Wednesday, 24 May 2017

I Used to Write

For most of my life, I planned to be an author. 

I’d just turned four when I started school, and as soon as I was taught to read and we were given our first book and told to read the first page for homework, I went home and read the whole thing. A childhood of avid reading followed, reading the first six Harry Potter books by age six, reading thirty books in a month once and 1000 pages in a day for the craic, stuff like that. I’m not saying this because it’s impressive — I don’t even know if it is, in the grand scheme of things — but to show that I was a huge bookworm. 

I started a book-reviewing blog when I was 13 and ran that for a couple of years, reviewing pre-release books I was sent by publishers (ARCs). Books were my thing

And, of course, I wrote too. I think the first prize I ever won was for a short story in Senior Infants, the prize a pencil topped with a giraffe. The following prizes were too, like an all-ages “international” writing competition I was highly-commended in for a short story when I was 7, or the 8–12s international poetry competition I came top five for when I was 11 with one of my incredibly dramatic, ridiculously introspective poems. I tried to write a ton of novels too. I remember one in particular that I got a few chapters into, with characters named Mercury, Venus and Delphi who were supposedly normal people until the big reveal. I realised that was dumb a while after I gave up on it, although then saw some really successful books with the same thing, which was weird. 

Then, after a few years of wanting to be a popstar (consciously, I wanted that to be my career, but I think I just took being a writer for granted — I’ve always wanted that). I got serious about it and finally wrote a full novel. It was June 2013, during my Junior Cert exams (I specifically remember working on it during my Geography exam and the invigilator asking if I was sure I didn’t want to hand that up), and I was bored because school exams, so the urge to write came calling. 

I wrote 1000 words every single day that summer except one (the day I finished my exams and we went out to celebrate), and I came out with a 100,000 word YA scifi novel. I left it for six weeks like a lot of writing advice says to, then came back and wrote a second draft, then after that looked at it again and realised it wasn’t very good. Like, looking back on it now and seeing what I’ve seen published, probably technically publishable, but still not very good.

So in June 2014, I started again with a new novel, another YA scifi, but this one I showed my sister to read the first 20 pages of and she said it was actually good. I had a harder time finishing that one, maybe because working on my big Young Scientist project kept me busy, but I did get it finished in December 2014, and the 6-week clock started. 

A Whirlwind of Science

And then disaster/miracle struck. BT Young Scientist Exhibition 2015 happened, and I won Best Invention, which meant a trip to Seattle to visit Intellectual Ventures, Intel and Microsoft, and things started happening. As well as continuing to work on the project (well, trying to find facilities mainly…), opportunities started popping up. For one, I was accepted into Outbox Incubator, which sent 140 high-achieving girls in STEM from around the EU to a house in London for up to six weeks to learn how to turn STEM skills into business skills. I had the most amazing summer of my life, starting with a week in Seattle for that trip, 3 weeks at CTYI studying Philosophy and 2 weeks in London at Outbox Incubator. 

Then from there I got my first speaking gig thanks to Stemettes, who organised Outbox, speaking on a panel at Bank of America in Dublin about my experiences at Outbox and in STEM. I also got this network of likeminded STEM people and heard about tons of opportunities, and life got super busy. (Also, I was in Leaving Cert year by this point). 

Technically, my first conference was in April 2015 right after BTYSTE, at Evolve Biomed presenting my research, but I wouldn’t really count that as a speaking gig. 

I was named a Global Youth Leader in Nanotechnology and appointed to the Youth Panel of the British Science Association, which meant trips over to London and Birmingham to do Youth Panel meetings and speaking at those. By then I’d caught this speaking bug and I was signing up for loads of things and winning a bunch of things along the way that I won’t mention for brevity. 2016 came around, and I spoke at the World Youth Organisation’s event in March and Inspirefest in June and TY Expo and TEDxDrogheda in September and Budapest in October and Zeminar in November and… 

A couple of conferences and a busy and very fun year in college later brings me to today, May 2017, two and a half years after I finished writing that second book, and only now realising how much I miss it, how much I miss writing. See, the STEM world (and the startup world that has bled into it) is VERY sparkly. It has tons of prizes and loads of initiatives designed to get girls into it, and so being in it is immediately rewarding whereas writing is less so because, let’s face it, as a girl in STEM it feels like you’re given awards simply for breathing in a STEM way. And I DO care about it. But I also really enjoy writing, and I think the captivating whirlwind that is girl-in-STEM life might’ve caught me a bit. 

Even now, even though most of the stuff people see me do/know me for is science/public health research & advocacy, most of my working time is spent writing. That can be writing science-related things, writing blog posts, writing newsletters, writing stories, writing freelance pieces, writing proposals, whatever, but it’s definitely what I spent most of my time doing.

