Tag Archives: Alice Bell

Science, opera, and oil: a revelation

Alice Bell’s April 29,2014 posting for the Guardian science blogs explores the relationship between money from oil companies to culture, especially science culture (Note: A link has been removed),

Question: What has science got in common with opera? Answer: They are both cultural pursuits favoured by the oil industry.

This comes via the NGO Platform  [elsewhere this organization is called Platform London] who produced a new infographic this week, visualising their research exploring how much oil money goes into London’s galleries and museums.

The graphic leads with the Royal Opera House, the Tate, the National Portrait Gallery and the British Museum, and you might have seen coverage of the protest at the Viking exhibition this weekend. But I noticed something interesting when I scrolled down. Because what’s at the centre of the Shell/ BP cultural sponsorship Venn diagram, taking money from both companies? Turns out, apart from the Royal Opera House, they are all scientific institutions: the Science Museum, the Natural History Museum and the National Maritime Museum.

Here’s the infographic,

Infographic from Platform London illustrating how oil moneyflows through national cultural institutions in the UK. Photograph: Hannah Davey, Mel Evans and Platform London/Platform London [downloaded from http://platformlondon.org/p-publications/artoilinfographic/]

Infographic from Platform London illustrating how oil moneyflows through national cultural institutions in the UK. Photograph: Hannah Davey, Mel Evans and Platform London/Platform London [downloaded from http://platformlondon.org/p-publications/artoilinfographic/]

You can find a larger version and a PDF of the infographic on the Platform London Culture Clash – Arts & Oil Money webpage where you’ll also get more information such as this,

For the last two and a half years Tate has been involved in a Freedom of Information struggle over its refusal to disclose information over details and discussions over its sponsorship relationship with BP. Despite a ruling from the Information Commissioner in May that Tate was breaking information law on a number of counts in not revealing information regarding to sponsorship discussions, Tate has appealed and the tribunal hearing is likely to place in September 2014.

Meanwhile, Bell focuses on the science portion of this ‘culture equation’,

I imagine members of the scientific community will feel slightly uncomfortable to see themselves nestled there with such a traditionally elitist space as the Royal Opera House. Is that really how they want to be used? Is that really what museums of science are for?

Science often sees itself as the poor cousin, culturally speaking, so I guess there will also be people pleased to see science at the nexus of an exercise in mapping cultural power. Science may enjoy huge political, financial and economic support elsewhere, but museums of science and technology often feel less popular, slightly awkward and unglamorous compared to art galleries and theatres. … You might also argue it’s a class thing; science just isn’t traditionally posh enough, though again maybe that is changing. Or maybe we unfairly dismiss science museums as kids stuff (as if that isn’t important in itself).

I was fascinated to find this little gem in Bell’s piece,

That the oil industry likes hanging with science isn’t news. To take a topical example, the latest space at the Science Museum to come baring the Shell logo is the new exhibition on James Lovelock. Though it doesn’t say so in the exhibition itself, Lovelock has worked for Shell. Indeed he is an advocate of the company, writing in his 2000 book, Homage to Gaia:

“My experiences with Shell left me firmly with the impression that they are neither stupid nor villains. On the contrary I know of no other human agency that plans as far ahead or considers the environment more closely” (page 162-3 of 2000 edition of Homage to Gaia)

Lovelock and his ‘Gaia’ concept were much beloved and discussed in some of my (Canadian) university courses in the late ’80s and early ’90s and none of my professors ever mentioned Lovelock’s relationship to Shell.

Getting back to the infographic and the relationship between oil money and culture, there was a bit of scandal in 2012 in Canada regarding the sponsorship of the Canada Museum of Science and Technology’s exhibition “Energy: Power to Choose,” I made note of it in a June 13, 2012 posting (Sex in Ottawa (Canada), energy and corporate patronage, and war anniversaries) where I looked at that scandal,  another example of corporate cultural patronage, and an example of an attempted government ‘intervention’ in a museum ‘sex show’, all in aid of ‘painting a picture’ of some the challenges associated with cultural production.

It’s a confounding situation at times. For example, the Du Maurier Foundation (in Canada) funded a diverse array of arts and some very exciting work was a shown as a consequence of that generosity. Unfortunately, it was a cigarette company and eventually, Du Maurier shut down its arts funding (I think it became illegal in the early 2000s) and that loss is felt to this day in 2014.

