What are science?


Get ready to blow things up

Apparently we all fucking love science, or at least we love pretty pictures, anecdotal facts, chemical explosions and slightly preachy environmentalism.

However, science is none of these things. Science is the generation and testing of ideas; normally disproving them, in the process generating more ideas that need more testing.

Science junkies

Sadly, the day job of a scientist is nothing like the programs ‘Bang goes the theory/Tomorrow’s World/Johnny Ball Reveals All’ (delete as appropriate depending on your generation): in my 20 years being a professional scientist, there has been no time at work when I have blown anything up, thrown heavy weights into bowls of custard or put Mentos into bottles of Diet Coke.

To be honest, blowing things up at work is frowned upon and the management go to some lengths to prevent us blowing up the building (just another example of health and safety gone mad).

Highly visual demonstrations of chemical reactions are educational if phrased properly – if I do this, what do you think will happen and why? And these demonstrations can be effective for attracting the impressionable to a life of science. In effect, flashy chemical reactions are the gateway drug to scientific addiction.

At school we had a teacher who once a term gave us unrestricted access to the chemical store and a Bunsen burner; I imagined this was what it would be to be a scientist. Nowadays I don’t even get to do experiments, and yet I identify more as a scientist now than when I was doing my PhD as a space-filler before getting a “real job”.

Indoor work, no heavy lifting

So if the day-to-day of science isn’t setting things on fire, what is it?

It is immensely varied, and depends upon both the stage of your scientific career and the field you work in. But the main work of science is testing ideas. Some of which involves being in a lab, but most of which involves sitting in an office analysing the results from your experiments or coming up with new ideas because your experiments haven’t turned out as expected.

Since 99% of these ideas come from other people, another major strand is evaluating other people’s ideas and building on the back of them. And since other people need to evaluate the ideas we have, we need to be able to effectively communicate them, as written articles (papers), as sales pitches (grants) or in person (conferences).

So disappointingly, the day to day work of science is not so far removed from other professions, though we do get to wear a white coat occasionally. You need to be able to read, to write and, terrifyingly, interact with other people – very much none of the things that got most of us into science in the first place.

 Guest starring

But hang on you are thinking, this is not the Richard P Grant I know and love: it is far less eloquent.

I am John Tregoning, scientist, academic, dad, occasional blogger and relentless optimist. I mostly write here but occasionally here and RPG has kindly given me space to brain dump on Occam’s Typewriter. In the real world, I am a senior lecturer at Imperial College, working on how the body stops respiratory infections, but secretly wish I was blowing things up!

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On cooperation between dogs and squirrels

Warm beef topside baguette and a pint of Seafarer's


I’ve had a lovely morning walking round Harris’s Copse; not shooting anything, but seeing a few wood pigeons who are too easily spooked. A baguette and a pint for lunch from the Robin Hood, and back in, this time via the south entrance.

As soon as I’m in, there’s a grey squirrel running up a tree. I shoulder my air rifle and watch where he’s going. No clear shot yet, but I plan to work my way round to his tree.

Then there’s a crack behind me.

I look over my shoulder and some cove smoking a fag has come onto the track, two dogs running before him, making a hell of a racket. I’m against a tree and he never even looks in this direction, happily wandering down the gully with his dogs.

My squirrel of course is long gone. I hang around for a while, trying to spot him, but he’s having none of it.

So I go a little deeper into the woods, and find a nice tree to lean against… trying to make myself look just like any other mess of shrub. It’s peaceful: the songbirds have returned, and a couple of pigeons fly overhead, but they’re not stopping for a quick hello, welcome to my barbecue.

Air rifle with view of woods

I know you’re out there. Somewhere.

Scanning the trees, I see another squirrel (I guess it could be the same one; they all look the same to me) climbing a tree about 40 yards away. I’m just about to swivel round and I’m wondering if I can get a tad closer, when something down the hill catches my eye.

Guess what?

Some old woman, almost bent double with a huge pack on her back, is encouraging her two fat little Jack Russells, which are too damn knackered to yap, to climb the damn hill.

I don’t believe it.

I sit and watch her—and her dogs—struggle up the hill for about ten minutes. My squirrel of course is nowhere to be seen.

But I’m sure I can hear the little bastard laughing.