I love science, and I’m doing it in college because even though it’s really tough, and definitely something I find a lot harder than I’d find journalism or something artsy (remember, I’m interested in arts too), I believe it’s the morally right choice for me to take because it’s the best way I know to change the world — to tackle diseases and to understand the world around us better so we can improve it. I have a lot of projects going related to science and of course I’m going to keep going because I really do care about it. But I’m also going to make time for some writing. 

I reread that novel I wrote in 2014 recently and, much to my surprise, I actually really enjoyed the 46k words of it I could find saved in cloud storage. It had problems, of course, but I loved the setting and lots of the characters and the exhilarating chapter endings. Obviously this could just be me being biased, although I’d expect that to have less of an effect three years later, but it’s an encouraging sign. So I’m considering taking the basic premise of that and revamping & rewriting it. Which is exciting. 

I’ve just been dying to do some creative writing. I’ve done a ton of sort-of creative-ish things lately like writing science things and programming projects but just something wholly made up. I do think science is the important thing to do and it is important to engage with the real world and do stuff there, but I’m learning how to have fun and this is going to be something for that. 

I’m also working on a book about public involvement in science — why we need it and how we can make that happen — but that’s pretty shh at the moment so I can’t say much. 

In short: I love science and think it’s the way to change the world, which I really care about doing. But the whirlwind of science-related things I’ve been swept up in over the last few years have distracted from the fact that I also love writing. So I’m going to keep up the work I’m doing in STEM, but also prioritise my writing. Because even though it’s not as immediately glitzy, writing is important to me too. 

Monday, 1 May 2017

Review: April 2017

Very few big events actually happened this month -- there was a lot of news about future ones, study and work on projects though. This monthly roundup features the end of the European Youth Summit 2017 in Budapest, cramming, an acceptance to participate in the Think20 Summit in Berlin, Harvard, me finally getting a job, lablinn and antibiotic resistance project.

EUROPEAN YOUTH SUMMIT: The last full day of the Youth Summit was the 1st, and Gabi and I flew back the 2nd. It was a cool experience in Budapest -- read about the summit here and about my experience organising an international conference here. After the Summit I took a short break from YP stuff and then meetings resumed, discussing projects dreamt up by participants at the Summit.

THINK20: I was told around the 25th that I’d been selected as one of 100 candidates from over 1300 applicants from 140 countries to attend the Think20: Global Solutions for G20 Summit in Berlin at the end of May and hang with/pitch to Nobel Laureates and people like the former President of the World Trade Organisation. So that should be pretty awesome.

HARVARD: Confirmed my place on an online course with Harvard Business School (HBX Core) this summer through the Naughton Foundation. Woot.

CTYI/A JOB! I got a job! No longer just a professional student (and freelancer but whatever)! I’ll be working at the Center for Academic Talent (CAT) in CTYI for 20 days this summer. It’s enough money that I can stay living in Dublin over summer, and CTYI changed my life so it’ll be cool to work there. Have applied for some other things around that as well so we'll see there.

STUDY: Exam cram period officially started one week into April with exams starting on 2nd May. I spent about 2 weeks studying Organic Chemistry and got only grief for it -- I’m having a significantly nicer time doing Physical Chemistry now for the exam on the 5th, but still looking forward to dropping Chemistry for Biology next year. Speaking of….

SUBJECT CHOICES: I had to submit my subject choices for second year last month and, knowing I could change them over summer, just kept them as double Chemistry, double Physics and double Maths (double meaning 20 credits). After studying Organic Chemistry, though, I’ve realised how much I dislike it. It’s not just that I have difficulty understanding it -- even when I do, it’s not particularly fun. It’s probably not worth studying something I don’t enjoy just because of the stigma of a soft science like biology that’s prevalent around physics classes.

And then there’s the fact that I spend a ton of my extracurricular time doing biology-related things: working on the antibiotic resistance project and researching in medical diagnostics, for example. One of my life goals is to cure diseases and I get so excited learning about the biology of cancer and HIV and antibiotics because of the incredible applications it has, so I should really let my college grades reflect that.

I’ll keep up Physics and Maths and plan to end up with the Physics and Astrophysics degree. I haven’t fully decided yet about biology, but it’s pretty telling that when I realised I could do 20 credits of biology in second year and then do my last two years in Astrophysics that I thought “Wow, I could actually enjoy lectures and my course!” Not just in the usual “I like that I’m learning this because science is important and I want to change the world with it”, but on a day-to-day, these lectures are interesting basis.

And I need to actually study as I go along next year. Yes. That would be helpful.

