Wellcome Collection event about music

If you’re in London this coming weekend, you should drop by the “Why Music?” events at the Wellcome Collection, organised in collaboration with BBC3. The weekend is packed full with three days of talks, workshops and performances all about how music shapes us.


Some events are ticketed, but there are a lot of drop-in events as well, so even if you don’t have any tickets, there’s a lot to see and listen to. Here are few drop-in events that look particularly interesting, with description by the organisers:


Music as medicine – Saturday September 26, 19:30 – 22:00

“Claudia Hammond discusses music and health with guests including music psychologist Adam Ockelford and vocal coach, performer and educator Mary King. They will be exploring how music can help both physical and mental wellbeing, and looking at health problems encountered by musicians.”


The singing ape – Sunday September 27, 14:00 -18:00

“Tom Service probes the latest theories about the origins of music making and how it might have affected human evolutionary development. Was there music before language? Has music helped shape the human brain? Is music anything more than just ‘auditory cheesecake’? To help answer these and many other questions, Tom is joined by Philip Ball, author of The Music Instinct, and Steven Mithen, one of the pioneers of cognitive archaeology.”


Music matters: manipulating the mind – Saturday September 26, 13:00 – 14:00

“In a special edition of Music Matters, Tom Service is joined by guests to explore how music can be used to manipulate or control patterns of behaviour. This ranges from music’s use as a tool to subdue or intimidate, and its use in public places to tackle antisocial behaviour or influence consumer activity, to the subconscious role it has in our daily lives. The programme will look at historical and present-day examples and delve into the science behind music’s persuasive effect on the brain.”

Ways of curating

If you’ve heard me talk about science unconferences, you may have noticed me refer to this quote before:

“At a conference the most important things happen in the coffee break” – Hans-Ulrich Obrist

It comes from a 2008 Edge interview with Hans-Ulrich Obrist, and refers to an event he organised in the nineties, where he brought together artists and scientists for a conference – but eliminated the entire conference programme. The idea was to have a conference that only consisted of the valuable meetings between like-minded people in coffee breaks and social events surrounding the conference. Obrist calls it a “nonconference”, but it’s similar to “unconferences” made popular by the tech community.

Recently, I saw Obrist latest book, Ways of Curating, in a bookstore, and after confirming that this “nonconference” was in there, I picked it up. The book is amazing! Obrist is an entertaining writer, and in a series of short chapters he discusses all kinds of exhibits he has curated, and artists he has met and worked with. He describes how he once created an exhibit in the kitchen of his house, where Fischli and Weiss, of The Way Things Go (Der Lauf Der Dinge) fame, created an installation of giant food items in the cupboard above the sink.

I learned that besides the nonconference Art and Brain, Obrist worked with scientists a few other times. In 1999, he curated  Laboratorium, a project featuring artists and scientists, which took place in various locations in Antwerp. Participants here also included Fischli and Weiss, as well as another of my favourite artists, Bruce Mau. (“Don’t clean your desk”, from Bruce Mau’s Incomplete Manifesto for Growth, is another of my favourite quotes. Fun fact: Both this quote and the Obrist quote above have been on my Facebook profile for years. )

Ways of Curating is a fun read, in which I learned some basic ideas of art curating, and got inspired to think about curating and organising other things.


Here’s the full video of the “Stories behind the research” session I led at SpotOn last week. Below that (under the fold) is the Storify summary, with all the highlights. Our session was apparently the one with the most laughs, but we touched on some important things as well. Thanks again to my lovely panelists and a wonderful audience.


Elgar’s Explosion

Composer Edward Elgar had a chemistry lab in a shed in his yard. There’s an anecdote about this lab in Elgar’s biography by W.H. Reed, and it’s quoted verbatim in pretty much every other source about it. Because it’s only a second-hand anecdote in one biography, it’s hard to say whether it’s entirely true, so the only way to cite it is to quote it. I went for a different interpretation… (The full quote from Reed is below.)

The section from “Elgar as I knew him”, by W.H. Reed, that inspired this comic:

“One day he made a phosphoric concoction which, when dry, would “go off” by spontaneous combustion. The amusement was to smear it on a piece of blotting paper and then wait breathlessly for the catastrophe. One day he made too much paste; and, when his music called him and he wanted to go back to the house, he clapped the whole of it into a gallipot, covered it up, and dumped it into the water-butt, thinking it would be safe there.

