Winton Royal

The Royal Society Winton Prize for Science Books award ceremony took place on Monday night. The event is open to anyone so I went along – I like to feel part of the great science communications endeavour. But I had had a busy day stuffed with meetings so was unable to get there as early as I would have liked. The doors opened at 6pm but by ten past six there was still quite a queue and it sounded as though they were struggling to fit everyone in. Just as I got to the head of the queue they announced that the main hall was full so we would have to go into the overspill room. At least I got a seat in the front row of that room but I felt disconnected from the excitement of the event.

I felt an urge to Tweet so I got my phone out and started poking about to see what people were tweeting. The Royal Society twitter account posted a tweet using the hashtag #scibooks so I started tweeting using that hashtag. It did seem a bit unspecific, I admit, and I was surprised that the twitterstream seemed a bit quiet.  It was only when the whole event was over that I discovered everyone else was using the hashtag #WintonPrize2013. Bah! Wrong room, wrong hashtag – I was definitely not on the right wavelength tonight. [Memo to self:  get there early next time and do your homework on the hashtag].

Things got better once the event kicked off. Dara O’Briain was the Master of Ceremonies and had his verbal overdrive chip installed, talking umpteen to the dozen. He introduced the event then  introduced the first author (a short video clip was played to announce the book) as they took the podium to give a short address and read an excerpt from the book. After this Dara and the author had a five-minute discussion about the book. This process was repeated for each of the six authors on the shortlist, and followed by a general discussion between all of them and a few questions from the audience.

Dara conducted the proceedings with great skill and good humour, ribbing one of the authors about a joke that they had pinched from him, and commenting that another (author of a book on memory) had clearly forgotten they had agreed that he, Dara, would be wearing that shirt – as we realised that they were indeed wearing shirts with identical floral designs.

I have not read any of the books so my comments below are based purely on what I learned about them at the awards event, plus my personal prejudices. In best reality TV show style, I judged the authors by their performance on the night, rather than their entire writing performance.

Tim Birkhead gave a good start to the evening as he talked dirty about birds and senses. I remember reading his pieces in the Times Higher where he always seemed a thoughtful and likeable character. Tonight he read a purple passage from his book, Bird Sense.  The extract dealt with the question of whether birds feel emotion and sexual pleasure. Noting that in one species of bird copulation takes less than a second, while males of another species have a false penis, he then described a bird that seemed to undergo a very sensual and erotic experience in his lab. In the subsequent discussion his depth of knowledge about birds and his love of the subject shone through. I decided I must read this book, and thought it was a potential winner.

Sean Carroll had the harder task of selling us quantum physics. His book The Particle at the End of the Universe about the Higgs boson had no cute birds nor sexy talk. Tonight he focused on the entity’s name, or rather its nickname – the ‘God particle’. The nickname has always seemed a bit daft to me and is apparently hated by physicists, but loved by journalists. Now, I must admit that my interest in physics is only slight (blame my old O-level physics teacher for putting me off it) and I didn’t particularly feel that I wanted to read this book. My bad.

Enrico Coen intrigued me. I have purchased a couple of his books for the Library, including this latest one, and they seemed to attract some interest. I recall that a favourable review of his shortlisted book, Cells to Civilizations, in the Times Higher first drew my attention to it.  The reviewer comments that Coen is attempting “a lofty and ambitious project, so I [was] somewhat sceptical at first”. When he spoke about his book Coen came across as a Renaissance man with a great breadth of interest and reference, and a philosophical undertow (or should that be overtone?).  I expect that I would enjoy the book, but I fear it may be excessively intellectual and tire out my poor little brain. Intensely thought-provoking but not the kind of book you want to read in the toilet. In the discussion session I warmed to him; he had some nice turns of phrase, noting that “plant neuroscience is a very small field”. Later he commented that science was full of analogies so science writers should not be afraid to use analogies to explain things. But I suspect the book may not have a very broad appeal, and I have a hunch that his climb up the ladder of abstraction may not lead anywhere fruitful.

Charles Fernyhough‘s book was about memory: Pieces of Light: The new science of memory.  He referenced the work of Elizabeth Loftus (as described in this recent article in The Atlantic) on how memories can become contaminated. He explained that memory is something constructed, and is not just like a video camera that we can replay exactly. Last year I attended Tim Bliss’ Croonian lecture about the mechanics of memory, and was left feeling that the process of forming memories seemed very fragile. Fernyhough confirmed this to be the case and explained the phenomenon of imagination inflation, by which if you imagine something you are then more likely to remember it as an experience you have had. He noted that advertisers make use of this, putting colourful imagery into their adverts to try and seed our memories. This all sounded very intriguing and he left me wanting to know (and read) more about it.

At first I couldn’t quite make out Caspar Henderson, nor quite see what his book, The Book of Barely Imagined Beings, was about. It sounded like a nightmare to classify (in the library catalogue sense). Was it science? or art? or history? or mythology? As he talked about his list of beings, all of them real, I was drawn in. He read out a list of extraordinary names given to diatoms – I thought Drosophilists were bad but these were really bizarre. I decided that I liked his quirky way of thinking, and his broad frame of reference. When asked about Homo sapiens he said that he thought music was one of our defining traits. The book sounds like an entertaining read.

Callum Roberts was the final author in this parade of scientific writing talent (all of it male, I noted). His book, Ocean of Life, explains how the oceans are changing. The excerpt he read reflected on the changes that a bowhead whale has seen in its lifetime – which might be up to 200 years. During that time it would have seen (and heard) a huge growth in shipping traffic, and witnessed a dramatic fall in the bowhead population followed by a partial recovery. The ocean is a very different place now than it was 200 years ago. Roberts said that he tried to avoid making the book too preachy, but I got the feeling that there might be an element of sermonising in it, and that puts me off wanting to read it.

So, I mulled over the shortlist and decided that on balance I would award the prize to Caspar Henderson. He made me want to read his book, even though I still had only a very sketchy idea what it was about. Sadly, I was not in charge of that decision.

Paul Nurse, President of the Royal Society, came onto the platform and made a great show of opening the envelope very slowly, in his best Miss World X-factor judge manner. The tension was, er, unbearable.

Finally, he announced that Sean Carroll was the winner, for his book on the Higgs boson, by a unanimous decision of the judges.

So, that put me in my place. Maybe next year, as well as getting there early and checking what the hashtag is, I should also try reading some of the shortlisted books in advance so that I can make an informed decision about the books.

Posted in Books | 3 Comments

Mill Hill Essays 2013

One of my more pleasurable annual tasks is producing the volume of Mill Hill Essays. I commmission between 5 and 10 essays, mostly from authors at the Institute, then edit them and oversee the production. Print copies of the essays are sent to various universities and libraries and miscellaneous others, and they are also published on our website.  I have got into the habit of plugging them on here so here we go again – the Mill Hill Essays 2013 est arrivé. This year they are a bit later than intended so apologies if you have been eagerly awaiting their arrival. This year there are six essays, one art project and four mini book reviews.