ANTIBIOTIC RESISTANCE PROJECT: I have a couple of workshops booked to give after exams and have been working on a site that empowers everyone to take an active role in science, especially focusing on public health (-> antibiotic resistance), open access to research literature and citizen labs. It’s up, but I won’t link to it here until it’s a bit more fleshed out. Watch my Twitter for news! (@frizzyroselle)

LABLINN: Visited TOG, Dublin’s big makerspace, to talk to the founder about how they operate. Learned a bunch for Lablinn, which was cool. Also, I’ve combined a bunch of the things I care about/am working on under the organization and website name Lablinn (antibiotic resistance, the citizen labs and open access).

Sunday, 23 April 2017

5 Things I Learned Organising an International Conference

I helped organise the European Youth Summit 2017 in Budapest along with the four other members of the Council of the Youth Platform, the ~10 other members of the Summit Organizing Team from the platform, the European Talent Support Network (the real adults) and the European Council for High Ability.

What was EYS17?

EYS17 was a five-day event at the end of March focusing on talent education and an EU charter pertaining to that, and aiming to connect smart active citizens from around Europe and beyond (we had people from India, Iran and China there too) with each other and start working on projects to improve the welfare of the students we represent.

How did it start?

The European Youth Summit was held for the first time last year in Vienna and bore the Youth Platform. I was chosen to represent my national Talent Centre along with Gabi and then elected to the Council (5 people representing the 70 Platform members and tens of thousands of TC members). The Council travelled to Budapest in October to start planning the Summit, and from there we formed a larger Summit Organising Team from the Platform and spent the next 5 months planning the schedule, making promotional material, securing speakers, sending invitation letters to TCs, having a billion online meetings (actually not that many Organising Team meetings, but since I’m on Council as well I had those too), researching and getting supplies for activities and more.

This was a nice event to start with. Firstly, it was small: we had capacity for about 55 students and some teachers/supervisors, and those were easy to recruit. Secondly, we had a defined audience -- we sent letters of invitation out to national Talent Centres and Talent Points rather than having to advertise to the general population. So we could tailor our message. Thirdly, the participants were really engaged with the programme and eager to actively contribute. We did structure it like that, but it helped that they were so willing -- these people were all very vocal and capable of contributing. You often get engaged and impressive audiences at conferences, but events for young people, in my experience speaking at them in Ireland, tend to have a lot of bored attendees because they’ve just been dragged along by their school. These people were chosen as representatives of their TCs so they weren’t like that, which was nice.


1. Running an event is TIRING. Oh boy, I thought attending conferences was tiring. Running them is way more so, because you’re (somewhat) responsible for other people’s enjoyment of it and always have to be on.

We had the work well spread out, so I really only had one day where I was in charge of a lot, the first full day. I had to give a speech at the opening ceremony as a Council member, give a talk at the Lightning Talks session, and most importantly, run the Lightning Talks session. I’d been working on it for weeks - reviewing applications, helping people with their presentations, co-ordinating them, making a running order, making sure everyone’s presentation was there and in the right format and on the right laptop (messed this one up for one talk but fixed it pretty quickly), MCing the actual event, even tiny things like making sure the microphone was on for each new speaker because some speakers seem to like turning it off when they’re done.

We had, I think, 22 talks over 2.5 hours, and given that they weren’t boring even though I know what they’d be about, I think the session went well, and participants agreed. It was a really nice session because it meant that the participants had a chance to speak about something of their choice before we brought in all the guest speakers. I think it really helped engage people, so yay!

To get back to the point -- tiring day, and a big relief when it was over. It did feel really good though, and the few days afterwards were much more relaxing even though I still had to be on, for the two reasons below.

2. Being an organiser gets you treated as an authority. I suppose it makes sense, but it definitely felt weird at first. Once I identified myself in person after the opening ceremony as the person in charge of the Lightning Talks and said I’d meet the speakers over lunch for final prep, they swarmed me, genuinely about 16 people asking questions all of a sudden. That makes sense since that was the session I was specifically in charge of, but people came up to me for all sorts of things -- when next year’s event in Dublin in August was announced, people came up to me and asked whether they’d have to book their own hotels. I know that’ll be my responsibility to know then, but I sure don’t know now!

That said, I didn’t mind people asking -- it was pretty fun, and I enjoyed it a lot when I got into the groove and wasn’t afraid to direct people a bit more. I could just take the initiative when something needed doing (e.g. people needed to move somewhere at an altered time) instead of seeking permission to do it because I knew what was happening.

3. It involves LOTS of impromptu speaking. I wrote my opening speech and my Lightning Talk on the plane over and figured that’d be the end of my speaking. But as well as MCing the Lightning Talks (introducing the session and speakers), I did a bunch of other speaking -- volunteering to encourage others to, reporting back from our group, co-ordinating people, letting people know about small schedule changes, just any small thing that was changed (e.g. someone had to fly back early so their session was changed, so I told other organisers and then informed the participants and introduced the speaker). Also, had to speak clearly because there were people from about 20 countries there, which was good practise (I still speak fast though, I will admit!).

