The couple of days ago I took to the American airwaves with Utah’s KSL News Radio to bust a few myths from my most recent New Scientist feature. OK, so they gave me a huge post-dated promotion (I was never THE editor of New Scientist, just AN editor at New Scientist), but they also said I had the coolest accent on the planet, with a ‘Mary Poppins thing goin’ on’, so I’ll let them off. Here’s the audio: Enjoy 🙂
My favourite bit of being science journalist is that you get to ask some of life’s most fascinating questions, but without having to do the hard work of actually finding the answers. One thing that often amuses me, though, is that when you talk to the scientists studying these big, fascinating questions, they rarely use the same words to describe them that everyone else does.
Human pheromones, for example, are a perfectly respectable thing to study – and even to talk to journalists about, but only if you call them, and make the journalist promise to call them, something vague and uninteresting like ‘social chemosensory messages’ (see this feature I wrote back in 2008).
Likewise the ‘subconscious mind’. When I started researching the power of the unconscious for part of New Scientist’s consciousness special (out this week), it only took one or two phone calls to discover that proper scientists don’t call it the subconscious, and certainly don’t talk about “the subconscious mind”. They prefer to talk about ‘unconscious, preconscious or non-conscious processes’. OK, so it sounds like a boring and pointless distinction, but once I’d rolled my eyes at what seemed to be another example of scientific political correctness I realised that renaming ‘the subconscious’ takes it out of the realms of Freudian mystery and into proper science.
All the research I came across suggests that there is nothing magical about ‘the subconscious’. Just like the conscious thoughts we are aware of, they are the result of neurons firing in response to our life experience and the people and things around us. Plenty of mysteries do remain, though. What makes some things tip over into awareness while others just stay just out of reach? How does the brain consciously use information that we have taken in unconsciously? What happens when there is a disconnect between what we consciously think we want and what we have unconsciously already decided? And if we could find the ‘switch’ that pushes a stimulus into conscious awareness, might there be a way to awaken people trapped in a minimally-conscious state?
Clearly, it’ll be some time before there are definite answers to these questions. In the mean time I think I’ll choose to think of my unconscious thoughts as a very helpful division of labour – just another part of me, going about its business in a different way, and often choosing not to bother me with the details. Which is fine. I’ve got enough to think about.
I spent today at the TeenTech event in Guildford, as an ‘industry ambassador’. This partly involved not being as male or boring as they might expect a science person to be, while trying not to have hair like Einstein. I think I just about managed the first two, but failed miserably at the last one (naturally curly hair and damp autumn days do not mix…).
Still, it was a great day, spent with a great bunch of lads from Tonbridge School who were more enthusiastic about science and technology than any teenagers I have ever met. One even had to be dragged away from questioning a geologist so that we would be in time for the next session (I think the geologist was as surprised as I was). They, and the other kids, were a creative bunch too. In the ‘innovation zone’ section, they were asked to design a mobile phone app to solve a common or everyday problem. The suggestions were fantastic – from ‘Pathfinder’ – an app that takes your to-do list and provides you with the most efficient way to get it done, to ‘i-Sight, an app to test your eyes using your phone, and (my personal favourite) a time-keeping app that beams the time into your subconscious so that you will never be late again. I’d pay 69p for lots of them.
TeenTech is the brainchild of Maggie Philbin, presenter of the BBC’s flagship science show Tomorrow’s World back in the 1980’s. The kids who took part were way too young to remember the olden days when Maggie Philbin demonstrated what then looked like crazy inventions (mobile phones, the first flat-screen TV…) but it didn’t really matter. From what I saw, the teens left the event buzzing about science and tech and the cool things that you can do with it that they got pretty much the same message as we kids of the 80’s did from watching the telly. Science is cool, kids. Now go and invent something new…
Sometimes a book comes along just at the right moment. ‘The Last Walk’ by Jessica Pierce definitely came at the right time for me. A few weeks ago, while reeling from the news that my beloved dog, Molly, has cancer and might not see this Christmas, my editor – who knew about the Molly situation and was going through something similar with his cat – sent me a copy of the book and asked me to review it for New Scientist’s Culture Lab blog.