 

Cellular Alchemy: the science of reprogramming cells by Ben Martynoga

Ben is a postdoc in our Systems Biology Division. He chose his topic just before last year’s Nobel Prizes were announced, but I don’t think he had inside knowledge. He describes the ability to reprogramme cells as a kind of alchemy and explains the mechanisms of reprogramming and its potential, highlighting the work of John Gurdon and Shinya Yamanaka.


Bacteria maketh the man by  Marc Veldhoen

Marc used to be a postdoc in our Division of Molecular Immunology, but moved to start his own lab at the Babraham Institute a couple of years back. He looks into our guts, and at the bacteria there – they are all around us and inside us. While some bacteria are harmful to humans, causing disease, other bacteria are essential for our health and play an important role.


Plasmodium knowlesi malaria infections in Malaysia: The last parasite standing? by Rob Moon

Rob is also a postdoc, in our Division of Parasitology. He was awarded a Winston Churchill Travelling Fellowship a little while back and used it to travel to Malaysia to do some fieldwork on Plasmodium knowlesi, which is a parasite that causes malaria in macaques can sometimes also cause human disease. He writes about the history of this parasite and how it has become more significant for human health.


(E)MERGE by Carolien Stikker and Thomas Elshuis

Carolien and Thomas are independent artists. Their joint art project is based on visual research material from some of NIMR’s scientists.


Beyond the DNA code by James Turner

James is a programme leader in the Division of Stem Cell Biology and Developmental Genetics. This essay is a complement to Ben’s essay above, but focuses more particularly on the epigenetic mechanisms that control how genes are expressed in cells and the role of chromatin in regulating genes. I kept hearing about chromatin and its importance but I was never quite sure what it was all about, so I was glad to receive this essay – and of course to read it.


The jellyfish revolution by Donald Bell

Donald works in the Computer Image Analysis Lab, and has written about biological imaging.  He describes the history and applications of GFP (green fluorescent protein) in biological imaging. This protein found in jellyfish has had a big impact on biological research.


Are we too clean for our own good? by Davina Sui Ann Chao

The NIMR Human Biology Essay Competition attracts around 100 entries each year from local schools. Year 12 students are invited to choose from a list of half a dozen preset topics and write a 1,000-word essay. The winning essay has the chance of being published in the Mill Hill Essays.  This essay was the winning entry in the 2012 competition and explains the hygiene hypothesis.


The past two volumes of the Essays have included a series of short book reviews by Institute staff. My powers of persuasion seem to be waning and very few reviews came in this year (well, only one actually). Hence you will find my name on most of the reviews below. I review two short novels written by fellow OT blogger Steve Caplan and the biography of Griff Pugh.

 

And now for the bad news. This is going to be the last of the Mill Hill Essays. There have been 16 volumes since 1995, and about 150 essays, but they stop here. We are looking at producing an anthology next year of some of the best essays, but not sure yet.

Posted in Communicating science, Writing | 1 Comment

Deeply felt experiences – musical memories

Some pieces of music bring back strong memories. You recall key moments when you have heard the music before, or great performances that you have witnessed or taken part in. Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem is a piece that brings back memories of one of the most intense experiences of my life.

I will be singing in a performance of the War Requiem on Sunday 10 Nov, at the Royal Albert Hall. I will be with my regular choir, Crouch End Festival Chorus, joining with the BBC Symphony Chorus and Orchestra conducted by Semyon Bychkov. The concert marks both Remembrance Sunday and Britten’s centenary this year.

In the 1980s I moved to London, working in the suburbs but enjoying the cultural life on offer in the city centre. One of the highlights of my life then was my membership of the BBC Symphony Chorus – my first experience of professional music-making. We rehearsed in BBC Broadcasting House and performed regularly on the South Bank and in the Proms at the Royal Albert Hall. Though the Chorus was composed of amateur singers, we worked with professional musicians and conductors and all arrangements were professionally managed. We performed a wide range of music, including some less well-visited (i.e. obscure) corners of the choral repertoire. At my very first rehearsal we sang Bartok’s Cantata Profana - its often demanding 16-part choral writing and Hungarian language was quite a challenge but exhilarating. I was in at the deep end but swimming strongly. Not long after I joined the Chorus came the exciting news that we were to make an overseas trip. The Frankfurt Alte Oper (Old Opera House) had been bombed in the war and lain derelict for many years. It had now been rebuilt and was being reopened as a concert hall with a festival to mark the occasion. One of the highlights was to be a performance of Britten’s War Requiem, and the BBC Symphony Chorus were to join forces with the local orchestra (Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra) and their regular conductor Eliahu Inbal. The symbolism of having a German orchestra, a British choir and an Israeli-born conductor to perform this very special piece of music about reconciliation was lost on no-one.

The War Requiem was commissioned to mark the consecration in 1962 of the new Coventry Cathedral, which was built after the old cathedral was destroyed in a bombing raid during the second world war. The destruction of the old cathedral took place on the night that the city of Coventry suffered extensive bombing. The new cathedral was built just opposite the ruins of the old cathedral, and quickly adopted a theme of reconciliation. The cathedral’s cross of nails became a worldwide symbol of reconciliation. I went to visit the cathedral earlier this year, hoping to connect with the feelings that had inspired the music. The cathedral is a striking building, filled with visually arresting images and sculpture. The spirit of reconciliation is still very much in evidence. In the grounds of the old cathedral there is a small museum that commemorates the bombing of the city, so remembrance is there too.

The first performance of War Requiem (which should more accurately be called Anti-war Requiem) was a triumph and it has remained a firm favourite with performers and audiences alike, making a strong emotional impact. Britten uses the text of the Latin requiem mass, but he adds a new dimension by incorporating several poems about war by Wilfred Owen, the poet who served (and died) in the first world war. Britten used great skill in selecting and positioning the poems. It’s a bit like the way that Abba songs are retrofitted to the story in the musical Mamma Mia! Although they were not written for the story, they seem to fit perfectly. It is the same with the War Requiem; the poems shine a different light on the prayers of the requiem and feel like they belong in the whole narrative, while some of the Latin text provides a cooler and less passionate retreat from the pain of Owen’s poetry. The music bowled me over the first time I heard it, but my understanding of its subject matter has deepened over the years. Owen said “My subject is war, and the pity of war”. Britten expresses this in musical terms as well as the terror of war, matching and deepening all the emotions of the words.

Back in 1981, the Frankfurters were paying to fly the whole BBC choir to Frankfurt and to put us up in a hotel for three nights. I was not a seasoned traveller at that time, so this was an adventure. I was worried about how I would get to Heathrow for an early morning flight. The problem was solved when another chorus member offered to let a small group of us sleep over at his flat in Ealing, just a short hop to the airport. He even cooked us a tasty chicken casserole for dinner the night we stayed. Everything went smoothly and before long we were in our hotel in central Frankfurt. We found the Alte Oper, now gloriously restored, and we had an afternoon rehearsal with Eliahu Inbal, at first just him and the choir and then together with the other performers.