(This wasn’t just me, obviously -- other organisers were doing the same.)

4. Many hands make light work. This is a cliché, but I never realised how true it was until we did this. We had about 15 people in total working on the Summit, and we actually worked really well as a team, even through disagreements. First of all, the fact that we actually sold out -- I’d subconsciously believed people wouldn’t actually get behind it. Then how we co-ordinated everything from securing speakers to procuring equipment to sorting everyone’s transport arrangements to funding (shoutout to the Hungarian Talent Centre) to answering email queries. Then how the event went off almost without a hitch (one lightning talk having to be pushed back a few minutes because of a missing presentation, some sessions running a bit late). I honestly couldn’t believe that we’d managed to just make this happen.

Sure, there were a lot of meetings, and that was sometimes a pain. But it was some really cool teamwork and really showed me the power of that. It was such a relief when the Summit finished and had just...worked! All the sessions went as planned, no one got hurt, people had a great time, got good work done on the Charter, project pitches and workshops, and formed friendships.

5. A great manager means a lot. All the youth organisers were doing this on top of school/uni work, so it was very much a side project. That meant things (e.g. things we’d agreed to do that week) slipped from our minds sometimes, and so having someone to give us a kick in the butt was helpful.

Lukas, as Project Manager for the Council and previously interim Internal Co-Ordinator, did an amazing job managing the whole thing -- I’m so impressed. Because his entire job for the last few months has been managing the Summit, he didn’t have one day he was mainly on for, he was just always in charge of everything. We had specific Team members running each session, but as well as running certain sessions he did all the other background stuff too including communicating with our parent organisation, the European Talent Support Network. (My role in the Council is Communications Officer, so while I did plenty of work for the Summit lots was in preparing invitation letters, checking all outgoing communication written by another Council member, managing the emails,  and writing the brochure and newsletters so I didn’t have as much to do as Lukas during the actual Summit.) He did a huge amount and deserves a lot of credit for the success of the Summit.

Towards the future: the next Summit will be held alongside the ECHA conference in Dublin in August 2018 (on my birthday, actually). My term as Communications Officer lasts until December 2018, so we’ll see how that goes!

Saturday, 22 April 2017

Review: The Pleasure of Finding Things Out

I'm proud to announce proof that someone borrowed a book from the Physoc library this year: a few months ago, I took out The Pleasure of Finding Out.

It's a collection of Feynman essays, interview transcripts and speech transcripts, covering topics from how Feynman learned the inquiring mindset to his work on the atomic bomb to his report on the Challenger shuttle disaster to nanotechnology and computing.

I have mixed feelings about it, I will say.

First of all, it didn't grab me. I picked it up and read a few pages, then put it down for weeks and then only finished it thanks to my flight from Budapest.

I did like his story of how his father, a uniform salesman, taught him to be scientific through walks in nature and having his son come up with and try to gather evidence about hypothesis. He had some interesting points to make about the Challenger explosion.

My favourite chapter was about his work in Los Alamos on the atomic bomb as the youngest scientist there. He talked about his love of lockpicking and how he used it to get into his colleagues’ drawers, how we impressed his superiors and wasn’t afraid to tell eminent scientists like Bohr that they were wrong, and how he saved the day with his prodigious memory (or as he said it, luck) when he saw a factory where they were preparing the uranium to be used in the bomb and, because the mission was classified and they hadn’t been told why they were making uranium, had stored way too much of it together so it was unsafe. He successfully fought with the military to get the people managing that factory, the chemists, in on it to fix that. I also enjoyed his stories of writing letters to his sick wife and their elaborate schemes to get them past the censors. His wife died of TB while he was at Los Alamos. I later read a beautiful letter he wrote to his wife, found after his own death, which includes the line “I love my wife. My wife is dead.”. You can read that letter here.

I quite liked his attitude to science, which he said was just because he enjoyed tinkering around with it and wasn’t for awards (he scorned the Nobel). He did science for science’s sake. It’s not quite my attitude (I do science to understand the world, so his reason, but also try channel it to where it can be most helpful to people e.g. diagnosing and curing diseases), but it was interesting to read about. I liked his point that we tend to confuse knowing the name of something with understanding it. If someone says "why do the north and south poles of these magnets attract each other?", you could say "magnetism", but that doesn't actually explain anything.

It was also funny when he mocked software developers/computer engineers/computer people for calling themselves computer scientists.

The book was soured for me by Feynman’s backwards social attitudes. He seemed like an altogether very unpleasant person, having no moral qualms about the atomic bomb and just considering it fun, and straight out saying he didn’t think girls could do linear algebra. He boasted about getting time to do his beloved physics by creating a reputation that he was unreliable and not helping with admissions committees etc. Sure, romantic, but making life harder for people around him. There was lots of other sexism throughout the book and “it was 1950!” just doesn’t cut it for me, because if he was smart enough to figure out quantum electrodynamics he should’ve been smart enough to figure out that women are people.

