A strange time to visit the Herschel museum
The day after the Brexit referendum I visited a museum dedicated to two German immigrants, and some of England’s most prolific astronomers.
Siblings William and Caroline Herschel lived in Bath during the 18th century, in New King Street. Two and a half centuries later, the street was quiet, with recycling bags outside every door, and a few straggling hopeful “Vote Remain” posters in some of the windows. The Herschels used to live at number 19, where the front door was now partly open.
I stepped inside, into a very normal corridor of a very normal terraced house. Normal, aside from a man standing behind a desk in the room at the far end of the corridor, welcoming me to the museum, and explaining that I could walk around the house, which was entirely converted to a museum devoted to the Herschels’ life and work.
I started at the basement level, which had access to the garden. This was the very garden in which William Herschel discovered the planet Uranus in 1781.
Until his discovery, there were only six known planets in the solar system: Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn. All of these could be seen with the naked eye, and had been recognized as planets from the way they travelled across the night sky and changed position in relation to the stars.
The remaining planets were too far away to see. There were telescopes at the time, but none were good enough to see that far into space with enough detail. William Herschel developed a telescope that made it possible to see further into space in more detail. He had a workshop attached to his home, where he worked on his telescopes, and he soon became the world’s foremost telescope maker.
But despite discovering a whole new planet, astronomy was just Herschel’s hobby at the time. His day job was as organist for the Octagon Chapel in Bath. The organ is no more, but a set of pipes from the old organ are on display in the music room, upstairs in the museum.
The music room also has several objects related to the life Caroline Herschel. She initially came to England to help her brother around the house and to pursue a professional singing career. When William’s astronomy hobby slowed turned into a full career, she became more involved with that, and made a few astronomical discoveries of her own.
When William discovered the planet Uranus, he proposed to name it Georgium Sidus (George’s Star) to honour England’s King George III, who was also Duke of Herschel’s hometown Hanover. The name didn’t stick, because other astronomers preferred a more international name, but in 1782, William Herschel was employed as King’s Astronomer. A few years later, the king also paid Caroline a salary for her assistance to William, making her the very first woman in the world to receive a salary for scientific work.
In the gift shop on the ground floor of the house I picked up two booklets about the Herschels’ musical careers, before heading back to the train station.
In the following days, it quickly became clear that in the wake of Brexit it has become quite difficult for European scientists in the UK, when nobody knows whether they will need visas, or whether new researchers will even want to come. Even British scientists are already having trouble applying for collaborative grants with their EU colleagues, as they might not qualify for the funding in a few years, and hinder the joint application.
So how did the Herschels get to work in England so easily, centuries before the EU? There may not have been a Europe-wide open borders scheme at the time, but there was an arrangement between Hanover and England, since they shared a ruler (King George III), so it was an obvious and easy choice to move between the two places.
I wanted to visit the museum because I was interested in the Herschels’ dual interests in music and science, but the date of my visit couldn’t have been more poignant, as the Herschel story is a textbook example of the work that foreign scientists have contributed to the UK.
Beach bodies, as rated by marine biologists
Sea nettle (2/5)
Ouch! Their transparent look makes them hard to spot, but a surprise encounter with one of these beach bodies can really hurt your seaside enjoyment.
The coolest penguins are chilling on beaches in Australia, South Africa and Argentina this season. They certainly dress to impress, but does your beach body really need a dinner jacket?
Sperm Whale (0/5)
Oh no, the whale is not beach body ready at all! We told it repeatedly to stay off the beach, but here it is, a blubbering mess. Get back in the sea!
Leatherback turtle (5/5)
These babies were BORN with beach bodies, and immediately ready for a late night dip in the ocean.
Sea star (4/5)
With its striking five-fold symmetry, the sea star is a gorgeous sight on the hot sandy beach this summer. It’s sure to take your breath away – and its own, as it realizes it relies on water flow over its dermal gills for oxygen uptake.
Hermit crab (4/5)
Wow! You’ve got to love the asymmetrical curves on this beach body. Combining it with a second-hand bathing suit is a daring choice.
This land mammal’s mostly hairless body is perfectly adaptable to the beach ecosystem. Just remember: wear sunscreen!
Outreach advice for Pied Piper
I don’t always get what’s happening in Silicon Valley. I mean the TV show. I certainly don’t understand what’s happening in the actual global tech hub of the same name.