Just as he was getting on famously, writing in horn and trumpet parts, and mapping out wood-wind, a sudden and unexpected crash, as of all the percussion in all the orchestras on earth, shook the room, followed by the “rushing mighty sound” he had already anticipated in The Kingdom. The water-butt had blown up: the hoops were rent: the staves flew in all directions; and the liberated water went down the drive in a solid wall.

Silence reigned for a few seconds. Then all the dogs in Herefordshire gave tongue; and all the doors and windows opened. After a moment’s thought, Edward lit his pipe and strolled down to the gate, andante tranquillo, as if nothing had happened and the ruined water-butt and the demolished flower-beds were pre-historic features of the landscape. A neighbour, peeping out of his gate, called out, “Did you hear that noise sir: it sounded like an explosion?” “Yes,” said Sir Edward, “I heard it: where was it?” The neighbour shook his head; and the incident was closed. “

The Kitsch Quiche Niche

kitsch quicheHow do you pronounce “niche”? If you say “nitch”, to rhyme with “kitsch”, you’re probably from the US. If you say “neesh”, to rhyme with “quiche”, you’re in the company of people from all over the world – including the rest of the States.

For the past year I’ve kept track of whether people pronounce “niche” to rhyme with “kitch” or “quiche”, and where they’re from. I could do this somewhat systematically, because the word “niche” appears with great regularity in talks about stem cells, and I attended quite a few of those for work – always with a notebook and pen at hand. Whenever someone said the word “niche”, I flipped to the back page of my notebook, where I’d tally whether their pronunciation rhymed with “kitsch” or “quiche”, and which country the speaker was from.

Biology is an international endeavour, and, during the time of my unofficial survey, speakers from many countries took the stage at conferences around the world to talk about the stem cell niche. In the context of stem cell biology, the niche is the direct environment surrounding a stem cell. Usually it refers to the group of cells directly next to a stem cell, and the general shape of the tissue at that location. A stem cell is a cell that is not yet a particular type of cell. It’s not a blood cell or a neuron or a skin cell – but it has the potential to become any of these things. In many cases, the stem cell’s direct surroundings, the niche, determine what kind of cell the stem cell becomes. In other cases, the niche appears to be less involved in the cell’s fate. It’s a topic that comes up quite often. Medical researchers working on stem cell therapies need to understand what drives a stem cell to develop into particular tissues; developmental biologists need to understand the full environment of development; and cell biologists need to know whether a cell works the same on its own as it does when it’s next to another cell.

All those international researchers working on topics related to the stem cell niche all mention the niche in their presentations. Sometimes in passing, sometimes as main topic of their talk. They don’t always agree – not only about the role of the niche, but also about its pronunciation.

Some are clearly so confused by their colleagues’ variation in pronunciation that they try to appease all parties by going for an intermediate pronunciation, rhyming “niche” with “fish” or “reach”, but most of the forty people tallied are in one of two camps: kitsch or quiche.

While not all American speakers pronounce “niche” as “nitch”, they are clearly the only ones to ever do so. After more than a year of tallying votes, no non-American has ever said “nitch” as far as I can tell. Of course, some Canadians sound like Americans, and I may have accidentally mixed up a few people there (or accidentally counted someone twice), but it’s still rather striking.

According to American dictionaries, “nitch” is the preferred pronunciation over “neesh”, so neither camp is technically wrong, but in the global scheme of things, “nitch” is rather a niche pronunciation.

Original quiche photo (and recipe) by Katrin Morenz, and original plastic flamingo photo by jacqueline-w.


It’s a long weekend in the UK, so I’m working on my favourite side project – people who do both science and music. (It really needs a catchy title. Suggestions?)

I’ve been doing a bit of writing, but the past weeks were mainly research. The research phase never seems to end, but that’s okay, because it might actually be my favourite part. I keep finding out new things. This week, I found a cool infographic, via Michelle Oyen on Twitter, who got it from Marie-Claire Shanahan, who I incidentally happened to meet last week but I didn’t realise at the time that she’s the person who does the Song of the Week on the Finch and Pea. Science/music people, they are everywhere!

The infographic in question was one from the CBC Music Blog about seventeen musicians with PhDs. The top of the image (below) shows the distribution of fields of music and academics of this handful of people.

It’s only a small sample, but it’s interesting to note that most of them have science or mathematics PhDs. But as commenter Aeg points out on the article, that might just be an artifact of more people pursuing PhDs in those fields, and it would be good to compare the numbers with a graph of the areas that people generally receive PhDs in.

Let’s find a graph!

Even though the musicians in the infographic come from different countries, databases of doctorate holders are usually specific for one country. Let’s look at the US, because they have been keeping track, and the data are all available online.