In summary: from the collection of essays I read, Feynman seems like someone with interesting and developed thoughts on scientific matters, but an unpleasant personality and set of beliefs, so I couldn't really get behind him.

Wednesday, 19 April 2017

European Youth Summit 2017

Hi all!

I helped organise, spoke at and attended the European Youth Summit in Budapest from 29th March to 2nd April. It was the biggest event of the Youth Platform so far, so here's a bit about the Youth Platform.

The Youth Platform represents gifted/talented students (personally I don't like the word gifted, I think it sounds a bit pretentious, but you do you) across Europe and some other places including India, Peru and Cuba. Our goal is to advocate to institutions educating talented students for the rights of the students -- my particular interest is students with high potential who are disadvantaged economically or by a disability --, to connect the students to each other at events like this and to work on projects together for social good. 

The Youth Platform is the youth body of the European Talent Support Network, which is supported by the European Council for High Ability. The Youth Platform has around 100 members from 18ish countries representing the thousands of people in our national talent centres (mine's CTY Ireland, and I represent it along with Gabi). 

I was elected to the five-person. interim Council of the Platform last summer, and then was re-elected for a two year term in December. I'm Communications Officer, so I manage all content external to the Platform (e.g. newsletter, invitation letters), email and social media. The other Council members are Lili (Italian, Internal Co-ordinator), Lukas (Czech, Project Manager), Marco (Italian, Talent Liaison) and Armin (Hungarian/Romanian, Representative). 

I'm going to write a post about what I learned organising an international conference soon, so I won't talk about the planning of the Summit and will just get into the experience now. 

Day 1

On day 1, Gabi and I took a 3.5 hour flight from Dublin to Budapest Airport and got a taxi from there to Hotel Berlin. I was nice and productive on the plane -- wrote my opening speech, wrote my Lightning Talk and read some of The Meaning of Science. We'd missed the icebreaker games so we checked in and checked out our room, then I went to a room with the Council to work on our speeches for the opening ceremony the next morning. 

Day 2

I really enjoyed the second day. It was stressful because it was the day I was most responsible for -- I had to give one of the opening speeches and I was organising the Lightning Talks session so I had to organise speakers beforehand and during, but turned out well.

Lightning Talks

I'd gotten most of it sorted out in the weeks before the Summit, but there were people who didn't keep to the PowerPoint submission deadline/had questions about the talks, so I was swarmed throughout the morning (talks were first thing in the afternoon). Lukas and I ran the actual event, with him on tech and me MCing. I set up the running order so I went first and had Gabi go last, and otherwise went pretty much alphabetically. 

I talked about open science, but spent about half my time on a long lead-in about a little Ruby programming project I'd been working on, and the contrast between that and science, where outsiders can't actively participate. 

I was really happy with how the Lightning Talks went -- people spoke really well and it all flowed well! There was one technical issue, where Sai's (Platform member from India) presentation wasn't downloaded to the laptop we were using even though I'd put it in the GDrive folder we were syncing to the laptop, so I grabbed a USB stick and ran over with my laptop to the hotel where there was wifi to get it after rescheduling Sai's talk after two other people. Crisis averted. The talks were really interesting to listen to and the activity was highly rated by participants, so that was really cool. 

So then my responsibilities for the day (a speech, organising, MCing and a talk) were over and I could go enjoy the awesome next activity -- a boat tour down the Danube!

Danube Tour & Buda Castle

We took a trip down to the river, seeing Budapest's incredibly gorgeous architecture on the way, then loaded into a boat and went on an hour-long trip down the Danube. It was beautiful, and we were given little devices that spouted facts about Budapest into our ears, like that Hungary's parliament building is the second biggest in the world and that 1% of the Danube flows through Hungary. 

I can't get over how pretty Budapest is, honestly. I saw a lot of this stuff in October and it's still amazing. 

After the tour, we saw the architecture of Buda Castle and yup, still beautiful.

Day 3

Speaking Workshop

We had a workshop on public speaking led by William Benko. I must admit, he was excellent -- and that's even with me being a tough audience member because people speaking about speaking tends to annoy me and give me really high expectations. 

He had five volunteers jump up and give a one-minute talk about anything. I went first and talked about antibiotic resistance. Other talk topics included the UN and Greece. It was a really good workshop. 

GIftedness Lecture

We then attended a two-hour lecture on giftedness. My 'ew elitism' gag reflex was triggered very hard, and I spotted many serious scientific flaws with many of the studies presented. I started working on a Ruby TwitterBot during it.

