Category Archives: Science

New project alert! The Naked Genetics podcast, from the Naked Scientists

Naked GeneticsAnother thing that’s been keeping me busy lately is producing, presenting and launching a brand new monthly series of podcasts for the Naked Scientists. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you… *drum roll*…

Naked Genetics – taking a look inside your genes.

From plants to pathogens, fruit flies to fungi and hamsters to humans, the Naked Genetics podcast takes a look at the science of genes – the blueprint of life. With in-depth interviews with leading scientists, the latest news from the world of genetics, answers to your burning questions, and (my favourite bit) gene of the month. So far we’ve got five episodes up:

The next show, due out on 14th August, is all about epigenetics – a subject that’s very dear to my heart. Listen, download and subscribe from the Naked Scientists website.

The Naked Genetics podcast is produced in association with the Genetics Society.

A quick pimp for BPOD

BPODNo real blogging for the time being – I’m still mad busy. In the meantime, here’s a quick pimp for something that’s been taking up my time – writing for the Biomedical Picture of the Day (BPOD), run by the Medical Research Council.

The premise is simple, based on the Astronomy Picture of the Day – the editors pick an intriguing and/or beautiful biomedical image, and get one of the writing team to conjour up a few lines about it.

I’m thrilled to be involved in this project, as I think it really showcases the beauty in the biological world. Here are a few of the pics I’ve written about:

Pop over to the main BPOD site for a daily dose of biomedical beauty, and join their Facebook page to get in on the action.

Bees in danger! (from Satan)

We get a lot of junk mail through our front door, mainly because we are too lazy to put up a “No Junk Mail” sign and anyway they just ignore it and ram the letterbox full of pizza leaflets and poorly spelled (and curiously identical) advertisments for psychics.

Most of this goes straight in the recycling, but one caught my eye and has made it onto the Pinboard of Wonder (aka the fridge):

IMG-20110618-00200

At first I thought it was from a local environmental group or somesuch. The text inside starts off as a paean to the humble bee:

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“The consumption of honey is good for health. “Learn from the bee” is a counsel for the lazy. We will be surprised if we observe how the bees work. When the morning sun rises, they beging their work. The queen bee lays eggs and soon they hatch and a new generation is born.

It is a pleasure to observe a honeycomb. The bees suck honey from flowers and fill the cells in the honeycomb. the bees work together. but every bee has its own work. how beautifully they make a house for 5,000 bees without consulting an architect.

But does anyone know that there is a danger hidden in the honeycomb? A small germ enters the body of one bee. Gradually all the bes get infected by this.  Thus, because of one germ, the entire colony on bees dies.”

ZOMG! They’re talking about colony collapse disorder! (although, according to Wikipedia, the cause is unknown, rather than ‘germs’).  I read further. Oh no, my mistake – they’re talking about God. Sneaky! The leaflet goes on:

“The same way, sin entered mankind. Satan deceived man who was made in the image of God and made him sin…(continues in guilt-ridden ‘you’re going to hell’ vein for another page and a half)”

I’m very familiar with the “scientific” arguments that get bandied around about religious creationism vs evolution (or creationsim vs reality, as I like to think of it). But seriously, bees?

I’m vaguely annoyed that a serious environmental issue has been hijacked by the God squad. The only thing bees have in common with Jesus is the letters E and S. Unless you spell it Bejesus, in which case you can get the whole word out of it.

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

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.