I recently wrote a piece about oil and Canada (scroll down about 40% of the way) in the context of a May 6, 2014 posting about the need for more research on oil cleanup technologies.

The October 2013 science blogging scandals and an emerging science blog aggregator/community in Canada (Science Borealis)

As I noted in my post earlier this week (Oct. 15, 2013), there are a lot of lovely things about the internet and concomitant media we use to interact with each other but there are also more difficult aspects as those of us who blog about science have discovered anew this last week or so. There have been a number of dramas being enacted and while there are websites which offer more comprehensive timelines, I feel obliged to offer something here otherwise my comments won’t make much sense to someone new to the situation.

It stated last week (Friday, Oct. 11, 2013) with DN Lee, a science blogger on the Scientific American blog network (SciAm blogs). She posted a piece about an interaction she had with a Biology Online editor who’d asked her to contribute as a guest blogger. She asked if she’d be paid and on hearing ‘no’ said something along the lines of ‘thanks but no’. The response from the editor, this is a direct quote, was this  “Because we don’t pay for blog entries? Are you an urban scientist or an urban whore?” DN Lee then wrote about this incident in her Oct. 11, 2013 posting which was deleted within one hour of its publication by SciAm Editor in Chief and Senior VP,, Mariette DiChristina. (Arturo R. García offers a full timeline [up to his posting's publication date] and commentary about the incident and the SciAm editor’s story as to why the posting was deleted [it has since been restored], along with an embedded video of DN Lee responding to the ‘whore’ comment, in his Oct. 14, 2013 posting on Racialicious.)

As far as I can tell, there was an online uproar which drove this incident to its current conclusion with Lee’s post reinstated and the Biology Online editor fired. I am making a point of mentioning this because it appears that the SciAm blogs editor (who has changed her story as to why the post was deleted in the first place) was pushed into reinstating Lee’s post due to the uproar and not because of any considered reflection. (For another take on these incidents with DN Lee, you can read Greg Laden’s Oct. 12, 2013 posting, on the SciBlogs website, where he partially contextualizes it with the Pepsigate incident, on SciBlogs some years ago, and how it was handled.)

It’ll be interesting to see what DN Lee does in the next few months as she continues to process and respond to what happened to her. She’s handled the situation with grace and offers some excellent advice about establishing your own bottom line in her video.

Ordinarily the story would end here, more or less. video. However, the furor has set off another set of incidents. First, Monica Byrne, writer and playwright, reposted a piece from the year before, Oct. 9, 2012, about an incident she experienced at some point in 2012 and slowly came to realize was a form of sexual harassment. She was propositioned by a respected, male science writer, blogger, and ‘mover and shaker’ within the science blogging community. It was done in a rather subtle way (it’s subtle when it’s being done to you) which is why it took her a while to understand what had happened.Byrne gives a good description of of the process of slowly realizing what happened and her various reactions to the realization and to Bora.

At the time in 2012 she didn’t name him but, this year, on Oct. 14, 2013, after reading about DN Lee’s treatment at SciAm blogs, she reposted the piece naming Bora Zivkovic as the male in question. For those not familiar with Bora’s prominence within the science blogoshpere, Laura Helmuth in her Oct.17,2013 piece for Slate describes it this way (Note: Links have been removed),

He [Bora Zivkovic] founded an extremely popular conference for science bloggers [Science Online], established science blog networks at various publications, and now (at least as I write) runs the well-respected collection of blogs at Scientific American. His nickname is the Blogfather. One common route into a science writing career in the past several years has been through Zivkovic: He routinely publishes young writers and promotes their stories with his large social media audience. Zivkovic has always been extremely solicitous of young journalists, generous with his time, charming, enthusiastic, gregarious.

Bora’s prominence and popularity meant he got lots of support and at least one person thought Byrne should not have named Bora publicly. Dr. Andrew Maynard (whom I’ve featured here many times and for whom I feel much respect and gratitude; he’s notably active on Twitter, with blogs, and elsewhere in the science blog, etc. community) decided to approach Byrne via email discussing the repercussions for Bora of the public shaming and strongly hinting that she remove Bora’s name from the reposted piece. You can read Andrew’s account of his actions, his email, and the comments he’s drawn from others in this Oct. 15, 2013 posting on the 2020 Science blog and some of his process as he realizes his own issues regarding sexual harassment and likable colleagues.

