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Zoe Louise Matthews | ASY-EOS | UK

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Science and the Media: ignore scientists at your peril

Wednesday, April 7th, 2010

Last week, on 30th March, I attended a debate on Science in the Media at City University, London. The invitation to the event came from my inquiry about a Science Journalism MA, and it had an interesting panel of speakers to discuss the recent “Science in the Media: Securing the Future” report.

I have to say that I found the report, though illuminating and fairly accurate, a little optimistic about the state of science journalism and where it is headed. The writers chose not to focus too closely on certain grey areas, and the debate saw these brought to the front of discussion. There is a key concern in the field that mainstream journalism is dying as internet media flourishes, and it is becoming less clear how to make a distinction between what is and isn’t journalism when bloggers and scientists are trying their hand at informing the public directly (and some are doing it very well). The debate focused heavily on this issue, with Ed Yong of “Not exactly rocket science” blogs defending the scientist/citizen journalism and the new way in which journalists can reach their audience with science. He made the point that I feel many journalists miss – people all over the world are reading with fascination about scientific news, with no previous knowledge or interest in science, and they are doing it without being patronised or given showy misleading headlines. The success of his blogs and variety of his audience is proof of this – when done well, this medium is very successful.

However, for every good science blog… In the same way that science news stories are fairly hit and miss, it will be tricky for the public to know whether they have found a reliable source on the internet. Fiona Fox, Director of the Science Media Centre and co-writer of the report, felt that a distinction needed to be made between “real” journalism and blogging, or even outreach/press officer activity, which she deemed “somewhat glorified PR”.  Fiona did, however, point out the benefits of outreach over writing for an editor – clear and direct communication. Her concern was that perhaps it should be clearly labeled who writers are working for, as they may be biased, (which journalists should not be). Successful investigative journalism, something all too rare in science, will be in real trouble if the line cannot be drawn.

In my opinion, making this distinction of what actually constitutes journalism can only be addressed if the main problem with science journalism – quality – has immediate action. Whilst Fiona coined the term “Scientists avoid the mass media at their peril”, something I do agree with as this is a window straight to the public, I turn the tables and say, don’t ignore scientists’ criticism. If journalists expect the science community to support investigative journalism, and if the public are to ever see mainstream media with a stronger reputation than their easy-access knowledge of the world-wide-web, then there is only one possible tool at trained journalists’ disposal: Credibility. Trust. Accurate, backed-up and transparently portrayed science. Unfortunately for them, bloggers with various backgrounds and minimal levels of financial reward (usually little to none) are doing this better than the majority of mainstream journalists.

One thing that was pointed out in the report that I was saddened did not get more focus from the panel (despite many questions directing towards it) was the issue of training journalists of a non-science background to think like scientists. There were other scientists in the room during the debate and they all had the same concern – quality of science reporting, which is sometimes done very well but often is done poorly. With around 70 full-time employed science journalists in the UK (and some hundreds of freelance writers), an ever-increasing interest in science news, and no further scope for expanding employment in the field, science journalists are left with less and less time each day to fact-check, and they are rarely required to have training in science. One good thing to come from the report is that a National Coordinator for Science Journalism Training will be appointed (providing the funding is secured) and online training will be available for these journalists.

A respected features editor asked the audience “what is quantum theory?” She had up until then failed to receive appropriate advice in order to edit a (fantastic) science journalist’s story. Natasha Loder of The Economist and chair of the British Science Writers’ Association (apparently of a scientific background herself) gave her an incorrect, unsatisfactory and inappropriate answer (when, in her defense, no-one else would respond). I spoke to the features editor myself afterwards and explained, as a scientist, that this is a far too open question. I gave her some better ideas of quantum theory in general but to adequately understand the article in question she would need to talk to scientists specialising in the research. Forgive me for being a complete scientist about this, but I actually think that every writer and editor who is likely to be responsible for scientific stories should be trained in basic statistics, risk, analysis…learn to interpret data, write (examined?) critical literary reviews etc. I don’t think they should all have had a degree in science but there are certain skills (as apposed to knowledge) that would allow them to criticise a story, understand its implications and ask the right questions in order to portray it correctly. It is important not to be misled and to ensure the public are not misled either, but are encouraged to investigate more for themselves.

