Monthly Archives: June 2012

There’s a nuclear missile on the roof above a vintage clothes shop on the Holloway Road…

There’s a nuclear missile on the roof above a vintage clothes shop on the Holloway Road. You have to look carefully, but it’s there. It’s that egg-like object in the photo above. Or at least that’s the top of it, the red thing next to it is the base.

No, it’s nothing to do with our upcoming sports extravaganza. It’s been there for years. It’s also bloody heavy, though it’s well over a decade since I handled the thing. It’s not a real nuclear missile. It’s a model. It belongs to CND, whose offices are also above said vintage clothes shop. They have an inflatable one these days, but the “missile” used to tour round the country every summer as a way of taking military technology to the people. Or at least it took a talking point for discussing such objects, in absence of the real thing. It’s not like the MoD are going to let CND play with an actual one.

The Holloway Road missile is only one in a cast of mockups of technological or natural objects used by campaigners. There was the whale the World Wildlife Fund drove down the Thames in February, or Greenpeace’s “polar bears” that sprung up in cities across the world last week. I walked by some orangoutangs outside on Tottenham Court Rd a few weeks ago too, protesting about deforestation. Environmental activist orangoutangs, it turns out, wear sandals (it was really hot that day). My favourite is probably Water Aid’s giant river crafted from 100s of blue squares posted by an international network of knitters; a wooly petition which ended up draped over the National Theatre.

Those are all clear, explicit fakes. They’re not mermen. They’re not designed to con. They are not even trick-then-reveal projects like the Yes Men Arctic Ready site or the OFT fat melting pads. Such overt fabrications are openly designed to expose those bits of the world which are too far away, too dangerous, too secret or too unruly to be experienced directly by most of us. They’re a moment of spectacular, a slight subversion of the world designed to draw attention and inspire learning or action. They are falsehoods in a way, but there to express something people feel very strongly is important and true. They bring a bit of reality to us by being unreal.

It’s not just activists who engage in such subverted realism. It’s a quite routine part of the public communication of science, technology and the environment. Metaphor or analogy in text, CGI or filming “under controlled conditions” for a documentary. I think museums provide the best examples though. Museums of science and technology often have to find inventive ways to fit the large, dangerous or simply abstract things they curate into a glass case: Einstein’s chalkboard, Galileo’s finger, Florence Nightengale’s moccasins, models of boats, a bowl from Hiroshima. My favourite example of this has to be the Science Museum’s DNA model. They wanted to display the model from the iconic 1953 Watson and Crick picture. Except the people in the lab had taken the model apart to reuse after the photo was staged. The museum dug out the old pieces from the back of a cupboard, dusted them down and rebuilt the model. It is a mockup, albeit an official one, unveiled by Watson himself, but a mockup nonetheless.

When it comes to the bits of the world natural history museums want to encase, once living things are often pickled, stuffed or rebuilt from fossils (though they model too, from the Crystal Palace dinosaurs to modern animatronic models or IMAX movies) . With the recent death of “Lonesome George” the Galapagos giant tortoise, there’s been some interesting debate over what to do with his body. Henry Nicholls argues we shouldn’t stuff George, writing a thoughtful piece about the politics of preserving other iconic animals (though I wondered why he didn’t mention Jeremy Bentham). In contrast, Paolo Viscardi stresses museums’ role as research institutions as well as public communication, saying George should be preserved for science. Both pieces are worth reading. Incidentally, Viscardi works at the Horinman, which is where the merman I linked to earlier resides, and also contains the most amazing inaccurately overstuffed Walrus (one of the many museum exhibits which tweet a form of post-mortem anthropomorphic existence). I can also recommend this piece by Phillip Hoare on how to remember the whale that died in the Thames a few years ago, or the Brown Dog statue in Battersea‘s worth a visit.

I’m rambling. My point is that we all do a lot of fictional work to have non-fictional discussion and fabricate things in order to debate things we hold as truths. It’s normal, it’s necessary and to think otherwise is just a bit limiting. The trick is to consider which bit of reality we want to communicate, and stay as true to that as you can.

If anyone has any other examples of fabricated, refashioned or reconstructed aspects of science, technology or the natural world used for public communication, I’d love to hear them. Bet there’s loads of ageing science props hidden in store cupboards of museums, NGOs, schools and film studios the world over.


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).

Science, a people thing

On friday, the European Commission released a teaser video for its new campaign to recruit young women into science. As their press release says, they were concerned that stereotypical images of science were putting girls off studying the subject and wanted to show science as “a girl thing”.