Silicon Valley is a comedy about a start-up company, Pied Piper, that does all the things start-up companies do. They have engineers, a CEO and funders. There are competitors, conventions, and lots of cameos by famous tech faces from the real Silicon Valley.
During most of the episodes, I tend to get confused by some of the details. They’re building a what? Why are they talking to these people? What is happening now? The show is fast-paced, and full of tech jargon and entrepreneurial chat that I don’t always immediately catch. It’s usually not relevant – I get the jokes even without understanding precisely how everything works.
But last week’s episode, the penultimate episode of Season 3, I understood exactly what was going on. It was an episode about outreach! I may not know much about server stacks or peer-to-peer technology, but I do know how to do outreach for new and complicated projects.
The episode: Daily Active Users
In this episode, the Pied Piper company is celebrating that they reached over half a million downloads of their product. Yay!
Unfortunately, most of the people who download their app don’t actually use it. They had only tested their technically impressive thing on engineers, who understood it, but not on regular users, who were supposed to become their clients.
To figure out how non-engineers perceived the Pied Piper app, they did some market research, and – after the CEO crashed the market research session – discovered that the problem was that people didn’t understand what the app could actually do. Once it was explained to them in excruciating detail, they liked it. One woman, Bernice, immediately turned into their biggest fan once she understood the app.
Realising that the problem was a lack of understanding of what their product could do, the team set out to do some outreach to try to educate people. They set up demo booths at conferences, manned by two of the engineers, and gave talks at what looked like a local community college. It didn’t help. People still didn’t use the app.
Here’s the episode preview:
In the next episode, a coincidental event and a bit of good luck manages to get the company out of their predicament just before the season ends, because it is, after all, a fictional TV show. In the real world, they wouldn’t have had a random stroke of luck. They would have needed to do their outreach right.
My outreach advice for Pied Piper:
1. Hire a tech outreach or communications expert
Nobody is interested in the demonstrations that the engineers give, because they’re still stuck with the same problem: As engineers, they’re way too deep into the tech specs to know how to pitch the app properly to someone who doesn’t know the details. They need to find someone who understands what they are doing, but who also knows how to distill that into short take-home messages, work it into an elevator pitch, and create a more relevant demo.
To their credit, they do involve marketing experts, but only to build a terrible “Clippy”-inspired digital assistant for their platform – not to look at the company’s core communication issues.
2. Collaborate with a business or organisation that has a large customer base that needs the product
This might not have been on the table for these guys because they had to grow customers quickly, but a good way to get a new and confusing tool in the hands of people who never used it before is to combine it with something they do know. In the case of Pied Piper file sharing, they might want to find, as possible collaborator, a website where people upload large amounts of data (music? images?) but that has limited storage space or issues with slow downloads.
The collaborator, let’s call it ThingAMaShare, could then offer their users a Pied Piper account that ties into their ThingAMaShare account and handles the storage and downloads. That way a whole existing audience is encouraged to use Pied Piper for something they’re already doing, ThingAMaShare’s problems are solved, and Pied Piper would get name recognition as “that thing that ThingAMaShare uses”.
3. Involve their biggest fan, Bernice
This was to me the most obvious thing that the guys should have done in this episode. Bernice is such a big fan of Pied Piper after finally understanding the concept, she even shows up to the demo talks! Bernice is already using Pied Piper regularly, and has probably gotten into a particular routine with it. What does she use it for? How does she describe the app, in her own words? Who is she talking to about it? What do those people tell her? Get in touch with Bernice, and find out! Then use that information to target potential users more specifically.
She might even want to wear one of those hideous Pied Piper jackets…
Like their potential customers, I may not always get the tech details of the Pied Piper premise, but at least I understand their outreach issues!
Being John Malkovich, and six other Twitter users
What if you could be someone else for a day? Well, you can’t. You’re stuck with being you. But you can experience Twitter as someone else, and that’s almost as good, if not better.
What? How? Tell me more!
The app Antipersona, created by Anastasios Germanidis, let’s you pick a Twitter user, and will show you their timeline (based on the public accounts they follow) and their notifications (follows, retweets and mentions).
I decided to play with this a bit, and take a look at how other people experience Twitter.
“Will seeing Twitter through others’ eyes change my views on the world? … There is only one way to find out, and that is to become seven different Twitter users.”
