Books and the image of science


I’ve been catching up on classics, and recently read Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (first published in 1818) and Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, from 1962.

These are two very different books. One is a horror story and the other is a non-fiction book about the effects of pesticides on the environment. Okay, that’s also a horror story. In fact, both of these books are about ways in which modern science can interfere with nature, and they have both influenced the public perception of science and scientists, and not always in the best way

The image of the lone scientist intent to create and invent something new and possibly dangerous is a trope in pop culture that is ultimately based on Frankenstein.

Meanwhile, supermarket and health food store aisles are packed with products that supposedly contain “no chemicals”, which is physically impossible and alludes to a misuse of the word “chemical” to mean “something bad”. This use of “chemical” in a negative way can be traced back to Silent Spring, where Carson writes things like “the chemical war is never won” and “the full scope of the dangerous interaction of chemicals is as yet little known”. Over and over, she talks about specific harmful chemicals and groups them under the name “chemicals”, giving the impression that all chemicals are harmful.

Silent Spring became a hugely popular book among the environmental movement, which itself became a hugely popular and influential movement to the point where it’s now thankfully mainstream to want to save the planet. Thanks to Silent Spring, people became aware of the dangers of pesticides on wildlife, but as a side effect, people also unintentionally picked up the idea that “chemical” is a bad word. Now, this use of the word “chemical” as “a bad thing” is still widespread in the same communities that read her book, but not necessarily directly by people who read the book. It took on a life of its own.

The same happened with the Frankenstein-inspired idea of the Mad Scientist. Frankenstein has been around for much longer than Silent Spring, and the effect is more distorted. Where the mad scientists creating creatures in cartoons are always wild-eyed and crazy-haired, Shelley’s Frankenstein is actually quite subdued and remorseful about his creation.

So, part of the current image of what science and scientists are like comes indirectly from books published in 1818 and 1963. It’s not the authors’ faults. Mary Shelley and Rachel Carson were actually quite fair in their descriptions of science in their books, but books get their importance from interpretations by readers, and they take from it what they find important.

Because books have such a big influence on how we perceive the world, including on how we perceive science, I decided to make some videos about the ways that books and science are related. This was the first, but there will be more!

Lego scientists stop motion

Like Ben Wyatt from Parks and Recreation, I used my time off work to make a stop motion animation. Mine’s a bit longer than his, though – but only a bit!

I used iStopMotion for iPad and the Lego Research Institute (and an additional Lego chemist mini figure) to make this. It’s obviously inspired by the images on the hilarious Lego Academics Twitter account, but I’m not affiliated with that in any way – just a fan!

It’s a bit shaky because neither the iPad nor the lab floor were attached to the table. Next time I’ll get some tape and stick it all in place.

Dancing scientists cure cancer

Canadian scientists are curing cancer by dancing. Well, they’re trying, at least.
Researchers of the Goodman Cancer Research Centre at McGill University in Montreal have made a YouTube video of them dancing in their labs to “Dynamite” by Taio Cruz. Their sponsor, Medicom, is donating money to their research institute based on how many views their YouTube video gets.

If charity is not enough motivation to watch it, you’re going to at least want to see the three gentlemen throw their hands in the air at 1:46. (With help of the credits at the end, I figured out that one of them is Canadian Medical Hall of Fame Laureate Phil Gold and another is former Dean of McGill’s Faculty of Medicine Richard Levin – but who’s the third?)
Montreal has a tradition of academic music videos on YouTube. Students from the city’s other university, UQAM, were responsible for the I’ve got a feeling lipdub, which has had over nine million views to date.

Are there science-themed covers of all of Lady Gaga’s songs?

I assume you’re familiar with “Bad Project”, the cover of “Bad Romance”? You must be. It’s had millions of views. Millions!

And you may also have seen the video for “Poster Face”, which debuted at last year’s Society for Neuroscience meeting:

But have you come across “Chromosome” – a parody of “Telephone”?

Or how about “Phosphorylated this way”, a song inspired by a JCB paper on cyclin-depent kinases, and set to the tune of “Born this way”?

What’s next, I wondered. Has someone covered “Alejandro” and made it about “Avogadro” yet? Yes, that has been done. There are two videos on YouTube with that theme, and both are kind of terrible, so you can look for them yourself if you really want to see them. However, I could not find “Paparazzi” covered to make it about Okazaki fragments, so that route is still open. In fact, I couldn’t find any science-themed Paparazzi covers, which seems unlikely, considering there are about a gazillion different lab-related covers of “Bad Romance”.
Hm. So it appears the answer is no – there are NOT science-themes covers of ALL of Lady Gaga’s songs. But we’re nearly there…

Garnier Laboratoire

“But Mr. Garnier, we’re scientists! We need to change the world!”

From the first episode of the new series of That Mitchell and Webb Look. It’s BBC property, so they might end up taking the clip down from YouTube, but if you’re in the UK you can watch the whole program on iPlayer.

The Scientist interviews Johan Olsen

In the same vein as the interviews I normally do on this site, The Scientist interviewed a scientist/musician. Johan Olsen works as crystallographer at the University of Copenhagen, and is the lead singer for the Danish rock band Magtens Korridorer.

Read the interview here, and watch their accompanying video:

Fewer words, more music!

I“m too tired to write proper blog posts. Tomorrow morning I have to start work at 7:30 so that I can leave in time to make it to Geek Pop in the evening. That’s a festival of science-themed music. Tomorrow’s gig is in London, but you can attend the entire festival online right now from your own computer. (And listen to me interviewing the organizer here if you haven’t already.
Speaking of science and music, I also found this online. It’s a cover of Lady Gaga’s “Poker Face”, done in a lab and with the words changed to things about gloves and other science things. It’s still just as abstract as the original, so I can’t really describe it very well:

I hate Lady Gaga but I love lab geekery and silly videos with props, so I’m kind of on the fence about this.