EU Charter of Rights

In the afternoon, we heard a lecture on the Salamanca Declaration and then worked on a charter of rights for the gifted student. I got clauses on disability and recognising   problems that often face such students other than boredom: difficulty with social integration and perfectionism. I think a lot of smart kids know they're bored, but might not be as good at dealing with socialising and tackling perfectionism.

Hungarian Dances

In the evening, we did some Hungarian folk dancing! It was pretty fun.

Gabi and I dancing

Day 4

Be-novative Workshop & Central European University

We used this startup software called Be-novative (a guy from the company came down to demonstrate it for us, same guy as in October) to brainstorm ideas for future projects of the Youth Platform. One I worked on was securing scholarships for disadvantaged smart kids to attend Talent Centre programs. 

After a while of that, we took a tour around the Central European University, the most multicultural university in the world. It was funded by George Soros, is only for graduate students, and is in serious danger of being shut down by the Hungarian government at the moment. But wow the view from the roof above the seventh floor is beautiful.

Project Pitches 

Earlier, we'd each picked one of about 8 ideas to work on so there were around 7 people working on each idea who went up and pitched it. We then all voted on them and the idea that won was expanding a mentorship scheme connecting students to professionals and academics currently operating in one participant's country across Europe through the Platform. 


There were two workshops after that to set up the YP's other projects, but Gabi and I were really tired and wanted a taste of home so we went to McDonalds and bed.

Day 5

We had a plane to catch shortly after 10 am so we left the hotel around half 7 and got it. Leon, sweetheart that he is, met me at the airport.

Photo: Lukas Frankl

Good times! it was awesome getting to see beautiful Budapest and meet people from so many different countries -- I talked a bunch with people from Slovenia, Denmark, Austria and Greece. We had some fun conversations on the landing near my room in the hotel complaining about our languages etc.

It's pretty cool that something we organised just...worked out without any disasters. Woot!

Also, the Council and Italian participants got into an Italian newspaper with a circulation of 400,000 with an article and this picture, which was nice.

Tuesday, 18 April 2017

Review: The Meaning of Science by Tim Lewens

Two years ago, I was doing a Philosophy course in CTYI and we’d just come across Hume’s problem of induction, which basically invalidates science by saying we can’t conclude anything from experiments because there’s no guarantee that the laws of the universe didn’t change between the experiment and now. I was wearing a labcoat at the time as CTYI’s resident Scientist, and so all eyes turned to me. Oops. So here I am, finally reading a book about the philosophy of science.

I was pretty unsure about picking this up. Over Christmas break, I went back to my favourite bookshop, Waterstones in Drogheda, and bought a book I knew I’d have fun reading because it was by Ben Goldacre (review here), and this. I knew this might be less enjoyable, but thought it was important to get some kind of grip on the philosophy of science since I’m so big into science.

The first chapter of the book was my favourite, because it got right to the heart of what I was reading the book for -- the induction problem. How do we know science means anything? You can test a drug on 100,000 people and find it safe, but what if it kills the 100,001st person?

It goes into one way of getting around that, Karl Popper’s falsificationism, which states that science should always be trying to disprove hypotheses since you can never actually prove them, but disproving them does bring you closer to the truth by process of elimination. There are two big problems with that: (a) it means that the theory of relativity is on the exact same footing as my hypothesis that Theresa May is a lizard, because evidence for a hypothesis means nothing and neither of them have been conclusively disproven yet*, and (b) the fatal flaw is that the experiments you do to disprove something are generally based on other theories -- if you’re trying to prove that neutrinos move faster than the speed of light, you need to use a whole bunch of complicated methods to measure the speed and compare it and even find the neutrino, all of which rest on previous theories which in turn rely on inductive reasoning.

It went downhill from there, mainly because the first chapter was exactly what I wanted out of the book (well, apart from a solution to the problem), and the other chapters were different.

The book has two parts. The first part opens with that chapter and then goes into how we demarcate the boundaries between fields like science, history, economics and homeopathy (this was annoying -- it devil’s advocated for homeopathy by using the argument that it works by catering to each individual patient’s needs rather than average patients, and I don’t see how that makes it science), paradigm shifts and scientific realism.

The scientific realism chapter asks: is science the truth? Is it even approaching the truth? It examines one argument for that (the No Miracles argument, which says that surely if science wasn’t true we’d have run into problems since we rely on it all the time), and rebuts two arguments against it (underdeterminism and pessimistic induction).

Underdeterminism argues that we can never have enough data to decide between one theory that explains the results and has X implications, and another theory that explains the results but has completely opposite implications. He addresses that by saying, well, that just goes back to Descartes’ “there’s a demon making you imagine everything and nothing except yourself is real”, so it doesn’t specifically affect science. It’s just saying the world may not be as we think it is.