Celandines and bluebells in a wood

At least it was pretty

Posted in Me, Shooting | Comments Off on On cooperation between dogs and squirrels

Get off of my cloud

In my previous life, I pontificated on the etiquette of iPods and in particular the signals that earbuds send out. My central thesis was that if you were foolish enough to approach someone at the lab bench who was wearing both earbuds, then you deserved to be fed to the autoclave.

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

Although my current job title is ‘Senior Writer’, actual writing—putting words in order to make complete sentences; prose—is not a huge part of my current gig. Most of the work tends to be slide-based, or short scripts; I do bash out a few newsletter articles each month, but as each one is designed for the attention span of a salesdroid they barely engage the star drive at all.

These last few days, however, I’ve been writing a white paper. Total length is going to be around four thousand words, and as it doesn’t need to be point referenced it should be simply a case of looking at my source material and knocking out some sentences that hold together and build a coherent argument.

The problem is that in my open-plan office, where there are three professional writers to about 20 other editorial staff and two dozen account management trolls, nobody really understands that what a writer really, really needs apart from a regular supply of tea, coffee and gin, is reasonably extended periods of uninterrupted tappity-tap time in which to craft the Words.

So I sit in at my keyboard, do a bit of reading, do a bit of thinking, and then type maybe half a dozen wo—



“Do you have time to call John tomorrow?”

“No but I can make Wednesday at eight. Send me an invite.”

Where was I? Um, yes. Hang on, let me answer that email. Right, so the problem with small-animal models for infection is that—

“Richard, can you review this graphic?”

“What? Let me see. Oh good grief. Look, it’s meant to be a superscript, not a subscript. OK? Think you can handle that? Tell Sarah to check the brand guidelines too, because I’m sure the client’s drug isn’t meant to be puce.”

Oh, a colleague has just Skyped me. I need to find that file… click click send.

Right. So, we’re talking about infection, and these models, and I just had a really good way of putting that, perhaps if I—

“Can you join this call, Richard?”


You see my problem? Because most of the work we do is quite granular, and because Certain People would have no fucking clue what Creativity is if it were a non-inferiority endpoint in a phase III clinical trial, it takes me six times as long to do anything as I actually quoted for. Each interruption actually adds about 15 minutes to the task, as it takes about that long to get back in the zone.

Yes, I like to work from home, and I’m far more productive there; but it’s not always possible (or socially acceptable).

I have tried simply ignoring people, at least until I get to the end of the sentence I’m currently writing, but then they go off in a huff and say rude things about me to HR. I’m considering having a sign made that says “Sod off—I’m writing”, but I don’t think that’d be particularly politic either.

Irritable Owl Syndrome

Seriously considering getting this mug

So I’ve been trying sitting there with my iPod on—or at least my earbuds in—with a fresh cup of tea, LookOut minimized, and trying to hit that Zen-like focus point where I can—

“Richard. Richard. RICHARD.”

Sad to say, some of my cow-orkers are in dire need of re-education.

Posted in Ill-considered rants, Office life, The stupid, it burns, Work | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

On the troposphere

The second best thing about flying to the US on business is the views you get on the way.


The best thing about flying on business to the US is, of course, coming home

Tropospheric 2

Posted in Art, Work | 1 Comment

On fungus

As a cell biologist, yeasts spelt doom for crucial experiments. And as a gardener/amateur brewer, mildew and mould and other nasties can really ruin my roses/vines/beer.

But there’s something about fungus, especially that not of the common or garden toadstool or mushroom variety, that, as a keen photographer of the world around me, is fascinating.

Pixie flats

On a walk through Shorne Woods last weekend, we happened upon these rather splendid specimens. Some looked like classic fairy flats; others like pencil shavings shaded in and scattered over still-living trees; yet others glowed with a strange orange translucence.

Orange ears

Shorne Woods is a Site of Special Scientific Interest, and there are signs aplenty warning visitors not to take any specimens.

Pencil shavings

No need to tell me: I don’t know what any of them are, but I’m fairly sure I don’t want to be frying them up with my eggs and bacon on a Sunday morning. Best to leave them all where they are, and just take photos.

Posted in Photography | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

On the cranes

Apparently it’s (still) #WorldPhotographyDay.

To celebrate, here’s a photograph from our bedroom window this morning, not taken with my iPhone.

