Garden event in a Aug. 1, 2012 posting where they sang and danced the Higgs Boson and otherwise celebrated elementary particles. The 2015 Secret Garden Party featured rest, noise, and neuroscience. (Perhaps it’s not too early to plan attendance at the 2016 Secret Garden Party?) Here’s an excerpt from this year’s lineup found in Louis’ July 15, 2015 posting on the Guerilla Science website,

Friday [July 24, 2015]

….

12:00 – Rest & Noise Shorts

Crash, bang, shush, zzz… four short talks about rest and noise from artist Zach Walker, psychologist Will Lawn and neuroscientists Ed Bracey and Melissa Ellamil.

13.00 Speed, Synapse… Go!

Two teams go head-to-head in a competition to see whose neurotransmitters can move the fastest. What happens when cocaine, marijuana and ketamine are introduced? Join us for some fast and furious neuroscientific gameplay.

15.00 Craft a Connectome

Help us transform the Guerilla Science tent into a giant model brain with a tangle of woolen connections. Neuroscientists Julia Huntenburg and Melissa Ellamil will be on hand to conduct our connectome and coax it into a resting state.

16.00 Sound, Fire and Water

We test out our new toy: a fire organ that visualises sound in flames! Join engineers from Buro Happold and artist Zach Walker as we make fire, water and cornstarch dance and jump to the beat.

Saturday [July 25, 2015]

11.00 Hearing the Voice

Philosopher Sam Wilkinson explores the idea of the brain as a hypothesis testing machine. He asks whether thinking about the mind in this way can help explain mental illness, hallucinations and the voices in our heads.

15.00 – The Unquiet Mind

Hallucinations are our contact with the unreal but are also a window into human nature. Neuroscientist and clinical psychologist Vaughan Bell reveals what they tell us about brain function and the limits of human experience.

Sunday [July 26, 2015]

12.00 Phantom Terrains

Frank Swain and Daniel Jones present their project to listen in to wireless networks. By streaming wi-fi signals to a pair of hearing aids, Frank can hear the changing landscapes of data that silently surround us.

13.00 Rest and Nose

Join chemists Rose Gray and Alex Bour and neuroscientist Ed Bracey to explore the links between relaxation, rest and sense of smell. Create a perfume to lull yourself to sleep, help you unwind and evoke a peaceful place or time.

..

For anyone interested in Guerilla Science, this is their website. They do organize events year round.

Genes and jazz: a July 17, 2015 performance in Vancouver (Canada)

A geneticist and a jazz musician first combined forces for Genes and Jazz at a 2008 Guggenheim museum event where it was first conceptualized (and performed?). Vancouver will be lucky enough to enjoy a live performance on July 17, 2015 as part of the 2015 Indian Summer Festival (July 9 – 18, 2015). Here’s more from the festival event page,

What happens when you cross a Nobel prize-winning geneticist with one of New York’s most sought after jazz quintets? Genes & Jazz. Part jazz concert, part scientific talk by one of the world’s finest scientific minds, Genes & Jazz is where the seemingly dichotomous worlds of science and the arts meet.

Dr. Harold Varmus won the Nobel Prize in 1989 for his work on the proto-oncogene, which enhanced our understanding of cancer. [emphasis mine] His son, jazz trumpeter Jacob leads the Jacob Varmus Quintet. [emphasis mine] Together they explore the ways that genes and notes affect complex organisms and compelling music. The father-son duo compares cell biology to the development of musical compositions.

“Mutation is essential to species diversity just as stylistic variation is essential to the arts,” says Dr. Varmus. “Without genetic error, there would be no evolution. Without variety, there would be no development in art, literature or music. Variety is essential to progress.”

Genes & Jazz was sparked in 2008 as part of the ‘Works & Process’ series at the Guggenheim Museum in New York.

