The Science of Assassin’s Creed

•March 6, 2013 • Leave a Comment

After an age of blogging uncertainty and diversions, I’ve finally got round to doing a post about the videogame series that inspired me to launch this blog in the first place! Betrayal, murder,  love, murder, hidden blades, murder, epic storylines and…collecting feathers? That’s right – today, I’m-a talking about the science featured in the Assassin’s Creed series!

 

The Assassin’s Wha-?!

In this compelling and gripping videogame series, we play through the eyes of Desmond Miles, a twenty-something year old bartender who finds himself caught up in a war between two factions: the Assassins and the Templars. As we progress through the series, we find that this war is age old, spanning from the Middle Ages – at the time of the Crusades – to the modern day in the series. We also learn that Desmond himself was raised as an Assassin but chose to be a bartender instead because it meant less hassle and more freedom. …probably not one of his finer decisions, I must say. I mean…awesome Assassin weapons and training versus being able to do flair bartender tricks 3/10 …with a LOT of luck, that is. Bit of a no brainer…

As you play through the different games, you relive the memories of a few of Desmond’s ancestors: Altair Ibn-La’Ahad from the Middle Ages, Ezio Auditore de Firenze from the Renaissance Period and Connor Kenway (who also has a dang long Native America tribal name) from the American Revolution. As you play out key parts of each of his ancestors’ lives, you discover a plot that has been in motion since the Middle Ages (possibly earlier) and threatens those in the modern day…

 

The Assassins Through Time: (from left to right) Altair Ibn-La’Ahad, Ezio Auditore de Firenze, Connor Kenway and Desmond Miles http://www.fanpop.com ©

 

But wait, I hear you ask! How on EARTH can Desmond play as his ancestors? Well, I’ll skip on spoiling the story for you and give you another heading to read!

An-ana-ana-ah-ah-ah-ah-ana-Animus! 

Desmond is able to relive his ancestors’ memories through the use of a machine known as the ‘Animus’, which taps into the unexplored sections of one’s DNA. For some background information, DNA stands for ‘deoxyribose nucleic acid’ and is inside every living organism on the planet. The study of DNA is called ‘genetics’. Our DNA is essentially the ‘code of life’, a biological ‘blueprint’ to make us – with environmental factors also acting on DNA to produce what we are! The basic building blocks of DNA are four molecular ‘letters’ – A, T, C and G (note: they don’t actually look like letters through a microscope!). These letters pair up with each other, A with T and C with G, to form ‘base pairs’ and the resulting pairing is what gives DNA its ‘double helix’ structure. Awesome!

OK, OK. That’s all well and good but just how does that relate to the Animus and what it can do? Good question! DNA, as in the blueprint that makes us up, changes between generations. In a nutshell, you get half of each parent’s DNA which then reassemble and recombine in a process called ‘meiosis’ (me-oh-sis). This process of genetic recombination is what generates variety even within organisms of a similar species. It’s this variation that is really the basis of evolutionary change: without it, you really wouldn’t see such diverse and varied lifeforms on this planet! But meiosis isn’t the only way of changing your genetic makeup. Your DNA can, and does, undergo mutations – some of which can be potentially lethal (cancer) and others of which not so much.

Recently, scientists have found that the way your DNA works can also change through a process called ‘epigenetics’. Epigenetics isn’t a change in your DNA sequence but rather a change in how your genes are expressed – like how they’re ‘switched’ on and off again. That’s right! The workings of your DNA is a tad more complicated than simply ‘you have a gene, so it’ll make you look/act/etc like this’! Many work by being effectively being turned on and off by other molecules (called ‘gene expression’) Although difficult to prove, there is some evidence to suggest that epigenetic inheritance occurs, which can give us clues to thinks such as the eating habits of one’s grandparents.

The key crux of all the above being that there is a lot your DNA can tell you about your ancestry! But can it recreate memories vivid enough for us to relive? Well…

 

Assassin’s Creed: not quite like Inception, but this is still a great meme. http://www.geekosystem.com ©

 

My Great-Great-Great-Great Grandfather Could’ve Been An Assassin….COOL! Animus Me Up!

Hold up there. While there’s a lot our DNA can tell us about our ancestry, such as how closely related we are to other species and even other individuals of our species, we currently really don’t know if we can get anything close to what the Animus can do. It’s an interesting theory that, if we can relive memories, they’d probably be epigenetic memories, given that there is some research suggesting that epigenetic modifications can form ‘molecular memories’ in our brains. But I’d argue that, even if we could relive memories in this way, they would be significantly limited by the amount of epigenetic modifications. We also have to remember that there are also limitations even with studying the genetic differences between us, and say, a chimpanzee (or banana). We normally measure the difference as the difference between ‘base pairs’ but…any one base pair might have undergone any number of changes in that amount of evolutionary time! That brings up issues with interpreting the extent of what our DNA may be able to tell us, if it indeed can store ancestral memories.

The other issue is that, unfortunately, we don’t have access to technology as advanced as the Animus. That sort of technology would have to interpret our brain activity – which would really be us remembering our ancestral memories in some way or form – and ‘translate’ this activity to actual, vivid memories. Of course, the assumption of whether this technology can ever exist is really down to our own biology. It might be a bit of a copout but it’s a hard feat trying to get to know our ancestors when we barely know ourselves! So…while the jury is still out on whether our DNA stores some form of memories dating back from our ancestors, we can hold fast on saving up for our personal home-use ‘Animi’ systems.

 

I Can’t Explore Medieval England As My Assassin Ancestor!? Awww, sadface! 😦 

Don’t sadface! Smile! 😀 As with all scientific fields, genetics (including the sub-field of epigenetics) is a vast and largely unexplored field! I’m personally incredibly excited for the discoveries that we are making, and will be making in these fields: especially epigenetics! Until then, we do have to be patient! In the past century, we’ve already unravelled at least a part of the story that our DNA has to tell. And you can bet your sweet hidden blade that there’s more! When we find that out, who knows what wonders our technological advancements will yield?

And if all goes to plan, I might see some of your ancestors as I blast through history itself! I wonder if they had tacos in the Middle Ages…?
Oh, and until then, let’s hope Assassin’s Creed 4: Black Flag lives up to expectations! IT HAS PIRATES!!!!!

 

Piraaaaaaaates! AC4 features a new Assassin, Edward Kenway, as he shows us how to plunder like only an assassin can! http://www.g4tv.com ©

 

New Days, New Ventures…

•March 5, 2013 • Leave a Comment

OK, so this really is going to be completely off the rails where talking about popular science/social issues (well, sort of) is concerned. But just try it out…you may like it!

Essentially, a cool thing called ‘Jim’ll Draw It’ popped up a few times on my Facebook feed. I loved the idea straight off the bat! People gave the artist, presumably named Jim, a couple of sentences on what they wanted him to draw. They’d then get exactly what they requested.

With that awesome idea in mind, I thought I could test out the exact same idea with short stories! I want to come up with a catchier name than ‘Taz’ll Write It’ but eh…we’ll see. And awesomely enough as well, I have my very first request below.

Mr. Nick writes:

“Dear Taz, 

Could you write a short story about an epic battle between Socks and Boxers that also has a romantic element to it? You know…to show that love can come out of adversity?” 

Well, Nick, your wish is my command! Here’s your story, may it do your undergarments justice:

As soon as the door shut behind Jeremy, the room went from being eerily silent for a teenager’s room to being filled with battle cries and war chants. Though it is debatable whether any human would have been able to decipher these.

“Down with the Crotch-Huggers!” yelled one side of the room.

“Destroy the Foot-Fools!” rebutted another.
For little did Jeremy know that, as soon as his room was devoid of any human activity, it was a battleground. A battle the likes of which had probably never been seen before in the history of his room! Or…indeed, the world. Because when Jeremy left his room to the workings of the mysterious elements, he unwittingly unleashed a war, which threatened to shake the very foundations of his room. But probably not the Earth.

A fateful battle…between undergarments.

