On the feasibility of a zombie apocalypse, and other questions.

So three days into I’m A Scientist, and really this is the first chance I’ve had to write a blog about it, because I’ve been so busy answering questions. I estimate I’ve answered 150 -certainly it takes up three pages on the IAS website – you can see them here. The questions are almost all great – some I got right, some tempted me to go off-piste into topics I don’t know that much about, some made me reveal more about myself than I wanted to, and some were bizarre, but nearly all made me think.


Me pretending to use my sexy new iPad to do I’m A Scientist – actually I use the laptop because I can type quicker. The picture is dark and grainy because it is late at night. That part is real.

Here is a sample of some of the questions:

  • Which do you think is more important, sending people into space, or developing new cures for diseases here on earth?
  • if your on the phone too much can you get brain desease
  • Is there another dimension?
  • Did you ask or did someone ask you to prom?
  • Explain the theory of life
  • Could you genetically modify a human to become a ‘Superhuman”? I.e Having special powers such as super strength. In biology we saw a cow that had been given a double muscling gene that allowed there to be more muscle on the cow. So would something like this be possible in a human?????
  • How do you know if the tests you are doing are valid? because there is always someone who disagrees with you! =(
  • What is the best university to study psychology at?
  • Were you forced into doing I’m a scientist…or did you decide to enter it yourself? =)
  • Is a Zombie apocalypse feasible.
  • do you believe in a life after death…..?
  • Why do magnets attract and repel?

I am a bit wordy and some of my answers go on a bit – maybe, I should just give pithy twitter style answers (<=140 characters), but I’ve done my best to answer things accurately. Sometimes a more honest response would be “I don’t know” or “ask a Physicist”. But I don’t like to admit defeat, and IAS gives me a bit of an outlet.

I hope I am not being patronizing, because that sort of thing used to drive me nuts when I was a teenager. Every now and then you catch yourself saying “and we call this a [insert blindingly obvious term here]”. “We call this” is a dead give away. In fact adopting the royal “we” (for scientists) is another thing that is annoying me about my responses. At least, though, I try to use this accurately when representing what I take to be scientific consensus.

Controversially today, I decided to voice my real opinion (slightly toned-down) about climate change science which is not quite in line with “The debate on climate change is over” view put forward by Lord May, who said: “‘On one hand, you have the entire scientific community and on the other you have a handful of people, half of them crackpots”. I think (along with at least 43 FRSs brave enough to speak out) that this overstates the no doubt very compelling case for human driven climate change, and at the same time begins to undermine the foundations of science – that ideas must be  open to challenge and scrutiny. In my view to think this is not “denialism” but healthy scientific scepticism. Of course I am not an expert in this area (and neither are most of the other scientific commentators on the topic), but I was not blown away by the evidence when I looked into it, and I am massively unimpressed by the way the UEA unit seems to have behaved over the data. I felt a bit of a hippocrite talking to teenagers about the merits of rational scepticism on the one hand, and then uncritically parroting the party line on the other, and I am afraid I couldn’t do it.

I’ve been very impressed by the balanced tone of other scientists comments on the IAS site (which I take to be more representative of the scientific consensus, because its a wide and varied sample not selected for their status and authority). For example, they tend to be less condemnatory about religion than the prevailing views expressed in scientific blogs and twitter. I quite understand some scientists frustration with belief systems that are uninfluenced or actively opposed to evidence and scepticism, especially these beliefs are pushed onto other people, but I often think that responses to this can appear disrespectful, antagonistic and unpersuasive. I think a more effective response is to listen respectfully and to argue back (if you disagree).

Against this, one question we were asked in the Imaging Zone was “Do you respect my culture of Islam?” Given the view I expressed above, this ought to have been easy enough for me to answer (“Yes”), but something about the student’s username osamabinladen made me reflect more carefully before responding: “Yes, osama, and I think it is important that cultures learn to co-exist peacefully even when they don’t respect one another.” I think adopting osamabinladen as a user name is provocative to say the least. Dawkins I am sure would call me a wuss (except he’d probably think of a better word than that).

This morning we had our first live chat. I got everything together and headed with my lap top over to the campus Cafe near my office, cleverly ordering a bacon sandwich and latte (for it was 9.15am), but as the time for the chat to begin approached, the wifi connection started to waver, and the IAS site was having tech problems too, so I ended up in a bit of a panic. I managed to finish my sandwich, but got ketchup in the keyboard and split coffee all over myself and the floor as I tried to find a spot to connect. In the end I headed back to the staff common room in time to participate more or less fully in the text based chat session with Year 12 students from Woodkirk High School nr Leeds. I can only say this was great fun – probably one of the most enjoyable things I’ve undertaken as a scientist, although quite brief and very intense. Amongst other things I managed to explain that, if I win the contest, I will use the money to scan a teacher (find out more on my IAS profile, with students helping to design the experiment. As Woodkirk High School is quite nearby it would be very feasible to do this with a class of their Physics students and scan their teacher Mr Hannard, who said he’d be happy to be scanned. So (if you read this) vote for me Woodkirk, and Mr Hannard goes into the scanner. Deal?

Author: tomhartley

Neuroscientist and University Lecturer in Psychology

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