Logistics (from the ticket purchase page),

    July 17 – July 17 [2015]
Vancouver Playhouse
600 Hamilton Street at Dunsmuir
Vancouver, BC
Admission: $25 / $40 / $60

For anyone wondering about how the jazz might sound, there’s this from the ticket purchase page,

“…lyrical and self-assured, more Miles Davis than Dr. John.” – The New Yorker

I think the first  person to link jazz with biology was Dr. Mae-Won Ho in a 2006 Institute of Science in Society (ISIS) lecture: Quantum Jazz; the meaning of life, the universe, and everything (free version). The fully referenced and illustrated lecture is available for members only. Here’s an excerpt  from the lecture,

Quantum jazz is the music of the organism dancing life into being, from the top of her head to her toes and fingertips, every single cell, molecule and atom taking part in a remarkable ensemble that spins and sways to rhythms from pico (10-12) seconds to minutes, hours, a day, a month, a year and longer, emitting light and sound waves from atomic dimensions of nanometres up to metres, spanning a musical range of 70 octaves (for that is the range of living activities). And each and every player, the tinniest molecule not withstanding, is improvising spontaneously and freely, yet keeping in tune and in step with the whole.

There is no conductor, no choreographer, the organism is creating and recreating herself afresh with each passing moment.

That’s why ordinary folks like us can walk and chew gum at the same time, why top athletes can run a mile in under four minutes, and kung fu experts can move with lightning speed and perhaps even fly effortlessly through the air, like in the movie Crouching Tiger and Hidden Dragon. This perfect coordination of multiple tasks carried out simultaneously depends on a special state of wholeness or coherence best described as “quantum coherence”, hence quantum jazz.

Quantum coherent action is effortless action, effortless creation, the Taoist ideal of art and poetry, of life itself.

Dr. Ho also gave an interview about her influences and ‘quantum jazz’ which is reproduced in ISIS report 23/06/10 (presumably 23 June 2010),

ATHM [Alternative therapies in health and medicine]: Please tell us a little bit about your background and schooling.

Ho: I was born in Hong Kong; started school in Chinese and then transferred to an English school for girls, run by Italian nuns. I got exposed to serious Western ideas late-ish in life, when I was about 10 or 11 years old. I was quite good in school, and the nuns let me do whatever I liked; didn’t have to listen if I got bored. So I escaped the worst of reductionist Western education because ideas that didn’t fit just rolled off my back. I guess that explains why I’m always at odds with whatever the conventional theory is in every single field that I go into.

I was in the convent school until I entered Hong Kong University to read biology and then biochemistry as a PhD. Again, I learned almost nothing useful during that time. Maybe I exaggerate: I learned, by myself, of things I liked to learn about. After I finished university, I got a postdoctoral fellowship, and began to change fields because I didn’t like the kind of research I was doing. I began to revolt against neo-Darwinism and the reductionist way of looking at things in bits.

I had gone into biochemistry for my Ph.D. because of something I heard from one of the professors who quoted Albert St. Györgyi – the father of biochemistry—that life was interposed between two energy levels of an electron. I thought that was sheer poetry. That made me want to know, “what is life?”

So I went into biochemistry thinking I would find the answer there. But it was very dull because biochemistry then was about cutting up and grinding up everything, separating, purifying. Nothing to tell you about what life is about.

Biology as a whole was studying dead, pinned specimens. There was nothing that answered the question, what is biological organization? What makes organisms tick? What is being alive? I especially detested neo-Darwinism because it was the most mind-numbing theory that purports to explain anything and everything by “selective advantage”, competition and selective advantage.

I spent a lot of time criticizing neo-Darwinism until I got bored. What neo-Darwinism leaves out is the whole of chemistry, physics, and mathematics, all science in fact. You don’t even need any physiology or developmental biology if everything can be explained in terms of selective advantage and a gene for any and every character, real or imaginary.

Finally, I met some remarkable people and learned a lot from them, and completely changed my field of research to try and answer that haunting question, “what is life?” I wrote a book on the ‘physics of organisms’, not ‘biophysics’, which is largely about the structure of dead biological materials and physical methods used in characterizing them. The physics of organisms is about living organization, quantum coherence and other important concepts.

Varmus and Ho may or may not be familiar with each other’s work linking jazz with biology. It wouldn’t be the first time that two or more people came to similar conclusions without reference to each other. At a guess, I’d say Ho’s approach is more about the poetry or the metaphor while Varmus’ approach is more about the music.

Call for AAAS Kavli science journalism award submission goes international, for the first time

From a June 22, 2015 American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) news release in my mailbox,

The contest year for the 2015 AAAS Kavli Science Journalism Awards will close on 15 July. Be sure to enter your best work that appeared in print, online or on air between 1 July 2014 and 15 July 2015. The entry deadline is August 1, 2015. [emphasis mine]

Thanks to an expanded endowment from The Kavli Foundation, the competition is open for the first time to professional journalists from around the world in each of the eight reporting categories. There is no entry fee. Please read the Contest Rules and Frequently Asked Questions before submitting.