In retrospect Andrew’s email looks ill considered but he does bring up an interesting point, how do we deal with the sins other people commit upon us, and I’m offering this corollary: how does the sinner deal with those they’ve sinned against? Given that Bryne waited a year before revealing her harasser’s name, she either gave that some thought or had decided that she no longer cared about trying to get work in the science writing field or perhaps it was a bit of both.

In any event, Byrne decided to go forward and Bora offered an apology both in 2012 and in an Oct. 15, 2013 posting on his blog,

I am very ashamed of this incident which happened more than a year ago. Staff at Scientific American spoke to me and Ms. Byrne about our interaction at that time. I asked that my sincere apologies be conveyed to Ms. Byrne for the distress she suffered as a result of my inappropriate remarks and emails to her, and I also expressed my deep regret to the company about acting unprofessionally. The company offered her an apology as well. It was a difficult time for me personally and I made a mistake – I should not have shared my personal issues with her. It is not behavior that I have engaged in before or since. [emphasis mine]

Unfortunately, there have been other incidents according to both the comments attached to Byrne’s blog posting and this Oct.17, 2013 posting by Hannah Wilton on Ladybits on Medium (Note: Links have been removed),

The reaction on Twitter was one of disbelief and anger from his network of science bloggers and friends. “Science blogosphere, I am tweetless… I can’t even retweet what has left me so stunned.” “Enraged children with a persecution complex are out on a witch hunt, it’ll blow over eventually…” “My closest friend is @boraz. I know him better than almost everyone. I would give my life for him. Thought you should know that.”

At first, I was paralyzed. But when I saw the “protect the herd” mentality among my friends, with some doubting that this behavior even qualified as sexual harassment, I had to speak up. I couldn’t leave Monica ridiculed and alone. Bora has been a friend and mentor for years. He recruited me to blog for Scientific American. And yet, even if she hadn’t named him, I would have recognized him from his behavior because I have gone through it too.

There are some voices in this discussion I want to include here, Priya Shetty in her Oct. 15, 2013 piece for Huffington Post condemns the silence about sexual harassment within the science community, Another Sexual Harassment Case in Science: The Deafening Silence That Surrounds It Condones It; Roger Pielke, Jr. in his Oct. 16, 2013 posting gives his perspective on the situation and why he thinks Andrew Maynard was wrong, Talking About Sexual Harassment in Science; and Alice Bell in her Oct. 16, 2013 posting for the Guardian, offers some context about science blogging, the Pepsigate incident, and her belief that this conversation about both incidents (Lee and Byrne), has revealed a dynamic community struggling to come to terms with sexual harassment in particular, Science, blogging, sexual harassment and the power of speaking out; The power of science blogging has always been the community, its members can find strength there.

Before offering a few of my thoughts on the issues. I am stating that In common with many others in the science blogosphere, I have had interactions (three or four?) with Bora. In my case they’ve been through this blog and on Twitter and through my involvement with Science Borealis (an aggregator/community for Canadian science bloggers that will be launched some time this fall (2013). I confess, I liked the man.

For me, the issues centre around Bora’s apology to Byrne and the institutional response (Scientific American) to the incidents. Leaving aside any question about the frequency with which he has met young women at coffee shops or elsewhere to share inappropriate personal stories and hint at a desire for an affair,,he’s had a year to consider the situation with Byrne. This latest  apology seems curiously bereft of any insight into his own behaviour or genuine remorse or empathy for the person he has sinned against. He’s ashamed (the first thing he says is about himself) and it was more than a year ago (so what Bora?). He expresses remorse (briefly) and acknowledges he was unprofessional. The next sentence is where the apology really falls apart, the company apologized too (?). I’m not sure how to interpret that phrase; does this mean the company is behind Bora or that Byrne now has three apologies (one from the company and two from Bora) which is above and beyond what’s necessary in this case?  The reference to the company apology is immediately followed by the statement that he was having a ‘difficult time’ and he made a mistake by sharing personal issues. Really? Sharing personal issues was the mistake?

Pretty much everyone has done this, i.e., offered a nonapology. Part of the problem here is that Bora has had a year to think about this incident so the apology seems a bit flimsy or cheap and, of course, the evidence strongly suggests this apology ends in a lie ” .. not behavior that I have engaged in before or since.”

The whole thing looks like a form of cheap grace, as per Diedrich Bonhoeffer, a Christian theologian, sourced from here,

“Cheap grace is the grace we bestow on ourselves. Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession…. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.”