The War Requiem is a complex musical structure. Britten divides his forces: two male soloists sing the Owen poems and are supported by a chamber orchestra; a chorus of children’s voices is supported by a harmonium; the soprano soloist and full chorus are supported by a large orchestra. As these groups alternate throughout the piece the music ranges from massive awe-inspiring sounds to intimate scenes and heavenly imaginations. The groups are often described as three different planes of sound, but I prefer to think of it as looking upwards (heavenwards) with the angelic children’s voices, looking inwards (to the soldiers’ personal stories) with the male soloists, and looking outwards (to humanity’s shared emotional experience of mourning) with the soprano soloist and full chorus.

I love the way that Britten manages the transitions between the ‘planes’. The dramatic setting of the Dies irae (Day of wrath) features brass fanfares in the tradition of the Berlioz and Verdi settings. It leads directly into the words of Owen: “Bugles sang, saddening the evening air”. In another section the choir sings of Abraham and his descendants: “Quam olim Abrahae promisisti et semini ejus, followed by the soloist singing “So Abraham rose… and slew his son and half the seed of Europe one by one”. The Sanctus is one of my favourite movements. Britten’s music for the Hosannas sounds like fireworks ricocheting around the choir, and it ends with an astonishingly abrupt and powerful ExcelSIS! that leaves you temporarily blinded in shock. Then the soloist whispers ‘After the blast of lightning from the East…”. For me the emotional heart of the work is the Libera me. It contains two pages of the loudest music. In the vocal score these pages look quite innocuous. Different sections of the choir sing Libera me to a wailing musical phrase, with a chord playing in the orchestra. Except that chord is played by full orchestra and organ, with an array of deafening percussion. It is a representation of hell on a battlefield. The music dies away and a long exchange of great intensity begins between the two male soloists, leading up to the chilling words “I am the enemy you killed, my friend”. After this comes the closing section of the work, when all performers join together for the first time. The male soloists sing ‘Let us sleep now” as the choir sing “In paradisum. Requiescant in pace“.

A large choir and orchestra can produce a great deal of sound, but some of the most magical moments of the piece are achieved when the choir is directed to sing very softly. Paradoxically, you need a very large choir to achieve the quietest singing. The vocal score has several moments when we are directed to sing ‘ppp‘, or three degrees of quietness (hardly audible), and then to get quieter still, down to ‘pppp’. So you are singing as quietly as you can and then you have to get quieter. This is a hard trick to pull off. I recall that Inbal spent a good 30 mins with us rehearsing these very quiet passages until he had us singing as quietly as he wanted, each singer just at the border between making a sound and not making a sound. This contrasts with the diaphragm-busting moments in the Dies Irae and Libera me when you have to deliver maximum horsepower singing fit to blow the roof off.

It was a thrilling performance to be part of. The sense of an important occasion added to the excitement. The male soloists were Robert Tear and Thomas Hemsley, two British singers at the top of their game. The soprano was Julia Varady, a German soprano of Hungarian origin, who had exactly the thrilling timbre required for the role. I recall she made a great deal of fuss about the air-conditioning in the new concert hall and had to be placated by regular supplies of drinking water to keep her throat from drying out.

We were to perform the piece on two successive nights but this first evening we were free to explore the city. My group of friends planned to visit a bar or two and get some food. A couple of them were not feeling well so stayed in the hotel. We visited some risque establishments in the area near the Hauptbahnhof, then we went to a pleasant bar and sampled a glass or two of Apfelkorn. But I started to feel a bit strange and a little later had to go out to be sick. My friends walked me back to the hotel, as I was feeling really poorly. I felt a little explosion in my rear and wasn’t quite sure what had happened, but I suspected it wasn’t good. Once in the hotel I made a dash for my ensuite bathroom and all hell was let loose. I spent most of the next 12 hours in the bathroom, exploding from both ends. Happily the basin was just opposite the toilet, so I could stand up and be sick or sit down and diarrhoeaise. Later I found out that five of us who had eaten the chicken casserole in Ealing were all suffering in the same way, though mysteriously the sixth person survived unscathed. I had never before nor have since experienced such a virulent form of food poisoning. I had to throw away the trousers that I had been wearing that evening. For reasons of delicacy I will not spell out why, but I think you can guess.

By the morning I was drained, weak and dehydrated. It was clear that I and my similarly afflicted friends could not perform that evening. The worst thing was that the other choir-members assumed we had been out on the razzle and had too much to drink, which was not the case at all. By early afternoon I was able to keep down a glass of water, and I ate an apple. It tasted good. We managed to go out of the hotel and take a short walk. I saw a stall selling cooked sausages – pink and glistening – and was nearly sick again at the thought of eating one. (It was three or four years before I was able to face eating a sausage again.) We soon felt well enough to joke about the whole experience. I coined the expression “Happiness is a dry fart” – the confidence to pass wind in the knowledge that there would not be any follow through was a wonderful feeling.

We missed the first performance but were well enough the following day to take part in the second performance. I was a little anxious as we approached the moment of full volume in the Dies Irae, fearing that the physical compression of the diaphragm needed to push the sound out might have an unwanted side effect, but all was well. It was a magical and magnificent concert, and the audience received us enthusiastically.

The concert and the illness became memories. About six months later a large box arrived at the BBC chorus office. The Frankfurters had sent each of us an LP of the performance. I note that this recording is available now on YouTube. I cannot say for sure whether I am on the recording as it depends which night the recording was made.

Back to today. We have had one rehearsal with the conductor Semyon Bychkov and he showed himself to be a wonderful communicator and a very able moulder of performers who quickly endeared himself to the choir. In short: he knows what he wants, he is in control and he persuades you to give of your best. We now have an intense weekend of rehearsal leading up to the performance on Sunday night. I will be avoiding chicken and sausages until after the concert. I think it will be an intense experience for me again but this time on a purely musical and emotional level. I don’t know if there are any tickets left for the Royal Albert Hall, but you can catch it live on BBC Radio 3 at 7pm on Sunday 10 November.

Posted in Music | 7 Comments

Puffed-up and partying

My ears were burning a month ago and my head was swollen. Fear not, I hadn’t caught an interesting disease, I was just being talked about and made prideful.

At the end of the summer I learnt that I had been shortlisted for the Medical Research Council Chief Executive Officer’s awards, in the category for public engagement. It is easy to be cynical about this kind of thing (and I am) but once you are in with a chance of a prize your perspective changes (yes, I am easily bought). The awards are open to everyone in the ‘MRC family’ – its offices and research units – which is about 3,000 people. I am told that there were about 170 nominations in total, in five separate categories. The shortlist comprised ten people, two for each category, and we were told that just getting to the stage of the shortlist meant we were all winners.