Note: If the submitted work was published or broadcast in a language other than English, you must provide an English translation.

The awards recognize outstanding reporting for a general audience and honor individuals for coverage of the sciences, engineering, and mathematics. Stories on the environment, energy, science policy, and health qualify if they deal in a substantive way with underlying science. Independent committees of journalists select the winning entries.

The categories:
·  Large Newspaper (circulation of 150,000 or more, daily or weekly)
·  Small Newspaper (circulation of less than 150,000, daily or weekly)
·  Magazine
·  TV – Spot News/Feature Reporting (20 minutes or less)
·  TV – In-Depth Reporting (more than 20 minutes)
·  Radio
·  Online
·  Children’s Science News (reporting on science for children, including young teens up to age 14)

You can find Contest Rules here and you can find Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) here,

Q: I work for a state-funded news organization. Am I eligible?

A. The news outlet must be editorially independent. Questions about eligibility are decided by the awards administrator in consultation with the Managing Committee (an advisory panel of science journalists.)

Q. Are commentaries or articles in advocacy publications eligible for the award?

A. No.

Q. Are books eligible?

No, books, book chapters and e-books are not eligible.

Q. Are stories written by public information officers or freelancers for university-funded research magazines or Web sites eligible for the awards?

A. No. The Managing Committee has determined that such publications are not eligible for the awards.

Q. Are podcasts eligible for the award?

A. Some podcasts are eligible for consideration within the Online category. They must be science-news-only podcasts aimed at a general audience and prepared by reporters. Institutional podcasts from university news or research offices, or podcasts featuring news as well as other types of segments are not eligible.

Q. Are blogs eligible?

A. Yes, in the “Online” category. The judges will determine whether a blog entry meets the standards of professional journalism and is accessible to a general audience.

Finally, you can make your submission by clicking the link on this page which includes a summary of the rules and FAQs.

Good luck!

Animation: art and science

Being in the process of developing an art/science piece involving poetry and visual metaphors as realized through video, I was quite fascinated to read about someone else’s process and issues in Stephen Curry’s and Drew Berry’s June 9, 2015 joint post on the Guardian science blogs (Note: Links have been removed),

Yesterday [June 8, 2015] I [Stephen Curry] was trying to figure out why it seems to be so difficult to connect to the biological molecules that we are made of – proteins, DNA and such like. My piece might have ended on a frustrated note but I have no wish to be negative, especially since the problem has only arisen because animators like Drew Berry are now able to use the results of structural biology to make quite exquisite movies of the molecules of life at work inside the cells of our bodies. As I was working though my difficulties, I wrote to ask Berry how he approached the task of representing molecular complexity in ways that would make sense to people. This is his considered and insightful reply:

“The goal of my [Drew Berry] work is to show non-experts – the general public aged 4 to 99, students of biology, journalists and politicians, and so on – what is being discovered in biology, in a format that is accessible, meaningful, and engaging. I hope that my work provides some sense of what biologists and medical researchers are discovering and thinking about, to provide the public with a framework of understanding to discuss these important new discoveries and the impact it will have on us as a society as we head into the future.

These passages, in particular, caught my attention as they are descriptive of the art and the science inherent in Berry’s work,

… I should avoid overstating how accurately I have depicted the reality of the molecular world. It is vastly messier, random and crowded, and it’s physical nature is unimaginably alien to our normal perception of the world around us. That said, my work is not intended to be a lab-bench-calculated model for research use, it is an impressionistic, artist-generated crude sketch of phenomena and structures science is measuring and discovering at the molecular scale.

… I would then assert that the animations are firmly founded on real data and are as accurate as I can possibly make them, while making them watchable and interpretable to a human audience. By far the largest portion of my time is spent conducting broad ranging literature reviews of the topic I am working on, gathering the fragments of data scattered throughout the journals, and holistically reconstructing what currently we know and do not know. Wherever data and models are available, I incorporate them directly into the construction of the animation, including molecular structures, dynamics simulations, speed measurements, and so on. My work is most akin to a ‘review’ paper in the literature, presented in visual form.