“FIRE THE PAPERCLIPS!” yelled Major Adidas, his combat prowess being second to none amongst his fellow Sock Combatants. The Sock People had wished the Major to be their de facto leader through a series of elections but Adidas had refused. He had seen too many good Socks fall in this battle for undergarment supremacy. He left the political side to President Nike: sure, the guy didn’t do much thinking but he loved doing…well, stuff. The rallying cry which had sealed another term for the old Sock was simply: “Just do it!”. And boy, did it work to get the Sock People ready to win this war. Even if the President didn’t know what he was doing exactly. The paperclips were fired. Much of the enemy fell but still others marched forward to meet the Socks in mortal combat. Major Adidas looked behind him. There was a figure, presumably cowering behind one of the bed legs. The Major sighed. This job just didn’t get any easier for him. As he turned and made his way towards the hiding figure, he heard an explosion come from the western flank.

“Commander Jokkey, I need your skills on the battlefield. We have drawn Major Adidas out…see to it that he falls or it will be your waistband!” King Komfort sat on his scrunched up paper throne, barking orders to his subjects. Hot tempered but cunning, the King was not one to be trifled with. Jokkey bowed and left for the battlefield.

“Kleinus! Report!” the King barked.

“We have had some casualties on the field but we seem to be making an advance on the western front. The TV stand area shall be ours soon…yet the Foot-Fools have an advantage when fighting on the Messy Mire. Our forces cannot oppose them on the ground” the King’s adviser, Kleinus, spoke in a low hiss, more of a product defect than an actual indication of evil intentions.

“What?! But…the Wearer’s Matriarch ordered him to obliterate the Messy Mire yesterday! There are food deposits over a week old there!” King Komfort could not understand this huge setback to his war operations.
“We shall try to divert more troops there, sire, but our resources are dwindling…and…there is more…”

“More? What more news could you possibly bring to me, Kleinus?” the King was getting angry. Kleinus sighed. He knew there was no easy way to say this.

“The Princess…Victorya…she is missing…”

The next thing Kleinus felt was a huge thump somewhere on his cottony body before darkness engulfed him.

The war on the eastern flank had reignited again. Removed from the battle, two figures spoke in hushed tones at the bottom of the Wearer’s bed.

“Oh Sockulus, I could not stand to disobey Father, but I just had to see you again”

“And nor I you, my love…how I have longed to feel your silky smooth skin…the war grows ever more destructive…”

The Princess fell into him. He had known her ever since she had erroneously fallen into the Boxers’ Grounds, probably by some mistake on the part of the Wearer’s Matriarch. But ever since Sockulus had first seen her, he was overcome by emotions stronger than he had ever felt before. He made contact with her in secret thereafter, sure not to attract the attention of his father, President Nike.

She often told him of her land in their secretive meetings. A vast and sweet smelling place where seeing pink was the norm. He had not known a Boxer to be so kind, so gentle and…so understanding of his plight as a Sock. Nor was any Boxer he knew as…slim and minimally covering as her. Not that he minded, of course. No, it was no better – smell nor feel – where the Wearer wore her than where the Wearer wore him, she said with a tone of resignation. Although she noted that her Wearer was different to his, no doubt another result of the mix-up by the Wearer’s (or Wearers’?) Matriarch. Yes, she longed for a day when undergarments were free to roam the lands in peace and harmony with one another. No, she did not care for the one called ‘Justin Bieber’.

“Will we ever be…be free? To be together, my love?” Princess Viktorya asked Sockulus quietly, the sounds of chaotic projectiles causing more death and destruction in the lands beyond the bed.

“Yes…yes, we will…”

Viktorya looked at Sockulus, immense emotions welling up inside her. “My love…I have a secret…I know a way to get out this godforsaken place…”

After listening to his love’s cunning plan, the young lovers snuck away from below the bed to what they believed would be their ultimate freedom.

The war left many casualities, more than any single war that had taken place before. Major Adidas and Commander Jokkey had fallen in combat, gaping holes littering both of their corpses. Many good Socks and Boxers fell. The cries for bloodlust were replaced by a melancholy sadness for the fallen and for the living, for the former were gone to rest in the life beyond but…the latter would have to endure this madness.

“Komfort…”
“Nike…”
The two leaders faced each other awkwardly…and with a look of shame. They both knew that the time had come to stop warring but pride was a hard thing to put aside for both of them. Yet they knew they had to.

President Nike spoke first, confidently and resolutely: “Komfort, we have let our people go through harsher times than any undergarment deserves. This cannot continue…”
Komfort nodded, though he did not like to admit it. “Yes…I agree. This…death and destruction can only serve to bring both of our peoples down.”

“My people! Let us not look upon the Boxers as enemies…for tell us, dear Komfort, does not the area that you are worn make you miserable?”
“YES! MOST MISERABLE!” Komfort roared, his fellow subjects (the surviving ones, anyway) echoing his cries in unison. “And you, dear Nike, does not being walked upon do injustice to your very soul?”

“YES! INJUSTICE!” the Socks all cried out as one.

“Then let us put aside our differences and work to rebuild these lands…and to engage in plans on how both our peoples can subtly make the Wearer miserable upon no end.”

Both sides, the Socks and the Boxers, cheered, as their respective leaders drew up an agreement: bound in the material and thread of their fallen brethren. But as they did, they heard a sound come from beyond the Portal. It sounded like the Wearer! Both Socks and Boxers scrambled to get back to their respective territories, the treaty still in the hands of President Nike.

Jeremy burst into his room, urgency characterising his actions.
“Crap, crap, crap! I have to leave in like two minutes and if I’m late again, she’ll dump me! Where are they, where are the…”

He looked around his room. Something definitely seemed different. Was it…tidier than normal? He couldn’t be sure. His mum had asked him to clean his room up again and again but he was a teenager! If he actually did what his parents said, he’d pretty much be disowned by his age group.

“Ah, here we go!” He picked up his pair of lucky Nike socks: not the really fancy pair he had been given as his birthday present, but the other, tighter pair. They were his lucky pair. For some reason, they were on his dressing table. How they got there, he had no idea. But that wasn’t the weirdest thing, Jeremy mused. Next to his lucky pair of socks was a pair of silky Victoria’s Secret panties. Jeremy raised an eyebrow. Did his sister’s panties somehow get into his room? He picked them up. They looked new…and expensive! He smirked. The perfect present to prevent him getting dumped! He put his socks on, stuffed the panties in his bag and ran out of his room.

President Nike watched the Wearer as he put on Sockulus and put Princess Viktorya in his bag. He looked at the treaty, hoping Komfort was also watching the scene that took place. For the King could be incredibly unreasonable and brash, especially where his adopted daughter was concerned. The President of the Socks sighed. Perhaps, just to be extra careful, he had to put together some battle plans. He hoped it would not come to that but…the disappearance of both the Princess and his very own son, whom he hoped would be returned soon, would be a very hard thing to explain to the King of the Boxers.

If only, pondered President Nike, the Wearers knew of the plights the undergarments faced.

The Rise of the Liberal Conservationist

•March 1, 2013 • Leave a Comment

I confess that this sort of follows on my earlier post about social attitudes of beauty, although with a significant slant towards conservation. I can definitely admit to being a keen conservation enthusiast. I strongly believe in preserving the ecosystems of the world, giving them the best chance to continue to thrive and adapt. However, the extents of our efforts to preserve the biodiversity found on our planet today is no doubt shaped by our own superficial attitudes. I will, of course, illustrate my point with two pictures. Without ANY information on their biology or ecosystem roles, have a think about which one you’d want to save if you had limited resources:

The Giant Panda…just chillin’… http://www.guardian.co.uk ©

The Naked Mole Rat…smiling…I think? http://www.cdn.twentytwowords.com ©

Yeah, I figured it’d probably be a no-brainer. The Naked Mole Rat, right? Right?! No? Darn. Ten years of psychic school all for nothing. With the exception of a few people, I’m sure everyone went for the Giant Panda. And why not? It looks cute…look at it, just lazing about on the tree! In contrast, the Naked Mole rat looks like it could do some serious damage with those sharp teeth.

Actually, the panda’s much more likely to want to harm you than the mole rat. I recall my A2-Level Biology teacher recounting tales of panda keepers with missing limbs, thanks to the black and white Chinese bears. Actually, she also told the class once how we find pandas cute because of how low their eyes are on their forehead and their big eyes…just like human babies! It’s what’s called a ‘superstimuli’. But even that aside, without knowing ANYTHING about these species (which a relatively small amount of people really do), most people would choose to save the panda.

And THAT is incredibly worrying.