It’s not a perfect quote for this situation but it does touch on a lot of what was going on in Bora’s 2013 apology.

As many people have pointed out the situation between Byrne (and others) brings up questions about power and its abuse. There’s an Oct. 18, 2013 posting on the Guardian which suggests Four ways to avoid becoming a leading sex pest; Be self-aware, recognise the trappings of power, deal with harassment proactively, and appreciate what leadership is really about. Those four points are important with regard to any situation where an abuse of power is possible. Mind you, it’s easy to come up with handy dandy guidelines, the difficulty is and always has been execution.

Who’s going to tell Bora he’s out of line? Until recently, it seems the answer to that is no one. Other than issuing an apology what did Scientific American do? And what will they do now?

Given the evidence, I’m looking at the situation with DN Lee, I’m not encouraged. The female editor at SciAm, Mariette DiChristina,, Editor in Chief and Senior VP, is trying to weasel her and the company out of responsibility for making the rather poor and ill-considered decision to remove Lee’s post. The first excuse, by the way, was that Lee’s piece was not about science. When that was contested by other SciAm bloggers who themselves had posted ‘non’ science pieces, a new excuse was found, they had to confirm the facts. It’s the weaseling that is so irritating. Just admit you folks made a mistake and you need to fix it.

As for the incident with Byrne (and others), it puts everything that Bora has done in terms of hiring and promoting people under a magnifying lens raises questions abut that and everything he’s worked at.

Scientific American may want to consider some kind of audit and ‘transparent’ communication about how they’re dealing with Lee’s situation and with the questions raised by Bora’s actions. Above all else, they shouldn’t indulge in any more weaseling.

Easy to say but as I look at the situation with Science Borealis getting ready to launch, I’m aware of just how easy it is to royally foul things up through an excess of speed, egotism (the certainty that one is a good person … no one is a good person all the time), and the sanctity of one’s own good intentions (I have good intentions so I don’t have to ask for permission; I don’t have time; etc.) or an unwillingness to be the odd person challenging and asking inconvenient questions.

One final thought, too often people think that good leadership means your team does what you want them to do. No,. Good leaders attract disparate and talented people who thoughtfully provide strong opinions based on insight, often painfully acquired. These are difficult teams to lead because those types of people aren’t just going to shut up and follow you. They want to be heard, they want their input to be taken into account, they’re likely to tell you things you don’t want to hear (helping the leader to achieve humility whether or not s/he wants it or not), and they’re going slow things down (helping the leader to achieve patience).

There aren’t too many easy ways to deal with issues of power (sexual harassment usually comes down to power). Self-awareness (both personal and institutional)  helps and that, sadly, is usually gained through bitter experience. Certainly, that’s how I’ve gained most of my self-awareness (such as it is).

I think most of the commentary has played itself out but on the off chance someone feels moved to comment here, I do take the weekends off and won’t be back until Monday, Oct. 21, 2013.

ETA Oct. 22, 2013: According to an Oct. 22, 2013 posting by Connie St. Louis on the Guardian Science blogs, Bora Zivkoovic resigned his position with Scientific American on Friday, Oct. 18, 2013.

Death of Evidence rally comments roundup

The ‘Death of Evidence ‘ rally in Ottawa, Canada on July 10, 2012 (mentioned in my July 10, 2012 posting) attracted 1,500 or perhaps  hundreds of scientists according to the various accounts I’ve been reading. Bradley Turcotte provided an estimate of 1,000 in a July 11, 2012 article for Xtra newspaper (Canada’s Gay & Lesbian News),

More than 1,000 scientists and allies marched to Parliament Hill from the Ottawa Conference Centre July 10 to protest the Harper government’s sweeping cuts to scientific programs.
The death-of-evidence rally was modelled after a funeral procession; many protesters were dressed in lab coats, scientific garb or black attire. The marchers were led by a woman dressed as the Grim Reaper, and morose pallbearers carried a coffin symbolizing the death of scientific evidence.

Vance Trudeau, a professor at the University of Ottawa and president of the North American Society for Comparative Endocrinology, said the funding cuts will affect the health of all Canadians and compared the actions of the Harper government to those of a totalitarian regime.
“The tendency to use only data and evidence that you like is the misuse of information for alternative purposes. The definition . . . is known as propaganda,” Trudeau said.