What about scientists becoming journalists? The report pointed out that so far British Science Association’s Media Fellowships have been in place only to familiarise scientists with the media so that they can better communicate to them. If funding can be secured, there may be scope for courses to encourage them to consider a career in media. Surprisingly, Natasha lost the respect of many in the room when she pointed out that, far from her scientific background benefiting her, she had to “unlearn” some of her scientific skills in order to become a good journalist, stating “scientists are about facts, whereas journalists are about ideas”. I think many would disagree with this, and yet having seen what goes into some training for scientists talking to the media, I can believe it – we essentially learn damage limitation and the art of being interesting without accidentally being incorrect. So scientists are learning not to trust journalists and journalists are being taught that scientists can’t communicate (Natasha told the room she knew from experience that “most cannot communicate…many are borderline autistic”). I think something more constructive could be done here to ensure that communication between the two is more effective.

I think that it is disgusting that more is not being made of the talent hiding in the science community. Contrary to popular opinion, we are an eclectic mix of people with a variety of character traits with the sole common drive of curiosity. We love to solve problems, to unravel what we don’t understand. We don’t stop until it makes sense. That makes us fantastic critical thinkers, and many of us can pair that with great communication skills and a creative streak. Funnily enough, some of us also have the personality Natasha described was necessary for a career in journalism – an unshakable tenacity, a hardness and determination, the refusal to take no for an answer, “balshiness”. I attended the debate fairly curious, and have left it quite certain – whether or not I can ever be paid for it, and whether or not I will ever be able to call it “journalism”, I am now determined to bring science to the public. I, like many scientists, have the ability to rebuild the trust in science media, to produce truthful and clearly interpreted information, refer to sources and encourage its receivers to follow it further rather than take it on face value. The role of a journalist is to be a “truth teller”, and as long as there exists poor science journalism to destroy its reputation, and as mainstream media is gradually replaced by the internet, I am certain that there will always be scientists out there to do this job extremely well, whether or not they are paid to.


7 TeV collisions in ALICE

Tuesday, March 30th, 2010

you can now see some of the first collisions in ALICE at 7 TeV, here.

7 TeV collisions at ALICE

7 TeV collisions at ALICE

After a very successful day at Birmingham, it is time for me to go an catch up on some sleep, before it’s time to start analysing this stuff! 😀


Keeping track of LHC’s progress

Monday, March 29th, 2010

It is 6am at CERN and I am in the UK, remaining awake and looking out for anything interesting going on. This is a very different experience to when we first collided at 900 GeV and I was physically there, although my sleep levels are the same! I am hoping that if collisions happen in the next few hours, I can catch some footage and show any interested people later on today. I am a little jumpy as LHC have been playing around with both beams since around 5.15.I think it’s time for some tea.

If you want to follow what’s going on (as much as anyone not physically present can), try these links:

LHC Status

ALICE Live from the control room

ATLAS frequently updated event display

With these, be sure to refresh your browser. And of course what we will have at Birmingham in a few hours will be much better. Also, from 8.30 onwards, there is an LHC First Physics live webcast and ATLAS will have something similar streaming on their webpage.

ATLAS do have webcams in their ACR but they seem to be forbidden access to non-ATLAS members. Happy geeking 🙂


Impossible things: ALICE and the new energy frontier

Monday, March 29th, 2010

The next 24 hours are going to be critical for the LHC – the most challenging to date. They will make a first attempt to collide protons with 7 TeV centre of mass energy. This is far more than any accelerator has ever achieved, and it is not clear what we expect to find there. Physicists and engineers alike are about to leap into the unknown.

