Where I was the other weekend

ScibloggingM@, supercool editor of Nature Network London, has posted his report of the meeting which I attended a week and a couple of days ago.

"The internet spilled out into the real world last Saturday, when 130 science bloggers, communicators, and scientists assembled at the revamped Royal Institution on 30 August for Science Blogging 2008: London, organized by Nature Network. The conference had a unique hybrid format, in which part of the programme was left open for attendees to fill in that day with 'unconference' sessions proposed and voted on in the morning. Nine ideas were proposed before the conference got started and were voted on by the delegates during the first morning break. This was Europe's first science blogging conference, and it couldn't have found a better venue than the Royal Institution within whose laboratories 10 chemical elements were discovered and 14 Nobel Prizes earned. Speakers took to a stage previously occupied by such luminaries as Michael Faraday and William Bragg.

Keynote speaker Ben Goldacre is probably the most famous scientific blogger in the UK, tackling pseudoscience and quackery in his Bad Science blog and weekly Guardian column. His eloquent, entertaining and expletive-filled intro provided a strong set of examples in which the traditional press have been hoodwinked by claims of 'miracle cures', whereas specialised elements of the blogosphere successfully scrutinised, attacked and demolished such bogus assertions. Ben, and bloggers like him, are increasingly discrediting peddlers of dubious products, filling holes of accountability that mainstream media lacks the time or expertise to address." (see more here.)

The meeting was also "live blogged" over at the Friend Feed group set up for the purpose. It is quite scary to moderate a session and have people typing it up onto the internet as you go, and ask questions that are beamed in from Australia and all points inbetween (luckily I did not realize this was all going on until the next day, Sunday, when I checked out my web subscriptions, or I probably would have fainted). More than 300 pictures have been uploaded to Flickr (tag, sciblog) and the sciblogosphere has been reverberating with excitement. There is a lovely set of four posts (starting here) over at Clare Dudman's Keeper of the Snails blog.  There is also a very nice meeting-report post here, on Nature Network, by librarian Frank Norman.

(Photo credit: Lisushi.)

Essay on Darwin’s London

Essay on Darwin's London from General London Forum forum on Nature Network London.

Nature Network London's editor Matt Brown draws attention to "a beautifully written piece [from Atlantic.com] describing the London of Charles Darwin. It nicely complements the Darwin map we posted on Nature Network a few months back." From the article:

One afternoon I went out walking with Joe Cain, a senior lecturer in the history of biology at University College London. We headed to 2 Bedford Place, a few minutes from the college, where the geologist Leonard Horner used to live with his five highly educated daughters. Darwin was a frequent visitor. But his father steered him instead toward Emma Wedgwood, a first cousin, good-natured and with a handsome dowry. The two were soon looking for their own first home in the same Bloomsbury neighborhood, though Emma prudently advised against living too close to “the Horneritas.”

They moved to a rented brick row house on Upper Gower Street, which they nicknamed “Macaw Cottage” for the gaudy decor. The house was destroyed during World War II, Cain said, and pointed out similar houses across the street that had survived. But what really interested him was the location. From the back garden, Darwin would have looked out on the college’s main building, where his onetime mentor Robert Grant had become a professor of zoology. Grant had taught him basic field biology. But Darwin managed to avoid him for the three years he lived on Gower Street; apparently he didn’t want his career tainted by Grant’s radical beliefs—including an early brand of evolutionary thinking.

Scientific walking tour of London

Nature tour I've been involved in a conference on science blogging for the past day or two, and in preparing for it before that, hence the infrequent posts this week. As part of the proceedings, Nature Network London editor Matt Brown organized an impressive scientific walking tour of London for some of the people attending the meeting. We had such a great day that I thought I would share his itinerary here, in case anyone planning to visit the city would like to recreate it, or at any rate know of these wonderful places that can be seen in the space of a few hours. Many thanks to Matt for such a mind-expanding and sociable day.

10.30 am Tour of Nature's offices (aim to get here for 10.20), kindly conducted by Maxine Clarke.
11.30 am Wellcome Collection – awesome museum of medical curiosities. Includes lots of dead bodies. Free entry.
12.30 Head off to get lunch, taking in some of the blue plaques and scientific sights of interest in Bloomsbury and Soho. [Lunch was at an outside cafe in Russell Square.]
2.00 Tour and talk at the Linnean Society.
2.30 Pop into the Geological Society of London to look at the famous William Smith geology map.
2.45 Whistlestop tour of the Mayfair/St James area, including the Royal Institution, Royal Society, Newton's House and many other places.
4.30 Behind the scenes tour of the Darwin Centre – part of the Natural History Museum – courtesy of Karen James.