Pessimistic induction says that science is continually wrong -- Archimedes was disproven, then Newton was disproven (to an extent), eventually all will be disproven. Scientists drop old theories and replace them with new ones. It’s basically saying science is never fully right...although you could also look at it another way and say it’s always on the up.

The author has qualms about the No Miracles argument because it pretty much says that only a tiny percentage of false theories should be successful. But there are vastly more possibly incorrect theories than correct ones, so probability says that even if most true theories, most successful theories are probably false.

I didn’t like the second half as much -- it’s talking about the bearing of science on the philosophical questions in our lives, not the bearing of philosophy on science, which is what I bought it for.

It argues that science has values and has an interesting but seemingly irrelevant chapter called Human Kindness, where I was introduced to the concepts of psychological altruism (doing something that benefits others/being selfless)  and biological altruism (doing something that benefits others and harms yourself). It’s possible to be psychologically altruistic without being biologically altruistic.

It then talks about nature vs nurture and whether humans have free will. The free will part was quite interesting and, again, disconcerting. Firstly, there’s the causal nexus argument, which says that we’re just atoms tumbling along in the universe and everything happens because of the knock on effects of whatever happened at the start of the universe. Our consciousness doesn’t have some magical influence -- it just does what the laws of physics make our atoms do.

Then there’s the neuroscientific argument from tardiness, based on experimental results. One of them, from a 2008 paper by John-Dylan Hanes et al, showed that researchers using brain scans could predict (with middling accuracy) the action of a participant 10 seconds before the participant had made the choice to act.

These experiments measure an increase in neuronal activity called the readiness potential which occurs just when someone is getting the urge to perform a “spontaneous” action. Experimenters asked participants to note when they felt the conscious urge to act and also measured the time of the action, and found that the readiness potential spike occurred 350 milliseconds before the urge, which is 200 milliseconds before the action.

That said, people might just have predecided that they’ll move when they feel some kind of signal in their mind, and it’s not certain that RP is actually the intention to move, it can just be about deciding things. Another experimenter could predict whether subjects could choose the left or right button 60% of the time up to 10 seconds in advance by monitoring their brain using fMRI scanning.

The book closes with a chapter on the reach of science, essentially just saying that facts aren’t everything and some things need to be learned through experience.

In short: It was an interesting book and the author is clearly very knowledgeable about the subject, which, as with Superintelligence, I appreciated. I liked how there were more twists and turns to the arguments presented than I would’ve thought of, and how the arguments were solid and not straw men. The second half of the book was less relevant but definitely interesting in parts. Would recommend if you’re looking to get a more nuanced version of the purpose and meaning of science.

Saturday, 15 April 2017

FameLab Ireland Finals

Leon and I went to the FameLab Irish Final this week in the Science Gallery as a break from studying (not particularly well-deserved, admittedly). 

FameLab is a science communication competition where competitors distill a scientific topic in three minutes. Competitors went through local university heats to the national final, and the winner of this week's event will go on to the international final in Cheltenham. 

A big reason I went was because I know Niamh Kavanagh, last year's national winner, from speaking on the stage beside her at TY Expo and saw her Tweeting about it.

The event was presented by Jonathan McCrea, a radio host I met a couple of years ago when he came and talked to us at BT Bootcamp. Aoibhínn Ní Shuilleabháin, whom I met at the Women on Walls launch and who introduced me to Shane Bergin for that antibiotic resistance workshop, was one of the judges, and that's about everyone I knew there. 

So onto the talks. 

1. Aaron Ridgeway

Aaron is a Guinness spokesperson but talked to us about light and how its finite speed means we're seeing distant objects as they were in the past. He connected this to the death of his partner's grandparent and how the light from a certain star that started travelling to us when the grandparent was born is just hitting our eyes now. He mentioned a site where you could find a star like that for your birth but I couldn't find the one he mentioned. I did find a similar one here

He was a nice speaker but I would've liked more facts (I didn't learn anything new apart from that a site existed) and less emotional appeal.

He did have some funny quotes, though! These included:

  • "Y'see, light's fast."
  • "Every time you look at the sun, which you should not do."

2. Marica Casserino

Marica is a psychologist and talked about how curiosity is good for your health as you age. Obviously I'm into the whole curiosity thing, but I think my enjoyment of this talk was hampered by thoughts about replicability problems in psychology and a lack of strict laws/hard science, as well as the difficulty of determining causation as opposed to correlation. I liked that she cited studies.

3. Shane Browne

Shane talked about Beer's Law (Absorbance of light = (molar extinction coefficient)*(path length)*(Concentration), or "The amount of light a sample absorbs is proportional to its concentration."

I did a Chemistry lab last semester using spectrophotometry and that equation so this was nothing new. I was frustrated that he was making such a big deal out of this law ("Beer's Law may sound complicated"), especially since he didn't even include path length and molar extinction coefficient, because it seems pretty simple and common-sense, but he did have a really cool way of explaining calibration curves. 