Léo Charbonneau at his University Affairs (Association of Universities and Colleges of  Canada) Margin Notes blog offers another, higher estimate of how many marched and some additional information about the rally/march in his July 10, 2012 posting (Note: I have removed links),

Like any wake, there were some lighter moments but also an underlying seriousness as roughly 1,500 scientists, students and supporters rallied at noontime today on Parliament Hill in Ottawa to hold a mock funeral to mourn the “death of evidence.” According to the protest organizers’ website, “Until recently, evidence served a prominent role guiding the decisions of Canadian leaders. Its voice was tragically silenced recently after a series of severe injuries.”

The rallying cry for the event: “No science, no evidence, no truth, no democracy.”

….

Scientists came to the rally from across Canada. Some were already in town for a conference on evolutionary biology. Among them was Simon Fraser University biologist Felix Breden. “It takes a lot to mobilize scientists who normally concentrate on basic science questions,” said Dr. Breden. “But the Harper government’s blatant disregard for science-based evidence and public consultation in the formation of its polices has motivated this march.”

Charbonneau has included a slideshow of the rally at the end of his posting.

The range of commentary I’ve been able to find online is largely supportive including this July 11, 2012 commentary by Alice Bell for the UK Guardian newspaper (Note: I have removed links),

Scientists seem to be forever complaining they’re marginalised so, it might be tempting to roll your eyes. When a group from the UK drove a coffin down Westminster last May they were described as “childish”. This recent Canadian action might look similar, but it was far from childish.

They weren’t simply sticking up for their pay cheques, they were sticking up for the right to ask difficult questions and provide uncomfortable knowledge, in particular when it comes to the Arctic. They were sticking up for the things they research as well as the right to keep doing their research. They were sticking up for the planet. The Canadian scientists who spoke to the Guardian were keen to stress this is less about research budgets versus the rest of the economy, and more simply evidence versus ideology.

The harshest criticism I’ve been able to find is from Tyler Irving in a July 9, 2012 posting on his Scientific Canadian blog,

So, are the Harper conservatives anti-evidence? Certainly it’s true that in some cases (the long-form census and the gun registry are two good examples) they have ignored certain facts in order to satisfy their electoral base. But that’s their prerogative: the fact is that all governments ignore advice, even scientific advice, when it suits them to do so. And unlike the loonies in some other countries, our government has made no moves to deny the truth of fundamental scientific principles, even controversial ones like climate change.

What’s more worrying to me is the idea that the changes they have made in recent years could impair the ability of future governments to take science-based advice, even if they want to.

As for my take on things, I agree with Irving that the cuts are not the ‘death of evidence-based science in Canada’. Equally, I’m not thrilled with the current trend towards less and less communication about research and science, especially since it’s paid for by taxpayers. As for specific cuts, I am still outraged by the decision to eliminate the obligatory long form census as there was no discernible reason. The loss of the Experimental Lakes Area seems to be another such decision.

Overall, this “Death of Evidence” rally is something I find hard to fathom. I don’t believe there is a precedent in Canadian history for this science protest. In concert with other activity I’ve noted here on FrogHeart (the ‘Don’t leave Canada behind’ protest letter/blog of a few years ago, rising numbers of Canadian science blogs, the advent of the Canadian Science Policy Centre, etc.), it would seem that we are entering a new age for science in Canada. A louder, more vociferous, more politically active science community appears to be emerging.

ETA July 13, 2012 3:30 pm PST: Marie-Claire Shanahan (last name corrected July 16.12) offers a more comprehensive roundup of the Death of Evidence media coverage in her July 13, 2012 posting and offers comments along this line (Note: I have removed some links),

Did I first hear about the protest from the CBC though? No, the first news I read about it was from the The Guardian in the UK, where it was reported a full four and half hours earlier. Similarly during the American Association for the Advancement of Science conference hosted in Vancouver in February 2012 there were panels and gatherings addressing the alleged muzzling of Canadian scientists. Where did I hear about them?  From the BBC.

ETA July 16, 2012: David Bruggeman at his Pasco Phronesis blog has weighed in with a July 14, 2012 posting titled, Would U.S. Scientists Stage a Mock Funeral? Should They? where he discusses the British and Canadian protests as well as speculating on possible future US protests,

Over the last two months both Canadian and British scientists staged mock funerals to protest funding decisions by their respective governments.  There are some notable differences between the two protests.  Two that attracted my attention relate to the people and institutions involved.