Hopes, dreams, goals, wishes and expectations
Will seeing Twitter through others’ eyes change my views on the world? Will it expose me to new ideas? Or will I just find some new accounts to follow? There is only one way to find out, and that is to become seven different Twitter users.
Bugs and caveats
The app is designed to only let you hold an identity for 24 hours, but even that is much longer than I would ever want to look at anyone else’s Twitter account. I couldn’t find a functional way to switch people, though, other than deleting and reinstalling the app, so that’s what I did, several times, to become all these different Twitter users.
In the process of playing with the app, I also discovered that the timelines it shows are not complete, so it not only shows a snapshot in time, but also just a subset of people that this person follows.
Disclaimer about how I am normal and totally non-creepy
Is this creepy? It’s a bit weird, isn’t it? I feel weird. I would just like to reassure the people whose Twitter identity I passively wore that I am not a creepy person. Of course this is exactly what a creepy person would say. But do feel free to use the app to take on my identity in return.
Super scientific experimental results
Who? Nathan Fielder (@nathanfielder)
Why? I picked comedian Nathan Fielder first, because in his most recent season of Nathan for You he took on someone else’s identify himself, for a ridiculously elaborate stunt, so I figured he wouldn’t mind if someone looked at Twitter through his eyes.
Expectations: I thought his timeline and mentions might be interesting, but, in stark contrast with Nathan’s own work ethic, I didn’t really do much research before embarking on this mission, so I didn’t have very specific expectations.
Results: Nathan mainly follows comedians and news outlets. He also, and I should have anticipated this, follows pretty boring business news pages in particular. His mentions were cute, though, with people talking about how much they love his work, or sending him random tweets.
Who? Maria Popova (@brainpicker)
Why? Brain Pickings is an amazing website full of interesting bits of information about interesting people. Maria is a brilliant curator both on her blog and on Twitter, and who wouldn’t want to be her?
Expectations: I thought I might find her timeline interesting, because she must filter what she publishes out of what she reads.
Results: Okay, I guess you can have too much of a good thing. Her timeline is a never-ending stream of intellectual curiosities, but it’s just too much for me. This is why we need Maria to filter out the best things, and why, in retrospect, I don’t want to be like her. Her mentions are all retweets and new followers, because she uses Twitter mainly to broadcast and not so much to interact.
Who? Michael Nielsen (@michael_nielsen)
Why? It was through a (re)tweet of his that I found out about this Antipersona app in the first place, so he had it coming, really. Michael and I worked together on projects in the past (we’re responsible for the first SciBarCamp in Toronto) and I know he generally likes things that are cool, so I was curious what his Twitter timeline looks like.
Expectations: I thought his timeline might look a bit like my own, but perhaps point me to new accounts that I wasn’t following yet. I also expected a lot of mentions, as Michael actively uses Twitter to communicate with people.
Results: Expectations met! I found some new accounts to follow, and saw some interesting Twitter discussions resulting from a question Michael asked.
Who? John Malkovich (@johnmalkovich)
Why? So the title for this blog post would make sense.
Expectations: None at all. This was purely a gimmick Twitter-identity-view.
Results: Oh. Right. I quickly learned that John Malkovich is probably bored to death with “Being John Malkovich” jokes. Sorry, Mr Malkovich. Pretty much every other mention he gets on Twitter is a reference to the film. Well, too bad, I’m keeping this title. The timeline didn’t work for him at all – it didn’t pick up any of the 13 people he followed. This is where I started suspecting the timeline part of the app wasn’t working very well.
Who? Danielle Lee (@DNLee5)
Why? Danielle is very outspoken online about diversity within science and science communication. I thought she’d be supportive of the idea of people trying to see the world through someone else’s eyes, so I chose to see Twitter through her eyes for a bit.
Expectations: I expected her to have a very different timeline than I do, but, like with Michael’s timeline, I thought there would be familiar accounts as well, since we do roam some overlapping online circles. I hoped to find new accounts to follow and perhaps learn some new things about identities in science/scicomm.
Results: It was at this point in the experiment that I was certain the timeline on the app was not working properly, because it only showed me a handful of the more than six thousand (!) accounts that Danielle follows. Still, even from the partial timeline I could see that she’s getting a very different Twitter experience than I am. She’s seeing many more tweets about issues that affect minorities. I get to see some of that in my timeline, but certainly much less of it, and usually only when things get bad enough that everyone is talking about it – not the day-to-day issues. Danielle’s notifications included lots of retweets, but also lots of replies, because she’s very active on Twitter, and engages with a lot of people.
