No. Hold your horses! If you get any more excited you’ll come down with a touch of the vapours (and it is not easy to administer smelling salts via the web – and I continue to resist the clamour to start making house calls). The title is not an oblique indication that I have become suddenly (and unexpectedly) betrothed. Rest assured, I have kept nothing from you about my rather slow progress (can stasis be considered progress?) on the “dating project”. No, I refer here to science in its many forms.
Over the weekend before last, Winchester held its annual science festival – and, as is traditional for me, I discovered this fact rather late in the day. Still, spontaneity is very much the watchword here at GofaDM (I have it inscribed on my every wrist-borne timepiece) and so despite being slow out of the blocks, I managed to take in three events. I started with Dr Suzy Gage talking about the harms of various drugs: both legal and otherwise. Some of this covered ground I know quite well, but still provided much food for thought. Our knowledge of the negative impacts of illegal drugs on their consumers is surprisingly weak: a result of small numbers of users, no control over what they actual took (as opposed to what they thought they were taking), confounding factors and the difficulty of obtaining approval and funding for research. A surprising number of these drugs also seem to have potential for modern therapeutic use (and, of course, many were originally used in this way: Dr Collis Brown’s Chlorodyne undeniably worked), though again restrictions on research delay progress in this field.
The second talk, from Dr Jerome Micheletta, was about macaques and so broke entirely new ground for me. He is a psychologist and was looking at how monkeys living in different societies (ranging from extremely despotic to remarkably tolerant – so, not much different from ourselves) responded to various stimuli. He was a really entertaining speaker and the important role of friendship in tolerant macaque societies was fascinating: if you hear a friend shouting a warning about a nearby snake, you run over and help – but if it’s just a random member of your little society, you look up briefly and then carry on with whatever you were doing. In some ways, we have evolved nothing like as far as we like to think from our furrier cousins.
There was then a break (for dinner) before the Festival of the Spoken Nerd provided our evening’s entertainment. I had seen FOTSN a couple of times before – and they have always been good – but they have really found their groove and this time were absolutely brilliant. Science, live experiments, live mathematics and singing all made for a thoroughly entertaining evening: I, for one, shall never look at a Venn diagram in quite the same way again (nor confuse it with an Euler diagram).
While at the festival in Winchester, I noticed a flyer for something called BrightClub taking place in Southampton. Not just in Southampton, but barely 50 yards (as the crow flies – my own wings are still very much on the drawing-board) from my own modest dwelling. This was happening the following evening, so I toddled over to give it my support. BrightClub is a stand-up evening for those working in research to make some jokes around their academic discipline with professional stand-ups providing MCing duties and a headliner to round off the evening. It was a jolly entertaining night out – and gives me hope that with the right audience I could be quite the hit comedically speaking (all I need is a research grant – which I’ll admit is an unusual route into show business, but a chap has to take the openings where he sees them). The headliner – Iszi Lawrence – was very good and I have now added her podcast The Z List Dead List to my stable of regular Reithian listening (information ,education and entertainment).
Chatting to people, as I tend to do if they don’t run away, I discovered that both events were run entirely by volunteers – and, indeed, most of the academics give their time for free too. I think my earlier, local science experience with Pint of Science was run on a similar basis. Whilst universities are starting to recognise the need to engage with the public – I know of a few high-profile academics with this remit – it seems that given their essentially bureaucratic nature (they are large human organisations, so it is inevitable. I wonder if any other ape or monkey functions in large enough groups to have developed bureaucracy?) they move quite slowly: much like my dating project. Look! A callback! Who can now deny that comedy should be my métier?
One of the interesting things to come out of my recent reading Max Tegmark’s book (The Mathematical Universe) was his recognition that scientists have not communicated with the public anything like as effectively as those trying to sell us soap powder, a political ideology or the need to vote for a merely adequate chanteuse (or male equivalent) and his willingness to take them on at their own game. It seems that there is a strong desire to engage, at least among the younger members of the scientific community, but at the moment it lacks the funding of its less worthy competitors. I have quite a strong interest in such events, but often only discover them too late or a few hours in advance: which I like to imagine isn’t entirely my fault (though I suspect some blame does adhere). I think it reflects a broader difficulty volunteer-led groups have in marketing their activities. This is perhaps something for funding bodies to consider: as well as insisting that all research is published and is free to access, they might like to consider providing a modest marketing budget to support public engagement.