Monthly Archives: February 2012

Sounds of Science

BBC Madia Vale Studios, before a recording last year.

It’s world radio day! I don’t know about you, but I’m celebrating. I love the radio.

I think I just like noise. Maybe it’s because my Dad was a musician. He usually worked from home, on what are probably best described as “musicians’ hours”, so there was a steady stream of odd bits of organised noise coming from his office. He was always very focused on the quality of sounds around him, taking personal offense to musac and swearing loudly every time the doorbell rang or a car horn beeped to interrupt the more controlled flow of noise around him. As an orchestrator, it was the particular sound any instrument made which interested him most, and he’d come home from a recording session full of stories of standing out the back of Abbey Road studios with percussionists hitting bin lids. I’m not a musician, but I seem to have picked up some of his obsession sound.

I thought I’d take the opportunity of world radio day to advertise an event I’m chairing at Charles Darwin House next month on the sounds of science. Do come! There will be beer and cake and interesting people talking about the noisiness of science. It’ll be great fun.

On the run up to this, I’ve been thinking about how I could share the noises of my research. I’m a humanities scholar so mainly just sit in an office on my own. There’s the sound of an email hitting my inbox I guess, or maybe the bell ringing from the tower outside my office at Imperial or people gossiping over a cigarette by the window I sit near at UCL. There is also a really cool whistling sound that happens on a windy day in the space between the engineering departements at Imperial. Some day I really must record that. Or the glass bridge at the Science Museum. It’s held up by piano strings so makes a slight sound as you walk across it. It’s usually too loud to hear in the museum, with all the visitors, but when I worked there I’d sometimes walk across it when the museum was closed, lean out to pluck a string and just listen. There are probably other noises around my work I don’t think about. I’m going to have to take time to think and listen.

I also thought I’d share my top five listens in terms of science and technology; the podcasts I feel my week isn’t complete if I haven’t heard.

  • BBC World Service Click – I’m not just saying this because the presenter has an office next door to mine at Imperial. The global perspective on technology it provides is simply fascinating. It’s something I don’t get from a lot of the other sci/tech media I consume, and really makes me think about technology in different ways. Like the Guardian tech podcast, I also find it invaluable as a briefing on media issues.
  • Radiolab – It’s hard to describe quite how brilliant RadioLab is. Very simply, it is storytelling about science at its best. It will make you cry and laugh out loud in the middle of the street and you won’t care that it makes you look a bit weird because you are simply so absorbed in it. It is that good. Really.
  • Guardian Science Weekly – There are a few science magazine radio shows out there, but this is my personal favorite. It updates me on the news and will add in the odd interesting feature and/ or interview too. There is a lovely chatty feel to it, a nice mix of humble and strident, and fun too. I’m also a huge fan of the Nature one, though it’s slightly more serious.
  • Peter Day’s World of Business – This is maybe an odd choice as the focus of this is business, but perhaps because of this I find that when it does cover sci/ tech issues it does in a way I won’t find elsewhere. Plus, I just love the presenter’s voice and they once did a whole show about the history of pencils.
  • In Our Time - Again, not always science, but rather the history of ideas, which often touches on science. The presenter can sometimes be a bit deferent to scientific expertise for my personal taste, but it’s usually a good clever chat about something interesting and often has Simon Schaffer on it (I’m happy to admit to being a huge Schaffer fangirl). The archive is prestigious.
So, what are your favourite science and technology themed podcasts? I’d love to know. Also, do you work in a lab? Does your machinery, building or colleages make interesting noises? Maybe you could record it on your phone or something and share it? (Audioboo is good for this). Share your science noises!

Identifying arguments in climate science

George Bush used to say, in his generous way, that the science [of climate change] is uncertain. But it’s an almost content free statement because science is about uncertainty.

Lord Oxburgh FRS, Imperial College, 30th January 2012.

That quote comes from a debate on climate science in the mass media we held at Imperial last week, part of the pilot science in context course I’m working on. You can find a podcast of the debate at the college media site.