Last week I was in meetings at CERN finding out how prepared we are to deal with this uncertainty, and I took the opportunity to catch up with ALICE physicists and see how they were feeling. I spoke to experimentalists and theorists alike and it seems that there is no outcome we can’t be excited by. The theorists all have their own ideas – which contradict each other in measurable places – and many of the ideas on first glance seem to be completely mad. This is something I came across in the strange quark matter conference too, and if you look back on science’s history you can see that with every newly broken boundary in measurement comes wild, strange ideas to explain the unexpected, that are ridiculed and criticised and tested…and some are often surprisingly illuminated as the “uncomfortable truth”. This is a phrase that Johann Rafelski brought up with me over coffee last week and I like it, because it points to why these seemingly topsy turvy concepts have to be given the benefit of the doubt.

Since the recent release of Tim Burton’s take on Alice in Wonderland, I have been looking back over Carroll’s books and the ideas they conjured. It is not uncommon to look at “Through the looking glass” from a scientist’s perspective, as any wiki page will tell you (things like C-Parity or chirality and the idea of imperfect symmetries as an example) but the point that the first book (and indeed the film) really hits home is the idea that a little imagination or “madness” is desirable. “Believing as many as 6 impossible things before breakfast” may well be as good a practice for the budding scientist as developing a sense of criticism, because just as red herrings and ignorance hinder development, so does the refusal to accept the possibility of new, radical ideas despite the evidence to support them. Luckily for particle physics it is not lacking in imaginative physicists, and the best part about it is that they also can’t wait to prove their ideas wrong, which makes the whole process converge so nicely.

“Have I gone mad?”

“I’m afraid so, entirely bonkers. But let me tell you a secret. All the best people are.”

I have made a short video with interviews from the ALICE group describing their excitement for the coming days. There is nothing more thrilling to a scientist than the unknown. I may upload it to a resources page soon. For now though, I must go and prepare the Birmingham University Physics West Lecture room as a hub for live feeds to CERN, so that staff and students across campus can keep track of the developments tomorrow. If you want to keep an eye on what is happening, try here:



And of course, I am sure the news will be following the progress!


From the ALICE Control Room on International Women’s Day

Monday, March 8th, 2010

I sincerely hope that anyone considering a career in physics reads this.

I flew to Geneva today to start a week of my first Central Trigger Processor shifts of 2010. By now, I have had plenty of experience of the slow days, the busy days, the exciting and confusing days. Today is fairly quiet, but it is special in one particular way, so I hear. It is, apparently, “Women’s day” in various places around the world, and in order to celebrate this, CERN has encouraged their female staff to take interviews throughout the day for the media. I arrived after this had died down, but the positive atmosphere it generated in the ALICE Control room is still clear. I felt it would be a shame not to make a little comment about this.


Great ALICE Physicists with ambition (who happen to be women!) From top left: Petra Riedler (Austria), Naomi Van Der Kolk (Amsterdam), Anju Bhasin (India), Jennifer Klay (USA), Nora Pitz (Germany), Maya Shimomura (Japan), Martha Spyropoulou-Stassinaki (Greece), Brigitte Cheynis (France), Yaxian Mao (China), Johanna Stachel (Germany).

I would like to say that my experience working my way into physics has NOT been one of triumph through adversity, a battle to succeed despite being a struggling minority in a strange and lonely male-dominated world. In fact, it has been fairly normal. I have been accepted for who and what I am: a constant questioner, a bit of a worrier, a skeptic, a northern Brit with an eye for a problem and a knack for writing, an occasional baker, a waffler with tons of enthusiasm, a scientist, a woman. One thing that can be said for academia is that if you can cut the mustard, by working hard and knowing what you are talking about, being the best you can be and recognising your weaknesses – and if you can do so with enjoyment, even passion – then everything else about you, the good, bad, unusual or seemingly irrelevant, will be accepted. In my view, there is categorically no reason why any woman should think her pursuit of a scientific career is somehow hindered by her being female. She may meet one or two very ugly attitudes, but they are rare and usually ignorance comes as a package (anyone who believes women to be generally incapable are likely, in my experience, to have many other outstandingly piggish ideas, but you can’t live your life in a bubble hoping never to meet a pig).

