Archive | March 2011

Science is Still Vital!

Ice Covered DNA Fountain

A DNA sculpture frozen like the science budget.

Last year’s Science is Vital campaign was launched to defend Britain’s scientific research from cuts in the Comprehensive Spending Review that the new government undertook shortly after taking office. The campaign’s petition garnered 35000 signatures from scientists and their supporters, and several thousand of us attended a rally at the Treasury on 9st October last year. The campaign was successful, and scientific research was spared from the worst of the cuts. But the research budget was frozen and, once inflation is taken into account, that amounts to a cut of around 10%.

One of the reasons scientists had to speak up before the spending review was that the contribution of scientific research to the wider economy is not as broadly appreciated as it should be. It might seem obvious that the developed world has benefitted hugely from scientific advances but evidently there is some truth to the saying “familiarity breeds contempt”. British-based scientists are being pressured to do more with less, despite the fact that the UK already punches well above its weight in terms of scientific output and influence.

While we escaped the worst of the spending cuts in the CSR, I argued back in October 2010 that scientists cannot afford to wait for the axe to fall before speaking up in the future. We need to continue to get out of the lab and to engage with public debate to ensure that the scientific contribution to the economy and to our society’s well-being is not taken for granted.

The Science and Technology Committee of the House of Commons is a committee of sitting MPs whose job it is to hold the government to account over science policy. They have decided to look into the impact of the spending review on research and they have asked for the views of the scientific community on the state of science funding (by 27th April).  This provides scientists with a critical opportunity to have their voices heard. If scientists don’t speak up, we can hardly complain if Parliament decides that the current level of funding is sufficient. To avoid this, Science is Vital is providing a one-stop web page with all the information you need to prepare a submission for the committee. It needn’t take long, and the committee’s report will make a real difference to the way the current policy is evaluated and the way government funds science in the future – so let’s provide them with the evidence they need.

Where is the hippocampus?

A lot of my research involves the hippocampus, part of the brain that is important for forming new memories. This video is part of a work in progress explaining the vital part the hippocampus plays in our memory for places, for knowing where we are and for finding our way around. Read More…

My Brain

This is my brain.

Brain_render1

I am excited this morning, because I have finally begun to get to grips with Freesurfer a package for processing brain imaging data created by the Martinos Center. Freesurfer is a very powerful program which allows you to extract a very precise brain surface from an anatomical image. I rendered the picture above using the surface data for my brain, and a 3D animation program called Blender. Freesurfer allows you to project your brain imaging data onto this realistic surface. This is important because a lot of the interesting processes take place on the outer surface (cortex) which, as you can see, is scrunched up.

Brain imaging experiments help us figure out what different parts of the brain do (this is called functional imaging). From these experiments and from research with patients with brain injury we know that different parts of the human brain do different things. We do not know exactly what these functions are, or the best way to describe them, but they often seem to be laid out systematically on the cortex – if we could understand the system, we would be able to develop theories about what each part should do based on where it is. The convolutions make it possible to squeeze more cortex into the limited space of our skulls, but they also mean that it is hard to see the real pattern. Freesurfer lets you inflate the brain’s surface, smoothing out all the crinkles, which makes the pattern much clearer.

I am looking forward to doing this more and more with my own experimental results, but right now I am still excited just to be able to make such a nice picture of my own brain.

Inspiration

The BBC made an excellent documentary, about a great scientist. The clips below tell the story of the the teacher who inspired her. They’re worth watching, and the whole documentary is highly recommended.

Jocelyn Bell Burnell is a Physicist.

Jocelyn went on to do a PhD. She discovered pulsars, stars which sends out regular bursts of radio waves as they spin. No one had suspected anything like this to exist.

Jocelyn’s PhD supervisor won the Nobel prize for their discovery, but she missed out. Other people thought she deserved some of the credit.

Jocelyn was philosophical about missing out on the prize. She went on to become one of Britain’s most honoured scientists (she grew up in Northern Ireland); she is a Dame, a Fellow of the Royal Society and recently stepped down as President of the Institute of Physics.

But she has never forgotten the superteacher, Mr Tillett, who first inspired her.

Teachers make a difference. If you’ve had an inspirational teacher, make sure you say thank you.

How to change other people’s minds.

Scientists are involved in finding out how nature works by looking at and generating new evidence. The idea is to build up a set of well-founded, testable beliefs about the natural world. This system seems to work pretty well – our everyday existence, quality of life and indeed lifespan has benefitted hugely from scientific advances and the technologies which flow from them from: antibiotics, brain scans, the internet, television, transport, contraception. It’s easy to think of less positive examples, like nuclear weapons, but none of this stuff would work unless the underlying scientific beliefs had some truth in them. Read More…

Resisting the Dark Side

This post was stimulated by Stephen Curry’s excellent article on the angry response to pseudoscience on his blog at Occam’s Typewriter. I originally posted this as a comment on that post. I’ll edit this post to add some links and more background shortly.

Yoda

“Fear is the path to the dark side. Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.”

It is always tempting to escalate the argument when you disagree with someone, and that’s often when reasoning starts to go out of the window. You start by attacking the speaker, rather than what they’re saying. You distort their argument, creating a straw man etc. We’ve all been in the receiving end of this, and if we’re honest we’ve all felt at least the urge to go on the attack this way. It is a human failing, and science gives us the tools to resist it – using evidence instead. But apart from the reasoning errors the angry approach leads to, it is very unpersuasive. Whoever changed their mind in this kind of argument? I suppose ad hominem attacks and straw men are useful for persuading on lookers, but if you actually want to change the mind of the person your debating, then Carl Sagan’s approach (discussed in Stephen’s post) is the only way.

Carl Sagan: so many clips to choose from. This one explains why Science has to persuade other people. He is not immune to the urge to deride others beliefs, but he does understand the danger: “Certainly. I’ve even sometimes heard, to my retrospective dismay, that unpleasant tone in my own voice”.

One more point. What we call pseudoscience and superstition are beliefs founded on an imaginative urge to make sense of the world, leading us to see patterns and meaning sometimes where there is none. This imagination, while it can be misleading, also plays a vital role in science, because only by imagining the possible (i.e., possible alternatives to what we now think) can we look for and perhaps find it. It must have taken an enormous leap of imagination to go from classical to quantum mechanics, and the newer ideas must at the time have seemed crazy. Likewise evolution was an extremely challenging idea when it was first put forward. Sagan himself was an enthusiastic supporter of the search for extraterrestrial intelligence at a time when most scientists thought the idea of aliens crackers. Although there’s been little new evidence* to change our mind since then, the idea that we are alone in the universe is now regarded as implausible. So one generation’s pseudoscience can become the next generation’s science, and we need to resist the temptation to reject the very idea that our current understanding is the only way to think.

*People will point to the discovery of new extremophiles and earth-based eco-systems as evidence – these discoveries shouldn’t have been too earth-shattering, but the preconception that (effectively) life would only exist where we had already looked was unimaginative, in my view.

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