The British protest was focused relatively narrowly, on how one of the granting councils prioritizes research.  …

It’s a little too soon to know how effective the Canadian protest will be, but it is more broadly focused on the increasing difficulty government scientists are having in communicating with the public.

But I don’t have a definitive answer for the title question – would American scientists rent a caisson and casket to march down Pennsylvania Avenue between the White House and the Capitol?  The pending ‘fiscal cliff’ in the federal budget could notably impact science funding – the first among equals issue for U.S. science policy.  But science advocates in the U.S. have their fiscal pleading strategies and resist most urges to deviate from them.  I do not see a mock funeral in our future.  But I have been in Washington a long time.  …

The 3rd party analysis, which contrasts the British and Canadian protests is quite interesting. Thank you, David.

ETA July 19, 2012: The journal Nature weighs in with an open access July 18, 2012 editorial,

The sight last week of 2,000 scientists marching on Ottawa’s Parliament Hill highlighted a level of unease in the Canadian scientific community that is unprecedented in living memory.

The lab-coated crowd of PhD students, postdocs, senior scientists and their supporters staged a mock funeral for the ‘death of evidence’. They said that the conservative government of prime minister Stephen Harper intends to suppress sources of scientific data that would refute what they see as pro-industry and anti-environment policies. Their list of alleged offences against science and scientific inquiry is lengthy and sobering.

It is important to note that the Harper government has increased science and technology spending every year since it took power in 2006, and has made a serious and successful attempt to attract top researchers to Canada. It has also set its sights on bolstering applied research, an area in which Canada has been relatively weak.

Nonetheless, the critics’ specific complaints do give cause for deep concern — which is borne out by a close look at the specifics of the Harper budget that was passed into law late last month.

It is hard to believe that finance is the true reason for these closures. PEARL costs the government about Can$1.5 million a year, and the ELA Can$2 million. The savings from eliminating the NRTEE would come to Can$5 million — all from a total science and technology budget of some Can$11 billion. Critics say that the government is targeting research into the natural environment because it does not like the results being produced.

Instead of issuing a full-throated defence of its policies, and the thinking behind them, the government has resorted to a series of bland statements about its commitment to science and the commercialization of research. Only occasionally does the mask slip — one moment of seeming frankness came on the floor of the House of Commons in May, when foreign-affairs minister John Baird defended the NRTEE’s demise by noting that its members “have tabled more than ten reports encouraging a carbon tax”.

2000 is the largest number I’ve seen as an estimate for the Death of Evidence protestor count.  Contrary to my usual practice, I have not included any details about the organizations behind the abbreviations in the excerpt as I think it’s worthwhile to read the Nature editorial’s explanation f these agency cancellations. Frankly, they do better job of explaining than I can.

The comedy of science

Apparently there’s a movement afoot, a science comedy movement according to Alice Bell in her posting, A physicist, a chemist and a zoologist walk into a bar …,

Somewhere along the line, science got funny. PhD comics are pinned to noticeboards and Facebook has groups dedicated to those who spend too long in the lab. Or, at least, it found some funny friends. Robin Ince co-presents a humorous Radio 4 show with Brian Cox, Josie Long’s set includes gags about A-level maths and, as the Wellcome Trust blog points out, science had a noticeable presence at the Edinburgh Fringe this year.

Bell has offered a thought-provoking essay looking at both the pros and the cons,

… Comedy can be a powerful rhetorical weapon, and that means it can hurt too.

A few weeks ago Channel 4 news journalist Samira Ahmed tweeted a request for some maths help.

Ben Goldacre, smelt bullshit and suggested his twitter followers “pre-mock” the story. They did. Then they realised it wasn’t quite as smelly as it seemed (nb: Goldacre speedily apologised). Reading Ahmed’s write up, it was worrying to hear that people “daren’t risk” speaking publicly. There’s been a lot of talk recently about the problem of “libel chill” on British science writing, that people self-censor for fear they’d be sued (as Simon Singh was by British Chiropractic Association). What about “mockery chill”?

I have to admit to having been quite thoughtless, on occasion, in my use of humour so I think Bell raises an important point.

Humour, as I noted  a few years ago in an entirely different context, can be dangerous. In addition to being hurtful, you can also disrupt the natural order of things. Think of political satirists and court jesters for that matter.