He said he loves dark chocolate and give that a 10/10, that milk chocolate is just okay so he'd give it a 5/10, and that he hates white chocolate so he'd give it a 1/10. Then if a friend gave him a new kind of chocolate he could figure out how much he'd like it by using its colour to interpolate between the standards he has. 

I also liked when he talked about how an abnormal ratio of proinsulin to insulin is indicative of Type 2 diabetes, because I read a bunch of papers about prediabetes before changing my nanosensor to one for attractin->glioblastoma. 

4. Deirdre Robertson

This talk was cool because I learned something new and it helped me finally understand why my Outbox pal Edel's Parkinson's tool works. Apparently people with Parkinson's have trouble with unconscious movement like walking without paying attention to it, so shining a laser in front of their feet (like Edel does) or using beats through headphones (like Ciara Clancy from Inspirefest does) brings that to the conscious part of the brain and helps with gait freezing. Also, an interesting reason a study concludes it doesn't work for everyone is that it depends on a person's ability to count beats.

She used the metaphor of a computer running two programs; one can still work while the other has crashed. That was maybe unnecessary, but was quite nice to listen to anyway.

5. Pat Ryan

This was my favourite talk. Pat came on stage with a prop and said "This is what a fig looks like, if you make it out of papier maché for under a fiver". He told us about a conversation with his vegan friend, who wouldn't eat fig rolls because wasps often die inside them. He researched this and told us about what he found out, which is that figs have an obligate mutualism with wasps. One thing I either missed or he didn't explain properly was which sex it needs to be, but the wasp needs to go to a certain sex of the fig and if it gets the wrong one it'll never find the place it needs and will just die and be digested in there by the enzyme fycin ("Figs eat wasps"). It's an interesting mechanism, especially since it happens lots but only one species of figs will do per species of wasp. He did reassure us that it probably wasn't happening in Ireland because of the climate.

6. Will Knott

This guy, who's Maker-In-Chief at Tyndall (cool job) started out well with "Ladies and gentlemen, fans and trans" and had a cool T-shirt slogan (Science is Real, Denial is Deadly). He brought whiskey on stage and said it was to do with saving the planet because something about carbon dioxide and capturing it instead of just letting it get out. I didn't really get his point, I don't think. May just have been my issue with people bringing on alcohol when it wasn't crucial to the message.

7. Ana Panigassi

Ana went from being military police to an ob-gyn, and I just wish one of the judges had asked her how that happened because I'd love to know. She talked about how ob-gyns use science and play an important role and had cool lines. She said things like "we're able to predict at x weeks whether the mother will experience a blood pressure spike at birth", and that was cool, but I would've loved to know how -- what the tests are and what the physical/biological principle behind them is. 

Her cool lines included that people think "the baby will come out and you catch it", "I'm not just a goalkeeper for catching babies....or Deliveroo". I did find it cool that you could do so much science with an ultrasound and the genetic sequencing possibilities, but again would've loved more detail. Probably difficult in three minutes!

8. Rob Cross

This guy spent his entire talk on alcohol. He talked about why the bubbles seem to be going down in Guinness sometimes -- apparently something to do with a liquid nitrogen widget at the bottom of cans. Didn't know beer was so high-tech. It was funny when he said "wasn't allowed bring an entire pub on stage".

9. Ross Murphy

Ross talked about how our cells change throughout our lives and what it means to be us. He did say that some of our heart cells actually remain the same throughout our entire lives, which I didn't believe. This article, from the Karolinska Institute, says they don't, but honestly I haven't researched it deeply and there are probably some cells that stay the same. This means, according to Ross, that we're the same person, as opposed to a brush that's had its head and stick alternately replaced many times. 

10. Joanne Duffy

Joanne talked about vaccination, and how when it started, for whooping cough, it involved formaldehyde. She said vaccines are safe and talked about how they're made using e.coli. 


In short: I think I may not have been the target audience for this because it really annoyed me when people talked about a science topic  vaguely and then made some sweeping, grand statement like "this connects us to the universe". This is one of the reasons my favourite talk was the one about wasps in figs -- it was new information, pretty well explained, and didn't pretend to be more than it was. I find science interesting in the details, so I would've preferred if people just gave me some more information -- I learned at least one new thing from most of the talks, but there could definitely have been more. I didn't like the props, metaphors and simplification. Science communication is not one size fits all, it seems!

That said, it was an enjoyable 90 minutes, and good for learning some snippets of other parts of science than my own. The speakers were all good on stage and had good technique, including pleasing voices and good pacing. 

Deirdre came first, Joanne second and Ross third. Congratulations to everyone involved, and good job for getting up there and spreading your love of science!