Yep, I’m worrying as much as you, lady! 😦 http://www.manilla.com ©

The Lament of the Conservative Conservationist

The WWF (World Wildlife Federation) have the panda as their flagship species. When you see a black and white panda logo, chances are you’ll instantly think of the WWF (no, not the wrestling TV programme). The WWF, and other charities big and small, appeal to our natural sense of sympathy by showing us images of incredibly adorable pandas. They then bombard us with all the problems the pandas are facing: low population numbers, deforestation causing habitat fragmentation and destruction, other human impacts…etc etc.

Now, I’m not saying that we SHOULDN’T save the panda. I’m ambivalent on the matter. But I will confess that I find the panda a biological oddity. It really seems to me that they are evolutionary awkward. Why? Well, a few reasons, really…

  1. Female pandas are only able to conceive around 2-3 days a year. That’s between 48-72 hours annually! Holy moly. 
  2. Pandas are EXTREMELY fussy maters. I make no comment on whether it’s males or females: chances are it’s both, though don’t take my word for it. I can hear the guys reading this almost scream at the injustice. FUSSY MALES? It’s almost an oxymoron!
  3. Evolutionary, they are carnivores. Functionally, they are herbivores. Herbivores without a means to digest cellulose, which is a significant component of plant matter. They have to eat loads of bamboo to meet their energy requirements. Rarely, they’ll eat some small rodents.

The above three main points confuse me when I think about why the panda still survives in the world today. Chances are, it’s largely thanks to our doing as human beings. Now, before we give ourselves a hearty pat on the back for saving these adorably wuvvy duvvy cutey wooty animal, we need to ask ourselves what the benefits would be. Looking at the panda in isolation, ok they help disperse seeds in the forests…but apart from that, they seem a functional evolutionary dead-end to me. The WWF’s website notes how conserving pandas would mean actually conserving the rest of the diverse ecosystem that it inhabits. It’s an interesting and debated conservation approach: by saving a species high up the food chain, for example a top predator like lions Africa, you have to conserve everything around it. After all, the ‘top dog’ of the food chain only survives because everything under it survives: take them away and the top dog becomes the starving dog becomes the dog-you-think-is-playing-dead-but-really-isn’t.

 

The Big Dawg of the African Savannah http://www.bbc.co.uk ©

 

That does flag up an interesting issue for me though. Is saving the panda actually less about saving the species itself and more about conserving the ecosystem around it? It could be that, conservation charities like the WFF, by using the guise of focusing on ‘beautiful’ or ‘cute’ species like the panda, are actually focusing on preserving the species that we don’t hear or know about. Or I may just be talking complete rubbish and they do want to save an animal that eats so much bamboo it spends the rest of its time sleeping and has loads of problems ‘in the sack’.

Dear Conservation Conservatives: please prioritise your efforts according to common sense and not just ‘because it looks cute’. Loads of people found ‘Hit-Girl’ from the movie ‘Kick-Ass’ cute…and she could kill you before you even knew what was going on.

More Than Skin Deep: The Functional Approach

While I’m not completely dismissing the ‘top predator’ conservation approach, I find it distinctly worrying that superficial notions of beauty are shaping conservation efforts. Using a trite analogy, I shudder to think of the scenario where we only save the Kim Kardashians and the Jersey/Geordie Shore cast members of the natural world. I shudder even more to think of a world where we allow for the extinctions of the Stephen Hawkings, the Bill Gates, the Alan Turings, the…well, you get the idea. I just picked three names off the top of my head but there are many more. I’d hate to live in that world…especially as I hate Keeping Up With The Kardashians and the bloody ‘Shore’ programmes.

I argue for a more ‘functional approach’ to be adopted in conservation efforts. I’m not saying that this functional approach isn’t already adopted…just not nearly enough. By ‘functional’, I mean what a species actually does in an ecosystem: its role in shaping its environment. The benefits of such an approach are numerous, chiefly amongst them being that we’ll actually be able to drive research into ecology and behaviour of species we believe to be functional: understanding these crucial areas will put us in a much better position to help to conserve them.

The other intrinsic beauty of functional approaches in conservation is that the animals we target as conservational priorities help to shape their environment for other animals. That is, this approach would still provide the synergistic conservational successes for other species as in the ‘top dog’ approach. I’m also not advocating we stop conserving species we find ‘pretty’ or ‘cute’: just that it’s probably a smart idea to allocate resources on them according to their ecosystem function. For example, most people finds elephants cute…but they also have an important function as ‘ecosystem engineers’. By going about their daily routines – pulling grass and knocking down trees – they actually change the physical properties of the land to benefit other species. Their dung is also a great fertiliser for seeds that they hardly digest…allowing them to be assist in the life cycles of certain plants.

I’m also careful not to provide too many examples of ‘ugly but important’ species which aren’t getting the recognition they deserve. Because that isn’t the point. I think it’s more striking to say that we actually don’t KNOW about the ecology, and thus functional importance, of loads and loads and loads (and loads) of species. Actually, on that topic, we’ve really only described a small proportion of the estimated number of species on the planet. If that doesn’t put it into perspective, I’m not sure I know what will. Maybe this picture of Tard, the grumpy cat?

 

Tard :D for Zarah <3http://imgix.8tracks.com/ ©

Tard 😀 for Zarah ❤
http://imgix.8tracks.com/ ©

 

Changing Attitudes, Changing World

Conservationists are here to conserve the world. Conservatives are here to, largely, conserve their own attitudes and beliefs. I argue that there is a resounding dissonance when you try to combine both. Conservation science is ever evolving, ready to pounce into action to generate new research that helps us to increase our understanding of the natural world that we are so feverishly trying to protect. We really cannot benefit from conservative and socially misguided attitudes dominating the conservation agenda. This means that we really need to gear up and challenge our own archaic, conservative views. And there are many – the conservatives amongst us, of course – who cry blood at the thought of change. I will also be as bold as to say that I only use ‘conservative’ to mean the conservative paradigm and not the political use of the word. Political agendas should never, ever dictate conservation efforts: only scientific studies and research should shape the efforts to protect the natural splendour of this Earth.

And I ask you to consider this: without change, you would be dead. Evolution is change, life is change. Take away change and you take away the very basis of life. As we change our attitudes and the paradigms that we adopt, we change the world – for better, or for worse. And now, more than ever, we need to apply positive and progressive paradigms to conservation science. The application of this thought needs to go more than skin deep, lest we let our ecosystem become overrun with the Kardashians and the Paris Hiltons of the animal world.

After all, isn’t that enough incentive to liberalise the conservation agenda?

How do go about we solving this problem? http://www.moneylabel.com ©

Special Mention

I dedicate this post to Jenny Mark, a close friend and MSc graduate in Conservation Science. I’ve had many intellectually stimulating talks with Jenny on the subject and our continued friendship and talks have been the basis and inspiration of this post. I hope this post does your passion justice, Jenny!

The Most Beautiful Lies Of Our Lives

•February 15, 2013 • Leave a Comment

The Stories We Weave…

“You ask why you are denied the right to fight alongside your…your countrymen?” the Lord Commander of the Fifth Valistrian Regiment stood aghast, a look of shock and horror carved onto his face.

“That I do, milord. I have passed every test, bested every combatant before me…yet you deny me the right to defend my country?” the boy spoke with a hushed, urgent voice. His armour, the Lord Comamander noted, was particularly gleaming under the desert sun.

“Such a right would not be mine, nor I’d imagine any man’s, to deny you, Imp. But what I can deny you is the right to fight in my regiment. I couldn’t say that any regiment in this land would see fit to include you by its side.”

“And for what reason is that, milord? Do I not fight as well as any soldier you have seen?” the Imp boy was persistent, that much was true. The Lord Commander had known only a few men in his time to embody such qualities. All of them had secured a place in history as heroes of their time. Of this Imp boy, he relinquished all thoughts of that nature.

“That you do, dear boy. That you do. But you must see it from the view of a leader. I cannot let any soldier fight in my ranks that does not…does not…” the Lord Commander faltered. He did not want to be so blunt, though it was in his nature, although perhaps it would have been for the best. Luckily for him, the Imp boy finished his sentence for him.

“You look upon me and all you can see is a disfigured abomination, is that not true? I’d wager you have seen nothing like me before. My looks sends babes in their mother’s arms into fits of terrified rage. I have felt the hard impact of more than mere insults, but blows that would kill any other man.”

