by Suw on March 22, 2010

A couple of days ago a volcano called Eyjafjallajokull in Iceland erupted in a classic ‘curtain of fire’. The photos and video of the event are pretty, as well as pretty impressive.

There are some fab photos on Flickr too, and more footage on the BBC.

It’s times like this I really wish I was still a geologist. Over the years I’ve had crises of confidence about whether I should have stayed in geology or not. Those don’t happen any more, mainly because of Kevin. Had I gone back to academia I would never have met him and I would be infinitely worse off. But yet, I do still yearn for science. I think sometimes that I try to take a scientific, evidence-based approach to social media precisely because my scientific side is not being satisfied.

I’ve always struggled to balance my creative and my scientific sides. At university, there wasn’t enough room for me to be creative. In fact, being creative felt like a burden. I remember sitting in paleo lab sessions and so very carefully drawing my specimens to an artistic standard that was unnecessarily high. I’d get three or four specimens done, when I should have finished 10.

My first job out of uni was in science publishing. I was an ‘editorial assistant’, which meant I did lots of admin. That didn’t satisfy any of my intellectual or creative needs at all. When there was talk that the company was going to open a geology title, I lobbied in favour and put myself forward as a candidate for the editor’s position. They didn’t encourage such behaviour and, realising that I had nowhere to go, I left.

That was the last time that I’ve been in an even vaguely scientific environment. These days I think I’m making headway on satisfying my creative needs. My writing and bookbinding fills me with excitement and happiness. Perhaps the changes that Kevin and I are making right now will allow me to start to satisfy my scientific side too.

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Richard Dawkins is a bit of a divisive figure, in my opinion. As an atheist, I sometimes get frustrated with the rabid way he attacks religion. But he’s now losing all credibility as he becomes a parody of himself. This, from The Telegraph:

The prominent atheist [Dawkins] is stepping down from his post at Oxford University to write a book aimed at youngsters in which he will warn them against believing in “anti-scientific” fairytales.

Prof Hawkins said: “The book I write next year will be a children’s book on how to think about the world, science thinking contrasted with mythical thinking.

“I haven’t read Harry Potter, I have read Pullman who is the other leading children’s author that one might mention and I love his books. I don’t know what to think about magic and fairy tales.”

Prof Dawkins said he wanted to look at the effects of “bringing children up to believe in spells and wizards”.

“I think it is anti-scientific – whether that has a pernicious effect, I don’t know,” he told More4 News.

“I think looking back to my own childhood, the fact that so many of the stories I read allowed the possibility of frogs turning into princes, whether that has a sort of insidious affect on rationality, I’m not sure. Perhaps it’s something for research.”

I find it really quite hard to understand where Dawkins is coming from. Children are very good at sifting truth from fiction – they often seem to see more truth than us adults do – and I have yet to come across an adult who still believes in Santa, gingerbread houses or Baba Yaga. I can’t see that there is a problem to be solved, other than one created in Dawkin’s head.

Now, I’m all for a book that teaches kids about science and scientific thinking, and which helps parents understand how to explain things in terms that children will understand. (I still remember my Dad answering my question “Why is the sky blue?” with a detailed and scientifically correct explanation that went right over my head. It was some time before I got that question answered satisfactorily.) And if that’s all this book is, then it will be a valuable addition to my bookshelf.

But the idea that fairytales affect children’s ability to be rational seems absurd. Does an appreciation of fiction affect our ability to examine the world scientifically? Do scientists eschew the novel? I don’t think so. Children hold various beliefs at various times in their childhood, and the details vary from child to child. Some kids learn quite young that the Tooth Fairy isn’t real, others use impeccable logic to prove that it is their best friends’ father. In my case, whilst other children were out with their ponies or watching TV, I was reading Heinlein, Asimov, EE Doc Smith, and watching the Space Shuttle take off. I very distinctly remember the moment that I realised that there wasn’t, in fact, a Moon Base.

Treating children as miniature adults is a mistake. Children are little learning machines, as far as I can work out, and they absorb information in a variety of ways. Sometimes they are little scientists: “Oh, look, if I let go of this ball, it always falls to the floor. Note how it never falls upwards! Gosh, later in life I’ll learn that this is called Gravity.” But they don’t just learn through experience and experimentation. They also learn through listening to stories.

Fairytales are about morality, ethics, and the consequences of our actions. How else can you illustrate to a child that if she disobeys and strays from the path, she may be eaten by a big bad wolf? Or that if you lie to get attention, one day you’ll be in real need of help and no one will come. Or that the world is sometimes inscrutable, not at all amenable to explanation, and possibly even terrifying? You could her find out the hard way, or you could tell her stories.

Science has no morals. It’s only the way we use it that is moral or not. And it’s not that great for teaching us about the consequences of our actions. “If you put this little chunk of metal into that tub of water it will explode” doesn’t quite teach the same lesson as “If you do bad things you will be punished.”

But fairytales also teach us to use our imagination, a skill sorely under-appreciated. It’s not just useful for making up more stories, but also in day-to-day life, for picturing how things might be if we take certain actions. Imaginations are very helpful, and they need food to grow: Fairytales. I cannot imagine how dull life would be without fairytales. Several of my friends would be out of a job, for starters, and I would be one ambition poorer.

