Category Archives: Science

On wardrobe malfunctions, in which I unwittingly flash an unsuspecting Cheltenham Science Festival

Marilyn Monroe

Me at the Cheltenham Science Festival, apparently

There are two aspects of my life that I struggle with (that I am prepared to admit in public, anyway) – one is dressing myself, and the other is being ladylike. Not once but twice in the past fortnight have these collided with hilarious humiliating consequences.

Earlier this week, I was happily minding my own business in a meeting of our entire directorate at work – a couple of hundred people I’d reckon. About half an hour before the end, I notice that the back of my dress is sporting a gaping tear, which is probably the result of cycling to work that morning.

Luckily the dress had two layers, protecting my modesty to a certain extent, though begging the question why nobody thought to mention it to me over the entire day. Clearly, my colleagues are gits. Or hate me. Or both.

Cue a swift trip to Dorothy Perkins to buy a replacement before heading off to the protest-fest that was the Richard Dawkins/PZ Myers discussion/arm-wrestle at the IoE.

But worse happened at the Cheltenham Science Festival a few days earlier, where I was giving a talk as part of the session on cancer stem cells. I was attempting to look glamorous (you never know when those TV producers may be scouting for the female Brian Cox!) and wore one of my favourite dresses – a highly flattering below-the-knee rose print number* along with some green suede boots with purple killer heels.

The session went really well: I got a smattering of laughs for my nerdy jokes and we got some great questions. Afterwards I was taking off my headset mic (resisting the temptation to bust a few Madonna-style moves) when a woman beckoned me over to the edge of the raised stage.

“I really enjoyed your talk…” she said, “But your skirt’s too short to cross your legs like that on stage.”

*Sigh* It will be sad if people remember that session more for the fact that I inadevertently flashed my pants to the assembled crowd than for the content of my presentation.

*Pearl Lowe’s awesome rose print tea dress for Peacocks

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My new scientific theory: Dark height

The Shadow Orchestra

Perspective's a bitch, ain't it? That's me, second from the left. Yes. The short, grumpy one.

The Shadow Orchestra recently had a bunch of promo shots done, and we made the mistake of taking most of them standing up. I also made the mistake of standing next to Nick, who is approximately 18 feet tall, in most of them.

I never realise how short I am until I see myself in photographs. Being somewhat close to the ground in the area of height for most of my life, I should have figured it out by now, but it always takes me by surprise. Friends and colleagues are also taken aback when they realise quite how small I actually am (5 feet three quarters of an inch. That three-quarters of an inch is really important).

Sure I’m no supermodel, but there’s something about me that gives the impression of extra height.  And, inspired by my trip to see Uncaged Monkeys at the Hammersmith Apollo last week (featuring my awesome sister Helen Arney doing her nerd-uke thing) and listening to Professor Brian “The Ladies Love” Cox expounding on the wonders of the cosmos, I’ve come up with the answer.

Dark Height.

Suddenly it all makes sense. In our universe, there’s a whole bunch of stuff that scientists can’t account for.  The universe actually appears to be bigger than it is when they measure it, but they can’t actually see the extra stuff that’s there.

This is Dark Matter which, admittedly, is a better name than “stuff”. I wonder what other names got nixed before they decided on  that one – “Universe fluff”, “Tardis Juice”, “Macavity” …

Most physicists and cosmologists believe that dark matter exists – we just don’t have the tools to see or measure it yet.  But it’s there.

To extrapolate (or is it interpolate, given that I’m smaller than the universe? I nver know) – because I appear to be bigger than I actually am, I must have a significant quantity of Dark Height.

Therefore I’m actually a 5’10” leggy Amazonian, instead of a rather dumpy nerd.  You just can’t detect it yet.

PS: If you want to know more about dark matter and other mysteries of the universe, I’d recommend Michael Brooks’ brilliant 13 Things That Don’t Make Sense – it’s pretty much the only book with physics in it that I’ve ever actually enjoyed.  Or finished.

“Last time I looked, monkeys don’t cook” – Listen again to Fighting the Power of Pink

Listen again to my radio documentary:

bbcr4_fighting_the_power_of_pink

Listen here:

(Apologies for the extra bonus news beforehand – programme starts 2mins in)

Fighting the power of pink – my first Radio 4 documentary

I almost can’t believe this is actually happening, but my very first Radio 4 science documentary  – Fighting the Power of Pink – airs tonight at 8pm. And I’ve also got a piece up on the Guardian Science blog about it. Exciting!

bbcr4_fighting_the_power_of_pink

(Apologies for the extra bonus news beforehand – programme starts 2mins in)

Here’s the blurb:

“Any parents of a little girl will tell you that they are strangely drawn to the colour pink. But is it in their genes or is it all down to culture? Kat Arney investigates, talking to parents, scientists, and the toy industry.