However, that isn’t to take away from the fact that physics is very tough. You need, above all things, to enjoy it, to want it. With that drive, anything is possible. I do, ever so slightly, resent the implication that, by being female physicists, we somehow represent some exceptional achievement of women. There was a time when to gain a degree or PhD was a truly significant challenge for a woman compared to a man – it just wasn’t done. Times have changed an awful lot! In truth, when I am at CERN, I look at people who have traveled from all corners of the world, learning English and French to the best of their ability, performing outstandingly and fighting for the opportunity to be funded and work here at any cost – these are people who have overcome challenges to get what they want. Their sex has nothing to do with it.

For me, International Women’s Day has been a demonstration of our freedom to follow any path we wish – celebrating (and hopefully communicating) that things are now as they always should have been. I hope that this is what the interviews show. Girls, if you want to do it, go for it.


Chemist and Particle Physicist Chatter

Sunday, February 21st, 2010

I have mentioned before that my boyfriend is a chemist. Some very interesting conversations go back and forth between us, and as I know virtually no chemistry I learn a lot from him. This week, on my mother’s advice, I bought some “moisture-combating crystals” from the corner shop to try to reduce the damp air in some of the rooms. They attract water from the air, and it gathers in a tray underneath them. Phil was delighted to discover that they were calcium chloride, and wanted to tell me how they work.

Calcium chloride, CaCl_2, is very “hygroscopic” (meaning it attracts water) for good reason. It is quite “ionic”, meaning that despite being neutral overall, electron transfer has left it with quite distinct positive and negative charges. Water molecules, on the other hand, have a covalent bond (sharing electrons instead of transferring them) but because oxygen’s nucleus is more positively charged, more of the negative charge surrounds it, making water molecules polar. The chlorides, Cl-, attract the positive H side, where the 2+ charged Ca ion draws in the negative O side. This attraction of water “dipole” molecules will happen with any ionic substances. CaCl_2 is large enough to take on up to 6 water molecules around it, becoming calcium chloride hexahydrate. Quite a mouthful. The crystals eventually turn a fetching orange and we are advised by the packaging to throw them out and buy more. However, Phil has a cunning plan. Heating them to 30 degrees releases four of the six water molecules, making Calcium Chloride Dihydrate, and at 175 degrees one more is released, leaving Calcium Chloride monohydrate. Provided we can boil off the water in the oven, then, we can dry out the crystals and reuse them to almost full effectiveness.

Occasionally when discussing science with each other we get confused, because chemists and physicists often use quite different language. We use similar phrases to describe totally different things. I can talk about dipoles and mean virtual electron-positron pairs in a vacuum, whilst he considers only bonds of atoms sharing electrons as polar. We are both familiar with diffraction of light and electrons. If he says diffraction he is probably talking about using x ray diffractometers to learn about the structures of materials. However, when I talk about diffraction, I am probably talking about interactions between protons where particles called Pomerons are exchanged.

For Christmas, Phil bought a very “me” gift for me – a book called “The Science of Chocolate” by the Royal Society of Chemistry. It has been very enlightening so far, and there was one thing in particular that was very interesting – the Maillard Reaction, occurring during roasting. This is a reaction between an amino acid and a sugar, and is responsible for the caramel-like taste and brown colour of chocolate. Depending on the temperatures, and whether roasting the beans, nibs, or cocoa crumb/liquor, the flavour is different. In fact this reaction happens in many different foods, like in barley for beer, or in roasting coffee beans. One of Phil’s friends is working on the undesirable browning effect when the reaction occurs in fusty old potatoes.