There are many things that Dawkins could do to make the world a better place, and to help communicate scientific principles to both children and adults alike. Having a pop at fairytales is not one of them.

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I'm not going to die

by Suw on March 21, 2006

Phew! (thanks Neil!)

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Until they stop selling endangered fish. Really, there is no need to sell fish that are going to become extinct if we keep eating them. No one, but no one, should have a problem with this. If I can't eat swordfish because there isn't a sustainable fish stock, well, that's just how it goes. The supermarkets should be wet-fish-slapped until they all operate a sustainable fish only policy.

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Dumb, dumber, dumberer and dumberest

by Suw on September 16, 2005

Wonderful article by Ben Goldacre on how writing his equally wonderful Bad Science column has “increased his suspicion of the media by, ooh, a lot of per cents”. I'll resist the urge to quote the entire thing, although its general brilliance makes it hard to pick out a single quote.

Once journalists get their teeth into what they think is a scare story, trivial increases in risk are presented, often out of context, but always using one single way of expressing risk, the “relative risk increase”, that makes the danger appear disproportionately large ( This is before we mention the times, such as last week's Seroxat story, or the ibuprofen and heart attack story last month, when in their eagerness to find a scandal, half the papers got the figures wrong. This error, you can't help noticing, is always in the same direction.

As a science graduate (and I'm not sure that one really stops being a scientist, to be honest), I frequently find myself gurgling in despair at the news, declaiming something like “Well, it's clear they've never studied statistics!” whilst trying not to let my blood pressure rise too much. I really do think that some of the bollocks that gets passed off as 'science' in the media could be countered by simply teaching journalists about stats, particularly about what makes a study statistically significant (or not).
Oh, that and giving them a massive electric shock every time they sensationalise. That might work.

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Psychologists/Sociologists studying blogging?

by Suw on September 15, 2005

Anyone know of any? Or are you one yourself? Please email me if you are (pref UK-based).

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Gondwanaland in all its glory

by Suw on August 30, 2005

I really wish that we'd had animations like these when I was at university, studying Geology. It would have made our dynamic stratigraphy lectures a lot more comprehensible, not to mention entertaining. As it was, I used to struggle remembering which weird new continents came when, and what the sloppy wet bits inbetween were called, which is probably why I never harboured a desire to become a dynamic stratigrapher.

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Will we ever reach 11?

by Suw on August 2, 2005

Another 10th planet has been found. I wonder how many 10th planets we will have to go through before we find an 11th. Although I very much approve of calling it Xena. About time we had a cute warrior princess tearing up the skies.

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Party trick!

by Suw on December 27, 2004

Ok, so this is not a party trick you can do at home, but it's still worth pointing out. Given the right equipment, you can shrink coins. Unfortunately, shrinking the coins also means blowing up the gear, but hell, it's a price worth paying! If only they'd done this sort of thing at school…
(Via Maciej, from ages ago. Ok, so I'm slow sometimes.)

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Asimov's three Laws of Robotics are frequently quoted thusly:

  1. A robot may not injure a human being, or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
  2. A robot must obey the orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
  3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.

I think, however, you will find a Fourth Law (and no, I don't mean the 'Zeroth' one), which categorically states that a robot, when going about its normal every day existence, must not be cute, or do cute things.
Honda's Asimo breaks the Fourth Law of Robotics by running in a cute manner.
(Thanks crw.)
PS. Green line still here.

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Groundbreaking vodka experiment is huge success

November 12, 2004

The guys over at Oh My God It Burns! have done the world a great service today with the publication of their scientific paper, Practical Applications of the Philosopher's Stone. For Drunks. The theory is that cheap vodka sucks because impurities result in excessive burning, a 'repugnant aftertaste' and a 'bouquet reminiscent of rubbing alcohol'. [...]

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Ducks quack with regional accents

June 4, 2004

I knew that French cows can't understand English*, but a new study shows that English ducks quack with regional accents: “Cockney” ducks from London make a rougher sound, not unlike their human counterparts, so their fellow quackers can hear them above the city's hubbub. But their country cousins communicate with a softer, more relaxed sound, [...]

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British scientific research policies are not dictated by a film

May 18, 2004

I’m getting increasingly cross with the media here as we approach the release of The Day After Tomorrow, the latest disaster-laden SFX-fest by Independence Day‘s Roland Emmerich. Exploring the effects of rapid and extreme climate change, The Day After Tomorrow will probably be nominated for a new category of Oscar, Best Dramatic Weather. By all [...]

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The great chocolate vodka experiment

March 17, 2004

I’ve never been one for novelty vodkas. You can keep your spicy vodkas or your citrus vodkas – I’m not really interested. I like my vodka like I like my men – in a glass. Er, I mean, smooth, Polish and intoxicating. I have been aware of the existence of chocolate vodka for some time [...]

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Brainpower and hypnogogic states

June 18, 2002

Don't you always find yourself feeling most creative whilst a) on the loo, b) walking, c) staring out of the bus/car/train window or d) just as you're dropping off to sleep? By far my most creative time is that period when your head has hit the pillow, your brain is winding down and you slip [...]

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