She discovers that while women are more drawn than men to reddish shades of blue, boys and girls don’t seem to develop different preferences until they are over the age of two. But long before then, they have very different preferences for toys.

So maybe we all just like different colours because we like the things that come in those colours. Or maybe women really do prefer pink because in the distant past they needed to be able to see red berries against green leaves, while men needed to see brown bison against a blue sky?”

It’s been great working with producer Jolyon Jenkins to make the show – he did all the hard work while I just turned up and blathered on about stuff. As an amusing aside, he asked me to present the programme after seeing me on a website touting me as a potential “female Brian Cox” (which is flattering, although I’m half the height and a lot less Northern).

Anyway, after a bit of a rollercoaster year where I’ve been asked to get involved in quite a few exciting high-profile science TV presenting-type things that have all fallen through, it’s really nice to have something actually come off.

What did you learn from the lab?

Tyvek suit

Tyvek - perfect for protecting yourself in a lab environment, and re-enacting 101 Dalmatians (long story, dont ask)

Forging a career in scientific research is tough – really bloody tough. Which is why I bailed out after doing a PhD and short post-doc. Also, I’m really clumsy and have an approximate 5-second attention span – neither of which are ideal qualities for a successful life in the lab.

But my time at the bench wasn’t completely wasted. As well as a whole bunch of transferable skills that serve me well in my civilian life – such as being able to read and digest complex scientific information, managing complicated projects, and how to while away hours of my life on the internet – there are some other useful tricks that I picked up.

I was discussing this with a few friends at an event recently, and we came up with the following list of “things that we learned in the lab that have proved surprisingly useful in the outside world”:

  • How to open bottles, jars, tubes etc with one hand
  • How to weigh out things (eg flour, sugar) by eye
  • How to yawn without opening your mouth
  • How to kill a small animal quickly and painlessly with your bare hands
  • How to make any fancy dress costume out of a Tyvek suit
  • How to deal with seemingly endless dull, repetitive tasks (loud music is the key)
  • How fast you can take your clothes off in the case of radioactive contamination (this one’s probably just me…)

Over to you, current and ex-lab rats – what skills did you pick up in the lab that you find invaluable in the real world?

The week in Green rooms

I’ve had a pretty crazy week, both in and out of work. Outside, I’ve been working on a super-secret but Very Exciting project. I can’t talk about it yet (if I’ve told you, please don’t spill the beans, as I’m terrified it’s all going to fall through) but here’s a hint:

Cuddly toys

And I’ve also been pretty busy in my capacity as a spokesperson for Cancer Research UK. We had a big story out on Wednesday with the launch of our SunSmart campaign, showing that rates of skin cancer have g0ne up dramatically in young people.

I ended up doing a fair bit of media work around it, including Daybreak and the Radio 4 Today programme. As a massive R4 junkie, it was such a thrill to be on the show, even though I had to get up at 5am. Here’s a rather blurry shot of the Today green room breakfast trolley:

R4 Today

You can Listen Again to me burbling to Evan Davies about skin cancer, sun and sunbeds on the Today website.

And today I was pressed into service again for a story about the links between alcohol and cancer. This meant yet another 5am wakeup call to turn up on the BBC Breakfast sofa. The Green room is suprisingly small. And also blurry (new cameraphone, sorry):

BBC Breakfast

You can laugh at my appearance here on the BBC website, where I explain how you “drink alcohol down your face” and talk about “large pints of beer”. In my defence, it *was* early…

Then I was off to the Sky studios at Millbank:

Sky

Swiftly followed by BBC News channel:

BBC Millbank

And then a cab ride from hell across the city in the boiling sunshine to film with Channel 5 outside a pub in Richmond. No photos from that, although I think I got some duck poo on my bag.

Shoot low, girls, shoot low

Last week I went along to a debate at the ICA to celebrate the launch of Suffrage Science – a booklet featuring inspiring tales from and about women in science, which I helped to write. There’s some great coverage from the evening over at The Scientist.

Suffrage Science debate at the ICA

The Loose Women of Science. L-R: Professor Mary Collins, Professor Carol Robinson, Professor Uta Frith, chair Vivienne Parry, artist Liliane Lijn, Professor Dame Sally Davies

Hosted by the fabulous broadcaster and writer Vivienne Parry, who described the evening as “Loose Women for science”, an eminent all-female panel debated issues around the challenges of being a woman in science, from how to deal with the guilt of having a nanny for your kids to whether you should flirt with your head of department to get your own way, and pretty much everything in between.