My certificate and my iPod nano.

I was a bit surprised to be in the running for an award. It is true that I have put quite a bit of effort into public engagement over the years, and particularly in this MRC centenary year, but I am also very aware of the all flaws in what I’ve done and the things I’ve not done as I don’t have enough time. Still, some of the other people doing prominent engagement work for the MRC were not nominated, and I had enough of an ego to think I might have had a chance of winning top spot.

The awards ceremony took place at lunchtime in MRC Head Office, attended by members of the MRC management board and all ten shortlisted people. When I heard the citation for the other nominee in the engagement category, listing her many achievements, I was not surprised that she was named as the recipient of the award. I was happy enough to be runner-up as it meant I received an iPod nano – a device I have never owned before.

The MRC CEO, Sir John Savill, announced the results for each category and presented the prizes and we all had embarrassing photos taken.

Me and my mate, John Savill.

A trip to MRC HO is always a pleasure as the offices are on the 13th and 14th floors of a circular building in Kingsway. This provides great views of London and, depending on which room you are in, you get a panorama of the city in a different direction each time you visit. Today we were facing southeast. It was a bit foggy but you can recognise some landmarks.

A foggy day in London.

On the same day, in a different part of the building, I attended the MRC Open Comms Forum – a meeting of MRC communications and engagement people.  This was a gathering of people from across the MRC who have some involvement in comms work. It happens a few times a year and brings together people from research units and those in head office comms roles. After interesting talks from Kath Nightingale and Kate Lin about, respectively, the MRC Insight blog and the MRC Twitter account, the main part of the meeting was a workshop on social media, led by Steve Bridger. Most of the people in attendance were managing some social media on behalf of their organisation, either running Twitter accounts, Facebook pages or LinkedIn groups. There was a lot of experience in the room, but in small packages. None of us felt we knew everything there was to know.

Because I had to nip out for a couple of hours to attend the CEO awards upstairs I only caught Steve Bridger’s introductory session and his final roundup session but I was impressed with what I heard. He had clearly put a lot of work into researching MRC social media usage. We had been asked to send him in advance links to our organisational social media accounts, and to answer four questions concerning how we think of and use social media. He had poked around all our institutional accounts, and some of our personal Twitter accounts too.

Steve started with a round up of our views on social media and quoted a nice aphorism, which reminded me of the kind of thing Jill Foster was saying 20 years ago:

Social media is 10% Technology, 90% People

I also liked the Dilbert cartoon on social media, which neatly encapsulates the tension between institutional suspicion of social media and the desire to harness it for organisational purposes. Steve stated that social media’s prevalence has changed people’s expectations of how to engage with organisations. The immediacy of Twitter, its ‘in the moment’ character, makes a difference. Once upon a time, if something interesting or noteworthy happens you might have said “Oh, let’s put that in the annual report” and six months later it would have appeared, when no-one was much interested anymore. Now you can instantly tweet whatever is interesting. Steve stressed that social media can lead people into your organisation. The ‘walls’ around the organisation are easy to step over in a social media world (just @ the twitter handle to get the organisation’s attention). Steve reviewed how social media can make an impact and showed some prominent science blogs. I woke up was surprised when one of his slides showed a screenshot of Occams Corner at Guardian Science blogs, showing thumbnail photos of Stephen Curry and Henry Gee. Occams Typewriter was also cited by Kath Nightingale as one of the blog hangouts that she likes to visit.

I had to step out at that point so I missed the final slides, showing one of my blogposts. When I saw that later I was a bit embarrassed as there had been rather a long gap in my blogging of a couple of months so it wasn’t a great time to be advertising my blog!

I came back two hours later to discover that I, or rather my social media activity, had been a topic of discussion. In the morning sessions I had put out a few tweets and Steve had picked up on those, hence my Twitter page was displayed on the projector screen. Luckily I had not said anything rude (not that I ever do). But it was strange to come from one scenario where I was being congratulated, to another scenario where I was being discussed. This must be what fame feels like.

After all that I was just about ready to come back down to earth, but there were two further events to attend. The Max Perutz science writing awards were presented by David Willetts over at the Science Museum, to the accompaniment of nibbles and modest drinks. As ever it was a great gathering of the biomedical scicomms clans, and an inspiring event to see all that new writing talent from MRC PhD students and postdocs.  We were then privileged to have a special backdoor entry into the Science Museum Lates event. Though this is a free event, the queue to be one of the 3,000 people attending can be quite lengthy, as I had witnessed earlier on, so it was handy to be able to bypass the queue.

I had never been to an SMLates event before, and I nearly didn’t bother as I was a bit tired. But it was fantastic! It is astonishing how the museum can be transformed by loud music, spectacular lighting and  small bars serving beer and wine. I was totally won over. I can’t wait for the Crick’s SM Lates event in Feb 2014.

Posted in Social networking | 2 Comments

Old technology wins out

If there is  one thing I hate more than confusing new technology, it is confusing old technology. While it can sometimes be a bit confusing trying to get misbehaving PDFs to print, that’s nothing compared to doing battle with an ageing microfilm reader/printer.

So, when I saw an email this morning headed “Microfilm…” my heart sank. Someone had some microfilm he needed to view and wondered if I could help. My first question was “Is it microfilm or microfiche?”.  I really hoped it would be microfiche – fiche is just so much easier, and the little readers are less of a fiddle. But he confirmed the worst “It is is microfilm”. I had to confess that we did indeed have a microfilm reader, but it was ancient, had not been used for years and was now languishing in our store.

There was a time when a microfilm reader was a useful thing to have – all UK PhD theses were microfilmed by the British Library so if ever we needed a copy of a thesis we would receive it on microfilm. We also have a cupboard full of old journals on microfilm, though they are rarely looked at. Since e-theses took off, with EThOS, we don’t see microfilm. The reader had not been used for some time so at the last clear-out we stuck it down in the store.

We went over to the store together to try out the machine. The microfilm had been sent to him from a library in Moscow. It was tightly rolled up but not on a spool, so that was going to be interesting. I reacquainted myself with our machine and its various knobs and buttons. It dated back to the 1970s or 1980s when it would have seemed the height of modern technology. I switched it on and the power light came on, always a good sign, and things moved when I turned the main knob. But there was no illumination inside.  I realised the bulb must have given up the ghost.  Much as I might want to get it fixed, ready for when someone wanted to use it again in 10 years’ time, I could not justify the likely expense so I had to admit failure.

The best I could offer was to point him to another library. He has a connection with UCL and was planning a visit, so I checked out the UCL Library website and found they have a few microfilm readers/scanners, of a rather more recent vintage than ours. He seemed happy enough with that outcome.

