Back to school
[Scroll to bottom for book giveaway! – NOW CLOSED]
Even though it’s been a long time since I was in any form of full-time school, September still feels like “back to school” season to me. Everyone is back from holiday and ready for a few months of hard work until the end of the year.
September is also the time of year where a lot of free online courses or MOOCs are starting up again, so I had a look to see what’s available.
I’m already signed up for this Whole Genome Sequencing course, because I’m currently doing communication for the TGMI. I hope the course will help me get a bit more insight into some of the things people are doing in related areas, as well as observe how the course is managed and how the complexities of WGS are presented. It starts September 19. Join me if you want!
Here are some other MOOCs I found that I thought looked interesting, but won’t have time for (or have already done).
Introduction to Communication Science – starts September 5. I’ve taken this, and I enjoyed it!
Get started with online learning – starts October 3rd.
Medicine and the arts: Humanizing healthcare – Just started, you can catch up
Digital storytelling: filmmaking for the web – just started, you can catch up
Design and make infographics – just started, you can catch up
If you’re currently in a science undergraduate or graduate program and are starting to think about the scary future beyond school, have a look at all the stories shared on the MySciCareer site by people with a science background. Lots of different jobs there already, and we will soon be adding even more! Lou and I have been busy sourcing new content, which should be added over the next few weeks.
(Lecturers and career advsiors: If you’re involved in talking to science students and grad students about careers and have used the MySciCareer site as a resource, please let me know!)
Book giveaway! [NOW CLOSED!]
Finally, nothing says “new school year” like books.
A while ago I reviewed the book “Career Options for Biomedical Scientists”. It’s a useful book for current PhD students in the life sciences, but I already have a career. The book is still in very good condition, so I’m happy to pass it on to a current PhD student!
To get a chance of receiving the book, leave a comment on this post before September 9. Any comment will do, but if you want something to write about you can use your comment to share some of your plans for the next “school year”. I’ll draw a name from the comments after that to determine the winner of the book. Make sure to enter your email address with your comment so that I can reach you if you win. (Email addresses are not shown on the site, but I can see them and contact you if needed).
Serious squishy cow chat
Sometimes I forget that not everyone who sees my tweets has had access to my entire back catalog of online ramblings. I did a poll a while ago and discovered that many of my Twitter followers don’t know Squishy Cow, or haven’t seen my Lego videos. Both are some of my favourite science things I’ve done online, and (not coincidentally) both contain a heavy dose of silliness.
So, even though my current pinned tweet is a link to an equally silly piece of scicomm, I shouldn’t be surprised when people who see my tweets in their timeline, don’t immediately place them in the context of “me”.
When I reacted to the Guardian piece that’s doing the rounds, I considered it a given that everyone would know that I obviously love non-serious pursuits and scicomm and I think that everyone else who loves it should also do it. It didn’t always get understood that way. People thought I was saying that scientists shouldn’t do scicomm.
Squishy Cow: “Hahahaha!”
Squishy Cow: “Why would they think YOU of all people don’t think scientists should do comms?”
Eva: “Because they don’t know who I am. Worse, Squishy, they don’t even know YOU.”
Squishy Cow: “BUT I WAS IN A SCIENCE BOOK! I HAVE A FASHIONABLE HAT!”
Eva: “Your hat came free with a smoothie bottle. I never even took the label off.”
Squishy Cow: “I am offended and wish to retreat from the rest of this post.”
Eva: “Fine, I’ll continue without you.”
So, yeah, please do comms! All I’m saying is that this anonymous academic is not alone, and that there are other people like them who just want to focus on research. They should be able to do that if they want to, just like how I was able to decide not to do research anymore and instead focus only on scicomm.
It’s a pretty measured opinion, I think, and it’s very much in line with how I usually talk about science and science communication. The entire MySciCareer site is based on the philosophy that everyone is different.
I have worked with enough scientists in the past years to know that some love putting all their spare time into side projects or education and others just want to do one job and that job is research. Haven’t we all had at least one professor in undergrad who clearly didn’t want to teach but “had to”? That’s those people. They do great research – but nothing else. It’s fine. Part of science communication is to recognise that and to work with them. Show interest in their work. Think about their work. Communicate it for them where needed, but leave them work if they don’t want to get involved themselves. Don’t force them. These are never going to be the people who do cool demos at science fairs and they’re not the people who chat on Twitter.
Instead, people who do chat on Twitter are obviously biased about that article. Just because you (and I) don’t want to be… let’s just say it for what we think it is, boring, doesn’t mean that others don’t want to live a very uniform work life (or keep work and fun completely separate). No amount of #seriousacademic tweets is going to convince them otherwise. If anything, it’s alienating.
People do occasionally change their minds. I met a Cambridge professor a few years ago who was very skeptical about the idea of using blogs to talk about science. He believed that being online during work hours would distract his students from research. A few years later he now has his own blog and is active on Twitter. Nobody pressured him. He was just shown the possibilities and realized the potential on his own.