Oxburgh chaired the event, with a panel comprising of Louise Gray (Environment Correspondent, Telegraph), James Randerson (Environment and Science News Editor, Guardian), James Painter (Reuters Institute, University of Oxford) and Joe Smith (Open University), along with questions from our undergraduates.

A couple of students and tutors later told me they felt the panelists were too similar, that there wasn’t enough ‘debate’ and they’d have liked to see a climate sceptic. I take that point, but also disagree with it. There was, if you listen carefully, a fair bit of diversity within the discussion. It wasn’t one side vs. the other, and just because the panellists tended to be polite and smile and nod at each other didn’t mean they were all coming from the same position.

It’s worth reflecting on how we identify a ‘debate’ here. Debates do not always have to be a battle of two opposing views. Personally, I’d say that’s often the least productive sort of debate you can have. They can also just be a group of people playing with a particular issue; a matter of chatting to gradually identify problems and reflect on possible answers. Indeed, this question of how we structure and spot the debate within climate science was a key topic of this particular event, as it was in our previous class, with Brian Hoskins.

James Painter started things off by stressing there are many types of uncertainty involved in the public discussion of climate change, including many types of scepticism: ‘there are many ways you can question and be uncertain about climate science’. Drawing on his Poles Apart report, he suggested four types: people who are sceptical that global warming is happening, those who a sceptical that it is due to human action, those who are sceptical about aspects of climate change’s impact and people who are sceptical about specific policies.

James Randerson followed with a different track, noting the stretch of the issue with reference to an extraordinary letter to the Guardian from the medical community, calling for more transparently on climate lobbyists. Louise Gray offered another topical case study: the diversity of coverage of a recent UK government report on the impacts of climate change to the UK: the Guardian focused on the burden to poor where as the Telegraph noted possible opportunities for the tourist industry (you can google for yourself to see what the Mail said). As Gray argued, newspapers will have different frames for how they read climate news based on the editors’ ideas of their customers, a point underlined by Joe Smith later when he stressed the way we all bring our own cultural ‘baggage’ to climate change debates, and plugging Mike Hulme’s book, Why We Disagree About Climate Change

For his presentation, Joe Smith argued that in many ways climate science makes for a rubbish story in the mass media. There is simply too much of a consensus: too many of the experts agree, what really is there to report? He said he used to think the consensus on climate change was a good thing, but it does make it unreportably dull, which is why the contrarian views get pulled in, to liven it up. There isn’t enough of an edge, maybe we need more of an edge? Gray echoed this in discussion, saying we should pay attention to more of the ‘dodgy things’ going on around climate change – subsidies, inefficiencies of NGOs – that the real stories are less about sceptic vs non-sceptic and more about who is doing the right thing, how and when. Randerson and Oxburgh seemed slightly more cautious of Smith’s call for more arguments, laughing ‘careful what you wish for’ and noting the ways a stronger sense of disagreement plays in the US and Australia. I wonder if that misses Smith and Gray’s point though, which to me was more of a call to open up the political edginess of climate change policy. It was about the disagreements at the end of Painter’s typology of sceptics: debate over what to do about climate change, not whether it is happening or why.

For me, this was summed up in a comment from Gray near the end of the evening: ‘there’s a lot of heat and fire around a few sceptical people, but maybe that is the wrong focus’.

Maybe you disagree though.

In praise of POST

If you are even the slightest bit interested in science and technology policy, you really should know about the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology (or POST as it’s more commonly known).

POST is the UK Parliament’s in-house office for analysis of science policy issues. Obviously it could do a lot more than it does and there are oodles of problems with it, yadda, yadda, yadda, but it’s Friday and I think they’re worthy of a little celebration.

About 20-30 times a year they publish briefing notes on specific issues. These vary, but can be brilliantly clear introductions to the often highly complex, multi-disciplinary and uncertain issues of science and technology policy. They’ve just published their 400th POSTnote, on climate variability and weather. These are often produced by young scientists on a placement and according to the POST twitter account, this one was produced with the assistance of Matt Ashfold, a NERC funded PhD student from Cambridge.

The whole archive of POSTnotes is worth a look though. A great resource and, for science policy geeks, a great way to loose a few hours on a cold afternoon.