“I do not doubt it, Imp, but see here…” the Lord Commander was silenced by a raised hand, mottled and bruised.

“A few more words I would beg that you permit me, milord. After that, I wager you will never see me again, though it is more your loss. As much hurt and pain as I have felt, I have also felt somewhat elated.”

“Elated? To look as abominable as you do, my boy, I would curse the Gods for my existence and renounce their names in a heartbeat!” the Lord Commander blurted out, regretting his words instantly. The trusty steed he sat upon, Valormare, let loose a pained groan, as if he felt the Lord Commander’s shame.

The Imp boy smiled, revealing crooked but gleaming white teeth. “I would think the Gods have cursed me already. I have renounced them long ago but not for the reasons you have stated. Alas, that is a story for which your ears were not meant, and one which you cannot comprehend. May I assume, then, you have no desire to utilise my skills in battle?”

The last question caught the Lord Commander off-guard, although he already formulated his answer. The Imp boy, he knew, was a fighter unlike any he had seen before, save the King of Valistria himself. His expertise and strategic leadership could win wars. But…his men…they would never bend their ears to carry out his orders. The Lord Commander nodded, hoping that would end the conversation.

The Imp sighed, and turned to walk away. As he took a few steps forward, leaving oddly shaped imprints in the scorching desert sand, he turned and looked the Lord Commander in the eye, causing the man to nearly fall off his steed.

“Let it not be said I did not give you a chance to reconsider. TARIUS, YOU OBLIVIOUS COWARD, LOOK UPON MY COUNTENANCE!” the Imp boy’s voice grew more powerful and terrible. The sand around him whirled up in a furious storm. The Lord Commander lost his grounding and fell off his horse, causing it to flee in terror. The Imp boy’s body seemed to grow, becoming more menacing by the minute.

“You have judged me, you have thrown me out when I offer naught but salvation for you and your cause. And on what basis? That which your eyes can only perceive before you? True as it is said that I am no material to weave a maiden’s dream. But you…you would burn the tower she is held captive in and slaughter without hesitation. And your actions here have started a terrible chain of events for you, my friend. Your betrayal will be felt by those you love the most, especially your beloved King.” 

The Lord Commander gasped, anger unable to swelter inside him as he felt deep shame at…what? The truth? “I would never…never harm…my King” he whispered hoarsely.

The Imp boy grinned, not menacingly now, but somewhat morosely. “Oh yes…you would. You may fool others with your outward image of righteousness and loyalty. But do not forget, when you have been denied physical boons, you develop the ability to see in the hearts of mortals. I see your future woven. Did you know…that I have seen you end the lives of your wife and children? I have been there, beaten on the ground by your men whilst you carry out atrocities that would rend your soul”

“Never…I…would…never!!!”

“You have made your mark in history this day as one of the greatest traitors our world has ever known. Take solace, however. I have felt your life ebbing away as my sword plunges into your black heart, saving hundreds of innocents that would otherwise perished at your command. Oh, you pitiful fool, you thought your physical boons could save you a place in Heaven and in legend, didn’t you? Mortal folly…you’ll receive none of my sympathies”

“Your sympathies, hah! And what reason have you to be a hero, you wretched son of horrors?” The Lord Commander spat, angered by the Imp boy’s calm demeanour more than his words.

“Because my soul is not as disfigured as my body may be, and my mind not so far gone as to think I would be a hero. The same cannot be said for you. I see only darkness before you, Tarius, and I despair for what you are and what you will become. Farewell, Tarius.”.

With that, the Imp adjusted his scabbard, holding his trusted mace, Oathkeeper, and disappeared into the unforgiving dessert. And the last thing Lord Commander Tarius heard, lying there in the desert sand, were the echoes of his own voice, from a time either long ago or far ahead:

 “The atrocities we commit, for the lies we wear as armour are as  fragile as our beliefs in distraction and folly”

The above excerpt, taken from my unpublished (and largely unwritten) first novel, highlight an issue for me that is an epidemic amongst society, but seldom ever talked about or, really, even debated. And that is the topic of beauty. Raw, physical beauty. Woah, woah. Alarm bells…another controversial post? Probably, but not because I’m picking on any one group of people or picking fights. If it is controversial, then maybe it’s a good kind of controversial…hopefully the kind to make people reexamine their views.

What brought this on? Two events in my life. One, I saw this fantastic TED talk on my phone (also available online), by Cameron Russell. The first thing I thought, I openly must admit, is: “Wow, she’s gorgeous!”. As if she knew my reaction down to a tee at her physical attractiveness, her talk was about how we view beauty in society today. I strongly urge you to take a look at it. She’s incredibly astute, poignant and, at the heart of it all, strongly believes what she says, which I’d imagine isn’t easy for someone lashing out at the industry she is a part of:

http://blog.ted.com/2013/01/16/model-cameron-russell-gives-the-real-story-behind-six-of-her-stunning-photos/

The other was musing on a billboard for a series that I hold in high regard: Black Mirror. Every time I have walked, or driven, past the back entrance of my local train station (for the last month or so), I have seen this picture without fail:

A Shocking Social Commentary? A mirror or a gateway into one’s soul? http://www.m.gmgrd.com ©

Quite…striking, I think you’ll agree? As Nick said to me, quite astutely, “It’s interesting because it’s a picture which you look at and think, the original was probably really pretty”. And I’d definitely agree with that. It’s not so farfetched to say that, after looking at this, we quickly mentally reconstruct a somewhat original image which we prefer to this one.

And that really does sum up our attitude towards beauty. And maybe, just maybe, the atrocities that we have committed as a result of this have characterise us as the tyrants and monsters that we commit ourselves to combat in the world.

More Than Skin Deep

I’m fairly decent looking, I’d say. I’ve been complimented by members of the opposite sex frequently (thank you ladies) and also members of the same sex (cheers bro’s). So I’m not speaking out of personal experience particularly, although I do recall having a rather unsightly spot on my nose until I was in my early teens. Too much to share on the internet? Probably, though it does help to hammer home the point. I also have quite a lot of strikingly beautiful and handsome friends…not as a consequence of my quest to only be around people of immense physical stature. But it’s a caveat that it isn’t just about trying to say: “Well, whoever’s physically attractive is just really shallow/horrible” or anything along those lines. More, it’s about what we focus on and what we value in society that’s important.

Increasingly, entertainment and advertising have become incredibly sexualised. Nowhere is this more apparent than the abundance of images we see about women: the slender, somewhat curvy, make up driven constructs which encourage us to be more like them. To be beautiful is to be blessed, the implicit message cries out to us. I once saw images from a photoshoot from one of my close friends, whose name I won’t mention here. At the time, I told her the usual stuff: “Oh they look great! You look so pretty!”. But I do recall myself thinking: “Actually…it just looks so fake. Fake and distant”. Not really the best outcomes. That being said, it was her first shoot like this so I was glad she enjoyed it. But more and more I just see the same kind of thing: my youngest niece asks for clothes and, pretty soon, if not already, make up. It makes me shudder. She is pretty enough without all those commercial delusions we constantly shove into increasingly younger generations’ minds, expecting them to conform and live up to the images we feverishly construct to further our own lusty quest for ‘the perfect image’.

Should this make you feel guilty if you are indeed blessed with physical appearance befitting of a God/Goddess or similar? Absolutely not. That is, unless what I’ve said has left an uneasy taste in your stomach because you really value people based on how they look and not who they are. Am I spouting the same socialist, wishy washy messages that you’ve come to hate? Well, it’d be worth considering exactly why you hate them. Chances are, you probably hate them because they attack you and your ideals as a person. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing: change is good for us. Change is the substrate of life: if life did not change, there would be no life. It’s a physical law of the universe. But take that with bags of salt where certain aspects are concerned. Change can be both positive and detrimental. My mind is filled with stories and images of teenage girls trying to ‘change’ their bodies by voluntarily throwing up or effectively starving themselves in order to fit into the image that society not only wants of them, but expects of them. And this is a real issue: young women are actually having to suffer through these mental illnesses because of our social attitudes. They are having to stare at the mirror and feel like they have to despise how they look. When they grow up, they’ll grow up believing that they have to always look amazing or they are somehow less than human or close to it. I hasten to add that I am not being bias in favour of women, for men are also increasingly shown an image of physical perfection that they are made to aspire to, but I feel the issue is far more pressing with women. Not that either should be belittled, of course.