While walking back from the store he had told me that the microfilm contained a book by Setyonov, a Russian neurophysiologist from the 19th century. Knowing that we had a good collection of early physiology texts I looked the name up in our catalogue but found nothing. On a whim I put the name into the UCL Library catalogue but found nothing there. Googling the name came up with nothing, which seemed a bit odd so I tried “Russian neurophysiologist” and immediately brought up Ivan Mikhailovich Sechenov. Realising my spelling error I rushed back to our catalogue and found we did indeed have a copy of a four-volume work by Sechenov on the physiology of the nervous system, and what’s more it was on the shelves over in the store.

The book on the microfilm was Fiziologia nervnoy sistemypublished in St. Petersburg in 1866. The book I now had in my hands was published in 1952, 47 years after Sechenov’s death. It was entirely in Russian, so that even the bibliographic information was indecipherable to me. Luckily there was an insert in French, saying that the volumes contained works by Sechenov, Pavlov, Vvedenski and others. I figured it was some kind of reprint of the 1866 book, or perhaps a later edition.

My enquirer after microfilm readers seemed pleased to see the books.  I am waiting to hear from his Russian-speaking colleague whether they are exactly what he wanted. If they are, then I will chalk up a win for old technology (‘books’) over old-new technology (‘microfilm’). And next time you want to read some microfilm, don’t call me.  Our machine is busted.

Posted in Books | 3 Comments

Search engines – out with the old, in with the new

Back in the summer Yahoo announced that it was to close the search engine AltaVista, and that duly happened in July. I suspect that most people’s reaction would be either “what on earth is Alta Vista?”  or “Blimey! Is that still going?”

Alta Vista came along in 1995, at a time when there were several competing tools and no clear leader. It rapidly became everyone’s favourite tool for finding stuff on the net. Google’s arrival on the scene a few years later posed a serious challenge and by the end of 2001 Alta Vista was losing users hand over fist.  Later it was sold off to Yahoo and disappeared from most people’s radar.

Google has dominated the search world ever since, though other tools still have their followers. Microsoft launched Bing as a direct rival to Google.  Personally I have never found a reason to use Bing until this week.  A blog post by Karen Blakeman suggests that “Bing seemed to be better at recipes and shopping enquiries than research oriented queries.” She describes how a tool called Bingiton allows you to submit a search to both Google and Bing and compare the results you get back.  It prompts you for 5 searches in a row and asks you to choose your favourite set of results for each. At the end it tells which service – Bing or Google – you chose as giving the best results.

A new search tool that has launched recently looks interesting.  It is called Blippex and tries to do something different from Google.

Blippex’s algorithm, called DwellRank, decides relevance based on how long users spend on a site and how many times Blippex users have visited it. Researchers at the University of Massachusetts Amherst have, independently of the Blippex team, established that the amount of time someone spends on a web page or document is, not surprisingly, a pretty good measure of how important and relevant it is.

A blogpost by Christopher Mims with the arresting title “This is the first interesting search engine since Google” explains more about how Blippex works. It is built by observing the behaviour of its users, who are invited to download a plugin. Pages that users spend longer looking at are given a higher ranking. The consequence of this is that the database of pages is currently far, far smaller than Google’s.

Christopher Mims admits:

At this point, Blippex’s search results are pretty rough, but at least they’re different than Google’s, and often significantly different.

My first impression is that it doesn’t home in on relevant pages in the way that Google does, and it needs to get bigger and better quickly to be of real use. But it is an intriguing approach, distant cousin to the idea of social search.

It will be interesting to see whether Blippex will grow into a genuinely useful service, or perhaps blaze the way for another tool to take a similar approach.

Posted in Searching | 9 Comments

Book prizes

Book prize season is upon us. Prizes can be controversial things and there is often a dollop of subjectivity in the decision-making, but book prize shortlists can be useful for the lazy person (like me) as they offer a suggested reading-list. Recent scientific book prize shortlists have some good pickings for the scientific bookworm.

The Royal Society have announced the shortlist for their Winton Prize, ranging from cell biology to the Higgs boson, memory and marine biology. They also have a prize for science books aimed at young people and that shortlist is out too.

A new prize from this year, the Society of Biology Book Awards, has issued its shortlist. There are three awards, for an undergraduate textbook, a postgraduate textbook and a general biology book. In the latter category they include two of the books on the Royal Society shortlist, plus one that was on last year’s Royal Society shortlist.

The British Medical Association are a bit ahead of the game and have already announced their award winners. They have a range of different prizes, mostly textbooks or professional bookss but with some more general categories. There are  winners and commended titles in each category, making for a long list.

There is a Wellcome Trust book prize too but their schedule is different – the next shortlist will be announced in Feb 2014.

Away from strictly science, the Samuel Johnson prize for non-fiction shortlist has been published. There is a book about bees in there, but otherwise no science.  Harriet Tuckey’s book about physiologist Griffith Pugh was on the longlist and I had hopes that it might get through, but sadly it did not. I see that last year’s winner was a book about Everest so perhaps the judges had had enough of mountain climbing.

Harriet’s book is still in with a chance of the HW Fisher Best First Biography Prize though, due to be revealed in November.

No doubt this time next year the prize shortlists will all be featuring Henry Gee’s latest book. I’ve not read it yet but it is certainly going on my reading list.

Some lists

Royal Society Winton prize shortlist:

Society of Biology book award shortlist (general biology):

  • Anatomies by Hugh Aldersey-Williams
  • Secret Chambers: the inside story of cells and complex life by Martin Brasier
  • Pieces of Light by Charles Fernyhough
  • My Beautiful Genome by Lone Frank
  • The Book of Barely Imagined Beings by Caspar Henderson
  • Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic by David Quammen

British Medical Association medical book awards (selected winners)

  • Atlas of Epidemic Britain: A Twentieth Century Picture by Matthew Smallman-Raynor and Andrew Cliff
  • Internal Time: Chronotypes, Social Jet Lag, and Why You’re So Tired by Till Roenneberg
  • The Little Girl in the Radiator: Mum, Alzheimer’s and Me by Martin Slevin
  • Bad Pharma by Ben Goldacre

 

Posted in Books | 1 Comment

MRC publishing – 100 years on

It may have escaped your notice that this year is the 100th anniversary of the Medical Research Council, and there has been a cornucopia of celebratory activities to mark the occasion.  One aspect that has not been much remarked on is the history of the MRC as a publisher. Since I have a Library store full of MRC publications I think it is probably down to me to wave this particular flag. Our recent open day motivated me to put together a little exhibition about MRC publishing, and I thought I might as well inflict it on my blog too.

Here are the notes about, and some photos of, the exhibits. I know the photos aren’t very exciting. In truth, the exhibition wasn’t very exciting either. In the feedback one person commented that it was a bit dull and “not interactive”. I know it is a niche interest but I  hope that this blogpost might find that niche.

