Monthly Archives: June 2011

Avoiding the magic fact machine

It was Universities Week last week – a campaign to highlight the impact of higher education institutions on UK individuals, communities, culture and businesses.

One of the projects rolled out for the event was the web-based ‘FactShare Generator‘. If you happen to like car-crash science communication, go and have a play. Otherwise, I don’t want to dwell on it. It is suffice to say UNIVERSITIES ARE NOT BLOODY MAGIC FACT MACHINES, and that it made me angry enough to write a piece for Comment is Free, where I tried to take the more positive track of celebrating a project I do like: I’m a Scientist Get Me Out of Here.

UCLA picture of a man made of stone, in a university. It is SYMBOLIC.

I’m a Scientist probably sounds terrible. It’s not. It pitches teenagers’ questions against groups of scientists (amazingly diverse, cheeky, surreal questions too). Importantly, the contestants aren’t the super-star scientists you see on TV. They are everyday workers, and because the questions are not just factual queries, but about the scientists’ lives, the project provides a sense of science on a day-to-day level. Most of all, it’s striking how often scientists reply with “I don’t know”. It’s not in a dismissive way. If anything, it’s said with excitement. Not knowing is a source of inspiration for a lot of scientists.

This point about being able to say “I don’t know” is, I think, really important, and I was pleased to see it pulled out in the comment thread. However, also in the comments Scott Keir posed a challenge:

What I haven’t seen on I’m a Scientist yet (though I will keep looking), are the researchers answering a question and then saying, “and what do you think?” In some ways, that’s a similar model to the magic fact machine – the researchers have the answers. So contestants, if you’re reading this, please try asking what the questioner and other students reading it think too. I’m prepared to bet that sometimes, it’s the students that will have the better answers.

I know a few of contestants took on this challenge (see also this response from one of the mods). Still, it’s a good challenge, and a continual one.

I’d add a smaller challenge of my own: contestants should try to be imaginative in the resources they send students to with links. Or find ways of encouraging students to find resources for themselves. There’s a lot of linking to Wikipedia. When I worked on a science website for schoolkids back in 2001-3, I’d always challenge myself to link to something other than the BBC. I knew that if someone was interested and googled, they’d find and trust the BBC link anyway. As a writer, I wanted to be able to give them something else. Obviously, I link to the BBC if it was a really good page worth sharing, but I always have a good dig first. I now instigate the same personal rule with Wikipedia.

The challenges raised by I’m a Scientist aren’t just for the contestants though. Reading through some of the blogposts written by contestants – Tom Crick, posted yesterday, Paula Salgado and Stephen Curry from last year –  I’m struck by how much work it involves. This is on top of all the other things they have to do as professional scientists. They are all also keen to say quite how much they’ve learnt and how much they feel they’ve contributed. There’s a great comment under Tom’s post from another contestant, saying how much she learns from the other scientists in her zone, and I love the bit in Paula’s piece about how emotionally invested she became in the experience, and why. So, yet again, the question is how can we find (more) ways to make this sort of work part of a scientist’s job, not just an add-on?

Moreover, what other projects can we run that open up universities to outside questions? What other projects might be able replicate the sort of discursive work I’m a Scientist (at its best) provides, but for people other than schoolkids? What other projects might invite the public to learn from universities, and also allow universities to learn from the experience too? Brightclub? Cafe Scientifique? Something a bit more subversive…?

Whether you have an answer, or just another question, do let me know what you think.

Sue the TRex lipbalm

This was originally posted on our student blog, Refractive Index.

This is a picture of some Sue the TRex lipbalm, on sale at the gift shop at the Chicago’s Field Museum. Behind it is the eponymous Sue: the largest, most complete, best preserved Tyrannosaurus rex in the world.

lipbalm: Sue

If you look carefully, you’ll see a sign saying the museum’s purchase of the fossil was made possible by a donation from McDonald’s. Disney helped too with the $8.36 million it cost (great book on this). I’m posting it because I think that the lipbalm and Sue itself are nice examples of the ways in which museum exhibits are more than just exhibits in a museum, but belong to a broader set of intersecting cultures, including consumer culture, and the ways in which we construct as well as reconstruct them.

Putting dinosaurs aside for a moment, I’ve always found the idea of a science museum a bit weird, especially when you try to display the physical sciences and technology. What makes a lot of science amazing enough to want to display is often what also makes it either hard or simply plain boring to put in a glass case. Newton’s 3rd law of motion is so exciting because it is so applicable. Material cultures are part of a story of Newton, but they aren’t necessarily the top-line. Similarly, the chemistry and engineering of a ball point pen is pretty interesting, as is the personal history of the Biro brothers, but what makes the humble biro quite so iconic is how humble it is. We don’t have to go to Exhibition Road to see one, we already have one in our pocket. As a consequence, museums of science and industry often have to find ways to manufacture their exhibits, or at least add a sense of theatre to them. It’s the push button side of the science museum experience, and part of the long-standing role artists, designers, writers, film-makers and game-producers have had in the production of exhibits, not just displaying of them.