Who? Donald Trump (@realDonaldTrump)
WHY!? I thought I needed to really broaden my horizons and experience Twitter through someone completely unlike me, with vastly different ideas of the world.
Expectations: Trump doesn’t follow very many people, so I had little expectations there, but I was bracing myself for his mentions. Would they be mainly negative? Would I find lots of Trump-support? Would I be able to sleep at night after having seen Trump’s Twitter mentions?
Results: Trump’s timeline includes Fox News and Piers Morgan. His mentions are full of people either yelling at him or people yelling with him, and he gets followed by a lot of Twitter eggs.
Who? Cath Ennis (@enniscath)
Why? I needed a safe space after having been Trump, so I picked a friend. What’s more, I already have experience taking on Cath’s identity! For an April Fool’s joke in 2011 we swapped blogs with near-identical blog posts, because at the time we were regularly mistaken for each other online. People were confused but not amused, and we were the only ones who thought it was funny.
Expectations: Cath’s cats went crazy viral on Twitter a while ago, and I expected to still get some retweets of that, because the internet never lets go of a good cat meme. Otherwise, I expected this take-over to be very similar to my own Twitter experience.
Results: Lots of familiar faces in the timeline, mixed in with Canadian news and craft beer. Someone did indeed retweet the cat picture again!
“[Trump’s] mentions are full of people either yelling at him or people yelling with him, and he gets followed by a lot of Twitter eggs.”
I stopped here because I got bored. I was planning to become a few more people, but I could already see where it was going (I would realise our similarities and differences were reflected by our Twitter experiences) and I wanted to wrap this up. I didn’t want to be other people anymore!
Some serious thoughts: What did I learn?
Seeing what Twitter is like for someone else reminded me that the world in general is different for everyone else. Like on Twitter, our real life experiences are also very much determined by who we listen to and who we talk to. You befriend people – both online and offline – because you share a worldview, and by befriending them you make that overlap even stronger.
“Seeing what Twitter is like for someone else reminded me that the world in general is different for everyone else.”
You normally don’t get to see what the world looks like to someone who is different from you, but being able to briefly look at someone else’s Twitter timelines and mentions at least gives you some idea.
That being said, I didn’t pick people who were that different from me. Trump was the most different, but everyone else had at least some shared interests or ideas. Why didn’t I pick, oh, let’s say, a teenager, an athlete, a beauty blogger, a farmer, someone in Nigeria, a parent of a sick child, or any of the many other types of people who have far less in common with me? Because I just didn’t even think of that. That’s how hard it really is to put yourself in someone else’s shoes (or timeline).
If you want to see what Twitter is like for me, or for someone more interesting, you can get the Antipersona app in the iTunes app store.
Science songs – why so silly?
Why are songs about science often so silly?
You know what I mean. They try to fit long words in the lyrics for the sake of scientific accuracy, they’re reductionist and literal, and they’re often parodies of existing songs with the words changed to be about science.
Some of them are really popular. These days, Tom Lehrer’s Elements song is probably better known than the original words to Gilbert and Sullivan’s tune. Science comedy is gaining in popularity, and silly songs about science seem to have an audience on YouTube as well.
But why are they always silly? Or: Why are there so few serious songs about science?
One reason is that to many people, “science” is abstract and impersonal. It’s not considered a topic for an emotional song. There are far more songs about technology (like email or phones) because technology is integrated in people’s day-to-day lives. Arcade Fire’s We Used To Wait is a good example. Science, on the other hand, is seen as impersonal: it’s taught in school as discovery of facts that are completely independent of the person observing them.
When the topic of songs is “scientists” rather than “science”, the tone shifts to something less silly and less literal. Scientists in music are often symbolic for determination and stubbornness. In The Flaming Lips’ Race for the Prize, two scientists are “locked in heated battle”, “so determined” to find a cure “if it kills them”. In Coldplay’s The Scientist, probably the most well-known (but not the best) scientist song, the metaphorical scientist character understands science better than love. Here, science is the opposite of emotion.