One half of the exhibition.

MRC as a publisher

The Medical Research Committee (this was the original title of the MRC until it was reconstituted and renamed ‘Council’ in 1920) encouraged investigators to publish their results independently, in order to make them “readily available in the general pool of scientific knowledge”. MRC investigators had “freedom to publish without official approval”.

This policy helped to enhance MRC’s scientific credibility: MRC was about science not about politics. In the 1925-6 annual report the MRC said:

There is no certitude in science except that which is gained by the free and gradual suffrage of general scientific opinion based on repetition at will of the experimental facts reported.

The great bulk of MRC-funded research was (and still is) published in scientific journals, but MRC also had an extensive publishing programme itself, especially in earlier years.

Bear in mind that the range of journals available in 1913 was rather different, and more limited, than it is today. Looking in the MRC Annual Report for 1915-1916 (the first one with detailed listings of publications) the dominant journals are BMJ and Lancet, with about 30 publications each.  Next comes the Journal of the Royal Army Medical Corps with 11 then Biochemical Journal with eight, and Journal of Physiology with four.  There were one or two publications in each of another eight journals. This restricted choice of publishing venue makes it easier to understand why MRC considered it needed to publish some research itself, in dedicated channels.

1.       The earliest MRC book

One of the earliest actions of the MRC was to commission a book about milk. It was published by Longmans, but under the direction of the MRC. It gathered together knowledge about milk from a wide variety of disciplines and sources. Its author, Janet Lane-Claypon was a pioneer in epidemiology and the use of cohort studies. (Incidentally, she deserves a better Wikipedia page).

  • Milk and its hygienic relations by Janet Lane-Claypon (1916)

The first book the MRC commissioned.

2.         MRC Special Report Series (the green reports) and MRC Memoranda

MRC issued a small proportion of its researchers’ outputs in a series of Special Reports. These were published when results needed to be widely circulated, e.g. to medical services in the armed forces, or when sales to the general public were expected.  Many early Special Reports dealt with subjects relevant to the war effort. They were also used for reports of committees, assessments of the state of knowledge on a subject, and when results were too large for a journal article. The last Special Report was published in 1971.

MRC also issued short memoranda during the second world war. Subsequently some memoranda were issued for reports of ad hoc investigations and summaries of existing knowledge, aimed at medical practitioners.

The topics covered by the Special Reports and Memoranda illustrate the variety of MRC research. One day I will write a proposal to have the complete set digitised and deposited in PubMedCentral.  It has been talked of but no-one has done it yet.

a) A selection of Special Reports and Memoranda

  • Report of the committee on bed-bug infestation (1942). SRS 245
  • Hearing aids and audiometers (1947). SRS 261
  • The Rh blood groups and their clinical effects by P.L. Mollison et al (1952). MRC Memorandum 27
  • Employment problems of disabled youth in Glasgow by T. Ferguson et al (1952). MRC Memorandum 28

One of the Special Reports Series.

b) Special Reports on child health

  • The mortalities of birth, infancy & childhood (1917). SRS 10
  • A study of social and economic factors in the causation of rickets (1918). SRS 20
  • A study of growth and development: observations in successive years on the same children by R.M. Fleming (1933). SRS 190

Another volume in the Special Reports Series.

c) Special Reports on nutrition

An early bestseller was SRS no. 38, on vitamins, while no. 235 and its successor no. 297 (in several editions) became a classic work on the composition of foods.

  • Report on the present state of knowledge of accessory food factors (vitamins) (1924). SRS 38
  • Vitamins: a survey of present knowledge (1932). SRS 167

VItamins.

  • Chemical composition of foods by R.A. McCance and E.M. Widdowson (1940). SRS 235
  • McCance and Widdowson’s The Composition of Foods (1978). SRS 297, 4th edition.

McCance and Widdowson – several editions.

3.         Bacteriology

The NCTC catalogue was a valuable tool for researchers needing access to bacterial strains.

  • Catalogue of the National Collection of Type Cultures (1931). SRS 64, 3rd edition.

A nine-volume work on bacteriology, edited by Paul Fildes and John Ledingham, was a monumental reference book in its day.

  • A system of bacteriology in relation to medicine (1930-31). 9 volumes

Fildes and Ledingham’s great work on bacteriology.

4a.         War medicine – First world war

Almost as soon as the MRC was formed, the onset of the first world war meant that war medicine became a priority in the early years. The good work carried out by the MRC meant that it emerged from the war with its reputation firmly established. The MRC Annual Report 1917-18 has an account of research directed to the war effort.

Some examples of research reports relevant to the war:

  • The classification and study of the anaerobic bacteria of war wounds (1917). SRS 12
  • An atlas of gas poisoning (1918)

Beautifully and disturbingly illustrated atlas of gas poisoning.

  • 656 cases of gunshot wound of the head (1918). Statistical report no. 1
  • An analysis of 8,670 ophthalmic cases treated at a home hospital (1919). Statistical report no. 3
  • Studies of influenza in hospitals of the British armies in France, 1918 (1919). SRS 36

Statistics of gunshot wounds.

4b.    War medicine – Second world war

Again in 1939 the MRC directed its energies to supporting the nation’s war effort. Much of the detail is in Medical research in war. Report of the MRC for the years 1939-45 and in the later Medical history of the second world war edited by F.H.K. Green and Gordon Covell (1953).

A synthesis of MRC work in the second world war.

Example of research reports:

  • Report of the committee on tuberculosis in war time (1942). SRS 246
  • MRC War Memoranda nos. 1-17 (1940-46)

One of the War Memoranda (number 7 – Aids to the investigation of peripheral nerve injuries) had a very large circulation.  It eventually became a key diagnostic textbook, that is now its 6th edition and has been translated into several languages (see this account).

5.         Guides to medical literature

Medical Science: abstracts and reviews developed from efforts during the first world war to keep British military physicians informed about advances in medical science. It includes collective abstracts (or review articles) on various subjects as well as abstracts of single articles which the editors thought to be of special importance. The first volume was in 1919 and it ceased publication in 1925, by which time other similar abstracting journals had appeared in a number of fields. Just imagine – if MRC had continued to publish Medical Science it might have lasted up to the digital age and we could have had a homegrown Medline/PubMed in the UK.

The Bulletin of war medicine was published during the second world war “for medical men deprived of normal access to medical literature”. The Influenza Bibliography was produced by the NIMR Library and sent to members of the WHO collaborating network of influenza centres around the world from 1971-2010.

6.         Health & Safety – accident prevention

The Industrial Health Research Board was part of the MRC and published most of its research in its own report series, mainly due to the lack of suitable scientific journals in this field.

