Category Archives: podcasts

Questioning academics

"intellectruism"

A table at the Science Museum’s Dana Centre coffee shop. No, I don’t know what it means either. 

The latest episode of Brain Train is up – the podcast I work on where we get academics to quiz other academics – this time with autism researcher Johanna Finneman interviewing philosopher Nina Power. I think my favourite bit is where Power stands up for the right of philosophers to be “a little bit annoying”. As much as I am a philosopher (and I’d say I’m roughly 15% philosopher, albeit a self-hating one most of the time) I very much ascribe to that.

The format’s designed so each episode an academic interviews another about their work, then in the next episode the interviewee becomes the interviewer (and the expert becomes the novice) and so on. At the end of each episode we also ask the interviewee (the expert) what questions they have for their own field. These are Power’s, for philosophy, but I think they could be directed to about any group of the academy.

A political question [first]: how do we get philosophers at Russell Group Universities to defend those philosophy departments at non-Russell Group universities that are being closed? I’d like to see solidarity across my subject, because it’s my feeling that if you love and care about the subject, you would want to see more of it, everywhere, not less of it. And not trying to sort of keep it to yourself  and you know, get all the research money which they get already and you sit by while philosophy departments left right and centre get closed. So that’s a political question [...]

I guess the question you’re [Johanna started with] asking me: How do we get philosophy out there? How do we critically but clearly state what we think is important about philosophy? [...] How do we make the link between the critical questions that people have all the time to the older and ongoing philosophical questions in a non-patronising way, in a way that doesn’t kind of, I don’t know, but nor does it reduce to a self-help model of philosophy, this kind of popular philosophy that is, I think, anti-philosophical in lots of ways.

Brain Train Podcast

Largely gratuitous picture of a steamtrain.

Martin Austwick (physicist, podcaster, musician) and I have just launched a podcast called Brain Train.

Each episode an academic interviews another about their work, then in the next episode the interviewee becomes the interviewer (and the expert becomes the novice) and so on. It’s a bit like Chain Reaction on Radio 4, except our focus is more on knowledge rather than performers’ lives. The pilot had me interview a water systems engineer. Then she wanted to know about autism research, so we found an expert on that. Now the autism researcher wants to know more about philosophy…

Visit the website, or you can subscribe directly in iTunes. We’re still finding our feet a bit, and each episode with vary just because of the nature of the project, but I hope it’s going to build into something fun.

Science and growth

Last week I co-organised a debate on science and growth, one of a regular* “Science Question Time” seminars.

The idea that science might equal growth is something which has dominated UK science policy discourse for several years (e.g. David Willetts’ first speech as Science Minister). But can the government pick winners, and how can we ensure public coffers benefit from such public investment? Perhaps we need to think in different terms entirely – should we be looking to technology for sustainability, rather than growth? Is an unrelenting focus on growth a bit irresponsible? (see, for example, the Royal Society’s recent People and the Planet report).

We brought together a panel consisting of Penny Attridge (SPARK Ventures), Rebekah Higgitt** (National Maritime Museum/Royal Observatory), Mariana Mazzucato*** (SPRU, University of Sussex) and James Meadway (new economics foundation), chaired by Jack Stilgoe (University of Exeter) and involving a diverse audience largely drawn from science, policy and journalism for what turned out to be an exciting and lively debate.

Yes, exiting and lively, about innovation policy, really and truly, I promise. It was even funny at times. You can listen to a podcast of the event for yourself:

 

 

* The last event was in March, on nuclear policy. You can also listen to a podcast of this event. That was played over 120,000 times, so it must be good (nothing to do with it having been Boing-ed, not at all…).

** Becky’s written up her notes for the evening with some good links on her blog.

*** Professor Mazzucato’s contribution was dominated by questions of rebalancing the economy (and what we might mean by this) with a particular focus on the capturing of structures and rewards of innovative labour by the financial sector. You can read her report on this for the Policy Network, published yesterday (see also her piece for the Guardian).

Being noisy about science

Here’s the podcast for an event on the sounds of science I chaired at Charles Darwin House last week.

The inspiration for the event was mainly just that I like making a noise. I also like listening to podcasts and I quite like science too. Moreover, I think that the noises made by and about science bring out some of the texture of scientific work, and let us reflect upon the stories we tell about science (things I think are worth doing).

Our panellists covered audio-storytelling about science from polished BBC documentaries about instruction manuals (really, it’s great: go listen) to slightly rawer clips of spaceships launching (listen, put the sound up and watch your room shake). We also had an oral history of engineering, podcasts on Swine Flu for doctors to listen to in the bath and a bit of electronic music fashioned from the sounds of Tottenham Court Road.

For me, the best bit came near the end when the audience started sharing memories of sounds made in the course of scientific work. Someone mentioned the way biochemists learn the art of recognising the right sound of a centrifuge when preparing cultures. One audience member mentioned the noise of telescopes (and you can hear this lovely Guardian podcast for some more on this), another shared her aural memories of working in anesthetics (there is a documentary in the sounds of surgery, I’m sure). A historian shared an amazing story about an artist he’d met who’d done some work on atomic weapon research sites, where she wasn’t allowed to take photos or write anything down but was (surprisingly?) allowed to record sounds. So she’d recorded the sound of the centrifuge which still gave a strong sense of place. I also remembered some stories of the history of atomic science, when it shifted from looking for particles to listening to traces of them, and young scientists would be employed because they had good ears rather than eyes and early radio enthusiasts had helped develop the technical kit required to do this research (this is only a sketchy memory of a talk from Jeff Hughes I once heard, sorry if I’ve got it wrong).

I’ve been listening out to sounds around me ever since; thinking about ones I take for granted, finding new ones.

EDITED TO ADD: via David Pantalony, on twitter, a great STS paper on listening to laboratories (pdf)