Before the Deluge

It starts tomorrow. The floodgates will open and will not close again for two whole weeks.

I mean of course that “I’m a scientist, get me out of here!” starts tomorrow morning. I have signed up to submit myself for interrogation — on any topic — by children from participating schools from around the country.

Imascientist Web Page

Image hosted at flickr


In this endeavour I am competing against five other scientists in the Imaging Zone (since we have common research interests in looking at stuff). We all get to play for the first week, trying to impress the children with the wit and wisdom of our answers. But in week two they start voting and day after day, the least popular scientist will be evicted.

Want to follow my humiliation? Andrew Maynard from 2020 Science (also a participant) has produced a very handy spectator’s guide to the Imascientist web-site.

To see how I am doing, check in here from time to time over the next few days: you can see my answers (and those of the other members of the Imaging Zone) by clicking on the question.

In fact, as of today, we have already started. As as you will see the range of examination is alarmingly broad. I answered 30 questions – all the way from “Do you have any superpowers?” to “What is the shape of the universe?”.

I am confident that whole new vistas of ignorance in my understanding of science will be revealed over the next several days. Oh well.

If you take pity on me, all assistance will be gratefully received!

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18 Responses to Before the Deluge

  1. Heather Etchevers says:

    I’m sure you _do_ have superpowers. Whatever your answer will be. Though some of the students submitting questions seem a wee bit more – provocative – than others. Good luck!

  2. Cath Ennis says:

    I just read some of the questions and answers – you’re a braver person than I’ll ever be!
    Your answer to the planet Zog question is my favourite 🙂

  3. Stephen Curry says:

    Your faith in me is very touching Heather! And yes, there does seem to be a provocative element – but they are teenagers after all…
    Cheers Cath – I was very proud of that one…!

  4. Joanna Scott says:

    Wow, you really are brave, Stephen – that’s certainly a challenging set of questions!
    My favourite one is definitely your neat avoidance of having to aid and abet a murder by lethal potion. 😉

  5. Stephen Curry says:

    That’s only the beginning Joanna. I think I prefer the sillier questions – they’re a better match to my intellect…
    BTW, the organisers werehaving a few tech problems with the site yesterday – it went offline on occasion. Hopefully it’s more or less sorted now so there won’t be any problems if you are taking a peek.
    There are 100 scientists taking part this time, so the chances are that you may know some of the other contestants.

  6. Ken Doyle says:

    This sounds like great fun. All the best!

  7. Elizabeth Moritz says:

    I agree with Cath and Joanna, you are very brave Stephen! I wouldn’t know where to start for some of those questions.
    It’s been fun reading the answers, good luck!

  8. Stephen Curry says:

    Thanks to Ken and Dr Moritz! Some of it is fun but it’s been a bit intense yesterday and today. I have a few question still to answer some time tonight.

  9. Stephen Curry says:

    Nice post here from Andrew Maynard summing up the experiences of day 1.
    Hardest Q so far: how do magnets work?

  10. Cath Ennis says:

    Tiny invisible monkeys, _duh_.

  11. Stephen Curry says:

    Monkeys, eh? Someone on twitter suggested fairies.
    I did a bit of reading and actually (or should I say exactually?), it’s all down to special relativity and the Fitzgerald-Lorentz contraction. That Einstein. Clever bloke.
    But though tough, it was fascinating. Either I had forgotten completely or it was a question that I had never asked myself. I was well impressed with the student and quite fired up to try to investigate the answer. Am a bit gutted that, in a fit of philanthropy, I have given away my 3 volumes of Feynman’s lectures on Physics.
    Speaking of whom, Tom Hartley (one of the other contestants) dug out a great video of Feynman talking about magnetism. He’s mostly avoiding the question but raises interesting points about what you might mean when you ask ‘why’.
    Here’s the link in case embedding doesn’t work:

  12. Åsa Karlström says:

    [the positive and the negative love eachother? as would be my silly response to the magnet question, since I don’t think I know _why_ really…]
    The questions are awesome, as are the answers. Great stuff! Especially the “zombie apocalypse’ and the “your scientific breakthrough”.
    The polio work is lovely! I’m remember my undergrad class where we talked about the property/impact of rearranging proteins on the outside of virus particles since our professor just had picked a _very interesting paper on the subject_ …. (Clearly I am still young enough to find it cool to realise who wrote the paper and that it is you! 🙂 It’s sort of surreal, but I guess I should be more used to it by now? )
    Good luck with the rest of the questions and hopefully you’ll continue having fun 🙂

  13. Stephen Curry says:

    Åsa – that’s certainly the sweetest answer yet!
    It has been a bit intense at the beginning. Eased off now but I still have about 10 questions to tackle tonight, including “Why do we laugh when we’re tickled?”
    And I’m really glad to learn you’ve come across my paper on the poliovirus 135S particle – that has a special place in my heart.

  14. Åsa Karlström says:

    _Why do we laugh when we’re tickled?_ great question. I look forward seeing the answers 🙂
    And again, it’s a really interesting and good idea this with school children asking questions to scientist. I brings up that _”there are no stupid questions”_ * but you can discuss and turn around a subject as well as scientists as curious people who look for answers to their questions
    (*some like “Is this on the exam” might qualify but anyway…)

  15. Cath Ennis says:

    Is it just me, or has the quality of the questions suddenly shot up? There have been some good ones already interspersed with the inane ones, but today the good ones seem more concentrated (I wonder if some teachers made some suggestions…)
    e.g. do pilots have more haemoglobin & can a laser be any spectrum of light.
    BTW Stephen, the question about all babies starting as females might have more to it than chromosomes. IIRC (I’m trying to answer without Googling, to try and get an idea of what your live chats might be like!), there are XY individuals without functional androgen receptors who develop as girls. If the signals being triggered by genes on the Y chromosome aren’t getting through, the male developmental pathways don’t initiate. This suggests that the “default” is female, and (most) XY embryos only become male when a hormone signalling pathway kicks in. Again working from memory, this hormone signalling doesn’t start immediately upon conception, so there will be a period of time during which all embryos are essentially female.
    I’ve heard this used to explain the existence of men’s nipples 🙂
    Incidentally, XY individuals with androgen insensitivity tend to look much more stereotypically feminine than the majority of XX women. All XX women will be exposed to (and be able to detect) some level of testosterone and other androgens in the womb[1], and they will all go on to produce (and detect) some of their own. But XY androgen insensitive people can’t detect ANY hormone.
    You may want to verify the above before passing it on 🙂
    fn1. I’ve heard some people postulate that the level you’re exposed to in the womb is at least partially responsible for determining your sexual orientation.

  16. Stephen Curry says:

    Thanks Cath! There have been some very good questions today. The one that I’m actually most interested in is: why is an orange called an orange but a banana not called a yellow?
    Some very interesting etymology there…!
    And thanks for your input on sex determination (not my area). I took the question (Is it true that all babies in the mother’s tummy start of as girls?) to be a general enquiry – the cases that you mention seem to be outliers or rare occurrences, though I take the implication that the default state may be female.
    BTW – I make free use of the internet in composing my answers – I don’t rely entirely on my (failing) memory…

  17. Stephen Curry says:

    Sorry Åsa – I missed your comment. It’s been a bit full-on today: three live-chat sessions with three different schools!
    I didn’t have much of an answer to that one – though I enjoyed reading the answer from Tom about experiments with a tickling robot.
    I have been very impressed by the level of interest on the part of the students and the nature of some of the questions. It is the simple ones that can be deceptively tricky and/or fascinating to answer.
    I mentioned just above the one that has me most excited today. Have been reading up on the origin of the words orange, yellow and banana – fascinating.

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