  • The influence of alcohol on manual work and neuromuscular coordination (1919). SRS 34
  • The incidence of industrial accidents upon individuals with special reference to multiple accidents (1919). Reports of the Industrial Fatigue Research Board, no. 4
  • Some studies in the laundry trade by May Smith (1922). Reports of the Industrial Fatigue Research Board, no. 22

  • The incidence of neurosis among factory workers by Russell Fraser (1947). Industrial Health Research Board Report no. 90

  • Toxicity of industrial organic solvents by Ethel Browning (1952). Industrial Health Research Board Report no. 80

The book by Ethel Browning became a classic toxicity book. The safety guide Safety precautions in laboratories (1960) predates the Health & Safety at Work Act by many years.

7.         Other MRC publications

The definitive history of the MRC’s first 50 years is Half a century of medical research by A. Landsborough Thomson. (1973-5). 2 volumes. This is always the starting point for any research about the MRC and its scientific programme.

A report in 1991 looked at how genome research was developing. I recall that back in 1990, not long after I had joined the Institute, I was summoned to a meeting with Diane McLaren (the author of this report), Dai Rees (MRC Chief), Ben Martin (bibliometrics expert) and a couple of genome researchers.  As part of a grand survey of genome research MRC wanted a bibliometric analysis of genome research publications.  My role was to advise on a suitable Medline search strategy to extract the base data for the analysis. It was a bit scary at first, but interesting and flattering to be involved. I’m not sure what happened to that survey as it doesn’t seem to have been published in this review.

  • Human genome research: a review of European and international contributions by Diane McLaren (1991)

The MRC produced a number of short guides on research ethics:

  • The ethical conduct of AIDS vaccine trials (1991)
  • The ethical conduct of research on children (1991)
  • Responsibility in investigations on human participants and material and on personal information (1991)

8.         MRC Annual Reports

These are less noteworthy – more like corporate documents. They were general accounts of the Council’s activity, and ‘yearbooks’ about research establishments, staff and programmes. The earlier reports have distinguished introductions drafted by Sir Walter Morley Fletcher, the first secretary of the MRC.

In the 1948-9 report a section Some Aspects of Medical Research appeared for the first time. Between 1955/6 and 1967/8 this section was reprinted as a separate pamphlet, as it provides a very useful overview of medical research topics. One day I hope that digital versions of all the MRC Annual reports will be published, as they are such a useful resource for the history of medical research in the UK.

In later years the annual publications were substantially slimmed down and became glossier and more colourful. The print runs were reduced, and they were also made available as pdfs on the MRC website. Now the Annual Review is also issued as an epub.

  • Annual Report 1914-15
  • Annual Report 1929-30
  • Annual Report 1948-50
  • Current Medical Research 1955-56
  • Current Medical Research 1959-60
  • Current Medical Research 1965-66
  • Annual Review 2001-2
  • Annual Review 2007-8

9.        Public-facing publications

More recently some MRC publications have focused explicitly on communication to the general public, with more readily understandable text and higher production values.

  • Mice and medicine (2000)
  • MRC Network Mar/Apr 2011
  • MRC Network Winter 2012/13
  • MRC Network Spring 2013

A selection of more recent MRC corporate publications.

NIMR started publishing the Mill Hill Essays, aimed at the general public, in 1995:

  • Mill Hill Essays 2003
  • Mill Hill Essays 2004
  • Mill Hill Essays 2010
  • Mill Hill Essays 2011/12

10.        Open Access and European PubMedCentral

After the US National Institutes of Health launched PubMedCentral (PMC) in 2000, changes began in the world of biomedical research publishing. Prompted by myself the MRC did take note of what was happening and in 2000/2001 there were quite serious discussions about creating a UK mirror of PMC, though these came to nought. A few years later in 2007 things had moved on and UK PMC was launched by a consortium led by Wellcome Trust but including the MRC. More recently it was renamed EuropePMC.  The European Research Council with 18 other UK and European funders fund this service.

The MRC now requires that electronic copies of research papers it funds are deposited in Europe PubMed Central, where they can be read freely.

Posted in Books, History, Scientific literature | Comments Off

My six-monthsary

Anniversaries are all the rage these days, from the centenary of the MRC and the 80th anniversary of the flu virus, to the bicentenary and centenaries of Wagner, Britten, Lutoslawski and the Rite of Spring. But anniversaries are so slooooow to come around.

My husband and I, as the expression goes, just celebrated our six-monthsary. The concept of a ‘monthsary’ is not a commonplace here in the UK but I think it should be. The Urban Dictionary defines it as:

An important day, very much like an anniversary, but it is celebrated in terms of months, as opposed to anniversaries which are celebrated in terms of years.

I first encountered the word on Facebook, from one of my nieces in Manila as she proudly proclaimed her first, second, third etc monthsaries with her teenage beloved. Sweet. One source suggests that the very idea of a monthsary originates in the Philippines. They say:

Through monthsaries, couples can cherish their romantic moments together and celebrate them with dinner dates, sweet gifts, mushy lines, and beautiful kisses — without actually having to plod through a whole year. It’s romance in bite-size pieces.

I think monthsary-marking is a good idea – it maximises your opportunities for celebration. It is good to have the chance of extra mini-festivities before the first anniversary, a.k.a. 12-monthsary. I don’t think greetings card manufacturers have leapt on to the monthsary bandwagon yet, but it can only be a matter of time before they do.

But I wouldn’t want to take it too far – insisting on every single monthsary seems OTT. We marked our ter-monthsary with a little celebratory meal in a nice restaurant to celebrate our first three months as civil partners, and did something similar for the six-monthsary.

These occasions also provide an excuse to reflect back on that day in February. It was rather a good day, so why not?

Deciding to get CP’d was not an impulse thing. We had been together several years before finally tying this knot, so I had the feeling that we were mainly tying up loose ends – making sure the legal niceties were all in their proper places. It’s a cliche but you could say that we didn’t need the piece of paper, as we already knew we loved each other. However it turned out that it meant much much more to me than just loose ends being tidied up.

On the morning of the ceremony I felt calm, mostly. I was just a little bit anxious about the practical arrangements: we got up early and had to pick up the flowers, deliver the cake to the reception venue, put up a banner there, get ourselves ready, wait for the taxi and pick up a couple of the guests. All of that went to plan, except for a minor problem with the roses for our buttonholes: they were not very fresh and rather brown round the edges. After my sister did a bit of surgery on them to excise the wilted petals with some nail scissors they looked fine.

We got to the registry office in plenty of time. It was a lovely sunny day, but very cold. We took a few photos outside then guests started arriving and we took some photos of them.  I still felt calm. As the appointed time drew closer we wondered about missing guests yet to arrive, but it didn’t seem all that important. We nobbled one friend to take charge of the video camera during the ceremony.