Something that really struck me – and that I’ve been pondering over for the past week – is one of the comments raised by someone in the audience. A physicist (I think) by trade, she recounted how her young daughter had shown an interest in building houses at school. “Well dear,” the teacher had said, “Maybe one day you could become an interior designer!”  Despairingly, physics-mum lamented the fact that the teacher hadn’t suggested something more technically minded, such as engineer or architect.

Before I get colour-coordinated death threats from any interior designers reading this, in no way at all do I want to suggest that any one career is more or less worthy than any other.  But it struck me that perhaps there is a subtle force at work, pushing girls away from careers in technical areas and towards the less nerdy side of life, when they might actually have aptitude and appetite for the former.

I remember a similar episode from my own life. I have always been interested in science – medical science and biology in particular, with a passing interest in chemistry (oh the sad, sad day when I ran out of copper sulphate in my home chemistry set!). At  school, I started to look into the sort of careers I could do in that area, and I remember being offerred lots of leaflets about careers in nursing, and not much else – despite my protestations that I wanted to be a “mad professor” and do experiments.

Again, there’s absolutely nothing wrong at all with a career in nursing (and being a nurse isn’t the sole domain of women…), but the challenging life of a ward sister isn’t really what I had in mind. For a start, I’m not really the caring sort. And, more importantly, I wanted to Do Science and Find Stuff Out.

Granted this was the mid-1980s, and I suspect that a nation firmly under the handbag of Margaret Thatcher wasn’t too keen on encouraging girls to do anything much, lest they accidentally spawn another Maggie.  Let us not forget that the Iron Lady herself started out as a chemist.

At the drinks reception after the debate, I found myself chatting to Professor Dame Sally Davies, one of the panellists and newly-appointed Chief Medical Officer for England – the first woman to hold the post. She’s had a string of impressive appointments, including Director or Research and Development for the NHS.

She told me a story about her daughter, who was asked by her teacher what her mummy did. “My mummy’s in charge of research for the whole of the NHS,” the daugter replied. The teacher declared that no, her mummy couldn’t possibly be doing that and the girl must be lying.  I wonder whether the teacher would have questioned it if the child had claimed her daddy was director of R&D? I have to say that Sally was more restrained than I would have been under the circumstances.  She told her distraught daughter to be content with knowing the truth – I’d have sent in her next sick note on DoH headed notepaper…

Based on this purely anecdotal evidence (n=3), it seems that maybe things haven’t changed that much.  There’s still a notion that there are “girls’ jobs” – teaching, nursing, interior design – and “boys’ jobs” – architecture, research, high-ranking officialdom-  despite the growing (but still minority) visibility of women across the board in science, technology and business.

Are girls still being steered towards more  vocational professions, like  teaching or nursing, when they should be encouraged to strike for the heights of the Ivory Tower? What do you think?

International Women’s Day – Suffrage Science launch

Nancy Roman

NASA's Dr Nancy Roman

Today sees the launch of Suffrage Science, a booklet celebrating the work of some of the top women in science.

I wrote the chapter featuring Liz Robertson and Sohaila Rastan, who were fantastic interviewees and both very funny. Unfortunately, their most scandalous anecdotes didn’t make it into the book…

Here’s the blurb:

“We’re delighted to launch the digital version of Suffrage Science on the centenary of International Women’s Day, March 8th 2011. Featuring conversations between leading female researchers in neuroscience and psychology, embryology and genetics, structural biology; and the biology of cancer and HIV, the publication brings to light a collection of stories about the significant contributions that women have made to science over the past 100 years.”

The booklet is available online today, and I’m off to the launch of the limited-edition print version tomorrow night at the ICA, featuring a public debate entitled  “Are Women Changing Science?” Exciting!

Naked Scientists special: An interview with the Optimist

Optimist on tour cover

Click to buy on Amazon

I’ve previously raved about Mark Stevenson’s excellent new book, An Optimist’s Tour of the Future. Now you can listen to this interview I did with him, which is up on the Naked Scientists website as one of their Special Edition podcasts.

We discuss his book and the ideas therein, as well as what it might mean for the future of our species. And whether Duran Duran really were better than the Pet Shop Boys.*

Listen now and give yourself some reasons to be cheerful about the future.

*He’s so clearly wrong on this one.