London Gateway

In fairness to Stephen it was taken in ‘P’ mode, but I’m going to start experimenting with ‘M’. And yes, it’s the 55–250 mm zoom: it might have crappy optics but I like it, so nyah.

The only filter is a polarizing one on the lens (oh, and a UV1A, but everyone has that, right?).

Posted in Photography | Tagged | 3 Comments

On legends

For most of my first 17 years I lived on, or very close to, one of a number of airbases in England and Germany. Just about every day was airshow day, at least for a somewhat limited and specialist class of aeroplanes.

I’ve watched Lightnings take off and disappear beyond the tropopause in 3 minutes flat. I’ve coughed in the smoke at the end of the airfield from low-level Red Arrows Gnats. I’ve felt the ground shake as the Concorde passed over my head on its way to land.

It didn’t stop when Dad left the RAF. From the bottom of my parents’ garden I used to watch the Avro Vulcan hang impossibly in the sky. I’ve seen the evening sky torn apart as Tornadoes have taken off to bomb Kosovo from their base in Germany. And of course there are the ‘proper’ airshows: I’ve cycled to Duxford to watch Spitfires and Hurricanes and B17s; I’ve gawped with everyone else at amazing feats of close-formation flying; I’ve watch Su-27 Flankers do impossible things; I’ve laughed at the Turkish Stars commentator; and I’ve sparked a security alert at one of the world’s best airshows.

Sadly, many of these aircraft I’ll never see fly again. At the weekend I had to add Vulcan XH558 to that number.

The Avro Vulcan is the unforgettably shaped strategic bomber that formed part of the UK’s nuclear deterrent in the 1960s. It converted to a conventional role, and famously was temporarily saved from the scrapheap when the longest bombing raids in history (at the time) were carried out, during the Falklands War of 1982.

Nobody who has ever seen a Vulcan fly will forget the way she hangs in the sky, in exactly the way that houses don’t. Nor will they forget the distinctive howl of the engines, or the whistle you hear when those four massive engines throttle back and the wind is sliced by the delta wing.

In 1993 the Vulcans were retired, supposedly for ever.

But amazingly, in 2007, Vulcan XH558 flew again. She remained flying all the way up to this summer, after which she must retire a second time. And then will never fly again.

On Saturday I dragged the entire family down to Eastbourne for Airbourne, the airshow on the beach. Thousands of people stood and sat and swam and watched XH558 strut her stuff.

We’re going to miss her.


Update: I’ve just managed to find where I’d previously described that security alert.

Posted in Personal, Photography | Tagged , , , , | 3 Comments

On starting small

We’re still here. No need to send a search party… yet.


Posted in Don't try this at home, Personal, Photography | Tagged | Comments Off on On starting small

On immortality

From the “Making dreams come true” department, we recently had a sauna installed at the new gaff.

Warming up
Warming up

It’s very nice, and you should know that South Eastern trains have a special, hidden, weekend fare that lets you use the High Speed service for the same price as the slow train, and that I can pick you up from the station.

In related news, Reuters reports that saunas “might” be good for one’s health. Reading on, this headline seems to undersell things a bit.

I’ve always thought that mortality was more or less 100%. Everybody dies, sooner or later. Now, Elijah skewed the stats a little, but his non-death was compensated for by Tabitha, Lazarus, and two or three others; but on average (and certainly within experimental error), we’re good.

But according to Reuters, that absolute statistic is looking somewhat shaky.

screenshot from Reuters release claiming less death

Reducing mortality

So you might want to take me up on that offer from Gravesend station.

Sadly, I can’t tell you how sound are the data linking saunas and immortality, because I don’t have access to the paper.

“Further studies,” write the authors, “are warranted to establish the potential mechanism that links sauna bathing and cardiovascular health.”


Posted in Me, Nonsense | Tagged , | 4 Comments

On meetings

Six years ago I found to relatively easy to tell my mother what I did for a living, if not exactly explain it. I could wibble on about actin polymerization and spaghetti, or messenger RNA export, or why I’d spent a year of my life trying to repeat an experiment that our collaborators had published only to discover that the buggers had effectively made it up. She’d nod wisely and assume I was super smart, which suited us both, really.

Nowadays the conversation is more along the lines of,

“So what is it you do?”

“Uh, I write stuff. And edit stuff.”

“Like what?”

“Slides. And brochures. And 3D animations. And stuff for meetings. And iPad apps. Oh, look at this book we made!”