I liked this because colour and flavour come up a lot in particle physics too. When we think about a particular type of quark – the “up” quark, with +2/3 charge, or “down” quark with -1/3, say – we call the type “flavour”. It makes sense because if you consider them as ingredients, you can see that the up and down quarks in different amounts can make protons (u, u, d) or neutrons (u, d, d). We can use them with their antimatter counterparts to make charged pions, (u, anti d) or (d, anti u). Then, if we introduce a new flavour, like the strange quark, with -1/3 charge and a heavier mass than the others, it can be used to make a range of new exotic particles, like kaons (u, anti s) for example, or Lambdas (uds). The other quark types, “charm”, “bottom” and “top”, increasingly massive, are referred to as “heavy flavour”.

Colour is another story. In fact, we never see quarks on their own, so we would never have known about this new kind of charge if it wasn’t for the Delta++ particle. Made up of three up quarks, (u, u, u), its properties are such that each of the up quarks seemed to need identical “quantum numbers” (spin and angular momentum, as well as charge). Now, this will ring alarm bells for any scientist. Phil knows about the dangers of electrons in orbitals – they have to have opposite spins or some angular momentum, something to make them different, because Pauli Exclusion Principle forbids any two identical fermions to exist in the same quantum state. This is why we know that quarks have an additional quantum number, which each quark has, but together in hadrons they become neutral. Why we call it colour I am not sure. Interestingly, its existence, and the fact that the carrier of the strong force, the gluon, also has it, underpins the difference in behavior of electromagnetic and strong forces.


Strange goings on in Brazil

Monday, February 8th, 2010

Around a week ago, I submitted the first paper to have me as the sole author. For someone working in such a large collaboration this is a pretty exciting moment, even if it is just proceedings 🙂

Last September, I was given the incredible opportunity to attend one of the most prestigious conferences in the world of quark-related research. The Strangeness in Quark Matter conference, held every few years, gathers physicists from around the world to an exotic location to discuss our current understanding of the strange quark, and the unusual behavior of the particles it creates. In September last year it was held in Buzios, a tiny fishing village on the coast north of Rio de Janeiro.  I was invited to give a talk at the conference, and I was lucky enough to get funding for the trip as I was also giving a talk on diffraction the week before in Rio (See Strong couplings: Tales from Brazil).


This was truly the most beautiful place I have ever seen (even compared to the stunning French snowy mountains I was falling down just a few weeks ago). It was also one of the strangest experiences of my life, and I am not attempting a pun. International conferences are a world unto themselves – indulgent in every sense. You feast frequently on a variety of delicious foods. You mingle with minds that are expertly extreme, taking various representations and interpretations of experimental analysis, sampling ideas and concepts from theorists from around the globe and across the field. Having never been to South America (or anywhere near as far as that) before in my life, the setting, for me, was entrancing and alien. Everywhere you looked there was a mango tree or a parasitic orchid hanging from a trunk. Our buffets and breakfasts were adorned with Papaya and Guava. We were even treated to an exciting boat trip to a nearby island (nicknamed “ugly island”), and got to dive into the salty waters and snorkel!



Outside scheduled talk time we were constantly supplied with Caipirinhas – cocktails with ice, sugar, lime and Cachaca (a spirit made from sugar-cane). In fact, after one long day, during a lively and late discussion that united the attendees with outstanding questions, drinks were brought round to encourage us to stay!


The topics under discussion, (and to some extent, debate), were just as unusual. At the start of my PhD, I had only known my own limitations in understanding data, theoretical concepts or predictions. Before the conference, discussion with many theorists to help me to understand the expectations for the LHC only served to confuse and excite me more. However, as well as answering a lot of questions for me, this conference demonstrated the true nature of being at the very front end of science – right now, we know very little for certain. Ask any scientist about what the LHC and RHIC heavy ion experiments are all about, and they will very quickly start to tell you about exciting things such as the “Quark Gluon Plasma”, and evidence to suggest its properties, like “strangeness enhancement”. Try saying either one of these phrases too loudly at a conference like this, however, and expect some funny looks. The fact is, there isn’t much you can say without a little skepticism (or careful rewording) right now.