 

And bulimia! Our weapons? Logic, reason and knowledge. Our enemies? Ignorance. ONWARDS TO VICTORY! http://www.sd.keepcalm-o-matic.co.uk ©

 

Either way, it’s an issue which we must look upon and despair…for it says multitudes about us as sentient beings.

“It was when my sight was ripped from me that I came to understand what true beauty was…”

Changing social attitudes is hardly any small endeavour. The most ingredient is that people are willing to change what and how they think about the world around them.

But consider this for a second: apart from having reproductive benefits, as well as possible benefits like getting things for free etc etc, being physically gifted is by no means a ticket to being a good person. That is most definitely not to say that people who are considered physically beautiful can’t be incredibly intelligent: they can, with Cameron Russell being a great example. But so many of my friends are, too many to name. Many of my female friends have incredibly intellectually gifted whilst boasting physical prowess. One is a talented singer and PR-savvy, another is a conservation zealot. Another is galavanting across the world until she starts a very impressive job at Proctor & Gamble, whilst another is off abroad to help local communities. Oh, did I mention one is also doing a PhD? Egads. And that is a very small sample I’ve picked there.

And what I really want to convey here is that, to make a real impact on the world, you seriously don’t have to look like the next perfect sculpture out of God’s sculpture factory. One example? Steven Hawking. Diagnosed with MS (Multiple Sclerosis), the young now-world renowned Professor was told he had mere months to live. Against the very unforgiving medical odds, he went on to live for years and significantly advance our understanding of scientific theory beyond all imagination. And if one was to look at Professor Hawking now, they would not see a physically gifted man. With an eye that goes more than skin deep, however, they would see an incredibly brilliant mind that has revolutionised the field of science, and indeed the world, much more than Paris Hilton has. Actually, bad example. Brad Pitt, then.

Whilst I could belabour the point, and have many more examples to share, I leave my final message in the form of a chronologically advanced piece of prose, following on from earlier. In this short excerpt, our esteemed Lord Commander Tarius stands over the dismembered corpses of his family, having betrayed the men that fought by his side. We also see the return of a particularly mysterious but powerful Imp boy…

The Consequences We Reap…

 “The atrocities we commit, for the lies we wear as armour are as  fragile as our beliefs in distraction and folly.” 

“Did I not tell you, Tarius? Did I not warn you that this is what you would become? And you did not listen”

“IMP! YOU WILL HUSH YOURSELF, LEST MY BLADE JOURNEY FROM EAR TO EAR!” The once revered Lord Commander roared, his skin pale and his eyes glowing a hue of purple. Blood was splashed upon his cracked Karnium armour, his sword drenched in the crimson liquid most of all.

“Why did you not turn away from this path, Tarius? Why did you not heed my warnings? Your men…died at your hand for their loyalty”

“THEY WERE FOOLS! As were…they,” Tarius kicked the lifeless body of his former love, anger filling his actions, “No, you showed me the price of true power, Imp, and I have paid it in full. And after I claim the godly power which you possess, I will be the most powerful man in this godforsaken Kingdom!”

The Imp felt a lump in his throat. His body bruised and bloody, he sat against a wall, stroking Oathkeeper, his now-broken mace. Tarius had surprised him by claiming to know the godly power which he possessed, although he guessed that Tarius was erroneously referring to…

“Give me Oathkeeper, Imp, and I will make your death as clean and as swift as I made theirs” Tarius held out his hand for the mace. The Imp grinned in the shadows. He had given this mortal more credit than he deserved. Still, the Imp had to play this one very carefully.

“That I cannot do. The weapon is bound to me, even in its broken state. It would be as useful as fighting a Fire Giant of Ifris with a mere child’s doll.” The Imp spoke in a rasp, exaggerating his wounds.

“Do not take me for a fool, Imp. I know that the weapon is bound to the man who can display valour and raw power. And if you shall not give it to me, I shall take it from you. And use it to make your face prettier than it has ever been…” Tarius lunged and snatched the mace from the Imp, who struggled enough to convince Tarius that his delusions were true. Tarius stared at the broken weapon, his mouth salivating at the very power he held in his hand. Despite it being in the state that it was, it was still glinting. Glinting…very much. So much that Tarius saw a blurred image of his own visage. His eyes grew wide; his mouth emitting a soundless scream.

The next thing he felt was a sword plunged into his belly. A tear travelled down Tarius’ face: a finer pain he had not felt in his life. His defeated body fell onto the ground, beside the bodies of his family. The Imp looked at him, his expression unreadable.

“Is…is it over, Imp?” 

“Yes, Tarius. You have played your part and you have earned the rest that is to follow. I hope your soul finds salvation, though I dare say that it will be a long journey indeed…”

“I saw…atrocities, madness…folly. I saw…the abyss. It spoke to me…in images…of horror and terror. What…were they, Imp?”

“They were the truth, dear Tarius. Did you think your eyes were fit enough to see things for what they are? Oathkeeper truly serves those of great power. But power is not found in hands that can wield a sword or that can make the hearts of maidens swoon. It is found in valuing the strength of one’s character, the wisdom of one’s mind. Oathkeeper is as strong as its master’s will.”

“You speak in riddles and tongues, Imp, but I think…I understand. Thank you Imp, and for what it’s worth, I wish to fight alongside you in another life.” Tarius spluttered up blood, dark smoke hissing up as it travelled down his chin, and closed his eyes. The Imp nodded to the once great Lord Commander, picking up Oathkeeper and cherishing its warmth in his weary hands. 

“To think, dear friend, that the only great power you hold is that you are forged from Kasyrian steel, the shiniest of all. A more special mace than that you are not, nor sightly to look upon. But a better weapon I could not hope for. Come, friend, our work has just begun, and I must tend to your wounds. Maybe I will make you a bit more ordinary this time: who knows what kind of follies and mortal distractions will try to give you undeserved value otherwise?”

 

Notable Mentions

I’d like to dedicate this post to a particularly staunch and wonderful feminist activist, Livi (also a blog follower!). Livi’s stories that appear on my news feed about the injustices women have to endure really were the subtle inspirations for this post. I hope it does your cause and your passions justice, Livi!

It’s Happening! …or is it? Wait…what’s happening?

•February 14, 2013 • Leave a Comment

First, a note: I apologise for the recent lack of popular science exploration. I felt like expanding the blog to include more than just that (although I will endeavour to make that the main focus) as science is a universal topic and there are some issues that do need to be talked about (or ranted about, depending on your outlook). However, in a contemplative fashion, I thought I’d jump back on the popular science bandwagon. Except this bandwagon is also the ‘awful movie’ bandwagon too, so buckle up…it’s going to get bumpy!

Told you it’d be bumpy…really bumpy! http://www.1.bp.blogspot.com ©

There’s Madness in this Movie

Years ago, when I was a budding scientist who thought ecology was a frail and dull textbook exercise (it isn’t!), fate dealt me a most unexpected card: I found myself in the cinema, watching M. Night Shyamalan’s then-latest thriller ‘The Happening’. I can’t remember who I went to see it with or what possibly possessed us to go watch it. I’d imagine it was a complete disregard for societal norms and a misguided sense of rebellion but what do I know?

Oooooh err! The Happening. Sounds daunting enough! And before you tune out, this isn’t a movie review so much as a science dissection lesson. I was incredibly disappointed by a lot of what the movie had to offer: it nearly ruined Zooey Deschanel as an actress for me (…but…it couldn’t, for I do admire her so) and Mark Wahlberg? Well, Mark had to produce The Other Guys and Ted to claw himself back into my good books. But claw he did and now I somewhat admire his not-so-great acting skills because, well, he was also in Planet of the Apes. Alas! I digress, for it is the science of it all that you came here to discuss and that is what I shall deliver! Let us press on….

