Last night I lost my virginity.
To be precise, I lost my Café Scientifique virginity because I gave a talk about science in a café in Portsmouth at the kind invitation of local organiser Maricar Jagger. It was a really good evening. I gave a short talk about my research and how I see my role as a scientist in modern Britain to a varied and interested audience who proceeded to ask lots of questions. I very much enjoyed the occasion — I left feeling we’d had a good discussion and was sorry I couldn’t stay longer.
I’d recommend these events to scientists (as possible speakers) or to anyone who looking to have an interesting conversation about science. The Café Scientifique is a world-wide organisation that was started in 1998 by Duncan Dallas (who sadly passed away earlier this month) so there may well be a venue near you.
In my introduction I talked about how I got into science, about my current research work on the structural analysis of proteins involved in the ‘life-cycle’ of RNA viruses such as foot-and-mouth disease virus and human noroviruses (aka the winter vomiting bug), about campaigns for science funding and about the importance of open access (natch).
I was a bit concerned that I might have ranged to widely and too superficially to prompt interrogation from the audience but I needn’t have worried. There was no shortage of questions, on all the topics that I had covered. I hope I gave a decent account of myself and useful answers to the various points of inquiry but, almost inevitably, as I sat on the train back to London I kept thinking of things I should have added or explanations I could have phrased differently. Oh well, I guess that is the nature of the beast.
Out of the corner of my eye during all this interrogation I noticed someone taking a note after I had mentioned Nick Lane’s Life Ascending as a good read for anyone wanting to find out more about current thinking on the origins of life on Earth. Given my retrospective frustration at not having answered every question quite how I would have wanted, I thought it might be useful to note down a few more suggestions for further reading — for last night’s audience and anyone else who might be interested.
Returning to the question of the origins of life, those looking for a breezier read that Nick Lane’s rather detailed account should pick up Adam Rutherford’s Creation, which in its first half, covers much the same ground (with the added bonus of being sprinkled with cryptic film references). The second half of Rutherford’s book considers how our modern understanding of the molecular and genetic basis of life is enabling us to think in completely new ways about biological engineering.
To follow up the question of scientific funding and the interaction between public investment in basic research and subsequent economic development, I would recommend Marianna Mazzucato’s slim and accessible volume The Entrepreneurial State (PDF) an interesting and accessible (see my previous review).
And finally, for those wishing to learn a bit more about the tortuous subject of Open Access, let me point you to this recent summary by Eva Amsen at F1000 or, if you are looking for more detail, Peter Suber’s handy overview. If you really get a taste for it, then grab a free copy of Peter’s book.