Shall we just say they didn’t handle it very well? See, for example, coverage of outrage at Wired UK, the TelegraphNaturethe Washington Post and New Statesman. It’s hard to describe how bad this is. Watch it for yourself:

As many people pointed out, they simply replaced some stereotypes about science with a few other more, rather painful ones, surrounding gender. I think they’re still working from a rather narrow view of science too and this is annoying because both “science” and “girl” are categories that should be kept open for interpretation. Science isn’t a girl thing. Or a boy thing. Or a white thing. Or a posh thing. Or an old people thing. Or an atheist thing. Or a geek thing. At it’s best, as Deb Blum says, science is a people thing.

A short video trying to present the whole of science to all European young women was always doomed to crapness. Rather than getting PR people to sit in a room and guess what girls think is cool (or even asking a few thousand and then coming up with a bland composite / generalised idea) the EU should treat young people and scientists as individuals and invite groups of them to talk to each other. As I’ve argued before, the I’m a Scientist project is a great example of this, showing a broad range of everyday researchers and the day to day frustrations and excitements of scientific life. I also like the way I’m a Scientist aims to give some degree of agency to young people. Just because science education is about sharing the expertise of previous generations with the next doesn’t mean kids have to be simply spoken down to. Science might be a matter of standing on the shoulders of giants, but that doesn’t mean we can’t discuss which giants’ work we want to build on, or know where we’re going to take any of this.

So, if you feel the need to wash your eyes out with soap after watching the science girl thing vid, try watching these instead. See how young people can be the people doing science, communicating it to others and challenging sci/ tech policy:

  1. How a 15 year old became involved in cancer research (winner of the 2011 Google Science Fair).
  2. Three girls get excited by the Leidenfrost effect (winner of the 2010 IoP Best SciCast Physics film).
  3. An 11 year old’s short film about shale gas (winner of a “Have Your Say on Sustainability” contest, she then went to Brussells to address MEPs on the topic).

The lazy sexism of the science girl thing video was annoying, but really I filed it with my (depressingly large) set of examples of crass science communication projects which patronise young people. Stop trying to find ways to repackage science and instead invite people to be part of it. Let them find out what they think is inspiring for themselves. If it would relinquish some control, grown up science might even learn something from young people.

Not Drowning London

Thames Barrier park, North Bank.

A couple of weeks ago, I visited the Thames Barrier Park. It’s one of my favourite parts of London, even if there is something spooky about it. Perhaps because there is something spooky about it. Nestled in a rather bleak bit of East London, it’s a very still place. There’s a cafe in the park and often some children playing. The Docklands Light Railway rattles behind it, in its slightly old fashioned futuristic way. There’s the Tate and Lyle factory – complete with giant tin of golden syrup stuck to the side – just to the West. But the overall feeling of the place is quite peaceful.

And yet, there are few places which, for me, sum up the power of both nature and technology. Or, to put it another way, the power of the Earth, and our ability as humans to do stuff with and to that Earth. It’s a calm spot to consider the violent destruction a flood might cause and how we may have made such floods more likely in the future. It’s also an invitation to feel grateful for our ability to protect at least some parts of our world from such hazards, at least for the time being. The river, trees, a park, a cement factory on the opposite bank and, of course, those silver triangles of the Barrier itself. The space is cultivated to consider that symbolism, with paths and gardens placed quite strategically juxtaposing and showing the complex blurs between nature and technology, security and danger. See, for example, the way the trees have been planted to echo the Barrier in the photo above. I think it showcases the shiny power of the Barrier, but in a rather humble way, one that seems open to questions.

I was maybe especially spooked by the Barrier as, the day before, I’d been to the Drowning Earth exhibition at Somerset House, a chilling photography project about the human consequences of flooding. I should probably note that the Thames Barrier dates back from the 1950s and is designed to protect central London from floods based on the best data available in the 1970s. It’s not a response to more modern worries about global warming. There’s the Thames Estuary 2100 project for larger and more long term flood defenses.

According to the Independent, the photographer behind Drowning World, Gideon Mendel, said wanted to show there was more to the iconography of climate change than polar bears. Much as I like a good polar bear photo, I know what he means. Another photography exhibition which presents a slightly different view of issues surrounding climate change, albeit causes rather than consequences, is Canadian photographer Edward Burtynsky’s chronicle of our relationship with oil (at Photographer’s Gallery till July 1st, Free).