One thing I know for sure is that my analysis area is not lacking in interest. Strange particle production in heavy ion collisions at RHIC, compared to pp collisions, can be explained quite powerfully by theory, but the phi resonance, which is not technically strange (made up of an s and anti-s quark) is somewhat more confusing. Asking what might happen to phi production in Pb-Pb collisions at the LHC is a tough enough question. However, begin to postulate what might occur in pp collisions with such high energy density that they become (in some ways) comparable to heavy ions, and you start to get some of those funny looks I mentioned. This was exactly what I did, and it sparked an argument between theorists of two extreme viewpoints, who eventually were asked to leave the room whilst the poor speaker continued. Of course, myself and another (very brilliant) ALICE physicist, Federico Antinori, who was keen to understand this issue, followed them out to take notes. 🙂


The conference was full of moments like this, and I am sure many of them are. Unusual data presented by experimentalists struggling to interpret it, theorists arguing passionately about the consequences. I’d like to make a rather controversial statement that there is probably an equivalent to the “Phlogiston” phenomenon at work in much of front-line science. (If you don’t know what I am talking about, don’t just Wikipedia it, you should also watch “Chemistry: A Volatile History”, presented by Prof. Jim Al-Khalili on BBC4 Catch up TV, and hurry as you only have a few days left!) What I mean is, wherever we are dealing with the unknown, there are many contradicting ideas and some of them have to be nonsense. Unfortunately what seems like nonsense can be exactly what we are looking for. You only have to look at the history and evolution of science to see how these red herrings can take a long time to unveil, and how what looks like a ridiculous mistake (parity violation, for example!) could turn out to be a curiously perfect answer.



The T word: It’s thesis time

Wednesday, January 13th, 2010

I’m back in the UK for good, enjoying the ridiculous amounts of snow (luckily I walk to work so it has been more pleasant than in-the-way) and starting to get back into the swing of things again. In fact, I am days away from submitting a very exciting paper outlining my contribution to the Strangeness in Quark Matter conference last year in Buzios (once it is in, I will, at long last, post about the incredible experience!)

A view of our frozen UK: Taken from BBC News Online

A view of our frozen UK: Taken from BBC News Online

However, this time of year has brought with it the looming prospect of a PhD that needs finishing. My lovely boyfriend handed in his Chemistry thesis before Christmas and has his viva to look forward to soon. A Birmingham graduate friend of mine (and soon-to-be CERN fellow) just passed his viva. One of my colleagues has started to write her thesis and I should really be doing the same. I knew this time would come, but now that it’s here my overriding thought is, “I haven’t done enough yet!”

This is a common phenomenon, but particularly this year as data is finally flowing from CERN, final year particle physics PhD students are finding themselves with much more exciting things to do than writing up. Glum prospects for ALICE in the UK invite some incredible analysis over the coming year, to make the most of what time is left (and with any luck reverse the decision to axe the experiment from UK nuclear physics). Apart from anything else, all of the postulation is coming to an end. We can’t wait to find out how the data at new energy compares to our expectations, and what unusual things show up. None of us want to go from looking at the brand new and unseen to writing a long and detailed account of what we’ve done so far. Deciding when to stop is very difficult.

There is a bright side. I have alot still to do before I am finished, but starting to write up early will give me time later on to continue with analysis when it’s really exciting. Also, to write my thesis I am going to need to dust down alot of physics and that gives me the excuse to read around alot. A PhD can leave one very specialised in knowledge, and day-to-day work doesn’t require most of what I learned and found fascinating about ALICE, so it will be nice to delve deeper into some other areas!