“Did you write it?”

“No. But then again…”

Blogging about the day job is just as difficult, but for different reasons. The things that make blog posts interesting happen all the time, but I can’t really write about most of them in anything other than vague generalities (unless I wanted to be run out of town by a horde of angry—and suddenly unemployed—pharmaceutical executives).

But there are some things that I do that I can talk about, and one of these is running a reasonably large meeting for healthcare professionals to learn about the evidence for, and responsible use of, certain treatments in their everyday practice. Obviously it’s not something I do myself—there’s a good dozen of us in the company who will be eating, drinking and breathing this particular meeting from now until the last delegate is safely on their transfer back to the airport in the middle of June, and that’s not counting our Production and Creative departments who, while not involved in the organization and programme, will work their magic on the venue and the materials.

The way this all works is that we approach Major Pharmaceutical Company, Ltd, with a grant proposal for running an educational meeting for around 1400 delegates. With luck, Major Pharmaceutical Company, Ltd agree to the proposal and gives us a wodge of cash to appoint a chair, select a steering committee, and work with those people to recruit a faculty (that is, speakers) and design a programme. In the case of the project that’s just kicked off, later this year we will be running the fifth of what’s turned into an annual event. The first one was before I joined the company, but I have had a key role in each of the three since—and will again be involved this year.

Although the cash comes from Major Pharmaceutical Company, Ltd, it has no role in the development of the programme or selection of the faculty. We get the programme accredited, and delegates are eligible to receive continuing medical education credits. The pharma company selects and pays for delegates to attend (although it’s also open to anyone else who wants to pay the registration fee), and we work with their logistics supplier, but that’s about it. We could, theoretically, have a day and a half worth of speakers saying that everything Major Pharmaceutical Company, Ltd produces is crap and kills patients, but I suspect our chances of hosting the event again would be slim. Fortunately for us there are at least three other companies in the same drug space with competing products, not to mention the other treatments that have been around for years. This makes achieving educational fair balance relatively easy.

So we book a venue, we organize the speakers, we work with the steering committee to produce a thought-provoking, relevant and hopefully practical programme; we sort out the logistics and book hotels and whatnot; what else?

Well, before I have to dust off my suit and go on site, we actually have to brief the speakers as to the educational content of their presentations, whether lectures or workshops. What do the chair and steering committee want attendees to take away from the meeting? How do we help them achieve this goal?

We call each of the speakers—and we’re talking at least 20 internationally recognized doctors and researchers—and talk them through the programme, suggest a topic, get their feedback, refine the programme, and then spend 6 weeks chasing them for their slides or at the very least an abstract so we can give our Production and Creative departments the content they need to produce a programme book in time for the print (or this year, digital device) deadline.


The end is in sight…

And we—that is, my Editorial team and I—have to edit the faculty abstracts and biographies (and in some cases write the damn things to start with), as well as check the presentations against the educational objectives of the meeting. There’s a whole heap of slide editing work in there too: has the speaker included their disclosures? Is every slide with data on it fully, correctly referenced? Is there fair balance? Are there annoying little formatting inconsistencies that make consecutive slides appear to jump around? Are there random slides from another talk in this presentation? Has the speaker included all relevant information (and omitted irrelevancies)? Are case presentations sufficiently anonymized? Can we suggest anything—content-wise or structurally—that might improve the educational value of the talk?

That last might seem a bit odd: after all, they are the world leaders in their field and we’re ‘just’ a medical communications agency. But 3 years spent looking at presentations and papers gives one quite an insight into a field, and we’ll often be able to draw a speaker’s attention to a paper only recently published, and they have learned to trust and respect our knowledge. This is particularly valuable when it’s 2 in the morning, the speaker arrived in the country just in time for dinner and has only just now got to the dingy hotel room we’re using for slide previews, with slides we’ve never seen before, and is giving the first talk in just six and a half hours’ time.

There’s the content and design of the Save the Date, the Invitation, the programme book itself, the signage at the meeting… all of which at some point involve an argument between Editorial and Production, or Creative and Production, or Account Management and Creative, or (more likely) all four, usually terminated by the phrase “The print deadline is at 12, TODAY!”

And on top of all that there’s that book I didn’t write.

Or did I? Next post, perhaps.

Posted in Work | Tagged , | 4 Comments