For several decades, the US government has been using the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago to carry out the Survey of Earned Doctorates – a study that shows which kind of people get PhDs in which disciplines. Even though the total number of PhD recipients has gone up in all fields, the distribution between science & engineering PhDs and those in other fields has been pretty consistent: There are slightly more than twice the number of science and engineering PhDs than others.

In the music infographic, eleven of seventeen musicians have a PhD in science or math, which is about the same as the overall distribution. So going by this small sample, it seems that of the musicians with PhDs, there are not more scientists than you would expect.

Does that mean that musicians don’t like science more than the average person does? Not necessarily. There is a lot of information missing from the infographic. It’s only a sample of musicians the creators could find, and it’s biased toward fields of music they knew. Punk music is over-represented, for example, and classical music is lacking entirely. It also doesn’t look at the academic interests of musicians who do not have a PhD. If a musician starts to break through while in undergrad, they might choose not to pursue their academic interests further, and instead keep working as a musician. The infographic lists The Offspring drummer James Lilja, but Lilja left The Offspring in order to pursue his doctorate. The band’s lead singer Dexter Holland, on the other hand, abandoned his own PhD so that he could focus on the band.

Both music and academia are very time consuming, and a lot of people make a choice at some point to do one or the other. I’ve been hearing a lot of similar stories in the interviews I’ve done, and read about a bunch of others. The final picture is a complicated one. In this particular graphic, you are included if you finished a PhD and did music at some point, but not if you are so dedicated to music that you quit your PhD for it.

The reality is too complicated for an infographic – whether you look at musicians in all areas of academia or musicians working on all aspects of science. There are people with music degrees or without, people with science degrees or without, people who started or finished a PhD, people who passionately play music but don’t earn money with it, people who used to study science and then became musicians, people who used to study music and then became scientists, people who have neither a science or music degree but somehow ended up working in an area that involves both science and music.

I can give you examples of all these people, but I can’t find a way to quantify them. I’d like to, because it would give me something to base my story on. Does it matter that I have no hard numbers? If I was writing a PhD thesis, it would matter a great deal, but thankfully I never have to do that again. This is not a PhD, this is documenting a phenomenon.

I am happy to have been pointed to this infographic, though, because it gives me a few more people to add to the list of people I really want to talk to.

Hoping they’ll lose Pinterest

This post also appeared on my science blog. If you read between the lines, it also explains both why I first decided I didn’t want a personal blog anymore, and recently revived it again.

The people who introduced me to blogging were not scientists or academics. They were online friends I’d met through playing games. A few of them set up their first blogs in 2001, and I thought it looked fun, so I started one as well. It was on an archaic blogging platform that doesn’t exist anymore. B2? Greymatter? Whichever came first. It was more a diary than anything else, and the only people reading it were my friends.

When I first started thinking about expanding my blog to cover science, there weren’t many other science blogs. I’d been clicking around to see what was out there, and I remember seeing the blog that was later revealed to have been the science blog of the woman who moonlighted as a prostitute and who blogged about that elsewhere under the Belle du Jour pseudonym. There were really only about five science blogs back then. It was ages ago. The web was young.

Now I manage a professional science blog, where researchers sign up for a WordPress account and blog about their work. Scientists have taken up blogging as an almost natural thing, and I don’t mind that at all. Of course they would. It’s a medium. You can use it for anything you want. Pictures of cats. Science. It makes sense.

The people who introduced me to Twitter were not scientists. They were my techie friends in Toronto, who I knew via blogger meetups. “What is Twitter?” I asked in a pub one night, and my friend said “It’s like Facebook, if it only had status updates.”

Now I manage two Twitter accounts for work. They’re followed by Twitter accounts from other scientific publishers. I don’t mind that at all. It’s a good way of keeping in touch. Twitter has become its own medium. You can tweet about anything you want. Sandwiches. Science. It makes sense.

I joined Facebook so I could see a friend’s photos that she uploaded there. She’s not a scientist.

Now I manage a Facebook page for work. I link to the posts and job ads that scientists have posted on our blog. Scientific societies ‘like’ my status updates – or at least the people managing their page do. I don’t mind that at all. Almost everyone has a Facebook page now, and subscribing to professional updates is a convenient way for them to see all the news they need to know in one place. Family news. Science news. It makes sense.

But sometimes, certain internet-minded scientists, who so fervently jumped on blogging half a decade after it first started, go a teensy bit overboard in their praising of an online tool.

I heard about FriendFeed via science bloggers. None of my other friends ever used it.