Songs about science itself, rather than songs about fictional scientists, are often cheery folksy tunes or parodies of pop songs in which words like “photosynthesis” and “deoxyribose” have to be worked into the meter, and where scientific accuracy is more important than creating something that’s pleasant to listen to. Metaphors are rare. Everything is literal. In a science song you can’t just say things like “science is the opposite of emotion”, which I wrote in the paragraph above, and expect people to know that this is not really true, and that it was shorthand for “people sometimes use science as a metaphor to describe a lack of emotion”. People might misunderstand. Everything in a science song has to be accurate, and that’s what often makes it silly. It’s contrived.
Science songs have such a reputation for silliness that people joke about it. Country singer Brad Paisley quipped at A Prairie Home Companion that he wrote an album about geology. The audience immediately laughed. He then proceeded to sing about the geological features of Tennessee, still to a lot of laughter. When the song ends, host Garrison Keillor says “That’s about as good as a song about geology gets”. Music about science is inherently silly because who wants to listen to a bunch of facts set to music?
Some science songs are deliberate educational tools, where being factual is important, but many others are not. YouTube is full of science parodies. They’re not all trying to teach you something – they’re having fun. People watch the videos, because they know the original song and the scientific references, and they want to laugh along with the creators.
It’s basically fan art, and in that sense, it’s very similar to filk.
Probably the only music genre to have gotten its name through a typo, filk is music created by science fiction fans, about the science fiction universes and characters they love. It originated at sci-fi conventions where people brought instruments and sang songs based on known melodies.
Change the topic from science fiction to science, and you end up with songs like Lab Slave, Bad Project, Defining Gravity or The Element Song. Some are recorded in a lab, others are professional productions, but all of these examples are songs by people who like science and sing about it.
Like filk, such science songs are meant to be shared among people who get it. It creates a sense of community to be able to share a song about a thing you know and like with other people who know what you’re singing about. We laugh in recognition because we know what it’s like to work in a lab, or how many long and difficult names are in the periodic table of elements. There’s more about the social aspect of “filking” on Wikipedia, and you can easily see how a lot of the same community ideas apply to these sorts of science songs.
So, if you consider “science songs” to be these literal and factual songs that fit the filk phenotype, then they are indeed often humourous, parodying existing songs, and full of inside jokes and jargon. But there are other songs that allude to science. They aren’t always literal, they might be about people instead of facts, they only vaguely hint at scientific concepts, and they are original compositions rather than parodies.Nevertheless, they are inspired by science, but they aren’t meant to be funny.
A few months ago, The Guardian published a list of some great songs inspired by science. The list includes Joanna Newsom, Kate Bush, David Bowie, Ella Fitzgerald, The Cure, Josh Ritter, the aforementioned Flaming Lips, and many others. You might have heard some of these songs before, and just never considered that you were listening to a song about science.
So yes, lots of science songs are silly, but maybe that’s because we only consider the silly ones to be “science songs”, and we think of the others as just regular music.
Pantographs and the magic of words
“Drivers! Don’t forget to drop the pantograph!”
I don’t know what it means, but this sign at London’s Farringdon Station sounds important and magical. It’s a large white sign at the end of the platform, just before the train enters the tunnel towards City Thameslink station.
I don’t want to look up what a pantograph is or why it needs dropping. I love this sign because I don’t know what it means. It adds another layer of mystery to the already esoteric London train system, and it makes train drivers seem like wizards who need to cast one final spell before heading further south.
The sign also reminds me of a flyer I found when I was an undergraduate chemistry student. I’d somehow come across a single page brochure that excitedly advertised “vectors” that could “optimize your transfection”. It had a mysterious circular diagram and lots of abbreviations. Whatever it was selling, the company was clearly convinced that someone would be equally excited about the vectors. I held on to this flyer for several months. The language amused me in the same way the pantograph sign does today.
The year after I found the flyer, the spell was broken. I started a molecular pharmacology course, which included a stint working in a cell biology laboratory. I learned all the important basics of modern cell biology techniques, including what “vectors” meant in the context of “transfection”.
After I graduated, I found the transfection flyer among my papers. It was no longer magical. I had learned too much, and what was once greatly amusing to me was now just a boring advertisement.
So don’t tell me what a pantograph is. I don’t need to know, and I like it that way.
I’ve had a productive Saturday: I spent two hours in a bookstore, I replaced three violin strings, and I deleted my LinkedIn profile.