In truth, all the physics I don’t use anymore I actually miss. A friend of mine doing a course in sewage (:-)!) asked me last night to advise her on the usefulness of a PhD as a career step, which of course I can’t say without knowing more about sewage, but it really made me think about how I have changed over the years. I have learned alot and grown substantially in skill and confidence – I can approach a problem or a challenge bravely and my mind copes better with new and difficult concepts. There is no doubting that I will be much more effective in any workplace now than when I graduated. However, the specialisation leaves alot of physics distant and hazy in my mind. I feel like a well-sharpened pencil – knowing one small area in alot of detail. I have taken to reading Feynman’s lectures and doing my old problem sheets every now and again, falling back in love with the subject. Being something of an expert in something really specific is very fun indeed, but I hope that wherever I end up next I get the opportunity to broaden my knowledge as well as my skills.

Yes, I am "starting" my thesis :-)

Yes, I am "starting" my thesis 🙂

The thesis is one of the biggest challenges a person can complete in their lifetime, alongside marathons, novels, etc. Everyone has a different strategy, working through the night, taking a few months as a hermit away from social interaction, or, as in my boyfriend’s case, juggling writing with a full time job (he started a post-doc position at the University!) I now have a real appreciation for how immense a task it is, and everyone I know who has completed one tells me to start as soon as possible. So today is a big day for me. I think I have procrastinated enough (I have fed the office with cupcakes and scones, the house is spotless, and my SQM proceedings are a few tweaks away from submission…) so I am finally taking the leap. Over the coming months, I am going to put my own incredible little pocket of the world on paper. Wish me luck 🙂


Evolved, naked and united: What it is to be human

Tuesday, January 5th, 2010

What defines humanity? Over the holidays I was drawn into a semi-discussion with friends about just how different humans are from other animals.

A book I read some years ago, Desmond Morris’ “Naked Ape”, written in 1967, describes the human from a zoologist’s perspective and has some fascinating angles on much of our evolution. For example, he highlights the title quality – bare skin – as crucial to our survival as it allows for heightened sensitivity and intimacy. In this way it plays a large role in “pair-bonding”. Love between partners, a distinctly (if not exclusively) human trait, is necessary for keeping parents together to more effectively protect and rear their vulnerable child. (He also goes on to note the pattern our body hair follows as indicative of potentially having spent some time as swimmers.) I recommend this book to any human, but specifically his ability to observe behavior in an objective way was interesting and demonstrated some hard-to-take truths. In particular, we are surprisingly instinctive.

As an A level student I studied English Language (not a typical choice to match with Maths and Physics, I know) and we learned for a while about feral children. One story that sticks with me is that of Victor, a young boy who stumbled from French woods in 1797 having apparently spent his whole life with wolves. He was taken in by Jean Marc Gaspard Itard, a French medic who had an interesting belief regarding humanity. He felt that the two qualities which defined humanity were language and empathy. Unfortunately, Itard never succeeded in teaching him to speak and write French, and in fact, he didn’t behave as though communication was important to him at all. Some say he may have developed autism. In fact evidence suggests that if one is not exposed to language early in life, learning it will be almost impossible, as an adult brain learns language in an entirely different way. However, he did display signs of empathy. He had been taught to set the table each evening for dinner, and after seeing Itard’s housekeeper crying one day (her husband had died), he lifted the plates back up and put them away. Of course, having never grown up with humans to recognise their expression of sadness, this is a very interesting result – it implies that displaying empathy is not consciously being nice but reacting instinctively. Also, empathy doesn’t seem to be an exclusively human instinct after all (this article has some interesting points).