Review: An Optimist’s Tour of the Future by Mark Stevenson

Optimist on tour cover

Click to buy on Amazon

I first met “The Optimist” – or Mark as I like to call him – when he rescued me from a bothersome sex pest at a formal dinner (insert your own frying pan/fire joke here…).

We instantly hit it off with a shared love of geekery, music and bad jokes, meeting up whenever our diaries permit to drink pricey booze and laugh till it hurts.

After more than a year of travelling, researching and writing, he’s finally finished his first book – An Optimist’s Tour of the Future. Like its writer, the book is by turns geeky, funny, thought-provoking and  – at times – controversial.

An Optimist’s Tour is a rollercoaster headfuck of a book that leaves you shaking your head and muttering “wow!” as it speeds around the world asking the question “what next?” The premise is simple, but the answers are incredible and have the potential to change humanity as we know it.

Rather than all the doomsayers predicting war, famine, death, drought, pestilence, climate catastrophe and Katie Price’s next book, Mark asks what would happen if all the amazing technology that scientists are working on actually comes off. What if we can make robots that can think and feel? What about cheating death and engineering humans that can live for thousands of years? Solving the energy crisis using only some humble algae or a giant cauldron? How about restoring the drought-stricken Australian outback with nothing more than a few fence panels and a motorbike?

To answer these questions, he went on an incredible journey to meet some of the most visionary (and geeky) people in the world – Google’s Vint Cerf, futurist maverick Ray Kurzweil, Maldivian president Mohamed Nasheed, transhumanist Nick Bostrom, one-woman Kiwi superhero Vicki Buck and robot “godmother” Cynthia Breazeal are just a few of the characters brought to life in glorious detail. You get a real feel for what it’s like to meet these people and get caught up by their energy and ideas. It helps that much of the book is written using direct quotes as the scientists set out their stalls in their own words, handily sidestepping the acres of dreary prose that can dog popular science books.

The stories they have to tell are just as vivid, and have major implications for the future of humanity.  As I read the book, my mind kept filling with plots for schlocky science fiction stories – The man who lived forever! The sludge that saved the world! – but these are real-life scenarios that Mark’s describing. Technology is advancing at an unprecedented pace, and he finds out that we already have – or nearly have –  within our grasp a lot of the tools that we need to significantly improve human health and lifespan, reverse rising CO2 levels, solve the energy crisis and even create a networked tube of toothpaste that can re-order itself when it’s empty.

But here’s the rub – how do we actually cope with it all? There’s a nice bit of pacing at work in the book, as Mark pulls the reader through three sections entitled Man, Machine and Earth, laying out not just the “what ifs” but the “what whens” of this new technology. It’s enough to leave you feeling amazed, dazed and not a little bit frightened. How does it all fit together? What will the future look like?

It’s hard to imagine that our lives will be significantly different from today in ten years time, or even 20, 30 or 50. Will it really have changed that much, or will I still be yelling down the phone at my broadband provider while dodging the feral children roaming the streets of Hackney? And haven’t we always had this promise of a glorious techno-future dangled at us? It’s 2011 already – I want my hoverboard, dammit!

Luckily just at this point, there’s the final section – Re-boot – where Mark tries to pull it all together and make some kind of sense from the tsunami of ideas he’s collected. The main conclusion seems to be that human curiosity, ingenuity and creativity has never been a problem – after all, that’s why we’re not (mostly) still living in caves and grunting at each other. It’s whether we actually have the will, both personal and political, and the vision to embrace change and run with these new ideas that could make the world a better place.

To me, this is summed up in the quote from Mark Bedau, telling us that “Change will happen and we can either try to influence it in a constructive way, or we can try and stop it from happening, or we can ignore it. Trying to stop it from happening is futile. Ignoring it seems irresponsible.” In summary, Yay! For technology, and fingers crossed for human nature.

An Optimist’s Tour is an exciting and engaging book, but not just because of the gee-whizz subject matter. It’s clear that Mark knows his stuff and has done his research, as the book bristles with facts, figures and scientific detail. That’s not to say it’s a dull read. He uses stats like Rocky uses his left hook, delivering killer blows to support his arguments. Clever analogies and metaphors, coupled with his easy-going, conversational writing style, make complicated scientific principles pop off the page into graspable reality.

Although I really enjoyed reading the book, I do have to vehemently disagree with one of Mark’s premises. Duran Duran are clearly NOT better than the Pet Shop Boys.  Despite this lapse in musical taste, An Optimist’s Tour is an absolutely cracking read, providing plenty of food for thought and discussion, and I highly recommend it.