The latter might seem surprising for someone who runs a website featuring career stories of science graduates, so I thought I’d explain why it was time for me to leave LinkedIn behind.
It doesn’t properly show my achievements. LinkedIn is very focused on job titles. For many types of jobs, that’s great, but for me it didn’t work at all. In the past decade I have been a PhD student, a science communicator, a community manager, an online editor, an outreach director, a community strategy manager, a scientific engagement manager, and something that didn’t even have a name. I get LinkedIn messages and ads targeted to some of these words, but those titles don’t really describe what I did, and were often arbitrary titles bestowed on me because my job needed a name. Meanwhile, LinkedIn kept urging people to endorse me for “cell biology” – a skill I haven’t used since 2008. The majority of people who endorsed me for this have never worked with me in a cell biology lab. If they had, they’d know better.
It constantly wanted things from me. Even though I added 634 people on LinkedIn, it still told me to “grow my network”. I was also prompted to improve my profile, to add more information, and to constantly look at other people’s posts, endorse them for skills I can’t make a judgment about, and congratulate them on their irrelevant “one year at working for myself” or “six years in grad school” anniversaries. (LinkedIn, stop trying to make work anniversaries happen. It’s not going to happen.)
People kept adding me and I don’t really understand why. Hold on, did I say I had 634 contacts? Yes. Because LinkedIn encourages people to scan their whole address book, and I have had jobs that involved emailing lots of people, LinkedIn matched me up with pretty much everyone. And because of my past roles in science community building and my ongoing support for early career researchers, I was nice and kept adding everyone back (except headhunters). But why? Do I need that many connections? Do that many people need me? What do they need from me that they aren’t getting from Twitter or email? And what about the people who added me on LinkedIn because they know me through non-work projects? What is the point of that? Adding someone on LinkedIn just completely lost all meaning to me.
It’s impersonal. I don’t want to be website-ist, but all LinkedIn profiles look the same to me. That’s great: it’s an equaliser, and it makes it easy for recruiters to directly compare people. It also rips any shred of personality from people’s profiles. I don’t want my professional page to look the same as an investment banker’s page, and I’m sure that feeling is mutual.
I don’t want LinkedIn to be a top search result for my name. Google loves LinkedIn, and will return it as a top search result for many names. That can be great (see below), but my Google search results are already pretty decent even without LinkedIn. If you search my name you find my own websites, my Twitter profile, articles I wrote, reviews of talks I gave, and pieces I was interviewed for. All are more informative than LinkedIn.
So, I had reasons, but I didn’t want to rush into things. First I had to play devil’s advocate, and argue in favour of LinkedIn.
What is LinkedIn good for?
Groups. There are a few good professional discussion groups on LinkedIn. Even a few good science ones. But it isn’t straightforward to stay up to date with just your group of choice, without also getting the full LinkedIn experience. You can set up email notifications, but to interact you still have to visit LinkedIn. (It works the same as Facebook groups.)
Being in charge of the Google Search results for your name. LinkedIn is an easy way to make sure your professional profile drifts to the top of a search result. Plus, you’re in charge of your own profile. It bumps down mentions of you that you are NOT in charge of, like pages of track meet results from when you were an athlete in high school, or local news reports of that time you were interviewed on the street about a car crash you witnessed, or an archived and uneditable forum post about a TV show you watched in undergrad.
A self-updating contact book. People change jobs often these days. It actually looks good to have experience at multiple companies rather than just one, and with every move their email address changes. As long as your contacts update their LinkedIn page with their new email address, you can reach them no matter where they go. If you just have their address, it will expire in a few years.
I did weigh those advantages while deciding whether to delete my profile, and for me, at this point in time, I decided that I don’t need LinkedIn.
Soon, my LinkedIn profile will be completely removed from Google search results for my name, and a search for “Eva Amsen” and “LinkedIn” will probably bring up this post, and this Times Higher Education interview with me, in which I am being kind of neutral about LinkedIn for science graduate students.
If you really want to know the professional details of my life, I also have a website with a bio and a CV and lots of examples of my past work.
And finally, if you have the questionable honour to run into me in person, I can give you an oddly shaped piece of cardstock with all the useful info on the front and a creative prompt on the back. Because my professional style involves asking people to draw pictures, not endorsing them for skills I know nothing about.