Maybe the wrong direction but…heck, we’ll roll with it! http://www.cheezburger.com ©

Greenpeace’s Dilemma [SPOILER ALERT…though I’m doing you a favour if you haven’t seen it]

Well, I suppose it would be if this movie’s science was logically sound. Which it isn’t, but almighty being or great nothingness help us if it is! But it would be a dilemma for conservationists and nature lovers indeed. The plot line is essentially this: humans, in their typical humanistic ways, have exploited the planet and its plants for far too long. In retaliation, the plants carefully coordinate an attack back against humanity by producing chemical, airborne toxins that affect human brains. And by affect I mean drive to maniacal suicidal tendencies. I think the worst part is that this plot may have worked if we didn’t find out the major twist like half an hour or so into the movie. The first scene was genuinely worth it as it did build up a good bit of suspense. Sadly, the rest didn’t follow suit.

So that’s the plot line. It brings up some interesting scientific assumptions. And because I like simplicity and brevity, here are some bullet points to outline the assumptions and  then blast them with our logic shotguns to see if they survive:

Who ya gonna call? ASSUMPTION BUSTERS!

1) Plants are capable of producing a toxin that SPECIFICALLY targets the human brain and makes it carry out a specific set of instructions (i.e. killing one self)

That seems very highly unlikely, if not impossible. It is true that plants have toxic defences. This can take the form of chemicals they can release to lead to the death of their attackers (i.e. by releasing chemicals that attract predators of the plants’ predators) or toxic chemicals that can be seriously harmful, if not fatal, to any unfortunate attacker not evolved to defend themselves against it! Some plants can even release chemicals to specifically target other plants that may be, to put it mildly, ‘messing around on their turf’. But to say that plants can knowingly release chemicals in a coordinated and purposeful attack against humans is a bit farfetched. So this assumption is assuredly BUSTED.

2) ALL, or many, plants of different species are capable of producing the exact same, or similiar effect-producing, chemicals and deploy them in a coordinated fashion at pretty much the exact same time. That is, plants as an entire collection of species can evolve in such a widespread fashion, in such a short space of time, that they can defend themselves against the ‘human threat’.

This…seriously goes against the idea of evolution. Viruses evolve incredibly fast because they have such a high turnover rate – that is, they can go through generations and generations of viruses in an incredibly short space of time. So the rate of evolution, one can generally say, is dependent on an organism’s lifespan and population turnover rate. In The Happening, we saw trees, as well as other plants, able to create these human-killing chemicals. As trees takes AGES to grow, and other plants really do not have such a massive turnover rate to both 1) create a mutation to produce this deadly chemical and 2) spread this genetic mutation across species and populations..and across geographical borders. Hmm. Evidence enough? I should think so…BUSTED!

3) Plants would be able to detect human organisms and only release the toxin when they are detected specifically as the chemical affects no other known animal.

Again, I am dubious given the revelations of point 2, above. Plants would also have to develop evolutionary receptors to detect…human-specific chemicals or some such. But, given the timescale, I’d say it’s highly unlikely, especially across so many species. BUSTED!

 

It’s not easy trying to bring logic to the universe… http://www.picardfacepalm.com ©

4) This toxin is able to completely override the ability to think rationally and have the use of free will. In short, it completely focuses on the target individual on one goal: their own demise.

Now, whilst this is somewhat of a possibility (assuming all other assumptions are correct), I’m dubious that such a chemical could invoke such a specific response and override all other rational functions. I do realise there are certain mental disorders that can cause the symptoms, at least partially, but one chemical specifically? I think it’s more likely if the plants release a toxin that is highly lethal to us – e.g. a poison. However, it would probably be a poison that would not specifically target us, but also at least a few other animals too. PRETTY BUSTED!

5) Plants have a non-chemical means of mass communication to coordinate such an attack. I say non-chemical because the response can be said to be worldwide (or, you know, America and France which is ‘worldwide’ enough) and so chemicals would probably not be able to travel this distance in such a short timeframe.

Now, there is research to suggest that plants can ‘chemically’ communicate with each other, for example when warning of attacks from predators. However, such a widespread communication as is seen in the Happening is just…really unlikely. You would have to get a certain amount of individual trees or other plants in each geographical region to communicate with each other somehow, most likely chemically, either all at the same time or pretty much around the same time. Pretty, pretty unlikely, if not impossible, due to the logistic strain. BUSTED!

6) Having dessert with another female constitutes adultery. And an awful sub-plot line which not only goes nowhere, it makes you wonder what Zooey Deschanel saw in Mark Wahlberg in the first place. Darnit, Zooey, go find a man who won’t even entertain the idea of sharing an appetiser with another woman! Like me. Ahem.

Seriously, Zooey. I’m even scared to entertain the notion of sharing free tap water with another human being, let alone another human. LUSTED!

So there we go. Those assumptions are, on the incredibly huge majority, pretty fragile when we put it to the test of logic. I would say that it is still a great imaginative piece of work except…it isn’t. I do apologise for the blunt statement but the truth is sometimes very hard to bear. Or, sometimes, it’s incredibly obvious and you should just go watch something awesome instead. Like Warm Bodies.

Happy Valentine’s Day too, friends!

 

Nicholas Hoult knows how to be part of an awesome movie! Also, I still can’t believe he was in About A Boy! http://www.filmofilia.com ©

The True Price of Experience and Opportunity

•February 6, 2013 • Leave a Comment

Go to school, they said. Get good grades and learn important skills, they said. If you’re that way inclined, go to university, they said. Work hard, they said. It’ll get you on the career ladder to a decent career, they said.

What they didn’t say was that the ladder has long been rickety and gnawed by termites. Taking your first step is incredibly daunting and, for the most part, teeming of disappointment and a lack of support. Those who make it are revered and seen as, wait for it, the exception rather than the rule. A worrying proportion that make it have to invest more money to gain this ‘valuable experience’, trying as hard as they can to fix the ladder ‘for free’.

We are Generation X: they have taken away our hopes, dreams and even our natural curiosity. They have squandered our talent, instead preferring your own outdated models of how to conduct yourselves in a ‘civil fashion’. They are the people who have caused this mess and have no intention of cleaning it up.

Causes, Concerns and Consequences
Why do I write such a scathing blog? After all, my blog is about popular science and exploring that, right? That is true but I am also a keen advocate of important social issues. And, at the end of the day, it is all interrelated: our passion for science and science communication can only hold so strong in the face of a stark lack of opportunities for young scientists and communicators to jump onto the career ladder. A jump that we have been working all our lives to make. We then arrive to the moment we make the professional leap to find our resources dwindling at an alarming rate and our opportunities increasingly less appealing or, in many cases, becoming non-existent. What could be worse? Well, how about the fact that we are told to ‘accept it, quit whining and deal with it’. Accept it? No thanks. Quit whining? Asserting myself is not the same as whining: it’s intended to make myself heard. Deal with it? Like previous generations have dealt with the economy and environmental conservation and…the list goes on. Oh, and the for the record, gay marriage bill? Well done on passing it, Britain. Go on, pat yourselves on the shoulders. Pat yourselves on the shoulders for your incredibly draconic ways and for being a huge disappointment where the ‘we’ll concentrate on the important issues’ dogma is concerned. As someone I know aptly put it, ‘it’s like rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic whilst the ship sinks’. And boy is this ship sinking.

It might be sinking but…at least we have some nice feng shui going with the deck chairs! http://www.dahayden.com ©

What right have I to complain? As much of a right as the next graduate that was royally crushed by the schemes and shortsightedness of politicians and companies. Without bragging about my accomplishments, I have achieved a First Class Honours in Bsc Biology with Science Communication. A joint honours degree which, by the way, is no easy feat. I have healthcare PR experience which, only after much needed changes in labour laws, paid me minimum wage (I’m not complaining necessarily, the people were great and the work challenging, though not for me). I have then worked in sales and lamented the fact that this is the ‘golden opportunity’ I had, after working myself to the ground with my degree. Hey, ‘Mr. Man’, how could you possibly mistake ‘biology’ with ‘sales’? Transferrable skills? Erm, yes. A desire to do something completely unrelated to my degree? For a proportion of people but for the rest of us, we’re still waiting for those promised opportunities which you charged us a ridiculous amount of money to educate ourselves for. Oh, and those students who are paying an even more extortionate amount of money to study for their careers? I’d hire some decent bodyguards for when you break the news to them that you’re going to seriously let them down.