I heard about Google Wave at a science blogging conference. None of my other friends ever used it or even heard of it.

I heard about Google Plus via science bloggers. A few of my other friends created a profile, but immediately abandoned it – like everyone else.

The people who introduced me to Pinterest were not scientists, admittedly, but this time it only took weeks, not years, for the first science/web-people to jump on the bandwagon. They were really excited about it. Probably the most excited I have ever seen a group of mostly men be about a website of mostly pictures of dresses. And the dreaded questions were asked: “How can we use this for science?”

You can’t, okay! Just leave it!

Not EVERYTHING on the internet has to be twisted and molded into some sort of vehicle for science communication. If it’s a good fit for such communication, like blogging or Twitter, it will happen. But if you try to force your professional research interests onto something that is so purposely modeled after scrapbooks and inspirational pinboards and NOT after anything remotely resembling the way you normally distribute or find scientific information, you are only going to be annoyed and disappointed. Disappointed with the way it functions. Disappointed with the restrictions it imposes.

Why do I care? I didn’t care that FriendFeed or Google Wave or Google+ never worked out, but as soon as I now see the same group of people that thought those tools were the next big thing get completely disproportionately excited about an online product, I fear that it will succumb to the same fate. And I do rather like scrapbooks and inspirational pinboards.

Academics may have invented the web, but not everything that’s on the web has to do with academics. Nobody is going to judge you if you just want to use a product for fun, so please stop trying to turn everything you like into work.

My only consolation is Instagram – a safe haven of food and pets. Until the first person sepia-filters their lab notes and considers it as a medium for research dissemination, that is.

My "inspiration" Pinterest board

What I’ve been up to

Quiet here? That’s because I tend to take on too many projects and never actually get a chance to share them. Here’s a quick snapshot of what I did in the past three months or so:

My 2012 resolution was to create something each week. We’re seven weeks in, and still going strong.

Week 1 creation - Owl

I finished the BBC introductory Spanish course “Mi Vida Loca“. (It’s free and fun!) I can understand very basic Spanish now. I just felt like learning something.

Continuing the theme of learning new languages, I’m also doing Codeyear, which involves learning Javascript. This past weekend, I made my very first programme, which translates short bit of DNA to protein. Again, just because I felt like learning something new.

A while ago I created a Tumblr that automatically imports Tweets and Flickr photos tagged with YLSNED, for You Learn Something New Every Day. I keep forgetting to tag things myself, but once in a while, a stranger will use the YLSNED tag and I’m reminded via RSS feed that the page exists. Whoops!

In the weeks leading up to Christmas I had the most unoriginal idea ever: a science advent calendar. There were nearly as many science advent calendars online as there were days to count down. Mine was the only one that was both science AND Christmas-themed, though!

I have a Pinterest, which I’m not so good at using yet. I get that the idea is “clip the pretty things you see”, but I get too obsessed with details, and then go looking for a particular thing I once saw online, and spend too much time searching the whole rest of the internet rather than just passively browsing Pinterest. Although I must say it was a pretty useful site when I needed to figure out how to draw a cupcake. (That’s my “pictures of cupcakes” board to the left.)

I’ve also joined This Is My Jam. If you’re a fan of mixtapes or of sharing music videos on Facebook, you’ll like it too. It’s in beta now, and open to anyone, but I was there before it was cool. 😉

I’ve given a few talks about science and music over Christmas break, in London and Amersfoort (Holland), and am starting to get more organised with ideas for that project.

But my main current side project is SciBarCamb, which is happening again this year. That’s going to keep me busy until April.


And that is why I haven’t had time to update this site.

The return of the buttons

A couple of years ago, I created some buttons with the easternblot flask image. I sold about 60 of them via the site and to friends. I still have some left, so let me know if you really want one

Part of the text on the cards reads:

Poof! Bubble! Kaboom!
Cartoon labs are full of bubbling and boiling coloured liquids. If only real labs were that colourful… Sadly, most common chemicals are just white powders or crystals that make clear solutions. Everything looks like water! But there are a few exceptions. Sometimes a brightly coloured chemical is exactly what you need!

Lab Waste screening in New York

My little film about Lab Waste is screening on October 20th as part of the “Quirky Science Shorts” programming at the Imagine Science Film Festival in New York. Yay! Go see it! That evening is all shorts, so you can go home after that with the accomplished feeling of having seen nine movies that day.

I don’t know if I’ll be there myself. I’m already going to New York next week, and the cheap bus tickets seem to only go one way: there but not back.