Museum-made exhibits like these have been around a while now, and I love the way in which these models have become part of the history of science. The Science Museum has a fair number of its old models in store, I remember stumbling across a load when I got to on a tour of Blythe House (a study of them would make a great PhD). My favourite example of this is the push-button door in the Science Museum‘s basement. I’ve seen lovely pictures of kids from the 1950s starring in amazement at this door which OPENED FOR YOU IF YOU PRESS A BUTTON. Today, kids walk up to it expectantly, amazed when they realise they AND YOU HAVE TO PRESS A BUTTON?! The exhibit has never moved physically, but the world around it shifted so it’s gone from being one of the museum’s “geez whizz look at the future” pieces to historical artifact.

Museums of science also find odd ways to turn abstract ideas into something to display in a classic glass case. Einstein’s chalkboard at the Museum for the History of Science in Oxford is a lovely example, as is the relic-like display of Galileo’s finger in Florence, but my favourite is London’s DNA model. You know, that iconic picture of Watson and Crick with their model of DNA? The Science Museum wanted to put the model on display. Except the people in Watson and Crick’s lab had, quite understandably, taken the model apart to reuse not longer after the photo was staged. So, the museum dug out the old pieces from the back of a cupboard, dusted them down and rebuilt the model. It is a reconstruction. The museum are honest about this (if you read the sign), for all that they also nod to a sense of authenticity with a sign saying Watson unveiled it and it was made from the same pieces as the one in the picture.

The Diplodocus in the main hall at the London Natural History Museum is a reconstruction too. The original is in Pittsburgh. It has a fascinating history in itself  though, I don’t think that because it’s a cast it’s any less interesting, just differently so. On the subject of iconic exhibits at the NHM, there’s also the lovely story about the distillery built inside the giant whale, which I guess says something more about the role and use of these exhibits within specific cultures. I think it’s an urban myth, though wikipedia says there is a trap door inside it the workmen used for fag breaks (you have to buy me a drink before I tell any more stories of museum staff ‘tinkering’ with exhibits).

Back to the TRex lipbalm: I find the manufacture of science not only for display on gallery, but then for sale in the museum shop fascinating too. It reflects not only the cultural appeal of scientific ideas and work, but also the ways iconic science museum exhibits have their own cultural currency.  Books, toys, postcards, pencils, glow in the dark periodic table tshirts, dinosaur soft toys, science themed ties… The Mütter Museum sells conjoined twin gingerbread men cookie cutters and the Franklin Institute have Ben Franklin ‘original nerd’ spectacles. Some of these products sell a nod to the collection of the museum (postcards, logos on a pencil) some sell a promise of connection with the scientific profession (how to kits, books). I bet the the Science Museum has an archive of its shop somewhere, which’d be another treasure trove of material for a PhD.

science ties

KABOOM: Exploding ‘impact’

Picture: social researcher number one.

This is a drawing of a social researcher. I don’t mean a researcher who studies social relations. I mean this is a researcher who is social; one that’s connects to other people, very simply by citing other researchers.

(Yes, sociology-spotters, it’s ‘inspired’ by Bruno Latour. It’s a poor reinterpretation of an early diagram in Science in Action. I’m currently an ocean away from my desk, and don’t have the specific reference to hand).

A few months ago, I attended the launch of the Royal Society’s survey of the global scientific landscape, a report entitled Knowledge, Networks and Nations. Looking at all the Royal Society’s pretty pictures of international networks, I remember be struck by quite how much of a social enterprise science is, and that in many respects this is its great strength. The idea that science might be socially constructed is often taken as a criticism of science, an attempt at undermining it even. But it doesn’t have to be.

(This isn’t to deny science’s interaction with the natural world. Indeed, I’ve often thought many concerns over social constructivism are down to a confusion between science and nature. But that’s a larger philosophical debate/ bunfight, possibly also involving Latourian diagrams scrawled on bits of scrap paper).