Resourcing Problems: The Conservation Communication Crisis

Bringing the issue around to my chosen field of biological study, ecology and the environment, I want to mention a conservation I recently had with a scientific expert. It is somewhat related, which I will make clear later. As part of my third year radio project at university, I interviewed a series of scientific experts. All of them were excellent communicators but some were more passionate and focused on science communication and public engagement than others. One in particular really stood out to me, which, given the calibre of interviewees and their expertise, was something indeed. Mark was always on hand to answer any questions, offer feedback and constructive criticism and make me think about the wider implications of my work. He also kindly mentioned me in a public blog post on the nature conservancy website: http://blog.nature.org/conservancy/2010/12/07/mark-spalding-environmentalist-communication/

His name is Mark Spalding and he is, a senior marine scientist at The Nature Conservancy, an international organisation whose work is crucial in safeguarding marine environments. Recently, I got in touch with Mark about another related issue and we exchanged e-mails that can only be described as a civil but lively debate, centring on Richard Dawkins. My position was that, whilst Dawkins had his issues, he had his uses in promoting science to a wider audience, namely fighting the use of creationist texts in scientific classrooms.

Mark Spalding: A stalwart protector of conservation issues and science communication http://www.oceanwonderland.com ©

As can typically be the case with scientific debating, Mark strongly disagreed, with strongly being a bit of an understatement. Essentially, he pointed out how Dawkins had hurt the science communication cause due to his overzealous approach to not just creationists, but religious people altogether – a fallacy which is all too believable but quite erroneous. Mark further pointed out, rather astutely, that Dawkins has estranged himself from his peers with his fairly extremist views, which have created a wall between scientists and the public, causing science to neither be interesting nor accessible. After carefully considering Mark’s position, I am inclined to agree. I felt that what I was really being told was that Mark felt the already difficult job of a science communicator is hindered by the ‘extremists amongst us’. I also stopped to consider that Dawkins has turned the evolutionist-creationist debate (which, as Mark points out, a significant proportion of people side on the evolution side) into a religious-atheist debate. Sadly, it’s a mixup that is all too common: being a believer does not mean you are religious or not. For example, whilst I am a staunch evolutionist, I am not strictly an atheist (though not religious either). But neither should have an impact on each other. And for a passionate and excellent science communicator, such as Mark, there is no use in rearranging the deck chairs of the Titanic whilst the conservation communication ship is sinking.

How does this relate to jobs, then? Explicitly, it does not. Implicitly, it actually shows there is a lot of work to be done on the science communication front. Mark works in conservation, with conservation communications being his role. Commonly, a theme I have picked up on his e-mails is that he feels somewhat dismayed that messages aren’t conveyed properly which leads to a stark lack of action. I could be wrong but, at the very least, there is a definite room for improvement. Public speakers such as Dawkins can undermine our true purposes here and distract from key issues that we need to put onto the public agenda. In his blog post, linked above, Mark notes how it’s time to get more communicative creatures onto the conservation ice floe: ones with ‘a different view, fresh perspective, and a longing to tell their friends in the ocean’. Whilst I long to be one of these creatures because of my passion to make a difference to environmental issues, I sadly believe that the reality of it is that the field is severely underfunded. I do not have the funds to support myself whilst not being paid for a demonstrable amount of time (one advert I saw wanted unpaid volunteers for 6-12 months). We creatures who long to champion the cause on the ice floe are struggling to get ourselves on there, and the severe lack of support to help us get there is incredibly striking. But we are the ones with the drive and motivation to bring new ideas to the conservation effort.

Money Can Buy You Anything…Including Work 

What’s the biggest incentive to get a job? Satisfaction? Er, well, probably not according to a large proportion of workers that you ask. It’s money. Money, money, money. So imagine the immensely counterintuitive notion that we pay to work! The one reason we have to go to work is taken away from us and we’re accepted to have our bank accounts dwindle whilst we gain ‘crucial experience’. The issue has been particularly extenuated in the past when Conservative backers paid as much as £2000-3000 to get their children top internships in London. Paying a disgusting amount of money to further perpetuate the gross amount of money already poured into ‘the City’. And imagine asking to siphon off some of those funds – even a meagre amount – to support environmental efforts? Then we become filthy communists and extremists, shortsighted and unable to understand financial markets. Actually, I’m probably not the only one unable to understand financial markets based on the current state of the global economy. Cheap shot? Well, as cheap as a City internship, right Mr. Cameron?

Give me money so that you can then make money …..I promise you I’m trustworthy http://www.aroundtheworldin80jobs.com ©

Am I angry? You bet. I’m here, ready, willing and able to take up a job for comparatively lower pay to do something actually useful for society – nay, humanity – than someone who wants loads of money for selling a product or service that you can’t really equate to being useful really to anyone (it happens more often than you think). I’m hearing distant voices telling myself to watch where I’m going with this. But let’s be real: the actual fields or areas we pour heaps and heaps of money into really have no benefit to the human race and its survival. Incidentally, shouldn’t the actual survival of our species sort of be…our real aim here? Hard to believe when we literally give money to ‘professional sportspeople’ for kicking a ball around or top bankers for ruining our economy (zing). But, I hear you retort, the life sciences is extremely profitable! Yes, pharmaceutical and medical ventures are. Er, yeah…but when you strip aside the ‘quest to help human health’, you’re just looking at corporate money making machines, really. Controversial? Not really. Can we stop making the truth such a taboo subject?

We environmentalists and ecologists are a jolly bunch, but not because we earn more money than we know what to do with. We are severely underfunded and underrepresented in society, actually. We are jolly because we have to be: our mission is what’s important to us. Being able to preserve natural wonders and ecosystems for future generations to prosper. I was shocked to hear a friend expressing how he’d ‘eat his fill’ of resources because there’s no point in saving it for future generations. Sadly, this admission is probably all too resonant amongst society. I let loose a long sigh.

We aren’t asking for heaps of money. Just a clever reallocation of funds from banking, sales, recruiters, sportspeople etc etc to help create opportunities for people who want to preserve the natural world and provide important scientific services beyond that. Even to communicate science, which is a crucial aspect in and of itself. That should not be too much to ask, even though it is. I do not want to have to pay thousands of pounds to go to help conservation efforts either in the UK or abroad. Alright, to you it’s a holiday going to Costa Rica or the Amazon to preserve a species. To me, it’s a lot more hard work and dedication than you need to sit on your backside 8 hours a day behind a computer screen, which anyone can do. Meanwhile understanding species biology and careful handling techniques – be it animals or plants – are what I invested money to do as part of my degree.  A staggering amount of conservation/environment/ecology opportunities aren’t jobs at all: they are unpaid voluntary positions. A glorified working holiday.

I want to be able to throw myself on the conservation ice floe to join all the other penguins trying to communicate important environmental issues. I just don’t have the funds to do it.

Will my post change anything? It depends:

Who else thinks it’s time for a paradigm change to actually benefit society and the world at large?

It’s time to be awesome.

Disclaimer: All opinions in this post are my own, with as accurate as possible references to the opinions of Mark Spalding based on communications.

Fixing The Science Communication Breakdown

•February 2, 2013 • 1 Comment

I begin this post with a caveat: this will not strictly be a post following in the same vein as the others in that I am going to talk about a topic that is not grounded in popular fiction. Rest assured that I will return to talking about what there is to be found at the edge of reality soon! But I thought it’s important to shed some light on a topic that is generally not as talked about (ironically) as it should be: science communication.

 

A common question that should not be as common as it is… http://www.spc.int ©

 

The Importance Of Communication 

Back when I was in the second year of my undergraduate degree – Biology with Science Communication – I recall my friend, Jenny, sharing something interesting with me. Being a sci comm’er (short for science communication student), she mentioned how another student in our class had said that Jenny would probably end up being a housewife with her degree. Namely, the science communication element was apparently only good for doing chores. I will hasten to add that this student was also a female, so we can throw out misogyny as a causal factor here. But that really got me thinking: is that the image that science communication professionals/experts/students cultivated in society at large? Was our role seen to be so redundant as to be relegated to one of the lowest castes of working society?

Now, far from trying to completely justify why science communication is needed – I feel that is self-evident – I have been constantly trying to understand just why it is sometimes cast aside in favour of regular, rigorous old ‘academic science’, with none of that ‘accessibility to a general audience’ nonsense. Now, I have never confronted the aforementioned person about their views on science communication but I would say this to them: you are completely wrong. Not to sit up on my pedestal being all high and mighty, but you are simply wrong. Far from being a second-rate discipline, science communication is fundamental to both the existence and propagation of science. Any essay you write, exam you take, report you produce, you are communicating science. Giving a presentation on invasive species? Science communication. Doing a group project exploring species on a beach? Science communication. Explaining to your young brother or sister how the respiratory system works? You get my point.