Update: photo by Martin Fenner. I'm the bag lady in the middle. Matt is to my left, with dark jacket and blue jeans. For more tour pictures, see Martin's Flickr stream.

So you thought pipetting wasn’t trendy?

From Nature News:

454149a-i1_0 ‘In a dreary, lonely lab a young female postdoc puts down her pipette to massage her aching latexed hands. Sounds like the perfect set-up for a hot new music video. Well at least it does to Tyler Kay, creative director at Compare Networks Production Group (CNPG) in San Francisco, California.

A recent release from CNPG features a group of five winsome young men singing the praises of a new automated pipetting system called epMotion, made by international biotech company Eppendorf. As the lab heroine is whisked to a beach under the Golden Gate Bridge, the band members gyrate around her and her glasses are shed along with her inhibitions, just before the chorus. “Girl you need epMotion” (whispered: “yeah girl it’s time to automate.”)’

For Eppendorf’s stab at the boy band, pipette-appeal genre, see the video here.

What do the scientists themselves think? Well, one view is: “Please, in the name of all that’s holy, make it stop. I’ll even buy something from Eppendorf if you take it down.” (The Scientist at Nature Network). Another scientist’s opinion (in the comments): “I’m fairly sure that guy in the sunglasses was in grad school with me you know… If I’m right, his name is Lauren and he’s an ecologist…”

The dawn of this new advertising era is heralded at Mind The Gap, whose verdict is that “it’s always good to have entertaining portrayals of scientists out there, reminding everyone else that we’re not an alien species”. The first “classic of the genre” thence discussed, The PCR Song (courtesy BioRad),  is here.

Table of the elephants

Chemifant%20small Via The Great Beyond, here is a picture by Emily Unell of what is inevitably called the chemical elephant, who lives in Washington, DC, outside the American Chemical Society building (where else? The National Zoo?)

The elephant was decorated with pictures of elephants depiciting the periodic table of the elements by the students of Patapsco High School & Center for the Arts, back at the turn of the century (;-) ). From a Chemical & Engineering News account at the time: “While some depictions are chemically accurate–such as nitrogen, which shows a rooted elephant drawing nitrogen from the soil–others are more a play on the names–for example, the masked Lone Ranger atop a rearing white elephant representing silver.”

See The Great Beyond post for more links to elementania (but not elephantania).

Days in the life, PODs at night

Over at Nature Network, we have a group called “Ask the Nature Editor”, where scientists (frequently young ones as it turns out) can ask questions about the publication process, how to format their papers, how to successfully apply for an editorial job, and so on. It’s quite a serious and worthy enterprise. Today, I read the most wonderful photo-essay there called A day in the life of a senior editor. It is brilliant, as well as hilarious. I can’t post an extract here and do it justice, so all I can do is to say that no other editor could have a life like this, and no other editor could describe it in such terms. Please, just go and read it. Pay special attention to the captions.

In the interim between reading this account and being able to write this post about it, the author of it, Henry Gee, has been busy. He’s published three books at Lulu, the print-on-demand service. Henry writes: “I have to say that using Lulu was simplicity itself. Even I didn’t screw up. I managed to load all three books, write blurbs, format covers and so on in around three hours.” Each book costs about £5. There is a great discussion in the comments, in which it emerges that Henry sent the link to his agent, who has thereby purchased the three books. What a great way to send your agent a book, rather than paying the postage and photocopying costs, and having to bind the book up, you can get it all done by Lulu and end up with something in much more readable format for your agent and potential publishers. I also learned that you can delete your book from Lulu if your efforts get you a publishing contract, and other useful tips. Have a look for yourself.

Nature Network, “the” social website for scientists and those interested in science, is free to access, but registration is required. You can read everything, but if you want to comment, you have to register (which is quick and simple, and also free). The comment threads are true demonstrations of the beauty of blogging, but I will draw a veil over some of the tags.

Do scientists hinder science communication?

Mark Lynas writes on the Guardian blog about how not being a scientist is a help, not a hindrance, in enabling him to communicate science effectively. It is a well-written article, but does not convince me. Some people can write or otherwise communicate well, and some can't. Some are scientists, some aren't. You can't put an apple and an orange together and call it a gin and tonic.

There is plenty of good writing about science by people who are scientifically qualified, if Mark Lynas would care to look in his nearest bookshop, or at a site such as Brian Clegg's excellent Popular Science website – "science can be dull but it doesn't have to be like that", or Jennifer Rohn's LabLit — "the culture of science in fiction and fact". On the other hand, I agree with him that many scientists don't communicate science well, but those particular scientists are often communicating (badly!) to each other, not to the world at large.