The blurb when you enter the exhibition says Burtynsky’s interested in the subcultures of oil, but it’s hard to leave without thinking how intimately linked we are even to the more alien looking landscapes he captures. It’s also quite striking the way he plays with shape, colour and light to represent spaces reminiscent of an abstract painting but, precisely because they are not abstract, with an added pathos. There’s the regularity of a car park in Houston or motorcycling parking at a Kiss concert in North Dakota. Curls of the road by the slightly futuristic Nanpu bridge exchange, China, show the movement of the cars as well sharp lines of the roads. Similarly, there’s a delicacy as well as a smoggy growl to the interlacing grey curves of a highway in LA. Long lines of pipes of Canadian oil refineries or the gold, brown, yellow and silvery-grey of oil fields Belridge in California and Socar Fields in Baku, Azerbaijan. The latter show tall, slightly skeletal machines at work: robot alien monsters about to charge, they made me think of Star Wars. A haunting series in a breaker’s yard in Chittagong, Bangkadesh shows a glorious, hopeful sunrise over huge slabs of old ships. I also enjoyed the patterns provided by detritus of mass production: crushed oil filters and a pile of wheels. The highlight for me, however, had to be the maple-leaf gold and reds pulled out in a shot of Alberta oil sands. There was a similarly clever use of colours in an image of the 2010 oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico which brought out greens to make the oil look like landmasses on a longer shot from a satellite. The Alberta image was something extra though, projecting a sense of national identity along with nature over multinational industry.

I posted a link to a Guardian gallery of the Burtynsky exhibition on twitter, highlighting a line in their commentary that suggests the works offer a reframing of the notion of the sublime. In reply, climate campaigner Lawrence Carter suggested that with Burtynsky’s photos we’re awed at our capacity to destroy the finite, rather than comprehend infinite. I don’t have an answer to this but I think it’s an interesting point which Carter puts neatly. As I’ve argued before, there are ambiguities in a technological reframing of the sublime. I think science and technology of the last few hundred years offer new ways of thinking about long stretches of time and space, seemingly infinite or actually so; in particular our ability as humans to comprehend nature and have forms of control over it. Whether any such comprehension and control is something all humans can share, or is only for a privileged few, is something we should all keep an eye on. Or maybe we’re all collectively heading for the finite.

Drowning World closes today, but some of the images are at the Guardian or see Mendel’s website for more. You can visit Thames Barrier Park by Pontoon Dock DLR, or pop over to the other side of the river for the Barrier’s information centre. The Burtynsky Oil exhibition is on at the Photographer’s Gallery, near Oxford Circus for the next month (free). I can also recommend visiting Nick Cobbing’s website, especially the glacial stories and piece on the brown coal of Konin.

Research: education bloggers

I’m currently working with colleagues at the OU’s Institute of Educational Technology on a small research project exploring communities of education blogging. It’s based on some work I did last year on brain bloggers (some early data on this, more developed publication soon). As with that project, I’m not going into it assuming I know what a brain blogger is, or even if such a thing even exists. Rather, I want to let the first stage of the research help me get a sense of who blogs about education, where, how and why.

So, do you blog about education? Would you fill in this survey? Do you know someone else who blogs about education? Will you tell them about it?

You can respond in comments here if you want, or it might be easier (and more private) to email Or you can cut and paste it to post it on your blog, if you want to share your answers with your readers (although please drop me a line with the link so I can make sure I have a copy). I need to get responses by the 15th of June to take them to the next step of analysis.

Also, please do pass it on to anyone you think might count as a blogger about education.  Part of the point of setting this survey free on the same networks of social media it aims to study is to see where it ends up.

The idea of this survey is to get a better feel for the area than I can just by looking myself. I eventually want to do a small number of more detailed interviews with bloggers, informed by this survey. Depending on the results I get from this stage, I may also use aspects of the data in my final analysis. I shall be preparing a report for the Open University and, we hope, submit something to a peer reviewed journal.

If you want your answers to remain anonymous, that is fine, just let me know in the email. Otherwise I will assume it is ok to quote you (using your blog name as identifier, not necessarily your name, a point which might be important for pseudonymous bloggers).

Please email responses to by the 15th of June. You are welcome to post your response openly to your blog if you want, but please send me the link.

Please feel free to leave any questions blank if you feel it is intrusive or you simply don’t have anything to say on the subject. This will not invalidate the overall response.


Blog URL:

What do you blog about?

Are you paid to blog?

What do you do professionally (other than blog)?

How long have you been blogging at this site?

Do you write in other platforms? (e.g. in a print magazine?)

Can you remember why you started blogging?

What keeps you blogging?

Do you have any idea of the size or character if your audience? How?

What’s your attitude to/ relationship with people who comment on your blog?

Do you feel as if you fit into any particular community, network or genre of blogging? (e.g. schools, science, education, museums, technology)

If so, what does that community give you?

What do you think are the advantages of blogging? What are its disadvantages/ limitations?

Do you tell people you know offline that you’re a blogger? (e.g. your grandmother, your boss)

Is there anything else you want to tell me about I haven’t asked?