Bell’s essay inspired one by Dean Burnett guest post for The Lay Scientist (one of the Guardian Science Blogs),

But how does one go about introducing science into comedy, rather than the other way round? And what do non-London-based scientists do if they want some live comedy aimed at them? If they’re desperate enough to trawl the internet for hours, they can contact me. As a recently qualified doctor of neuroscience who’s also been a stand-up comedian for over five years, I’ve become something of a go-to guy for science conferences wanting a scientific comedy routine to round things off.

As someone experienced in both science and comedy but currently not employed by either, I’m always glad of the work. However, so rare is my background that I am often asked to make jokes about and poke fun at areas of science that I know little about, in front of people who are experts in it.

Preparing a routine about a field of study that isn’t your own is fraught with unique challenges. Case in point: I was recently asked to perform at a conference of geneticists, meaning I had to do a 15 minute set about genetics. Although my studies crossed into genetics quite frequently, I’ve always found it very confusing. So confusing, in fact, that the original request for me to do the conference confused me.

I had appeared at another conference several months before, and afterwards I was approached by a female professor who asked: “Do you have any genetics material?” This isn’t a typical post-gig question, so I wasn’t expecting it. I genuinely thought she asked, “Do you have any genetic material?” This alarmed me somewhat; I’m not at the level where I’ve been asked for my autograph yet, so for an unknown person to ask for a sample of my DNA for whatever reason was unprecedented. And terrifying.

This post has in turn inspired Pasco Phronesis (David Bruggemen) to find out if there are any science comedians in the US in his Sept. 26, 2010 posting,

As the Guardian notes, neuroscientist and stand-up comedian Dean Burnett gets work doing comedy sets for scientific conferences.

Now, if there is someone able to do the same thing in the U.S. or in other countries, I’d love to hear about it.

If anyone does know of a US science comedian, please do contact Pasco Phronesis (pasco dot phronesis at yahoo dot com).

Two subcultures: science knitters and graffiti knitters, could they come together?

I had no idea that there’s a whole subculture of scientists devoted to knitting. Not just any knitting, science knitting. Thanks to Andrew Maynard at 2020 Science blog (July 25, 2010 posting), I have discovered Woolly Thoughts a website devoted to knitting, crocheting, and mathematics.

In fact, there’s a plethora of websites, blogs, and a subset on Ravelry (social networking for knitters) devoted to science/math knitters, much of which you can find in Andrew’s posting.

One item that particularly my fancy was a piece of ‘illusion knitting’ designed by Alice Bell, a science communication lecturer at the Imperial College of London. Illusion knitting is where the same piece of knitting reveals of one of two different images depending on the angle of sight. Bell’s creation, the Rosalind scarf, can look like stripes from one angle and like a piece of DNA from another angle.

For anyone not familiar with Franklin (from the San Diego Super Computer Center at the University of Southern California web page),

There is probably no other woman scientist with as much controversy surrounding her life and work as Rosalind Franklin. Franklin was responsible for much of the research and discovery work that led to the understanding of the structure of deoxyribonucleic acid, DNA. The story of DNA is a tale of competition and intrigue, told one way in James Watson’s book The Double Helix, and quite another in Anne Sayre’s study, Rosalind Franklin and DNA. James Watson, Francis Crick, and Maurice Wilkins received a Nobel Prize for the double-helix model of DNA in 1962, four years after Franklin’s death at age 37 from ovarian cancer.

Here’s Bell in her Rosalind scarf,

Alice Bell in her Rosalind scarf

This is the angle for the stripes, to see the DNA go to the Feb. 7, 2010 posting on her Slipped Stitch blog or to Andrew’s posting where you can find more goodies like this,

Knitting and crocheting as a means of creating complex geometrical forms has a long and illustrious history. Alan Turing was often seen knitting Möbius strips and other shapes in his lunchtime apparently, according to this 2008 MSNBC [article]. The work of Taimina and others on exploring hyperbolic planes – and their relevance to biology – has been groundbreaking (I know it’s crochet, but Margaret Wertheim’s TED talk on crochet coral and complex math is excellent, [go here]).

Vancouver (Canada) is home to at least two members of another knitting subculture as I found out earlier this year with the publication of a book by two locals, Mandy Moore and Leanne Prain, Yarn Bombing; The Art of Crochet and Knit Graffiti. Their Yarn Bombing blog features projects from around the world. I took a particular liking to Bee Bombs,

Annie's bee bombs in Amsterdam

I wonder if we could get some science yarn bombs going for the 2012 annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science meeting to take place here in Vancouver?