I was reminded of this sense of the sociality of science during all the recent blather about ‘impact’. It is jargon, and rather ill-defined at that. As Richard Jones neatly put it, this thing called impact isn’t an actual thing at all, but rather a word that’s been adopted to stand for a number of overlapping imperatives. To put it as plainly as possible, publishing a research paper is only half the job (credit: I stole that line from David Dobbs). The government wants to make sure that the researchers they fund do a full job, even though they are aware that the other half of this work might take a range of forms, so they’re trying to find ways of measuring a thing called impact. This is hard. We could count citations in academic literature, or patent applications, or measure column inches of mass-media coverage. I suppose we could count mentions of Brian Cox on twitter too. I don’t think any of these are quite going to cut it, but that doesn’t mean we can’t be cleverer about how we do try to discern impact. As Steve Fuller recently argued, there is no reason why metrics have to be stupid. A recent AHRC report (pdf) covered many of these issues too.

Back to the social researcher thing. Here’s another picture. The first was supposed to show the social relations involved in making academic work. This one is of the social relations involved in sharing it too, and is as influenced by Lewenstein (via Gregory) as it is Latour.

 Picture: social researcher number two.

We might take first diagram as a critique of the rhetoric of a scientific paper; a way of showing off expertise to keep others out. Equally though, it is simply representative of the ways in which people with academic training draw on a body of other peoples’ work and are helped in their thinking (and give credit with a traceable trial for that thinking). I’m an academic. I have have read a lot and like to reference things. There are 533 sources cited in my PhD (I know because, after I submitted the thing, I ran a ‘guess the weight of my bibliography’ contest on my knitblog). I’ve also learned loads over the years from my students, friends, teachers, colleagues, family, ex-boyfriends, blog commentators, etc. I am a mass of other peoples’ ideas, even if I choose between them and add my own perceptions, misunderstandings and connections. It’s standing on the shoulders of giants stuff, or a matter of science as a team sport.

(The first of those analogies comes via a folk history of Newton, the latter one I’ve taken from Jack Stilgoe. Just as I’ve already drawn on Latour, Dobbs, Jones, Fuller, Gregory… see what I mean?).

This is really important when it comes to thinking about impact. James Sumner wrote a great post earlier this year where he stressed how much time he spent talking about other peoples’ research. Sumner meant this in terms of the specific issues of humanities academics doing public engagement, but I think it applies much more broadly. As Jack Stilgoe wrote earlier this week, innovation studies tell us that economic benefits comes from networking and policy making is similarly built on networks of trust.

So, when Stilgoe also says we need to rethink impact as ‘people, not papers’, I feel the same unease I have about calls to fund ‘people, not projects‘: science is done by groups, not individuals. It’s the tomb of the unknown warrior, to steal another good line, this time from Martin Rees (see second quote here). I guess if we want some tidy alliteration, it’s about keeping our scientists social. Let’s explode the idea of impact, not just to think of it as something more than in an economic or academic sense, but as something accrued, done and most successfully achieved through networks. I don’t mean networks in the Machiavellian sense sometimes associated with Latour, but simply in terms of people helping each other out. I want to sit in the Royal Society looking at pretty pictures that the networked journey of research, not just its networked production (or better, the ways networks or production and dissemination are and can be interlaced).

As ever, the comment thread is open for your thoughts. Or, if you’re London based and want to be sociable about the impact debate, do come along to our event at Imperial on the 5th

Rebooting the seminar

Last week in the Times Higher: My little paean for the seminar, including some notes on I think digital communication might help ‘reboot’ them.

Some background: I used to love seminars. As a PhD student, I’d fill my diary with listings for these little academic get-togethers, full of excitement about what I might learn, what new area of scholarly work might be opened up to me, what new bibliographical trails I might fall into and new shelves in the library I might find myself drawn to. Of course, I’d often get stuck working on something else, and wouldn’t get around to going, but my diary lived in hope at least.

A couple of years ago though, I lost that hope. It wasn’t just that as a lecturer I was simply busier. It was too many seminars had left me digging my nails into the desk with intense boredom. The low point came about a year back when I realized the chap next to me (a highly educated and expert colleague, I should add) was watching a video of a cat playing the bagpipes. I didn’t blame him. In fact, I passed him a note suggesting he googled “fainting goat kittens”.

I don’t even like cat videos.

It’s not just the distraction of YouTube that threatens the seminar. Increasingly, academics are going online to get the professional interactions that the seminar used to (or should) provide: there is research blogging, for example, and I think the recent development of a twitter journal club is fascinating (and ripe for extension to other professions/ areas of research). However, I still think there is something to be said for events where we meet in person. Moreover, I don’t think we should see this as online vs traditional. Indeed, digital communications may be used to improve the quality of seminars, in particular opening them up (which I think will have the effect of improving them).

So, please do share any tips on improving seminars, digital or otherwise. Maybe you disagree, and think we should dump the idea entirely and just congregate on the blogosphere? Or maybe I’m just going to the wrong seminars. What’s it like in your bit of academia?