On the other hand, there is a huge amount of what I can only call rubbish written about science by people who have no scientific training, who don't think critically, and/or who confuse emotion with fact. You only have to look at the masses of hysteria and error in (mainly) US blogs and websites about autism and MMR vaccines to see what I mean. But sometimes, scientific debate on blogs that aren't even primarily about science can be better than in the newspapers (whose science correspondents presumably have at least a first degree in some sort of science): see Books, Inq. the Epilogue for a case in point.

What to conclude from all this? Although I think Mark Lynas has made some sweeping oversimplifications in his post, I have to warm to the guy for concluding thus: "Having said all that, I am acutely aware that I am not a qualified expert in my own right, and that I need to tread very carefully when making judgements about work carried out by people who are, after all, the real experts. That is why I have so little time for climate sceptics, who claim to know better than those who have spent their entire professional lives investigating the physics of the atmosphere. That vast majority of those who dismiss the reality of global warming are simply ignorant – and arrogant, to boot. Now that's a statement that no scientist would probably make. But it's true nonetheless, and it's my job to tell you that." Spot on, Mark. (Who, by the way, just won the 2008 Royal Society prize for science books.)

Top ten newly described species

2008_03th Via press release: The International Institute for Species Exploration at Arizona State University and an international committee of taxonomists have announced the top 10 new [sic] species described in 2007, selected from the thousands of species described in that calendar year.On the list are an ornate sleeper ray, Electrolux; a 75-million-year-old giant duck-billed dinosaur; a shocking pink millipede (see image); a rare, off-the-shelf frog; one of the most venomous snakes in the world; a fruit bat; a mushroom; a jellyfish named after its victim; a life-imitates-art "Dim" rhinoceros beetle; and the "Michelin Man" plant. The list of ten species, with illustrations (none of which is as pink as the millipede), can be seen here. Although each entrant is given a dumbed-down name in this list, the Latin name is provided one click away as part of a fuller description.

The Sun and Moon corrupted

From Mind the Gap:

"Philip Ball’s debut ‘lab lit’ novel The Sun and Moon Corrupted  will feature in our first Fiction Lab book group at the Royal Institution on 9 June (blogged about in more detail here). It’s a page-turner, so if you live in or near London, it’s not too late to pick up a copy and join us for the juicy post-mortem in a few weeks’ time.
I’m only halfway through, but it’s a cracker of a story. I won’t give away the plot, but it deals heavily with fringe science, which lies on a continuum between quackery and legitimate (or at least, accepted) knowledge. Often, the fourth dimension of time is the only thing that separates fringe science from its ‘real’ counterpart; anyone studying molecular biology in the 1980s will recall the scathing and incredulous reaction that Stan Prusiner and his wacky-seeming self-replicating prion proteins received in the traditional community – in stark contrast to his momentous encounter with the Swedish monarchy in 1997. Ball’s novel deals with people who doubt Einstein’s view of quantum mechanics, and offers a fascinating view into this nether, neither-here-nor-there universe of scientific culture."

Read more at Mind the Gap – Jennifer Rohn's blog — and see here for Lab Lit, "the culture of science in fiction and fact".

Distribution of the Double Linkings in Irone

Via The Great Beyond:

On Monday UK newspaper the Guardian, known to many as the Grauniad due to its penchant for mistakes, ran the following correction:

We misspelled a number of elements in the periodic table printed in part VI of the Science Course supplement distributed with the paper on May 1. We meant Iron (not Irone); Praseodymium (not Praseodynium); Neodymium (not Neodynium); Neptunium (not Neptuniam); Americium (not Americum); Seaborgium (not Seoborgium); and Darmstadtium (not Darmstadium).

The Great Beyond goes on to present the first ever Neodymium mis-spelling league. Nature does not do too well, but at least it has never mis-spelled (or mis-spoke) "iron" as "irone".

148, 114-114 (26 July 1941). Abstract:
THE formulation of Irene as 1: 1: 2: 6-tetra-methyltetralin has recently been established synthetically by Bogert and Apfelbaum. On the basis of this formulation of irene and the production of ββγ-trimethyl pimelic acid by ozonization of irone, structural formulæ have been postulated for this ketone by Ruzicka and his co-workers. Two of the postulated structures contain the chromophoric system C = C – C = C – C = O which should therefore give rise to a characteristic absorption spectrum.

Who said science used to be simple and has only become complex since 1953, and publication of the double-helix structure of DNA?