We went to sit in a room with the registrar’s assistant, making sure we were the people named on the documents. Guests sat themselves in the ceremony room. There was a slight mix-up over music. I had selected a couple of short piano pieces to be played while the guests were waiting for the ceremony to start: one of Messiaen’s piano preludes (Colombe) and the final movement from A Lincolnshire Posy by Percy Grainger. I gave the CDs to the registry office attendant and she put them on, but she left the first CD playing, so that the guests had a rather larger and more animated dose of Messiaen piano music than I had intended. No one complained – I think they were all chatting too much to notice. Then the ceremony began.

Gerry and I walked in and sat at the top table with our two witnesses, opposite the registrar. He introduced the proceedings in a pleasantly informal tone, then started the proceedings. I went first (age before beauty is their principle). I repeated the words after the registrar, as I had seen and heard other couples do in so many weddings that I had attended over the years. It was a familiar scenario, but…

… then I felt a pricking at my eyes and a constriction in my throat. The words of the vows were not especially poetic or beautiful but they were simply and directly meaningful. I wasn’t just reciting a standard set of words, a formula. I was saying something that had a meaning and represented what I felt inside. The words were about my future life. They meant that Gerry and me  wanted to be together for the rest of our lives… that we loved each other.

I paused and swallowed, and regained my composure so that I could continue saying the vows. Then it was Gerry’s turn to make the same declaration which he managed without problem. Then, after a few signatures – lo, we were officially partnered!

The day continued with lunch in a local Thai restaurant attached to a pub (named after the television pioneer, but that is by the by). We and our 40 guests occupied the whole restaurant for the afternoon, enjoying some delicious food, including a splendid cake.

The tone was generally informal, but we did have a few short speeches. Gerry said something, my sister (unplanned!) said something, then I made a vaguely humorous speech, finishing with a declaration of my feelings for my new husband. But… what was this?  Again I had the same eye-pricking throat-constricting feeling that I had experienced earlier in the Registry office. I choked and had to pause for a couple of seconds before I recovered the power of speech to utter those final words. Later one or two of the guests said they too had tears in their eyes at that moment.

So, tying up loose ends? No! Important life-changing experience? Yes!

I was happy. Happy that all the planning was over and that things had gone so well. Happy that we had gone through this stage of life together, affirming that we meant what we said every day and telling the world that we meant it while receiving the blessing of the world in that official document.

Most of all though I was happy that we were receiving the blessing of all our friends and family and that they shared in our happiness. All those people came to be with US on that day. I felt a great wave of love from them. That was very special and remains very special. It means a tremendous amount.

 

Posted in Friends | 9 Comments

Envious admiration

There is a fine line between jealousy and envy. I had thought of them as pretty much the same thing until reading Stan Carey’s blog post on the subject. I think that admiration is also quite close; it is the nicer, more well-behaved cousin of envy. I have found myself admiring the work of some of my colleagues in other institutions, but also feeling jealous of their ability to make their work look easy and to bring off brilliant public engagement events.

My experience

I have just filed my report about a stint of science busking that I organised last month, as part of our MRC Centenary celebrations. This was inspired by the Francis Crick Institute’s science busking programme last year, organised by Lex Mannion. Lex helped me a great deal in defining our initial busking proposal and giving me practical advice.

Just in case you haven’t come across science busking before it is:

a small-scale public outreach technique – a way to engage the public with science – that has become very popular in the last few years. It is science by stealth: fun, informal and entertaining. The aim of science busking is both to entertain and to engage people with science.

I didn’t actually do any busking myself but I recruited volunteers from among our researchers, I organised the training, and on the day we did the busking for real I carried the props (and umbrella), and bought the coffees.

The first success of the programme was the training, provided by Ken Farquhar. He showed us how to communicate, how to attract attention, and how to be persistent without being annoying. He also helped us to develop some busking routines that could link in to conversations about our science. The only problem is that Ken is so gifted at public performance and interacting with people that he makes you feel incredibly clumsy in comparison. However he has figured what it is that he does to make this all work for him, and he is good at passing on this skill to his trainees.

Originally I had planned to have 20 teams of buskers working across four days in a big indoor shopping centre in north London, but bit by bit the plans were scaled back. First the shopping centre turned down our proposal, and then one by one my volunteers pulled out, leaving me with a much-reduced team.  In truth, I think I should have been managing the volunteers more actively, reminding them and meeting up with them to keep it in their minds (and diaries).

Eventually the day for our busking came. We had three teams, working in shifts, and in total they talked with about 50 people for between 2 minutes and 20 minutes each. It worked, though the day we had chosen was particularly windy and increasingly wet so we finished earlier than planned. But, 50 people is 50 people!

It was quite a new departure for us as most previous outreach here has been targeted at schools, and largely at groups visiting the Institute rather than randomly targeting people out on the street.  I felt very isolated, being the only voice trying to make this event happen in the midst of  scepticism all around (“Science busking? What’s that? It’ll never work!”). But, we did it; the buskers enjoyed it; the victims audience enjoyed it. We put out the word on to the wild streets of North Finchley about science, the Institute and the MRC.  The positive things I will carry forward are those memories of successful interactions – all the people who had their eyes opened, their curiosity tickled, their lives changed. We hope to do some more science busking later this year, ideally on a day without wind and rain, and possibly in collaboration with the Crick’s science buskers or another group we made contact with, the London Science buskers.

How to do it properly

Thus I was bruised but unbowed by my experience of organising outreach stuff.  I am not sure if I want to do any more of it, but I enjoy seeing the results of other people’s efforts.

About the same time I was in thick of my science busking project I attended the launch of a series of three booklets aimed at children, published by the Francis Crick Institute. However this wasn’t just the launch of three booklets, but the culmination of a few months of work involving a range of different people working together to produce the books. The Science and Story project was organised by Lex Mannion, the Crick’s brilliant Education and Outreach Manager. I loved everything about this project. It linked up a children’s writer, three designer/illustrators, a handful of scientists, groups of children and community groups. The principal outputs were three illustrated children’s books, but the route to their production entailed running a series of workshops, which sounded like great fun for everyone involved, and there was also a 5 minute video about the whole process. You can read more about the project on the Crick website, and I urge you to watch the video; it is charming.

The three books covered Francis Crick and the structure of DNA; research about malaria and cancer; what the Francis Crick Institute is.

Francis Crick Institute Malaria and cancer research  Francis Crick and DNA

What I love about the project is the mixture of different outputs, and the fact that there is a lasting result from it (i.e. the books).  The children involved in the workshops are also featured in the books – either through pictures they drew of themselves or other artwork that they contributed.  In the workshops the children interacted with the writer, designers and scientists. And of course the children are also the target audience for the books.

I am reminded of another brilliant project conceived by another brilliant public engagement practitioner.  Brona McVittie from the MRC Clinical Sciences Centre  launched the Suffrage Science project a couple of years ago. Again it involves a range of activities and outputs, from fabrics, jewellery, books, and events, and it has a long-range effect as the Suffrage Science process continues year after year.

I wish that one day I could dream up something like these projects, and see it realised.

Posted in Communicating science | 2 Comments