Boobie-cakes

Breasts, by Genichiro Yagyu.

Part of the Japanese My Body series, this children’s book about breasts comes from the people who brought the world Everybody Poops, The Gas we Pass, The Holes in Your Nose, All About Scabs and, my personal favourite, Contemplating Your Bellybutton. It focuses on the relationship breasts play between mother and child, and includes several pictures of breastfeeding. It’s presented through cartoons, but there is something deliberately realistic about it, they do not want to hide behind metaphor or euphemism (see previous posts on mechanical metaphors in kids’ body books and ‘poo’ books). There are explanatory diagrams (cross sections, etc) as well as scenes of people laughing at their-own and others’ bodies. As with all the books in the series, the message seems to be that it’s ok to giggle and be interested in our bodies: our bodies are pretty interesting afterall, and pretty funny.

Breasts, by Genichiro Yagyu.

I thought about this book when, in Chicago last week, I spotted an ambulance with “medics for melons” scrawled along one side, on it’s way to a breast cancer fundraising walk. There was also a car with two large pink cushions strapped to the back, which after some thought I realised were meant to be a giant pair of breasts. I could see the appeal; a jokey way of declaring breasts as something worth talking about, and a couple of big cushions to sit on at the end of the walk. I wanted to take a photo, but it felt like a bit of an intrusion. These cushion car breasts were oddly life-like. Moreover, people were standing next to it, and I was conscious that these events, for all their humour and desire to raise awareness, are often a time where people remember friends and family who have died. They are pilgrimages of grief. It felt rude to get my camera out, so here’s a drawing instead:

A car and its cushion-breasts.

Moving in the opposite direction to the people on this walk, I was struck by the diverse set of cultural imageries of breasts they were working within: in some cases applying, in some cases trying to transform. A bit later, in another part of town, I also walked by an event called ‘sausagefest’ which seemed to be, amongst other things (i.e. selling sausages) raising money for prostate cancer. (The semiotic play with body parts utalised by cancer campaigns is maybe a whole other issue itself though).

Like any bit of out bodies, breasts are not just bits of our bodies. They have a multitude of symbolic, personal, social, political and scientific meanings; meanings which often cross, even clash. I’m tempted to say this is true of breasts more than others parts of our bodies, but we could say similar of hands, legs, eyes or the penis. Or even of parts of us we see less often (e.g. hearts, guts, lungs, the brain), including those we need scientific understanding and/ or equipment to see (e.g. blood cells, chromosomes, neurones, enzymes).

There’s the subjective experience of having breasts yourself, there are medical ideas of them and artistic representations which may well be more objective, or at least accumulate further subjectivities. Breasts are also objects their owners share with others. I remember a friend talking about the way he had to “reclaim” his girlfriend’s breasts after they’d had their first child. He quickly received a clip round the ear from her, I should add. Again, this isn’t unusual in terms of bodily parts. We might offer a hand for shaking, holding, a high-five or a fist-bump. We  might offer to “lend” a hand too, metaphorically or otherwise. We share blood, or at least we may choose to donate it to shared social blood banks (as long as our blood is declared safe), we share lips to kiss, shoulders to cry on, an arm to lean on, etc, etc.

Breasts come in a range of shapes and sizes, and change over time. Their semiotics are similarly shiftable. Just as breasts may be used to symbolise something else entirely, they may themselves be understood or reconsidered via analogies with other forms or cultural objects. A friend, listening to coos over how much her baby daughter had grown, patted her chest with both hands and smugly beamed “goldtop” (translation: very creamy brand of milk). Anyone who has taken a life class will know what it is like to be asked to consider a model’s breasts geometrically. There’s a neat line in Alan Bennett’s A Question of Attribution where a character says he thinks Titian’s depictions of breasts look like they’ve been put on with an ice cream scoop. It’s used by Bennett as a way of showing a clash of cultural and sexual identity between two very different characters, and is an example of the ways breasts can be divisive too.

Here’s a final image of breasts in culture, from a 1970s cake decoration book by Jane Asher. I’m tempted to just laugh at it, the book certainly invites you to. Still, I can see how it’s offensive too. For me, the cake seems very 1970s, reflecting a changing attitudes to breasts. Perhaps the days of the booby cake will come again though. Other things I bumped into last weekend in Chicago included the site of the first a Playboy mansion (to background of protests at the reopening of a London club) and a El train full of young women returning from the city’s Slutwalk. Just because cultures of bits of our bodies change over time doesn’t mean the change is linear, or that everyone’s changed in the same way.

Alan Bennet: “It’s like they’d been put on with an ice cream scoop”.