At first I wasn’t convinced that a book about making ‘end of life’ decisions for pets was what I really needed, nor did I feel like I needed to rub salt into the wound by learning how a dog experiences ageing, pain and death. But I soon changed my mind. The book is partly a touching journal chronicling the last few year Pierce’s dog Ody’s life, and partly the results of her investigations (as a bioethicist) into whether and when it is right to put an animal out of its misery. What does misery look like to a dog anyway, she asks. And how are we supposed to know when enough is enough? Unfortunately, there are no clear answers. There is much controversy in scientific circles about how animals experience pain and clearly there is no way to ask them how they feel. This much I knew, but ‘The Last Walk’ reassured me that science can’t give me the answer any more than my own gut instinct, and that is quite comforting. While Molly is still wagging her tail and having a go at chasing squirrels I can put that decision off for a little bit longer. And when it comes I will feel just a little bit more prepared. Maybe…
Read my review for Culture Lab here.
I can’t say I’ve ever been one for horror stories. I’m far too squeamish for all the blood and gore, and anyway, having a slightly nervous disposition, that ‘jumping out of my skin’ feeling lingers for far too long afterwards. So when my editor asked me to write about what happens to a body from the moment of death until it turns to dust, I should probably have known better than to say yes. A few weeks and one very disturbing nightmare later the result is out now as part of New Scientist’s “Death Special.”
Here’s just a taster of the unsavoury truths that I learned while writing it: The dog you live with and love to the bones might well strip you to yours if you happen to die in their company and they run out of food. Read this if you don’t believe me. Oh, and getting put into an airtight coffin to keep the maggots out won’t keep you in one piece for that much longer. Much of it comes down to our own enzymes, which start digesting us from within soon after death along with those “friendly bacteria” who turn out to be not quite so friendly when we stop providing them with food and become dinner ourselves. And don’t even get me started on adipocere, or grave wax, which forms in damp conditions… If you really want to know, Google it and try not to click on a site with images.
So read it if you dare… and if you don’t then read the rest of the special anyway. There’s loads of less gory but equally fascinating stuff in there, from the psychology of why we fear death, to why our unique understanding of death has driven humankind to invent all kinds of ways to avoid it, from agriculture to science and medicine. Enjoy…
It doesn’t matter how innocent you are, there is something a little unnerving about walking into a police station to meet two coppers who will never forget your face. But that’s what I did for my latest New Scientist feature on “super-recognisers”.
Super-recognisers – people who score off the scale on face memory tests and can recognise casual acquaintances years later and totally out of context – are a fairly new discovery in neuroscience. They came to light when researchers studying the opposite condition, prosopagnosia or face-blindness (which I wrote about here) were contacted by a handful saying that they had the opposite problem: that they never forgot a face. It might not sound like a problem but it can, I’m assured, be so embarrassing that people hide it to prevent coming across as a stalker. Sure enough, they were so good at recognising faces that the researchers had to devise an especially difficult test for them. Which they duly scored near-perfect on.
London’s Metropolitan Police has identified at least 20 super-recognisers in their ranks, one of which, a PC from Hackney in North London, identified 185 suspects from CCTV footage of the London riots, compared to an average of 1 or 2 from most of his colleagues. I ask, slightly nervously, if he would recognise me if he passed me in the street in 2 years time. “Oh yeah,” he replies.”I might not remember where we met but I’d definitely recognise you”. Best behaviour in north London from now on then…
If you think you might be a super-recogniser (or faceblind) then you can test your own skills here. If you get nearly all right, or nearly all wrong then this man, or this one would probably like to hear from you.
And you can read my feature, including some great quotes from PC Gary Collins and Detention Officer Idris Bada (below) here.
Hello! Thanks for coming to my new website. This is where I’ll be posting links to my latest articles and other bits and pieces that I come across that strike me as particularly interesting or entertaining.
Today, I have mostly been looking at http://dog-shaming.com. Which, admittedly, has nothing to do with science but has kept my mind off the particularly morbid subject I am supposed to be researching… More on that soon.
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