Here is one of the problems Berry and other animators struggle with,

… I am friends with the dozen or so people who are at the top of the game at creating biomedical animations (most have a PhD scientific background) and we all struggle with the problem of having a molecule arrive at a particular location from the thick molecular soup of the cytoplasm and not look directed. I can make the molecule wander around in a Brownian type manner, but for story telling and visual explanations, I need it to get to a certain point and do it’s thing at a certain time to move the story along. This can make it look determined and directed.

Berry also discusses the unexpected,

An unexpected outcome I stumbled across more than a decade ago is that the public loves it when ‘real time’ speeds are displayed and the structures and reactions are derived from research data. This takes a lot of time to build, but then the animations have a remarkable longevity of use and strongly resonate with the audience.

For the last excerpt from this essay, I include Berry’s description of one of his most challenging projects and the video he produced,

The most heavily researched and technically challenging animation I have ever built is the kinetochore which can be seen in the video below . The kinetochore is a gigantic structure that assembles on chromosomes just after they have been duplicated and helps them to be pulled apart during cell division (mitosis). It has about 200 proteins of which I depicted about 50. I gathered data from more than 180 scientific papers with everything built as accurately as possible with hundreds of little scientific details built into the structure and dynamics.”

There are more illustrations and one more video embedded along with more from Berry in the essay, which includes these biographical details (Note: Links have been removed),

Drew Berry is the Biomedical Animations Manager at the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research in Melbourne, Australia. @Stephen_Curry is a professor of structural biology at Imperial College [London, UK].

Portraying the unglamorous side of scientific research

Daniel Stier has produced an eye-opening book of photographs depicting scientific research as it is performed by the multitude of scientists who don’t have access to the beautiful, gleaming laboratories depicted in magazines and film.

Courtesy: Daniel Stier

Courtesy: Daniel Stier

You can find this image along with more from volume one of Stier’s book, Ways of Knowing. According to Stier’s website (images from volume one), it is available for pre-orders.

Unfortunately, Stier doesn’t offer much information about the images he’s chosen to share from volume one but there is a June 12, 2015 article by Meg Miller for Fast Company that fills in a few blanks about the project and the image she’s chosen to highlight,

… “We think of lab coats, high-tech equipment—the realities couldn’t be more different.” In the Ergonomics department of the Technische Universitaet Munich, for example, Stier photographed a professor hanging horizontally from an aluminum structure, suspended by wires attached to velcro straps. He looks like he’s trapped in some sort of ’50s-era torture device. Science: glamorous, it ain’t.

It’s nice to be reminded from time to time that science is still practiced in homely and makeshift circumstances.

We have a national science and technology museum in Canada, don’t we? A national public consultation

Before dashing off to participate in the consultation, here’s a little background information. At this moment in time, Canada’s national museum for science and technology is a truck, ‘Museum on the go‘. There was a museum building but that was closed in Sept. 2014 due to health and safety issues. (Btw, the ‘Museum on the go’ truck is a regular summer programme which staff are presenting in difficult circumstances.)

For those unfamiliar with the setup, Canada has three interlinked science and technology museum institutions (a) Canada Aviation and Space Museum (b) Canada Agriculture and Food Museum and (c) Canada Science and Technology Museum. The other two institutions are still open.

If memory serves, 2008 was when I first heard there was a problem with the Canada Science and Technology Museum. The details escape me but it had something to do with an unsuccessful attempt to get a new building or move to a new building. Presumably they were having health and safety problems dating from 2008 at least. That’s a long to time to wait for a solution but after closing in Sept. 2014, the federal government announced funds to repair and upgrade the current museum building. From a Nov. 17, 2014 announcement on the Canada Science and Technology Museum (CSTM) website,

The Government of Canada announced today an $80.5 million investment to repair and upgrade the Canada Science and Technology Museum. The work will be completed during the next two years and the Museum will re-open in 2017.

This funding is essential to address the health and safety issues that are of immediate concern, and to support the Museum’s work promoting Canada’s long history of scientific and technological achievement.