But there are plenty of other reasons why science communication is not only needed, but why it needs to be at the front of our minds as both science communicators in general and also scientists. That is, without the ability to communicate our findings or thoughts concisely and simply, we run the risk of losing our target audience. That can also include scientists – that’s right, including Dr. Hoffenspuffer, who is eagerly watching you lose your precious opportunity for research funding as you bore the audience to tears with long and pointless words which you aren’t even sure exist. Below, I give my personal views and recommendations on science communication as a discipline can be of significant use:

1) Intra-science communications

Picture this hypothetical: Dr. Amy Neutron is working on groundbreaking research in the physical properties of atoms, uncovering a new method of maximising energy transfer efficiency. Without knowing it, she has actually developed a method of aiding energy transfer and uptake between organic matter. Meanwhile, Brad de Virussisimo (I didn’t say my naming skills were up to par…) is struggling to develop his vaccine against a deadly disease because the energy transfer rate, and vaccine uptake, is just too slow once in the body. They work in isolation but it is obvious that collaboration would essentially help Dr. de Virussisimo to develop his vaccine and make a significant impact on the world at large, whilst Dr. Neutron would successfully gain extra funding to further develop her work. A classic win-win situation.

Chemistry Cat…just because he is pretty awesome. http://www.tumblr.com ©

However, without the ability to communicate between scientific disciplines, this collaboration just would not be possible. And when communicating between different fields even in the same science (in this case, we are talking about physics and biology, so a very big leap!), it’s safe to say that you have to really communicate to other scientists in other disciplines as you would to someone who simply did not know much about science. Of course, they’ll understand a bit more than someone untrained in science but, honestly, it’s pretty unreasonable to expect a cell biologist to know the ins and outs of physical properties of atoms. The language of science is not universal: like any given language, it has its variety of different dialects, its different levels of complexities and individuals who personalise its use for their own needs. Those who communicate science need to be able to tailor their messages to reach their target audience. For example, you wouldn’t talk to a peer about your work in the same manner that you would talk to, say, your aunt or uncle (unless they are experts in your field!). We all use language to convey what we mean to say and it is no different in science, even if you’re a scientist.

2) Mo’ Money, Fewer Problems

I am going to embarrass a potential reader and good friend of mine here. Although I shall not use her name, this friend of mine is studying a PhD in Scotland, her chosen field being chosen invasive species. She is a wonderful person, a dedicated scientist and about the only person who could complain so much about using Microsoft Access and Excel, albeit the latter to a lesser extent. I have fond memories of talking about our passion for fungi and ecology…amongst complaining about how woefully unprepared we were for exams, of course. She always struck me as someone who valued the importance of science communication, putting things simply because she felt she was not clever enough to understand things in a complex way. I would say to her, if she is reading this, that I would strongly disagree. I am a firm believer of one of the messages of Occam’s Razor (at least, how I take it): that is, the simplest way is usually the best. Namely, the process with the fewest assumptions is the one you should typically go for. And why not? Amidst all the intellectual clutter, the key point is that this species is totally buggering up this ecosystem because it makes the soil uninhabitable for other species. The key impact is the staggering cost to farmers and, as a knock-on effect, the public.

Not mentioning any names…but totally throwing a picture in there. The face that leads the armies against the insidious Invasive Species threat!

And now I give her this message: stick to your communication guns. Stick to them with all your strength because your ability to communicate your research will be what really helps generate funding for you in the future. Those potentially funding your research need to be able to understand what you’ve spent the best part of a few years researching. Your mates don’t want to hear all the big words and annoyingly tedious processes of your research, as much as you want to go on about them: they just want the Take Home Messages (THMs are the substrate of communication!). People citing your research – an exciting thought! – will want to be able to understand your findings in a very succinct fashion. If they want further details, they’ll look into it further.

Science is woefully underfunded. It is the sad truth. I would assert my views on how pointless businesses which obviously have no benefit for humanity have all the money…but that would turn into a long rant. We must communicate graciously to achieve the money needed to further scientific endeavours. That is the simple and uncomplicated truth.

3) The Public Need To Know

No, they don’t need to know every single small detail. But they need to know the THMs (say it again with me..T…H…M!) of what it is that will affect them. Or, if not affect them, then what will either affect other people or is just too plain awesome not to know. I write this whilst watching David Attenborough’s Planet Earth: a show where I know enough to get a basic grasp of what’s going on with a variety of animals. I’m not, however, bombarded with pointless details about behavioural, ecological and molecular aspects of these animals or plants: that is something I can do in my spare time if I so desire. For now, I want to know a few interesting facts about these organisms whilst watching them frolic in their natural habitats. Everyone loves watching monkeys swimming or penguins waddling whilst actually learning some interesting biology behind it all.

Similarly, interested in physics but can’t understand it? Look no further than Brian Cox: science communicator extraordinaire. Both Brian and David have significantly advanced public understanding, and even passion, for physics and biology respectively. Their not-so-secret secret? Passion and curiosity about their subject and a strong desire to tell other people about why they find it so interesting. To enthuse them. An incredible TED talk from a speaker whose name currently escapes me taught me that people don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it. If you’re in it for the passion, because you find it genuinely interesting, then people are likely to latch onto that. And that is what these two popular science presenters have really monopolised on: selling their passion.

Making science sexy and accessibly interesting: Brian Cox, science communicator extraordinaire! hwww.oxford-royale.co.uk/ ©

But even beyond television shows containing interesting pictures and facts to sate our appetite for knowledge, public engagement is something that both scientists and science communicators alike need to significantly increase and focus on. We are living in a world full of massive problems, where science is fundamental in helping us to solve them. Without public support, scientists might as well be chasing their own tails. For example, the issue of GM crops? An absolute Public Relations disaster. The science was not communicated well and I have an inkling that most people felt a ‘Day of the Triffids’ scenario was on the horizon with our ‘playing God’ with crops. In actual fact, we already have artificially bred crops. Is that a surprising revelation, if it is one at all? Farmers are naturally going to breed crops that have desirable traits (e.g. resistant to disease, better yields etc) with each other. That is artificially choosing certain genes over others. Do you own a dog? Also artificially bred: we have selected dogs for genes we find desirable. Arguably, have we not already played God? Without going too much into the debate, as there are many dimensions to it, I would say that genetically modifying organisms is a practice well-established in agriculture and society. GM crops just speed up the process so we don’t have to keep on breeding plants until we get the genes that we want them to have.

Without engaging the public – not just throwing facts at them, but really engaging them – we are doomed to having science become an elitist, strictly academic discipline where only the ‘clever’ or ‘boffins’ really understand the terms thrown about. This is not only an undesirable outcome, I would strongly argue that it is a catastrophic one. Far from being melodramatic, our roles as science communicators should be to show the public that the sciences are not for men and women in white lab coats, stuck in a laboratory or in the field all day long. It is for everyone and it affects everyone, whatever your level of understanding.

So It’s Basically Just A Giant Reproductive Machine?

The above heading is true of a fungal ‘fruiting body’, otherwise known as a mushroom. Interestingly, most of the fungus is hidden underground…microscopic, thread-like parts called ‘hyphae’. Actually, the heading is probably true of most, if not all, organisms on the planet. What have I just done here? Well, apart from cheekily drop the word ‘sex’ to raise a few eyebrows. I’ve reduced what is quite a complex topic – fungi and sexual reproduction – to its basic elements. On a wider scale of science communication, it is a necessary skill to be able to engage both other scientists, science communicators and the public.

Let it be known that our place is not in the kitchen, as my peer once erroneously stated, be it in jest or in all seriousness. We are the vanguard of logical and reason, our discipline highly regarded and highly needed in today’s world. We are passionate individuals who come from all walks of life: science or otherwise. We are the ones who seek to dispel the myths and misgivings surrounding the sciences to ensure better quality of life for humanity.

We also deserve more funding and monetary input than we are currently getting, and way more than other fields (again, I shall not name names) receive because we will be the ones to help advance humanity, not simply provide short-term entertainment gains.

We are science communicators: hear our THMs!

 
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