Who would win in a fight: Nikola Tesla or Marie Curie? Now you can find out, in the game Science Kombat. It’s only available online at the moment, and in Portuguese, but a mobile game is in the works. Below some screen shots of Tesla fighting Stephen Hawking, Tesla fighting Pythagoras, and Marie Curie fighting Einstein.
Coffee (3 Scientists)
Stroking the screen of his smartphone, he scrolled past tweets that succinctly summarized the words of the man on the podium. The speaker’s unfunny jokes made even less amusing when amplified by a stream of identical tweets and retweets. The core of the message – if there was one – lost in a sea of digital chatter. The hashtag taken over by inside jokes and by spam from the exhibit floor. On the big screen, a red dot danced along the first few sentences of a text-heavy slide. The speaker, engrossed in his monotonous karaoke, had his back to the audience. It was time. Time to get up and find some free coffee before the next talk.
Besides the whirring of the fridges and the buzzing of the fume hood it was quiet in the lab. The radio was off. The centrifuge was silent. The only other sound was the ticking of a clock, very briefly and almost unnoticeably slowing down as the big hand pushed onto twelve and the little hand reached ten. Sunlight hit a pile of papers on a lab bench. A pipette waited to be picked up, but nobody was there. The last student had gone home almost three hours ago. The next one would arrive in a few minutes, take a last sip of her coffee before placing the cup on the table just outside the lab entrance, and flip through the notebook to recall which of yesterday’s inconclusive experiments would need to be done again today.
Paper_version_2_Final_Draft_v1_JS_PT_edits.doc took up most of the screen. A small corner was reserved for easy access to a web browser with three open tabs: a literature search, a music playlist, and a social media page on which nothing new had happened since she last refreshed the screen. Going back to the Word document, the colours started to grow on her. The red, blue, purple and green a nice touch on the otherwise monochrome pages. The cursor blinked expectantly. She accepted a fixed typo and a suggested alternative phrase. That’s two things done. Time for coffee.
The pizza ploy
In early 2002, Guyang Huang’s career was not going in the direction he expected. A year earlier, his work at the Beijing Genomics Institute earned him a spot in the author list of the high profile Nature paper publishing the draft of the human genome. Huang was author 149 of 249, somewhere in the middle of a massive list.
After moving to California, he found work at a pharma company, but it didn’t last long. In the middle of 2001, Huang was fired by his then-boss, Tanya Holzmayer, who left the company herself a few months later.
In late February 2002, the doorbell rang at Holzmayer’s home. She opened the door to find a Domino’s pizza employee on her doorstep. But neither she, nor her teenage son (who was also at home), had ordered pizza. Her moment of puzzlement would have lasted no more than a few seconds, as almost immediately, Huang appeared out of nowhere and shot Holzmayer.
In the surrounding confusion and chaos, leaving the victim, her son, the Domino’s employee and other witnesses, Huang managed to get away in his car. Holzmayer died on the scene.
A few hours later, after Domino’s had picked up the rest of the pizzas from the scene (as people had complained their food never arrived), Huang’s body was found dead near his home, with a gun next to him. His last message had been a phone call to his wife, in which he confessed to the murder of his boss and said that he was about to kill himself.
I came across this story while I was preparing for the article that came out in The Scientist last month. For this piece, I talked to a few of the people who had worked on the Human Genome Project fifteen years ago, and were co-authors on either the Nature or Science paper published in February 2001. To select people to contact, I exported the massive author lists of both papers to a spreadsheet, and spent an inadvisable* amount of time Googling all 522 people one by one to see what they’re up to these days.
For the article, I chose people that were representative of the overall set, with current jobs in academia, industry, education, and law. I found many that had similar jobs to the group I selected. There were other people who died, or people I couldn’t track down because their names were too common or they didn’t have an internet presence or they changed their name. And then there was Guyang Huang.
Huang’s story, reported in SF Gate (and probably other local newspapers that were not online in 2002) mentions that he had been depressed, and it raises some serious issues about mental health and scientific work. I deliberately left it out of the article I wrote for The Scientist. It would have been a major distraction from the story I wanted to tell, and it was not representative of the overall group of people who worked on the human genome. I was aiming for a diverse cross-section, not for outliers.
But I also couldn’t sit idly back, knowing that in the depths of the internet I had found a murder-suicide scientist pizza ploy story without sharing it, so I shared it here. Because despite being a horrible story, it reminded me that scientists are human**, for better or worse.