Specifically, the funds announced today will go toward:

  • Removing the mould and replacing the Museum’s roof, which will stop leaks. A new roof will ensure that artifacts and exhibitions are no longer in danger of damage;
  • Retrofitting and upgrading the Museum’s exhibition spaces and floor space;
  • Upgrading the building’s fire-suppression systems and its seismic structural strength; and,
  • Bringing the Museum’s exterior façade up to date to match the new, modern interior. …

$80M is not a lot of money for the repairs and there is no mention of any upgrades for technology used to display exhibits e.g., VR (or virtual reality is becoming popular) or ICT (information and communications technology such as mobile applications and perhaps even webcasting facilities so people living outside the Ottawa region might have chance to attend virtually).

It seems ironic that while the Canadian federal government wants to promote science culture and innovation, it refuses to adequately fund our national showcase. Where culture is concerned, the federal government can commission a report on science culture (my Dec. 31, 2014 post: Science Culture: Where Canada Stands; an expert assessment, Part 1 of 3: Canadians are doing pretty well) but it’s not inclined to support culture as can be seen in an April 17, 2015 article by Jeff Lee for the Vancouver Sun concerning the funding for arts museums,

There is also no indication that the Stephen Harper government would be willing to contribute such a large amount for cultural projects, given that it hasn’t done so elsewhere in Canada, with only two exceptions.

Both of those fulfilled commitments made by the previous federal Liberal government. One is the now federally owned Canadian Museum of Human Rights in Winnipeg, to which Ottawa contributed $100 million and then took over as the cost soared to $351 million. The other is the Royal Alberta Museum in Edmonton, first envisioned in 2003 at a cost of $200 million and now under construction at a new estimate of $340 million.

The feds, under Paul Martin, pledged $122 million — and the Harper government tried to back out of the deal. Last year [2014] it agreed to pay the remaining $92 million.

If the federal government is contributing to museum and art gallery projects, it is doing so in smaller amounts, such as $13 million for Saskatoon’s Remai Modern, once estimated to cost $55 million and now approaching $100 million. Or the $13 million for the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts’ $33-million conversion of the Erskine and American Church into the Claire and Marc Bourgie Pavilion of Quebec and Canadian Art, incorporating a concert hall.

The interest in culture seems grudging. Even for an aspect of culture, science and technology, for which the federal government has expressed some enthusiasm. They are very interested in promoting innovation (code for commercializing science research) but, although they want science culture so all those young’uns will study science, engineering, technology, and mathematics, they aren’t willing to dedicate enough money so the museum has some chance of delivering on its mandate.

So please, do participate in the public consultation. Yes, it’s very Ottawa-centric and also Ontario- and Québec-centric, which is understandable. They are dependent on the people who are most likely to visit multiple time but it’s still irritating to those of us (me) who live outside those regions to be lumped into a category of ‘everybody else’.

As to why the consultation has such a depressive quality, the drawings are gray and faded and the written descriptions are somewhat flat, I can’t tell if that’s a problem with time, depressed staff, something I have failed to imagine, or some combination.

I know that sounds uninviting but let them know you care and you want to see a dynamic Science and Technology Museum that reaches out nationally.

Finally, here’s a June 4, 2015 CSTM announcement (with a link to the consultation),

Want to learn more about plans for a renewed
Canada Science and Technology Museum? 

As a friend of the Museum, this is your chance to get a sneak peek and provide feedback on the proposed concept plan.

Renewal of the Museum is underway, with many new exhibits, programs, and a striking redesigned façade on tap for its reopening in 2017. Staff, architects, and consultants have been hard at work on a new master plan for the interior — which, we are happy to confirm, will include the Museum’s ever-popular locomotives and Crazy Kitchen.

Here’s how you can participate:

Fill out the online survey below to see early sketches and concepts, and offer your thoughts on these potential new offerings. You can participate in this national survey until June 20.

Survey link: http://cstmc-smstc.fluidsurveys.com/s/CSTM_MSTC_2017/  

Visit the Museum team at a series of Open House events
  • St. Laurent Shopping Centre in Ottawa, June 6 from 9:30 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. and June 7 from 11:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m.
  •  Canada Agriculture and Food Museum on June 13, and Canada Aviation and Space Museum on June 14 from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.

As the renewal project unfolds, additional opportunities for feedback on exhibitions will be shared via the Museum’s website. Stay tuned for updates!

I have filled it out and, as far as I can tell, you have to complete the survey in one session and the questions require open-ended answers (no multiple choice) .