Many others don’t change their minds. Or they try Twitter because they see people use it, and then realize it’s not for them after all. If you don’t like it, don’t use it. The only important thing is to make sure people are aware of all the tools that are available to them, and that they know what their colleagues are using. Then it’s their choice to join or not.
Sure, don’t make fun of people who do want to use Twitter and other social media tools, but likewise, don’t make fun of people who DON’T.
Squishy Cow: “Are you done?”
Squishy Cow: “Can you post some of my pictures on Twitter now? It would be very on brand.”
Eva: “You know what? I think I might…”
Book Review: The Scientific Secrets of Doctor Who
The Scientific Secrets of Doctor Who
Simon Guerrier and Dr. Marek Kukula
BBC Books, Paperback (2016)
I didn’t start watching Doctor Who until the rebooted series in 2005. I missed the original episodes because I wasn’t born until well into the era of the Fourth Doctor, and because I spent the rest of the initial series in a country that didn’t care about this strange Time Lord in his blue box.
I still haven’t seen the older episodes, but that didn’t stop me from enjoying or understanding The Scientific Secrets of Doctor Who. To understand the book, you don’t need to know every episode, as long as you are aware of the general concept of the show, in which an Earth-loving alien Doctor travels with companions through time and space.
The book is divided into three section that address the three different story aspects you encounter in the TV show: Space, time, and humanity. Each section has five chapters that touch on scientific ideas related to concepts in Doctor Who, and each of these chapters is preceded by an original Doctor Who story, covering all incarnations of the Doctor and many of his companions. The fictional stories are written by fifteen guest authors, and are loosely related to the topics in the non-fiction chapters written by Doctor Who novelist Simon Guerrier and astronomer Dr. Marek Kukula.
The Scientific Secrets of Doctor Who does not try to impose scientific explanations for the unlikely events shown on screen. Instead, it uses the framework of the world of Doctor Who to discuss related scientific topics. That’s not just limited to referring things from within the show (e.g. what does time travel have to do with worm holes?) but it also highlights the progress of scientific discovery in the context of the history of Doctor Who. New scientific discoveries and world events inspired the writers directly, but also indirectly, as our collective knowledge of the world has changed a lot in the time that Doctor Who has been on TV. The Doctor was already at the end of his second incarnation when we put people on the moon in 1969!
The Doctor was already at the end of his second incarnation when we put people on the moon in 1969
That, for me, was the best part of the book: Being made to consider that this show was on the air before the moon landing, before the first Earth Day celebration, before the Voyager probes, before the end of the Cold War, before large scale DNA sequencing, and before CD players, tablets and smartphones. We’ve been fantasizing about unknown worlds for so long, it can be easy to forget how much we are actually learning about our own.
As a very broad overview of scientific concepts ranging from multiverses to regeneration, the book only briefly touches on certain topics, but The Scientific Secrets of Doctor Who is not a book to learn in-depth science from. It’s a book for people who really like Doctor Who, and who want some real-world context for the show. For me, it also highlighted some episodes of the older series that I want to check out, and yes, I’m fully aware that I now have access to on-demand TV-watching technology that didn’t yet exist when those episodes aired.
BookTubeAThon Reading List
Last year I did my first BookTubeAThon (video below) which got me back into reading and slightly more confident about recording my face on video.
This year, BookTubeAThon is July 18 to 24, which conveniently overlaps with my vacation for four of the seven days, so I’ve collected a pile of books I want to tackle that week.
As usual, there are reading challenges. You can already tell from the pile that I’m not going to make the “read seven books” challenge, but by choosing one tiny book I might at least make it to five books.
This is my plan for the rest of the challenges:
- Read a book with yellow on the cover. Trash (more about that below) is very yellow and fulfills the challenge.
- Read a book only after sunset. I think I’ll do this with How The Marquis Got His Coat Back, and I’ll probably finish it in an entire evening.
- Read a book you discovered through booktube. I’m pretty sure I found out about Miss Peregrine’s Home For Peculiar Children through Booktube, or at least through YouTube, although I can’t remember where exactly. It’s a book that demands being read as a physical copy, and I thought it would make interesting holiday reading.
- Read a book by one of your favourite authors. That’s again How The Marquis Got His Coat Back. Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere is one of my favourite books (and I think about it sometimes when I’m waiting for a tube) and this is an additional short story set in this same universe.
- Read a book that is older than you. I have never read The Great Gatsby, and we’re going to change that this summer!
- Read and watch a book-to-movie adaptation. I did some research for this! I looked at lists of recent book-to-move adaptations, checked which books I hadn’t read yet and which movies I hadn’t seen, looked at ratings and reviews, and at what was available on Netflix, and settled on Trash. I’d never heard of the book, but the movie is on Netflix, and both movie and book have decent reviews. Since I’m away for the second half of the BookTubeAThon period I might have to watch the film before reading the book. Not my favourite order of things, but it will have to do.
- Read seven books. In addition to the four books above I also have The Jazz of Physics. In the unlikely scenario that I finish all five books with time to spare, I’ll try to borrow some books while I’m on holiday. Not going to happen, though.
Last year’s video:
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.