And of course, animals communicate, on some level. Our complex language is simply a very clever and extremely useful tool by which we can live cooperatively. Morris points out that humanity relies on our ability to work together, coexist, care for each other. As an atheist, I like Morris’ observations because I have been condemned by some Christians as apparently having “no reason to be a good person without God” (this has happened to me in person on more than one occasion, and judging by the angry atheist videos plaguing youtube I’d say I’m not alone! This comedy points out the misunderstanding nicely) This is a ridiculous view – we all know that morality (avoiding the unusual grey areas) is instinctive, obvious, natural, sensible. Those who break the law, murder, steal or do cruel things are (mental disorders aside) going against their own conscience, being driven by a bigger motivator, often an instinctive one. In fact, even in the grey areas of morality, people make choices based on the instinct blasting at them the loudest, be it your own survival, protecting your family, obtaining acceptance…of course being such a strange communicative and cooperative species yet still trying to compete for survival makes us behave in strange ways, and some scientists even think our own evolution has probably been stopped in its tracks as a result.

So how do we define humanity? It’s tricky. I personally think that our ability to communicate information through generations, and our unquenchable curiosity, have allowed us to go beyond that of other species and make us truly unique. Of course, all animals examine their surroundings – they learn in order to survive. But we are different – we are pushed, developed, accelerated by the need to keep learning, to understand. Animals have varying degrees of self awareness, but we are aware of our entire existence, our insignificance, the world beyond us. We survive to continue learning. We push the edges of observation and of understanding. And what we learn survives – it is echoed down to each new generation. We are scientists. This is how I like to think of us. Of course, there are millions of things I didn’t touch on here, and many of them are not as nice as this picture.  How do YOU define humanity? Post your comments please.


Dark days for science: STFC to drop UK involvement with ALICE

Sunday, December 20th, 2009

I have, in the last 48 hours, returned to the UK from my 18 month attachment at CERN. It feels great to be home again. My time there has been incredible and life-changing, but it also demonstrated that no matter how much you love a place and love your work, no matter how much you settle in, make friends, enjoy yourself, if it isn’t home then homesickness will still torment you. I missed those close to me so much it hurt. I would daydream wistfully about fish and chips. When it rained in Geneva I felt nostalgic for Birmingham. Sometimes, home is home is home and logic doesn’t come into it. I made the decision that in the long term, I want to be in the UK. Unfortunately, a consequence of this decision is that my career prospects now seem quite uncertain.

As Suzanne says, it really has been an incredible 2009, and especially so for ALICE. The year seems to be ending perfectly – early collisions brought about our first physics paper, and the data we have taken since is showing beautiful results. Our detectors are working well, and the physics we have been waiting so long for is finally happening. The year to come promises great things. This should be a happy time.

For the ALICE CTP group in Birmingham, as well as many other UK physics research groups, the mood has turned quite sour. Funding cuts to science this year have had disasterous impact on nuclear and particle physics. As a result, the Science and Technology Facilities Council have made the decision to cut completely the UK’s involvement with many international projects, including the ALICE experiment. Much of the UK’s research in nuclear and particle physics has been entirely dropped, which is highly damaging and makes long term prospects pretty grim. What I find hard to swallow is that many of these contributions were small, yet they were vital as investment for the future of the field in the UK.

The brutal way in which the cuts have been made seems to have left the worst possible dent in the field, which is unfortunately something I am not surprised by. During the funding crisis following STFC’s £80m shortfall, the UK’s part in the International Linear Collider was lost, and ALICE was already on dangerous ground (see my concerned letter to the Times). The Birmingham University group is the only one in the UK involved in ALICE, yet its impact is vital to the experiment. Not only are we working on important analysis areas (myself included!) but we are the group responsible for the Central Trigger Processor, without which the detector could not take data. We have been given until at least the next grant’s round in 2011 before the group will be dropped, and during that time we will be fighting the decision. Others were not so lucky and will be gone by Spring. The sheer scale of the loss for the particle and nuclear fields is hard to express.

I am very busy with work at the moment (there is quite alot to be done before the LHC restarts again next year) so I must stop here for now. I hope everyone is having a Merry Christmas. Those feeling the damage of the science cuts may be struggling to find festive cheer this year. I will be spending mine in Manchester with my boyfriend and family, so despite the terrible news I think I will find it hard not to be cheerful.